"I don't want to talk about it anymore!" Joe Dale said, moving toward the front door. "I think I'll take a walk."
"Good idea," Mona snapped. "Make it a long one."
Joe left his house seething. Why did they always have to fight about money? Now Mona wanted to send Danny to a private school, as if they didn't already have enough worries about paying bills. Sure, he wanted the best for his family, as any man with a heart and conscience would. But there was only so far their income would go, even with both of them working full time.
He paused and stared enviously at the gleaming 22-foot cabin cruiser in the driveway of his neighbor, Pete Hadley. Beside it was an equally new and shiny Mercedes sedan. How can he afford such luxuries? Joe wondered. He can't be earning much more than I do.
As if his thought was a summons, Pete came around the boat's stern polishing brass fittings. He saw Joe and smiled a greeting. "Hi, Joe. How's the world treating you?"
"Not as good as it seems to be treating you. I was admiring your new toy."
"Ain't she a beauty?" Pete said proudly. "I can't wait to get her in the water. Why don't you folks go with us to the lake this weekend?"
"I wish I could afford to take the time off."
"All work and no play makes Joe a dull boy. You should talk to the Paymaster."
"An old coot who makes easy loans to working guys like us."
"A loanshark? I wouldn't have anything to do with them even if I had any collateral to put up. With the house mortgaged to the hilt and --"
"No collateral required. Nothing of any value, anyway."
Joe snorted. "You're putting me on!"
"No. He's really a soft touch. You just tell him what you need and he shells out the cash. Only thing is, he's a religion freak. You might have to listen to him talk about Heaven and Hell, souls, demons and other crap that nobody who's cool believes or cares about in these modern times."
"Well, I could use some extra money, but…" Joe said uncertainly.
"It won't hurt to talk to him." Pete wiped his hands on his polishing rag and tossed it onto the boat's deck. "His office is just over in the mini-mall. I'll walk you over and introduce you."
Joe hesitated, then thought: What the heck? He was going for a walk anyway.
Pete led him to a shabby little corner office in the mall where a drab receptionist asked them to wait while her boss finished with another customer. Joe peered through a glass partition and gasped. "Hey, Pete, doesn't he look like the --"
"Like I said, he has some peculiar habits, but he's harmless. So what if he gets his jollies wearing red tights, horns, a tail and has a pitchfork on his desk? It's a free country."
A middle-aged woman exited the inner office and the receptionist said Joe could go in. The Paymaster looked up briskly. "Please sit down. Excuse me for coming right to the point, but I have a busy schedule today."
"Sure," Joe said. "My friend told me you make easy loans."
"Actually, I pay generous prices for something that most people think has no value. Many say that it doesn't even exist."
"Yeah. Pete said you buy souls." Joe was embarrassed to say something so silly.
"Quite right. Here's the contract. Just sign at the bottom."
Joe took the offered pen. "How much do I get?"
"As much as you want. Would a million dollars do for starters?"
He passed over a bulging shopping bag and Joe gulped at the bundles of $100 bills inside. "You can't be serious!"
"Totally serious and legal. And there's plenty more where that came from. Just come back anytime you run short of funds."
Somehow Joe found himself outside, looking dazedly around for Pete, who was nowhere in sight. Not that he needed him. He peered into the bag again, trying to get his shocked mind around the fact that he was rich. With this much money, he and Mona and the kids could do anything! First, he would buy something for Mona that would really knock her socks off.
He hurried to a jewelry store a few doors away. The array of glittering ornaments made it hard for him to decide, but he finally chose a diamond bracelet. When he tried to pay for it, the clerk pushed his money back with a disdainful sneer.
"Get that worthless paper out of my sight! I'm tired of you people trying to dump it on honest businessmen like me."
"But, but…" Joe spluttered.
Once more Joe found himself on the sidewalk, dazed and jostled by hysterical crowds rushing around with shopping bags like his. His confusion turned to rage and he ran back to the shabby corner office, past the receptionist and burst in on the Paymaster.
"You damned crook! You gave me counterfeit money!"
"Not at all," the Paymaster said calmly. "That is genuine currency printed by your own government."
"Then why -- "
"When you creatures stopped believing in Hell, I had to invent something to replace it." His lips curled in a Devilish smirk. "I couldn't come up with anything better than Inflation."