There’s a market for just about everything when you get right down to it. People sell cars, kidneys and corneas. Though seldom legally and not always their own. Time, integrity and credibility – there’s a market for all of these; sad reflections of supply, demand, desperation and greed. You could even put a price on even the kind of goods that governments hadn’t paid much attention to since the Inquisition gave religion a bad name.
Toby took another swig from the bottle of Cristal 2008, wondering if Louis Roederer had made the same deal he had. The stuff was so good.
“It’s high enough, if that’s what you’re planning. And you are.”
He flinched – the too familiar voice was reassuring in all the wrong ways.
“What are you doing here, Leza?”
“My job, Toby. I’m doing my job.” The olive-skinned young woman separated Toby from the bottle, sipped and handed it back. “Over chilled, but one must make allowances.”
She’d brought two more bottles with her and placed them on the ground a safe distance from the edge. Dom Perignon and Bollinger. Vintage, of course.
Leza smiled, exposing perfect teeth and a delight in his too-late awareness. But it was the eyes that made Toby shiver. Even in the moonlight the emerald-green irises and the vertical slits of a predator were unmistakable.
“Dibs on the car if you go through with it. Though the odds are you won’t.”
If Toby looked back over his shoulder, he’d be able to see his yellow Murcielago parked illegally in the bus stop. When he didn’t say anything, she asked what he was thinking about. “I wish … I wish I’d read some of the classics at school … it’s bit late for that now, isn’t it?”
She asked if anything in particular had caught his attention. It was a rhetorical question and they both knew it. The wind played with Leza’s wavy black hair. It was hard but he managed to pull free from the temptation.
“Nice view,” she tried a more conventional conversational gambit.
Indeed, the view from Cape D’Aguilar overlooking the South China Sea was very nice. Toby wasn’t the only nocturnal visitor. Couples holding hands and gazing at the full moon or watching huge container ships entering or leaving the Fragrant Harbour. A bearded man with a big tripod and a bigger camera searching for an image he could call his own. An addict pushing a needle into his arm. The junky was in a better mental place than Toby.
Eventually, Toby told Leza he could have learned something from the experience of the good Doctor Faust but literature was never his strong point; he was more of a Minecraft and cocaine kind of guy. At least he had been until the great seduction of ’06.
Leza dropped the pretence she wasn’t getting it. She understood the Faustian reference better than any English literature professor. Of course she did. “So, you made a deal with the Devil?”
“Yeah, though more like with his sales force.”
“I didn’t force you to agree to anything – ”
“But you made it so damn hard to say ‘no’.”
She seemed amused. Irritated too. Toby tried a more direct approach. “Have you tried living without a soul?”
“You’d know if you had. The worst part is the emptiness.”
Leza must be thinking Toby was a few clowns short of a circus. With Tanya off shopping in Milan he could do as he pleased with his nights. Such was the nature of deals with the Devil – scrupulous adherence to the terms of the contract. Along with everything else, Leza had even given him the body and sexual stamina of a man two decades younger than his official forty-three. And the ethics of an alley cat.
“You’ve heard of a Faustian bargain?”
“A strange tale though not entirely accurate. It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who made the deal. With one of my brothers if you must know. When Goethe realised what he’d done, he wrote the story of Doctor Faust and tacked the bit on the end about getting out of the deal on a technicality. I suggested it, giving him and every other gullible fool who read the story false hope.” The grin spreading across Leza’s face made her look like a mischievous child. She was serious again in an instant. “When you work for the big guy we always deliver on our side of the bargain. We always collect too.”
“A lot of people mispronounce my name. Leza’s not hard but they will insist on calling me Lisa. You were one of the few who got it right from the beginning.”
Toby said nothing for there was nothing to say. No matter how superficially wonderful the rest of his human life, he would spend it anticipating an eternity of damnation. Far too late, Google had led Toby to the truth. Rather than give her the satisfaction of a big reveal, Toby spoke next.
“Leza? Let me guess, Lezabel?” Another rhetorical question. The night was full of them. He polished off the last of the Cristal.
Leza picked up one of the new bottles, Dom Perignon this time. Careful not to shake it, she removed the capsule and loosened the muselet. The cork made a satisfying pop as it came free. After taking the first mouthful she passed him the bottle.
“The wonders of the Internet. Used to be a time when people would spend weeks pouring over dusty books in the library to get to the same point.”
Toby drank deeply and let her talk.
“Succubus if you must know.”
To himself he conceded that sex with Leza had been good, mind-blowingly good, but it had been a one-time deal. Once she had his name on the contract there was nothing else she wanted from him. So she’d disappeared leaving Toby to rattle around Hong Kong getting rich, getting laid and not getting the important shit until too late.
“They all say that but I’ve never understood what you mean by –”
“Emptiness? It’s like a part of me is no longer here, that … I’m no longer touching life.”
He picked up the empty bottle and tossed it into the night, unable to tell if he’d pitched it far enough to reach the ocean instead of the jumbled rocks at the base of the cliff. “I could have walked out. I should have. But, if I recall correctly, Faust escaped.”
The sound of the bottle hitting the rocks was lost in the noise of the surf breaking against the land.
Toby sat down on a flat piece of stone. The night breeze took the edge off the summer heat and humidity making it quite pleasant until Leza squeezed her perfect body in beside him. Now he cringed from the contact he’d once craved.
“You know what Camus said. That famous quote of his?”
Toby didn’t, so she told him.
“Guess I’ve got that one solved then.”
“Being bitter won’t change anything.”
“Why do you care?”
She was silent for so long he thought she was going to refuse to answer. “Care? I don’t care for you. Of course I don’t. You’re just another greedy selfish human, another project, but I do care about my reputation. And my boss’s. We deliver. All the things you were promised you’ve got and will continue getting right up until the end. It’s bad for business if people decide not to hang around long enough to collect in full.”
That was pretty cold and he said so.
“Says the man who took twenty percent off the earthquake relief fund as an ‘administration fee’.”
“I’d give it all away for a new deal.”
She laughed then, peal after peal of delighted amusement following the late bottle into the night.
“The boss doesn’t do refunds. It’s not like the contract comes with a cooling off period – once you’ve signed on the dotted line it’s a done deal.”
“Faust got out of his bargain.” Toby came back to that, clinging to the illusion of hope. “I don’t suppose you’d tell me how. The story was short on detail.”
“I’ve already told you. Goethe was bullshitting when he wrote that nonsense about Faust getting into heaven – it was just a ruse to get more people to sign their afterlife away. Leaving the skybayers with a delusion that piety will save them. Works too,” she said with a quick grin. “Watching people scramble for false hope is entertaining, though it gets tiresome listening to lawyers trying to pick the contracts apart.”
Her phone pinged and Toby caught a glimpse of a happy face emoji. After reading the message Leza directed Toby to look further along the cliff to the southeast. He turned just in time to watch someone take a step into emptiness. The man didn’t scream on the way down and he definitely didn’t clear the boulders. The mess would have been horrible but Toby’s thoughts were on the not-woman he was sitting hip to hip with.
“How did you –”
“Andariel. One my sisters. It’s always good to see the family handiwork. Reminds me why I’m alive but she’ll be boasting about it for weeks.”
“So why aren’t you –”
“Giving you a metaphorical push? Not my style. Not ethical either.”
“An ethical demon.”
“Succubus,” she reminded him. “Demons are something else as you’ll find out eventually. Or sooner if you choose.”
Toby thought Leza would walk away after she’d enjoyed his misery and look for another soul to harvest. He wasn’t expecting so much as a smile or a backward glance. Why would she waste time on a man whose humanity had already been reaped?
“Faust wasn’t lucky. He was fiction, Toby. Fictional characters don’t go to Hell, but you will. You can take the leap and make the trip now or hang around enjoying yourself until your liver calls it quits. Your call. I won’t stop you but you’ll be missing out on whatever pleasure you can wring out of your remaining existence on this side. There’s no compensation on the other.”
Having done the research, Toby knew that ‘Faust’ meant ‘fortunate one’. The punch-in-the-gut irony wasn’t lost on him. Toby could pray for the nothingness of metempsychosis when his heart stopped but everything he’d learned suggested that would be a waste of whatever time was left to him.
“Jump if you want. If you don’t care nobody else will. So go ahead, make the journey a bit sooner, but think about what you’re leaving behind.”
And he did. All those zeros at the bottom of the bank statement, the mansion on the Peak, the Swan yacht at Monaco, the trophy wife, trophy mistresses in three cities and all the rest of that shit … But they didn’t mean much. He was rattling around in a gilded cage, going though the motions. He’d traded away the only thing he could take with him beyond the grave for trinkets.
They sat watching the full moon sliding its way across the night sky until the last bottle was empty. When he got up she followed him back down the hillside to the waiting car.
“Give me a lift?” Leza was slipping into the bucket seat and rearranging the rest of the bottles before he could tell her to get lost. As he stabbed the ignition button, she put on some music; AC/DC. “My theme song,” she shouted.
Toby loved the roar of the 6.5 litre V12. And the kick as he was pushed back into the hand-stitched leather seat. Even more, Leza’s squeal of delight as he accelerated through the corner aiming straight at the retaining wall.
At least the wretched succubus wouldn’t be getting his car.
Simon Berry is a recovering lawyer who calls Hong Kong home. His short stories have been published in CultureCult, Mystery Tribune, MetaStellar and numerous Hong Kong Writers Circle Anthologies. His novels A Wasting Asset, and A Debt To Pay are available on Amazon. He is working on his next novel.