Mr. Cuddlekins’ Fortune
by Andrew Rucker Jones
It was midnight: time for a mysterious visitor.
No sooner had Scott typed the words than there was a knock at his apartment door. Probably one of his tipsy college pals, come to invite him out for a round. Scott now worked a day job and honed his writing at night; he had neither time nor money for barhopping, but whenever he said this, his friends showed him a list of alcoholic authors. Scott sighed, went to the door, and threw it open.
“Plenty of writers weren’t—” Scott stopped as he saw the apparition before him: a tall man clothed in a heavy cloak, a tailored suit, and a wide-brimmed hat, all a depth of black that pulled at Scott’s eyeballs. The light from the computer screen glinted blue off the metal serpent-head knob atop the man’s cane.
“Good evening. May I come in?” His voice rippled like cream.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re the devil himself.”
“Correct. May I come in?”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Oh, sure. I bar my door against thieves, murderers, and the repo man, but the devil, well, that’s different!” He stepped out of the way, bowed deep, and stretched an inviting arm toward his living room. “Sure, dear Satan, waltz right in—”
“Thank you.” The devil crossed the threshold and seated himself on the only tidy part of Scott’s futon. Scott glared at him, but the devil gazed back placidly. “The ageless laws of the preternatural do not acknowledge sarcasm. Do have a seat.”
If the devil had it in for him, Scott would probably be dead already, so he closed the door and straddled his chair. “What should I call you?”
“I have many names, but I don’t cling to any of them overly much. Call me what pleases you.”
“Sure. So you’d be okay with, say, Mr. Cuddlekins.”
“As you wish. Now, Mr. Johnson, I’m here on business, though I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea.”
“Sorry, pal, I’m all out of Earl Grey.”
Scott didn’t see how it happened, but a cup of steaming liquid rested on a saucer on Mr. Cuddlekins’ hand. Cup and saucer gleamed black, save a cartoon pink bunny on one side of the cup and pink, cursive writing underneath that said “Mr. Cuddlekins.”
“I understand you wish to be a writer.”
“Yeah, but I have a day job that pays the bills, so I’m not selling my soul.”
“I see.” Mr. Cuddlekins poked his cane at the fast food chain uniform on the floor. In a few bleary hours, Scott would don the monkey suit for the early shift. “You’re happy in your life and have no extra room for more sleep, more money, perhaps a vacation to Hawaii every now and again.”
“Right now, Mr. Cuddlekins, you’re the one robbing me of sleep.”
“I hardly think you were about to turn in for the night.”
Mr. Cuddlekins was right, so Scott held his tongue.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, Mr. Johnson, but your Master’s degree in English literature surely taught you that legends, though often based on fact, are highly distorted. I am not the unalloyed evil of fairy tales. I am merely a businessman with more power than most.”
Mr. Cuddlekins grimaced. “That blasted CEO of the big online bookstore—you know the one I mean—has made it hard to keep up in recent years, supernatural powers or no.” Mr. Cuddlekins shook himself. “But I will tend to him in due time. I’m here to propose a deal.”
“You want my eternal soul in exchange for success as a writer. Highballing just a little? You might start with something that doesn’t make me laugh you out of my apartment, like a time-share of my soul, or the soul of my first cat.”
“No, I only bargain for complete, human souls. But I do not want your eternal soul. There is no eternity, Mr. Johnson. I only want your soul for as long as you live.”
Scott considered this new bit of information. Only as long as he lived was much better than for all time. Maybe he really could get a sweet deal out of this, whether or not Mr. Cuddlekins believed in eternity. But he knew the hook: the stooge always missed a contractual subtlety.
“I’m listening. What exactly would I get in return?”
“Financial success as a writer.”
“Not critical success?”
“That I’m afraid I can’t guarantee. Critics do so love to exercise their free will.”
“So, in exchange for my soul for the duration of my earthly life, you will ensure my work is accepted and paid for handsomely: enough to write part-time and no second job, enough for everything I need, and enough for a luxurious vacation in Hawaii every year.”
“No other strings.”
“Your soul. On a string. Other than that, you have faithfully rendered my offer.”
Scott knew that the chump who makes a deal with the devil in fairy tales loses in the end, but this devil seemed different. And if his soul wasn’t eternal, how much could he really lose?
“You’ve got a deal, Mr. Cuddlekins.” Scott extended his hand.
“Splendid.” Mr. Cuddlekins placed his saucer and cup in Scott’s hand, then strode to the door. “Expect to see the checks rolling in soon, Mr. Johnson. Happy writing.” Mr. Cuddlekins let himself out.
Scott rushed to lock the door, then leaned against it with a big smile. “Part-time.” He would celebrate by sleeping.
Mr. Cuddlekins’ cup was still half full. Scott sniffed at it and detected fruit. He sipped cautiously from the clean side. Apple tea with a hint of cardamom. Scott poured the rest down the drain and collapsed on the futon.
Jeanie held Scott’s uniform in her outstretched hands. She had loved that little grease stain above the logo on his chest when he wore it. “But why, Scott? We pay top of the market for a fast food chain.”
“I’m devoting more time to writing.” He slid on a cheap pair of sunglasses even though one of the fluorescent lights in Jeanie’s office was out. “I can hit it big if I’m not always pounding my head against my desk in the wee hours of the morning, hoping something good will squish out my ears and onto the screen.”
“But Scott, I’ve read your work.” She freed one hand and tugged at the mane of naturally frazzled white-blond hair that fought out from underneath her blue manager’s cap. “It has … unrealized … potential.”
“That was two weeks ago! I’m almost there. A smidgen more concentrated effort and I’ll be raking in the cash. Come by and visit once you see my byline.” With that, he walked out the employee entrance and waved over his shoulder.
“But Scott …” Jeanie pressed the grease-stained uniform to her chest, “I’ll miss you.”
Jeanie rang the doorbell and hoped Scott heard it over his own angry voice. Scott threw the door open and walked back into his apartment, telephone pressed to his ear.
“What do you mean you lost it?” While Scott paced his claustrophobic apartment, Jeanie crept across his carpet in her stiletto heels, then pushed aside his rumpled jeans and perched at the end of the futon. The scent of apple and cardamom that clung to the futon cover turned her stomach, but she suppressed her distaste. She adjusted her loose, white t-shirt so the neck exposed her left shoulder, and she smoothed her tight miniskirt toward her knees.
“I know I can keep the payment.” Scott tore at his hair with his free hand. “I can always keep the payment. I want to be published!” He jabbed a button on the phone and heaved it at the futon.
When he had calmed enough to sit with a mild thud on the hard cushion next to her, Jeanie gave him her warmest smile and tilted her knees toward him. “You said drop by when I saw your byline, but it’s been a while and … no byline.”
He threw himself forward into his hands and bellowed through his fingers. She laid a hand gently on his back, but she wasn’t sure he felt it. “If you can’t pay the bills, I still have a position open for you.”
Scott erupted up off the futon so quickly, Jeanie startled and pulled her hand back. He resumed his tight pacing. “Oh, I have plenty of money. My stories are getting accepted—and paid—all over the place. Just not published.”
She rose and extended her fingers toward him with the same fearful awe and pity she had once felt when she saw a tiger pacing and baring his fangs in a cage barely bigger than himself. “How … how does that work?”
“Lost in the system. Magazine folded before it could print. Editor died. You name it, I’ve seen it. Look, look!” He pounced on an issue of Playboy peeking out from under his bed, and Jeanie’s cheeks warmed. He flipped through the pages, then shoved the magazine in her face. The two facing pages were blank. Scott jabbed it with a finger. “That’s my story. The publisher’s proofs are flawless, and the printer’s equipment is flawless, but this happened anyway.”
“You’re cursed,” Jeanie whispered.
Scott grabbed her shoulders, and she gasped. “That’s exactly it, Jeanie!” He turned his profile to her and bowed his head into one hand like a bad actor. “I sold my soul to Mr. Cuddlekins.”
Jeanie’s laugh pealed through the small apartment, high and strident. Scott winced. She clapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m so sorry! I thought you were joking. The name, you know … Mr. um …”
“Cuddlekins,” Scott spat out the name and shivered. “Every name is just a name. It’s only experience that makes some names melodious while others are antithetical to good humor and digestion. Some terrify us. But not the sequence of sounds—it is only by association with a living being. What, after all, makes ‘Satan’ scary to us, if not the notion of eternal punishment?”
Jeanie adjusted her neckline off her shoulder again. “There’s that sibilant ‘s’ at the beginning …”
Scott plunked her back down on the futon and fell to his knees before her. Her heart fluttered. “Jeanie, I truly made a deal with the devil. It’s not a metaphor. My life is condemned to this horror.” He rested his forehead on her knees. She tentatively reached out a hand to stroke his hair. As if he felt her hand moving toward him, he bounced up and rushed to the door, which he flung open.
“Keep in touch. I have more junior editors to harass. Then I want to write—seeing you does that to me.”
Flustered by his erratic behavior, Jeanie wobbled slowly to the door. She stopped in front of him. “But what will Mr. Cuddlekins do with your soul?”
His eyebrows knitted. “He’s the devil. Collecting souls is what he does.” Then he reached out and placed a hand on her cheek, well padded by her frazzled hair. She closed her eyes and tilted her head against his hand. “I only hope I haven’t dragged you down with me, Jeanie.”
He slammed the door, and a moment later his irate voice demanded once again his work be published.
Scott’s deathbed was simple, his room dank and empty, save one straight-backed wooden chair in which Jeanie sat. His laptop lay beside him. She cradled his wrinkled, arthritic hands, the ones that had typed thousands of stories and dozens of novels, each novel earning an advance, each publishing house going bankrupt just before publication. He traced the light scars on her hands from a burn here, a cut there over a lifetime of restaurant work.
“He’ll come soon, dearest Jeanie.”
“How do you know? You haven’t seen him since your pact.”
“He always comes at the end, doesn’t he? You must leave.”
Jeanie sniffled. “Is there anything I can do for you, Scott?”
“You’ve done everything for me. You have been my constant companion through thick and, well, thick. I guess there never really were any thin times.”
“Hawaii was nice every year,” she considered.
“But I could never give you anything in return, Jeanie.”
“How can you say that? I could never have afforded a house managing a fast food restaurant. Hawaii would have been a pipe dream. Up until the last, you gave me everything you could, right down to selling your possessions and handing me the proceeds in cash to evade taxes.”
“We both profited greatly from my fortune—from Mr. Cuddlekins’ fortune—and still, you needed more.”
Jeanie tried to lower her forehead to his hands, but her herniated disc wouldn’t let her, so she shrugged and patted his hand.
“Dearest Jeanie, Mr. Cuddlekins took my soul, and without it I had nothing with which to love you. But he left me enough to write, so I have written.” He hefted the laptop with both hands, struggling some with the effort, and placed it in hers. “I have christened my last and greatest work with your name. It is the only expression of my love I can give you. Read it and know it is truly how I felt.” He lay his hands on his stomach. “Now go. My eyes grow dim.”
A lifetime of tears had left Jeanie with few remaining for their farewell, but she did blow her nose twice before hobbling out the door wrapped in her ermine coat and leaning on her four-footed metal cane. As she shuffled down the sidewalk to her house one over, she looked once through Scott’s front window and saw the top of his head lying in bed, waiting for Mr. Cuddlekins to claim him.
“Oh Scott, my dearest, I dragged you down with me,” she muttered to herself as she had so many other nights peeping through his front window.
When she got home, she locked and bolted the door behind her, then sat on her couch and was about to read Scott’s last work when she detected apple and cardamom in the air, the only two things she could still smell at her advanced age. A man all in black stepped out of her kitchen carrying a steaming cup of tea. He stroked the serpent at the top of his cane.
“Mr. Cuddlekins!” A shiver of terror ran down her spine at the name.
Mr. Cuddlekins rolled his eyes. “I’ve had many names, but that one’s just a bit too silly, don’t you think? How about the name you used when we first met?”
“Lucifer!” She had to admit, it didn’t have quite the same effect. “Why are you here and not claiming Scott?”
Lucifer hooked a chair with the serpent’s head and drew it towards himself to sit. The chair made no noise as it crossed the wood floor. “Scott is dead.”
“So you’ve seen him.”
Lucifer scoffed. “Of course not. Why would I? Our business transaction concluded seventy years ago. Everyone thinks I come to ‘claim’ them at the end of their lives. What part of ‘there is no eternity’ do they not understand? I’ve already had them their entire lives. What’s left to claim? Arrogant little pricks, all of them.” He stirred his tea and placed the spoon on the saucer. “I think that’s why I choose them.”
“Then what are you here for? You already have my soul. That transaction was concluded longer ago than Scott’s.”
“And it was the best deal I have made in many generations, my darling genius. You enriched me beyond measure.” His smile was too white, too even.
“How is that possible?” Jeanie asked him. “What is your fortune? Just souls? Why would mine be more valuable than anyone else’s?”
Lucifer sipped from his cup. “I’m but a humble businessman, Jeanie. You are the management expert. You have spent your life writing unpublished articles, recording Internet lectures that disappeared, and delivering speeches to your plush bunnies because your speaking engagements fell through. Truly, your ideas would have revolutionized business management and ushered in an age of unprecedented productivity coupled with almost familial relations between management and labor. I was proud of your ideas—and your creative ways to bypass our contract.”
“But I still failed,” Jeanie muttered.
“So, my North Star blotted out, lost guide of this generation and many to come: you tell me what my fortune is.”
Jeanie pondered this new way of framing a puzzle she had tried to crack for decades. “Management theory tells us the purpose of a business, and thus a businessperson, is to create value.”
Lucifer nodded sagely.
“Value is measured by money,” Jeanie continued.
“Ah hah!” Lucifer cried.
“But you broke the assumption that money equals value in your contracts with Scott and me. We amassed money without creating value because our products—the products of our minds—never saw the light of day.”
“Now you’re getting to the quick of it, my prodigy,” said Lucifer. “No one has ever deduced what my fortune is. Not that many thought to ask.”
“Hush!” Jeanie was deep in concentration. “You are the destroyer, the opposite of all that is right and just.”
Lucifer frowned. “Now you’re just being hurtful, love.”
“So your purpose must be to destroy value.” Jeanie’s old eyes lit up. “Your fortune consists of value destroyed instead of created!”
“And that’s what makes you such a catch, my sweet. The ancillary value created by your ideas would have been tremendous. Instead, I profit from all of that devaluation. Incidentally,” Lucifer waved around the well-furnished room—the one Scott assumed was financed with his generous gifts, “you’re welcome for your fortune.”
Jeanie’s fingertips stroked Scott’s laptop. “Scott’s writing must have been quite valuable as well.”
Lucifer nursed his tea. “Not so much. You were still the goal of that deal. You didn’t work well without companionship. But what kind of companionship can a soulless person have? Only another soulless person. I provided you with one so you would keep producing things I could devalue.”
“Adam to my Eve,” Jeanie said.
“Yes, much like my first two clients—the only of my clients to achieve notoriety. He was your muse.”
“And I was his.”
Lucifer stirred himself from his seat and brushed his demonic habiliments down. “This has been the most satisfying conversation I’ve had in … forever. But I must be off. The next deal is always around the corner, you know.” Lucifer started toward the front door, then stopped, shaking a finger in front of himself as if just remembering something. “Oh, but I was here to claim something, as it happens.”
“I’m not writing more unpublishable management essays,” Jeanine said with an edge in her voice.
“Dear me, no. Your working days are over. No, this time I’m not after you.” He pointed a long, gloved finger at the laptop.
Jeanie snapped it shut and pressed it to her breast. “You can’t have it! He wrote this story for me. It was the only way he could express his eternal love.”
Lucifer looked almost gentle as he said, “It’s part of his soul. He thought he could give it to you because he didn’t recognize what it was, dearest Jeanie. And it’s a pity—the writing is sublime: moving, yet refined. It would have made him the posthumous toast of the literary world. But a contract is a contract.”
Jeanie clutched the laptop tighter and stood slowly, leaning on her cane. “No.”
Lucifer sighed. “I gave you a chance.”
The laptop pressed so tightly to Jeanie’s breast burst into flame. The fire raced up her silk shawl and fanned through her frazzled hair. Jeanie screamed and dropped the computer. The burning electronics landed at her feet and caught her ermine coat. She tottered in a circle, shrieking and looking for any kind of help. Lucifer tapped a finger on the serpent head as he waited.
Jeanie threw herself to the floor to roll the flames out, but broke her hip instead. Lucifer stood over her, flames seeming to dance around him as he assured her, “There is no eternity.”