The hunt was on.
“Subject 18 sighted. Approach?”
“Affirmative. We’ll stay out of sight but in range.”
“Contact ETA, one minute.”
“Stay sharp, team. He’s a slippery one.”
“Affirmative. Red Alert One.”
“Prepare to move in.”
“Project Shoel is a go. I repeat, Project Shoel is a go. Move in…”
The man emerged from the dark shadows, looking over his shoulder several times. His breath was fast, his eyes were shifty, and he looked ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. His thigh-length hoodie was dirt-stained, and what had once been a bright ankara textile was now faded and covered in dark stamps left by perspiration. The man smelled of sweat and something more acrid – desperation.
But even as desperate as he was, he did not dare escape this meeting at the place where three roads met. Only those who had nowhere else to go took this option – and that was exactly the point he was at.
The night was oddly quiet, all the usual sounds of nocturnal animals missing, as though they knew the place was unholy ground. The man reached the meeting spot and then continually shifted from one foot to another, eyes darting wildly. Despite his watchfulness, he did not see the dark figure when it emerged, and he jumped when it addressed him.
“Mr M, I assume?” The voice of the dark figure was mellow, dulcet tones that throbbed with a strange power.
The man moved forward bravely, squinting to see better in the night. But the dark figure remained in the shadows, a vague outline with broad shoulders and long legs.
“Y..yes,” the one addressed as Mr. M replied. “That’s me. Are you…?”
“Yes,” the dark figure interrupted, then chuckled. “It is I.”
“I came here because…”
There was a note of impatience in the dark figure’s voice. “I know why you’re here. Those who come here always want the same thing. A deal.”
The man looked around, and licked his lips. “Yes, I want… I need to make a deal. I’m in trouble.”
“Oh, I know your story, Mr. M. It’s nationwide news and your pictures are all over the internet. You’re on the run from the police. What was it? Fraud? Robbery? Kidnapping? Murder? Or all four?”
“Does it matter?” the man hissed.
“No, it really doesn’t,” came the response, tinged with amusement. “I can give you what you want. Money, help you flee the country, or hide in plain sight. I don’t care what you did, as long as you can afford the price for safety. You know what that is, yes?”
“Yes,” Mr M breathed. “My soul.”
“Yessss. Your immortal soul.”
The man held his breath as the figure emerged from the darkness and grinned down at him. The figure was unusually tall – over 7 feet, or maybe 8, because it was slightly hunched over. Still, he was surprised at everything else – the perfectly tailored blazer, the handsome face, the dark skin and bright eyes.
“What? Did you expect me to have horns?”
The man gulped audibly but nodded. “Well, yes. You’re …Satan.”
“Please. Lucifer will do,” the tall figure said with a wince. “And don’t believe all the old tales. Each generation hands down a different version of my story. Believe them at your own risk.”
Something unseen rustled in the surrounding darkness and the man shifted impatiently. “Can we get on with this?”
Lucifer grinned and stretched out a hand. “All it takes is one handshake, and the deal is done. But I see you’re in a hurry to lose your soul.”
The man’s reply was grim. “If I’m caught, I’ll die in dirty SARS cell. Who soul epp?” He moved forward, took a deep breath and clasped the offered hand.
Lucifer’s grin took on a new aspect, his teeth lengthening into points that gleamed in the moonlight. His fingernails lengthened into dark claws as his hand tightened around the man’s enclosed palm. “Then our deal is all but done. Make your wish carefully, and then give up your soul.”
They stared at each other, one gaze infernal, the other grim. And then things took an unexpected turn.
Something rustled in the darkness around them again, and Lucifer cocked his head to one side, sighting scurrying figures moving along the periphery of the dark roads. Had the man been followed to their rendezvous? “I suggest you make that wish quickly,” he quipped, “because it looks like the noose is tightening around your neck.”
But the man was unmoving, still staring, perhaps hesitant. Lucifer’s grin dimmed a little and a frisson of irritation went through him. “Fine. Don’t make a wish then,” he said curtly, pulling his hand away.
Except, he could not.
The man’s grip was strong … too strong. And when Lucifer pushed on their clasped palms with his other hand, the man calmly trapped that with his free hand as well.
“Subject 18 apprehended,” the man called Mr. M called out calmly. “Move in.”
Now aware he had been entrapped like a fly stuck to sticky paper, Lucifer struggled and bucked, his form churning into several hideous forms, with no effect. He could not escape, and he raged helplessly as the lurking figures moved into the moonlight and surrounded them. The area grew brighter as the watching figures slid off their mortal aspects and spread out their wings of light in a protective phalanx that surrounded the duo.
Still holding on to Lucifer, the fake fugitive known as Mr. M shed his false face also.
“You!” Lucifer raged. “Michael!”
“Yes, me, dear brother,” the angel, famed Battle-General of the Heavenly Corps, responded. “Too long have you roamed here after your great escape from Shoel. Time to go back.”
There was an infernal shriek of rage as Lucifer bucked with all his might, but his effort was ineffectual against the combined restrictive strength of his brothers. With a low roar, the otherworldly group disappeared in a flash of light with their captured fugitive.
In the ensuing calm, the night slowly filled with the sounds of night creatures – toads, crickets and a solitary owl – the only witnesses to the final success of Operation Shoel.