Bill pulled the last dime from his pocket. Heads – Lady Liberty – and he would try to make a break for it, even if the attempt was probably doomed to fail. Tails he’d go upstairs and follow through on the plan he’d come up with, also probably doomed to fail.
He flipped the coin high. His reflexes were slowed by the half-dozen beers he’d drunk, one at each bar between the mail sorting station where he worked and his Hell’s Kitchen home. The coin glanced off his hand and bounced away before falling down a sewer grating.
Bill stared at the grating momentarily. “Tails,” he murmured, and went inside.
As he climbed from the third floor to the fourth, he prayed that, despite the demon’s words last evening and despite its nightly presence, it simply wouldn’t be there tonight. That it would have left as suddenly as it had arrived.
The door edged open and his hopes crumbled. He could smell it there, smoke and lavender and dead things. Even after coming home to this for weeks it made him ill. The smell wafted into the hall along with low sounds from the radio. The Great Gildersleeve, Bill realized dully. He opened the door the rest of the way and went inside.
“Evening, Bill,” said the demon, reaching with a clawed hand to silence the radio. “I’ve been waiting quite a while. Thought maybe you got it in your head you could ditch me.”
“No,” Bill said. “Nothing like that. Just…” He waved a hand before letting loose an incongruous laugh. “Just getting drunk.”
The demon eyed him. “Not too drunk, I hope. You know what I expect.”
Bill nodded. He reached under his jacket and felt the envelope tucked in there. “You’ll get it. But I’m going to have a drink of water first.” He nodded goofily and wondered if it maybe had been seven or eight bars, seven or eight beers. “Wet the old whistle, you know.”
The demon arched an eyebrow. “Quite.” It settled itself deeper into Bill’s armchair. “Don’t be long. I’m already tired.”
Bill filled a tumbler with water, lukewarm from the tap. Why couldn’t the demon be happy with the stories all around, in the libraries, the bookstores? “I know all them,” it had told Bill that first night. “Ever since I destroyed Alexandria, I’ve known every catalogued word of man.”
“Why me?” Bill had asked.
The demon had just given a hideous smile. “Why not?” was its only reply.
Bill tried creating his own stories but he wasn’t an imaginative man and the demon quickly grew tired of these. “Maybe I should just kill you now,” it had said last night. “I could find someone more clever.”
He begged for one more chance, one more night, and the demon granted it to him. All morning long, on the way to work, as he sorted the mail, Bill tried to come up with a story which would satisfy his tormentor. No ideas came to him except ones which even he knew would be hopeless.
Desperation bubbled up inside of him as his shift continued. Running wouldn’t help. He’d tried that once before and the demon had just shown up, as always, at Bill’s new apartment.
Walking across the sorting floor he noticed a long box stuffed full of large envelopes. They triggered a memory in him, deliveries he had made once when another carrier had been sick. He walked over and just a glance at the addresses confirmed his memory. Bill grabbed one from the box and hid it away. The rest of the day he expected someone to come up to him and demand it back. No one did.
But the later the hour got and the longer the shadows got, the less confident Bill was in his plan. So he stayed out and drank like there was no tomorrow. For him, there just might not be.
Now, he’d stalled as long as he could manage. He had an empty water glass and the sealed envelope.
“I’m waiting,” called the demon.
Bill went back into the other room. He sat down, the envelope on his lap.
A moment later he tore it open. He tossed the smaller envelope aside along with the cover letter addressed to Mr. Carson, editor at Colossal Science Fiction.
Bill cleared his throat.
“The rocket ship to Venus sliced through the solar system,” he began. “Rick Judson piloted it with a steady hand, knowing the settlers on Earth’s twin anxiously awaited his delivery of supplies.”
Bill glanced up. The demon’s head was tipped back, its eyes closed, and maybe there was even the hint of a smile on its face.
One eye cracked open. “Go on,” it said.
Bill turned back to the page. “The war had been tough on those settlers. The Martian rebels had blown up three supply ships just like Rick’s in the past month.”
He read through to the end, even when the demon’s slow snores began halfway through the story.
Bill walked unsteadily back to his bedroom. In the morning, the demon wouldn’t be there, gone with the sun. But it would be back tomorrow night and the next.
He looked at the pages before sliding them back into their envelope. A new envelope tomorrow, fresh postage, and the mail would be back on its way.
As Bill was drifting off to sleep he realized it was Friday morning now. Saturday was his day off so he’d have to make sure to grab three envelopes tomorrow to get him and the demon through the weekend.
His stomach clenched. He’d gotten away with this today, but how many times would he be so lucky?
He couldn’t dare to think about that. For now, he had a way to stay alive and that was what mattered. And as long as he didn’t get caught, he was sure there’d be no shortage of material; there was always someone out there with a story to tell.