Satan came in the night, through a temporal gateway in the ozone layer. He had been nurturing the hole for years, reflecting the sun’s rays towards the Earth’s protective shield. Raising the planet’s temperature to be more agreeable whenever he would have to visit. It had come to his attention that common theories on Earth attributed the hole to gas emission, air pollution and the general folly of man. He couldn’t help but smile when hearing about recycling stations, wind turbines, solar heaters and eco kettles, or whatever the latest contraption was. Man never ceased to astound him in the breadth of his vanity. His assumed dominion over nature. A bruised, assurance-seeking ego would peer at him, pleadingly, from the hinges and bolts of every such false temple.
Nor was this the first time one of his pet projects was mistaken as part of a greater scheme: a warning from God, a cry for help from the planet, an omen against the wickedness of man. The same had happened time and time again: the breaking up of Pangaea, the ebb and flow of droughts, the plague – all roundabout, unforeseen consequences of his pastime. Much like the repercussions of an absentmindedly placed hammock on a nearby ant farm. “But enough reminiscing,” he thought to himself. “I am here for a reason.”
Due to time constraints, he had had to squeeze himself through a narrow vortex. So narrow that it had exerted much strength from him, and he arrived frail and sickly. It was night time, and the Earth’s temperature felt like cold hands pressed against his bare chest. He could brave it, of course, as he had done for centuries. But there was no getting used to it, and he would find himself vulnerable to the most capricious of atmospheric whims.
The gateway had landed him in a forest on the outskirts of town. Feeling the Earth with his hands in the dark, he cobbled together whatever twigs and dry leaves he could find. His first attempts to start a fire were put out by wayward night breezes. Finally, one of the leaves caught with a flame that spread to the others. He lay on the ground and curled up around it. The cold and resounding loneliness of the forest forged a silent pact against him, and he lay sobbing against the unblinking glare of the fire until eventually overtaken by sleep.
He woke early the next day. The immobility of sleep and radiant glow of the fire had charged him physically and in spirit. The morning brightness, melodic chirping of the birds and temperature rise made the previous night’s conclusion seem like a strange and distant dream.
He was readying to set off when the sound of voices came into earshot. Scrambling into the bushes, he cursed as prickly thorns and branches dug into him. His eyes glared hatefully from the thicket as a young couple and their child came into view. He trailed their slow movements with bitter resentment. He had yet to transform his physical form into a human one and did not appreciate unannounced company. And such indolent one at that! The child was the most despicable, he concluded as they went by – lagging behind, asking idiotic questions in an entitled wail.
The three loathsome shapes finally disappeared from view behind a curving footpath. He leaped from the bush, swearing as he dusted prickly shrubbery from his exposed flesh and genitals. He set off through the forest, soon arriving at a clearing path leading to the main road into the town.
It was at this point that his appearance began to change: skin formed seamlessly against his bare, reddish flesh. The serpent-like tail at his back hovered to his arm as if carried by invisible strings and coiled itself around his wrist, dissolving into a golden watch. Fabric materialised to envelope his gaunt figure. Two horns came trickling down his forehead as a thick, gooey liquid before forming into a pair of round-rimmed spectacles around his dark brown eyes.
He now possessed the appearance of a human as he moved into the main road.
Once in town, he checked into the hotel and took the elevator to his requested room. He called the reception desk immediately.
“May I have more blankets for room 315 please?” he said feebly. “Two more blankets.”
“Certainly, sir”, came the voice at the other end.
Turning the room heating to maximum, he wrapped himself in the freshly delivered blankets, and the rattle of his body regained some equilibrium.
The woman who was the objective of his visit was staying in a room located directly below his – room 205.
The first day of surveillance was successful. The woman left the hotel in the morning. He followed her faithfully from a distance: rising on tiptoes not to lose her in a crowd, ducking behind a mailbox not to be seen, spreading a broadsheet newspaper with arms outstretched to conceal his face.
Towards late afternoon, the woman headed back to the hotel. His eyes followed her as she went up the short flight of stairs and disappeared into the room. He took the elevator to his room on the floor above. The heating had remained on and the complimentary chocolates on the mini-bar had melted. Enveloping himself in blankets, he kneeled down, pressing his ear against the floor.
The room below was quiet for a while. Then there was a murmur of soft, unintelligible conversation – the voices of a woman and a man. After an hour, a stirring could be heard. The noise was muffled, yet could be made out as a woman’s rapid, excited panting, the steady pummelling of the springs of a mattress and the sound of bare skins slapping against one another. The pupils in his eyes dilated and his blood grew warm: the objective of his visit was coming into view. Soon he would be ready to leave this godforsaken planet.
He followed the women the next day along a similar routine. The difference being that when arriving at the hotel in the late afternoon, instead of going to the room as she had done the day before, she headed to the bar. Identifying an opportunity, he rushed round the side entrance and seated himself at the broad, oval oak counter. Dizziness came over him, and his chest heaved with what he recognised as looming infection. Regaining control of his breathing, his eyes narrowed on the figure of the woman as she appeared in the doorway. Taking slow and assured steps, she sat on the stool beside him.
“Fine day today,” said Satan.
The woman, one could now venture, was in her mid 30s. She was attractive and well-kept, with only a few hints of white at the roots of her hair and a slight tautness to the skin surrounding the base of her neck to attest to a more seasoned existence. She glanced at the sandpaper-voiced stranger sat next to her. He was engulfed in a winter coat, wooly gloves, and a thick scarf that covered the entirety of his neck. Under the dim lighting, she thought he looked very much like a burglar.
Nodding in faint acknowledgment, the woman placed a leather handbag on the bar, and began rummaging through it. “The last time I was here,” the stranger continued, his gaze fixed in the distance, “there was a dense fog all over town, and you couldn’t make out a person right next to you in the street. But we are indoors now, so that doesn’t matter in any case, and I am glad to be able to see you clearly.”
The women turned to look at him again, examining him more thoroughly. “I’m sorry, do I know you?” She asked, tepidly.
“I don’t believe so,” he replied as he swivelled his seat to reveal the pallid moon of his face and a cheery grin that lit it like a flashlight. “Please forgive the ramblings of a weary traveler as a new body happens to orbit into his hemisphere. Additional leniency should be granted if said body is a strikingly beautiful young woman,” he concluded, beaming.
“You sure travelled from somewhere to be talking like that,” she remarked, her expression softening. She turned her attention back to the handbag.
“Are you looking for something in there?”
“My purse. There’s no way I could have…” she trailed off, distractedly. Moving objects with increasing agitation, finally she clasped the handbag shut.
“Can’t find what you’re looking for?” the man asked, sympathetically. ”I know how frustrating it can be when belongings disappear out of the blue. God knows, in all my years of traveling, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s keep your friends close, and your belongings closer! Assign designated pockets, make a system.”
“Yeah,” she murmured inattentively, her eyes scanning the room.
“If I may offer a small piece of advice: have you taken care to look beyond the first layer?”
“What do you mean?” She looked confused.
“Have you checked for holes in the inner fabric lining? You see, I’ve found that often, when baggage becomes worn, holes in the fabric may appear, through which certain objects may slip.”
The woman eyed him curiously. She opened the handbag again and inserted her hand, clearing the objects to one side. Running her fingers over the surface of the fabric, her hand halted, and she slowly fished out a small brown purse, holding it by its edges like a stray eel.
“Oh my gosh”, she started. “It was actually there! There’s a hole at the bottom. How on earth did you know that?”
“Travel and baggage are things I am all too familiar with, whether I like it or not. What to you may seem like a trivial guess, to me is inevitable expertise,” he explained, not without a hint of pride.
“Well, thank you. That could have been a nightmare.”
“Please”, he implored, motioning with his hands, “no thanks is necessary. I, in fact, should be thanking you for allowing me to come to the aid of a damsel in distress. Not something I am fortunate enough to do very often. My position on this planet, if I may tell you in private, is a rather lonely one. Most of the time I sit in bars such as this next to crude and rowdy men, slovenly types who drink as an escape from their lacklustre existence. If I’m not sitting next to an empty chair, that is,” he reflected, his voice ringing with melancholy. “But don’t worry, I won’t bore you with my woes. What can I get you to drink? I’m having mulled wine with a shot of brandy. You could have the same, if you wish?” He attempted a limp smile.
“Mulled wine?” She suddenly noticed the misty vapours rising from the stranger’s glass. “Are you crazy? It’s the middle of July and 90 degrees out there! By the way, aren’t you hot in all that?”
“These things?” He surveyed his attire as if discovering it for the first time. “I fell asleep on a platform last night while waiting for a delayed train and woke up with a touch of a fever. Rest assured, however, that it’s not in the least bit contagious,” he added with an awkward wink. “You see, I am in the rather unfortunate position of working for a company that is tight with its finances. For the most part, they are unwilling to pay for considerate methods of transport for me. And so, I am often relegated to what is affordably at hand: out of the way train stations, night buses, circuitous connections, you name it! But I’ve grown used to it, and don’t mind it much anymore.”
“Well, hope you feel better soon,” she offered, still somewhat puzzled.
“Is there another drink I can interest you in? Please, I insist.”
“Hmmm… a Sea Breeze would be nice?”
“As you wish,” he said softly.
As the words left the stranger’s lips, the bartender, who was hitherto engaged in conversation with a customer at the other end of the bar, appeared in front of them with a sealed expression. A freshly prepared cocktail glass of brash blood orange revealed itself in his right hand. He placed the glass on top of a cocktail napkin that seemed to materialise out of thin air, and returned to his former position with mechanical promptness to continue his conversation as if it had gone uninterrupted.
“That is my friend there,” the man said calmly, straightening a slender, half-gloved index finger in the direction of the bartender. “They say that a good bartender can tell what the customer in front of him would like with a look in their eye, as if peering into their soul. Have you heard this saying before?” He leaned closer to her.
“Something like that, maybe…” she mumbled distractedly, gazing at the bartender with mystified eyes. “Your friend must get good tips with supernatural hearing like that.”
“It is not very uncommon these days, I find, that the supernatural is confused with the professional. As if there is something magical in being good at ones job!”
The woman took a sip of her drink. “So what brings you here?” she asked, moving the ice in her glass in slow, circular motion.
“Oh, the very same thing that always brings me here – business. Very dull, very grey business.”
“What do you do?”
“Well,” he shifted his weight on the seat as if delving into a matter of sizeable magnitude. “I represent a firm. The firm manufactures a product that is available in certain specialist shops. My role is to conduct periodical check-ups on these shops to make sure they are presenting the product in compliance with company policy. In other words, I’m an inspector. I make sure that things are as they should be. I have been doing this for many years, all over the Earth.”
“You don’t look that old to me”, she noted casually.
“Thank you,” his expression became animated, and he raised his glass ceremoniously in a toast.
“What’s this product you’re checking on?”
“My company deals within a specific, rather sensitive field of retail: one that requires a special kind of attention. Beyond that, I’m afraid that I am not at liberty to say, as much as I would like to,” he noted cordially. “I can assure you however, in case you may be wondering, that it is all perfectly within the realm of the law. You might not be fully aware of this, but in many transactions there are more layers than necessarily meet the eye.”
“Must be a drag traveling all the time and you can’t even tell people about what you do,” she thought out loud.
“If only that was the worst thing about it!” he declared with quaint festiveness and proceeded to raise the glass in another toast. She joined him cheerfully this time, smiling as she mimicked the grandeur of the gesture.
His arm outstretched, a cool breeze sneaked its way under his clothes and up his spine. He shuddered, tipping a drop of wine on to the sleeve of his coat.
She examined his ashen complexion. “Are you feeling OK?”
“Oh yes, fine, fine,” he mumbled evasively. “I’ll be back to my old self tomorrow. Now that you know so much about me, however, may I be so bold as to put forward a guess or two about what brings you here this evening?”
“If you like.”
“Wonderful!” He exclaimed, seeming energised. “My first guess would be that you are not a guest at this hotel. You are a local of this town.”
“Got me there. Born and raised. Where’s your accent from by the way? Doesn’t sound familiar.”
“That’s an astute observation,” he confirmed with some satisfaction. “You see, the problem with me is, I’ve been lugging myself around all sorts of places for so long, and have become so accustomed to fleeting interactions with such a wild host of characters, that my way of speaking has changed. It’s lost all origin or individuality. Destiny so has it that I have very little in the way of allegiance to anywhere on this planet. What you hear are the dialects of many people, in many places, throughout a period of time, speaking at once through a single tongue.” The woman eyed him with amusement.
“May I have my second guess now?” the stranger proceeded excitedly.
“Sure, but last one, I need to go soon.” She looked at her watch.
“My second guess is that you are here alone this evening,” the man said with sudden coldness, his eyes narrowing.
“Sorry mister, your luck’s run out. I’m just waiting to meet someone.”
The man exhaled in drawn out fashion, looking deflated.
“Well… I would lie if I said I wasn’t disappointed at this news. To be truthful, it was presumptuous of me to assume a gorgeous woman would be sitting in a bar like this all by herself. Stupid, really.”
He appeared to be lost in reflection for a moment, before straightening in his seat and grinning mischievously. “May I be so forward as to ask the name of the person you are meeting?”
“No offence, but I don’t think that makes much of a difference,” she said, her posture stiffening.
“I’m sorry,” he shrunk back. “I didn’t mean to pry. As you may have noticed, I can hold my own in conversation for a little while, but at some point start fumbling over my own tongue like a slippery garment on a staircase. I would be committing a dishonesty if I were not to tell you however, that I had an ulterior motive in asking that question, and a twofold ulterior motive at that.”
“Oh? And what’s that?” she asked, scrutinising him.
“The first was to ascertain whether the person you are meeting is a man or a woman.” He let the words linger for a few seconds. “The second was to see if I happen to know the person in question.”
“Why would you know him?” she shot back, absent-mindedly answering the first part of the question.
“My company has a lot of business in these parts. And it so happens that where there is a lot of business, there is deviation from policy. I get called in and investigate. Besides my friend the bartender there, over the years I’ve become acquainted with a quite few of the local folk. Like Simon, the gentleman with the stutter at the car hire agency across the road. Or Nora, the redhead who worked at the Post Office. Do you know any of these people?”
“I knew Nora. We were in the same year in school.”
“At last, something we have in common!” he exclaimed in triumph.
“She died a few months ago.”
“Oh, yes, so I’ve heard.” He lowered his voice, moving his eyes to the ceiling. “An inexplicable tragedy. The life of a vibrant young woman nipped in the bud like that, so suddenly and seemingly with no logical explanation.” He took a gulp of his warm drink, holding it with both gloved hands.
“Another fellow from around here is a friend of mine from a while back. He lives in the town across the bridge, what’s it called again? The name of it escapes me, but it is a very nice and well-off town, which, as a native here, I’m sure you don’t need me telling you. In any case, I say this man is a friend, but come to think of it he’s more an enemy. And as for our acquaintance, well it was only a fleeting one at best, which was perfectly fine with me, as I wouldn’t much want to be associated with the likes of him!” he curled his mouth in disapproval.
“Oh?” the woman perked up, almost against her will.
After-work drinks were nearing their end, and the room had emptied of most of its inhabitants ahead of the next wave of evening customers. The vacant chairs and dim lighting cast a downbeat atmosphere that worsened his feeling of gloom. He could sense familiar symptoms of illness enveloping him like a sheet of oily cling film. His head was swimming.
“To all outer looks and appearances,” he started again. “This is a man of the most enviable order: a wealthy businessman, devoted father and member of the school board, husband of twenty-two years and loyal benefactor of the local community. An annual charity marathon runner, fighting fit for a gentleman half way into his fifth decade. Tall and stately, with a head of hair as thick as a haystack. Flares of silver run through its hazelnut brown. Eyes of clear, disarming green.”
Discomfort came over the woman. She shifted in her seat and clenched the handbag at her side. “Well, I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Thing is,” he continued as if not hearing, “that while leading a seemingly exemplary life, this man, like many others, also suffers from a notable flaw. That being, if you don’t mind my confiding in you, that he is a compulsive womaniser. He employs his frequent business trips in neighboring towns as launching pads for wild sexual escapades with young, impressionable women. They’ll be sitting by themselves or in a party of two or three. He’ll lure them to his table by way of a waiter-dispatched invitation. The radiant guests will be lavished with the finest wines and hors d’oeuvre, accompanied by stories of his travels, business affairs, wealth and acquaintances, relayed in words of exotic, worldly flavour. He will be wonderfully attentive to the dreams and ambitions they disclose to him under the dimming lights of the room and intensifying glow of the wine. He will offer his resources and influence to help with that endeavour they never found the time to pursue: the foray into interior design or the jewellery-making business, that novel they have brewing inside of them. He’ll relay lessons of perseverance accumulated in the trajectory of his accomplished career, and relate these to their situation in a seemingly transferrable way. He’ll whisper empty promises in their ears as he replenishes their glasses. And far from these nightly excursions being kept discrete as one might think, the man’s ways are in fact common knowledge around the various townships. How would they not be in such tight-knit communities? The local folk will shrug it off with a nod of disapproval (the case with most of the women), or a wink of admiration (often the case with the men), both wishing in their hearts that they were in his place. ‘Such is the way of the world!’ they will exclaim in chorus. ‘Who are we to stick our nose in the affairs of a worldly and generous debonair?’ His wife, bless her soul, she’s certainly learned how live with it, all those whispers following her wherever…”
“Excuse me,” the woman cut in abruptly. “I really don’t know why you’re telling me this, but I should be going now. Thanks for the…”
“I understand,” the man interjected in a resigned tone, running his semi-gloved fingers on the lacquered bar top. “You have other plans to attend to. I’m sorry to have wasted your time with this saloon tattle-tale. I can see clearly now that again I have been running my mouth distastefully. Why was I even reminded of this man? Ah yes!” he snapped his fingers loudly. “It’s because I saw him this very morning! He is staying at this hotel right now. I passed by him at the reception lobby, but was in such a hurry that I didn’t get a chance to say hello. I did inquire about the room he is staying in, just out of curiosity – 205. Are you familiar with this room?”
“What are you getting at?” the woman shot back in sudden rage. “Have you been following me or something? Look, I don’t know who the hell you think you are coming in here like this…” She trailed off, collecting her phone and wallet and putting them into the handbag in a distraught manner.
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” She zipped the bag, then raised her eyes to meet directly with his.
“Did she put you up to this?”
“Oh no, not at all!” The stranger entreated. “I am here on no one’s behalf. No one other than my company’s, of course. I just thought of it as a piquant story to tell, a juicy strip of gossip… And that being a local here, you might find it interesting or enterta-“.
He was cut off by a sharp, violent cough which he buried in the arm of his coat. “Excuse me,” he whispered, taking an extended glug of wine. “I am unwell, and have gone on too long. But there is one thing still I would like to share with you.”
“And what’s that?” She demanded, halting awkwardly by the side of her chair, her resolve thrown off by the stranger’s sickly pallor. Now upright, she scanned the room which was rapidly filling with a lively evening crowd. Everyone was holding drinks, talking loudly and laughing. The bartender was nowhere to be seen.
“It’s just that the habits of this man,” he resumed, struggling to catch his breath, “have been of weightier repercussions than might be expected. External factors have come into play, like in one instance, he impregnated a girl that was underage, and arranged for an abortion without her family’s knowledge, eventually paying them a large sum of money to keep the matter quiet.”
“I don’t have time for this shit,” she blurted, turning again to leave.
“Or perhaps more pertinently,” his voice rose unexpectedly to pierce through the backdrop of chatter and music. “A year ago, on one of his local business trips, this man, in a night of marathon depravity,” he heaved heavily between the words, “contracted what you might call, a modern disease. I say that to be tactful, as it is a black, monstrous thing – one that defiles a person’s memory in the minds of his loved ones as he withers into a degenerate version of his former self. A conscienceless vermin that gnaws patiently at the body’s defenses until they are destroyed. A disease which modern science has yet been able to find a cure for.”
He lost his breath again as the woman remained rooted to the spot, the colour draining from her face. “The man discovered he was carrying the virus a few months later, at a private clinic, complaining of flu symptoms. But the reason that the man’s illness is not widely known – or known at all – is because that very evening he was given the diagnosis, he made a fateful pact between himself and certain clandestine agents (the less spoken of the better). That he would never speak of it to a single living soul. He will continue with his life as it was for as long as he would be able to, the repercussions be damned. Whenever he would no longer be able to conceal symptoms of the disease, he told these agents, he would go away somewhere, kill himself… ”
“You’re lying!” The woman erupted in fury, hard tears glistening in her eyes. “How would you even know that…?” Her voice trembled.
“A good question to ask, and a difficult one to answer,” the man said, his head now slung under the bar as he slowly released a thick blob of dark mucous on to the floor.
“If it helps, I will say that certain things you just know by being on the circuit and having an inquisitive eye. For things that aren’t as they present themselves…”
His face ballooned as if punched in the stomach by an invisible fist and he started coughing hoarsely. He rocked in violent jolts and buried his mouth in the palm of his gloved hand. When he removed it, there was a shallow pool of blood on its woolly surface and tips of his bare fingers. The woman shot back.
“Oh God,” she cried in fright. “What do you want from me…?”
He fell silent, wiping his lips and nose with the sleeve of his coat, smearing the blood across the corners of his mouth and onto his cheeks in fading lines.
“From here,” the stranger intoned frailly, “you’ll go upstairs, tell that man what you have learned, and that you are leaving him. You will then go home. Tomorrow, you will call work and say that you will not be able to come in for a few days. Make up a story. You will go to a clinic and have tests done, you will send the man’s wife an anonymous letter, letting her know of the secret he has been harbouring, and the harm it has inflicted on you, and her, and others. You will wash your hands of the ordeal and concentrate on how to move on with your life, to the best extent possible. It’s the only sensible thing for you to do.”
The woman stood motionless, apart from her lips which were shaking uncontrollably. It was now dark outside, and customers began closing in on them as the bar filled.
“Now if you’ll excuse me,” the man whispered, “I fear I might be coming down with something more serious than I had thought, and the last thing I want is for you to catch anything. I’m happy you had found me agreeable enough to sit next to, and illuminate the evening of a poor nomad.” He rose unsteadily from his seat and lurched towards the exit without looking back, stumbling over unnoticing revellers as he did.
Crawling upstairs, a sluggish stream of phlegm and blood dribbling from the edges of his mouth, he opened the door to his room to notice a window ajar that had allowed in a slender finger of evening air. He cursed the object hatefully as he swung it shut, leaving a bloody handprint on the handle. He filled the kettle on the bedside table to the brim with water, and after what seemed like eternity, sinuous vapours began to emerge. With trembling hands he elevated it above his head and tipped the nozzle to spread the boiling liquid over his body. Revelling in relief as steam evaporated from his skin, he redressed in the coat, scarf and woolly hat and cocooned himself shivering in the blankets on the floor.
Thinking fearfully of the hours ahead, he kneeled and pressed his ear to the itchy wool-clad floor as he had done the night before. For a long time, the room below was quiet, until, suddenly, in the early hours of the morning, the fractured sob of a man could be heard puncturing the silence.
The long night of delirious battle against fever and sleep had left him feeling depleted. His mission had been completed, and he did not want to spend a single moment more on the malevolent planet. He left the hotel without checking out and made his way drowsily through the empty, dawn-lit road, bumbling drunkenly from side to side, finally reaching the turn into the clearing path to the forest. As he disappeared behind a screen of blooming summer trees, the watch on his wrist unclasped as if by an invisible hand and wrangled in snake-like motion into a thin tail dangling from a reddish, naked body.
The opening of the gateway came into view. He squinted his tear stained eyes, his vision blurred by the strong gust emanating from the vortex. But there was joy inside him, knowing that the suffering and hatefulness in his heart would soon be replaced by an abundant and all-enveloping peace.
Illustration by Joanna Coates