Darlan, an agent of Hell on Earth, sighed into his coffee. A good, strong cup of coffee was one of the few things that made up for being trapped in human form to do his infernal majesty’s will.
You couldn’t get any in Hell.
Today, though, even coffee wasn’t perking Darlan up. He was waiting for today’s mark to come along. Another soul to speed on its way to Hell.
Big deal, Darlan thought. The place is overrun with souls as it is, cluttering things up, screaming, pleading, whining — oh, the whining.
Three hundred years earlier, when Darlan was first given the job of infernal shepherd, it was exciting. He always exceeded his quota and liked to take on the tougher jobs. But any job begins to pale after three centuries, and Darlan was doing little more now than putting in his time. Other agents were showing him up, but he didn’t care.
Darlan alternately sipped his coffee and stared into its depths.
After a while, he looked up and saw his mark in a booth across from him. The young man’s guitar was propped up against the window, and he was talking with an enemy agent, an angel in human shape. Darlan checked his watch. Sonofagun! Where did the time go?
This wasn’t necessarily a tragedy; he’d recouped souls after enemy interference before. It just took some extra work. But Darlan wasn’t interested in extra work, and the sidelong glance the angel gave him annoyed Darlan further.
He tossed back the rest of his coffee and walked out of the shop. Fine. To Heaven with that guy. Who cares?
“The Boss cares, Darlan. That’s who.”
Darlan knew the voice but didn’t look at its owner, who had sidled up to Darlan on the sidewalk.
“Aw, Mick, you know I want to please the Boss,” Darlan said. “I’m just so … burned out.”
“Fail too often and you will be burned out,” Mick promised.
Darlan nodded. That was why he kept making quota, even if barely.
“We’re concerned about that one you’re letting get away,” Mick said. “Could be big trouble for us.”
“I know the guy’s profile. Promising musician. Could lead others to the enemy just for the tunes.”
“And you left him in that coffee shop with an enemy agent.”
Darlan sighed. “I’ll get him, Mick. I promise.”
“That’s always been good enough for me, Darlan. Hey, everybody goes through a spell like this. You’ll bounce back. It’ll be fun again. Life can’t always be the French Revolution, you know.” With that, Mick lost himself in the crowd.
Darlan wandered aimlessly, eventually coming to a small park. He found a bench under a shady tree and plopped down on it.
Where do depressed demons go to get cheered up? he wondered. Of course, he knew the answer. Nowhere. We do our jobs or get roasted. “Cheerful” isn’t part of the game.
He looked out across the park and eternity stretched before him, an eternity of collecting or processing or torturing souls for Hell.
Immortality had never looked so bleak.
A shadow fell across Darlan ever so briefly as someone crossed in front of him and sat at the other end of the bench. Darlan didn’t bother to look up until he heard the someone humming along with some chords being played on a guitar.
There sat his target, happily working on his next song.
Convenient, Darlan thought.
“So, kid,” he said. “What was that guy trying to sell you back in the coffee shop?”
“Oh, yeah,” the young man said. “I saw you there. He’s a music producer. He said he thinks I could make it big with a little coaching. He wants to help me and to record my stuff.”
“Whadja tell him?”
“I told him I’d think about it. It’s a great offer, but I kinda want to make it on my own, you know?”
Darlan snorted. “Nobody makes it on his own, kid. Everybody who makes it has help of one sort or another.”
The young man considered that. “I suppose that’s true. But I didn’t want to tie myself down to one thing yet. I’ve got lots of life ahead of me and lots of options.”
Eternity swam before Darlan’s vision again. He snapped back to the present and leaned toward the musician. He spoke quickly and in a low voice.
“You’re at a crossroads at this minute, kid, and you don’t know the danger you’re in.”
The youngster tried to interrupt, but Darlan cut him off.
“Shut up and listen. Let me give you some damned good advice: walk back toward the coffee shop. I guarantee you’ll run into that music producer within a block. You tell him ‘yes.’ You tell him ‘yes’ to anything he proposes, and you stick closer to him than a Siamese twin, because if you don’t, you could end up in a hell of a lot of trouble for a hell of a long time. Now go, kid. Go find him, and tell him he owes me one.”
The young man sat and stared at Darlan, troubled.
“Go!” Darlan yelled.
If only to get away from the madman on the bench, the young musician, guitar in hand, rapidly headed back in the general direction of the coffee shop.
Darlan watched him for a minute and then looked away.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Darlan,” Mick said behind him. “Your promises aren’t worth what they used to be. The Boss wants a word with you.”
A large caliber handgun fired behind Darlan, and the bullet tore through his skull.
Mick knew that Darlan, a spiritual being, could still hear him, though. “You’re lucky. The Boss thinks you can be redeemed and returned to duty. After a certain period of readjusting your thought processes and priorities, naturally.”