Friday, February 14, 2020

The Fine Print

“What can I do to get you inside one of these beautiful cars?"

It was such a cliched thing for a car salesman to say, and that’s why Jeremiah Tork smiled when he heard it. He had already decided to go through with leasing the super-expensive, cutting-edge supercar before he'd arrived at the dealership, and he looked forward to making this salesman’s day, if not his month, from the commission.

Psychopomp Motors kept the details of its DaemonForce 6000 top secret. Parts lists, user’s manuals, and repair manuals weren’t publicly available, not even on the Dark Web, and not even to someone like Jeremiah, who had the money to pay for them. The DaemonForce 6000 was the only vehicle that required signing a nondisclosure agreement, an inexplicable hassle to some, but an irresistible lure to Jeremiah. If it wasn’t worth the price for the power, which was substantial, or the fuel efficiency, which was unbelievable, it was worth it for the prestige of being able to drive such an exclusive sports car around the city.

Jeremiah had memorized ten questions to ask the salesperson about the car, to let them think they were convincing him to buy, but in the end he asked only two and found himself in the leasing office before noon.

"Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on your lease of a brand new DaemonForce 6000 hybrid sports car,” Anthony the salesman said, smiling at Jeremiah’s signature at the bottom of the lease form, “the most powerful, most fuel-efficient sports car ever made.”

“Thank you,” Jeremiah said. “I still would much rather buy one outright.”

“I’m afraid it’s not possible,” the salesman said.

“I’ve got the money.”

“It’s not a matter of money, I’m afraid,” Anthony said. He slid the lease paperwork through a slot on the wall beside his desk. “Now, to the nondisclosure agreement. As I mentioned before, there are a lot of trade secrets under the hood of the DaemonForce 6000, secrets our competitors would love to get their hands on. Obviously a two-thousand-horsepower automobile that gets nearly a hundred miles per gallon is light years ahead of everyone else. All other car manufacturers, as we like to say, are trying to catch up with us, both literally and figuratively.” Anthony smiled widely, showing, Jeremiah thought, slightly more than the usual number of teeth.

With a flourish, the salesman produced a fresh stack of papers from a desk drawer, a stack even thicker than the lease agreement.

“So before we can even start your orientation,” Anthony continued, “we need you to agree to keep our secrets, well, secret. In a legally binding way.”


“Yes. There are certain, shall we say, maintenance issues with the DaemonForce that are quite different from your average car.”


“Now, here on the first page…” Anthony quickly took Jeremiah through each part of the NDA. The entire first page was nothing but a defining of terms — Jeremiah as lessor, Psychopomp Motors as lessee, the difference between intellectual property and trade secrets, and so on. The second page was a section in all-capital letters about indemnification and arbitration and the legal limits of Psychopomp’s responsibility.

The more interesting information began on the fourth page, where, Anthony explained, one section was an acknowledgment that Jeremiah understood that, in the case of a sudden collision that compromised the integrity of the engine area, the entire engine block would automatically self-destruct in a way that would not put the driver in any danger, provided he had survived the accident itself.

Faster and faster, Anthony sped through the text of the NDA, pointing to relevant blocks of thick legalese: All but the most basic maintenance tasks — changing a headlamp or the windshield wipers — were to be performed at the dealership and only at the dealership, he warned. The hood was not to be opened outdoors, where someone might see, and the engine was equipped with sensors that, in the presence of natural sunlight, would cause the engine to become unusable. The hood was not even to be opened outside the dealership except in very special, controlled circumstances.

In the beginning, Jeremiah took the time to scan each line of the contract, even if he didn’t always understand the jargon. He signed on long lines and initialed on short ones. Twelve pages in, the words the letters formed had ceased to hold any meaning, and he felt a headache coming on. Relying on Anthony’s descriptions, he penned in his name or initials where indicated.

Finally, there were only two blank lines left for his full name and the date.

He held the tip of Anthony’s fountain pen above that final line. “I’ll get a copy of this agreement, right?” he asked.

“Of course!” Anthony said. “You can take it home and review it to your heart’s content!”

Jeremiah noticed Anthony’s wide smile falter ever so slightly when he set the pen down and massaged the cramp out of it. “Considering all the money and now time I’m sinking into this car,” Jeremiah said, “it better be worth it.”

“Oh, it will be. Believe me, it will be. You will be driving around town in the single greatest vehicle ever built.”

There was a quiet knock at the office door.

“Yes?” Anthony called out.

The door opened just enough for a mechanic to stick his head in. “His car is ready.”

“Thank you, Michael,” Anthony said.

Michael’s head disappeared, and the door closed silently.

Jeremiah's heart raced as it had when he'd finally decided to lease the car. “Well all right then,” he said, picking up the pen. He signed his name, printed the date, set the pen down, and leaned back in the chair.

Anthony splayed his fingers out on top of the agreement and spun it around. “Beautiful,” he said, staring at the signature. Finally, he looked Jeremiah in the eyes. “Are you ready to see your new DaemonForce?”

The first thing Jeremiah noticed about the preparation area was how small it was. He was expecting an expansive, high-tech, multi-unit garage, but this room was just large enough to walk all the way around the single vehicle at its center. It was dark, too. A single bright light shone down from somewhere above them onto the sexy, bright red curves of his new DaemonForce 6000. Black acoustic tiles covered the walls, sucking sound from the air.

The overall result was impressive, Jeremiah thought, offering him almost no distractions from the car itself. Even the tall rolling toolbox, which Jeremiah's mind knew must have been just as bright as the car, faded into nonexistence in the corner.

Michael the mechanic — dressed in spotless navy-blue overalls that sported the winged Psychopomp logo on the left breast — stood like a sentry at the supercar's left front corner.

Anthony closed the door to the office behind them, and Jeremiah thought he heard a lock fall into place. "I present to you," Anthony said, extending his arm like a circus ringmaster, “your brand new, hybrid-powered, two-thousand-horsepower, American-made, panty-moistening DaemonForce 6000." He dropped a wireless key fob into Jeremiah’s open hand. The four-button fob was linked by a silver key ring to a shiny piece of solid silver in the shape of the Psychopomp logo.

Anthony walked to the side of the car and tugged on a nearly invisible release. The driver’s-side door rose up and folded back on itself like a bat’s wing. “Slide on in," he said.

The black leather bucket seat cradled Jeremiah's ass like the cupped hand of God, and his last lingering doubts about spending so much on the car disappeared.

As soon as he sat down, the dark display behind the steering wheel came to life — a minimalist, all-digital heads-up display showing only an odometer, dual trip odometers, and a clock in the same bright red as the car's exterior.

“No speedometer?” Jeremiah asked, confused.

“That is projected onto the lower-left corner of the windshield while you’re driving. You can move any of the other gauges up there, too, if you’d like.”

“Cool!” Jeremiah blushed for sounding like a grade-school kid with a new toy.

“It drives pretty much like any other car, with a few exceptions," Anthony said. "First, on the back side of the steering wheel, at ten and two, do you feel those two buttons? That's the overdrive. Keep the overdrive off for street driving. The bottom button is for highway driving, and the top button, well, we call that ‘Getaway Mode.’ Though you have touch access to the radio, the air conditioning and all that stuff on the center console, everything — and I mean everything — can also be voice-activated. The headlights, the windshield wipers, even the seat warmers can be controlled by the sound of your voice. All you have to do is say the car's name and then tell it what you want.”

“The car has a name?"

"Oh yes. And your car is..." he gestured to the mechanic, who handed him a square of blue paper. Anthony took the slip and glanced at it. “Really?” he asked.

The mechanic shrugged.

"Apparently," Anthony said to Jeremiah, "your car is named Edith."

"Edith?" Jeremiah said. That was his dead grandmother’s name. "Can I change that?"

"I'm afraid not. But don't worry; you'll get used to it.” Anthony pushed on before Jeremiah could object. "As I said, everything is voice-controlled, except the steering, the accelerator and brake, and, of course, the ignition, which is right there." He pointed to a big red button to the right of the steering column that had START printed on it in black block letters. “As long as your fob is within about ten feet of the engine, you just push that button and go."

Next to the START button was another, slightly smaller red button, labeled MOTIVATE.

"What does that button do?" Jeremiah asked.

"We'll get to that in good time," Anthony said. "But first, why don't you try out the voice activation."

"Doesn't the car have to be on?"

"Nope. It's always listening. Why don't you tell the car to turn on the headlights."

Jeremiah squared himself in the seat and said, tentatively, "Edith, turn on the headlights."

Nothing happened.

Anthony’s smile disappeared. He leaned into the cabin and said, in a voice like a parent chiding a recalcitrant child, "Edith! Put the headlights on."

A second passed in silence, but then, slowly, a pair of headlamps unfolded from the front corners of the car and lit up.

"They look a bit dim," Jeremiah said, noticing how the light barely illuminated the small room's back wall.

"They sure are," Anthony muttered. "And slow, too." But then his smile returned. "But I can show you how to take care of that on your own."


"Yes. And now we move to the more sensitive part of your orientation. Please press the last button on your fob."

When Jeremiah did so, an inch-long brass key popped out of the top of the fob.

"Now, may I direct your attention to the hood release," Anthony said.

Jeremiah found it just where expected, by his left knee.There was a small keyhole above it. "With one hand," Anthony explained, "you insert the key and give it a quarter-turn to the left, and with the other hand, you pull the release."

Jeremiah followed the instructions. There was a loud clunk, and simultaneously the front edge of the hood popped up several inches and he felt the key automatically retract into the fob.

While Michael the mechanic lifted and propped the hood, Jeremiah moved to get out, but Anthony was deliberately blocking his way. "Now let me remind you," he warned, "that you are never to open the hood outdoors, and that you are never to allow anyone else to look under the hood."

"I understand," Jeremiah replied, "but I really don’t understand why you need this level of secrecy."

"You will." Anthony stepped back to let him out of the car.

Jeremiah wasn't much of a car guy — he bought a new car every two years so he wouldn’t have to be — but he knew that what he saw under that hood was wrong. To call it an engine block wouldn’t be accurate. There was no battery, no fuse box, no tubes or wires. There was no spout to add coolant to the engine or water to the radiator. There was no radiator. What there was was a large, dark, metal sphere in the center, a silver box with a single red button beside it, and a place to put windshield wiper fluid.

"Now, to open the containment sphere,” Anthony explained, "just hold down that red button until you hear the click and the green lights come on. Go ahead." Anthony pointed at the red button on the silver box.

Jeremiah leaned under the hood and pushed the button down. He could feel a vibration under his thumb — some kind of power source that worked its way up his arm. It had reached his shoulder when it suddenly stopped, something in the silver box clicked, and a line of green LED lights lit up along the back of the compartment.

"At last, Mr. Tork," Anthony said, "May I introduce you to the power source and control mechanism of your new DaemonForce 6000. Now don’t be alarmed." The top of the sphere clam-shelled open, revealing, inside, a small metal cage. There was a lump at the center of the cage, a black lump — blacker somehow than the surrounding darkness — that looked simultaneously furry and scaly.

"You must be Edith," Anthony said to the lump.

It shifted as if alive, and Jeremiah, his heart suddenly pounding in his ears, saw what looked like (but couldn't possibly be) a tiny black paw raising an even tinier middle finger in Anthony’s direction.

"Edith," Anthony said. "This is Jeremiah. You're going to be serving him now." To Jeremiah he whispered, "Say hello."

"Uh, hello, Edith."

Jeremiah took an instinctive step backward when a second appendage appeared. It was definitely a tiny paw that was definitely flipping Jeremiah the bird.

"Don't be like that, Edith," Anthony cooed. "Ah, I suppose it’s just as well. I need to show Jeremiah here how the MOTIVATE button works.”

The furry-scaly black thing whirled around. In surprise, Jeremiah jumped backward and smashed his elbow against the large red toolbox. A drawer rolled partway open, revealing an array of tools, most of which Jeremiah recognized — a wrench, wire cutters, a screwdriver — but also a shiny hand tool that resembled a speculum.

“No, not the button!” rasped the thing in the cage, its lipless mouth grimacing, revealing at least three rows of small, sharp teeth. “Master Anthony, please. Not the button! I'll be good! I promise! See?” The headlamps lit up to full power.

"What is that?" Jeremiah at last found the voice to ask.

"That, sir, is a demon."

"A de— what?"

"A demon, Mr. Tork. Just like the name on the car says. Edith here was condemned to an eternity of torture in the hottest pits of hell, and we, er, negotiated her release to do a little work for us up here. Like a work-release program, but for infernal creatures."

In any other situation, Jeremiah would have dismissed the existence of demons, of hell even, as religious or occult fanaticism, but as he stared at the car’s miniature "power source" — with its bifurcated tail, four-nostriled nose, and single large eye with a rectangular black pupil — he couldn’t deny the truth behind the words. Still...

"Negotiated? You negotiated with hell for a demon to—"

"Demons, Mr. Tork. Demons in the plural."

"But how did you even … who did you even negotiate with?"

"Trade secrets, I'm afraid Mr. Tork. Trade secrets that are not included with your nondisclosure agreement."

"He's lying, Jeremiah!" the creature rasped. "Don't believe him! I was a person once, just like you. I had children. Do you have children? Well I had—"

"Ah-ah-ahhh," Anthony chided. "You know the penalty for lying, Edith."

"I'm not lying!" the creature grabbed a bar of her cage but yelped and pulled her paw back. Jeremiah thought he heard a sizzling sound.

"Rule number one with demons," Anthony said softly to Jeremiah, "is that they always lie. It’s what demons do. Don’t believe a word she says."

"But I'm not a demon." Edith was whimpering now, cradling her burnt paw.

"Of course, Edith," Anthony said facetiously. He walked back to the open driver’s-side door. "If she ever gives you any trouble again, Mr. Tork, just press the MOTIVATE button.” He slid into the driver’s seat. "Allow me to demonstrate."

Edith erupted: "No! Please! Not the button! I'm motivated! I'm motiv— AAAAAH!" A bolt like purple lightning encircled her, arcing not only around her body but through it, giving her dark furry-scaly coat an iridescent glow. It would have been an amazing sight were it not for the screaming. Edith's painful wails were louder than seemed possible from such a minuscule body. The sound of it filled the small room, and Jeremiah felt it vibrate within him, shaking loose terrors he hadn’t felt since childhood — the fear of spiders, of darkness, of clowns. Of death. He might have passed out from the shock if the sound had been allowed to reverberate and compound instead of being absorbed by the dark tiles that covered the walls.

The purple glow stopped abruptly, and so did the screaming, but the seconds of silence that followed were twice as loud. Edith curled into a tiny black lump once again.

"I never stop loving that sound," said Anthony. He stood beside the car and said, "Edith, close the car door."

Nothing happened.

"Edith," Anthony said sternly.

The sound was so small and so subtle that Jeremiah nearly missed it: Edith was crying, a sniffle that sounded so painful, and so human.

The car door unfolded and slid silently shut.

"Now, your demon doesn’t need much maintenance," Anthony explained, sauntering around to the front of the car as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. "She can’t die, after all, because she’s already dead. But we find we get the best performance if, about once a month, you feed them about half a cup of fine gravel, which you can find at any pet store or place that sells aquariums."

Anthony doled out instructions on how to safely get the pebbles into the cage without being bitten or clawed, plus the various benefits of quartz gravel and river pebbles, but Jeremiah was only half-listening. We was watching Edith, certain that he could see her tiny shoulders shake as she wept.

She must have sensed his gaze, because she lifted her head to him. A quivering light reflected off the tears that welled up around her one great eye. She looked not so much like a demon as a frightened kitten.

A horribly deformed, frightened kitten.

Jeremiah’s heart broke.

"And that’s about it. Any questions, Mr. Tork?" Jeremiah finally looked away from Edith into the face of her captor.

"Uh, yeah. This, uh, demon seems like she's pretty powerful. How do you keep her caged up like that?"

"It’s simpler than it sounds. People like— I mean demons like her are horribly allergic to iron. Those thin bars on her cage are just your standard, run-of-the-mill iron bars. But because they’re iron, she can’t touch them. It’s ironic, isn't it?" He smiled at his little joke. "Anything else?"

Jeremiah nodded thoughtfully; he was thinking fast. "What about tires?"


"Yeah. What if I get a flat tire? Can I take it to a tire place?"

"We would prefer you didn’t. There's a spare tire under the back of the car. Just put that on and then speed on over here and we’ll get you a new one. You do know how to put on a spare tire, don’t you?"

"Sure. Can you show me?" Jeremiah asked.

"How to put on a spare?"

"No no. The spare tire. How is it, you know, attached to the car? And how do I get it off?"

"Oh, of course," Anthony said. "It's simple, really. Let me show you." He walked toward the back of the car.

Jeremiah feinted toward the back, but when Anthony came even with the back tire, Jeremiah grabbed the wire cutters from the half-open drawer and lunged for the engine compartment. He had them clamped around one of the thin bars before he heard the mechanic shout, "Tony!" The cutters clipped through the wire cage as a pair of thick arms wrapped around his waist, trying to pull him away. He slipped the fingers of his left hand between the bars of the cage and held on while he worked the wire cutters around a second bar.

He thought he heard Edith say "Thank you, Jeremiah" as the clippers sank through the soft iron with a solid click. Anthony had made it to the front of the car by then. He and the mechanic pulled at Jeremiah, but his fingers were too well secured in the cage, and the combined force of the three of them bent the iron back, opening a hole in the cage.

Jeremiah felt Edith’s coat like hot sand against his fingertips as she wriggled her way painfully through the gap. With a squeal, she hopped down to the concrete floor.

"Get the lights!" Anthony screamed.

Michael stumbled toward the light switch beside the door to the office.

Edith scurried toward a dark corner and shouted triumphantly, "Chomp my crank, motherfu—"

The lights came on, but Edith was gone.

Anthony let go of Jeremiah. He straightened up, sighed, and smoothed the wrinkles from his suit and tie.

The mechanic stood in front of the door to the main office like a bouncer, arms crossed.

It took Jeremiah a few moments to work his fingers out of the small cage. There was a pain in his index finger, and he feared it was broken.

"Why on earth would you do a thing like that, Mr. Tork?" Anthony said. "You’ve ruined my entire day."

"You were torturing that poor creature!" Jeremiah protested.


In the arrogance of that single-syllable response, Jeremiah found a reserve of defiance he didn’t know he had. "You can't do that. It's time people knew what was going on here. It's ... it's …" his voice was getting hoarse with rage. "It’s evil! It’s immoral. It’s —"

Something was wrong. Jeremiah remembered Anthony being a few inches shorter than he, but now he seemed a few inches taller. The mechanic, too, seemed slowly to be growing. The whole room was, in fact.

Jeremiah’s stomach felt weird, and his throat was scratchy. The knuckles in both hands popped all at once, and he stared down at them. The fingers were shrinking to stubs, while the fingernails were growing long and claw-like. Coarse red hair had sprouted from the back of his hands and was growing with supernatural speed.

In the spaces between what had been his fingers, he saw the floor rushing up toward him, and he realized: Anthony and Michael weren’t growing; he was shrinking.

He panicked.

"Wh-wh-what’s happening?!"

"Exactly what you agreed to, Mr. Tork." He gave a quick nod to the mechanic. "You freed Edith, so you have to take her place."

"What? I never agreed to that!"

"You most certainly did, Mr. Tork," Anthony said, producing the nondisclosure agreement from inside his suit coat. "It’s right here on page eight. Aren’t those your initials right there?" He held the document out for Jeremiah to see.

Behind Anthony, the mechanic pressed a button on the wall and a long panel slid open, revealing a row of small, identical cages, each holding a creature that was in its own way disfigured, disgusting, infernal. Each one sat quietly at the center of their cage, docile as a sloth.

The last cage was empty. The mechanic handed it to Anthony, who waved his hand in front of it, and the bottom irised open.

"But ...but ... but that’s not right!" Jeremiah pleaded, feeling hot tears welling in his three eyes. "I’m not a demon."

Anthony shrugged. "Neither was Edith, technically."

Jeremiah was shin-high now, his empty clothing heaped around him. He could feel the row of spikes down his spine, and the cold tips of his large, pointed ears, but he was afraid to look down at himself, frightened of what he would find.

"Look on the bright side, Jeremiah," Anthony said as he lowered the cage around him. "You are no longer responsible for the lease you signed." He waved his hand over the cage and it snapped shut, trapping Jeremiah inside. Anthony lifted the cage up to eye level and peered inside. "But more importantly," he continued, "I am going to get you inside one of these beautiful cars."

About this story

"The Fine Print" was a response to the biweekly #RueLouPrompts, which are writing prompts for flash fiction. Though it got me writing, I totally failed at the "flash fiction" part, which means it's supposed to be 500 words maximum. I missed that target a bit. By, like, 3,600 words. A bit. At least I got a story out of it.

The prompt was "There's a demon inside." Obviously, I took the super-literal route. Other writers didn't. You can find their takes on the prompt (in under 500 words), as well as the next prompt, at