Exit Strategy by Daniel Reiner
I watched over Linderhof’s shoulder as he focused the security camera. The image on the monitor was not unexpected: a dead man. I’d seen countless and there was nothing unusual about this one: average height, average weight. He was on the younger side, but if the typical life expectancy is halved, he seemed to have nailed that number as well. Perfectly average, so to speak. Simply dead.
Then he looked up at the camera, smiled, and waved. Even in the grainy, black and white it was easy to make out the cheerful “Hello” he mouthed.
“WHY is there no sound?”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” gulped Linderhof. “This is the original equipment. We never expected to use that room. Except to keep up with the dusting, no one’s been in there since the kick-out party.”
“Neville B. Goodthorn.”
“And he walked in with the others?”
As servants of evil go, Linderhof is…good. I never really enjoy punishing him, but my nature demands a certain amount of cruelty, both random and calculated. Overcome with an urge to lash out, he was too convenient a target. Wide-eyed, plainly prepared for pain of some sort, he trembled. Over the millennia I had learned that it is best to not disappoint.
My relentless gaze has always been both easy and effective. He stiffened as the paralysis took hold. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, between the horns. A drop ran into his left eye. There was a wisp of steam. Then a second. That was cruel enough to satisfy the both of us, so I relented. He rubbed his eye.
Our guest waved again.
I tried to not fume, but the room warmed. “In all the length and breadth of eternity, has no one ever thought to check if the Blessed could enter?”
“It’s not our jurisdiction, sir. We can’t even— I mean, YOU can, but the rest of us can’t even get to the door to oil the hinges. It was installed by the other team.”
“How do we get his file? Is there even a procedure for this?”
Linderhof shook his head and shrugged. I sighed with enough despair to crush a score of souls. A pity none were within earshot.
“I’ll take care of it. In the meantime, see if he needs anything.”
“Water. Coffee. A snack. Surely there’s something around here to read. If he’s not one of the Damned, we must be nice.”
He scurried away, left eye closed. Moments later he appeared on the monitor holding a magazine with what looked to be flying cars on the cover. I watched as Linderhof mouthed “Read this!” and shoved the tattered publication into the hands of the mysterious Mr. Goodthorn.
At that point I didn’t know which was more pitiful: a devil who didn’t know the basics of common courtesy or watching the scene unfold soundlessly in black and white.
There was a short exchange, but I couldn’t make out what was said.
Linderhof reappeared in the doorway.
“How do I make tea?” he asked.
Rarely have I regretted the fiendish convolutions I imposed on the bureaucracy and layout here. In the beginning it had all worked fine with a steady trickle of sinners—up until that Flood episode. So much effort had been wasted tracking down lost souls who had truly gotten lost in the labyrinthine corridors. To make room and create a more open floor plan, we knocked out some walls in the lobby that I had never liked anyway. The rope lines that should have been in place on day one went up, but that still wasn’t enough.
The take-a-number system we added during that remodeling phase was actually Linderhof’s idea, an offhand remark about branding their foreheads with numbers to tell them apart. While I found the concept appealing, it placed too much reliance on the ability of my minions to count. Having a single roll of tickets eliminates mistakes. And writing out an infinite stream of numbers keeps the accountants busy.
They’re not all dim, however. I did place the brightest in positions of power. Making Dumah our ambassador to the other place was a no-brainer. Being half-Fallen, he was well-versed in the policies and politics of both sides. It was a good fit. Not as good, I now realized, were the rules I instituted for contacting him—rules that even I must obey. I do recall being amused at the time by the specification that he could not be visited in person.
I stared at the telephone for a long time before picking up the handpiece and dialing the number.
The Angel of Silence answered on the second ring. As expected, he said nothing.
“Dumah, this is Satan.”
Again, no response.
“I need your help with a wayward soul. Do you remember your Morse code?”
Scratch, tap, scratch, scratch. Tap. Tap, tap, tap.
I explained the situation and followed that with my questions. The ease of getting Goodthorn’s file was the pleasant part. Before Dumah had even started into his taps and scratches, the pristine manilla folder appeared on my desk.
Time passes quickly here, unless you’re being tortured unceasingly. Or deciphering a Morse-encoded discourse on free will over a telephone. On and on he went. The earpiece had visibly melted by the time I hung up.
Stepping into the waiting room, I had to wonder exactly how long my fact-finding trip had taken. Every flat surface was covered in cups and saucers, most filled to the brim with liquids of widely varying colors. Some resembled tea. Most did not.
Goodthorn and Linderhof sat at a table on the only two available chairs, quietly sipping. Distracted by the state of the room, I didn’t notice the cow until it mooed from the shadows of a far corner. Its udders were singed and the neck was stained with fresh blood.
Facing the door, Linderhof saw me first. He shrank into his seat.
“What is all this? What are you doing?”
“Being nice, sir?”
“Moo-ooo!” countered the cow.
Goodthorn turned and smiled at me.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “You must be Mr. Satan.”
I managed a crooked grin. It didn’t come naturally.
“It’s just— Yes. I am.”
“If I may say, your Mr. Linderhof has been very accommodating.”
“That is…good…to hear.”
“As you can see, it took more than a few attempts, but his tea ended up being quite a treat. How do you like yours? He prefers a dollop of blood, something that I have to admit never occurred to me to try.”
When I eyed Linderhof, he held his cup out to me.
“Would you like a taste, sir?”
“Clean up this room immediately. And return the cow.”
With an unholy speed, the room was unencumbered of ruminant and porcelain.
I took Linderhof’s seat and studied Goodthorn, trying to not appear vexed by the gravity of the situation. I must have succeeded, his cheerful mien not wavering for an instant.
He leaned forward. “Might you be able to tell me when the next tour is scheduled?”
“Yes, I thought a bit of sightseeing would be nice before I toddle off to the heavenly—” He chuckled. “I almost said pastures. Cow on the brain right now.”
“Heavenly, yes. So, you do know that you don’t belong here.”
“Oh, for certain. The woman in front of me was extremely upset about this being her only choice.”
That answered my next question. “That means the mechanism is working. And both doors are clearly marked?”
“Clearly enough. The intent was more communicated through the use of the dreamy blue and nightmarishly red colors. But frankly, I was stumped on the language. Latin?”
“Enochian. It never caught on.”
Though I have a reputation—and rightly so—for being a smooth talker, I was stumped about how to begin. Aware of the folder in my hand, I put it on the table and opened it. His sins were listed on a single sheet with room to spare. Minor transgressions, all.
“But, uh,” he said quietly. “Do you have someone that can give me a quick look around?”
I tried to reply, but words continued to fail me.
“It’s alright. If nothing is scheduled, I can be on my way.”
That was the prompt I needed.
“Mr. Goodthorn… You cannot.”
“Yes, it’s a rule that no one ever bothered to explain to me. If a soul such as yourself does not make poor decisions while alive, one more opportunity is presented after death. And, once made, it is irrevocable. Despite remaining technically Blessed, you have been officially Damned.”
His face fell as he sat back. “That’s disappointing.”
Something possessed me to offer some encouragement. “Congratulations seem to be in order, however. You are the very first to have done so.”
“Ah, the silver lining.” His face lit up. “I suppose I should make the best of this, then. What happens next?”
“I can’t say. As much as I would like to torment you until the end of time for—I glanced down—calling Sandy Samuels a poophead when you were seven years old, I can’t.”
“Oh, I do regret that,” he muttered.
“Be that as it may, we are not allowed to knowingly torture, humiliate, confuse, punish, annoy, maltreat, discomfit, embarrass, tease, perplex, abuse, terrorize, disembowel—”
“Yes. With everyone down here lacking actual bowels, it’s more of a symbolic thing. But we make do.”
“Neither may we pester, distress, impede, fluster, antagonize, befuddle, exasperate, trick, injure, deceive, hinder, nor frighten you in any way. On the other hand, there is no stipulation that we entertain. Although… A tour can be arranged.”
“Wonderful! And after that?”
“I don’t know. You’re going to have to find some way to keep yourself occupied.”
“What is there to do?”
“Historically, the sole option has been to suffer painfully. I suppose you can sit quietly.”
“I must admit to enjoying a bit of that… But it could get awfully boring. What about a job?”
“I’m an analyst. I fix bugs. Do you have bugs?”
“Oh, I can assure you we have bugs.” I recalled the vast array of multi-legged creatures tucked away in our storage cavern, several filled by locusts alone. “Big ones, small ones. Flying, crawling. Hairy, stingers, the whole—”
“Umm. No. Issues. I fix issues. Do you have an I.T. department?”
“You know. Computers.”
“Oh. As a matter of fact, we do.”
I led him to room 101. A source of pride, I smirked as I opened the door. Filled to the brim with electronic misery, the condemned were chained to their desks, forced to enter page upon page of meaningless data by hand. The monochromatic monitors all had my image burned into them. The keyboards worked erratically. The network was undependable, the power less so. And in those rare instances when the form was completed correctly, the little circle would spin and spin and spin. And spin. It was hideous and beautiful.
“He did WHAT?”
Linderhof cowered in a way I didn’t think possible: His horns drooped.
“He— He fixed the…computers, sir.”
The top of my head may have burst into flames. That, I knew, was possible.
“I-in r-room 101,” he stuttered.
“Of COURSE in room 101! That’s the sole place in this godforsaken realm we have computers! What did he do?”
“First, he cleaned the keyboards. There was a terrible amount of gunk in the contacts. It looked awful.”
“I KNOW! Every agonizing aspect of that room was created to my specifications, including the gunk! What else?”
“He checked all the cables. Many were loose. And it turned out there were four things wrong that made the spinny thing keep spinning.”
“Four? I only put three errors into that code…”
“Well, he, uh…”
And as I glared at Linderhof, something clicked.
“Wait. If he fixed everything, what are the tortured souls doing?”
“Catching up. A couple more days and they should be done.”
Room 101 was just the beginning. Slowly, but methodically, Goodthorn applied good intentions everywhere he could, fixing and reconfiguring the very best parts of my designs. I regret giving him a tour.
He studied the heating and cooling systems, and with nothing more than a bone saw and duct tape—duct tape!—leveled out eons of deliberately excruciating temperature extremes. Our frozen lake melted into a lukewarm pond, while the most searing pits of flame cooled down to be no worse than Death Valley in May.
The few mathematicians we have were handed more challenging tasks such as finding the square root of two or calculating pi instead of the mind-numbingly repetitive chore of writing out the decimal equivalent of two-thirds.
To the endlessly thirsty he gave straws to sip the water that had been purposely set beyond their reach. And to the endlessly hungry he doled out our locusts. There’s a lot of protein in insects, I’ve been told. With plagues having gone out of style, I never did figure out what to do with the surplus.
There was but one hiccup in his unending stream of solutions. He had planned to strip bark from willows in the Grove of the Unrepentant and make an analgesic to help offset the worst pains of The Damned—until Linderhof innocently explained that the trees were actually sinners, and that removing the bark would be as painful as flaying them. I took more than a small amount of joy from the man’s embarrassment.
Why didn’t we stop him?
We weren’t allowed. On the list, that would have fallen under impede or hinder.
The situation had driven right off the cliff of tolerable. This was no longer my vision of Hell. I had to do something.
Scratch, scratch, tap. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Scratch, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, scratch, tap, tap. Tap, tap, scratch. Scratch, tap, scratch, tap. Scratch, tap, scratch.
“Thank you, Dumah. And thank you for your help.”
The smell of plastic had been thick in the air for a while, and when I tried to place the blackened and deformed handset back on the cradle I saw why. The conversation had gone on forever as Dumah and I debated every alternative. Many of mine, revenge-oriented, simply weren’t allowed due to the restrictions of the list. Many of his involved taking a vacation. And although his suggestions were phenomenal, a trip away would be a temporary measure at best.
Having grown pessimistic about ever being able to find an answer, I had begun to mull over the vacation possibilities. But would even Bora Bora provide enough distractions to allow true relaxation? How long could I be away? My imagination running wild, I dreaded the changes that might greet me upon my return.
It had been at that low point when a new strategy had finally occurred: What if there were a way to make the vacation permanent?
Further discussion with Dumah had ensued.
Ultimately, he helped me chart a course through the legalities. It was unorthodox, but I had found an exit.
A tentative knock at the door allowed me a chance to put on a smile. I had practiced constantly while redecorating the office. It still felt unnatural, but I had memorized which muscles to move.
The door opened a crack.
“Goodthorn. Please come in. Have a seat.”
He crept in, his cheerful attitude not on display in the least. In fact, the cringing reminded me of Linderhof. Eying the classic electric chair positioned on the other side of the desk from me, he sat down slowly. No, it was not plugged in. That would have violated any one of torture, punish, maltreat, or abuse.
“You wanted to see me?”
“I do.” As he seemed close to being discomfited, I cranked up my grin another notch to put him at ease. Unfortunately, that made him more nervous.
“If— If I m-may s-speak frankly?”
“Mr. Linderhof said that you weren’t happy with me.”
“Not happy? Look at me. Do I appear displeased?”
“No. But… Did I do something wrong?”
“Oh, heavens no. Relax. You’re not here for punishment. Far from it. You’re getting a promotion.”
“A promotion? Me?”
Oof. I’d come close to confusing him on that one. The end was in sight. I didn’t need a technicality scuttling my plan.
“If you want it. I can’t force it on you, of course. What has vexed me is not your success in finding and fixing the flaws that you have, but the realization that it would be better for me to step aside in favor of someone younger and more energetic.” And that was not deceit.
“What about Mr. Linderhof? Wouldn’t he be next in line?”
“Theoretically, yes. He is an excellent subordinate, but not much of a leader. This position requires problem solving skills. Imagination! How do we deal with a sudden influx of the irredeemable? Where might we find the room? How do we screen them efficiently?”
He sat up. That was the word.
“What do I do with a surplus of locusts, Goodthorn? I let them sit. But you… You approached the issue from a different angle entirely and solved two problems at once. If that’s not efficient, what is?”
“Anyone might have…” He shrugged. “I mean…”
“Not anyone, Goodthorn.”
“It will take someone motivated, resourceful, and organized to fill my shoes.” I pointed at him. “You.” That’s when I played my ace, temptation thankfully not being on the restricted list. “Only someone supremely effective and worthy of leadership should have the honor of sitting in this chair.” I stood up and stepped aside. “Please. Give it a try.”
To that point I had kept it obscured with my wings. Having a clear view, he stared. Lustfully.
I was hardly ever in my office, and the electric chair he occupied was the one normally behind the desk. Despite being wooden and unyielding, it had a certain something that I found whimsical. In its place was an awe-inducing distillation of executive power. A rush job, the scars on the cow’s neck hadn’t healed, but the imps down in Furnishings had done a skillful job hiding those blemishes. Other than that, it was perfect. Blood red leather, buffed to a shine. Gleaming, golden tacks. And infinitely comfortable. I had given orders to scour the entire realm for any and all bits of fluff and stuffing to be packed into it.
He sat down. And grinned, ear to ear.
“And sign this.” I plopped a stack of papers on the desk.
As I mentioned before, time can pass oddly in the nether regions. Though my ordeal had dragged on for weeks, mere moments had passed in the world of the yet-living.
I woke up in Goodthorn’s body. Lying on the ground, a spot on the top of his/my head was painful, but tolerable. Open eyes revealed a medic hovering over me. Behind him, some curious, concerned souls had gathered round. Off to the left, a sign announced this to be the home of the Salt City Sun Devils.
“How are you doing?” asked the medic. “I swear I lost you for a minute.”
“You may have.” I sat up and smiled. “But I’m better now.”
“Well, here’s what nearly killed you.” He handed me a baseball. “It was just a foul ball, but I’m sure Old Nick will sign it for you if you track him down after the game.”
“Nick Flammadakoulis. He never made it to the majors. Been stuck in Salt City purgatory for twenty years, but we like him here.”
After the medic helped me stand, I was able to convince him that I was fine. The small crowd dispersed, relief on the faces, some even clapping. The people here were genuinely nice. It was so astonishingly different to experience a pleasant environment like this, the blue skies above especially welcome. Across the street, a display on the Salt City Savings Bank showed 115 degrees, but pfft. I had been broiled at 500 for most of my existence. Sunny and 115 was nothing.
In all, it was such a lovely place that it made me seriously consider being…good. I was officially someone else now. There was no longer any requirement at all to be satanic. If anything, there was more of a need to be, and act like, Neville B. Goodthorn. As an added incentive, a few decades of proper behavior would land me a spot in the other place. The look on everyone’s faces at my appearance up there would be priceless. I chuckled at the thought.
Eh. The hell with it.
Daniel Reiner was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, and was influenced at an early age by the imagination of Larry Niven and the adjectives of H.P. Lovecraft. Fascination with Lovecraft’s universe led to The Shadow Saga, an ongoing series being published by Vulpine Press. Aside from novels, he does dabble in short pieces with horror, science fiction, or humorous themes. Samples of his work and the latest bits of news are available at https://www.danielreinerfiction.com.