Willie’s full of shit, Colton thought. This thing doesn’t lead to the devil. He glared at the brass compass duct-taped to the dashboard of his Chrysler 300. The black needle hadn’t changed direction for over an hour. It still pointed due east, further into flat, dusty, desolate Utah.
He ought to turn around right now, go back to Reno and kick Willie’s ass. He smiled at the image of knocking out some teeth with his fist or his nightstick. No, he would use his mini baseball bat. Then he’d break a couple of those saxophone-playing fingers. Well, maybe not Willie’s fingers – his music sounded too good now to ruin. He’d bust Willie’s toes. Did you need all your teeth to play sax? He’d ask him first.
He reached up and covered the pentagram-shaped compass with the palm of his hand. It gave him the same tingly, belly-flipping sensation that convinced him it was legit when he stole it out of Willie’s saxophone case last night. Reassured, Colton settled back into his seat and adjusted the angle of his counterfeit Gucci sunglasses.
He’d been on the road seven hours since he’d followed the compass out of Reno and onto the highway. He was surprised when it didn’t point south. He would’ve bet money the devil was in Vegas, but no. The needle summoned him eastward. He figured he was getting close when it steered him onto US-6. He kept watching the highway markers for those two missing sixes, but an hour into Utah it was still just Route 6. Where the hell were the crossroads? How much further could they be?
He had to take a piss. He shouldn’t have gotten that Big Gulp when he stopped for gas, but the cashier was too pretty to pass by. He’d hoped to hustle her back into the storeroom. She’d giggled when he offered to demonstrate the Cherokee method of going down on her (seeing as he was one-eighth Indian), but he didn’t have enough time to talk her into it. He had places to go and a devil to meet. It had taken ten minutes to get her phone number as it was, and he drank more of the Dr. Pepper than he should have while he was flirting.
He pulled over, shut off the car and watered the bedraggled vegetation with his name in cursive. He crossed the T with a flourish, zipped up, stretched and looked around. Hazy mountains off in the distance broke up the boredom of the baked scrublands surrounding him, where the tallest weed didn’t reach his knees. There was something peaceful about mountains. Like if you climbed one to the top you’d get away from all your problems. Of course, trying to climb to the top of a mountain was a problem, but there you were. Life was like that.
BANG! The sound of a gunshot had him flat on the dirt and cursing himself for leaving his Glock in the car. He twisted his head toward the road and saw a dark blue station wagon veering past him and trailing tire tread from the rear rim.
Colton let out the breath he’d been holding. Not a gunshot. A tire blowout. He rose and brushed himself off.
The Saturn careened to a stop on the side of the road about fifty yards ahead. Smoke drifted from the tattered wheel and the smell of burnt rubber wafted back to him. He got back in his car, took the pistol from the glove box and shoved it in his waistband under his shirt. He should just keep on driving. If he didn’t have time to bang a cashier, he sure as hell didn’t have time to do roadside assistance. Everyone had cell phones, anyway. They could call for help.
He pulled back onto the road. As he maneuvered around the debris, he locked eyes with the driver – a steel-haired, weathered woman who strongly resembled his deceased grandmother. Mean old bitch. He shuddered at the memory of the switch bush outside her front door, then sighed and steered his sedan over to the side of the road in front of the Saturn L-Series. Great. They didn’t even make parts for that anymore. He’d just make sure someone was coming to help, then he’d get going.
He shifted into park and opened the door. Wait a minute. Maybe . . . he checked the compass. Still pointing east. The old bag wasn’t the devil.
Ten minutes later, he was squatting at the back of her car, threading the lug nuts on the spare tire while she chattered at him.
“Why are you wearing all black in this heat?” she asked. “You think you’re Johnny Cash or something?”
Blood doesn’t show up on black. He flashed one dimple. “I do like some of his music. You think I could be a rock star?”
“Feh.” She shook off the notion with a push of her hand and a curl of her lip.
“Come on, now. Listen to this:”
He gestured with the passion of Pavarotti as he sang and tightened the lug nuts. When he finished serenading, it took a moment to realize the raspy noise coming from the old woman was laughter. He let his shoulders droop as he rose to his feet. “I bare my soul, and she mocks my voice.”
She shook her head. “No. You have a beautiful voice. You should sing in a church choir.”
“Ha!” He stowed the bent rim in the trunk along with the tire iron. “I really would burst into flames. Don’t go over 55 miles an hour, and get a new tire put on as soon as you can.” He brushed his hands on his Dockers, leaving dun colored dust smears on the black fabric.
She fumbled with her pocketbook. “Here. Here’s five dollars. Now where did I . . .?”
Five? Seriously? I just saved you at least a hundred. He backed away to his car, palms out. “Your money’s no good here, Ma’am. I’ve got to be on my way. You be careful on that tire.”
She was still twittering as he pulled away. He floored the gas pedal as soon as he could without showering her with debris.
Five miles down the empty road, at high noon, the compass needle began spinning counterclockwise. He slammed on the brakes, parked and snatched the compass off the dash, barely aware of the electric buzz it gave his hand. As he climbed out of the car, he scanned the area. Same as it had looked for hours – pitiful tufts of dry weeds dotting brown flat ground.
The road ahead began to shimmer, and crossroads appeared where none had been. It looked kind of far to walk. Maybe he should drive the couple hundred yards to . . . nope. As he grasped his door handle the crossroads started to fade from view. He locked the car and started walking, and the crossroads reformed. His palms became damp as he strode forward. He was used to the rollercoaster belly feeling now, and he was glad his black t-shirt wouldn’t show the pit sweat trickling down his ribs.
A lone Joshua tree coalesced at the crossroads as he approached. Then he appeared. That had to be the devil leaning against the trunk looking all James Dean in jeans, biker boots and a white t-shirt.
Be cool. Colton straightened his shoulders, scratched an ear and sauntered towards the devil, heart pounding. Don’t trip. Don’t run your mouth. Get your game face on. He felt a sneeze tickle. No! Not now. He pressed hard on the tip of his nose, breathing through his mouth deep and slow. The tickle faded. OK. You got this. He hitched his thumbs through his belt loops and adjusted his saunter so it didn’t raise so much dust.
Ten yards away, and the devil still hadn’t looked up from his folded-armed slouch. Colton stopped, jerked his chin skyward. “S’up.” His mouth was dry and his greeting didn’t carry like he’d meant it to. Should he repeat it? No. That would sound weak. He shuffled his foot and kicked a stone. Don’t fidget. He stilled. Waited. The devil didn’t move. This was getting kind of awkward.
He cleared his throat. “I’d like to make a deal.” Aaarghh! How game show did that sound? Dammit!
A smile curled the devil’s lip. “What kind of deal?” He tilted his head just enough to show blazing red irises under hooded eyelids.
Colton was glad he’d stopped to piss before he got here. He’d looked the devil in the eye and didn’t wet himself. Not many men could say that. He wanted to stare and get a real good look at the devil’s face, but his eyes started to sting. The pain increased until he dropped his gaze. “I’ll sell you my soul.” His hand itched to wipe his watering eyes, but he held tight to his belt loops.
The devil uncrossed his arms and straightened, pushing off the Joshua tree with his boot. “What do you want for it?”
This was it. No more taking orders from mobsters. No more watching scumbags advance in the organization while he was stuck doing loan shark collections year after year. No more seeing assholes get rich while he scraped by. Time to get paid. “I want to be a rock star.”
“You don’t . . .” The devil’s thick black eyebrows flew together. “Really?”
“Yep. That’s what I want.”
He shook his head, a little smirk on his face. “Sorry. You don’t have enough soul left for all that.” He leaned back onto the tree.
Colton’s eyes bugged out as he went lightheaded. What the hell did that mean? He took a deep breath and blew it out. Sure, he was no angel, but he already had the rock star look – ripped body, spiky brown hair with blonde highlights, blue eyes. He even had dimples, for chrissakes, and he could sing. How hard could it be to put him in a viral YouTube video that got him an agent and fortune and fame? The devil was trying to trick him into a bad deal, the sneaky bastard. He puffed his chest out. “That’s what I want. Take it or leave it.”
The devil shrugged. “I’ll leave it.” The air around him began to shimmer, obscuring his form.
“Wait! What can I get?” He wasn’t that bad. His soul had to be worth something.
The shimmering stopped. “Why should I give you anything? I’ve already got most of your soul, and you’re only 25. You’ll give me the rest of it on your own within the next decade.”
Colton began to pace, forgetting the terrain. Now what? He’d be stuck at the bottom of that mob racket forever, always being told what to do and when to do it. The hours sucked. The cloud of dust raised by his steel-toed Red Wing boots tickled his nose, and a massive sneeze rocked him before he could suppress it.
“Thanks.” He wiped his nose on his wrist and his wrist on his pants. “Look, there has to be some arrangement we could come to. I’m not that bad a guy. I could meet some nice Catholic girl, settle down, raise a big family. You’d lose me then, right? Why roll the dice?”
“You think that’s what’ll save your soul?” The devil sat on a tree stump that materialized underneath him, and gestured for Colton to sit on another that appeared next to it.
“I don’t know.” He slumped on the stump. “That always sounded like hell to me, so I figured it must earn a ticket to heaven.”
“It wouldn’t earn you one.”
Colton picked at the rubber sole of his boot. The heat coming off the devil was uncomfortable, like sitting too close to his grandma’s pot-bellied stove. He wasn’t going to scoot away, though. Didn’t want the devil to think he was intimidated. “Guess I never thought I was all that bad.”
“You hurt people for a living.”
“C’mon, man. So do boxers. They all going to hell, too?”
“You like it.” The devil held out a lit hand-rolled cigarette. Colton accepted it and took a drag. It tasted funny. Kind of sweet.
He did like to hurt people. Not everyone, just his opponents. Ever since he was little he’d look for fights to jump into. He got in less trouble if he jumped in on the side of the weaker kid, so he started doing that. He didn’t get hurt much worse, and he liked seeing how big a kid he could whip. Or how big a kid it took to whip him. He played football for an excuse to hit, joined the wrestling team to learn ways to hurt. He went to bars for the fights more than the booze, and he did take pride in the effectiveness of his loan collections. He took another puff of the cigarette. “I s’pose I do. But I never hit a woman or an animal.”
“You’re young, yet.”
Colton bristled. “I wouldn’t. I never have and I won’t. And I don’t pimp or deal drugs or cheat on my tax . . . well, I guess I don’t really pay taxes. But I’m nothing compared to some of the other slimeballs out there. I helped an old lady change her tire on the way here, for chrissakes. I can’t believe my soul won’t buy what Snooki’s got.”
He swiveled around on the stump and pointed his cigarette at the devil. “And Willie! You made a deal with Willie.” He ticked off points with his fingers. “Number one, Willie doesn’t take care of any of the four kids he’s got from three women. B, he’s a cokehead and a gambler. Finally, he leeched off his girlfriend, who works her ass off trying to get that catering business going. And fourth, I know he knocked Mona around. She did not get those bruises falling down the steps. And yet you gave him that music! He barely knew which end of the horn to blow. Now he makes magic with that sax. Clubs are standing in line to get him onstage. He’s making a name for himself, pulling in some real money. And you know the first thing he did when things started happening for him?” Colton was breathless with indignation.
“He kicked Mona to the curb and got him a white girl. How evil is that? You telling me he had more soul to trade than I do?”
The devil rose and locked his crimson eyes on Colton’s. “I don’t have to tell you anything. You’re not worth any more of my time. Give me the compass.”
What did I tell you at the beginning, Colton, you asshole? I said not to run your mouth. “Wait! I’m sorry.” He jumped to his feet and held out both hands, appealing. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Please give me another chance. I’ll make my soul worth your while, how’s that? I’ll go get born again. I’ll . . . I’ll get a legit job. I’ll donate to charity. I’ll visit my ma more and help take care of my grandpa. What else, what else would make my soul worth becoming a rock star?”
“You’re asking me to tell you how to save your soul?” The devil chuckled, and the sound surrounded Colton and gave him a crawly tickle on his scalp, like a cockroaches skittering through his hair.
He shuddered and wiped his hand over his head, relieved when no insects were encountered. Shake it off. You can still do this. Think. Colton mopped at the moisture on his forehead. “Yeah, my bad. I can figure it out though. I know I can. Give me . . . give me a year. Let me keep the compass, and give me a year to make my soul worth selling.”
“You intrigue me.” The devil stroked his cleft chin. “But how do I know you won’t decide to keep your soul after you’ve cleaned it up?”
“I’ll sign a contract. You draw it up. I’ll sign right now.”
The devil flourished a pitchfork-shaped pen with tiny flames coming off the tines and held out his hand. “Sign here on my palm. Right on the fate line,” he said, pointing.
“Hey, cool pen.” Colton took it and ran his hand over the flames, flinching when they singed his finger. “Can I keep this?”
“Oh. OK.” The devil’s big hand was unmoving as Colton wrote the first letter of his name on the smooth palm. “Uh . . . you got all the details about being a rock star, right? Everything from that Nickelback song is part of the deal?”
It was then that Colton remembered the line ‘we’ll all stay skinny ‘cause we just won’t eat,’ but decided it was too late to worry about that. He signed the rest of his name and handed the pen back. “Oh, wait! I won’t have to stay celebrate, like a priest, will I?” He thought his stomach was flipping before – he could almost feel his bowels loosening with fear.
The devil furrowed his brow. “You mean celibate? Chaste?”
“Yeah.” He puckered his ass as tight as he could. He would not shit himself in front of the devil.
“It couldn’t hurt.”
He wiped the sweat from his upper lip. “It’s not a deal-breaker, though, right?”
The devil shook his head. “It’s not a deal-breaker. But no more hints.”
Colton’s knees buckled and he grabbed the trunk of the Joshua tree for support. “Thank God.”
“Hey, hey! None of that.”
“Sorry! It slipped. I’ll just be on my way then, all right? I’ll see you in a year.” He touched the compass to his forehead in a little salute and trotted back to his car.
The devil watched as the sedan turned westbound and disappeared. He sat back on the stump and puffed on a fresh cigarette. His features blended and reformed into a long sharp nose and tall pointed ears. Light brown fur covered the coyote head that now perched atop human shoulders.
The old lady from the Saturn strolled up, melted into the form of a dun-colored hare the size of a raccoon, and hopped onto the vacant tree stump. “Ho, Coyote,” she said.
“Good day’s work, Trickster.”
Coyote bowed his head in acknowledgment. “Thank you.”
“You going to make the Rockstar song come true for him next year?”
“Nah. That would ruin his life.”
“Yeah.” Rabbit peered around and scanned the sky. “One of these days, the devil’s going to figure out who’s been impersonating him. My luck, I’ll be sitting next to you when he does.”
“I don’t believe in the devil.” Through his canine snout, he blew a smoke ring that rearranged into a horned head before it dissipated into the air.
She shook her long ears and looked about once more before settling onto her haunches. “I didn’t know about Willie. Why did you give him The Music?”
Coyote stubbed out his cigarette and tucked the butt in his pocket. “It was the best way to get Mona free of him. Her business could succeed, now. Might rebuild her self-esteem. And it’s a long shot, but The Music is only thing that has a chance to save Willie’s soul.”
Rabbit nodded. After washing her face with her paws for a moment, she sank into a comfortable squat. “There’s a meth addict in Fort Lauderdale I’ve got my eye on.”
Coyote cocked his head. “What tribe?”
“Does it matter?”
Her whiskers twitched. “She’s Choctaw. Has some potential. You in?”