Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Deal

Anthony Durban had just sat down to watch his favourite quiz show, a plate of freshly microwaved lasagne on his lap, when there was a firm rap at his front door.  He paused, his fork dangling in mid-air.  He wasn’t expecting anyone.
The rap immediately sounded again. Three loud knocks against the wooden door that somehow managed to impart a sense of frustration.
Anthony frowned, put the fork back down on the plate and thumbed the mute button on the remote control. This really was quite unusual. The last time anyone had knocked on the door had been almost six months earlier when the pizza delivery man had somehow managed to invert the digits of the delivery address and called at his door rather than at number 34. He hoped it wasn’t going to be another pizza.
A third set of knocks, a little faster this time.
He placed the plate down on the table beside the sofa and stood up, smoothing his corduroy trousers before using a solitary finger to reposition his glasses at a level angle. He made it all the way across the living room and into the hall before the fourth set of knocks boomed off the door.
He opened the door just a crack; a man in a black suit stood outside, he had a clipboard under his arm and had his back half turned away from the door. Anthony could see that he was talking into a mobile phone.
“Can I help you?” asked Anthony.
“Ah, no need, he’s here,” said the man and snapped his mobile phone shut. He turned to Anthony with a smile on his face; he was a tall man with dark eyes and a small, but immaculately manicured, moustache.
“Mr. Durban?” he asked, proffering his right hand. “Mr. Anthony Durban?”
Anthony nodded.
“What exactly is this all about?”
“I’ve come about your soul.”
Anthony, who had begun to extend his own hand to meet the man’s, now retracted it and brought it back to his side. “I’m sorry, but I’m really not interested in hearing any of that poppycock Jehovah’s Witness nonsense.”
The man blinked and smiled awkwardly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, briefly looking down at his clipboard, “You are Anthony Durban, born May 1964 in Bolton, England – yes?”
“I really don’t see what that has got to do with you.”
“Can I just get a simple yes or a no?” sighed the man.
“Well, yes. But, like I said, I don’t really see what that has got to do with you. I’m not interested in Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think it’s lovely that you believe what you believe but I am just not convinced and no amount of pamphlets that you will subsequently shove through my door are going to persuade me otherwise. So, perhaps you could go bother someone else and let me eat my dinner in peace…”
The man nodded, ticked a box on the sheet of paper on his clipboard and then tucked it back beneath his arm.
“I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness.” he said.
“Oh God, you’re not a scientologist are you?”
“No,” said the man, his voice barely disguising his irritation, “I am not a scientologist, either.”
“Then who are you? And what’s all this about my soul?”
The man looked at him in the same way one might look at a toddler who has just been discovered to have not eaten his breakfast porridge but, instead smeared it into his face and hair; which is to say, a curious mixture of confusion and disdain.
“The time is up,” said the man, slowly and as if talking to someone who was mentally impaired, “It’s time to go.”
What time? Go where?”
“Do you have any conditions that might afflict your memory, Mr. Durban?” asked the man, his brow furrowing, “Anything that could affect your cognitive abilities?”
“How dare you,” blustered Anthony, “I am, I’ll have you know, a secondary school IT teacher.”
“Well then, perhaps you could explain where all this confusion is coming from?” asked the man. “Twenty one years was the deal, after all.”
What deal?”
“This whole ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ routine is getting old really fast,” said the man with something that approached a snarl.
“But I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ok, let me remind you. April 6th, 1992 – ring any bells?”
Anthony thought for a moment. 1992 seemed an awfully long time ago. Finally, after several seconds of silence he shook his head, “No. Should it?”
The man rolled his eyes and fought hard to compose himself.
“Your soul, Mr. Durban.” the man said slowly and deliberately. “You traded your eternal soul for twenty one years of fame and fortune on April 6th, 1992 and now it’s time for you to live up to your end of the bargain.”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
The man’s face hardened and his eyes seemed to darken. For an instant, it seemed to Anthony as if something hideous and obscene was roiling beneath the skin of his face and that it was taking all of the man’s willpower to keep it locked beneath the surface.  It was in that instant that Anthony Durban realised that the man really wasn’t joking.
“You’re not joking.”
“No, Mr. Durban, I’m not joking. And I’ve got a pack of hellhounds at the end of the lawn should you decide to be stupid enough to try and make a run for it.”
As if on cue, there came a monstrous growling noise from off in the darkness beyond the reach of the house lights.
“But I never signed any deal; you must have got it wrong.”
“We never get it wrong.”
“But there surely must have been a screw-up somewhere along the line.  I mean, I certainly never got twenty one years of fame and fortune. You don’t think I’d be living in a two bedroom terrace, with an eighty grand mortgage, eating microwaved lasagne - on my own – if I’d have had twenty one years of fortune and fame, do you?”
The man looked up at the house, scratching his head absently as he did so.
“Well,” said the man finally, and then paused for a few seconds while biting absently at his lower lip. “I did think it was a bit strange. I’m more used to dealing with mansions and expensive hotel suites in this line of work.”
“So clearly there’s been some mistake.” said Anthony.
“Nah,” said the man, “Can’t be. We don’t do mistakes. We are always very precise. You never heard the phrase ‘the devil is in the details’?”
“Well, I never signed any contract, and I never had any fame or fortune. I’d call that a mistake. I’d like to speak to your supervisor.”
“My what?” said the man.
“Supervisor,“ said Anthony, “you must have one.”
“Then I would like to see him. We can get to the bottom of this mess and clear it all up.”
The man sighed audibly.
“Fine,” he snapped, and promptly disappeared in a puff of grey smoke that smelled musty and acrid.
                Anthony had barely had time to register his surprise when there was a thumping sound from somewhere out in the street and an older man with grey hair, also dressed in a black suit, came strolling up the front path.
                “You wanted to see me?” His voice was deep and melodious and a faint smile betrayed itself at the edge of his mouth.
                “Yes. There’s been a mistake. I never signed any deal.”
                “I have your authorisation right here,” said the man, tapping a small scroll lightly in his palm. “April 6th, 1992 at 3pm.”
                “But I never made a deal.” Anthony protested.
                “You would probably have been at a crossroads,” said the man, “perhaps burying a box of chicken bones?”
                “No,” said Anthony, firmly. “I didn’t go to any crossroads and I didn’t bury any bones. It’s not the sort of thing I’d forget in a hurry, is it?”
                “Well, you do rather seem to have forgotten, don’t you Mr. Durban?”
                “I can’t remember it happening because it didn’t happen. And, as I pointed out to your colleague a moment ago, I’ve certainly not had any fame or fortune – let alone twenty one years of it.”
                “Ah, well that I can at least explain,” said the man, “My colleague is still reasonably new to this, we’ve only had him on the staff for about a century or so, so he’s not quite well versed in the ins and outs of these things – you see, the contract is for twenty one years of fame and fortune, but the small print says that you are given the opportunity of fame and fortune. Not everyone takes it.”
                “But I never even had an opportunity.”
                The man unrolled the scroll and looked through it.
                “Yes, you did. It was June 4th, 1992. You were going to buy a ticket to a Barry Manilow concert.”
                Anthony tried to remember.
                “I vaguely remember thinking about doing that.”
                “But you didn’t go out and buy a ticket, because you decided you would instead prefer to watch a repeat episode of the Price is Right on TV.”
                “The Price is Right was an excellent show…wait, how was that me missing my chance at fame and fortune?”
                “If you had gone to buy the ticket, you would have attended the concert. If you’d have attended the concert, you would have caught a woman who was fainting. That woman was a billionaire who would have fallen instantly in love with you and you would have married her within months. She would then have bankrolled your software development company and you would have developed a search engine that would have out-googled google - leaving you as not only the wealthiest man in the world but also the man that the world would look to for guidance in the digital age.”
                “And you’re saying that all of this didn’t happen to me just because I decided to watch The Price is Right?”
                “Pretty much,” shrugged the man.
                “Well, that doesn’t really seem very-“
                “Fair? No,” said the man, shaking his head sadly. “No one ever said it had to be fair. You take the chance we give you, you get the prize and you get all the fame and fortune that follows. You don’t take the chance, you end up a secondary school IT teacher with a spare tyre around his waist and a penchant for microwaved dinners.”
                “But I didn’t sign anything.”
                “But you must have – I have the scroll with your acceptance of the terms here. I don’t get that unless a deal has been agreed.”
                “But. I. Didn’t. Agree.” said Anthony through gritted teeth.
                The man shrugged, “Problem like that’s really above my pay grade. Now, why don’t you make things easy on yourself and just come with me.”
                “Wait,” said Anthony. “Above your pay grade? You mean, you have a supervisor?”
                The man looked sheepish for a moment. “Well, in a fashion.”
                “Can I just get a simple yes or a no?”
                “Yes,” said the man resignedly. “At least, if you can call Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies and one of the seven crowned Princes of Hell a supervisor.”
                “Well, I’d like to talk to him and find out where all this has gone wrong. There’s obviously been some kind of snafu.”
                “I’m sorry,” said the man, “Are you honestly asking that I summon his Satanic majesty to your front lawn to discuss where we might have made a clerical error?”
                “Yes, I’m asking you to do exactly that. If you can’t solve this then I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to take it further up the chain of command.”
                The man cringed. “He’s not going to like this.”
                “Well now, I think he needs to know about the litany of errors that are being made down here. Here I am – having had no fame, no fortune – and not having agreed to anything and I’m being told my eternal soul is forfeit. Someone needs to sort this out.”
                “I can ask,” said the man, “I can’t guarantee anything. His schedule is always pretty full.”
                “Well, ask then.” said Anthony, his hands planted defiantly on his hips.
                There was a puff of smoke, darker and more noxious than the first, and the man was gone. A moment later, there was a noise like the beating of giant wings and – in the blink of an eye – a tall, blonde haired man was standing in front of him on the porch. Anthony instinctively jumped back, almost tripping over in the process.
                “My apologies,” said the man, and his voice was so rich with such a beautiful timbre that Anthony forgot all about his shock in an instant. “Can I come inside to talk about this?”
                “Yes, of course,” said Anthony, suddenly flustered and feeling altogether more compliant. “Please, come in…”
                He opened the door and stepped back, allowing Beelzebub to come inside. Up close, he could see that his suit was not black but was instead a dark crimson and that his shoes gleamed the same blood dark hue.
                “Erm…you don’t mind taking your shoes off do you?” asked Anthony.
                Beelzebub smiled. “But of course, Anthony.”
A blink of an eye and he was now barefoot.
“Can I get you anything? Cup of tea? Slice of battenburg cake?”
Beelzebub shook his head.
“Sorry about the mess,” said Anthony, looking at the newspapers that he had left opened on the table. “It’s just that I wasn’t expecting company.”
Beelzebub ignored him and sat down on the sofa, patting the cushion next to him to indicate for Anthony to sit down beside him (which Anthony felt strangely compelled to do immediately).
“So Anthony, I’m told there has been something of a misunderstanding.”
“Yes,” nodded Anthony. “Yes, there has. You see, your colleagues – I mean, your minions-“
“-colleagues is fine…”
“Right, your colleagues told me that I signed over my soul in April 1992 and I didn’t sign anything. The one who was here last said I’d have been at a crossroads, burying chicken bones. Well, I’ve never done anything of the sort.”
“No, I know you haven’t” said Beelzebub, agreeably. “There has been a terrible mistake and I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”
“Oh, well thank goodness,” sighed Anthony.
“Oh, no,“ said Beelzebub, “I don’t mean that we don’t own your soul. It’s just that I totally neglected to inform my people about the new deals we put in place.”
“Yes, and frankly it’s a good job you didn’t take this lying down and instead insisted this was brought to my attention. Otherwise we could have had all sorts of problems this week and ended up with something of a mess on her hands.”
“I don’t understand,” said Anthony in a voice so small that it was difficult to hear.
“Well, you see I decided to shake things up a bit. After all, the stock of crossroad deals had been tumbling for almost a century; it was a dying market. Some of the other Princes of Hell thought we were going to have to give up on souls, get into a whole new line of business altogether. I remember someone mentioned health insurance, but there are some things even we in Hell balk at. Anyway, that was when I had my bright idea – the future was digital.”
“Digital.” smiled Beelzebub. “Forget crossroads, forget offerings – that’s all so old fashioned.  We’d arrived in the digital age and we just needed to get with the program. Let me help you remember what you were doing on April 6th, 1992 Anthony…”
Beelzebub reached out and touched his finger lightly to Anthony’s forehead. Anthony felt his vision swim and, for the briefest of moments, he was no longer in 2013 but was instead in 1992. He was in his spare bedroom on his computer, he was turning the monitor on, there were some floppy disks on the side…
“I was installing Windows 3.1” breathed Anthony.
“Exactly,” said Beelzebub. “Windows 3.1 came out on April 6th, 1992.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Ah, well that was my moment of genius. After all, who needs crossroads when you have the End User License Agreement? No one ever reads the term and conditions when they install a new piece of software – they just click on ‘agree’ and off they go. So I made sure that, buried within the finest of fine print of every EULA for every piece of software that’s ever been made from Windows 3.1 onwards is a little sub-clause of a sub-clause that grants me the right to your eternal soul. In return for twenty one years of fame and fortune. If you should take the opportunity when it’s offered, of course…”
“And it is fantastic that you pulled us up on that one Anthony; now I have time to get a memo out to everyone. After all, from tomorrow on, we are going to be wading knee deep in collected souls.”
“Now, now; there’s no time for any more buts,” said Beelzebub, holding one finger to his lips to hush him. “I think it’s time I showed you where you’re going to be staying…”