There it lay; innocuous, innocent, inviting. The light from the sunset bathed it in a warm glow, emphasising the soft, supple cover; hiding countless secrets in its thick, luxurious pages.
Peter side-eyed the little black book on the table – clearly forgotten, and left there for anyone to take it. The café was closing soon and, against his better judgment, he scooped up the book and slipped it into his bag. I’ll see if it has any ID inside, he told himself. It wasn’t like he was stealing it. He wasn’t a thief.
The bus was almost empty by the time it got to his stop. The little book in his bag was silently calling him; encouraging him to open it and uncover its secrets. It felt… naughty. He wasn’t a snoop. He didn’t want to read someone’s diary… but how could he find its rightful owner if he didn’t at least take a quick peek? No one knows it’s not mine. He was weak, he knew this, but how often did things like this happen?
He watched the reflections of the other bus patrons in the window. No one cared about what he was doing. No one would notice.
The gentle hissing of the bus brakes coming to a stop released him from his stupor. He was nearly home. He’d wait. He’d have a look at the front page for some kind of contact information and let them know he’d found their book. It was no big deal – really.
The walk home from his stop was relatively quick. It took maybe ten minutes. The problem, however, was that he lived in a poorly-lit street. The gaps between houses and buildings looked so dark that he doubted a flashlight would do much. It was kind of eerie. That didn’t scare him, though. No, what scared him – well, made him uneasy – was the devil dog he was pretty sure was watching him from the alley across the street. Sure, the dog was probably friendly, and Peter knew he was being irrational, but there was just something about it that didn’t sit well with him. Probably the teeth.
He was also pretty sure he was allergic to dogs – especially the big ones.
The snuffling sound from across the street made him quicken his pace. He heard a low growl followed by what was definitely a laugh, as though the damned thing knew he was afraid. He quickened his pace, thinking the thing’s owner might also enjoy chasing innocent men down the street!
Not too far now… just…ah!
He made it in one piece.
Huffing in relief, Peter let himself inside and bolted up the stairs to his apartment.
The door was stuck a bit but a good shove did it.
“Oh.” He dropped his bag to the ground, ignoring how pathetic he sounded.
His apartment was empty.
His furniture, his light fittings, and his family photos. Gone. “What the…?” He rushed to his bedroom. Nothing. The study – empty! “How… wha– … how?” He didn’t bother asking ‘why’. Obviously, someone needed his stuff much more than he did. Obviously.
The only things left were his CDs. Apparently, you couldn’t steal good taste.
He’d been cleaned out. His whole life was gone in a day.
He was almost impressed, though. Whoever it was, they did a decent job. They’d taken everything. Heavy furniture, white goods, photos… soap. They hadn’t even scratched the walls.
A humourless chuckle escaped his throat, only to turn into a sob as he sank to his knees on the floor, next to his bag at the front door. His bag. The one thing he had left. Whatever he had, it was in there. He did a quick inventory: bag, laptop, wallet, keys… notebook.
Carefully, he opened what he was starting to consider a bad omen. Seriously. What are the chances? I find someone’s expensive-looking book and come home to find my apartment emptied.
The soft rustle of the pages turning under his thumb was oddly calming. It was just a b—nope.
The name in the book, beautifully written as it was, did not help him feel better.
“Satan?” Really? How reassuring. He turned another page. “If you find this book, it’s your problem now.” What? The ink – he chose to believe it was ink – was a lovely, glistening crimson. “A little cliché, but okay…” He kept reading.
Despair, mortal, for you have claimed the manual to Hell.
Your life, as you know it, is forfeit. Say goodbye to everything. The previous owner of this book has absconded with your possessions – except your awful CDs. Barry Manilow? Kenny Rogers? Really? Are you 65?
To begin your new role as Hell’s Agent (AKA Regional Manager), enter your desired payment below. Sign with your blood for it to be binding in all Heavenly and Infernal courts. (Don’t be too greedy.)
Peter laughed; a full, loud, roaring laugh. Clearly, he was being pranked. Any moment now, his friends would burst in, show him some hidden cameras… some jerk with neon-white teeth would pop out of a kitchen cupboard and say “Gotcha!” and all his stuff would –
A sudden, howling shriek tore out of the book. The pages flew open with the hot, stinking gust of wind. Peter was blasted into the wall, his skin blistering; the book dropped to the ground. A large, dark arm emerged from the pages, and groped around, clawing at the carpet. Another demonic arm seemed to get stuck, flailed a bit, and tried to force its way through the pages. Finally, with a scream Peter wasn’t sure was from the creature, from himself or from whatever was in that book, a ten-foot-tall, red-skinned, goat-legged demon wrenched itself from the tiny pages and turned around, lying awkwardly on the floor. A bright yellow tie, hung around its neck, trailing limply to the floor.
“Lucifer’s pitchfork! A6? Really? Who the hell manages Hell with an A6 notebook?” It stood, stooping under the ceiling with its horns trailing little scratches into the paint. When it stepped forward, it tripped a little. A hand, rotting and broken, had pushed its way out of the pages, and grasped the beast’s hoof. “Get back in there!” It shook off the hand and stomped on the fingers until it retreated. “Damned hitchhikers,” it muttered. “Hey, uh… just quickly,” it looked up at Peter, “Have you seen my dog? About… yay big,” he held his clawed hand about six feet from the ground, “black, red eyes…? No?” Its eyes darted awkwardly; it didn’t seem to know what to look at – it was like he expected the dog to… be there?
A lesser man would have run away. Peter, however? No, he made a low whine and wet his pants like a champion. The demon’s nostrils flared and he glanced down at the kneeling human. Its nose wrinkled in disgust.
“We don’t cover damages -- that’s on you.” Peter whined again, fully aware that his nose had started running. The demon rolled its eyes – all six, completely black eyes. “Look, you knew I was coming, right?” Peter shook his head slowly, his mouth agape, but no sound could make its way out. “You picked up the book…” Peter nodded, mouth still slack. “You read the words…” a small, pitchy sound of agreement escaped his throat. “You signed the book and accepted the Ts and Cs, right?” Peter shook his head slowly. “Well, what? Are you looking to negotiate the base package? Not a chance, buddy,” it shook a large, clawed finger at him. “You get your new identity, a car, lump-sum payment, and an apartment in your region. Anything extra is out of pocket – your pocket. If you want a food budget, talk to HR.”
“You have Human Relations?”
“No, I’m full-blooded Pit Demon on both sides.” The giant, red, freaking ripped, six-eyed creature opened its fanged maw and squinted its eyes, waiting for… what? “Ugh. Never mind. Hell Resources. I’m sure you meant Human Resources, right?” Peter nodded. “Well, if you’ve got a problem, they’ll solve it. It might take a few thousand years but… hey, it’s Hell. What can y’do?” He made an awkward pop with his lips and grinned a bit. Peter couldn’t do much. The pee had cooled on his leg now. He could smell it, too. The wet carpet under his knees was kind of uncomfortable.
“Jeez, okay. So, all you have to do is sign and name your price – with blood, not just any bodily fluid – and you’re the new regional manager for Hell in… where are we, Detroit?” He looked around, trying to discern where his weird book portal had taken him. Peter still couldn’t speak. “Whatever. Here, use my pen.” The demon pulled a fountain pen from thin air, took Peter’s hand, and jabbed his thumb. “Don’t get too greedy. We have a budget, you know.”
“But I have a job,” he managed to croak out.
“It belongs to the new you now. You’re pretty much gone – think of it like a changeling situation, but you get paid. The guy you’re replacing is going to take over your life and you get to start anew. Just sign,” the smile he probably thought was charming and reassuring was actually just terrifying. When Peter hesitated, he seemed to lose some patience. “Look, you can sign it now, or I can drag you to Hell and pull your insides out of your asshole for eternity. Your choice.”
That lit a fire under the human.
Peter gripped the pen and signed his name, but as he was adding what he intended to be $20,000,000, the pen ran out of blood. The demon snatched it back, signed the page without looking, and handed a briefcase over. With that, he said a quick “pleasure doing business” and, with the same Hellish screams and incredibly hot wind, he jumped back into the notebook, muttering about cutting calories.
Peter blinked and looked down at the page he’d signed.
I, Peter Monroe, do hereby sign my service to the offices of Hell for as long as they so call me to Infernal Duty.
Work expenses will be covered by the offices of Hell. Reimbursements are to be processed through HR, which may take up to 3-5000 infernal business days.
My agreed-upon one-time payment is $20,000.
Signed: Peter Monroe.
There it was; notarised by the demon’s incomprehensible sigil.
The blood ink flared a blinding, hot white for a moment, before fading back to crimson.
Peter had just sold his service to Hell for $20,000. Awesome.