“So, what’s the catch?” I didn’t trust George any further than I could throw him, and he wasn’t a small guy. We were perched on two bar stools in a dingy Southside bar that looked like every other scuzzy dive. I had a draft beer in front of me I wasn’t about to drink. George had whiskey on the rocks.
“No catch. One simple favor, and your gambling debts are gone. Vanished. Like smoke in the wind.” George tried to look endearing, but just came off as intimidating. He was an enforcer for the bookie I was partial to, and I was way behind on my debt. I’d been expecting someone like George for a while now.
I weighed my options. I didn’t have the money to pay my bookie. All it took was a few bad bets, and I was behind further than I wanted to admit. George looked like he would thoroughly enjoy busting up a few kneecaps, toes, and fingers. I wanted to keep myself in one piece.
“OK, it doesn’t look like I’ve got much choice. What’s the favor?”
“Now, don’t take it like that. Mr. Giannola isn’t forcing you to do anything. You’re doing this of your own volition, right?” A word like volition sounded strange coming out of that ape’s mouth.
I knew better than to protest. “Yes, I’m doing this of my free will. But I still have to know what the favor is, before I’ll agree to it.”
George nodded ponderously. “That’s fair. I don’t think Mr. G would have a problem with that.” He scratched his head, continued. “All you have to do is go to the airport, hold up a sign, pick up your passenger, and drive them to Mr. G’s place of business.”
“So let me see if I understand this. I go pick up some guy at the airport and bring him to Mr. Giannola? That’s it?”
“That’s the favor, yes.” George grimaced, his attempt at a smile.
I thought for a minute. I’d be picking up some poor bastard like myself, no doubt someone who owed Mr. Giannola a good deal more than my measly ten grand. I felt bad for the poor schmuck, but he’d made his own choices when he placed his bets. I was more concerned about the likelihood of this being a onetime favor. I didn’t consider myself a fool, unless it came to gambling. I knew this wasn’t going to be “just one” favor. I didn’t have any other choices, though.
“Sure, tell Mr. Giannola that I would be happy to do a favor for him.” I tried not to shudder, saying that. It felt like whistling up the devil.
George grimaced again. “He’ll be glad to hear that. We’ll be in touch.” With that, George got off his bar stool, threw a twenty on the bar, and left. I absently took a drink of the draft beer and nearly spit it out in disgust. I was thinking furiously, trying to find a way out. The only one I could see, though, was doing that favor. I shrugged. It was a hard old world, right? I tossed some money on the bar and left. Looked like I was going to be Mr. Giannola’s errand-boy.
George found me the very next day. I was in one of my more familiar haunts, a dark, quiet bar, drinking a bottled Budweiser. On the television, Alex Trebec was exhorting the contestants of ‘Jeopardy’ to write down their answers. With no warning, a huge meaty hand with fingers like bratwurst clamped down on my right shoulder.
“Hey! How ya doing, buddy? Long time, no see,” George chuckled, no doubt thinking himself the epitome of wit.
“Hey bartender, gimme a whiskey on the rocks, a decent scotch, none of that bourbon crap.” George didn’t seem to have an inside voice. He squeezed my shoulder once — it felt like a vice tightening down — and let go, thankfully.
“Good news. Mr. G’s buddy is arriving tonight. Here’s your sign to hold.” George handed me a cardboard placard, a slick finish on one side, with lettering reading “Nick Lightbringer” in a gothic-looking font. The back side had an address in smaller print.
George gulped down half of his whiskey. “Mr. G is very happy with you for doing him this favor. His address is on the back of your sign.” He slammed down the rest of his whiskey, performed the same ‘toss-the-twenty’ on the bar. “Old Nick is flying in on Delta airlines. He should arrive by 8:30pm. Mr. G looks forward to seeing you by 9:00pm.” With that, he stumped out of the bar.
Old Nick. So this customer was a long-timer, judging by how George referred to him. I wondered — maybe this wasn’t a debtor being brought before his judge and executioner. Maybe this guy really was a long-time friend of Mr. Giannola’s. Or a business associate. That was a cheery thought.
I shrugged. It wasn’t my business, just the price I had to pay for erasing my debt. It must be a hell of a favor, though, to be worth ten grand. I mean, anyone could have picked the guy up from the airport — why me? It made me nervous, knowing I didn’t have all the facts. There were things left out, things I needed to know.
I had plenty of time to kill before driving to the airport, so I decided to get some food. I drove to one of my favorite Italian restaurants. It was crowded, but they made room for me as always. They seated me at a one-top tucked into an alcove, just what I wanted.
I ordered the lasagna and their house salad. A plate of piping hot, fresh-baked rolls was set on my table by a roving server. I buttered one and ate, drank the provided water instead of beer, and browsed news on my phone while I waited for dinner. I didn’t want any more alcohol in me — I had the feeling I’d need all my wits around me tonight. I was already suspicious about this ride.
It was interesting, speculating about my erstwhile passenger. “Old Nick,” George had called him. Old man, or old friend? My guess was on the latter. Maybe he was an enforcer, a tougher version of George. Or maybe he did other work for Mr. Giannola. Then a startling thought occurred: Maybe Mr. Giannola did work for this Nick.
I finished the salad, put my fork and knife on my plate, and waited for my server. He left me waiting for another ten minutes before arriving with my bill, nestled in a black leather folder with a pocket for my credit card.
I pulled out my wallet and counted out bills, allowing enough for the tip. I placed the cash in the folder and handed it back to the server.
“Shall I bring your change?” His arch tone indicated he had counted along with me.
“No, it’s all you, friend.” He flounced away, and I found myself fascinated by his bouncing man-bun, bobbing like a lady’s parasol. I took a last drink of my water, stood up, and left the restaurant.
Outside, I walked to my car in the dwindling light. As I walked, it was automatic to check my surroundings, making sure no one was close enough to cause me any trouble.
It was 7:30pm, plenty of time to get to the airport with half an hour to spare. I started up the car and drove to the airport, paying to park up close. I sat in my car for about fifteen minutes, then went into the airport.
Inside, I was on the lower level. I went over to the baggage claim area, found a prominent spot, and stood there, holding my sign.
Little gushes of people showed up whenever a plane landed, flooding the baggage claim area with noise and chaos, then departing, leaving it quiet until the next gush of people.
Every time that happened, I stood boldly, holding my sign up, waiting for my passenger. Each time, no one approached me.
The clock was ticking, 8:37pm now. I was going to be late getting back to Mr. Giannola’s place. Just great. How it could be my fault I didn’t know, but somehow I was sure it would be.
I looked up as a man came striding toward me, well in front of the arriving swell of humanity. He was tall, with jet-black hair, and a neat beard trimmed to a tidy point. I couldn’t tell what his suit was made of, but I was sure it cost more than I earned in a month. His feet were elegantly clad in brown Italian loafers, buffed to a high shine. He carried a small patent leather briefcase and nothing else.
He saw my sign, veered toward me. I held it up. “Mr. Lightbringer?”
“Yes. Please call me Nick. It seems strange to hear my full name.”
“Do you know which carousel your luggage is on?” I was all efficiency, trying to make up for lost time.
“I have no other luggage,” he replied. “Shall we go?”
I led the way back to the parking area, unlocked my car, and opened the door for Mr… Nick.
He seated himself with one smooth gesture, cradling his briefcase in his lap. I closed the door, walked around to the driver’s side, and let myself in. The map program on my phone showed a 25 minute trip. We would be five or ten minutes late. I hoped it was close enough to on-time that Mr. Giannola wouldn’t be upset.
Interstate 70 was moving quickly, although as usual, lane markers seemed to be suggestions rather than the law. The drive went quickly, and by 9:05pm I was getting close to Mr. Giannola’s place.
It was a nondescript warehouse, close to the highway, in an industrial wasteland. As I pulled up to the warehouse, a door on the side of the building swung open, and two shapes came out. My headlights illuminated Mr. Giannola and George, both looking anxious, almost nervous. I shook my head, worried, then pulled in front of them, putting the car into park, and switching it off.
I walked over to Nick’s side, opened his door. He got out, thanking me for the pleasant ride, and walked toward the other two.
I was intending to leave, when Nick spoke up. “Please stay. I will need a ride back to the airport for my return flight.”
I wilted inside, but simply opened the door, turned off the car, took my keys, and closed the door. Nick smiled, then turned toward Mr. Giannola.
“How good it is to see you, old friend.” Nick’s smile was vulpine, wickedly gleeful.
Mr. Giannola stammered a greeting in return. I was shocked; he never lost his cool like that. It was starting to dawn on me he meant as much to Nick as I meant to him. Just some fresh meat, ready for the grinder.
George looked about to bolt in panic. He had great beads of sweat trickling down the sides of his scalp, but stood resolutely next to his boss. I didn’t know whether to admire his guts or despise his stupidity.
Nick, meanwhile, looked like he had ice water running through his veins. He raised an eyebrow and said, “I believe there is an accounting due? A matter of some past-due merchandise?”
I raised an eyebrow. The idea of stiffing Nick on so much as a penny was one I would never even consider, and I just met the guy. Mr. Giannola was in a world of hurt.
He seemed to know it as well. He stood humbly, head down, accepting the situation, owning up to his own mistakes. “I understand. I have had little luck lately. All the losers, none of them gets far enough behind that I can persuade him to sign your contract. It’s like the dawn of the sensible gambler.”
“I see. You had difficulty in meeting your obligations. It was not your fault. You should not be held responsible for your inactions. That’s the gist of what you are saying, is it not?” Nick gazed steadily at Mr. Giannola.
George spoke up, then, “Hey! Mr. G works hard, and he’s straight with you. Things have just been dry lately. He hasn’t even found much work for me to do.”
Nick looked at the burly enforcer. “Do you enjoy your work, George?” Again, his tone was deceptively meek.
George looked bewildered. He was being asked to think, something he wasn’t used to. “Yeah, I like it lots. I get to help Mr. G collect what others owe him, but don’t want to pay him.” His brows beetled. “People oughta pay what they owe.”
Nick smiled then. “How right you are, George. People should pay what they owe. And right now, Mr. Giannola owes me some human souls. I am here to collect them.”
Nobody laughed at him talking about souls. A chill stole down to my toes. This was getting hinky, all right. I glanced at Mr. Giannola. He looked serious as a heart attack. Terrified, too.
George started babbling. “Not me! No way! I didn’t promise you nothing!”
“George, you work for Mr. Giannola. He agreed to be responsible for you, when I took him in. You have always been a potential sacrifice, that was your greatest value to him. Today is the day you live up to that potential.
“Now, Mr. Giannola. I will take two souls today, a poor return on investment for what you promised. Still, it is two more for my collection.”
Nick collected his briefcase, thumbed it to unlock it, and flipped it open. Inside, it was fitted to hold rows and rows of tiny jars. Most were full, although no two looked to have exactly the same contents. Some pulsed light; some twisted and pulled like a lava lamp; some were dark, extinguished.
With his slim, elegant fingers, he removed two empty vials from their sleeves. He closed the briefcase and set it down. Then he began to play with the vials, walking them through his fingers like a magician; rolling the vials between thumb and forefinger; even tossing them up in the air, catching them unerringly without looking.
He finally stopped and held the vials out toward Mr. Giannola and George. “Showtime.” He chuckled as he said that.
Suddenly Mr. Giannola jerked upright, spasmed, and began to scream. George covered his ears, but the screams kept getting louder and shriller. Meanwhile, he started to look dimmer, thinner, until you could see through him. In his core, there was a brilliant pulse of light. His shrieks declined in volume as his mass decreased. In the end, there was nothing but that brilliant pulse of light, resting on the floor.
Nick took one of his glass vials, removed the stopper, and collected the light until it was all inside the vial. Then he stoppered it again, and carefully placed the vial into his briefcase.
George stood slumped over, long arms dangling, loose. He had given up when he saw what happened to his boss. Now, leaderless, he was also powerless to choose his own future. Nick noticed this, held out the remaining vial. This time the fading away happened more quickly, and George didn’t scream, although he grunted fiercely.
There was no one else there, just me and Nick. He cocked his head, looked over at me. “I could use that ride to the airport, if you would be so kind.”
I was flabbergasted. Then I opened up the passenger door and made a gesture. “Ready to go?”
Nick got back into my car, again holding his briefcase on his lap. I wondered again if what I had seen was real or not — rows of glass vials all holding souls — and decided to leave it all behind me, just a bad dream.
The drive back to the airport was quiet. I asked his airline so I could drop him off at the right location.
“I might fly Delta again. You can drop me there. You know, if you think you might ever want to work for me, I’ll be glad to come back here to see you about it.”
I gulped, replied, “If I’m ever ready to switch jobs, I’ll keep you in mind.”
Nick smiled, climbed out of my car, nodded, and walked into the terminal, his back ramrod straight as he went.
I reflected on the strange night I’d just had. Nick. Nick Lightbringer. I thought for a minute, and then it dawned on me. Lucifer was the Morning Star… otherwise translated as the Bringer of Light. Old Scratch, Old Nick, were folklore ways of referring to the Devil.
I can’t say I beat the Devil. But he walked away from me on good terms. I swore I’d never place another bet again, put the car into gear, and drove home.