After months of searching every crime-infested neighborhood in every major city on Earth, the demon Banarick finally located his quarry in the unlikeliest place imaginable: a small, independent bookstore in a small, Midwestern town.
Banarick stared through the plate-glass window and extended his demonic senses, just to make certain of what he was seeing. The demon caught the barest whiff of brimstone, and glimpsed the flicker of hellfire.
No human, no matter how corrupted, gave off such an aura. The demon that Banarick had scoured the globe for was definitely inside the bookshop.
Though the angle made it difficult to tell, Banarick thought his quarry was perusing the Self-Help section.
In human form.
Dressed in khakis.
And a polo shirt.
Banarick shook off his dismay and shimmered into his favorite human form—a six-foot-tall, dark-haired man wearing a navy business suit and sunglasses.
The sunglasses had a twofold purpose: to hide his yellow eyes and to maintain his demonic mystique.
Once settled into his guise, Banarick entered the store. Wind chimes, hung above the door, tinkled, setting his teeth on edge at their sweet sound. He considered melting the chimes into a glob of metal, but decided against it.
After all, he was here for business, not pleasure.
The elderly clerk behind the counter looked up from the magazine she was reading and gave Banarick a grandmotherly smile. “Hello,” she said.
He nodded once.
“Help you find anything?” she asked.
“No,” Banarick said. “I know exactly what I’m looking for.”
The old woman went back to her magazine with a tiny sigh of relief.
On impulse, Banarick put the notion in her head that no one would notice if one or two of the chocolates by the register went missing. After all, he reasoned, it’s not like anyone counts them, now do they? So, who would know?
As he passed the long, wooden shelves displaying the current best-sellers and newest hardcover releases, Banarick saw from the corner of his eye a blue-veined hand dip into the cardboard bin of foil-wrapped chocolates and cautiously extract one.
The demon smiled to himself. He loved corrupting humans.
Banarick rounded a bookshelf filled with the paperback best-sellers. About a third of the way down the bookshelf-lined aisle stood Zynfanael, the demon Banarick had been sent to find.
Zynfanael had a stack of books resting on the shelf in front of him. Banarick read the titles as he approached: Life Strategies and Self Matters, both by Dr. Phil McGraw; How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie; and most disturbing of all, Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. Zynfanael was reading the back of another book, and Banarick couldn’t see the title.
Banarick didn’t need to see it. He had seen enough.
“Zynfanael!” Banarick said, speaking in the language of demons, which is inaudible to humans. “What in the Seventh Circle are you doing here?”
Zynfanael gasped and dropped the book he had been considering. It flipped in the air, revealing the title: Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen.
Zynfanael, his mouth working as if he was trying to smile but couldn’t quite manage it, slowly turned to face Banarick and looked him over. “Banarick,” Zynfanael said. “Long time, no see. What brings you topside?”
“You,” Banarick said. “He sent me to find you.”
The color drained from Zynfanael’s tanned cheeks; his eyes—a nauseating cornflower blue—grew wide. “He did? Wh-what for?”
“He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask.” Banarick picked up the book Zynfanael had dropped.
A burning sensation engulfed Banarick’s hand. Wisps of smoke curled out from under the book’s cover. “But,” he said, “I think I’m beginning to understand.”
“This isn’t what you think,” Zynfanael said, snatching the book from Banarick’s hand. Immediately, the book ceased smoking. “I’m just doing a little…um…research.”
“Really? For what? Planning on joining a commune, are we?” Banarick wiped his hands on his trousers. The burning eased, but did not disappear completely. When this was over, he would have to take a nice, long bath in one of the brimstone pits. “I hate to tell you this, but you’re about thirty years too late.”
Zynfanael blushed and looked away.
Banarick sensed the approach of a human. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the clerk. Specks of chocolate colored the corners of her mouth.
“Having trouble finding something?” she asked.
The demons exchanged a glance. “No, Agnes,” Zynfanael said. “Thanks, though. My friend and I were just…talking.”
Agnes, disbelief etched on her wrinkled visage, looked from Banarick to Zynfanael. “Everything all right here, Mr. Zimmerman?”
Appalled at the bland moniker, Banarick muttered, “Mr. Zimmerman?”
“It’s the closest name I could think of,” Zynfanael murmured back. To the clerk, he said, “Everything’s fine.”
“All right then,” she said. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Losing patience, Banarick said, “That won’t be necessary. Mr. Zimmerman and I have some important business to attend to.” He shifted his gaze to Zynfanael. “Don’t we, Mr. Zimmerman?” In the clerk’s mind, he said, Go back to your magazine, old woman. This does not concern you.
Agnes’s eyes unfocused; she turned and ambled toward the counter.
Switching back to the demonic language, Zynfanael said, “What’d you do that for? She was just doing her job.”
“As am I.”
Zynfanael gulped. “Ah, yes. Of course. Um, perhaps we should go someplace else? Someplace more private? I’d like to talk to you for a moment before we go see Him.” Those disgustingly blue eyes brightened. “I know just the place. There’s this fabulous little Italian restaurant just down the street from Paddington Station. They’ve got wonderful tortellini. You’ll love it.”
Banarick scoffed. “London? I think not. I’ve wasted enough time searching for you to lose you in a transatlantic portation. No, right here is fine. Talk.”
“Okay, but can we at least go outside? The store gets pretty busy about this time most days, and unless you want to spend a lot of energy altering the humans’ memories…”
“Fine,” Banarick said. “I suppose I can spare a moment, for old times’ sake.” He grabbed Zynfanael’s arm. “But know this: if you try to escape, if you even think about dematerializing, I will have you before the Dark Throne faster than you can blink those human eyes of yours. Do you understand?”
The last of the color drained from Zynfanael’s cheeks. He nodded.
“Good,” Banarick said. Placing his hand on Zynfanael’s back, he shoved his quarry toward the door. As they passed the clerk, Banarick saw Zynfanael make a subtle hand gesture at her.
The old woman’s eyes snapped back into focus. She wiped her mouth with her hand, then stared at her fingers, her brow furrowed in puzzlement. She picked up the empty chocolate wrapper, studied it for a moment, and set it aside as if to pay for it later.
Aghast, Banarick stared at the clerk. He considered redoing the corruption, but the wind chimes tinkled, informing him that Zynfanael had exited the building. Promising himself that he would return and steer the old woman back on the path to perdition, Banarick hurried after Zynfanael.
Banarick caught up with his quarry a few steps from the bookshop. “I saw that,” he said.
Zynfanael moved aside, allowing a group of skateboarding kids room to pass. “Saw what?”
“Don’t give me that innocent act. You know perfectly well what I mean. You deliberately reminded that woman that she hadn’t paid for that chocolate.”
Zynfanael blushed and muttered something under his breath. He turned started to scurry away.
Swearing, Banarick seized the other demon’s collar, dragging him to a halt. “What was that?”
Zynfanael’s flush deepened, but his steady gaze defied Banarick’s anger. “If I hadn’t, she would’ve been fired, and Agnes needs her job. The pittance she gets from Social Security isn’t enough to make ends meet.”
“So? What do you care?” Banarick tightened his grip, pulling Zynfanael closer. “She was mine, and you ruined it.”
“Oh, please,” Zynfanael snapped. “Get over yourself. You’re acting like Agnes was some great conquest instead of the old, tired woman that she is. She’s got maybe two more years to live. How much more damage do you think that pathetic corruption you laid on her would do? Honestly?” He looked around. “Now, let go of me. You’re making a scene.”
Banarick, feeling the shocked stares of a dozen mortals, released Zynfanael. With a thought, he erased the incident from the witnesses’ memories. The humans, looking dazed, dispersed.
Snarling at his fellow demon, Banarick asked, “Better?”
Zynfanael shrugged. “It works for me, but then, I’m not the one who lost my temper in public.” He smirked. “You really should be more careful, you know. He doesn’t like it when demons announce their presence.”
Contrite, Banarick followed Zynfanael to the sickeningly picturesque town square, complete with courthouse, Civil War monument, and a bronze cannon. Mature maple and oak trees shaded the lush lawn. Banarick made a mental note to send a plague of gypsy moths to decimate the trees when he finished this assignment.
Zynfanael sat on one of the numerous wrought-iron benches that lined the square’s walkways. Resting his elbows on his knees, he propped his chin on his folded hands and stared into the distance. He seemed lost in thought.
A chill ran through Banarick. Demons, by their nature, were creatures of action, of impulse. You see a good soul, you corrupt it; you come across a situation that is peaceful, you turn it to chaos. It was as simple as that. Deep contemplation was for angels, not demons.
Suppressing a shudder, Banarick sat. “You said you wanted to talk,” he said. “So talk.”
Zynfanael dry-washed his hands. “Have you ever wondered what we’re doing here?”
“Of course not. We’re here to ensure humanity’s destruction, to gather as many souls for our Master as possible. Even tired, old women.”
Zynfanael glared. “Agnes wasn’t worth the trouble, and as for the rest…” He sighed. “The Great Work. The grand scheme designed to bring about Man’s downfall, and so doing, elevate the Dark Throne above all others. I know all that.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s not what I meant when I asked what we’re doing here.”
Banarick’s apprehension deepened. “Then what did you mean?”
Zynfanael gave Banarick a sidelong look. “Have you ever felt unnecessary? Like maybe our job here’s finished?”
“No,” Banarick said. “Never. Our Master’s work is never done.”
“Yeah, I used to think that, too.”
Banarick’s mouth fell open. “Used to?”
“We go back a long way, Banarick.” Zynfanael scratched his chin. “First time we worked together was what, Babylon? Samaria? Something like that, anyway.”
Banarick gathered his scattered wits. “Y-Yes. Right around there somewhere.”
“Those were the days, weren’t they?” Zynfanael’s dreamy smile spoke of fond memories. “You had to work at collecting souls. And when you got one, you felt like you’d accomplished something. Now, pfft,” he made a dismissive gesture, “you throw a stick and you’ll hit twenty souls ripe for plucking. There’s no challenge to it anymore. It’s disheartening.”
“Disheartening?” Banarick echoed, incredulous. “Disheartening? It’s disheartening that our Master’s plan, the plan that we have strived for millennia to achieve, is coming to fruition?” He stood. “I’ve heard enough. I’m taking you to Him.”
Zynfanael held up his hands in supplication. “No, not yet, Banarick, please. Let me finish.”
“Why should I?”
“Because you owe me one.”
Banarick gaped. “What are you talking about? I don’t owe you anything.”
Zynfanael smirked. “Ah, but you do. Salem, 1692. The Witch Trials. Remember? Instead of keeping the town in an uproar like you were supposed to, you went off on a bender for two weeks. The fury died down, reason took over, and the trials ended. I covered for you.”
Banarick’s head spun and his knees went weak. He had all but forgotten that particular incident, involving a willing barmaid and a stolen keg of ale. He slumped back down on the bench. “You covered for me? Why?”
Zynfanael’s smile grew lopsided. “Why else, of course? Blackmail material.” He leaned close and murmured, “I am a demon, after all.”
Stunned, Banarick sat back and stared at nothing. His mind raced, looking for a way out of this trap, but every scenario he conjured involved either giving in to Zynfanael’s demands, or facing severe retribution, least of which would be losing his status as an upper-level demon.
“Yes,” Zynfanael said, as if reading Banarick’s thoughts. “If my little secret became known, I can easily imagine you being busted down to imp handler.” He cocked his head, his blue eyes twinkling. “Actually, now that I think about it, you’d be lucky ending up with the imps. He was pretty upset about that whole Salem fiasco—you’d probably end up spending a few millennia agitating the brimstone pits.”
“So, what do you want?”
“Nothing much,” Zynfanael said. “Hear me out, and when I’m done, I want you to report back that you couldn’t find me. That’s all.”
Banarick could not believe his ears. “That’s all?” he asked. “How in Lucifer’s Name am I supposed to make them believe that I couldn’t find you? Me, the best tracker in Hell, and I’m supposed to say, what, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Dark Majesty, but even though I’ve never failed to find a stray before in three hundred years of tracking, I just couldn’t get a bead on Zynfanael? I searched everywhere.’” He snorted. “He will never buy that, and you know it.”
Zynfanael stood and stretched. “You’ll think of something,” he said casually. “I have faith.”
Banarick went cold. “What did you just say?”
“I said, ‘I have faith.’”
“That’s what I thought you said.” Banarick ran a hand through his hair. “So that’s what this is all about. You’re—you’re rising, aren’t you?”
“And what if I am?”
Anger and incredulity warred within Banarick. Anger won. He stood, seized Zynfanael by the shoulders, and shook him. “What are you thinking?” Banarick demanded. “You can’t just change sides!”
Zynfanael jerked free. “Why not? Italy did, twice as a matter of fact, so why can’t I?”
Confusion derailed Banarick’s unrighteous rage. “What? What are you talking about? What does Italy have to do with anything?”
“Never mind,” Zynfanael said, waving away the question. “My point is, there’s no more challenge in being a demon. Humans these days are so susceptible to corruption that all you have to do to make ’em fall is look at ’em cross-eyed. Most of the time, they do things far more evil than anything I could ever come up with, and without any help at all. You know, I haven’t personally corrupted a single soul in at least three years. I haven’t had to.”
“You haven’t tried, you mean,” Banarick said. “You’ve gone soft.”
“This isn’t as simple as you think, Banarick. Let me give you an example. About six months ago, I was in Cedar Rapids, and I thought I’d stop and collect a few souls. I picked Iowa because after five years in the Middle East, well, let’s just say that there’s not much more that needs to be done there.
“Anyway, so I was in Cedar Rapids, and the mayor looked like a good candidate. You know, wife, kids, went to church every Sunday, got elected on a family values ticket, the whole nine yards. So, I go to corrupt him. Come to find out, the guy’s already on the take from three different subcontractors, a drug lord, and a gambling consortium. And, he’s got not one but two mistresses.” Zynfanael scoffed and shook his head. “What else could I do? That’s when I came here.”
“That’s nothing to worry about,” Banarick said. “You’re just going through a dry spell. It happens to all of us sooner or later. You’ll snap out of it.”
A ghost of a smile brushed Zynfanael’s lips. “I don’t think this is just a dry spell.”
“Sure it is,” Banarick said with far more conviction than he felt. He put his arm around Zynfanael’s shoulders. “I tell you what. How about you and I take a quick jaunt down to the Fifth Circle, hmm? I know this great sulfur pit, nice and hot, and not overcrowded. You can soak for a while; maybe think things out a bit. You know, before you do something you regret.”
“That’s a very nice offer, Banarick, but I can’t.”
“Can’t? Why not? You used to love brimstone bathing.”
Zynfanael looked away, blushing. “I, um, well…I’ve developed an allergy to sulfur.”
Banarick’s arm, nerveless with shock, slipped from Zynfanael’s shoulder. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“No joke.” Zynfanael clucked his tongue. “I get anywhere near sulfur and I get hives the size of strawberries. See?” He held out his arm, revealing the start of a rash. “Even your aura’s enough to make me break out.”
Dumbfounded, Banarick stared at Zynfanael’s reddening skin. “So that’s it then, isn’t it? You’re lost.”
“I prefer to think of it as I’m changing paths.”
Banarick sneered. “So what will you do? Become an angel? Maybe get assigned to some snot-nosed brat and have to follow him around for his entire life?” He scoffed. “Have fun with that.”
Smiling, Zynfanael shrugged. “It may not be as much fun as inciting the Civil War was, but it would be a challenge.” His smile grew dreamy again. “A long series of challenges. Every day would be a new adventure.”
Banarick’s stomach roiled. “That’s disgusting. I can’t believe that you’re going to throw away thousands of years of work just because you’re bored.”
“It’s my choice, Banarick. Nothing you say will change that.”
“You are a demon! Demons don’t have free will.”
Zynfanael raised an eyebrow. “Don’t be so sure about that. After all, no one forced us to fall in the first place, if you’ll remember. We chose to leave Heaven; therefore, we should be able to choose to return.”
Banarick crossed his arms. “You’re assuming an awful lot. What makes you think that, after everything you have done, they will take you back?”
“Well, if they don’t, you won’t have to worry about taking me to Him, as I’ll spend the rest of eternity in limbo. But I honestly don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.”
“Really?” Banarick drawled. “And why is that?”
“Because redemption has always been their big selling point, hasn’t it? ‘Come to me and be saved’ and all that.” Zynfanael grinned. “And who better to save than a demon? I think they’ll take me.” He looked at the sky and held his hands up in supplication.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, a ray of snow-white light engulfed Zynfanael.
Banarick watched, speechless, as Zynfanael’s aura changed, lightening from the red of hellfire to the gold of the rising sun. The cloying scent of lilacs filled the air.
Gagging, Banarick shaded his eyes from the burning light of the newborn angel and backed away. Once the initial glare died down, he peeked over his raised arm.
The expression of profound peace on Zynfanael’s upturned face made Banarick’s skin crawl. The demon’s eyes watered from the angel’s radiance. “Now you’ve gone and done it,” Banarick said. “There’ll be hell to pay for this.”
“I doubt that,” Zynfanael said. “But, if you’re truly worried, you could always come with me.” He offered his hand. “Think of all the good you could do.”
Banarick recoiled from the hand as if it were a crucifix. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not joining the losing team. I like to win.”
“Very well,” the angel said, lowering his hand. “Good-bye, Banarick. I shall pray for you.”
The demon winced. “Don’t bother. I don’t want your sappy prayers. Save them for your precious humans.”
Zynfanael turned and started walking away. With every step, he grew more transparent until he vanished.
Banarick dematerialized, porting from the revoltingly quaint town square to the middle of his favorite brimstone pit. His report would have to wait; he felt entirely too clean.
Scrubbing his scaly skin with handfuls of lava, Banarick tried to forget his conversation with Zynfanael. However, no amount of scrubbing would erase the memory of the new angel’s look of peace, nor would the heat sear away the strange feeling growing in the demon’s chest. A feeling that could only be described as longing.
Some time later, a new sensation intruded on Banarick’s bath, an irritating, stinging itching that engulfed his forearm. Wiping away a layer of lava, Banarick stared in horror at the patch of small, red bumps covering his skin.
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Copyright 2010, Susanne Chalmers. All rights reserved.
Sue wrote her first short story at age 7, and her first "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel at age 13. She is currently in the process of getting her fantasy novel published. She lives in rural Wisconsin.