1888 // Georgia, USA
Crowley slumped down further at the bar and buried his face in his hands. The wood groaned under his elbows, the stifling humidity hanging heavy in the air.
This was a disaster. Hell was not going to be pleased.
The demon had been busy having a lovely time in Germany, where an automobile had just successfully driven forty whole miles. He’d also been looking forward more than he probably should have to dinner with his Adversary in four days’ time. The angel had promised to bring a lovely vintage wine he'd procured from a friend in London, where he’d been spending time with the composer Handel and these bizarre things called wax cylinders.
Crowley had been cheerfully tipping over boats sailing past on the Enz when the sun suddenly dimmed. Darkness rose around him like a shroud, muting the colorful waterfront.
Behemoth, one of Beelzebub’s right hand demons, had arrived in a swirl of dark smoke and informed Crowley that his current level of havoc was unacceptably low. The four-winged demon refused to accept Crowley’s stammered explanations that increasing materialism and consumerism were ultimately good for their cause, and he started growling when Crowley weakly pointed out that his more elaborate schemes had often been thwarted by his cunning Adversary.
Crowley had been struggling to recall a specific, recent instance of his incredible evil when Behemoth, in a thunder of dark smoke and snapping sparks, decreed that Hell had offered him a very generous three days to damn a single soul to Hell, old-school style.
Before Crowley could so much as protest, a swirl of black smoke had wrapped itself around his torso and tightened, forcing the air out of his lungs. Behemoth explained calmly that, to make things even easier for him, the Boss wanted Crowley to carry out his mission far away from his Adversary’s potential thwart-radius, and a place called “Georgia” had been selected.
When the smoke cleared, Crowley had found himself standing by the edge of a dirt road bisecting a massive field, and the air was hanging so hot and heavy it was like he had stepped into a sauna.
Georgia. Lor—Sat—who knew why he'd been sent to this godforsaken place, but he’d been hopeful that the lack of God might make his job easier.
He was wrong.
Crowley had spent the whole first day sauntering around in the sweltering heat, refusing to remove a single inch of his stylish black suit or newfangled dark glasses. He'd talked to white men and black men and desperate women of both colors, but, for reasons completely beyond his understanding, no one wanted to bite. The whole bloody state was practically dripping with inequality and prejudice, and though most people were willing to discuss following through on old grudges and injustices well enough, when he tipped his dark glasses down and asked if they'd pay their soul in a decade or so, they all clammed up, made signs of the cross, swore they'd never consort with his sort, and left quickly.
It was impossible to comprehend.
Now his second day was all but up, and it looked like the third day was going to be just as unsuccessful.
Crowley glared at the first in a line of dusty shot glasses in front of him, each filled with a dark amber liquid with suspicious-looking flecks suspended in the liquid. He could smell them from here, the alcohol rank and strong. Crowley stared at the foremost shot glass dismally, debating whether he wanted to miracle it into something more tasteful or just down it as-is. He imagined it would taste rather like kerosene, but at least he'd be pleasantly slammed when Hell came to collect.
He had just decided on downing it as-is when there was a sharp snap as the door to the dingy bar swung open. Despite the stiff spring pulling the door shut after the newcomer, a small swarm of mosquitos flooded into the room.
Crowley cast an irritated glance over his shoulder at the scrawny man who had entered, and then turned back to the bar. A moment later, much to his annoyance, the man dropped onto the seat next to him.
“I'll has—have—one o’ ‘em,” the newcomer slurred, leaning heavily on the counter. He was clearly already drunk, eyes bloodshot and hands shaking slightly. He was young, with messy mouse-brown hair and a drawn face. An old fiddle lay slung over his back.
The bartender, an elderly man with a large mustache and an expression that said he didn't want to be there, deposited a mug full of a hazardous-looking liquor in front of him.
Crowley shifted over in his seat, trying to separate his own, stylish sullenness from the drunk young man with the scrappy vest and threadbare sleeves.
The man gave the bartender a grateful nod and took a massive gulp from the mug. Crowley pointedly ignored him.
After a long moment, the man set the mug down heavily on the bar. He wiped his mouth with the back of one dirt-streaked hand and settled into a more comfortable position on the chair next to the demon.
The young man looked over at Crowley, glancing at his expensive suit and shaded glasses and then down at the row of shot glasses in front of him.
“Whot happen’d to you, then?” the man asked, unsuccessfully suppressing a belch.
Crowley ignored him and threw back the shot in front of him. It tasted just as bad as he’d thought it would.
“I’ma fresh outta work, my’elf,” the man supplied without being asked. “No’abody app—apr—apeciates good music now’adays,” he continued, swinging a hand around vaguely in the direction of the old fiddle on his back. “I sit out’in tha dratted hot ‘n play ma fiddle, but no’one will even gimme a blessed nickel!”
Crowley continued ignoring him, downing a shot of excellent wine from a rather surprised shot glass.
“If onl’ I could prove my’elf,” the young man said despairingly. “I know I’mma one’f tha best dang fiddle play’rs in tha whole state! Maybe tha best!” The man hiccuped and sank further against the bar, head dipping in Crowley’s direction. “Best ‘ere’s ever been,” he mumbled, swirling the tip of a finger in his mug, picking the dark flecks out of the liquid.
Crowley, about to stand up and move somewhere more private, had a sudden flash of inspiration. He gave the drunken young man beside him an appraising glance. Maybe he couldn’t buy a soul outright—but maybe he could win one.
“Say,” Crowley said conversationally, tilting one of his shot glasses absently with a finger, “As it happens I’m a fiddle player too.”
The young man’s head snapped up, bloodshot eyes looking at him with a mixture of interest and envy. “Sweeeet,” he said, grinning.
“I’m not very good, though,” Crowley added quickly, indicating the fiddle on the young man’s back. “My fiddle isn’t even as old and, er, authentic as yours,” he invented.
“Oh, eren’t she a beauty?” the man said happily, pulling his fiddle from his back and placing it none too gently on the surface of the bar, running a drunken hand over the body of the instrument. The wood had cracked in places and faded severely in others, and some of the finish had started peeling off. Two of the strings had clearly been replaced, and it looked like it was likely to be horribly out of tune. “Ma uncle left it for me a‘fore he went to Atlanta.” The man’s eyes took on a distant look. “Atlanta.”
Crowley felt a devious plan beginning to form in his mind. “Hey,” he began, tapping the edge of the young man’s fiddle to draw his attention back to the demon. “How about we make a little deal—no, a bet. A wager.”
The man looked at him for a moment, an easy smile on his face. “Sure,” he said, waving a hand around in a manner that suggested there was no reason not to.
Crowley leaned in conspiratorially, phrasing his next words carefully. This was where he’d lost all the others. “How about we have a little contest—just you and I—and we each play our fiddles, and whichever of us is better will...get something. If you win—” Crowley paused, searching for a suitable reward in his mind. A hundred thousand dollars? A ticket to the city?
“Ooh—a new fiddle!” the man said excitedly. “Like tha one ol’ Mr. Watkins has, with gold around tha edges...” his voice trailed off as his eyes drifted away again.
Crowley had to tap him on his shoulder before the man’s eyes focused on the demon again. “Solid gold,” Crowley said extravagantly. “A solid gold fiddle.”
The young man’s eyes grew as wide as saucers. “Really? Gee.”
“Really,” Crowley confirmed. “Now, if I win...I just want something small.”
“Sure,” the young man said. “Whaddya want?” He gestured to himself hopelessly. “I ain’t got a ‘ole lot, though, just whatcha see, no ‘olid gold fiddles here.”
“Nothing you’d miss,” Crowley lied. “Just your soul.”
The young man regarded him for a moment. “Whot?”
“Your soul, is all,” Crowley repeated. He put his fingers on the edge of his dark glasses and slid them down an inch, revealing his slitted serpentine eyes. “I am a demon, after all.”
“Eee, that’s a neat trick!” the man said with a laugh. “Well, I’mma sure gonna win me a ‘olden fiddle, 'o sure!”
Crowley blinked at him. “What?”
“Sure!” the young man said again, raising his mug and taking another long gulp. “The preacher man for sure wouldn’t a-like it, but, by Jesse, let’s do it!”
“Yes!” Crowley said quickly, eager to hammer out the rest of the details before the young man changed his mind. “Yes. How does a fiddle competition tomorrow sound, say, noon?” That would give him a twelve hour window before Hell came to collect at midnight.
“Out by the hickory tree on the corner,” the fiddler agreed happily. “Maybe we’ll even getta crowd!”
“Yeah,” Crowley said, digging in his pocket and producing an elaborately embossed piece of paper and an elegant fountain pen. “Just sign here.”
“Eeio, all off’cal and everyth’n!” the man said in delight, pushing aside his mug and ill-used fiddle to take the pen from the demon.
Crowley felt a twinge of guilt at hoodwinking the drunken man before him. Underneath the road dust and threadbare clothes, he looked so very young, and he couldn’t be a year over eighteen. Then the demon pushed the feeling away—tempting individuals wasn’t what he liked doing, sure, but his continued existence was on the line here, and he had a dinner date to keep.
“‘Ere ya go,” the young man said, cheerfully scrawling something illegible on the line at the bottom of the contract and handing it back. Crowley signed his own name in a complicated sigil before he could think better of it.
The demon could feel an invisible tether spring into existence, stretching from the sheet of paper in his hand to the fiddler’s soul, binding it in place. A contract like this couldn’t be broken, not by either party. Crowley duplicated the piece of paper with a thought and pushed the copy towards the fiddler.
“See you tomorrow, then,” Crowley said quickly, stowing the original away in his jacket pocket and making sure his dark glasses were pushed all the way up his nose.
“Leavin’ so soon?” the man asked in surprise, looking up at him.
“Yep,” Crowley said, leaving some poorly counterfeit money on the bar.
“‘Ey, I don’t even know yer name,” the fiddler protested. He gave the demon a sloppy, innocent grin. “Imma Johnny.”
“That’s nice,” Crowley said stiffly. “Crowley,” he added grudgingly under his breath as he turned on heel and strode out of the bar before his guilt could get the better of him. He really did like humanity, after all.
Something was happening in Georgia. All of Heaven—well, the bits that attempted to keep tabs on surges of demonic activity—was abuzz about it. There were reportings of dozens of demon deals going down, or, at least, attempting to go down. The reports were conflicting. The local preacher had a strong sway over most of the population, and it sounded like his loyal congregation had taken him at his word when he shouted about hellfire and eternal damnation.
Still, someone was stirring up trouble in the American South for some reason, and Aziraphale, as Heaven’s official liaison to Earth, had been instructed to go and put an end to it.
It took the angel an uncomfortably long flight on tired, disused wings to cross the span of the Atlantic Ocean. By the time he touched down outside of the small town in Georgia where all the trouble was, the sun was rising and the reports had been been coming in for two days already.
The heat was oppressive, the sun bearing down and turning the air into a furnace. Workers labored in nearby fields, and though there had recently been a war fought to free those of them that had been slaves, most of the men and women he saw there now were still dark-skinned, with sweat-drenched handkerchiefs pushed up over their foreheads in an attempt to ward off the worst of the heat.
And then there were the bugs. They were everywhere, especially this early in the morning, swarming over the long grass and trying to take a bite out of the angel every step he took. Aziraphale always tried to extend kindness to all of his Father’s creations, but being eaten alive like this was making him truly miserable. The angel waved his hand and convinced the swarm of insects that he was really not worth their time.
Aziraphale tugged on the lapels of his antique tweed coat and continued down the narrow dirt lane towards the cluster of buildings ahead that served for the town of West Oak.
The angel was just passing a small steepled church and checking the time on the elaborate silver pocket watch Crowley had given him when he collided head-on with someone all but running towards the whitewashed chapel.
“Oh, Lord, I’m sorry, mister,” the man stammered, pulling a strap going over his shoulder back into place. The neck of an instrument, perhaps a violin, was visible resting on his back.
“Nothing to worry about,” Aziraphale assured him amiably, stowing his watch back in its pocket. “I was the one not paying attention.”
“Yeah, well, sorry,” the man said, trying to dodge around the angel. He seemed very distressed, and Aziraphale discreetly moved over to block the young man’s path.
“Calm down, now,” the angel said, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. Not by coincidence, the young man quieted. “Now tell me your name, and what seems to be the matter.”
The man looked wretched. “Well, my name’s Johnny, sir, Johnny Draper, and I think I may have made a deal with the devil.”
Aziraphale blinked. What he had been expecting, he wasn’t quite sure, but this wasn’t it. “Sorry?”
“Aw, I don’t know,” Johnny said, running a hand nervously along the side of his head, smoothing down his hair. “Look, I don’t know how it happened, but I got pretty corned over at Kilmare's last night, ya know, and when I woke up I had this piece of paper,” the man pulled a sheet of folded paper from his pocket and waved it around despairingly, “and it says I gotta go play a fiddlin’ contest at noon o’er by the old hickory tree and if I win I get a fiddle made o’ gold and that would be swell, ya know, but if I lose I’ve gotta give up my soul to a demon, and it’s gonna be tortured in Hell for all of blessed eternity—I know because that’s all Preacher will ever say, and it sounded like a good idea at the time I guess because I went and signed the dratted thing, and I’m really not all that great at fiddlin’, you see—”
Aziraphale snatched the sheet of paper from Johnny’s hand. The fiddler kept talking, words tumbling over each other as he hyperventilated. The angel patted the young man’s shoulder absently and he quieted, wheezing a little.
It was a demon deal all right, but like none he had ever seen before. For one thing, it was longer than most, and the signatures of both Johnny and the demon responsible were rendered practically illegible by what looked like a smear of beer and dirt. For another, it wasn't the usual format or language. Usually demon deals promised something tangible immediately to the signee, with a soul collection coming after a period of time, usually ten years. This one hinged on what appeared to be a wager of some kind—whoever was the greater fiddler would win, and winner took all. It was novel, but not necessarily a sustainable business model.
Though, Aziraphale reflected, perhaps it could be if the demon cheated and used his intrinsic powers, as was doubtlessly this fiend’s plan. No human would be able to out-fiddle a demon with enough power to be able to miracle himself into the world’s finest fiddle player.
Well, Aziraphale thought after another moment. He felt a smile start to creep across his face. Good thing I don’t happen to be human, then.
“Hey, mister, it’s not funny!” Johnny said petulantly, misinterpreting the angel’s smile. He moved to snatch the piece of paper back from Aziraphale.
“Hang on, now,” the angel said placatingly. He pointed to a line in the contract. “Look at this line here. It says ‘where the demon shall face the fiddler, who shall wager his soul.’”
“I know, I can read, can’t I?”
“But it doesn’t say 'the signee.' It says 'the fiddler,' and it doesn't specify who that fiddler is,” Aziraphale pointed out.
Johnny frowned and succeeded in snatching the contract back out of the angel’s hand. “So?”
Aziraphale smiled again. “Well, as it turns out, I am a world-class fiddle player myself, and I’ll be your substitute if you like.”
Crowley stood in the broad shadow of the old hickory tree. It looked like it had been standing there for decades, and probably had. The sun was directly overhead, and the heat was almost unbearable, even in the shade. Two roads stretched away into the distance, with the hickory—fittingly—growing at the corner of the broad crossroads.
The demon tugged on one of his cuffs and looked down at the fiddle in his hands. He’d miracled it up this morning, and it was still glistening with fresh varnish and perfect strings. He had next to no idea how to play it, of course, though he’d seen Aziraphale on the violin a couple of times and figured he’d just miracle the rest of it. It wasn’t really cheating, the demon reasoned, since miracling himself things was just utilizing that which was already part of his basic nature. It wasn’t his fault the stupid kid didn’t have access to vast reserves of otherworldly power like he did.
The thought of the unfortunate young fiddler being tortured in Hell for all of eternity for having committed no crime didn’t sit very well with Crowley, but he pushed his unease away. He couldn’t afford to be going soft, not now. He needed the soul if he wanted to keep himself out of Hell’s bad books—needed a soul, at any rate.
Crowley pulled out the contract, fingering the edges of the heavy, embossed paper while he waited. Hell did like to be flashy. The demon glanced up after a while and saw two figures walking towards him along the side of one of the roads. The kid had brought a friend.
Crowley moved to tuck the contract away again, but as he did so he noticed suddenly that something had changed. On the road, the two figures were closer now, the one on the left clearly distinctive as the scrawny fiddler, but the one on the right was...different. He was rounder, and wearing some sort of ghastly coat that the demon was sure had gone out of style forty years ago.
And the invisible thread of power reaching from the contract was wrapped around the soul of that figure, not Johnny.
Crowley felt something like dread settle inside of him. He tried to comfort himself with the thought that the kid would get to live now. And it wasn’t like Crowley was going to lose when he faced this new opponent; he was capable of beating any human. Different details, same story. He would win a soul either way.
The two people neared, and the figure on the right started to get more and more familiar-looking, the feeling nagging incessantly at the demon.
Something’s wrong, Crowley thought suddenly, unease filling him again. He took an uncertain step further back into the broad shadow afforded by the hickory, feeling the sudden urge to run.
The two figures neared, Crowley fixating on the one on the right. He was holding a fiddle, tapping the bow absently against the neck of the instrument, and that coat was looking very familiar now, as were those ghastly trousers, and that halo of curling, golden hair, and the actual, palpable feeling of divinity—
Crowley felt his blood run cold as the fiddler and his angel stepped onto the crossroads proper, looking around for the demon they were supposed to meet.
He could see the angel’s face now, and it was definitely him—bloody Aziraphale, with his angelic soul irrevocably bound to the unbreakable contract in Crowley’s jacket pocket.
Aziraphale stood still in the stifling heat, Johnny shifting worriedly beside him. The angel turned his head, taking in the crossroads and old hickory tree, looking for the demon that had been the cause of all this trouble.
His eyes stopped their search at the shadows beneath the hickory as a slender figure stepped forward into the light. He wore a well-tailored suit and those newfangled dark glasses—
Aziraphale felt himself freeze, hand tightening on Johnny’s fiddle.
Crowley walked forward rather reluctantly and came to a stop several feet away, just inside of the range of normal conversation.
“Hey, angel,” Crowley said. His expression was unreadable behind the dark glasses, though his voice betrayed something like unease.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, a little stiffly. He was trying to understand; Crowley had been the one trying to damn this innocent young man’s soul to an eternity in Hell? He hadn’t thought the demon capable of such targeted, unwarranted cruelty for some centuries now. And it sounded like he’d been trying to condemn most of the town, too.
“You two know each other?” Johnny asked nervously from beside the angel.
“I thought so,” Aziraphale said, a tad coldly. If Crowley thought he was going to win his immortal soul for Hell to play with for all of eternity, he had another thing coming to him.
Across from them, Crowley shifted uncomfortably and swallowed. “So are we going to, er, get on with it?” the demon asked.
“You first,” Aziraphale said, pointing at Crowley’s shining new fiddle with Johnny’s bow. “Do impress us.”
Crowley nodded curtly and raised his fiddle to his chin. He held it there for a long moment, the bow hovering uncertainly over the strings. Then he took a fortifying breath and jumped into a song.
It was upbeat, with lots of moving notes and interweaving melodies, but every other note was either flat or sharp. It was clearly meant to be something impressive, but it felt rather underperformed, even to Johnny, who tugged at Aziraphale’s sleeve and whispered excitedly into his ear that he should be easy to beat.
Crowley switched melodies halfway through, misplaying an entire section and squeaking on some of the notes. If anything, he seemed to be playing even worse as he progressed. It was an offense to the ears.
Aziraphale stared at him. Was Crowley really that bad, that with all of his powers he couldn’t even keep the notes on key?
The demon finished with an elaborate flourish, missing the last note entirely and dropping the instrument to his side wordlessly. He looked over at Aziraphale.
The angel looked back at him, but Crowley’s expression was frustratingly blank and he really couldn’t read the demon very well from this distance with his eyes hidden.
Aziraphale took a single step forward, raised Johnny’s old fiddle to his chin, and began. He started with a quiet little melody that grew into a more complex composition, bow flying back and forth across the strings. The angel had spent some time with a nice chap named Stradivarius over in Italy and had picked up a thing or two from him and his circle of musician acquaintances.
The angel imbued the fiddle with just enough of his intrinsic power to keep the instrument in tune and the sound smooth and whole, but otherwise let himself just play as he knew how to play, knowing that it would easily be better than that disaster Crowley had ground out.
Aziraphale couldn’t understand how the demon had been so incredibly incompetent—it should have been the easiest thing in the world to imbue his fiddle with the mastery of centuries, and play something truly awe-inspiring. It was like he hadn’t even tried, like he hadn’t even wanted to win the wager—
Aziraphale abruptly missed a note, brain coming to a stuttering halt. He looked up and over at Crowley wordlessly. The demon was still standing across from him, loosely holding his fiddle, a smile on his face beneath the dark glasses. When he noticed the angel had stopped playing, the smile abruptly vanished, and Aziraphale barely managed to convince his hand to coax a simple two-note alternating rhythm out of the fiddle.
The angel threw his attention quickly back to the instrument, but he had rather forgotten the thread of whatever he’d been playing. He worked up to a quick crescendo and finished his song.
He had barely put the fiddle down when Crowley was striding over to him, a look somewhere between relief and worry on his face.
“Here you go,” the demon said, altering his course to stop in front of Johnny. He held out his fiddle, and suddenly it was gleaming a very bright gold.
“How’d ya—you know, I don’t care,” Johnny said quickly, accepting Crowley’s fiddle. The young man looked between them. “Well, I’ll just be going then, okay? Er. Thanks for—you know,” he added nervously to Aziraphale, casting Crowley a frightened glance.
“That’s fine, you can...go,” Aziraphale said absently, unable to pull his eyes away from the demon. He felt Johnny tug his fiddle from the angel’s lax hands.
“Right. Bye.” Johnny was gone down the road in an instant, shaking his head to himself. “I’m going to be telling this one for a coon's age—”
Once he was gone there was an awkward moment of silence in which the two immortal beings stood several feet apart.
“Sorry about that, angel,” Crowley said after a moment, sounding rather guilty. He shifted uncomfortably and looked at the ground.
Aziraphale wanted to be angry but only sighed. “Why were you trying to take that poor man’s soul?” he asked. “He hadn’t done anything. And besides, I didn’t think that was what you did anymore.”
“It’s not,” Crowley said miserably, kicking at the dirt. He looked up at the sky and exhaled mightily, looking suddenly very defeated. “Behemoth—he’s one of Beelzebub’s cronies—showed up the other day, said I wasn’t doing enough evil. Gave me three days to condemn a soul to the Pit. Because that’s the only type of evil they’re interested in. That kid was the only taker I could find.”
Aziraphale looked at the demon, taking in for the first time Crowley’s sloped shoulders and the nervous fidgeting of his fingers. How could he have even entertained the notion that Crowley would deliberately inflict this sort of targeted evil, without good reason?
“Oh, my dear, I’m sorry,” the angel said, closing the distance between them and resting a hand on Crowley’s shoulder. “When’s the time up?”
“Midnight tonight,” the demon said, looking down at the ground again. “Took me two days to find that kid. I’m never going to find someone else, not in twelve hours.” Crowley gave a nervous laugh. “Guess Hell gets me instead.”
“Nonsense,” Aziraphale said automatically, feeling a sudden irrational wave of guilt and worry rush over him as his fingers tightened their grip imperceptibly on Crowley’s shoulder. “I don’t suppose they’d accept being thwarted as an acceptable excuse?” the angel asked hopefully.
“Not this time,” Crowley said miserably. “They want some actual results. That’s why they sent me to this bloody place—figured you wouldn’t be here to mess things up.”
They stood there for another couple of moments, Aziraphale keeping his hand on Crowley’s shoulder. The demon was leaning towards him slightly, looking utterly defeated.
“We’ll just have to—to—find another way,” Aziraphale said at last, unable to come up with an acceptable solution to the problem.
Crowley laughed bitterly. “Yeah; what, you’re going to go gift-wrap a soul for Hell for me?” he asked. “That’s not against your job description?”
Aziraphale frowned. “Well, my dear, I’m not going to let you get dragged back Below,” he said sensibly, and then stopped as he heard the words leave his mouth. The statement was bordering on blasphemy, he realized quickly, but couldn’t find it in himself to regret it.
Crowley gave him a sharp glance, looking just as surprised by the declaration. Then his expression softened and he gave his Adversary a sad smile. “Thanks, angel, for what it’s worth.”
“Now,” Aziraphale said brusquely, trying to hide the hint of blush creeping up his cheeks, “what if we found someone who’s already, er, damned to Hell? If you got their soul—officially, that is—wouldn’t that work?” The angel’s voice took on a hopeful note. “Then it wouldn’t necessarily be against what Heaven wants, if said person was really and truly already going to end up Below anyway.”
Crowley perked up a little. “That could work,” he said slowly. “If no one Below checked hard enough, to see the quality of the soul...maybe they’d still consider it good enough?”
“There you go,” Aziraphale said, sounding more cheerful than he felt. “You’ve been hanging around here longer than me. So who around here is absolutely, positively already damned?”
Crowley’s face twisted. “How should I know, angel? Most of them attend that bloody church, but that’s—” The demon stopped.
“What is it?” Aziraphale asked.
A smile grew across Crowley’s face until it was wide enough that the angel knew his friend’s golden, serpentine eyes were twinkling behind the dark glasses. “I know just the guy.”
“Woolfolk,” Crowley repeated, leading the angel at a brisk pace down the road towards the town of West Oak. “His name’s Tom, but they just call him Bloody Woolfolk around here. Last autumn he took an axe and offed something like nine of his family members in one night. The townspeople are still talking about it.”
“Yeah, I know. Pretty sure no demons even had a hand in it. Anyway, it made big news here and he's being held on death row just east of here. He's trying to appeal his sentence, something about an unfair trial. But—” Crowley grinned at the angel. “Odds are pretty good he's going to be consigned to the Pit as it is, right? If murder will get you down there, he's guilty nine times over.”
“Well, if they're sure he did it…” Aziraphale began, sounded rather perturbed by the whole affair.
“He's claiming innocence, of course, but there was blood on him and he doesn't have an alibi,” Crowley relayed. “He was found near the scene of the crime, actually. And he's got heaps of motive and sounds like he was a pretty messed up guy before this, so, yeah, it was probably him.”
“If you're sure…” Aziraphale said hesitantly. “I suppose he's probably our best shot.”
Crowley gave the angel a sideways look. “You don't need to come with if you'd rather not,” he said. “I should be able to find him and get him to sign a contract without a problem.”
“It only seems right for me to see this through,” Aziraphale said, sounding more than a little guilty, “seeing as I did rather put you in this position.”
Crowley waved the angel’s words away. “Nah, that was Hell, not you.”
“Also,” Aziraphale said quickly, “as an angel, I simply can't stand by idle knowing that you’re going to damn some poor man's soul...it just wouldn't be ethical.”
Crowley smirked and pushed his dark glasses further up his nose. “Sure thing, angel. Anything you say.”
“We’re cutting it very fine,” Aziraphale whispered worriedly to Crowley as the demon hastily pushed open the suddenly unlocked door to the inner prison. “It’s already eleven thirty.”
Crowley scowled as he strode quickly down the darkened hallway lined with iron bars. “It’s not my fault you got lost and made us take a detour to bloody Windsor Forest.”
“Hey, you said you thought that was the right direction too,” Aziraphale shot back.
“Nah, I just...didn’t want to make you look bad by pointing out that was entirely the wrong direction,” Crowley assured him, reaching the cell he wanted and unlocking the door with a wave.
“I knew we should have asked for directions,” the angel lamented.
“Shh,” Crowley shushed him, half-opening the door and turning to look over his dark glasses at the silhouette of the angel standing behind him in the blackness. Aziraphale looked on edge, the pocket watch Crowley had given him in his hand. There was a cold bluish light glinting on the edge of the watch’s metal casing and along the lines of the angel’s figure, catching in his curly hair and along the curve of his cheek. “Don’t worry about it,” Crowley said, feeling rather worried himself. “Just stand in the back and let me handle this.” The demon flashed Aziraphale a smile he didn’t feel. “Watch the professional at work.”
Aziraphale made an amused noise but Crowley had already turned back around and pushed the barred door open the rest of the way.
The cell of Tom Woolfolk, mass murderer, was sparse and rather small. A tiny window in the corner allowed a modicum of starlight in, revealing a low cot near the wall where the man in question lay.
Crowley moved forward, miracling a table, chair, and lamp into existence in front of the cot. Behind him, he heard Aziraphale close the cell door.
“Eleven thirty-six,” the angel relayed to him as Crowley strode confidently to the edge of the cot and shook the sleeping man’s shoulder roughly.
“Hey! You’ve got company,” the demon said loudly.
Woolfolk jerked and sat up so quickly he knocked his leg into the table Crowley had conjured. The lamp shook as the table jumped back an inch, sending bizarre shadows careening across the walls.
“Argg—what—who are you?” Woolfolk’s eyes finally found Crowley in the semi-darkness and latched on suspiciously.
“Good news,” Crowley said, moving back around the table and taking a seat.
Woolfolk looked at him strangely and then seemed to register Aziraphale, still standing by the cell door. The murderer’s gaze tracked up and down the angel, eyes hard and a sneer on his face. “And what’s with the Nancy-boy?”
“Hey,” Crowley said sharply, feeling an irrational surge of anger as he snapped his fingers to get the human’s attention. “Don’t worry about him. It’s me you’ll be doing business with.”
Woolfolk gave the demon a snide sneer, but at least he was looking at Crowley again.
“I don’t see what business you can offer me,” Woolfolk said. “Seeing as I’m a little indisposed to going anywhere anytime soon.”
“About that,” Crowley said, giving Woolfolk what he hoped was a helpful smile. “How’s the appeal process going?”
Woolfolk’s eyes narrowed in suspicion and he glanced between the two man-shaped beings. “What’dya mean? It’s going just fine.”
“Yes. Well.” Crowley glanced back in Aziraphale’s direction for effect before turning back to the human. “Of course that’s what they’d tell you.”
“Who’d tell me what?” Woolfolk said, looking a tad wary.
“The lawyers,” Crowley dismissed, sitting back in his chair.
Woolfolk gave him another suspicious look and Crowley waited three long seconds before sitting forward again and elaborating. “What makes you think the state wants to waste time retrying you? They’re still calling in the streets for you to be hanged, you know. Killed like a dog.”
“There’ll be a retrial,” Woolfolk snapped. “It was a mistrial the first time.”
“Sure, sure,” Crowley said easily, sitting back in his chair again. Then: “Say, do you know how dreadfully expensive retrials are?” The demon knew well himself; he’d had a hand in the invention of much of the modern legal system. “And why bother if they’re going to hang you either way? It’s the worst PR Georgia’s ever had; surely it’s better to just get you cold and in the ground as soon as possible?”
“Like you’d know,” Woolfolk snapped. There was an angry flush in his cheeks now, and his eyes were dark and dangerous.
Crowley smiled. Behind him, he heard Aziraphale shift nervously. “But don’t worry about that,” the demon said smoothly, laying his hands on the table. “Because I know some people, and I can pull some strings for you.”
Woolfolk narrowed his eyes at Crowley, who carefully folded his hands.
“Because you want that retrial, and you want to live, right? That’s why you’ve been professing your innocence this whole time.”
“Yeah,” Woolfolk said suspiciously. “What’s in it for you?”
“Nothing you’ll miss,” Crowley said smoothly, reaching into his jacket pocket to produce a contract. It filled itself in with a thought from the demon. He held it in his hands for a moment, tapping on the edge of the sheet with a finger. Woolfolk’s eyes watched it hungrily. “I can guarantee you’ll get a retrial,” he said. “And all I ask for in return is your soul. In ten years, or whenever you meet your end, whichever comes sooner.”
Woolfolk looked at him and laughed. It was cold and hollow.
Crowley, a little peeved at being taken less than seriously, lowered his dark glasses meaningfully. “I am a demon.”
Woolfolk’s laugh cut short as he caught sight of Crowley’s gleaming, slitted golden eyes. The demon blinked lazily at him and laid the contract on the table, conjuring a very nice fountain pen into existence next to it.
The human blinked at him and looked down at the contract. “You’re serious,” he said, and cast Aziraphale a snide look. “You’re telling me the Nancy-boy's a demon too, eh?”
Aziraphale let out an undignified noise and Crowley shot him a quick warning glance. “It’s not important what he is,” he said carefully, looking back at Woolfolk. “This is between you and I.”
Woolfolk gave him an appraising look and then pulled the contract towards him, reading it over carefully. Then he looked up at the demon. “I want more,” he said flatly. “I want a guarantee of being found innocent. Or free me right now.”
Crowley frowned, hearing Aziraphale shift behind him. “If you want me to break you out of here right now, that’s no problem,” he said carefully, “but there’ll be a manhunt and you’ll be back in here before sunrise.”
Woolfolk opened his mouth to say something but Crowley held up a hand. “Trust me, doing this the legal way is best for you. You’ll want the extra time for the mob to calm down, too.”
Woolfolk gave him a shrewd glance. “Then guarantee I’ll win the appeal.”
Crowley kept his face carefully blank, considering his options. He could practically hear Aziraphale’s protests already. “No.”
“Then no deal,” Woolfolk said, sitting back on his cot until he was leaning against the cold stone wall of the prison. He crossed his arms. “Why would I sell my soul for something that’s probably already going to happen anyway?”
Crowley frowned at him. “To make it a certainty? Besides, if it’s any consolation, you’re going to meet my bosses either way. I’m offering you a chance to postpone that a little.”
Woolfolk tilted his head at Crowley and smiled in a manner that was by no stretch of the imagination comforting. “If it’s such a good deal, why are you offering it to me, then?” he asked. “Nah, thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”
“Fifty,” Aziraphale said quietly behind him, marking the time.
“Fine,” Crowley said quickly, deciding he could always just have Aziraphale make sure Woolfolk didn’t kill anyone else after his retrial (not that Crowley cared, of course). “Guaranteed.”
The demon placed the pen squarely on top of the newly amended contract. “Sign.”
Woolfolk didn’t move, eyeing the contract from his spot by the wall. “I want money, too,” he said.
Crowley scowled at him. “Is your life worth so little to you?”
“No sense being free if you’re going to be poor,” Woolfolk commented, voice uncompromising.
The demon sighed. “Fine.” He waved his hand and the terms of the contract shifted again. “Is a hundred thousand enough?”
Woolfolk appraised him from behind flat, dark eyes. “I was thinking more like five.”
“Take six,” Crowley said impatiently, altering the contract yet again, so that the newly acquitted Woolfolk would receive the money’s worth of a six-digit number comprised entirely of sixes. Maybe some bad luck would come with it.
Woolfolk nodded and sat forward, picking up the pen. He read through the now-quite-lengthy contract again, tapping the end of the pen against the table.
“Any time,” Crowley said after a solid minute had passed, nervously aware of the quiet ticking of time past them. Maybe Behemoth would be fashionably late?
Finally Woolfolk laid the contract flat on the table and picked up the pen, the tip hovering over the line where he was to sign. Then he took a long breath and moved the pen away, looking up at Crowley with that dark, annoying smile.
“You know, I think I’m going to need a little something—”
Crowley wasn’t exactly sure what happened next, but abruptly the chair he was sitting on was pulled backwards several feet, the legs skittering across the stone floor. There was a crash as the lamp on the table rocked over the edge and exploded across the floor, plunging the room back into darkness.
And then Aziraphale was there, looming over the table where Crowley had sat just moments ago, hands clamped to the wooden surface. The angel’s massive wings were still hidden, but their glowing silhouette was visible, revealing them to be fully flared.
“Now you listen to me, you cockroach,” Aziraphale hissed in a thunderous voice, the air in the small room crackling. “You’re going to sign this contract—the original one—and you’re going to be bloody well happy about it, because this demon has been very generous and, frankly, I like him better than you. And you’re going to do it right now, because I have a dinner to go to and I’ll be damned if I’m eating alone."
Crowley stared in shock at the angel, who continued to light the dark cell with the inner glow shedding off his wings in hard white waves of static and sparks.
Then the demon shifted his stunned gaze to where Woolfolk was cowering against the far wall. Slowly the human reached out a shaking hand and pulled the contract closer to him.
“Sounds fair to me,” he said in an unsteady voice, and hastily signed on the line.
Aziraphale relaxed immediately, the light dimming as the angel took a step back. “Thank you.” Aziraphale turned to where Crowley was still sitting in shock on his chair, hiding behind the scant protection afforded by his dark glasses. “Your turn, my dear.”
Crowley swallowed, taking several seconds to realize what the angel was alluding to. Then he stood up and walked to the table, taking the contract and hastily signing his own name in a hexagonal sigil.
“Pleasure doing business,” Crowley said in the most brisk voice he could manage, duplicating the contract with a thought and folding his copy away into his pocket. “Er, you can keep the pen.”
The demon turned back to the door, which Aziraphale was already holding open. He hurried through it, passing through three more doors and past two guards who suddenly felt the need to rest their eyes, and into the pre-midnight darkness.
Crowley pulled out his own pocket watch and glanced at it; the minute and hour hands were dangerously close. He heard Aziraphale walk up behind him, the terrifying glow all but faded from his invisible wings.
“Behemoth will be here any second,” he said nervously. “You’d better get out of here, angel.”
“On my way,” Aziraphale said, and there was a faint flutter of feathers.
Crowley fast-walked down the street, trying to put as much distance between himself and the prison as he could. He turned down the first crossroad and ducked into an alley. He didn’t have to wait long.
There was a sudden darkening of the handful of stars in the sky, and the temperature dropped several degrees.
Crowley schooled his features into an expression of unworried nonchalance and waited for the greater demon to show himself.
Moments later an inky dark shape formed out of the deepest shadows of the alley, smelling strongly of sulfur and freshly spilled blood. Some demons were so unimaginative these days.
Crowley, growled Behemoth. It has been three days. Do you have a soul for the great and terrible Pits of Hades, Hell, Pandemonium, Sheol, Lake of Fire, the dark and horrible underworld to which we owe our eternal, undying allegiance and—
“Yep,” Crowley broke in. He pulled the folded contract from his pocket, feeling the delicate thread connecting it to Woolfolk’s soul. He moved it closer to the dark shape that was Behemoth, unsure how to hand it to the demon.
A dark blob that might have been a hand enveloped the still-folded paper, tugging it from Crowley’s grip.
“That work for you?” the lesser demon said with as much confidence as he could muster. “Got it two days ago, easy peasy.”
There was a heavy silence as Behemoth examined the line binding Woolfolk’s soul to the paper. It was still folded. He was just looking at the soul binding, not the name or the soul itself, still located with its owner in the prison.
It is acceptable, Behemoth growled after a long moment. We are satisfied with your performance in this regard.
“Glad that’s sorted out, then,” Crowley said with a nervous laugh.
There is little to laugh about, Crowley, Behemoth said in a flat voice. Had you failed, you would have been subjected to the worst punishments in Hell, as befitting your inability to function properly as a demon, including but not limited to: torture, filleting, drawing and quartering, waterboarding, breaking on the wheel—
“I get the picture, thanks,” Crowley interrupted. “Anything else?”
There was a pause.
No. Then, reluctantly: Good work.
Crowley smirked as Behemoth shrunk and faded away back into shadow, leaving a lingering smell of sulfur behind him. The stars grew bright again.
Crowley let out a relieved sigh and walked out of the alley, nervously flattening his hair with one hand.
He’d barely made it twenty feet when there was a light touch on his shoulder.
Thinking it was Behemoth, returning after having realized Crowley had effectively cheated him out of a soul, the demon jumped and spun quickly.
But it was only Aziraphale, looking a little worried. “Did he take it?”
Crowley took a deep breath, forcing down the sudden wave of anxiety that had rushed over him. “What are you still doing around? I thought I told you to get out of here.” The demon took another calming breath. “And yeah, he took it.”
Aziraphale gave Crowley a relieved smile. “Oh, good. And I, er, figured I ought to stick around in case things went pear-shaped.”
Crowley couldn’t suppress a small, tired smile. “Thanks,” he said. “And, er, thanks for, you know. Helping me get that soul on time.”
Aziraphale noticeably blushed, even in the darkness of the street. “I was just admiring the skills of the professional,” he protested weakly. “But that seemed to be a more, er, long-term approach, and there was a nearing deadline…”
Crowley shook his head in disbelief and started down the street, the angel falling into step beside him.
For a few moments they walked in silence, Crowley feeling very thankful he had managed to survive this night long enough to drink in the cool air.
“Do you want to get that dinner now?” Crowley asked after a long moment. “I’m sure we can convince someplace to be open.”
“My dear, I thought you'd never ask.”
The pair rounded a corner and, with a mutual effort, miracled a very confused five-star, all-night sushi and wine restaurant into existence in the middle of rural Georgia.
It stayed that way until nine o'clock the next morning, when the angel and demon maintaining its existence left for England, with promises to not return for a good long while.
When, some ninety years later, a song with a peculiar title by a group called the Charlie Daniels Band debuted, Crowley extended the Georgia Boycott another hundred years.
The angel, of course, found the song absolutely hilarious. Crowley, on the other hand, was insulted at the very thought that he had been beaten by Johnny in a fair fiddling contest. Clearly he had thrown the contest, and that was after Johnny had chickened out on his end anyway. It was an embarrassment to mankind.
Aziraphale found its effect on the demon to be so entertaining that he went so far as to buy the one and only cassette tape he would ever purchase, just so he could play it over and over again in the bookshop and annoy Crowley.
Crowley, meanwhile, took a special delight in stealing said cassette and putting it in the Bentley’s glove compartment.
Even years later, Crowley would find something satisfying in listening to “The Show Must Go On,” and take solace in the knowledge that someone understood.
Even if that someone was Freddie Mercury.