“All mine, I suppose?” said Chesney.

“And that’s just for starters.”

“Won’t the owner mind?”

“Where he’s going, they don’t take cash.”

“No, thanks.”

The huge weasel eyes narrowed. “Okey-doke. Then how ’bout this?”

They were in a dimly lit room. After a moment’s disorientation, Chesney realized it was a bedroom–no, he corrected himself, a boudoir. The demon did something and the sourceless light strengthened. The room was big; it would have had to be to accommodate the vast, circular bed, strewn with silk covered pillows and red satin sheets, on which reposed a buxom blonde, her eyes closed and lips parted in blissful slumber. She was not wearing much, and what little she did have on did nothing to detract from the strong impression she created. Chesney’s lifetime exposure to unbridled pulchritude–outside of rented porn–was less than scant; he found himself staring, and had to drag his gaze away.

“Whadda ya say now?” said the demon, its weaselish eyebrows bobbing suggestively.

“No,” said Chesney, though the single syllable seemed to catch on something in the back of his throat.

“Oh, picky, huh?”

The blonde was replaced by an even more buxom brunette. She stretched in her sleep, rearranging and simultaneously revealing elements of her anatomy in a way that caused the actuary to emit a small, involuntary sound. But then he said, “No.”

“We got a full selection,” said the demon and Chesney was looking at a redhead who would have stopped Titian dead on the bridges of Renaissance Venice.

“No!”

The demon cocked its weasel head at him and moved a finger. The redhead was replaced by a muscular young man whose nudity revealed prodigious personal qualities.

“Certainly not!” said Chesney. “You’re wasting your time.” He glanced at his watch. “And mine.”

“Keep your hair on,” said the demon. “I’ll get a bead on you yet.” Immediately, the boudoir was gone and they were standing in an office that struck Chesney as somehow familiar. Then he saw the seal woven into the rug and registered the room’s oval shape. “Howzabout it?” said the weasel boy.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Chesney said.

“You’d be surprised.”

“Who? Which one?”

Ones,” said the demon. “But I ain’t saying nothing more. We don’t rat.”

“Take me back.”

The demon studied him. “Look, mack,” it said, “we’ve done moolah, molls and moxie. What else is there?” His brows drew down and his huge eyes narrowed. The cigar stubbed poked at Chesney. “Say, you ain’t one of then eggheads who wanna know everything? Like, you really are some kinda wise guy?”

“No.”

“I mean, we make that happen for you. It’s just, you don’t see it too often, you know?”

“I don’t want anything. Just leave me alone.” He blinked and found them both back on the park bench. The demon brought its outsized eyes closer to Chesney and in the center of each black circle he saw a small red flame kindle and grow.

“Listen, bud, you wanna take the deal,” it said. “You’re making a lotta trouble for a lotta guys you don’t wanna make no trouble for.”

Chesney stuck out his small chin. “I’m not making trouble for anybody,” he said. “This is your mistake.”

The demon growled and it cocked one stubby fist while saying, “Smart guy, why I oughta…” But when the man on the bench did not flinch, the creature clasped its hands together and put on as conciliatory expression as a befanged weasel could contrive. “Listen, mack,” it said, “I’m just a yob doing a job. I got a dozen demons to supervise and we’re busy, see? Everybody’s working double shifts and we don’t got no time to monkey around. So, take the deal or take the consequences.”

“You don’t get it,” said Chesney.

“What? What is it I don’t get?”

Chesney interlaced his fingers over his small pot belly, thought for a moment, then said, “It never really made sense to me, the whole heaven or hell thing.”–the demon winced and said, “Hey, lay off the h-word,”–but the man continued, “Numbers made sense. But now you show up and make it abundantly clear that the game is played pretty much the way Pastor Baumgarten preached to us, all those Sundays I was growing up.”

“Ah, you don’t want to listen to those holy joes,” said the fiend.

“Yeah, I think I do. You see, I make a deal with you, I get a few years of fun down here, assuming the fine print doesn’t let you reneg early. Then, bang, I’m spending eternity dining on hot coals. The alternative is I turn you down now and wind up with forever in paradise.” Chesney spread his hands. “I mean, do the math. It’s a no-brainer.”

“Most people we deal with, they don’t see it that way,” the demon said.

“I’m an actuary. It’s my job to play the percentages.”

Now the demon actually looked worried. “Listen,” it said, “you don’t know the whole score. I’m trying to keep a lid on this thing, but you don’t play ball, she could blow. I mean, sky-high, you get me?”

“No,” said Chesney. “And you won’t be getting me. What did they used to say, last time you were here? ‘Take a powder?’ ‘Amscray?’ ‘Agitate the gravel?’ Take your pick.”

He went back to Champions of Justice. When he heard the clap of air as the fiend disappeared, he glanced at his watch and was pleased to see that no real time had elapsed. He wanted to finish the current chapter before his lunch break was up. It featured his favorite comix hero, a mild-mannered, bespectacled UPS courier who battled drug cartels and international terrorists in the bowels of a dysfunctional metropolis. The brown-clad crime fighter was about to turn the tables on a cabal of ninja-trained mujahadeen. “Go, Driver, go,” Chesney breathed.

It was Saturday and he was getting ready for tonight’s poker game. He had bought taco chips and salsa and more beer than the little refrigerator could hold. The table was set up and looked great, once he cleaned off the blood with a little club soda. Chesney went downstairs to the storage locker and came back with his arms clasped around the five folding chairs. Nudging open the apartment door that he had left ajar, he was surprised to see a little blonde girl in a pinafore and white ankle socks standing beside the table.

“Are you lost?” he said.

“I just got one question,” said the little girl. Actually, Chesney realized there could be some debate as to exactly who was doing the talking, since the voice asking the question came not from the girl but from the fanged mouth of the ruby-red snake that uncoiled itself where a tongue would have been if this had really been a little blonde girl instead of another demon.

He put down the chairs. “What?”

“Just tell me, are you ready to go all the way on this?” said the snake, in a voice that would have suited a little girl, provided she was also a fiend from hell.

“Yes, I am,” Chesney said. “I didn’t give much thought to my soul before you guys started demanding it. Now I figure it’s worth hanging onto.”

The snake went back where it came from and the demon crossed its arms and looked up at him in a way that let the man know he was being weighed up. Chesney noticed that pinned to one of the pinafore’s straps was a large button with a design on it: a pair of crossed pitchforks against a background of leaping flames. Underneath were the letters IBFDT.

“What’s the button?” Chesney said, but the demon didn’t answer. It finished its examination of him, then nodded as if in confirmation of something it had been mentally chewing on for quite a while, and disappeared. When nothing further happened, Chesney unfolded the chairs and put them around the table. He had just finished positioning the last seat when the phone rang.

“It’s Clay,” said the voice on the other end. Clay was not the best poker player of the five but he was the one who made the least secret of how much he enjoyed raking in a pot after Chesney had stayed in far too long.

“We’re all set here,” Chesney told him.

“I’m not playing tonight,” Clay said.

“Why not?”

“I dunno, I was getting ready to come, but suddenly I just don’t feel the urge.”

“We need you,” Chesney said. “Four’s not enough.”

But Clay said, “Sorry,”–although he didn’t sound it–and hung up.

Chesney folded up one of the chairs and leaned it against the wall. The phone rang again; it was Ron, the one who had originally invited Chesney into the game. “I’m not coming,” he said.

Like Clay, he wasn’t sick or jammed up in any way. “You don’t feel the urge?” Chesney asked.

“Yeah. I don’t feel much like doing anything.”

Chesney folded another chair. He’d never played three-handed poker, but he doubted it would be as much fun. Within ten minutes, he didn’t have even that diminished enjoyment to look forward to: Jason and Matt both called and canceled.

Saddened, Chesney gathered up the folding chairs and took them down to storage then followed with the disassembled table. He came back upstairs to the refrigerator crammed with beer and the bags of taco chips on the countertop, opened one of each and sat on the couch. Normally, taco chips and beer were one of his favorite snacks, especially when the former were dipped in fiery salsa, which he had also bought in larger than normal quantities. But now, after he had taken the first edge off the hunger and thirst he had built up moving furniture around, he found that he had lost any appetite. He scrunched up the top of the bag, put the lid back on the salsa jar and poured the last half of the beer down the sink.

What do I do now? he asked himself. No answer came. He thought about going out and renting a dvd, as he often did on a weekend night–sometimes even getting a straight-out porn flick. But the prospect had no appeal tonight. He’d really been looking forward to poker; it offered the only moments in his well ordered existence when he felt the excitement of uncertainty.

Finally, he put on his coat and set off to walk the six blocks to the comix store. He knew the release dates of all his favorite titles, and a new Freedom Five should be on the rack by now. He made his way along the sidewalk at his usual gait, shoulders indrawn, hands in pockets, focused on the concrete before him. It wasn’t terribly dangerous to make eye-contact in this neighborhood–he could quote the statistics for random, stranger-on-stranger street crime–but there was no reward to compensate even for the minimal risk. Nobody would welcome his gaze.

He had gone about a block when something about the background noise level penetrated his lonely thoughts. He raised his eyes from the sidewalk and looked around. He lived in a part of the downtown that tended to liven up on Saturday nights. This block had two old-fashioned bars and a night club that drew twenty-somethings who liked to dance in a trance engendered by a combination of vodka, strobe lights and more decibels than were good for their chances of not needing hearing aids before they were out of their fifties.

Evening was settling in and the street should have been filled with cars, the bars with drinkers and the night club doorway with bouncers selecting from a line-up of the future deaf. The thump of the club’s bass kickers ought to have been underlying the tenor honk of horns–parking was a competitive sport hereabouts–with the treble laughter of girls-in-groups topping off a layered cacophony that was the regular Saturday night soundscape.

But the street was quiet: only a couple of cars moving sedately past empty parking spots; the club’s sound system silent; no squeals from clutches of girls because there were no girls. The sidewalks–and, when he looked through the neon-signed windows, the bars, too–were practically empty.

Something big on tv tonight? he wondered. Is that why the guys aren’t coming to play poker? It would not have been the first time he had missed some major node in the mass culture. The people at work had stopped asking him which singer he planned to vote for on American Idol; he would just look at them with a puzzled expression and shrug.

He pushed at his unresponsive brain, trying to recall if he’d heard anything. Some pneumatic teenage girl singer was coming to town as part of a major-cities tour; he’d overheard a couple of the office clerks talking about how their daughters were planning to get tickets the moment the internet box office site came on-line. Last time, the concert had sold out in under a minute.

But the ticket sale, even if it was happening right now, would only account for the absence of teenage girls on the street; they’d all be hunched over their home computers, index fingers poised to click their mouse buttons. But the entire block was almost deserted. And now Chesney let his gaze go farther, down the next block and the one after; he turned to look back the way he had come; and it was all the same–the sidewalks and pavement virtually empty.

Maybe it’s something big, he thought. An attack? He decided to forget about the Freedom Five and hurried back to his apartment. But when he flipped on the cable news channel, all he saw was a female anchor telling him about some vote in Congress that had not turned out the way it had been expected to.

The image cut to a reporter standing outside the rotunda of the Senate who was saying that a spending bill laden with earmarks had failed to receive a single affirmative vote. Even the senators who had amended the legislation to shoehorn in their pet projects had inexplicably voted nay. Chesney listened for a while, but found it hard to take much interest. He was about to switch to another channel when something about the reporter’s demeanor registered: normally, this commentator spoke with an air of forced gravitas, as if the truly important part of any story was not what had happened or why, but the fact that he, the reporter, was deigning to take notice of it; but now he was reciting his notes from a piece of paper as if he were ticking off a shopping list.

Strange, thought Chesney. The remote report ended and the anchorwoman came back on. It was only as he was looking at her that another oddity clicked into focus for him. The Senate correspondent’s tie had been askew and his hair had not been perfectly combed. And now he saw that the anchor, too, was less than perfectly coiffed and made-up. She looked less polished–quite ordinary, Chesney thought–and her presentation lacked that quality of being ever so pleased with herself that was standard for people in her line of work. Instead she rested her jaw line on an upturned palm and her elbow on the desk, and read from the unseen teleprompter without much interest.

By coincidence, the next item was about the upcoming concert tour of the teenage girl singer. The anchor reported that tickets had been expected to sell out almost immediately, but that since the box office opened an hour ago, only a few hundred tickets had been sold–and those appeared to have gone to indulgent parents and grandparents buying them as presents.

Now the image cut to breaking news: a would-be suicide bomber in Islamabad, Pakistan, had been about blow herself up in front of a police station. Instead, she had removed the explosive vest she wore under her voluminous black robe and given herself up to a group of policemen loitering around the entrance. And the officers, instead of hustling her inside for a painful interrogation, had sat down with her on the front steps. As the camera panned over them they seemed to be having a restrained discussion, with much rueful head shaking and nods of mutual, though somewhat sad, agreement.

Chesney clicked through a few more cable news channels, ending on a live show that featured a curmudgeonly commentator who liked to bring on guests with whose politics or world views he disagreed, then browbeat the invitee with insults and invective. He saw the pundit sitting slumped in his chair, a bearded professor in the guest spot, both of them shrugging and conversing in mild tones. The usually choleric host was saying, “Of course, it doesn’t really matter much one way or the other, does it?”

The academic nodded in bland agreement and said, “No, not really.”

Chesney switched off. Something was out of the ordinary, though he could not yet put his finger on just what it was. Maybe some new virus going around, He thought. Maybe we’ve all got the flu.

He switched to the entertainment channels, found a sitcom that he had enjoyed from time to time. It was about a dysfunctional family. None of the characters got along, and a lot of dialogue consisted of one or another of them scoring points off the others with sarcastic putdowns–some of them scathing, and many of them more than a little risqué. In the past, some of the sallies and verbal duels had caused Chesney to squirt cola out of his nose; but tonight’s episode seemed like a constant barrage of unnecessary cruelty. In the five minutes before he turned it off, he didn’t laugh at a single gag, although the studio audience that had been there for the taping was driven into paroxysm of mirth as the grossly overweight young male lead went into a sustained rant about his chain-smoking mother-in-law’s sexual history.

Chesney switched off the tv. The silence in the apartment seemed suddenly profound: no horns or engine noises rising from the street; no stereos blaring from any of the neighbors; no arguments, either, although Saturday night was prime time for the several unhappily married couples in the block to bring their week’s disappointments to each other’s attention, with the paper-thin walls letting all the neighbors share in those domestic dramas.

He was puzzled. He thought again about going to the comix shop, but the vicarious thrill he got from following the adventures of the Freedom Five did not lure him tonight. After a moment’s thought, he decided that he was feeling let down by the collapse of his first shot at hosting the guys for poker. Or maybe it is the flu.

He felt his forehead, found no fever. He sat on his couch for a long while, trying to think of something he wanted to do. But nothing came, and finally he pulled down the bed and lay on top of the covers until he fell asleep.