Saturday, October 3, 2009

10. Neon



10
Ne
Neon
20.183

House Rules

I met the Devil in Las Vegas. He lives there full-time now. He says the light is good for his skin. We walked down the Strip at midnight, the neon reflected in his wraparound shades, and as we walked, I saw how his people adored him. Hookers seized his hand and kissed it fervently. Croupiers genuflected as he passed.

"They called Elvis the King," I remarked. "But really, the title belongs to you."

"Oh, pshaw!" the Devil said, pleased. "What a sycophantic little toady you are! You must be hoping to sell me your soul."

"Well …"

"I gave up on that. Got out of the direct sales end of the business entirely. Too much quibbling about clauses and legalisms. I was spending all my time with lawyers! That's no way to live."

"You don't collect souls anymore?"

"I didn't say that. Here, let me show how it's done now."

We went into a casino thronged with people playing the slots. Now and again, bells would ring and a player would scoop up coins and feed them back into the machine, emotionless as a robot.

"The machines are rigged to return a fixed percentage of the take." The Devil gestured toward the roulette wheel. "There are thirty-eight numbers, including the zero and double-zero. If you win, we pay off thirty-six to one. In the long run, the house always wins. It's like a tax on people who don't understand mathematics."

"Sometimes people hit the jackpot, though."

"Yes, and they're always welcome back. We'll send a private jet for them, if that's what it takes. They invariably end up broke and in hock to the IRS within the year."

"This is legal?"

"Oh, yes. Let me show you." He led me to the poker tables. I couldn't help noticing how grim and joyless all the players looked. "Poker is one of those rare games where, if you keep track of what cards have been played and maintain a cool head, the odds favor a skilled player."

He placed his hand on a card-player's shoulder. "Excuse me, sir. You've been counting the cards. I'm afraid you'll have to leave."

The man looked up belligerently. "Yeah, so what? I …"

The Devil's eyes glowed red. "Don't make me call the police."

The man left quickly.

"And that's all there is to it?" I asked, as we left the casino.

"That's all. Our clientele leave in despair—a sin in itself—and in order to get back into the game, they'll commit any atrocity imaginable. The odds always favor the house."

"And then you take their souls to Hell."

"Oh, not any more. We've modernized." The Devil indicated one of the neon signs. "Look inside the tube. See? Those are souls in torment. What a marvelous, jittery light they give off. It makes you subliminally nervous, and that in turn makes you more likely to gamble."

I don't mind admitting that actually looking at the tormented souls made me a little nervous myself. Suddenly, this whole thing didn't seem such a good idea after all. And since the Devil wasn't buying … I figured I might as well cut my losses.

"Well," I said uneasily, "I'll be seeing you."

The Devil showed his teeth in a wide smile. "Oh, I'd bet money on it."



© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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