“Let me see the contract, Merick.”
I pulled that insane piece of paper out of the desk drawer and quickly scanned it. Nick Redburn grants Lucas Merick seven years of good health and every opportunity to play poker, after which he may collect Lucas Merick’s immortal soul.
Grenwald reached over and took the paper out of my hand. Once he had jokingly asked me, “If I could find a way to save you millions of dollars, what would you do?” I had promptly replied, “I’ll give you your own business. Just name it.” He had done that and more but thus far hadn’t asked for a thing. I knew it was just a matter of time.
Grenwald read the contract slowly. “Hmmm,” he muttered with a frown. He glanced up at me. “Whatever possessed you to sign such a stupid thing anyway, Merick?”
“Grennie, you have only known me for the past five years. Seven years ago in June, I lay in the hospital, dying. I was in the middle of some hot business deals that could be worth several billions, but when the doctors told me I had only two weeks to live, all I could think of was playing poker that September in the big tournament in Las Vegas. I probably muttered something about selling my soul to play in that tournament; I didn’t expect any response—but there was one.”
I looked at Grennie and smiled. “Anyway, suddenly, there was Nick at my bedside. He didn’t introduce himself, just showed me that contract and told me to read it and sign it. I sat there in the hospital and thought long and hard. The smell of sulfur almost put me off, but I eventually signed the damn thing. He looked at it, smiled, and signed it as well.”
Grenwald laughed in disbelief. “And your seven healthy years are up today, and you don’t want to go, is that it?”
Before I could reply, there was a knock on my office door.
“Come in,” I called. The door opened and there on the threshold stood Nick Redburn. He nodded to me and pointedly ignored Grennie.
“Well Merick, it’s time I visited you again.” He entered the room. “Still doing well, I see.” He raked his eyes across the VanGogh on the wall and the Ming vase on the mantel and took in the plush carpet and drapes.
Grenwald rose quickly from the chair. “You two will want to speak in private I’m sure.”
Nick said nothing until Grennie had left the room. Then he looked me up and down with a read gleam in his bottomless eyes. “How have you been, Merick?”
A chill ran down my spine. “Uh, keeping busy, you know. I just bought an old steel mine—going to convert…”
Nick threw back his head and roared with glee. “That’s all you can think to say?” He suddenly sprang forward like a cat and gripped my shoulders. “Don’t you want to know if I have finally come to take your soul with me as is rightfully due me?” Just as suddenly he released me and sat back.
I rubbed my shoulders where he had touched me; they burned with a cold fire. For the first time in my life I was truly afraid.
“Let’s have that contract now, Merick. I think it’s time we finished our business, don’t you?”
My whole body went numb. I opened my desk drawer and reached inside. “I don’t suppose we can renegotiate? I’m at a crucial point in some government contract bids and—“
Just then Grenwald bust into the room. “Don’t say anything, Merick. I think I found a way out of this! It’s right here in the contract—that loophole you were looking for: Seven years of good health, AND every opportunity to play poker.” Grenwald looked at me urgently. “Weren’t you considering going to the Bahamas to play in that poker game next month?”
Grennie was right. And Jorge Salanza had invited me to his house in Barcelona for a poker game next April. Naturally, we were also going to discuss the new plant I wanted to open up there.
Grenwald studied Nick. “As I understand this, as long as Merick can play poker anywhere in the world you can’t touch him. Right?”
I could almost hear Nick gulp in dismay. Ha! He must be at the junior level in his department. This was a mistake no clerk in my contracts area would be permitted to make.
Grenwald replied. “All it says is you won’t keep him in good health after seven years. If he stays healthy and dies in his sleep at age ninety or gets a stroke on his own at age sixty-six, what’s it to you, so long as he as been playing poker until then?”
I looked from one to the other and began to smile. “I think he has you, Nick. Sorry, I always abide by my deals.”
With that, Nick rose from the chair and started slowly for the door. Halfway there he turned back and said to me, “You will die sometime, you know.” With that, he disappeared, taking the contract with him.
When I started to breathe again, I reached for my appointment book. “I must make sure I have at least one poker game every week, just a small one. This could add years to my life.” I babbled on, oblivious to Grenwald watching me. “So what if Nick comes for me when I’m ninety-seven?”
Grenwald said nothing for a few minutes, then said, “You know, by keeping you alive, I just saved Merick Enterprises, oh, what are you worth now, three billion dollars? I remember what you said, Merick. You would give me my own business if I saved you millions. Well, I did more than that, I saved your soul and granted you extra years of life indefinitely.”
Well, he was more than competent to be a CEO of his own business. One of my small ones, certainly. “What business did you have in mind, Grennie?”
He leaned toward me. “I want Merick Enterprises. Lock, stock, and barrel. I want it effective today.” He pulled a handwritten contract out of his pocket and opened it on the desk.
The blood rushed from my head. “Surely you can’t believe I meant I’d give you my bus-“
“Look at the bright side, Lucas,” he interrupted as he offered me a pen. “At least you’ll be alive for a while to make a new fortune. Think of your poker games.”
I took the pen. There had to be a way out of this nightmare. For most of my life Merick Enterprises had been my life, my soul, my… I gasped and looked at Grenwald. There should have remained some hint of the man I had trusted, but all that I saw now were flickering flames behind his eyes. And what was that smell?’
“Sign the contract, Lucas. Oh, and I assure you, this contract has no loopholes in it whatsoever. I have much more experience in such matters than Nick.”
What else could I do? I signed Grenwald’s contract. A deal is a deal, after all. No matter which devil signs after you do.
(NB My full short story appeared in the anthology, Deals with the Devil, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin Greenberg, published by DAW books in October 1994.)