“Turn that off!” Aziraphale demanded, his face screwed up with pain.
They were lounging in the bookshop’s storeroom, not quite leaning against each other as they broke into the third case of peppermint schnapps. Adam had sent them his latest letter full of ideas, and they both wanted to be drunk before reading.
Crowley, who was wearing headphones plugged into an Ipod, just smiled and cranked it all the way up. And then started to snap his fingers, even though the song didn’t lend itself to that.
“Crowley!” Aziraphale protested, putting his fingers in his ears in an attempt to shield himself. Unfortunately for the angel, the unearthly wail of the fiddle played on, and there was no way his divine ears could tune it out without willing his eardrums out of existence.
“Problem, angel?” Crowley asked, sprawled in a haphazard chair composed of Reader’s Digests Condensed Editions that had been sent to Aziraphale by a Craigslist dealer. The Angel bought them with a mystery box claiming to contain a variety of rare American works including bibles, but the Gideon bibles had been yet another disappointment. Aziraphale’s tendency to believe that humanity wanted to be good made him a sucker for every internet vulture.
Unfortunately for his square footage, Aziraphale couldn’t bring himself to destroy a book, and trying to sell them would be an evil deed.
“That’s infernally annoying music,” Azirophale said. “We’d agreed on Tchaikovsky.”
“If you don’t like it, get your own Ipod. Or you can go really wild with a foray into the twenty first century by buying an Iphone.”
Aziraphale gave him a disappointed look. “I refuse to join the Cult of Apple. Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” he quoted in the original Hebrew.
It was hard to argue that one. Aziraphale may have been lax about preaching, but he did try to stick to the Basic Ten.
“Your loss. There’s no better way to be antisocial than to wander around plugged into an electronic.”
“I can still hear it,” Aziraphale complained.
“Maybe you should keep an open mind. I’m very fond of this instrument,” Crowley said.
“The world’s only golden fiddle, played by Johnny Webster himself.”
“Should I know him?” Aziraphale had bailed out of the popular music when jazz had arrived on the scene. It had been hard to ignore rock, but by the time boy bands had arisen, he’d already conceded that fight to Crowley.
“No, he’s never going to be famous,” Crowley said. “He’s a decent enough musician, but he has absolutely no business sense.”
Not like Paganini, but then again the Genoese had trading in their blood. Crowley still itched as he remembered how many pages of fine print he’d had to go through before Nicco had agreed to sign.
Aziraphale narrowed his eyes dangerously. “What did you do?”
“Me, do something?” Crowley asked in his best innocent tone, which dripped with sarcasm and was oily like a used car salesman.
Aziraphale just looked down his long nose, slightly cross-eyed from the amount of schnapps he’d been letting affect him.
Crowley was never able to resist an opportunity to gloat, so he caved in quickly. “I’m drunk enough that I can’t shut my mouth. It’s actually a pretty funny story.”
The only reason Crowley was in Georgia was that he had a problem. Down There was starting to ask Questions about what he was up to, and Crowley needed to show results, pronto. Since the Apocalypse That Wasn’t, Hastur had been looking for excuses to drop in, and Crowley didn’t want to see if he could trap Hastur on his cellphone voicemail. It was connected to Wi-Fi, and he really didn’t want one of the Dukes discovering the Internet.
It was time to look for easy pickings. That meant America, land of the free and home of the terminally prideful. He should be able to do an evil deed or two to show he was making progress on his Fifty State checklist. Whispering hints for the Florida Man Twitter account had been inspired on his part, since it allowed mortals to condemn those less fortunate.
Plus it was just plain funny. Crowley checked it frequently for ideas to add to his reports.
But he’d been sitting on his laurels for too long, and if he didn’t do something quick, someone would come around for a performance evaluation. Time to get back to work.
Next on the list was Georgia, and he was tempted to tempt himself with the sin of sloth so he could avoid it.
Georgia was not one of Crowley’s favorite hangouts. It was hot and people talked funny. A lot of the state was still rural, and Crowley was fond of creature comforts that only came when concrete was properly installed over every inch of ground for miles around.
He also didn’t like peaches.
Teleporting across the ocean was simple, since evil was everywhere and thus Crowley had a welcome mat to the entire world. He simply willed himself next to an easily tempted mortal who hadn’t earned a place down below yet, and poof! Like Harry Potter Apparition, but with nonimaginary magic.
Crowley turned his head to take in the scenery, pleased to discover that instead of being in the boonies, he found himself in Atlanta. Atlanta was almost civilized enough to call a town. Then his eye caught the sign for Decatur, and realized exactly where he was.
The ‘burbs. He should’ve guessed. Idle hands led to idle minds, and idle minds were the perfect soil for all kinds of devilish thoughts.
He stood in the back yard of a cute little home that cost more than an apartment in London. Tilting his head, he diagnosed it as a four bed, three bath set-up, exactly the kind a middle class professional would select to raise a family. From out of the window he heard the sound of someone playing furious scales on a violin, and smiled as he realized there was a teenager inside.
He opened the door and walked right in, since locks were no bar to his presence. Once he’d had a “client” try to renege on a deal, and followed him right through threshold ringed with crosses (useless since the man was Jewish) and garlic (tasty in sauce, and a must for pizza). The worst he had to fear was some noisy neighbor thinking he was a burglar, and this house was on a solid five acres, shaded protectively by some lovely black walnut trees.
Sniffing the air for the scent of adolescent angst, he walked up a flight of hardwood stairs and turned to the second room on the left. The music was loud, but Crowley thought the kid wasn’t half bad.
He looked over the edge of his glasses, his piercing eyes seeing through the door so he could get a sneak peek at whom he was dealing with.
There was a young man sitting on a bed, dressed in a V-neck sweater, stiff denim and a beanie. He was in his late teens, full of the sense of immortality the young had. Crowley squinted, taking a peek at the younger man’s soul.
Then Crawley blinked and did a double-take. Souls tended to be stained by the amount of sin they acquired. Most people had souls that looks like Jackson Pollock had been throwing paint around again.
This young man’s soul was interesting, and reminded him of a black light. There were a variety of sins, but the inner light of pride glowed so brightly that he was grateful for his sunglasses. Occasional minor sins added splotches of green (jealousy), red (anger), chartreuse (using the Lord’s Name in vain), and Navy Blue #1C2842 (being a Yankees fan).
Crowley smiled. One soul, ripe for the buying.
He knocked on the doorframe. “Helllllllo!” he announced, swinging the door open, drawling the first syllable out.
The kid fell off the bed in a tangle of legs, but landed cradling the violin in his hands like it was a newborn child. “What the hell?!” the kid demanded, coming to his feet in a jerky movement that was impeded by his oversized feet.
“Exactly!” Crowley said, offering his slyest smile, ©1917. “I’m a demon on hard times, looking to make a deal.”
“A deal?” the boy asked, his body language changing from defensive to intrigued.
Crowley assessed him quickly, remembering how the boy had reacted when he burst in. “You’re pretty talented on that violin. How about a little wager?”
“It’s a fiddle,” the kid snapped back, and began a lecture on how while the violin and fiddle were structurally similar, they were played very differently, and even though his mother was really upset, he was not going to become a concert musician since the bluegrass and folk scenes spoke much more to his very soul….
Crowley had forgotten he was in the south. Of course the hipster kid would choose the fiddle over the violin to annoy his upper middle class parents. He let the kid wind himself up, waiting for five minutes as the kid ranted. When the kid paused to take a breath, Crowley interrupted before the kid could go into further detail about the extra tuners on the tailpiece.
“In fact, I can play fiddle, too,” Crowley said. “I bet I’m a better fiddler than you are.”
“You’re not,” the kid said, scowling. “I’m the best. I’ve won the Grand Master Youth Fiddler Championship three times!”
“Want to bet on it?” Crowley asked. He would have felt sorry for the kid if he wasn’t such an annoying idiot.
“I need souls, and I bet you could use a better instrument. I’ll bet your soul against my fiddle.”
“Mine’s one of a kind,” Crowley said, mentally willing the perfect instrument into his hands. “Real gold, 24 carat, and magically enchanted so it gives the best tone you could want.”
Crowley adjusted a string, before running a quick scale. The instrument sang under his fingers.
“Wow,” the kid said, licking his lips. He was hooked. Now all Crowley had to do was reel him in.
“Do we have a deal?”
“Yes,” the kid said, holding his chin up high with shining eyes.
Crowley conjured up the paperwork, preparing to fill it out. “I need your name. Can’t enter into a proper wager without identifying the party of the first part, etcetera, etcetera….”
“Johnathan,” he said, pronouncing the last syllable with a hard “t” like a pretentious douche-bag.
Crowley heard the lie. “Your real name.”
That earned him another glare, a huff, and rolled eyes. “Johnny. Johnny Webster.”
The last name caught his attention. He remembered another Webster, almost two centuries ago…
He groaned as he realized the kid was a descendant of that Massachusetts orator.
Somewhere along the way the Webster family had done a couple of good turns for the Good Guys, and they had been treated to the gift of gab. Like most well-intentioned gifts, it backfired frequently, since the Websters had ended up as a family of lawyers. Rumor had it that Webster, Esq. had argued his way past St. Peter into heaven despite the automatic go-to-hell card all lawyers received.
Crowley himself had ended up on the wrong end of Webster, losing a soul due to Old Danny Boy’s legal wrangling. Downstairs had Not Been Happy about the legal precedent.
He missed the Puritans. Now that had been a bunch that knew how to damn their enemies, their neighbors and themselves without a second thought.
He finished filling out the contract, not giving any sign of unease as he handed it over to sign.
“Do I have to use blood?” Johnny asked. “I pass out at the sight of my own blood, so it doesn’t seem fair…”
“No blood, just make your mark,” Crowley replied, handing over a red Sharpie. “There’s too many blood borne diseases nowadays, and I don’t want to make a mess.”
Johnny hadn’t inherited his family’s lawyerly bent, since he didn’t bother reading the ten pages, which included eight pages of fine print. Old Danny Boy would spin over in his grave if his soul wasn’t safely out of the mortal realm.
It was justice, Crowley thought gleefully. Crowley held grudges like no other being on the planet, since he was immortal. He might have lost to Daniel Webster, but he could still get his progeny.
Hell had a very long memory. He’d add that to the report, fudge the facts if he had to, to indicate he’d visited vengeance on the seventh generation. He could claim that he’d been busy setting up this temptation, which was why other things had slipped.
A later song would document the account of their battle, but there was much creative license taken by the author. Since Crowley didn’t write it, there was only one possible source, and the self-aggrandizing was as good as a signature.
For the record, things didn’t go down the way Johnny wrote it. There was no band of demons, no hickory stump, and he played first. Crowley always liked to go second, since it was so much more fun to rip the rug out from under the overconfident.
Johnny flexed his fingers as he began to play, a confident smile on his face. He started with the bridge of Fire on the Mountain before smoothly shifting into the slower House of the Rising Sun. The boy was talented, Crowley would give him that, but his teenage angst didn’t quite hit the right emotional notes. A hipster just couldn’t relate to the life experiences of the hardscrabble culture that bluegrass and its related genres had arisen from.
Crowley listened as the boy shifted into “Chicken in the Bread Pan.” The kid was really obnoxiously hipster, digging up a song that was hardly recorded anymore. Then in a non-subtle ironic twist, he closed out with “The Hangman’s Reel.”
Crowley gave a slow clap as the kid gave him a triumphant smirk. “You’re pretty good, kid, but let me show you how it’s done.”
Crowley raised his fiddle to his chin, offering a smirk of his own to the stupid brat.
And then it all went wrong.
Just because Crowley had access to undivine knowledge didn’t mean he was infallible. No matter how much he knew, music required creativity, the one area where humanity had lapped those of angelic and demonic origins.
The only songs Crowley could remember were from Queen. "Fat Bottomed Girls" on the fiddle just wasn’t the same.
“All in all, it was a fine night of work,” Crowley said, feeling a bit nostalgic.
“But you lost!” Aziraphale protested, then covered his mouth as he realized he had actually wanted the demon to win. He’d have to go out and do a dozen good works to make up for even thinking that.
“I didn’t need to win the contest,” Crowley replied, feeling smug. “It was a win-win bet for me. Either I got his soul, flat out, or he took my shiny golden violin. A magic golden fiddle, since gold doesn’t have resonance and makes a horrible string instrument.”
“What did you do?” Aziraphale asked, his voice frosty. “Is there a soul trapped in it to make the sound? Or maybe you stuck an old friend in it to continue to tempt the man?”
Crowley was disappointed in his friend. “You have no imagination, angel. I suppose you can’t help it, coming from where you do.”
Aziraphale swatted Crowley’s arm, a weak, ineffectual gesture that Crowley would have called girly before he had hijacked a large part of the politically correct language movement.
“What was wrong with the fiddle?” Aziraphale demanded.
“The fiddle magnifies earworms,” said Crowley. “Earworms cause irritation, making everyone’s day just that much more frustrating. I’ll get a rash of road rage incidents out of this bet, and Johnny’s such a putz that he’ll end up in Hell on his very own de-merits.”
Aziraphale simply shook his head, once again amazed at the utter depravity of Crowley. He should be trying to fix this, but that would be violating the spirit of The Arrangement. Crowley had won this round.
Crowley, never one to lose an opportunity to do evil and irritate his enemy, started to hum “It’s a Small World.”