Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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The Devil You Say!

by Roderick D. Turner



"I'm afraid it's no joke, Mr. Bigwin. If you don't pay, you are history."

Mitchell Samuels was tall and lean, with brown skin the color of almost-burned toast. He had an expensive smile that said 'don't trust me' from a mile away -- and his dark eyes were like bottomless black pits.

Jack Bigwin shuddered involuntarily. The man made his skin crawl.

"Take your two ghouls and get out of my shop," he said softly. "I've had enough of your threats. I wouldn't pay your supposed protection money if you stormed the place with an army at your back. Now leave before I call the police."

Samuels' smile grew even broader, and he chuckled. He turned to his two assistants who still lounged just inside the door of Bigwin's wine shop. "Hear that, boys?" he said. "He'll call the police." The two at the door showed no sign of having heard him. Samuels faced Jack again and drew a small card from an inside pocket. He held it up so Jack could read it:

Mitchell Samuels

REGISTERED POLICE INVESTIGATOR

CITY OF BOSTON, 13th PRECINCT

REGISTRATION NUMBER: 44221

The face in the picture was unmistakable. Jack looked at Samuels again with renewed disgust.

"Go to Hell," he said.

There was a sudden lurch, and the floor heaved beneath Jack's feet. He toppled sideways behind the counter and his head struck the bottle rack on the rear wall. The room spun for a moment, an irritating whine gnawing at the back of his consciousness. Then his head cleared, and he pulled himself slowly to his feet.

Something had changed. He was still in the wine shop, but the lighting was strange. A flickering reddish glow filled the room, and Jack realized that it came through the window from outside. And it was warm. Uncomfortably hot, in fact. A sudden ear-splitting howl of joy drew Jack's attention.

Mitchell Samuels stood alone in the center of the shop, his arms raised in triumph, bellowing like a moose. His henchmen had vanished. At last Samuels lowered his gaze and turned excited eyes on Jack.

"That's it, Bigwin," he said gleefully. "My quota. I'm finally done with this shit." He rushed over to the counter and grabbed Jack by the hand. "Thanks, man. Been great doin' business with you, an' all that. You got me my ticket, an' bought yourself a whole new mess of responsibilities. I kind of hoped this would be it -- sort of seemed like poetic justice, you know? A name like yours. Guess I was right to put the screws to you. Turned out to be my BIG win."

Jack stared at him in confusion. "Quota? What are you talking about, Samuels? I -- " Jack looked around again slowly. "I thought I told you to -- " He looked at Samuels, and the black man nodded. "To leave," Jack finished at last.

"Not your exact words, Jack. And man, you got your wish, just like you asked," Samuels chuckled. He took Jack formally by the hand. "Let me introduce myself. Had to think about it for a while, I been alter-egoed so many times I couldn't remember the name I started with. Dykstra. Reuben Dykstra. I was a carpenter, once. Maybe will be again."

There was a tearing squeal, the sound of a dull hook being scraped across a chalkboard. Jack winced.

"Hey Jack. That's my cue." Samuels/Dykstra headed for the door of the shop, which now stood open. Jack could feel a hot dry breeze wafting through from outside. Flames licked up occasionally where the street should have been. As he reached the door, Samuels looked back and smiled. "Don't worry, Jack. You'll get the hang of it. And it'll be fun, at least for the first few years." He raised a hand briefly in salute, and disappeared into the fiery fog beyond the door.

"The first few years," Jack repeated. "How long..."

"Upwards of a century, I should think." Then he was gone.

There was a sound behind him, and Jack turned. The door to his storage cellar swung wide, and a woman stood there. Petite and mildly attractive, with dark shoulder-length hair. Were it not for the small horns jutting from the top of her forehead Jack would have taken a liking to her at first glance.

"Maybe two," she continued. "Perhaps even three. Depends on how hard you work. It's like any job, really. Efficiency and productivity pay off in the long run."

"What -- who -- " Jack stared disbelievingly at the horns. "Where am I?" he said at last.

"Your worst fears are probably right on," the woman answered. She strolled casually past and stopped at the Beaujolais rack. Jack saw the long forked tail trailing behind her, but it hardly surprised him. She began to examine labels. "There are a few signs that should give it away," she said. She gently stroked a bottle, the top of the line. "I remember that one. Very nice." She turned tail and went to close the outside door, then leaned against the door frame and smiled sweetly at him. "Care to hazard a guess, Jack?"

"I -- I don't believe it," he said. "I won't believe it. I must have hit my head on the bottle rack. I'm having some sort of delusion. You can't exist -- this whole thing is impossible." Jack pulled a stool up from where it lay on the floor, and sat down.

"Just about par for the course. Except the hitting yourself on the head bit. I mean, most people don't have a nice easy event to connect it all with. Only problem with that, Jack, is that you probably fell because of the jump that took you down here. If the jump hadn't happened, you wouldn't have fallen at all."

"Whatever you say. I mean, you're just in my imagination anyway, so it doesn't matter what I tell you, or what crazy arguments you give. When I wake up, everything will be back to normal."

The woman walked towards him and offered Jack her hand. He hesitated, then took it. It was hot to the touch. Her eyebrows raised and she smiled wickedly.

"Hot stuff, eh Jack? Evita Marena, once upon a time from Colombia. Pleased to meet you. I'm your official liaison officer. Any questions about your new appointment, so long as they're within guidelines, I'll be pleased to answer them." Evita lifted herself nimbly up onto the counter and sat, her tail twitching dangerously behind her. She saw Jack's horrified look, and shrugged. "What can I say? It goes with the position. Don't worry. If it hits you, you'll only feel the burning for a few minutes."

Jack looked at her stubbornly. "I'm not going to participate in this weird imaginary interview. This is totally ridiculous."

"Suit yourself, Jack. I've got eternity. I can wait."

Jack jumped off his stool and, carefully avoiding the tail, made his way to the street door. He took hold of the handle and jumped back with a shout, clutching his burned hand.

"Sorry, Jack. I should have warned you. Until your job is finished, you don't go anywhere without me. It's the rules. Finish your work, and you win your ticket to freedom. Like Dykstra. Meantime, you go nowhere unless I say so."

The pain in his hand receded slowly to a dull throbbing ache. Jack looked at his palm, but could see no sign of damage. "What does this work consist of?" he asked slowly.

"Ah, now we're getting to it," Evita said. "Simple enough really. You go out recruiting. We supply the identities, the required knowledge, anything you want. Bring in three new recruits, as your friend Dykstra did with you, and you're done. That's it. Simple."

"What do you mean, recruit? Recruit for what?"

"For your job. You recruit new recruits. The more recruits we have out recruiting, the more recruits we get. Kind of a cascade effect. We fill the place up faster, and keep things nice and toasty down here."

"Down here being..."

"Hell, of course. You did tell Dykstra to go there, you know. That's how it works."

Jack decided to play along for a while. "You mean, if I get three people to tell me to go to Hell, I can leave?" he said.

"Not exactly. They have to mean it. In other words, they have to hate you enough to really want you to come down here. And on top of that, there is one tiny catch. We can't be watching every recruit in action all the time. So unless you score some really big action, like getting a priest or a minister to blaspheme against you, there's only a limited chance your success will be counted."

"Limited? I thought I just had to get three new recruits."

"That's right. But not everyone you piss off qualifies, and you can never be sure until you try. After all, we only have so many scouts to go round, and we can't have just anyone coming down here as a recruiter."

"Just how good a chance do I have, Evita?"

Evita acknowledged the use of her name with a smile. "Give or take a few thousand, I'd say about a chance in a hundred thousand."

Jack's mouth dropped open. "That's ludicrous. It would take years of being vile to people every single day to get three new recruits."

"Like I told you, a few centuries is typical. But you never know, you could get lucky. And if you work hard, your chances are much better." She gestured past Jack towards the ex-street. "Dykstra, for instance. Only took him 90 years. But then, he was a real asshole to start with. That helped."

Jack considered for a moment. "All right. So I'm stuck with this role until you select three of my victims as new recruiters. What happens when I fill my quota? Assuming I ever do."

"Ah, well that's a bit difficult. All I'm authorized to say is you get out of here."

"What, you mean out of this shop? But I'm going to spend the next century or more trotting around the globe making people hate me. I won't be stuck in here."

"It's kind of a dual existence, actually. You're there, and you're here. You go through the unpleasantness of being confined in this -- cell, I suppose you could call it -- while another part of your consciousness is mixing it up on the surface. Your surface existence is somewhat limited -- no pleasurable encounters, no vices, nothing but attention to duty. We run a tight ship. Down here it's much the same, except you don't even have the freedom to move around very far. Still, I'll visit you periodically to see how you're getting on. You shouldn't get too lonely."

"Periodically?"

"Oh, once a year or so. Unless you pick a winner. Then I make a special visit, and I'll take you for a brief walk outside your shop. Otherwise -- well, it's just you and the wine bottles."

"Oh yes. What about the wine bottles?"

"Very attractive, but I'm afraid not drinkable. You can try if you like. Don't worry, however bad it may taste, it can't kill you. While you're with us, you're immortal. Don't need food or drink, exercise, sleep, none of that. No bodily functions." She favored him with a wicked grin. "And no, you won't even desire it -- not down here, anyway. Up above, well that's different."

"Sounds great. And what's happened to my shop back in Boston? Is Samuels -- I mean, Dykstra running it?"

"Oh, didn't you know? You refused to pay a protection fee. You were taken out two years ago by professional hit men. Your shop was demolished to make room for a new parking lot."

Jack glared at her. "Just out of interest, how did you become a liaison officer? Did you elicit curses from a lamp-post or something?"

"Funny, Jack. We're going to have some good chats when I come by. No, I qualified with top honors for admission down here right from the start. Ran a big drug operation out of the home country. Did a lot of front line work with addicts. Pulled in thousands of souls. It was kind of fun while it lasted." She turned ruthless eyes on him for a moment. Then she smiled, and hopped down from the counter. "So, Jack. Any more questions?"

Jack swallowed convulsively. "How do I start?" he said softly.

"Eager now, are you? Or still skeptical, maybe. That'll change. Well, all I have to do is OK your release, and you can go back out and do your thing. I'll pick your starting location, if that's all right. After that, you just call on me any time, and I'll have a subordinate listen to your request. New location, new identity, new look, new anything. So long as you're doing your job, I'll OK it. I'm pretty easy-going that way."

"I can tell," he said. He looked at her steadily. "I'm ready."

"Then I'll be seeing you in a year or so. Keep the fires burning, Jack."

She walked out the front door, and closed it behind her. Jack hurriedly checked the walls, the window, the doors. All were burning hot to the touch. He would be scorched the instant he stepped outside. He sat down in a corner to wait.

####

It was thirty-four years before he got his first recruit, a runaway boy he had helped turn to crime. In that time, he had assumed fifty-nine identities, and in the normal way would have been killed at least three times. The first year had been toughest, learning to accept the fact that he truly was an agent of the Devil, randomly selected for showing that single moment of weakness. Evita was as vile as her credentials had suggested, but Jack found he looked forward to her visits. She had a wickedly warped sense of humor.

She met Jack in the shop, and they drank a small bottle of his best wine -- restored to its original flavor at the touch of her hot little hand. Then she led him out into the street, her arm on his. It was a great thoroughfare, with bustling activity everywhere. Yet there were fissures and rents in the ground, from which issued at regular intervals gouts of flame and sulphurous blasts of black smoke.

Evita showed him the house of pleasure across the street, and the gambling hall beside it. She pointed out a tall tower which she said was filled with politicians debating each other's fate. A gang war was in full swing about two hundred yards away, and Jack watched in fascination as the combatants were beheaded or maimed, dropped to the ground, and rose to fight again within seconds. There was even a church. Evita explained that there were ex-clergy here who outranked her by far. It was not a revelation. But it gave him an idea.

####

He had been working diligently to make enemies, obtain the necessary expletives, following the expected course of one in his position. But in the back of his mind, Jack plotted and schemed. His job demanded it, of course, but he had other plans. After his tour with Evita, he began to moonlight, keeping his mind at all times on his 'day' job. Twenty-eight years, it took. He had almost given up hope. But at last, his idea and his efforts were rewarded, and his 'night' job took on a new aspect. He waited anxiously for another thirty months before he got a letter in the mail. It was blank, but he got the message. From that day, Jack worked with an eagerness and enthusiasm that must have surprised even Evita. Within eight months, he had his next recruit, a lawyer who failed to save an innocent man from a life sentence because of Jack's eloquent prosecution.

####

"Turning in quite a performance recently, aren't you?" Evita was in her customary spot on the counter, her slender legs dangling idly, her tail scratching against the wall behind her as it twitched to and fro. "Got a new record in mind, Jack?"

"In a manner of speaking," he said slowly.

"You caught the eye of the Boss with that last one, Jack," she said. "Pretty impressive. You do still have a chance at the shortest recruitment stint. Seventy one years. You can make it, if you work hard. I might have my own special reward for you, if you pull it off."

"With that as an incentive, how can I refuse?"

####

And he did work hard. For six years he sent a constant stream of people into tirades against him, yet they were never enough to wrap things up. Never quite enough. Then one night he came home from his evening shift exhausted, but content. And the next day, he filled his day job quota. He'd had it all prepared, was just waiting for the moment. A priest corrupted by Jack's wheedling and encouragement. All it needed was Jack's threat to expose him to the religious hierarchy, and he had his man.

####

The door to his shop stood open. Evita met him outside, and embraced him. Looking past her, Jack watched the approach of a tall man with immaculate horns and a waxed black goatee. His tail was a good twenty feet if it was an inch. In his left hand he carried a ten foot long fork with three prongs. And in his right, a smaller one of identical design.

Jack released Evita with a smile, and strode to meet him. To his surprise, the man bowed as he presented the smaller fork.

"Welcome to Hell, Jack Bigwin," he said. He straightened. "You have earned the right to full freedom within my domain. Partake of any pleasure or vice, any questionable activity that you may find here. It is your privilege as a fork wielder." The man smiled wickedly. "And, for bringing in such a prize, I am short-listing you for a position on my executive."

Jack had been rehearsing this moment in his mind for years. In the end, it came as naturally as if he had thought of it that moment.

"I knew you would like it. The Pope was not an easy man to bring down. But I wanted to bring you a special gift, one that would truly touch your heart. It's my way of saying thank you. For the opportunity of being your servant."

He knelt before the Devil, and touched his forehead to the hot earth. Then as he rose, he felt himself fading slowly from the scene. He watched as the big man tugged in confusion at his goatee. Before he drifted completely away, Jack left him with his picked words of wisdom.

"A big fall for a man with an already black soul is still a deed of great goodness to God. The Pope needed to be ousted. I helped. I found a deed that gave pleasure to both the Lord and the Devil. My night job quota is filled. I'm going up, not down. And you've got a loophole to close..."

He took his fork with him. But he never did earn his horns.

THE END


© 2012 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Roderick D. Turner says: 'I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Better like it, or why bother? Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over the story, almost literally writing the story themselves. That's what makes it fun. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Spree, December 2011.' For more by Mr. Turner, in prose and other media, visit Roderick D. Turner rodentraft.

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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