Fire And Slush

“I served a purpose, you know.”

The Lord of Light sighed deeply. This woman with her grating voice was like a blister that never healed. His chief minion Ba’al was growing furious, hinting that defection could well become an option if she wasn’t taken from his hands. If only the package would arrive so he could get her started at her task and be free of her. Why was it taking Theo so long to deliver? A vengeful god? Ha! Unreliable was more like it.

As she droned on, her whining like sharp pins bouncing point-first off his eardrums, the Lord of Light continued to stare out the window at the brimstone pond his minions had recently finished. How beautiful the crimson glow, the coarse bubbles that rose high above the surface and broke apart, sending streamers of molten sulphur high into the smoke choked sky. He so looked forward to sitting beside that lovely pond, conversing with his favorite author. With the deepest sense of reluctance, he turned from the window to face the dumpy woman babbling by the door.

“Purpose?” he said, swatting her mosquito like chatter into silence with a wave of his hand. He glided from the window to the center of the room, glancing quickly at his computer screen as he did. It was blank. No mail icon. He sighed again, a momentary flash of frustration making his tail twitch. Slow in returning emails as well. He hated doing favors. Were it not for what he might gain, he would never have agreed to do this.

“Of course you did, my dear,” he said, turning his attention back to her. “I have your file. I am quite aware of the purpose you served. Indeed, that is why you’re here.”

“But I don’t deserve to be here,” she cried. “It was those awful women and their awful list. And when I tried, as I had every right to do, to defend myself, they all ganged up on me. My clients were abandoning me. Queries dried up. Derisive statements were being written about me on blogs all over the world. Their damn, er, darn …”

“Cursing is a perfectly acceptable form of expression here, my dear,” LoL interrupted. “Please continue.”

“Er, yes, thank you. Their darn list was moving to the top of the Google ratings. Of course I was upset. Lies. Filthy lies. You can understand, surely? I was under pressure. I simply lost track of my medication. It wasn’t intentional. I certainly didn’t mean to take too many.”

The Lord of Light laughed with surprise. “You think you’re here because of that?” he said, and laughed again. “Contrary to popular belief, ending one’s life does not determine one’s afterlife destination. That is yet another bit of confusion we put in The Book. Must keep you humans on your toes, you understand. Wouldn’t want you becoming complacent. What fun would that be? No, my dear, I’m afraid you are here for an entirely different reason.”

Her eyes widened. “Other … reason?” she said, indignation making her pudgy lips quiver. “Whatever could you mean? What could I possibly have done that was so egregious as to land me in … land me here?”

“It’s actually quite simple, madam,” LoL said. “You took it upon yourself to charge writers a fee for representation. That alone assured your presence here at some point in the future.”

As the woman’s face flooded with color, her words jamming against her clenched teeth, LoL walked over to an ornate chair, removed a large tome from the seat and sat down. This whole nasty affair was just too tiring and he so wanted to get back to Life On The Mississippi.

“You could have made an attempt to mend your ways,” he continued. “That you chose to attack instead was, I’m afraid, your undoing. You destroyed something precious to them. What did you expect would happen? That they would simply roll over and let you have your way? They are writers, madam! Solitary they may be. Contemplative. Lost in their make-believe worlds. Abuse a few and you may go relatively unscathed. Abuse many and you’ll find them to be a wrathful lot.”

LoL ran his thumb along the worn, gilded edge of the book, wishing he could simply dismiss this woman, have her dragged off to one of the pits of sulphur where a murder of crows might endlessly pick at her eyes. Alas, it was not to be. Lovingly, he set the book beside the others on the floor.

“However,” he sighed, tearing his gaze from the tome. “Neither that little incident with the writers, nor the mishandling of your medication, account for your presence here. The revenge directed at you by those you harmed may account, indirectly, for your premature arrival, but your ticket to eternal damnation was etched in a tablet of stone by your continued practice of charging writers a fee, compounded by the fact that you did little or nothing afterwards to earn that fee.”

She began a protest but LoL held it off with a flick of his tail.

“You must understand how the writer game is played,” he said, leaning forward. “There are those amongst your kind who decide to become writers. An insane choice, in my opinion. Free will does, at times, have its more bizarre side-effects, though I must admit it does keep things interesting. Theo and I, in our capacity as gods, throw obstacles in the writers path; query letters, agents, Microsoft Word. Indeed, the sheer insanity of the publishing industry is itself one giant obstacle. Take zero publisher support coupled with unobtainable sales quotas, for example. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that was my idea, though, sadly, Theo gets the credit for copy machines and printers.”

He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers.

“In any case, writers succeed or fail to overcome these obstacles, each according to their individual strengths and weaknesses. Points are garnered or lost for every success or failure. I win the match if I can pressure a writer into giving it up. Theo wins the match if a writer publishes. Should the writer choose to Publish-On-Demand a book, points are distributed 70/30 in Theo’s favor. End of match, next round begins. It’s an ongoing game and, quite exciting, really.”

LoL smiled, remembering something from the distant past.

“We tried a similar game on an ordinary human once, long ago. Boils, sickness, that sort of thing. His reactions were enjoyable for awhile but soon grew boring and predictable. Then we discovered writers and the game began again in earnest. There are so many subtle ways to torture them, make their lives miserable, keep them in poverty. Disposable ink cartridges, for instance, or SASEs. And yet they continue to struggle in their publishing efforts despite these obstacles. It’s amazing, really.”

“But, but …”

“I know,” interrupted LoL. “You wish to convince me that your efforts constituted an obstacle in the writer’s life.”

“Well, it did. Didn’t it?” Her arrogance was melting. She was nearly pleading now. LoL hated it when they pleaded.

“Perhaps. But you must understand that neither Theo nor I would stoop so low as to condone someone actually charging a writer to represent them. That, my dear, is simply beyond the pale. I’m afraid you are going to be with us for a very long time.”

The last of the woman’s strength seemed to drain from her. She stood there, wavering a little, shoulders slumped, arms hanging limply. LoL felt a twinge of pity for her, a feeling which always led to heartburn if he allowed it to linger too long. He was saved from doing something rash by the chiming of a bell, the signal that the packages had arrived at last.

“Ah,” he said. “It is time to bring this interview to a close. There is much work to do.”

The woman cringed, taking several faltering steps toward the door.

“Now, now my dear. Don’t carry on so. You may find this task I have in store for you quite to your liking. Indeed, your work here will be much as it was in life.”

The woman looked up at him cautiously. “You mean …”

“Yes. I have a special job just for you. Several, er, manuscripts have come into my possession and I would like you to look them over, decide which of them you might have represented back on Earth. Think of it as an endless slush pile from which to build the kind of client base you are ever so qualified to build. It goes without saying, of course, that you will not be allowed to charge a fee for this representation. However, that should not present a problem down here. After all, your basic needs will forever be attended to.”

***

Several hours later the Lord of Light was sitting in his chair, Life On The Mississippi open on his lap. He was staring out the window, watching his minions scurry about the brimstone pond; laying out the lava paths, aligning the benches, planting the dead trees and burning bushes. Soon, very soon, his endless questions about Huck and Tom and poor Jim, the fate of the Connecticut Yankee, would all be answered.

The phone rang, intruding upon his thoughts. He turned toward his large desk. A light was blinking on the White phone. His eyebrow arched curiously. So, Theo wants to talk, does he? He closed the book and rose from his chair. Curling the strap of the earpiece over his horn, he pushed the earpiece in his ear and pressed the blinking light.

“The package arrived safely, I assume?”

LoL cringed. Typical of Theo. No hello. No how’s it going, Luce, long time no talk. Just straight to business.

“It did,” answered LoL, feeling his irritation grow. “All six thousand boxes. You could have warned me.”

“There are more on the way,” Theo said, ignoring the sarcasm. “She will begin soon, correct?”

LoL sighed. “She has already begun as you requested.”

The Lord of Light turned and stared out the window. Live conversations with Theo always made him uncomfortable. He much preferred email.

“If I may make an observation,” he said at last.

“You will whether I want you to or not,” Theo said.

“True enough.” LoL fumbled with the earpiece a moment and then continued. “I took the opportunity of sampling several pages of your … your new stories. I can’t say your writing has improved much over the last several thousand years. Not as bad as the begat this begat that end of Genesis but still a little slow, still a little dense, and the plots are still a bit thin, the characters, well, a little too two dimensional. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, no one writes in Aramaic any more. English is all the rage now.”

“Thanks. But it’s not your opinion I’m interested in.”

“But why her, of all people? She charged writers a fee! We both have plenty of legitimate agents in house. Why not go to one of yours? Why come to me with this?”

“They’re intimidated by me, that’s why. Always bowing and scraping and trying to curry favor. I can’t trust the lot of them as far as I can throw them. Praise, praise, praise, it’s all I ever get. It’s like a damn petting zoo around here. I need an honest opinion. I need feedback. Humans have been rejecting my stories for centuries. They take this one, reject that one. Why? They’re all stories. What makes one acceptable for The Book while another is excluded? And I haven’t had an acceptance in nearly two millennia! That hurts!”

“Well, I can certainly understand that. But remember, you were the one who decided to be a writer. I warned you what would happen.”

“Be that as it may. It was good in the beginning. Making up the stories. Spreading them around. Watching them stuff the stories in clay pots and hiding them in caves for all posterity. If that damn library at Alexandria hadn’t burnt down, there would be a lot more of them around today. Damn Romans. Big mistake letting them crawl out of the gutter. Still, I rather enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. Keeps me from getting bored up here. This place is as dull as tarnished silver. And besides, I think I’m pretty good at the writing game.”

LoL’s eyes rolled back beneath their lids. He was thankful Theo had nixed the idea of a vidphone.

“And you think she will be capable of finding the golden grain amongst the chaff?” he asked. “This scam artist? This supreme abuser of our chosen humans? This defiler of the game?”

Theo snorted loudly. “I think the direct opposite,” he said. “The woman has a taste for the overly formulaic, the florid prose, the grammatically incorrect, the weak storyline, the non-existent plot. When she stumbles across it, she’ll latch on like a leech. And anything she latches onto, I will immediately destroy. This will be the first time in ages I get some decent feedback. Maybe I’ll even get another shot at The Book.”

LoL glanced at the tome sitting on his chair, smiled. “And if you’re satisfied with the results, you’ll release Mr. Clemens to me?”

“Of course, of course” Theo said impatiently. “That was the deal wasn’t it? I’ll hold up my end, have no doubts. He’s all but champing at the bit to go.”

LoL cringed at the cliche but thought it prudent not to remark on it. No point in pissing Theo off this close to the goal.

“I thought he might be,” he said. “He was never enamored of Up There.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Theo answered. “It’s been nothing but complaints since day one. ‘It’s too hot. It’s too bright. What’s with all the damn harps?’. I’ll be glad to be rid of the cantankerous old coot. Look, I have to go now. Problems on Earth again. Damn humans. Sometimes I wonder why we let them swing down from the trees in the first place.”

The call went dead in LoL’s ear. He smiled. Trouble on Earth. Ba’al must be on the ball again now that the woman was off his back. Standing there, staring out the window past the glow of the pond into the eternal darkness beyond, he contemplated the vagaries of fate. Had the woman not done what she’d done, had the writers not sought their revenge, it would have been years before she arrived here, long past the time when he could use her as a bargaining chip to get what he most desired. Perhaps he should make some small gesture to the writers, maybe set a plague amongst the marketing departments, put the editors rather than the bean counters back in charge of what gets published.

He removed the earpiece, set in on his desk and returned to the window and his book. He was nearly finished with Life On The Mississippi. He had thought to reread Tom Sawyer but Ba’al had brought him a recently published Twain spin-off titled Finn and he decided to read it first in anticipation of Mr. Clemens arrival. He relished the thought of spending hours discussing it’s literary merits compared to Clemens’ own work. Yes. That might well make for an engaging topic of conversation, not to mention a most pleasant way to spend the endless nights in Hell.

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