“The Devil’s Cup”

Note: “The Devil’s Cup” is a rewrite of an earlier story I did called “Lucifer Works at Starbucks” (From Beyond, Aug. 1999). Both are satirical in nature, and somewhat absurd, though TDC, to me, is a bit more slick. The original version appears in The Midnight Recollections anthology.

* * *

Having made himself comfortable in the corner window seat of his favorite coffee shop, Donald Roeser was unfolding the business section of the Los Angeles Times when he noticed the devil serving espresso to an elderly woman two tables over. After a moment’s gawking in disbelief, Donald realized that he wasn’t imagining things—it was Satan, dressed in a vest and apron and serving drinks, of all things! Even more disturbing was the fact that the woman he was serving—as well as everyone else in the coffee shop—seemed absolutely unaware of the peculiarity of the situation.

“Good afternoon, Don.”

Donald jumped in his seat as Terrence Pitts, one of his more casual acquaintances, rested his briefcase beside the table and sat down.

“Lord almighty,” Donald breathed, clearing his throat and straightening his tie, which had somehow tossed itself sideways. “Don’t startle me like that.”

Terrence scowled. “Jumpy today, are we?”

I’m fine,” Donald replied, re-centering his coffeecup on its saucer. “But him…”

“Who?” asked Terrence, glancing around at the other tables.

“Look over my shoulder—be cool about it.” When Terrence shrugged and stared blankly, Donald let out an exasperated sigh and jerked his head several times in Satan’s direction. “Him. The guy with the horns. Don’t stare. He might notice you.”

“Oh, him. He’s the new guy, isn’t he?”

“I’ve never seen him before today.”

“Hmm, now that you mention it…”

Donald swiveled in his seat, paid the devil a nasty look. Are the horns some kind of blatant fashion statement? A joke amongst the staff? A genetic defect? Or is it really Lucifer himself, scheming to steal everyone’s soul when they least expect?

Terrence cleared his throat. “You’re staring, Donald.”

Donald faced forward. “Can you blame me?”

“Well, I suppose something like this is somewhat akin to spotting a celebrity in the flesh—”

“Celebrity? Bah!” Donald shook his head, wrung his hands. “What is he doing here?

“It looks,” said Terrence, “like he’s gotten himself a respectable day job.”

“Yes, and God is no doubt washing cars on the weekends.”

“Well, in these troubled times, with the economy a hair’s breadth from total collapse, I’m sure even the Prince of Darkness is feeling the squeeze.”

“But here? And at my favorite coffee shop?”

Terrence shrugged. “Modern times. Tolerance is the big thing now, haven’t you heard?”

“You’re nuts!” Donald hissed. “Aren’t you the least bit worried that society’s standards have become emaciated enough that the devil is allowed to work in a coffee shop?”

“If you ask me, having the devil work blue collar is a darned good thing. The less time he spends ruling his empire of damnation, the better. I’d prefer having Lucifer serve coffee any day.” Terrence lifted his hand—

—and Donald nearly swallowed his tongue when he saw Satan approaching the table. “Lord almighty, he’s coming this way—Terry, you fool! Put your hand down!”

Relax, Don. It’s your lunch break.”

“Like hell it is! Do you actually expect me to sit around twiddling my thumbs while the Master of All Evils is free to—” Donald cut himself short, straightened in his seat, for the devil had just reached the table. His name tag read, “Lucifer.”

“Good afternoon,” Terrence said, not batting an eyelash—as if ordering from waiters who had horns growing out of their heads was an everyday occurrence. “I’ll have a French roast.”

“Very good,” said Lucifer. Looking down at Donald, he asked, “Anything for you, sir?”

Donald lifted his cup shakily, inadvertently splashed coffee onto the tabletop. “I’ve already got mine, thanks.”

Lucifer nodded, started to leave—

“Waitaminute,” Donald blurted.

—and stopped, facing Donald again. “Yes?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but, er, shouldn’t you be burning souls in hell right now?”

(Underneath the table, Terrence kicked Donald in the shin.)

Lucifer took the question in good spirits, his laughter a deep baritone with a tinge of malice around the edges. “I see my reputation precedes me. True, my primary trade does involve a certain amount of ironic evils and merciless torture, but, well, the bills do have to get paid, don’t they?”

“But you’re Lucifer,” Donald insisted, furrowing his brow (and trying not to raise his voice too loudly). “You simply can’t go around serving coffee and pastries to people in your spare time—unless it involves some plot for world domination, that is.”

“Actually, I rather enjoy serving coffee,” Lucifer responded. “And as for world domination, I’d be far more concerned with the shenanigans of my local congressman, if I were you. Now, if there’s nothing else…?”

Donald shook his head.

“You’re making too much of this,” Terrence said, once Lucifer had left the table. “Really, you are—”

“I am not,” Donald snapped. He rose from his seat and straightened his tie. “I can get used to the fact that department stores across the country are selling fish-netting and dental floss to teenage girls as clothing. I’ve grown accustomed to the injustice of celebrities spending a weekend in jail for something that would get an honest nobody six years to life. I can even acknowledge the proliferation of office secretary blowjobs as standard currency for bureaucratic advancement—but allowing, nay, encouraging the general public to mingle with Lucifer himself, that’s simply too much! I’m going to see the manager right this minute.”

Terrence sighed, recovered the business section from Donald’s newspaper.

Harrumphing his way across the lounge, Donald approached the main counter and asked to speak with the manager. A tall gentleman wearing a slick ponytail promptly presented himself.

“Hello, Mr. Roeser,” he greeted, shaking Donald’s hand and smiling warmly. “I’m Stan Parker. I’ve been told you’re dissatisfied with an aspect of our service?”

Donald cleared his throat and glanced around quickly, hoping Lucifer wasn’t within earshot. “Well, er, yes. I’d like to discuss your hiring policies. You see, not five minutes ago the, er, devil came to my table and—”

“Ah, I see,” interrupted Stan. “Lucifer’s rubbed you the wrong way, has he?”

“Well, um, in a manner of speaking…” Donald trailed off, for a moment considering the implications of getting the devil fired from his day job. Making license plates in hell, he thought. That’s what happens to ornery humans who think it improper for the Prince of Darkness to work blue-collar. “I…I just don’t feel…as a faithful customer, that is, to be in the presence of the devil while trying to have my lunch…I’m uncomfortable, is all.”

Stan narrowed his eyes. “Wait a minute—Donald Roeser. You’re the one who complained about the jukebox playlist being too ‘loud,’ right?”

“This isn’t a dance club.”

“And just last week, you filed a complaint against the introduction of our new Wi-Fi service.”

Donald nodded. “I’m concerned that the congestion caused by the throngs of people coming here to check their MySpace accounts is spoiling the ambiance.”

“Throngs of people,” said Stan, “drinking our coffee while they check their MySpaces is hardly a blight.”

“Still, the devil is serving coffee.”

“Would you prefer Hitler?”

“I would prefer someone less…conspicuous.”

Stan waved his hand at the lounge. “Look around you. Two dozen patrons are quietly enjoying their lunch break, unaware that just a few feet away, an irate customer is seething with discrimination.”

“I am not irate,” said Donald, noticing that the elderly woman he’d seen earlier had been replaced by a lithe young girl of twenty. “And as for discrimination, why, you are the one discriminating against all of these…these college kids—you’re assuming their ignorance is reason enough to justify your wretched hiring practices.”

“You know, I do believe…” Stan paused for a moment and surveyed the various tables. “Yes, you’re most likely the oldest person here, Mr. Roeser. Even your lunch partner is several years your junior—and he’s blended right in, despite an abundance of white hairs.”

“He’s always been too unobtrusive for his own good.”

“Your thought modes are outdated, Mr. Roeser. You see no middle ground, no shade of gray between black and white, or, in this case, good or evil.”

“Ah! So you admit you have evil in your employ!”

Smiling, Stan folded his arms and said, “Evil, perhaps, but not doing evil in the present context.”

“Does it matter?”

“We’re all about public service here. Repeat business. And this is a business, Mr. Roeser.”

“Look,” said Donald, sighing. “My beef’s not with you, it’s with, well, You-Know-Who.”

“Then why don’t we let him in on our little discussion?” Stan waved Lucifer over.

Instinctively, Donald started to step away. “I, er, that’s quite all right. I’ll just finish my coffee and be on my way—”

“Nonsense,” said Stan, catching him by the arm. “These things are best dealt with out in the open, face to face, wouldn’t you agree?”

Lucifer sidled up beside Donald. “Everything all right, Mr. Roeser?” he asked.

Stan, putting on a somewhat stern expression, said, “This gentleman seems to think you have no business working here.”

Lucifer faced Donald. “Is that so?”

“No, no, no, not at all,” Donald babbled. Rivulets of sweat were coursing down his face and neck. He dabbed at his forehead with the back of his hand, over-adjusted his tie so that it chafed his skin. “Actually, considering your, ah, reputation, you seem to be doing quite well in this, er, line of work.”

Lucifer smiled and put his hand on Donald’s shoulder. “I appreciate your saying so, but, well, it’s the horns, isn’t it?”

“N-not at all—”

“You know, I considered having them removed surgically, but then I thought, ‘That’s somewhat unnecessary, isn’t it? Am I to treat my most distinctive physical attributes as a patch of unwanted moles, a pair of vestigial organs?’ Doctors, knives, insurance paperwork—needless complication. I show up for work every morning in the pursuit of equal opportunity, an exchange of money for services, and I do leave my pitchfork downstairs, if you know what I mean.” Lucifer laughed, Stan, too. (Donald couldn’t grasp the humor of the situation, for Lucifer’s fingers were singing the fabric of his suit.)

“Look, Mr. Roeser,” Stan said after a moment. “I’m sorry if you don’t agree with our hiring policy. If you like, I can have a formal complaint sent to the head office.”

Donald nodded, and would have protested further had he not suddenly become light-headed. With Lucifer’s help, he stumbled back to his table.

“Oh, Donald,” sighed Terrence, looking mildly concerned. “There you go again, getting yourself into a huff over the littlest things. You’ve made yourself sick, haven’t you?”

“I’ve done nothing of the sort,” Donald rasped, hastily brushing the devil’s hands from his shoulders as he rearranged himself in his chair. “Kindly let go of me. I’m fine.”

Lucifer complied. “Why don’t I fix you something special—a show of good faith.”

Donald nodded—if only to get the devil away from the table.

“You don’t look so good,” said Terrence. He pulled his chair beside Donald’s and helped loosen his tie. “Maybe we should go.”

“Oh, Terry,” Donald said, waving his hands in a flustered way. “I folded like a cocktail napkin. I never had a chance.”

“Ah, well, this is the new generation you’re dealing with,” said Terrence. “They laugh at war, they scoff at old age, they shun marriage. Their view of spirituality involves Spandex and Yoga mats and aggressive hip-hop beats. Religious hangups are for old fogies like you and me. Here, now, the devil has become nothing more than a civil servant. He has no power over those who don’t believe in him.”

“Maybe they should believe in him!” Donald snapped. “This is the devil we’re talking about! Lucifer, Satan, Set! Maker of Misery, Master of Ironies! It worries me to no end that not a single accursed soul in this joint is concerned about the possibility of an ulterior motive!” Donald looked around. There were more young people than there should have been, he was sure of it. They sat placidly at their tables, sipping, talking, completely unaware that they’d been brought in by the management as replacements for the old, the unsightly. A few offhand glances were sent his way; the faces were familiar and foreign, both at once—they were afterimages of regulars he’d come to know, pop art likenesses of actual people. Cardboard cutouts, thought Donald. Poster children. Unabashed youth. No concept of individuality. Components of their own social machine. They’re metric and I’m imperial—I don’t fit.

“You think,” he asked after a while, “I’m just losing touch?”

Terrence smiled one of his disarming smiles. “I think you lost touch years ago—I tell you what, though: You know where you stand, and that’s what matters, right?”

Lucifer returned to the table, a steaming cup in hand—literally. No saucer, no serving tray. “This one’s on the house, and so is everything else you’ve ordered today, just to make sure everything’s squared away between us.”

Donald’s first instinct was to refuse the coffee and to induce vomiting as soon as possible, but he held his composure—he needed to prove to himself that he could remain dignified while in the midst of a most asinine set of circumstances. He sipped the coffee, licked his lips, and—quite to his surprise—uttered a murmur of satisfaction as all his worries seemed to melt away.

“Do you like it?” asked Lucifer, clasping his hands expectantly.

Donald nodded, suddenly feeling much better about everything as a comfortable warmth spread throughout his body. “Why, yes, thank you. I’ll…I’ll be damned if you haven’t brightened my day.” A bashful look at Lucifer. “Er, no pun intended.”

“No worries. Now, if you need anything else, don’t hesitate to call on me, all right?” Lucifer patted Donald’s shoulder, then turned and left.

Donald took another sip of coffee as Terrence replaced his chair on the opposite end of the table.

“You see?” Terrance said. “And you were bracing for the apocalypse.”

“Perhaps I did overreact a bit—”

The PA system abruptly came to life.

“Your attention please, everyone,” said Stan (he had Lucifer standing beside him at the front of the restaurant, where a microphone and small podium had been set up). “This has been a terrific month for us. I’d like to personally thank each and every one of you for supporting our modest little coffee house.” A round of applause welled and ebbed appropriately; a few people whistled. “I would also like to recognize our newest Employee of the Month, Lucifer, without whom none of this would be possible.”

More applause, more cheers.

Lucifer removed his apron and, after shaking hands with Stan, stepped up to the microphone. “Thank you, everyone,” he said, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “It’s been an honor serving so many warm, devoted souls. Alas, I must return to my domain below, but before I do, I would like to remind you all to have a very nice day—don’t forget to pay.”

Another wash of applause from the coffee shop patrons, followed by a collective gasp as Lucifer stepped away from the podium and sank downward into the floor, scorching the tile work and leaving behind a puff of smoke.

“Wow,” Donald murmured. “That was surreal.”

“Indeed,” Terrence concurred. “Superb pyrotechnics.”

Standing, Donald shrugged into his coat. “Speaking of which, there are going to be some major pyrotechnics at the office if I’m not stuffed back into my cubicle on time.”

“Same here.”

Donald and Terrence sipped the last of their coffee; Donald was reaching for his wallet when he noticed several of the other patrons were also preparing to leave. One man calmly rose from his seat, took a long, luxurious breath of air, reached between the salt and pepper shakers for the butter knife—and proceeded to saw off the index finger of his left hand.

“My God!” Donald exclaimed. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” asked the man. “I’m paying the tab.”

Paying the tab?!?

Donald was unable to utter more than a series of half-swallowed gasps as he tore his gaze away from the sight of blood oozing across the man’s table. All around him, customers were carrying bits of their own bodies (hair clippings, nail filings, teeth, severed appendages) to the main counter—payment for coffee and croissants, illusion and vanity. He now realized his earlier disorientation had been due to the fact that everyone in the cafe had, over the course of the past half hour, been changed, transformed. He saw the elderly woman to whom Lucifer had been serving espresso; she was young and lithe now, though having trouble with depth perception as she carefully carried a freshly-gouged eyeball to the counter. A gentleman who’d earlier been dressed in a stained T-shirt and holey sweatpants now stood proud in his double-breasted suit as he took one last look at a wallet-sized portrait of his wife. In one corner, a fellow who’d entered the cafe wispy as a willow, but with a full, healthy head of hair, now made his way out, torso rippling with lean, hard muscle, pate as smooth as a cue ball.

Lucifer has served them all, Donald thought, and felt something crinkle in his hand.

A receipt.

“Shit,” he muttered, going limp and letting the receipt slip from his fingers.

“What is it, Don?” asked Terrence, his face weighted with dread.

“I drank from the devil’s cup,” Donald replied, “and it was the best I ever had.”

On the floor, the words on the receipt smoldered maliciously: Thank you for having lunch with us. TOTAL AMOUNT DUE: One soul.