Interestingly (to me, anyway) I received two emails in the past few weeks about a story of mine that was originally published online four years ago on a website called Dark Energy SF. Both readers seemed to enjoy it (though one of them pointed out that under current NFL rules, the scenario I portrayed at the end of the game in the story isn't possible, and suggested I change the team from an NFL team to a college team, where it was possible).
Since the website where the story was originally published is on the verge of closing up shop forever (my best to the fine folks at Dark Energy SF, because obviously a few folks have still managed to find my story on their archive, even four years after the fact) (and since the story is pretty short (just under 2,500 words)), I thought I reprint it here for your entertainment.
(BTW, I didn't change the football team, mainly because I don't like the redskins and wanted to make them the losing team in this story. What's the point in being a writer if you can indiscriminately punish teams you don't like...?)
Fourth and Goal From the Forty Eight
The smoke smelled wrong. Not like cigarette smoke, Adam thought. Corrosive. Suffocating. Venomous.
Adam would rather have been a host of other places, but when that redhead with the devilish twinkle in her eye said to meet her at this bar, she'd been damned specific. So he waited. Tipped his bottle up and poured some more brew down. Since every vertical surface in the room was covered with mirrors, he could glance in any direction, checking the bar through the maddening maze of reflections. Of the redhead there was still no sign.
Drifting along with the smoke, Adam's attention went to the television. Engulfed in a miasma of silver and gray, the picture was nearly impossible to make out. He jumped when a phantom announcer's voice said, "A series of sacks and costly penalties have the Redskins looking at third and goal from their own forty-eight yard line with only twenty-one seconds on the clock. Kenny, have you ever seen anything like this?"
Adam had not. Intrigued, he slid as far to the right as there were open bar stools, hauling his precious leather jacket with him. He had to stop beside a man with a pipe, the obvious source of this writhing smog.
Kenny, up on the television, echoed Adam's thoughts. "Never, Jim. But that's what I love about this game; anything is possible."
The offensive smell grew, summoning Adam's attention, and the silver and gray cloud parted to reveal the man. But it was his pipe that caught Adam's attention. He peered closely at the glowing bowl. Sickly-yellow, like ancient, decaying ivory, the entire pipe was elaborately etched. On it, small figures cavorted around a bonfire, tribal warriors with spears and shields, naked but for their fearsome masks. Adam's mind swooned, pitching headlong into a nightmare world populated by beasts he suddenly realized were not warriors in masks, but creatures as horrible as---
"Smoke bother you?" said the man. "A personal blend. Some folks don't care for the smell."
Adam snapped out of his black trance, trying to blink the images away. "Uh, no, no. It's fine. I was just admiring the carvings. They're so..."
The man plucked the pipe from his lips. "Carved from bone, I'm told. You're welcome to examine it."
Adam left his hands safely on the beer bottle. "What kind of bone?"
The man caressed the stem of the pipe. "I don't believe my associate ever said."
Kenny interrupted. "Twenty-one seconds," he said. "But even if the Redskins get in range, a field goal does them no good. Down 21 – 15 to the New York Giants, the 'Skins have to have a touchdown. They've taken their final timeout; we'll be back after these messages."
"Can I tempt you with a friendly wager?" the man asked.
The man smiled. It was a lipless, motionless, incomplete smile, revealing no teeth. "On the game. Make things interesting."
Adam slipped his hand into his pocket, fingering his last twenty-dollar bill. "What did you have in mind?"
The man conjured a hundred-dollar bill.
"I say the Redskins win this game."
Adam stared. Because he never denied himself anything, especially when it came to clothing, cash always got his attention. Ben Franklin never looked so seductive.
Then Adam remembered the twenty in his pocket and the beer in his hand. "I can't," he said. "No way the 'Skins win, but I don't have that kind of money."
"I'm not interested in your money." The man licked the corner of his mouth. "It's your soul I'm hungry for."
Adam's lips formed a small circle. 'What?' his mouth wanted to demand, but his brain refused to function.
"You heard right," the man said quietly. "I'll bet one hundred dollars against your soul that the Redskins win this game. Quite simple."
Adam tried to read the man's eyes. They were as blank as his smile. He checked the door. If only that redhead would show up, he'd have an excuse to get away. Finally Adam forced a laugh.
The man asked, "You think I'm kidding?"
Choking in the smoke, Adam's laughter died.
The man broke into a light laugh of his own. Amiably, he slapped Adam on the shoulder. "What's a soul worth anyway? Last week, a fellow tried to auction off his soul on e-Bay. Bidding was only up to forty-four dollars when e-Bay suspended the deal."
"You bid on it?"
The man shook his head. "Not my style. No sport." Then he tapped the green and white bill on the bar. "That's easy money, friend. Yours. Unless you believe the 'Skins can pull off a miracle."
Back from the commercial, Kenny and Jim were talking again. Adam ground his teeth together, watching the quarterback begin the snap count. Abruptly he shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Don't think you want my bet?" asked the man. "Or don't think they can do it? Quickly now, the offer ends the instant they snap that ball."
Adam forgot how to speak, how to breathe.
"...the ball is snapped. Serling drops back into the pocket. And... oh, my God, the Giant's defender tripped." Kenny was shouting now. "Serling's got a receiver wide open -- down the sideline. He heaves..."
Adam leaned toward the television.
"...and overthrows his man. Oh, what a wasted opportunity. His receiver was wide open. That was a one-in-a-million chance, and he blew it."
The man shook his head. "Truer words were never spoken."
Adam closed his eyes, shoulders drooped, head slumped.
Kenny said, "Fourth and goal from the forty-eight yard line. In the storied history of this game, I don't believe this has ever happened before."
Instead of picking his money up, the man placed another hundred on top of it. And another. Two more. All told, five one-hundred-dollar bills leered up at Adam from the stained surface of the bar.
"What say we make this really interesting?" The man's voice was a smoky whisper, the rhythm of his words spoken to the beat of tribal drums.
Heart pounding, throat tight, Adam scrutinized the man, an entirely unremarkable individual. Brown eyes, maybe a little darker than average, but not out of the ordinary. Hair neat, but still just hair. Cheeks showed no hint of stubble. Black turtleneck and black pants, obviously tailor cut to the man's trim body. But this only verified that the man had enough money to throw away $500 on an insane bar bet. To mess with his head.
There is nothing wrong with this guy, Adam insisted. Nothing. He wrapped his fingers around the stack of hundreds.
"You're on, sucker," he said. "Ain't no way the 'Skins go all the way in one shot."
The man smiled his lipless Count Dracula smile. It was all in the eyes. Adam instantly regretted his decision. He started to put the money back on the bar.
The center snapped the ball. But he snapped it too hard; it sailed over the quarterback's outstretched arms. Adam laughed, celebrating, pointing at the television as the loose ball danced among the players like a living thing. Then, from the rugby-like scrum, the quarterback emerged with the ball. His eyes locked onto the only figure not scrambling amongst the pack, a figure that wore the same blood-red jersey as the quarterback.
"Noooooo!" screamed Adam, reaching out in slow motion, leaning across the bar, trying to swat the ball from the air. "Noooooo!" Hundred dollar bills slipped through his fingers.
The throw went twenty yards, precisely the distance that separated the receiver from every other player on the field. He scampered into the endzone untouched. Teammates went wild. Jim and Kenny stood in the booth, shouting with them. Adam went numb. Gape-mouthed, he turned to find the man, eyes blazing, reaching for his throat. The rest of the room was black.
From the depths of Adam's terrified soul, a soul that might be his for only a few seconds longer, words crawled forth. "It's 21 – 21. Washington still has to kick the extra point for a win."
The man paused, considering Adam's point. As he settled back, the darkness slithered into the maze of mirrors, seething.
"True," the man said. He sipped from the clear liquid in his glass. "I can wait."
Adam's eyes snapped to the television. But in his mind he was preparing to fling himself from his stool and make a break for the exit, sprinting through that door and headlong down the street, never to look back. If only he could pry his fingers from the death grip they had on the bar. But he couldn't. He couldn't move. All he could do was stare at the TV as the Redskins prepared to seal his doom. The ball was snapped. The hold was good.
The kick was blocked. It was recovered by a Giant's defender, who took off running.
"Goooooo!" Adam suddenly found himself free, bounding and screaming, cheering for the player who had scooped up his life in the form of an oblong piece of pigskin. Blocks were thrown. Gargantuan men collided. The Giant with the ball stopped abruptly, spinning out of the arms of one defender and slashing off in new direction, right into the arms of another. On the verge of being tackled he paused, moving as if to lateral the ball. The defender went for the fake, committing prematurely to the wrong man, and the player raced past, reaching the endzone just as the clock expired.
New York Giants 27 – Washington 21.
"Yes!" Adam threw his arms into the air; Kenny yelled "Touchdown!"
And Adam did his first jig. Requiring no music, he performed the dance to the tune of pure joy. Then he noticed the money, still on the floor, and fell to his knees, greedily snatching it up note by note. Jumping up again, he was still shouting, still ecstatic, still out of his mind with the thrill of victory.
"I beat you." He waved the money in the man's face, shouting to all six of his reflections, "I beat the devil!"
Silence. Thunderous, crashing, numbing silence.
Adam surveyed the bar. Everyone was frozen. Staring at him. The man stood and turned to the silent mass, arms spread wide. And they all began to laugh.
The man laughed. The bartender laughed. Everyone laughed. The room was buried under an avalanche of laughter. It rippled and tittered; it flowed around the room. Convulsing, the man smacked the bar, repeatedly striking it with such force that Adam feared it might crack in two, howling so relentlessly that Adam could see deep into his throat. With each laughing second, Adam felt more and more like a fool.
When the man finally paused for a breath, he looked up and asked, "What ever gave you the idea that I was the devil?"
Adam looked around. The room was still in hysterics. "But you said---"
"All I said was let's make this interesting. And you have to admit, it was interesting."
Adam glanced at the five one-hundred-dollar bills in his fist. His. Suddenly that was the least important thing in the world. Jabbing a finger two inches from the man's nose he shouted, "You tricked me!"
Bursting into another fit of laughter, the man spurted out, "Isn't that what the devil does?" The rest of the room hadn't stopped roaring.
Adam couldn't take anymore; he ran from the bar. Once outside, on the street, once in the sharp, smokeless air, it seemed so ridiculous. The devil? What had he been thinking? He took a deep breath.
And realized he'd left his jacket on the stool.
No way was he going back again – not even for his favorite leather jacket. Not after that humiliation. He would rather buy a new one.
Great, he thought, now I've lost my best jacket. Probably cost me every dollar I just won to replace it. Adam trudged down the street, money clenched in his fist, cursing the absent redhead.
# # #
Back inside, the bartender turned to the man and said, "By the diabolical hordes of Niflhel and Acheron, what pride you have -- what an ego."
The man glowered at him, daring the bartender to continue.
"I mean, really. God help the poor soul who loses one of your bets. Then the brimstone oozes out of your ears and your eyes turn into little orbs of fire. Don't get me wrong, it's a thing of beauty to watch their faces when you tell them it's impossible to remove a soul from a living body.
"But if you lose, you play the innocent, making your victim feel like an imbecile when you're the one who lost. It's pathetic. In a million years, I've never seen an ego like---"
The man tossed his drink into the demon bartender's face, his expression unchanging as the clear liquid sizzled through the other's flesh, melting him to the floor in sublime agony.
As the hissing vestiges of bartender disappeared through the cracks in the floor, the man said, "Of course I have pride, idiot. If it weren't for pride, I'd be sitting at the Right Hand of God, instead of hanging around this dump. If it weren't for pride, I'd be singing with angels, instead of laughing at losers who slink out of here without their leather jackets." He spit on the spot where the bartender had melted away and a small fire sprang up.
"If it weren't for pride, I'd be the number two man up there," he said, "instead of number one down here."