[On the deck of a floating casino, Betty – a 66 year old housewife –is being propositioned by the gorgeous Randi, her new and highly uncanny hairdresser.]
“So what do you want, Randi? My soul?”
“Exactly.” said a strangely rough voice, speaking from behind and above her somewhere.
Turning uncertainly, Betty forced a smile. “To burn in eternal hellfire??
“Isn’t that the usual deal?”
Below them, Betty imagined the black river, visible only in the trapped moonlight of its satiny ripples. The insistent slap of water against the boat’s sides was comforting. Quiet.
“Hellfire.” she repeated. “Give me a minute to think about that.”
But wait. Wait, wait, she thought. I must be incredibly drunk to be standing here on a seedy gambling boat discussing selling my soul to a hairdresser.
Somewhere far behind her, a door opened briefly and the slots’ seductive bells clanged and faded and Betty remembered Randi’s repellant, charred finger. She felt sick. This was real.
Folding both arms across her bosom, she tucked her hands into her armpits. It was bitter here, where was her coat? She wanted to go home, she needed to go home.
“You’re not really the devil, are you, Randi?”
The surrounding envelope of dark thickened for a prolonged moment and Betty smelled burning hair and thought she heard singing. Opera, was it? An intense pink flash bloomed in the night and in that moment of sickly illumination, Betty realized that Randi wasn’t standing in front of or behind her at all. She wasn’t leaning on the rail. She was gone. Betty was alone.
Bewildered, she peered around her, looked toward the stairs leading to the deck above and, feeling a little foolish, over the railing. Edging carefully back towards the bright casino windows, she searched the room for that brilliant red hair. Nothing. Turning away, perplexed but relieved, Betty sensed something moving beside her. She spun to her left and saw on the deserted deck an enormous black hound. It was just a few feet away, and in the moonlight’s blanched eye, she had time to note only its lustrous ebony hair and the bright scarlet ribbons on its neck, notched ends trailing at its feet. The dog stalked towards her, stiff-legged. Its tail was rigid and erect. Its gums were bared. Its throaty snarl spiked her to the spot.
“Is this you, Randi? Is it you?”
She could see the huge animal clearly now: its black lips hung with skeins of spittle, its eyes were scorched coals. It was so near she could smell its breath. Raw sewage. Offal. Rot. The black dog stopped before her, whining and thrusting its grotesque muzzle towards her chest. Terrible and beautiful like a shark’s, a double row of teeth leaped for her face as black ice splintered in her breast. Then, suddenly, the monster dog just sat. It shook its head hard, back and forth, and spittle flew through the freezing gloom. Its long ears snapped. The wind whipped the ribbons through its legs. And she saw it was laughing. At her.
Betty asked again, her voice scraping her throat.
“Is this you, Randi?”
“I believe you, if it is. Really. I believe you.” She felt the cold of the railing at her back, and a child’s small voice, her own: “Can I go home now?”
The animal stood once more, shook itself all over, rose up on its giant hind legs, elongated, and effortlessly, changed. Its body re-formed itself and grew. Its ebony fur melted and dissolved into the familiar coppery hair; the white fangs dwindled and dropped into two neat incisors in Randi’s smiling mouth. Dressed in that slim red skirt and revealing blouse, its voice – not Randi’s - enquired:
“What do you think now, Betty darling?”
“You’re a devil.” Betty answered shakily. “Or something. You’ve got, well, powers, too.” Incredibly, she heard her voice grow stronger. “But, Randi, I’ve got to tell you something. Here’s the thing. . . . I’ve never believed in souls, really. Or Hell.”
She marveled at her nerve, her self-possession. She hadn’t actually known she’d thought that. She must be drunk. What presumption! How was she still standing here?
“On top of that” – oh, god, there’s more, Betty thought__ “I don’t believe in boiling pits of hellfire or horned demons. I don’t know why. I don’t. I hope you’re not angry.”
It was too dark to see. Her voice seemed to continue on without her.
“And though you may actually be a devil, Randi, the Devil, even_ if I do have a soul, and I’m not sure I do – it probably won’t end up in Hell. ”
Betty took a lung-filling breath, astounded at herself, let alone expressing unsuspected opinions to this hallucination she was obviously having. Where was all this coming from? Ever since this morning, she’d been leaking secrets.
The voice in the darkness turned to a growl, not female or male.
“Ha! You don’t believe in Hell, Betty, after Man – precious Man - has spent so many centuries inventing it, creating it, fleshing it out, so to speak? Painting it in rude and loving detail? Happily enlarging upon its juicy eternal torments? Lecturing at altars and in the – what’s that word? – media__ on its imminence? Relishing it. Rolling in it. Selling it. And you, Betty Goodman, aren’t convinced? Where’s your imagination, kiddo? Your sense of Sin?”
Betty shrank away from the violence and scorn, and almost lost her balance at the rail. She found the presence of mind to hold on, however. To stop. To think.
“I don’t seem to have one, I guess”, she answered weakly. “Well, sin, yes. I’ve sinned now and then. But not really Sinned, I don’t think. Probably not in your sense of the word.”
Made giddy by her own audacity, she stopped, just as a bird - or was it a bat? – swooped darkly across the water behind her. And she was soaring, wasn’t she? Going toe to toe with the Devil here. Expressing opinions – she had opinions! - on eternal verities.
The voice in the darkness became curiously conversational.
“To tell you the truth”, it said almost thoughtfully, “I haven’t found my old Hell and those old Sins to be altogether satisfactory for a few millenia now. That’s why I’ve started offering designer hells, custom tailored to each and every soul and that soul’s own sins. I’ve been tinkering with the concept for the last couple of centuries. What do you think?”
“What do you mean, custom-tailored?” Betty asked.
“Oh, you know. For English speakers under fifty, for example, every ‘fuck’ will need to be replaced by a four-syllable word. Conservative newscasters will be condemned to interview perky gay men for eternity. Damned writers will find themselves forced in perpetuity to add six or more adverbs to every single sentence. Facebook addicts will be condemned to friendless solitude forever. Like that. But it’s all beside the point, isn’t it.” That huge voice boomed in Betty’s ear. “Let’s get to this now. What do you say, Betty. Want to make a deal?”