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There exists a myth, a twisted moral tale, all but lost in the mists of time. A thousand years ago, brother and sister were pitted against each other by the Devil himself. For forty dark days they were compelled to commit a crime a day on pain of eternal damnation. If either failed, their soul would become property of the Devil, but if they succeeded they would be richly rewarded for their corruption.
The brother turned to gambling, opening a seedy den in the cellar of an inn to try his luck against the most disreputable elements of society. The sister turned to prostitution, selling herself to lonely, misguided and uncaring men. Not being criminals by nature, they were caught and jailed on the thirty-ninth day.
In jail together, the sister broke down in her brother's arms, destroyed by the trauma the evil curse had put her through. But the brother was made of blacker stuff. On the fortieth day, with one crime left to commit each, the sister renounced the Devil and prayed to God to be saved. But she was playing the Devil's game. The brother committed his final crime by murdering his sister, bludgeoning her with a loose brick from the prison cell wall.
That night the Devil carried out his judgment. He took the soul of the sister and condemned it to be raped and riven for all eternity. To this day, prostitution is a forlorn and woebegone profession. But the brother received the full benefit of the Devil's favour for proving and spreading his evil. He was granted infinite good fortune and riches. The immorality of gambling has been seen as a glamorous and legitimate vocation ever since.
Brother and sister played by the Devil's rules, and the Devil won them both. That was a thousand years ago. Today, the curse rises again...
"I've had a lucky day. I'm a rich man."
James avoided acknowledging the strange man's comment, and kept his body language firmly fixed towards his sister.
"Let me buy you both a drink."
Sarah looked up at the man, raising her eyebrows. James' shoulders relaxed with a sigh and he turned to talk to the man.
"Why buy us drinks?" he asked, stupidly.
"Two large glasses of Amontillado and a Bloody Mary, extra hot, please," the man ordered with a flicker of a smile. Sarah's eyebrows hiked themselves up another level.
The casino floor buzzed below them with the rattle of roulette balls, the drum-roll of dice, the jangle of jackpots. It seemed as if nobody was speaking, yet the sighs of anticipation, the reluctant smiles of winners and the solid-jawed silence of losers were deafening. And above this labyrinth of glint and glamour, James and Sarah sat at the bar, listening to the strains of Chris de Burgh's 'Spanish Train' playing in the background, psyching themselves up to join the fray, uneasily glancing at a strangely familiar man they'd never met before.
The barman unceremoniously dropped the three drinks on the bar. Sarah took a sip of her sherry and looked up at the strange man expectantly. The strange man smiled slightly, waved his hand at the barman and looked away. James opened his mouth to say something, but decided against it.
"There's not enough skill in gambling these days," said the strange man. "It's not so... challenging anymore."
"I always win, of course," he continued, musingly. "I'm the Devil."
James broke into a wide nervous grin. Sarah didn't flinch.
"I love gambling," said the Devil, "I love it when the stakes are high. And you two? You look to me like you're game." His eyes gave a predatory shimmer. He took a long, deep sip of his drink.
He studied James and Sarah's stunned silence, and went in for the kill. "How about a little wager? I'll offer you every luxury I can bestow. For the rest of your lives, and I'll make sure you live long and fruitful lives, you'll have whatever you want. Every wish and whim." He turned to Sarah: "More money than you could ever spend." He turned to James: "More women than you could ever want." He addressed them both: "The power of the world at your fingertips."
"And if we lose?" Sarah asked breathlessly, to her brother's surprise.
"I get your soul."
James waited. His eyes flicked back and forth. He spoke. "What's the wager?"
"To win, you must break a law each day for forty days. A different person must witness each transgression. They have to notice, so doing thirty-one in a thirty zone won't cut it. If one of you succeeds, the world is yours. Any lapses and I win your soul."
The Devil leant back to see the effect of this. "Easy," he said seriously.
James looked down thoughtfully. His brow creased. Then his head snapped up. "How are we meant to believe you're the Devil?"
The Devil stared at James piercingly, then stood up, motioned for James and Sarah to follow him, and walked downstairs to the casino floor. "I'm the Devil," said the Devil. "If you accept the wager, I'll be watching you. You'll know."
James and Sarah left their drinks and followed the Devil, captivated, as he walked across the casino. The Devil took something out of his inside pocket then turned to give them a confiding glance. He walked up behind a woman with incredibly long blond hair sitting at the poker table and slipped a pair of aces into her jacket pocket. The Devil walked on, James and Sarah in tow, until he reached the security guard by the backroom door at the far end of the casino. He whispered something to the security guard, who muttered something into his radio and left to approach the girl with the long blond hair. She looked indignant, but she got up and followed the security guard across the casino, towards James and Sarah, then through the backroom door.
"Were you watching?" asked the Devil, but James and Sarah were dumbstruck. "The code for the backroom door. I was watching. I'm always watching." The Devil sidled up to the backroom door, typed in the code and held the door open for James and Sarah to go through.
"The prize I am offering is greater than you can imagine, you know," explained the Devil as they walked up a magnolia corridor. "The world follows the rules of chaos. It is not random, it just seems that way to you because every tiny change has infinite consequences. Every action initiates a chain of causality more complicated than you can grasp. Everything interacts and depends on everything else."
The three of them turned into a room filled with old and broken chips, chipped dice, punched cards and various odds and ends. "If you accept this wager and win the prize," the Devil went on, "you will be granted clarity. You'll see every interaction in the universe, and you'll be able to control the consequences."
The Devil picked up a generous handful of old dice and threw them onto a table in the middle of the room. "You'll have the power to do whatever you want. Now I'll give you a day to decide. And I'll tell you what, if you accept the wager this can count as your first crime." The Devil indicated over James and Sarah's shoulders with his head. They turned around, but nothing was there. They turned back and the Devil had disappeared. Vanished. They stared down at the dozens of dice on the table. Every single one was a six.
"What do you think you're doing?" shouted the security guard from behind them as he grabbed them both by the scruff of the neck. "It's against the law to come back here without authorization. Out! Both of you! And don't come back!" With that, he dragged them both through a back door and threw them out onto the street.
As the door slammed behind them, they noticed the girl with the long blond hair sitting on a bench across the pavement, looking dishevelled, talking to the police. For a split second she made eye contact with James and Sarah, only it was as if her eyes were not her own. Her eyes had a piercing, predatory quality. For that split second her expression was not her own either. The Devil gave them a twisted smile. Then she became herself again, looking away, flustered.
A crime a day for forty days. It didn't seem too difficult, thought Sarah, to break a law each day. She probably did it most days anyway without even knowing it. Speeding. Cutting corners on tax forms. Using copyrighted material. There were even worse crimes she was prepared to do, given the right reasons. And she could certainly think of enough reasons. This wager, this game, might be just the excuse she needed to take that one little extra step, over the line, to put things right.
She picked up the telephone and called James to arrange a meeting for lunch.
James hung up after talking to his sister. He still wasn't convinced. It seemed bizarre to try and persuade himself that he must break a law in the real world for fear of some mysterious supernatural punishment. Why should he trust a strange man in a casino? And if that stranger was the Devil, surely there would be even less reason to trust him? But if the prize were real, thought James, that would be worth some moral trade-off, as long as he didn't get caught. To have women pay him attention, to get noticed at work, to be accepted, to be popular; that was worth stealing a couple of milk bottles for. James rested his head on his hands for a minute, his brow creased. He still wasn't convinced.
Two hours later, James walked up to the café where he had agreed to meet his sister, and was surprised to see her sitting outside the café in the sunshine, next to the Devil.
"Look who I found," said Sarah flatly.
The Devil attracted the attention of the waitress and ordered three drinks and two meals. "This lunch is on me," he said to James and Sarah magnanimously, offering the waitress a couple of notes and telling her to keep the change. The waitress barely realized he was handing her any money; she wore a star-struck expression as if she was wondering whether or not to dare to give the Devil her phone number. The Devil pressed the money into her hand, touching her as he let the money go. He gave her a wink. She beamed broadly and left.
"I don't believe in rules," said the Devil before James and Sarah could speak, "but I do believe in promises. I've written our wager down so you know precisely what the terms are. It's no contract signed in blood, I'm not a cartoon devil, but it is my word, and there's nothing stronger than that."
The Devil handed them each a piece of paper. "The wager is exactly what I proposed in the casino. I've just added a couple of terms because I don't want you thinking you can win by carrying an ice-cream cone in your pocket because it's illegal in Lexington, Kentucky."
James read the piece of paper, "Blah blah blah, must break a law each day, a different person must witness, yadda yadda, winner takes all, blah blah blah, loser's soul becomes property of the Devil. Sounds straightforward enough to me. Where do I sign?"
The others ignored James' sarcasm. Sarah finished reading her piece of paper and very purposefully put it down on the table, looked up at the Devil and said, "I'll do it."
The waitress returned and handed out drinks. She looked at the three of them sat in silence around the table, and decided that she had better not disturb them.
"Sarah," said James, pleadingly, through gritted teeth as if he didn't want his words to escape too easily. "How can we trust him?"
Sarah's eyes stayed solidly fixed on the Devil's, challenging.
"Sarah," James said, even more strained.
Sarah turned slowly to face her brother, daring him. James looked at her, then looked at the Devil. Suddenly James had a flood of realisation. He hated his job. He was alone and lonely. His friends all had better friends. He never enjoyed spending his money anymore. He had almost nothing to lose. Nothing much worth keeping, anyway.
"OK," he said eventually, looking down at the table, "I'll do it."
The Devil smiled. He took the two pieces of paper he had given James and Sarah, put them in a pair of envelopes he had produced from an inside pocket of his jacket, and sealed them. "Don't open these until the forty days is up," he said, handing them back to James and Sarah.
For a while, the Devil finished his drink in silence. He gave James and Sarah another tight smile, then got up to leave just as the waitress returned with James and Sarah's meals.
"Enjoy the meal," said the Devil. "I hope today's crime goes well."
Sarah hurried back to work. Now that she had made the decision to sort things out, whatever it took, she couldn't wait. She tried not to break into a run as she turned up Sullivan Street. She reached her building, pushed open the door and clambered up the stairs two at a time.
"Hi Jane," she said breathlessly when she reached the top of the stairs, "is Randall in?"
"Nope," replied Jane, looking up from her desk, "he's at one of his meetings."
Sarah bolted past Jane's cubicle, around her colleagues' cubicles, and past her own to the long desk at the end of the room. She almost vaulted over the desk in her haste to get behind it. A questioning murmur rippled from her colleagues.
She grabbed a pair of scissors from the desk and started trying to prise open the lock on a large metal filing cabinet. This really got her workmates going.
"Sarah! What are you doing?"
"I know what you think of Randall, but really..."
"You could get into so much trouble!"
"That's totally confidential stuff, you know."
"You'll get arrested!"
The lock gave and Sarah opened the drawer and started rifling through the papers inside. "Randall is using this company as a cover for some crazy scheme and shafting us all and I will prove it." She pulled out a few papers and sat at the desk to inspect them. Everyone else in the room shifted uneasily in their seats. Sarah scanned the last sheet and sighed, unsatisfied. She replaced the papers, looked through the drawer again and pulled out one more sheet. She ripped a post-it note from a pad on the desk and noted something down. After replacing the sheet and closing the filing cabinet, she walked confidently back to her cubicle. Nobody, it seemed, knew quite what to say.
For a moment, Sarah caught Jane's eye. There was something very odd about Jane's expression. Her eyes flickered with a piercing, predatory quality. Sarah knew the Devil was watching; her duty for today was done. The illusion passed, and soon the industrious sounds of typing and phone calls resumed, and Sarah relaxed in her chair, fixing the post-it note to the inside of her folder and booting up her computer.
Towards the end of the day, Randall burst in trying to look preoccupied as always, and marched up to his desk. The atmosphere got tangibly tenser. He didn't notice immediately, but when he did he was instantly enraged. He was like an incensed schoolteacher, twitching and glaring, looking for a target.
"Who did this?" he yelled.
There was a quiet shuffling sound as everybody squirmed in their seats, but no-one spoke up. Sarah gratefully held back a determined smile.
James finished work and packed his suitcase. He tidied his desk and got up to leave. "See you tomorrow, Tim," he mumbled.
"Yeah, see you... uh... see you, mate."
James wandered out to the lobby and said goodbye to the receptionist, who didn't even seem to notice him. He went outside and slipped into his car, allowing his brain to drift back into troubled thoughts about last night and today's lunch break. He had to commit a crime now. He didn't really want to, he thought, but he couldn't put it off till later. There weren't many crimes he could commit once he'd got home. It would have to be now.
As he drove slowly through the town, his eyes darted furtively from side to side, until eventually they settled on a temporary road sign that had been placed to warn drivers of some construction work ahead. He pulled up, got out of the car and kicked off a sandbag that was weighing down the sign. He lifted the sign with one hand, trying to hold it away from him so as not to dirty his suit.
He carried the sign around to the back of the car, avoiding the bemused gazes of passers-by. Once he swore he saw a familiar expression out of the corner of his eye, a twisted smile, but he didn't want to acknowledge it. He popped open the boot and heaved the sign in. He let out an exasperated sigh. There was no way the boot would be able to close with that huge sign inside it. He hefted the sign back out and dragged it around so he could put it in the back seat of the car. He was embarrassed; he could feel his face flushing. Once the sign was in and the doors were closed, he rushed back into the driver's seat and drove off. Had he done it, he thought, had that counted as a crime? He'd certainly been noticed. How was he supposed to know that was enough? He didn't want to forfeit his soul on a technicality. The furrows in his brow got deeper as he turned into his street.
He reached his house, parked hastily and got out to unlock his front door. As soon as the door was open, he half-dragged the sign out of the car, through his house and back out the side door to throw it into the wheelie bin outside. Was that it? Did that count? Was the Devil's game just an exercise in humiliation? Or was there to be more to it than that? The Devil was bound to have something in store for him, he thought.
James slept fitfully that night.
Over the next fortnight, Sarah continued her investigation into Randall Sonny. She was convinced that he was operating some grand scam. He went to so many unexplained meetings, he seemed to be able to afford a lot more than he should, he always avoided talking about his background and his reasons for running the company the way he did. Most importantly, he didn't seem to care about the company she loved so much.
First, during her lunch break, she took a taxi to the suburb where Randall lived, checking the address she had scribbled on the post-it note when she'd broken into his filing cabinet. He hadn't left any evidence of his scams in there, but at least she'd found out where he lived. Sarah was sure she would find some clues there. She started by stealing all of Randall's rubbish, piling four neatly tied up bin bags into the taxi. The taxi driver wasn't too happy about it, worrying about the state of his taxi rather than being an accessory to bin bag theft of course, but a generous tip shut him up.
Randall's rubbish was disappointing. No bank statements. No incriminating letters. No discarded heads. Sarah did manage to find a letter from his Internet service provider, which gave her enough information to hack into his computer system a few times during the next couple of days. Every time she hacked in, she made sure to access a random company's site and leave a message on their home page pointing out the security weakness that had allowed her to penetrate their system, leaving her name and address so her crime was 'witnessed'. She hadn't given much thought to the Devil since their last meeting, but she hadn't forgotten the rules of the game. The companies she hacked into were usually grateful, but one or two of them sent nasty letters threatening legal action if she did it again.
Exploring Randall's computer system bore no fruit, especially because she couldn't access many of his password-protected files - she wasn't that much of a computer whiz. She needed to dig deeper. Before the first week of the forty days was up, she found herself sneaking into Randall's house to snoop around.
She hadn't needed to break in, because Mrs. Sonny was at home. Sarah had just climbed through an open window while Mrs. Sonny was busy in the kitchen, and quietly searched through some of Randall's things undisturbed. Sarah noted down a couple of things, but she was very wary of getting caught, so her search was not thorough. On her way out, she donned a hat and shades as a superficial disguise, and waited until someone came walking by so they would see her. The passer-by tried to raise the alarm, but Sarah was long gone before anyone acted on it. She hoped the passer-by would not be able to describe her well enough to Mrs. Sonny or the police.
Next Sarah managed to persuade Jane that there was an emergency and she needed to borrow Jane's car. Jane reluctantly handed the keys over, fully aware that Sarah didn't have a driving licence. Sarah spent the rest of the day following Randall around town as he went to various suspicious meetings.
Eventually, Sarah got extremely frustrated with her lack of results. Whatever scheme Randall had up his sleeve, he was hiding it very well. Soon her investigation turned into a vendetta. Instead of just being deeply suspicious of him, she started outright hating him. She went back to his house and stole his mail. She scrawled graffiti on his garage door; 'I know what you're doing with the company'. She managed not to get caught, and although Randall knew someone was hounding him, she wasn't the only one he suspected.
In the beginning of the third week of the forty days, she took a step too far. She had gone into the bank with which Randall had his account, posing as Mrs. Sonny, to try and get some account information. Not only did the bank assistant realise Sarah was not who she was claiming to be, but Sarah's face was captured on the closed-circuit cameras. Sarah got away, but when she turned up at work the next day, the police were waiting to arrest her.
James' first couple of weeks were far less organised. Each day he would go to work in the morning, exhausted after spending a fitful night thinking about what he had got himself in for. While at work he became an automaton, doing his job single-mindedly and soullessly so he could forget about the Devil's wager. After work, he would reluctantly realise that he couldn't put off his crime for the day any longer, and he would half-heartedly break some law or other, feeling more humiliated than sinful.
First, the day after James stole the road sign, he wandered into a newsagent's and grabbed a handful of penny sweets. The newsagent smiled at him emptily from behind the counter, he smiled back, then ran off. The next day, as James got into his car to drive home from work, he rolled the window down and stopped a passer-by to show her that he was going to drive home without his seatbelt, and did she know that was against the law? The passer-by thought him mad, of course, and as he drove home with his car ding, ding, dinging to tell him he wasn't wearing his seatbelt, James suspected she was right.
James kept worrying about the wager. He was never sure if the crimes he was committing were counting; if the Devil was watching. And if the Devil wasn't watching, why should he commit the crimes at all? It seemed stupid, but the stakes were far too high for him to be unsure.
One day his workmate Tim asked him if he wanted to come to the King's Head pub. James went, and as he got towards the bottom of his first pint of beer he found himself seriously considering telling Tim the whole story. Telling him about the Devil, and the casino, and the wager. He quickly decided against it, reckoning that he could always tell Tim tomorrow.
Instead, he pretended to be fascinated by the signature on Tim's credit card, which was lying on the bar ready to pay for the next drink. He bet Tim that he could copy the signature, and suggested that the best test would be to sign Tim's credit card slip when he paid for his next drink. Tim said he would gladly buy the next round if James could get away with it.
James and Tim ordered another drink each, and James offered the barman Tim's credit card to pay for it. The barman barely looked when James signed Tim's name, and their drinks were dealt out without a second thought. James tried to be aloof and smug about his little fraud, but his heart was hammering inside his chest.
After that, James took to visiting the pub after work more regularly, soon every day, and each day he would get drunker than before. When he drove home each day, slightly tipsy, he would accelerate well past the speed limit, wondering how fast he had to go before he could be sure someone had noticed he was breaking the law. Every now and then Tim joined him at the pub, and as the days passed, Tim showed more and more concern about letting him drive home drunk.
On a Friday in the beginning of the third week of the forty days, James managed to get so drunk that Tim refused to let him drive home. Tim offered him a lift at closing time, which James accepted gratefully, but when they got to James' house he realised he hadn't committed his crime for the day. Drunk and flustered, he thanked Tim for his help by punching him in the face, then staggered into his house and went straight up to bed.
The next morning he was awoken from his hangover by a phone call from his sister, asking him to come and bail her out of jail.
"Hi Sarah," said James.
James escorted his sister out of her cell and suggested they have lunch together at the café in town.
"How are you doing?" asked Sarah.
"Not well," admitted James, "not well at all. What have you been up to for the last couple of weeks?"
"Oh, you know, breaking and entering, computer hacking, destruction of property, the usual. It's a condition of my bail that I can't go within two hundred metres of Randall or anything that belongs to him, which means I can't go to work anymore. Ironic, really, I love that place and I was only trying to save it. You?"
James' face showed no sign of humour. "Mostly drink driving," he answered, morbidly. "My friends think I'm a desperate drunkard. Even Tim's not speaking to me anymore". They walked to the car in silence, and got in. "I want this to end now. I've had enough. I feel like a total idiot."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. It got a bit out of hand."
"I've been thinking," said James. "The only ones making us carry on with this mindless crime spree are ourselves. The Devil hasn't shown up at all to check on us. I think we're completely deluding ourselves. I don't even think he was the Devil at all."
"That night in the casino, he didn't do anything that impressive. It could have been a set up. Easily. A rich man's stupid game. Those dice could have been weighted. That doorman could have been a friend of his. It wouldn't have taken much to fool a couple of suckers like us." James laughed dryly. "And look how well it worked! We've been pottering around, humiliating ourselves, risking our necks, and he's long gone, still laughing at the thought of it!"
Sarah's heart felt heavier. James went on. "Well, I'm going to stop. If the Devil turns up and tells me he's going to rip my soul out unless I swear at a couple of policemen, I might reconsider, but until then I'm finished with this idiot game."
The rest of the journey to the café was conducted in silence. Sarah's heart felt leaden, and James's expression betrayed little of the anger and frustration he felt. James parked the car near Sarah's workplace, and the two of them walked towards the café with their thoughts consuming them. They were not at all prepared for what happened next.
They turned off Sullivan Street and their stomachs somersaulted. The Devil was sitting at one of the tables outside the café, flirting with a waitress, waiting for them.
They approached slowly, cautiously.
"You're a motivated pair," said the Devil, mockingly, "I've enjoyed watching you."
James and Sarah warily sat down opposite the Devil.
"But I hear you've been having problems," continued the Devil. "And doubts. Let me get one thing absolutely clear before we go on." The Devil's wry manner turned deadly serious.
"I am the Devil."
With a stony expression, the Devil waved his hand and three cars parked across the street from the café exploded in quick succession.
A cacophony of screams erupted as the café cleared out and panicked pedestrians ran this way and that. James and Sarah remained fixed in their seats, watching the debris from the cars fall and the fires catch hold, then turning to look at the Devil.
The Devil's twisted smile returned. "I could do much more impressive stunts than that," said the Devil as the sound of sirens started up in the distance, "but I wouldn't want to act out of context. You see, if people see me doing something supernatural, if they associate me with some apocalyptic power, they might start believing in me. And if they start believing in the Devil, they'll start believing in God. I've worked over two millennia to get people to forget about God, to try and undercut some of the hold He has on the world.
"I'm not evil, you know, though God would have you think that. He's just as evil as I am, and I'm as good as He, but history is written by the winners. I just think the world should be run differently. I only want everyone to have fun. There are too many rules at the moment. God loves rules. Who needs 'em? Commandments, laws, rules, they're all just there to restrict your freedom, to stop you from doing what you want.
"I'm not advocating complete anarchy, no! Obviously, some kind of organisation is important if people are to realise their full potential. But society can be built on promises, not rules. Each to their own. Survival of the fittest. None of this 'meek shall inherit' crap. People should be free. Who needs bibles, governments, police? Each person should be their own government, their own country."
The Devil paused, and sat back in his chair. "It's slow work, though. I've come a long way, and I'll get there in the end, but there's still a lot of work to be done. I'll win in the end, of course. I always do. I wouldn't play if I wasn't going to win."
An ambulance and a pair of police cars had shown up at the scene of the explosions. People in uniform started scurrying about.
"Anyway," sighed the Devil, "we've got your souls to save. I wanted to give you a sporting chance at winning this bet of ours, so I've arranged for someone to help you out. Meet Cain at the King's Head pub at six tonight. He's in a business that works fine without rules. It thrives on promises. He'll have a little job for you. Illegal, of course. It could be the start of great things."
The Devil indicated over James and Sarah's shoulders. "Right," he said, "I'd better leave you to it before those policemen bother us for questioning."
James and Sarah looked over their shoulders, and when they looked back, the Devil was gone. They looked at each other for a split second, made an unspoken mutual decision, and hastily walked off before the policemen could get to them.
James sat in the pub, sober for once, watching the news on the television behind the bar. It was showing the remains of the three cars opposite the café, and there were various interviews with distraught witnesses. James couldn't hear what they were saying because the volume was too low and a wailing Van Halen song, 'Runnin' With the Devil', was playing from the jukebox.
Sarah arrived and sat down next to her brother. "He convinced you then?" she asked. James said nothing. He checked his watch. Four minutes to six.
James and Sarah turned to see a tall, thick-set man sitting beside them.
"Lucifer sent me."
"Cain?" asked James, weakly.
"Yes," said Cain. "Deliver the apple to the Green Room on Ruddigore Street right away. See you same time tomorrow." Cain got up and left the bar.
James and Sarah took a few seconds to absorb what had just happened, and a few more seconds to realise that Cain appeared to have forgotten his briefcase by the bar stool. James looked at it, reached out to pick it up, hesitated, then got up and suggested to Sarah that they leave.
"What's in it?" asked Sarah.
"I don't want to know. My car's out back."
The two of them walked to the car with the briefcase, got in, and drove the quarter of an hour to Ruddigore Street without exchanging a single word. Once they had arrived, James parked along the road from the Green Room nightclub, grabbed the briefcase and got out with Sarah. The club was closed, and the only thing that indicated it was there at all was a small neon sign, which hadn't yet been turned on for the night, above an unmarked doorway. There was an intercom by the door. James pressed the button on it and waited.
A ragged tramp that had been hiding in a recess by the door stirred, giving James a start. The tramp groaned and poked his head out from beneath a tatty sleeping bag. James tried to ignore him.
"Spare some change?" croaked the tramp, and, after receiving no reply, "c'mon man, I need a hit."
James pressed the button again, twice. Another minute passed. The tramp grumbled and retreated. Finally, a crackling sound emerged from the little speaker.
"Yes?" said a voice on the speaker.
"Uh," James struggled for words, "Lucifer sent us."
More crackling. Silence.
James realised how fast his heart was beating when a buzz indicated that the door had been unlocked for them. James and Sarah pushed their way in. The nightclub looked strange with all the lights on. There were two people cleaning the dance floor.
"It's probably up there," said Sarah, pointing at a staircase to their right. They went up, and along a dull corridor with doors either side.
"Hello?" called James. There was no answer. They walked to the end of the corridor and stopped. They listened, quietly.
"There's voices from that one," said Sarah. They knocked. The door opened immediately, letting out a haze of smoke. A young but weary looking man, dressed in smart clothes that somehow looked scruffy on him, stood in front of them.
"You got the apple?"
James and Sarah both nodded.
"I'm Gilbert. Bring it in and let's check no-one's taken any bites."
James and Sarah followed Gilbert into the room. It was small, dominated by a desk that had a fat, unshaven man sitting behind it smoking a small cigar and intermittently nodding at a mobile telephone he had pressed against his ear. They waited until the fat man had finished his phone call, then Gilbert took the briefcase from James, put it on the desk, and opened it so the fat man could see inside. Sarah craned her neck to try and see what was in the briefcase.
"You want some, little lady?" said the fat man, gruffly. "Here. Tell me if it's any good." The fat man threw her a tiny plastic bag containing some white and blue pills. Sarah caught it and immediately put it back down on the desk, shaking her head furiously.
The fat man laughed cruelly. "Ha ha ha, you're only the messenger, eh? Not your problem if the gear is no good. Go on then, get outta here. You'll get paid work at the end of the month if I think I can trust you. Meanwhile, I'm sure I'll see you tomorrow."
James and Sarah gladly fled.
For the next eighteen days, James and Sarah met their contact every evening in the King's Head for their daily chore. Their contact was a different person each day, but they always used the codename Cain. The Devil really had made it easy for them. This made James especially concerned that the Devil would have something terrible in store before long, although as the days passed and the drugs running became routine, the worries in James' mind faded. Sarah looked around for another job unsuccessfully, and soon had to borrow some money from her brother to get by.
With less than a week left before the wager was up, something went wrong. As usual, James went straight to the King's Head after work and had a drink while he was waiting for Sarah. At about half past five he noticed their contact, Cain, entering the pub, holding the same briefcase as always. Cain sat at the bar two seats away from James, ignoring him, and had a drink. Sarah arrived just before six at which point Cain left, leaving his briefcase behind. James and Sarah chatted briefly about how badly their lives had gone recently while James quickly finished his drink. The two of them left the pub, and walked in silence to James' car. Sarah noticed James seemed to be walking more stiffly than usual. When they got in the car, she asked him why.
"We're being followed," said James in a whisper. "A dark-haired man came into the pub behind Cain and the same dark-haired man left after us. He watched us go into the car park. He must be tracing the drugs from whoever supplied Cain to us, and he'll be wanting us to lead him to Gilbert and the fat guy. I'm going to drive the other way."
"Shit, if it's the police they're gonna throw me straight back into jail for being involved in this shit while I'm on bail," said Sarah nervously. "What are we going to do?"
They drove in silence for a minute. A white car pulled out behind them that seemed to be turning up the same roads they turned, keeping its distance, but keeping up. "We could go home and call on the Green Room early tomorrow," suggested James.
"No," Sarah replied, "that would not be good. Whoever's following us would connect the drugs with our homes, and us, if we did that. We could just phone the Green Room from your mobile. Call directory enquiries and get their number."
"You know what?" said James, decisively, slowing the car down, "I'm going to the Green Room anyway. This is not our problem. Whoever's following us won't be interested in us at all; they'll be after the big fish. We can pretend we don't know anything about it."
"But... no... we can't!" stammered Sarah. "What if the fat man thinks we led them to him? If it is the police, he'll get arrested, and we'll lose our contact, and he'll be so angry at us!"
"It doesn't matter about losing our contact, there are only five days left. Five more crimes. We can easily find other things to do. If the fat man gets arrested he won't be able to hurt us because he'll be locked away. And remember, if you believe a word the Devil said, in five days, assuming we manage to keep breaking the law like good little boys and girls, that won't matter anymore because we'll be able to bugger off to Barbados and open up a Playboy mansion."
"If the police turn up at the Green Room and see me there, they'll send me back to jail until I rot, James. And you'll probably be coming with me."
James took a deep breath. He paused. "OK. I'll call them." He stopped the car and pulled out his mobile phone. The white car caught up with them and drove on, turning up the next street. Sarah had been watching it with particular intensity as it passed.
"Oh my God," said Sarah, "that was Randall Sonny."
"Randall Sonny?" shouted the fat man from the other side of the phone. "Randall Sonny is following you?"
"You know him?" asked James. Sarah looked surprised.
"Shit. Oh shit. He's on to me. He's going to kill me. He's going to shoot off my kneecaps."
"He's waiting for us to start moving again."
"Oh shit! Listen, you, whatever your name is. Do not come here. Understand? Do not lead him here under any circumstances. How did you get this number? Oh shit."
"Who is he?" James asked the fat man.
"Now listen, kid, the whole point of having runners like you is so no-one can connect the movers and shakers in this business. The primary suppliers with the regional suppliers. You don't know who the hell gives you the gear, right? So you can't incriminate them. Your ignorance is our protection. Now do your job. Don't ask questions, and whatever you do, don't ever come here or call me again. If you give me away, I'll track you down and gut you both like fish."
"What do we do with the briefcase?"
"Keep it! Your bonus! Now goodbye!"
The fat man hung up. James put the phone down. "Randall Sonny sounds like a very bad man."
"I knew he was up to something," said Sarah.
"At least he's not the police," countered James. "What do we do now? With the drugs, I mean."
"Just dump them out the window and let's go," said Sarah. "My fingerprints are on file, but yours aren't, are they? I haven't touched the briefcase. No-one will be able to find us. As long as Randall didn't see me."
"He's coming back this way," said James.
"Oh no! Drive! Don't let him see me!" Sarah ducked. Randall's white car was driving slowly towards them. James pressed the accelerator. Randall started drifting across the road, into the oncoming traffic. Only there was no traffic, just James and Sarah. James didn't swerve at first, holding a steady line, with Randall fast approaching. Soon it was obvious that James would have to dodge to avoid a head-on collision. He honked his horn, jerked the steering wheel left towards the pavement, then swerved right. Randall fell for his bluff and blocked the pavement, leaving the road wide open.
James took the advantage and sped past the white car, which did a wheel-spinning U-turn to rejoin the pursuit. James drove with restraint, making sure not to exceed the speed limit so as not to attract unwanted attention, hoping that Randall wouldn't be prepared to risk attracting unwanted attention either by crashing him off the road or something. James planned a route to a busy part of town.
"Dump the drugs," urged James. There were a few more cars on the road now, but hopefully no-one would be vigilant enough to do anything about it if they saw a briefcase being thrown into a bush.
"I can't do it! I'll get my fingerprints on it!"
"Hold it in your jumper or something, Sarah, come on!"
Sarah fiddled with her clothes, then instinctively snapped her arms up to protect her face. "Red light James! Mind the car!"
"I'm not gonna make it," blurted James, and he slammed his foot on the brakes. The wheels screeched and skidded to a halt. James and Sarah were jerked violently forwards, and before they had regained their composure, Randall's white car quietly pulled up beside them.
James looked through his window, into Randall's car, and down the barrel of a gun. Randall signed at him to wind his window down. He obeyed, numbly.
"Pull up," ordered Randall over the growling of the engines. "Hey, is that really you, Sarah? Oh my God, you are unbelievable!"
James panicked and floored the accelerator.
Randall dropped the gun and took control of his car, following them through the red light and left with the flow of traffic.
James and Sarah didn't have enough speed to smoothly slot into the lane, and the cars behind them braked hard and swerved to avoid colliding. When Randall joined the lane as well, the junction cascaded into a huge, screaming pile-up. Randall managed to weave his way out before the mess got impenetrable, and he stayed in hot pursuit.
James forgot all about restraint. He was driving fast, zigzagging between cars, his mouth stretched wide open in a fixed expression of terror, as if he was permanently bracing for a crash. Sarah was being thrown from side to side in the car, screaming and crying uncontrollably, her arms flapping about like semaphore.
James kept on heading for the busy part of town, although it seemed as if Randall wasn't going to give up. Each time they passed a junction or rounded a corner, James felt sure he would hear the sickening crunch of cars meeting, of bones breaking.
James braked hard to round a corner, but the car lurched forward and kept going. Randall had hit them from behind. James lost control of the steering wheel, and the car gently, inevitably skidded off the road and into a tree. The jerk of the impact felt disproportionately severe. An airbag instantaneously drowned James, but Sarah had no such protection. James slammed back against his seat and tried to take in the situation as quickly as possible.
Sarah looked unconscious. Cut. James had whiplash. Concussion. Probably shock. Randall was approaching their car, wearing something on his head. Hiding his face. Suddenly James couldn't see anymore. Only white. Concussion. He could feel himself being dragged. Too weak to resist. More pain. Black.
James awoke feeling like he was swaying side to side. It took him several seconds to realise that he actually was. He was lying on the floor. It felt slightly damp. A boat. His head and neck hurt. He looked around. Sarah was lying next to him, apparently unconscious. Randall was in the room, rummaging in the briefcase they'd got from the King's Head. They were in the cabin of a boat. It was night outside. Randall turned around.
"Oh, you're awake," said Randall, "you bastard. Do you realise how much the drugs trade in this area would suffer if I was caught? And I came closer than ever to getting caught today, thanks to you. I was only trying to settle a score that had nothing to do with you. Actually, that's something I wanted to talk to you about."
James saw that Randall was holding a syringe. He turned the needle up to the air and squirted some liquid out, flicking the tube to get the bubbles out. "You have two choices," explained Randall. "Either you tell me who you were bringing the drugs to, or I kill your sister with an overdose of those drugs you were carrying."
James' lips moved up and down soundlessly for a moment. "Gilbert," he said, "and a fat man. In the Green Room."
"Really?" said Randall, "that was easy. Only I'm going to have to kill her anyway. I don't want her telling anyone what Randall Sonny's real job is." With that, he crouched down over Sarah's limp figure, poked the syringe into her arm, and slowly squeezed all of the liquid out of the tube.
James yelped uselessly and tried to clamber to his feet. Randall ambled over and stamped hard on his back, then gave him a vicious kick in the kidneys. James squirmed in agony, arching his back and wriggling as if he was trying to dodge the pain.
Randall calmly refilled the syringe from something in the briefcase, strolled back over to James and put one foot solidly on the back of James' shoulder, and the other foot squarely on James' hand. James shrieked in pain and tried to worm free, but Randall easily injected the drugs into his arm.
James suddenly felt numb. He could feel a kind of stinging euphoric rush. He started sweating profusely. He could feel himself shaking. He vomited without warning. His breathing was unsteady and rapid. He was sharply aware that he had started moving, but only vaguely aware why. He felt a falling sensation, then a painful splash. He could see Randall looking over the edge of the boat, way above him. James realised he was in the water. He panicked, frantically paddling, but unable to coordinate his movements. It went dark. The boat was gone. He felt suddenly relaxed. Unconscious.
"Ha ha! You're not very good at this game, are you? Come on; let's get you to a hospital. I'm not saving your necks again after this, though!"
Warmth. Water. Light. A familiar face. The Devil.
"You're going to need help pretty soon," said the Devil, starting up the speedboat, "you're in a bad state."
James opened his bleary eyes. Yes. The Devil. A boat. Rescue. Sarah?
James tested his dry, cracked voice. "Sarah?"
"She's there next to you. She'll probably make it too. You've got the best part of a couple of days to recover before you have to break another law anyway; it's half one in the morning and you've already taken class A drugs today. That's motivated!" The Devil smiled at himself.
"Why save us?" James asked vaguely.
"I want you to win!" said the Devil, cheerily. "I'll admit. I've got an ulterior motive. OK, if you lose I get a pair of souls, which is nice, but if you win I've done more than train up a couple of minions. If you win thanks to the drugs-related crimes I helped you get involved with, it'll tip the cosmic balance, and I'll be able to legitimise drugs for good! I only get that chance once every thousand years, you know. It's a force greater than the laws of physics. It's like creating a black hole in every mind in the world, all at once. Every last reservation, every last prejudice against drugs will be sucked in and lost forever. A thousand years ago I freed gambling, I sucked away all the delusions of immorality that were attached to it and brought it up from the underground. God was pissed off, I can tell you! I don't think he cares so much about this world any more; he's losing interest. That's why I'm here!"
The Devil was smiling widely, obviously in a jovial mood. "I can't help you any more though, or it might not work. You're on your own now, and I'm sure you'll do me proud. Because if you don't, I'm going to really mess with your souls. Anyway, you'll have a lot of fun if you help me out. The prize is really something else. Don't worry about it now, though. Get some sleep. You've got some healing to do."
With that, the Devil shut up, and James heard only the engine of the speedboat and the thumping in his head. He succumbed to dreamless sleep.
The next two days passed hazily. James was aware of nothing to begin with, then he realised he was in a hospital, then he realised Sarah was in the next bed, then he realised the nurses were talking to him, but he couldn't talk back. He felt absolutely terrible and rarely wanted to resist the respite of sleep.
Towards the end of the second day his head felt somewhat clearer, and his pains were much more focussed. His lower back hurt, his shoulder hurt, his hand hurt, his head was throbbing and he felt nauseous, but he felt aware, and he felt like he might be able to get up. He didn't remember much, though. Randall. Car chase. Crash. Boats. The Devil had rescued them. Why?
A nurse brought him some supper. He was hungry. He sat up on the bed. The nurse looked pleased. Suddenly, a flash of clarity pierced through his brain.
"Hossime ight?" he slurred.
"Sorry?" asked the nurse.
"Hoth - Hime - iss - ik?"
"Oh, it's a quarter past nine in the evening," answered the nurse, then she left.
James looked around. Sarah was awake, staring at the ceiling. She had stitches in her head. They were in a large room with dozens of beds, all occupied, and everything was white. The strip lighting made everything look washed-out. James saw what he was looking for on a table by the next bed, on the other side from Sarah's bed. A newspaper. He squinted. He leaned forward and squinted harder.
OK, he thought, having checked the date, we haven't missed any crimes. They had less than three hours to do today's. He had to get up. He noticed for the first time that he had something in his arm. A drip. He winced as he carefully removed it.
He pushed his legs off the bed and tested them. He tentatively tried standing. His head pounded. He held on to the bed while a dizzy spell passed. He staggered over to his sister.
"Sarah," he called.
Sarah slowly moved her head around to look at him. "Your arm is bleeding," she said.
James smiled at Sarah and looked down at his arm. There was a trickle of blood and fluid from where he had removed the drip. "Come on, get up," he urged, gently pulling his sister by the arm, "we have to go."
Sarah let herself be hefted up. When she was sat up on the bed, she resisted.
"No, you're not thinking straight," moaned Sarah. "We have to stay. We're not fit."
"We'll lose our souls if we don't. What could be worse? At least try," said James, with effort. Sarah didn't feel like arguing. She let her brother hoist her up onto her feet and pull her along towards the exit. They walked out of the bed room, the other patients eyeing them curiously. They encountered a nurse in the corridor, who asked them where they were going, then told them to get back into bed. They pushed past her, and she scurried off to jabber down a phone set in the wall.
Just as they approached the hospital lobby, two doctors blocked their way and asked them to turn back. "I'm sorry, sir, ma'am," said one of the doctors, "you'll have to turn back. You're in police custody, so you'll have to wait for them to take you. Besides, you still have some recovering to do."
James looked up at the doctors wearily. Sarah looked at James resignedly. They pushed their way through the barricade of doctors and towards the exit. The doctors followed them.
"If you leave, I'll have to report your lack of cooperation to the police," said the doctor in a kind of stage whisper, "they will treat it as resisting arrest!" James smiled. Sarah looked relieved. They both started running. They weren't physically up to it and their progress was erratic and laughably slow. The doctors stood impotently at the hospital entrance, watching them go. They rounded the corner and waited for the police to pick them up and return them to hospital; their crime for the day was done.
The next day the nurses informed James and Sarah that the police would be picking them up that afternoon. If they were well enough to run away, they were well enough to go to jail. They had been put in the quarantine section of the hospital, not because they had anything contagious, but because they could be isolated and locked up. James and Sarah used the time to rest while they still had hospital beds instead of prison beds.
The nurses came to get them when the police had arrived. They were helped into the back of a police van, and locked in. As they started their journey, the policeman driving them turned on an intercom and started reading out the list of crimes they had been charged with.
"Right now we're headed for the magistrate's court for your bail hearing," finished the policeman, "so behave yourselves." The policeman glared at them through the rear-view mirror.
The policeman escorted them right into the courtroom, he didn't trust them one bit. James and Sarah went through the formalities. The magistrate asked them their names.
"John Smith," said James. The magistrate looked confused. He got up and spoke quietly to his counsel, then returned to his post with a frown.
"You may get away with not cooperating at home, but in court it's called perjury," chastised the magistrate. Sarah got the message.
"And I'm Maisy Dotes," she said. James' eyes went wide. Sarah realised he was trying to hold back a snigger. For a bizarre moment she saw the utter hopelessness of the situation. She broke into a smile, her shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. James couldn't hold it in any more. He cracked up. He had to hold his sides. He doubled up with snorting laughter. Which set Sarah off.
Needless to say, they didn't get bail.
They were transported to a holding cell under heavy surveillance, but they didn't need it; they were cooperating now. They had no more reason to misbehave that day. When they arrived, they were made to change into a drab uniform. All of their possessions were taken away. Later, a warden showed them around.
"You'll be allocated your beds in a minute," the warden droned. "Morning unlock is at oh-six-thirty, get to the dining hall before oh-seven-ten for breakfast. Sick parade is at oh-eight-hundred, anyone left over goes to the worksheds. Work till lunch at twelve-hundred hours." The warden went on, but James and Sarah were too tired to listen. As soon as he let them, they went to their cells and went straight to sleep. The prison beds weren't as uncomfortable as they feared.
The next morning, the warden dragged their weary, damaged bodies out of bed. Sarah was sent to work in the kitchens, James in the garden, both of them feeling wrecked. Their exertions exhausted them, and they took their meals in silence. They both used their leisure time to sit and rest. When they finished work, there was still half an hour left before lock down, so they found seats in the reading room.
"James?" called Sarah.
"Our crime for the day," predicted James.
"Yes," Sarah confirmed. "What are we going to do?"
"I can't believe we still have to think about that," said James, "it seems so unreal now. If you told me a couple of months ago I'd be sitting here now, in jail, suffering major withdrawal from some hardcore drug - I don't even know which drug it was; I'd have thought you crazy. Now I just think I'm crazy. I want to get it all over with and start my life again."
"Let's do it then," sighed Sarah without conviction. "We can't steal anything, there's nowhere to take it to. We could, I dunno, hold the warden hostage, or start a riot, or break some stuff, or run around naked a bit."
"I can't be bothered at all," James groaned. Two more inmates walked into the room. James and Sarah looked at them, and then looked at each other.
"Let's just get it over with, then," suggested Sarah. James nodded. They got up in perfect synchronisation, walked up to the other two inmates, and gave them each a swift punch in the face.
James and Sarah jogged weakly away, briefly glancing at each other before separating to hide in their beds. Each noticed that the other seemed to be smiling conspiratorially, giggling.
The warden was furious. James and Sarah were branded troublemakers of the worst kind. They had to be made an example of. The two unfortunates they had hit looked smug when it was announced that James and Sarah would be locked in the penal cell for seventy-two hours.
The warden escorted them around to a part of the prison they had not been shown before. They walked through a heavy set of steel bars, and the warden handed them over to a lazy-looking security guard, who led them into a small, dark and damp stone room.
"Has anyone ever escaped from here?" James asked the guard wryly.
The guard gave him a condescending look, and launched into a monotone monologue. "Cold stone walls two feet thick on three sides, bullet proof glass and a four inch thick steel door on the fourth side. Solid stone floor and ceiling. The door's impenetrable, but it leads into an annex, which is also closed in by solid steel bars and guarded by me, just in case. The walls are impenetrable, but through them is a guarded courtyard with twelve metre high stone walls topped with barbed wire, just in case. The available materials for your escape plan include two meals a day each, which come through that tiny letterbox on the floor there, two moth-eaten sleeping bags and a toilet that barely flushes. Oh, and look, quilted toilet paper. Isn't that a nice touch?
"Escaping from this room is an absolute physical impossibility; getting further than that is even less likely. My name's Isaac, for most of the next seventy-two hours I will be watching you sleep, I will be watching you dress, I will be watching you shit. No matter how hard you ask, you will get no radio, no board games, no newspapers, no mail, until you are out of here. If you piss me about I can add twenty-four hours to your time here with a snap of my fingers."
Isaac paused for effect. "Enjoy your stay," he finished, bitterly. He left the small stone room and heaved the steel door behind him. James and Sarah heard one, two, three, four, five bolts slide into place, then saw Isaac sit down in the annex through the bullet proof glass. There was no source of light in the stone room; a musty twilight filtered in through the bullet proof glass.
James and Sarah paced around briefly to keep warm, then decided to go to sleep. They clambered into their sleeping bags and squirmed around to try and get comfortable. Eventually, they cuddled up to each other for extra warmth and lay still. The light went off and they were lost in total darkness.
Hours passed. Every now and then one of them rolled over because the side of their body had become numb from being pressed against the stone floor. The other one soon followed to cuddle up for extra warmth.
"I can't sleep," whispered Sarah eventually. There was a pause.
"I haven't had a wink," admitted James.
The two of them stared blankly into the blackness. "In the morning, it'll be our last day," whispered Sarah.
"I know. At last," said James, curtly.
Sarah psyched herself up to ask the uncomfortable question. "What law can we possibly break in here?"
A long pause. "What have we become?" James queried. "We're monsters. We deserve to lose our souls." James sniffed. Sarah realised that he was crying.
"It can't all be for nothing," entreated Sarah.
"Greed," choked James, "one of the Devil's specialities, isn't it? And we didn't see it. We thought we could beat the Devil at his own game. We should've known. The Devil."
Sarah thought. "You didn't believe it, did you?" she questioned.
"I don't think so," said James. "When he was there with us, playing a game with us, it seemed so stupid. So unlikely. I suppose I just played along. I never really believed he was the hoofed-and-horned fallen-angel Hell-dwelling Prince of Darkness. But now that I see what he's done to us... This was never a game. We've sold our souls to the Devil."
Sarah reflected on this briefly. "It's not how I would have pictured it," she said, simply.
They didn't exchange another word, or sleep at all, until their breakfast tray was pushed through the letterbox in the morning. For a while they just stared at it, staying cuddled up against the cold.
Once they had got up and eaten, they paced around until they were warm. The cell was so small their shoulders brushed each time they passed each other. Then they sat with their backs against the wall and their knees in their hands, facing Isaac, staring vacantly.
They didn't exchange a single word for hours. They just stared emptily forwards, thinking, condemning themselves from inside. When their supper was pushed through, they ignored it.
They had given up. Time was ebbing away, unmeasured by ticks or timetables, but they didn't care anymore. Eventually, Isaac took their supper back through the letterbox and ate it himself, then fell asleep with the light still on.
After what seemed like forever, James opened his mouth to say something. Sarah looked up at him, hopelessly.
"Goodbye, Sarah," he said.
Sarah looked at him, despair shimmering in her eyes. "Goodbye, James."
Suddenly, both of them inhaled sharply. They had both felt the same thing. A cold, black mist had entered their minds, encircling and constricting them like an invisible snake. They both heard distant, inhuman sighs, like the cry of the damned. A familiar voice reverberated in their heads.
"You have ten minutes left," echoed the disembodied voice of the Devil, "until your forty days are finished. And one crime."
"We can't do it," said Sarah out loud.
"That," said the Devil, "is up to you."
Sarah noticed a fist-sized piece of stone on the floor. It must have come loose from the walls, she thought. She swore it hadn't been there before. James looked at the stone, then looked at his sister. Sarah thought she saw a flicker of malevolence in his eyes.
"Nine minutes," echoed the Devil.
"Your world won't work, you know," said James to the empty room. "A world built on promises, I mean. Everyone breaks promises. People need rules. Laws and sanctions. People can't be trusted without them. They'll always be prone to getting their priorities wrong. Look at us after all, we're living examples."
"My world will work better than God's world. I will make it work," insisted the eerie voice in their heads. "You can't do anything about it anyway, my world is inevitable. The question now is much simpler. Will you commit your final crime and live a life beyond your wildest dreams, or will you forfeit your souls to an everlasting nightmare? Eight minutes."
"Which would you prefer?" asked Sarah with the bitterest sarcasm. The two of them sat in silence, feeling increasingly nauseous thanks to the distant wailing of the damned that was consuming their minds.
"Seven minutes," teased the Devil.
A thin shaft of light burst into James' mind. That voice. The Devil's voice. Where had he heard it last? What had it been saying?
"Come on, you coward," taunted the voice in James' head, "you're a quitter. You're not even half a man. But you can salvage yourself. All it takes is one final effort, one final blow and your soul will be redeemed."
Half a man, thought James, which made Sarah half a woman. And everyone knows two halves make a hole. If only it did. A hole for them to escape through. To run away from all this. What was it that the Devil had been saying?
"Six minutes," echoed the Devil.
Two halves make a hole. Just a pun. A physical impossibility. If only he could remember what the Devil had said. James recalled that he had thought he was going to die. He had felt so cold, and wet.
"Five minutes left," said the voice that was strangling their minds.
Wet. They had been on a boat. The Devil had been boasting about something. Two halves make a hole. A physical impossibility. Beyond the laws of physics. That's it! Forces greater than the laws of physics that would open people's minds to drugs. But it would only happen if James and Sarah broke the law one final time, of their own free will. James and Sarah had the advantage - the Devil wanted them to win, but it was up to them. The ball was in their court, and James had a game plan.
"Four minutes. There could still be a happy ending for you."
James leapt to his feet and grabbed the stone from the floor. Sarah inhaled sharply and brought her hands up to protect herself, genuinely shocked and terrified speechless.
"Devil!" demanded James. "I will not kill my sister."
Sarah kept her hands up anyway, shielding herself. The distant noise of the damned ebbed and flowed in James' head, uninterrupted by a response from the Devil.
"And she won't kill me," asserted James. "But we want to win the wager. And you want us to win too."
Sarah slowly dropped her hands and looked at James with curious desperation. James continued. "A rare opportunity for you will be missed if we fail. Thousands of years' work will go to waste. We both want to help you, and save ourselves. But we will not harm each other. We're prepared to commit a great evil, but not against our own blood."
Sarah opened her mouth to say something, her brow deeply furrowed, but she stayed silent.
"Open the door for us, Devil, and we'll kill the guard. Then we'll leave you in peace and you'll get your wish, your black hole in people's minds, so they forget that drugs are bad and learn to enjoy them instead. Isn't that what you want?"
A silence fell. The keening moans of the damned were ever more intense, but they became less a sound and more a feeling. James focussed his eyes on his reflection in the bullet proof glass.
"Open the door, Devil."
The sound of the five bolts snapping back in quick succession filled James with a sweet aura of salvation. The next sixty seconds happened in slow motion. He reached out to his sister and held her hand, helping her off the floor. Together they pushed open the heavy steel door and walked up to the sleeping guard. James raised the stone above his head.
"Isaac!" called James.
The guard awoke to see James throwing the stone on the floor, smiling a smile of blissful ecstasy. A smile that permeated his entire body and bathed him in warmth and light. The guard was terrified. How had they escaped?
James could barely see his sister's lost expression, he barely noticed the guard's piercing, predatory glare, he was barely aware of the guard pushing, kicking and shouting at them with a voice full of fear and anger. James fell to the floor, his body jerking with each vicious kick the guard delivered. He felt his sister's blood spatter over him. And still he smiled.
James and Sarah could see no more. Nor could they hear, nor taste, nor smell, nor touch. They could only feel. They felt blackness. They felt a precipice. They felt the Devil.
They felt like they were standing with their feet sticking out over a sheer cliff, a thousand miles high, in the wind. They felt cold, and stark. They were on the verge. If they moved, something terrible would happen. Worse. Below them was an all-consuming fear. Pain. Hatred. Doom. Infinity. Behind them was nothing. Like passengers in an aeroplane that is falling out of the sky. Like the sickening clicking of Russian roulette.
"It is time for your judgment," echoed the Devil. "And you have failed." The horror intensified, threatening to engulf them. James' soul resisted.
"No!" screamed James, "we have not failed!"
"You committed crimes on thirty-nine days. The wager was for forty," the Devil said. "The cosmic balance has not tipped. Drugs remain immoral. My work is wasted, my chance is gone, and therefore you have failed."
"No!" shrieked James, resisting the urge to succumb to the screeching agony, "the wager was not for forty crimes." James felt the Devil's anger growing. "We never had to commit any crimes, we only had to break the law."
The Devil's rage grew and blistered in James' soul. "You did not break any law on the last day!"
"We did, the guard knew it, he saw us do it," pleaded James.
Even as he denied it again, the Devil knew James was right. By escaping, they had performed the impossible. In the eyes of Isaac, they had broken a more fundamental kind of law than any government or court could impose. They had defied the laws of nature. The Devil had set them free by his own hand. James felt the Devil's rage explode.
"Isaac is our witness; we broke a law of physics! We broke a law each day for forty days! We win the wager whether the cosmic balance was tipped or not!" Every tiny part of James' soul was screaming. "Now practice what you preach, Devil, and keep your promise! Let us keep our souls! Let us have our lives back!"
The casino floor buzzed below. It seemed as if nobody was speaking, yet the unspoken triumphs and tragedies of the gamblers seemed deafening. And above this labyrinth of glint and glamour, James and Sarah sat next to each other at the bar, listening to the strains of Chris de Burgh's 'Spanish Train' playing in the background.
"Are we here?" asked James, tenaciously.
Sarah looked as if she was aware of herself for the first time. "Yes," she said, testing, "yes, I think we are."
They looked down at the casino floor. Something caught their eye. Something that represented a miracle of untold proportions. A newborn baby, love, a rainforest, the curve of a genuine smile, all in one. The girl with incredibly long blond hair was sitting at the poker table, laughing merrily.
The song changed. An unfamiliar song. 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia'. The Devil hadn't shown up.
"We've got it back," said Sarah. "We've got it all back."
James sighed blissfully, appreciating how clear and healthy he felt.
"I can quit my job," said James, "You can tip the police off about Randall, and save your company. Our whole lives are ahead of us. Rich, long and fruitful. They always were, you know."
"Thank God," smiled Sarah.
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