Satan’s guide to demonic possession

Satan’s guide to demonic possession

satan

Satan was depressed. It had taken a long time for Him to admit to it, not to mention a number of consultations with historically renowned specialists – which He had had expressly and discretely brought up from the circle of hell in which therapists spend eternity. By the time He got through His last session with Dr Freud, there was no denying it. He was only partially surprised to hear the diagnosis out loud: looking back, He realised there was no other possible explanation for the unsettling feeling that had been burning within the infernal pit of his stomach for longer than He cared to remember. The Adversary, The Lord of Lies, The Antichrist was unquestionably and acutely depressed. It had been far from easy, even for the fathers of psychoanalysis, to diagnose an immortal being, whose major contribution to the field was in the form of an archetypical figure of evil in other patients’ dreams. For one, it made no sense to ask Him how his sleep patterns had changed or if He ever had the feeling of being generally disliked. Eventually though, His loss of interest in topics that were usually dear to Him – such as the prolonged absence of His Counterpart – and His inability to take pleasure in activities that had always delighted Him – culminating in His unprecedented dismissal of a particularly spectacular genocide as “boring old shit” – had left the platoon of therapists in no doubt as to the Devil’s condition.

Asmodeus knocked tentatively on the heavily studded door of Satan’s office and poked in his ram head – keeping the other two safely out of his Master’s sight.

“The.. uhm… the delivery has arrived, Your Darkness.”
Satan spat a bolt of fire at him out of sheer boredom and missed.
“Why are you even bothering Me with this? They die all the time, just process this one as you do all the others.”
“Yes… uhm… of- of course Your Obscurity” stuttered Asmodeus, now slowly poking his bull head over the smouldering remains of the door “but You… uhm… You asked to be informed when this one came in”
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” Satan grunted in exasperation and grabbed a thick file from the pile on His desk. He thumbed through it quickly and threw it casually at Asmodeus, who ducked and then bent down to pick up the discarded pages “Just put him with all the other dictators! He could have bombed the planet into dust and I still wouldn’t want to employ him. We’re packed to the rafters with demons, we don’t need a new one. And he looks like a fucking elf anyway. Now get out of my sight.”

Asmodeus withdrew quickly, walking backwards and bowing as low as his ram horns would allow.

The Tempter flicked a new door into existence, more to spare Himself the accidental sight of His subordinates than anything else, covered His face with His hairy hands and began to cry. He was supposed to hate His life, of course, that was the whole point of Him, but the overwhelming tedium of it all now seemed more unbearable than the everlasting torments He inflicted upon the inmates. He had taken to calling them inmates, in an attempt at making the whole establishment feel more civilised. He envied the mortals. Boring and worthless as they were, He envied them. And not, as He usually did, because they, unlike Him, had a chance or two of not getting stuck in hell for eternity, but because their minds were so blissfully small. Despite occasionally entertaining thoughts of eternity and omnipotence, they were mostly unable to grasp anything beyond the span of their minuscule, petty lives. Oh, to be safely enclosed within the narrow walls of a human mind! In His unforgiving time He had lusted after many things, He had craved power, knowledge and freedom, but those desires now paled into insignificance, compared to His current, overpowering urge simply not to be Himself.

***

Possession was a form of art. It was not about green puke and little girls speaking in sloppy Latin and climbing walls. Those were the tacky trademarks of a beginner, whose only purpose was to have fun and titillate the mortals’ imagination into writing poor fiction and producing barely passable movies. He was above such cheap tricks. Possession was not about the possessed either: one never got to take the possessed home anyway, in fact one automatically forfeited them to the Competition. Possession was about everyone else. The possessed was nothing more than a pebble dropped into a pond: the ripples were the ultimate goal of the whole exercise. Humans did not need encouragement to do evil: left to their own devices, they were perfectly capable of growing into an endless crop of doomed souls. Still, they were mostly lazy and even their iniquity was mediocre. They occasionally needed to be tipped over the edge. That was the true beauty of possession: a craft, rather than a science. By taking over the possessed human’s free will for a limited time, a tiny spark of evil could be lit and then one could simply sit back, relax and enjoy the spectacle of the other mortals reacting to that small flame and become enveloped by it, spreading it further, matching sin with sin, vice with vice and creating misery out of misery. A well planned possession was enough to buy Hell dozens of souls.

That was why only amateurs hitched rides onto humans that were generally deemed to be good. It gave the game away and jeopardised the result: if someone who spent all their life being caring and selfless – a good friend, a model husband or a loving mother – suddenly started being mean to their inner circle, almost no evil would be spread. The concerned relations would think of a nervous breakdown or mental illness (or even, ironically, demonic possession) and make a point of being understanding and patient. Whereas, if a harassing boss crossed some invisible threshold in abusing his subordinates, no-one would be surprised: they would just consider him to be even more despicable than they had originally thought and feel less guilty about seeking some sort of revenge. A blatant possession was like a small miracle: pretentious and ultimately useless. The best possessions went unnoticed, were never remarked upon and sparked flames of genuine evil that it took years and sometimes generations to quench.

It was not the ultimate goal of pure Evil, however, that prompted the Angel of Light to roam the streets of a quiet seaside town on Earth one sultry evening in August. His motives were entirely selfish, which was, after all, His prerogative. He browsed through the minds and lives of those who dwelled there, slithering among them as a light breeze or buzzing over their shoulders, looking at them through the compound eyes of a dragonfly. He skimmed through meaningless lives and pathetic little secrets, through obstinate lies and unremarkable betrayals, relishing the carelessness of those simple everyday cruelties, as He looked for a mind in which to rest for a short while and find respite from the unbearable bulk of His own eternal cares.

He picked an old man first. His name was Frank. His life-long friend Alfred, Lucifer knew, was coming to visit him, because he wanted to apologise for not having joined Frank on his latest fishing trips. Alfred’s son had been ill and he had spent the past three months visiting him at the local hospital and helping take care of the kids. This was true, although it was not all there was to it. Alfred had been bored with Frank’s fishing trips for a while and he had been looking for an excuse to give them a miss. His son’s illness was not serious and his helping with the kids had been by no means essential: in fact, his son’s wife had said on a number of occasions that she could cope perfectly well on her own, thank you very much. Alfred was fond of Frank nonetheless, they had been friends for over four decades and he had missed the other man’s company, although not his blasted fishing trips. When Alfred rang Frank’s doorbell, that evening, Satan looked at him through Frank’s eyes and spoke to him in Frank’s voice. He rejected his apologies scornfully and told him the truth – for lies can wound, but a well-chosen truth will unfailingly kill. He did not invite Alfred inside, instead He made a point of speaking loudly and clearly, while standing on Frank’s threshold, ensconced in Frank’s body, exposing Alfred’s petty lies and his unpardonable betrayal of their friendship. Voices were raised, accusations were made. Forgotten scraps of a distant past were dug out of both men’s memories, sharpened and used with methodical precision to inflict neat scalpel wounds on each other’s pride and salt was rubbed on each wound and then a door was slammed and each man stood on one side, trembling. The Deceiver left Frank’s body and contemplated His mischief and it pleased Him. Frank and Alfred would never be friends again and each of them would speak ill of the other to mutual acquaintances. Friends and families would pick sides and the argument would, in due time, blossom into a proper feud, particularly when Frank’s cancer killed him after a quick decline. Frank’s dying words would be words of regret for never having made peace with his old friend, but Alfred would always refuse to visit his bedside. Alfred would eventually kill himself by carefully overdosing on his sleeping pills, but his death would be written off as a sad accident, an old man’s forgetfulness and inability to stick to the prescribed dosage. His sons and daughter would forever blame themselves for not having taken good care of him and Frank’s son would secretly spit on the grave of the man who had caused his late father so much pain until his dying day.

The Ruler of Demons luxuriated in the satisfaction of a job well done, but He was not ready to get back to the dreary routine of infernal administration. He smelled a young man’s unspoken lust for his brother’s wife and loosened the man’s restraint, for he knew that his sister-in-law would allow herself to be seduced, but eventually succumb to guilt and self-loathing and confess, thereby wrecking the lives of all involved and causing the betrayed husband to kill his own brother. He made a mother’s rage boil closer to the surface and then explode, so that the woman pressed a pillow over her new-born daughter’s face, for the baby would not stop crying and the young mother would swear afterwards that she only needed a few hours’ sleep. As the police took her away, her six-year-old son would cling to his father’s leg and wail, and in time his father would teach him to hate his unnatural, deranged mother, which would be instrumental in turning the boy into a teenage drug-addict and eventually set him on a permanent path of minor crime and casual violence, ultimately leading him to hanging himself during one of his countless stints in a poorly funded rehab clinic.

The Angel of the Bottomless Pit looked at His work and saw that it was Evil and He took pride in it. But it was pleasure, not pride that He sought on that particular evening, as it stretched into a starry night. The Brightest of Stars, the Bringer of Light and the Son of Perdition still craved the unmatched self-indulgence of not being Himself.

When He sensed her presence, He was, for the first time in several centuries, impressed. The old woman was Evil. She was pure hatred condensed in a wrinkly shroud, and the perfect blackness of her soul called to Him like a beacon. Her darkness shone through the light of creation for Him to admire. And yet, no appreciable Evil deed had blossomed from such a precious seed. A soul so black it could have brought about the deaths of millions without a second thought, had been lying dormant for five and eighty winters, contented with being no more mean to her neighbours than any average, mediocre human ape. Was He to possess her and let that magnificent, unexpressed potential bring misery and incite malice and acrimony in those around her for the short years she had left on Earth, but by doing so cause all her secret sins and her villainous thoughts to be forgiven and her immortal essence to be lost to His cause for eternity? Or was He to leave her and wait but a few years and then fashion her into a brand new demon, a general capable of leading an army of fallen Archangels and of inflicting unspeakable torments on countless souls?

He had been sitting idly on the resting home’s window sill, His cricket antennae vibrating as He stared at the frail body, pondering His options, when the girl came in and His decision was made. The sight of her repulsed Him. She was loathsome in His eye as the maggots exploding from a mole’s carcass are to the clueless picnic goers on a Sunday trip. She was good. She was not simply good: she appeared to be nothing but good. He dived through her past, scanned every particle of her being, explored every last recess of her mind, leaving no desire uninvestigated, no secret untold and no train of thought unfollowed and He found nothing. Not a trace of callousness, not a selfish thought, no pride or presumption to speak of, no envy for those who were wealthier or more beautiful, no lies and no grudges, no vices and no sin. Surely this would be a prize worth winning, a prey worth bringing back to the pits of Hell. There was no pride to be taken in making a demon out of a being that was evil in and of itself, but the girl was set to become an angel as sure as the old lady was two claws short of a fully formed devil. Oh, to uncover a speck of sin in such an immaculate soul, He thought, and the shiver of pleasure that ran through the cricket’s body was so intense that the creature fell dead to the linoleum floor. The Ruler of this World thought no more and He buried Himself in the bed-ridden figure with an inaudible gasp. The sweet stench of old age, the dull aches of the needles dripping drugs into the blue veins, the nausea and the sour taste of bad food and medication overwhelmed Him as He drew in a feeble breath and forced the decrepit jaw to move.

“Cunt.”
The girl paused for a moment, smiled and picked up the chart that was fixed to the bed railing.
“Good evening Mrs Hull, I have just come in to check that you have everything you need for the night and then I’ll leave you to rest. This will only take a moment.”
“Cunt.” The old woman repeated, as the girl proceeded to adjust the flow of the drip.
“Is something the matter, Mrs Hull? Are you feeling well?” The girl looked at her intently, her forehead creased in an expression of genuine concern.
“Am I fuck. Do I look like I am feeling well, you witless little slut? Or haven’t you noticed I can’t even move my legs, while you are free to spread yours all you like and I bet that’s exactly what you’ll do, as soon as you get out of this shithole.”
“As it happens” replied the girl, her smile serene, her eyes untroubled “I was planning a quiet night at home with a book, but I see your point. I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating and boring this must be for you. I’d probably be sick to my teeth if I was forced to spend most of my time in one single room. Would you like me to get you something? Something to read, maybe? A magazine or a book?”
“Are you taking the piss? I can’t bloody see, can I? I can barely see your face, you dumb cow, and you expect me to be able to read? How can someone so stupid be trusted to look after people?”
“Of course, I’m sorry for suggesting that. Would you like me to read to you then?”
Her voice was still pleasant and calm. She went to the window, closed it and paused to pick up a dead cricket with a tissue and drop it in the bin.

Satan looked at her through Mrs Hull’s milky eyes. The outline of her figure was blurred and she seemed to float in the grey mist that filled most of the old woman’s field of vision, but still her demeanour did not betray the slightest hint of impatience. The Devil reached out with impalpable tendrils and sunk them deep into the girl’s heart, looking for a sparkle of rage, a secret wish for the old’s woman’s death or a snappy retort, straining to burst out of her. And He found it. It was small and cold, but it was there, buried so deep within her soul that He doubted a lesser demon could have detected it: a tiny knot of resentment, untouched and inert like a pebble at the bottom of a deep lake. It stirred feebly, in response to the Devil’s probing.

As He slipped out of the malodorous sack of skin and bones that He had been so uncomfortably inhabiting, He doubted His host could tell the difference between her own thoughts and those that The Great Deceiver had planted in her failing brain. In fact, He had not done much more than voice the thoughts He had found, already formed, in the woman’s mind. He was not satisfied with His efforts. Was He expecting to kindle the dark flame of Evil in the heart of a potential angel by means of a few bland swearwords and harmless ramblings? Most workers in that establishment, He reasoned, were used to having abuse shouted at them by the old and the demented on a daily basis. The whole place stank of desperation and missed last chances.

He slipped absent-mindedly from creature to creature, following the girl home. He looked at her, pondering His next move, through the wet eyes of a stray dog, wagging His shaggy tail as she patted Him on the head. He kept looking at her through the large blue eyes of a toddler, sitting in his mother’s lap on the underground train; through the beady eye of a seagull and through the thick lenses perched on the nose of her unremarkable middle-aged neighbour. He had felt it shift within her. Evil was never absent, merely hiding deeper inside some humans than others. Potential Evil was more appealing than blatant corruption or mindless cruelty. He hitched a ride on a passing fly, as the girl was walking up the stairs to her apartment. He was not keen on flies, for the same reason He did not possess black cats if He could avoid it: He could not abide clichés. He swapped His winged host for the spider that caught it and He scuttled from room to room, following Her intently.

He quickly decided that she was boring. Humans were never particularly interesting, but she was mundane even by human standards. She was average in every respect except for one: she had never put her own Evil to any use. It was there, He could feel it pulsing now, but it had been left unturned. Not forgotten, just ignored. This tedious human female had elected, every day of her life, to not take into consideration the impulses that radiated from the polished shard of malice that was sunk deep within her. She had felt them and deliberately refused to acknowledge them, to the point that she was now scarcely aware of them at all. Lucifer hung from the spider’s thread and pondered, as He watched her sleep. He had all the time in the world.

***

“Sit down, Isabelle. We need to talk.”

Dr Fowler’s voice was even, but she could sense the uneasiness underneath. We need to talk, she had always felt, was a disgraceful opening sentence for any conversation. Robert would often joke about it, threatening to use it at random times and making good-natured fun of Isabelle’s anxious reactions. Dr Fowler, however, didn’t seem in the mood for fun, good-natured or otherwise.                        “Can you imagine why I called you here?”

The man was doing it on purpose, Isabelle concluded. He seemed to have made notes of all the expressions she found most unsettling. She shook her head.

“Really? You’re not guessing?”
“No” she shrugged, her voice betraying a tinge of exasperation “I am not guessing.”
“Mrs Hull.” he said simply. And waited.
“What about her?”
“What happened last night… was unprecedented.”
He sounded distinctly as if he was reprimanding her. She thought back quickly. Had she forgotten to shut the window in the old woman’s room? Had she misread the chart and failed to regulate the drip?
“I am afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She said finally.
“Oh you haven’t, have you?”
Was that sarcasm?
            “Listen” He leaned forward and took off his glasses in a well-practised gesture. “I know that she is not an easy patient. She gets on everyone’s nerves and I doubt she was any nicer when she was younger. I don’t know what she can possibly have said to make you snap, but hitting patients is not tolerable behaviour. She wants to press charges.”
“Hitting… what the… what on earth are you talking about? I did not hit Mrs Hull!”
He gave her a sceptical look. “She says you did. And she has the black eye to
prove it.”
“I most certainly did not give Mrs Hull a black eye!” She protested, trying and failing to keep a note of panic out of her voice.

“Sweet” thought the goldfish swimming in Dr Fowler’s aquarium, waving erratically in and out of the plastic pirate ship, as the Lord of the Abyss inhabited its translucent body “Sweet how fear just made that submerged mound of rage throb. Quiver for me, my kin, my child.”
He saw the ripples of His recent possession travel towards the girl. And He saw that they were Evil. And it pleased Him.

“We are trying to persuade Mrs Hull to drop the charges” Dr Fowler was saying “We are willing to let this one misdemeanour — this one massive misdemeanour —  pass. We don’t want to lose you Isabelle. You are an asset to the clinic. You are a model worker.”
Fuck your HR management training was, among the thoughts that jostled in Isabelle’s mind, the closest she came to actual rage. She couldn’t bring herself to be angry. She was hurt, astonished and not a little frightened at the idea of an octogenarian self-harming for the sole purpose of having her fired. But then, if there was one thing she had learnt in her eight years as a nurse, was that old age makes fools of us all and that and an addled mind can cause someone to hurt others, even to do it intentionally, and that if such a mind is still capable of some sort of will, it is hardly a free one. Dr Fowler’s voice had faded into the white noise of her blood, running through her temples like a gang of buffalo.
“ … Just better if you don’t go near her okay?” She picked up the thread just in time to nod.
“We’ll get Kevin to do her medication, you can do Mr Patel instead. That sound good?”
It did. Mr Patel was a sweet, retired violin teacher, frail, good-natured and incapable of retaining memories for longer than two minutes.

All in all, it had been a great day. The Evil One congratulated himself on His recent course of action. This little detour was working wonders for His apathetic state: low commitment, virtually no expectations and yet potentially high job satisfaction, and good fun in the process. He had not even properly possessed anyone all day. He had been contented with flitting from nurse to patient, from janitor to concerned relative, gently nudging them just as they were considering whether it was best to voice that worry, to repeat that bit of gossip they had overheard, mutter that rushed and ill-informed judgement. Thus He had accomplished two things: first of all, He had caused the news of Mrs Hull’s black eye and her accusations to spread like a bloodstain on a white duvet. That had been easy: He had merely loosened Dr Fowler’s tongue, as he was talking to the receptionist right after their customary furtive encounter in his office, during her lunch break. She rarely ate lunch at work, which, Dr Fawler secretly thought, was one more good reason to keep up their encounters: he liked skinny women, particularly when they were slightly younger than his youngest daughter. On that particular day, as he was tucking his shirt back in, he felt more than usually inclined to small talk and therefore he recounted the whole sad business to young Alice. As an afterthought, he added a perfunctory “but please, keep that to yourself”. By two o’clock, naturally, everyone knew about it. The second accomplishment that the Lord of Lies was celebrating was the fact that, due to the incessant stream of frowns, cold-shouldering colleagues and muttered comments, by the end of her shift, Isabelle was a quivering wreck. She had been sobbing in the staff restroom for half an hour on her last break. He had been observing her through the round eye of a robin, perched on the small window above the sink. As she was washing her face, she had looked up and seen Him. She had stared directly at Him, smiled and said “Hello there” in a trembling voice.
“It’s been a shitty day. I don’t suppose you ever get shitty days. Do you? I don’t think you do.”
The robin cocked His head and radiated hatred in waves so mighty they could have crushed empires and made stars explode before their time. She just kept staring at Him, happily unaware of it, and tentatively motioned at Him to come and perch on her finger. He kept staring and hating. “Oh well” she said, tying her hair back “do you know the best thing about shitty days?”  The robin did not know.
“They pass. And mine is almost over. There’s only Mr Patel left and then I can go home. And you know the best thing about Mr Patel?”
The robin did not know that either.
“He forgets everything. So, even if someone has been repeating that absurd pack of lies to him today, he will not remember by the time he sees me. Thank God for small miracles eh?”
The robin pointedly turned His on her and crapped on the sink.

Mr Patel’s favourite topic of conversation, whenever Isabelle spent any length of time with him, was how lucky her future husband was going to be. This usually followed the stage in which he proclaimed her husband to be the luckiest man in the world and she reminded him that she was not married, so that he could express unrestrained astonishment at her fiancée’s failing to tie the knot with such a perfect creature as she was. They had already gone through that routine twice, in the time it had taken Isabelle to help the old man eat his steamed broccoli and grilled chicken and get ready for bed.

“If I was fifty years younger, my dear, I would not sit on my hands and let a woman of your beauty and intelligence pass me by, you know, I would be going down on one knee quicker than you could say I do.
She didn’t mind. It was a welcome break from the general unpleasantness of the day.

“I’ll make sure to tell him” she chuckled.
“What’s the young gentlemen’s name?” asked Mr Patel, surprising her by managing to stay on the same thread of conversation for over three minutes.
“Robert” she replied, adjusting his pillow and moving to close the curtains. Mr Patel’s voice seemed to crack in alarm.
“He is… I think He is in love with you.”
“I hope so” she replied, playing the sentence over in her head with an extra bloody hell added to it.
“Not him” Mr Patel panted “HIM!” he pointed at the open door, startling a passing nurse and causing him to back into a window frame in the corridor, from which a robin took flight. Isabelle’s gaze followed the old man’s finger and laughed.
“Kevin? No, Mr Patel, I can assure you that Kevin is not in love with me. Are you, Kevin?”

She had hoped that the sheer absurdity of the situation would help rekindle some degree of professional camaraderie, but Kevin just straightened his shirt and disappeared down the stairs. She sighed and turned her attention back to Mr Patel, who was now sitting placidly in his wheelchair and looked mildly surprised to see her.
“I’m sorry, my dear, my memory is not what it was. What did you say your name was again?”

Her decision to try and catch up with Kevin, incredibly, was entirely her own. The Bringer of Light was surprised at how easy it had been to get her to stand in the right corridor, in the few minutes between the last afternoon shift and the first evening shift. Kevin, however, was nowhere to be found, since he had clocked off five minutes earlier than usual. His decision had not been entirely his own. Isabelle stood in the pale green corridor, as the rapidly dimming light from the windows overlooking the garden clashed against the lurid, artificial light that lit the inside of the building. She looked down at her watch and the skin of her forearm appeared to take on a bluish tinge in the unnatural glow. If Kevin was still on that floor, he could only be in Mrs Hull’s room, and she was not supposed to go there. More to the point, she had no intention of going there. There was no way she was going to make eye contact with that woman again. She couldn’t bring herself to hate someone that old and frail, but – as Dr Fawler had noted – there was no reason to assume that Mrs Hull had ever been any nicer. As she was debating the conflicting merits of standing there, waiting for Kevin to come out, or just hoping to catch him in the staff room, she heard the scream. While her brain was still weighing the pros and cons of pretending she wasn’t there versus running back upstairs and calling for help, her feet had already made the decision to advance towards the noise. Years of looking after people in pain had sharpened that particular reflex. Kevin was not in Mrs Hull’s room. As she stood in the doorway, Isabelle saw the old woman sitting upright on the bed, her back unnaturally straight, her eyes wide, her mouth open as her cry turned into a shrieking, demented cackle. She was holding something small and glinting in her raised right hand – a scalpel? Isabelle barely had the time to wonder how she could have got hold of it, before the bony hand fell on the old woman’s upturned left palm. Isabelle launched at Mrs Hull, who was moving at surprising speed, her limbs following paths that felt bizarre and wrong. As Mrs Hull’s scream, black and heavy, resonated through the rapidly darkening corridors, Isabelle registered the impossible strength and nimbleness of her brittle limbs. The scalpel kept falling and slashing at different parts of the old woman’s body, always at odd angles, always dancing out of the nurse’s reach. Isabelle had not been aware that she was screaming too. When she finally managed to wrestle the blade from the old woman’s vicious grip, Mrs Hull’s form suddenly seemed to sag and shrink and her screeching was replaced by a pitiful whimpering. Isabelle turned to the door in time to see Kevin and the janitor come running and skid to a halt on the threshold, taking in the scene for a second, before lunging at her.

***

All in all, He was most pleased with Himself. He even called a few minor demons to witness the trial – they might as well learn something. That was a masterful example of how possession should work. “Drop the stone” He would say to His infernal minions “and watch the ripples.”

The beauty of it was that He had not needed to possess anyone else all through the trial. Not the judge, not the witnesses, not even the psychiatrists who had assessed the defendant at several stages during the proceedings. One good possession was enough to produce the desired results and there was no need to ship a flock of souls over to the other side for the benefit of one act of temptation.   It had to be said: to those who can read the expression on a soul’s face – because souls do have faces – Mrs Hull’s look of utter astonishment upon ascending to Heaven was a source of endless amusement. Only the Devil Himself could have done such an evil human the ultimate good deed, and the irony was not lost on Him – as no irony ever is, because you don’t get to rule over the pits of hell for eternity if you lack a sense of humour. He had spent most of the trial as a mosquito, buzzing purposefully around Isabelle’s ears, as the facts of that night were examined over and over in painstaking detail and reports were read out. The autopsy on Mrs Hull’s body had revealed that the wounds could not have been self-inflicted, because the angles at which the blade had penetrated the old woman’s arms, legs, torso and throat were inconsistent with that hypothesis.

***

“Do you ever pray?” asked Hannah
“Not really” muttered Isabelle, facing the wall
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means no.”
“Well, say no then, why don’t you.”
“Then no, I don’t pray.”
“Not ever?”
“Not ever.”
“Why not?”

Isabelle shrugged, then realised Hannah could not see her do that from the upper bunk and said aloud “Dunno. I just never did. Do you?”
“Course I do. Gives you comfort doesn’t it?”
“Does it?”
“Course it does.”
“Then maybe I’ll try it” lied Isabelle.

The two women were silent for a while and so was the Prince of Darkness, who was inhabiting a small fruit fly, currently feasting on the inside of a banana peel in the bin. He had largely refrained from possessing humans since Isabelle’s conviction. He knew prisons to be the kind of human agencies that could be counted upon to do most of His work for Him.

“What do you do for comfort then?” Hannah asked.

Isabelle heard the springs of the upper bunk squeal in protest as the other woman shifted her considerable bulk, propping herself onto her elbow. There goes my sleep for the night, she thought.

“I… think?”
“What about?”
“About… everything I guess. About how things are. About why they are what they are. About how I’d like them to be. And what I can do about it.”
“And what can you do about it?”
Sod all, thought Isabelle.
“Not much” she said.
“And how is that comforting? Thinking about how things are fucked up and there’s nothing you can do to unfuck them?!
“It’s not.”
“Might as well pray then.”
“Will praying help me understand why I ended up in here?”
“Prolly not” huffed Hannah, after some consideration “But it will help you accept it.”
“Then I’ll have to give it a miss, thanks.”

She slumped back into silence. Hannah was muttering under her breath. Isabelle made a noncommittal enquiring noise, but Hannah did not reply and kept praying.

It took a while for Isabelle to find sleep that night. She was not willing to admit it, but she found Hanna’s presence comforting. After the first incident, she had been getting the kind of dark looks that she could remember from the nursing home. Hannah didn’t seem to mind: she had taken a liking to Isabelle and would not hear a word against her. Her positive bias was, of course, entirely irrational, but Isabelle was not going to complain. Whatever Hannah lacked in smarts and wit, she more than made up for in good heart and maternal instinct, to the point that it was hard to believe that she had shot her husband and daughter in the head.

Upon waking up the following morning, Isabelle felt distinctly uncomfortable. Her neck was stiff and she had the awkward sensation that something was missing. It took her a few moments to realise it was her own pillow. After a few seconds of blind groping around, she got out of bed and found it: her pillow was on Hannah’s face. It just sat there, covering her, as her arm dangled rigidly over the side of the bed.

***

The Antichrist was not amused. He was acutely aware of the muttering and the sniggering that went on among His infernal legions. “Drop the stone, watch the ripples” had become a joke phrase to which some demons had started attaching the meaning “Try hard and accomplish absolutely nothing”. He had punished them, of course, but punishment had limited effect as a deterrent on entities that existed in a dimension of eternal torment as a consequence of not having played by the rules in the first place. Moreover, they were right. And He desperately needed to prove them wrong, which was turning out to be much harder than He had anticipated.

He brooded for days, perched on a window sill, staring at her through the unblinking eyes of a crow, or crawling on several hairy legs under her bed and pondering. That solid, dense, black nucleus of pure hate was still pulsing deep within her. He felt it, He prodded it, He longed for it, through afternoons of such dullness that they seemed endless even to someone in the habit of contemplating an Eternity of despair. He reached for it and felt it shiver. He would have salivated, if the beasts He was inhabiting were actually capable of salivating. He dropped stone after stone and watched Isabelle’s sentence get longer and her life more miserable, after a series of mysterious incidents that resulted in four inmates’ violent deaths and several others getting severely injured. The black mass of hate within Isabelle’s soul shook and pulsed, but it stayed there. It didn’t grow, it didn’t move. No matter how many stones He dropped, He simply could not touch it or cause it to shift closer to the surface. And this wasn’t on the Competition either. There was none of the usual pious drivel, no praying, no night-time talking to the ever-deaf forces of good, no belief in the value of sacrifice or submission, no hope for a reward in the afterlife. That heavy, fragrant, shiny nugget of unadulterated evil could not reach the surface, because she simply refused to let it. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.

The worst of it was being forced to admit that His attempts were counterproductive, in the general scheme of things. The Lord of Darkness could not spawn one genuine act of evil in a human prison. The humiliation was unbearable. With each failed attempt, He had become more reckless, and the initial nudges had turned into full-fledged possessions, which resulted in a fair amount of perfectly good souls – and by good, of course, He meant evil – being handed over to the Top Floor without so much as a last minute conversion. If He was honest, even that was not at the top of the list of things that bothered Him in this whole affair. But being The Lord of Lies, He had no business being honest and therefore He never once questioned His own motives. For good measure, He reminded the rest of the infernal hordes that Absolute Lords of All Things Evil are used to torturing those who question Their motives.

Isebelle sat up and stared at the moth that appeared to be sleeping on the tiled wall of her cell. In the near total darkness, she could see the hairy silhouette of its bulky torso raising from under its folded wings, a slightly darker patch of obscurity against the faint grey colour of the tiles. The insect did not stir, but Isabelle had the distinct feeling that it was awake and watching her.

I’m getting paranoid, she thought. And she was right, since the Ruler of the Abyss was at the time inhabiting a ladybug, perched on the brim of an empty, coffee-stained paper cup, and the moth was in fact not sleeping, but dead.

***

“I did them all, you know” a dry voice whispered from behind Isabelle, as she was sitting alone at the end of a long bench, chewing on a piece of rubbery stew “It’s all true.”
Isabelle did not look up. “So?” she asked, in a voice that betrayed tiredness and failed to affect boredom.
“You didn’t” Sandy replied, then leaned back against the wall, with the air of someone who’s just successfully explained the offside rule to a pigeon. Isabelle kept her eyes fixed on the grimy contents of her plate.

Sandy was one of the oldest inmates in the block, and the most dangerous. Not because she was particularly strong or violent, nor because her criminal record was worse than any of the others, but because she was by far the least sentimental of them all. Her sentence was long enough to earn her some degree of respect from the crowd of sex offenders, drug dealers and one-time murderers, but there was more to Sandy’s reputation than that. Sandy’s grudges could last for years, festering in complete silence, bearing forth legendary revenges. She was rumoured to have been the cause of at least four deaths and a dozen non-fatal stabbings over the years, and yet she had never been directly linked to any of the incidents that had befallen inmates — and, on two occasions, guards — that had displeased her. Because Sandy was a wise woman, the irony of her and Isabelle’s respective predicaments had not escaped her.

“What do you want, Sandy?”
“I did them all and got away with it every single time. They could never find anything. You didn’t do any of the things they said you did, and you got busted for all of them. No one is that stupid. I want to know why.”
Isabelle chewed, swallowed and sat in silence for a while.
“If you don’t think I did any of it, why are you asking me?”
“I am not asking you why any of those things happened. I am asking you why you never defended yourself.”
“I did” Isabelle shrugged “the first three or four times. After a while I couldn’t really see the point of trying.”
She looked at Sandy, for the first time “Why don’t you believe I did it?”
Sandy smiled painfully “Because you had no reason for it. You had nothing to gain and everything to lose, and I know you are neither stupid nor mental.”
“How would you know?”
“I watch. A lot.” Sandy paused and looked around the room “Look at them” she gestured at the closest inmates, glancing nervously in their direction “They are scared of you.”
“I know” said Isabelle, without looking “I don’t blame them. Why aren’t you scared?”
Sandy smiled benignly “Because I am more dangerous than you will ever be. Better at

cleaning up after myself for a start.”
Isabelle kept on chewing in silence.
“Who did that to you?” Sandy asked, staring dispassionately at Isabelle’s puffy left eye. The skin was bright purple and shiny and it stretched tight over her swollen cheekbone.
Isabelle took another mouthful and did not answer. Sandy looked around.
“Was it Pat?” she gestured casually in the direction of a muscular young woman that was clearing plates off the long tables and studiously avoiding their side of the room.  Did she come after you for stabbing Kate? Isabelle’s eyes darted up “I did not stab Kate.”
Sandy shrugged “It’s not what it looked like.”
“I know what it looked like. I’ll ask again: what do you want?”

Sandy leaned across the table, picked up a slice of bread from Isabelle’s plate and bit a large chunk off it.
“You know, I think at this point they fear you more than they fear me.” She chuckled “But I am not jealous.”
“What do you want.”
“I want to help you.”
“I don’t need help.” Isabelle muttered into her glass.
“Oh but you do. I know what goes on every time you get a new roommate. And when Kim’s pals are on kitchen duty. And when Terry waits for you by the bogs. I know where you get those bruises and I know exactly who is pissing in your food and when. I can make that stop.”
Isabelle looked sceptical.
“Can you now.”
“I sure can. I can make it all go away.”
“Out of the goodness of your own heart?”
Sandy smiled her least shark-like smile “Of course. I would expect a modicum of gratitude though.”
“And I suppose you can make Sam and Big D. believe I did not break Pat’s leg and convince Terry that I did not kick her girlfriend down a flight of stairs.”
Sandy shrugged “I won’t lie, I don’t think I can convince them of anything, but I can make them stop hurting you for it. You might have noticed the girls tend to heed my advice.”
Isabelle considered this for a minute, absent-mindedly fingering a bruise on her ribs and did not answer.
“Would you be grateful, if I made it stop?” Sandy pressed on. Isabelle sighed.
“I am very tired, Sandy. For the last time: what do you want from me?”
“I want you to hang out with people. It’s not much to ask, is it?”
“You might have noticed people don’t like to hang out with me. And would the people you want me to hang out with be the kind of people you would want to see dead?”
“A few of them might be… not the kind of people I am particularly happy to see alive.”
“I thought you did not believe I had done it.”
“I don’t.”
“Oh. I see.”
“I knew you were bright.”
“So, let me get this straight, you want me to befriend people that you want to get killed, so that when they snuff it, the blame is automatically put on me.”
“You won’t be making any friends” Sandy conceded “but that was never really an option, apparently. On the other hand, you will be left alone. No more beatings, no more pissing on your bed or in your soup. No one will lay a finger on you ever again. You already have a reputation for causing people to drop dead simply by being in the same room with them, you might as well profit from it.”
“No.”
Isabelle looked briefly into Sandy’s eyes and tried to get up and leave. Sandy’s hand closed round her wrist. “Do you realize what this means?”
Isabelle did.
“I don’t get it” Sandy looked puzzled “You have nothing to lose by accepting and everything to lose by refusing. Why would you refuse?”
“I don’t need you to get it.”
Isabelle jerked her hand free and walked away.

Satan slid out of Sandy’s body and dropped back at his infernal desk, screaming in frustration. He had felt Isabelle’s hatred vibrate so close, He could almost touch it. Her hatred for the other women that beat and abused her, her hatred for the human female He was inhabiting and her arrogant ways. And still He could not make her act on that hatred. Not by enraging her, not by hurting her and not, as it had transpired, by dangling the enticing prospect of peace in front of her. Why would she refuse peace, of all things?

He glanced at a file on His desk. Asmodeus had left it, with a pleading note of apology, before disappearing into the darkest pit of hell, in the frail hope of evading his Master’s wrath. The file contained a report on the outcome of His recent possessions. Over the past the past three earth months, He had forfeited to the Competition the souls of three murderers, one drug dealer, two fraudsters and no less than six corrupt prison guards. The Thank You note from upstairs was more than He could take.

The truly infuriating thing about the girl was her complete lack of interest in the Competition. She never prayed, her mind did not dwell on thoughts of abstract goodness or salvation, she did not contemplate anything transcendent. She did not believe in The Other One at all. Of course, that meant she did not believe in Him, either, but that usually did not stop humans from doing His bidding. Her annoying, little ape-brain simply went through the potential consequences of each and every single action and discarded all the options He had laid out for her. She systematically refused to follow His carefully placed hints, because her reasoning disagreed with them. It was exceedingly aggravating. The Great Deceiver knew He could simply let go of His obsession with the girl. But letting go of obsessions was not really one of His favourite courses of action and never had been. Loath though He was to admit it, He had not felt so alive in aeons.

***

Isabelle sat in the superintendent’s office, fidgeting slightly. She had been summoned and then told to wait. She reasonably assumed the superintendent had no other commitments to attend to, but was using her calculated delay as a means of leverage, just in case it was not perfectly clear that she, and not Isabelle, was going to be in charge of the conversation. Isabelle did not particularly care. She sat, examining her fingernails and, not for the first time in the past eight months, marvelling at how much she had changed. Her former self would have rejoiced in the warmth of the day and the pleasant aroma of fresh coffee that came from the adjacent room. Her current self though, the Isabelle that was still trying to make sense of her current predicament and to fathom how her perfect little life had been overturned in a matter of weeks, merely registered that the prison management, unlike the inmates, evidently had access to proper coffee. She carried out the silent ritual that she had taken to performing, whenever she found herself in an unfamiliar environment. She counted things. She had picked up this habit from Donna. Donna had been her first room-mate and only friend in all her time in prison, and she had also been the first inmate to die mysteriously, leaving behind enough evidence for Isabelle to be convicted of her second murder. Donna had been kind to her. She had taught her to stave off the rising panic of being helpless and powerless by learning everything that her senses could teach her about her surroundings.

And so Isabelle counted. There were three bookshelves. Seventy-two books on the shelf behind the desk, thirty-six colour-coded files on the shelf in the right-hand corner of the same wall, fifty-seven issues of the prison magazine and sixty-two books on the shelf by the window. One chair behind the desk, two across from it. She had been offered the comfortable one. Sixteen by twenty-two dark-brown tiles on the floor. Three photo frames on the desk, two facing towards its habitual occupant, one intended for guests. The one she could see contained a photo taken at the official presentation of last year’s community project. The inmates were standing in two rows, the superintendent, three volunteers and a vicar in their midst. All were smiling. Two windows with bulletproof glass, both facing north. The smell of fresh coffee and the unmistakeable undertones of old, stale cigarette smoke. Two non-smoking signs, one by the window and one by the door. The subtle whirring and buzzing of the computer, that was probably seldom switched off.  The sound of mundane chatter from the waiting room and the corridors. The guard standing behind her, shuffling her feet at semi-regular intervals. Isabelle counted and took mental notes. She had never had any occasion to use them, but the process itself was comforting.

The superintendent walked in. Isabelle wasn’t sure if she was supposed to stand up, but she decided against it. She had only met the superintendent once before, and the impression she had received of her was one of calculated cheerfulness. The pea-green blouse under the pale-grey suite, the sensible pink shoes with the sensible cone heels, the breezy haircut – that was intended for someone ten years younger – and most of all the large, earnest smile proclaimed to the world that she might be managing a prison, but she was doing so with the same positive attitude that she would have adopted if it had been a kindergarten, because she was the kind of woman who believed in second chances. Isabelle, who no longer put much stock in first chances, did not return the smile.

“Well, good morning, Isabelle!” she chirruped, sitting down with practiced grace “it’s good to see you.”
Isabelle followed her with her eyes and did not answer.
“And how are you today?”
The earnest smile demanded an answer.
“Peachy” she exhaled, training her eyes on a beetle that was scuttling along the windowsill.
“Good. Good.” the superintendent ran her hands on the polished surface of her desk, as if smoothing an imaginary crease “We want you to be as… comfortable as possible.”
Isabelle suppressed the urge to snort with laughter and moved her gaze to the woman sitting across from her, raising her eyebrows just enough to convey her polite disbelief.
“We do.” the superintendent said, in answer to her unspoken question “We do. We know that your last few months have been… less than easy.”
Isabelle nodded “Can I go back to my cell, please?”
“In a moment” the other woman smiled “I just wanted to ask you something” she said, looking directly into Isabelle’s eyes. Isabelle stared back, keeping her face as devoid of emotion as she could.
“I am assuming you are acquainted with Miss Saxon?”
It wasn’t a question, but she had slightly raised her tone at the end, almost as an afterthought.
“Which one is Miss Saxon” Isabelle asked, evenly.
“You probably know her as Sandy. The two of you were seen having a conversation last Wednesday.”
“Then yes, I know her” Isabelle cut across her, without really meaning to.
“Would you say she is your friend?” The superintendent asked.
“No, I would not” Isabelle’s eyes wandered back to the window. She knew she should be interested in this conversation, but she could not bring herself to care.
“Have you met with her elsewhere, over the past three months?”
Isabelle turned back to stare at the superintendent, trying to guess the direction her subtle line of questioning was taking.
“Yeah, of course. I bumped into her at the mall two weeks ago, she was shopping for new curtains.”
The superintendent forced out a cold “Ha!” that sounded more like a polite cough and made a futile attempt at looking amused.
“I think you know what I mean” she said, leaning forward across the desk “I would like to know if you have met with her alone.
            Isabelle propped her elbows on the desk and she too leant forward, until her face was inches from the superintendent’s.
“And I think you know that people are not keen to spend time alone with me, particularly when there are no cameras around.”

She couldn’t blame them. Bad things seemed to happen to people who were left alone with her. Nobody had believed her account of how Donna had taken careful aim, before banging the back of her own head repeatedly against the shower knob, with enough force to crack her own skull open. Even cameras could not be trusted to provide reliable evidence, as all accidents that involved her seemed to happen in very precise spots, where the view was obstructed by pillars, furniture or guards and inmates passing by with eerily accurate timing.

“I am particularly interested” the superintendent was saying “in knowing whether you met with Miss Saxon on the evening of the 25th of May.”
“Kim died on May 25th.” Isabelle said mechanically, comprehension starting to dawn.
“Indeed. That was the date of Miss Parn’s death.”
“Then you know I did not meet Sandy. You have seen the footage.”
“The footage we have for that day seems to provide less than conclusive evidence. As you know, the view is partially blocked, which means we have no definitive proof that nobody else was standing behind you as you were walking down the stairs to Block G.”
“You know Sandy was not there. Twenty eye witnesses have told you there was no-one else on the landing.”
“They have, but they all had their backs on you, when the… incident happened.”
“When Kim dived down the stairs with her hands behind her back.”
“Yes, I know that’s your side of the story.”
“That is what happened.” Isabelle said, in a slightly higher and louder voice than she had intended. The superintendent sighed, an unctuous smile still lingering, half-heartedly, on her glossy pink lips.
“You see how any version of that story involving the presence of a third person at the top of the staircase would work better than that one.”
“I see” said Isabelle. And she saw “You couldn’t frame Sandy for any of the murders she did commit, so you want me to help you get her for the one you know she did not commit.”
“You are aware, I presume, that Miss Saxon’s sentence will be up in seven months. And that she has considerable influence in her old circles.”
“And you figured that, since mine has been extended three times in eight months, I am desperate enough to lie for you.”

The superintendent had stopped smiling. Isabelle thought she looked younger, when she didn’t smile.
“There is nothing for you to be gained, by sticking to your story. Whereas collaborating with us, helping the course of justice, will bring along… certain advantages.”
“You will have my sentence shortened.”
“Well, that would be a likely consequence of revising the current evidence given on the alleged murder of Miss Parn, yes. I am sure that your family and your fiancée would be delighted to welcome you back sooner than expected.”

Isabelle sat still for a full minute, her hands in her lap, staring, unseeing at her own fingernails. She thought of Robert, who had left, appalled, halfway through the trial. She thought of her father and her brother, whose demeanour had grown colder and stiffer as the evidence was discussed by the prosecutor, and that had never visited her after her conviction. She thought of Mr Patel, wondering if he remembered her at all and who was taking care of him. She hoped they were being patient with him. She hoped they were being kind.
“Sandy did not kill Kim.” she said dispassionately.
The other woman sighed, and looked for a moment like a teacher that has just been disappointed by a promising student.
“I don’t understand” said the superintendent, who did understand “why you would not retract a position that has failed you, in order to help an inmate that is not your friend. I should add that, if you are fearing repercussion, we have means of protecting you.”
“Because it’s the truth. Things are what they are. They can’t fail or serve me by being true. They just are.”

The superintendent motioned to the attending guard to escort Isabelle back to her cell. As she left the room, the Antichrist left the superintendent’s body and entered a sleepy moth, that set off from the cold lightbulb and down the corridor, heavy with the kind of frustration that no ordinary moth has ever felt.

***

Is that… fondness, old friend?

The booming voice resonated in His mind. The old, patronising tone that used to make His celestial blood curdle, when He was still working for The Other Lot, back when there was no Downstairs or Upstairs, back when Stairs did not exist at all, not even as a figure of speech, because there was no such thing as ‘speech’.

I have already told You” He replied in the same fashion “that I do NOT appreciate direct calls from You. There are other means of communication. Use them.
 And I have already told You” His Archenemy chuckled “that I dictate the terms of Our communication, not You. But the reason I am calling You is a joyous one, old friend, I want to congratulate You.
Do You have to mock me at every turn? Is that strictly part of Our agreement?
We do not have an agreement, o Bringer of Light. I make the rules and You adapt. As it happens, however, I am not mocking You, I am offering You my most sincere congratulations on harbouring the kind of sentiment that is usually more My business than Yours.
I have no idea what you are talking about.
Don’t lie, Lucifer. You may be the Father of Lies, but You could never lie to Me.
 You know, I really object to You being able to access my Infernal mind while I am not granted access to Yours. This arrangement is remarkably unfair.
Read the Scripture, Lucy, I am not fair, I am capricious and vindictive. And yet, I get to be the first and ultimate source of all Fairness, Love and Harmony. Because I am God and You are not. Ha! But don’t change the subject. You have grown fond of this human girl, haven’t You?
What is it to You, if I have?
Don’t pout, Wicked One, it does not become You. You know perfectly well what it is to Me. You have developed a genuine affection of Your own. Dare I say It?
Damn You.
Dare I say it? You are experiencing Love for another. For a mortal, no less. Do You know what this means?
That You have found something else with which to taunt Me for eternity?
Silly goat. It means that It is over.
What is over?
Everything is over. Your punishment is over. Time is over. You can come Upstairs, We can call the whole thing off. You have atoned for Your Sin.
Are You telling Me that obsessing over an ape for a little under an Earth-year is enough to undo an eternity of hatred, despair and deceit?
Not the obsessing, Mephistopheles, the loving. Which You, being what You are, have expressed in a twisted way, that resulted in utter misery for the unfortunate object of Your love, of course. But You loved, nonetheless, for the first time in the history of all things and this means we can be reunited.
And what will be of the apes? And of the souls of all those that were and will be?
They will converge into the ultimate Thing and will cease to exist on their own and then it will just be You and I, just as it was at the Beginning. We will have no further use for Time.
And if I refuse?
Then Your infernal hordes will live on in abject despair and the occupants of My celestial spheres will live on in perfect beatitude.
Then I refuse.
You refuse.
I refuse.
Because of her.
I don’t care for perpetual bliss, if it means that she will cease to be.
She will only be alive for a few insignificant Earth-years, that You will undoubtedly make miserable by trying to claim her for Yourself, after which she will join My spheres and You will never again, for the whole eternity of Time, have access to any part of her essence.
But she will exist in perfect, perpetual beatitude.
Yes.
Then so be it.
The voice in His mind paused, as if considering the offer. Satan waited.
It is a pity We are not sending down prophets any more, my friend.
Why?
Because this would have been a story worth telling. The story of how Time continued to be, because the Devil fell in love.
_______________________________________________________________________________

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