Beating the Devil

Sharon’s note: Stories are such a part of the human identity that sometimes, all you need is a line or a hint, and you know exactly what the person is talking about. These days these parts of stories are called tropes, and they get trashed for being predictable. Yes, if they are used badly, they are cliché and can make a story boring, but a trope well done is a foundation to build a world. The real world is built on tropes, because we use them to define our reality. They are the lens through which we view the world. If you want to understand another culture, another person, learn the tropes they see the world through. The contest with the devil is a favorite trope of mine. Warning: This probably says something about the author’s personality, but she choses not to think about it.

An empty theater was a disturbing place, no song to break the silence, no lights to separate seats and stage. It was a pierced together corpse waiting for a lightning strike to bring it to life. This particular theater was where Elenore’s road to hell started, and where she was praying it it would end. Clutching the red silk shoes in her hands so hard they shook as she called into the darkness.

“Hey. Hey! Scratch! Come out here you bastard! I know you can hear me. Come out, or I swear to God I will burn these shoes.” She screamed, and it echoed through the rafters.

“You can burn them if you want to. It will do you about as much good as it did last time.” The man Elenore knew as Jack Scratch strolled out of the shadows. As usual, he was wearing an expensive suit and his hands were buried in his pockets while he gave her a pitying look. “What are you hoping to accomplish here? You don’t think stealing the shoes is actually going to save Alicia, do you?”

Elenore looked down at the slippers. They looked so innocuous. When Scratch had presented them to her the first time, she thought they’d been her ticket to success. Once she’d found out what they cost, she’d thrown them away and rejected the deal. Her life was ruined and people were dead, but she escaped. Now, her life-long rival had started the same journey and all she could think about was saving the jealous idiot from the same fate. To save everyone from themselves and those stupid shoes.

“No, but I was pretty sure it would at least get your attention.” She tossed the shoes at his feet and he watched them tumble across the stage with a raised eyebrow. 

“Alright, I’m paying attention. What could you possibly want from me?”

She grinned and it was fierce. “I want to make a bet.”

Scratch broke into a surprised laugh until he saw that Elenore’s expression didn’t change. He stared at her in utter bafflement. “Wait, you’re serious?”

She put her shoulders back and lifted her chin. “Dead serious. One more contest, winner takes all. If you win, I put the shoes back on, and I dance for you, whatever the cost. If I win, you destroy the shoes forever.”

“You know you can just walk away from this. No harm, no fowl. No one knows and no one cares.” He tilted his head to one side and gave her the same disarming smile that had lured her into taking the shoes in the first place. “Alicia is not your problem.”

“Maybe not, but you are.” Elenore stalked forward to stare him down face to face. “I will not rest while you are still doing this to other dancers.”

He stared at her for a long moment, then smiled, closed his eyes and shook his head. “You know, I never would have guessed.”

“Guessed what?” Elenore took half a step back. Who knew what new trick he was up to.

Scratch sighed and opened his eyes. “That you were one of those humans.”

She took another step back. “So what does that mean?”

“It means you won.” He shrugged and moved to walk past her. “Do whatever you want with the shoes. They’re just shoes now. Feel free to burn them, if it will make you feel better.”

For just a second all Elenore could do was stand there and blink as she watched him walk across the stage and down the short set of stairs on its side. She violently shook her head and jogged to catch up with him. “What? I’m supposed to believe that you gave up just like that?”

He stopped at the front row and turned back to look at her. “It’s more complicated than that, but yes, I give up. Alicia is back to her normal, horrible self and you’ll never see me again. You beat the devil. Enjoy the win.”

“This is another trick.” She scampered down the stairs to stand between him and the exit. It probably wouldn’t actually stop him from leaving, but she needed to show him she was serious. “No matter what you’re planning, I’ll stop you.”

Scratch sighed and dropped into one of the seats. “And that’s why I’m giving up this particular gambit. It’s simple cost/benefit. For reasons I can’t say, I’m not allowed to kill you. I could indirectly set something up to get you out of the way, but you’ve proven yourself surprisingly resourceful. You’ll find me if I do this particular setup again, so it’s time to retire it. It’s fine, this happens from time to time. I had to give up the fiddle game for the same reason.”

“I’ll find you no matter what you’re doing. I won’t let you hurt anyone else like you hurt me.” She glared at him, but he just laughed.

“I’m sure you’ll try, but it will be a lot harder if you don’t know what to look for. You won’t know the game and you won’t know the circles I’m moving in. You’ll look for a few years, and slowly, over time, you’ll start to rebuild your life and forget why this mattered so much to you.” He looked Elenore over speculatively, then inclined his head. “Or I could be wrong. You could be one of those extremely rare humans who somehow always find a way. If that’s the case, we’ll do this dance again. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for that a little. Having an adversary could be fun.”

Elenore’s stomach clenched but she kept her head high. “I swear I will find you and put an end to whatever hell you are putting people through.”

He chuckled and rose to his feet before sweeping into a deep bow. “Madam, I truly hope so.”

He disappeared in a wisp of smoke and Elenore closed her eyes. A shudder ran up her spine. She climbed back up on the stage. She would burn the shoes just to be safe, then she was going to get a good night’s sleep. In the morning she was going to start researching and keeping an eye out for people who suddenly climbed to the top of their field, because she couldn’t let it go.

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