Tuesday nights at Dante's were always wretched. Dan slowly stretched his back and returned to washing glasses. There were a few regulars at the bar, a few regulars playing pool, and a few regulars at the tables. Although you might see a little variety on a weekend, Tuesday nights at Dante's had grown so old it seemed the patrons followed some unseen script.
"I gotta' find me a new job." Dan grumbled to himself.
Base salary for tending bar was pretty poor. You could live fairly well when there were many tipping customers, but when you worked at a hole-in-the-wall like Dante's, you didn't exactly plan to send your kids through med-school.
An unpleasant gust of air burned his eyes and throat.
"You always say that." an ominous voice interjected.
Dan looked up from the wash water and wrinkled his nose. "Phew! I'm glad I haven't eaten supper yet."
"Hey! I came here straight from work." Malfeus stared at Dan indignantly with cold, reptilian eyes. "Don't tell me you go home from here without stinking of cigarettes."
Dan chuckled and dried his hands on a bar towel.
A few scattered greetings rang out when people noticed who had materialized. "Mal!" called a machinist with girlfriend troubles.
"Malfeus! How you doin', homie?" shouted a used car dealer.
Mal smiled and waved politely as he walked between the tables, making his usual way over to the pool players. Dante's interior was a dim place lit mostly with neon beer signs and a few low-wattage bulbs over the pool tables and dart boards. The floors were dusty and the tables seldom cleaned. Stolen street signs carved with graffiti and marked with cigarette burns covered the walls. Although you could see a window or two from the bar's exterior, they're boarded up with black plywood on the inside.
The players seemed as static as the rest of the night's scene. A biker with a bad tooth racked up the balls while a tall, skinny trucker chalked his cue.
"Aaron..." Malfeus hissed, "What are you doing here? We had a deal."
The trucker sighed heavily and shook his head without even looking over. His shoulders slumped a little. "I changed my mind. I told you that, Mal."
"A deal's a deal." Mal said. "I give you untold riches and you give me your soul. It doesn't get much simpler than that." He grinned with a few too many razor-sharp teeth.
"I didn't like being rich. It wasn't what I thought it'd be like at all." Aaron explained for the hundredth time. "I left it all there just like I found it. The limo, the mansion... trade it to someone else."
With a quick movement of his pool cue, Aaron broke and the biker whistled low, totally ignoring the demon. "Nice break, man. Stripes again." Aaron took a couple slow steps around the table, looking for a good shot. He straightened his comfortably tattered, army jacket with a shrug of his shoulders. One would never guess by looking at him that he had been a millionaire only a few short months before.
Malfeus stared at the two players and tried to think of an argument he had not yet used. This was not getting any easier as the months rolled by. "But what about the food? What about the women? What about the perks? Don't tell me you didn't like having a sauna and a Jacuzzi..."
"I hate rich people." Aaron said, punctuating it with a second shot. "I had no idea they were such jerks when I agreed to your stupid deal. And if I never eat haute cuisine again, it'll be too soon."
Bad Tooth laughed. "Lay off him, man."
Malfeus stared at the biker, and the leather-jacketed goon quickly turned his eyes away. Although not as terrible as the devil himself, Mal was still a demon and something to be feared. He stood only a little taller than a man and only a little wider as well, but his green, scaled skin and his very inhuman face were... well... unsettling, to say the least.
Mal growled, mostly to himself, and wandered back to the bar. "I'm going to catch hell from downstairs on this one, but y'know, it's just a job. I refuse to give myself an ulcer over quotas. Give me a cold one, Dan."
Dan smiled as he drew a fresh beer from the tap, poured off the head, and set it down in front of his unworldly patron.
Mal threw back half his drink and set the mug down hard on the coaster. "Ahhhh, that hits the spot." He wiped his mouth on his wrist before continuing. "I should have gotten that one in writing. Who would have guessed this would have happened?"
"Getting sloppy, huh?"
Mal shrugged. "I just figured him for such an easy sale that I thought I'd save myself some paperwork."
Dan chuckled to himself and shook his head. "It's clear he's not gonna' change his mind, so why do you keep trying, Mal?"
The demon laughed and shrugged. "Well, it gives me an excuse to hang out up here. Hell's a decent enough place, but frankly, piping hot beer sucks."
"We aim to please." Dan laughed and began wiping down the battered bar. "Never would have guessed that I'd be drawing beers for a 'fallen angel'."
"Hey!" Mal shouted a little too loudly. Dan froze for a moment, worried.
"I am not fallen. I signed on like all the rest." Mal drained the rest of his beer and nodded at the old memories. "Oh yeah, I went to the 'career day', the plant tour, salary negotiations... the whole nine yards. Started right in on the ground floor of the Acquisitions department for the North American division over a millennium ago... Fallen angel... I just hate that euphemism. How would you like to be called a 'fallen ape'?"
Dan grinned. "Fallen, as in fallen from the trees? I kind of like that."
"Well," Mal said, "next time you go bitching about your job, remember that at least you have air conditioning."
Dan laughed out loud and refilled the demon's beer. "Sounds like an awful job. How do you stand it?"
"What are you talking about, Daniel?" The beast cocked his head in wonder at the bartender. "You and I do basically the same thing."
Dan's expression showed his confusion.
"It's true. We both get paid to encourage other people's vices."
Dan shook his head. "We are not the same. I just sell people drinks. I don't take souls."
Malfeus shrugged. "Money, souls, what's the difference?"
Dan rested his hands on the bar and met the demon's gaze. "What's the difference? The difference is that the worst thing I give people is a hangover. Getting drunk at Dante's doesn't earn anyone eternal torment."
"Eternal torment. Yeah, right." Mal walked to the popcorn popper at the end of the bar and filled an empty bowl.
"What can I get you folks?" Dan said to a couple as they entered Dante's dim interior. The girl whispered something to the guy and nodded her head towards Mal. He shrugged and whispered something back before ordering a couple of Coronas.
Mal threw darts for a while. He played moderately well and was a gracious loser.
When the game came on the television, he watched and cheered with the others. It was a fairly close game, but the Pirates finally pulled out over the Angels and won it seven to six. Malfeus howled in delight and bought a round for everyone in celebration. If anyone was rooting for the Angels, they were polite enough to keep it to themselves.
After the game, the small group slimmed down even more, leaving just the hard-core alcoholics to share company with Malfeus and Dan.
Dan stared at the coin Mal had given him for the drinks and turned it slowly over in his hands. Mal had never used one of these before. He had paid in the Spanish doubloons that pirates had killed to steal. He had used modern drug money and pieces of eight. Dan had old dollar bills still stained with Bonnie and Clyde's blood and raw chunks of silver and gold from the Old West, just to name a few. Dan didn't doubt its worth.
"What is this, Malfeus?"
"That's an obol. It's a coin from ancient Greece, a sixth of a drachma, I think. They'd put them under the tongues of the deceased to pay Charon for the journey across the river Styx."
Dan made a foul face at the thought of the coin being under some ancient dead guy's tongue. "Is it worth much?"
"Beats the hell out of me. I figure it's got to be worth something. Hell, it's thousands of years old." He made a curious gesture with his left hand and pulled two more from thin air. "Take a couple more. I've got plenty of them."
Dan smiled and tossed them in the cigar box with the other bills and trinkets that the demon had used for payment. He had never tried to cash in any of this stuff, but he was looking forward to the day he did. That was going to be tons better than bringing in the jars of change holding his tips.
"Hey, Dan, remember that joke you told me yesterday about the midget and the priest? I told my boss that one and he couldn't stop laughing." Mal exclaimed.
"You told my joke to the devil?"
Mal hooted with laughter. "You are so good for my ego!" he howled. "As if I report to the big-D himself! Nah, my boss is Balthezar, a regional manager for the North American division. He thought it was great."
Dan smiled and scratched his head. "Hey, Mal, you ever think of changing jobs?"
Mal regarded the bartender with one curious eye. "And work for the competition?" He laughed. "What kind of bastard do you think I am?"
Dan frowned and shook his head.
"I tell you, man. Angels have less scruples than lawyers. Honest truth. I don't think I could live with myself if I had a job like that." He shook his head and shivered. "I'd just feel dirty all the time."
Dan sensed that the demon was getting in one of his famous 'story moods', so he drew him another brew and set it down on a coaster. You'd never guess it when you first talk to a demon, but after a while you get used to the smell of brimstone and burning hair.
"Do you have any idea what God spends on advertising in a single year?" Mal asked. "I bet you don't. Now the devil, on the other hand, he never advertises. You don't get any repeat customers in this business, so we have to rely on word-of-mouth. And with very few exceptions," Mal gave a hard stare across the smoky room at Aaron, "we have a very satisfied customer base."
Mal drank some of his beer and began to nod. "I figure that if you have to resort to the hard sale, then you're doing something wrong. What kind of product are you pushing if you have to force it down people's throats? You know what I mean? Scaring people into being good or bad... it just doesn't work. That's why we're not allowed to work on commission. It makes you too aggressive."
Dan rested his chin on the palm of one hand and drummed his other fingers on the bar. "I guess I'm not following how all of this works."
Malfeus sighed and shrugged. "Well, it's after hours, so I'd rather not bother with the boring sales pitch. Here's just the big picture, okay?" Dan nodded and Mal reached across the bar, picking up two handfuls of shot glasses and placing them all face-down in the space between them.
"Suppose for a moment that you have two farmers and a big field of cattle. The farmers are friends, but after a while, like in most prosperous business ventures, they just can't see eye to eye on how things should be managed. So they decide to split up the herd and go their separate financial ways."
Malfeus looked up at Dan and waited for him to nod.
"Now the trouble begins. If we were really talking about cows, we could just build a fence down the center of the field," Mal put his arm down across the bar, splitting the shot glasses into two roughly equal groups, "and then share the costs of maintaining the fence." Malfeus sat back and used the 'fence' to drink some more beer. "Problem with you humans is that you're always wandering around and jumping fences and what-not."
Dan shrugged and smiled. "Just in our nature, I guess."
Mal nodded and went on. "So you could maybe agree that one farmer gets the black cows and the other gets the white cows, right? But again, you humans are always inter-breeding. It gets real hard real quick to keep up a system like that. Especially here in the North American division, I can tell you."
Dan nodded slowly. "So God and the devil decided to split people up by whether they were good or evil?" The reasoning behind it clearly confused him.
"Exactly! The G-meister agreed to keep the good ones and the big-D took the bad ones." Mal smiled. "I mean, who really cares, right? You both taste the same."
"What!" Dan shouted and a few of the regulars looked up.
"Yeah, who cares? You might think that 'good' people taste better than 'bad' ones, but you don't. You're all about the same."
"Hang on here! Hang on one damn minute! Are you saying that when we die, they eat us?" Dan looked a little pale.
Mal nodded. "Basically. They say your souls taste like chicken." He shrugged and smiled weakly. "I hope this isn't going to get in the way of our friendship..."
"I don't like the sound of this at all!"
"No, I suppose not. The cows aren't real fond of becoming hamburgers either, but what choice do they have? All and all, it's really not so bad. At least they wait for you guys to die before eating your souls. Just imagine if they didn't. You'd be a bunch of walking zombies. The department of public works would have plenty of prime employment candidates, but..."
"Wait a second! What about the pearly gates, and heaven, and damnation, and fire and brimstone, and all that stuff?"
Mal nodded excitedly as he tried to drink his beer. "Oh yeah! This is where it gets good. Everything is rolling along fair and square, and then, the big-G invents religion to try and shift the herd his way. He tells everyone that they're going to hell unless they're good. Well, that's true and all, but then he tells everyone that heaven is paradise and that hell is torment."
Mal tapped the side of his head with a large claw. "Pretty crafty, huh? He launches this massive smear campaign against my CEO personally and then lets things roll on from there." He drained a big swig of his beer. "It's a cut-throat business to be sure."
Dan nodded slightly and Mal crossed his arms.
An unexpected breeze of oranges and cloves tickled Dan's nose.
"Unexpected" was really an understatement. None of the regulars knew what a clove was and the only time that Dante's smelled like oranges instead of beer and cigarettes was when someone couldn't keep down their Grand Marnier.
Dan turned around to see a clean-cut man in a white robe standing a few feet away from the bar. He clearly didn't fit in as one of Dante's usual clientele. Even without the dove grey, feathery wings, golden eyes, and flaming sword, he wouldn't have been mistaken for a regular.
"You can't bring that in here!" Dan shouted at the angel.
"The sword! You can't bring a weapon into a bar. It's against the law. Are you trying to make me lose my liquor license, buddy?"
The angel smiled sheepishly, looked back and forth between the bartender and the weapon for a moment, and then let the sword fade out of sight.
The few other patrons who had been staring at the newcomer returned their attention to the conversations they had been having before his arrival.
"What poisons have you been feeding them, Malfeus?" the angel asked. "What lies have you been telling them?"
"What'll ya' have?" Dan asked the angel.
The angel stared at Dan with a completely dumbfounded expression.
"He's asking what you'd like to drink, Zachary." Malfeus explained.
"I did not come here to drink." He looked offended; not angry, but confused and offended.
"This ain't Oprah, Zach." Mal said. "If you don't want to drink, then beat it." Mal glanced over at Dan to make sure he had not over-stepped.
"Well..." Dan said, "you don't have to drink. If you want to play pool or shoot darts you're welcome as well, but if you've come to harass paying customers, then I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
Again Zach looked as if someone had hit him upside the head with a crowbar. Mal smiled a wide, reptilian smile.
"Very well," the angel said in a less-than-happy voice, "pour me some wine if you would, my good man."
Dan poured a glass of the Chablis he kept around for the occasional disoriented yuppie that wandered in, and Zachary slapped down a coin from the late Roman empire in return. Dan glanced at it for a moment, shrugged, and tossed it in the cigar box with the rest.
Zach took a sip of the wine, made a slightly bitter face, and set it back down on the bar. "Your lord is the Prince of Lies."
"Why don't you give it a rest, Zach? I'm not selling anything and Daniel is a big boy. He can make up his own mind without our help."
"You are poisoning his mind with all these lies about the afterlife."
"Zach. It's one thing to 'toe the party line', but are you going to stand there and tell Dan to his face that heaven is eternal bliss and that hell is eternal damnation? It's after hours, man. Just lighten up for a while."
Zach frowned and tucked his wings up against his back. He sat down on a barstool and took a much larger drink of the wine.
"Are you buying any of this baloney, Daniel?" the angel asked. "Although Malfeus J. Apollyon here would like you to believe that this has not been a sales pitch, it certainly has been."
"Nonsense, Zach. I'm not selling, and he's not buying. I'm just here to unwind some knots and toss back a couple brews."
"Certainly he would like you to believe that..."
"Daniel," Mal asked, "in all the time that you have known me, have I ever tried to make anyone do anything evil? Oh, sure, I've tried to buy Aaron's soul, but have I ever suggested that anyone steal anything or kill anyone?"
Dan shook his head in silence.
"Don't you see, Daniel? That is a ploy." Zach gulped back his wine and Dan refilled it silently. "He doesn't need to persuade you to do evil things to turn you away from God, all he has to do is convince you that there is no salvation..."
Malfeus snorted a loud laugh. "The lambs to the slaughter..." he sneered.
Zach set his jaw and stared back at the demon. "By convincing you that there is no heaven, he convinces you that there is no judgment on your acts, no reason to be good."
"There he goes with that hard sell again." the demon growled.
The debate continued quietly into the night. Actually, it started fairly quietly, but as Dan continued to pour the drinks, Mal and Zack's voices stepped up a few decibels. The exchange remained friendly enough, just louder.
Dan was content to sit back and listen, only called upon occasionally to refill an empty glass. The two were more than capable of continuing the debate without Dan acting as "devil's advocate".
"I don't see why Satan even puts up with this crap from God." Mal slurred.
Zach looked up, startled. He had been staring at the jukebox for the past several minutes. "What crap?" he slurred back.
"I mean, if you were to call me a liar like your boss calls my boss, I don't think I could hang out with you and go to fancy dinner parties with you and stuff."
Zach ran his fingers through his blonde hair and giggled into his shot of Tequila. "But I did call you a liar. This isn't exactly a fancy party, but we are hanging out."
"You know what I mean." Mal said and put the burning end of his cigar back in his mouth. "You know."
Zach sighed and shrugged. "It's just business, man. You don't take it personal, do ya'?"
Mal shook his head and slapped Zach on the back.
"Last call, gentlemen." Daniel announced. Zach and Mal were the only two left in the bar, but still they looked slowly around to see what everyone was ordering.
"Nah," Mal said. "I've gotta' work in the morning. I really should hit the road. See ya' tomorrow, Dan. G'night." He dropped a last obol on the bar and faded slowly out of sight.
"Yeah, I ought'a be goin' as well." Zach added.
"Are you okay to fly home?" Dan couldn't exactly call him a cab, but he felt obliged to ask.
"I'm fine." the angel said, spacing out for a moment too long to sound sober. "I'll see ya' around." he said before he too faded away.
The debate itself had been nothing new. Arguing philosophy over drinks was cliché back when Socrates did it, and Dan didn't know any better now whether the afterlife was eternal or a step down the food chain. No one ever really expects to resolve these issues, but the moral was pretty clear to Dan.
After hours of debate, retorts, and witty comebacks from both sides, neither Mal's camp nor Zach's had won any converts.
Dan, on the other hand, in his quiet patience, had sold them each a large number of drinks.
Some people are just better at their jobs than others.