>Part Two of the blog serial “Quantum Demonology”.
Even on rainy, wretched Wednesdays, not even Purgatory lasted forever. My personal purgatory – which I dubbed ‘my job’ – was work, that perpetual curse of the thinking classes.
After Purgatory came the purge – my little sanity-saving ritual at the end of the workday. I stripped off my work clothes, took off my face, and became my unvarnished, uncensored self.
So I parked in my own overstuffed forties armchair, collapsed into a baby elephant-sized pink velour tracksuit and idly wondered if it would be tonight I made inroads into the BBC production of “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”.
That might be too ambitious. I could read. Not two feet away, I had Neal Stephenson’s “The Baroque Cycle”, Reik’s “Masochism in Modern Man”, “Nietzsche for Dummies”, “Intermediate Demonology”, the “Malleus Maleficarum” and the “Photoshop Wow!Book.” I am nothing if not eclectic. Nothing beat reading misguided Freudians in the bathtub. “All pathological implications of masochism aside…”
I reached for the “Malleus Maleficarum” and opened it to a random page.
What sort of Women are found to be above all Others Superstitious and Witches.
As to our second inquiry, what sort of women more than others are found to be superstitious and infected with witchcraft; it must be said, as was shown in the preceding inquiry, that three general vices appear to have special dominion over wicked women, namely, infidelity, ambition, and lust. Therefore they are more than others inclined towards witchcraft, who more than others are given to these vices. Again, since of these vices the last chiefly predominates, women being insatiable, etc., it follows that those among ambitious women are more deeply infected who are more hot to satisfy their filthy lusts; and such are adulteresses, fornicatresses, and the concubines of the Great.
Infidelity. Ambition. Lust. Women being insatiable, etc. I was so freaked, I slammed the book shut and dropped it like a hot potato on the table.
Faust was a scholar. I was a lowly graphic artist employed in the lower reaches of that Stygian abyss of human creativity known as advertising, and although I had indeed dabbled in Wicca a long time ago, that did not make me a witch. But I was ambitious – for my writing. I knew it was something I could do and something I wanted to do more than anything else in the world. With one exception.
C’mon. Who was I kidding?
‘It follows that those among ambitious women are more deeply affected who are more hot to satisfy their filthy lusts…’
I didn’t know of any other kind worth satisfying, or even any other kind of woman worth being.
Right on cue, my cellphone lit up.
Please. No disasters tonight.
It was a text message from Number Unknown.
“Meet me @Tora Sushi@8 PM. Asmodeus.”
Not the band, since they weren’t touring these days. I’m the kind of woman who keeps on top of these things. A certain kind of guy goes for that.
I wondered ever since that night at the Crossroads Café. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. Except that I had been writing like a woman possessed ever since, just, you know, in case something did.
Ah, man. Right when I needed a night off, this happens.
It was 6 PM. It was Tora Sushi. Haute sushi and frozen nitrogen desserts.
The things I will do for sashimi.
Wrap dress, vertiginous boots, a potent dose of lust potion. Kissproof lipstick, my best and laciest underwear. Attitude, any woman can tell you, is all in the underwear.
Hope springs eternal.
At 8:05 PM, I was shown to a front table set for two, trying to look as if I weren’t trying too hard on a first date. I had no idea what or even who to expect, so when I saw the stranger sitting at the table, I was almost overwhelmed.
No man should look so good in low lighting. It makes us poor, paltry women feel so shabby. He was tall, blond, wearing a suit that could only be Italian tailoring, the kind that hung on the body like a Yeats poem in air, the kind that knew how to dance across the shoulders and give women ideas, even women like me who preferred the armor of jeans and tattoos and leather and that heated blood beneath it all.
Smooth as silk, he rose to his feet as I approached the table.
“Darling!” he exclaimed. “You look edible!”
“Thank you – darling.” He pulled out my chair, I sat down.
I waited until the waiter had left with our orders before I continued.
“You’re not Asmodeus.” How I knew, I couldn’t say, but I did. It wasn’t his boss, either. I would have known him anywhere. Blindfolded, deaf and gagged.
“No.” He laughed, an easy, laid-back, California laugh. “Asmodeus’ curiosity will just have to kill him a little longer. He’s – indisposed. So the Boss sent me instead. Speaking of whom, the Boss sends his regards. He likes you. A lot.”
I leaned forward over the table and looked him in the eyes. He was a beautiful man, easy on the eyes. His eyes were a cool, flirty, bottomless green, a dangerous green. His name was on the tip of my tongue, but it was as slippery as a sashimi-grade fish.
Ah. That one. “Sitri! That’s who you are, right? So, you’re going to pry out all my secrets? You want to see me naked? Dude, I’m forty-six. Trust me, you’ve definitely seen better.”
He laughed, showing off flawless dentition. “At least you haven’t given up, like so many women your age do. Two words, darling – black and lace. As for your secrets – no need to tell me. You kissed the Boss, remember?”
I sighed. “As if I could ever forget.” That was the problem.
The waiter arrived with sake and hot towels. My hands were clean so far, but I wiped them anyway.
“That still doesn’t explain why you’re here, or even what Asmodeus was supposed to be doing here with me of all people. I mean, I thought I had a deal with your boss and that would be it.”
“Ah.” He emptied his sake cup with relish, somewhat to my surprise. His smile was as open as his Prussian blue shirt collar.
I knew better. My eyes are not blue.
“Guys like us, there’s always more. Shall we say – another kind of deal.”
This man could work in advertising. That same easy, calculated charm. He even looked the part, but with a much better tailor.
“Really? What are you selling that I should be buying?” It was time for that sake.
“I can do you one better. I can show you. Here – “ He held out his hand., holding a silver medallion about an inch across, with his name around the perimeter in Greek letters, five small circles and a U-shaped glyph crowned with three Maltese crosses. It was nothing I hadn’t seen in a dozen esoteric shops or on black metal t-shirts. “Put this in your bag, and walk to the Ladies. Powder your nose and come back. You’ll see.” He dropped it into my palm with a lascivious wink.
The medallion felt heavy and hot in my hand. My curiosity would kill me some day.
For a Wednesday night in the middle of a global recession, Tora was packed. For a Wednesday night, I looked pretty good if I did say so myself. Which was to say…passable in dim lighting.
So why, I wondered, as I walked in five-inch spikes across the floor to the Ladies, could I suddenly feel all those eyes at my back, some like daggers, some like a caress?
In the Ladies’ room mirror, I could still see the graffiti of my forty-six years scrawled across my face, still see the face I saw before leaving for this date, and my thighs looked exactly the same, even in this dress.
But the other women, the other ones fluffing hair and checking mascara saw something else. I saw in their reaction as I entered. They clumped together like so many terrified two-legged tuna in the presence of a famished Great White, their eyes shooting daggers. I ignored them, applied lipgloss, dug out my purse spray and doused my cleavage. More filthy looks.
Back to the table I walked, feeling more vulnerable, naked and exposed with every step across the tatami mats.
Sitri beamed up from his nigiri-zushi. Skipjack tuna, which made me want to laugh.
“I get it, Sunshine. Really, I do. The belt of Aphrodite, or the Necklace of the Brisingamen. No man will be able to resist me, right? “
“The Boss did say you were smart.” He grinned.
“OK. Is that the deal – I shall be perennially devastating to the end of my days, so long as I contend with the Doreen Gray in the mirror?” In it went, that succulent tiny salmon rose on my plate with a dash of grated ginger.
“You know, I’ve forgotten – how sexy it is to watch a woman eat who knows how to handle chopsticks.” Sitri looked thoughtful, his hand in his chin.
I was speechless. The salmon was that good. Who needed sex when you could have sashimi?
“I know how to handle all sorts of sticks!” It was out of my mouth before I could stop it.
“I know. You have a grain of rice on your lip.”
Now he made me blush! I dabbed furiously with my napkin.
“I’m sorry, honey, I can’t take this.” I handed back the medallion. “Not if it means I see something that can’t even be cured with a good steam iron every time I look in the mirror. I’m a big enough freak as it is. Can’t you see all those knives sticking out of my back?” He might not be able to see them, but I could certainly feel them stuck well in between my ribs.
“But it’s part of the package,” stated another voice. A soft voice, a sexy voice.
I turned my head. On my left in the chair against the wall was the Devil. Looking precisely as he did in the café, which meant I instantly and completely lost my appetite. For sashimi.
I dropped my chopsticks to my plate with such a clatter it made several nearby diners turn their heads to look, so undone, I opened my mouth without thinking.
“Oh, fuck! You again!”
“Me!” He smiled sweetly and leaned closer. “Miss me?”
My cardiac muscle flopped over and played dead.
I could smell him, that fragrant trail of labdanum and otherworldly, dark and bitter. It had a spectacular effect on the contents of my underwear.
“Always,” I replied before I could think. Even my damn mouth turned traitor on me.
We were nose to nose. Any closer and I would get arrested for public obscenity. Right here, right now, on top of the sashimi plates. The wasabi would not be necessary. The building, on the other hand, would be flattened in the afterglow.
Breathe, woman. Breathe. My composure hung by one fragile hair, something not at all lost on either of them.
Sake in a small porcelain cup in front of me. Alcohol. Please. Breathe.
It wasn’t what I wanted to do at that moment.
Two pairs of eyes, one pair a cool, lagoon green, the other a warm red brown, watched me very intently.
“OK,” I finally managed to croak. “Let me see if I have this straight. You – ” I reached out my hand and touched the Devil’s clean-shaven face with a fingertip, right at the corner of his mouth where a dimple threatened to emerge – “and I have a deal. My job is to provide you with some paltry faith in humankind, or at least the female variety. We’ve always been more amenable to your way of thinking anyway.” That got me a grin that went straight across his face.
I blathered on. But first, more sake.
“Meanwhile, you…” I pointed at Sitri, beaming at me across the table to the patent envy of several women nearby, “are here to sweeten the deal. Instant irresistibility. No testosterone bomb will ever be safe again. Nice. But you know, I always could, even without the benefit of five-inch heels, French underwear or demonic silver medallions. It’s all in the focus. I pay attention. And…”
I bottomed out my sake cup. “And I swallow, too!”
That made them laugh.
“So, really, gentlemen, I don’t get it. I don’t understand what it was about me that compelled you to make me that offer to begin with, and I don’t know what I did to deserve it, apart from writing an awful lot of outright stupidity.”
Had the restaurant suddenly gone much colder?
Sitri sat absolutely still, still oozing suave and very green-eyed charm. The Devil, however, shifted in his seat, sat back and crossed his foot over the other leg. His unwavering attention was unnerving, and I was quite nervous enough.
He and I might as well have been the only two people in the room at that moment. I felt a feather-soft touch of fear at the nape of my neck.
Women at nearby tables rubbed the backs of their arms.
“Are you reneging on our deal?” he asked. His tone was very carefully neutral, as if the question weren’t important, as if the answer didn’t matter, and that tone froze my blood in an instant.
I opened my mouth to answer, to say anything at all, and everything happened at once.
The little bansai tree on our table morphed into a monstrous, growing thing, branches stretching out across the table. The leftover sashimi rice turned into huge, death-white maggots, inching furiously across the plate. I seemed to hear fish in agony in the kitchen area toward the back screaming “How could you do this to me? How could you? What did I ever do to you?”
The other diners at the other tables, well-dressed, well-mannered people just a minute ago, were instantly transformed into a gruesome collection of month-old cadavers, skin and hair disintegrating before my eyes and flaking away in the now frigid air.
The other bansai reached out for the throats at their tables.
One man’s eyeball dropped out of its socket and onto his plate, swiveling around to look right at me. Me.
I looked at the floor, and instead of the tatami mats, I saw…
I saw Hell, or one version of it, an endless flaming vista of writhing, wriggling, naked bodies in every stage of decomposition, dead by many means, all foul, cut to ribbons, spurting blood and gore, skinned, flayed, disemboweled, missing limbs, appendages, some among them even their heads, and yet – they were still alive. They screamed, cried, or wailed a perpetual, unending chorus of ‘I didn’t know, I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry!’
Most heartbreaking of all was the loud litany of ‘Please stop. Please stop. Please.’
It was every horror movie I had ever seen in full 3-D and complete Smellavision, and it was infinitely worse for being infinite, stretching as far as I could see, all throughout the restaurant and even the street outside, in every window, on the sidewalk, in the dark November sky above us. Infinite horror.
Sitri sat perfectly relaxed, perfectly calm. The Devil had not moved so much as an eyelash. Yet he looked very different from the moment before. His face was wiped of all expression, all emotion, everything that made him seem human, and even with the sights all around me, that scared me most of all.
I had never been so frightened in my entire life, and I never scared easily. It was that brutal shift from normal reality one second to sheer terror the next, and the only warning was that cold, that touch of fear against my neck.
‘Please stop, please stop, please’ cried the pathetic voices beneath my feet.
I had to grab the table for support. But I stood, and I turned toward the left, and I looked the Devil straight in the face.
“I have never reneged on any kind of deal I might stand to either benefit or learn from,” I said. “Not before, and certainly not now. We had a deal. We still do. That much honor, I have.”
I sat down defiantly, poured more sake. It was ice-cold now.
“Even though you’ve seen…” The Devil swept out his arm, indicating the restaurant and all its gory glories.
“Even though.” I emptied my cup and placed it carefully on the table.
For all his borrowed appearance, I had not one doubt in my mind that he was precisely who he said he was. His face was a chalk white frozen mask, his eyes two black, impenetrable holes. It was a face that made you want to scream and run for your soul or your life.
“I would have been disappointed. I take disappointment very badly.” Again, that careful, non-committal tone.
As for me, I had passed both ‘Go’ and ‘Terrified’ long since. Now, I was parked right on the borderlands of ‘screaming’ and ‘insanity’. But I would not submit, I would not surrender, I would not give in. Not even for the Devil himself.
“What I’m saying,” the salmon danced a merry tarantel in my stomach as I leaned forward toward him, “is that I don’t believe in unfair advantages. By all means – help me as much as you want to, inspire me as much as you want, but I work for it. It’s…the only way I know.” I put the medallion back on the table. “I’m too old for this. Or else I just know too fucking much. About the world, about the way it works, about all those illusions I can’t afford any more if I ever could, about my own dubious fading charms and so-called sex appeal even. If I get any, well, you know, lucky me, and if I don’t, maybe some day I will.”
Sitri beamed. He nodded toward his boss. “You did say she was smart.”
Who sat back in his chair, sighed and smiled. The masklike, near-inhuman face he wore a moment ago was gone. “Yeah. I did.”
From one breath to the next, the restaurant, the floor, the world was back to normal. No seated cadavers at the other tables, no maggots on my plate, no fish howling in endless agony in the kitchen, no pathetic litanies wailing from the floor. The bansai on our table was nothing more and nothing less – a lovely little maple tree, its leaves a luscious shade of red. One of them dropped from a branch and disappeared in a tiny puff of fragrant smoke.
“Well.” He leaned toward me, and again, my underwear reminded me what it was for. “I tried.”
“You did. I’m very impressed. I’m grateful for the sashimi, really.”
In over thirty years of dedicated nymphomania, I had never wanted anyone so much in my entire life. “But you can keep the optional extras for now.”
He laughed, and slowly trailed a finger from my earlobe down my neck and chest to where my wrap dress crossed over. “For now.” He turned to Sitri. “We’ve got to get going.”
Sitri looked down at the leftover sashimi on his plate. “Errr. Yes.” He reached out and held my hand. “Don’t worry about the bill. It’s been taken care of.” He flirted. “Try the yuzu mousse. They say it’s to die for!”
“I won’t dare miss it,” I laughed up at him as he stood.
The Devil reached out for my left hand, turned it over and kissed my palm. It was not so much a goodbye as it was a definite and unmistakable “Later.” I was very grateful that was all he did.
They walked out of the restaurant door, as any humans would have, but before Sitri’s left foot crossed over the threshold, they both vanished.
I had the yuzu mousse. It was – to die for.
When I came home, I emptied out my clutch bag. There was a tear in the satin lining.
Strange. I didn’t recall seeing that before I left. I felt around, to see if anything had lodged in between the leather and the lining.
I pulled out something round and heavy, almost hot in my hand.
Image: KEMO-TV, San Francisco, CA, 1969, “Shock Theater”, with Frank Sheridan as “Asmodeus”
Quote from the “Malleus Maleficarum” by Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers 1928, courtesy of Malleus Maleficarum