Burnt Toast – Mack Reynolds

“We have here a table bearing thirteen cocktails,” the demon said. “And now into one I add a touch from this vial.”
“What tat?”
“Poison. Now I switch the glasses about. Truly, you couldn’t remember into which glass I emptied the vial, could you?”
“What’s the gag, buddy?”
“The proposition,” the demon said, “is quite simple. You take your pick and drink it. For your first choice I give you exactly one hundred dollars.”
Alan Sheriff shook his head in an attempt to clear away the fog. “You said, minute ago, you put poison . .
“In just one. There are thirteen in all. You choose a glass, you drink it and I award you with a hundred dollars. If you wish to try again, you receive two hundred, next award is four hundred, and so on.. If you lose, the forfeit is your life and your . . . soul.”
It took a long moment to assimilate that. “Let’s see the century,” Sheriff muttered.
The demon brought forth a wallet and selected a bill which he laid on the table then looked at the other in anticipation.
Sheriff said thickly, “Nothing to lose anyway.” He took up the nearest glass, fished the olive out and threw it aside.
The demon smiled politely.
“Bottoms up!” Sheriff said, tossing it off with the practiced stiff-wristed motion of the drinker. He put the glass down, stood swaying in silence.
“Not bad liquor,” he said finally. “I needed that.”
“The hundred dollars is yours. Would you like to try for two hundred?”
Sheriff looked at the bill. “This is good, eh?”
The demon shifted his shoulders in impatience. “Of course.”
Sheriff said, “Suppose I could ask you what this is all about, but the hell with it. So long, sucker.”
“I’ll still be here tomorrow. Alan Sheriff.”

• • •

There was a knock and the demon said, “Come in.”
Sheriff closed the door behind him. His blood-veined eyes went about the barren hotel room: magnet-drawn, they came to the small table. Twelve cocktail glasses, sweated with cold, sat upon it.
He said tentatively, “I was tight last night . .
“The night before last,” the demon corrected.
“. . . but I wasn’t that tight. I couldn’t have dreamed it, especially the hundred bucks.”
“Already gone, I assume,” the demon said. “You came to try again?”
“Why’d you give me that hundred? Listen, you haven’t got a drink around the place have you?”
The other seated himself in the room’s sole chair, put the tips of his fingers together. “You won the hundred dollars on a wager. As far as a drink is concerned, I am afraid all I have is there.” He indicated the table with its burden of twelve glasses.
Sheriff’s eyes went from him to the table, back again. He hadn’t shaved since last he had been here and the pallor and odor of long weeks of alcohol were on him. He wavered. “I don’t remember too well.”
“Briefly,” the demon said, ”I represent interests that desire your immortal soul.” He made again the proposition of the previous evening while Sheriff stared at him. When he was finished, his visitor’s eyes went again to the table with its twelve glasses.
“Let’s see your money,” Sheriff said, shaky and unbelieving.
The demon brought forth his wallet, extracted two bills.
Sheriff stepped to the table, reached for a drink. “Prosit!” he grunted, bolting it. He waited, then with satisfaction, “Wrong one.”
The demon shrugged.
Sheriff said, “If I take another one, how much do I get?”
“Four hundred dollars. You wish to try again?”
“There’s eleven glasses left. One poison, eh?”
“That is correct. The odds are with you.”
Sheriff grinned sourly, two broken front teeth becoming evident. “Best odds I ever had.” He reached out quickly, took up another glass, held it in his hand for a moment then drank it as he had the other one with one quick motion. “Four hundred more,” he demanded. and received it.
“And now for eight?” the demon prodded.
“Not till I get this spent,” Sheriff chortled. “Then I’ll be back, sucker.” He held up the six hundred dollars he had    won, stared at it unbelievingly, clenched it in his fist and stumbled from the room.
The demon looked after him.

• • •

“Eight hundred this time,” the demon said, the sum ready in his hand, “and the odds are one in ten.”
“Here’s to glory!” Sheriff toasted.

• • •

When Alan Sheriff returned, four days later, he was shaven, bathed, attired in gray flannel, his teeth had known a dentist’s attention and the shaking of his hands was all but imperceptible.
“You’re sober.” the demon said.
Sheriff looked at him. The other was medium sized, dressed conservatively. Sheriff said, “You don’t look like the devil.”
“How am I supposed to look?” Sheriff scowled at him. “Listen, I sobered myself up, but it’s temporary.
Jfust long enough to find out what the hell’s going on. What’d you give me that money for?”
The demon explained, still again, the wagers they had made.
Afterward Sheriff said, wonderingly, “My soul, eh? Tell the truth, I didn’t think there was any such thing.”
“It has been greatly debated,” the demon agreed.
“What I can’t understand,” Sheriff said, “is all this trouble you’re going to. You picked me out of the gutter. You would’ve got my . . . soul . . . anyway.” “You underestimate the efforts of our opposition,” the demon sighed. “And you must realize victory is never absolutely assured until the last second of life. Ten minutes after I approached you. you might have decided upon reform.” He twisted his mouth sardonically.
Sheriff shook his head while saying. “I still don’t get this . . . this system of trying to get my . . . soul.”
The demon had seated himself in the arm chair, now he shrugged. “Each person in his time is confronted with his decision. Most, admittedly, not quite so directly as this.”
“But all that dough for a down and out bum. Already I’ve got fifteen hundred. and the next chance more than doubles it.”
The demon nodded. “Your next try is for one thousand, six hundred. But the amount is meaningless. The, ah. commodity cannot be evaluated in terms of money. One of our most prized specimens cost but thirty pieces of silver.” He added absently, “In that particular case he didn’t know it was his soul he was selling.”
Alan Sheriff looked down at the table. There were nine glasses remaining He said. “For sixteen hundred bucks, eh?”
The demon nodded, his eyes shining. Sheriff’s hand snaked out. took up a glass and brought it half way to his lips. His eyes went to the demon’s.
The other smiled.
Alan Sheriff put the glass down quickly, took up another. He held it for a moment. The demon still smiled.
Sheriff’s mouth tightened. “Salud!” he said, bolting the cocktail. He dosed his eyes and waited. When he opened them, the other was extending a sheaf of bills.
Sheriff said, “You’ll still lie here later in the week?”
“For you I shall always be here, night or day. There are eight glasses left. Your next wager will involve three thousand, two hundred.”
Sheriff said flatly, “I gave up two weeks ago. Lots of dough for liquor, good food, gambling, makes the going easier but I’m not changing my mind about calling life quits. I’ll be bark when I’ve spent this.”
“Very sound judgement.” the demon nodded. “Until then.”

• • •

“So soon?” the demon said. “However, the wager is now three thousand, two hundred.”
Sheriff said, “This is the last time.”
“Ah?”
“This time I’m using the dough for a new start. I’m getting a job.”
“Admirable motive, I understand — from the human viewpoint. However, we shall see.” The demon changed the subject. “If I understand correctly the Laws of Chance, this is your crucial test.”
“How’s that?” Sheriff’s eyes came up from the glasses to the other’s face.
“When we began, there were thirteen glasses, one of which was poisoned. However, we are nearly half through now and your good luck cannot last forever. Taking the averages, you should miss this time.”
Sheriff shook his head. “Each time is a separate time. You don’t use up your luck, there is no such thing. The odds aren’t as good as they were, but they’re still seven to one in my favor.”
“Very well, let us see.”
Alan Sheriff, sweat on his forehead, reached out slowly for one of the Martinis. “Here’s looking at you,” he said.

• • •

The demon answered the door and smiled to see his visitor. “Alan Sheriff! But I thought your last visit was to be just that.”
Sheriff’s face was tight. “I’m not here for myself, damn you. It’s for somebody else.”
“Somebody else?” the demon said. “I don’t understand.”
“A girl,” Sheriff snapped. “It’s none of your business. You wouldn’t ever have seen me again except for Muriel. She needs five thousand; medical bills for her old lady, sanitarium. Never mind. The thing is I’ll take another one of those drinks.”
The demon pinched his lip thoughtfully. “I don’t know.”
“Damn it, what difference does it make what I want the dough for?”
“Ummm. Your motive for taking the wager disturbs me. Some centuries ago a somewhat similar case precipitated a cause celebre. Chap named Johann Faust. Matter had to be taken to the, ah. higher authorities. However, let us see what develops. There are seven glasses and your odds are six to one with the prize amounting to exactly six thousand, four hundred dollars.”
Sheriff took up a glass at random, toasted defiantly, “Here’s lo the ladies!”
“Very sentimental,” the demon nodded.

• • •

Sheriff banged on the door heavily, and. before it could be answered, banged again.
The demon opened it, his face quizzical. “Ah, our Alan Sheriff.”
Sheriff lurched to the table. The Martini glasses stood as before, six of them remaining. They appeared chill and as fresh as the first time he had seen them, months ago.
“What’s the bet now?” he slurred.
“The wager is twelve thousand, eight hundred against your life and soul.” The demon’s voice was soft.
“Okay. Here’s how!”
The demon nodded pleasantly.
“Beat you again,” Sheriff sneered. “Give me the dough. I’m on my way to show up a wise guy. Show him what a real spender can do for a girl.” The alcohol was heavy on his breath. “What’d he a classy present for Muriel? Show her what a real guy does for a dame . .
The demon ran a thoughtful thumbnail along his trimmed mustache. “I understand mink is highly thought of.” he murmured.

• • •

“Ah,” the demon said. “Here we are, once again.”
Sheriff looked about the room, unchanged from the last time he had been here except there were but five glasses on the small table. He wondered vaguely what had happened to the eight glasses he had emptied in turn.
“You know,” he said, “each time I come here I have to be convinced all over again that it’s true.”’
“Indeed? As I recall, on your last visit you were in the midst of a somewhat feverish romantic situation. Did you take my advice as to the desirability of mink?”
Sheriff was gazing in fascination at the glasses. He said. “What? Oh. yeah. This here wise guy boy friend of hers, old high school sweetheart kind of crap, was trying to beat my time.” He chuckled thickly. “But I gave her the old rush job, wound up in Miami Beach for a week. Quite a town.”
“Isn’t it though? And where is Muriel these days?”
Sheriff was tired of the subject. “She’s around somewhere. Got on my nerves finally. What’s the bet now? I’m thinking of going into the restaurant business — with my kid brother, he needs the dough to get started.”
“Twenty-five thousand, six hundred,” the demon said briefly.
“Well, here’s mud in your eye” Sheriff said.

• • •

“Fifty-one thousand, two hundred,” the demon said. “The new business doesn’t seem to prosper?”
“The kid doesn’t realize there’s angles to every business. He’s too slow for me. We need this dough to put in a bar and maybe a few tables and some slots in the back, maybe some rooms upstairs where a guy can take a dame or maybe throw a little reefer party.”
“There are now four glasses,” the demon said.
“Skoal!”

• • •

The demon opened the door at the knock and admitted the burly, heavy faced man. “It’s been a long time,” he said simply.
“Yeah,” Sheriff said. He looked about the small room. “But you haven’t changed much. Neither has this room. I wasn’t sure it’d still be here.”
“Some things are changeless.” the demon said.
“Three glasses left, eh? My luck’s really been with me so far. You know, it’s been so long since I been here. What’s the bet now?”
“You would win one hundred and two thousand, four hundred dollars, my friend.”
“Two chances out of three. It’s still a good percentage and I’m branching out into new territory and need the dough.” He stared down at the identical glasses, still retaining their appearance of chill freshness.
“And how is your brother these days?”
“Bill? The hell with him. I had to bounce him out. Too square for the business I’m in. You know,” he bragged. “I’m a pretty big shot in some of the rackets these days.”
“Ah? I see.”
Sheriff took up one of the glasses, looked over its edge at his opponent. “Well, first one today with this hand.” he muttered, downing it. He waited fora moment then took up the money, stuffed it into his overcoat pocket and left without a backward glance.

• • •

The knock at the door was hurried, anxious.
The demon opened it and said, “Yes?”
Sheriff hastened in. looked about quickly. “I’m safe here?”
The demon chuckled. “Really. Alan Sheriff !”
“They’re after me. The cops . . .”
“Ah?”
Sheriff’s eyes went to the small table. “Two glasses left.” he muttered. “I could hire Liber for a lawyer, grease a few palms. With more than two hundred grand I could beat this rap, or, for that matter, I could go on down to Mexico, live there the rest of my life.”
“It’s been done,” the demon agreed.
“Fifty-fifty chance.” Sheriff hissed in sudden decision. He lifted one of the glasses from the table, said “Cheers,” clowned it and stood back to wait, his face empty and white. Nothing happened.
He turned to the other. “Give me the money.” he said triumphantly. “You know what, sucker? It’s like you once said. It’s never too late to change. I beat you all the way down the line, but I know when I’ve pushed my luck as far as it’ll go. After I’ve got myself out of this jam. I’m going to straighten up, see?”
“I doubt it.” the demon murmured.
“Yes I am. buster. You’ve lost this boy.”
The demon said, “I suggest you drink the other Martini.”
The other stared at him. “That’s the one with the poison.”
The demon shook his head gently. “I suggest you take the thirteenth glass, Alan Sheriff. It might help you somewhat in the tribulations that lie ahead. After all’, it is the very best of gin anti vermouth.”
Sheriff chuckled his contempt. “Give me my dough, sucker. I’m getting out.” The demon said, “What gave you the impression that the poison was a quick acting one, Alan Sheriff?”
Sheriff blinked at him. “Huh?”
“I don’t remember informing you that death was to be instantaneous following your choice of the wrong glass.””I … I don’t get it . .
“But of course you got it,” the demon said smoothly. “The poison was odorless and tasteless and you got it on your eighth try. Since then your life and soul have been mine to collect at will. The fact that I haven’t done so sooner was my own whim — and excellent business, as it developed. Surely in the past few years you have done more for the, ah, cause I serve than you would have had I collected my wager immediately.” After a long moment Sheriff picked up the last glass. “Maybe you’re right. I might be needing this, and they are good Martinis.
“One for the road,” he toasted with attempted bravado.
“Down the hutch,” the demon corrected.

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