They were amateurs, no doubt about it, kids who were dealing with forces far beyond their comprehension, clueless to what they were getting themselves into. The props were pure stock, almost cliché. Pentagram, black candles, the words pronounced phonetically rather than correctly... They'd probably based the ritual on something they'd downloaded from the internet. He had seen many nearly identical setups.
As they said the words, he slowly materialized, taking a classic demonic shape. It was what they'd expect, and he didn't intend to disappoint. They stared at him in shock and disbelief, as if to say "Sure, we tried to summon you, but you weren't supposed to actually show up !" A sure sign of amateurs. Amateurs hope. Professionals know .
There were three of them, two men and a woman, all in their late teens, all dressed in black, all of them clear wannabes. This was going to be an easy one.
"You have summoned me and I have come," he uttered in a sepulchral voice, giving them the illusion of control. "What do you wish of me?"
The three teens glanced at each other nervously, unsure of how to proceed. Not unexpectedly, it was the female who spoke up. "We wish to deal," she said.
He decided to cut right to the chase. "What have you that would interest me?"
After another round of exchanged glances, she said, "We are aware of the standard terms of the negotiation."
You gotta be kidding me, he thought to himself. What do I look like, a goddamn lawyer? Out loud, he said, "I can provide for each of you your heart's desire, in exchange for your eternal soul."
The woman looked at her two companions. One appeared seriously uncertain about the whole situation, but when he saw the determined looks in the eyes of the others, he acquiesced with a nod.
"Agreed," the woman said.
Lucifer hid a grin. "Proceed."
Later, he sat in his office, having dropped the demonic form in favor of a more standard human appearance. He was busy ignoring the paperwork in front of him, trying to fight off a general feeling of malaise. He couldn't concentrate on his work. He kept forcing himself back to it, only to realize he'd just read the same paragraph six times in a row and still didn't know what it said. He lowered his head and rubbed his eyes, and muttered to himself, "I could really use a break here."
The phone on his desk promptly rang. He let it ring eight times, just to be ornery, before answering it.
His secretary's voice filtered through the phone. "You have a guest, sir."
"Who is it this time?" he asked.
Lucifer smiled, surprised but genuinely happy. "Really? By all means, send him in."
He hung up the phone and came around the desk, a smile on his face, and extended a hand as the door swung open.
His guest grasped his hand and shook it firmly as he said, "Hey, Uncle Lou," using the non-literal term of affection he normally did with Lucifer.
"Good to see you again, Jesus," Lucifer responded, giving Jesus a quick hug. "What brings you here today?"
"Oh, you know," Jesus said, waving his hands in front of him in some vague manner. "Dad's in one of his moods again."
Lucifer nodded sympathetically. "What is it this time? Intelligent design in school curricula? Pledge of Allegiance?"
Lucifer winced. "That freakshow? I can see why you needed to get away. Hey, I did a great job with her, didn't I?"
"Don't remind me."
"Here, have a seat." He indicated the chair opposite his desk. "Care for a drink?"
Jesus sat down. "Got any wine?"
Lucifer opened a cabinet and poured some water into a glass. "Here," he said, handing his guest the glass.
Jesus scowled slightly. "Yeah, you're a wit." He stared at his glass for a moment, concentrating, then took a sip of his wine. "How's the business been treating you?"
Lucifer sunk heavily into his chair and let out a sigh. "Well, I still love the job, wouldn't trade it for anything, but I gotta tell you, these people today have no style."
"No style?" echoed Jesus, not understanding.
"Yeah, no style. I'm sure in Heaven, you get all the boring, plain vanilla ones—"
"Noooo," Jesus interrupted. "You'd be amazed at the characters who repented at the eleventh hour."
Lucifer nodded. "Okay, okay, point taken—How's Hitler?"
"Won't acknowledge my existence. Jewish, you know. Has had some rip-roaring conversations with dad, though."
Lucifer nodded again. "I probably should've guessed that... My point is, in the good old days people summoned me, made deals with me, because it was the only way they could see to accomplish their goals, or to escape from their day-to-day lives. When waking up without having contracted Bubonic Plague was a good day, people who turned to me really wanted to deal with me. There was the thirst of desire. And they had to figure out how to contact me on their own. The summoning rituals were usually a combination of guesswork and ingenuity, and they were unique. They had character. They had style. It was pure.
"But these days, the kids who try to contact me, they don't want anything. Not really. They're just bored. They contact me because they're bored. Because they have nothing else to occupy their time. Because they saw a rerun of The X-Files and thought it looked like a fun way to kill a Friday night. The people I deal with now, they're just clueless posers looking for a cheap thrill."
"So why even show up?" Jesus asked.
Lucifer sighed and resignedly leaned back in his chair. "Because," he admitted, "I've got nothing better to do."
"At least you've got something to do. Me, I got nothing."
"'You got nothing'?" echoed Lucifer, surprised. "How can you have nothing to do? You're the son of god! You're the Messiah!"
"Yes, and as of the resurrection, my function was fulfilled. My duties were complete. Now I'm just a symbol, or an excuse, and other than periodically appearing in unlikely inanimate objects, I sit around and watch people blow one another up in my name."
"Hey, hey, they blame me for that," Lucifer countered testily.
"Yes, but that's later. Horrific acts are done 'in the name of Jesus,' and later they say 'The Devil made me do it.'"
"I never made anyone do anything. Every last thing humanity has ever fucked up, they've fucked up on their own."
"Well, you know that and I know that..." Jesus paused and sipped his wine again. "I must admit, I don't know how dad determines which souls get into heaven. Every time I think I've got it figured, someone slips in who doesn't seem to fit."
"Yeah, like him. The Holy Ghost tried to explain it all to me, but it just doesn't make any sense. Fuckin' stoner..."
"It's not too hard on this end," Lucifer said. "God considers them unworthy, they end up here. The rapists, the hypocrites, the murderers, the people who eat meat on Fridays, the people who have impure thoughts over lingerie ads, the people who force creation 'science' into schools, the people who make deals with me..."
A thought abruptly occurred to Lucifer, who leaned forward with sudden passion. "Speaking of the devil, did I tell you about these three melon farmers I just had to deal with? Their ritual was right out of a manual, and you know what they wanted in exchange for their souls? Two of the people were having a child together and they wanted the child taken care of because the religious groups have made getting a legal abortion anywhere near their homes such an impossible ordeal that they turned to me instead, and the other guy couldn't come up with anything so he said he wanted to see the Cubs win the World Series. In exchange for their souls."
"I'm telling you, Jesus, these people are clueless beyond words. It's sickening. I need to find some new work." He considered. "I wonder if Philip Morris is hiring."
Jesus sat his glass down. "Oh, come on. It can't be that bad."
"You think? Tell you what. Since you're here, how about you manifest as me and see some of these people for yourself. You deal with them."
Jesus was aghast. "I can't do that! Harvesting souls for hell? Dad'll have me killed! Again!"
Lucifer shook his head dismissively. "Don't worry; the deals will be non-binding. It's plenty crowded here, and it's not like it's a competition between us to acquire the most souls. Besides, I'm way ahead of him, without even counting the head start I got when your dad didn't notice for thousands of years that heaven was completely empty because of an oversight on his part, and he decided to solve things by sending you down to get nailed to a tree."
Jesus considered this proposal. "All deals are non-binding?"
"Absolutely. You have my word. No one you deal with loses their soul to me as a result." He held out his hand.
With a nod, Jesus shook Lucifer's hand. "It's a deal."
Lucifer punched the button on his phone that connected him with his secretary. "Lilith, hold all my calls. JC and I are going on a road trip." He quickly disconnected.
As the duo headed for the door, Jesus ventured, "Just out of curiosity, what are you doing for the Cubs guy? Are you going to give the Cubs the Series?"
Lucifer snorted. "What am I, a miracle worker? Right now he's having a series of phenomenally vivid dreams about 1908."
They followed the summoning lines through the ether to the house of a promising subject.
In the star inscribed on the floor of a fairly typical suburban garage, Jesus materialized, manifesting in the form Lucifer had used during his previous manifestation. Lucifer was nearby, perceivable only by Jesus, watching the deal unfold.
Jesus began, somewhat uncertainly, "You have summoned Uncle Lucifer—Me, me, you've summoned me, and so he has come. I have come. Me. Lucifer." He felt that was a bit weak, so he briefly considered his options, then added an uncertain "Grr."
Lucifer covered his face with his hands. "Oh, for the love of you..."
The man looked up at him, his lower lip trembling. "You've come. You've actually come!"
"Yes. I have..." Jesus noticed the man was actually wearing a nametag. "...Brian. Why have you summoned us? Me. I mean me. Just me."
"Well," Brian began hesitantly, "I just, I—Would you, I mean, can I get you anything? A soda or a glass of juice or something?"
Jesus blinked. "Er, no, no, that really won't be necessary."
"Oh, okay." Brian licked his lips. "Okay. See, I need your help. I'm just so out of ideas. I don't know what else to do. I'm just the sort of person who can never seem to do anything right. It's not like I don't make an honest effort, but I always manage to do something wrong or say the wrong thing or screw up somehow or some other thing..."
Jesus was taking in his surroundings, and when he looked down he noticed that what was supposed to be a pentagram actually had six points. Brian had summoned the Devil nee Jesus inside a giant Star of David.
"Always manage to screw up, you say," Jesus said noncommittally.
"Oh, absolutely, always," Brian continued earnestly. "I'm a total fuckup."
"Hard to believe," said Jesus, trying to ignore Lucifer's smirk.
"No, really! Like, last week my mom was saying that I really need to get out more, because I was spending too much time inside playing video games, but that's only because my eczema has been acting up and I'm a bit self-conscious about it, but she absolutely insisted I go out and do something, so I went out and met up with Joshua and Paul and a couple of the other guys who were playing a game of basketball at the court over in the park across by the market. Some girls were there watching, too, and I'm not good at basketball, but I really wanted to make a good impression on them, but the team I was on was losing pretty bad. We were playing by twos and three up to fifty, and we were down something like forty-one to twenty-nine. No, it was forty-two to twenty-nine, because I know we hadn't reached thirty yet because I felt it sounded worse than it really was to be down thirteen points, which is unlucky, because we were in the twenties and they were already in the forties, and we were down thirteen, so I knew that even four three-pointers wouldn't be enough to tie it up. We checked, and Luke passed the ball to me, so I had the ball, and I was running along just outside the three point line, dribbling, and I decided to take a hook shot for three, only Paul came around and tried to steal the ball away just as I was committing to the shot, so I tried to twist away as I was shooting, and my feet got tangled and I shot the ball as I was falling down, and instead of heading toward the basket it went right into Jacob's face and gave him a bloody nose, so he had to leave and the game ended at that point because of me. Then the rest of us went to get something to eat, and there was a Subway nearby, and we went in and ordered, and I offered to pay, because I felt bad about screwing up the game by clobbering Jacob totally accidentally, but when I gave them my credit card it was denied. Who has their credit denied at a Subway, for cryin' out loud? One of the girls paid instead, and I felt like a total idiot. But when we sat down we all got to talking, and I was feeling a little better about the situation even though I was still kind of the pariah because I had hurt Jacob and I've got the eczema and all, and I was talking to one of the girls about it, I never did get her name, and I was talking about my facial desiccation, and everyone started laughing at me, which I thought was kind of cruel, and I didn't appreciate it, and I told them I didn't appreciate them making fun of my facial desiccation, and they all started laughing harder, and I eventually stormed off, angry and embarrassed, and part way home it struck me that I'd been using the wrong word, and they were laughing because I kept telling them that I was suffering not from facial desiccation but rather from facial defecation, which means I was saying I was taking a crap out of my face, which is actually pretty humiliating, and I'm sure I didn't make a good impression on the girls between bloodying Jacob's nose and the facial defecation thing..."
Jesus turned toward Lucifer and silently mouthed, "What the fuck is this?"
"You see!" Lucifer exclaimed, pointing at Brian. "You see? You see the shit I have to deal with?" He glanced toward Jesus's feet. "Did you notice the candles?"
Jesus looked down. The extroverted pentagram had black candles at two points, a white candle at the third, and a pink candle at the fourth. The fifth point had a blue wax castle that had a wick deep inside that sent vague flickers of light out the windows, and the candle at the sixth point was a "2" from a birthday cake.
Brian was still rambling on. Deciding he had to take control of the situation lest Brian talk until dawn, Jesus interrupted, "Is there something you want me to do for you?"
Brian blinked, as though he'd forgotten he was actually talking to someone. "Oh, um, well, yeah, actually, yeah, see, I'd really like to be a bit less of a loser, somehow."
Jesus scratched him head uncertainly (or, as Brian saw it, he raked a razor-sharp talon along the bony crest above one of the yellow eyes on his scaled head). "That's an awfully nebulous request. You want to be popular?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that. Being popular is a trap. Then you have to do what people expect rather than what you want to do. I just want people to like me."
"So you want to be popular?"
"Oh, no, it's not that I need to be liked per se. I'm just tired of being laughed at by people. I just want some respect from the people around me."
"So you want to be popular?"
"Oh, no, I don't need respect exactly. I just wish people didn't get that look on their face when they see me coming, that 'How quickly can I come up with an excuse to get out of here' look. I want people to be glad when I show up, glad to see me."
"So you want to be popular?"
"Oh, no, it would just be nice to have people think and say good things about me. I could use a little common decency from the people around me, just basic human courtesy."
"So you want to be popular?"
Brian considered. "Well, yes, actually. That's it exactly."
Jesus blinked. Lucifer broke into a hysterical giggling fit and staggered off helplessly to sit down in the corner and laugh himself out.
"I see," Jesus began slowly. "Well, there are things that I can do to make you more popular, if that's what you really want."
Before Brian could respond, there was a banging sound from the door that separated the garage from the rest of the house.
"Brian," a voice called out, muffled through the door. "What are you doing in there? Why is this door locked?"
Brian blanched as he turned toward the sound. "Oh crap, it's my dad!" He quickly circled Jesus, blowing out all the candles, gathering them as he went and dumping the five smaller ones into the castle candle, which he hid behind a toolbox. "Ah, nothing, dad," he called out, trying without much success to sound innocent. "Why do you ask?"
"Brian, you unlatch the deadbolt and open this goddamn door right now or there will be hell to pay. I can assure you of that!"
Brian started sweeping his foot over the lines of the star, trying to obscure them. He offered Jesus a glance and hissed, "Help me out here," apparently not at all perturbed that he was destroying the very barrier that was supposed to provide protection for him. Jesus shrugged and obligingly smeared one of the lines with his foot.
Deciding that the star was satisfactorily obscured, Brian raced to the door and unlocked it. Jesus opted to demanifest at that point rather than prolong the meeting.
Brian's dad stepped into the garage and looked around, suspicious. He quickly noticed the star on the floor. "What were you doing in here? What's with the Magen David?" he demanded. Then a thought occurred to him. "Hey, you're not converting, are you?"
"Who's converting?" came the voice of Brian's mother.
"Brian wants to be Jewish!" her husband called back.
"He wants to be what?!"
"I don't want to be Jewish," Brian pointed out.
"Our son wants to be Jewish!" his father roared. "Way to go, Brian! Jesus is probably spinning in his grave!"
At that moment, on the stand beside Brian's bed, there appeared, compliments of Jesus, a copy of the book How To Win Friends And Influence People. He didn't expect it would help, but it was better than nothing.
Jesus and Lucifer moved on to the next summoning.
This one was outdoors, on a wooded hillside beneath a cloudy night sky. "Oh Dark One," some nitwit in a dark hooded robe intoned. "We beseech thee to bestow upon us your blessings..."
Jesus stopped paying attention to the words that quickly. At least this guy had managed to hold the pentagram to the more traditional five points, each one defined by a small ceremonial urn with flames leaping out from inside.
Lucifer shook his head. "See that nitwit in the dark hooded robe? I've seen that robe before. You can get it at Hot Topic for thirty bucks. Less if you shoplift."
Jesus assumed the same fearsome demonic form as before, watching as the nitwit continued his little spiel, his breath visible in the cold air, each word swept away by the wind. Despite Jesus's demonic appearance, from his own perspective he was wearing the traditional white robes from the desert, which was great for hot weather but didn't do much to keep him warm on a cold and drafty night. I gotta get me some pants, he decided.
The nitwit continued, unaware of the materialization because his eyes were closed. Jesus waved his hands up and down for a moment, confirming that he remained unnoticed, then, for his own amusement, stuck out his tongue, then stuck his thumbs in his ears and waggled them, then returned to a more formal pose before speaking aloud.
The nitwit's voice tightened, but he continued his incantation. "I call upon the powers of Beelzebub..."
"Hel-lo, nitwit!" Jesus repeated, a bit more forcefully.
This time he stumbled slightly, but gamely pressed on. "...to aid in the summoning of..."
"Hey! Genius! I'm already here! Get on with it!"
The nitwit finally lurched to a halt and opened his eyes. "Erm," he began, lacking a certain confidence. "You're not supposed to be here yet. I haven't finished the summoning ritual yet."
Jesus and Lucifer shared a glance and rolled their eyes in tandem. "Doesn't matter," Jesus informed him. "It worked. I'm here."
"Oh." The nitwit seemed totally stumped by this. "Look, I'm not quite comfortable with that. Would you mind terribly much if I finished the summoning incantation before—"
"Yes I would. I'm here now. Get on with it."
The nitwit shook his head. "No, this isn't right. It doesn't work like that. The summoning incantation much be done in its entirety to be effective."
"And yet I'm here," Jesus pointed out.
"No, that's not right at all. You can't be here yet."
"I really am here," Jesus insisted.
"I must have done something wrong then."
"What the hell do you mean, you 'must have done something wrong'?" Jesus exploded. "You did the summoning ritual. I've been summoned. Here I am! Right here in front of you. See? In the pentagram, the very place you summoned me to appear. The ritual worked. I'm here."
There was a long silence.
"Maybe I didn't pronounce all the words right," the nitwit considered, starting to pace thoughtfully. "Everyone says the words have to be pronounced exactly right or else the ritual doesn't work right." He put a hand to his mouth, considering this as he paced.
Jesus stared in disbelief.
"I guess I'll just have to start over," the nitwit concluded, throwing his hands into the air.
"'Start over'? What is wrong with you?!"
"You'll have to leave first, of course."
"I'll have to leave?" echoed Jesus, incredulous.
"Well, according to all the literature there's only room in the pentagram for one being at a time."
"Sod the bloody pentagram!" spat Jesus, stepping over the lines, walking right up to the nitwit, and giving him a firm rap on the head. "Hello! McFly! Anyone home?"
"Knock it off," the nitwit said, swiping at Jesus's hand, having come to a conclusion about him. "I don't know who you are, but this isn't funny. I'm not going to be fooled by some twit in a monster disguise."
"Give it up," Lucifer interjected. "He's not listening to you anymore."
Jesus watched as the nitwit planted himself exactly where he had standing during the previous chant and closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths, preparing to start the summoning incantation over.
"Let's move along, shall we?" Lucifer offered. "I don't think this guy would believe in combustion if you set him on fire."
Jesus grudgingly nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I should go." He took a last look around. "I'm freezing my balls off out here."
With a final disbelieving shake of his head, Jesus faded out.
The nitwit opened his slightly, squinting at the now-empty pentagram. "Much better," he decided, and then started the ritual over.
The man looked to be about forty. Jesus could have easily pulled a few divine strings and found out his exact age, along with everything else there was to know about the man, but where was the fun in that?
"The reason I called you," the man said, "is that I need to know."
"You need to know," echoed Jesus.
Lucifer offered, "I still find it amazing how many people call to me despite not having really worked out what they want in any detail. You'd think if you were going to summon the Prince of Darkness, you'd at least work out in advance why you're doing so."
Jesus nodded, then turned back to the man. "Need to know what?"
"The reason. The purpose. What it's all about."
"What what's all about?"
"Life. Creation. The universe. Reality. What the purpose is. What caused it. What's it all about." The man spoke with a growing urgency. "I've spent my life trying to figure it out, trying to find a purpose to what I do, a purpose to any of it, but I've reached the point where I have to know. I can't go on without knowing. I need the answer to the most fundamental question of them all: Why?"
"This is worth your soul?"
Jesus considered this for just a moment, saw the determination in the man's eyes, and decided to tell him. "The reason," he began.
"Yes," the man said, stepping forward.
"Yes!" the man said, stepping forward again.
"What it's all about," Jesus continued, lowering his voice for effect.
"The answer to your question is..." Jesus paused dramatically.
There was a moment of silence. Quite a long one, actually.
"'Waterslides'?!" the man blurted out.
Jesus nodded firmly. "Waterslides."
"The universe is about waterslides?" The man looked like he'd been smacked in the head with the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary Of The English Language.
"Not many people know," Jesus informed him. "It's kind of a secret."
"I sold my soul for goddamned waterslides?!"
"They're not goddamned. Well, except for the Christian ones. For some reason that sort of thing really annoys dad. Annoys god. God is what I meant. The supreme being is annoyed by it. Not what I said before."
The man looked like he wanted to cry. "What the hell am I supposed to do with the knowledge that the entire universe is about waterslides?"
Jesus smiled serenely. "Whatever you want," he said, and faded out.
Elsewhere, Jesus faded in, and the two summoners quickly got to the point.
"Well, your supreme perniciousness, I need you to tell Elliott how totally full of crap he is. See, I recently bought the Star Wars DVD box set, and Elliott and I were watching the first movie, which is actually kind of the fourth, but that's not important, and he said that the Borg from Star Trek could destroy the Death Star. Will you please tell him how wrong that is? Dude, the Death Star can totally blow up planets! It'd toast a Borg ship."
"Nuh-unh," countered Elliott. "The Borg adapt. Maybe the first cube would be destroyed—maybe—but that'd be it."
"What a load of crap! It doesn't matter how quickly they adapt, because the Death Star beam is more powerful than a Borg ship. The Death Star kills entire planets!"
"Borg cubes were able to hold up against a planet-killer's weapon in Vendetta!"
"You're citing a Peter David novel? That's not even canonical! There's even a disclaimer that says so!"
"Only in the first printings! They made them put that in because of something they later did on the TV show anyway!"
Jesus and Lucifer exchanged a quick glance, then quickly and wisely left the argument behind.
It continued downhill from there:
"Who would win in a fair fight: Green Lantern or Silver Surfer?"
"I need another season of Friends! Please! Whatever it takes. I'll do anything!"
"I need to be a great ping pong player, but only long enough to impress Allyssa by beating her boyfriend. It's only for a limited time, so do I really need to sell you my soul? Maybe I could just lease it to you for a little while."
"If you're so damned smart, why don't you install air conditioning?"
"Duuuuuuude! I am SO toasted! Look at this shit I'm seeing in front of me now. Now THAT'S a monster. Nice scales. Hey, I'm feelin' great now. I feel like shouting with joy! WOOOOOOOOOO!!! Gimme five, bro! Five right here. That's the way! Gimme another roach, bro. Another roach. They're in the wooden box right over there. It's empty? Whadaya mean it's empty? Shit! Bro, what are you doin' to me? Where are we going to get more weed at this hour? Hey, of course! I'll just ask—Hey! Where'd the scaly dude go?"
"Did you like the way Al Pacino played you?"
"You're behind the Institute for Creation Research, aren't you? C'mon, you can tell me."
And Jesus's personal favorite:
"Seriously, how many licks does it take to get to the chocolate Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?"
"You see why I'm sick of these people," Lucifer said.
They were sitting in a mall food court, unwinding from the night's idiocy, trying to spend some time around some people who weren't completely batshit crazy.
"What gets me," Jesus said, "is that most of those people didn't even want anything grand or epic for themselves. They were just looking for things that were either inconsequential or utterly irrelevant."
Lucifer waved a hand dismissively. "Ah, these kids today, they just don't know the value of a soul."
"A soul sure was worth a lot more back when I was a kid." Jesus paused, considered this, then admitted, "You know, back when I was a kid Grandpa said the same thing to me. Used the same words, too"
Lucifer leaned back in his chair, which creaked slightly under his weight. "It's not that souls are less remarkable these days, you know, it's just that there's so damned many more of them, they tend to obscure each other. It takes a really special soul to stand out amidst the white noise."
"Yeah, we met some 'special souls' who really stood out over the last few hours," Jesus muttered.
"Okay," Lucifer backtracked, "that really wasn't what I meant at all."
Jesus nodded. "What you meant is that most souls these days are a dime a dozen. There's no special reason to pursue them because there's nothing to differentiate them from the next dozen souls."
Lucifer considered this, absentmindedly tapping his fingers on the table, then nodded. "Yeah, that about sums it up."
"I sure wouldn't want to have to deal with these people every night," Jesus added sympathetically.
"I'm sick of these people," agreed Lucifer darkly, taking another bite from his bacon cheeseburger.
"What you said earlier... Have you really got nothing better to do?"
Lucifer considered this as he swallowed, then answered, "Nope."
"Really?" Jesus pressed, focusing more intently on Lucifer.
"Well..." Lucifer wavered, looking thoughtful.
"There are some things I need to get done," Lucifer admitted. "I haven't given hell a good going over in quite some time, and I need to create more room for everyone who rigged the 2000 US election, and I still haven't gotten around to creating the room Toby Keith and Osama bin Laden are going to share for the rest of eternity..."
"Hard to get that all done if you're dealing with all these morons all the time," Jesus said, sounding forlorn about the waste of time that represented.
"This is true," Lucifer admitted.
"Unless... You start ignoring the summonses. Leave humanity to mess things up on their own for a while, and you can get things ready for their eventual arrival down below."
"You know, that's a good idea. That's a really good idea. There's a lot I need to get done, really. I don't need to waste all my time dealing with every moron who wants to be popular for a while."
"You don't need that crap," Jesus told him.
"No, no I don't. I hate that crap. Fuck that crap!"
"Fuck those people," Jesus agreed, hitting the table with a hand for emphasis.
"Fuck those fucking fuckers!" shouted Lucifer, pounding the table with a fist, really warming up to that idea. "Let 'em fuck up on their own. I'll be waiting for 'em anyway. Fuckers."
"You can add all the little details you've always meant to."
"Yeah," Lucifer said.
"I'll install all the things I've always wanted to. I'll install more gauntlets for souls to pass through. I'll install more flames. Maybe..." Lucifer suddenly looked wistful. "Maybe I'll even install a waterslide."
"Sounds like a good idea," Jesus agreed amiably.
Lucifer blinked, then looked at him. "I can not believe you told that guy about the waterslides!"
Jesus shrugged. "He'll sleep better from now on for knowing, even if he can't explain why."
Lucifer pushed back from the table and stood up. "Well... I should go. Lots of work to do. Hey, it was good seeing you again."
Jesus smiled. "Always a pleasure, Uncle Lou."
Two random people walking by suddenly froze and stared at the two of them. "Oh my god," one of them whispered. "It's him!"
Lucifer gave them a knowing smile.
"Yeah, I had meant to ask," Jesus said. "Why did you manifest here as Elvis?"
Lucifer grinned and explained, "I crave attention," and turned and walked away, the gaze of the two mall patrons following him every step of the way.
He was going to focus all of his attention in-house for the foreseeable future.
Jesus leaned back and laughed softly to himself.
The man looked at the pentagram scrawled on the floor, then at his girlfriend. "It's all ready now?" he asked her.
She looked at the information she'd printed off the internet the day before. "That's it. It's ready."
"What words to I say?"
She handed him the papers and pointed. "Read this part here. I couldn't find my highlighter, so I marked the part you have to say with a Crayola."
He nodded. "Got it."
"I got these robes we can wear, too," she said, pulling some clothing out of a bag she'd had in the corner.
He examined them. "Hey, nice."
"Got 'em at Hot Topic," she said proudly. "Sixty bucks total."
"Good deal," he agreed.
They quickly got into the robes, and then began the ritual. He read the words carefully, focusing more on pronouncing them correctly than pronouncing them quickly. As he neared the end, he thought he saw the lines of the pentagram glow slightly.
He trailed off after the last word, waiting expectantly for something more to happen. He exchanged a quick glance with his companion and saw the same uncertainty on her face.
By the time he looked back at the pentagram, things had changed.
Hovering inside the pentagram, above the floor, was an amorphous blob, shimmering slightly, diaphanous. Small flickers of light drifted along its surface, if it could be said to have a surface—he really couldn't tell.
You wish to deal.
The words appeared in his head unheard, as if they weren't spoken aloud. He did a double-take, but recovered quickly.
She recovered quicker. "Yes," she said. "Yes, we wish to deal."
"We're authors," he began. "We've been writing for years, individual works, collaborations, fiction, non-fiction, what-have-you. Everything we've written has been rejected."
"We want to be successful," she continued. "We're good. If I might be so bold, we're great."
He nodded. "But we're not commercial enough. That's what we're told, anyway."
"Can you help us?"
You are talented writers?
"Damn straight we are," she said, a touch of pride in her voice.
You would sell your souls to be recognized by others?
They exchanged glances.
"If necessary, yes" she answered.
There was another silence. The air shimmered slightly inside the pentagram.
I have a counterproposal.
This time both of them blinked. This was not the way this sort of thing was supposed to go.
"Um, yes?" he said, rather hesitantly.
Forever acknowledge the role I play in your life. Recognize what I do for you. Continue to work your trade with confidence. Ultimately you will be rewarded.
After a confused silence, she asked, "And our souls?"
Your souls remain your own.
After another confused silence, he spoke up. "So we keep working and get everything we want, and we don't have to give our souls in return?"
"Um, not that I'm being picky, but there's nothing in that for you. What kind of deal is this? Is this something new?"
New? It's not new at all.
The sentence had an amused edge to it. And before their eyes, the diaphanous zone in the air began to thicken, filling out, becoming more distinct, more solid, until it solidified into a rather average looking man in white robes, though inexplicably he still seemed to shimmer.
"Don't you understand?" Jesus asked. "That's always been the deal."
He smiled at their stunned looks. When Lucifer dealt with people directly, he appealed to their vanities in their times of greatest desperation, taking advantage of foolish desires running unchecked in blind passion. He had harvested soul after soul, talking people into giving freely what could never be taken by force.
Now Lucifer had openly announced his intention to ignore the summonses for the foreseeable future, and was currently busy on home improvement chores, leaving a void to be filled. There were people who didn't know where else to turn. People who felt they didn't have anything left to lose. People who were wide open to suggestion. People who would follow any path pointed out to them. People who were at a crossroads, about to make a terrible mistake, and just needed a helping hand to get back on the correct track.
Lucifer had been meeting with these people, one on one, helping them off the track, leading their souls to a specific end, for centuries. Just a little nudge at a vulnerable moment.
Jesus grinned inwardly. Two could play at this game.