The Devil sat in the old wingback chair. I was dead. That was no surprise. My doctor had warned me that I could go any time. It wasn't my health. I had always kept myself in good shape. It was a congenital weakness, they said, that could strike at any time. Evidently it had. I was dead.
I sat across from him in front of the marble fireplace. Somehow brandy snifters had appeared. He sat there, sipping his brandy. I sat there sipping mine. It was all very civilized. But he was the Devil and I knew it. And I was dead and I knew it.
I spoke, "I hope you forgive me for saying so, but I really didn't believe in you."
He waved a hand and smiled urbanely, "That's quite all right. So many of my people don't, not until they meet me. He insists on his people being believers. I'm much more tolerant."
I smiled encouragingly. I wanted this conversation to continue. Far better to be drinking brandy and be engaged in polite conversation than to be burning in some pit in Hell. I didn't know what to say. What does one say to the Devil?
He continued, "He and I are collectors, you know. Some people collect stamps and some collect coins. He and I collect souls. We've been collecting souls for a very long time, He and I. Do you want to know why?"
He mused, "I don't really know why he collects souls. I suppose if I knew, if I really knew, it would all be different. But I know why I collect them. Do you know the story of the deuce of diamonds."
This took me aback. What on Earth did the deuce of diamonds have to do with anything? But he was the Devil and I was dead. It behooved me to be polite. "No sir. What is the story of the deuce of diamonds?"
He smiled and that smile told me something I didn't want to know, that he knew exactly what I was thinking. He took on the manner of the story teller.
"Once upon a time there was a man who set out to create a useless collection. He decided to collect a complete deck of playing cards. He had his rules. They had to be cards that he found in the street. Card decks that he had bought didn't count nor ones discarded in trash. They had to be openly out in the street. You may wonder why anyone would do such a thing.
He had his reasons. He had, you see, the soul of a collector and he knew it. Your true collector doesn't care about what he collects. What matters is the collecting itself, the search, the finding, the thrill of discovery, and the march towards completion. A good collection is the work of a lifetime. It may as well be playing cards found in the street as anything else.
Like all good collections his went rapidly at first and more slowly with time. From time to time he would spot a card or two in the street. They might be muddy or torn but that didn't matter. All that mattered was whether he had that card already or not.
It took him two years to complete half a deck. It was motley deck. The cards had different backs and sizes. Some were stained and some were torn. One had a bullet hole through it. By five years he had forty cards, all different, all found in the street. Then things slowed down. All too often, when he found a card, it would be a duplicate of one he already had. A decade went by and he had all but two. A few years more and he lacked but one, the deuce of diamonds, to complete his collection.
Another decade went by and then two. He found cards in the street alright but none of them was the deuce of diamonds. He began to worry that he would not complete his collection before he died. And then one day as he walked along the street he spotted a discarded deck of cards. He trembled. This was it. This was the moment when his collection would be complete. He made a little ceremony of picking the deck up, of opening it and of searching for the card he needed. Alas, the deck was faulty. It had been thrown away because it was missing a card - the deuce of diamonds."
He paused, his story at an end. "And did he ever find it?", I asked, "Did he ever complete his collection?"
"I do not know", the Devil replied. "I like to think he that did. But you see, it's just a story that was put out by a minion of my Enemy to taunt me. He has the advantage on me. He collects complete souls. I am like that collector. I must make do with what I come across. I've been trying to put together a complete soul for a very long time."
He waved his hand, "You're quite a collector yourself."
I had no idea what he meant and I said so. I had never been a collector, one of those tedious people who amass clutter and prose on endlessly about their bits and pieces. He smiled and held up his hand.
I do not know what he did. He had his powers. After all he was the Devil. It wasn't a gut-wrenching experience. There was no blinding flash of enlightenment. But all of a sudden I could see myself, really see myself, see who I was and what I had done. Just like that. And the really terrible thing about that moment was that it was utterly calm and not terrifying at all.
I had been a collector alright and hadn't known it. Some people collect stamps and coins. Some people collect books. I collected the trophies of life. Grades, friends, jobs, cars, a wife, houses, I collected them all. I cared for none of them, never had. I loved none of them, never had. They were trophies.
When I was a boy in school I collected gold stars for reading books in a book reading program. I didn't care about the books; what I wanted were my gold stars, my trophies. I collected grades the same way. What I studied didn't matter to me; it was useful to me later on and that was fortunate.
School was a learning experience. I didn't come into life knowing how to say and do the little things that would make other people think of me as their friend. I learned quickly; it was, I suppose, a matter of native talent and inclination. Mind you, there was nothing deliberate, nothing conscious about my learning. I did not set out to acquire the art of having friends. I knew, even then, that it was important to have friends and to be popular. I learned what had to be done and I got them. The people I called my friends thought of me as their friend. And if they cared about me and I didn't care about them, what of that - I never knew it and wouldn't have cared if I had.
The system protects people like me. Collecting the right set of trophies at one stage of life qualifies you to move on to collect the next set of trophies. My grades and my school record got me into a good college where I naturally went into business administration. What else? The so-called intellectual life had no charms for me. I had no interest in science or literature or the arts other than as intellectual decorations. I didn't care about money either, at least not for its own sake, but I understood well enough that money was needed for the life I wanted to lead.
I garnered grades and honors, neither requiring any great effort. I became a campus politician, something that would look good on resumes. More trophies. I had many "friends", many of whom even thought that I was their friend. And I dated the prettiest and most popular women on campus. Still more trophies. I married one of the prettiest and brightest, a perfect trophy wife, with a personality that would be useful later on.
After I graduated I went into corporate management, moving up the ladder rapidly, garnering commendations and titles. My advancement was rapid because my sole focus was on my career prospects - I did not care about the interests of the companies that paid me. When I saw that Endworth was in trouble and that it would be risky to try to set the company right I bailed out early and got a better position in another company. I didn't even know they went under until I read about it in the papers.
Life was good. I acquired a model home in the suburbs at a very good address. I had the right kind of car. I had two exemplary children and memberships in the right clubs.
And then I died.
With my new clarity of vision I saw that all was not well in my model home. Helen was not happy and didn't know why. She was rapidly developing a drinking problem. I knew why - now. She was living in a false front life, married to a man who didn't love her, who didn't even care about her. She didn't realize this consciously but she sensed it deep within.
My model children were very disturbed. Both were playing around with drugs. My daughter was rapidly gaining a reputation as the class punch bag. They, too, knew something was wrong. They had an alcoholic mother and an indifferent father; they didn't know this consciously but they felt the effect. In a couple of years they wouldn't have been exemplary children any more. I hadn't known any of this - I hadn't seen it happening. Maybe I would have if I had cared.
Perhaps it's better that I died when I did. Living on would have ruined the collection.
I looked at the Devil and he looked at me and I knew that he had seen all that I had seen and that he knew all that I had known. Boldly I said, "Well, there you have it, Sir. You are the master collector. Do I add anything to your collection?"
"Oh no," he chuckled, "there's nothing new here, nothing that I don't already have. I'll keep you though. Don't think that I won't keep you."
Dead or not, I shuddered for I heard the flames in his voice and I knew my fate. And then he looked me straight in the eye and when I looked into his eyes all of that civilized urbanity melted away. I saw there only despair, cold, dark, ancient despair, old beyond time and cold beyond cold. I knew then that I was not the only damned soul in that room. And he spoke very quietly, very softly, very sadly and said:
"Love is my deuce of diamonds."
This page was last updated August 18, 1997.
Copyright © 1997 by Richard Harter