***Trigger warning: Contains demonic themes***
Two cowering figures lie beneath Tom Wescott’s bedsheets - his wife and her lover. I’d whispered in his ear all day, urging him to hurry home, to witness this betrayal. He’d chalked it up to intuition. But it was me, hard at work, tempting another wayward soul.
As angry words crowd in Tom’s throat, his lips tremble. Beads of sweat roll down his forehead, past furrowed brows. His eyes are fixed on his wife. One shaky hand points a Glock 34 at her. His finger hovers over the trigger. The wife turns her face away and plunges it into her lover’s neck, crying so hard that her body shakes.
“Tom, c’mon now. You don’t have to do this, man. Let’s talk about this like adults,” the lover pleads.
Tom’s jaw ticks, he white knuckles the grip of the gun and swings the business end to the lover.
“That’s it,” I whisper. “Give these two what they deserve. They can’t just go around hurting people. You were a faithful husband, a provider, and this is how she repays you? She has no respect for you. Never has. Shoot them. You’ll feel much better afterwards. You’ll feel like a man.”
A sense of calm and certainty washes over Tom’s face. He steadies the gun in his hand. Just then, an awful stench fills the room - the scent of holiness and wet birds. A blinding white light beams from the edges of the closet door. It swings open, the light fades, and stepping towards us is none other than Gabriel, the archangel. Schmuck! I was almost there.
When faced with such a situation, most demons would run back to hell with their tails between their legs. Not me, I’m a bit different. The name’s Phoenix and I’m so effective at tempting souls that the Department of Temptation has dubbed me ‘The Great Marquis of Hell’. After a thousand years of mastering it, I’m quite bored, to be honest. Tempting souls is child’s play — it took only a week to tempt Tom’s wife to sleep her way to that top sales position. In no time at all, her husband resented her success. In tonight’s soon-to-be double homicide, I’ll reach the crescendo of my magnum opus. I’m so close to being promoted to the Possession Department. Leave it to Gabe to screw that all up.
He uses his powers to slow down time, freezing Tom’s arm in place. As he strides over to Tom’s right ear, Gabe’s revolting white wing nearly knocks me over.
“Tom,” he begins, “do you remember what your father said when you were a child? He said to learn to turn the other cheek.”
I glare at the angel. If he was expecting me to back down, he better think again. Poking my chest out, I strut toward Tom’s left ear. “Do not allow your better angels to take over. It is not goodness. It is a weakness. Do you want to be weak like your father? He died impoverished because of your mother, isn’t that right?”
Gabe grinds his teeth; his palm closes over the hilt of his sword as he continues to spew his sanctimonious bull-crap. “Revenge is like a sweet that temporarily satisfies, but its aftertaste will rot you from the inside out. God has a wife worthy of you, Tom. Commit this sin, and you forfeit that blessing.”
I snort. What a dork. “Tom, this harlot will take you for everything you’re worth. Can you imagine it? You’ll live on a futon in some run-down studio apartment as this guy and your wife frolic around your house!”
Time returns to normal, and blaring sirens draw closer, almost as if on cue. Upon lowering his gun, Tom turns away from the adulterers and begins tearing at his hair.
A sigh escapes me. It’s game over. As Tom beats his own head with the gun, Gabe watches. His wings relax, but he doesn’t seem satisfied. Tonight was a draw between good and evil. The angel’s tortured expression pleases me greatly, and I can’t resist rubbing it in. I flick my serpent tongue over my upper lip before saying, “Aww. The birdie didn’t save the whittle human soul, did he? What a shame.”
Gabe unsheathes his sword and I know when not to press my luck. With the snap of a finger, I am back in hell. The smell of fire and brimstone greets my nostrils as I walk to the gate of the Department of Temptation. A gold sign hangs above the entrance: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” The sign was for tortured human souls, but I briefly wonder if the hope of getting a promotion flew away on the back of Gabe’s wings.
I walk past the Lobby of Limbo and join a crowd of demons pushing into an elevator. I am just about to join them when Balthazar greets me.
“Phoenix! How’s darkness treating you?” This is hell-speak that roughly translates to ‘How much is human misery benefiting you?’ The elevator door closes as I turn to acknowledge him.
“Can’t complain. Yet, there is one assignment that’s giving me a bit of trouble. Dear ole' Gabe interfered while I was completing my wrath assignment.”
Balthazar hisses at the mention of his name. Being a full demon, just being in the same room with an angel causes his head to spin.
“The lust assignment went down without a hitch. I’m on my way to the second floor to turn in my report now. Care to join me at the bar later? Break open a bottle of human tears to celebrate?”
“Sure. So will you…?” A wailing, tortured soul pounds on the glass floor, interrupting him. Balthazar stomps his red foot and growls at the human so loudly that it blows my hair back. The human cowers and scurries away into the red smog. “Stinking vermin! Like I was saying, will you ask for another wrath assignment?"
“And break my perfect record?” I tsk with my serpent tongue. “You know better than that.”
Balthazar’s yellow, snake-like eyes grow wide, and his red tail dances behind him. “How will you outmaneuver the bird?”
I wink. “As I always do.”
Demons don’t help other demons out of the goodness of our hearts. For starters, we don’t have hearts. Help only occurs if there’s a quid pro quo. Balthazar is all rage, and no finesse. He couldn’t tempt a politician to lie nor an ex-con to steal. Pathetic. All he can offer me is a good laugh as I watch his flailing efforts.
“Ah, Phoenix, there must be something I can offer you in exchange for your expert tutelage?” He smiles a sharp, toothy smile. His dumb, hopeful, pleading eyes await my response.
“Ah, Balthazar, if that something comes to mind, you’ll be first to know.” With that, I turn around and catch the next elevator that's heading up.
“Second Floor, Sin of Lust,” says a disembodied female voice as the elevator doors open.
The floor is bustling with demons rushing into and out of cubicles, phones ringing uncontrollably, and papers being filed and shuffled. While one secretary polishes the windows and desks with her eight arms, another breathes fire into every hanging torchlight she can find.
“There will be a corporate visit soon! Visit from corporate! It is imperative for everyone to remain calm and act professionally at all times. King Lucifer himself will visit us tonight," shouts Pandora, the demonic lust-manager. “During the last three quarters, the human lust percentage has remained lower than projected. With the exception of Phoenix, everyone failed to meet their targets. That's what I suspect this visit is about."
Fear permeates the entire floor as everyone moans and murmurs about being laid off. As for me, I am exuberant. It's finally time for me to ask for that promotion. Observing the world is all I can do, I cannot interact with it. Being in possession of a human body will give me that opportunity. At the thought, I dig my claws into my pants.
I go to Pandora and hand over my lust report.
She barely reads it. “Only took you a week?” She asks, scratching her left horn.
“You can confirm it if you like,” I say.
“And I can’t convince you to teach the others?”
As I'm about to tell her "no way in hell", I see her eyes widen with fear. Immediately, she bows. As I turn to face him, I bow as well. The air is filled with a strong sulfurous smell. The moment he exits the elevator, he stretches his magnificent, horn-tipped, black wings. His nostrils flare with smoke. Oh no. He's pissed off. Lucifer’s trident taps on the obsidian tile.
“Lust-manager, in your office now!” He bellows. She is grabbed by an invisible force and dragged along the hall to the door on the right, her office. A loud bang echoes from the door as it slams behind them. Talk about a toxic work environment.
A quiet descends over the floor. You can almost hear a pin drop, but then Azazel farts.
"I'm sorry," he says, his cheeks reddening to a deeper shade. His tail wags rapidly to fan out the air. “I always pass gas when I’m nervous.”
Minutes pass before the lust-manager’s door flings open. Red smoke billows out. “Phoenix! Get in here,” commands Lucifer.
“Yes, my king. Coming!” I sprint to the office before he thinks to drag me down the hall.
He’s sitting at the desk, smiling. His red demon face transforms into human flesh, his horns and wings retract into his body. He stretches his back, cracking it. Strips of black and white fabric snake around his body until forming a three-piece suit. The door slams behind me and when I whip my head around, I see her. The barbecued remains of Pandora. She’s a statue of ash and when I sneeze, the ash falls.
I swallow, then I bend my knees and bow low. “Er… What did you want to see me about, my king?”
He motions for me to stand. “Phoenix, Marquis of Hell, it is high time I promoted you. I heard how you stood up to Gabriel. I wish all my demons had as much pluck,” he says with a prideful gleam in his silvery eyes.
Yes, yes, yes! I didn’t even need to ask. He’s been watching me, and he’s seen my talent. Finally, I can leave this place.
“You’re the new lust-manager.”
No, no, no!
“You start today,” he commands. “Have the secretaries sweep that up,” he says pointing to the heap of ash on the floor.
“But my king…”
“Yes?” He clasps his hands together on the table and leans forward. A low, warning growl escapes his throat.
“My king, I’ve heard tales of a young woman who no demon can possess, a young woman whose soul you want to claim very much. Let me serve you this way. Let me show you how much pluck I really have.”
Lucifer throws his head back and laughs. “Oh Phoenix, you remind me of myself when I was in my thousandth's, always trying to rise above my station. No boy, you’re a mutt! You don’t even have a tail. You’re a half-demon, half-human, a son of Lilith. A half-human cannot possess a human body. Too dangerous. You might grow to like them, sympathize with them even.”
I hiss. Sympathy for a human? Yuck! Has he lost his mind? I forget myself for a moment and growl at the insult.
He stands, cracks his knuckles, and walks over to me. "Did you forget yourself just then? Have you forgotten where you are? Did you forget what the sign says at the entrance gate?”
I lower my head and recite the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.”
He smiles and pats me on the shoulder. “Good boy. Don’t forget those words, and don’t let me down, lust-manager.”
After that, Lucifer picks up his trident, and we exit the office. Raising his trident, he declares, "We have a new lust-manager! We've got Phoenix!!! There is jubilation and cheering all over the floor. There are some demons who cry with joy, likely relieved they weren't burnt to a crisp.
As Balthazar pours me another glass of human tears. A she-demon rubs her red tail across my cheek, her slitted eyes give me a come-hither look. I remove her tail and tell her I’m not interested.
“Phoenix! Did you even see the horns on that she-demon? Are you blind? What’s the matter with you tonight?”
In the booth, I drown a second glass and sink even further before I give a humorless laugh. Tonight at Hellfire's Bar and Grill, she was the third demoness to approach me.
“The king himself told me today that I’d never be a candidate for the possessor position.”
I slam my fist on the table so hard the glasses jump. “He’s racist. It’s because I’m half-human.”
Balthazar gasps. “But so is Lilith and half the demons in hell.”
“I know. Apparently, that doesn’t matter,” I say, motioning for him to pour another glass. “It’s not fair.”
As Balthazar pours, his frown transforms into a wily grin. His eyes appear calculating, as if forming a plan.
“Spill,” I say.
“It turns out that the demoness I was with last night has a brother who works in the Department of Possession. He's next in line to attempt to take possession of the human they're all after. I can give you his name in exchange for temptation lessons.”
I sit up in my booth, curious as to what he’s getting at. “How does knowing this demon’s name help me? I’m still not allowed to possess anyone.”
“If you assist him with the possession, the king will be so impressed he’ll have to consider you.”
I lean back and consider his words. For once, Balthazar would prove useful.
They have released Tom Wescott on bail, and I find him feeding ducks near a pond. Sure enough, Gabe is next to him on a bench, whispering in his right ear.
Alright. Here goes nothing.
As I walk toward them, Gabe jumps to his feet, assumes a fighting stance, and flaps his wings.
I hold my hands up in surrender. “I come in peace, bird.”
Gabe snarls and unsheathes his sword. I kneel to the ground and quickly get out what I want to say, “There’s a half-human, half-angel walking the earth. Lucifer wants her badly. I can protect her. I know all the tricks of the trade. All I ask of you is to make me fully human. Lucifer discriminates against me because of my human side. So, I figure to heaven with it! I should embrace my humanity.”
“You are the Marquis of Hell; therefore, you are the Marquis of Lies,” Gabe replies.
Stupid bird. “I know she is your daughter, the Nephilim. I know you want her safe.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” Gabe asks, his voice wavering. He lowers his sword to the grass. The geese flap their wings and fly overhead, traveling north. Tom places his empty bag of breadcrumbs in the trash can and leaves the park.
“You can trust that a demon named Amon will be after her tonight.”
The angel appears thoughtful. “Why do you even want to be human, Phoenix?”
I hunch my shoulders. “I am bored with tempting souls. I've had it with the Department of Temptation and wish to walk the earth. Can you make it happen?”
In a long pregnant pause, Gabe sheathes his swords, then presses his hands together and closes his eyes. A brilliant white light shines above his head. When the light dims, he opens his eyes. "If I grant your request, I will require more than one demon's name."
I lift a brow.
“How skilled are you at spying?” Gabe asks.
I smile wide, my serpent tongue flicks over my upper lip. “Spying? Oh, I’m good as hell.”