The Devil in The Top Hat
A stranger steps out of the shadows in the night to accost a gentleman and his lady friend. The flickering glow of a street lamp casts the desperate scene in a surreal light. The intended victim is obviously a man of means and carrying a large bag, tightly held. Apparently something valuable is inside. They are alone late at night meandering along a deserted cobble stone street near the docks.
This is no place for a gentleman and his lady friend to be, off in the shadows of such a seedy part of town, unless of course they desire anonymity. leading to the obvious conclusion perhaps they are attempting to engage in some illicit affair. Perhaps an arrangement has been made, a transaction of sorts between a man of repute and a lady of the night.
Be that as it may, their choice is not particularly smart of either of them, to be here; considering the hour is late, the fog heavy, and this is a crime-ridden area frequented by desperate men. The brute standing before them, preventing their retreat brandishes a large caliber black powder pistol, an equally threatening knife tucked in his waist band.
“Give me your money!” The demand, albeit lacking in eloquence, is simple and direct. It is only one line but no line uttered on stage could ever mimic the menace of his delivery.
The traversing pair interrupted, immediately freeze. The lady in fear cowers behind the gentleman as he studies the menacing figure blocking their way. He grips his satchel a little more tightly. Following a brief pause, he speaks. “A predictable request I suppose,” he sighs with resignation. And then he adds in a more jocular tone, a tone somewhat peculiar for a man whose life is about to be cut short, “Should I assume we are in some sort of peril?”
Not amused, the assailant points the muzzle of his weapon at them in response. “I too am a businessman,” he says. “And I propose to relieve you of that heavy bag you are carrying in exchange for sparing your life.” He points to the leather satchel in his grasp.
“It’s a viable offer but it would seem several assumptions have been made on your part, Sir. You assume because of my attire I am carrying a large sum of cash. To that, you correct. However you assume it is we who are in peril and not yourself. Perhaps it would be naive of me to not anticipate that once I hand over my valuables, you nonetheless will kill me anyway, leaving you at liberty to impose yourself on my fair young escort. With me out of the way, nothing remains to keep you from having your way with her?”
The man of the night grins toothily as he nods his large head, tipping his large top hat in a mocking gesture but in such a way as to not take his eyes off the prey. He is no novice to his trade. He nods to the lady, a gesture lacking in civility.
The intended victim continues. “Now that we have established your intent let us dispense then with the trivialities. And since I may have arrived at the last hour of my life, I am curiously beset with an urge to negotiate with the devil in the top hat.” He then grinned and tipped his own hat to his adversary. “I have a proposition to make you instead. I Sir, am a businessman, a merchant of sorts; not unlike yourself, since we both apparently deal in lost souls. Hence I have a counter offer to make you. What say you entertain my barter for your merriment? Suppose I were to offer you the objects of your desire but with one twist. In the course of this transaction, suppose we were to eliminate one integral part of your equation. I propose to give you my very large sum of cash as well as hand over my fair companion in full consent to the natural conclusion of the gratification of your urges. After all, the money is a nice sum and she is very fair,” he twirls a lock of her hair around his finger as if he were displaying his wares for sale. She,” he states, “is a woman to fulfill your manly appetites. And all this is done without the commission of a crime on your part. In exchange, all I ask from you is that you to allow me to retain possession of this one paltry satchel with its…contents. Tonight, Sir, would appear to be your lucky night, would it not?” He smiles. “And of course I , in the spirit of fair transaction, would be allowed to keep my life.”
The villain hesitates at the audacity of his victim, then counters.”And in the spirit of fair business, I propose a counter-offer; I will take your sum of cash, the girl, and the contents of that bag.” He fidgets, nervously fingering the weapon. “It seems as if you have nothing to barter with.”
“But I do,” he interrupts, “and with one remaining stipulation I would like to propose. If you allow me to retain my satchel then I will allow you to keep your soul. If you are unable, however, to carry out your transaction, then I hold your soul in default as collateral. Do you agree to my terms?”
This time the blood runs cold in the hasty assailant. “My soul?!!” For one brief moment the tables have turned and now the assailant is seized with apprehension, as if now he is the one being accosted. Valuable time has been lost and the thug is anxious to claim his bounty, a good nights haul by any means for a desperate man. He arms his weapon to broadcast the finality of his offer. “Hand them over now,” pointing his weapon to punctuate his threat.
“Be that as it may,” the other man concedes. “Then may I present you with your newest acquisitions.” He slowly removes his wallet from his coat pocket and in one motion slips it down the lady’s bodice. The villains mouth drops but before he regain his composure, the gentleman shoves the lady over into the surprised thug. He grabs the fairer sex, one burly hand grasping her petite wrist. That reflex reaction however turns out to be a fatal mistake. She smiles coldly, still in his grasp. As he reaches down her bodice to retrieve the wallet, at the opportune moment, she strikes in one efficient lethal motion. A sharp knife she deftly procured from her nether garments quickly applied to his fifth rib, ends the robbery and his life. The brute collapses silently in a heap at their feet. So swiftly and so practiced is her movement, no scream escapes his lips.
Standing over the villain, the businessman calmly retrieves both his female escort and his wallet. She wipes his blood from the blade of her pen-knife, returns it to its place. “It seems my friend, you made several assumptions tonight, all of which were wrong. “It was you who needed protection…from her.” He reaches down to extract something that belongs to him from the would-be assailant. Reaching into the cadaver still warm, he extracts a dark, shadowy object in the form of its previous owner, one that struggles to escape, like sheet caught in the wind. He holds it tightly in his grasp to examine it, and smiles to himself before placing the writhing entity inside the heavy bag he has been clutching.
Another deposit has been made this night.
Reaching into his coat pocket, he retrieves a slip of paper which he presses into the palm of the recently deceased. He then tips his top hat to the fallen in a final gesture. “This, Sir, concludes our bargain. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.”
Last seen, the pair step over the fresh corpse to continue their journey, disappearing in the shadows, reappearing at the next lamps’ dim glow.
The next morning…
… a crowd has gathered, as crowds are want to do whenever grisly remains are discovered. A body never ceases to grab the attention of spectators and the curious.
A man leaning over the body lets out an audible gasp. “Here now, what’s this?!!
“What is it Inspector?”
“The eyes are gone from this one too! Ah! Another note,” he declares.
“Well, don’t keep us waiting,” another hasty bystander interjects. “What does it say,”
“Most curious; it says,” the inspector continues, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”