The Numbers On Slide 18
by Richard Dansky
“Take a look at this,” said the demon, and slid the tablet across the table.
Gerard picked it up, looked at it, then looked at the demon. “What’s this supposed to be?” he asked.
“Projections,” the demon said, between a sip of his coffee and a bite of his too-red cherry pie. He didn’t look much like a demon, Gerard thought. He looked like a marketing guy, all slick hair and business a-little-too-casual, and he never stopped smiling. Gerard hadn’t thought demons were big on smiling, which made it hard to take this one seriously.
“Projections of what?” Gerard looked back down at the tablet. He had a tablet much like it, he thought, though he mostly used his to watch movies, or to play match-three games. Onscreen was a slide deck, a series of charts and curves with his name all over them. “I don’t understand.”
The demon scooted his chair over to Gerard’s side of the table. “Let me explain. This – all of this, really – is you. And I’ve got to hand it to you, Gerard, you’re a good guy. A really good guy. I mean,” and he reached out and tapped the tablet’s screen so that a pie chart came up, “right now you’re at 84% good. That’s so good that if you died right now, like, say, if this coffee were poisoned, you’d go right past the Pearly Gates and into Heaven, no questions asked.”
Gerard looked at the demon, then at the waitress who’d poured their coffee. She was middle aged, with the roots of her orange dye job showing harsh in the fluorescent light, and a small mustard stain on her blouse. She did not look happy. She was not smiling. In fact, she looked more demonic than the demon did, and Gerard found himself quietly pushing the coffee cup away. “Is that my soul, then?” he asked, and pointed at the pie chart.
“It is,” the demon confirmed. “Like I said, you’re a good guy. You keep your word. You don’t swear. You’ve never cheated on your wife – can’t blame you, she’s a real doll – and your good works file is as long as my arm. All this green, the big part of the chart, well, that’s your goodness. The part of your soul that, if you die right now, is going to take you straight upstairs.”
“And the red?” Gerard tapped the screen, which obediently zoomed in.
The demon smiled wider. “That’s the rest. Coveting, mostly. A little rage. Nothing to worry about right now.”
Gerard frowned. “You keep saying right now. Why do you keep doing that?”
“Ah,” said the demon, and skipped forward three slides. “That’s why I’m here, talking to you. Like I said, Gerard – I can call you Gerard, right? Or do you like Gerry? – right now, you’re a shoo-in for Heaven. But that’s only if you die right now. And neither of us wants that, right?”
“No,” Gerard managed. “I mean, if I have to go-”
“Nobody wants to go,” said the demon brusquely, cutting him off. “And look at you. You go to the gym, you eat healthy most of the time, you get regular prostate exams – it’s incredibly responsible of you. I’m telling you Gerard, you go on like this and you could live another, I don’t know, thirty-five or forty years, easily.”
“I’m forty-two now,” Gerard said, feeling a little self-conscious. “You know how long I’m going to live?”
The demon winked. His eye stayed closed a little too long for the gesture really to inspire confidence. “Officially, no. But I do liketo peek at the files occasionally, and I’m not seeing any fatal car crashes or meteorite strikes in your future. And that, Gerard, is the problem.”
“I don’t really see that as a problem,” Gerard said, and pushed back his chair. “I really should be going. Thank you so much for meeting with me, but-”
“If that’s the way you feel, then by all means, walk away.” The demon was as cheerful as could be. “But that means not knowing what these projections say about you, Gerard. About your future. About your family.”
Gerard sat back down. The demon smiled, because that’s what he did. “Great choice, my friend. Let me assure you, you won’t regret it.” Then he shoved the tablet back into Gerard’s hands, and told him to look at the current slide instead.
Gerard looked. It was another pie chart, and it was labeled “AGE 50”. It was still mostly green, but the red slice was bigger than it had been on the last one he’d looked at. The legend said “20%”.
“I don’t understand,” he said, understanding very well what the chart meant. “I mean, I’m still going to be the same guy I am now when I’m 50.”
“Oh, you’ll still be a good guy,” the demon said airily. “But you won’t be quite as good a guy. You’ll hit some roadblocks at work, maybe, and that might lead to a little frustration, and a little wrath. Maybe even a little fuzziness around the “thou shalt not steal” edges, when you see someone who didn’t work as hard as you did steal credit for one of your ideas and get promoted for it. You know anyone like that, Gerry?”
“No,” said Gerard absently, though his mind was already spinning. There was that one guy on the fourth floor, Singleton, who always seemed to show so much interest in what he was doing… He shook his head, and brought himself back to the present, where the demon was still talking.
“And then of course you’re getting older, which means the love life’s going south, so who knows? I’m sure you wouldn’t cheat on your wife – like I said, she’s a complete doll – but maybe you’ll look a little longer when that tasty new receptionist in the pencil skirt bends over to pick up something she dropped. You might discover online porn. But why worry? It’s just another four percent, that’s all, and you’re still waaaay within the safe zone.”
“Four percent? By the time I’m 50?”
The demon nodded. “So if you project that out, that’s less than 1% more evil a year. Nothing to worry about until you’re, what, a hundred and twelve? Something like that?”
“Something,” Gerard said weakly.
“Of course, that’s assuming a straight linear progression. Where you get problems is if that trend, that naughty little trend, accelerates.” The demon flipped through a few more slides. Each one showed the red slice getting larger at an alarmingly fast rate. “Here’s what happens if you get laid off. Here’s what happens when you find out your brother’s screwed you out of half of your inheritance – oh, wait, my bad, you didn’t know about that one yet. Sorry, pal. Just don’t bring it up at Thanksgiving. Anyway, here’s the big one – here’s what happens if your wife – and heaven knows I wouldn’t wish this on anyone – dies.”
The chart was almost all red. Gerard stared at it. “What…how?”
The demon shrugged. “There’s a 27% chance of her getting mugged and killed on a trip you two are going to take to Phoenix in eleven years to see your first grandkid. If that happens, well, I’m sorry to say it, Gerard, but you’re not going to take it well. Your wrath score’s going to go right off the charts, and then there’s the booze, and then you buy a gun. I mean, well, hey, it’s a worst case scenario, but we’ve got to factor it in, just to be thorough. I’m sure you understand.”
“Why are you showing me this,” Gerard croaked. “I’m a good man.”
“You are, you are. And you’re going to continue to be the best man you can be for a long time, Gerard. But things change. People change. And when you run the numbers, you get something like this.” The demon flipped to the last slide.
It wasn’t a pie chart. It was a simple series of plots, and it told a simple story. Gerard leaned in for a closer look. “That can’t be right,” he said.
“”Who knows,” said the demon. “It might not be. We’ve been wrong before. That’s how we got into this business. But if things keep going the way they’re going, if you live to age 64, you’re going to Hell.”
“You can’t know that.”
“No, but my people can look at the data and make some projections. You know, like for a stock, one that might be a little…volatile. And you have to ask yourself, Gerard, what’s important to you? You’re a healthy man. Odds are you’re going to beat 64 by ages. That means you’re going to Hell. Of course, you could die before then, but then you’d miss your grandkids growing up, and leave that sweetheart of a wife all alone, and you don’t want that, either. Plus, if you off yourself before 64 to try to rig the game, that changes the equation, too.”
Gerard blinked furiously. “You can’t know any of this.”
“Know for sure? Of course not. That’s…ineffable.” The demon spread his arms wide, a gesture meant to encompass all Creation. “All the folks on my side of the fence can do is make some pretty good guesses. And we can hedge our bets.
The demon stood up. He was very tall, and very fit, and very tan. His teeth were very white, and his eyes, Gerard noticed for the first time, kept switching between blue and a bright, unpleasant green. “Let’s be honest, Gerry. The data says it’s in our best interest to keep you alive until you hit 65. So like it or not, buddy, you’re going to have a guardian devil looking out for you, at least for a little while.”
“What do you want?” Gerard whispered. “I thought…this was just…”
The demon put a conspiratorial arm around his shoulder. It was very, very warm. “Gerry, Gerry, Gerry. I’m here to be your friend. I didn’t have to tell you any of this. I could have just let you go on your merry way, getting a little less good each year, until you were our property without you getting anything out of the deal. And I thought about that, and I decided that just wasn’t right. If you’re going to go to Hell – and let’s face it, between the charts and the extremely solicitous intern I’ve got on staff taking care of you, odds are you’re coming downstairs when it’s all over-”
“No matter what?”
“No matter what. So, why not get something for yourself out of it? Or, better yet, that wife of yours. Don’t you want to leave her well provided for? If you cut a deal with me to make yourself rich, she gets it all when you go. She’s taken care of. What more noble thing could you do than make the ultimate sacrifice so she can live out her golden years in comfort?”
Gerard squeezed his eyes shut. His head was suddenly pounding, filled with images of growing old with his wife, of his wife alone, of old age and poverty and destitution. Of their children, half a continent away, unwilling or unable to help their mother.
And behind it all, he saw flames.
“What’s Hell like?” he asked, softly.
The demon shrugged. “Enh. Overrated, if you ask me. Kind of poorly run, which means most of the souls don’t get tormented for, I don’t know, decades at a time. Centuries. They just put in a new accounting system and it’s impossible to keep track.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “You play your cards right, you could pretty much dodge the pitchforks altogether. Just find a nice Bolgia to hang out in when it came your turn and they’d never find you.”
Gerard looked up at him. “Would you…could you help with that sort of thing?”
The demon nodded. “Cross my heart.”
Gerard exhaled, deflating. “Then I’ll do it. Make me rich enough that my wife never needs to worry about a thing, and I’ll do it.”
“A sensible choice, Gerard,” the demon said, and picked up the tablet. He fussed with it a minute, then handed it back to his customer. “Just sign with your finger.”
Gerard looked at it as if it were a live snake. “What does it say?”
“Oh, it’s just standard boilerplate. You get to live out your golden years in wealth and comfort. If you haven’t died of natural causes before your hundredth birthday, we get you the day after. You run out of cash or want more, you give a yell and I help you out.”
“And my wife?”
“She never needs to know,” the demon said, soothingly. “Just sign.”
“No blood. We’re businessmen, not vampires. Now sign.”
Then he stood, and he and the demon shook hands. “I’ll cover the check,” the demon said. “All part of the service.”
Gerard thanked him, and walked a bit unsteadily to the exit. Already his smartphone was beeping, messages from his financial planner telling him to call, telling him that there was this great opportunity he could get in on. Bells jangled as the door shut behind Gerry and he made his way across the diner’s parking lot. His car was six years old, that car, with a bruised fender and a scratched paint job. It was going to need a new transmission soon as well, and deep down, Gerard was looking forward to being rich enough to replace it with something a little nicer. He looked down at his phone, and started to read, and smiled.
As for the demon, he sat back down on his side of the table. With a couple swipes of his finger, he cleared Gerard’s name off the chart and inserted a new one. Hopefully the next sucker wouldn’t look too closely at the projections, but it was his experience that they never did.
They never read the boilerplate, either. The smart ones, they asked about the state of health he was required to keep them in. Gerry hadn’t been one of the smart ones. He’d said “fatal car accidents”, after all. Nothing about those accidents that came up just a little bit short.
Out the window, he could see Gerard making his way slowly, obliviously to his beat up car. He could see the traffic in the street, the drivers in too much of a hurry to use their turn signals as they lunged for the faint hope of beating the light at the corner. He could see the rain-slick pavement and the balding tires on the Caprice Classic of a chunky, middle aged man who was thinking a little more about maybe getting home and a little less about who might be in the road in front of him.
Gerard got in his car and pulled out. Used his turn signal, too, and turned on his headlights. All very safety conscious, and none of it worth a damn.
The demon made a gesture. Traffic sped up.
And as the waitress swung by, the demon waved his cup in the universal gesture for “more coffee, please.”
“Sure thing, hon,” she said. “Just give me a minute.”
“No rush,” the demon said, and listened for the sounds he knew would be coming, the sounds of crumpling metal and screams.