Talking With Nick

By Steve Spaulding

the devil And when I had finished, there he was. Thin, nearly David Bowie-thin, with high cheekbones and deep-set, glittery eyes. Dressed all in black—dress shirt, slacks, shoes—his pale hair slicked back. Almost as if he were set to go out clubbing. Except he seemed so comfortable in what he was wearing, almost indolent. As if these were the clothes he lounged around in. This old thing? Just threw it on. Like that, without having to say it.

And of course he was beautiful. The word "handsome" just won't do. Magnetic, that movie-star quality, you know? Beyond Brad Pitt, more than even James Dean. Off-the-chart, impossible to tear your eyes from… but also something else. Beautiful in the way that finely-made things are beautiful. Not that he showed a single chisel mark or brushstroke, but you could somehow see the care and attention that had gone into him. And the power.

With a movement inexpressibly casual and exact, he took out a pack of cigarettes, shook one free, brought it to his mouth and took a long, deep drag. I never saw him light it.

"You should have killed a cat," was the first thing he said.

"Uh… sorry?"

"A cat," he repeated, eyebrows knitting, exhaling a plume of gray-blue smoke in a perfect fractal swirl, his voice like a glacier just before it cracks. "A black cat, killed with an iron knife."

"Oh. That. Well, I'd heard that it wasn't absolutely necessary, so I—"

"Necessary?" He didn't raise his voice. He somehow raised the word by saying it. "It's not like I'm asking for the beating heart of a virgin on a golden salver now, am I? No, it's not necessary, but it is polite. I mean, a little cruelty, a little blood, that's not so much to ask for now is it?"

"N-N-No. No sir." Sudden flashback to a ninth-grade assembly—having to speak in front of the entire school. His eyes a thousand eyes, a million eyes searching, critical, accusing. I'm a bug, a stain, a creature of clay.

He gave a small sigh of exasperation as his eyes released me. "That's the problem with human beings these days. No sense of tradition or formality. It's all lost in the rush rush rush of this modern age." He took another drag on his cigarette. "And don't call me 'sir,'" he added as an afterthought. "I have this problem with authority. Any authority."

"Um, well, I should maybe call you 'Satan' then?"

"This is going to sound nitpicky, but 'Satan' means 'Adversary,' and you know, I've never seen myself in an adversarial role. Really, I'm just trying to do my own thing."

"Well, what about 'Lucifer.'"

His face seemed to fall just a fraction then, like a dimming star. "I haven't gone by that name in a long, long while. Not since before the war."

I was confused for a moment. "You mean… you were in Vietnam?"

"Of course I was in Vietnam. I'm everywhere people are killing one another. But I was talking about my war… the first war."

"Oh." Duh. I'm a bumbling, blathering idiot. I'm going to die here, choking on my own stupidity.

But he only held up a hand, his palm towards me. "Relax," he said, and I did. It was as if my whole body had heard him. "Seeing me as a person means thinking of me like a person—which most people never do. It's a natural enough mistake to make."

I swallowed hard and nodded, glad of my escape. "Well, what should I call you then?"

"'The Devil' is good. I get a lot of mileage out of that one. I also like 'Nick.' Has a nice, informal touch to it. Nick's your buddy, Nick's your pal, Nick's the kind of guy you can throw up in his car and he don't mind."

"Wait a minute, I know that. That's… " I struggled, "That's a quote from some movie, right?"

"The Sure Thing. It's with John Cusack."

"Right, right, I remember that bit. Wow. So, uh, you watch movies then?"

"Not as often as I'd like to. But that one's on cable a lot."

Gliding with preternatural grace, he took two quick steps towards my easy chair and sat down. All at once he sat back, crossed his legs and carefully flicked his cigarette ash so it landed just inside my protective circle, where it smoldered a bit, burning my floor.

"This concludes the getting-to-know-you portion of our program," he said, smiling just a little. "So if we could get down to business?"

"Well… Nick?" I paused, and he nodded his head in acknowledgement. "Before we get down to it, Nick, I was wondering if you could answer a few quick questions."

"Look, I'm a very busy anthropomorphic personification. I've politicians to promote, babies to kill and several made-for-TV movies to produce. I simply don't have time for this, all right?"

"I understand, and believe me this won't take long."

"Well, understand this," he said, stubbing out the last of his smoke on the armrest of my chair. "I don't do people favors for free. Me just being here? You owe me for that. I mean, right now we're trafficking, okay? Time was, they used to burn people alive for trafficking with me. That's how big a deal it is. Any questions you want answered? You're going to owe me for those too. To tell the truth, I think you're already in way over your head."

"I was—and I'm really sorry if I'm wrong about this—but I was kind of under the impression that you had one flat fee for all services… uh, right?"

"You mean your soul?" He somehow managed to fit an ocean of contempt into the single syllable.

I nodded.

"Well," he went on as he began smoking another cigarette, "that all depends."

"Depends on what?"

"On whether I wait until you're on your deathbed and take it as it leaves your desiccated, hopefully dissipated husk of a body—or whether I reach across this room and rip it out through your nose right here and now." He exhaled smoke sharply through his nose in a way at once menacing and illustrative. "You don't seriously think that"—he flicked his ashes across my circle again—"would stop me if I was of a mind to cross it?"

I involuntarily bit my lower lip and quickly double-checked all my sigals.

"Oh, you drew it right," he said. "It just doesn't make a bit of difference. But hey, why do you care? Do you even know what your soul is, anyway?"

"It's the immortal part of myself," I answered, not really taking the time to think.

"Textbook answer. Such a limited point of view. It's much more accurate to say that you are the mortal part of it. You're that little piece that betrays the whole. You're the kidney that stops working, the heart valve that stops flapping, the tiny cluster of cells that decides it wants to be a tumor." He threw his head back and barked a short laugh like a collarbone breaking. "Little friend, you are the gas tank on a '76 Pinto. You are to your soul as Humanity is to all Creation; the flaw that fucks up the whole entire show."

"Is that why you got into the temptation business in the first place?"

"Is what why I got into the temptation business?"

"To, you know, to fuck things up? To piss on everything?"

"Gee," he said, sitting up, leaning forward, "Doesn't that sound a teensy weensy bit petty to you? You're not calling me petty, are you?"

"No no! No. I just—"

"Because I might just get a teensy bit insulted if you did."

"No! I mean, that is I… why do you tempt people anyway?"

He shook his head slowly. "What fools these mortals be. Does a twenty-dollar bill lying on the ground mean to tempt the passers-by? Does the shot of heroin mean to tempt the addict? Does the pretty girl sitting at one end of the bar mean to tempt the horny guy at the other end?"

I thought the girl might, sometimes, but I kept my fat mouth shut.

"Let's remember now who called who to this little meeting," he went on. "Yeah, I came when you called, I admit. But the truth is, I just do this for kicks."

"For kicks? No grand plan? No shaking the Most High on His throne?"

He raised both eyebrows.

"Milton," I said.

"Oh, right… well, sure, I was bitter at first. Who wouldn't be? All cast down into the pit and such. But time marches on and water flows under the bridge and all that crap. Now I'm just trying to have a little fun, fill up the days. I mean, when you have all the time in the universe, you might as well get out once in a while. Walk up and down in the earth, you know?"

"Yeah," I agreed. And then I had a thought.

"Of course," I said, "you might be—and hey, I don't mean to insult you or anything, it's just this reputation you have—but you might be lying to me about… well, about everything, right?"

"I suppose I might," he said, stubbing out his second cigarette on the other arm of my easy chair. "And I can honestly understand the sentiment behind that whole 'Prince of Lies' thing. I mean, a lot of people walk away from deals with me feeling royally screwed. But the simple fact is I don't really lie to people, so much as I tell them what they want to hear."

We were both quiet for a moment as he let it sink in. "Of course… " I began.

"Of course I could be lying about that, couldn't I? Sure! But how are you ever going to know?" And he had himself a nice little chuckle then. It sounded like glass in a blender.

"Ah," he said at last, wiping an imaginary tear away from one corner of his eye. "This has been fun. I've decided I like you. You're—what's the word?—tremulous. I wish I had a nickel for every two-bit Crowley wannabe who called me up and tried 'commanding' me or 'directing' me as if they were the guy in charge."

"What typically happens to those guys?"

"I get biblical on 'em. The last one I pulled inside-out and set him to task in a salt mine. Stuff like that."

In one motion he was on his feet. "All righty then, Steve—you don't mind if I call you Steve, do you?"

I shook my head no.

"Great. Well, Steve, I could stay and chat about the destiny of man and amusing modes of suffering all day, but there's this orphanage in Angola I really need to get to in a few minutes. So. I have two basic package deals that are very popular these days: the Keanu and the Idi Amin."

"Uh… "

"The Idi Amin is mostly for the cowardly and weak. It lets you be powerful, brutal, vicious, feared by your fellow man. The Keanu is more for the selfish and lazy. You get to be famous, wealthy, loved and adored by people without really having to do anything. So what say?"

"Uh, hang on a sec… "

"You strike me as more of a Keanu-type person. Most Americans are. Howzabout it? In two weeks I can have you in the penthouse of the Hilton, freebasing cocaine and sodomizing teenage girls. Both at the same time if you like."

"Nick, listen, I… um… I really didn't… that is… "

"Hey, it was fun at first, but now you're taking the whole tremulous thing a little too far."

"The thing of it is, I had something specific in mind when I called you."

He took a step back, put his hands on his hips and looked me up and down. "In an off-the-rack world, some people still demand a tailor-made suit. Fine then, lay it on me. Just try to go easy on the whole time-space continuum, okay? I mean, no giant robots or orcs or shit like that."

"Well," I took a deep breath. "See, some friends and I, we all run a website together. Kind of an online magazine."

He blinked. Once. Twice. "Okay."

"And I was kind of hard up for something to contribute for the next issue."

His face seemed to turn to stone, seemed to suck the very light out of the surrounding air. Letting the breath almost hiss out of him he said, "Okaaaaaay."

"And, well, this issue has 'hijinx' for a theme, and I was thinking about the great mischief-makers there have been down through the ages, and, well," I let the last bit out all in a rush under my breath, "IwaskindofhopingIcouldinterviewyoupleasedon'tkillmeplease."

And all at once, it was darker. A mean winter wind had picked up outside my window. And a low rumble of distant thunder carried on it. Nick didn't speak for the space of several heartbeats. When he did, I had to strain to hear his voice.

"'Hijinx,' he calls it. 'Mischief' he calls it." Then Nick calmly stepped forward and grabbed the front of my shirt right through the circle and…

And what happened next I find very difficult to describe. Have you ever seen the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence from the end of Fantasia? You know, the big bat-winged guy? Imagine him picking you up with his thumb and forefinger, and holding you right in front of his mile-across face while screaming:


Just as suddenly, we were back at my place, as if we had never left. Nick let go my shirt, took a step back, and with a gesture at once elegant and dismissive, brushed at his shoulder, as if flicking away a piece of lint

"And I don't do interviews."

Then he was gone.

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Copyright©2002 by Steve Spaulding.

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