Safe Inside the Reaper’s Cloak...

Snow fell across the Chicago neighborhood. Acidic and tarnishing, the flakes punished paint jobs and stung exposed skin, keeping everyone inside on this blustery afternoon. History recorded times when children built battle forts and carrot-nosed men from the white flakes, throwing icy balls and stuffing them down each other’s shirts. Even teens my age had enjoyed the fun. I shook my head. A fantasy. Maybe two centuries ago, but not now. Brushing snow from my hood, I marched on through a drift. I couldn’t worry about a little pain. I had to follow the death alarm, even during a snowstorm. A tune reached my ears, riding on the swirling wind. The vibrating strings sounded melancholy, yet hopeful; a typical melody for Noah, the young musician who lived on this block. As street gossip had suggested, his sister Tanya must have generated the alarm. Her cystic fibrosis was, in all likelihood, flaring up again, and Noah was probably playing his cello to help her relax. I followed the tune to a porch with a sheltering overhang. After brushing snow from my hair-and-flax cloak, I knocked on the door. It flung open, revealing Noah, still holding his cello and bow. “Phoenix!” I offered a solemn nod. “Noah.” He waved a hand, a wide smile on his dark, pre-teen face. “Come in!” Keeping my hood raised and my expression serious, I followed him through a narrow hall into a living room. Tanya lay on a tattered sofa with her head propped up, plaited locks spilling across an orange pillow. She wheezed and gasped through every breath. “My job is to care for the souls in my district, both alive and dead.” Tanya’s mother knelt on the floor next to her, holding a compress on the little girl’s chest....