A case of vengeance

A silly squib. The idea has been kicking round in my head for years, and this seems as good a time as any to flush it out.


‘—Not exactly a ghost story,’ said the Middle Management Devil, between slurps at his tea. ‘They are not, aha, ghosts when we have them Down Below.’

(Never let anyone tell you that devils are witty or urbane. Only their P. R. department believes this, and a P. R. devil will believe anything. Devils are uniformly hideous, ill-mannered, awkward, and smelly. Imagine the worst science fiction convention you have ever heard of, and then imagine that the common interest binding the people there is not rocket ships or rayguns, but terrorism and torture. The very most polished devil is not quite as urbane as a farting contest at a NASCAR rally.)

‘Go on,’ I said, not because I meant it, but because there was no point in saying anything else. The stranger had slouched into my booth at Denny’s uninvited, taken a seat (now covered in slime), and struck up a tedious conversation, all without a word or glance of permission from me; and he had shoved a grimy business card at me—


—explaining, as if it were something that tickled him all over with pride, that the initials stood for that title which I gave in the first sentence above. He was clearly one of these mad monologuists that you see at diners after the bars have closed, and there was nothing for it but to hold fast and let him talk himself out.

‘Yes,’ he was saying, ‘the passion of vengeance is, aha, very good for business, you understand, but we know better than to indulge in it ourselves. The essential work of Middle Management would go completely to pieces. It’s enough to do to tyrannize one’s subordinates and backstab one’s superiors, when one does it in a purely professional and disinterested way. If one did it because of a petty personal grudge – now, I ask you: is there anyone in Hell that you would not hold a grudge against? Nothing would ever get done; nothing at all. The damned would pile up like cordwood, humiliated perhaps, but not actually tormented. Lower Authority would never stand for it.

‘Now this one fellow we had, oh, some centuries back, was absolutely eaten up with that very passion. Revenge, revenge, revenge. It was all he ever thought about; and the only person he ever thought of taking it on was some trivial malefactor named Salazar or Salamander or something of that kind, who he thought had cheated him in some matter to do with – money? a female? a pat on the head from some titled twit? It doesn’t matter; everything Salazar did thereafter, even things of a quite innocent nature, this customer managed to twist it into a further insult against himself. He worked himself up into a froth to anyone who would listen, saying that death was too good for Salazar, even the death of a thousand cuts, or dipping in acid an inch at a time. But he killed him just the same. Oh, he killed him. He caught him by ambush one night outside a tavern, when Salazar was so full of drink that it was leaking out of his ears, and he split him down the middle with three feet of good Toledo steel: not the rubbish they make nowadays for tourists – the old-fashioned kind that you can’t get any longer, which was made with the skill of pure terror, for a man could die in a second if his blade failed him in battle.’

The M. M. D. slurped at his tea again. ‘Too cold,’ he said. ‘Get the waitress to bring me more hot water, will you? And give me some matches while you’re at it.’

‘There’s no smoking,’ I said.

‘Not for that,’ he said, flapping a flabby hand. ‘For the match-heads. I just like the smell of brimstone.’

‘I suppose you would,’ I said glumly, feeling about in my pockets to see if I had got any matches. I hadn’t. Disappointing him was a sour pleasure, and a small one, too, for he seemed to forget all about the matches as he plunged back into his tall tale.

‘So there lay Salazar, or the bits of him, all over the street in the dark, and my customer – what was his name? – no matter, he doesn’t need it now; would not recognize it if you shouted it in his face. Anyway, he was standing over the body, such as it was, and the other drunks were begging him to run away before someone came to arrest him. They didn’t want any trouble; they most particularly didn’t want to be arrested themselves, and held for four or five years in some Iberian dungeon as material witnesses. But my customer gave them all the back of his hand, and mustered what he thought was his dignity, and said very quietly – I remember it well: the memory was imprinted on his dossier—

‘ “My life is nothing to me now, Señores. I have taken my revenge – and – it is not enough. A thousand deaths could not recompense me for the harm that villain has done to me and mine. No, my friends, I go to the gallows with my head held high, because I could do no otherwise.”

‘Well, this did nothing to improve their spirits, I can tell you. They were afraid of being scooped up by the Watch, as I say. But one of them – oh, he was magnificent! He could have been one of us; and maybe one of us put a thought in his brain. He said to my customer, very slowly and solemnly:

‘ “Where is it written that you can kill him only once?”

‘My man looked at him very strangely, as if he had grown a second head, and it had immediately begun reciting clerihews in Swahili. (This was before they had clerihews, but you get the general idea.) “What was that you said?”

‘ “Where is it written, Señor,” the other man repeated, “that you can kill him only once?”

‘ “But he is dead now, and he has gone where I cannot reach him.”

‘ “Do you mean that he is in Hell?” the other man scoffed. “Nothing is easier. Have you never learnt your catechism? What does Mother Church tell us of the fate of the suicide?”

‘ “Why, all those who destroy themselves are destined for H—”

‘A lovely light came into my customer’s eyes – if such a thing as light can ever be said to be lovely. Friend’ – it made my flesh crawl to hear him call me friend – ‘I could have kissed that fellow full on the lips, if I had been there. I could have forgiven him; I could have borne to see him miss Hell altogether, not that you ever heard me say such a thing, for the sake of the glorious harm he had done. For he had just guaranteed that my customer’s soul would not only be damned, but damned in the most grotesque and amusing possible way. Let me tell you how,’ he said, as if I had some option of not letting him.

‘That fell light came into his eyes, as I said; and it never left them again, not so long as he had eyes. He reversed his grip on his sword, and put the point against his belly; and he shouted, “Revenge, Salazar! To Hell I pursue thee!” – and it was even more shoddy and theatrical in his bad Castilian, believe me. I cannot do his delivery injustice. Anyway, he drove the blade in up to the hilt, up under his ribs and straight into his heart. And that was the end of him, so far as this world is concerned.

‘Of course he was in Hell in a moment, and in all my centuries I never saw a customer so glad to arrive. I met him at the landing; I started in to give him the standard briefing (for I was not in Management then), but he paid me no mind. He only cared about the one thing, you see. “Where is Salazar?” he asked me. “Tell me where I may find him, so that I can kill him again!”

‘Well, I didn’t know where his playmate was, so I put him off with flapdoodle. I made up some silly riddle, you know, the kind that sounds profound, but doesn’t mean anything – or means whatever you want it to mean, when you finally pretend to yourself that you have it answered. He actually shook my hand – almost pulled it clean off’ (here the Middle Management Devil wrung his flabby wrist as if it still gave him pain) ‘and then took himself off on his mission.

‘I kept an eye on him myself from time to time, but mostly I delegated. That is, I sold tickets. Half the devils in Hell wanted to see this marvel – a man who wanted to be in Hell; who was glad of every torment, because he was so unshakable in his faith that Salazar was there. He was convinced, you see, that his own petty grievance was the worst injury any mortal man ever suffered, and the very worst punishments in the hottest part of the Netherworld must have been rigged up just for Salazar’s especial benefit. We didn’t trouble to disabuse him. No, sir, we egged him on! He shovelled cubic miles of filth with his bare hands; he searched through endless dungheaps for clues that weren’t there; he palled up with torturers and cheerfully submitted to red-hot pincers, just in the hopes of cadging information about his enemy’s whereabouts. He even swam the Lake of Fire at one point, all the way across – and then back again, for he had forgotten one of our riddling clues, and across a third time, before he kept on going. Friend, he was ecstatic because of the pains we loaded on him, so long as he thought Salazar must be having it worse. So I sold tickets, as I said, and hundreds of us took turns watching over him, and fixing up tortures for him, and feeding him false leads that sent him chasing all over Sheol and half of Gehenna. You never saw such mirth among so many devils; and as for me, that ticket-selling stunt was what got me my first break in management.’

He looked so pleased with himself that I had some trouble keeping my ham and eggs down. I saw that I had only a moment to deflect him before he started bragging about himself; so I gritted my teeth and said: ‘What happened to your customer? Did he ever find Salazar?’

‘Oh, yes. After about forty years, when – aha – when ticket sales had dried up, and I had got everything I could get out of him. You never saw such a disappointed shade. Terrified, despairing, angry, bitter, eaten up with remorse – we get all those kinds in Hell; but mere disappointment is a thing we hardly ever see. “Blessed is he who expects nothing,” you know. Finally I let him see Salazar; and he was in the dullest and most pedestrian part of Hell, suffering things that would hardly make your granny weep.

‘Well, my customer was ready to chuck out every devil for miles around, and take over the work himself. He was acrimonious. “What is this!” he bellowed. “Where are the whips and pitchforks? Where are the red-hot chains? Where the fire and the ice, the filth and the lice, and all the torments of flesh and soul that I myself have had to endure? Why is this worm not punished!” And nothing would do him but to kill him again. He had got hold of a scimitar somewhere, from one of our guard devils who swapped it for a ticket; and I made sure he wasn’t deprived of it – this would be too good to miss. He stood just so, just as he had done outside that tavern long ago, and sliced Salazar right down the middle again.

‘But it was no good, you see. If one death was not enough to appease my customer for the trifling wrong that Salazar did him in life, two deaths could not begin to make up for forty years of tramping through Hell and suffering every pain on the books. And that fell light in his eyes grew a little brighter; for he knew he had got to do it again. He fell on his sword a second time, and went to the Hell of Hell; to Hell squared, if you see what I mean. And he started looking for Salazar all over again.

‘Now, don’t you listen to people like Dante; they’re no authorities. The really showy pains of Hell, the fires and forks and all, are all on the first level – the public level, you might say, where the sinners are still hardened from life, and have not yet been broken down by damnation. The lower you go, the less real the punishments become; but the souls get weaker, too, and lose the power of endurance. And it is part and parcel of their torment that they know what is happening to them, and see that they have become such weaklings that they go into frenzies over things that they could have laughed off in life. There is one advanced patient, a customer of mine in the old days, who does nothing all day but sit in a booth like this one, drinking water with an ice cube in it – not because he is thirsty – no, he is hungry, but iced water is all he can get; we make sure of that. And the ice is just a little too cold, and he has a chipped tooth, and taking the millionth sip from that glass, and feeling the same old boring pang shoot through his tooth again – knowing each time that he can resist it less – he would hardly have felt it as a living man, but now it is enough to put him in a towering rage, and he blasphemes and cries and tears what’s left of his hair. More than half the fun comes because he knows he is overreacting, shamelessly, colossally; but he can’t help himself anymore. He is stuck in a rut that he can’t get out of, and will never do anything more now but plod round and round in the same tedious circle of mild discomfort and titanic reaction, for ever and ever, because there will never be anything else to do.’

The devil gave a sigh of pure bliss. I had been on the point of reaching for my own glass, but I thought better of it. Water with ice in it, just at that moment, was the last thing I wanted. ‘Your customer,’ I said gruffly.

‘Ah, yes. My customer. It took him even longer this time to find Salazar and kill him – and longer the next. And each time the tortures grew subtler, and more attuned to his particular weakness; and he became desperate, for he feared that he would not be able to stick to his purpose. By now he had a hope, you see; and a hope, in Hell, is a thing that is taken away. It was his fondest wish – his only wish – to go on killing Salazar for ever and ever; to track him down and murder him, over and over, from Hell to Hell, and to the Hell of that Hell, and so on down through the infinity of perdition. If there was a deeper Hell than Our Father Below is in’ – here he made a ritual and utterly insincere obeisance – ‘he would chase his playmate all the way there, and kill him, and make us open up a new layer below that. It was just killingly funny to see.

‘Of course, after a while he stopped being the Spanish swordsman he used to be; and there got to be a time when he was so insubstantial – not like a phantom, not like smoke; only all gooey and slooshy and viscous – but he could not get a grip on a sword any longer; but he set out with dogged determination, just the same, and wrapped his gummy arms and body around Salazar, and smothered him. By and by, he got so fluid that he could actually drown him – drown a man in the slush of his own body.’

‘If you don’t change the subject,’ I said, ‘I’m going to be sick.’

‘Oh, it didn‘t last. Even slush has a structure of a sort; enough for a spirit to haunt. There was not much left of his intellect by this time, and even less of his will; the only thing he clearly knew any longer was that he must find Salazar and kill him, kill him, kill him, for all of eternity. Time flows differently down below – by his reckoning, he has been at it for more than two million years now, if I’ve done the sums right. The deeper you get, the more ages seem to go by while a single year passes in the world of the living. My customer has probably lived through a hundred years of agony while you’ve been nibbling on that toast. Are you going to eat that other slice?’ He took it without waiting for an answer, and then instead of eating it, busied his hands by rolling it into rather crumbly bread pills.

‘So where is your – er – customer now?’

‘Fourteen thousand, three hundred and sixty-six levels down,’ said Flivverpuff, beaming with professional pride. ‘There is nothing down there but a featureless plain of dull grey rock, as bare as a billiard table with the nap worn off. And in the middle of that plain there is a bit of flattish slate, strangely eroded, which is all that remains of Salazar. And on the slate is a rounded stone, such as you might find in a riverbed; which is my customer. And he has just enough life left, just enough will, to rock himself back and forth on his rounded underside, once a day or thereabouts. And every day he comes down on the stone that was Salazar like the world’s feeblest hammer: Tap… Tap… Tap. And when I last looked in on him, an hour ago by your time, a thousand years by his, there was a hairline crack in the stone that was Salazar, and I confidently expect him to crumble before the aeon is out.

‘And that, my friend, is why we don’t meddle with vengeance ourselves. We serve it to the customers, cold; but don’t you fear, that is one poison that never passes our lips. “Vengeance is mine, saith the—” Well, you know who I mean; and in my opinion, he can have it, for he’s the only one who can digest it. When anybody else tries, it digests them. Thank you, I prefer to have someone else at the bottom of the food chain.’



  1. As soon as I think of vengeance, I remember that just desserts ar the Lord’s to give, and start praying for whoever it was I am angry at. Precisely because of this.

    Well-written – not really Christmas fare.

    • Well, the Victorians used to tell ghost stories at Christmas; Dickens’ little tale is merely one of the last in a long line. And anyway, I find that nothing puts me in mind of Our Lord quite so effectually as the awful thought of what His absence would mean.

  2. On some level this could rank as a sort of Christmas fare in reverse, like one of those alcoholic cocktails made with boiled eggs and chili pepper and tomato juice, and other things you would hardly ever expect to get put in a cocktail. A decent if unusual contrast to the typical mulled ales and whatnot.

    I do wonder about the implications of that part of the Catechism which contra-indicates suicide as a mortal sin, and the only kind that leaves the penitent physically unable to drag themselves to any sort of confessional, thus apparently bringing guaranteed damnation. That kind of notion has been an obstacle for me up to now in terms of actually joining the Church — not because of ever needing to commit suicide myself, you see, but because of being indebted to other acquaintances who have, to the point of an obligation to drag them back out of Hell if it in fact comes to that. One quite traditional and upright Catholic I questioned on the matter admitted to his opinion that the overwhelming majority of suicides nowadays are not, in fact, mortal sin due to a lack of awareness of the gravity of the act, which seems to me a demonstration that people believe what they want, Church or no. Whether I should just shrug and do the same, and whether doing that with full awareness, in fact, prevents me from being a member of the Church in any sort of good conscience, has been an ongoing question.

    • I am Catholic, have no intention of committing suicide (I’m a coward), and trust that the God who made us, knows us and loves us. If He isn’t merciful, there is no hope anywhere.

      I have lost loved ones to suicide. Whatever torment drove them to it, I still think God’s love is bigger than their despair.

      If this is simplistic, so be it.

      • Despair is certainly a grave sin, and suicide combines the sin of despair with the sin of murder. God’s love, as you say, is bigger still; the question is whether he can do anything for someone who is in such a frame of mind as to wish nothing to be done.

        It may be, and I hope it is so, that Our Lord judges the suicide with all possible mercy, bearing in mind his pains, his circumstances, and (to be frank) the contributory guilt of others who may have driven him to the point where he saw no other choice. But in a case like this, where a man kills himself for the specific purpose of going to Hell and committing more murders, well, it’s hard to see what else God could do but leave him to his own devices and wish him bon voyage.

        • You are correct. I was responding more to the commenter than to you – your story was exactly the right response to that kind of suicide.

          I don’t understand that mentality, but I do believe it exists: I don’t care how bad things are for me, as long as they’re worse for my enemy. I DO care how bad things are for me, and I think Someone will do a much better job of necessary vengeance than I could possibly do.

          Your story was beautifully written AND reasoned.

    • Stephen J. says

      The requirements of a mortal sin are seriousness, knowledge and will: it has to be sufficiently grave in scope, you have to know it’s that bad, and choose in fully uncoerced will to do it anyway knowing it’s that bad. (Interestingly, this means that you can commit the mortal sin itself without actually committing the act it would normally entail; if you go over to a man’s house with a loaded gun having deliberately decided to kill him, that is the mortal sin of Wrath, and remains so even if, upon arriving, you find the man has been killed in a car crash before you ever got near him.)

      I have to admit that to me it seems a very plausible (if admittedly somewhat facile) argument that anyone in such mental distress as to want to end their life is by definition not in their right mind, and could not be held to be making that choice with full deliberate uncoerced knowledge and understanding; people suffering from verifiable neurochemical disorders would certainly fall into this category. Anyone not sufficiently catechized to know that it is a sin or to understand why it is a sin may also be reachable through the infinite mercy of God, even after death. But such arguments, while useful in encouraging us to pray as much as we can for souls whose fate we do not know, are also dangerous because they can appear to provide “excuses” for people struggling with the desperate temptation towards self-destruction who might otherwise restrain themselves.

      It is probably better to say that while deliberate suicide in willfully-embraced despair of salvation would guarantee damnation, it is never possible to know for certain in this life whether any one person’s tragic act actually fulfills those criteria; it may be, as one article I once read suggested, that in even the briefest elapsed instant between fatal decision and actual death God can hear and act upon even the faintest smidgen of doubt, regret or second-guessing, and spare someone already in intense pain the state of Hell if not Purgatory. But to act in presumption of such mercy would be a sin in itself.

      • Proviso: if you could reasonably have known it was bad, you may be guilty of mortal sin in ignorance, because it is vincible ignorance.

        Mind you, if you just didn’t make quite enough effort to know it was wrong, you are guilty to the degree of your negligence, but if you made no effort to find out what was wrong, you are fully as guilty as if you knew, and if you made a positive effort to avoid knowing, you are at least as guilty as if you knew, and possibly more, because of the hardness of heart involved.

        • Whether this applies in a given case of suicide, to be sure, is not in our hands to judge. Certainly mental distress and still more disorders can confuse your ability to tell.

        • Stephen J. says

          “Proviso: if you could reasonably have known it was bad, you may be guilty of mortal sin in ignorance, because it is vincible ignorance.”

          Granted, although it strikes me that that particular Venn-overlap zone — knowledgeable enough about mortal sins that you could reasonably have been expected to know suicide is one, or to wonder whether it might be, yet never actually specifically told that it is and/or deliberately avoiding finding out in the intention of exploiting that loophole — is so narrow as to be exceedingly rare in practice.

          I am thinking more of people brought up in historical cultures like Japan’s or ancient Rome’s prior to Evangelization, where ritual suicide was often seen as admirable and was sometimes a last-ditch political protection for one’s family, or (more tragically) somebody raised outside the Christian faith today who seeks euthanasia under the misguidedly quasi-altruistic desire to “not be a burden” to one’s caregivers. The hope that the mercy of God can reach those souls whose lives prevented them from fully understanding what they did is not, I choose to believe, misplaced.

          You are right, though, in that “vincible ignorance” is not really ignorance at all; like C.S. Lewis’s essay about the person who asked, “Can’t one live a good life without believing in Christianity?”, the very fact that someone is asking the question betrays the fact that they are already afraid they know what the answer is, and they are asking not because they really want to know the answer but because they are hoping to be told that the question isn’t really that important. Which is another reason why these arguments can only ever work as a reason to hope for those already in God’s hands, and never as a justification for oneself: the very act of wanting to exploit them disqualifies the conditions which enable them.

  3. Almost expected it to continue on a bit, Flivverpuff excusing himself, our narrator waiting for the waiter to come by, waiting, waiting, and finally Flivverpuff returns to tell our narrator of another customer… and another… : ) Merry Christmas!

  4. James R. Asher says

    Belatedly, this is very good and quite thought-provoking. My only quibble is that your middle-management devil comes across as quite well-spoken, with some nice turns of phrase, which doesn’t fit your initial description of devils…

    • Well-spoken is one thing the more senior devils actually are. Remember, these are the creatures who also run the PR division. Like their human relatives in the media, they are glib, superficially plausible, and fundamentally stupid, and their most dangerous weapon is their infectious ignorance.

      Hell seldom laughs, but when it sees some chump of a human being believing that a TV newsreader or politician is smart because he can read a Teleprompter in a suitably mellifluous tone, the whole infernal empire is simply convulsed.

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