Derick Deaver was by definition an old man. The last door on the top floor of Canterbury Heights had been his home for the past sixty years. A simple man really. At 5 am he use to take Frederick the Fourth for a walk around the block. The French bulldog was the fourth purebred in a line of dignitaries, a brown hound of immense size. Frederick was also the only animal allowed in the building, simply because Derick Deaver was the caretaker at the time.
Upon their return home, he would prepare his Oatmeal and Frederick’s Pedigree was dished out. After doing his morning rounds, which included badgering tenants about an unfamiliar scratch on their front door or about some noise that was ‘clearly’ disturbing everyone, he would settle in his living room.
On one particular afternoon Derick read the paper while taking subtle puffs from his pipe with Frederick snoring at his feet. Before long, a familiar rap at the door followed. It never pleased Derick to hear it. To him it always sounded more like a goblin trying to ram its way in.
“Derick! For God’s sake, open this door!” an extremely hoarse and broken voice bellowed from the front door.
Frederick barked once and that’s all it took to make Derick’s eyes flare open. A hard grimace erupted on his face. Gripping the leather arms of the chair, he scolded throatily, “I’m coming. You old fool!”
The walk to the front door was in no way rushed. In fact, he took a leak in the toilet and washed his hands before heading to the door. The knocking had already subsided by then, but he knew he was still there. The same kind of faith he had in knowing that his toilet roll would be there when he had to go take a dump.
As Derick swung open the door Mr Burrows sneered profusely, leaning on his walking stick, “My toilet is blocked,” he said curtly. The man smelled like diarrhoea. Wrinkles lined his face like creased tinfoil and two tufts of grey hair grew behind his ears.
“Do I look like a fucking plumber?” Derick said indignantly.
“I don’t care Derick, but the shit is really surging up.”
Derick stared at Burrows as if he was some turd that doesn’t seem to want to flush down. “Call the plumber!” He said, and started closing the door.
Burrows was already out of breath, “The number is not wor ...”
“Get a phonebook you retard, “Derick interrupted hoarsely before closing the door in his face.When Derick turned around, Frederick was sitting in the hall with his tongue halfway to the floor, looking up at his master with approval.
As soon as they found themselves settled, there came a completely unfamiliar rap at the door. A monotonous knock that was somewhat unnerving. Frederick was still sleeping. Derick ignored it for a time in the hope that the unwelcome guest might leave, but the knocking continued nonetheless.
With much indecision, the old man got up and noticed that Frederick was still snoring. He leered at the hound, before ambling off to the door.
“Yeah? “ Derick growled. When he peered through the peephole, his eyes widened. An extremely pale and hairless man stood before the door. His eyes were dark brown and diluted.
“Mr Deaver.” A cold voice replied.
With more effort than usual, Derick opened the door, and when he did, he was unsure why he did it. The man was wearing a tuxedo with a blood-red tie, and his equally pale hands were folded in front of him.
Mr Deaver was about to open his mouth, but the strange man bared a row of friendly teeth. His eyes remained impassive. “I apologise for being late. It is an awful busy time of the year.”
“I’m afraid you have the wrong door young man,” Derick said firmly. The man seemed young, but also infinitely old. It was a rather frightening sight but there was only one thing Derick feared, and that was running out of coffee.
“Oh, but I’m afraid you are mistaken Derick. Please pour us some coffee. My throat is parched.” The man entered uninvited through the door. Derick was almost oblivious to the insolence. “Make it black, if you please.”
“Right,” Derick said, struggling to recall if he had asked the man in or not. The stranger walked through the house and took a seat at the dining table. Derick could not decide if he was more perplexed or more offended. He felt a strange inclination to let the man in, regardless.
Soon enough, Derick found himself sitting at the table with the stranger. They had both taken a sip of coffee, before Derick spoke. “What is your name son, and what business has led you to my door?”
The stranger grinned kindly. “They call me many things, but please, call me Grim.”
“Mr ... Grim.” Derick tried to get up from his chair. “Please. If there is nothing else ...” The chair would not let go. His legs were paralysed. Gaining more confidence that this was all some ludicrous joke, he leered at the stranger, but he choked on his words. The chords in his neck bulged and tears started forming in his blue eyes.
“Oh, of course there is, Mr Deaver.” They stared at each other for a brief moment. Grim spread his hands. “There is a situation, and you see, there is no better way of saying this. We want you to die.”
Derick grimaced. “I do not take kindly to threats.”
“Oh, we don’t threaten. There are certain rules, however,” Grim said peevishly. “You see, the irony is unfathomable. We cannot take a soul without consent. Usually a person just dies and that is enough. This has always kept business booming.”
“You won’t find any souls here,” Derick said defiantly.
“Oh but I’m not asking, Mr Deaver. You see, fairness has always been one of our finest qualities.”
“You call this fair?” said Derick, evidently referring to his ‘sudden’ paralysis.
“Only a precaution I assure you.”
“What game are you playing at?”
“Ah yes. Now we come to the crux of the matter. It is really simple.” Grim leaned closer. “I ask a riddle, and if you can give me the solution, you are free to be old and creaky for a little while longer.”
“What makes you think I want to play this game?” Derick retorted.
“Human nature will play its part I guess.” Grim waved a hand. A dark vortex opened up in the ceiling and the room suddenly became darker. Derick stared up. The little grey hair he owned fluttered wildly. Suddenly an enormous book, bound in black leather descended from the ceiling through the vortex. As soon as it touched the table, it gaped open before Grim. Derick tried to make out the lettering, but it was incomprehensible.
“Now, let’s take a look. Section thirty-two of the Incontestable Act, states that, ‘The keeper of a soul, shall not deny the Dark Lord a chance to win over a soul in a fair game of his Lord’s choice.’” Grim said.
A glimmer of realisation started to show on Derick’s face. “What makes you think I want what your offer?”
“I offer you life Mr Deaver.”
“Look, I only want one thing.” Derick yawned, after which his face went hard. “I want to be young again. I want women by the dozen. Give this to me and I’ll hear your riddle.”
“Well … fine, so be it. You may have this boon! Now let me think.” Grim rolled his eyes in thought. There was a long silence during which Derick started snoring.
“Ah!” Grim exclaimed, shaking Derick out of his doze.
“You now, they say it’s bad luck to wake up an old man,” Derick croaked.
“And luck is exactly what you’ll need Mr Deaver.”
“Speak your riddle and be done with it then!”
There was a brief silence before Grim started. “It breathes but makes no sound. It burns in the sun and dries out in the cold. What is it called?”
Derick laughed, but it sounded more like choking. “You aren’t very good at this I presume. The answer is … skin.”
After what appeared to be a moment of deep thought, Grim seemed rather disappointed, but he smiled nonetheless. “I’m afraid ... you are correct.” Suddenly the room lit up with daylight and all darkness dissipated. The paralysis wore off and Derick felt the strength return to his legs. Grim stood up and straightened out his jacket. “It’s been a pleasure Mr Deaver, but I’m afraid I have business elsewhere.” Before he left the dining room and disappeared around the corner, he turned. “Take care, Mr Deaver. It is a frightfully dangerous world.”
Derick only half listened, giving more mind to wiggling his toes, just to check if they worked properly. He got out of his chair, his legs quite stiff, but otherwise fine. In fact, he had never felt better. When he peered around the corner, the stranger was gone. After downing a glass of cold water from the kitchen, he leaned against the wall and exhaled.
At that moment, Frederick started to bark. “Be quiet!” Mr Deaver scowled. Then Derick understood. His hands felt stronger and his back was no longer bent. He felt his face and felt the wrinkles even out.
The day had wore on quite well, but before the sun set, there was a cry so loud it sent many people to Deaver’s door. When at last they had called with no answer, they knocked down the door. Nothing could prepare them for what they would find, a handsome little baby in the hall with piercing, pond-blue eyes. He made all the women smile.
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