This will be fun. You get to tell me what's wrong with this story. It's been submitted to various markets and my rejections are nearly always personal. I do think by virtue of my editing credit I may get more personal rejections than some people do, but this one is a quandry. They all like it but make suggestions for me to take different angles with it. Thing is, I like the story, so I'm obviously missing something.
I'm inviting ideas on why it won't sell. It's 3300 words so you know what you're in for.
Saving Souls in New Orleans
Contrary to how popular literature would have it, Satan was a habitual sort. He worked at his duties in Hell with the pragmatic ruthlessness of a cat waking its owner for breakfast. However, souls screaming in agony did begin to grate on the nerves, and whenever he got testy with his High Minions he knew it was time to get away. New Orleans, he decided, an effective reminder of why I’m at this day and night. The H.M.s liked that he might work while he was away.
He hadn’t been back since Katrina. Upon landing, he sighed in disappointment. The destruction did not bode well for business. Then, he coughed. Breathing was such an inconvenience.
His usual hotel was largely unchanged, save the gratitude of the bellhops and the waterline around the outside. It looked like a ragged, unstitched battle wound.
He ran his hand over his head as he walked to Bourbon Street, hating the way his curls tightened in the humidity.
The Absinthe was a favorite haunt. He slid onto one of its stools, ordered a drink, and surveyed the scene. Among the shopworn single mothers and three sales conference types in drunken conversation, the only standout was the freshly scrubbed face that entered to his left through the large accordion doors. Satan had no idea why there were doors. The bar never closed.
“What’s your name?” she said, as she sat down next to him. Her teeth were very white.
“Satan,” he said, nonplussed by her smiling challenge. He started his usual explanation: “A nickname from my foolish youth, and it stuck--” True enough, but the words died on his lips as she laughed.
“This is just perfect. Perfect. I’m sitting next to Satan in a bar on Bourbon Street.” She shoved back a strand of hair and sucked down the last of her grain alcohol slushy. When the straw scraped the bottom of the Styrofoam cup she leaned forward to throw it away in the trash behind the bar, baring a sliver of delectable, taut skin at her middle.
“Get you something?” Before reaching for a glass, the bartender, as bartenders will, wiped his hands on the towel slung over his shoulder.
As if his hands aren’t filthy enough, Satan thought.
“Anything,” she said, clearly not caring about the towel. “Strong.”
Satan put his gold card on the bar. “Give her what I’m drinking and as much as she wants.”
“Who knew gentlemen came from Hell?” She smiled faintly at the bartender. “Make it a double.”
Satan couldn’t help but smile too. “You’ve not told me your name.”
This amused her. He liked how her laugh wasn’t like strings plucked on a Stradivarius or rain against stained glass. It was an ordinary laugh. “Being the Lord of the Underworld, you aren’t...omni...?”
“Omniscient,” Satan supplied.
“Yeah. Omniscient. All-knowing or whatever?”
“Fallen angels have their omniscience taken with their stripes when they get kicked out of Heaven.” Satan’s smile was a thin, straight smirk, and he never tempered its icy superiority.
She seemed unimpressed by the smile. “Yeah, right.”
“Truly,” he said. “Besides, omniscience makes for poor small-talk. What fun is it if I know everything before you say it?”
“I guess that’s a point.” She reached for her drink. Her tongue stumbled over the straw, making Satan think of it stumbling over other things. She found it and swallowed down the dregs.
Satan lifted his forefinger from the bar. The bartender turned and refilled her glass without a word.
“Was that a trick?” she asked. “You’re some kind of con, huh? You guys know each other?”
“No con.” Satan shrugged. “Being the Prince of Darkness has its advantages.”
She chewed on that for a moment. “I bet it’s a lot of hard work.”
He sighed. “You have no idea.”
They fell silent. Satan liked that she didn’t fill it with drunken prattling. Those slushies had deflowered many maidens on Bourbon Street, but she was no virgin. She quietly drank what he bought her and ordered a third before speaking again.
“So. Here to check your handiwork?”
“Sorry?” Satan said. He’d been contemplating going to bed.
“The flood. Here to see your devastation at work?”
“I don’t cause natural disasters. I’m outside that game.”
“It’s no game. People have died.”
Well, of course he knew that. He didn’t answer.
“And they lost their homes and whole lives.”
What did she want from him? He’d already said he had nothing to do with it. Truth told, he had plenty of reason to be sorry about Katrina. Everyone agreed it was time to hunker down, but Flaming Oil Pits wanted Brimstone to make cuts, while Brimstone pointed fingers at Emotional Agony, and so on. The political maneuverings in the tunnels outside Hell proper were what had driven Satan to take a weekend among the living.
He’d have preferred a few days in Paris. He always enjoyed listening to the tourists’ comments at the Lourve. Mona Lisa this, glass pyramid that. It soothed his sense of superiority. However, the H.M.s only approved trips that could be written off as business.
“What’s wrong?” Eva asked.
“Just thinking about work,” he answered.
“You’ve probably been swamped, what with the hurricane and the tsunami.”
“The tsunami actually saved a great deal of work on our part,” he said. Not that the number crunchers saw it that way.
“Iraq? Afghanistan? Jerusalem? All the insurgents and martyrs?”
“Our bread-and-butter accounts,” he admitted.
“What? You’re saying that bit with the virgins in paradise isn’t true?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s hardly paradise. Virgins are terrible in bed.”
She giggled, but he shook his head. “It’s not funny. There’s no greater suffering than insufficiency between the sheets.”
“So they do go to Hell,” she said, sobering. “I guess it makes sense, since they’re killing innocent people.”
As usual, another tiresome conversation that sank into fallacy rather than truth. This time his disappointment felt fresh and deep. He shook his head, resigned. “Hell is all relative anyway, more like a state of mind.”
“So, why then?” she asked. “Personality? Hate? Who goes to Hell and why?”
Her youthful tan didn’t show its damage yet, and her elastic skin snapped back into place after she frowned. She was too young to consider she might not want to know the answers to her questions.
Except, she asked, and that was more than most people did. He drew the kind of breath someone takes before diving into cold water. “Would you walk with me?”
She got down off her stool as an answer. They stepped out of the Absinthe, and when he took her hand, she squeezed back.
“The convenient thing about Bourbon Street is that there are always so many voices that one doesn’t feel the need to add one’s own,” Satan commented as they passed an intersection hailing strands of beads.
“I suppose,” Eva said.
“Do you not like it here?” Satan asked.
“We can walk,” she answered. “But not on Bourbon. Can we head for the Quarter?”
“Dangerous streets at night between here and there,” he said.
Eva gave him a sidelong look. “I should be safe enough with the P.O.D., right?”
Something in his middle gave an unfamiliar lurch. Satan took back his hand. “You don’t believe me.”
“No, I do,” she said, her fingers twitching. “It’s just a lot to swallow.”
“I don’t see why. I’m just doing my job.” They walked for a few minutes in silence. “Are you sure you want to know about Hell?” he asked.
“Because I was evil once,” Eva said quietly.
“Yeah. I was an awful child. Spoiled and whiny and a total brat.”
“You seem okay now. What happened?” Satan felt a strange, strong happiness, strange because he barely knew her, and strong because his joy always frustrated the High Minions.
She shrugged. “Nothing.”
He took a minute to regroup. Her answer had surprised him, and not in a good way. “No crisis of faith? No life-altering dilemmas? No job loss or bad break-ups?”
She snorted. “I do all the breaking up. They’re all losers, anyway.”
“Why are you here, then?”
“To help...” She waved a vague hand. “Mostly, I guess, I wanted to see...I don’t know.”
She looked away. “I just wanted to know what it feels like to lose everything.”
“Now that you’ve seen it, do you?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
He released an inaudible sigh. This was supposed to be a vacation. “You’re with a church?”
“God, no.” She laughed suddenly. “I guess that would be a deal-breaker. No. I’m with my...company. On relief leave.”
“You hesitated after ‘my’. What were you going to say?”
“I guess it’s not in your nature to let things go,” Eva said. She reached out and slid her hand down a lamppost as they passed it.
“No,” he said, making the light flicker for her.
She smiled up at it and then at him.
The buildings stood silent witness as they walked, lamp lights occasionally winking at Satan as if it were all a big joke. Eva pulled her hair down, shook it loose and tied it back again. “It’s my dad’s company, all right? I just don’t like telling people because they get the wrong idea about me.”
“That I’m some perfect person with the perfect job and family. It’s way to much pressure.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Satan said. “First impressions are very difficult to overcome.”
“Why is that?” she asked.
“I’ve no idea,” Satan said.
“Damn. I hoped you’d know.”
Satan felt sorry, but he’d never understood people very well. “You don’t seem perfect at all,” he offered as compensation for not having Answers.
Her smile wavered and disappeared. “I started in my dad’s company after college and had to work my way up like everyone else.”
“Was it difficult?” Satan asked.
“Tell me about Hell,” Eva said.
Her low, serious tone made Satan feel funny in his middle. The streets were quiet. The missing people had been replaced by a murky scent and one of those onslaughts of irreproachable truth.
“Not much to tell,” he said. “Fire, brimstone, wailing, heartache. About what you’d expect.” He’d always found it curious how the physical aspects were still reported so accurately. It was the why that had been lost within the ruins of time.
“You said it was a state of mind,” she said, accusing.
“Well, when you die, there’s not much left but the mind,” he pointed out.
She thought that over and nodded. “Is it in the ground, like they say?”
“You go into the Earth to get there,” he admitted. “Ashes to ashes, and all that.”
“I tried to dig to Hell once when I was a kid.”
Something in him leapt up to greet this revelation. “Not China?”
“That’s exactly what my mother said,” Eva said. “I told you, I was a difficult child.”
“Maybe not so difficult as fatally curious.” He smiled his smile, but it felt a little more crooked than before. “She needn’t have worried. You weren’t in any danger. You’d get to China before you got to Hell.”
She pointed to the sky, filled with groggy clouds. “Heaven’s up there?”
He shrugged and nodded. “Vaguely that direction, yes.”
“So, Hell’s down there.”
He shook his head.
“Where else can it be? I don’t get it.”
“It defies the confines of mortal logic,” he said. “I could explain, but you could never understand.”
She stopped walking. “You’re pretty infuriating, you know that?”
Satan nodded in surprise. He did know. This was just the first time in almost forever someone had said it to his face. It brought back memories that hadn’t mellowed with time.
She was waiting, hip hitched to the side, hair falling from her clip, shadows tightening around her as night fell. The stab of memory vanished. It had been a long time ago.
“So are you going to show me or what?” she asked.
He wasn’t the only one who didn’t let things go.
“This is not a game,” he warned her. People had asked him before, of course, like it was an amusing diversion. “It’s the real thing. I’ll show you, but you need to know it’s dangerous.“
“You want me to sign a waiver or what? Let’s do it.”
Stop this! But his mouth kept going. “Close your eyes.”
She did so without giggling. God, she really believed him.
“Where did you go?”
“I’m holding your hand,” he said.
“I can’t feel you.”
He squeezed tighter. “No?”
“What else?” he asked.
Her eyes jerked under her lids. Her mouth worked, making no sound and she tried for a deep breath, fought off panic with a shudder when she couldn’t. One hand lifted toward his face, passed by his cheek. “There’s no one, are you there--can you hear me? Can you?” A scream choked in her throat, she twisted in his arms, searching for breath, wind, sky, earth below, warmth or cold. She was just on the outer edges, but it happened far faster than he expected.
“I’m right here,” he called gently.
She was too deep. She couldn’t hear him. Satan felt a tremor underfoot. Alarm surged through him. If the High Minions caught wind of this...he had to drag her out before she took another step.
“Open your eyes,” he commanded, and he breathed on her face.
She blinked up at him and gulped air. Their faces were very close. Her breath brushed across his lips.
“I couldn’t find you,” she whispered.
“I was right here the whole time, holding your hand,” he assured her.
“I didn’t believe you, but I wanted to.” She leaned into him, pressed her face against his chest. “You’re really him, aren’t you?”
“I really am,” he said, trying to sound soothing rather than elated. She went there, he thought, risked it all. How many people do that for you?
“I don’t ever want to go back.”
He tightened his arms around her and lied. “You won’t.”
“Do you have a hotel room or what?” Eva asked.
Satan set her away from himself and rubbed his sweaty palm on his thigh. “Just off Bourbon.”
“It’s not what you think,” she said in a hurry. “I just wondered if you sleep. You know, like regular people.” Her voice was still trembling, but she was trying to pull herself away from the memory.
“I sleep when I’m here,” he said. “The world tires me.”
She nodded. “You’re a thinker type.”
“Ah, well.” Satan waved a hand, embarrassed. “I used to have a bit of drinking problem and found philosophy to be a convenient replacement.”
“You drank in the bar,” Eva pointed out.
“I’ve had many centuries to learn control,” Satan replied.
“Yeah,” she said and took his hand again. “And drinking doesn’t really turn off the world.”
Only one thing did that, and now she knew. He hated that she wouldn’t look at him.
“No,” he agreed. “It doesn’t.”
She stayed close though. Her warmth felt ridiculously good, as if she were a summer day that might not ever end. So much for the ordinary laugh.
“I never do this,” she said softly enough that he stopped walking to listen. “I don’t walk midnight streets holding hands with strangers. This isn’t me.”
“Then what is it?”
Satan nodded. “I think I want to kiss you now.”
Like her laugh and unlike her warmth, her kiss was of the regular thrilling variety. After a few minutes, her breath was thick around his neck, humid and warm and sexy. He led her back to his hotel without saying another word.
Their first time was in the elevator. Their second time was against the inside of the door to his room, so fiercely ecstatic that the little map fell out of its plastic protector. Their third time was on the bed, her slick body held in place by the tangle of sheets and his fingers in her tangle of hair.
At last, she whispered, “Stop,” and to his great surprise, he did.
He fell onto his back, heaving with exertion and longing. She nestled near him, her forehead against his ribs.
“You’re burning up,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I forget.”
She didn’t move except to skim her fingertips across his hips. “What do you forget?”
“How I don’t like to stop.” He lifted his head up to look at her, but she didn’t look back.
“You said you’ve had centuries to learn control,” she said against his skin.
His head fell back to the mattress. “It doesn’t mean I practice it.”
“I can again. If you want.”
He rolled on top of her and cradled her head between his forearms. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he whispered, and silently cursed himself. That train had left the station.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I can’t be hurt. They’ve tried and tried, but no one can touch me.”
“I can’t see you again,” he said.
“Figures,” she said. “Best sex of my life.”
He had to fight off a smile, remind himself he was about to break two hearts. “As things stand now, you’re coming to Hell--but not because you’re wicked,” he added quickly.
She propped herself up on her elbow. “Then why?”
He eased her back down so that her cheek rested on his chest. Her body assimilated to his with infantile ease.
“Every soul is due hardship and pain,” he said. “Every soul--none escapes it. Not even God escapes pain.”
She didn’t protest, didn’t breathe.
“And it’s my job to mete it out in death, if you don’t get it in life.”
“Because you betrayed God?”
The question surprised him. You tell someone they’re going to Hell, usually they’re more concerned about themselves. “God forgave me, but even He is bound by His own rules. I still preside over Hell because I, like you, had a pain-free life. No remorse, no loss, not a moment of it, until I went to Hell.” Not true, he realized suddenly. What were a few bureaucrats compared to losing your mind, your lover, your son? No wonder he’d been stuck there so long.
“So I’m going to Hell because of my good fortune.” Injury had taken root in her voice. Would she ever sound like a girl with an ordinary laugh again?
“If you stay with me you will be happy the rest of your days,” he said. “But I can’t let that happen.”
Wasn’t it obvious? “You saw Hell. I could never leave you there.”
She absorbed this. “We’d be together, at least.”
“No. You cursed me with love, but you gifted me with freedom. If I lose you, that’s my pain, my ticket out. I don’t have to go back. I won’t go back.”
She didn’t answer, didn’t breathe.
Several minutes passed before he could make himself say it. “And losing me is your ticket out, too.”
“I’d go back there for you, to stay with you,” she said.
“In all the stories I’ve read, the guy would risk anything for the girl, even Hell.”
He shook his head. “I’m not that guy.”
“Yeah. I guess I almost forgot.” She rose, stumbled around the room, rustled into her clothing. The light from the hall cast her into shadow as she paused in the doorway.
I’m sorry I hurt you,” she said just before the door latch barked in the silence.
Adoration built a house of stone in his chest. It was going to be a very long immortality. “I’m sorry, too,” he said to the empty room.