by TREY DOWELL
Pandemonium by Krishna81 |Flickr
Pandæmonium, Hell (AP) – On this rocky promontory overlooking the banks of the River Styx, the Seventh-Circle Demon Center has surprises aplenty for all who enter. The biggest surprise of all, however, isn’t the dizzying array of (literally) cutting-edge torture devices, or even the occasional drop-in from The Dark Lord himself. No, this reporter finds that the real shocker is tucked away on the 13th floor, standing in front of a rapt audience in Training Room #6.
Dave Figgins. A human.
That’s right—an actual human has landed one of Hell’s most prized gigs: teaching Advanced Topics in Torture Design.
The unassuming mortal speaks with a soft, halting voice—understandable, considering he’s lecturing a dozen immortal Ancient Demons, each with the power to level an army—but the former health insurance middle manager’s words have a power all their own.
“So, I tell the customer that the 30-day period for reporting emergency out-of-network services has expired, and she’s on the hook for her husband’s entire $248,000 hospital bill. She complains that the husband’s death and subsequent funeral had delayed her reporting, and she’s only one day over the limit, so—”
“What did you say?!” Marduk, Destroyer of Worlds, blurts from the edge of his seat. The Ancient’s excited tentacles spew rancid bile in a semi-circle around his desk.
Figgins adjusts his glasses. “‘I’m sorry ma’am, rules are rules. My hands are tied…’”
The assembled demons lean in as Figgins pauses.
“‘…but we thank you for your business and have a nice day.’”
The roar of the class shakes the building. “That shit is cold,” shouts Belphegor, Prince of Hell, whose cape is fashioned from the flayed skin of the damned.
Figgins’ own former torturer, Baphomet the Undying, looks on in pride from the open classroom door. Steaming drool drizzles from the demon’s fangs as Figgins begins to discuss something called “policy limits.”
“Oh man, I love this part,” Baphomet mutters to me before clamping chitinous claws over his own mouth, not wanting to spoil anything. “It’s hard to believe I was actually torturing this dude less than a month ago,” he whispers.
Back then, Figgins was just Soul #8795433215, sentenced to eternal punishment. Level Two avarice, Level Five douchebaggery.
“I’m giving him the usual Day One stuff,” Baphomet recalls. “Bed of knives, rectal poker, butthole spiders—y’know, the classics. And poor Dave, he’s screaming his head off. I’m checking my watch, looking forward to lunchtime, and the little guy starts confessing all his sins. Before I know it, I’m not even thinking about the cafeteria’s veal piccata anymore. Dave’s going on and on about stuff I’ve never heard of: exemptions, escalating premiums, denials based on pre-existing conditions. Sounded lame at first. But the misery all those things caused? The agony? Diabolical!”
A long whistle emanates from Baphomet’s reptilian throat.
“So, I’m like, ‘Dave’s being wasted down in the Pit. We need to be doing more listening and less torturing.’”
In the background, Mammon the Deceiver asks Figgins to clarify ‘out-of-pocket family caps.’ Boos rain down on him for the interruption. The demon, who once drove a magma spear through the heart of Pegasus, hunches in his seat and mutters an apology.
Baphomet can’t help himself. “Jesus! It’s on page 89 of the info packet—use your eyes, Mammon. You’ve got eighteen of them.”
He sighs before continuing. “Some demons just don’t get it. Times are changing. The old school stuff doesn’t pack the same punch it did a millennium ago. After listening to Dave, I just knew I had to get him up here—let others see what I saw.”
And somebody signed off on it, I ask?
“I knew Dave wouldn’t get a fair shake, so I figured, what the Hell? Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right? I made him a fake ID and snuck Dave into the Demon Center.” He points to the red badge on Figgins’ chest. “He still wears it for good luck.”
Gutsy move, I admit.
“Turns out, The Dark Lord did a drop-in that day,” Baphomet says. “Listened for a whole hour. Next morning, Dave’s a full-time instructor, and I get a fat promotion and a new office.” The demon shakes his head and chuckles, casting another prideful look at his favorite human.
“Dave Figgins of Aetna,” the Ancient whispers in awe. “Who would have guessed?”
Lucifer Morningstar is just as impressed. Not only with Baphomet’s out-of-the-box thinking, but also humanity’s growing ability to inflict abject cruelty in more insidious ways.
“I always applaud innovation,” The Dark Lord tells me, sitting on the Throne of Pain in his corner office on the top floor of the Demon Center. “This paradigm shift that we’re seeing on Earth—away from the tired, garish, heads-on-pikes mentality—toward a more subtle spread of hopeless despair? Brilliant. Utilizing paperwork and draconian rules to foster a kind of…”
He pauses for a moment, searching for the perfect words.
“…a kind of casual cruelty, infiltrating every aspect of mortal life. It’s simply a more evolved form of torture. And a boon for us. In the old days, only a pretty significant warlord could inflict suffering upon a thousand people. Now? One petty jerk with an inferiority complex and a smartphone can do more damage than Attila the Hun.”
Lucifer leans back in his chair, looks out at the smoking mountains of Lamathyss and nods.
“We have a lot to learn from this new world. And Dave won’t be the last human to show us the ropes. There’s a General Motors executive on life-support right now, a real go-getter. Guy buried a report detailing a flaw that could shut off a car’s ignition at highway speeds. He figured paying off the wrongful death lawsuits would cost less than fixing the problem. I know the boys down here are looking forward to bouncing a few ideas off him. He’s been in a coma for months now, just keeps hanging on…”
The Dark Lord smiles.
“But I hear he’s about to reach his lifetime medical expenses cap, so, y’know…fingers crossed.”
Trey Dowell is an award-winning author of both short and novel-length fiction. His short stories have been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Abyss & Apex, as well as in several anthologies, and his debut sci-fi novel The Protectors was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. You can learn more at www.treydowell.com, or hit him up on Twitter @treydowell3. PS: He also really fucking hates the American health insurance system. Clearly.