To Hell and Back: Costume Not Included

“Xaphan!”

The fiend appeared the moment the young man spoke his name, bringing with him a slight whiff of sulfur. As usual, he arrived hovering in the air, his saucer-sized eyes in a weasel’s face at the same level as Chesney’s, which meant that Xaphan’s patent-leather shoes, wrapped in old-fashioned spats, were about three feet above the carpet. Between the fanged head and the foppish footwear was a pin-striped, wide-lapeled, double-breasted suit, of a kind that had been fashionable among the denizens of Chicago speakeasies, back when twenty-three-skidoo was on every hepster’s lips.

“Hiya, boss,” said the demon, around a thick, Havana Churchill that protruded from between two huge, curved canines that would have been a sabertooth’s pride. The fiend removed the cigar only long enough to blow a complicated figure of smoke into the apartment’s air and to lift the glass in its other hand to its thin, black, weasel lips. Xaphan drank off a finger of tawny, overproof rum, issued a sigh of satiation, and put the cigar back where it had been, breathily pumping the glowing end to a brighter glow. When the Churchill was drawing to its satisfaction, Chesney’s assistant said, “Whatta ya say?”

“I’m going out to the park for a picnic with Melda,” the young man said, “then we’ll probably come back here.” He ignored the demon’s suggestive eyebrow motions and low-voiced “Hubba hubba!”–he’d found that responding to Xaphan’s prurience only encouraged more of the same. “But tonight,” Chesney went on, “I want to go out and do some crimefighting.”

“Okay,” said his assistant, in a tone that implied he was waiting to here the details.

But Chesney didn’t have any details. “So I need to know what’s going down”–he’d heard police officers, or at least actors pretending to be cops, talk that way on tv–”in the mean streets. What can we hit tonight?”

Xaphan’s eyes looked left, then right. It pulled the cigar from its lips and examined the glowing coal for a moment, then said, “I gotta tell ya, not much.”

“What do you mean?”

Xaphan put the cigar back, shot the linked French cuffs of its silk shirt and gave a kind of hitch of its padded shoulders that always reminded Chesney of Jimmy Cagney in the old black-and-white, crime-does-not-pay films. “I mean,” the demon said, “not much. These days, crime . . .”–it gestured with the hand that held the glass of rum, spilling a few drops–”there ain’t so much of it around, see?”

“Come on,” said Chesney, “it’s a big city. I’ve seen the figures.” As an actuary, the young man was intimately familiar with crime statistics.

“Things change,” Xaphan said, tilting the glass and draining the last of the rum.

“What things?”

“Well, mainly,” said his assistant, “you.”

“I haven’t changed,” said Chesney. Anyone who knew him could have attested to the truth of the remark–although not too many people, apart from his mother and now Melda McCann, could have been said to have really known Chesney Arnstruther. “Does not play well with others,” had been a frequent notation on his grade-school report cards, words that could have served as both the young man’s life motto and the epitaph carved into his tombstone. The only other phrase that could have given those six words competition as a succinct summation of Chesney’s life was the one he had just voiced to his demonic helper: “I haven’t changed.”

“Yeah,” said the fiend, “but you’ve changed the game. At least around this here burgh.”

“You mean crime–major crime–has gone down since I started being The Actionary?”

“You got it. The serious outfits, they gone and pulled right back. No dope, no heists, no chop-shop action. Nobody would look at a bank job even it they had the keys to the front door and the combination of the vault.”

“Hmm,” said Chesney. “So what does that leave?”

Xaphan shrugged again and puffed smoke around the cigar clamped in its jaw. “Little everyday jobs, muggings, burglaries, guys cheatin on their taxes, playin’ poker, hangin around in cathouses, kids boostin stuff outta the stores, guys spittin on sidewalks.” It drew deeply on the Churchill and blew another complicated smoke-shape. “You wanna tackle some of that?”

“We’ve been doing that kind of thing the past couple of weeks. That’s not what I became a crimefighter for.”

“Hey,” said the demon, “whatta ya gonna do?”

Chesney had no quick answer. He couldn’t see a pool of light to work within. “Wait a minute,” he said after a moment, “I play poker.”

“Not for the stakes I’m talkin about,” said the demon. “Real moolah. Besides, you never played in the back room of no high-class house of ill repute. A house that takes a percentage of every pot–that’s what makes it illegal.”

“Huh,” said Chesney, still thinking. “Is there a game like that going on tonight?”

“It so happens, there is.”

“Are the players hoodlums?”

Xaphan looked like a weasel weighing things up. “These ain’t your ordinary street goniffs,” it said, “but ain’t one of them as hasn’t done a shady deal or taken a kickback.”

“Racketeers!”

“It wouldn’t be stretchin the point too far.”

“What time does the game start?”

Nine, ten,” said Xaphan. “They eat, have a few drinks, maybe talk some bizness, go upstairs with the girls. Then they settle in for an all-nighter.”

“Where is this place? What’s it called?”

“It ain’t got a name. Too exclusive. Mostly they call it ‘Marie’s place.’ Or just ‘the place,’ seein as how Marie’s been dead maybe forty years.”

It sounded good to Chesney. He could see it in his mind’s eye: chandeliers and swag lamps, champagne in free-standing ice buckets, velvet-covered plush furniture, cigar smoke, women in frilly corsets. He realized he was back in a pool of light. “Come at midnight,” he told his assistant. “We’ll let them get right into it. Then . . . wham!”

[a little later . . .]

The demon appeared on the stroke of midnight, its ever-present Churchill sticking out the side of its jaw, behind one of the sabertooth fangs. Xaphan removed the cigar, drained the tumbler of rum in its other hand, then tossed the glass into the air. It rose, stopped, and disappeared. “Costume?” the fiend said.

“Costume,” said Chesney and instantly he was clad from head to foot in skin-tight blue and gray–he liked Batman’s colors–with a half-mask that left only his eyes, mouth and chin showing. He had modified the outfit after his original outings: the long gauntlets had proved cumbersome so he had replaced them with wrist-length gloves of gray; the original calf-high boots were now something like a low-cut deck shoe. Somehow the effect was more modern.

He checked himself in the full-length mirror in his bedroom and for a moment was distracted by a memory of scenes that had been reflected in that same length of glass only hours before. Melda had stayed through the afternoon and they had ordered in pizza for supper. The pause for food gave them renewed energy; and it was past nine o’clock before the rumpled young woman had called a cab and gone home. Chesney had collapsed back on the bed and slept a deep and dreamless sleep until the alarm woke him just before midnight.

“All right,” he said to his assistant, “is everything you told me earlier still good?”

“Ain’t the word I’d use,” said the demon, “but it’s all jake.”

“The game is on, in a . . . brothel?” It was only the second time in his life that Chesney had ever said the word; the first had been when he was ten and, having hear the term in the schoolyard, had asked his mother for its meaning. He could still taste the lavender-scented soap with which she has lathered his tongue.

“You bet.”

His assistant had become more reliable since their earliest encounters–Chesney thought it was because Xaphan clearly valued the tobacco and liquor perquisites that came its way and which Chesney could revoke just be an exercise of his free will–but he knew he shouldn’t take any spawn of Hell at its word. “Is there anything you aren’t telling me?” he said.

The enlarged weasel eyes looked at him sideways. “Yes.”

“What?”

The demon began ticking off its stubby fingers: “The median annual temperature in Timbuktu, the middle name of the guy who stocks the meat cooler at the Safeway on Route 44, the measurements of the winner and first runner-up in last year’s Miss Universe pageant, the–”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“That’s a relief,” said the fiend. “We coulda been here all night.”

“Tell me about the poker game again–no, wait, show me what’s going on there, right now.”

Xaphan gestured, and a screen the size of a top-model plasma tv appeared before Chesney’s eyes. It was as if he were standing behind a thick-set man in shirtsleeves, sitting at a green felt-covered table. The crown of the man’s head was bald and beaded with sweat. He was separating his cards after a draw; Chesney saw aces and tens, then the man fanned out the last card–another ten. “Bet five,” he said, pushing a stack of chips toward the pile in the middle of the table. The pot was lit by a bright, overhead light.