Here is the second installment in my attempt to practice writing short stories. It is quite a bit less depressing than The Paperclip, I assure you.
I spent a great deal of time writing and rewriting this story. I revised and deleted several false starts before I got going on something that felt right. The prompt seemed like such a sure thing but in practice it was a bit harder to come up with something I actually liked.
At first I wanted to write a story about a nasty, immoral salesman who sells souls in hell and somehow does a better job there than he did in life and ends up winning the company sales competition. I wanted to build up the protagonist to be highly unsavory so that when he wins everything, the reader feels angry. Ultimately I decided not to do this, but I still think it would have been fun.
Instead I chose to write a story about a nasty, immoral salesman who sells souls in hell and gets his comeuppance for all the lying and swindling he did in life. It’s a bit more satisfying and I think that this ending is more dramatic than the others I had considered.
I’d like to preface this story by pointing out that I am not a religious person and this is not meant to be a religious story. If you feel the need to be offended by the use of hell in a fictional story, you’re probably browsing the wrong blog. If you would like to draw a deeper, more religious meaning from the story, you are welcome to do so.
I am a big fan of demon lore in all religions and cultures. It’s fascinating stuff. Every culture on earth has some idea about the afterlife for people who did bad things and every culture has its own demonology, even if the word “demon” is nowhere to be found. I enjoy reading about these things and also creating my own, which you’ll see a bit in the story.
The idea of hell that I present in this story is a little bit based off of Dante’s work. I read The Inferno in college and loved it and the image of hell painted by that book has stuck with me ever since. I think it would be a lot of fun to write my own book based on demons and hell and create my own world the way Dante did.
This one is a bit longer than the last at 5.3 pages long, but I think it moves quickly enough.
Anyway, without further ado, here you go.
Penny For Your Soul
The sound of leather shoe soles on volcanic rock sidewalk brought with it a man dressed in a sharp grey suit and black tie. He carried a garish crocodile skin briefcase and strode with the kind of cocky self-importance usually reserved for fighter pilots and corrupt politicians. His dark hair was slicked back and when he adjusted the knot of his tie, there glittered an ugly gold ring on his pinkie finger. His name was Gerald Brown and he was a salesman in the employ of Penny For Your Soul, the largest brokerage firm of lost and damned souls in Hell.
Hell was supposed to be some sort of punishment for sinners, but Gerald was quite in his element here. In life he had been an insurance salesman and rest assured he had abused this position mightily. His favorite scheme was suckering old widows into signing for life insurance they couldn’t afford without reading to them the fine print. He was, as a rule, very fond of the combination of fine print and elderly eyes.
So when he died suddenly in a car accident, Gerald was whisked away to join the ranks of PFYS’s sales force and he thrived there. He was surrounded by dead people and his boss was literally a demon lord, but nothing is perfect.
This week was the annual PFYS competition. The week’s top seller got the corner office for the rest of the year, and was a little bit less likely to end up drowning in a pit full of fire and brimstone (it’s the little things, you know.) There was no bonus, no raise, and no promotion. When you’re dead and living in hell, you find you don’t need a lot of cash. But the competition was fierce every year regardless of the rewards, because not a single PFYS employee had been selected for their morality or their laid-back attitude.
Gerald Brown was walking down a residential street in one of the higher circles of hell. The pit might house the worst of the worst but the upper levels were not unlike a run-of-the-mill suburb. The key difference was that these hellish homes were owned by demon families, not human ones. Demon families loved souls about as much as American families love expensive cars. They were a status symbol and everyone wanted them.
His suitcase felt a little heavy for his liking as Gerald approached the doorway of a home in the Gluttony District. Number 8 was a modest dwelling built of volcanic rock with tiny windows and no front yard to speak of. Demons as a rule did not tend to garden very much. He cleared his throat and ran his tongue over his teeth to check them for food. All clear. He rapped sharply at the door.
From inside came a scuffling sound like heavy chairs being drawn over a hard floor and the wheezing, labored breathing of something quite large. A living human might have panicked at such noises but Gerald stood upon the stoop with a greasy smile in place, a mask he had worn well for so many years. The door creaked open and a monstrously fat demon gave him the once-over with watery, squinty yellow eyes. “Eh?”
“So sorry to have disturbed you,” Gerald began, noticing the half eaten leg of roast lamb in the demon’s pudgy hand. “My name is Gerald Brown and I work for PFYS. Are you familiar with PFYS?”
The demon’s eyes narrowed further, disappearing behind fat rolls that would make a Shar Pei jealous. “No. What is that?” But before Gerald could launch into a long-winded explanation of his company’s services, a voice from within the dark house called out asking who was at the door and the fat demon bellowed back, “Some stupid salesman, mom!” and flung spittle everywhere in the process.
“As I was saying,” Gerald continued as he wiped a fleck of chewed lamb off his lapel, “PFYS is Penny For Your Soul, Hell’s most successful soul dealership. If you have a moment this evening I would like to discuss our many reasonable options for purchasing souls. Would your mother like to join us?”
“Nah,” wheezed the fat demon. “She ain’t getting’ off the couch. Why would I want a soul?” He looked suspicious.
“Souls are a very valuable commodity in Hell.” Gerald got the feeling this whole spiel was a bit above the demon, so he dumbed it down. “Owning souls is a wise investment especially in today’s world. I have with me some very fine samples if you would like to take a look.” The fat demon glanced at his briefcase and rubbed its fifth chin thoughtfully.
“Can I eat it?”
“I’m afraid not.” Gerald began to explain what souls were when the fat demon stuffed a bite of lamb into its lopsided mouth and spoke without swallowing.
“If I can’t eat it, what’s the point? Souls are dumb.” And it slammed the door in Gerald’s face. Undeterred, Gerald went back to the sidewalk and picked flecks of lamb off his jacket. He checked his watch and sighed. He had made only one sale in the span of almost five hours beating on people’s doors. That was what he got, he supposed, trying to sell something inedible in the Gluttony District.
Three hours later he had made no more progress, despite adequate deployment of various underhanded sales tactics. He even went so far as to tell one dim-witted demon that souls were in short supply because of a global peace treaty. It had almost worked, too, but the oven timer beeped and the demon lost all interest in discussing business as it gobbled down an entire pot roast.
Gerald returned home, which was a fancy word that did little to change the fact that he lived in a tiny one room closet in a tenant housing facility somewhere down in the dregs of Hell’s sewer. It smelled awful and the constant rush of damned souls through the river Styx was loud enough to keep him up at night. And if the river backed up there was always the danger of souls overflowing into your living room. As he got ready for bed, Gerald hatched a rather devious scheme. Forget selling to Gluttons and Wraths and Sloths. Lesser demons had smaller purses, didn’t they? No, he’d skip right over them and go to the top, to the very wealthiest clientele: the arch demons.
Strictly speaking, he was not allowed to do this. Senior representatives of the company dealt with these elite monsters. Lowly salesmen sold to lowly demons and that was the status quo. But Gerald didn’t like being lowly. He was as greedy in death as he had been in life and he wanted to win this competition. He wanted the corner office.
The next morning he stood in front of a cracked, dingy old mirror on his wall and adjusted his tie. He had to look utterly flawless to pull this off. Even a stray thread on his jacket could break the deal with an arch demon. He grinned at his reflection and winked, saying, “Who’s going to win that competition? That’s right, Jerry. You. You got this. Show me that snake-oil smile.” And he gave himself another despicable grin before grabbing his suitcase and setting out.
He climbed out of the depths of Hell’s darkest pits and struggled through the morning commute of pedestrian traffic. Demons had daily lives not unlike humans and on this morning he passed by a meat market, a clothing shop and two brothels, each advertising their own unique entertainment. Instead of heading into the Sin Quarter, he bypassed that lousy mess altogether and made a purposeful beeline towards the palatial world of the demonic elite. Great black spires of polished obsidian pierced the dark cavern above, the roof of which was so high it disappeared and became a black sky. Hell’s elite lived in estates that rivaled Catholic cathedrals but their inhabitants were the furthest thing from holy.
Keeping this in mind, Gerald moved with a sense of purpose and belonging. If they sensed he did not belong, or that he was nervous, he may very well end up dead. Again. It was bad enough the first time; he didn’t want to know how it felt the second. He came to the first house and rang the bell at the front gate. After a few moments a voice answered and he identified himself: “Gerald Brown, representing PFYS for all your soul needs –“
And so, on to the next estate. And the next. And just as he began to feel discouraged he reminded himself of that corner office and kept slogging through the rejections. After being threatened with beheading, physically ejected from a home, and run off with a sickle, he found himself standing before the wrought iron gates of an ominous obsidian mansion. He rang the bell and identified himself and after a moment of waiting he was walking up the drive and into the foyer of the dark mansion.
“The lord will see you in the study,” said the butler, a thin demon with a hangdog face and missing teeth. Gerald took a seat in the study and the butler left. He did not normally allow himself to feel nervous, preferring instead an air of self-assuredness, but this room made his mouth dry and his palms sweat. It was dark and forbidding and the flames in the grate sparked black and blue under the mantle. He could have sworn they took the shape of little evil skulls as they flickered.
He took a long look around the room as he waited and it was then that he noticed a portrait pinned to the wall of a winged demon with red eyes and grey skin and a pointed goatee and he felt his heart wedge its self in his throat. The gold filigree scroll beneath the painting confirmed his fears: this was the manor of Azazel, lord of lies, and heir to the throne of Hell. Before he could run away screaming, the study door opened and he turned around to come face to face with the demon himself.
“You are not Scott Ramsley.” The demon’s voice was deep and smooth and irritated and Gerald had nowhere to run. He shook his head slowly.
“No. My name is Gerald Brown. I represent-“
“I know whom you represent. But I have always bought my souls through Ramsley. Why are you here?”
Gerald took a deep breath and tried not to let on that he was nervous. Nervous men didn’t sell souls. He would have to be quick and smooth to out-lie the lord of deceit. “Ramsley is a rather poor salesman, my lord. I thought I might be a better representative.” All he could do was pray that Azazel didn’t smell his deceit, but when you are in Hell prayers often go unheard.
“I see.” The demon stroked his pointed goatee and stood with his back to the fire, silhouetted like some great unholy tyrant with eyes agleam in ruby red. “And what do you have to offer me that Ramsley did not?”
Begging for his big break, Gerald set his briefcase upon a twisted black stone table and popped it open. Inside were small silk satchels full of souls. Each one was the size and shape of a marble and inside they swirled with something the consistency of smoke. They were beautiful, if you tried not to think about the fact that they were human souls condemned to Hell. The demon approached the table and picked one up and held it to the firelight. It gleamed like a jewel but he seemed unimpressed, as if Gerald had handed him a mere hunk of stone.
“This is the best you bring me?” he asked, and Gerald leaped to oil their negotiations further.
“There are mere trinkets, my lord. Just a taste, I assure you. I can bring you whichever soul you desire. Quantity is not your game, I daresay. But quality? My hands have personally brokered the sale and trade of many a fine soul, I guarantee you. Manson, Dahmer, Gacy…name your desires, sir, and I can make them reality.” He was in over his head and he knew it. But did Azazel? The demon looked almost disinterested.
“Ramsley brought me Bin Laden’s soul several months back. After such a capture I doubt anything you can offer would peak my interest. You are playing a game that is out of your league, little corporate clown. I will have my butler show you the door.” And he moved to signal the butler, no doubt waiting just out of sight, when Gerald heard himself blurt out a few choice words he immediately wished he had not:
“What about Hitler’s soul?”
Oh he regretted that the moment Azazel turned back to regard him with those burning, wretched eyes. The demon looked upon him and there was a terrible hunger in his eyes. It made Gerald uncomfortable, like he had sat upon hot coals.
“Adolf…” purred the demon, a sound like gravel and ice. “Did I hear you correctly…?”
Gerald had no choice but to nod. If he backed out now the lord of deceit would know he had been lying, and he did not dare think of where his soul might end up should that pass. Instead he played his part, and smiled like the slippery slug he was. “You did indeed. I happen to know who has it…and that they are willing to negotiate its sale.” His palms were sweating so profusely he had to wipe them discretely on his trousers to avoid detection. He had struck a chord with this demon and if this went according to plan he would be sitting in the corner office by tomorrow morning. His boss would be sick with outrage at the Little Salesman Who Could and his coworkers would be green with envy.
“Are you certain?” asked the demon, and Gerald nodded sincerely.
“Of course, my lord.” And he waited what felt like a lifetime as Azazel considered this deal. Then, the demon nodded and snapped his fingers and the skinny butler appeared at his side.
“Bring me my contract,” he instructed, and within moments the butler had done so and the lord of lies ran his fingers over a document written upon a length of tanned human hide. “I know you have your contracts, salesman, but so do I. And it is mine we shall be signing first. It is just your usual business contract…you agree to bring me the soul of Adolf Hitler and I shall agree to conduct further business dealings with you. Ramsley will not be pleased…”
Gerald was quick to reply, “He ought to have done a better job, then.” To which the demon purred, “Oh yes…” and produced a handsome pen made of white bone and inked with blood. He scrawled his signature upon the document and slid it across the table to Gerald, who, in his greed, did not even read it.
“I will begin the acquisition of the soul as soon as possible, my lord,” he promised, signing his name upon the dotted line as he had done thousands upon thousands of times before. As soon as he had done so, the demon lord snatched the document away and rolled it up tightly, handing it to the butler who left the room with it. And then the demon began to smirk, cold and sinister, at the salesman in his study.
“Of course, my lord.” But Gerald did not like that look. He fidgeted for the first time. “That is what I said I would do.”
“Perhaps you ought to have read your side of the contract a bit more closely.” The demon grinned and every last one of his needle sharp teeth caught the gleam of the fire. “You will not be retrieving me any soul of Hitler, because that soul is not currently on the market.”
Gerald’s mouth felt like cotton and all the blood drained from his face. Despite the warmth of the fire he felt freezing cold. “No, no, that isn’t right, my lord. I assure you I know who possesses the soul and they have told me personally that they aim to sell it –“
“Liar,” hissed the demon. Gerald drew back into his seat as Azazel drew close, placing a clawed hand on either side of the chair so that they were face to hideous face. “Don’t you dare attempt to sell snake oil to a serpent, boy!”
“I – I don’t understand –“
“The soul of Adolf Hitler is not up for sale because I own it! You tried to lie to the greatest deceiver and now your soul will join his in my collection!” The demon’s grin was atrocious. “As per our agreement…”
“No…” Gerald fumbled for words. His greatest scheme was crumbling all around him and he was feeling around blindly for a way out. “You misunderstood, my lord, I didn’t mean…” He was cut off by chilling, dark laughter.
“Look at you squirm. This is one contract you can’t wriggle your way free from, little salesman. Perhaps you ought to have read the fine print.” Azazel grabbed the man by the arms and hauled him from his seat as easily as if he weighed nothing at all, and grinned at him like a madman. “Somehow, I get the feeling this is quite a fitting punishment. Say hello to Adolf for me.” And he dragged the man kicking and screaming to the fireplace and threw him in. The grate opened up like a jagged maw of stone and iron and swallowed him down into the abyss of the lord’s private soul collection. The fire blazed orange and white for a moment and a dazzling pyrotechnic display of skulls erupted from the flames, but it died down and smoldered contentedly as a beast might after supper.
Gerald fell into blackness and came to rest among the collection he had just joined, forever entombed in darkness. He had tried to swindle the greatest liar ever known in Hell or upon earth and he had paid the ultimate price. He had set out to sell a record amount of souls, and had ended up selling his own. In a way, he supposed he had made the biggest sale of the year. He had traded his own soul for every soul in his briefcase. Somewhere above him in the study, the demon lord sat down to examine the souls left behind on the table, gleefully counting them out.