Amdusias had been insufferable since 1930, and Crowley was beyond tired of it.
He could have put up with Amdusias alone being insufferable. They were both demons; they weren't renowned for their modesty or humility. But it wasn't just Amdusias, it was everybody. Down Below sent up a commendation. Other demons kept dropping by to congratulate him. Beautiful piece of work, they said, one for the ages. A classic.
All because he got one man to sell his soul for the blues.
"So the blues themselves are evil," Crowley said, when he heard. He was, against his will, impressed.
"No," Amdusias said blankly. "What? Why would they be?"
Crowley stared at him. The impressed feeling was draining away like dirty dishwater. "You mean -- he's just an especially good musician now?"
"Well, yeah," Amdusias said. "That's what he wanted, so that's what I gave him. In exchange for his soul," he added, swelling up with pride at the memory.
Something else was swelling inside Crowley, and it felt suspiciously like a desire to hit Amdusias. "You mean," he said, "that you gave that man the ability to play music that will make him famous for ages to come, music countless people will listen to and admire and play for their friends . . . and none of it is evil?"
Amdusias only blinked cluelessly at him.
Crowley blessed under his breath. Then over it. Then, at length, in Amdusias's face. What was wrong with demons? Why was he the only one with any imagination? If Amdusias had just had the mother-wit to give Robert Johnson evil music, the knock-on effects of it would have been beyond counting. But no, it was just a bunch of really enjoyable sounds, which did nothing whatsover to tarnish a soul beyond the one already hocked.
"Oh, I suppose you could do better," Amdusias sneered.
"You know who I am," Crowley said, scathingly. "I could do better in my sleep."
In hindsight, he should have kept his mouth shut.
Down Below had overlooked him sleeping through most of the nineteenth century, on account, they said, of all his abysmal work before. (In Crowley's line of employment, "abysmal" was some of the highest -- or rather, lowest -- praise they could give.) But now it was the 1930s and they were making noises about him needing to get back into harness, get out there and do some evil again. "You know," they said. "Like Amdusias."
Crowley would be saved before he stooped to wasting his time that way. He had a reputation for thinking outside the infernal box, and he meant to uphold it. No contracts made at midnight at a crossroads for him, not unless those contracts could be leveraged into something bigger. No handcrafted, one-of-a-kind damnation. He would show Amdusias how it was really done.
He even planned to do it in Mississippi, just to rub the whole thing in Amdusias's face. But on his way to Mississippi he heard the strains of fiddle music wafting over a field in Georgia, and Crowley knew he'd found the perfect subject right there in the Peach State.
Everything went precisely according to plan.
Ingredient one: a hotshot fiddler named Johnny, who boasted to Crowley's face that he was "the best that's ever been."
Ingredient two: a contest to settle the truth of that claim.
Ingredient three: laid against Johnny's soul, a golden fiddle as the prize.
Crowley knew he wasn't a master fiddler. The only reason he rose as far as "competent" was because he'd practiced before heading south -- it wouldn't do to appear too obviously inept. Playing the fiddle was more difficult than he expected; Crowley hoped that Down Below would lay off for at least a decade, once this was done. He was missing the halcyon days of his nineteenth-century nap.
But the goal was never to be a master fiddler. The goal, from the start, was to lose.
Crowley's fingers ached as he laid the golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny's feet. If he never had to wrap them around the neck of a stringed instrument again, it would be too soon.
Johnny said, "Devil, just come on back if you ever wanna try again. I done told you once, you son of a bitch -- I'm the best that's ever been!"
"Yeah, yeah," Crowley muttered under his breath, hoping that nobody Down Below had noticed that "Devil" part. He might have done a little boasting of his own when he first appeared before Johnny.
This human was almost as insufferable as Amdusias. He launched into an encore of his entire performance, right there and then -- which Crowley could have forgiven, if he'd just had the kindness to play it on the golden fiddle. But Johnny used his own instrument, one final, triumphant curtain call, before picking up his prize and vanishing into the night.
No matter. Crowley would look him up later, see how he was getting on.
Because of course it wasn't just a fiddle made of gold. Crafting something like that had been enough of a challenge on its own; there was a reason stringed instruments were usually made of wood, and that reason was "resonance." (Also "weight.") But Crowley knew he wasn't a good enough fiddler to defeat somebody like Johnny, no matter how good of a backup band he brought with him, and besides, all that would do was damn one soul.
The fiddle was the key. That shining, resplendant instrument would spread a miasma of low-grade evil every time Johnny played it -- not enough to notice, but enough to put a thin layer of tarnish on every soul that heard it. Crowley had briefly entertained ambitions of corrupting the music itself, but this was more poetic: the very thing Johnny saw as his prize would be the downfall of countless others.
Besides, corrupting the music itself had turned out to be even harder than making a golden fiddle sound good.
Crowley stretched his aching fingers, paid the backup band, and went back to his shiny new Bentley.
When he got there, the car had acquired a rather large hood ornament.
Crowley would have said that Aziraphale cackled at the sight of him, except that cackling wasn't a thing angels did. They were much too serene and high-minded for that.
"How did it go?" Aziraphale asked, far too innocently.
Crowley scowled at him. "You're a bit late," he said, trying and failing to shake a niggling feeling that Aziraphale wasn't late at all. "The contest is over. The mortal's hubris won the battle -- which means I won the war."
"Oh?" Aziraphale blinked. If his previous question had been much too innocent, this shattered the glass on the gauge and sent shards of suspicion deep into Crowley's heart.
Trying to sound as if that heart weren't sinking into his feet, Crowley said, "I would have expected you to persuade him to back down from our bet."
"I tried," Aziraphale admitted, looking sheepish. "It, er. Didn't get very far. Confident fellow, that one. But he proposed a bet of his own with me."
Crowley shook his head, as if that would clear it. "He can't wager his soul with you. That isn't how salvation works." It would be far too easy. Humans would line up to lose their souls to Heaven, and then spend the rest of their lives resting safe in the knowledge of their eventual salvation.
Aziraphale had been trying to quash a smile, but it refused to be quashed. It spread across his face, picking up speed as the angel said, "No, our bet concerned the souls of others. Their prospects, that is. He promised me that if I won, he would spend the rest of his life doing good works on behalf of others -- not for his own salvation, but for the salvation of everyone he met." The smile achieved terminal velocity and became a beam. "And I won."
Crowley almost asked what Johnny would have done about that side bet if he lost his wager with Crowley, but gave it up as a waste of time. That bloody human was too cocksure to ever really entertain the possibility that he might lose a fiddling contest with the Devil and be hauled down to hell on the spot. "What was your bet?"
"That we could trick you," Aziraphale said proudly. "Each of us with his own ruse. As soon as I'm done here, I'll go tell Johnny that I pulled off a bigger trick than he did, which means he has to do good works for the rest of his life. Isn't it beautiful?"
It wasn't beautiful at all. It was getting more horrifying by the second. "How did you trick me?"
"By swapping fiddles!" the angel declared triumphantly. "I decided to replace the solid-gold fiddle with one that is merely covered in gold. That way, if he won the contest, he would learn a valuable lesson about not being deceived by superficial splendor."
Crowley walked up to the Bentley and, very gently, whacked his head against its roof. The fiddle hadn't seemed that light to him -- but his hands were so tired from the contest, it had made up the difference.
Aziraphale was burbling on about good deeds and how much of a difference that young man would make in the world. Then a thought came to Crowley. It wasn't a *happy* thought . . . but it also wasn't an unhappy one.
He lifted his head and looked at his angelic counterpart. "You lost your bet," he said.
Aziraphale blinked again. This time it was not so much innocent as confused. "What?"
"Johnny tricked me, too. Better than you did." Better than anything the angel could ever conceive of.
"But -- but --"
While Aziraphale sputtered and groped without success for words, Crowley went on, remorselessly. "Let me guess. Changing out the fiddles -- was that your idea?" More sputtering. "I thought not. He planted that notion in your head. And then he waltzed off with a gold-plated fiddle, letting me think my own plan had succeeded." If Johnny had played on his prize, Crowley would have heard the difference. No wonder he'd kept his own instrument for the encore.
"That means," Aziraphale said slowly, "that I didn't win . . . and neither did you."
Through his teeth, Crowley said, "No. Johnny won."
The Georgia night was warm and quiet. Then, in the distance, they heard the familiar sound of a fiddle. One not plated in gold.
Crowley opened the car door and gestured Aziraphale to the passenger's side. "Come on. I need a drink."