The Devil and Howard Goodman

Short Story Contest Winner

Howard Goodman turned from the microwave and looked across the kitchen to where his black lab sat at the back door with what appeared to be a look of pity, as if the dog knew about his troubles. And why wouldn’t he? Four weeks had passed since everything had fallen apart. By now, everyone knew. Howard crossed the floor and let the dog out. Then he sat down and opened the paper.

Grace was gone. That was all that mattered now. Not the front page news, which reminded the entire country on a regular basis of his crimes. Not the bail money or the upcoming trial. Not even the pension fund’s 22 million dollars, which had vanished into thin air. A big, solid man who’d climbed the corporate ranks, Howard wasn’t used to taking no for an answer, but every time he called his in-laws or her friends, he got the same response; Grace wasn’t coming back.

Sad decay

A month earlier, Howard had been summarily fired as the chief financial officer of Ironwood Incorporated, a nationwide building materials manufacturer. Two days later, criminal charges were laid against him. For the entire month, he stayed inside, buttressing himself against the gathering storm. He endured a two-day siege by reporters who prowled the front of his property like a pack of hyenas until police removed them under threat of legal action, but even with the media gone, he stayed put. He lived in the kitchen, where he watched television and witnessed the sad decay of his surroundings. The sink became a heap of dishes. Empty containers, jars and beer cans cluttered the counter. With hygiene a low priority, his beard turned into a lawn of grey bristles. He gained ten pounds on a diet of TV dinners and Bud Lite.

Despite his seclusion, he couldn’t resist the press. He read news stories, editorials, columns, the words of any business expert willing to explain how Howard Goodman had taken 22 million dollars from Ironwood’s pension fund — half its total value — and rerouted it through a web of off-shore accounts, all for the purpose of making himself a cool 300,000 before putting the money back. Sure, that was the plan. What he hadn’t anticipated was the worst financial collapse in 80 years. Within a week, 40 percent of North America’s value on paper spiraled down the toilet. So did the 22 million. Still, it took two accounting firms six months to figure it all out. 

He’d take it all back

Staring at the newspaper while his dinner hummed away in the microwave, Howard had a change of heart. He didn’t want to read the paper. Maybe it was the look his dog had given him or the op-ed that suggested he spend 10 years in prison. In any case, he closed the paper and sat still, pondering a thought he had daily — if he could, he’d take it all back. This time, he was utterly serious. He would do anything.

He got up and opened the fridge, about to grab another beer, when an ear-piercing howl coursed through the window above the sink. It was horrific — a primal, gut-wrenching cry of agony that suggested an animal was being tortured to death. He slammed the fridge shut and ran out the door.

The moment ended quickly. The appearance of Howard pacified the lab, transforming its howling into thunderous tail-wagging and passionate foot-sniffing. “Hey, Tyson,” Howard said, bending over to examine the dog. “Hey, hey, good boy.” Bug-eyed, panting, the dog looked up at him, glanced into the backyard and turned to him again. It followed this pattern a second time, a third and forth, until Howard realized that the dog wanted him to see for himself the cause of its fear and deep consternation.

So Howard Goodman — accused criminal, divorcee-in-waiting and social recluse, wearing a bathrobe smeared with raspberry jelly and holding a can of beer — looked into the backyard.  That’s when he saw what he saw. And that’s when his heart almost stopped beating. 

His backyard, which had run 50 feet to where it joined the neighbours’ lawn at an unmarked property line, now extended a hundred yards farther. Its 60 feet of width had quadrupled, if not quintupled, the neighbour’s house and property on each side blotted from the landscape. It wasn’t just a backyard anymore — it was an ecosystem, one with tall spruce, pine and maple trees, flower gardens and ponds with mechanical waterfalls. A flagstone path snaked through the grass where he stood to a large kidney-shaped pool framed by a cabana and a lounge area. In a far corner of the property stood a building — a garage? — with three sports cars parked out front. 

Howard came to the conclusion that he had to be dreaming. It was the only explanation for the obliteration of his property, what he and Grace had bought years earlier, when interest rates were too low to ignore. Beside him, Tyson whined and panted.

“What on earth?” Howard muttered.

It was then that he noticed movement by the cars. A man stood on the grass. He held a briefcase and was admiring a grove of trees that ran along the property’s edge. Except it wasn’t a grove, Howard noticed. It was more a hedge — all of one variety, each tree spaced an equal distance from the others. Almost forty feet high, the trees extended around the backyard in a u-shape that lent the property an air of solitude and enclosure.

The stranger seemed to realize he was being watched because he turned and looked at Howard.  He was Caucasian, about five feet tall and dressed in a white short-sleeve shirt, red bowtie and black slacks. He lifted an index finger, straightened the bowtie and began to walk towards Howard. 

Howard was a man not easily unnerved, but he now felt an almost desperate need for explanation. Was he visiting a friend, a very wealthy friend? Had he recently won a lottery? But no answer to these questions could explain the fact that he’d just tossed a TV dinner into a microwave in his own kitchen. As the small man approached — and he was walking quickly — Howard came to believe he was somehow connected to the whole confusion. Tyson whined again, then ran.  

Suddenly, the small man was standing in front of him.

“Well, well, well,” the stranger said in a southern accent. “It is a mighty fine pleasure to meet you.” He held out his hand. Uneasy, Howard extended his own, which the stranger took and shook vigorously. The small man looked around the backyard and smiled. “My, what a gorgeous summer night,” he said, putting the briefcase down. 

An old salesman

The stranger was old. His dark eyes sat deep in their sockets, and his cheekbones stood out from an otherwise gaunt and time-ravaged face. With wrinkled skin and a bald head marked with liver spots, he looked to be around ninety, but he had strong, square shoulders, sinewy arms and — clearly — a young man’s agility. It was bizarre. As for why he was in his backyard — or whatever this was — Howard had an answer. He was a salesman. The briefcase, the red bowtie, all that smiling. But what was he there to sell?

“Yes, it is,” Howard said cautiously. But he didn’t want to discuss the weather. “Look,” he said, “I don’t mean to be forward but . . . are you the owner of this place?”

“The owner?” the stranger said, startled.  “Certainly not.”  He raised an arm.  “This —” he announced, moving the arm in a circular motion to indicate the entire property — “This is yours.  The land, the cars, the pool. Everything.” He pointed to the trees on the periphery. “Those are mahogany. Each tree will fetch you 30 thousand dollars if you dig them up.  Together, they’ll be worth more than the house.”

“The house?” Howard said.

The stranger paused. He stared at Howard with suspicion. “Are you telling me you haven’t seen it?” he said.

Howard shook his head.

“Well, turn around,” the small man said pleasantly.

Howard couldn’t move.

“I said, turn around,” the stranger demanded.

Howard turned around, slowly, his pupils dilating as they adjusted to what stood before them. Taking up his entire line of sight was a structure of colossal size, a four-story fortress that spread across the earth’s surface as if its only purpose was to humble anyone who dared to look at it.  Huge and palatial, it was more suited for a list of Donald Trump’s assets than a plot on Thornhill Drive. It was a dream house, a home for the super super-rich, and, now, the centre of a nightmare from which Howard could not wake.

As he stared, dumbstruck, the stranger spoke in his ear. “You are an unhappy man, Howard Goodman,” he whispered with preternatural knowing. “This can all be yours. You just need to take it.”

Howard’s head was spinning. How could this stranger know who he was? He summoned his courage and turned around. “Hey,” he said. “You know my name.”

“I do,” the stranger said casually, as if he’d seen this reaction a million times.

Howard’s mind was a whirl of confusion. And then, in the chaos, a question flowed from his mouth, the most sincere words he ever spoke: “Who are you?”

“You know who I am.”

The small man stood perfectly still, all trace of amusement gone from his face. “You know who I am, Howard,” he said. “You are, after all, the reason I’m here tonight.”

On the horizon, dark clouds passed over the sun. A murder of crows landed noisily in the mahogany trees. As a warm breeze moved across his face, Howard accepted the altered world — as crazy as it seemed — for what it now was. He knew who he was talking to. He had gone to Sunday school as a boy, believing everything he was told about heaven and hell, angels and demons. For the first six months of their marriage, he and Grace attended church weekly — until membership at a local country club proved that Sundays could be used for fitness, networking and pleasure. He gave up church. He gave up prayer. Then he gave up God. Now, with living proof of his error in judgment standing before him, he felt exposed. 

Howard measured his response. It was one thing to mess with a pension plan; the Prince of Darkness was something else. “Yeah, I know who you are,” he said. “But I know the rules, too.  I didn’t ask for this, so I don’t have to take it.”

“Well, of course not,” the small man said, shaking his head. “I just figured, considering your circumstances, you’d be open to my offer.”

“You want the usual deal, right?” Howard said.

“That’s right,” the small man said with a nod.

“What if I’m not interested?”

The stranger sighed. “Then it all disappears. And I bring back your pigsty.” This prospect brought Howard no joy. Neither did the subtle reminder of his crimes, which were set to bring his life as a free man to an abrupt end. 

“What does it matter, anyway?” he said with exasperation.  “I’m going to prison.”

The stranger smiled. “No, you’re not, Howard,” he said. “I’ve worked out an agreement with friends of mine in the judiciary. You will walk on a technicality.”

Howard was flabbergasted. Walk? On a technicality? This was beyond belief. 

“You mean acquittal?” he asked.

“Even better. Exoneration.”

Suddenly a deal sounded possible. Howard had a thought: what if he avoided incarceration and Grace came back to him?

“Wait a minute,” he said, his mind firing on all cylinders. “What about —?”

“Your wife?” the stranger said. But the look on his face wasn’t a comforting one. “I’m afraid I can’t help you there. She’ll come back on her own volition.”

 “Her own volition?” Howard said. He could feel himself growing irritated. “I thought you could do just about anything.”

A hint of annoyance passed over the small man’s face, as if he’d been reminded of some universal law he didn’t find particularly pleasant. “There’s plenty I can do, Howard, but one thing I can’t is determine one’s destiny.”

“What does that mean?” Howard demanded.

“It means this,” the small man said with the finality of someone who knows what he’s talking about.  “Every man chooses his own fate.”

“Every man chooses his own fate.”- could be a callout, Sean.

Howard’s heart sank. Of course they couldn’t decide Grace’s destiny. And, of course, he’d have to pay for what he had done with his own. It was a horrific thought to endure, it truly was. He had hurt retired employees, threatened their security, and Grace would never forgive him.  Thinking about her lasting integrity made him yearn for her even more.  

“Listen, I’m tired,” he said. “I need to think about this.” 

“Well, do it in the comfort of your new home,” the small man said, his chipper demeanor re-established. “Find a bed, rest your weary feet. I’ll see you here later on tonight.”

The clouds moved away from the setting sun, and the leaves and fronds of ten thousand plants were gilded in a light as pure as that of the first days of Creation. Howard watched the strange, little man disappear into the trees. Then he turned and walked towards the monstrous house in the distance.

Howard was exhausted when he entered the house — he’d had a hell of an evening — but the opulence of the interior couldn’t be ignored. Everywhere he looked he saw marble and silver-plating, chandeliers and mirrors. In the dining room, he found a table big enough to seat 20.  Inside the cabinets lining the walls lay stacks and stacks of gold plates. The house was deserted, and its eerie silence made him uneasy. Nevertheless, he found a bedroom on the fourth floor, where he fell asleep the moment his head hit the feather pillow.

It was dark when he awoke, so dark that he had to hold onto the railing the entire three flights down. In the dining room, he turned on a light and sat down. The events of the past few years played back in his mind — setting up the off-shore accounts, paying off securities regulators who sniffed too close, hiring an inside man — “Cocoa Joe” — at the stock exchange. It was a past he wanted to forget. Yet the evening with the stranger had had its effect. He would rescue the pension fund, yes, but he wanted more. Why not do it all, he wondered — ditch the stranger, make a nice, hefty profit and woo Grace back? The key was to turn the property into cash and leave until it was safe to return. Eluding the stranger would prove a challenge but not an impossibility: in the backyard were three cars that did zero to sixty in four seconds.

There, in the dining room, Howard chose his fate — a chance at a new life with Grace in exchange for the risk of spending eternity inside the flames of the everlasting bonfire. He pulled a business card from his wallet and scribbled down an account number. Then he was walking across the marble flooring and out the front door.

He met the small man between the tall trees. In the moonlight, the stranger appeared menacing, dangerous. Howard was unmoved; he knew what he wanted.

“Well?” the stranger said. “Have you made up your mind?”

“Yeah,” Howard answered. “It’s a deal.”

The stranger smiled. “Good.”

“A few questions,” Howard said. “How much is the property worth?”

The stranger’s eyes moved about as he did the math. “Hmm…twenty-five, twenty-six million,” he answered. “Let’s put it this way, Howard — more than what you stole.” He began to chuckle in a low, shallow and unpleasant way.

“How long would it take to liquidate?” Howard asked.

The stranger stopped chuckling. “Well, five business days, but just what are you —?”

“Sell it,” Howard said. “Everything. Even your damn mahoganies. Just leave a car.” He stepped forward and handed the stranger the business card. “Wire everything to this account.”

The small man stood bewildered. Then comprehension washed over him. “Wait a second,” he said, and there was a real edge to his voice. “You’re selling the property but keeping a car.” His eyes narrowed. “Don’t get any stupid ideas, Howard,” he growled. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”

Howard slid his hands into the pockets of the bathrobe. “Just do it,” he said. He looked at the Devil one last time, then turned and walked back to the house.  

A week later — five business days to be exact — an emergency meeting at Ironwood Incorporated pulled company executives away from their golf matches and afternoon naps. In the boardroom, the new CFO — who secretly worried he’d been set up as the butt of a highly unprofessional joke — announced to the group of luminaries the news of a mysterious addition to the pension fund of 26 million dollars.

The impact

That same afternoon, at an intersection a thousand miles away, Howard Goodman was killed in a head-on collision with a truck. Witnesses were shocked by the sound of the impact as well as the collision’s violence and destruction. Firefighters doused the blaze, then stood confused at a strange sight — dozens of gold plates glittering in the wreckage of the burned-up Ferrari. While they worked hard to contain the madness of this moment, these first responders missed its true terror, for inside the crowd that had gathered was a small elderly man who looked over the carnage with a smile, as if he found the sight in front of him both amusing and to his complete satisfaction.

  • Dirk Schouten lives with his wife and daughters in Guelph, Ont. He is a high school English and history teacher and a member of New Life Christian Reformed Church in Guelph. He can be reached at moc.liamtoh@netuohcsbd.

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