Mickey first met the Devil on a Thursday. It was one of those slow Thursdays where the sun sticks in the sky and Friday never wants to get any closer. When it seems that the whole of time and eternity is stuck in a perpetual not-quite-the-weekend.
To be more precise, it was a half past breakfast and a quarter to lunch. If clocks had been invented, Mickey might have been staring at one and willing it to sweep its hands around the dial to pub time.
But the science of horology was some centuries late, so Mickey stares at the sun and will it to sweep its way across the sky to pub time.
Same idea, different technology. That’ll do. That’ll do very nicely.
Mickey is sitting in his favourite spot. It’s a lump of tufty soft grass in the shadow of an oak tree. To be strictly accurate, it is his second favourite spot. After the pub. Or maybe his third favourite, after the pub and his bed. Then again, there’s the tree overlooking Rosie’s bedroom as she dresses. And …
Never mind all that. It’s one of his favourite places. It’s close enough to the village so he can watch all the comings and goings, but no so close that farmer Giles will spot him loafing.
He sits on his tuft and he watches. He watches and he puzzles. He strokes his chin and bites his thumb.
“And what is that puzzles you, young Mr Mickey?”
It is a most peculiar creature, sitting in the branches of the oak tree. It had the body and face of a man, but his skin was as red as an apple. The red kind of apples, naturally, as there is not much point in being as red as a green apple.
“Do I know you?” asks Mickey.
The Devil swishes his long barbed tail as he climbs down from the tree. “You might have heard of me.”
“Are you a mermaid?”
“Do I look like a mermaid, merman or mer-metrosexual?” asks the fiend. “Do they have cloven feet?”
“I dunno. Never met one before.”
The Devil strokes the horns on his temples. “Maybe this gives you a clue?”
“Ah, I get it. You’re a bull.”
The Lord of Darkness grinds his teeth and somewhere nearby a cute bunny wabbit falls down dead of a heart attack. “Spiky tail, red skin, cloven feet, horns … what does that add up to?”
Inspiration strikes Mickey. “You’re a devil.”
“Not a devil, my simple friend. THE Devil. Old Nick. Lucifer. Satan. That’s me.”
“Not Beelzebub?” asks Mickey. “I always wanted to meet him. He has a devil put aside for me, don’t you know?”
The Devil gives one of those ‘heard it all before’ sighs. “Let’s to business. What do you see, my friend, when you watch the village folk go about their business? What sparky ideas go pop, pop, pop in that cunning little head of yours?”
Mickey pauses to think. His momma told him never to speak to strange men and they don’t get much stranger than His Satanic Majesty.
“You want to steal my soul.”
“Maybe later. I’ve just eaten. For now, let’s just talk. There’s no harm in that, hm?”
Mickey looks out at the village – the stone church, the thatched-roof cottages, the cluster of shops and pubs, the big mansion house on the hill.
“I was wondering,” says Mickey. “How come some folks are poor and some are rich? Farmer Giles works all the hours under the sun, and most of the night too. All of the farmers do. But the Baron doesn’t do a stitch of work. It don’t seem right.”
The Devil chuckles with delight. “An excellent question, my boy! Naturally, the answer would have a cost.”
Mickey feels his heart sinking. This is one of those “whoops, here we go again” sort of moments, when the trap door opens and through you fall, the noose tightening around your neck.
“I’m not giving you my soul,” says Mickey. “A few years in this place and an eternity in t’other. That’s not a good deal.”
“You want the answer for free?” asks the Devil. “Then let’s play a game. I will show you the answers you are looking for – what makes one man rich and another man poor. One man happy and another sad. The secrets of money, success, happiness, love and time. I will show you all that.”
“And in return?”
The Devil throws back his neck and laughs. The sound is like thunder rolling across the hills and bouncing off the clouds. The sky darkens in purples and greys like the end of the world as lightning forks from the Devil’s fingertips. The recently deceased bunny wabbit receives a jolt of unnatural electrickery that bzzzts his heart back into life.
“All I ask is that we play a little game,” says the Devil. “After I have taught you all you need to know. A game of riddles. We can take it in turn to riddle-me-ree – and none of your trickses about pocketses, eh? Winner takes all.”
Mickey can never resist a wager, and especially not when it involves riddles. Before you can say “my precious” he is shaking hands with the Horned One.
The deal is done.
“Well, go on then,” says Mickey. “I want to know it all. You said money, success, happiness, love and time. You might as well start straight away.”
The Devil raises an arched eyebrow. “What, now?”
“I’m waiting,” says Mickey. “And don’t try telling me that it’s 42. There was a fella in a dressing gown trying to tell me that some time ago. Funny bloke, rubbish answer. I let him borrow a towel as his was fair worn out.”
“Very well,” says the Devil. With a swish of his tail, he draws a straight line in the earth by Mickey’s feet.
Mickey stares at the line. He waits a while in case something grows out of it, like crops growing from a ploughed furrow. Nothing happens. The line is … a line. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“Is that it?” he asks. “I didn’t think it was possible. You’ve come up with something that’s even less useful than 42.”
The Devil grins one of those unnerving smiles used by torturers who enjoy their job just a little too much. “There is a line that divides folk from each other. It separates the rich from poor. The happy from the miserable. The ones getting their leg over from those getting naught.”
“I’m not getting much,” says Mickey, thinking wistfully of the wonderful view of Rosie’s bedroom.
“Then all you need to do is …” says the Devil, as he jumps neatly over the line in the ground.