The old man rocked in his chair, quietly enjoying the sun on his face and the cool spring breeze. The irises were in bloom, and the daffodils.
It was a good day. A peaceful day. And so he wasn't all ithat/i surprised when the empty rocker near his suddenly wasn't. "Hello, Johnny," came the Devil's sly purr. "Long time no see."
The old man, once the motorcyle hero Johnny Blaze, just snorted. "Good times. Come to offer me a new deal then, have you?"
"Oh, no Johnny," the Devil smiled. "I just came to collect what's mine. Personally. As a courtesy, you understand."
Blaze scowled. "Not yours. Fought you all my life."
"Of course you did, Johnny," said the Devil. The smile never left his face, his tone the gentle condescension used toward children who swear they really did see the monster of the bed. "Of course you did. Enjoyed your work, too, I noticed."
"I earned my second chance!" Blaze insisted, so firmly he gave himself a coughing fit.
The Devil's eyebrows raised. "Why yes, yes you did," he answered simply. "Are you ready to come with me, now?"
"I'm not yours!" The old man had nothing to throw, and it was possible he keenly regretted the fact. Threatened, angry...and afraid, of the Devil's serene certainty. The day didn't seem so fine, now.
"I see you're a little confused," condescended the Devil. "You don't believe me. Well...you don't have to, but you're a stuntman. I can forgive you for not being the brightest candle in the chandelier. If you can hold that delightful rage in check for a few minutes, you'll understand."
Blaze's jaw ached. Dentures didn't grind well. But he knew better than to try to outrun the Devil. That hadn't worked even when he was young, and on his bike.
"Very good," said the Devil, as if Blaze had just done a trick. "First question. Why do I need a Rider in the first place?"
Johnny Blaze stared at the Devil. What kind of question was that? "To collect on the contracts people make with you."
"Oh, dear, we really aren't thinking well today, are we," smiled the Devil. He tapped his ebony cane on the wooden porch. "But then if you were any good at it I wouldn't be collecting now. All right. But - as I'm not the fool you took me for..."
Johnny Blaze glared at the Devil, opened his mouth to argue...felt the iron grip of a heart attack in his chest. He convulsed, falling out of his chair.
As his spirit rose from his body he thought, As last days go, it could've been worse.
"Indeed," nodded the Devil, as if he'd spoken.
It was only when he saw the earth rising, realizing he was descending, that Blaze realized the Devil had been telling the truth. "But I fought evil all my life!" he protested. "I won my second chance! This isn't fair!"
The light of the sun vanished as their heads sank beneath the soil.
The Devil laughed in quiet but genuine amusement. "Yes, you did. On both counts. But you've watched too much television, Johnny. Fighting evil doesn't make you good. And second chances can be squandered as easily as first chances. Which you did. Impressively, I might add."
"How?" demanded Blaze, trying not to think about rock strata scrolling upward.
"Let's get back to basics, Johnny," said the Devil mildly. "We've got time. The first reality is that contracts are something humankind invented. They have no binding power on their own - none at all. If you'd taken that deal with me and repented? Your father would still have been healed. Oh, I could have taken it back, of course, but since as you now know you would have lost him either way..." he gave an almost delicate shrug. "The point of a contract isn't that it gives me your soul, Johnny. Or anyone's soul. It's what you do because you believe I already have it that puts your soul in danger."
"Then what the hell do you need a Ghost Rider for?" demanded Blaze, now angry that he'd ever believed in the contracts. "What the hell did you put me through that for? I took evil men out of the world!"
"Yes, yes you did," and there again was the Devil's amusement. "Bringing me back to my earlier remark, Johnny. Fighting evil doesn't make you good...or perhaps I should say fighting evil is not the province of the good alone. It's all down to the approach, and the reasons. Now when I sent you after my wayward son and his friends, you were acting in good faith, for your part. It wasn't personal. It was for the good of all, and not coincidentally for the freedom of your soul and the life of your girlfriend. Very good. In fact you were so good at it that I really didn't want to let you go. But that's the thing about free will, Johnny. I couldn't force you to be my Rider and gain your soul that way. You had to choose, openly and freely, in the full knowledge that you could walk away, to take Hell's power." He reached over to pat Blaze's ghostly shoulder. "And you did, my boy. Beautiful speech you gave, too. Brought a tear to my eye."
"I took that power and I fought you," growled Blaze, angry and desperate now. Was it getting warmer in the dark earth?
"You rode the living earth with the power of Hell," smiled the Devil. "You snatched the wicked from life, before they could have any thoughts of repentance or redemption. You collected on a few contracts too, of course, I had to keep you busy, but I do wish you'd paid more attention to what they'd done after signing. You made every fight personal, my dear, dear Johnny. A spirit of vengeance, you said. Vengeance is mine, dear boy. You rode out with my power, in my name, for my cause, stealing souls for me that might otherwise have been redeemed. It's called corruption, dear boy. And now we're going to your final reward."
Johnny Blaze was silent now. It made sense. A horrible kind of sense. "But...my second chance..."
"Was to walk away," said the Devil softly, smiling. "You'd fulfilled your bargain as contracted. You were free. You knew it. No tricks, no deception. I came to take the power back. You would have had a long life with her. Long and free of my power and my touch. You knew, then, that I was real, that my power was real, my servants are real. You were given the chance to use that knowledge to lead a good life, free of violence. Filled with love. Are you telling me you don't remember making the choice - the active, aware, free choice - to use Hell's power instead?"
He did. And the earth iwas/i getting warmer.
Johnny Blaze let out the first of many, many screams.
And the Devil...laughed.