It was a bit after one of those big-old thunderstorms that strike New Orleans, and dump two feet of rain on our water-cursed city, that I first saw the man. At first I thought he was just another bum, water-soaked and shivering, trying to find a sunny spot to stand to warm up now that the rain had passed. The streets were still draining water though, and he was standing in an ankle-deep puddle. When I noticed, I thought it was odd, so I took a look at the cardboard sign he was carrying. "Will bless for souls" it read. Well, this isn't all that odd for New Orleans, I grant you, but sometimes bums with interesting signs make for entertaining conversation, so I walked up to him to ask him about his sign.
When I got closer, I saw that his clothes, while drab, were of fine material. Under his London Fog trenchcoat I could see he was wearing a designer suit, and he had subtle blond highlights in his light-brown hair. When I got near him, he looked me straight in the eye, with a half smile, and said, "Curiosity killed the cat, you know."
"And satisfaction brought it back."
"Only for a while..."
Well, I didn't have too much to say to that, so I said, "Do people give you money when they see your sign? Or do you just enjoy fucking with them?"
The man's smile widened a bit, and I saw he had perfect, pearly-white teeth. "No, it's truth in advertising. Wouldn't want to get in trouble with the regulators now, would I?"
"Oh, come on, blessing for a soul? What fool would believe you could bless them?"
"Oh, you'd be surprised. You've noticed how I'm dressed. Isn't there anything in life that you want?"
"Of course! Tons of money, a hot wife, a hotter mistress, and if you give me time to think about it, I could come up with a couple more things."
"Well, I'm guessing you don't believe in souls, so it wouldn't cost you anything to test out my bargain, no? Free blessing? At no cost? Who can resist that deal?"
"Ha!" I belted out. I have to say, I don't believe in souls, and I certainly don't believe in blessings, but I got a bit nervous anyway. He was too sincere. "Aren't angels the only ones who can bless, anyway?"
"Of course. It's just that some angels bless for the heck of it, and others bless only with strings attached."
"You really expect me to buy this crap?"
"Maybe you're wrong. Maybe blessings do exist. And all it'll cost you is your immortal soul. Not a bad deal if souls don't exist. And you won't find out if blessings exist or if souls exist unless you try out my deal. I know you're wondering now, even if just a little bit. Is knowledge of whether blessings and souls exist worth your soul? I know you're tempted to find out."
"So why the streetcorner? Don't you have smoke-filled back rooms to go hang out in? Country clubs to visit? It seems you've already made your way around some of our neighborhoods in this city."
"Ha, as if my services are needed in any of those places. Don't you know the drill? Temptation, baby. Bend the will of the righteous. The places you mentioned, I don't even need to dabble. The boardrooms are filled with people fighting each other tooth and nail to live in my domain. And the neighborhoods you mention, the people there were given the chance to play Job. And when they think about it, they realize what a truly faithful motherfucker Job was. I don't need to lift a finger, the system does it all for me."
"So you're going after people like me, huh? Since I don't believe, aren't I going to end up your bitch anyway?"
"Well, you're tempted by my offer, aren't you? There's still a chance I could lose you. Why not seal the deal when I can, when you're young, and you think you're immortal?"
"Fair enough. Why the street corner though? You been displaced by the system too?"
I hit a nerve with that one. The suave, calculating, calm expression vanished for a second, and I saw a glimpse of pure wrath, before it vanished, leaving less trace than the recent rain. "We all have our ups and downs, you know."
"So what's your name anyway?"
"Mephistopheles, if you must know."
"Ah, I see. Two bit devil, screwed by the great Satan, stuck on a street corner, beggin' for chump-change in souls."
The smile turned icy, and I felt my spine prickle when I saw the hate in his cold, blue eyes. "Ah, so you wish to dance. Match wits. Don't you remember all those stories your momma told you about how that may not be such a good idea?"
"Stories. Which if devils, blessings, and souls were real, might be something to be worried about."
"Stories, eh? Well, what if I tell you mine. You know, in exchange for your non-existent soul." With this, he pulled out a little red diary from an inner-pocket of his overcoat. "Just sign the 'guest' book, and I'll tell you why I'm here."
Well, this guy had been the most interesting conversation I'd had in a while. The preachers on Bourbon Street couldn't hold a candle to him. "Ok, I'll bite. Give me your stupid book. You sure I don't need to sign in blood?"
"A commitment is all I need."
"There, I've signed my life away. Well, my afterlife, to be technical. Now, this better be good."
"A deal's a deal. I didn't tell you that my story would be interesting. But you asked, now you get to listen." He paused for a bit, and looked me over. "I don't know how much you know about the history of my trade. I'm sure you've heard the story of Faust?"
"In passing, never read too much."
"Well, back in the day, life was simple. You go out, and you harvest all the souls you could. When you get back to hell, they join you there in less than a century, and you use them as slaves, or whatever suits your fancy. Not a bad life. But souls get stale after a while, you know. It is for eternity after all, and humans aren't all that good at staying interesting, no matter how creative you get with them. So mostly, we just dump them into the fires after a while, and pick 'em out when we're bored. Fresh souls, on the other hand, the terror, the suffering, ah, what a sensation!
"Well, the harvest metaphor isn't a bad one. We used to cultivate people like people cultivate plants. Hard work some times, but people are pretty weak, and it's weeding out the saints that's the tough part. Dig out the saints, and the rest of the crop is yours. We developed all kinds of fancy weeding technologies, like monestaries the world over, convents in Europe, and all kinds of ways of ostracizing and persecuting. Our crowning glory was the violent revolution, because both sides breed hate by killing moderates, and most true saints are bridges, not crusaders. But that's the thing. We got so good at it, that we stopped paying such close attention to the people we were trying to corrupt. After all, it was easy to corrupt. But we didn't see that the people we were corrupting were evolving: they were so easy to corrupt, that they started corrupting themselves.
"At first, it wasn't a big deal. Couple chieftans, medicine men, here and there. Warriors that craved blood as much as glory. Those souls we wouldn't bother harvesting. They'd come to us on their own anyway, and go into the communal pit, the ninth level. Lucifer claimed it early, and stopped working. Now it belongs to him and his imps, and you don't want to mess with them. But as 'civilization' developed, there were more and more ways of being corrupted, and fewer and fewer social pressures against it. Soon there were entire groups of people, like the 'citizens' of Greece, the families of Rome, and of course, the 'Noble' class all around the world, who were hell bent on corrupting themselves. And then, came the most insideous institution of all, bureaucracy."
"Bureaucracy? You've got to be kidding me. I signed my soul away for this bullshit?"
"Hehe, a sucker is born every minute you know. Anyway, yes bureaucracy. Invented by the Chinese, copied the world over, it soon became a form of institutionalized corruption. Greed via bribery. Sloth via negligence. Pride via power. Wrath via being frustrated when you have to deal with it. Gluttony via, well, you've seen what most bureaucrats look like. Lust via ambition and via taking advantage of subordinates, if you get my drift. And envy for someone else's position in the bureaucracy, or by uneven favoritism. And what's more, the saints loved it, because it also meant an insitutionalized form of benefit for many humans. So the saints didn't fight it, and we didn't see what the problem was until it was too late. The unforsaken always warned us that we had more to lose from humans eating from that stupid tree of knowledge. And boy, were they right. Only Lucifer cashed in on the deal, conniving motherfucker. See, 'cause now it was the humans corrupting themselves. Cutting out the middle man. Cutting out us, if you see what I mean. By the time we can get to most of them, they're so well down the path of corruption that we're more likely to derail them from their twisted path than to secure their soul. Sure, we can still find the occasional average Joe who's trying to make it, having a hard time, and tempt him away from his righteous path. The lottery's an awesome tool for that, let me tell you. But they're harder and harder to find, which means the competition is fierce. And when you're competing against beasts like Satan, well, you gotta watch your back. So what ends up happening? Humans fuck themselves, Lucifer dances his merry dance, and the rest of us get left out in the cold. Which is why I'm here. Standing on the street corner, hustling people like you out of your souls before you can lose them on your own."
"That's the lamest story I ever heard."
"You'll regret it even more when I'm poking out your eyes with hot needles for the millionth time."
"Well, so now that you have my soul, what kind of blessings do I get?"
"Dude, you're so stupid. You only have one soul, you sold it for a crappy story. I'm not going to waste my time blessing you. It'll make your emotional anguish all the more delightful when you come to hell."
"Ah, I see. Well, on that cheery note, I think I'll be on my way."
"For a while," he said with a smile.
Well, I never did see him again, but for some reason, I keep looking for him whenever I pass the street corner, especially after thunderstorms. I guess I'm curious to see if he remembers me, and if his story has changed over the years.