The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part III

            Right about then, a spark leaped up out of the crackling fire.  An angry spark, that refused to die like sparks usually do.  This one began to grow, take shape…

            Woodrow leaned back.  He had not expected this development.  But he refused to look worried.  Before him, a tall, pale-faced, lean muscular figure appeared, dressed impeccably in the finest black suit Woodrow had ever seen. His tie was the color of dried blood, dark red with flecks of coagulated gore black.  The rose in his lapel was so deep a red that it was almost velvety black.  The stranger’s hair was slicked back, the jet blackness of it sparkled and glinted as the flames reflected off of it, the black pupils of his eyes, and the gold tooth that shone in the corner of his lop-sided smile.  He gripped the handle of a walking stick, the head of which was shaped like a vicious, menacing snake, fangs dripping gold and silver gobbets of poison. 

            Woodrow had seen the man before, but where? He thought for a moment, mind racing over Henry Potter’s biography that had so recently played before him.  The Mercantile.  The riot.  He was there.  In the crowd. 

This could not be good. 

            “So.  Henry.  It appears that we have a problem,” said the newcomer.

            “Who are you?  I never let you into my house!”

            “Ah, Henry.  We’ll have an eternity to get to know each other,” the pale stranger said, oozing a confidence that suggested he had done this before. 

            “I wondered if we would have company,” said Woodrow.  “I don’t think we’ve met…” He thought about extending his hand, but thought better of it.  Better not give the devil a hand.

            “Woodrow Jefferson.  I know all about you.  We keep tabs on our esteemed opponents.”  The dapper demon sneered.  “I can see that your firm doesn’t see fit to return the courtesy.  Name’s Luther Kobold.  I’m very pleased to meet you.  I’ll be even more pleased to defeat you.”

            “I’m sure.”  Woodrow looked like he was concentrating hard.  “Clarence, I could use a little advice.”  No answer.

            “Oh, I’m sorry.  You’re playing in the big leagues, now, Woodrow.  No coaching from the stands.”

            Woodrow furrowed his brow.  He could have been worried, or he could have been just annoyed.  It may have been a little of both. 

            “I take it we’re here for the same thing.  You’ve been working on Henry Potter for a very long time, Luther.  Looks like you’ve done a good job, too.  But I have a job to do, too.  Surely you’ll understand if I try to earn my wings?”

            “I wouldn’t have it any other way, Woodrow.  You’ll have a devil of a time getting past me, though.  I’m the best in the Imp Corps.  I never lose.  One hundred percent success record.”

            “There’s always a first time.”

             “I’m not worried.  I have your room all picked out.  You’ll bunk with Henry, here.”

            “Thanks.  I’ll pass.”

            “Enough small talk.  Henry, I’m here to collect.”

            “Collect what?”

            “Why, you’re soul, of course.  You don’t think you got so far in life all on your own?”  Kobold snorted.  “They always forget the ones who give them a leg up.”

            “I must be coming down with something.  I seem to be having hallucinations.  Delusions. Something.”

            Woodrow moved between the two, the tall pale devil towering over the frail shell of a man.  “Henry’s time may be short, that’s true.  But he still has some time.  He can fix what he’s broken.  He can make amends.”

            “Amends for what!” Potter called out.  “What do you mean my time is short?  Are you here to murder me?”

            “Suit yourself,” Luther grinned.  He pulled off his gloves and cracked his knuckles.

            “No, no, no,” Woodrow chided. “I think we need to sit down and sort all this out.  Let Henry decide what side he’s on.”

            “He decided that a long time ago.  Those idle wishes that he made when he was 15.  He got his wish.  The price of success was…” Luther pulled out a scroll of dirty parchment, “…one soul.  We own him, free and clear.”

            “Nonsense.  Let me see that.”  Woodrow looked at the paper.  To mortal eyes, it would have looked like a nothing more than a piece of dirty rubbish.  But to his immortal eyes, it came alive as an ornately calligraphed contract.  The signature, if it could be called that, was glowing.  But only faintly.  Henry Potter had not actually signed his name.  In fact, it looked like it was nothing more than an angry smudge of dried blood on the page.  “Well, I dispute this contract.”

            “What?  You can’t dispute a contract signed in blood.  It just isn’t done.”

            “It looks like a no win contract for Mr. Potter.  If he gives you his soul, he gets some gold and trinkets here on earth for a little while, then he spends eternity in Hell.  But if he breaks the contract, you still get his soul.  Either way, there’s Hell to pay.”

            “Ironic, isn’t it?”

            “I signed no contract!”  Potter yelled, angry at being left out of the discussion.

            “Please, Henry, let me handle this,” Woodrow said over his shoulder.

            “I’m sorry, but it’s time to pay up.  Now if you’ll get up out of that chair, we’ll be going.”

            “I can’t get out of this chair. I haven’t walked in over 43 years,” Potter shot back.  “If you know so much about me, you’d know that, too.”

            “I can help you walk, Henry.  All you have to do is trust me,” soothed Kobold, stroking the old man, now increasingly confused, on the arm.

            Woodrow moved the demon’s hand off of Potter’s sleeve.  “Why don’t you and I take this outside?”  Woodrow asked.

            “Why don’t we?” Kobold responded.

            “Why don’t you…and don’t come back!” Potter snarled.  His head was beginning to hurt.  Where was that nice bottle of expensive Port?  Forget Port.  He needed a stiff brandy.

           

            Outside, the forces of good and evil continued their discussion. 

            “Henry Potter did not sign the document.  He made no conscious decision to sell his soul.  You took advantage of a confused, misfortunate boy.  The contract is invalid.”

            “The contract is good.  I had my lawyers check it over.”

            “I’m sure Hell is full of them.  But they’re the ones that can’t be trusted.”  Woodrow bowed his head a moment.  A thought came to him.  Of course.  That would solve the problem. 

            “Mr. Kobold, since you are so fond of legal proceedings, may I propose a trial of sorts?  We’ll lay out the facts for Mr. Potter and let him judge for himself which fate he may choose.”

            “A trial.  All right, Jefferson.  You’re on.  But no funny business.  I’ve seen how you angels operate.”

           

            They returned inside to find Potter sipping from a snifter of amber liquor.  He blinked and spluttered when he saw them return, then coughing and wiping the stinging liquid from his face, he finished the bracer with a gulp.

            “I thought I told you two to hit the road!  I will call the constables!  I’ll get that Bert What’s-His-Name to run you in.”

            “Bert’s directing traffic on Sycamore Street,” said Woodrow.

            “Yes, yes, the Baileys’ festival of penury,” grumbled Potter.

            “Henry, we want to talk to you.  Show you some things from your past and your present.”

            “What, spirit, no Christmas yet to come?” Potter mocked.

            “Good one, Henry!” laughed Kobold.

            “The future can’t really be known.  It’s based on the choices you make here and now.  We can see the effects of our actions, but we can’t predict with absolute certainty what tomorrow may bring.  That’s one of the things that make life interesting,” Woodrow explained.

            “All right.  If it will get you out of my drawing room sooner, tell me your little fairy tales.  Spin me your yarn.  But it better be entertaining.”

            “I imagine you’ll enjoy parts of it.”  Woodrow looked at the gloating demon across the room from him.  “Luther, if you would be so kind as to show Mr. Potter his life story?”

            “Can’t you?  Oh that’s right.  You haven’t earned your wings.”  Luther waved his long fingers in front of Potter’s face.  He laughed.  “I always do that for mysterious effect.  It impresses the Hell out of my clients.”

            “Too bad they can’t get rid of all the Hell in them.  Maybe your neighborhood wouldn’t be so crowded.”

            “Good one, Jefferson.  One life story of Henry Potter coming up…”

            “And just the facts, if you please,” Woodrow interrupted.

            “Just the facts.  That’s all I really need anyway.  This case is open and shut.”

            The demon showed the same story Clarence had recounted earlier in the evening.  But this time, Woodrow opened a leather bound notebook and read from it, filling in some details.  The early scenes were ones that could have been in any of millions of homes.  A happy family.  Mother, father, child playing and laughing.  The hardness in Potter’s eyes softened a little as he watched. 

            “Henry, did you ever wonder what happened to your parents?”

            “I was orphaned in the fire at the mercantile.”

            “Now see, that’s just proof that if you tell yourself a lie long enough you start to believe it as the truth.  No, my friend, your parents survived.  You mother died soon after, though.  Some say it was a broken heart, mostly because she lost you.  Your father lived another 27 years, and was miserable each and every day.  He never got over losing the love of his life.  Or his only son.”

            “He was a fool.”

            “He was your father, Henry.  If you didn’t respect your father, you should show at least a little respect for the dead.”

            “He was weak.  He let people use him.”  Potter said, his voice not as strong, not as much conviction as earlier.  What was it?  A note of remorse?

            “I agree with Henry.  He was a patsy,” Kobold interjected.

            “Now see here,” warned Potter, recovering his balance.

            Woodrow focused his attention on the image of a young woman.  “Madeline Seward.  She could have been the love of your life.  Not a very nice person early on.  But she did at least one kind and noble thing in her life.  She was a passenger on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.”

            Henry’s eyes shot open wider.  He cocked his better ear toward the angel.

            “As the ship was going down, she gave her seat on the lifeboat to a young woman carrying an infant.  Saved both their lives.”

            “Madeline…” Henry’s voice sounded distant.

            Kobold clapped.  “Brava,” he smirked.  “Does saving a stranger make up for deserting you in your hour of need?”  This Jefferson was good, Luther had to give him that.  He had seen Potter waver now more than once in only a few minutes.

            “People do change, Henry.”

            “And old habits are hard to break, too,” continued Luther.  “Get on with it.  I need to get back home before I freeze to…well…before I freeze.”

            Woodrow closed the book.  “Luther, can we see the last 39 Christmases?”  One after one, the holidays peeled past like pages from a calendar.  “Look at yourself, Henry.  In your younger days, you actually wore a red cravat for the holidays.  You were almost…merry.  You actually had some people that you might have even called friends.” 

            “More like acquaintances.  Idiots, the lot of them,” muttered Potter.  “They were just co-workers.  I left the trappings of merriment behind when I moved back here to Bedford Falls to work for me and me alone.  Serious business demands serious demeanor.”

            “And you have been nothing if not serious.”

            “I’ve been nothing if not successful!”

            “Time’s a wasting, oh wingless one,” chided Kobold.

            “What will one more moment make against an eternity, Luther?” Woodrow asked.

            “Enough, Jefferson.  Give me a crack at him.”

            “All right, fair is fair,” Woodrow sighed.

            Luther thumbed the air like pages in a book, and showed Henry scenes of how people rejected him, scoffed at him, hated him.  Potter’s spine stiffened.  ‘”Yes, Henry.  First they hated you for being poor, then they hated you for being successful, powerful, rich….” Luther was grinning.  He moved to Henry’s side and placed an arm around Potter’s shoulder.  “Just look at them….”  A panoramic montage of sad and angry people played across his vision, starting with the cruel boys that hurt and mistreated him all those years ago, then Mrs. Nordstrom, the first person he had strong-armed to pay her accounts, then a parade of people he had taken advantage of.

            The scene turned to one of dozens of meetings of the board of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.  Peter Bailey sat quietly at one end of the table.  A younger but no less angry looking Henry Potter sat the other end, and between them, a collection of Bedford Falls’ finest businessmen. 

            “Bailey, you can’t expect to continue without making money.  Business means making money.  If you can’t see that, get out.  Start a charity if you want,” said Potter, slamming his folder of reports on the table in front of him.  ‘But I’ll not be investing in a losing enterprise.”

            “Mr. Potter, times have been hard since the factory shut down.  People can’t borrow like they used to and some are having trouble meeting their payments.  If we foreclose, there’s no one to buy the property.  There’s no more money to go around,” said a tired and sad Peter Bailey.  He had fought the good fight for many years.  He wanted nothing more than to retire quietly to a nice cabin in the woods near the top of Mount Bedford and spend his days gardening and fishing, and anything but keeping count of how few dollars his business was bringing in.  But he had no great horde of wealth to buy his cabin, and he had a wife and two sons to support.

            Peter thought about his sons.  He had hoped that they would want to follow in his footsteps, join him in the family business.  They would never be rich in worldly goods, but they would be rich in so many other ways.

            He thought about the life he could have had had he left Bedford Falls all those years ago to pursue his dreams.  When the opportunity came to build this business, he hesitated at first.  But after he saw the good he could do for his fellow citizens, he didn’t mind so much.  He enjoyed helping others.  And the more he did it, the more it just felt right, and good, and like something that he was born to do.

            That was, until Potter arrived and set the business landscape of Bedford Falls on its ear.  He opened competing businesses with many of the men sitting in the room.  He purposely undercut them to force them to surrender.  Some had.  Some came to him for a job after he shut them down.  After he drove the competition out of business, he raised prices and raked in profits at the expense of his customers, his neighbors.  It was like the town’s own little version of the Roman Empire: conquest followed by occupation.  Like Rome, the occupied citizens never quite appreciated the beneficence of their newly installed keepers.  And like the emperors of old, he demanded adoration, respect, and quite nearly, worship.

            At the end of the meeting, enough board members had sided with Peter Bailey to ward off Potter for another quarter.  It was their last ditch effort to retain some dignity, some sense of independence.  Defiance may bring Potter’s wrath some day, but not that day.  For that day, they held their heads high, they were still their own men.  For at least another day.

            In the scene before him, Henry saw himself being wheeled out.  But the scene remained in the conference room.

            “Well, Peter, you gave that old goat what for!” one freshly smiling man exclaimed.

            “We may have won the day, but Potter has better position for the future.  I wish I knew why he feels the need to control his world.  Money can’t buy happiness.”  He shook his head.

            “Well, I hate him,” said another.

            “It’s easy to hate someone so disagreeable.  I might, if I didn’t pity him more,” said Peter.

            “Pity me?!” Potter exclaimed in the present.

            “Yes, Henry, the king of paupers pitied you,” Luther soothed.  ‘How does that make you feel?  You’re still here, still rich, powerful, respected, and where is he?  Dead, that’s where.  Worrying about his rabble killed him.”

             Woodrow straightened to his full height.  “Let’s finish this.  Luther, let’s take a look into the future.”

 

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