Devil at the Crossroads (A Deal with a Devil Story)
The devil covets more than his soul ...
Six years ago, Logan Hart sold his soul to the devil to become the greatest bluesman of all time—and now the devil has come to collect.
The irony is that Logan squandered his gift. High on fame, money, and drugs, he ignored his muse and neglected his music. And despite escaping showbiz in a moment of clarity, it’s too late to redeem himself. All that’s left is to try to go out with some dignity. Alas, the prospect of an eternity in Hell isn’t helping much with that goal.
But Farfarello, the devil who bought Logan’s soul, isn’t ready to drag him down to Hell quite yet. He’s just spent six years working his ass off to whip a bluesman into shape, and he refuses to let that—or the opportunity for more sinful pleasures with Logan—go to waste.
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Logan Hart never imagined death would find him this way—alone in an old hotel room, a Marlboro in his mouth, his soul heavy in his chest, waiting for the devil to come rip him to shreds.
The room was quiet and dusty, its floorboards marred by charred lines, telltale signs of cigarettes dropped by careless sleepers. The smell of smoke saturated the heavy curtains, the worn bedsheets, the faded wallpaper.
Logan sat on a moth-eaten, red velvet armchair. On the small table beside him, among piles of old newspapers, rested a bottle of whiskey—barely half of it left. He had every intention of finishing it, and soon.
If what he feared was truly going to happen . . . he would sure as hell need it.
For most of his life, he hadn’t thought about his own death at all. Even during the last six years, he’d pushed it to the back of his mind—buried it under bright lights and expensive drugs, sweaty bodies and too-loud voices. In the last month, though, he’d thought of little else. He had concocted an array of scenarios, all involving alcohol and dangerous places. A tall building in a gray city, an even grayer street down below, cold tarmac ready to catch a falling body. A bottle shattered into an infinity of fragments. A chair kicked to the floor under the ceiling fan in a presidential suite, an empty minibar, and dangling feet. A heavy car sinking in a lake, muddy water rising in the locked cabin. Anything to get ahead, so to speak—just to avoid finding out exactly what sort of death the devil had in mind for him.
Somehow, he hadn’t gone through with any of his plans. Maybe he lacked the exact measure of madness he needed to believe that the devil would actually show up. Or maybe he just lacked the knowledge of the exact measure of cruelty the devil possessed and, if he knew—really knew—how creative the devil could be . . . if he knew the exact measure of pain a human body could withstand before succumbing to a merciful death, maybe he’d swallow rusty nails with that whiskey and throw himself through the window, smiling all the way down.
Maybe he just lacked imagination.
There was a chill in the air, a sibilant breeze that filtered through the cracks in the walls, howled and hissed on the tiled roof. It seeped into the room like a thin silver thread; it sneaked under Logan’s clothes and brushed his skin with icy fingers. The day had been stifling hot and damp, but, as darkness came, with it had crept that slithering cold, like fractures appearing in old bones. It had muted birds and crickets and paralyzed the murmuring grass, moving forward until it had reached the hotel. There, it had crawled up the creaking wooden steps and spread, quiet and bone-chilling, to everyone’s fingertips.
The guests had looked at each other with watchful eyes and had left Logan alone.
They could feel it. Logan was sure of it. He didn’t know who they were or where they came from, and yet somehow they were stranded there with him—in that silent, shadowy hotel, somewhere on the brink of insanity. Maybe they were trapped, or maybe in transit, just like him. But whoever they were, whatever reason they had to be there—they could tell. They knew.
Logan had seen them as he’d staggered through the corridor after purchasing the whiskey from the tall, solemn bartender; he’d caught a glimpse of an ample ballroom, the notes of a tango floating languorous in the air. A dark-skinned woman had been sitting at a table, tapping her long red nails on the wood to the music. She’d been wearing a crimson flower in her hair, and her eyes had flashed like a cat’s when she’d looked at Logan. Behind her, a short man in a striped suit had grinned, revealing gleaming golden teeth.
Suddenly, all eyes in the room had turned to Logan. And everyone had smiled that same smile, or maybe just bared their teeth. Logan had thought he’d heard a chorus of low growls, somewhere at the back of his mind.
He’d squeezed his eyes shut and stumbled to the stairs.
The music had followed him, muffled until it was just a low, guttural lament, floating up the wooden steps, twining around the scraped banister. The hair on Logan’s arms had risen. It was only when he’d slammed his room’s door behind himself that he’d been able to stifle that sound.
Even now, he could hear the dull, rhythmic thumps of dancing feet stomping on the wooden floor, mapping a tune he could feel all the way into his ribcage. It seemed to grow louder and louder, much like his own heartbeat. Logan passed a shaky hand over his face. He wondered whether they were dancing for him—clapping a noisy send-off from the world, a dancing funeral of tango and blood-red nails and crooked, golden smiles. Or perhaps they danced to drown the room in sound—music and clicking heels—and they’d dance until the deep of the night, laughing raucous and loud to cover Logan’s screams. Or maybe they danced for joy: he was condemned while they still lived on, and that called for a celebration.
Or maybe they just danced, and that’s all there was to it.
Logan leaned back against the velvet headrest, closed his eyes, and exhaled. He couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone in that ballroom knew exactly what was going down tonight. He could still feel their gazes on him, could still see their feral smiles. They’d smelled blood. They knew his time was up.
Logan swallowed and reached with shaky hands for the bottle resting on the table. He wished, not for the first time, that there was something he could do. But it was late now, too late to look for redemption or salvation, too late to ask for help. Six years had passed quickly, and all he had to show for it was . . . a dusty motel room, cheap whiskey in a chipped glass, and a crumpled packet of Marlboros. And no one, no one to call on the antiquated dial phone perched on the bedside table like a fat porcelain toad.
He wiped his hand over his mouth as he once again lifted his eyes to the clock.
Two minutes to midnight.
The panic that had been crawling around his body for the past day gripped his chest so abruptly it left him unable to breathe for a moment. He hadn’t realized he was so close already. He’d thought there were still a few hours to go. And yet, somehow, as he’d sat motionless in the dusty armchair, time had slipped away, fast and smooth like a rug pulled out from under him by an illusionist, so quiet he hadn’t noticed it go. And all of a sudden he was left with two minutes—two minutes and nothing more—and the thought grabbed him by the throat and clenched, choking him.
He nearly toppled off the chair, the burst of adrenaline screaming at him to run. But after three stuttering steps, he stopped in the middle of the room, body tense and vibrating. Because there was nowhere to run. Nowhere to escape to. And the enemy might well be lying in wait just outside that door; there was no way to predict from where the danger would strike, from where the deadly blow would come. Maybe he should barricade himself inside, instead, push the bed in front of the door and go sit in the farthest corner, shoulders against the wall, shielding his back. But who was to say that devilish arms wouldn’t tear through the worn wallpaper and grab him, nails sinking into his flesh, and drag him back, through the wall, into unimaginable agony—
A noise. Logan’s strained nerves nearly went into overdrive, making him jump, making his heart ache inside his chest. His eyes darted to the door. The wooden panels suddenly looked to him like the lid of his casket, the decades-old calendar page taped to it like his obituary. Then he heard it again. A minute scraping sound, just outside the door. Nails scratching the wood, maybe, or cloven hooves dragging on the floor . . .
A sudden calm descended on him, flooding his chest, filling him with absurd, surreal relief. Because at least now he would know. And he could grab his irrational panic by the scruff of its neck and shove it back down; he could swallow and straighten his shoulders and face this thing like a man. He’d had years to prepare himself for this; he’d imagined this moment over and over. At the very least, he would go with dignity.
Slowly, muscles so tense it nearly hurt to walk, he stepped to the door. Every creak and moan of the wooden floor resounded sharply in his head. He lifted his hand and rested it on the handle, strangely disconnected, as if he were watching somebody else’s hand, as if the cold brass under his palm was too far away for him to really feel.
Logan took a deep, shaky breath, and opened the door.
Nothing. Heart pumping wildly in his chest, his temples, his wrists, he looked at the closed doors along the dimly lit corridor, at the ruined green wallpaper. No one. Then the scratching sound came again, and Logan’s gaze flicked to the floor—a brown mouse was pushing aside the baseboard. After it disappeared through the opening, its pink tail slithering behind it, the corridor was empty.
Logan closed the door, the click of the lock echoing in his very bones. He rested his forehead on the ancient calendar, nearly sagging, almost overwhelmed with dizziness. A sigh escaped his mouth.
He was such a fool. There was no one outside; there had never been anyone, no devil ready to come at midnight, no demon waiting to rip his soul from him with heinous tortures. He’d just gone insane for a little bit, nothing more; it could happen to anyone. He was perfectly safe.
Fuck. Logan laughed, a small, breathless laugh, still pressed against the door. He needed a drink, right now. And then he’d go downstairs and dance with the girl with the flower in her hair. He’d dance and laugh and drink till morning, till he passed out on the floor. He straightened his shoulders, finally able to breathe for the first time in weeks, and turned around.
The man sitting on Logan’s armchair tipped his head to the side and smiled.
“Hello. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting?”
Middle of the night, middle of nowhere, a chill breeze seeping through his clothes as if they were made of gauze.
Logan trudged along the dirt road, angrily kicking up clouds of dust. The tips of this boots were already smeared yellow, just like the hems of his jeans. He could feel the dust gritting between his molars, sticking to his tongue when he tried to swallow. A guitar case, the handle heavy in his hand, thumped against his knee with every step.
He raised a flashlight to inspect his surroundings. The weak beam of light was swallowed by the dark, but he could still make out the outlines of the desolate landscape. The road stretched on, surrounded by nothing at all except dried-out crops. A few yards ahead, just beside the crossroads, he spotted the contorted skeleton of a dead tree, knotted and bent, the only vertical object for miles. It had wooden planks crudely nailed to it, pointing to two godforsaken towns, scrawled with a trembling hand. And beside it lay two busted truck wheels caked with mud and weeds.
Logan stumbled on a stone and nearly fell to his knees. Cursing, he lowered the flashlight to form a shaky pool of light on the ground. Nothing but dust and stones, and a dead snake, its skin torn to reveal countless ribs. Logan avoided stepping on it.
He reached the middle of the crossroads and stood there, awkwardly flashing his light in all directions. A whole lotta nothing. How nice. A pair of eyes gleamed in the light for an instant before the creature scuttled noisily away into the low vegetation. God, it was pitch-black out here. But further away, he could see the sky tinted a dirty, smoky orange. The dead glow spread like a disease over the landscape, painting its contours in sickly smears of coal dust. It oozed from the chimney of the coke plant, where the gigantic furnaces never stopped burning.
He worked there, slaving away unloading the containers of raw coal. He went home every day with coal-clogged pores, black smears on his neck, under his nails, impossible to wash off. He’d gotten used to it and to the painful rashes it caused. The coal powder wasn’t fine enough to end up in his lungs, the boss always said. Fine enough to filter past Logan’s protective goggles, though: every night he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror with bloodshot eyes, each thin capillary in stark evidence. Fine enough to taint all his food, to stick to his tongue, behind his lips, the inside of his cheeks. Just thinking about it made Logan turn his head and spit in the dust.
The cold, the wind, the coal—they made his knuckles so dry they cracked and bled when he grasped his guitar, made his fingers so coarse he could barely feel the strings. The protective gloves, when they could wear them—when they didn’t risk getting caught in hooks and gears and conveyor belts, breaking bones, tearing flesh—got so cold and stiff they only made it worse, made him hiss each time he flexed his hands.
And still, Logan played every night, despite the burn of it, despite the blood that trickled down his knuckles, staining the guitar’s rounded body. He’d hitchhike for miles to one ramshackle pub or another, playing with ratty bands till the wee hours, then find someone, usually completely trashed, to drive him to the plant, in rickety pickups or ancient Fords, just in time for his dawn shift. Logan would doze in his seat—cracking one eye open every time they hit a bump to make sure the driver hadn’t passed out and they weren’t falling off a cliff—the guitar case clutched to his chest, scraped and heavy and comforting. As long as he could play, nothing else mattered, a gasp of oxygen before drowning in a black lake of coal dust. Sometimes, he thought it was the only thing keeping him sane. Keeping him awake.
And yet, somehow, it was no longer enough. He wasn’t going to spend his life in there until the coal killed him—until he just keeled over and died for “completely unrelated reasons,” like they’d said of his father.
Not when he could play instead.
Shaking himself, Logan reached the gnarled tree and sat on a busted tire, carefully setting the case down. Holding the flashlight between his teeth, he flicked the clasps open with loud clacks and lifted the top. The guitar gleamed a warm, comforting purple in the weak light, nestled in the worn gray padding. Logan rested his fingertips on the wood, tapping it amicably. This. This was all he needed. All he wanted. And if this crazy idea of his worked . . . a piece of wood and six nickel-plated strings would be his ticket out of that hellhole.
Spit gathered at the corner of his mouth, so he dropped the flashlight and balanced it on the second tire, aimed at the crossroads. There was too much darkness all around, and the weak circle of light stretched and faded, pathetically inadequate, but still enough to carve a niche of light where the two dirt roads intersected.
Logan looked down at his watch, square black numbers on a cheap greenish display.
Two minutes to midnight.
Just in time. He pulled out the guitar, cradling its neck, and placed it in his lap, pressed against his chest. It fit like it had been built just for him. He bent over it, strumming the strings once. There was something oddly fascinating in playing an unplugged electric guitar. It wasn’t mute, wasn’t useless, as people thought. It had a different, secret voice that only a few could know and appreciate, short, heavy notes without an echo. He had to press and hit the strings harder than he normally would, strain his fingers, exert himself, an eminently physical effort to coax sounds out of the instrument. Low, guttural notes, a harsh twang, a bitten-off melodic moan. It was tough, having to play without relying on the drawn-out notes he preferred, the ones he could endlessly tweak as they unraveled like a ribbon.
He set an easy rhythm, tapping his foot, falling into the comforting twelve-bar progression that felt so natural to his fingers. In the vastness of the night, the notes seemed louder than usual. He struck a string with his right hand, then bent it up on the guitar neck with his left middle finger, and the note morphed and sharpened before ending abruptly. Almost without noticing, Logan started following the familiar rhythm of Hendrix’s “Red House.” He moved his head in time, enjoying the tune, playing with it—building here and adding a pause there, slipping in a minute vibration among the choked notes . . .
“Nice choice,” someone said, and Logan nearly dropped the guitar.
“Fuck.” He looked frantically around, his heart pounding in his chest. The man was right there—standing smack in the middle of the crossroads, in the weak circle of the flashlight, hands loosely slipped in his pockets, looking perfectly at ease with the world. Where the ever-loving fuck had he come from?
As Logan watched, the man’s lips curled in a smirk.
“No need to look so scared, buddy.” His voice was low and raspy, like he’d smoked too many cigarettes. “I do believe you were, after all, waiting for me.”
He strolled toward Logan, who clung to the guitar, uncertain. The man was slender, wearing a pair of ragged jeans—might have been gray, but then again, most things seemed gray in the colorless night—and a visibly worn leather jacket. Everything about him seemed faded—his skin was paler than any Logan had ever seen, and the long hair falling over his shoulders and spilling down his chest looked pure white.
Logan shook his head. He didn’t exactly know who . . . or what . . . he was waiting for, but this certainly wasn’t it. “I don’t think so.” His heart was still beating too fast.
There was something odd about the man. As he came closer, Logan felt the hair on his arms stand on end under his worn jean jacket, as if static electricity was prickling all over his skin, just this side of painful—making him too hot and scraping him with sharp, cold fingers at the same time.
“Really. Because I think you came here tonight especially to see me.” He dropped abruptly to a crouch, arms resting on his knees, and stared Logan right in the face. Logan gasped.
The man’s irises were a vivid, unmistakable red.
“I am Farfarello, from the Malebolge, in the eighth circle of Hell,” the man said. He tipped his chin toward Logan’s Gibson. “Care to hand me that guitar?”
[P]acing, narrative and dialogue were smooth, and the characters fully formed.... I look forward to reading more works by Ms. Grey.
[A] gritty and intense read.
The book caught me completely off guard . . . It can actually teach you something about life.
[T]he author manages to give us a very well thought-out and executed plot and characters.
Cornelia Grey packed a punch in this short novella. Storytelling at its best!