By Mike Bersin
“Satan’s here to see you Mr Johnson”
His PA’s unexpected voice startled Dave Johnson. “Sorry?”
“Satan’s here to see you Mr Johnson”
He quickly clicked the mouse and his pension pot calculations disappeared under a sales spreadsheet. He wouldn’t want to be caught with something obscene on his screen. He turned towards the door of the outer office.
“Uh, don’t laugh Briony, but I thought you just said Satan’s here to see me?”
“That’s what he says”.
Dave couldn’t actually see into her room from behind his leather-topped desk, but Briony was speaking with the exaggerated calm of someone unexpectedly confronting a large dangerous animal.
“Has he got an appointment?” Dave called, frowning. How do these people get past reception?
“He says… he says he doesn’t need one”
“Tell him to piss off”
“Why not tell me yourself, Dave?” The voice was rich, deep and mellow. Dave, who as far as he could remember, had never had a gay impulse in his life, stared open-mouthed. The man who had just walked into his room was magnificent. Two metres tall, two hundred pounds, perfectly styled mane of jet black hair. Impeccably dressed in a very expensive suit. Groomed to perfection. In the prime of life. Gorgeous. Dave’s nose twitched. There was a faint smell of struck matches in the room.
“You were expecting horns and a forked tail?”
“I wasn’t expecting anyone – ”
“Anyone as handsome as me?”, the beautiful voice completed for him. The man smiled down benevolently. “How can I accomplish my supreme work unless I’m… supremely seductive?”
Dave felt himself blushing. “Look I don’t know how you got in here or who you are – ”
“I’m Satan”. The man nodded in a matter-of-fact way and shrugged. “Somebody has to be”.
Dave wondered; how dangerous was this nutcase? But he wasn’t scared. Briony would have pushed the button under her desk and a couple of security men would already be on their way.
“Briony?” He called, “Briony?” There was no answer. Perhaps she had slipped out to seek help. How long would it take security to ascend fifteen floors? To stall for time he asked; “How do I know you’re who you say you are? Can you prove it?”.
The tall man reached in his jacket pocket and slid out what appeared to be a solid gold iPod. “Just check out that tracklist”, he said, indicating the screen.
“Wow” said Dave, “Impressive”
“The Devil always has the best iTunes”
Dave pulled a face.
“What about this then?” The man gestured strangely with his left hand and the air in the room was suddenly full of tiny complex algebraic equations, minuscule lines of small-print, intricate designs for printed circuits, wiring diagrams, tax avoidance schemes, pharmaceutical formulae and geometric celtic patterns, all floating in a million tiny items of double entry book-keeping.
Puzzled, Dave tried to see beyond the maze of little shapes. The other figure winked at him through the shifting patterns.
“They say the Devil is always in the detail”
This has gone far enough thought Dave. He leaned towards the door. “Briony? Briony!”
“She can’t hear you”
“She can’t hear me? What have you done to her?”
“Nothing harmful; she just can’t hear you. She thinks you’re in Manchester. And she has no memory of me coming in here at all”.
Dave sprang up and made a dive for the door. Dave sprang up and made a dive for the door. Dave sprang up and made a dive for the door. Finding himself still behind his desk after his third attempt, he stopped springing. This has got to be some kind of weird dream, he thought. I’m going to wake up any second. Unless. Unless this guy really is the Devil.
“What do you want? Am I going to die?” he asked.
The man shrugged “Everyone’s going to die. Sometime. And your time is”, he glanced at the clock, “In about ten minutes”.
Dave struggled to frame a coherent question. “So… what do you want?”
“Me? Why? Why have you come for me?”
“It’s the votes. Like Strictly. Have you any idea how many people have sincerely wished you to hell during your life?”
“But I’m only thirty-one!”
“You’re going to spend the whole of eternity in either heaven or hell. How long would you like to live?”
“Seventy-five? Eighty?”, said Dave hopefully.
“Seventy-five years is exactly the same fraction of eternity as thirty-one. It doesn’t make any difference in the long run”
Dave nodded agreement glumly. Numeracy had its disadvantages.
His companion pursed his elegant lips thoughtfully. “But there’s another reason. You show promise”
“I show promise?” Dave slipped a glance at his watch. Where were security. Where was anybody? Silence. It was if the two of them were entirely alone in the building. In the world. In the universe. What if he was Satan?
“This business you have here. Of which you are Managing Director”. Satan indicated the plate on Dave’s office door.
Satan nodded. “PanUniversal. It’s a perfect example of all those organisations that make everyone’s life just that little bit more miserable”.
“That’s not what we’re here for” said Dave, offended.
“No, but it’s what you achieve”. Satan crossed the office and sat back in the sofa. “And low level misery is very important. Very important. Arms dealers, secret police, the National Rifle Association, they can all destroy lives in an instant, but what suits my plan is the unrelenting grind of a lifetime of failure and disappointment. The little aggravations and frustrations that make a person’s time on earth… a complete waste”.
He paused and studied Dave’s face thoughtfully. “Any tinpot dictator can kill or maim a million people. But to ruin the quality of life for billions? That’s talent”.
Dave frowned. “But I don’t understand. How do we do that? We give people what they want. They buy them. People want the products and services we provide. We don’t force them. They pay money willingly. How do we ruin anybody’s life?” He paused suspiciously. “You’re not a communist, are you?”
“Hey. Don’t knock communism. Have you any idea how much misery has been caused by communists”
“So how does PanUniversal ruin people’s lives then?”
The handsome man smiled. “Well, your website for a start”.
“Website? What’s wrong with our website?”
“Have you ever tried clicking on the “contact us” button?”
“Why would I? I am us”.
“Well I’ve tried clicking on it. When people have a problem with your company, and they do, regularly and frequently – well done by the way – there is no way they can get hold of anyone who has sufficient authority to put it right. Ever. To get anything done they have to forget the internet and write snail-mail to your board, or better; your industry regulatory body. That’s worth a couple of thousand heart attacks a year. And the FAQs! Who writes those?”.
“Not me. Why?”
“They’re brilliant! Exquisitely fabricated to look almost exactly like the problem you’re currently experiencing, but actually nothing like it, so completely useless! Frequently Asked Questions? No-one has ever asked those questions!”
“Give it a break! We’re no worse than anybody else”.
“Yes!” The big man leapt triumphantly to his feet. “PanUniversal! We’re no worse than anybody else! What a strapline for the age!”
He paced round the room. “And your call centre! Genius!”
Dave scowled. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Everything! No-one you speak to can ever fix anything. And I love the way you train them to call people by their first name as if they were mates! Priceless! You’ve taken the whole fucking car insurance premium out of my bank account three fucking times and I still haven’t got the fucking policy documents! OK Mary, my name’s Gavin, how can I help you? I love it! Did you know there are more people die of heart failure while talking to a call centre than die in road accidents?”
“No. You’re right. I’m Satan. I tell lies. But it’s still a gratifyingly big number. And you know what happens when you ask to speak to a manager?”
“Of course I do. They lean back in their chair, make the universal onanist sign towards their headset and ask if anyone wants to pretend to be a manager. I used to work in a call centre”.
“Yes you did. You didn’t grow up in this industry did you? Your Aunt bought the business for you”
Dave looked sulky. “It’s not my fault my Aunt made a fortune. It’s not her fault she made a fortune. She was a dietician. There’s always money to be made from people’s unshakeable belief that you can lose weight by eating things.”
Satan pushed himself off the sofa and walked to the window. Looking down on the warehouse roofs below, he asked; “Do you know anything at all about the stuff you sell?”
“I don’t need to!” retorted Dave, “I’ve got an MBA!”
“Ah yes”, he was chuckling and shaking his head, “The idea that you can run any business, every business, according to the same set of scientific principles. A great idea. One of my best”.
“But you can! I do!” Dave was seriously aggrieved now.
“You do. You run exactly the kind of miserable business you can run when you don’t know anything about it. If you want to spread a little happiness in the world by being good at what you do, you generally have to grow up in whatever industry you work in and know it inside out! That’s another scientific fact. The man who runs the best cement company in the world, ever, started out forty years ago sweeping up in the loading bay. He knows exactly what his business is doing from top to bottom. Although”, he muttered under his breath, “Why you would want to spread a little happiness is beyond me”. He turned away from the window. “I leave that to my colleague”, and gazed at the ceiling, “Up there”.
“Where’s all this leading?”
“I’m delighted to say it’s all going to Hell in a handcart. But there are still a couple of things I want to compliment you on before I reveal your precise part in this little scenario”. He paused and patted his pockets. “Do you mind if I smoke?”.
Dave glanced up hopefully at the smoke detector, “Not at all”, he said, then started in surprise as a faint trickle of smoke began to curl from the other person’s nostrils. Then ears. Then eyes. And finally from his collar and cuffs. Neat trick, if it was a trick. Perhaps he is Satan. He can’t want to make me an offer, surely, thought Dave. Not the Lord of the Underworld. Still; here he is. If it is him.
“What really convinces me of your diabolic genius is the way you treat your staff”
“My staff?” said Dave blankly, as if he’d never before encountered the thought of them being treated in any way whatsoever.
“Yes. All that bureaucracy, form filling and box-ticking. You must make forty calls a week, always ask the client these ten questions. You know the stuff. Don’t you trust them?”
“Of course not. They’ve got no idea what they’re doing. That’s why we hire them. They’re cheap. The occasional expensive one left over from the previous management who’s good at their job, we usually manage to drive out eventually”.
“The ones who are self-disciplining? So you’ve never even considered dropping the micro-managing, putting your hand in your pocket, hiring the right people and letting them get on with it?”.
He caught the look on Dave’s face, nodded and grinned. “No, obviously not”.
There was a moment’s pause while the big man studied his reflection in the window, checking both profiles carefully and smoothing his hair.
“I particularly admire”, he continued”, The way you demand your staff send production forecasts to head office at the beginning of every week. Everyone knows they’re just guesses and can’t possibly bear any relation to the eventual results. But if they pitch low you give them a kicking, and if they pitch high, then miss, you give them an even bigger kicking. They can’t win. Magic. Do you ever read them?”
Dave snorted. “You’re joking. No-one does. It’s just a way of keeping them on their toes”.
“And making their lives a misery. Good man. How many people work in this company?”
“Five thousand give or take”
“And how many participate in the decision-making process?”
“Participate?” Dave’s lips moved slowly as if he had never heard the idea before.
“I mean; there are five thousand brains with an average IQ of 100 in your business. How much of that talent do you use?
“Well; none, actually. I decide what we’re going to do. The board agrees with me. Then we ship all the staff to a Strategy Conference, discuss the options, weigh the pros and cons, debate the upside and downside for three days, then tell them what they’re going to do.
Satan clapped his hands in delight. “So all that shareholders money is solely resting on you, and only you, having any good ideas. Better and better! So why do you have a Managing Director at each location?”
“So we’ve got someone to sack when the plan goes wrong”.
“Which it invariably does. Well”, he smacked his lips, “You’ve got a glowing future with me!”
“Incandescent, believe me. Just one last question”
Unable to decide between wondering when his alarm clock would go off and release him from this nonsense, or wondering whether, just whether, this strange and scary being really did have plans for him, Dave hesitatingly asked; “One last question before what?”.
“Before”, said the big handsome man in his rich gravelly tones, but didn’t complete the sentence. “Now the last question concerns your bonus, of, what was it, average £4,000,000 at each of your most recent three jobs.
“Four point two million”
“Impressive. You were three years at International Couriers, two years at Belgium Telecom, and four years at National Foods. Three different industries of which you had no experience”.
“I told you, I don’t need experience. I’ve got spreadsheets”.
“Yet you still got a big bonus at each one. How?”
“You’re interviewing me, aren’t you?”
“Just answer the question”
Dave shrugged. “Sacking people”. He thought for a moment. “Suppose there are eight branches and one of them is making a big loss. I can take a couple of years finding and employing people who know what they’re doing and helping them turn it round. Or I can close it down instantly. Either way the company is more profitable, and I get a fat bonus. Which would you do?”
“Right”, said the evil one “You’re the man for me!”
“So you want me as a… partner… down there?” asked Dave hopefully.
“Yes! Of course I do! I’m going to put you on the board! Well, on a board anyway!” grinned Satan and, seizing Dave’s arm, pulled him to the window and pointed across the car park, the dual carriageway, the shops and houses, the trees and parks, the distant hills and the sky.
“One day – all this will be yours!” he thundered, sweeping his arm theatrically across the panorama, and it seemed to Dave that he could see, in one glance, all the millions of businesses in every country in the world. “You, Dave Johnson, can have all the customers and staff in creation, to make truly miserable, for ever and ever, with your infinite ignorance and greed!”
“Wow!” breathed Dave, “You really want to work with me!”, then stared in horror as the handsome face began to glow a brighter and brighter orange, sinister flames started to lick upwards from the strangely contorting body, and sulphurous smoke coiled around the room. The exquisitely shaped mouth horribly opened wider and wider and wider and wider.
“Don’t be so fucking stupid! Why would I want a useless plonker like you! You’re going to spend an eternity in hell! – Mwah hwah hwah hwah hwah hwaaaahhhhh!”
Seizing Dave by his collar, and with a maniacal laugh, the blazing demon rushed him out of the office, across the lobby and shoved him hard through the open lift doors. “An eternity in hell!” he screamed again as Dave, joining in the screaming, plummeted vertically down through the darkness for five seconds, the exact time it takes to descend fifteen floors.
There was a large thud.
Me, hitting the bottom of the lift shaft, thought Dave.
He lay there without thinking anything else for a minute, then mentally checked his body for pain or damage. None. He checked all his senses. Nothing. No heat or smell of burning. No crackle of eternal fires. No screams of the damned.
Just where have I been condemned to spend eternity, he wondered?
He cautiously opened one eye. Lettering swam into focus;
“PanUniversal. Contact us”.