Thursday, March 12, 2009

A short story: Satan Meets His Match

Martin stared out over the gray upholstered half-height walls of his cubicle, across a dozen rows of identically drab cubicles, at the clock high on the far wall of the office. The minute hand clicked over, from 4:23 to 4:24. A dissonant ping announced the arrival of another email. He scanned the subject line, hit the delete key, and returned his stare to the clock. Still 4:24. He glanced at the pile of paper on his desk. Meaningless busywork, summaries of aggregates prepared by regional managers of district managers, that he in turn would paraphrase for the benefit of some vice president up on the 20th floor who would present it to the CEO, a man six degrees removed from any human contact with customers. Martin wondered if the CEO even cared what the company made anymore, or whether from his lofty height it was simply an exercise in resource allocation and spreadsheets, pushing ants around with water.
Martin looked forward to 4:30. From there it was an easy slide downhill to 5:00, thirty minutes that could easily be occupied emptying his email, tidying his desk, and visiting the bathroom two or three times. After that, the dregs of the day would be all his own. A brisk walk to the car park, sluffing the after-work drinks invitations of his dull, narrow-minded co-workers. Forty minutes or more of slow-moving, nerve-jangling traffic. A cheap microwave dinner that combined the taste of chemical preservatives with the texture of wallpaper paste. A couple of hours of dull sitcoms and overwrought dramas on TV until his head felt leaden enough that sleep might come. Six hours of restless, unrefreshing tossing until the alarm buzzed and the cycle could begin over.
He took a sip from his coffee mug, blenching at the acrid, tepid brew. He stared at the clock again, and waited for it to click to 4:25, promising himself a fresh cup of coffee once it did so. And he waited. And waited. He began to wonder if the clock were broken. Then the deep and absolute silence struck him. The office was never particularly vibrant, but normally there was at least a background clatter of staccato keyboard clicks, a hum of muted phone conversations, and the buzzing of fluorescent light fixtures. Martin stood up and slowly turned around. He found himself facing a smartly tailored youngish man with a precisely groomed goatee and moustache. The only element that distinguished him from any of the senior management MBAs from the 20th floor was a distinct whiff of sulfur that his aftershave could not completely suppress.
The visitor flashed an even white smile marred by just the slightest hint of fangs about the canine teeth. “Sorry about the smell,” he said, wafting the cloud of sulfur with a perfectly manicured hand. “We’re very modern about most things, but on this one the traditionalists still hold sway.” He held out his hand. “You can call me… Damien.”
“If I shake your hand, have I committed myself to a deal?” asked Martin warily.
“Ha, ha, very good”, smiled the self-styled Damien. “I may steal that line. No, we operate strictly on contracts willingly entered into. We find there are more than enough of those without having to trick anybody.”
“I take it then you’re… him?” asked Martin, a little awed in spite of himself.
Damien’s smile barely faltered. “Sad to say, I’m not the chief himself. Think of me more as, say, a vice president of new business development. Fully authorized to act on behalf of the organization, of course.”
“And you’re here to offer me the usual deal?”, asked Martin.
“Ah, I do like a man who cuts to the chase” replied Damien. “Yes indeed, and here it is. You get one wish, anything you can name. I get your immortal soul when you die. What do you say?”
“I’m sure there’s some fine print, isn’t there?” asked Martin. Years of cubicle paper-shuffling had taught him to be dubious that any deal could be so straightforward.
“Well, of course. We do have to be discreet. We can’t have people noticing obviously supernatural interventions, not in this day and age. So for instance if you wish for riches, rather than just whipping up a pile of gold whose origin you can’t explain, we’ll put you into a rather juicy IPO that you can flip, or maybe arrange to backdate your stock options. And before you ask – because everybody does, you know – we also can’t change history, or kill somebody for you, or meddle with somebody else’s emotions. So if there’s a lady you have in mind, I can make you as desirable as you wish, but I can’t actually force her to desire you. Do you see?”
“How long do I have to make up my mind?” asked Martin.
Damien furrowed his brow and pretended to be disappointed. “Normally this is a take-it-or-leave-it offer. But I rather like you, so I can give you twenty four hours.” He hated not closing a deal, but he wasn’t worried. Nobody ever asked him to come back so they could say no. Invariably it was the clever ones who asked for time, thinking they could come up with some scheme to outwit the contract. And equally invariably, it was the clever ones who were easiest to hook. As if, after all this time, there were some deception that the Prince of Lies himself hadn’t seen before!
“Till tomorrow, then!” he announced, rather more theatrically than he had intended, and vanished. The clock ticked over to 4:25. Sound rushed back in as though a balloon had silently popped. The only evidence that the apparition had not been a daydream was the slowly fading smell of sulfur.
Martin’s drive home that night was even more miserable than usual. Headache-inducing rain had slowed traffic to an ill-tempered crawl. Tonight, though, Martin was, for the first time in years, seeing the other drivers as more than mere obstacles. A man laughing into his mobile phone. A woman twisting to chat to the child in the back seat. A couple stealing a kiss every time traffic stopped. These people looked happy, or at least short of miserable. What secret did they know that he didn’t? Once home, he turned on the TV and watched a sitcom with his full attention. It still seemed pointless and tedious and predictable, yet thirteen million people watched this thing every week, the newspaper told him, and it had won several awards. How could those people enjoy it, but not him?
Sleep came even harder that night than usual. Martin lay staring at the ceiling asking himself, how do they all manage to be happy, but not me? Eventually he must have fallen asleep, but it seemed like mere minutes before the alarm clock dragged him awake again.
The following day, Martin watched the clock even more avidly than usual. At 4:24 precisely, silence swallowed the office noises, and the familiar smell of sulfur announced the return of Damien. He pulled a neatly creased hand-written contract from his coat pocket and smoothed it out on Martin’s desk. There was a small blank space for his signature and a larger one for his wish. Martin tried to push away the discomforting suspicion that the contract might be written in blood.
“Ready?”, asked Damien, smiling warmly, his fangs just a little more prominent than the day before.
“First I have a couple of questions,” said Martin.
“Of course. I’d be disappointed if a smart guy like you didn’t.”
“Do many people ask for a beautiful wife?”
“One of the oldest”, laughed Damien. “And yes, they’re always disappointed when they realize they should have specified their own wife.”
“And do a lot of men wish for an enormous… you know?”
“One of my favorites,” chuckled Damien. “You can’t imagine the fun I have taking that one too literally.”
“Oh, I think I can. And people who wish for riches?”
“An easy one is to give them stolen money that they can’t spend, but I like to be a bit more creative.” Damien didn’t mind sharing a few trade secrets. Guys like Martin, he knew, always thought they’d figured out a new angle, and it didn’t hurt to flatter their egos for a few minutes. If anything, it made the deal even more sweet once they realized that they too had been swindled. “I actually invented a new one last year that I’m very pleased with”, he continued. “I gave a Nigerian two hundred million dollars in an untouchable bank account. All he needs now is to find someone willing to help him get it out of the country”.
“You mean…” stuttered Martin, “Those emails promising to share an illicit fortune are true?”
“Oh, it’s much better than that”, laughed Damien. “Just one of them is true. But nobody will ever know which one.”
“And talent?”
“Another old favorite. One time, I granted a young guitar player the ability to play the most amazing blues anybody had ever heard. All very traditional, that one. Crossroads at midnight, contract signed in blood, the whole deal. A year later he was dead, poisoned by a rival in a love triangle.”
“You killed him?” said Martin, astonished. “I thought you said you couldn’t do that?”
“Heaven forbid!” replied Damien, shocked. “No, really, I mean that literally. Heaven forbids it. We’re not allowed to meddle with your ordained lifespan. That would be cheap. I just made a side deal with his killer. All he wanted in return for his soul was to know the name of his rival in love, and his favorite drink.”
“So basically,” said Martin, “whatever I wish for, you’re going to try to cheat me out of the benefit of it?”
“That’s pretty much the name of the game,” nodded Damien. “We’re not in the business of making fair deals here. We’re in the business of exploiting greed and lust and avarice. After all, the Other Team wouldn’t have much of a chance at winning any souls if we were to get a reputation for actually delivering what we promised, would they?”
“I suppose not. And there are no clever get-outs, like making a selfless wish?”
“Only in Hollywood movies,” laughed Damien. “We closed that loophole a while ago. The Chief argued that if you make a selfless wish specifically to save your soul, it wasn’t really selfless after all, was it?”
Very nicely played,” said Martin. “I am impressed.”
“Thank you. We’re quite proud of that one ourselves. These days we call it the Clinton Clause.”
Bill Clinton?” asked Martin, astonished.
“Hillary, actually. It’s a long story.”
“Huh. Well, perhaps later. Right now, I’m ready to make my wish.”
“Excellent!” Damien uncapped his pen and his hand hovered over the contract.
“It’s very simple,” said Martin. “I wish to be happy for the rest of my life.”
“That’s it?” replied Damien. He was genuinely disappointed for a moment at the lack of imagination, but grinned with full fangs at the ease of this deal. He quickly filled in the blank space, and handed the contract to Martin to sign away his soul.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Martin, picking up his own pen.
“You do?” Damien’s grin faltered ever so slightly. The confidence in Martin’s voice was just a little unnerving.
“You’re thinking about all the ways you can screw me on this deal. Turn me into a religious fanatic, deliriously convinced of God’s favor even while my life turns to ruin. Or a drooling idiot, unaware that I’m sitting in my own excrement and vomit. Or somebody like Jeremy in Shipping who hums off-key all the time and has no idea how much everybody hates him.”
“Well… maybe…” mumbled Damien uncertainly. That certainly covered most of the possibilities he’d been mentally kicking around.
“But it won’t matter to me,” continued Martin, signing the contract with an exaggerated flourish. “I won’t care. I’ll still be happy, because that’s the deal.”
Damien scowled. His skin had developed a pronounced red tinge, and small horns were protruding through his carefully combed hair.
“Because there is one last loophole, isn’t there?” continued Martin. “You only get my soul if you can cheat me out of my wish, don’t you? If you have to actually give me what I asked for, I go free. Because your boss could never, ever keep a fair deal, could he?”
Damien’s skin was bright red now, and searingly hot even from inches away. “Damn you!” he hissed. “Damn you to Hell!”.
“Oh, I don’t think so”, smirked Martin. “Not today, at least”.
Damien snatched the contract from Martin’s hand and vanished in a flash of flame. Sound returned to the office like the popping of a champagne cork. The clock ticked over to 4:25.
Martin sniffed the air. He was beginning to like the smell of sulfur, and might even miss it just a little, in a gently nostalgic way. He lifted the steaming hot cup from his desk and took a deeply satisfying sip of the best coffee he had ever smelled. He scanned the heads of his colleagues, as warm and collegial a group as any man could hope to work with. “You know”, he said out loud to nobody in particular, “I might just work late tonight, and then join you all for drinks.”


MsMVNJ said...

Loved it!

Flo Jo said...

i read it, I like it, and I broke my own rule for you!

Ed Matthews