The devil went down to London to bargain for a human heart. Now the devil may be made up of smoke, deep pressed malice and spite and greed, and his own heart may be quite different to our own, but he still needs the uncorrupted beat of the human organ to feed the hungers of hell.
The hearts of children, of course, are useless. They still beat outside their bodies, in the milky warmth of their parents’ approval and the bright traces of play. The devil requires a heart that has fully taken root.
The devil still uses the crossroads as the venue for his bargains. And what greater crossroads could there be than London, where so many paths meet and divide on their way to a better future? So the devil polished his horns, smoothed down his best waistcoat and set off toward the city with a whistle.
By the first night, things were looking bleak for the devil. He’d searched among the skyscrapers of Bank and Canary Wharf, but he met with no success. The hearts of the stockbrokers and the lawyers already beat outside their bodies, in the promise of next year’s bonus and a five-bed house on Hampstead heath.
He’d searched among the stalls of Camden market and the cafes of Soho, but he’d had no luck there either. The hearts of the artists beat outside their bodies too, in the dream of their own names backlit over a stage door, or displayed in the bookshop window.
Things didn’t improve as he cast his net wider. So many hearts beating elsewhere, in the space between message and reply; or in the envelope stuffed with worn ten pound notes put towards next month’s rent.
The devil was perturbed. His fine moustache began to droop, and his usually jaunty tail grew quite limp. He didn’t know how he would be able to hold his head up on his return if he did not bring hell back up to quota. He’d be the laughing stock of the other demons. It was not beyond the realms of possibility that Beelzebub may start eyeing his position.
But then, quite unexpectedly, the devil got a break. The place in Shoreditch billed itself as a bar, but it looked more like a living room from somewhere in the ‘70s. There was soft jazz playing over carefully hidden speakers, and hardly any customers. She served elaborately prepared cocktails, and told a story about each one. Her stories were delivered with complete sincerity and focus: each was a tiny gift for you, and you alone.
The devil saw her heart, pulsing red inside her chest. He felt a subtle shift, as the compacted fog within him sensed its beat.
On the second night he talked to her as she closed up. The devil is good at asking the questions that make you itch. What did she want in life? She shrugged. She patched together a living from work in admin and bars and front of house. It would never set the world alight, but it kept the wolf from the door, and gave her time to draw. She lived on a creaking houseboat in Ealing. It was snug, and she had to keep an eye on the generator and the damp, but she found the air off the river soothing, the rent was cheap and the neighbours liked to play the fiddle and melodeon in the evenings. She would often join them and listen, and sometimes she’d sing.
Love? Well, she hoped she’d find the right soul one day. But for now she had plenty of friends, and she was happy enough to keep an open mind and see what the future held.
How about family? Her face clouded. Her parents had provided for her brother the best they could, really. The home offered lots of classes – painting and music and movement – and sometimes they went on outings. She saw him every week. They were really very lucky.
The devil felt an unfamiliar sensation. Something loosening in his own body, starting to split and crackle. He felt ever so slightly blurred, as if he were being faintly smudged in thumbprints around the edges. He absentmindedly stroked his pointed beard. It had to be relief: he’d found his hook.
On the third night the devil was ready to make a deal. He studied his reflection carefully in the mirror on the back of the door of his fourth-rate business hotel room, looking himself right in the goat-slit eye.
The devil arrived early, and spent some time studying his own crimson cheekbones in the glass doors before they opened. His hooves clicked on the floorboards as he made his way across the room.
She looked up at him and smiled, and the devil knew that it was time. He didn’t feel a thing as he raised a sharp, shining claw and reached in for the smoke-stained heart that turned slowly in his own chest. It left a trail of deep blue as he leaned across the counter and held it out to her.
The devil thought he knew everything there was to know about the torments of hell. But an eternity of racks and beds of nails had nothing on these stretching, tearing seconds, as he watched her face for a sign that she would accept his offering.
Katy Naylor lives by the sea, in a little town on the south coast of England. She writes stories, poems and text adventure games in the time that falls through the cracks. Current and forthcoming publications include Not Deer Mag, The Bear Creek Gazette and The Daily Drunk.