Take enough rides with the devil, pretty soon he’ll drive. For Jake’s entire life, he’s done what the devil asks him to. It’s pretty simple. Do the devil’s work, and Jake keeps his soul. But when the devil sets him a task he’s sure he can’t complete, will Jake have to face the devil’s due? Or will he end up losing everything?
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If you take enough rides with the devil, pretty soon he’ll drive.
The devil had been grabbing for the wheel since before Jake Harron had been born, but he wasn’t quite ready to give it up to the bastard. Not yet. The time was coming, he knew that much. When Old Scratch would demand too much, ask him for more than he could give. And even when that time came, Jake thought as he fingered the set of lock picks in his pocket, he’d do his best to go down shouting out “fuck you.”
This time, what the devil had asked him to do didn’t seem so bad. Breaking and entering might rank higher on the police list of crimes than drowning a basket of kittens, but Jake still sometimes woke in a cold sweat, his sheets a tangled horror around him, from dreams of the way the kittens had cried.
“Break in. Find the jewelry and money. Will you take it?” The devil always asked. Never demanded. The deal was, Jake was free to decline any request, at any time. The trick was that if he did, the devil got to keep his soul.
“Yes.” Jake had said this time. It was what he always said. “Do I have to keep it?”
“No. Dump it in the river. Unless,” the devil had said with a grin showing what seemed to be every single picket in the whitewashed fence of his teeth, “you want to profit from your ill-gotten gains.”
That would be one more brick on the already well-paved road to Hell Jake couldn’t stop walking. He’d shaken his head. “No.”
The devil, who hardly ever looked the same way twice, had that day been favoring a three-piece suit and an Al Pacino mien. “You sure? The lady’s filthy with dough. Think about it, Jacob. You could live like a king.”
“I’ll live like I’m not about to rob an old lady’s wedding rings,” Jake had said. “And, by the way, fuck you.”
“Any time,” the devil answered with a grin and a slide of his tongue over those white, white teeth. “Any time, kiddo.”
Now Jake stood on the front porch of a modest bungalow that needed some fresh paint and someone to mow the grass. Flowers drooped in the beds around the front steps. Roses, mostly. He thought they were red, though it was hard to tell in the dark. Plus, they were long dead. An overgrown hydrangea bush pressed against the porch. Blooms the size of his head, almost. His mom had always liked hydrangeas. She’d scattered the ground beneath them with iron spikes to keep the color deep and dark and blue.
Jake hated hydrangeas.
He’d picked up the lock picks from an estate sale. They’d been laid out on a table along with a bunch of miscellaneous metal junk. Old keys. Mismatched forks and knives. He hadn’t known what they were — at the time the devil hadn’t yet started asking him to steal things that required the use of lock picks. Yet the moment he saw them, a frisson of delight had trickled up and down his spine. All the way to fingers and toes. That tingle often gave him a semi, which under most circumstances would be kind of pleasant, if occasionally awkward, but Jake fucking hated the fact that doing what the devil wanted him to do ever felt good. He wanted everything he did for Old Mr. Splitfoot to feel terrible, and it hardly ever did.
Most of the time, it felt fantastic, even when he was hating himself for it.
He’d stolen the picks, of course. Paying for them would’ve been the right thing to do, and though the devil hadn’t outright asked Jake to steal them he figured the theft might count toward his debt in some way. It didn’t work that way, of course. It wasn’t a checklist. Just like the good he did never counteracted the bad; his soul’s worth couldn’t be weighed on any scale. The only way to keep himself from losing it was to do what the devil asked. Everything he asked. At least until Jake couldn’t do it any longer, and then the devil would own his soul forever.
Now Jake pulled out the picks and sorted through them. It was an art, this business of opening locked doors without a key. He didn’t want to take pride in the skill, which had come to him as easily as most everything else he’d ever tried in his life. Didn’t want to, but did. Sometimes he tossed and turned at night, wondering how many of his blessings were the devil’s doing, but mostly he tried not to dwell on it too much. It could drive a man insane, trying to figure that out, and Jake wasn’t about to give the devil any leverage.
A jiggle here. A shift. Easing metal on metal, Jake worked the tumblers of that lock like it was the thighs of a recalcitrant virgin, until at last he got it open. He sighed when the knob turned and looked side to side to see if anyone had noticed him here on the front porch, acting so suspiciously at two in the morning. Of course nobody did. When he was on the devil’s work, nobody ever did. He pushed open the door. Inside he found a narrow entryway with a hall leading to a kitchen and a room on either side of him. In front of him, the stairs.
El Diablo never told Jake exactly how the deed was to be done. He merely presented opportunity and made his requests. It was always up to Jake the method by which the madness should be made.
Up the stairs, he figured. That was the most likely place an old lady would keep her jewelry, anyway. Cash might be hidden all around the house, in jars and inside the pages of books or under a mattress.
He’d once found a stash of hundred dollar bills inside a block of ice in a freezer in a basement — the money had been underneath a couple of frozen cats and some ground meat that he wasn’t sure was beef. That time, Old Scratch hadn’t asked him to steal anything. Instead, Jake had been asked to set the house on fire. It had burned to the ground, revealing a series of shallow graves that had led to the arrest, trial and set of consecutive life sentences for a serial killer with a penchant for children. Times like that, Jake understood completely how once the devil could’ve been God’s favorite.
Upstairs, Jake found several closed-off bedrooms, musty with hanging dust and full of old furniture. At the end of the hall, another closed door led him into a bedroom only slightly better smelling. The double bed in the middle of the room was empty, the blankets pulled up tight and neat. His shadow moved in the mirror’s reflection, but Jake avoided looking at it as he rifled through the jewelry box on top of the dresser. His light, bright but pinpointed, shone on plenty of costume jewelry, bright with color. Gold owls with emerald eyes, oversized cocktail rings. That sort of thing. Most of it was worth something, if only for the vintage chic, but there, in the middle was a set of diamond rings that glittered in the light. A loop of pearls. A pair of ruby earrings. Like the skill with the picks, his knack for being able to tell the difference between real and fake was something he didn’t want to think about.
Jake scooped up the entire lot, box and all, and put it in the backpack he’d brought along. Easing the top drawer open, he expected scarves or pajamas or maybe mentally disturbing old-lady lingerie. Instead, he found rolls and rolls of dollar bills tucked into a honeycomb of plastic, the sort most people used to keep socks paired and sorted. He flipped through one of them. All ones. The next, the same. There might be a couple thousand dollars here, all singles. Who knew, maybe the old lady used to be a stripper.
He plucked handfuls of rubber-banded dollar bills and stuffed them in the backpack. Turning, he kept the light hidden against his palm. Just because the house seemed empty didn’t mean it was. The coffee he’d sucked down earlier while trying to keep himself awake enough for this night’s adventures was donkey punching him in both kidneys.
Down the hall, there was a bathroom. Two things happened when he opened the door. The first was that he registered, too late, that the light was already on and the room occupied. The second was that Jake very nearly pissed his pants.
“Holy fucking shit,” he barked.
The woman in the bathtub, naked but for a nightgown gone sheer from the wet, blinked at him slowly. She wasn’t old. Maybe in her forties, far from the crone he’d imagined he was robbing. Not that it mattered.
“Who the hell are you?”
Her voice slurred. Her eyes drooped. Lined up along the side of the tub was a bottle of whiskey — empty — and a dozen prescription pill bottles. Balanced on the tub’s edge was a straight razor blade.
“Shit,” Jake said. “I’ll be out of here in a minute or two. Out of your way.”
The woman in the tub laughed. Under other circumstances it might’ve been sexy, her voice low and throaty, her nightgown transparent enough to show the dark circles of her nipples and the shadow between her thighs. “Oh, honey. Don’t you never mind about that. Sit and stay a while. Are you him?”
“Azrael. The Angel of Death. Come to spirit me away. Funny, I thought maybe you’d be a girl. Then again, I haven’t had much luck with girls.”
He was tempted to say yes, if only to keep her quiet. But though the devil had made him a thief and a killer of kittens, among other bad things, Jake never lied if he didn’t have to. “No. I’m not an angel.”
“Figures.” She snorted softly, reached unsteadily for the liquor bottle, and knocked it to the floor. “Well. Fuck-a-doodle-doo.”
Jake sidestepped the scatter of breaking glass. The backpack jingled and shuffled, heavy with loot. The woman turned a red-rimmed and unfocused gaze toward it.
“I’ll just get out of your way,” Jake said.
The woman in the tub sloshed some water over the edge. It knocked over the pill bottles. They were empty and bounced around his feet. “What’s your name?”
“So tell me, Jake. Have you ever been in love?”
He should just get the hell out of Dodge, but he knew better than that. If the devil had sent him here, tonight, it was for a reason and maybe not really to steal cocktail rings and dollar bills. Carefully, he set the backpack on the sink, then leaned a hip against it. Crossed his arms over his chest. “Maybe.”
“I don’t recommend it.” The woman gave another of those low, rasping laughs. She picked up the razor with surprising grace, considering her earlier clumsiness. She held it up to him. “This is what love is. A fucking razor blade.
Only instead of your wrists —” here, she demonstrated, slicing herself in a long, deep line from wrist to elbow. “It’s your fucking heart.”
Blood welled up, jetting, turning the water quickly crimson. The smell of it hit him like a fist. Jake had acquired a strong stomach over the years — some of the things the devil asked of him had definitely been repulsive. But this was a smell of agony and desperation and grief and loss, and it forced a tsunami of bile to surge into his throat.
“Well, damn, honey,” the woman said sadly, the razor still gripped in her fingers, though loosely. “Seems I can’t quite hold this with my other hand. Would you be a dear, help a girl out.”
No sane man would’ve agreed to this, but like it or not, Jake was in the service of Satan. If God worked in mysterious ways, His first and fallen favorite did the same. Kneeling next to the tub, the knees of his jeans soaking through from the water she’d spilled, Jake gently took the razor from her fingers.
“Would you…” her voice trembled. Her eyes closed for a moment before, blinking, she forced them all the way open. “I don’t supposed you’d say a little prayer for me, would you, honey?”
“I don’t think any prayer I say would reach the right ears,” he said regretfully.
The woman smiled and closed her eyes again as Jake put the blade to her other wrist. “That’s okay, then. That’s all ok.”
It only took a second or so to finish what she’d started, and Jake let the blade fall into the water. He thought for a moment if something would link him to this, if he’d be caught for murder instead of burglary. And then, he thought, would it really matter?
Still kneeling on the hard tile, Jake held her hand despite the slickness of the blood. She hummed a little, right at the end. Something tuneless and breathy, but there was no final word, no “rosebud.” No advice. She simply died.
Later, at the bridge where he was dumping everything he’d stolen from her, he had time to think that he wished he’d at least asked her name. That’s when the devil showed up, still looking like a gangster, still with that white, white grin. Jake grimaced. Tired and aching for sleep, all he wanted was to go home and get to bed, grab a few hours of oblivion before he woke up and had to do shit like this all over again.
“Whatever you want me to do, it can’t really be much worse than what I just did,” Jake said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that, kiddo,” the devil said. “Tell me, Jake. Have you ever been in love?”