The New Orleans businessman, whose gray hair put him in his fifties, was accompanied by his much younger and taller bodyguard/chauffeur on the night he met the devil in the French Quarter. The meeting was by prearrangement.
"This is really the Devil we’re going to see?" asked the bodyguard. He was tense – but then, that wasn’t too surprising.
"Not the Devil, but a devil." The businessman was cool and collected on the outside, but maybe not so much on the inside. "Since he came up to me at the Chamber of Commerce banquet, I’ve learned a lot of things I didn’t know before." He looked around him, trying to spot the creature he’d agreed to meet. He told his bodyguard, "He convinced me that he was what he said he was. I always thought my daughter was simply deluded. I thought she imagined she had power because she wanted to have something . . . of her own. Now I’m willing to admit she has a certain talent, though nowhere near what she thinks."
It was cold and damp in the January night, even in New Orleans. The businessman shifted from foot to foot to keep warm. He told the bodyguard, "Evidently, meeting at a crossroads is traditional." The street was not as busy as it would be in the summer, but there were still drinkers and tourists and natives going about their night’s entertainment. He wasn’t afraid, he told himself. "Ah, here he comes," the businessman said.
The devil was a well-dressed man, much like the businessman. His tie was by Hermes. His suit was Italian. His shoes were custom-made. His eyes were abnormally clear, the whites gleaming, the irises a purplish brown; they looked almost red from certain angles.
"What have you got for me?" the devil asked, in a voice that indicated he was only faintly interested.
"Two souls," said the businessman. "Tyrese has agreed to go in with me."
The devil shifted his gaze to the bodyguard. After a moment, the bodyguard nodded. He was a big man, a light-skinned African American with bright hazel eyes.
"Your own free will?" the devil asked neutrally. "Both of you?"
"My own free will," said the businessman.
"My own free will," affirmed the bodyguard.
The devil said, "Then let’s get down to business."
"Business" was a word that made the older man comfortable. He smiled. "Wonderful. I’ve got the documents right here, and they’re signed." Tyrese opened a thin leather folder and withdrew two pieces of paper: not parchment or human skin, nothing that dramatic or exotic – computer paper that the businessman’s office secretary had bought at OfficeMax. Tyrese offered the papers to the devil, who gave them a quick glance.
"You have to sign them again," the devil said. "For this signature, ink is not satisfactory."
"I thought you were joking about that." The businessman frowned.
"I never joke," the devil said. "I do have a sense of humor, oh, believe me, I do. But not about contracts."
"We actually have to . . . ?"
"Sign in blood? Yes, absolutely. It’s traditional. And you’ll do it now." He read the businessman’s sideways glance correctly. "I promise you no one will see what you are doing," he said. As the devil spoke, a sudden hush enveloped the three men, and a thick film fell between them and the rest of the street scene.
The businessman sighed elaborately, to show how melodramatic he thought this tradition was. "Tyrese, your knife?" he said, looking up to the chauffeur.
Tyrese’s knife appeared with shocking suddenness, probably from his coat sleeve; the blade was obviously sharp, and it gleamed in the streetlight. The businessman shucked off his coat and handed it to his companion. He unbuttoned his cuff and rolled up his sleeve. Perhaps to let the devil know how tough he was, he jabbed himself in the left arm with the knife. A sluggish trickle of blood rewarded his effort, and he looked the devil directly in the face as he accepted the quill that the devil had somehow supplied . . . even more smoothly than Tyrese had produced the knife. Dipping the quill into the trail of blood, the businessman signed his name to the top document, which the chauffeur held pressed against the leather folder.
After he’d signed, the businessman returned the knife to the chauffeur and donned his coat. The chauffeur followed the same procedure as his employer. When he’d signed his own contract, he blew on it to dry the blood as if he’d signed with a Sharpie and the ink might smear.
The devil smiled when the signatures were complete. The moment he did, he didn’t look quite so much like a prosperous man of affairs.
He looked too damn happy.
"You get a signing bonus," he told the businessman. "Since you brought me another soul. By the way, how do you feel?"
"Just like I always did," said the businessman. He buttoned up his coat. "Maybe a little angry." He smiled suddenly, his teeth looking as sharp and gleaming as the knife had. "How are you, Tyrese?" he asked his employee.
"A little antsy," Tyrese admitted. "But I’ll be okay."
"You were both bad people to begin with," the devil said, without any judgment in his voice. "The souls of the innocent are sweeter. But I delight in having you. I suppose you’re sticking with the usual wish list? Prosperity? The defeat of your enemies?"
"Yes, I want those things," the businessman said with passionate sincerity. "And I have a few more requests, since I get a signing bonus. Or could I take that in cash?"
"Oh," the devil said, smiling gently, "I don’t deal in cash. I deal in favors."
"Can I get back to you on that?" the businessman asked after some thought. "Take a rain check?"
The devil looked faintly interested. "You don’t want an Alfa Romeo or a night with Nicole Kidman or the biggest house in the French Quarter?"
The businessman shook his head decisively. "I’m sure something will come up that I do want, and then I’d like to have a very good chance of getting it. I was a successful man until Katrina. And after Katrina I thought I would be rich, because I own a lumber business. Everyone needed lumber." He took a deep breath. He kept on telling his story, despite the fact that the devil looked bored. "But getting a supply line reestablished was hard. So many people didn’t have money to spend because they were ruined, and there was the wait for the insurance money, for the rest. I made some mistakes, believing the fly-by-night builders would pay me on time. . . . It all ended up with my business too extended, everyone owing me, my credit stretched as thin as a condom on an elephant. Knowledge of this is getting around." He looked down. "I’m losing the influence I had in this city."