I hate taxes. And not just for the perceived imbalance of what is taken versus what we the people get in return, but for all the bureaucratic laws and records I have to keep track of, especially as a business owner: Track it! Crunch the numbers! Do it all over next year!  I like being an electrician, and I enjoy running a business, but man do I hate taxes.
       Perhaps it’s a numbers things? Well, these days I have two businesses, so yay, double the tax returns. It may be this aversion to financials that has led us to our latest hire – oh you haven't heard? Well then, allow me to officially announce Story Unlikely’s new CFO – one of the most iconic businessmen to ever grace the TV screen – no other than David Wallace of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company!
       That’s right, folks, David is back in the paper game, and after running Dunder Mifflin into the ground, he’s ready to take Story Unlikely to unprecedented heights!... Wait, you think I’m joking? Allow me to prove it
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       …See, I told you! Pretty epic, huh?
       But it’s a match made in heaven, is it not? Who better to take over our financials, and in the same absurd humor that we so often espouse? You see, we like funny things, and we like people who don’t take themselves too seriously; people who can turn even the most serious of subjects into comedy. Like death.
       Or taxes.
Danny Hankner
Danny Hankner

“Every great story begins with a snake." - Nicholas Cage (who probably approves this message)
       You asked, and we listened: Story Unlikely is proud to announce our new online community message board! Talk shop and exchange story critiques with our contributing writers, staff, and other like-minded folk. And the best part: it comes with the internet's only TROLL-FREE GAURANTEE! How is that even possible? Easy - we're locking it behind every juvenile's kryptonite - a very insignificant paywall, though it will remain free for life for all our volunteers and writers (helping us to retain high caliber folk, which every group needs), and will be available for Member's Only
       To further ensure the long term stability, productivity, and health of this group, we will only be onboarding limited numbers at a time. If you're interested and would like to be placed on our waiting list (aren't we fancy?), send an email to storyunlikely@mailbox.org and let us know! We will be offering discounts for our first group, so the sooner you get on the waiting list, the better. 
       Remember, this is for Member's Only, so if you're not a paying Member, sign up now, or you will not be placed on the wait list, no matter how much you beg and plead.

Did someone say 
Marketing exchange? 
Are you in the business of writing and looking to expand your base? Perhaps a little marketing exchange is in order - where we introduce our audience to yours, and vice versa. It's easy, and free, and everyone wins wins wins! Email us at storyunlikely@mailbox.org for more info.


Death and the Taxman
By David Hankins
       I, the Grim Reaper, terror of men’s souls, shall forevermore despise Mondays because that was the day I met Frank Totmann. That was the day I became Frank Totmann.
       I found him having a heart attack in his dingy office on the third floor of the Colorado Springs Internal Revenue Service Tax Assistance Center. What a mouthful. They should have named it “The Land of Evil Auditors.” Frank was a balding pudgy man without a single sharp edge. His cheap suit strained its buttons.
       I stopped time and Frank gasped, clutching his chest and drawing relieved breaths. I pointed a bony finger, let my eye sockets flame a bit for effect, and intoned, “Frank Totmann, your time has come.”
       Frank sat back, threw me a broad smile, and said, “Cup of tea?” He produced a thermos and two teacups from under the desk.
       How touching. Nobody ever offered refreshments. It’s a lonely half-life, being Death, so I enjoy sharing folks’ final moments. They usually complain about being too young to die or attempt to cheat me, but I don’t mind. They’re the only conversations I have. I nodded with gravity and grace.
       What a fool I was. Never accept tea from a dying auditor.
       I took a sip and coughed. It tasted of blood and ashes. Abrupt pain seared my bones, dropping me to my knees. The world spun, went dark, and with a distressing stretch which ended in a pop, I found myself sitting in Frank’s chair staring across the desk at . . . me.
       I blinked, shocked to have eyelids, and blinked again. No, that wasn’t me. Frank Totmann’s spirit, a mirror image of the body I now possessed, grinned stupidly in Death’s cowl. In my cowl, clutching my scythe—crafted by the Devil and blessed by the Most High. It gave me power over human souls.
       Of all the cheek.
       I lunged across the desk, caught my hip on its edge, and sprawled across audit reports and tax returns. Breath whooshed out of me. Unfamiliar with a human body, I forgot to breathe in. Stars flashed before my eyes.
       Frank jumped back, holding my scythe high like a bully taunting a child. I flopped onto his chair, which rolled back with plastic protests. I sucked in a breath, time resumed, and my heart pounded in my chest. Frank’s chest. Whatever.
       I grabbed the spilled teacup and sniffed it. It smelled of anise, copper, and . . . magic. My eyes went wide. “How?” I asked, then flinched. The Grim Reaper should boom and intone, not squeak like a scared bureaucrat.
       Frank’s grin became a smirk. “Ancient soul transfer spell. Sumerian, I think. Doc said my heart was failing, so I nailed the timing of your arrival by taking poison. We shared the transference potion and voilà”—he took a bow—“I cheated Death.”
       I flung the teacup at the wall. It shattered and fell to the industrial carpet. How the hell had an IRS auditor unearthed a Sumerian soul transfer spell?
       How dare he use it on me? On Death?
       And after offering hospitality. Never again! Never again would I . . .
       My mouth opened and closed like a dying fish as the gravity of the situation hit home.
       Never again was right. I was a human. A flesh and blood human. Mortal.
       More importantly, I was a mortal who—I checked my internal clock which measured human lives—should have died five minutes ago. My gaze flicked to Frank. To the scythe in his hands.
       He followed my gaze and shook his head. “I’m not reaping your soul. Not even sure how, to tell the truth. But”—he twirled my scythe then swung it like a golf club—“I’ll get the hang of it. Besides, that body’s not dead. I spiked my tea with the poison’s antidote.” He waggled his fingers at me, said “See ya!” and drifted through the door.
       I slouched in the chair, dumbfounded for the first time in millennia. The Rules were quite clear. Frank’s soul was supposed to cross over today. I had to swap us back, restore the balance before Hell’s bureaucrats noticed. Before Hell’s Auditor noticed and took my soul instead.
       I sat in Frank’s office for an hour, my mind chasing its tail. How do I, the Grim Reaper, cheat death? This heart may have resumed beating, but it couldn’t last long. My hands, used to clutching my scythe, grasped at the air. I grabbed a pen and clicked it obsessively.
       It wasn’t the same.
       A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts and a short, solid woman with pinned-back, graying hair swung the door open. She wore a matronly flowered dress, an overabundance of clattering jewelry, and a smile that lit her face like she was genuinely pleased to see me.
       That was a new experience.
       “Staying late, Frank?” Her voice was warm, like honey.
       I clicked the pen a few more times and read her soul through her dark brown eyes. Cordelia Knowles, fifty-eight years old, death in forty-three years. “Uh, no,” I said and rose awkwardly.
       “Walk me to my car?”
       “Sure, uh, Cordelia.”
       Her brows knit together. “It’s Cora. I told you on our first date.” Her voice slowed and she tilted her head. “You OK, Frank? You look like death warmed over.”
       You have no idea. Aloud I tried to say “I’m fine,” but the words stuck in my throat. I grimaced. Bloody Archangel Gabriel and his bloody restrictions. He’d burned the words “Honesty in death” into my soul when he made me the Reaper.
       I couldn’t lie.
       An agent of both Heaven and Hell must remain above reproach. It was one of Heaven’s Rules that governed all spiritual matters. I’d never chafed under that restriction before today.
       After flapping my jowls again like that bloody dying fish, I said, “I’m alive. That’s what’s important.” I stomped around the desk and followed Cora into a cubicle farm with people streaming toward an elevator. She gave me a piercing look but didn’t press. Instead, she chattered about work and my thoughts turned inward.
       Frank had found a Sumerian spell. There had to be a reversal. I nodded to myself. Yes, that was the ticket. Find Frank’s house, retrieve his spell book, and get out of this body.
       My thoughts were again interrupted when Cora looped her arm in mine and guided me around the crowd to a door marked “exit.” I reached it first and tried to pass through.
       Like I always do.
       My face smacked into solid wood, and I bounced off, popping the door open. I stumbled back, hands flying to my nose. “Ow!”
       The departing crowd burst into laughter with a smattering of applause. Someone called, “Been walking long, Frank?”
       “No,” I said, rubbing my nose and glaring at the offending door as it swung back toward me. The laws of physics were so . . . inconvenient. Cora placed a comforting hand on my shoulder, and we pushed into the stairwell.
       “Frank? Are you sure you’re OK?”
       I patted her hand noncommittally and headed downstairs. At the bottom, I was careful to press on the push bar before stepping outside. I felt inordinately pleased with myself when it worked.
       Bright sunlight made me blink. The city of Colorado Springs rose on foothills, climbing partway up an imposing ridgeline. The cool wind was crisp and plucked at my suit. I drew a deep, invigorating breath. I drew another, feeling alive in a way I’d never known. Cora hooked my elbow again and guided me toward her rusty Peugeot. I recognized the car because I’d reaped a soul from one last week. In midair. It had blown through an Alpine guardrail to plummet off a cliff. The deceased had blamed the car for his demise, never mind the half-written text on his cell phone.
       “Well, this is me,” Cora said, fishing keys from her purse. “Are we still on for tonight?”
       “To . . . night?”
       “Yes, silly. Dinner? At Edelweiss? You said you’d never tried schnitzel.”
       “I have not tried schnitzel.” I spoke with finality, reveling in an easy truth.
       She gave me a bemused smile, opened her door, then paused as if waiting. Her brown eyes locked with mine then, to my horror, she rocked forward and pecked me on the lips. Blood rushed to Cora’s cheeks, and she slid into her car. “See you at seven!” She waved and was gone. I stood there, dumbfounded for the second time.
       She’d kissed me. I . . . I’d never been kissed. It felt odd, this mashing of body parts together, and it left my lips feeling tingly. Perhaps it was the wind. Yes, that was it.
       I gave myself a shake. Find Frank, reverse the spell. Stay focused on what mattered before the Auditor found out. Hell’s final arbiter of the Rules would love to banish me to the Realm of Torments. Forever.
       I headed for the nearest road to find a cab. I’d reaped too many souls from crumpled wrecks to try driving. Traffic flowed past in a noisy blur until I waved down a taxi. I carefully opened the car door as Cora had done.
       Success. I was getting the hang of this human thing.
       “Where to, pal?” the cabbie asked. I automatically checked his soul through his cheerful gray eyes. Louis Faretti, thirty-six, death in seven years.
       “The home of Frank Totmann, Louis,” I said, sliding inside. The cab smelled of industrial cleaners and artificial lemon with a whiff of vomit. Louis hung one arm over the bench seat.
“Got an address, bud?” I blinked at him then rummaged through Frank’s pockets. Wallet, keys, cell phone. I dug into the wallet, found something with Frank’s picture and address, and read it aloud. Louis nodded and sped away, tires screeching. Horns blared as we wove violently through traffic.
       Over the next six minutes of terror, I discovered why the cab smelled of vomit. I managed, barely, to keep my gorge down as Louis chatted.
       “Whatcha do for a living?”
       “For the living, nothing. The dead are my concern.” I clutched the door as we zoomed around a truck.
       “Coroner? Huh. Never drove a coroner before.” He glanced in his rearview. “You’re looking kinda pale, bud. Rough day at the office? Someone send you a body that wasn’t quite dead yet?” He chuckled and slammed on the brakes as traffic stopped around us. I rocked forward and caught myself on his seat.
       “Uh, yes,” I said, falling back as the cab shot forward and resumed weaving through traffic. “He stole something very valuable.” My identity as Death. “Failure to retrieve it will have dire consequences.” Eternal torments. I shuddered.
       Louis’s eyes went wide. “A real Lazarus story, but with a twist. Ain’t that wild? So, what, you gonna get fired?” Someone honked as Louis cut them off. We passed into the ridgeline’s shadow and the temperature dropped.
       I glowered at the back of his head. Lazarus was a fluke. Divine intervention which ruined my perfect record and nearly led to an audit.
       “Worse,” I said. “I could face Judgment.” Judgment long delayed for my original sin. My mind shied away from that train of thought.
       We screeched to a stop before a sad-looking house with cracked tan siding and brown grass. “That’ll be twelve bucks even,” Louis said.
       I blinked at him, then remembered. Money. Humans used money for everything. I handed him Frank’s wallet.
       Louis arched an eyebrow and retrieved some bills before handing it back. He passed me a card. “If you need a ride, give me a ring.” His head cocked to one side. “Never caught your name, friend.”
       “Grim Reaper.” I fumbled at the door handle, which was different from the one outside the car.
       Louis barked a laugh as the door popped open and I tumbled out. “Man, your parents had a twisted sense of humor. No wonder you became a coroner. See ya, Grim!” He waved and sped off. I set my jaw and approached Frank’s house.
       Getting inside proved challenging. Why was every door handle different? This one had a stupid little knob that wouldn’t turn.
       Keys, right.
       The door creaked open, releasing an overwhelming stench of old coffee and stale sweat. Piles of clutter lay everywhere. I wrinkled my nose. Why did humans cling to life so tenaciously when this was how they lived?
       I searched the main floor but found little of interest beyond a bookshelf overflowing with occult and religious texts. I scanned the titles. Plenty about the afterlife and Yours Truly, but nothing ancient. No Sumerian soul spells, just an unhealthy fascination with death.
       No surprise there.
       I paused at a bulletin board tacked with thank you notes from clients Frank had audited, gratitude for helping clear debt and acquire refunds. Odd. I wouldn’t have expected such helpful behavior from an auditor.
       From his kitchen, I descended a stairwell to the center of an unfinished basement. Creaky steps echoed through darkness before my hand brushed against a light switch. A bulb flickered on, revealing the logical result of Frank’s occult research. Painted archaic symbols covered the empty cement floor, each with unlit candles at intersection points. Summoning circles from different civilizations.
       I recognized Babylonian, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and—ah-ha!—Sumerian. That one had intricately woven runes surrounding charred cement and feathery ash.
       I circled the dank room, stepping around the summoning circles, examining each. It was a testament to mankind’s tenacity that every civilization devised methods of controlling spirits. Tucked under the open stairs was Frank’s workspace—a tattered recliner beside a rickety apothecary cabinet filled with papers, moldering books, and scrolls. Artifacts in labeled jars and little plastic baggies hid in the apothecary cabinet’s little cubbyholes. Stickers decorated many with “Rare Find!—Cordelia’s Apothecary Supply.”
       I arched an eyebrow. Cordelia? She was a tax auditor and an apothecary? Interesting.
       I retrieved a rolled-up bundle of copy paper. Pictures of ancient Sumerian tablets filled every page with handwritten translations scrawled along the edges. My breath caught and the papers crinkled in my grip. This was it.
       I drew a deep breath, smoothed out the papers, and read. I wasn’t limited by human language barriers, so translation wasn’t a problem.
       The content was.
       There was nothing here about swapping souls. It was a simple summoning spell.
       I dropped into the recliner with a huff and read through again. Nothing. I scratched my jaw.
       Perhaps Frank summoned a spirit and got the spell from them. I eyed the apothecary cabinet’s little cubbyholes. Follow Frank’s steps. Summon a demon, then ask it about the spell. I nodded to myself, jumped up, and set to work.
       Fifteen minutes later the Sumerian circle was set up with candles, cinnamon, and bone dust from a Sumerian priest—if the baggie label was to be believed. I turned off the light, chanted the incantation seven times, then pricked my finger over the circle before snatching my hand back.
       A bolt of red lightning arced up when my blood hit the cement. It bounced off the circle’s invisible walls, splitting and multiplying until an inferno of crackling red electricity connected cement to bare joists. My skin tingled and my hair stood on end before the entire light show condensed into a single bolt again. It struck the center of the circle with a hellish boom that rattled the stairs. Lava bubbled through the cement and from that rose a demon’s hideous form, clad in a wrinkled gray suit.
       He stood only two feet tall.
       I smiled, the knot in my chest easing somewhat. It was Alvin, recently promoted head of Bureaucratic Torments. Not a friend, really, but our paths had crossed. Horns poked through his thin, greasy comb-over and his sharp red eyes glared at me. He pointed a clawed finger.
       “That’s it, Frank! I’m sending my cousin Brutus to make your life a living hell until the day. . . you . . . die! Then, when your soul finds its way to Hell, I’m gonna—”
       “I am not Frank Totmann,” I said, and Alvin paused, his angry glower turning to confusion. He focused on my eyes then gasped.
       “In the name of Lucifer,” he whispered, “he did it.” Alvin’s brows scrunched. “Oh, Grim. How you doing?”
       Heat surged through my chest and my breath came short and fast. “You . . . you knew?” I stepped forward, fists clenched, breaking the circle with a flash of red electricity. “You knew Frank Totmann’s plan and didn’t think to warn me? He stole my scythe! My power! My very identity!” My hand shot toward Alvin’s throat, but he leapt back.
       “It wasn’t like that!” His hands flew up, warding me off as I stalked forward. “Frank’s daily summonings were becoming a real nuisance. I had to give him something, so I found a soul transfer spell he couldn’t use. The ingredients were impossible to acquire.” Alvin slid under the open stairs between the recliner and apothecary cabinet.
       “Impossible? Look at me! I’m stuck in a human body”—I slapped the stairs for emphasis as I ducked under—“thanks to you!”
       Alvin flinched and dodged back around the Egyptian circle. “The spell required the bones of a Sumerian priest!”
       “You idiot!” I spun toward the cabinet, snatched a labeled baggie, and read it aloud, “Sumerian Priest Bone Dust.” I threw the bag at Alvin, and it passed through his chest and slid across the floor. “That was a basic ingredient of his summoning circle!”
       Alvin held a finger up to protest, but his words died unspoken. His finger lowered slowly. “Oh. Uh, sorry.”
       My anger flared hot before draining away. I sat heavily on the stairs and dropped my head into my hands. “Me too. More than you could possibly imagine.” I drew a shuddering breath then looked up. “Was there a reversal on that Sumerian spell?”
       “How should I know?” Alvin’s flippancy brought me to my feet, fists clenched again. He raised placating hands. “But I can check.”
       I drew deep, calming breaths. Death was supposed to be emotionless, impartial. The first time I got angry, really angry, had been over something stupid. An argument with the Auditor about sins and sacrifices. I’d been an angel then. So young. I’d tried to prove my point, whispered a lie into Cain’s ear, and accidentally incited him to murder Abel.
       Humanity’s first death. Their first murder. Heaven had still been reeling with the aftershocks of Lucifer’s betrayal and dropped me into Purgatory to await Judgment. To avoid eternal torment, I begged Gabriel for clemency. I could atone for my crime by easing mankind’s souls into the next world.
       He bought it and I sidestepped Judgment, which really pissed off the Auditor. He’d been angling for the job.
       Thus was the Grim Reaper born. No longer an angel, not quite a demon, bound to serve both Heaven and Hell and beholden to neither.
       My pocket vibrated with a cheerful chirp, and I jumped. I dug out Frank’s phone and read the message on the screen.
       Cora: I’m at Edelweiss! You on your way?
       Alvin stepped around to peer at the screen. “You old dog,” he said, turning corporeal and punching my shoulder. “One day as a human and you’ve already got a date!”
       I rose, shielding the phone from his view. “Frank had dinner plans before he died. Well, almost died. There is no need to maintain his schedule.” My stomach twitched with unfamiliar pain and gurgled.
       Alvin looked at my belly, then the phone, and chuckled. “You’re human now, subject to four incessant needs.”
       I raised an imperious eyebrow at the dirty-minded cretin. “Implying what?”
       Alvin barked a laugh. “No, Grim, not sex. That’s necessary for species survival, not the individual. No, you’ll need an appalling amount of food, water, and sleep to keep that body functional.” He made a shooing gesture. “Go. Go on your date. I’ll see what I can find about reversing that spell.”
       I nodded and said, “Thank you.” Cora might also provide insights since she’d provided the ingredients.
       Alvin gave a double thumbs-up and sank through the floor without the dramatic flair of his entrance.
       “Wait!” I called. “You said humans have four needs. Hunger, thirst, sleep, and . . . ?”
       Alvin’s descent paused at neck level and his face split into a broad smile. “Pooping, my friend. What goes in, must come out. A serious design flaw, if you ask me. Good luck!” He waved cheerfully and disappeared.
       My breath whooshed out and I dropped back onto the stairs, making them groan. I often reaped souls from compromising positions, so I had a vague idea of what was coming, but I had never considered the mechanics of . . . defecation. My mind skittered around, refusing to focus. My gut rumbled, and I realized that I was, indeed, hungry.
       Well, best get on with it. I retrieved Frank’s cell phone.
       I stumbled from Louis’s cab with shaky knees after he screeched to a halt outside Edelweiss restaurant. “Enjoy dinner!” he called, then zoomed away.
       Low lights shone inside the stone-faced farmhouse and the hum of conversation drifted from outdoor seating to the left. Dishes clanked and propane heaters glowed red as jacketed diners enjoyed fall’s dying warmth. I shivered in Frank’s thin suit, hoping Cora’s table was inside. I headed for the door.
       Sharp pain sliced through my chest, arcing into my left shoulder. I gasped and dropped onto a bench. Frank’s heart gave four syncopated beats before settling down again. I drew a deep breath and massaged my chest. This heart was past its expiration date. It wouldn’t last much longer.
       A young man inside escorted me to a corner booth in a room topped with faux roof eaves. Blue and white checkered bunting, a cloud-painted ceiling, and rough wooden panels gave the impression of outdoor dining without the chill Colorado winds. Cora beamed when she saw me.
       “Hey, there. I was worried you’d stand me up.”
       “I apologize for my tardiness. I usually make a point of arriving just when people need me.” What would happen to a soul if I didn’t arrive on time? Would the body die and decay with the soul trapped inside? Would that be my fate? Disturbed by my thoughts, I slid into the booth.
       Cora said, “I ordered for us. You’re going to love the Jägerschnitzel.”
       As if on cue, a waiter arrived with plates. I eyed mine with trepidation. Everything was a uniform brown. Breaded meat was buried under thick mushroom gravy, and piled french fries threatened to topple off the plate. The fries were sprinkled with a red powder which added a spicy kick to the greasy scents wafting upward.
       It smelled fantastic. My stomach agreed with loud gurgles.
       I glanced at Cora, but she had already dug in. New to the intricacies of eating, I copied what she did. The silverware was tricky, but I managed my first bite.
       Greasy bliss melted on my tongue. I closed my eyes and a groan escaped as I chewed and swallowed.
       “See, told you it was good.”
       I gazed into Cora’s smiling eyes. “That was . . . amazing.” I cut another bite. “Is all food this good?” No wonder humans spent so much of their lives eating. That bite followed the first and I groaned again as she nodded.
       “Here? Most of it. If you have room for dessert, their Apfelstrudel is to die for.”
       “To die for?” A third and fourth bite disappeared. “I’ll take the chance.”
       Cora chuckled, a warm sound that revealed her bright soul.
       Dinner passed in a blur. The waiter brought us beers that looked like bubbly swamp water. I took one sip and gagged. It tasted like swamp water too. Cora seemed content to talk about herself, her grown kids, and her dreams for the future while I ate. Turned out that she dreamed of expanding her online apothecary supply shop.
       “Where do you acquire your artifacts?” I asked.
       “That’s the joy of the internet. You can find anything if you dig hard enough.”
       Like a soul-swapping spell reversal?
       The waiter derailed my line of questioning with a fluffy pastry that oozed baked apples and cinnamon. Pillowy vanilla ice cream lay atop the Apfelstrudel, melting in thin streams. It smelled divine.
       I took a large bite and Cora asked, “So what are your dreams?”
       “Hmmph?” I mumbled around the glorious blending of hot, cold, and sweet.
       “Nobody wants to be a tax auditor when they grow up. What else do you want?”
       I swallowed and sat back. What did want? Nobody had asked me that before. I searched my soul. “I like my job, helping souls in need. I’m good at it, but it gets lonely.”
       Cora gripped my hand, her bracelets jangling. “You’re not alone anymore. Did you know that the girls at the office tried to warn me off? Said that a confirmed bachelor must have deep, dark secrets.” She released my hand, leaving a ghost of warmth on my skin. “I’m glad I didn’t listen. You’re really quite sweet.”
       “Awww . . . ,” said a voice from under the table. “Too bad you’ll have to break her heart.” Alvin’s pinched face poked above the table as he climbed onto the bench beside Cora. “Time to leave, Grim. Now!”
       “Why?” I said. “What did you find?”
       Cora followed my gaze to the empty seat—humans can’t see spirits who didn’t want to be seen—and creased her brows.
       “No time, lover boy,” Alvin said. “Hell has noticed your absence. The Auditor is coming.”
       His words were a punch in the gut. “How’d he find out so fast, Alvin?”
       Cora’s eyebrows shot up. “Alvin? The demon?” Frank must have told her about the summonings. She scooted into the booth’s corner and dug an iron cross from her purse.
       Alvin gave the artifact a dismissive nose wrinkle and ran a clawed hand through his greasy hair.
       “There’s a worldwide epidemic of miraculous survivals and recoveries. Your replacement isn’t doing his job. Nobody could find you, so they’ve sent the Auditor to clean up.” Alvin glanced anxiously over his shoulder then swore.
       I followed his gaze and jumped in my seat. “Damn!” Diners glanced up, but they couldn’t see what I saw. A massive demon ducked into the restaurant. He was impossibly gaunt, like stretched dough, and wore a rumpled suit that matched Alvin’s. Gold-rimmed spectacles covered blood-red eyes which scanned the room. Claws drummed on the back of an oversized clipboard.
       “Frank?” Cora sounded scared as she grabbed my hand and swung the cross to follow my gaze. “What’s wrong?”
       “Death comes for all men,” I whispered, a shiver running through me.
       The Auditor saw me and made a check on his clipboard. “Frank Totmann,” he said in a voice as dry as crumpled ash. “Your time is past.” He lumbered forward, one arm outstretched. He didn’t have a scythe to snip my soul’s tether with this body, but he could rip it out and drag me to Hell with him.
       Fear turned schnitzel to lead in my stomach. You can’t run from Death. I would know.
       I glanced at the clipboard, eyes narrowed. He wasn’t Death. He was the Auditor. You can evade the Auditor, for a while at least.
       I squeezed Cora’s hand. “He cannot touch you. Your time is not yet come.” Her wide eyes bulged as I pulled myself free and bolted for the exit.
       Evading the Auditor was simple, yet terribly difficult. I had to abandon every resource Frank had. The lumbering demon gave chase, but his skills lay in tracking through files and records, not in active pursuit. I lost him after a few heart-wrenching hours by squeezing behind a strip mall dumpster.
       I had nowhere to go. I had to avoid Frank’s house. His office. Cora. The Auditor could track me through her. Ditching Frank’s phone when she called had felt like cutting off my arm. Any information she had about Frank’s spell was now lost.
       I woke with a start the following morning. I’d been having a nightmare of fleeing the Auditor through a maze of doors, each with its own bloody different handle. My heartbeat slowed. Orange-dappled clouds drifted past, visible through the gap between dumpster and building. I hadn’t felt sleep sneak up as the temperature dropped.
       I squeezed out of my hiding place and into a parking lot, stamping warmth into my tingling toes. My joints protested, cold muscles so tight that I could barely walk. I shielded my eyes against the low sun. I didn’t know where I was.
       An unfamiliar pressure on my bowels made me grimace. Alvin’s fourth incessant need had found me. I trudged across the parking lot toward a gas station. A bell tinkled as I entered and warm air washed over me, inducing a wave of relaxation. Heavens, that felt good.
       The pressure on my bowels intensified.
       “Toilet?” I asked the lanky teen behind the counter. He pointed to the back without looking up from his phone. I followed his vague directions, found the toilet, and discovered the heinous reality of defecation. Mortality’s dark side.
       Humans do this every day? I would rather die.
       I flushed, scrubbed my hands as if cleaning the stain off my soul, and fled the restroom.
The bell chimed again as I left the gas station. I huddled against the wind and stopped, not sure where to go next.
       I jumped and looked toward the voice, ready to run. Louis waved from behind a car he was fueling. Not his cab, but a beat-up green sedan.
       “Brother, you look awful,” he said. “Date didn’t go well?”
       I shrugged. “Dinner was amazing. Cora was charming. But then . . . he found me.”
       “The guy who stole from you?”
       I shook my head. “No. A Hell-spawned demon called the Auditor. He . . . you wouldn’t understand.”
       Louis stepped around his car, concern in his gray eyes. “I understand the look of a man running from his mistakes. Everything looks bad when you’re in the middle of it.” He held out a hand. “Come on, let me take you to breakfast. You’ll see things clearer with a full stomach and some caffeine.”
       My stomach rumbled. “Thank you. Your generosity is—”
       An iron vice seized my chest and my breath wheezed out. I dropped to the pavement, struggling for air, muscles turning watery. Frank’s traitorous heart seized again, sending a spike through the vice.
       “Grim!” Louis knelt beside me, a hand on my back. “What’s wrong?”
       “Heart . . . attack. Third in . . . two days.”
       “Hey!” he yelled at the kid inside. “Give me a hand!”
       I grabbed his arm. “Please . . . don’t let me die.” My heart beat rapidly to make up for lost time, taunting me with hope.
       “Hold on, Grim. You’re not dying today.”
       I collapsed. Rough pavement scratched my face, and my brain turned fuzzy. Strong arms lifted me into Louis’s back seat. The door slammed, the engine started, and we tore out of the lot.
       The world became snapshots of consciousness as Louis wove through traffic, blaring his horn. Anxious assurances washed over me while I struggled to survive. To live. Finding Frank was a distant desire. Avoiding the Auditor more immediate. Would he recognize my soul as he ripped it out? Would it make a difference to my fate?
       “No hospital,” I wheezed, but Louis didn’t hear me. A hospital would put Frank’s name on record. The Auditor would see it.
       We screeched to a stop, Louis yelled for help, and more hands pulled me from the car.
       “What happened?” a woman asked in a no-nonsense tone as they laid me on a gurney.
       “Heart attack. Third in two days,” Louis said.
       “And he’s still breathing? Death’s not ready for this guy. What’s his name?”
       “Grim Reaper.”
       “Not the time for jokes.” Her voice turned severe, and a hand dug into my pocket. “Says Frank Totmann on his license.”
       No. Please. I reached for the wallet, but my hand flopped uselessly. They wheeled me inside. Lights flashed past overhead as nurses rushed me . . . somewhere. We pushed into a brightly lit room that smelled of antiseptic. Louis’s anxious face peered through the windowed door, his lips moving with silent prayer.
       Pain exploded in my chest, and I screamed. My eyes bulged and I squeezed a hand I found in mine.
       “Crash cart, now!” the nurse yelled—
       Time stopped so abruptly that I felt jolted out of reality.
       The pain . . . paused. The room’s flurry of activity froze midmotion. I sagged, drawing ragged breaths.
       Frank glided through the wall, smirking from the depths of my cowl, my scythe in hand. “Dying sucks, huh?” he said.
       Cheeky, insufferable, little son of a . . .
       I sat up, gauging the distance between us. “You toy with powers you don’t understand, Frank Totmann.”
       “I’m figuring it out. The stopping time thing is pretty cool. Last night I played a round of golf with a dying CEO before sending him on his way.” He twirled my scythe then pretended to putt.
       “You are supposed to grant an opportunity for confession. Not . . . play golf.” I shook my head, appalled, and swiveled my legs off the table.
       Frank swung the scythe back into a two-handed grip and ducked behind a nurse frozen in frantic motion. He glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s been a bit longer for me, what with stopping time, but I figured you’d have more than sixteen hours. How’d you like being human?”
       “It was terrifying, confusing, and . . . enjoyable. I found your fellow humans thoughtful and kind. I had a date with Cora.”
       Frank’s eyes went wide. “Ah, shoot. I forgot about that. I meant to cancel.”
       “She helped you prepare. You didn’t tell her your plan?”
       He bit one lip and said, “I couldn’t. Didn’t want to see her cry. She’s gonna be heartbroken when I die. Well, when you die.”
       “Everybody leaves loved ones behind. We all have unfinished business.”
       His grip tightened on the scythe, and he nodded, stepping back around the nurse. “Well, I guess it’s time. Best of luck in the afterlife!” He pulled the scythe back, readying the Reaper’s power over the soul.
       Realization hit me like an avalanche and my breath caught. I didn’t need to reverse Frank’s Sumerian spell. I needed my scythe. The Reaper’s scythe didn’t just sever souls from their mortal coil. It moved them to where they were supposed to be.
       I was supposed to be in that cowl and Frank in this body.
       I held up a hand. “Wait! You can’t reap me.”
       Frank’s eyes narrowed, my death over his shoulder, my salvation in his hands. “Why not?”
       “The Auditor is coming for you.”
       Fear crept into Frank’s voice. “The who?”
       “The Auditor. Hell’s final arbiter of the Rules. Hell noticed discrepancies after you took my place. The Auditor hates discrepancies and metes out punishment with . . . finality.” Frank lowered the scythe and glanced around furtively.
       “I’m not taking my body back. I already cheated death.”
       Yes, you were the first. I will be the second.
       I leaned forward conspiratorially. “Here’s what we’ll—”
       The words froze in my throat as the Auditor lurched through the door. Claws scratched angry gouges on the back of his clipboard as he pointed it at me. “Frank Totmann, your time is past! I—”
       He noticed the real Frank Totmann and his brows bunched together behind gold-wire frames. “Two Frank Totmanns?” He consulted his clipboard. “This is highly irregular.” He considered me, but I kept my eyes averted, hoping he wouldn’t recognize my soul. Frank made the mistake of meeting his gaze.
       Tension drained from the Auditor’s shoulders. He straightened and adjusted his glasses. “There you are. Your Judgment is at hand.” He eyed the scythe, then me. I saw connections click in his evil mind. A dark smile stole over his face. “You have failed, Grim. It’s time to face your Judgment. It’s time for a new Reaper.” He turned to Frank. “I’ll start with this impostor’s soul.”
       Frank stumbled backward, lip quivering. “No!”
       I jumped off the gurney. “Give me the scythe!”
       “No!” Panic tainted Frank’s words and the Auditor lunged at him. Frank leapt between two nurses and the Auditor followed, implacable. They danced around my gurney, just out of reach. I had to do something. Anything to keep the Auditor from my scythe.
       “Wait!” I yelled and leapt between them, throwing my hands out like a referee separating boxers. Frank scrambled back, but the Auditor thrust a long-fingered hand into my chest. He gripped my soul.
       Cold washed through me and I felt myself dying all over again. My breath wheezed. Frank’s wide eyes met mine and I turned my palm up, beseeching.
       “Please, before he drags us both into Hell with him.”
       Frank’s gaze whipped to the Auditor who yanked at my soul, half tearing it from my body. I screamed and collapsed to my knees.
       Frank shook his head.
       “I’ll . . . make you an apprentice!”
       “But . . .”
       “Or you die!”
       Frank quivered, then nodded and thrust the scythe into my hands.
       Power flowed into me. Power to stop time and parse souls. Power over life itself. I smelled the cherry blossoms of Heaven and the burning sulfur of Hell, an intoxicating brew that overwhelmed my pain.
       I spun on my knees to slam the scythe into the Auditor’s chest, but he caught the handle with a crack. Lightning surged around his grip, and he tried to yank the scythe away.
       He failed.
       “You are not Death,” I intoned. “You never will be.”
       I rose, scythe between us, and shed Frank Totmann’s skin and cheap suit. They drifted away like flaming embers that pushed onto Frank’s terrified soul, leaving me a proud, naked skeleton. The embers solidified and Frank became flesh once more. I shrouded my skeletal form in a cowled cloak of darkness drawn from Hell itself.
       I was Death.
       I kicked the Auditor in the chest and wrenched my scythe away. He flew through a frozen nurse and the wall with a furious roar. He’d be back.
       I spun and pointed an accusing finger. “Frank Totmann, you cannot run from Death.”
       “Wait, what? No! You said . . .” He fell back and bumped into the crash cart, making the wheels squeak. I placed my blade to his throat and a sob escaped him. “Please, I don’t want to die.”
       “I understand,” I whispered, and I did. I really did. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed back. I swung my scythe and reaped Frank’s soul. His body collapsed and his spirit bobbed into the ether beside me. I gripped his shoulder to keep him in place and turned as the Auditor stormed in.
       “Frank Totmann is dead,” I said. “The scales are balanced; the Rules are satisfied. You have nothing further to audit here.”
       He glanced at Frank’s soul, then at my scythe. Raw desire and bitter realization burned in his red eyes. The Rules forbade interfering with Death’s duties, and he was more bound to the Rules than I. The loophole created by Frank’s spell had just closed. “Damn you.” His fists clenched. “Where will you send him?”
       “Not your concern.”
       The Auditor cursed and retrieved his clipboard. He made a definitive checkmark which sounded like it tore through parchment. “I’m watching you, Grim,” he said, then stomped away through the wall.
       I counted to twenty to ensure that he was gone before starting time again. A cacophony of noise and action burst into the room. The nurses scrambled, confused to find Frank’s body beside the crash cart. One checked his vitals, sagged, then declared him dead.
       Frank looked up as they carted his body away. “You killed me.”
       “No, your body died. I retrieved your soul. A minor, but important distinction.”
       “Now what? Were you serious about making me an apprentice?”
       I rubbed my chin. “I could use the company. And you’ve proven quite resourceful. For a human.”
       He sighed, relief twitching the corners of his lips. “Alright, Boss, what first? Do I get my own scythe?”
       I gave him a flaming stare. “First, we correct your errors from the past day. There are souls who need to pass on. For failing at your assumed duties, you must take their confessions.”
       “But I didn’t know what I was doing!”
       “That’s no excuse. Every soul deserves your utmost care. Come, I will show you.”
       I held onto Frank and followed the incessant pull of a soul in need of transition.
       I will forevermore hold a grudge against Mondays, for that was the traumatic day I became human. Yet, at the same time, I found my brief life surprisingly enjoyable.
       Well, except for the dying.
       And the defecation.
       Tuesdays, however, will hold a special place in my heart. Tuesday brought me an apprentice, whom I hope will eventually become a friend.
       Frank finished taking a recently deceased granny’s confession and we proceeded to the next soul. He would need a new name. “Death and Frank” lacked the proper authoritative ring.
I snapped my bony fingers, remembering. Frank already had a title. One which sparked fear and caution among the living. Together we would shepherd souls to their final rest as the two greatest certainties in life.
       Death and the Taxman.
Death and the Taxman” is a multiple-award-winning short story, first published in Writers of the Future Volume 39 and later named the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Story of 2023 in the Critters Readers’ Choice Poll. But this story is only the beginning. The Taxman is Coming, Tax Day 2024 (April 15th for those who don’t have to deal with the IRS). The novel-length expansion of Death and the Taxman is now available for preorder HERE.  
Never trust a dying auditor.
About the author:
         David Hankins is the award-winning author of Death and the Taxman. He writes from the thriving cornfields of Iowa where he lives with his wife, daughter, and two dragons disguised as cats. His short stories have graced the pages of Writers of the Future Volume 39, Amazing Stories, DreamForge Magazine, Unidentified Funny Objects 9, Escape Pod, and others. David devotes his time to his passions of writing, traveling, and finding new ways to pay his mortgage. You can find him at https://davidhankins.com

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Listen to your Editor
And for the Love of God, Don't be an Idiot
(Part 1 of 3)
by Danny Hankner
It’s hard enough getting published. Years of your life devoted to perfecting your craft, thousands of hours reading and writing and critiquing, endless nights searching for the right publisher, reformatting, submitting, and waiting…only to be rejected because you made some bonehead mistake. Look, it happens all the time. It’s the other side of publishing that nobody else will tell you, but I’ve seen it, and because I’m rooting for you, I’m going to let you in on these mistakes by telling personal stories of real-life dumb-dumbs who have crossed our paths in this three-part series titled Don’t be an Idiot. Is that harsh? Tough excrement. Now before we get started, have I ever told you what my old roommates referred to as Dan’s Theory on Economics? No? Well then, let me slightly recalibrate it to fit our literary needs:
“Some people were born to make bad decisions…so the rest of us can prosper get published.”
In this article, we won’t be discussing craft, but rather the communal side of publishing – (gasp!) working with other people. Fear not, all my introverted and socially awkward friends! You don’t need experience speaking in public, cold calling, or even peddling vacuums door to door. No, all you need to do is one little thing…
Don’t be an idiot.
Now let me tell you a story.
At some point in our storied past (see what I did there), a writer submitted a nice little diddy to us. It was truly an excellent story – well-written, engaging, funny, and with a satisfying ending and story arc. However, two minor (but glaring) problems needed to be addressed before we accepted. The good news is that both of these issues were very easy to fix. Like, I could have done it in five minutes quick while stuffing my face with cheese-filled breadsticks from Kwik Star. Yes, that easy. So what were these problems, you ask?
First was the title.
Allow me this: titles are a big deal, and they matter. They’re the first part of your story that everyone reads – the frontline in marketing. It’s why so many publishers – Story Unlikely included – often change the title of the original manuscript. This is normal. Especially when the title submitted is bad. And the title of the story was bad. Like, a real doozy, but not just any doozy, it was – and you can quote me on this – the worst title I’ve ever read.
That’s right, folks. Ol’ Danny boy with 20 years of writing under his thinning wings, who reads thousands of submissions every year, just dropped the heavyweight belt for the worst title he’s ever read. I bet you’re just dying to know what this title was, right? It’s not my intent to embarrass this writer, but I can’t properly drive home the point unless I spill the beans. Ok, so here goes. *Griswold family drumroll please* The worst title I’ve ever read was…
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Literary Spotlight
       What does a FREE panting chart have to do with reading? Honestly, not much. However, our friends at the Food Gardening Network are loaded with content that may interest our readers, like magazines, cookbooks, and all kinds of FREEBIES, such as this planting chart. CLICK HERE to grab yours today, and while you're at it, check out everything else they have to offer!


New Member
       I recently found out about Story Unlikely. I love that your approach isn't 'think outside the box' so much as: "Box?  What box?  Oh, you mean that steaming heap of cardboard out back?  Yeah, we set it on fire, roasted smores and danced around the flames.  Gud times!"
       I'm going to enter a story.  I've already become a paid member, and I think I might have invented a new form of visual writing (not a graphic novel, mind you).  Anyway, I'm sending this email in hopes that it will kickstart my email address into accepting messages from you guys.
       All the best, you guys are awesome.
Ethan Alleyne (Mr. E)

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The Excrement List
Disobey our submission guidelines, 
and find yourself amiss.
Disobey the guidelines,
wind up on the list.
(It's like when restaurants used to post bounced checks on the wall, but for the digital age)
As a publisher, we have rules that writers must abide by if they want to get published. Some of these aren't that big of a deal, but others, like ‘if you submit to our contest, don't submit this story anywhere else until the reading period is over,' or ‘don’t mark our emails as spam', are a major no-no.  Offenders get put on our ~dun dun dun~ Excrement List, aka lifetime ban on getting published. We keep this list to show people that - for once - we're not joking. Don't be like the perps below - you're much too savvy for that:
Gillian W, Cat T, Adam M, Olasupo L, Mick S, Leslie C, Patricia W, Tim V, Andrew F, Sam P, Aaron H, N. Kurts, Paula W, Marcy K, Mark301078, carnap72, N. Phillips,  A Bergsma, Sharon S., Mfaulconer, Mikeandlottie, Rebecca C, Nathaniel L, Maxine F, Patrick W, Brendan M, William S, Sandra T, Daniel L, Jennifer C.
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