They say that all the great stories only have one plot. The ancient tales tells of the struggle of heroes to greatness, the fall of villains. The same thing over and over, on bark or hide or clay, the fight between good and evil.
But this story begins with a simple man. Begins with, though perhaps no further, because being a simple man does not make things simple. And remember what else they say, that even the devil himself was once heaven's greatest angel.
He found it in a pawn shop. There were no horror-movie-esque histrionics, the shopkeeper warning him against it, begging him not to buy it, he just handed over a couple of notes and that was that. He was shopping for a present for his girlfriend when he found the small porcelain figurine, sitting innocuously on a dusty shelf surrounded by all other odds and ends that defied classification. It took a little frowning while he tried to work out was it was, a kind of warped angel, form twisted and blood-red wings streaming down its back. He figured it was kooky enough for her.
The name to the fortune was Ed Mason, twenty-two, fresh out of university. He'd managed to snag himself a job as a programmer at a little computing company, hit it off with the boss's secretary. He never thought, no one would think, that impressing her with something quirky for their one-month anniversary would lead to what it did.
It came to him that night, black, red, darkness, fire, a voice echoing from a shape in the black acrid smoke. Whispering promises, promising wealth and dreams. And when it was done, the money spent, all he had to give was himself. Now, in exchange for forever. He was young then, bare few years out of his teens, brash and cocky. He'd sat through the church services as a boy but nothing more, half-listening as the funny man at the front jabbered on about souls and the above or below. He wasn't even sure it was real then, what he was agreeing to.
He woke the next morning, headache pounding behind his temples, though from a nightmare or the last wafts of sulphurous smog he wasn't sure. It took him until lunchtime to notice the scorch mark on his coffee table, five just discernible visible points.
Three days later, a girl scout came knocking on his door selling cookies. As Ed politely refused her, she broke in with a chafingly loud squeal and promptly started cooing at where he had left the figurine propped up on his foyer. He barely caught the words 'ancient' and 'thought lost' and 'priceless' in her jumbled cooing before he shut the door.
The next month, the demented angel went for $63 million at an antiques auction.
He quit his job, broke up with the girlfriend half because he couldn't be bothered to explain and half because he was afraid he couldn't. He dumped a couple of million in a Swiss bank account, like he'd seen the guys in movies, and started carding out the rest. He got himself a mansion, private jet, fleet of cars, every cliché you could think of, and then sat back with a smirk that was almost a smile.
And things moved on. Days turned into months turned into years, punctuated by functions and parties and flights around the world. He did the See the World books cover to cover, then moved on to the Live the Life ones. And in the depth of the hours, Ed would muse to himself about that. Life, only on loan. But you only lived once, or so they said. He would muse, with a bottle of Christ's blood, until the words bled together in the light of day against the dark red of swollen eyelids.
He met a girl at one of those classy conventions he could never quite remember the purpose of, charmed her best he could though whether it was his words or his money that did the deal he wasn't sure. They married nineteen months later, had their first child in another twelve, and were divorced by three years. But that was how things worked up there, wasn't it.
He only ever did it once, digging into his storage to pull out his mother's old bible, dusty pages that smelled of damp wood and empty drawers, lost prayers and perfunctory sermons. He'd never believed before, had no idea what to believe now. They said this world was merely the step between, the judgement for the after. They said that you had to make your choice, or perhaps that your fate was predetermined—they never did seem to decide which one.
Somewhere along the line, Edward Mason began to wonder who 'they' were.
The regret came later, all technicals at first, of his cockiness, living off his spoils without bothering to deal. The amount stuffed away like an action villain all those years ago had dwindled as he'd dropped into his reserve fund more and more often in recent times, but not dangerously so just quite yet. He started calling up investors, people to look after the money, with an offhanded order to 'not let it run out.'
His daughter was eleven when she collapsed one day in class, merely a child in this life as much as Ed was in eternity. She was with his ex-wife that week, but he got the call from the hospital. They had a whole booklet of medical terms, but all he heard was, 'potentially terminal.'
Somehow, it had taken until then for him to realise just how real everything was.
Three months were spent trying to prevent escalation, but it was no use. The doctors knew that from the start. He was there late one evening for the last attempt when one turned to him and mentioned something, yet another pile of scientific waffle, but he managed to catch on to the last bit about experimental drugs. There was a hope, so the doctor told him, but it was still in lab. And insurance wasn't even close to covering. 'How much?' Ed asked, but the man in the white coat just shook his head. 'They've lost funding,' he said, 'unless you can pay all costs straight up, it's no use.'
In the blanched cleanliness of the ward, among the soft wafts of used bandages and anaesthetic, he hesitated almost a moment before replying, 'I'll do it.'
The money was nearly gone, just a few thousand left over for emergencies. He called in his investments, bonds, sold off his stock, then realised he probably should move to a more legit bank. He didn't even let himself sleep on it before signing the entire account over.
The call came seven weeks later. The hospital had good news. She was responding to the treatment, she was going to live. He went to sleep that night with a smile on his face, some may have called it unrepentant, and opened his eyes to white.
There was smoke, but not the thick black bank that he'd seen every time he'd closed his eyes in the last few decades, a filmy pale mist the colour of cloud and just as tangible. 'It's time,' the voice purred. 'I know.' He squeezed his eyes shut, nodding. 'I suppose I'd better wish you luck up there.'
There was a pause then, 'Wait, up there?'
Suddenly the smoke cleared, and he was standing in his daughter's dazzling white hospital room. He blinked once, twice, and for the first time there was a body to go with that slick-silver voice. It wasn't a creature, vile, deformed, bestial like in the stories. It was a man, but not a man. Ethereal and inhumanely perfect, but cold, sharp, cutting down that line between beauty and aberration. 'People believed once in good, against the bad. Take the sinners and leave the righteous.' And now, it was smiling, a kind of cross between a grin and sneer, some impossible combination of the two. 'I almost wish it was really that simple.'
The last thing he heard before the white light blinded him was, 'Goodbye, Mister Mason. Looks like we won't be spending time together after all.'
All stories have an ending, whether its happy or sad, wanted or not. But this one isn't either, or perhaps it's both.
This story ends with a little girl, waking up one morning with memories of the strangest dream the night before. She sits up in her bed, tugs on her hospital gown, stretches her arms up toward the plaque above that reads 'Rosy Mason,' then pauses when her cheek hits cool porcelain. There's a figure on her pillow of vivid crimson china, and she squints in confusion before giggling when she realises that the face seems kind of familiar.
In a few hours she'll be getting a phone-call from her tight-lipped mother, telling her the news. Soon, she'll be surrounded by awkwardly comforting doctors and nurses with sweets, as if that makes it better. But for now, she just squints a little harder, and finds she can just make out a thin ring of gold, dotted around the head in stark contrast. In the right light, it almost looks like a halo.