“Puff Piece” by Brett Allen

Wallace never asks anyone to lunch unless he has a crap assignment for them and that’s exactly what he had for me. To be fair, he never called it “lunch” anyway. He always said he was going to “treat you to a bite” like you’d won some kind of damn prize, and to imply you weren’t to order anything expensive.

We’d barely sat down outside this small bodega in Queens when he started singing my praises for a recent piece I’d written on the tech industry and its tentacle-like reach into the heart of Washington. He proclaimed it was some real next-level investigative journalism. He was buttering me up and I could tell there was a “but” coming.

But, our readers don’t subscribe for stuff like that,” he said. “They’re looking for more topical news. Current events. Trendy stuff. Stuff they can feel outraged about before their morning dumps, but then dismiss before lunch.”

“So—dribble?” I’d said.

He’d nodded.

“Not dribble. But lighter stuff. More relatable stuff.”


He’d leaned across the table and beckoned me in with his hairy, knuckled, chimp finger. I declined and he went on anyway. Turns out he’d been contacted by a worldwide corporation, headquartered right there in the city, but he wouldn’t say who. They’d recently come under scrutiny by the ultra-left crowd because of perceived poor working conditions and were looking for some positive press. It would be my job to go conduct interviews and generate a puff piece about how progressive the company was and all that happy horse crap. It was nauseating to think about.

“If you can make this piece sing,” he said with a wink, “there could be a promotion in it for you.”

“What’s the company?” I asked.

Wallace leaned in farther, looked around for eavesdroppers, then beckoned me in again. I acquiesced this time. His sour coffee breath was hot in my ear and he slid an address across the table.

Wallace never asks anyone to lunch unless he has a crap assignment for them.

He ordered the California Reuben. I ordered a steak.


            The waiting room in Hell Inc. is not at all what I’d expected, but since it closely resembles the waiting room of my childhood dentist, maybe I should have. There are ancient copies of women’s magazines covering the coffee table, their wrinkled, tattered covers advertising intellectual pieces like, “Six Sinful Ways To Spice Up The Bedroom” and “Nine Signs He’s Cheating.” A fish tank bubbles to my left with four hungry piranhas sizing me up. They take turns testing the glass barrier with their stupid flat faces and protruding lower mandibles. The air smells like antiseptic and my eyes burn. My ears burn too, as smooth jazz plays over the intercom. I wait for what feels like an eternity.

            Finally, the door to the main office swings open and a demon in a smart button-up enters holding a clipboard. He is naked from the waist down, which is oddly okay considering the lack of any distinguishing gender features. Two small horns protrude from the demon’s forehead, both capped with small rubber balls. His—or her—arms and legs are thin and lanky, but when he calls my name his voice is deep, foreboding.

            He calls my name again. I look around the empty waiting room and stand. The demon looks up for the first time and raises an eyebrow, which appears to be on fire.

            “Right,” he says. “You’re the guy from the newspaper?”

            “I suppose so,” I say. “We’re almost entirely digital these days though.”

            The demon stares back at me blankly and then checks his watch.

            “Fascinating. The boss wants you to get a few different perspectives of the work we’re doing down here,” he says, looking back at his board. “I’ve scheduled you for interviews in three different departments. Acceptable?”

            “Acceptable,” I say. “By ‘the boss’, you mean Satan, right?”

            “No, Springsteen,” he says, flatly. “Of course, you twit. And he prefers ‘Lucy’. Short for ‘Lucifer’, ya know?”

            I write this down.

            The demon snaps a finger and the waiting room dissolves into red mist.


            Hell’s operation center, as I learned from the demon who greeted me, is divided into two main efforts. The first operations center focuses entirely on one Internal Operation: the torturing of souls condemned to the underworld. This is historically considered a “cush gig” among the demons as it allows for maximum creativity, with the wiggle room of knowing you have a literal eternity to hone your skills.

The second operation center is focused on Outside Influence. The demons working in “O.I.” are charged with manipulating human behavior to promote depravity, which maximizes the annual soul harvest stats. They are essentially salesmen of sin. They work on commission and are often considered social pariahs among other demon echelons. My first interview is conducted with a 497-year veteran of Escalation Call Center Number Three or EEC #3.

Interview #1: Escalation Call Center Technician Balzoobus:

Me: “Can you state your name for the record?”

Balzoobus: “Balzoobus”

Me: “That’s an interesting name. What does it mean?”

Balzoobus: “It means Balzoobus. Can we get on with this? It’s almost lunch.”

Me: “Right, sorry. Okay. Can you explain to me how the Escalation Call Center works?”

Balzoobus: (Points to the meager desk in front of him. There is a single phone with no buttons.) “It’s simple really. The calls come in, we answer the phone, and tell folks what they want to hear.”

Me: “The calls come to you? But where do they originate?”

Balzoobus: “Sinners, bro. Anytime someone is about to sin, we get a call—wires us directly into the caller’s brain, which gives us instantaneous situational awareness. From there, the job is two-pronged. First, you gotta convince the caller to proceed with the original sin request. This isn’t always easy. Heaven has similar call centers trying to convince folks to be lame.

Me: “Right, like the whole devil and angel on your shoulder thing.”

Balzoobus: “What?”

Me: “Never mind. Go on.”

Balzoobus: “The second part of the job is where the real art takes place. The second part is convincing the caller to escalate their sin. Hence the name. Example: a guy is going to swipe a candy bar, and next thing you know he’s robbing a bank. Tax fraud? How about a triple homicide?”

Me: “That’s awful.”

Balzoobus: “That’s Hell.”

Me: “And you get paid per success?”

Balzoobus: “Yes and no. Payment varies with the degree of escalation. The greater the increase in sin, the greater the payday. And if you get lucky, you get Ripples.”

Me: “Ripples?”

Balzoobus: “Yeah, it’s like royalties for when sins lead to other sins. It gets pretty complicated. See that guy over there?”

Balzoobus points to a demon a few rows down. The demon is wearing a slicked-back toupee and aviator sunglasses. There’s a Rolex watch on his wrist and a gold chain around his neck. For a moment I can smell Axe body spray.

“That’s Jareelz. He makes everyone call him J-Dog. He’s a douche. But he got lucky back in the early 20th century. Convinced some poor Bosnian-Serb schmuck to escalate from bread theft to joining a political extremist group and assassinating the Archduke of Austria-Hungary. Not an easy task. The thing sparked World War One, which led to Hitler, which led to another world war, which led to every other major conflict of the last century. That dude has been collecting on all of it. Ripples, man. Some folks have all the luck.”

Me: “Seems like, with the state of the world now, you guys would be pretty busy down here.”

Balzoobus: (Shrugs) “We have a billion call centers. But yes, we stay busy enough. To be honest, social media algorithms and digital marketing are doing a lot of the heavy lifting nowadays.”

Me: “What am I thinking right now?”

Balzoobus: (Rolls his eye) “It doesn’t work once you’re within the confines of hell. It’s like having two microphones close together. All we’d get is feedback. But I do know all of your digital passwords and can access your web browser search history any time I want. Shall we discuss what’s on there?

Me: “…”

Balzoobus: “…”

Me: “Have you had any big wins recently?”

Balzoobus: (Casts a disdainful glance at J-Dog and then checks his watch) “It’s lunchtime. The cafeteria here is garbage, so most of us have to go out into the Abyss to get anything decent.”

Me: “One last question, before you go. Are you happy working here?”

Balzoobus: “Am I supposed to be?”


The pantsless demon in the smart button-up reappears and before I know it we’re walking through a maze of identical hallways peppered with unlabeled doors. Every turn leads to an identical hallway, bathed in sterile fluorescent light, and I’m positive we’ve passed the same empty water cooler several times. You wouldn’t even know we were in hell if it weren’t for the blood-red stalactites hanging from the ceiling tiles.

“How was the first interview?” The demon asks with feigned interest.

“Good,” I say, trying not to be ungracious. “I got some really good stuff.”

The demon looks annoyed by this.

“Say. What’s your name?” I ask. “I apologize for not asking before. That was rude.”

“And here I thought that was your only redeeming quality.”


The demon pauses outside of a door similar to countess others we’ve passed, except two letters, I.O., are smeared on the frosted glass in what appears to be more blood.

“My name is Rick,” the demon says. “And this is your next stop.”

“I thought I was already here,” I say, cautiously.

Rick is visibly annoyed.

“You were in ‘O.I.’,” he says. “This is ‘I.O.’—Internal Operations. This is Hell Inc.’s bread and butter: the torturing of damned souls. You’ll be meeting with the Department Manager, Azok The Bone Crusher.”

I swallow hard and write the name on my notepad. Rick laughs.

“I’m kidding,” he says. “His name is Mike. But watch out. Mike’s a weasel. He’ll be your best friend until he’s not.”

Interview #2: Internal Operations: Torture Department Manager Mike

Mike is a literal weasel and it’s unsettling. In typical middle manager fashion, his office is arranged according to several textbook “power play” strategies. Elevated desk. Short, uncomfortable visitor chairs. Flaming skulls. Behind Mike’s desk are wall-to-wall windows looking out over a vast lake of fire. Muted screams and shrieks can be heard from outside, intermixed with maniac laughter. Something beneath the waves of flame draws my attention. I squint, only to realize the “lake” is made entirely of writhing, burning bodies.

Mike sees me admiring the lake.

Mike: “Best view in Hell.”

Me: “It’s horrifying.”

Mike nods approvingly. I collect myself and take a seat opposite Mike’s big iron desk. The chair is unbearably hot and I immediately begin to shift in my discomfort.

Me: “So can you tell me a bit about your department?”

Mike smiles a big broad smile and sharp white teeth flash under the brown whiskers of his face. With his paws, he smoothes down his rounded triangular ears.

Mike: “We are the bread and butter of Hell Inc.”

Me: “So I’ve been told. Can you tell me a bit about the department’s structure?”

Mike: “Sure. Sure. The Internal Operations Department is huge and made up of a wide array of subordinate departments, but overall we have one goal: the eternal torment of damned souls. Now I know what you’re thinking. All you mortals are the same. You have this cliché idea that we’re all down here trotting around on our cloven hooves, poking people in the arse with cherry-red pitchforks.”

I nod.

Mike: “That happens, but not as much as you’d think.”

Me: “What are some of the sub-departments?”

Mike gets up from his tall chair and begins pacing in front of the large window, while simultaneously squeezing a stress ball. The inverse of Rick, Mike is not wearing a shirt but is dressed from the waist down in khaki pleated pants and expensive-looking Italian loafers.

Mike: “Oh, we’ve got everything. All the normal departments you’d expect in a big corporation’s task organization. Accounting. Finance. Purchasing. Torment. Research and Development—that’s where we develop tools for the Department of Torment—Marketing. Legal. Illegal. Human Resources, which is like a mini Hell in itself. We do have a few unique departments though. A lot of folks wouldn’t expect it, but we even have a maritime department. Used to be we had a single boat ferrying people across the River Styx, but the volume of souls got to be so much we had to develop a full fleet. If you get a chance, you should go down to the river bank and check it out. Commodore Charon runs a tight ship.”

I’ve been busy writing and failed to notice that Mike has now slipped behind my chair. My shoulders snap up, as he lays his furry hands on them and begins massaging the tight muscles. His grip is firm and mechanical. I’m the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been and I’m fairly sure I can hear him sniffing my hair.

Me: “So…um… if not the pitchfork thing, what’s your… the… um… most prevalent form of torture down here.”

Mike rubs harder.

Mike: “Torment.”

Me: “Sorry?”

Mike: “We call it ‘torment’. ‘Torture’ comes with a certain connotation. I feel like it implies we are trying to extract information or some other end result. There is no end to ‘torment.’”

Me: “Gotcha.”

I try to shrug his paws away, but Mike tightens down again.

Mike: “To be honest, we’ve really been making a concerted effort to bring torment into the 21st century. Like the boat problem, we were just getting too many souls. Good problem to have, I know. But without enough tormentors to go around, our eternal guests really weren’t getting the full hell experience. The trick to torment is consistency and we just weren’t getting that. It got so bad at one point, some guests were getting full minutes of respite from their torment. That was before I took over, of course. I’ve really turned things around.”

There’s an awkward pause and its obvious Mike is waiting for me to ask how he did it. It’s obvious because he pinches me really hard.

Me: “How’d you do it?”

Mike: “Oh, it was nothing, really. At first, we ramped up our virtual reality initiative. That way, when a tormentor couldn’t be actively engaging a guest, they could just be put into simulation and continue the psychological degradation. The problem, though, is it wasn’t cost-effective. The tech gets old and outdated fast. Simulations start looking fake, compared to new tech. Hardware breaks down with all the jerking around and writhing and gnashing. Plus the salt content of tears is highly corrosive. We ended up creating an IT department and the demon-nerds working there were insufferable.”

Me: “So what did you do?”

Mike’s paws work up my neck.

Mike: “I came up with another brilliant solution, of course.

Me: “…”

Mike: “…”

Another pinch.

Me: “Ow. What was it?”

Mike: “Get this. We just let people keep their cell phones!”

Me: “I don’t understand.”

Mike: (Clearly deflated.) “It used to be standard practice to confiscate personal belongings at Reception, but we began noticing people on the surface were miserable all the time. What was causing it? Cell phones! So now, we just let people keep their phones, though we limit their functionality and only allow certain apps.”

Me: “What apps?”

Mike: “Pretty much any social media app.”

Me: “That actually is pretty genius.”

Mike: “Thank you. We’ve been rapidly learning that sometimes the most effective forms of torment are self-inflicted and the tormentee doesn’t even realize they’re happening.

Mike is rubbing my cheeks now and it’s very difficult to write. His breath is unbearable, a slurry of brine-soaked fish rot.

Me: “Ouch!”

Mike staggers back.

Me: “Did you just bite my ear!?”

Mike: “Don’t be preposterous.”

I rub my ear and there’s a definite trickle of blood. Mike’s eyes are wild, so I decide not to press the issue and turn it into a worse situation.

Me: “So how did you come to be in charge of everything?”

My accidental emphasis on the word “you” makes the statement sound like an unbelievable accusation, but Mike doesn’t seem to notice. He struts back around his iron desk and takes a seat, licking his whiskers as he goes. He smiles another big smile.

Mike: “I just kind of weaseled my way into the position.”

I can tell he’s very proud of his stupid joke and I make a show of not writing it down. I’m not going to give him the satisfaction.

The conversation with Mike peters out after this, and I’m sure he can tell I’m irritated about the ear bite. Eventually he intercoms Rick, who appears in a puff of red smoke. Rick immediately spots my bleeding ear and gives me an “I told you so” look.


“I told you so,” Rick says as soon as we’re back in the hall. He moves to the next door and pushes it open to reveal an open platform next to which is docked a large cable car. Spatially, none of this makes sense. The hallway doors are so close together and the platform is so large that, in a world obeying normal physical rules, the cable car would be occupying the same space as Weasel Mike’s desk.

We board the cable car and it immediately lurches to life, sending us rolling out over the lake of fire at an uncomfortable clip.

“Your last stop will be at Reception,” Rick says. “It’s where all the souls are in-processed. It’s like the Ellis Island of Hell Inc.”

As the cable car approaches the far side, I can see Rick was right. Hoards of souls pour off rickety ships that rock in flaming waves and belch black smoke. The masses stream toward a series of gates, where they stand, terrified and weeping, to confirm they are indeed in the right afterlife. Demons in Smoky The Bear hats, similar to those worn by military Drill Instructors, slither through, stopping frequently to scream, heckle, and harangue. Most carry red pitchforks, which they use to poke arses and I wonder if Weasel Mike is aware. 

The cable car docks and soon we are pushing through the throngs of sorrowful souls and malevolent demons. Rick pushes me from behind with a hot, clammy hand on my neck; a move that I assume is meant to both guide and signal to the other demons that I belong to him. We approach a decrepit boathouse that appears to be thatched together with scorched driftwood. Holes dot the building’s facade, but behind them seems to be only impossible darkness, a darkness so complete it leeches the light from the air. On the door is a ragged, wood sign that reads: “Commodore.”

“I get to meet Charon?” I ask, excited at the prospect of being the sole mortal to have personally interviewed the legendary Boatman of Hell.

“Not exactly,” Rick says.

Before I can question him, he pushes me through the front door and into that thick, formless darkness. There is nothingness at first and then, slowly, the darkness recedes, retracting into one single point of origin at the far end of the room. From it, a form takes shape. Standing in the center of the room is an unimposing man with a good-natured, some might say charming, smile. Around him, the room is decorated in the fashion of a modern lake house, with ironic nautical knick-knacks hung from the walls. The man at the center is of slight build but seems to occupy every square inch of free space in the small house, which I know doesn’t make any sense. He is handsome in a way that makes you immediately long for his approval, with olive skin, perfectly coiffed chestnut hair, and teeth so white they border on brilliant. A dimple dots his right cheek. On the breast of his tailored suit jacket is a standard paper name tag: “Hello, I’m:” The name “Lucifer” is scratched out in serial killer font in what appears to again be blood.

The man advances on me in a movement that is more of a glide or slither, than a walk. He extends his hand without a word. He does not need one. The unbearable despair that accompanies his presence is enough to confirm his nametag isn’t lying.

This is Satan.

I remember Rick’s advice earlier and grasp the outstretched hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lucy,” I say, shaking vigorously with no feeling of pleasure at all.

I hear Rick gasp behind me.

Satan’s eyes, which had previously been green as emerald seas, collapse into pits of black. Darkness re-enters the room and the nautical knick-knacks fade from view. Two jagged horns spear out from his temples and a long forked tongue spills from behind yellow needle-sharp teeth. He is a hundred feet tall or more.

When he speaks, my eardrums beg to burst. My flesh tries to flee my bones.


Interview #3: Lucy

Things are pretty tense for a few moments before Rick, trembling some, can explain the nature of his practical joke. He will later inform me just how close I’d come to irreversible and eternal obliteration, though he is quite unapologetic. His reason for saving me seems to stem only from the avalanche of paperwork that accompanies the obliteration of a mortal soul.

Lucifer has retracted and now sits in an old rocking chair. He has taken the form of my beloved, and deceased, grandfather, which evokes simultaneous feelings of pleasant nostalgia and resentment, as my rational brain knows it’s being tricked. I sense that Lucifer can feel these conflicted emotions resonating from me like pheromones and he smiles, delighted.

He begins the interview before I can.

Lucifer: “So how has your visit to Hell Inc. been?”

Me: “Eye-opening.”

Lucifer: “I trust you’ve gathered enough information to create a fairly effective piece?”

His voice even sounds like my dead grandpa. I want to punch him, but also hug him or see if I can score a Werther’s Original. I swallow hard and gather my courage.

Me: “To be quite honest, I haven’t really seen many redeeming qualities here. I understand the nature of your…um…company is the wholesale manufacturing of misery, but shouldn’t that stop at the doomed souls? I mean, most of your employees seem to be equally as miserable, unless they’re in some type of position of power. And even then they’re only motivated by more power and a disturbing amount of bloodlust.”

Lucifer: “Yes, we’ve done our best to model ourselves after corporate America.”

Me: “I guess, after being here all day, I really don’t understand the purpose of this assignment or why you need any positive press at all. Everyone here is stuck here. Employees included. You literally have a captive audience.”

The form of my grandfather melts away and the man in the chair morphs into my childhood dog, who’d been hit by a car.

Me: “That’s just messed up, man.”

The dog shrugs and then morphs into a beautiful, voluptuous woman with no shortage of exposed cleavage. My eyes meet the floor.

Lucifer: “The positive press isn’t for people that are already here.”

The woman’s voice is still that of my grandpa’s, which makes everything twice as confused.

Me: “Well, you’re not subject to the laws of the mortal world, so why would you be concerned with what people think up there? Everyone already knows that Hell is… well… Hell.”

The handsome man in the suit reappeared.

Lucifer: “And that’s exactly it. We don’t have an image issue, per se, as much as we have an energy crisis. Do you know what powers all of this?”

Me: “Despair?”

Lucifer: “No. Well, yes. Partially. Despair amounts to about 23% of the emotional fossil fuel we burn down here. But Fear, Fear is where it’s at. Did you know that Fear accounts for nearly 91% of our fuel expenditures down here?”

Me: “Those numbers don’t add─”

Lucifer: “Ninety. One. Percent. But the problem is our daily output has been dwindling and we’ve had to start tapping into our reserve tanks.”

Me: “What’s driving the shortages?”

Lucifer runs a hand through his perfect hair.

Lucifer: “See, that’s what we wanted to know. We ran countless studies, measured performance outputs, employed focus groups, and on and on. We even brought in an outside consultant group, which was a huge waste of money. All the studies came up empty. Nothing down here had changed, which led us to conclude that things up there had changed.”

He points toward the ceiling.

“The mortal world had changed. While we’d been preoccupied trying to find an internal fix, the whole mortal world was flying off the rails. Things up there were getting progressively worse and moving in the direction of a literal ‘hell on Earth’. Essentially, what was happening was that people’s mortal lives were so utterly miserable and they’d lived with so much fear, anxiety, and self-loathing, that by the time they got to us, they’d become desensitized to it. Our torments, which had been top of the line for centuries, had become a hum-drum daily norm for them. They lacked fear.”

Me: “That’s pretty messed up.”

Lucifer: “Right? We even had a few instances of souls coming from the mortal world ‘reverse-tormenting’ some of our employees.”

Me: “How does that work?”

Lucifer: “Mostly they just won’t shut up. They drone on and on about what a crap factory their old lives used to be and how they’re relieved to be out of their toxic relationships, dead-end jobs, and online feuds. We are starting to have a real employee morale issue down here, as you’ve pointed out.”

Me: “Well, that’s your answer then isn’t it?”

Lucifer: “What?”

Me: “It just makes sense that if the hell up there is worse than the hell down here, just make the hell down here replicate the hell up there?”

Lucifer sits with his mouth open exposing several rows of small, sharp yellow teeth.

Me: “I’ll level with you, I’ve been down here all day and I didn’t really find this place all that scary. Your tortures are pretty outdated. People are used to being whipped and beaten and dragged. That’s old-hat. You want to know what’s really terrifying? Getting out of bed in the morning. The prospect of going to the same job every day for decades until you retire…if you can ever retire. Being a prisoner to a mortgage payment. Children’s birthday parties. Thanksgiving.”

Lucifer rubs his ruddy chin and tilts his head.

Me: “You really want to torture somebody? Make them live their anxiety-ridden, regular life on a never-ending cycle.

Lucifer: “Interesting.”

Me: “But here’s the kicker, you have to give them a carrot. Dangle false hope in front of them. Like lottery tickets. Or a promotion that’s always just out of reach. Or a good idea for a novel.”

Lucifer: “You’re one sick bastard.”

I shrug.

Lucifer: “I like your idea. I hope you mind if I steal it. We’ll of course have to run some clinical trials first.”

He raises an eyebrow in a peculiar manner and a slight smile exposed his needle teeth once more. I didn’t particularly care whether he used my idea or not. Frankly, I just wanted to get out of there and end my bizarre day. But first I needed clarification on my story.

Me: “So to be clear, you don’t want me to write a positive piece about Hell Inc. At least not positive in the minds of mortals. Positive in your mind, maybe, which is inverse, so… awful. And I should relay, in my story, how my day here was filled with the most mind-numbing, dull, corporate bullshit imaginable.”

Lucifer removes a small notepad from the breast pocket of his jacket and scribbles something on the top page.

Lucifer: “Yes. Yes. Write whatever you’d like.” He mumbles and chuckles to himself. “Won’t matter much anyway.”

Me: “What?”

Lucifer: “Rick!” Come in here, please! We’re finished.”


Rick enters the shack and looks from me to Lucifer and back again, clearly surprised that I’m not a bloody heap on the floor or something. Lucifer stands from his rocking chair and rips the top page from his notepad. He hands it to Rick. Rick reads it while scratching nervously at a scaly spot on the back of his neck. He looks back to Lucifer, who nods reassurance.

“Is something the matter?” I ask.

Rick smiles. It’s a nervous smile.

“Not at all,” Lucifer says. “Just remembered an errand I need ol’ Ricky-boy to run for me as he’s showing you out.”

Rick herds me toward the door, his goat hooves clomping on the wood-planks.

We exit the shack, but instead of being back outside among the hordes of newly arrived, damned souls, I find myself back in the dentist-style waiting room where I’d began the day. Spatial-reality shifts like this no longer bother me and the piranhas look out with hungry eyes through the fish tank glass.

“I appreciate you showing me around today,” I say to Rick.

“No you don’t,” Rick says, dryly.

“No. No, I don’t suppose I do.” There’s an awkward silence and I look around the room in an effort to escape Rick’s weirdly intense stare. That’s when I noticed there is no longer an exit leading back to the street. “How do I get out of this place?”

“I have to show you a magic trick,” Rick says. The dead tone of his voice suggested this is some corporate gimmick clownery thought up by an out-of-touch middle manager (probably Weasel Mike) and now Rick is resigned to this performance-monkey bullshit every time the situation arises.

“A what?”

“A magic trick,” he nearly vomits the words.

“Alright,” I say. “Shoot.”

Rick pulls a quarter from… well… I don’t know where because he doesn’t wear pants. Maybe out of his arse, I guess. But he pulls out a quarter and with his left hand, he pretends to put it behind my ear and shows me an empty left hand. Then with his right hand, he reaches behind my other ear. When he pulls his hand back and has my full attention, he opens it quickly and with a mighty puff, blows red dust into my eyes.

“The hell, Rick!?!” I shout. It burns. I rub my eyes and to my surprise find myself sitting outside a small bodega in Queens opposite that insufferable prick, Wallace Ernst.

“But, our readers don’t subscribe for stuff like that,” Wallace is saying. “They’re looking for more topical news. Current events. Trendy stuff. Stuff they can feel outraged about before their morning dumps, but then dismiss before lunch.”

“So—dribble?” I say, reflexively.

He nods his head.

“Not dribble. But lighter stuff. More relatable stuff.”

The inside of my brain is screaming, trying to reconcile what is happening. Wallace leans across the table and beckons me in with his hairy, knuckled, chimp finger. I decline, again, and he goes on anyway, again. Of course, I know it all already, but some invisible force makes it impossible for me to deviate from the course of the conversation or do what I really want to do, which is bash Wallace’s head into the salt and pepper shakers.

“If you can make this piece sing,” he says with a wink, “there could be a promotion in it for you.”

A few tables over, I catch sight of a handsome waiter with perfect coiffed, chestnut hair who smiles with pin-shaped yellow teeth.

“That son-of-a-bitch,” I mutter.

“What’s that?” Wallace asks.

“What’s the company?” I sigh.

Wallace leans in farther, looks around for eavesdroppers, and beckons me in again. I acquiesce. His stale coffee breath feels ice cold on my ear and he slides an address across the table.

Wallace never asks anyone to lunch unless he has a crap assignment for them.

He orders the California Reuben. I order a steak.


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