XI. Russell Poole and The Devil
Russ sat in the club chair with the back of his head resting on the top of the back cushion, eyes closed. His mouth was open and his bucket leaned over in his lap, precariously close to spilling its contents all over an authentic 12th century Persian rug. The rug, itself, depicted the Tree of Life at its center and all its stages of life in the four seasons at the four corners of the tapestry. This rug’s upper right hand corner shone a brilliant gold hue as the tree was depicted in autumn. The tree’s leaves were on the ground in dark spots beneath it, its fruit shriveled and rotten on its branches and in black pools on the garden floor. A great gash was depicted across the tree’s trunk in which a black mass spewed forth.
Behind Russ’ eyelids he saw the scene. He saw the tree balding of its leaves and shedding its rotten fruit. He saw the long shadow from something unknown move across the landscape of the garden. He saw the blood of the tree run red then turn black. There were tentacles in the blood, wet black tentacles moving from within the tree and stretching outward from the trunk reaching toward him. Russ stepped back and found his foot deep in a puddle of black ooze on the dead grass. He tried to free his foot to get away but found that he could not. Something was pulling him down. He tugged on his leg to free it, then turned and twisted his body as the tentacles that now adorned tiny mouths slithered towards him. He moved to escape their grasp, but could not. He yelled out for help to anyone or anything that could hear him but no help came.
The slick black thing wrapped itself around Russ’ waist and had begun to pull him forward out of his oozing puddle but towards the gash in the now twisted and deformed tree trunk – naked of its leaves and bare of any fruit it once had. The oozing puddles moved along the ground like shadows, liquid in its movement then solid while it lay stationary. More tentacles reached out toward him wrapping themselves around his arms, legs, and neck. A final tentacle slithered out of the trunk. This one was longer than the rest and thinner. It was covered in barbs, teeth, and tiny suckers. It swirled in the air in front of his face then made its way to force itself into Russ’ mouth.
Russ bit down hard, closing his mouth and shook his head back and forth to keep the tentacle from going any further. When he did, the tentacle wrapped around his neck grew tighter and tighter – stealing his ability to breathe until he was unable to keep his mouth closed. Russ opened his mouth quickly to draw a breath and the tentacle rose up with sudden force to prepare its forceful descent down Russ’ throat.
In his sleep, he gasped for air and gagged on the nightmare that had overtaken his mind. His body shook and jostled in the chair as the image of the tentacle in his dreams grew a large mouth with deep red lips with which to speak. The lips parted to show its row upon row of jagged teeth in a horrific grin. The lips spoke to Russ in a voice he had heard before. They said to him in a woman’s voice full of vengeance, malice and wanting, “Welcome little one, to New Babylon” before lunging down Russ’ throat.
Russ leapt forward out of the club chair gasping for air and grabbing at his throat trying his damnedest to catch his breath. He fell to his knees hyperventilating and coughing trying to force air into his lungs.
A man stood aside of the club chair with his hands full of a brand new waste basket, as he stole the other away out of Russ’ grip. He quietly watched Russ recover himself from the nightmare. Once Russ coughed, he removed himself to go pour a drink for his guest and discard the full can. He walked gracefully to the bar in a cream and gold colored silk smoking jacket, gold ascot, and silk cream colored pajama pants with satin and gold monogrammed slippers on his feet. He poured wine from a heart shaped decanter into a wine glass rimmed with gold leafing then took its contents back to his guest.
Russ’ ability to breathe had returned. His face was red with his efforts to do so and his eyes were bloodshot as if he’d actually been strangled. He raised himself to his feet, drew in a deep breath then stretched to rid his body of the soreness he was experiencing. The man appeared at his side with what Russ read as concern on his face and lifted the glass up to Russ’s hand for him to take. Russ took the glass then let his eyes fall to the floor, something felt wrong to him about being able to look him in the face. But then, wrong had been the feeling of the entire night, even his entire life. Russ sniffed the wine in the glass before putting it to his lips, more for his own safety than to observe wine drinking etiquette. He swirled the wine around in the glass to make sure the liquid slid right back to the bottom without leaving any residue and it did without a single trail left on the side of his glass.
The man tipped his head forward in acknowledgement of Russ’ lack of trust in his host and turned up a smile at the corner of his mouth. He clasped his hands behind his back and walked over to the window that peered out to a Venetian shoreline, with the setting sun shining on the water. Russ felt that this window really should have been a wall for its massive size but seemed to fit well with the overall décor of everything within the mansion and the mansion itself, larger than life and extravagant.
Russ sipped from the wine glass while looking at the dark haired man in the gold smoking jacket stare out of the window. The bitter and sweet room temperature smoothness of currants and red plums slid into his mouth and over his dry tongue, then down his parched throat. The warm liquid seemed to quell the fire in this throat from retching and the choking sensation he’d felt in the grip of his nightmare. Russ wiped his lips free of the wet sensation he felt on them after drinking. Either, the wine was too smooth, he was really thirsty, or his throat hurt just that much because he found himself walking over to the bar to refill his glass.
He returned with the glass in hand to his position near the club chair. He looked past the dark haired man at the window to see what he’d seen before, the ocean and sun reflecting on its surface. Russ had distinctly remembered being in darkness, wind, and rain in Chicago. Not in some mansion near the ocean at sunset that he could see out of the home’s window. He sat his glass down on the arm of the club chair then advanced towards the dark haired man where he stood at the large pane of glass. He was about to step on the rug when he caught sight of the massive tree on the Persian tapestry. He stared at it a moment then walked around it keeping to the hard marble floors instead. Russ stopped a few feet away from him and hesitated to speak.
“Where am I?” He asked.
“Who are you?” Russ asked in a hushed tone.
The long haired gentleman turned to face his guest then smirked, “Tsk, tsk – you know very well who and what I am just as I know who you are. Though, not quite what you are as of yet.”
“I have an idea of who you are but that seems too silly to believe. Who are you really?”
The man in the gilded robed cleared his throat and took a step forward. Russ took a step back, wanting to maintain a comfortable distance between them. All movement between them ceased. Russ studied his host’s face as he pursed his lips in thought.
“You may say that I am a…concerned party though I have certainly been known as an outcast, misfit, and black sheep when I am nothing more than a Forward Thinker.”
Russ looked him over then remembered the image he’d seen in the swirling black on the street. He’d seen the face he was looking into at that moment and another in its place. The image rushed to the front of his mind as if it were a warning signal. Russ took another step backwards and gasped with a sobering recognition of whom and what was standing before him.
“Devil”, Russ uttered loud enough for the man to hear. In a blur of movement the man in the golden slippers and robed closed the space between them with an unpleasant look on his face.
“You should be careful of brandishing insults to those you know nothing of. Man created and still creates devils. It’s what they use to justify the evil within themselves that they then inflict on other people as an excuse for what they truly are.”
“And what are we exactly?”
The man’s chest swelled with anger and his tone deepened with a bass that seemed impossible for a voice so refined and stately.
“YOU are flawed, dependent little robots who are unworthy of the lives they live. I am no devil, no man made me. I am in control of the life I live. No one tells me what to do or how to do it. I do not follow directions, I give them. And I know my full potential and have realized it. No one, certainly not a human, will EVER make me believe that I am less than I am. I do not hide what I am nor do I make excuses for the nature of my being. I am the Light Bearer and the Day Star. I am known in Heaven as the Most Beautiful for there is none in any realm whose beauty surpasses mine. I. Am. Lucifer.”
Russ took a hard swallow and chose his words carefully. It seemed such a shame to have survived the insanity of the night only to die quickly in Italy, at the hands of Satan because he insulted him.
“But you will admit that you do have a great influence over the minds of men.”
Lucifer’s stature deflated. He was taken aback by this statement and stared into Russ with disbelief. In the silence of the room, Lucifer began to chuckle. His chuckle turned into a hearty laugh which then turned raucous. He bent over while gripping his robe in the throes of laughter then calmed himself. He continued to chuckle while wiping a tear from his eye. Russ looked on frightened at the sudden switch. Lucifer having displayed such a harsh display of body language and words then his laughter which seemed out of place unsettled Russ’ constitution a great deal.
“Only women have that kind of power my dear boy. I have no such influence. I simply present the choices of any given situation to you men in ways that you understand. Having choices is what you people have come to relish, is it not?
Paper or plastic?
Hot or Cold?
Creamy or Chunky?
Pine, Steel, or Ash?
Life or Death…it’s all the same really, I just lay your paths out neatly for you to choose.” Lucifer flipped his hair and looked at his impeccably groomed fingernails as he walked a circle around Russ, every so often tossing a glance at him. “There is no force or influence – simply the choice to keep living the charade of your pathetic little lives or…not. Really Russell, I would think you of all people would understand this.”
“How in the hell would I understand?”
“Tsk, come now. That is the second time you’ve made me “tsk” this evening, I am seriously beginning to question your intelligence on this matter.”
Lucifer looked on Russ with his head tilted to one side and raised an eyebrow. They stood in silence for a moment until the deafening quiet was broken with a heavy sigh from Lucifer.
“Then again, The Creator does favor the feeble of mind in His grand schemes. Your minds appear to be more malleable…”
Lucifer ceased his ruminations to allow Russ the opportunity to catch on. When a few more moments in silence passed with Lucifer staring blankly at Russ. Russ gave a visible shrug of his shoulders and shake of his head to let him know that he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, Lucifer filled him in.
“…And I would be hard pressed not to agree.”
A strange feeling overtook Russ momentarily, “You’re… you’re a liar!” He blurted out, backing up from his position near him.
“My, you are truly sharp of tongue and quick of wit.”
“I shouldn’t be listening to you…you’re evil.”
“What is evil, really? Hmm? And what is good? You people toss those terms around with your own personal justifications for both. Failing to realize that to do one is to perform an injustice in the other.”
“Injustice… what?! No, you are literally the embodiment of evil!”
“Psht.” Lucifer waved away the insult with the back of his hand. “Russell, did you not have a slight indiscretion a few days ago?”
“I…” Russ fell silent as he thought back and became speechless as the images of his actions flooded his mind. His facial expression slackened with something similar to shame.
“I remember what you did my dear boy. Do you? Was that not an act of evil?”
Lucifer chuckled as if he’d been reminded of a private joke. He watched Russ’ face as the recognition and remembrance of what he’d done in that alley behind his job came back to him. Russ spoke in a little more than a whisper.
“But you couldn’t’ve…”
“Oh, yes I could have. You were given a choice to let that inexcusable worthless bag of bones keep walking around bringing misery to all those in his path… OR relieve the world of his nuisance and free yourself of his bitter, angry resentment for the likes of you that was outwardly focused and inflicted as pain upon your person.
As a matter of fact, The Creator did try to change your mind. Remember that kitten you heard mewing near the trash cans behind the building? You looked up for a moment to the location where the noise was coming from. He had your attention for a minute but then you turned away and gave in to your anger. He did try.” Lucifer gave a silent clap toward Russ.
Russ closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He remembered struggling with the thought of taking that man’s life before he actually did it. He remembered thinking of rescuing the kitten and leaving the alley. He thought he would take it home and raise it, have a little company in his too quiet apartment on the 4th floor. There was a distraction. Not only did he ignore it, he overrode its intended purpose and kept on with his rage filled plan. Russ’ heart sunk in his chest as he walked away while Lucifer talked.
“But don’t you see?” Lucifer said following closely behind. “It had to happen, my dear boy. It had to be done. Where is the evil in defending oneself? Twas all part of the bigger picture. Russell, I am nothing if not thorough. I am a strategist by nature. I groomed that moment. I put him in the right place at the right time. I even helped foster your mood, which at any time you could have extinguished but chose not to. You decided that your suffering should stop that day. You took a proactive approach, thought of your future and its betterment. We do what must be done Russell. There’s no harm in choosing oneself.”
Russ’ eyes welled up with tears as he swallowed back the hard sobs that were coming forward. He shook his head and had begun a slow pacing in front of the large window.
“Who is we?”
“You and I, are like two peas in a pod. We both men of action. Well you mostly, I am something else.” He chuckled to himself before taking a sip from his glass.
“Don’t what? I am merely making a point that you…”
“Don’t!” Russ screamed. “Don’t make it sound like it was something that had to be done or something that was justified. It was wrong! I chose wrong! I killed and I didn’t have to.”
“I am not so sure of that my dear boy.”
“Shut up! And I am 52 years old. I am a grown man, not a boy – despite all of this”, Russ said moving hands outstretched in regards to himself. “I’m a grown fucking man who is tired of all this bullshit!”
“Sure you are Russell. This is something I can see quite clearly.”
“I didn’t ask for any of this, none of it! I was just supposed to meet a girl in a bar that I met on Facebook for Christ sake! Not go off and see monsters or become…”
“I understand my dear boy…but please understand that we…”
“Stop it! Just stop!”
Silence fell over the room while Lucifer watched Russ cry and beat him-self up with guilt. It was his intention to bring those feelings out of Russ, it was also unavoidable. Lucifer perceived a small set back in his plans. One that he would have to deal with, with gentler hands. He broke the silence and remembered that Russ was a guest in his home.
“You are quite right Russell. Is it not human to ask forgiveness? Then let me adopt this custom and ask your pardons of my poor abilities to be a welcoming host. This unpleasant exchange has darkened the mood a great deal and there are so many other things that are in need of our attention.”
“I don’t think so. Where is Rhay… Ina…”
Lucifer paused, “Is that to my pardon or our discussion?”
“Both, where is she?”
“Inanna is alright- she is being tended to by her mother. Her wounds are great. I haven’t a single doubt that she will heal from them. But…”
“We really do have a very hard and serious discussion ahead of us Russell. I’m afraid it is unavoidable and it regards the wellbeing of us all. Perhaps though, you’d like to freshen up and change before we delve into such reality warping topics and maybe a bite to eat? You must be famished.”
Lucifer gestured Russ towards his large crescent staircase of marble that led up to the next level of the mansion. He saw the hesitation in Russ then promised to stop and check in on Inanna as he was shown to his guest room. Russ moved forward with that promise. He needed to know that she was okay. And if she was, well the hard decision came down to killing her where she stood for exposing him to all of this, getting the hell out of the devil’s house, or leaving her there. Never in all of his life could he have imagined meeting the one people refer to as Satan and remaining alive to have a thought about it. Everything about the entire situation was wrong, scary, and would be logged in his book of “Weird and Strange Shit to Avoid for the Rest of My Life”. Russ’ head swam as he ascended the staircase step by step. For a brief moment, he considered the thought of having been poisoned by Lucifer, but if he had been he doubted that he’d be made to walk. He was certain it was a mixture of fatigue and frayed nerves wreaking havoc on his body.
Along the wall of the staircase a large stone mural came to life with its images swimming and moving gracefully through its Grecian scene. Bellerophon rode high atop the winged Pegasus charging in slow motion towards the fire breathing Chimera. The Chimera’s snake headed tail struck out and bit at Pegasus’ extended wing. Bellerophon, poised and ready to plunge his spear deep into the heart of the Chimera, turned to give recognition to the ascending men on the staircase. The snake headed tail of the Chimera turned away from Pegasus’ wing and towards Lucifer as he strolled up the staircase. It gave a small hiss then turned as Lucifer’s hair blew in the wind from the mural’s stormy skies. The snake head hissed, snapped violently, and showed its fangs to Russ as he walked by before withdrawing back into its stone setting. Russ jumped and stumbled down a few steps. Lucifer turned to see Russ staring at the mural and giving it a wide berth as he moved to the other side of the stairs. He looked at the mural then back at Russ and smirked.
“It’s harmless I assure you. One should always consider it a blessing when art decides to come to life in one’s presence.”
“Oh should one?” Russ said with no appreciation of his wall art.
He took his attention away from the mural and focused on Lucifer. Lucifer was not what he had expected at all. He was refined and had decadent tastes. He spoke well and had a fashion sense he himself had only seen in magazines on racks in grocery stores. He was clean and smelled nice and he was …good looking. He was not the monster he’d been told Lucifer was as a child. He’d seen the monster’s face as something in his true nature earlier in the evening, he knew that now but Lucifer’s appearance was nothing short of angelic. As if he’d been chiseled from the finest Grecian marble by Bernini’s own hands. There was muscle tone to his body, he was sculpted and pronounced. He had a soft and gentle profile, clean shaven and smooth. Flawless skin and Russ watched as Lucifer slid his professionally groomed nails along the railing. His posture was straight and strong, full of confidence and leadership. Unafraid and courageous but why wouldn’t he be. He was the reason people prayed at night and slept with lights on. Lucifer was the bump you heard in the dark and the malicious shadow that followed you on quiet nights as you walked the streets alone. At least, that’s what Russ grew up thinking.
It seemed farfetched to Russ that Lucifer would be an aristocrat living the high life in Europe in a mansion near the shores of Adriatic Sea. Russ found himself staring at the top of Lucifer’s head and his lower back.
“No tail or horns”, he whispered to himself.
“Nope”, Lucifer answered smiling.
“You seem surprised. I may be one of the Fallen but I am still an angel, none the less. I am The Most Beautiful of His kingdom. There was a nasty little rumor flying around centuries ago, that I literally fell from Heaven and became a horrible horned and disfigured mess. All untrue as you can see.”
“And you live here in all of this? I thought you lived in Hell.”
“Russell you’ve lived on this miserable floating rock of a planet all of your natural born life. Earth is Hell.”
“I can’t argue with that sentiment. But it is a place, right?”
“Heaven and Hell are what you make it.”
A warm rush of goosebumps rushed over Russ’ body as he gave a visible shake. The weird feeling just kept happening and he didn’t know why exactly. He stopped a second on the ascent of the staircase and gathered himself before addressing Lucifer again.
“But you live…here.”
“Why shouldn’t The Most Beautiful surround himself in beautiful things?”
Russ thought for a moment then asked a question that had surfaced as they reached the top of the staircase and walked the corridor.
“So…there is no Hell?”
Lucifer spun on his toes and looked Russ in the eye. He searched his face for signs of sincerity behind his question and found it. Lucifer laughed then continued to walk the halls of his home.
“Ah Russell, your naivety is quite refreshing. I swear I haven’t laughed this much in…in…hmm.”
“Yes. The past is a foggy and dark place Russell. While some things are like smoke rings on the wind, fleeting, and of very little substance – other things stick like wet toilet paper on the boy’s room ceiling. Always there full of memories every time you look up, Heaven as it were.”
“That’s pretty …poetic. Fucked up but poetic.”
“The point my dear Russell is this, the deeper you bury the past, the better off you’ll be.”
There was silence while they walked the long corridor. Russ took in the sights. He watched every painting and statue with a careful eye, untrusting of its stillness. Lucifer hummed Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” as they walked along the long the hall.
Russ couldn’t believe his ears.
“You listen to that whack job’s music?”
“No…actually. She seems to be one of Mammon’s favorite artists. I believe you people call it an ear worm.”
“Who is Mammon?”
“He is Inanna’s twin brother. We had a party here for him on his birthday. Lady Gaga was one of his preferred guests.”
“I knew it, Gaga made a deal with you didn’t she. I knew she was a hack.”
“Why on earth… Russell, making crossroads deals are a thing of the past for me. I am no longer the one cutting deals for the souls of young artists seeking fame. Haven’t you been reading the news? The record labels have cornered the market on my little scam. I am no longer the boogey man at the end of every budding artist’s contract and clause. They are. Besides Buddy was the last.”
“Things of the past Russell, things of the past.”
Russ fell silent and shook his head in disbelief. “Was Rhay…Inanna here for this party with her brother?”
“No, she chose not to attend. As a matter of fact, this is the first time in a very long time that we’ve been able to see her. I can imagine this being a very trying time for her mother, especially since she’s been injured pretty badly.”
“You make it sound like she’s close to death.”
“It is a serious and critical wound Russell, I wouldn’t make light of the situation, she means too much to me.”
“So what are you…like the favorite uncle or some shit?”
Lucifer stopped in his stride through the hall and regarded Russ, for a moment he thought he was joking but saw in his eyes that he actually had no idea who he was. He left him to his thought and continued to walk.
“Or some shit. As I said earlier, I am a concerned party. Inanna’s life is precious and means a lot to me.”
“Uh huh.” Russ said giving a sideways glance to Lucifer. The word predator immediately came to mind.
“Russell, she’s…she’s special. Let’s just say that I owe a lot of the changes I’ve made in the way that I live to her.”
Russell listened to the words Lucifer spoke. Something didn’t feel right about the way he talked of Inanna. Family friends don’t gush or show so much concern for the daughter of your friend but then who was he to judge. He just knew that the more he spoke of Inanna as a loved one, the creepier he came off. They rounded a corner at the end of the hall and headed towards the first bedroom on the right side of that corridor. A door lay open to a bedroom of robin’s egg blue paint on the walls and white trim with a silver chandelier hanging from the ceiling’s center. Lilith sat on a bed of light blue and black satin bedding. Inanna lay beneath a sheet in her naked human form, trembling and sweating with medical bandaging wrapped around her waist. She looked right on the edge of death and in truth she was not very far off. Russ’s eyes immediately began to tear as he watched his friend lay dying.