The Man Who Outsmarted The Devil

The Man Who Outsmarted The Devil

In the end, there were only two ways to die: accidentally or on purpose. Medication and replacement body parts had eliminated most of the so-called “natural causes” of death. All that was left were catastrophes, suicides and murders. Catastrophes happened all the time. Over a life span of a thousand years or so, the chance of dying in a fatal crash or fall was somewhere around a hundred percent. Suicides were common, too. Existence could seem endless after a while. About 64 percent of men and 67 percent of women eventually terminated their lives by their own hands.

Murder, though — that was more or less unheard of. Most of the motives had become obsolete. Love couldn’t last as long as life did. Ambition flagged. Most appetites were satisfied by the state and its machines. Only ennui tempted the rare unmedicated psychotic to the crueler sort of thrills. As a result, most police would go their whole careers without ever encountering a homicide.

Which was why Detective Chesterton wore a look of obsession as he followed Holbrooke relentlessly through the snow.

The snow had been coming down heavily for close to an hour. The evening air was a blinding swirl. The statues in the park were decked with white. The sidewalks were thinly blanketed. The streets glistened, reflecting the traffic signals, red, yellow, green, as the auto-cabs churned the drifts to water.

Chesterton had been tracking the man ahead of him for 37 years, ever since the day he’d found the two bodies in the penthouse bedroom crosstown. Sarah Hutchinson had been posed angelic on the bed, hands crossed on the bodice of her silken nightgown, golden hair fanned artfully around her lovely and peaceful face. On the floor in the corner lay what was left of Martin Lane, the body sprawled beside a chair, the head a bloody mess. Chesterton believed Lane had sat in that chair admiring his handiwork — his smothered lover — before pressing the pistol to his temple and pulling the trigger to end it all. Given the way he’d laid her out so tenderly, it seemed clear that he had loved her in his fashion. 

Dimly visible through the storm now, Holbrooke moved from shadow to streetlight, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his overcoat, his head bowed so that his fashionably retro fedora caught the brunt of the wind. Just ahead of him lay the Corner, a tavern as fashionably retro as his hat. The lighted squares of its front windows were warm and inviting in the miserable weather.

Chesterton paused a moment on the sidewalk, hoping the blizzard hid him from view. He watched, shivering, as Holbrooke pulled open the tavern’s heavy wooden door.  The yellow glow from within fell on the killer’s chiseled features. The Detective felt a thrill as he caught a glimpse of the man’s eyes, those unmistakable eyes. He was certain this was the man he wanted.

The detective waited a few moments after Holbrooke had disappeared inside. Then he pushed on through the storm and entered the tavern himself. 

The place was crowded, loud and jolly with voices, a warm relief from the wet streets and from the cold. Men and some women nursed their medications, cheering for various sports on the big screens. Men and some women pushed in and out of the booths in back where the sexbots were. Men and the rare woman sat at tables fully sedated, engaging in desultory conversation, or just crying quietly.

Chesterton worked his way to the bar through a cluster of shouting men. Someone in the 1960’s had scored a goal on one of the screens. All the games were old games, of course. No one would risk injury by playing now. 

When the detective finally managed to snag the server-bot’s attention, he ordered a double Mood Adjustor on the rocks. Then, carrying his glass, he shouldered a path through the crowd to the back room. There was Holbrooke, alone in a corner booth, with a frothy mug of Contentment on the tabletop in front of him. Chesterton walked over and sat down across from him with no invitation, no word. He felt that electric excitement again as Holbrooke looked up at him. Those eyes. They were the only thing about the man that had not changed over the centuries.

For a moment, Holbrooke seemed startled, even confused. Then, strangely, he seemed to understand. It was as if, Chesterton thought —as if the killer had been waiting for this moment. As if he’d known it would come. One corner of his mouth quirked upward. He lifted his mug, and saluted Chesterton before sipping the foam.

He gasped out of the drink: “Ah!” Then “Well?” he said. He had a deep, steady, self-certain voice. A permanently ironic expression on his handsome features. Except for those unchanging eyes.

“I’m here about Sarah Hutchinson,” Chesterton said. “And Sally Blythe. Peter Morley. Karen Rothschild…”

Somewhere in the middle of this list, Holbrooke began chuckling softly. He gazed off meditatively toward the bar. When Chesterton was finished, he said: “I read somewhere that women may soon become extinct. What with the baby ovens and all. No one wants to take the trouble to understand them. I’ve always rather enjoyed their company myself, but I suppose I’m old-fashioned that way.” He gave a thoughtful huff and turned back to Chesterton. “Are you police?”

Chesterton touched his drink to his lips and nodded. “Detective Lieutenant Michael Chesterton. And you are Samuel Holbrooke. And Martin Lane. And Stan Katz. And Leshauna Brown. And…”

Holbrooke held up a hand. “All right. All right. I get the picture. I’m impressed.”

“You don’t deny it.”

“How old are you?” Holbrooke asked drily.

“Two hundred and ten, next month,” said the detective.

“A smart young fellow like you must have figured out that you can’t touch me. Or haven’t you thought it through that far?”

“I have. I know.”

Holbrooke studied him with mild interest. “What’s the point then? The thrill of the hunt? The satisfaction of the puzzle? Or did you just have to let me know you know?”

Chesterton actually took a moment or two to consider the question. He was still young enough to take a few things seriously. He had a vaguely mystic sense that Holbrooke and he were connected in some fashion after all this time. “All of that, I guess,” he said. “And just, you know…” He gestured, searching for the word. “It’s something different. In all the days that are the same.”

That got another chuckle out of Holbrooke. He drank again. Gasped again. “Yes. Of course that. The rare bright bauble in the desert of grey eternity. Anything that smacks of depth or meaning. What else is there these days?”

Chesterton watched his own finger rub the rim of his glass. Holbrooke was too close to the truth. It embarrassed him. Made him feel exposed. Still, his curiosity was irresistible. There was a mystery to be solved and a mystery in this almost-endless life was, as Holbrooke said, like an emerald in a sea of ash.

“How on earth did you find me?” Holbrooke asked him with real interest. “You must be a good detective. I admire that. I doubt you get much practice.”

Chesterton gave a mirthless laugh, gazing into his medication’s yellow depths. “Not much,” he said. “But I amuse myself with old crimes. I study old crimes.”

Holbrooke made a face. “Ah! Of course. Careless of me. Stupid.”

“When I saw Sarah Hutchison laid out the way she was…”

“’So cold, so sweet, so fair.’”

“Sorry?”

“It’s an old song. St. James’ Infirmary. ‘She was stretched out on a long white table, so cold, so sweet, so fair.’ The tune has been stuck in my head for hundreds of years.”

Chesterton cherished this tidbit. It was fresh. Different. Interesting. Something to add to the story. “That explains it,” he said. “Because when I saw Sarah Hutchinson like that, it reminded me of pictures I’d seen of another killing. Sally Blythe. Almost exactly a hundred and seventy two years before.”

“Stupid song,” said Holbrooke, shaking his head ruefully.

“And Stan Katz, dead in just the same way as Martin Lane. A bullet to the head after posing Sally,” Chesterton went on. “So I went over the old killing. Sally and Katz. The pictures. The police notes. The murder book. And after a while, puzzling it out, you know, I made the connection: the day of the murder was nine months before Martin Lane’s birthday. The Hutchinson killer was conceived on the day the Blythe killer died.”

Holbrooke grinned and saluted him with his mug again. “Very good. Very good, Chesterton.”

“So then of course, I went back in the records, and checked Stan Katz’s birthday.”

“And that led you to poor Peter and LaShauna,” said Holbrooke.

“Yes, although the sex change threw me off for a while. Anyway, I followed the killings back more than 900 years, until I was sure what I was seeing was real. Impossible, but real.”

“Impossible…” murmured Holbrooke with a modest shrug.

“Somehow, you were regenerating. Smothering someone. Shooting yourself. Then implanting your DNA in a new embryo.” Chesterton could only make a helpless gesture. “It makes no sense. The lab guys tell me it isn’t possible. But regeneration — that has to be the answer.”

Maybe it was the Contentment, which he had been sipping steadily, or possibly it was simple pride, but Holbrooke sat back in his chair with a smile of genuine self-satisfaction. 

Well, why not? Chesterton thought with some bitterness. Why shouldn’t he feel self-satisfied? He had gotten away with murder for centuries and even now, now that Chesterton had run him to ground, there was nothing the detective could do to punish him or even stop him from striking again. How could he arrest one man for a murder committed by another man long dead?

“That look!” Holbrooke said. “That look on your face. I wish you could see it. It’s priceless. I ought to keep the secret to myself. Let you live with the mystery forever. Or until you die — whichever comes first. How it would torment you, Chesterton. And you’d never guess the truth.”

Chesterton felt a low flame of panic flare in him. It was true: it would torment him. It would torture him right to the grave. He had to know the answer.

“I can keep a secret too,” he said, trying to quiet the sound of desperation in his voice. Holbrooke shrugged. But Chesterton pushed on: “Don’t you want to know how I found you? It was one thing to track down similar murder-suicides in the past, but do you know how many babies were born worldwide nine months or so after Martin Lane and Sarah Hutchinson died?”

Holbrooke tried to look smug and imperturbable, but Chesterton could tell the thrust had struck home. Curiosity in these deathless days was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched, and to think it would not be scratched forever — it was unbearable.

Holbrooke gave in. “All right. I’ll trade you. You tell me and I tell you. Word of honor. You first. How did you find me?”

Chesterton took another taste of his Mood Adjustor. It was his turn to feel well satisfied with himself. “I had nothing to go on but your preference for the high life.”

“Mm. That is a weakness of mine.”

“You always came back in the top one percent. And you favored living in the U.S., and mostly on the coasts, so there was that, too. That narrowed it down to a few thousand.” He paused to let Holbrooke feel that itch of curiosity.

Holbrooke did. “So?” he said.

After one last taunting pause, Chesterton said: “Your eyes. Your eyes are always the same.”

The impact of the revelation was gratifying. Holbrooke’s face went blank with surprise, then fell as the full meaning reached him. “Are they?”

“Always. Not the color or the shape, but the expression in them. As if you’d seen something — something unbearable no one else has ever seen and you can’t erase it, can’t forget it, no matter how many times you come back to life. I went through the photographs one by one until I saw that look. Haunted. Haunting. Unique. Always the same. I knew I had my man.”

In the moments that followed, Holbrooke seemed to sink into a sorrowful reverie. A shout came from the barroom. Someone in the past had scored a goal again.

“Now you,” Chesterton said. “How can you regenerate? New DNA and everything. How is it possible?”

The handsome killer drew breath and came back to himself. He straightened in his chair. He forced a carefree smile. “It’s simple really,” he said. “I sold my soul to Satan.”

For a second, Chesterton drew a blank. Then vaguely he remembered something from some book or other. “Satan,” he said. “Wasn’t he some sort of mythical monster people used to believe in?”

“Not exactly. He was an angel expelled from heaven for rebelling against God.”

Chesterton snorted. “God! You’re joking, right?”

“Not at all. In his bitterness, Satan dedicated himself to destroying God’s favorite creation: humankind.”

“Oh come on, Holbrooke!” Chesterton said with some heat. “We had a deal. I tell and you tell.”

“I’m telling!”

“Satan! God! I’m not looking for fairy tales. I want the real story.”

“This is it! I sold my soul to the devil.”

Chesterton threw up one hand and let out a curse.

“Well, if you’re not going to listen…” Holbrooke said.

“I’m listening. I’m hearing nonsense, but I’m listening.”

“He’s not a myth. And he’s not a monster. He looks like one of us. A man. At least he can if he wants to. He looked like that to me. This was back in the early 21st century. When there was still death. My name was Barnes then. Harry Barnes. I was 53 years old, and I was dying.”

Chesterton was about to protest again, to demand the truth again, but something in Holbrooke’s expression stopped him. The haunted eyes were gazing into the middle distance, gazing as if into the past, as if he saw there what he was describing. For a moment, despite the silly talk of make-believe characters like Satan and God, Chesterton found himself wondering if Holbrooke might be telling the truth, or at least telling what he believed was the truth.

“The doctors had given me six months,” Holbrooke continued. “That was the optimistic estimate. Nothing they could do. ‘Palliative care,’ they said. Which translated meant nothing. Death. At 53. I was… well, I was many things. Terrified. Depressed. Bitter. Broken. He must have known all that, the devil. He caught me at my lowest moment. Alone in my office. With no one to call. My ex-wife hated me. My children didn’t speak to me. I was just sitting there, staring at the computer screen. At the description I’d called up of what was going to happen to me, how it would be. And suddenly, there he was. Sitting on the office sofa. A smallish, narrow man with a face that looked more cynical than wicked, a widow’s peak of black hair…”

Chesterton slapped the table in frustration, rolled his eyes in disbelief.

But Holbrooke only shifted his haunted gaze to look at him directly, and said very quietly, “No. Really. I’m telling you the truth. He asked, ‘Do you know me?’ And strangely enough, I did. I knew exactly who he was and more than that, I knew I had summoned him. I didn’t believe in him then, mind you, any more than you believe in him right now, but in my desperation I had summoned him all the same, and there he was. He got right down to business. He offered me long life and health. Success. Money. Women. Desperate as I was, I laughed at him. I said, ‘You must take me for an idiot. Are people really as stupid as that? If you’re here, then all the stories must be true. God. The soul. Salvation. Damnation. Why would I purchase a mere thirty years at the price of an eternity in flames?’”

Chesterton, in spite of himself, was getting caught up in the story, ridiculous as it was. He put on a cynical look, but he said, “And what was his answer to that?”

“He said, ‘What do you want then?’ And I said I’d think about it and he could come back the next day for my answer. And so I did think about it, all that night. And I thought, well, why do it at all? Now that I know there’s a devil, it stands to reason there’s a God as well. Why not go to church, pledge allegiance or whatever you’re supposed to do. Brass out the next six months of agony. Then, bingo, you’re playing a harp in the clouds happily ever after. But the thing was: I didn’t believe it. No matter how I reasoned it out, I couldn’t. After all, life being what it is, there might not be a God at all. There might just be Satan and that’s it. And even if there was a God, my life being what it was, what were the odds of my getting into heaven? And while I supposed I could get myself… I don’t know… baptized or whatever they did back then, I was pretty sure I would just be pretending — pretending to believe, pretending I was sorry for the things I’d done, pretending I liked God instead of finding him small-minded and overbearing. No, the more I thought about it, the more terrified of death I became. And now I wasn’t just afraid of death — I was afraid of damnation too!”

All the while Holbrooke was speaking, Chesterton watched him: his face, his haunted eyes. Slowly, he was becoming convinced — not that he was telling the truth, of course, but that he thought he was, that he thoroughly believed what he was saying.

“I paced the bedroom floor all night,” Holbrooke said, staring at nothing. “All night and then, at dawn, it came to me. A brilliant idea. A way to outsmart the devil. I went over it from every angle. I could not find a single flaw. It was brilliant. I was stunned no one had ever thought of it before. When full morning came, I went back to my office. He was there, waiting for me. Sitting on the sofa as if he’d never left. I set my proposition out before him. I would sell him my soul if, in return, he would grant that I never died. And none of this growing old forever stuff. No tricks. I would live a normal life, and when it was over, I would implant myself in a new embryo of my choice, and live again, keeping the memory of my past lives. And so it would go on — I would go on — world without end. And if the world did end, well, I would be born on some other world, always remembering myself, and on I’d continue. You see the beauty of it, Chesterton? I’d sell my soul, but the devil would never be able to collect. No death. No hell. Just this life. Forever. I’d outfoxed him.

“The devil seemed to think it over for a few moments, and then he just said, ‘Done.’ And he was gone. In a blink. Like an illusion. Only he wasn’t an illusion. I was sure of that. And for the first time in weeks, I felt hope.”

Holbrooke paused here, smiling to himself as he remembered what hope had felt like. He lifted his mug of Contentment to his lips, but did not drink. “Hope,” he murmured, then set the mug down. He looked across the table at Chesterton and the detective felt a chill in a portion of himself he did not even realize he had. 

“Then I died,” Holbrooke said simply. “The disease ran its course and I died. Alone in a hospital. No one to mourn me. But unafraid, because I felt certain I had purchased new life with my soul. I would be born again. But first…”

To Chesterton’s surprise — his shock really — Holbrooke suddenly became unsteady. His eyes filled. His lip trembled. He stared — at what imagined miseries the detective could not guess.

“But first,” he said, “I saw the face of God.” He laughed a hollow, so-unhappy laugh. “The bliss, Chesterton! I died and went to heaven — and the bliss, the rapture — it’s impossible to describe! The completeness of it. The sense it made of everything. All was well. All was clear. All was so good. So beautiful. I was at a feast of angels. An endless angel feast. And in every cell of me, there was such sweetness. And then….” Again, that awful laugh. “And then, in a single moment, it was over. I was reborn. Reborn as a baby boy in San Francisco. And it was agony! Agony to be torn from such a perfection of joy — joy to which no pleasure on earth can be compared. It was like being torn from myself, my best self torn to pieces, torn again and again without relief. And then I had to live, you see, to live knowing that that joy was there — not believing, but knowing, Chesterton — knowing that joy was there, and out of reach to me, out of reach forever. Every time I died, I’d see it — see the bliss that I was missing, that I could never have. It was torture. Torture every day. Every minute. It was hell, Chesterton. I thought I had defeated the devil, but I had condemned myself to hell on earth.”

A single tear brimmed over the killer’s eye and fell. “It’s not just me either. I was the first, but now…” He gestured at the bar. “Look at them. Look at yourself. Endless. Faithless. Doomed. All of you. If you kill yourself, it’s a sin. You’re damned. If you lose your faith, you’re damned. And who even has the faith to lose? Why should they? When man is master even of death? Who could be greater than man? Man and his endless centuries of crushing, meaningless, joyless boredom? You’re all me now, Chesterton. You never die, so you’re all in hell all the time.”

Slowly, Chesterton’s lips parted — parted and continued parting until his mouth was hanging open. He had become so wrapped up in Holbrooke’s story that he had forgotten for a few minutes how absurd it was, how impossible to believe. And now, like dawning light, he even saw the sense of it.

“You kill them to set them free!” he said.

The hollow-eyed man nodded slowly, the streak of the single tear still gleaming on his cheek. “The ones I think are worthy. The ones I love. The ones I believe will move on into the bliss I see each time I die, the bliss I lose each time I live again, the bliss of heaven which, for me, is the scourge of the devil, the fire of hell. I save them from suicide. I save them from faithlessness. I save them, Holbrooke, from immortality. I tell them my story and if they believe me — if they believe — I set them free.”

With that, Holbrooke lifted his mug and drained the Contentment to its foamy depths. He plunked the vessel down on the table. He pushed his chair back. He stood.

The motion broke the spell of his story. Chesterton regained his senses.

“That’s ridiculous! That’s nonsense, Holbrooke. You didn’t play fair. I told you my secret, and you make up some story about fantasy creatures and make-believe heavens and hells!”

Holbrooke lingered there a moment. He gazed down at the detective with those impossible eyes. “Look around you, Chesterton,” he said.

And then, with something like a smile, he turned and walked away.

Chesterton leapt to his feet, shouting after him. “It’s garbage! It’s lies! It’s ridiculous, Holbrooke!” But a cheer from the bar drowned out his voice, and Holbrooke never looked back. He pushed out the door and was gone into the snow.

Chesterton sank down into his chair. He slipped his hand around his Mood Adjustor. Lifted the glass to his lips.

“Ridiculous,” he muttered.

But as he drank, his eyes flitted around the room, from face to face, and while his mind was filled with unbelief, his heart was rank with horror.

This short story is an original work of fiction from Andrew Klavan.

Andrew Klavan is the host of The Andrew Klavan Show at The Daily Wire. A popular political satirist and Hollywood screenwriter, Klavan is also an award-winning novelist. Be sure to PRE-ORDER his new novel today: A Strange Habit of Mind, book two in the Cameron Winter Mystery series.

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