BEAT THE DEVIL by Ray O'Bannon

So there I sat on the cold hard ground, leaning against the trunk of a long dead tree. Moonlight spilled down through the bare branches, dappling the crossroads, and somewhere across the empty fields an owl hooted with that forlorn sort of sound they have. Gaze me the chills, particularly since I'm used to the sound of traffic, horns and sirens all the time. The quiet out here in the countryside was making me awfully edgy to begin with, and Mr. Barn Owl wasn't doing my nerves a bit of good. Not that I didn't have reason to be nervous. When you owe the devil, and the debt is due, and you don't have what you owe...well, it's not a calming sort of sensation.

Of course, I'm sure Mr. Flambe wasn't really the devil himself, just a representative of some sort. He wasn't human, that was made obvious to me in several ways. But he appeared in human flesh to deal with me, and I don't credit my soul with being important enough for the lord of the underworld to personally come tempt me. Mr. Flambe was just some lower minion sent to handle my situation. I'll spare you the details, but basically I needed money and Mr. Flambe had shown up offering plenty of it. Also, he offered to sweeten the deal by giving me another fifty years of life. It should be noted that my brain tumor, and the notion of having only a few months to live, were pertinent among the factors under consideration. All I had to do was deliver a human heart by the next full moon. And as absurd as it seems now, I was desperate enough to agree to the deal, meeting Flambe at the crossroads that night to sign the contract. My blood seemed to blacken as it struck the parchment.

I wasn't really worried about delivering the heart, because I really thought I had a clever solution. Oh yeah, clever little me. I figured I'd just call my cousin Lou, who just happens to be a mortician. But he was called out of town unexpectedly. I then tried sneaking into the local hospital's organ bank, but was nearly spotted by a crowd of reporters hanging around because of a rumor regarding some film star with a sprained ankle. The local college was being patrolled heavily due to recent problems with vandalism, so the science department was unreachable. The only other place I could think of was a funeral home, and it was crawling with cops when I arrived. Seems somebody had broken in to rob the office. As I looked upward towards the heavens in frustration (yeah, I know how it sounds but that's what I did anyhow), I saw the moon was full. It wasn't supposed to be full for another couple of weeks, but there it was.

I headed back to the crossroads and sat waiting in the moonlight, figuring the contract should be forgotten after such trickery, or at least be renegotiated. But whatever hope I might have been clinging to was drastically weakened when the hole appeared. The ground just seemed to collapse at the center of the dusty crossroads, leaving a hole about three feet across. I couldn't see the bottom from where I sat, but I somehow sensed there wasn't any. And a faint reddish glow could be seen pulsing dimly from somewhere in the depths of the ground.

"Lovely, isn't it?"
I think I physically jumped a little when Mr. Flambe spoke, I was wound up that tight. I looked to my left and there he sat, right beside me on the rocky ground. Pleased to have startled me so badly, he was smiling darkly as he rose gracefully to his feet.

"You have what you owe me, of course?" he asked in a voice smooth as silk.
"I think you know I don't. And you know what else I think?" I then proceeded to tell him a great number of things that had been on my mind up until this point. It should be noted that I was by now more than a little upset. Flambe seemed completely suprised by this turn of events. Apparently he had expected me to deliver the heart without any complaints, and seemed personally offended that I hadn't done so.

"Are you kidding me?!!" he stormed. "Do you know how far I have to travel to make these deals? Do you have any idea how unpleasant it feels to take human form, to wear flesh and bones? Do you have ANY notion of what I have to go through doing this stuff? Well, do you?!!!" And Mr. Flambe stood there with his arms crossed, scowling down at me. I rose clumsily to my feet and started to say something about how things had been manipulated against me. But his anger was so extreme that he was beginning to physically vibrate, and his face was growing a nasty purple color.

"You think you can waste my time?!! You think this is all a JOKE?!!" He actually began hopping up and down in frustration. "A deal is a DEAL, you ungrateful little..."
I'm not sure what he was planning to call me. But to be honest, even 'little' was enough to kinda get under my skin. Have I mentioned I was a little upset? Anyhow, I didn't see what I really had to loose at this point, particularly in light of the rather spectacular things the contract specified would happen if the heart wasn't delivered. So I waited for his hopping to leave him momentarily airborne, and dove forward, smacking him hard in the chest with my outstretched palms. He flew back towards the hole, and for a minute I actually thought I had him beat. Can you believe that?

He stood balancing over the edge of the hole, arms flailing wildly, his voice now far from silky as he called me names that would have withered plant life and soured milk. And then he caught his balance and was stepping towards me. His expression left only one thought blazing across my mind. RUN! I spun around, desperate to get as far away as possible as quickly as possible, and smashed myself directly into the trunk of the dead tree.

The sudden pain of my collision must have clouded my judgement at this point, because my next thought was to escape by climbing the tree. I scrambled up the trunk a short distance and leaped for one of the lower branches. Catching the limb with one outstretched arm, I pulled myself upwards. Balancing myself, I looked down to see Mr. Flambe staring up at me. And then the branch broke.

I fell heavily to the rocky ground at the base of the tree, still clutching the broken branch. Rising as quickly as possible as Flambe stomped towards me, I swung the branch into the trunk of the tree as hard as I could. There was a loud dry SNAP and I found myself holding a fairly serviceable looking club. I turned towards my tormenter with the beginning of a smile. And the branch burst into flames.

Dropping the burning lumber between us, I began stumbling blindly backwards. And suddenly found myself falling as my foot snagged a protruding chunk of tree root. The back of my head slammed into one of the larger rocks scattered about, and for a moment I was entertained by a thousand bright little sparkles of color, as though the stars were all dancing in celebration of my impending demise. And then Mr. Flambe's savagely grinning visage filled my vision as he began pulling me to my feet.

"Got you, you little..."
Have I mentioned I resent being called 'little'? I swung the rock into the side of his face with all my might. And then I swung it into the other side of his face. And then I began addressing the frontal area. I just kept swinging and swinging. I mean, I was smacking him to beat the dev....well, you get the idea.

Well, he was upset because I hadn't killed anybody, right? It suddenly occurred to me that his having been 'returned to sender' might not necessarily cancel the contract. I was still probably in debt, so I dragged the body over to the side of the hole. All I had to work with was a small pocketknife I had been planning to use for opening doors or windows at the funeral home, but I managed.

And then I sat back down at the base of the tree. After a while, the hole in the ground filled itself up, although it seemed to do so reluctantly. The owl hooted again, sending fresh chills up my spine. But I figured the sun had to rise sometime. And I figured I could count on being around for another fifty years. I mean, A deal's a deal. Right?