Life, Death and Taxes
Malcolm was looking down at some paperwork when a new client, Mr Hardy, walked in to his office. Clothes rustling like dry leaves announced his entry, as an odd, faintly musty scent tainted the air. Looking up, Malcolm momentarily froze as he saw the man. Dirty, stringy hair in desperate need of a trim framed a pale face with sunken cheeks. A long coat covered ill-fitting earth-coloured clothing. Black, scuffed leather boots had left a trail of grime on the beige carpet. It was the eyes he noticed most, however. They were such a dark brown they were almost black, and glistened like a cat’s reflecting light.
Malcolm covered his shock and stood to offer the man his hand as he did with all clients.
“Mr Hardy? Malcolm Carter.”
Mr Hardy nodded.
“Take a seat, and let’s get started,” Malcolm said, returning to his chair. “I understand you need assistance with an income tax issue?”
“Yes,” he said in a quiet, scratchy voice that sent chills along Malcolm’s arms. “I believe I have overpaid some tax, and I’d like to get it back.”
“Of course. Do you have your paperwork with you?”
“Not today.” His eyes scanned the room before settling back on Malcolm’s face. “I need to know if you can help first.”
“Well, I am a fully qualified accountant with ten year’s experience specialising in taxation,” said Malcolm, wondering what sort of work a man like this would do.
“My case is a little… different. The last two accountants I met with refused to help.”
Malcolm looked into the man’s eyes, a rising feeling of disquiet in his chest. The word ‘murderous’ filled his mind, causing an ill-concealed shudder to run through his body. He could understand why the guy had been turned away, and wished he’d listened to his receptionist Janice’s hesitancy in admitting him.
“Ok. Well, tell me the details and I’ll advise you on what I can do for you.”
“I need you to keep this confidential,” said Mr Hardy.
“For many years I have been paying a tax. It is not monetary, but it is a tax nonetheless. I harvest twelve… units… a year, and pay three as tax. Some years I came close to not fulfilling my payments, but I always paid before the deadline. I keep detailed records to avoid underpaying my tax; the consequences would be unacceptable to say the least. Last year, I somehow ended up paying one unit too many. When I checked my records, I found I had done the same thing twice before. You see, I only really check that I have paid enough at the end of each year. Once I count the three, I don’t go back in my records any further.”
“I’m not sure I can help you Mr Hardy,” said Malcolm. “My expertise is with taxation for the Australian government. I can deal with international tax matters too, but if your arrangement is in non-monetary units, it sounds more like a personal matter.”
Mr Hardy regarded Malcolm with his head tilted to one side, his eyes seeming to darken even further.
“It is a personal arrangement, yes, but I need someone to present my records in a professional manner. You understand the concept of tax. All I need is for you to write a
report that I can present to the one I pay my tax to. He would not listen to me, but I believe he would pay attention if a secondary party was involved.”
Malcolm hesitated. He was strongly tempted to turn down the strange man, just like the other accountants, but his curiosity was piqued.
“Ok. Make an appointment to come back and bring your records with you. Do you have a contract of any sort that shows this taxation arrangement? Bring that too. You understand I will have to charge you as normal though?”
“Yes. You will be paid,” said Mr Hardy.
“That’s settled then.”
Mr Hardy rose and bowed, then turned and left the room. Malcolm let out a long breath and wiped a hand down his face. Well that had certainly provided an interesting interlude in his working week. His phoned buzzed. Janice quietly confirmed with him that he was accepting a second appointment with the man, and then his day in the office was concluded.
Malcolm drove home, his earlier thoughts of surf and sand pushed far from his mind. His unusual new client would next be seeing him in six day’s time. Curiosity of what he would be presented with warred with unease at the thought of meeting with him again. There was something distinctly off about the man; something other than his unkempt appearance. He had interpreted the glint in his eye as evil, but perhaps it was just plain insanity. Neither option was terribly reassuring, but he’d committed to seeing this through.
The next two work days were unremarkable, followed by a weekend that evaporated like smoke in a series of beers, movies and surfing. Monday morning triggered the usual
groans as the alarm sounded, but on the Tuesday Malcolm woke early, feeling alert and anxious to start work. The day of the follow up appointment had arrived.
Mr Hardy had the final appointment of the day again. He had provided a first name this time; Lucian. It was an unusual name, not one Malcolm had come across in his work previously, but it suited the man better than the pedestrian ‘Mr Hardy’ he would feel compelled to use unless invited otherwise. As the hours ticked by, he found it more and more difficult to concentrate on his other clients, and was thankful nobody threw him a curveball.
At last the clock struck the awaited hour, but the reception area was empty when Malcolm peered out from behind his door. Returning to his chair, he sat up straight, anxious for Janice to announce his client’s return. It was almost ten minutes later when his phone bleeped. Despite waiting for it, the sudden sound made him jump badly enough to upset a mug on his desk.
“Yes, Janice?” he said, mopping up coffee with a wad of tissues.
“Mr Hardy is here.”
“Send him in, please.”
Lucian Hardy entered the room silent as a wisp of smoke. Malcolm greeted him with a handshake, as before, noticing dark grime under the man’s fingernails. He hoped it was only dirt but did not want to look too closely.
“Mr Hardy. Please take a seat.”
“Please, call me Lucian.”
Malcolm nodded in acceptance and returned to his side of the desk.
“Right. You have your paperwork with you?” he asked as he opened Lucian Hardy’s file.
It was then that Malcolm noticed the briefcase. It was obviously old, possibly antique, but spotlessly clean. Unlike his client, who seemed to be leaving a fine film of dust on every surface around him. Lucian placed it gently, almost reverently on the desk and opened the case up. Inside sat a document, handwritten on high quality paper, secured with a small bulldog clip. Lucian removed the document and placed it before Malcolm.
“This is the contract,” said Lucian. “I have attached a summary of my payments to the back. If you would be so kind to read through it and write a report showing I have overpaid my tax, I will be most grateful.”
“Certainly,” said Malcolm. “Can you give me a brief overview first? I’m still not sure this is a case I can help you with.”
Lucian said nothing for a moment, watching Malcolm with a quiet stillness reminiscent of a predator’s gaze. He nodded slightly, and swung his head to one side deciding where to start.
“What I am about to tell you is something you will resist believing. You will think me insane, or perhaps a prankster. I ask you to put aside these tendencies and listen to my story and read the papers before you make any comment.”
“This contract is for an income; a non-monetary income, but an income nonetheless. It is a deal with The Devil.” He held a hand up as Malcolm went to speak. “Yes, it sounds ridiculous to your ears, but please, hear me out. I will not go into details about how the
deal came to be made, but His Darkness has licensed me to take twelve lives per year, of which three must be paid to him as tax. The income is increased lifespan. I harvest the essence of the person at the time of death, and when I inhale it, my life is lengthened and my strength restored. I consume nine of these essences, and pay three to The Devil. It is all there, written in front of you.
“As I mentioned in my last visit, I have discovered several cases of where I have paid too many of these essences. If I do not get them back, my life will end sooner than it otherwise would. I work hard for my income. I need to see the benefit of that work. Now, please have a look through the contract and my records before you say anything.”
Malcolm nodded, his mouth dry. He opened the document and began to read. The words were written in ink so black they seemed to sink through the page. The foreign, decorative script appeared to move like vines in a breeze at the edge of his vision as he scanned the document. What Lucian Hardy had said was correct. The contract was simple and the overpayments clear.
“It certainly does appear that you are owed these… back taxes,” said Malcolm, a tremble to his voice breaking through his composure. “I can write you a report, but why is that going to help you? Why would my opinion be of any value to… The Devil?”
“His Darkness would not trust me. He knows too well the lies and deceptions that trip so easily off the tongues of men. A second voice, especially that of a professional, gives credence to my claims. It might not work, of course, but I must try.”
Malcolm stared down at Lucian’s signature on the contract. A reddish thumbprint marked the paper beside it. Lucian noticed him looking and let out a low, short laugh.
“Yes, that is my thumbprint, marked with my own blood. His Darkness does not recognise a signature as genuine without it.”
“Ok, I’ll write your report for you. Right now, if you’d like. But I don’t want anything further to do with… this situation.”
Lucian smiled, an expression that would be a grimace on another face. “Excellent. Yes, I would like it now. Thank you.”
Malcolm typed up a brief report, stating the overpayment of tax, and that his client was entitled to a reimbursement. He printed it off, signed it, and handed it to Lucian.
“You do realise that your signature is incomplete?”
“What?” asked Malcolm, a feeling of dread creeping up his spine.
“I need you to mark your thumbprint here. In your own blood.”
“Is that really necessary? I mean, it’s on letterhead and everything…”
“Yes, it is the only way your report will have a chance of being accepted.”
Lucian stood and moved around to the other side of the desk. He placed the document in front of Malcolm and produced a scalpel as if by magic. Still in its wrapping, at least it was guaranteed to be clean.
“A small nick will be sufficient. You will soon forget about it,” said Lucian, taking Malcolm’s wrist in a firm grip.
Malcolm doubted that very much, but didn’t try to struggle as the scalpel was placed against his skin. A quick movement and a drop of his blood appeared. Lucian pressed Malcolm’s thumb from his other hand against the cut and then on to the paper.
“Now it is complete,” said Lucian. He blew on the thumbprint to dry it, before placing the report with his contract into the briefcase. “Do I pay on the way out?”
Malcolm nodded, unwilling to trust himself to speak coherently. Lucian gave a graceful bow, and departed the office. As the door closed softly behind his client, Malcolm let out a long breath and sagged backwards in his chair. It would have been easy to imagine he had dreamt it all, if not for the smears of dust and a lingering earthy smell. Then there was the cut on his wrist. It had begun to sting, and he hastily pulled a pump pack of hand sanitiser from his desk drawer. The scalpel had been clean, but who knew what had been on the man’s hands?
The reassuring sting of alcohol gave Malcolm something concrete and immediate to concentrate on. A double rap on the wall told him Janice was leaving for the day. He was glad he would not have to face her before heading home himself. During the meeting he had felt like he was in some sort of dream, but in the wake of Lucian’s departure he was wide awake and regretting ever setting eyes on the man.
After an interval, he shut down his computer and locked up the office. As he walked to his car, Malcolm rubbed his thumb over the place where the scalpel had nicked his skin. Already it seemed to be healing, and yet he was sure he would feel a scar there until his dying day. He hoped fervently that this was the end of the matter, but under such strange circumstances he couldn’t be sure.
At home, he stared despondently into his fridge, appetite absent. Grabbing a beer instead of a meal, he sank onto his couch in the lounge room and switched on the television. Staring at the screen, he was oblivious to the programme. A second beer followed the first, then a third. This Lucian fellow had to be insane. There was no other explanation for it. All that talk about taking lives and inhaling essences. And yet Lucian’s eyes had shone with a horrible truth as he had told his tale.
A cold chill washed over Malcolm. His client could well be a murderer. Even discounting all that nonsense about The Devil, there was every chance the man was going out there killing people, on average once a month. Reaching for the phone, his head swam and he noticed his latest beer was empty. He gave up thoughts of ringing the police. They’d never believe his story, even if he wasn’t drunk. What evidence did he have, anyway? He hadn’t bothered to make a copy of the contract, and he was certain Lucian would have paid for the consultation in cash. Perhaps a CCTV camera had captured his image, but if he reported Lucian and word got out, it could mean the end of his career. Staggering out to the kitchen, there were only two things he could think of to do. Drink more beer, and hope everything he had been told was a lie.
Malcolm woke with a start, disorientated until the fog lifted from his brain enough for him to recognise he had been asleep in front of the TV. When he managed to get his eyes to focus on the clock, he was surprised to see it was nearly four in the morning. He could feel a hangover beginning to flex its wings in his head, and his stomach clutched in empty, hungry protest. Cursing his stupidity in getting into such a state in the middle of the work week, he downed some aspirin and made a sandwich.
The sound of a quiet knock had Malcolm pause mid-bite. Surely nobody would come calling at this hour. He listened carefully, trying to work out what it was that he had heard. The TV was off and all was silent, except for the steady ticking of the clock. He had resumed chewing when the knock came again; louder this time. Somebody was at his front door.
Malcolm tiptoed over to the door, zigzagging around creaky floorboards. He listened carefully, before slowly looking through the peephole. A dark figure stood on his
doorstep. The light from the streetlamp was insufficient to reveal the visitor’s face, but he did not get the impression it was anyone he knew. Starting to back away, he froze when the figure spoke to him through the door.
“Malcolm Carter? May I have a word?” The voice was soft and deep, but conveyed an impression of restrained power.
Malcolm’s heart was pounding. A number of scenarios ran stiltedly through his head as he tried to work out what was going on. Lucian came to mind, but the voice certainly wasn’t his.
“Mr Carter, I know you are there. Open the door. I will only need a few moments of your time.”
“Who is it?” asked Malcolm, his dry throat strangling the words.
“Do not worry Mr Carter. I am not here to harm you. It is a small business matter I am here to see you about.”
“Can’t it wait ‘til morning?”
“I do not do business in the morning. I merely wish to ascertain that some paperwork an… employee… of mine has submitted was indeed signed by you. I have had some problems with forged documents recently.”
Malcolm’s brow knitted. He shrugged and then opened the door, hoping he wasn’t making a mistake, but feeling helpless to do anything else. The visitor on his doorstep bowed and glided past into the lounge room. Malcolm shut the door and followed. He eyed his visitor with wary curiosity.
The man appeared quite young; under thirty probably. Short, black hair so glossy it looked wet. His eyes were a piercing green that Malcolm had never seen on anyone else.
His skin was smooth and wrinkle free, but the thought ran through Malcolm’s head that it wouldn’t stay that way long if he kept getting sunburnt, as his visitor’s face was distinctly red.
“Good evening,” the stranger said, reaching under his coat.
Malcolm felt a stab of fear, imagining he was about to be shot, but the well-manicured hand (red, like the face) produced a folded document instead of a gun.
“What can I do for you,” asked Malcolm, keeping his voice steady and offering his hand.
“I just need to verify your signature,” said the visitor. He reached out and clasped Malcolm’s hand, but instead of shaking it he twisted the arm and scraped his thumbnail over the vulnerable skin. Wiping up the resulting drop of blood with his index finger, he smelled it and then the paper in his hand. He nodded, releasing Malcolm and sucking the blood from his finger with a satisfied hum.
“What the bloody hell was that?” asked Malcolm, clutching his arm. Surely this was some sort of dream, despite the pain.
“As I said, verifying your signature.”
It was then Malcolm saw the document clearly. It was the report he had written for Lucian Hardy. He took several steps back, colliding painfully with the corner of the coffee table. His visitor quirked an eyebrow and a low laugh rumbled from deep in his chest.
“I see you have finally recognised me. It most certainly took you long enough.”
Malcolm stared, his head starting to spin. It wasn’t possible. He shook his head, mouth gaping.
“Yes, it is me, The Devil. Although, perhaps you know me better by another name?”
“No, I know who you are. But I didn’t think you were real…”
“And yet you helped our charming Mr Hardy? He must be more personable when he is speaking with someone other than me.”
“Curiosity, that’s all,” said Malcolm. He could feel sweat had broken out all over his body. He felt hot, and yet chilled at the same time. Was he going to faint? Perhaps he was ill and hallucinating the whole meeting. Perhaps the stinging scratch on his arm had been self inflicted in his fever.
“You will be pleased to know your efforts were not in vain. I am satisfied now that Mr Hardy has not been trying to trick me. He will be repaid tonight. May I call on you again should I need assistance in a… tax matter?”
Malcolm stared at his visitor, goose bumps rising on his arms at the danger he could feel emanating from beneath the calm, ruddy face. “Uh, well… I’d rather not…”
“You would be paid well, much in the same way Mr Hardy benefits from his deal with me. It is not usual to find a professional, everyday person willing to assist me or my… employees in anything.”
“I’m flattered, really.” Malcolm swallowed hard. “But I’m not interested in having anyone else’s soul to lengthen my life. I just couldn’t accept such a thing.”
“Oh, you would not be paid with a soul, just a life essence. Despite rumours to the contrary, I have no power over a person’s soul. When somebody dies, their soul goes to wherever it rightfully should. The life essences, such as Mr Hardy harvests, are separate. They are like extra battery power, no more.” The Devil stood motionless in the centre of the room, his head slightly to one slide as he watched Malcolm’s reaction.
“Uh, no… thank you for the offer, but I’m quite happy with my current job.” Malcolm’s heart pounded against his sternum, and he was becoming more and more certain he was going to faint.
“I will respect your wishes,” said The Devil with a nod. “If you change your mind however…”
Malcolm found himself holding a business card. It was plain black on both sides, with merely a mobile phone number printed on the front in red ink. He looked up, but his visitor was no longer in the room. The sound of a door gently closing came from behind him, and the house suddenly felt empty.
Spinning around, Malcolm nearly fell. He raced to the door and quickly locked it, although he was fairly sure it wouldn’t stop The Devil returning if he wished to. Crumpling to the floor, he wiped sweat from his face and flung the card to one side. He lay down on his side, a bubble of hysterical laughter erupting from his throat. His vision swam and the world faded to black.
The shrill ring of his telephone pierced Malcolm’s skull, bringing him to unwelcome wakefulness. He pushed up off the floor, wincing as he staggered to the blasted gadget.
“Mr Carter? Is everything ok? It’s not like you to be late. Your nine o’clock appointment has just left…”
“Oh. I’m sorry Janice. I’m not feeling well and must have slept through my alarm.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Do you want me to cancel the rest of today’s appointments?” she asked.
“Um, yes, thank you. And thank you for calling. I should be back tomorrow, but I’ll make sure to let you know if I won’t be.”
“I hope you feel better soon. Bye.”
Malcolm groaned and trudged towards his bedroom. Scenes from the night before ran through his memory. He had almost convinced himself it had all been some bizarre nightmare when he saw the card laying in the hall. Picking it up by one corner, he slid it on top of a bookcase and went to wash his hands. Sleep came easily, but only after he left the light on.
A steady tapping noise roused Malcolm from a dreamless sleep. He frowned at the ceiling and its alien pattern of shadows, coming to realise it must be mid-afternoon. Sitting up, he listened to the afternoon hush of his neighbourhood and wondered if the noise had been an auditory hallucination. As he lay back down, the tapping sounded again. Alert, he now recognised it as someone knocking at his door. A shiver ran down his spine as he recalled the night before. Surely The Devil wouldn’t be back yet, though. Things like that didn’t happen in broad daylight. Then again 24 hours ago, he’d thought things like that didn’t happen at all.
Creeping through the house towards the door, he jumped at another round of knocking. Taking a deep breath, he told himself he was being ridiculous. It was probably religious doorknockers. Nobody he knew would expect him to be home during the day. The wry smile on his face disappeared as he looked through the peephole. Unlocking the door he stepped aside to let his visitor in. Lucian Hardy swept past leaving a trail of dead ivy leaves in his wake.
“Mr Hardy. I should be surprised to see you here, but I’m not.”
“Ok, Lucian. What can I do for you?” asked Malcolm, resigned.
“I just wanted to thank you. I dropped by your office first, but everything was closed up. My overpayment was returned to me just before dawn. I would like to offer you a small percentage as a token of my appreciation,” said Lucian as he rummaged in his coat pockets, finally removing a small, violet coloured vial.
“Uh, no. That’s quite alright,” said Malcolm backing up a few steps.
“Nonsense,” said Lucian, striding swiftly to Malcolm and grabbing him forcefully by the upper arm.
Malcolm struggled against his immovable grip as Lucian popped the top off the vial with his thumb. Holding it under Malcolm’s nose he blew across the mouth of the vial, sending an iridescent vapour into his nostrils. Scrunching his eyes closed, Malcolm threw his head back trying to avoid the stinging vapour but it clung to him like cobwebs. He opened his mouth to yell, but the vapour invaded his throat, making him cough and gasp for breath.
Lucian released Malcolm, a satisfied smirk warping his face. “You will be thankful later,” he said, and departed.
Malcolm collapsed on to his couch, spluttering, his eyes running. As his breathing eased, he felt a strange sensation moving through his body. It was like stepping from cold shadow into sunlight. His fingertips tingled and his mind sharpened. He felt energised and alive, much like he did after catching a big wave on his board. Revulsion and exhilaration mixed at the knowledge he had been given some of the precious life essence
Lucian collected. He was completely morally opposed to it, but it made him feel so damned good.
Malcolm returned to work the next morning feeling ten years younger. The sly beginnings of crow’s feet around his eyes had also disappeared. He saw Janice watching him as he entered the office.
“Good morning,” he said. “Sorry about yesterday, but I’m back on deck now.”
“Yes. I was worried, but you certainly are the picture of health now,” Janice said with a small frown.
“Must have needed the rest. Been burning the candle at both ends lately.” The lie tripped easily from his tongue.
Janice nodded in acceptance at his explanation as he moved through to his desk. He had long suspected she had a thing for him, but he’d never volunteered information about his private life. He had no interest in her, and staying professional kept any boundaries from becoming blurred. He was especially glad of that now. Explaining the series of events that had led to his reinvigoration would only have painted him a madman.
Six months later, Malcolm’s life had returned to where it had been before Lucian and The Devil had made their appearances. He well and truly felt his age again, the essence having worn off like a fading summer suntan. Janice had announced her resignation that morning, however, after a failed attempt to ask him out. He understood her need to leave, but the idea of having to hire a replacement depressed him.
Arriving home, he felt tired and stuck in a rut. He had even lacked the energy to go surfing for the past few weeks. An uneventful life had always sat comfortably on his shoulders, but ever since the bizarre events involving The Devil and Lucian Hardy he had
felt a restlessness, exacerbated by his flagging energy levels. He had no real desire to deal with evil again, but couldn’t stop his gaze from lifting to the top of the bookcase. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to diversify his business.
Late that night there was a knock at the door. This time Malcolm had been expecting it.
By Angela J. Maher from Australia