Nick Price was in his happy place, laying ceramic tile as part of a bathroom remodel he was doing. Getting dirty and working with his hands, an act his friends and colleagues couldn’t get their heads around, was something he couldn’t get enough of. He got it: guys like him, stock traders, investment bankers, etc, just didn’t do stuff like this. But he loved it because it made him feel just a little more connected with his dad, who had been a general contractor before the stroke that eventually stole him away from the family. Because of all that, it never occurred to him that this was the day he’d have his first lunch with a demon
His friends and colleagues couldn’t understand why someone with his money wanted to live in a rundown old bungalow in a less-than-savory neighborhood. And every time he tried to explain, they rolled their eyes. Who cared that his grandmother had lived in the community when he was a kid or how cool it was back then? Some of them had actually laughed when he told them the neighborhood was making a comeback and he wanted to be a part of that. But, he didn’t care, he was used to people thinking he was crazy for the chances he took. He had learned early on that the key to a happy life couldn’t be found in material things.
Now, here he was laying tile. It wasn’t his favorite thing to do (that would be carpentry), but there was a zen-like quality to spreading the thin-set. The grooves from the trowel made patterns that fascinated him. He made one, absentmindedly swirling the tool around and muttering some gibberish that he and his younger brother had found so funny when they were growing up. He had just turned to the bucket for some more thin-set when he heard a pop and smelled something like sulfur. Turning back around, he found a man standing in front of him.
“You rang?” the man asked. He was of medium height, thin, with very dark tousled hair, and a very stylish five o’clock shadow that was perfectly trimmed. He was dressed in an exquisite 3 piece black suit. The vest, tie, and pocket square had a faint brocade-like pattern. It wasn’t flashy, but you knew it was there. The man’s shirt was also black and the entire look carried a level of sartorial perfection Nick wished he could pull off.
“Who are you?” he stammered. “Where did you come from? And, why are you standing in my bathroom dressed like that?”
“Whoa, slow down, cowboy,” the man said, holding up his hands. “One thing at a time. We’ll start with who am I,” he said. He shot his cuffs, cleared his throat, and said, “I am Talroth, son of Gorgo, an imp of the 4th degree, and attendant of Prosperine, goddess of the underworld.” He paused, apparently waiting for recognition because when none was forthcoming, he huffed faintly. “As for where I came from, well, I just told you, didn’t I?” Nick shot him a puzzled look. “The underworld?” He reached down and rapped his knuckles on Nick’s head. “Hello,” he said, condescendingly. “Anybody home?”
“Oh yeah,” Nick muttered, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“Well, I suppose I’ll forgive you this time,” Talroth said haughtily. “But if this relationship is going to work out, you’ll need to be quicker on the uptake.”
“Wait, what?” Nick said. This whole situation was getting more confusing by the second.
“You summoned me,” the demon said. “And, Talroth always answers a summons, ready to bestow his gifts upon grateful humans like you.” He bowed theatrically as he finished.
“I summoned you?” Nick said, even more confused than before. “How did I do that?”
“You made the sigil and said the incantation,” Talroth said, waving at his feet. The pattern in the mortar was still there, undamaged, as the demon seemed to float above it.
“I didn’t kn—, I mean, I wasn’t trying to summon you,” Nick said. “I was just making a cool pattern in the mortar.”
Talroth sighed. “Yes, but you said the incantation. So you obviously meant to call me.”
“What incantation?” Nick asked. When Talroth repeated back the “gibberish” he had been saying as swirled the mortar around, Nick said, “Oh, that was just some crazy stuff I used to say to make my little brother laugh.” Then, the impact of the whole situation hit him. “Wait, you mean all those times I acted goofy with my kid brother, I could’ve accidentally called up a demon?”
“Well, no. You’d have to draw out the sig—” Talroth shook his head angrily. “Hold on,” he snapped. “Are you saying this was just an accident?” Nick nodded. “Well, shit,” the demon said. “I’ll never live this down when word gets out.”
“That would be a problem?”
“Oh yes,” Talroth said. “Hell is, well, hell for this kind of thing. It is, quite possibly, the most drama-filled place in all creation, laden with icky little climbers who will stab you in the back for the tiniest bit of social clout.” He began to pace back and forth. “What am I going to do? Father is on the verge of disowning me for mistakes like this. And, Proserpina?” He stopped and stared down at Nick. “You do not want to get on her bad side.”
Nick grimaced. “I guess I’ve kind of put you in a bad spot,” he said.
Nick got to his feet and took off his kneepads. “Then I should help you out of this fix, shouldn’t I?”
Talroth looked shocked. “You’d do that?” he said.
“Of course,” Nick replied. “It’s only fair since I’m the reason you’re in this mess in the first place.” He turned to walk out of the bathroom. “I need some lunch. How about we talk through this over a sandwich?”
“That, my friend, was excellent,” Talroth said, wiping a few crumbs off the table and onto his plate. “What did you call that?”
“A tuna melt,” Nick said. “It was one of my dad’s favorite sandwiches.”
“Amazing,” the demon said. “It’s so simple, yet so… flavorful.” He looked over at Nick. “You know, this is the best part of being human,” he said waving his hand over the table.
“Food?” Nick said. “Really?”
“Oh yes,” Talroth answered. “Back home, you can get some approximation of most of the pleasures of mortal life.” He paused. “Except food.”
“What, they just don’t have it?” Nick said.
“Well, to be perfectly fair, it’s not really necessary as we denizens of the nether regions don’t need to eat,” the imp said. “There is a little food around the place, but it’s mostly used as a torment for souls who were gluttonous in life. There’s certainly nothing like this in Hell.” He looked at his empty plate again. “I don’t suppose I could trouble you for another, could I?”
“Of course,” Nick said as he stood and took Talroth’s plate. “Would you like to watch?” The demon nodded eagerly. “Well, come on, then.”
“Okay,” Nick told the imp as he made tuna salad, “so the trick is to dice your onions pretty small. That way, you’ll get the flavor but won’t end up biting into a big chunk of onion.” Nick flipped a spoonful of mayonnaise into the tuna along with the onion and the sweet relish. “And, now for the secret ingredient: horseradish sauce,” he said, as he dolloped a bit in.
“Does the type of mayonnaise matter?” Talroth asked.
“Not really,” Nick said shaking his head as stirred the mixture to combine everything. “People swear by brands but to be perfectly honest, I can’t tell one from another.” He looked up with a sly grin. “I just buy what’s on sale and tell people what they want to hear.”
“Interesting,” the demon said. “So, you just lie to them?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Nick said with a shrug as he spread butter on two slices of Everything Sourdough bread. “Not trying to change the subject but here’s something important. Use real butter on your bread. Some people will use mayo or some easy-to-spread margarine.” He turned up his nose a bit as he said it. “Sure, there all fats, but nothing beats the richness of actual butter.”
“Um hmm,” the demon said. “Don’t people get upset when they find out you’ve lied?”
“I suppose they might if they knew.” Nick laid the fully constructed sandwich in the skillet. “But nobody’s figured it out yet.” The butter began to sizzle in the hot pan. “You know,” he said, “we’ve been so busy talking about food, we haven’t even gotten to your predicament.”
“No, we haven’t,” Talroth said. “The conversation has been so lovely, I’d completely forgotten about it.” He smiled. “It’s been rather nice.”
“It really has.” Nick flipped the sandwich, pleased with the perfect browning of the bread. “Do you want to discuss it or keep talking about food?”
Talroth shook his head. “No, as nice as it’s been ignoring it, I do need to get a handle on it.”
“Any ideas?” Nick asked as they sat down at the table.
“Well,” the demon said, with a sly edge to his voice, “we could make a deal. If I brought back a contract, no one could say the trip was wasted.”
“A deal?” Nick said. “What kind of deal are we talking?”
“Oh, you know,” Talroth said offhandedly. “Just the standard contract. I give you your heart’s desire, and you promise me your soul.” He waved his hand, adding, “When you’re done with it, of course.”
Nick thought about it as he watched the imp tuck into the sandwich. “I don’t know, man. I mean, it sounds like a good plan but I can’t think of anything I’d be willing to exchange my soul for.”
“Oh, come on, now,” Talroth said. “There’s got to be something. Maybe an extra-lusty girlfriend, or a big promotion at work?”
Nick shrugged. “Well, here’s the thing. Those are nice things but I have a pretty cool girlfriend already. And, I don’t really care for my job. I only got into it because I could make a lot of money quick and Mom and Dad needed help financially.” They sat back down at the table. “Now that they’re gone, there’s no reason to keep doing something I hate.”
“Um hmm,” the imp said. “Perhaps there’s something else. Like, say, a deferred dream?”
“Well, I have always wanted to be a writer,” Nick said sheepishly.
“There you go,” replied the demon. “I can whip up a contract that guarantees you a spot on the best-seller list. And, all it will cost you is your soul.” His eyes sparkled. “Really, it’s not like you’re using it. Right?”
Nick considered the offer for a moment before answering. “I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, sure, it sounds great, but that best-seller wouldn’t really be mine, would it?”
The demon appeared crestfallen for a moment but another bite of the sandwich seemed to cheer him up. His eyes sparkled again and he mumbled, “Oh, so good,” around the tuna salad, cheese, and bread that filled his mouth. After he swallowed, he said, “That is true.” He eyed the sandwich as if he was considering devouring it all in one big gulp. “I can see you’re a man of quality, Nick. The usual blandishments don’t have much sway over you.” He paused, studying Nick for a moment. “Interesting.”
Nick shook his saying, “I don’t know about all that. It’s just that I’m pretty happy with my current situation.” He laughed. “If you’d shown up a year ago, this probably would’ve gone very differently.”
“Oh? How so?”
“At that time, Dad was in the final stages of his dance with lymphoma and Mom’s dementia was coming on hard. I had to put them both in facilities because no one else in the family was willing to help. And, let me tell you, those “facilities” were expensive. Which meant that I was essentially trapped in a job I hated and that I had to put in some long hours.” Nick looked down at his hands for a moment. “I would’ve jumped at anything that might gotten me out of that hole.”
A short laugh escaped Talroth’s lips and he said, “So, I’m a day late and a dollar short.” He shook his head. “The story of my existence.”
“Sorry,” Nick said with a tilt of his head.
“No worries,” the demon said. “Not your fault.”
“You know,” Nick said, “if I got in bad shape before, who’s to say it won’t happen again?”
The imp looked up. “What are you getting at, Nicholas Price?”
“I’m just saying that it’s possible you could catch me in a weak moment and I might take your deal,” Nick told him. “In the meantime, you’d be welcome to stop in and visit. Maybe even enjoy the occasional sandwich.”
“That would be lovely,” Talroth replied. “Having a respite from all the drama down below would be very nice.” He thought for a moment. “It’s a deal!” He picked up his sandwich and attacked it with gusto. “Did I tell you about Beelzebub and Azazel getting into it last week? No? Oh, it was a doozy…”