by Antonio Bellomi
Manlio Locatelli didn’t like the place. For one, he didn’t like a hot climate. He had always spent his holidays in fine places, where pines and roaring torrents abounded, and only once, taken in by an explosive blonde, had he dared to tread the sandy beaches of Tropea, in the south of Italy. But then the blonde had proved to be as big a disappointment as had been the killing heat of the South.
That was why he didn’t like that place. After all, Hell is an ugly place by itself, but the circle of flames is definitely not the height of happiness for one who loves pine forests and green pastures.
And a temperature of three or four hundred degrees Celsius is definitely not comfortable.
Now a sulky Manlio Locatelli was pondering on the day his damn... (Oops, this is a dangerous word here, he thought) sports car had skidded on a slippery road and had plummeted down a ravine, transferring him immediately into the pits of Hell, when the grim shape of the Master appeared in front of him.
“Satan!” Manlio Locatelli exclaimed, while a flame licked his right heel and a drop of sweat ran down his nose.
“Ha, ha! Here is my new guest.” Big Satan scorned him, brandishing his trident. His short goatish beard looked well trimmed and Manlio wondered whether its owner was as vain as he appeared to be.
“Do you like the premises?” the demon asked him with solicitous warm-heartedness. “Or do you have complaints about the management?”
Manlio Locatelli bounced on his feet to avoid the flames that tried to attack him. He had at last found a sheltered nook where the flames were less fierce than elsewhere, but he still had to be careful.
“In my opinion, the air conditioning is not so...” He was about to say “hot” but refrained. Bad choice of words, again. Instead, he said, “So... efficient.” He spoke with his usual drawl of impudent punk that not even Hell had taken away from him. Then, without thinking of the possible consequences of his complaint he added, “It’s too frigging hot!”
The tail of the demon slashed through the air and whipped his naked legs fiercely. A big red welt appeared. “Funny!” Satan roared. “Real funny! I like you. I could even pay you back if you do me a favour. After all, I feel good today. It is Christmas time.”
“Christmas time?” Manlio Locatelli wondered. “I lost track of time down here. Do you give away presents on Christmas?”
“Sort of,” the Devil said enigmatically.
“Well then, you were talking about a favour...”
“Oh, yeah. I need a little help from you, and in turn I could give you a real present for Christmas. A big present.”
Manlio Locatelli did not hesitate. “Okay, shoot.”
“Well,” the Devil said. “You were a computer whiz on Earth, weren’t you?”
Manlio was taken aback by that question. “So they said.”
“Well, then you are quite familiar with software bugs, aren’t you?”
“Sort of,” Manlio Locatelli answered non-committally.
Satan leaned on his trident. “Well then, here’s a business proposition for you. I have a problem with the software which runs the premises. I think there is a bug planted somewhere by the engineer who wired the place. He tried to play smart, but was not smart enough...” he concluded with a grimace.
Locatelli shuddered and dared not ask where the engineer had been sent to. He was sure he would have not liked the answer.
“Therefore,” the Devil continued, “the first rule is: play honest with me. No tricks, no funny ideas. You understand?”
“Oh, sure,” Manlio said.
“The problem is in the circle of ice. The water leaks somewhere and when it arrives it is not well iced. The damned are not freezing properly. They are just taking a cool shower. This is where you come in. You find the bug in the software and you will enjoy a fine Christmas present. A few days in a mild climate.”
“A few days is too short a time,” Manlio Locatelli retorted. He was unable to show any joy at that offer. Anything to stay away from fires and flames for a few days! Ha, even the ice-cold freeze sounded beautiful.
“No free gift,” the Devil replied. “I can’t do that. I can only pay for something you do. And I can pay only the right price. Anyway, what would you want? The climate of the Alps, perhaps? Be satisfied with a few days. Remember that this is Hell, after all!”
Satan looked very angry and for a moment Manlio Locatelli was afraid he had gone too far and the Devil could depart, taking his offer with him.
“Oh, I remember it well, sure,” Manlio said. “But don’t tell me that there are no favourites here. You know, you might find me a place just a mite cooler than here. After all, I am going to do a nice job for you, a job which is necessary for the correct management of the firm.”
“Argh!” The Devil shouted a Satanic sound and twirled his trident as if he wanted to shish-kebab the impudent punk.
Manlio Locatelli bounced back. “Hey, you pay attention with that fork or you’ll have to look for a new computer man!” The points of the trident grazed his throat; then Satan’s laughter roared.
“Okay, you got it. I told you I like you. Do five degrees sound good to you?”
“Why not ten...” Manlio put in shyly, but Satan shouted angrily again and the trident danced dangerously near the face of the man.
“Five! Take it or leave it!” the Devil roared.
“I take it... I take it,” said Manlio Locatelli, backing full-speed astern. Five degrees were okay for him, after all! What the h... (Hey!).” He had almost slipped again!
* * *
For five days Manlio Locatelli went on disk-driving, software-debugging, data-inputting, computer-testing without resting for a moment. The ice circle was a large one and the computer net very old. No wonder then there was so much to do.
But as the work progressed, the temperature became less and less agreeable. If at the beginning, after the heat of fire, the coolness of the ice circle — where there was almost no ice any more because of the malfunctioning equipment — had been pleasant, now that the ice had come back, the place had become inhospitable, and Manlio found that if the hottest weather is a bad thing, the coldest is none the better either.
He hurried to finish his work and on the sixth day he went to Satan. “Okay, boss,” he said. “I’ve done my share. Now do yours!”
“A nice piece of work indeed,” Satan admitted with a cunning smile. “I knew you were a top computer man.”
“I know my way around...” Manlio said. “But now...”
“Now... here is you reward!” Satan replied with a whiplash of his tail and Manlio Locatelli was seized off his feet by a whirlpool of cold air that crashed him onto an ice slab in a bottomless pit.
“Hey!” Manlio shouted angrily. “Promises are promises and must be kept. You guaranteed me five degrees, and here it’s at least twenty degrees less! I protest!”
From the high mouth of the pit he could hear the laughter of the Devil. “Overruled, my dear fellow. Satan promised you five degrees, and five degrees you have. There is nothing to object to. Didn’t I tell you that I feel good for Christmas? Well, today is Christmas and you have your present.”
“Five degrees my foot, I tell you!” Manlio Locatelli shouted with all the voice he had. “If you feel good as you said...”
The Satanic laughter roared down the funnel of the pit again. “Oh, yes, my precious helper. I certainly feel good in this season... but only as good as you can in Hell. This is my Christmas present to you. You have your five degrees. But you didn’t specify the units. I shall. Five FAHRENHEIT degrees are exactly MINUS FIFTEEN DEGREES CELSIUS! Bye-bye, sucker!”
Copyright © 2010 by Antonio Bellomi