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The Devil in the Top Hat

Updated on April 27, 2020
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I am the lump in the back of your throat, that sense of foreboding you try to suppress. I am the scream that cannot escape your lips!

A Proposition

A stranger steps out of the shadows in the night to accost a gentleman and his lady. The man carrying a large bag, tightly grasps its handle. Apparently something valuable is inside. They are alone late at night meandering along an alley near a shipyard. Not particularly smart of either of them; considering the hour is late, the fog heavy, and this is a crime-ridden area frequented by desperate men. The brute standing before them is brandishing a large caliber black powder pistol. A large knife is tucked in his waist band.

"Give me your money!" The demand, albeit lacking in eloquence, it is simple and direct.

The traversing pair interrupted, immediately freeze. The gentleman studies the menacing figure blocking their way. He grips his satchel a little more tightly. "A predictable request." And then he adds, "Are we to assume we are in some sort of peril?"

The swarthy figure points his weapon at them in response. "Like yourself, I am a businessman," he says. "I propose to relieve you of that heavy case you are carrying in exchange, of course, for sparing your life." He points to the leather satchel in his grasp.

I too am a businessman, a merchant of sorts; not unlike yourself.

A businessman of sorts...

He continues. "Now that we have established your intent let us dispense then with these assumptions. Since I may have arrived at the last hour of my life, I am curiously beset with an urge to negotiate with the devil in the top hat." He then grinned and tipped his own hat to his adversary. "I have a proposition to make you instead. I Sir, am a businessman, a merchant of sorts; not unlike yourself, since we both apparently deal in lost souls. Hence I have a counter offer to make you. What say you entertain my barter for your merriment? Suppose I were to offer you the objects of your desire but with one twist. In the course of this transaction, suppose we were to eliminate one integral part of your equation. I propose to give you my very large sum of cash as well as hand over my fair companion in full consent to the natural conclusion of the gratification of your urges. After all the money is a goodly sum and she is very fair, a woman to fulfill your manly appetites. And all this is done without the commission of a crime on your part. In exchange, all I ask from you is for you to allow me to retain possession of this one paltry satchel with its ...contents. Tonight, Sir, would appear to be your lucky night, would it not?"

The villain hesitates, then counters."And in the spirit of fair business, I then propose a counter-offer; I will take your sum of cash, the girl, and the contents of that bag." He fidgets, nervously brandishing the weapon. "It seems as if you have nothing left to barter with."

"But I do, and with one remaining stipulation. If you allow me to retain my satchel then I will allow you to keep your soul. If you are unable, however, to carry out your transaction, then I hold your soul in default as collateral. Do you agree to my terms?"

This time the blood runs cold in the hasty assailant. "My soul?!!" For one brief moment he is seized with apprehension, as if now he is the one now being accosted. Valuable time has been lost and the thug is anxious to claim his bounty, a goodly nights haul by any means. He arms his weapon to broadcast the finality of his offer. "Hand them over, now!"

Barter For Your Soul

"It's a viable offer but it would seem several assumptions have been made on your part, Sir. You assume because of my attire I am carrying a large sum of cash. And you assume it is we who are in peril and not yourself? Perhaps it would be naive of me to not anticipate that once I hand over my valuables, you nonetheless will kill me, leaving you at liberty to impose yourself on my fair young escort. After all she is a member of the weaker sex and with me out of the way you are at liberty to have your way with her? Is this not so?"

He grins toothily as he nods his large head, tipping his large top hat in mocking gesture but in such a way as to not take his eyes off the prey. He is no novice to his trade.

This Concludes Our Bargain

"Be that as it may," he concedes. "Then may I present you with your newest acquisitions." He removes his wallet and her petticoat. His mouth drops as he hands them both over to the surprised thug. He grabs her, one burly hand grasping her petite wrist, and then the wallet. That turns out to be a fatal mistake. She smiles coldly. As he reaches for the wallet, at the opportune moment, she strikes in one efficient lethal motion. A sharp knife she deftly procured from her nether garments quickly applied to his fifth rib, ends the robbery and his life. He collapses silently in a heap at their feet.

"It seems my friend, you made several assumptions tonight, all of which were wrong. It was you who needed protection ...from her." He reaches down to extract something that belongs to him from the would-be assailant; his soul. Reaching into the cadaver, he extracts a dark, shadowy object in the form of it's previous owner, one that struggles and moves about like a sheet in the wind. He placed the writhing entity inside the heavy bag he has been clutching. Reaching into his coat pocket, he retrieves a slip of paper which he presses into the palm of the deceased. He tips his top hat to the fallen in a final gesture. "This, Sir, concludes our bargain. It has been a pleasure doing business with you." Last seen, the pair step over the fresh corpse to continue their journey, disappearing in the shadows, reappearing at the next lamps' dim glow.

The next morning...

... a crowd has gathered. The man leaning over the body lets out an audible gasp. "Here now, what's this?!!

"What is it Inspector?"

"The eyes are gone from this one too! Ah! Another note," he declares matter-of-factly. He reads out loud, "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"

© 2011 Jim Henderson


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