DEATH, THE DEVIL, AND THE PRESIDENT’S GHOST

Larry Hodges has sold more than ninety stories. His third novel—Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions—was recently published by World Weaver Press. His When Parallel Lines Meet, a Stellar Guild team-up with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn, came out in October of 2017.

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“I’ll sell my soul if Death’ll return me to my body!” cried the president’s ghost. He had that zombie-in-the-headlights look of the recently dead.

The Devil grinned. “You’re a politician, you dolt. I already own your soul.” He emphasized the statement with a loud, squeaky chord on the fiddle of gold he held. Behind him the black-hooded skeleton that was Death quietly tittered. The three stood next to an old-fashioned Otis elevator at the end of a white hallway full of puffy white smoke that smelled sweet like a country meadow but with a faint scent of sulfur. On the wall next to it were two buttons: a white one marked Up, and a red one marked Down.

The Devil pressed Down. The president’s ghost cringed.

He still wore the dark suit and red power tie he’d been wearing at the fundraiser, now vaguely transparent. If you looked closely, you could see the ghostly outlines of the combs and hair gels he used to make himself look presidential, as well as the ghostly checks in his pocket made out to his re-election campaign—but only the illegal ones since the legal ones had gone directly to the campaign treasurer. These ones were to be deposited in a secret slush account for dirty tricks, hush money, and a Hawaiian vacation. Or would have, he thought, if he hadn’t had a fatal heart attack while giving a speech to his supporters promising contradictory things he laughed at the very thought of doing. He sighed. What had he been thinking?

And then Death had shown up in its black robes, the very stereotype of what it was supposed to look like. It had tapped him on the shoulder, sucked out his soul, and his body had crumpled to the floor like a house of forged ballots blown over by a special prosecutor’s bad breath.

“It wasn’t a very good soul,” the president’s ghost said, sobbing slightly as ghostly tears ran down his face. “Do you have any idea what it’s like having a soul so grimy you can take a shower every hour and still can’t get the dirt out? It went with me everywhere—EVERYWHERE!—always inside me, making me do those unfortunate things. I’m glad it’s gone.” He looked up. “What did you do with it?”

“I had it laundered, of course,” said the Devil, playing another squeaky chord on the golden fiddle and then dropping it and the bow into a holster on his back. He looked like anything but the Devil in his country-boy overalls and too-big hiking boots that might have covered cloven feet. He had been down in Georgia looking for souls to steal when he’d received the emergency call that the president had gone down, a situation he wanted to handle personally. His large round head was completely bald, with no semblance of horns or a tail. He had an enormous nose, broad flapping ears, and wide, silver eyes that never blinked.

“I know all about money laundering,” lamented the president’s ghost, “but soul laundering?”

“It was pretty soiled,” said the Devil. “I tried a Korean laundry, but even their ancient secrets couldn’t clean it. I had to scrape it off with a Hawking blade. Then I gave it to Death to put into storage.”

The president’s ghost tilted his head slightly. “What’s a Hawking blade?”

“I went to the future, to after Stephen Hawking had died. Those busy-body physicists, always prying into business that doesn’t concern them, if they’d just—”

“I’m sure they mean well.”

“That’s the problem!” cried the Devil.

“But what about Hawking?”

“Oh yes, about him. I gathered up his body, cloned it a gazillion times, and then crushed them all with my bare hands until they were compressed into a black hole. Then I shaped it into a knife and used it to scrape the crud off your soul.”

“Sorry about that.” The president’s ghost began pacing. “I’d really like to go back and right all the wrongs I did when I had all that crud inside me.” He cringed at the thought. “An apology tour where I’d make restitution for all the terrible things I’ve done.”

“Can’t go back without a soul,” the Devil said. He began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“Now that you’re soulless, you’re doing some serious soul searching. The irony!”

The president’s ghost nodded. “I know. But look, this isn’t fair. All those bad things I did as president, that was because I had a cruddy soul. It wasn’t my fault! But now it’s gone, so why should the rest of me get punished?”

“Why shouldn’t you?” the Devil asked.

Death looked up, thrusting its skeletal lower jaw out a bit as if deep in thought about the Devil’s words, or perhaps it was planning a party or what to watch on TV that night. Or perhaps it was just pouting. There was a ding, and the elevator door finally swung open. Though he didn’t need to breathe, the president’s ghost gagged as the hot, sulfurous air hit him, interrupting his reply. The three gathered inside.

When the president’s ghost had stopped gagging, he said, “Because it’s not fair that I should be punished. I’ve always been suspicious of this good people go to Heaven, bad people go to Hell thing, but at least it seemed fair and consistent. But now you’re punishing the innocent.”

“Life isn’t fair,” the Devil said. “Neither is death. Besides, you’re now a soulless specter with no real substance. Just like your political opponents always said.”

“That’s not true!”

“Also your friends and associates, the secretary you were cheating with, your wife and kids, and your dog.”

The president’s ghost lowered his head for a moment. “Okay, you’re right. But what about you? Aren’t you also a soulless specter?”

“Me? I exist as the incarnation of evil. It would take something far more powerful than a Hawking blade to dent the evil in my soul.”

“So you have a soul?”

“Of course.”

“What will happen to your soul when you die?”

“I cannot die!” cried the Devil, causing the elevator to vibrate. Then he tilted his head sideways and lowered his voice. “Well, actually, there is one thing that can kill me, but that’s not likely to happen, it’s a good friend of mine.” The Devil turned to the elevator buttons. Between the Up and Down buttons was a green Earth button for the current level. The Devil stabbed at the Down button. “Time to go. I love a warm climate, don’t you?”

“What’s the one thing that can kill you?”

“Why would I tell you? If that got out, for the rest of eternity everyone would be trying to get it to kill me.”

“But eternity is infinitely long, and so eventually whatever can kill you, will kill you. Especially since you are being so unfair.” There was another ding and the elevator door closed.

“You’re right on both counts,” said the Devil as the elevator began its trip down. “You sound like that vile Hawking. But it doesn’t matter since I’m much more powerful than it is, and I’d destroy it with a glance if it tried to kill me. Unless it caught me completely by surprise during a monologue. I mean, do you have any idea just how powerful I am? I can—”

Catching him completely by surprise during his monologue, Death sliced off his head off with its scythe. “I thought you were my friend, you—!” were the last high-pitched words of the Devil before he ran out of air, a consequence of his devilish mouth no longer being connected to his satanic lungs.

Out of the Devil’s body popped the Devil’s ghost and a soul that looked—and smelled—like a soiled diaper. For a moment the ghost looked confused. Then it stared at Death. “This isn’t fair! All those things I did, that was because I had a bad soul! But now it’s gone, so why should I get punished?”

“Hey, that’s what I said!” the president’s ghost said. “Flip flopper!”

Death approached the floating Devil’s soul, holding a hand over the nose hole in its skull. It jabbed at the Devil’s soul with its scythe, snipping off bits of soiled soul for several minutes until it was clean like a white handkerchief. The bits of soiled soul floated about in the air.

Death took a deep breath, and with a powerful exhalation blew those black bits right through the elevator ceiling and off into a galaxy far, far away in the hopes that they would never be found and used by future galactic emperor wannabes. Then it pointed a skeletal finger at the Devil’s head, which jumped back to its body and reattached itself.

“You two,” said Death in a guttural voice, “here are your souls.” The floating white handkerchief floated down into the Devil’s ghostly figure. The president’s soul floated out of Death’s long sleeves and into the president’s ghost.

“And I’ll take that to remove any temptations.” It aimed a bony finger at the Devil’s fiddle of gold, which leaped out of its holster along with its bow and landed in Death’s skeletal hand. “Don’t let your souls get mucked up again,” Death continued as he stared at them through his eye sockets. “Go clean up the messes you made…or I’ll be back.”

They took the elevator back to Earth where the president’s ghost and soul would return to his body—shocking the hell out of the presidential embalmer—and then he and the Devil began their worldwide apology tour.

Alone in the hallway outside the elevator after they left, Death said, “Gotcha!” as it gently caressed the priceless golden fiddle with its bony fingers. The Devil had once lost it to a young man named Johnny in a fiddling contest, but soon after the Devil had ordered Death to give Johnny the deathly tap, and stolen it back even as the poor kid collapsed and died.

Death pressed the white Up button, and the elevator doors soon opened. On the way up to return the fiddle to its rightful owner it played its own rousing rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Larry Hodges