The morning sun did little to warm his bones, Howard regarded dismally, as he shifted his weight on the stony tiles. A light breeze made its way up the street, sending leaves and detritus swirling aloft. People strode on by, their trench coats and briefcases flapping about noisily in the early winter chill. They navigated around each other with adept ease, gaze unmoved from phones or floor.
There was something to be said about the casual mundanity of a near-death experience in the big city, Howard pondered. Oh yes, there had been a hue and cry, and the shouting and shrieking had maybe lasted a good ten seconds, but after that you would have scarcely noticed that an accident had happened, apart from the odd pile of rubble. One lady might have even whisked her phone out to call the police, he had noticed, but then again perhaps she had called her friend – named James, he thought – to tell him about the scaffolding that had came loose from its host building and crashed down onto the sidewalk below.
No one had been hit by the avalanche of poles and boards, which was nothing short of a gentle miracle. Howard had been under the edge of platform when he’d heard the disquieting creaking of metal and wood, but he’d stumbled forward and the rubble had missed him. He’d scraped his hand on a rusty lamppost, but even that had failed to abrade.
It was a stroke of uncommon fortune that the warning sounds had managed to pierce the darting semiquavers of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, the Allegro, no less. Perhaps even more astonishing, Howard mused, that with his current physical form he had managed to lunge forward in time. One might feel that such acute skills of perception and reaction might merit a hearty handshake or a pat on the back, but, in true New York fashion, no one had rushed forward to congratulate his survival.
But the event had shaken him far more than wanted to think about, and the chill of the weather did little to assuage his thumping heart. Was it still beating just a tinge too fast? He had his earphones off now. Probably best not to use them for the rest of the week, Howard thought, as he shivered despite his thick coat. Or maybe forgo his morning coffee, and just take an Uber straight from his apartment, until he’d forgotten about it.
A black Camry with a flamboyant Yankees decal on the windshield pulled up, matching the plate number on the app. He opened the door to get in, glad to be out of the brisk cold, and the comforting sounds of the radio greeted him mid-jingle. The driver adjusted the rear-view mirror as Howard set his briefcase down on the middle seat, looking at him through polarized shades.
“That’s me. To the financial district, please.”
The Uber set off, and as the news anchor started to read about the falling prices of gas in the Midwest, Howard finally relaxed the tension in his shoulders, the shock of the morning’s events seeming just a little more distant. He sipped at his mocha, ignoring the driver’s pointed tilt of the head. If there was a day to afford a lower rating, this was definitely it.
The buckle of his briefcase clattered open as the car bumped up and down on a pothole. Howard brought it onto his lap to close it, but stopped and smiled. The picture of a petite girl, affixed to the inner flap, smiled back at him, looking radiant as always in her sleeveless floral dress and thin summer shawl. He’d taken that photograph on his graduation trip, when they’d driven to the coast and taken a ferry to the barrier islands. They had gone swimming and kitesurfing, and in the evenings, had watched the sun set over the Atlantic.
She’d be done at Carolina soon, and then she could think about finding a job. He’d hoped that she would come to work in New York with him, but the more they spoke about it, the less it seemed likely. Hannah detested big cities; too much hustle, and all that drab brown and grey. Skyscrapers, menacing and indifferent. People, faceless and in number. Not exactly somewhere for a double major in art and conservation ecology to flourish.
Would he go to live with her, then? He looked out onto the river as the car sped over Brooklyn Bridge, the gleaming of the water slowly fading into shadow as the sun passed behind the blocky outlines of lower Manhattan. The buildings of the financial district loomed up ahead like great pillars of stone, puckered with holes like in – Hannah had taught him this – basalt or pumice. Each one a tiny window with a tiny occupant.
Howard let out a sigh. He’d started at the company in July, and already the individual cases and clients were too many to count or remember, blurring together in a tired jumble. Tobias said that he had promise – a few years and he might make associate. It was an opportunity for the youthful and energetic, but the frantic pace of life in the Big Apple had a way of sapping that fast.
With a jolt, the car rounded a corner, and Howard glanced out the window with minor confusion. They were now travelling down a one-way street that he wasn’t familiar with. Hadn’t they been just about to reach the FiDi? With a start, Howard realized that the car was going the wrong way. He leaned forward.
“Excuse me, isn’t it the other way?” he asked the driver.
The driver’s response was to turn up the radio a notch. Howard started, rather taken aback. He was, in general, a meek, peaceable fellow who preferred to leave conflict to others, but his narrow escape this morning had left residues of boldness. Besides, Toby would have his head if he was late to the weekly conference. He cleared his throat.
“Hey mister, where are we going? This way goes back uptown; you’ve missed the turn down Broadway. You want to turn left at the next junction, then left down Varick Street,” started Howard, but then the driver motioned with his hand for silence, and gestured towards his stereo. Howard sat there, perplexedly considering his next move, but then the voice on the radio started to tell a familiar story.
… an unfortunate incident near the junction of Ross and Bedford this morning. The police were called to the scene at eight twenty-seven to investigate what appears to be an act of gross negligence at the work site of Marsley Building Company. A construction scaffold seems to have come unsecured, without discernible reason, causing the bottom-most deck of the structure to collapse onto the sidewalk below. Witnesses say that no workers were…
“Hey, that’s… wait, how’d you…” stammered Howard, bewilderedly waving his hand at the radio. How had the driver known about the incident? But the man raised a finger, and the anchor read on.
… report one casualty, pronounced dead on the scene, who was walking under the scaffolding at the time of the accident. Police have identified his name as Howard Lee Gorben, a twenty-four year old financial analyst at First Look Capital Management. The deceased was just a ten-minute walk from his home in Williamsburg when the freak accident occurred. The building company was not available…
Howard’s jaw dropped. What?
“You didn’t make it,” said the man. He turned the wheel as the road curved, suspension protesting quietly.
“One of the transoms – those horizontal load-bearing beams? It hit you square on the forehead, with the weight of a bunch of planks and bricks behind it. Traumatic brain injury. You hadn’t a chance.”
A chill, far colder than any winter air, ran down Howard’s spine. There was no more traffic on the road. Where had all the cars gone? The street they were driving down was empty; all the shops were closed, and not a pedestrian in sight. This was impossible. Howard began to breathe heavily, panic rising in his breast. The driver continued to look forward, shades obscuring his eyes, but, almost imperceptibly, Howard could feel his gaze through the rear-view mirror.
“What… what is going on! Let me out!” shouted Howard, his grip leaving imprints on the fabric of the seat.
The driver seemed to be almost regretful as he spoke. “Someone did try CPR, you know. His name was Wilson. Brave of him, given the mess.”
Overcome, Howard flailed for the door handle. It wasn’t there. He lunged forward, for reasons unbeknownst to even him, but the driver flicked something, and Howard found himself being pressed into his seat with irresistible force. His seat belt – had he been wearing it? – had retracted all the way in, and was squeezing the air out of him. The driver inclined his head nonchalantly.
“I’d say I’m sorry, but, you know. These things happen. Rather indiscriminately, if that’s any consolation.”
Howard gasped for air, clutching at his seat belt. They were approaching a tunnel. In downtown Manhattan?
“Wh… who… who are you?” breathed Howard.
“I go by many names. It depends on who you ask. But you,” said the man, looking back at Howard, “you can call me Phil. It makes life easier for everyone.”
And as Howard looked into Phil’s eyes, he saw something, just past the darkening of the shades, that brought on a wave of abject terror. He opened his mouth to scream, but the tunnel consumed them, and in the pitch black of nothingness he found no voice.
Next part: Stygian Road [P2]
// AUTHOR’S NOTE – This story part was inspired by a writing prompt on Reddit at /r/WritingPrompts by /u/SUPERKOYN. The prompt is: The Grim Reaper is not a robed skull-like figure. He’s a cab driver who picks people who just died and don’t know it yet.