I groaned at the man standing on my doorstep. “Come on, it’s not even eight in the morning,” I sighed, reaching up to rub at my sleep-addled eyes. “Can’t you give me a couple hours to drink my coffee, at least?”
He, of course, didn’t bother with any small talk. I guess the niceties fade after a few eons in Hell. How long is an eon, anyway? “You need to take it back. The deal is off.”
Instead of answering, I brushed past him, heading to my beat-up little car, parked down at the far end of the lot. I vaguely considered aiming a half-hearted kick at the Hummer parked crooked across two spots, but decided against it. The thumping echoing through the thin walls of my apartment last night told me that Kelsey, downstairs, had found a new boyfriend. His choice of vehicle told me that this one wasn’t likely to be any more permanent than the others that cycled through.
The man from the doorstep of my apartment building chased after me, his long legs easily keeping up with my determined but shorter ones. “Take it back. I’m calling the deal off.”
“I don’t think you can,” I said finally, pausing to look back at him. Was an eon longer than a millennia? Millennium? Which one was the plural? “I did sign the contract, after all. And if you can back out of it, I could back out of it, and that doesn’t fit, does it?”
For a minute, the man’s darkly handsome face twisted from a scowl of anger into a scowl of befuddlement as he tried to follow my logic. I wasn’t sure that it really led anywhere, but hey, I hadn’t transferred my morning coffee from my thermos into my stomach. “What?”
“Look, I’m not taking it back,” I clarified for him. “You wanted the soul. You got my soul. Or, at least, the imp that I talked to at first got my soul.”
“Yes, and he’s been cast down to the coldest, most distant depths to suffer for eons for his mistake!” The man’s eyes flashed red at me, a trick that would make a special effects artist drool. “Do you have any idea how powerful I am, how much it takes for me to get involved in the affairs of a groveling mortal-”
“I’m not groveling. And how long is an eon, anyway?”
He blinked. “What?”
“An eon. You said that the imp guy who offered me the contract is suffering for eons. Is that, like, a thousand years?”
I reached my car, unlocked the door with a twist of my key. I knew how to jiggle the handle to get it to open. The devil, still frowning, crossed in front of the rusty hood and yanked open the passenger door before I could intervene or drive away.
“Forget the imp,” he said, looking at me across the center console. “The contract was flawed, and it’s null and void. The deal is off, because this contract wasn’t approved by his superiors.”
“You?” I guessed, sticking the key in the ignition and muttering my daily little prayer. The engine coughed several times, but luck was on my side today, and it turned over with a protesting growl.
“That’s right.” The man drew himself up to his full height, his little forehead horns leaving two small divots in the fabric of the car’s roof. “I am Asmodeus, one of the seven Princes of Hell, King of Demons, Commander of Lust, Master of Desires and Damnation. And I demand that you accept the revocation of this contract!”
“No. I don’t think so.” I put the car into drive with a rumble, easing out of my parking spot.
“But…” For a moment, he looked totally put out, like his umbrella had just collapsed to dump dirty rainwater on his head. “But you’re giving up your soul! For nothing! The imp didn’t even make any offers in the contract; you get nothing! NOTHING!” The final word came out as a bellow, making the dashboard dials jump about wildly. For a minute, the car’s oil pressure monitor actually left the red zone.
“I know.” I carefully applied the brakes well in advance of the red light ahead.
“But… but I don’t understand.” Asmodeus seemed to have lost most of his anger and fire. Now he just looked sad and confused. “Don’t you want something?”
“Yes.” He perked up a little. “To be rid of my soul.” He drooped again.
He sat in silence for the next few minutes as I navigated through the downtown streets, towards my office’s parking structure. When I glanced over at him, I saw his mouth moving but no words coming out, and I could tell that he was genuinely lost. Finally, when I reached the first open parking spot (fifth floor, not so bad today), I decided to take pity on him and offer some explanation.
“Look,” I said gently, turning to face him. He looked back at me, strong mouth drooping, horns looking a little limp from where they protruded from his forehead. “As long as I can remember, I’ve had that soul in my head, whispering for me to do awful things. It always told me to be pushy, violent, passionate and strong. But in this world, those aren’t good things. Those things get you locked up in jail.”
“Your soul told you… hold on.” Asmodeus rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a bit of paper, looking like a crumpled grocery receipt. He unfurled it and held it up, running a finger down it. He reached a spot, looked over at me, then back at the paper. “Ah, I see. You received the soul of a great conqueror! One who could leave his mark on history!”
“But I don’t want to leave my mark on history!” I protested. “I want to go home after a day of easy, steady work, flop on the couch, watch some TV, and maybe try baking some brownies! I don’t want to lead legions, or conquer the world, or ascend to great power! And I hated the voice inside my head telling me to do it!”
“So,” he said, light dawning in his eyes, “when my imp offered you the chance to get rid of your soul…”
“I was happy to let him take it,” I finished. “That’s right. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for work.”
I climbed out of the car. A little part of me hoped that Asmodeus would remain inside, but he also stood up, getting out of the passenger side. “But don’t you want something?” he called after me. “Even a nicer car? A girlfriend?”
For just a second, I thought about Mary in marketing, the way that her red-blonde hair fell in waves over her shoulders, and I hesitated.
But I forced the moment to pass. “I’m fine,” I called back, giving him a wave as I quickened my steps. If I could catch the elevator ahead of him, I could lock him out. “But thanks anyway!”
The elevator’s doors were open; luck was on my side. I ducked in and stabbed furiously at the door close button. I have to admit that I felt a small, petty sense of satisfaction when Asmodeus, chasing after me, thumped against the doors as the elevator dropped.
Asmodeus growled, glaring at the steel doors that had swallowed up the human. His anger, however, quickly turned to despair, his horns drooping so much that they pointed almost straight down.
This really was no good. A soul taken without any deal given in exchange… it was imbalanced, threatened the whole nature of Hell’s bargaining system. And sure, he could hide the soul from Lucifer for a short while, but the effects would start leaking out. He only had half an eon at most, and that was pushing his luck.
Maybe… he tapped one finger against his lips, feeling the sheathed claw inside the fleshy digit. Maybe if he did some good deeds for the mortal, it would be enough to count as a deal? Could that work?
Hell, he didn’t have much to lose. He’d felt a brief surge of lust from the mortal when he mentioned a girlfriend, earlier. As the Commander of Lust, Asmodeus had a nose for this sort of thing. He sucked in a deep breath, tasting the air, catching residual notes of that brief spate of romantic longing.
The target was in this building. Yes, he could find her. He could convince her to fall for this mortal. Then, the mortal would be paid, and the soul would be balanced.
With a brief effort of concentration, Asmodeus sucked in his horns, retracting them back into his forehead. He pressed a button, and after a minute, the elevator doors opened. He stepped inside, grinning.
He hadn’t gained his Princedom through sloppiness. For eons, he’d been careful. He wasn’t about to let a mistake ruin his record, now. He was going to make this mortal’s life damn near perfect, until he finally agreed to accept the new deal.