The Devil didn’t appear in a flash of fire and brimstone; I just looked up from my Macbook Air and there he was.
“The door was open,” he said. And grinned. We both knew he hadn’t come through the door.
He didn’t have horns or a tail, or even an unusually ruddy complexion, but I knew him. He resembled a network TV drug lord more than anything, a Miami Vice throwback, perched on the corner of my writing table, dapper as fuck in a double-breasted Armani suit over a black silk t-shirt.
“Oh,” I said, “it’s you,” sounding almost as if I’d expected him to come dropping by just after nine on a Tuesday.
“It is I,” he agreed, hefting the unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue that’s stood watch by my laptop these last four years. “I’m not sure this is worth what you paid for it.”
“I’m saving that — ”
“Until you finish your novel, yes, I know.” He cracked the seal, causing me almost physical pain, and took a swig. “Not bad,” he said. “For a blend.”
“I’m not a single-malt guy. So I’ve been told.”
“And how’s the book coming?” he said, poking at my keyboard with his perfectly manicured nails, inserting random characters into my manuscript.
“Slowly,” I said, pushing his hand away and undoing the damage.
“Oh? Tell me about it.”
And like any writer who thinks he’s found a sympathetic ear, I poured out my catalog of woe: the passive protagonist, the sagging second act, the unsatisfying resolution.
“Is that all?” the Devil said. “Weaker stuff than this hits bookstores every day. You’re just obsessing over details.”
“It has to be perfect.”
“It’s a paperback novel, not laser eye surgery.”
I leveled an accusing finger at him. “You’re trying to tempt me into sending my book out before it’s ready.”
“Am I?” He leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially in my ear. “Do you know what accounts for the difference between a four-star review on Amazon and a five-star review?”
I shook my head.
He laughed so hard the table shook, the shrill, giddy laugh of a five-year old who’s just discovered elephant jokes. And when he saw the dismay on my face, he reflected a grotesque, exaggerated version of it back at me and laughed louder, actually clapping his hands in delight.
“You’re a dick.”
“I’m the Devil,” he reminded me. He stood, restoring the whisky to its customary place. The cap resealed itself as if it had never been opened. “Well, it’s been fun. Good luck.”
“Wait. Aren’t you here to offer me a deal?”
“Would you believe,” he said, “that there are Rules against that?” He smiled thinly. “One makes certain concessions in the interest of smooth business dealings. I’m no ambulance chaser.”
“But if I were to express an interest …”
“Then we’d be in a position to negotiate,” he said, sliding into the chair opposite mine. “Anything might be possible. If you were interested.”
He gazed at me over top of my screen, then with one long finger, he gently pushed the lid of my Air closed. “Look, I need you to actually say, ‘I’m interested.’ Doesn’t commit you to anything, but we can’t move forward until you — ”
“I thought you might be.” He pulled a thick sheaf of paper from his inner jacket pocket and smoothed it out on my writing table — my kitchen table, actually, with a poker felt serving in lieu of a tablecloth. “Here’s what I’m offering, three guarantees: your next book will be better than the one you’re working on now, you’ll finish it in less than a year, and you’ll be able to sell it for a comfortable advance, more than enough to finance your next year of writing. And that cycle will repeat, as long as you care to continue, each book better than the last, taking a bit less time to write, earning a bit more in advance and royalties.”
“In exchange for my soul?” I asked.
He waved dismissively. “I traffic in intellectual property these days. No, I just want the rights to your current novel, this imperfect work in progress here.” He tapped my laptop just below the Apple logo.
“Which rights?” I asked. I’m not a complete neophyte, even if I have yet to publish. I attended a 45-minute panel discussion on agents and contracts at a local writers’ conference.
“Everything,” he said, and I knew from the way the word cut through me like some spectral shiv that he’d take every aspect of my work from me. All rights, for starters, but even my memory of having written it. “Of course, your personal demons remain your own property. Your reluctance, your fear, your self-doubt.”
He opened my laptop, lifting the lid with one nail, like a witch hooking morsels from a cauldron. I stared at the login screen, thinking of the four years I’d be throwing away if I accepted. Still, how many more years did I want to chase perfection on this current project? I had his guarantee I’d finish the next book in a year, and it would be better.
I typed my password. My novel filled the display, then, even as I watched, faded away, a word at a time. By the time it vanished I could no longer even remember what it had been about.
“Congratulations,” the Devil said, somehow standing behind me now, one hand on my shoulder. “Best get started on that new book right away.”
“Right away.” I opened a new project in Scrivener, then glanced left.
He followed my eyes to the whisky bottle. The level looked lower than it should be, but the seal was still in place, so that was all right.
“Saving that, are you?” the Devil said.
“For when I finish my novel.”
“Excellent,” he said. “I’ll see you next year.”
Tony Pisculli is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program. His short story “Totality” was featured on Daily Science Fiction, and “Odd Hours” is forthcoming on Grievous Angel.