Damned if you do, p.1
Damned If You Do, p.1Marie Sexton
The path to temptation is paved with a hellish amount of paperwork.
Soul acquisition is a drag, but if Abaddon doesn’t catch up on his quota, he could be demoted to scooping poop for the Hounds of Hell. With a deadline hanging over him, he heads for the Bible Belt, looking for the perfect combination of sweetness and challenge.
Seth is a blind musician, part of a traveling tent revival. He’s cute, mystically talented, and quotes the Bible at every turn. His soul is pure enough to fill Abaddon’s quota for months to come, and Abaddon is determined to claim it.
The problem? There’s the revival foreman who watches Abaddon’s every move. Then there’s the mystery of Seth’s many unusual talents. Lastly, there’s Abaddon himself. He’s beginning to like Seth a bit too much. Maybe Seth deserves something better than damnation.
But Hell’s agenda isn’t negotiable, and time is running out. If Abaddon doesn’t play his cards right, he could condemn both of them to the worst fate of all—an eternity apart.
Warning: Contains a Bible-quoting twink and an irreverent devil who’ll do anything to avoid going “back to the office”. Also, snakes. Lots and lots of snakes.
Damned If You Do
Once upon a time, I worked for a large group of doctors. Not just any doctors, either, but specialists. Sometimes it was frustrating as Hell (pun intended), but I met many great friends there, including Thalia. Eventually, Thalia and I both left the office behind and found much more creative and rewarding jobs—me writing romance, and her playing keyboard and singing back-up for Mama Lenny and The Remedy. Thalia was an enormous help to me when it came to keyboards and musical duels, so I’m dedicating this one to her. Thank you, Thalia!
The Devil Went Down to Kentucky
Abaddon knew the memo from Satan was coming. Still, his heart sank a bit when the mail clerk stopped at his cubicle.
“Special notice from the boss himself,” Damien said, waving the typed page in front of Abaddon’s nose. “Somebody finally noticed you hadn’t recruited a soul in months.”
Abaddon snatched the memo out of Damien’s hand and turned away. Damien was hoping to be promoted from the mailroom to actual soul acquisition soon, so of course he was anxious to see Abaddon fail. He was greedy, conniving, manipulative…
Well, he was a devil, after all. Nobody in Hell was exactly altruistic.
Abaddon waited until Damien moved on to the next cubicle before reading the memo.
To: Abaddon #325.63.7924.5
From: Satan, Prince of Darkness, Son of Perdition, Father of Lies, etc.
Re: Failure to meet soul quota
It has come to our attention that you have not met your soul quota for the month. This is your third consecutive offense. You are hereby placed on formal probation. Failure to meet the quota within the next two weeks will result in demotion and immediate revocation of Earth-traveling privileges.
Also: get a haircut.
Of course it wasn’t signed. It’d merely been rubber-stamped by one of Satan’s many secretaries.
“It finally came, huh?”
This time when Abaddon looked up, he found Baphomet leaning over his cubicle wall. He breathed a sigh of relief. Baphomet was his only real friend—or as close as one could get in Hell, at any rate. “I have two weeks to make good, or I’ll be demoted.”
“What are you going to do?”
Abaddon shrugged, glancing around at the rows and rows of cubicles. They stretched as far as the eye could see. Anybody who lost their soul in a wager or an ill-taken deal with a devil wound up here. There were no computers, but plenty of old-fashioned manual typewriters—always with stuck keys and worn-out ribbons—and a never-ending stream of forms to be filled be out in triplicate and filed away. Soul acquisition came with a mountain of paperwork. And the memos! They never stopped coming, and each one seemed designed to stamp out any bit of pleasure one might find at work. No smoking. No chewing gum. No plants on the desk. No magazine cutouts on the walls. No gossiping. No friendly chatter. No laughing.
Absolutely no fun.
There were no breaks, no vacation days, and no overtime. And no matter what anybody put in the break room refrigerator, it always disappeared by lunchtime.
“How bad can a demotion be?” Abaddon asked. “I mean, at least it’d be a change of scenery, and they save all the nasty stuff for dire sins, right? Murder, rape, child abuse—”
“You won’t spend an eternity being drowned in the River Styx—” the thought of drowning always made Abaddon shudder, but Baphomet went on as if he hadn’t noticed, “—but there are still plenty of things worse than soul acquisition. There’s laying asphalt around the Lake of Fire, hauling rocks out of the Great Abyss, poop-scooping for the Hounds of Hell, selling flashlights without batteries in the Outer Darkness. And those are just the jobs in the underworld. There are plenty of places they could send you up top too. Mowing lawns in Louisiana in mid-August, cleaning hotel rooms in Vegas, emptying bedpans in a celebrity rehab facility in Hollywood. There’s retail work, fast food franchises, lunchroom duty, janitorial work—”
“Okay, okay!” Abaddon laughed, holding up a hand to staunch the flow of words. He hated soul acquisition even more than he hated paperwork, but he didn’t feel like listening to Baphomet nag him for two weeks straight. And revocation of his Earth-traveling privileges would be a bit of a bummer. “I get it. Better to go find a soul than risk demotion.”
“With the hole you’re in, it’ll take more than one.”
“If I stick to boring, pedestrian souls, sure. But not if I find one that’s extraordinary.”
Baphomet shook his head. “You’re the lousiest devil I’ve ever met.”
That was true, largely because tricking mortals out of their souls was damned depressing. But a nagging conscience wasn’t the type of thing a devil could admit to, so Abaddon just smiled and said, “Hey, some of us prefer quality over quantity.” He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on his desk. As always, his inbox was overflowing. His outbox was eternally empty, no matter how many forms he filed into it. “So where should I start?”
That was the real question. It had to be somewhere people were desperate, but still had faith in a vengeful, Old Testament-style God. The suburbs were out—the few suburbanites who still believed in God tended toward a more liberal dogma, and no matter how bad the middle class thought they had it, they were never willing to risk their souls. And some souls were worth more than others. People already bound for Hell were worthless. It had to be somebody who was more good than bad, and it had to be somebody with fair reason to refuse the deal. Sure, you could trade a few sandwiches for the soul of a homeless man, or save a dying child in exchange for his mother’s soul, but those were cheap tricks, even in Satan’s book. Better to bank on greed, pride, and gluttony than on selfless love or true down-and-out desperation.
“Professional athletes are always a good bet,” Baphomet suggested.
Abaddon shook his head. “They’ve never been to my taste.”
“Are you kidding? They’re like barbecue potato chips. So good, you can’t eat just one.”
“How about New York?” Baphomet glanced around to make sure nobody was paying attention to them before perching on the edge of Abaddon’s desk. It was risky being too friendly. They’d have to feign a tremendous argument later where the managers could easily overhear. Maybe even throw a couple of punches. Otherwise, one of them was bound to get transferred to a cubicle far, far away. “It’s Fashion Week. Models are always easy pickings.”
“A politician’s soul isn’t worth the paperwork that comes with it. Besides, we already own them all.”
“All of them?”
“Ninety percent of the lobbyists, plus every congressman, senator, and president since the fifties.” Baphomet shrugged. “Except Carter.”
“Why do you think he only got one term?”
“Huh.” Abaddon scratched his chin, thinking. “Okay, Washington’s out. How about Vegas?”
“You hate the desert.”
Abaddon sighed and let his heels fall to the floor. “Then I guess there’s only one place left to go.”
“The Holy Land.”
Baphomet blinked in confusion. “Israel?”
“Not that one.”
“Oh. The amusement park. Good thinking.”
Now it was Abaddon’s turn to be confused. He might have thought Baphomet was pulling his leg, but his fellow devil didn’t have much of a sense of humor. “There’s a Holy Land amusement park?”
“You bet. Re-enactments of the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion daily.”
“Actually, I think they take Sundays off.”
“It’s in Orlando.”
“Of course it is.” Abaddon shook his head and pushed to his feet. “I’m not going to Orlando, either.”
“Then where are you going?”
“Where money is scarce and faith is abundant.” Abaddon clapped his hand on Baphomet’s shoulder. “To the Bible Belt, my friend. Where else?”
* * * * *
Once he’d decided on a place, there wasn’t any reason to dally. He waited only for Baphomet to be on his way—they yelled a few obscenities at each other first, just in case—then dove into the abyss that resided between Hell and the mortal plane, drifting toward the southeastern United States.
Mississippi was always good, and Georgia, as were certain parts of the Appalachians. He stretched out with his soul sense, feeling and tasting for a particular flavor. He liked his souls devout. No Unitarians for him. Hardly any flavor there at all. He found Mormons a bit salty, and Catholics too bitter, but Southern Baptists were like butterscotch, Methodists like caramel, and a Pentecostal—oh, those were his favorite—their souls tasted like pink cotton candy, sticky and sugary sweet.
Minors didn’t count. Acquisitions had to be of the age of consent in whatever country or state in which they presided. Youth was usually more valuable than maturity, but an imminent death was worth far more than a long-range gamble. The devil who’d landed Fidel Castro back in the fifties thought he’d done well, but six decades later, his credit wasn’t so good.
The trick was to find that perfect balance of innocence, naivety, and impending doom. A devout, dying, twenty-year-old who was willing to trade his soul for one last roll in the hay with the girl of his dreams? That was the ultimate score. The grand prize. The devil’s Holy Grail, so to speak. One soul like that could get a devil promoted to a corner office. Maybe even a cushy pad in one of Hell’s suburbs. Sure, you were guaranteed a neighbor who mowed his lawn at dawn, and the HOA was a bitch, but it was still better than the tenement Abaddon lived in.
Stop dreaming and focus! Meet your quota first, then worry about the suburbs!
He needed somebody innocent. Somebody pure. Somebody special. He reached further with his mental feelers, crawling through trailer parks, office buildings, and penthouse apartments. He crept into the woods, up the hills, and dipped into hollows. And then—
There was a soul, in one of the poorer counties of Kentucky. Not just any soul, either, but one that shone like the sun, calling to him from the Earthly plane like a lighthouse in the dark. A soul so pure, it made Abaddon’s mouth water and his pulse race. Oh, this one was young, but legal, sweeter than honey on his tongue.
He stayed hidden in the abyss, but moved his mental view closer for a better look.
It was a young man, alone in the woods with a violin. Just sitting on a stump in a small clearing, playing a concerto to the forest. Maybe twenty-two, wearing jeans and a plain white T-shirt, with a knit scarf looped around his neck. His eyes were closed as his fingers and bow moved on the strings.
All alone, in the woods.
It was almost too perfect to be true.
Abaddon took a breath, gathering himself—
And in the blink of an eye, he leapt from the abyss and manifested in a physical body only a few yards away from the boy. He had a couple of forms to choose between, everything from human to full-blown, nightmare-inspiring demon, but this time, he chose to be seen as nothing more than a man in his early thirties. The horns and tail could always appear later, if he needed them, but he’d found that popping into view with them on was a bit more than most mortals could take.
The musician played on, unaware he was no longer alone. For a moment, Abaddon only listened. It was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, and the boy was clearly talented. His fingers never missed a chord. The music rang strong and true through the forest, as perfect as the sunlight streaming through the trees.
Abaddon looked around, trying to figure out where the boy could have come from. They were several miles from the nearest town. He didn’t see a car, but the foliage was thick. It was entirely possible there was a farmhouse or a trailhead only a hundred yards away.
He focused again on the boy, letting his soul sense loose to crawl over him, tasting and testing. His pulse once again quickened. His fingertips tingled. A sudden warmth blossomed in his groin and Abaddon’s breath caught in his throat. It was the soul hunger, and it was a rush like no other. Abaddon had never tried drugs—or if he had, he’d forgotten—but he imagined this taut eagerness must be what some addicts felt as they carefully pushed their cocaine into perfect white lines. This wonderful anticipation, so similar to arousal, must be what junkies felt as they lowered their face to the mirror. In all his years of soul acquisition, he couldn’t remember a single one that triggered his hunger as much as this one.
He took a single step forward in his eagerness.
The bow screeched harshly across the strings as the boy lowered his instrument. “Who’s there?” He didn’t look around though. He sat ramrod straight on the stump, his head cocked. The sunlight played over close-cropped, black hair. “Hello?”
“I’m sorry,” Abaddon said, his heart pounding. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
The boy turned his way, but his eyes never found focus. “Do I know you?”
“No. I heard you playing.”
“Oh.” The boy’s shoulders lost their rigidity, and he smiled. “Peace and love to you, brother. Are you here for the revival? It won’t start for another hour or two.”
Understanding dawned. A revival. Now that the music had stopped, Abaddon could hear voices calling to each other somewhere past the trees. The sound of hammers on metal echoed through the woods along with the distinct crack of heavy canvas flapping in the breeze. It was one of the many reasons he loved the Bible Belt.
“You’re part of the revival?”
“I play in the band.”
“Of course. You’re very talented.”
“What’s your name?”
“Seth. What’s yours?”
The boy laughed. “Sure it is. Did my brother send you?”
Even now that they were talking, the boy never looked right at him. Instead, he seemed to stare at some distant point off to Abaddon’s left, and Abaddon felt a surge of ins
“Are you blind?”
“No. The Lord saw fit to take my sight three years ago, on the day of my nineteenth birthday.”
Abaddon smiled. Oh, how he loved the devout. “And what did you do to deserve that? Masturbation? Fornication?”
“Nothing like that.” Seth didn’t even bother to blush. “It wasn’t punishment.”
“Really? I thought blindness was one of His favorite ways to smite the unfaithful or the unworthy.”
“A test, then? Like Job?”
“No. Merely another part of my journey in His honor. ‘I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.’”
“God and His riddles. What the hell does that even mean?”
Seth simply smiled again, tilting his head like a playful puppy. “Is your name really Abaddon?”
“‘And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon—’”
“‘—but in the Greek tongue, hath the name Apollyon.’”
“So you’re the devil?”
He could tell Seth still thought it was nothing more than a joke, but he answered earnestly. “I am.”
“Are you here for my soul?”
Abaddon’s heart missed a beat. He said again, “I am.”
“Ah. Well, I’m afraid it’s not for sale. My soul belongs to God.”
Abaddon had never met God, but he had a feeling He wouldn’t appreciate Seth the way he did. Surely a soul so sweet would be wasted on Heaven. “How about a trade then? There must be something you’d like in exchange.”
“Nope. God provides everything I need.” Seth stood and tucked his violin under one arm. “I hope you’ll excuse me. The Reverend will wonder where I’ve gone. I need to—”
Damned If You Do by Marie Sexton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes