Jack Pearlman had been playing games with the devil for the past three years. That was not a metaphor. They started with chess, but decided it was too highbrow. Nowadays they stuck with a rotation of Scrabble, Rummy and Jenga. Jack would have preferred poker or blackjack, but those were better with a few more people, and Asmodeus always turned down invitations to Jack’s weekly card nights.
It was, arguably, more accurate to say he was playing games with a devil, or, if you went by approved terminology from the Society for Research of Paranormal Abilities, with a HPUI; a High Powered Unregistered Individual. Someone who had shown up out of the blue, with no identification, no records, and powers that made any sensible person pants-soilingly terrified. But Jack hated to SRPA. They were dry and obsessed with acronyms. Also, Asmodeus himself preferred the word devil. It was one of Jack’s favorite things about Azzie.
Asmodeus hated it when Jack called him Az or Azzie, so Jack did it fairly regularly.
The pair met in CAFE about once a month. It was one of those coffeeshops that was so determined to radiate uniqueness that it became generically quirky, and so afraid of trends that it could not help being hip. On months with 31 days, Jack bought the coffee and Asmodeus chose the game. On shorter months, they reversed it.
If you saw the two of them, you would think Jack, with his tailored black suits and his crookedly handsome smile, was the devil, and Asmodeus, with his sunken eyes shrinking into pale skin behind a ratty hoodie, was the poor soul ripe to be snared.
“The trouble is,” Asmodeus said, as he fitted ‘pine’ on top of Jack’s earlier ‘chase,’ “what’s left to want anymore?”
“Sure,” Jack nodded. “I mean, I could pick up a lamp at an antique shop, clean it up, out pops a genie, and I’d ask for…” he shrugged. “You can’t turn on the TV without an ad for affordable financing for a house or a new car. I already got my degree, I just don’t want to do anything with it. I can live off the stocks Grandpa left me for as long as I want. And while I could always use a new watch or a painting, the whole point of a collection is to go hunting for it yourself.” He laughed. “I’d probably chuck the thing in a donation bin, just to get rid of it. ‘Here, maybe one of you could use this thing.’”
“Half the ads are scams,” Asmodeus said. Jack, having already forgotten most of what he had said, backtracked mentally to find out what Azzie was referring to. He was used to doing this. “You could wish for the ability to see through them.”
“Yeah, but what would be the fun in that? Puzzles and games. That’s all that makes life worth living anymore.”
“There are those who would argue that your perspective is merely a consequence of your privilege. Where you see a useless bauble, too many in this nation would see a boon.”
“Sure,” Jack said, his face scrambling to find an appropriately humble and serious expression.
“They would be wrong,” Asmodeus said.
“True, there are people who could use a genie to wish away illness, poverty, suffering, real pain. But that would not solve the problem I am talking about. Out of all the sin and corruption, your people have born a world of relative comfort and stability, and it has made you miserable. The more comfortable you are, the more miserable you become. Life becomes so tedious, they start looking for bigger challenges. Sometimes, purely by accident, they stumble upon the big questions. Self-improvement, self-actualization, the greater meaning of life. If the angels had only known the trials of luxury, perhaps they would not have fought so hard against it. We are like the Buddha’s father, shielding humanity so completely from the realities of life that you all need only a taste to send you on an exhaustive journey towards enlightenment.”
Jack used this monologue to study his tiles. The rational theory, for people like Asmodeus, was that their own powers had shattered their grip reality, right down to their own sense of self. Then they latched onto mythology and conspiracy theories to reconstruct an identity. Most people who talked to Azzie tried to convince him of this. Jack did not see the point. It never worked, and only made the poor guy miserable. The way Jack saw it, whatever the truth, this was Azzie’s reality, and he was alone in it. So for a couple of hours a month, Jack would believe that Azzie was whatever he said he was.
Jack realized he could build ‘fancy’ off of ‘itch,’ and snag a double word score on top of it. He added twenty six to his points score. “I hear you man. What’s a self-respecting hedonist to do with himself?”
“Things have gotten so bad, Belphegor has gone into the self-help industry. He says it’s perfect. People can go into that sort of thing hoping to improve themselves, and come out convinced that all they really need is to buy another badly written book.”
“Well there’s something.” Jack was never sure whether Belphegor was a real person, in the same position as Asmodeus, or a sort of imaginary friend.
“It wouldn’t work for me. That business is entirely about public relations. I haven’t got the polish for it.”
“Listen, if you ever need an upgraded wardrobe, I can hook you up with my tailor. I’ll even make sure he gives you the friends and family discount. He’s a big softie, and I’ve brought him tons of new customers, so it won’t be a problem.”
Asmodeus had an interesting smile. It made his eyes bug out in a way that looked slightly startled, but pleasantly. “Thank you. But I think my issues run deeper than my fashion sense.”
“Suit yourself. It’s a standing offer. Also, your move.”
“Yes, it is.” Asmodeus studied the board.
“Now, what I don’t get,” Jack said, “is why make the world worse? I mean, I get it, their good is your evil and your evil is their good, but what do you, personally, get out of it?”
“What would I get if I won this game?”
“Pride. A sense of accomplishment. My respect as a worthy opponent.”
“If I was not really trying to win, would you keep playing?”
“Obviously not. There’s no fun in that.”
“The game must have two sides, or else the game ends. Then life is truly meaningless. Besides,” he met Jack’s eyes, which did not happen very often, “after you’ve been kicked out of heaven, how else can you get God’s attention?”