A Demonic Dilemma
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Mr. Beelzy’s Trick
appears in issue 640.
In a remote canton of Hell’s Dominion, Thomas Teufel, Demon Second Class, extended his paw and gently lifted his brimming tropical drink from the rickety bamboo table placed within easy reach of his hammock. Once again, he had not properly calculated the angle of the incoming Tiki mug to his blubbery lips and red liquid slopped onto his Hawaiian shirt, mingling with the stains from other drinks and meals. He swiped his paw at the spill and, closing his eye, languidly slurped away. As the tranquilizing drink spread through his squat, hairy body, every atom of his being thrummed with contentment.
As the centuries had rolled by, little had changed in Tom’s life. During his active career, he’d shown aptitude in the financial field as an inciter of greed and envy among the powerful on earth, with occasional forays into demonic possession. He’d never developed much of a liking toward human beings and saw them as annoying, ignoble, and easily duped.
Despite his tendency to goof off, he’d been modestly successful and had been recalled from the field for additional training, promotion, and reassignment. But he’d never been reassigned. The sole response to his inquiries was a scroll certifying his promotion to Demon Second Class, so he’d settled into his solitary life, a personal paradise as forgotten and tranquil as an undiscovered tomb. If an occasional bout of loneliness was the price for such serenity, he was happy to pay it.
Just as he sipped the last of his drink, Tom heard a distant ringing, which he attributed to the potency of the drink. Side effects often included a ringing in the ears, temporary numbing of the extremities, and blurred vision, but this ringing grew louder.
There was no mistaking it. He swung his feet out of the hammock, his mug dropping from his trembling paw.
“Hell’s Hinges!” he exclaimed, “It’s The Phone That Must Be Answered!”
Having no idea where he’d put It, he tore through his stacks of fantasy and horror magazines, mouldering TV dinner trays, circulars from Publisher’s Clearinghouse, empty bottles of 151-proof rum, overflowing ashtrays, and overdue library books and DVDs. His panic mounted as the ringing grew to a siren’s deafening wail.
In vain he clawed through the dirty dishes filling his tub, searched behind his 60-inch plasma TV, peered under the seat of his tattered recliner, and fumbled through kitchen cabinets crammed with science fiction novels. He finally discovered The Phone in the unused dishwasher.
The recorded message was alarming and to the point: “You will report to HQ, Room 101, immediately.”
Tom knew exactly what this meant. The Phone had been installed eons ago, and from time to time, it rang but only to announce that the network was being tested. This call was the real thing. Failure to respond to a summons delivered by TPTMBA meant discovery, arrest, and demotion to the fiery pits.
Sick with dread, he cleaned himself up a bit, pared and filed his ragged claws, combed out his matted fur, donned his cleanest Hawaiian shirt and favorite pair of baggy shorts, and slipped into a new pair of flip-flops. Before leaving, he visited the one area of absolute order and immaculacy in his shanty.
In a small study off his bedroom, arranged with military precision along the shelves that lined the walls, was his collection of action figures. Still new-in-box and standing alone in its own Lucite display case was his latest acquisition, a one-eighth scale figure of Star Trek’s Mister Spock, a character for whom Tom bore a devoted and filial love. He gingerly blew a dust speck from Spock and gave a final Vulcan salute.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon,” said Tom forlornly.
After casting a final glance backward at the towering palm trees arching protectively over his cozy thatched-roof home and his empty hammock swaying in the arid breeze, he set out down the dusty road leading to the nearest bus stop and his eventual destination, Damnation Plaza.
* * *
Over the course of the miserably uncomfortable three-day trip, punctuated by breakdowns of the jitney carrying him and his fellow misfortunates from Hell’s farthest frontiers, Tom and his seatmate speculated on the nature of their summons.
“What’s this is all about?” asked the horned imp sitting next to him. “Are we under attack by The Other Team?”
“No,” said Tom, “I suspect it’s something far worse.”
In his days as a Demon Third Class, he had gained some insight into the workings of Hell’s administrative policies and procedures, which he knew to be so numerous, contradictory, and incomprehensible as to be virtually unenforceable. Hell’s bureaucracy had metastasized to staggering proportions over the ages, and any attempts at organizational efficiency had gone right out the window.
Like the former Soviet Union, Hell had a policy of 100% employment, which meant only 10% of the population was actually productive. The rest had as their sole job checking on the work of others, whose sole job was auditing and measuring the work of others, whose job was spying on the checkers and auditors, and so on, like an endless fiery tail of an infernal kite.
In many cases, the original tasks being monitored had been completed, eliminated, or forgotten centuries ago, so many of the spies, checkers, and overseers gradually lapsed into a routine of agreeable idleness, while still drawing their paychecks.
Tom chuckled at the idea, widespread on Earth, that Satan’s Kingdom was insidiously and skillfully plotting mankind’s downfall when, in fact, Hell’s denizens were too inept and unmotivated to do much work at all, nor did they have to, so proficient was mankind at contriving its own catastrophes.
As the bus bounced along the poorly paved highways, Tom gazed out at the barren wastes, punctuated by mountainous trash heaps, vast dead lakes, and treeless slums that stretched beyond the horizon.
With each mile, his worries multiplied. That the telephone network had worked at all was a very bad sign, signifying a possible outbreak of efficiency. He felt certain that some new malign, organized force was afoot with potentially disastrous consequences for him and his fellow travelers.
After three trying days, Tom and the legions of other bizarrely dressed, overweight, and frightened demons, fiends, and imps piled out of their buses into the sweeping concrete emptiness that was Damnation Plaza, meticulously designed by Hell’s architects to make any visitor feel vulnerable, insignificant, and lost.
The Plaza had few directional signs and the surrounding streets and alleys were a series of dead end mazes, misidentified buildings, and locked doors, everything painted the same hue of Sepulchral Grey. Tom and the others rushed about, crashing into each other, stepping on each other’s claws and hooves, frantically trying to locate the rooms to which they had been ordered while thunderous but unintelligible instructions boomed from the public address system.
Tom finally located a small sign on a door, indicating “Rooms 1 to 3600.” He entered and looked down an endless, ill-lit narrow corridor, its floor covered with a floral carpet redolent of cigarette smoke and old soup, the room numbers assigned randomly, so that Room 87 was across from Room 1,257 and so on.
* * *
When he finally arrived at Room 101, he was sweating ferociously and took a moment to wipe his face with his shirttail. He pushed open the door to find a blandly handsome human being, dressed in loafers, khaki pants, and a white shirt with an open collar, seated behind a desk.
Slightly behind and to the human’s right stood an unsmiling demon, elegantly attired in a gray three-piece pin-striped suit, gleaming black shoes, and deep red tie. His eyes glittered like the points of twin stilettos.
“Ah, Mister...” — the human glanced down at a folder— “Teufel. Am I saying it correctly? Yes? Great, great. Please have a seat. Did you have any trouble finding the place? Ha ha, of course you did!”
He gestured to a chair, which was so small that it forced Tom to rest his chin on his knees. The fiery glare from the window located behind his interviewer shone directly into Tom’s eyes.
“Yes, Mr. Teufel, how about we drop the formality and I call you Tom. You can call me Willard. This is your case officer, Mr. Albertus Beelzy, whom you will call Mr. Beelzy. Now that you’re comfortable, let’s begin.
“I represent Bane & Company, an Earth-based management consulting firm that provides total solutions to maximize of the value of our customer’s assets. We’ve been contracted to reorganize, restructure, and streamline sales, marketing, and field operations for this enterprise in anticipation of rolling out a top-to-bottom rebranding of Hell’s Dominions.
“We’re going to replace the obsolete image of Hell as punishment for bad behavior and promote an exciting new brand platform of Hell as a desirable destination location, sort of like Las Vegas but even more fun. Are you following me?”
Tom hadn’t a clue what the man was babbling about. “You’re going to make Hell a fun place to be?”
“Excellent question! Not really; Hell will still be Hell. Our brief is to change the perceptions about Hell and the behaviors that land you here, thereby increasing Hell’s market share.
“We are realigning a cadre of infernal personnel with our new value propositions, and then, once we have placed them into suitable executive positions, they will project our messaging into the earthly marketplace via the media outlets, advertising agencies, and financial institutions.”
“For instance,” said Mr. Beelzy, “one of our producers launched the wildly popular TV show Swamp Morons. It promotes incest, animal torture, brainlessness, random violence, religious intolerance, and bad dental hygiene. And we’ve been greenlighted for a new reality show set in Las Vegas called What Would Trump Do? But we need a stronger team in the financial world.”
“Which is where you come in, Tom,” said Willard. “You are one of the lucky ones we’re sending to Earth to help implement our global investment strategy.”
Tom was savvy enough to know that what Willard really meant was that he was being singled for something he’d successfully avoided for centuries: work. He wanted no part of it.
“Willard, this sounds really great,” said Tom, “but I wonder if I could maybe take a day or two to return home and get my affairs in order and call you when I’ve—”
“Teufel,” interrupted Mr. Beelzy, “you’ve got two choices. Do what Willard tells you to do or shovel slag in the fiery pits.”
Tom heaved the sigh of the damned and refocused his gaze on Willard.
“Let’s stay positive and forward-looking, shall we? Here’s our list of the fifty-five required job skills a high-ranking demon such as yourself will need. Take a minute or two,” Willard said, handing Tom the paper and a pencil, “and assign a value from zero to five rating of your skill levels.”
After struggling with the list for twenty minutes and accidentally punching numerous holes through the paper, Tom handed it back to Willard, who fed it through a scanner attached to his computer. Willard frowned as he looked at the results on his computer screen.
“Well, Tom, the good news is that your covetousness and cupidity acumen scores are high, but your Executive Skills Index is three out of one hundred, putting you in our Intensive Reskilling category.” Willard smiled broadly, revealing a set of teeth as white and uniform as a box of Chicklets.
“Tom, you are the perfect candidate for repurposing, but unfortunately, our resources Down Here are stretched so tightly that we’ve had to outsource those functions. You’ve been assigned to a program at one of our subsidiaries on Earth until such time as you are evaluated as a fully productive unit. Any questions?”
Tom’s paws were clammy, his breathing was rapid and shallow, and a large tear had gathered in the corner of his eye.
“I can’t think of one,” Tom said.
Willard looked over his shoulder to Mr. Beelzy, who nodded.
“In that case, have a nice a day,” said Willard.
The trap door under Tom’s chair snapped open, dumping him into the boundless abyss below. He tumbled ass over teakettle through the void, tears of loss and longing leaking from his eye and dampening the fur on his cheeks.
“Now what?” he sobbed. Images of his beloved hut, his blender, and his action figures faded away as he lost consciousness.
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle