The demon Belphegor had taken an interest in Warlock Dowling, son of a certain American diplomat. That was a problem for Crowley, because Warlock was most definitely not the AntiChrist1, as called for in Plans both Infernal and Divine.
Hell had assigned Belphegor to be demon prince of the Americas. He was known as the demon of discovery, having seduced countless humans by offering them the ideas for ingenious inventions that would make them filthy rich. He also specialized in the sin of Sloth. The odd contrast between the two explained a great deal about the uneven progress of the American colonies.2
This was rather lucky for Crowley, since Belphegor did not so much want to be involved in the coming Armageddon as he wanted to be rewarded for not bothering with it. Bribery, extortion, and illicit favor-granting of all kinds was encouraged between demons. In this case, he wanted Crowley to take on a regular, long-standing obligation of his in the American South so that he could stay toasty-warm in the bowels of Hell.
All of which is an attempt to explain why Crowley is currently sitting on a tree stump at a crossroads, under a full moon, in the middle of nowhere, Georgia. He checked his watch – it was quarter past midnight local time, 06:15 in London, and Too Late Down Below. He wondered how long he was expected to wait around. Crowley hadn’t bothered with this kind of petty soul-trading in decades, and he was meant to meet Aziraphale for breakfast in 45 minutes.
A teenage boy ran up the road, panting, carrying a violin.
“Nisssssse night for it,” Crowley said, lowering his shades to flash snake eyes at the kid.
Who stared at him, a picture of slack-jawed confusion in flannel, jeans, and hand-me-down work boots. “The Devil’s a faw-inna?” he asked in a thick drawl.
“Well, I’m certainly not from around here,” Crowley replied after a brief pause to translate that into something civilized. He could speak all languages, of course, but accents sometimes took a moment to adjust to. He’d managed Scottish Highlanders, Welsh coal miners, even yobs from council estates, but this boy was bringing him all the way back to the ignorant peasants of the fourteenth century, and he hated being reminded of the fourteenth century.
“Makes sense,” the kid said, and started tuning his violin.
“Are you here to make a deal?” Crowley prompted him, hoping he wasn’t one of those born-again Satanists who would insist on making a big, blood-letting ritual with musical accompaniment out of something that was, after all, a very simple transaction.
The kid drew himself up to his full, spotty 5’ 7. “No,” he said, scornfully. “I’m here to win a bet.”
“A bet,” Crowley repeated, feeling a bit out of his depth.
“My name’s Johnny, and this might be a sin, but I’m a fiddle-player, the best there’s ever been. Everyone says I could out-play the Devil himself, and I’m here to prove it,” the boy boasted.
Perhaps Crowley shouldn’t have been playing Pocket God3 on his phone while Belphegor was explaining the details of this ‘regular, long-standing obligation’. “Remind me again of the stakes?”
“I’ll bet my soul against a fiddle of gold that I’m better than you.” The boy peered at him uncertainly in the moonlight. “You, uh, you do have a fiddle of gold?”
“Of course!” Crowley gestured. A gold-inlaid electric violin appeared in his hand, fully amplified and connected to a set of very nice Bose speakers hidden in the underbrush. Crowley, never lacking in showmanship, threw in some pyrotechnics as he rosined up his Diamond GX CodaBow.
“I’ll start this show,” Crowley said, dragging the bow across the string of his violin. There was an evil hiss of feedback.
Johnny and Crowley both flinched.
“I meant to do that,” Crowley insisted, quickly muting the strings of his violin and substituting a recording in its place. What was that thrash-funk band with the string-player? Ah yes – Primus4. Crowley turned his back, bowing frantically in time with the yowling fiddle line until the song was complete. At that point he spun back round to face Johnny with a sharp-toothed grin.
“Well, you’re pretty good, ol’ son,” Johnny granted. “Gotta say, though, the bass line from your band of demons was the best part. That don’t seem very fair.”
“What in the world led you to believe that the Devil would play fair?”
Johnny shrugged as if to say it wouldn’t make any difference. “Sit on down. I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Fire on the Mountain, run boys, run;
The devil's in the House of the Rising Sun;
Chicken in a bread pan, picken' out dough;
Granny does your dog bite - no child, no.
Crowley hooked one snakeskin-booted ankle over the other, closed his eyes, and listened. When Johnny was done, he bowed his head with a smile. “I admit it, you’re better than me. The best I’ve ever heard. You've won the golden fiddle.”
Crowley snapped his fingers and the violin appeared at the boy’s feet.
Shoving his own fiddle under his arm and dropping his bow, Johnny bent down to pick it up.
“Unlessss -” The gold-inlaid violin flickered out of existence.
The boy froze. “Unless what,” he asked suspiciously.
“Unless you’d prefer a more practical reward. I was thinking a record deal.” There was a business card in Crowley’s hand – he held it out to Johnny. “You could buy a car, some new clothes, perhaps a house for your mother…”
Johnny laid his own fiddle down gently on the ground and stood up, fists clenched. “No more tricks, Devil. I told you, I didn’t come here to make a deal for my soul. You gimme what I earned, fair and square.”
“I’m not promising you riches and fame in return for your eternal soul. You’re good enough to earn all that on your own. I’m just offering you an audition with a record producer from Miami. Call the number on the card. Tell her Crowley sent you. Once she hears you play, Amanda will probably charter a private jet to get you signed to her label before anyone else snatches you up.”
Johnny stepped forward and took the business card. “What’s in it for you?” he muttered, looking down at the number.
“I get to listen to your music without having to travel to the ass-end of Georgia to do it? Look, all the great musicians end up coming around to our side in the end, anyway.5 I’m in no rush. Travel. See the world. Get on stage with the most talented musicians you can find, so that you get even better. Play your heart out, and take the damned record deal so future generations get to hear what you can do.”
Even if the kid did make it Upstairs, this was Belphegor’s gig. It’d be a black mark on his record, not Crowley’s.
“Aight. I’ll call,” Johnny said, tucking the card into his shirt pocket.
“Ciao,” Crowley said, disappearing with a crack of thunder and reappearing in the private back room of Aziraphale’s bookstore, only a few minutes late for their breakfast date.
“I don’t know why I expected any different,” Aziraphale said primly, smoothing clotted cream onto his scone. “You are a demon, after all, and punctuality is a virtue.”
“True,” Crowley said, settling onto Aziraphale’s lap. “But keep working the guilt trips, babe. I almost felt that one.”
Aziraphale was particularly fond of blue-grass. Crowley figured Johnny’s first album6 should come out just in time for their anniversary, and if he spun the reports right, he could get Aziraphale credited with saving the kid’s soul, and himself credit for offering a temptation that Amanda, the record producer, couldn’t resist.
Crowley really was enjoying the twenty-first century immensely.