LIVING IN A PLUTOCRACY
Pixie woke up before me. Better instincts – her life is so much more fucking fragile than mine – she sensed the danger first and jumped out of bed.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
She looked terrified, but not of me. I have to confess, that gave me pause.
“Can’t you… Can’t you feel that?”
She was just this close to putting the fear into me; only my narcissistic disappointment at having my special weekend interrupted was holding back my sense of self-preservation. Last night had been my monthly blowout – four consecutive weeks of ninety hours at work and a weekend off at last. Ripped to the tits with blow, booze and my favourite Pixie – I should be asleep, god fuck it, not facing the fucking day.
“What is it, Jesus Christ, what?”
Pixie was scrambling into her clothes. She wasn’t looking at me. She wasn’t even looking at the pile of cash I’d left her on the table. “I’ve got to get out of here…”
Just then there was a knock at the door. Pixie looked like someone had just punched her in her childhood. “Oh… Fuck…”
She was paralysed. Deer/headlights paralysed.
“No, no, don’t bother yourself… I’ll get it.” I dragged myself out of bed, pulled on my bathrobe and clambered down from the mezzanine floor over to the door of my penthouse.
I opened the door and Pixie actually screamed. I turned back to look in her direction and as Pixie fled by me out into the corridor and out of the story, a stranger brushed past me in the opposite direction.
The stranger was about six feet tall, in ridiculous stiletto heels, and wearing a black leather coat that dropped almost to the floor. She was rake thin, and her face was entirely hidden by the wide-brimmed fedora hat that slouched on her head like a rotten halo. Long fingers twitched in black gloves, tugging at the scarlet silk scarf draped around her face and shoulders.
She undid a silver pin from the scarf and dropped both, carelessly onto my couch. Jesus, that pin looked sharp, my couch didn’t need that… I reached automatically for the god damn thing while she removed her hat. She dropped that too, and suddenly I forgot about the pin. I couldn’t take my eyes from her face.
She didn’t have one.
Beneath her raven-black hair, which rolled in waves like the bastard sea at night, was a bleached white skull. Deep within her eye sockets I could make out the tiniest flecks of fire but otherwise all that was there was something that must have been dead for over a hundred years… Staring at me and smiling.
“Hello there, sorry to wake you. I’m a head hunter.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to hunt for a head, of course. Is yours available?”
I had always known that this day would come. I had always known that I would get the offer one day. There’s always a better vantage, and only arseholes can be content with their view when they recognise that.
“Of course I’m available.”
Once I was dressed she led me out into the city. She had a car waiting.
She had booked a restaurant. She didn’t eat, but she cradled a glass and sipped from it, somehow. The rest of the place was deserted. It was the damndest thing, but the longer I looked at the skeleton in front of me, the more natural it seemed. I mean, it was fucking unnatural, and just having had her in my home made my fillings ache, but it became somehow less unnatural by the minute. Like hearing about the death of your mate, you know? Horrible on the first day, but you can’t feel horrible forever, can you?
“What’s the job offer?”
“It’ll change your life. Are you in or out?”
“You haven’t told me anything about it, yet.”
“It’s on the scale where you make of it what you want. Your old life will end, but the possibilities are literally out of this world: you’ll be able to make whatever life you want, on the other side of the decision. Everything up until now will have been just preparation to get you to the other side. Everything up until now will be spent and gone, if you go for it. But you’ll be able to take back control of your life.”
“My life’s pretty good.”
“You’re a rat in a maze. You think you can choose what direction you take, but they built the maze and they put you in it. Worse than that, you’re just like everyone else. Answering to so many people it sounds like you have a choice. Take this position and you’ll never have to answer to anyone, ever again. You’ll be able to control your boundaries.”
“What’s the job?”
I was on my fifth course. Some animal I had suspected had been extinct for years. She was still drinking. She wasn’t drunk. I thought that maybe the white of her skull wasn’t as gleaming as it had been, but that might just have been because her fangs were beginning to glow brighter.
“This is insane.”
“That’s a legal term. It isn’t recognised medically, or spiritually, or morally for that matter.”
“There’s no such thing as the Devil.”
“Not at the moment there isn’t, that’s why they’re recruiting. But there’s no such thing as lots of things, but we still have them. We still need them. File the Devil that way, if it makes it easier for you.”
“Why do you need a Devil now?”
“The last one quit.”
“That doesn’t sound very plausible.”
“It’s a hard job. Lots of responsibility. If the Pope can quit, why can’t the Devil?”
“What does the Devil do?”
“Whatever the Devil wants to do. That’s the point. The Devil makes the Devil’s own business. The rumours are true, there’s a lot of real estate to manage. But that’s like Texas, a lot of it takes care of itself. And there are a lot of people to work with – plenty of networking. Some employees, but mostly stakeholders. The direction is yours to decide, though. The priorities. The five thousand year plans.”
I think I was getting more drunk, the more she drank. “What does God think about this, if there’s a Devil?”
“This role? This role is the only role ever where God’s opinion, a boss’s opinion, anybody’s opinion, doesn’t matter a truepenny fuck. Vox populi, vox dei? Vox diabolus, vox solus. When the Devil’s talking, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says.”
“But there is a God?”
“Did the existence or non-existence of God truly matter to you at any point before in your life?”
“Then why would it matter now? You’re being offered the keys to the kingdom, literally, and you’re wheedling to find out if you’re going to get on someone’s wrong side. Do you want there to be a Daddy?”
She -it, she, whatever- had a point.
“What does the Devil do?”
“The Devil does what the Devil does. And everyone else can go to Hell.”
“Would… would I have to live in Hell?”
“You’d be the Devil. You’d get to decide what was Hell and what wasn’t. That’s the point.”
We were back in the car and she was having us driven somewhere else.
“Why me?” I asked her.
“Most jobs have a personal specification, you know, but this role demands a direction, rather than a specification. I respect your direction, your need for more. That’s what’s essential.”
“So it isn’t to do with being… you know… evil?”
“Well if we can agree what evil is, then we could look at that question in more depth, I guess. Maybe evil’s like porn, you know it when you see it. Maybe evil’s just what the winner calls the loser, or vice versa. Or maybe your need for more, your ambition for more, your addiction for getting more is just more important to you than anything else and the reason why you aren’t sure about whether this is evil or that is wrong is because you left all those considerations behind you a long time ago, and they just aren’t relevant anymore.”
“Wouldn’t you be looking for, I don’t know, murderers? Warlords? Drug dealers?”
“I’ve been watching you for a long time. I’ve been reading your diaries, looking under your bed… I think we both know why I think you’re the one to be the very Devil, don’t we?”
I sat quietly.
“We’re here.” The car stopped.
She led me through the zoological gardens. Children and their parents milled around us, but didn’t seem to notice us. Being invisible would have appalled me yesterday, but felt reassuring just then. She pointed at the ant exhibit.
“They actually run raids on neighbouring ant colonies,” she said, peering deeply into the swarming mass. She put her hand, her bones, on my shoulder and pulled me closer to the animals. “They’ll take the eggs of those colonies they invade and bring them back to their own nest. They’ll raise the offspring as slaves. Slaves is the wrong word. They’ll incorporate the offspring into their mass. The offspring will become part of the whole. That’s all the colony is, really, a single whole, a single being, indivisible. A philosophy. An idea that incorporates all ideas. You can remove ants from the colony, of course, but then you’ve just got a bunch of ants. And meanwhile the colony will still be there. And it’ll continue to grow. At the expense of what isn’t the colony, perhaps, but at least the colony controls its own borders. Exploitation. Violence. Murder. Kidnap. Enslavement. Apathy. Is that evil? I’m not sure the question makes any sense.”
“Why are we here?”
“It’s all part of the tour. Would you like an ice cream?”
We took our seats in the private box of the opera house just before the curtain. I felt that she hadn’t stopped speaking since lunch, but I couldn’t entirely remember what she had been saying. It all seemed to boil down to my taking responsibility for my desires, for stepping outside of the hierarchy, or of society. Or morality. I could feel her meaning, even if I couldn’t articulate it. It was as if she had sensed some infernal glow in me and was stoking that pit, stoking that ambitious fire. She was only talking because I was listening.
“Wanting it isn’t enough. Acting on that want, to the exclusion of everything else, that is what’s important. Now enjoy the show: it’s all for you.”
Of course, it was Faust. However, she stressed that this was Spohr, not Gounod. “I thought you’d appreciate the happy ending in this version,” she grinned.
After the show we took cocktails at the top of the Tower. Below us the city glittered and growled. The heat from the streets barely reached us, but at least it was trying. The stars above seemed like they didn’t give a fuck.
“Well? Are you interested?”
“Willing to get in the ring?”
“You mean there are other candidates?”
“There are. Six head hunters have been hired; I’m one, of course. Each of us have identified a candidate. Now it goes to a vote.”
“If I agree to get in the ring.”
“Do you know who the other candidates are?”
“And you think my chances are good?”
“I’ve met the Devil. You’re the spitting image. Down to the bone. Best thing about the Devil? No doubts at all.”
“Why have you been taking me to these places all day?” I asked.
“I wanted you to see where you’d be working. Get a sense of the place.”
“This… this isn’t Hell.”
“It can be, if you want it to be.”
My whole life I had wanted to take control, get higher. The only sin that I could imagine would be pretending that I didn’t have that desire. Of course this was what I wanted.
And she took a step back and looked at me, face to skull. She cocked her head, and then stepped forward and kissed me. I felt the bones of her fingers trace down my spine, holding me in place. My tongue felt the cavern of her mouth.
It was like coming home.
“Welcome to Hell.”
I woke up. Daylight had crept into my bedroom while I wasn’t looking, was creeping around and fingering all my things. I would punish daylight for that. I would do a lot of punishing. My head ached with a blossoming hangover.
She was no longer in my bed.
She had brought us home five bars later. It had all been for free. It had all been endless. There had been no cost at all. Behind my shoulder blades I could feel bone grinding and growing. It was as if wings were pulling themselves to life, ready to carry me upwards.
I felt, besides the ache in my bones – the thudding in my skull, something new in me. I felt an appetite I hadn’t felt, or hadn’t appreciated, before. An emptiness so colossal I had never been able to fathom it until now. It was ambition too keen to be called ambition – it was a hunger. I could feel it now. Now that I could at last feel it I could fill it. I could satiate it. At last. At last I would be whole.
The telephone beside the bed rang out. I took the call. It was her.
“Where are you, why aren’t you here?” I asked.
“I still there with you, silly. We’re still in Hell, aren’t we?”
I didn’t speak.
“Listen. Bad news. The vote went against us. You didn’t get the role. They picked one of the others.”
I didn’t speak.
“At least you tried.”
She hung up. I listened to the dead line.
I was so hungry. I had never been that hungry before in my life. I couldn’t imagine not being hungry again.
An ant crawled over my hand. I would have killed it, but then there would just have been another.