Larry Hodges, an Odyssey workshop grad, has sold more than one hundred stories. His four novels include Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions, published by World Weaver Press, and When Parallel Lines Meet, a Stellar Guild team-up with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn.
“Satan damn us,” the child said, leaning on his crutch with an impish grin. “Every one!”
It was so cute when Tiny Tim said that, the Devil thought, though of course he only said it when nobody was around, as he had taught him during those secret nighttime visits. Around others, he said it the other way, as befitting the son of the King of Lies—which, of course, made his son the Prince of Lies.
He watched through a portal on his desk, beaming with pride amidst the flames in his office in South Central Hell. He wore a fireproof business suit with a smoldering derby hat that pleasantly singed the top of his large bald head. His facial features changed every few seconds, taking on the likeness of the evil men and women he tortured, allowing him to momentarily enjoy their torment. A fire-proof version of Giotto’s The Last Judgment and other paintings of the Devil hung on the walls, all depicted in burnt orange shades to better blend in with the surrounding flames.
He watched his son with misty-eyed wonder. Soon the child would be apprenticed to Scrooge—oh, how he loved that man! The Devil had a special place reserved for him in the Fourth Circle of Hell. The Devil’s face flashed between that of a madly leering adulterer suffering in the Second Circle to a bearded shrieking glutton from the Third. When Tim was sufficiently corrupted and the dark spirit had overtaken him, he would learn who he really was and his destiny. Then they would lead a coup and rule the galaxy together as father and son.
The Devil sighed. The devil really was in the details, and that kidney problem, renal tubular acidosis, was a nice touch. Already the boy could barely walk without his crutch. Nineteenth century medicine didn’t know what the disease was, but they knew how to treat it. And who was the only person in town who could afford to pay for those expensive treatments? Scrooge.
It worked out so well.
The Devil punched The Last Judgment, his fist going through his own face on the painting behind it, allowing the even hotter outside air to pour into his office through the new hole in the wall. Even that heat paled in comparison to the curses coming from his mouth. Two of his minions had solicited Scrooge for the money to treat Tim, but he’d scoffed something about “decreasing the surplus population” and walked off. It was exactly why the Devil so admired the old man, but now it was getting in the way of his plans. Son of the Devil or not, Tim would die if someone didn’t pay for his treatment. The Devil could cure him with a wave of his hand, but he was barred from doing so by the non-interference directive—the first thing he’d change when he was in charge. Instead, he’d have to use his cunning and persuasiveness to save his dear son.
He stared down at Tim’s tiny desk amidst the flames in the corner. Above it hung a child’s mobile with various figures hanging in torment—a girl and a boy representing Want and Ignorance, and others representing the nine circles of Hell, from one to nine: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery. Toy figures for his little boy.
Everyone agreed these were bad attributes, and people who practiced them should be punished. Wasn’t that all he was doing when he tortured sinners? Didn’t parents spank their kids for misbehaving? Didn’t the mythical Santa Claus keep a list and withhold toys from the naughty? Didn’t criminals get punished for their acts? How was this any different from what the Devil did? I’m no different than a parent, Santa Claus, or a judge, he thought as his face flashed from Napoleon to Vlad the Impaler. I just punish them a bit longer. Because of me, no one has to get revenge against evil people; I do it for them. Vengeance is mine.
And yet all the millions of evil souls he tortured meant nothing to him right now. His son’s life was in danger. He had to save him.
Through the face of a red-haired screaming heretic from the Sixth Circle, inspiration struck. He grinned as only the Devil could grin.
“What did he call you?” The doomed spirit the Devil had disguised as Jacob Marley writhed in the flames before him, his chains clattering in the office flames. The disguise was fake, the chains were real.
He could have gotten the real Marley, dead these seven years and in the Fourth Circle. But he needed someone who could pretend to be someone he wasn’t, who was also familiar with London. In real life, the spirit had been the American traitor Benedict Arnold, dead these forty-two years after his retirement to London, and now residing in the Ninth Circle. He manifested in his old Revolutionary War uniform, his medals jingling as he trembled.
“He called me an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” Arnold said in a high-pitched squeak, writhing in the office flames. Like all doomed spirits, after a few decades they got somewhat used to it.
“Did you give him the message about the three spirits?” the Devil asked.
“Yes, yes—I did, I did!”
The Devil took a deep breath through the wild eyes of a handlebar-mustachioed suicide from the Seventh Circle. “Then it is time for new disguises. Now, what would the three spirits of Christmas look like?” He plucked down from the mobile the figures for Want and Ignorance—they may come in handy as sentimental claptrap in one of the new costumes.
The scheme was a huge success. It had taken only a single night to convert Scrooge to goodness—or at least scare him into faking it. What a humbug that was! The Devil smiled; he liked the word humbug.
It had been a close thing, with that stupid Benedict Arnold running his mouth off too much. It was only when he’d ripped out Arnold’s tongue and sent him down with platform shoes to make him taller and in a black robe as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that his ominous silence—and a cleverly faked grave—had turned the trick.
Soon Tim would toss aside his crutch, start his apprenticeship with Scrooge, and begin his final descent into darkness. And then the Devil would get a man-sized desk for his protégé, and they’d share his office as they planned the ultimate conquest of the galaxy. The tears of happiness pouring down his face almost instantly evaporated in the flames of his office.
With a wave of his hand, as his face flashed from that of Judas to Cain, both from the Ninth Circle, he returned Arnold to that same Circle of Hell, with a note to double the intensity of his torture. He smiled; there was no non-interference directive here.
Failure. Or more accurately, he’d been too successful, leading to failure. Who’d have thought that he would really convert Scrooge to goodness? Or that instead of corrupting Tim, Scrooge was teaching him virtue? The Devil cringed every time Tim said, “God Bless us, every one,” knowing he really meant it. Now it was tears of anger that flowed; his pride and joy was going in the wrong direction. His face flashed rapidly through a dozen lost souls in the Fifth Circle.
As he paced his office he suddenly grinned through the trembling face of a rapist with thick glasses from the Seventh Circle. If he could scare the evil out of Scrooge in one night by sending him three spirits in bad disguises, he could scare it back into him by sending three more—and these wouldn’t be Christmasy ones.
There was a sound of clattering chains, and a cold breeze hit the back of his head, knocking off his smoldering derby hat. He spun about—there were no cold breezes in Hell.
Before him in the flames stood the quaking Benedict Arnold.
“What are you doing here?” the Devil thundered, his face flashing between the screaming souls of Hitler and Stalin, both burning in the Seventh Circle.
“I have a message for you,” Arnold stammered. Apparently he’d grown his tongue back.
“A message from who?”
Arnold looked confused. “I—I’m not sure. From beyond.”
An anonymous message from beyond? What a humbug. “And what would this message be?” Hadn’t he doubled Arnold’s torture? He’d quadruple it. Heck, he’d six hundred and sixty-sixtuple it.
Arnold coughed slightly as he lightly rattled a chain. “Tonight you will be haunted by three spirits.”
Copyright © 2020 by Larry Hodges.