This story is by T.D. Bouchard and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Forty-eight hours have passed since he finished his last job and for a gambling salesman that’s a lifetime. The aroma of rotten eggs, the cat sex screeches, and volcanic temperatures of headquarters made Denis Vatal long to be anywhere above ground. He sold his soul centuries ago, but this is the first time he has been at the main office.
“I’m ready for my next assignment,” Denis says to his boss. “Where am I off to this time?”
“Grab your bags and get your ass to Arkansas,” replies the boss, who in human form resembles a televangelist with slicked back black hair, a slight paunch overhanging his belt, and the jowls of a well-fed man of leisure.
Unable to contain his glee, Denis performs a jaunty two-step jig as soon as the boss is out of sight.
The 1999 Ford Escort Denis chooses to drive was previously used in a demolition derby. It looks like a Clydesdale had used it for clog dancing practice.
Boom! The car backfires and stalls as planned. Denis wants to arrive on foot. Denis untwists the baling wire holding the trunk closed, retrieves his bag, and begins walking the pothole-filled dirt road towards town.
“Hey there, boy,” yells an old man from the seat of his tractor. “I’m guessing that’s your car broke down back yonder. I’ll push it out of the road for you on my way back by. Get yourself to the diner in town and get some food. You look like you could use a good meal.” Denis gives a wave as the old man kept chugging on down the road.
Denis realized a long time ago that his job is easier if he presents himself as unassuming. Makes it much easier to fit in with ordinary folks, discover what makes them tick, find out their weaknesses, and then strike. The old man is exactly the kind of person Denis expects to encounter in this hick town, not too bright and eager to offer help.
Jesus Christ riding a hockey stick on the green holding a nine iron during an electrical storm. This is going to be easier than I anticipated. The name of the town is Squirrel Bend and I’ll bet anything the citizens of this fine hamlet are just as squirrely as the name implies.
Denis finally reaches the diner and walks inside. He understands the power of small-town diners. A place for a stranger to learn which provincial peasant is likely to be the first to succumb to his powers of persuasion. Denis sits down at the counter and picks up the menu when a towering woman with a nasal-y accent that is in no way southern speaks to him.
“I haven’t seen you before and I know everyone from around these parts. Just passing through?”
“I’m thinking I may stick around for a while. Looks like a nice place.”
“Now, how do you know it looks like a nice place? I know for a fact you just now walked into town.”
“How do you know I didn’t arrive last night?”
“Sweetie, I know everything and everyone in this town. You just got here and you look like a fellow who is up to no good.”
“Do you always insult visitors to your lovely village?”
“Only those who mean trouble and a gambling salesman don’t bring nothing but trouble.”
Diner woman’s remark catches Denis off-guard. Is it possible she knows who he is? Before he can reply, a thirty-something woman and her son enter the diner. He notices diner woman nod. Door woman nods in return as she and her son make their way to the booth in the back. Denis watches the child. The boy walks on his toes, flaps the hand his mother isn’t holding, and hums. At this point, Denis shivers as a chill runs through his body. Recognition lights up his brain much like the neon signs adorning Times Square. He knows this woman and child – but, from where?
Once, years ago, Denis angered the boss who punished Denis by having his favored canine, Bella, hold Denis’ testicles between her jaws for a week. Denis feels this same discomfort now. He knows he caused horrific pain to this woman and her child, but he cannot remember where or how.
Diner woman walks to back booth carrying an exceedingly tall glass filled with cubed ice so cold the glass frosted over, and can of Coca-Cola covered in tear-shaped droplets of condensation. The cola fizzes as she pours it over the ice. The boy’s humming increases. The diner patrons glance toward the back booth frowning while giving disapproving headshakes. They begin talking to each other in hushed tones, mouths full, their teeth gnashing the meatloaf, pinto beans, and sliced tomatoes until Denis felt queasy from the visible food slaughter that was taking place in the face cavities of the plebeians sitting on the barstools.
“Recognize them?” Diner woman asks Denis.
“I feel like I should,” Denis replies.
“You sent them to their deaths over three hundred years ago.”
“I told the elders she was a witch who placed a spell on her child in order to gain sympathy from the town.”
“There wasn’t a name for autism in those days, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Those superstitious pious old fool white men were always waiting for a way to punish any woman who didn’t fit their ideal.”
“You were there, weren’t you?”
“Damn straight I was there,” Diner woman states, holding her head high, jutting out her chin, slamming her fist against her hip. “I tried to save her then, but you and your boss convinced those men to burn her and her boy.”
“I’ve always regretted my part in that. The boss wanted the souls of those men. Wanted to show how he could sway those religious fanatics to kill innocents. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I convinced myself it was just a job, nothing more. But the look in her eyes when they lit that pyre and watching her try to break loose to get to her boy – well, the boss was just doing his thing, but I suspect even he felt bad about that one. Course, he will never admit that.”
“Bullshit. Why do you think your boss sent you here?”
“She and the boy are my marks.”
“I’ve been waiting for you to show up again. You’re not getting them this time, you hear me mister. She lives for that boy. After her boy got hurt by caregivers she wouldn’t trust nobody to look after him except herself. She gave up a good job in the city, sold her house, and moved to this place to raise her boy. Thought it would be a good environment – small town must mean kind people. She was only partly right. There are some good ones, but we got our fair share of bad ones. She’s got old timers telling her she needs to beat that boy so he’ll mind. She thought she’d have plenty of money after she cashed in everything, but money goes fast and she’s nearly out. She’s out of her mind with worry about what’s going to happen once that money is gone. With the right therapists, educators, and some live-in help at the house her boy will be able to make a lot of progress, but that takes money – a lot of it. So, are you going to do the right thing, Mr. Greed?”
Denis reaches into the back pocket of his threadbare Levi’s 501 jeans pulling out a child’s wallet covered with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Ariel raises one gray bushy eyebrow seeing this. She knows Mr. Greed’s modus operandi is to appear down-on-his-luck and it’s why he’s successful at collecting souls for his boss.
“Give her this. It’ll be enough to take care of her and the boy for the rest of their lives. It’s the winning ticket for the lottery drawing tonight. I’m supposed to use it to collect a soul. My balls may be in Bella’s mouth for a year this time.”
“Nah,” Ariel tells him. “Your boss owes me one, so Bella’s gonna miss out on those tasty tidbits this time around. Don’t act surprised. We’ve been in this business a long time and over the years there’s been a favor or two traded. I’ll tell you about it next time I see you. I expect you’ll be back to see how well your gamble’s paying off. Now, skedaddle.”
Denis gets up and walks toward the door. As he begins to turn the doorknob he suddenly stops, glances back at Ariel, gives her a slight nod, and walks out the door.
Ariel smiles to herself. She saw the faintest outline of a halo when Denis nodded in her direction. Soon she’ll be collecting a soul of her own.