On the evening of October 27th, 1923, in London, Oliver Barlow sits behind his enormous mahogany desk, surrounded by stacks of moldering old books. The books, all relating to the occult, range from the ancient to quite recent but the titles all center on two basic themes; protection and binding. The walls of the study, once covered in shelves laden with books on all manner of topics are now covered in thaumaturgic symbols, protective circles, and incantations, the ghostly shades of the shelves still visible in the grime on the wall. The floor is a series of concentric protective pentacles inscribed in chalk, salt, and what looks to be blood. The ceiling mirrors the floor’s arcane symbology though using ash instead of salt, punctuated by a chandelier, its clear incandescent bulbs glowing an angry orange. The books that had once been weighing down shelves to the point of bowing are stacked in a way that obviously began in an organized fashion and devolved into haphazardness. A Victrola sits upon the desk, softly playing the strains of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, surrounded by a dozen clocks all ticking in perfect synch.
Finishing with one book, and obviously not having found what he was looking for, Oliver slams the tome shut and tosses it brusquely off the edge of the desk onto a growing pile on the floor. Scanning the various stacks on his desk, Oliver selects a green leather bound tome and slides it from the center of the teetering tower and places it on his slanted reading board. Flipping it open to the table of contents, he rapidly peruses the table until finding a promising entry. Turning to that page he quickly begins to read. Sweat is beading on his brow, despite the room being chill from the winter’s cold embrace. He glances at the clocks, his brow furrowing with desperate concern, bordering on terror.
“No time,” he mutters. “There’s simply no time…” Oliver returns to his reading, redoubling his efforts. “There must be something here. Something I can use.”
The electric chandelier begins to flicker, causing Oliver to sit bolt upright. It winks off, leaving the only light the two small oil lamps flanking his reading board. Suddenly the flames of the lamp flicker from orange to an icy blue, throwing the room into the colors of a moonlit night. The chandelier sways in an unseen breeze and the bulbs wink to life, again an icy blue to match the lanterns. The clocks all begin to strike midnight, their chimes bending and twisting what would otherwise be happy notes. The Victrola begins to slow its playback as if its spring has unwound. The door to the study slowly opens.
A creature of incredible darkness stands in the doorway, a living shadow. Oil smoke given form. Winking across its body are arcs of blue fire, and its eyes are bright stars blazing from deep sockets. It glances at the floor and ceiling then turns its head slightly to take in the symbols on the walls. It tilts its head quizzically.
“Oliver Barlow,” it says though it has no mouth. “It knows its time is up. Its contract was for ten years and a day. What does it think it’s doing?”
Oliver slowly slides open a desk drawer. Grabbing the talisman within he stands suddenly and brandishes it towards the creature. “Begone, daemon! You are not welcome here!”
The creature tilts its head the other direction and shrugs slightly. “So it thinks to renege on the contract, as have all the others in the past. Very well, Oliver Barlow. If resistance is what it offers, it shall be referred to The Other.”
With that the smoke loses its form and evaporates as mist in the bright morning sun and the lights return to their normal color, but the mention of this mysterious “Other” left Oliver petrified. Settling back into his chair, Oliver resumed his studies until he could no longer stay awake, passing out in his chair.
“The door was open, sir,” the manservant states plainly, a hint of disdain in his voice, “so I let myself in with your breakfast. Judith will be down later with a change of clothes, a wash basin, and to take out your night soil. Will sir be remaining in his study all day again?”
Oliver grates at Hector’s not so subtle chiding, but as the contract has expired and this “Other” has not been dealt with he could do nothing but note the slight for the future.
“Yes, Hector. I will be remaining in my study. Please return to your duties elsewhere in the house and return here at noon with some lunch and today’s newspaper,” Oliver says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Very good, sir,” Hector sniffs as he turns smartly and strides out the door.
The morning passes swiftly as Oliver returns to his research, which in turn continues to prove fruitless. He breaks to refresh himself and change clothes when Judith arrives, still mulling over possible combinations of spells, charms, and incantations that might strengthen his defenses. Judith closes the door of the study as she leaves, leaving Oliver alone with his books, his clocks, and the low calming strains of Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 9, Number 2. The music relaxes Oliver’s troubled mind for a moment and he breathes deeply before plunging back into yet another medieval text on magick and sorcery.
Lost in his research, Oliver becomes aware of polite laughter and conversation coming from outside the study. Glancing over at his clocks Oliver sees it’s just a couple of minutes until noon.
“Ah, must be Hector coming with my lunch,” Oliver thinks. “I wonder who he could be talking to, though. I can’t make out the voice.”
The door opens up and in walks Hector, tray in hand with a plate piled high with sandwiches and a jug of beer, two pint glasses stacked neatly, upside down on the neck of the jug. It is only when Hector shifts position to place the tray on the desk does Oliver notice the dapper gentleman standing at the doorway.
He was dressed smartly in a navy blue suit with an exquisite aquamarine silk waistcoat bedecked with a gold watch chain. His highly polished black shoes were topped with brilliant white spats and he stood confidently, holding a straw boater hat in his hands. Oliver blinks a couple of times, taken aback by this unannounced visitor. Suddenly the man speaks, just before Oliver starts to say something.
“Thanks, Hector, that will be all. You’re a good man, and say hello to that charming wife of yours and give that lovely daughter a big kiss from me,” the stranger says with a brilliant smile. Hector nods and walks proudly and with purpose out of the room, disappearing into the rest of the house.
The stranger, still in the doorway looks around the study. “Interesting decor you have here, Mr. Barlow,” the stranger says, still flashing his winsome smile. “So, are you gonna invite me in?”
Oliver’s eyes narrow, and he reaches into his desk for the talisman he used against the creature the night before. Stepping out from behind his desk he brandishes it again. “You are not welcome in this house, vile creature. I command you, begone!”
The stranger gives a bemused smile and a shrug. “Looks like Forcas was not lying when he said you intend to resist. When everyone you work with is a fair liar, you have to test everything.” Sighing, the stranger walks straight into the study, passing Oliver, and setting his hat on the table. The room slowly turns deathly quiet as the clocks and Victrola wind down and stop. He takes the glasses off the jug, their clinking now deafening in the eerie silence, and pours a pint of beer when he hears Oliver’s talisman clatter to the floor.
Glancing over his shoulder the stranger quips, “Pick up your jaw, Mr. Barlow. It’s unsightly for you to just stand there with your mouth agape. You’re a smart man, Oliver. Can I call you Oliver?” The stranger pauses for a moment but Oliver doesn’t reply. Shrugging, he pours a second pint and continues, “You humans are all alike. Such grand potential, but such hubris. You didn’t think ‘dark sorceries’ would work on me, did you? I am the source of those ‘dark sorceries,’ which you obviously hadn’t put together.”
The stranger, grabbing both beers turns and offers one to Oliver. Seeing that the mage is near to collapse, the stranger places the beers on the desk and helps the stunned man back into his chair. Oliver does nothing but shuffle his feet at the strangers direction and stare, lower lip quivering in terror. Returning to the opposite side of the desk, the stranger unbuttons his suit coat and prepares to sit when he stops suddenly and stands again.
“Oh, I’ve been quite rude, haven’t I? Please allow me to introduce myself. I am, of course, Lucifer, though people these days have taken to calling me Toby or Nick for some reason.” The Devil, smoothing out his suit, seats himself in one of the two guest chairs across from Oliver. “You should be proud, Oliver. I’m not known for making personal calls.”
Oliver finally musters the courage to speak, stammering out a question. “How do I know you’re truly the Devil? How do I know you’re not just some human underling?”
“A fair question, Oliver,” Lucifer nods. “I am known as Father of Lies, after all. Perhaps my friendly form is throwing you off.”
Suddenly the stranger is a seven foot tall grotesque fly, dripping with filth. Oliver attempts to scream but is overcome by the stench of filth and decay and retches. Gathering himself, Oliver looks up and now sees a man with the head of a goat, the wings of a raven, and the naked breasts of a woman seated before him before returning to the form of a man of wealth and taste.
Straightening his tie, the Devil affects a bemused smile. “Beelzebub for the shock value and Baphomet for the familiarity. Always a classic combination. Sadly, these are actually not my true form, but the forms of some lieutenants of mine.” He takes on a wistful look as he pauses to consider his next statement. “People know me by many names,” he continues, “but most of those are somebody else, actually. Asmodeus finds that quite amusing.”
“It’s that hubris thing again,” he says, waving his hand dismissively, “You demonologists are constantly yammering about summoning the Devil. I’m a very busy person and not at the beck and call of every self-styled sorcerer who can draw a circle and read an incantation.” Satan leans forward, grabs his glass and takes a slug from his beer, chuckling in mild amusement. “I swear that God gave Gutenberg the idea of the printing press not so much as to spread the Word but to make it so every pissant witch and warlock with delusions of adequacy can try calling on me. So I dispatch underlings to deal with your petty requests. Why else would I have so many lieutenants and legions of lesser demons and devils? But everybody assumes that they’re some all powerful wizard and have conjured up and tamed the Devil himself. It’s an assumption I’m all too fine with letting people make, though. Keeps them out of my hair.”
Lucifer takes another sip and beckons Oliver to do likewise. The terrified man timidly reaches out and grabs the beer with both hands to steady it and takes a sip. Satan smiles.
“Excellent. Much more civilized, wouldn’t you agree?”
The would be mage nods meekly.
“Where was I?” the Devil asks himself, looking upward. “Oh yes, summoning. I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Oliver. Those rules you magick types study about calling and controlling demons? They only work on two principles; the individual power of the mage, and that the being summoned isn’t me. I made up those rules so I have a way to get my little scamps under control should they plot against me. Which they are always doing, by the way. I’m so proud sometimes.”
Satan grabs a sandwich from the tray and starts to take a bite then stops short. “I’m getting ahead of myself again. You don’t mind if I have a couple of these, do you? The trip from Pandemonium to here is so taxing.”
Oliver nods again.
“Very civil of you, sir,” the Devil says just before taking an enormous bite and washing it down with a swallow of beer. “These are so good, you know? You’re really lucky that Hector’s wife Rosalie is such a good cook.” He takes another bite of his sandwich with relish. “Shame her marriage is so loveless, given that she dotes on Hector who returns the favor by buggering your laundress Milly’s twelve year old daughter.”
Oliver blinks in shock at the statement. “What!?
Lucifer smiles. “Oh, don’t be so surprised, Oliver. It’s all a part of the little game between Yahweh and I. I know what evil lurks in the heart of men, what they’re willing to do. I don’t ever make people do evil, the capacity for that is a part of the dichotomy of free will. A weakness in God’s design of humanity, one could say. I don’t make people do evil directly, but I can see it in people’s souls. Read the stains like Chinese fortune tellers read the tea leaves.”
Oliver’s eyes narrow slightly as if he’s mulling something over before he speaks, “You know the hearts of men and what they’ll do. Does that mean you see their future?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” the Devil shakes his head. He takes another bite of sandwich before continuing his reply. “I see you’re still puzzled by the nature of my game. The Father set up the board and the pieces. He then set the rule of free will, which I have to follow. He is God, after all. I can make changes to the board but, unless given permission from the Him I cannot directly move or attack the pieces because that would violate the rules. It would be so simple to just eliminate problem pieces from the board by forcing other pieces to do my evil bidding, but the Lord won’t have it that way and neither would I.”
“I see,” Oliver says. “So you can’t harm me directly. I could just walk out of here and you could do nothing?”
“Nonsense, my dear Mr. Barlow,” Lucifer laughs. “You made a contract with me, or more accurately with my representative. That contract gives me free reign to drag you kicking and screaming down to Hell and do with you as I please. But you’ll notice I didn’t make you sign any deal. You gave up your safety and your soul of your own free will.” The Devil pops the last bit of sandwich into his mouth.
Oliver reaches for the plate and grabs a sandwich for himself and offers another to Satan.
“Thank you kindly, Oliver,” the Devil says, taking a bite. “The way I play is by seeing potential outcomes. I see a person’s deepest nature and based on that I instantly know the likelihood of each possible reaction of the individual and then can extrapolate how the target of the reaction will respond. Think of it like chess. The best players know their opponent through study, gauge how they would react to various situations, and plot many moves ahead. It’s a constant series of moves and counters. With all humanity at this given moment I’m dozens if not hundreds of moves ahead.”
“So you’re omniscient if not omnipresent, then?” Oliver asks, taking a longer and more confident swallow of beer.
“Not in the slightest. I must constantly adapt. I often come across people so set in their ways, for good or evil, that I simply discount them and leave them to their own devices unless involved directly in something I want to accomplish. They aren’t worth the effort to monitor as they will always behave for the maximal good or evil. Others could be swayed to one extreme or the other by minor changes in their circumstances, but they don’t have the capacity for effecting great change one way or the other by a shift in their nature. Involving them in any of my machinations is of little overall benefit. But others can, if given a push, commit the basest of atrocities or acts of the rarest charity and noblest spirit. It is these that interest me.”
Satan finishes his sandwich and washes it down with the last of his beer before noticing Oliver’s dubious look.
“I’ll give you an example. Pontius Pilate was a typical patrician from Rome. He viewed his appointment to govern Judea as a slap in the face, rather than a desirable position of status. Judea was literally considered the anus of the Mediterranean part of the Empire.” Lucifer places his glass on the desk and pours himself another beer. “I knew of his dissatisfaction of the position, his distaste for Judeans and their petty squabbles, and how generally bored and tired of the rebellious nature of the province he was. So in the end, I didn’t have to do anything to nudge him along in condemning the Nazarene. The greatest likelihood from the trial was that death sentence, granted only to get the Pharisees out of his hair. So an event that was assumed to be me directly making Pilate decide that way isn’t the way it happened. I did nothing and got my wish.”
“Intriguing. So how does your power as the Prince of Darkness come into play?” Oliver asks probingly.
“Ah, I was getting to that. Now, what was unlikely to happen was for Pilate to also release Barabbas who was a great agent of upheaval and chaos in that region, not to mention a personal favorite piece on the board. That required me to plant the suggestion of him as a potential candidate for the traditional prisoner release in conversation with the Pharisees, but nothing more. They seized on that message like a spark in fine tinder and fanned it into a wildfire all on their own.”
“But it was by the death of Christ and His resurrection that the Church was founded,” Oliver says, bluntly. “Wouldn’t you consider that an overall loss?”
The Devil’s eyes flash an angry red for a moment and he winces at the mage’s jibe. “Well, like I said, I’m not omniscient or omnipresent. And to be fair, the Church was struggling at the beginning until the Son showed himself to Saul of Tarsus and changed the game. A Divine intervention wasn’t likely so it was unplanned for. Case in point, the situation with Hector and Milly’s daughter Emily. Without direct influence from the Almighty or another unlikely source the odds are nearly 100% that Emily will hang herself from the shame of what Hector has been doing to her within a week. This is a nigh certain outcome, one of great evil, and one I don’t have to lift a finger to influence.”
Oliver retracts in revulsion.
Satan smiles gleefully. “Just think of it, Emily dies, her mother retreats within herself and despairs, losing the will to live, her marriage falls apart and she grows old and bitter, cursing God and I both for her misfortune. Hector, having been outed for the fiend he is by Emily’s suicide note is arrested and sent to prison where he will be promptly murdered as soon as his penchant for child buggery becomes known. Rosalie and her daughter Jessica are forever tainted for simply being related to a monster, shunned by society. And with your sudden disappearance, Rosalie and Judith both find themselves without employment. Rosalie ends up in the poorhouse because she can’t get a decent job as nobody will hire the wife of that monster and dies penniless and brokenhearted. Jessica ends up an uneducated waif on the streets. Judith, on the other hand, gets a job cleaning for a well established business man in short order who takes her as a mistress because of her beauty, impregnates her with his bastard child, then puts her out on the street at the behest of his shrew wife, never to acknowledge the child. Such a delicious cascade of misfortune and I just get to sit and watch it happen.”
The would be mage squirms uncomfortably in his chair, struggling to come up with some kind of reply, anything.
The glee flees from Lucifer’s face, replaced with an expression of begrudging appreciation. “But now that I have mentioned this to you, if I do not take steps to remove you from the equation the odds of this occurring are reducing slowly.”
Oliver is visibly shaken by this. “So, you torment me by telling me this knowing full well you have come to drag my soul to Hell, therefore I cannot act. You truly are a monster.”
The Devil smiles, “Flattery, while appreciated, will get you nowhere. Of course I am a monster, but I am not also without a twisted sense of honor. Whether or not you get to act to save Emily, much less on your own lustful leanings towards your maid, Judith, is up to how you handle yourself in the next few minutes or so. It’s been ten years and a day since your wife’s tragic death, hasn’t it, Oliver?”
Oliver’s eyes narrow, his anger stirring despite his fear. “I didn’t say I wanted her dead, you bastard.”
The Devil feigns a look of incredulity. “What? Forcas was only giving you what you asked for in the most efficient manner possible. You made the cardinal mistake of not being specific enough. As they say, ‘The Devil is in the details.'” He takes a smooth sip from his beer. “You wanted extraordinary wealth and my minion gave you just that.”
Oliver seethes, “But it was not what I wanted!”
“The fact that she had come into an inherited a fortune earlier that week that you didn’t know of is not my affair. It was the most expedient path to grant your request, so that was the path chosen,” the Devil said brusquely, taking on a lawyerly air.
“But you can’t act directly against the pieces! You cheated when you killed her!” Oliver screams, standing up in righteous indignation.
“I did no such thing!” the Devil shouts. “Forcas knew that to keep his schedule the driver of the delivery van would run the stop signal where your Anna always crossed at 10AM. He merely made him late with a flat tire. The delivery man is who killed Anna. We only arranged their meeting.”
Oliver stands, leaning slightly forward on the balls of his feet. His arms are down, but away from his sides, his hands clenching into fists.
“It is regrettable that Anna died. You married a thoughtful and kind woman, one of the ones I tended to ignore. One who could have kept you from falling, had you let her. You know, it was out of love for you that she was waiting to the end of the week to tell you about it as a birthday surprise.”
Oliver staggers back a step and collapses into his chair. “What?” He mutters quietly.
Satan looks somber for just a moment. “Forcas asked me for advice on how to grant your request and your wife’s death seemed simplest. It wasn’t until after Forcas arranged your wife’s accident that I took a look at your files.”
Oliver sheds silent tears, his face a rictus of defeat, despair, and hatred.
Lucifer looks on Oliver almost sympathetically, “Oh, I audit deals of such magnitude as yours randomly and it was then I saw the image of your Anna’s soul. It was so bright it almost hurt to look at, but there was one small blemish. A secret, one that pained her to keep. I love secrets and couldn’t help but pry, and there it was. It was her desire to surprise you with the news of the end to your financial problems and the beginning of a fresh start and happy life together.”
Oliver begins to sob, bitterly, “I loved her more than anything, more than even my own soul. I only tried to strike this bargain to give her everything her heart desired, everything she deserved.” The realization that it was his fault she died wracks him with another spate of guilt ridden sobs.
“What she desired and deserved was you. And had you been patient, or had a tenth of the faith in Jehovah of your wife, you wouldn’t have tried the dark path and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Human existence is filled to the brim with regrets of the what might have been. But there is still hope. I do feel you deserve some sort of consideration for how your contract was carried out, particularly since I suggested to Forcas how to fulfill it. He’s not quite that diabolical…” The Devil chuckles at his inappropriate pun before becoming serious again. “”I am going to give you an opportunity to get out of your contract, free and clear.”
Oliver raises his tear-streaked face, a look of confusion upon his face.
“I am neither kind, nor magnanimous, Oliver,” the Devil says in a soft voice. “But I am not without sympathy. I know what it’s like to have the feeling of deep, abiding love ripped from me…” The Devil turns away from Oliver for a moment, lost in reflection. “I make you this offer. This is a one time deal. If you refuse it, I will take you to Hell with me and that will be that. If you take it, you’ll be free and clear. I will release your soul back to you and you can do with it what you wish. I’ve even given you your first chance to start redeeming yourself to Him.”
“What is your offer?” Oliver asks in a monotone voice, drained of emotion.
“Your book business will take you to Munich in early November, will it not?”
Oliver’s quizzical expression betrays his confusion. “Yes. Yes, it will. Why?”
Lucifer produces a fountain pen and a small piece of paper and begins writing. “Book trader is a fine cover for one interested in the occult. I’m impressed by its subtlety and genius. But, I digress. I want you to deliver a package to the leader of the Kampfbund in Munich at this address.” He reaches into his coat pocket and removes a small book and places it on the desk.
Oliver picks up the book and looks at the title. “My German is a little rusty but this says ‘Foundations of the Nineteenth Century’ by Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Certainly not a German author, though. Not with that name.” He flips open the cover and on the title page notices an inscription, again in German. “Signed by the author, apparently. ‘To A. Your movement is powerful and necessary. Do not let the pretenders push you out. Act swiftly for the sake of all Germany. Best of Luck, H.S. Chamberlain.” Oliver, sensing a trap, frowns, “So what’s the catch? What’s your game?”
“You are right not to blindly trust me,” Lucifer smiles. “Suffice it to say I need to give a piece a nudge. I will not tell you more. You say yes, deal with Hector and stop Emily’s suicide, deliver the book to Munich, and work to redeem your soul from this incident with Judith at your side. You say no, I drag you to Hell, Emily kills herself, Hector is murdered in prison, Rosalie and Judith are out of a job, Rosalie and Jessica both go on to die a pauper’s death, and Judith does the same but with a bastard child around her neck.”
“That’s not much of a choice,” Oliver frowns.
“Au contraire, Monsieur Barlow,” the Devil chides. “You have options. That the choice is difficult is not my concern. After all, there’s a reason why they call it ‘a Devil’s bargain.’ You have one minute. Yes or no.”
Oliver looks down for a moment and utters a quiet, “Yes.”
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith
And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
“Sympathy For The Devil”