‘Soul-Swapping’ is the shortest short-story I’ve written. It was inspired by my being perplexed by how some fortunes fade while others rise in the entertainment industry. It’s as if some game-player is controlling their fate. I was particularly thinking of the thoroughly irritating Russell Brand in creating my obnoxious film-star celebrity,though there are so many manufactured ‘stars’ around these days that he could be virtually anybody.
Brand is such a talentless non-entity that his success bewilders me – he’s as funny as a wart,can’t act and every one of his films has flopped at the box office ( but made him millions ),he’s lacking in education and jumps onto band waggons representing good causes,such as addiction and homelessness.
It’s good that people in such deprived circumstances have a motormouth to represent them,but it looks like a career move for him to me,so that he’s taken seriously. The celebrity in ‘Soul-Swapping’ is written with him in mind.
It’s a quick read,which will only take a few minutes. I bet that it makes you smile several times.
“Fame is a bright flower,but weeds abound mostly about it.”
“Everything has a weight that I can’t know about until I hold it,and that includes souls,“thought Matt,as he watched the young man sleep.
Slipping through walls in the Victorian terrace,Matt was on a search for a redundant soul to exchange for his latest client,a gambling demon named Beulah,who’d made a shady wager with a fellow dark angel. Matt didn’t want to know the ins-and-outs of their shenanigans. Not knowing things kept him less tormented.
Being one of the damned had few perks that Matt could see,so he certainly wasn’t going to add to the perils. Moving closer to the drunkard,Matt noticed that he’d dropped a can of cider into his lap soaking his crotch after he’d passed out in the chair. He was clutching a harmonica in his other hand. Was he even alive ? Matt gazed intently at the man’s chest,detecting no movement,though leaning closer to his fetid mouth a slight rush of fumes wafted forth. A dozen crushed cans littered the floor around the chair,reason enough for the student’s comatose state.
Matt found no food in the kitchen area,just more cheap cider and beer. This fellow looked like he’d given up on his studies,in favour of life as a drunkard – at least until his grant-money ran out. An old guitar lay abandoned in one corner,strings broken. Posters of troubadours peeled from faded wall-paper. His text books and work-file lay dusty and food-stained on a shabby dining-table. A would-be lawyer,Matt saw – did the world really need another one of those ? An incompetent lawyer contributed to Matt’s demise,so curse them all. And many of them went on to become politicians,so double-damn them….
A soul this dull and unused would wreak havoc with the irritating comedy actor that Beulah wanted to put the kibosh on. Matt paid little attention to modern celebrities,preferring to bask in memories of his Victorian contemporaries,but even he’d noticed this plebeian upstart’s extravagantly coiffeured fizzog plastered on numerous bill-boards.
His film career failed to equal the success of his meteoric television incarnation,with a series of flops that made the studios nervous. But rumours were that his latest movie,currently in production,would be his salvation : somehow the actor had wormed his way onto a cast of Hollywood luminaries under an Oscar-winning director,and was rumoured to have toned his know-it-all persona down to actually try some real acting.
Matt pondered on how long this screen heart-throb would stay under from his latest drugs-binge. The fool spent more time in drying-out clinics recently than on film sets,but that didn’t halt his prodigious intake. Sandwiched between two would-be starlets under gold silk sheets at a discreet boutique hotel the coked-out actor should stay quiet for a few more hours. Why were so many people chasing oblivion these days ? They should try being dead and damned for eternity,then they’d appreciate life.
Mr Celebrity wouldn’t miss his shiny soul for a while. It took Matt a few anxious moments to pin the suspiciously bright soul down as it slithered across the slippery sheets. It was almost as if it knew its intended destination,and was seeking a way out. It quieted when popped into a purple velvet pouch,but Matt pulled the drawstring tight,just in case. The soul now lay squirming occasionally,in a pocket of Matt’s cloak.
Sliding the sleeve of his leather shirt back to his elbow,he daggered his fingers and forced his hand smoothly and slowly into the student’s chest. There was no point in disturbing a body about to be robbed of its soul,in Matt’s view,though he’d heard that some demons liked to shock their victims awake,thrilled by their struggling. It took all sorts,but he preferred an easy-does-it style. Rummaging around the chest cavity,Matt sidled his palm diagonally,fingers fluttering gently as he reached behind the heart.
Souls could be elusive,and their size and hiding-place told you a lot about the character of the donor. Clues were given by appearance and occupation. An obese cookery writer’s virtually adipose soul was wedged in folds of lard in his gut,while a chess-master’s microprocessor soul Matt found slotted into the concentration wedges between the prodigy’s eyebrows. Matt picked it out on the end of his blackened talon,gaining entry via a nostril – you needed to improvise in this line of work.
Having been a surgeon’s assistant in his previous life was of some use,though Matt was still occasionally startled by what he encountered on his forays into human anatomy.
All of those different textures,coursing fluids and malevolent growths were awkward to differentiate sometimes. An eye on the end of one of his claws would aid navigation,but that would look a bit weird,and anyway might be painful if he stubbed it ; better to do things by feel.
Gliding smoothly around the wings of the liver,Matt tickled the soul gently towards his talons,pinching it firmly in a pincer grip. There,not so difficult,though the soul when it emerged was as shrivelled and damaged as its refuge felt. The student really was killing himself body and soul.
The actor’s brassy soul glinted dully in Matt’s leathery palm. It looked a lot less frisky removed from the tiresomely optimistic housing of that gobshite and he wondered for a moment if it would thrive in the student’s pickling fluid. Still,his not to reason why – he’d been paid for soul-swapping not preservation work. Matt’s own soul,a shellacked dome of ebony,was stored with millions of others somewhere in catalogue-drawers in an ante-room of Hell.
Had things gone better,back then when he was alive and performing illegal abortions,his soul would be flying around his angelic rib cage like a happy canary. But no. How was he supposed to know that the pregnant patient was the prime-minister’s niece ?
Sighing morosely,Matt flicked the actor’s soul with a black nail,perking it up – bad form transplanting a wilting soul. Better to rehome it away from the rather dubious dankness of the student’s pee-processing plant,but where ? This wretch had been quiet for too long,best give him his voice back – a sense of purpose might follow. Gripping the recumbent sleeper gently by the tip of his nose Matt tilted his head upwards and slid the actor’s soul into the larynx.
Perhaps Beulah was misdirecting Matt by glowering over the actor,and her interest was really in this washed-up law student. It didn’t seem likely,as she could do what she liked without recourse to legalities. Matt wasn’t even going to think about it any more. Beulah was five hundred years more ancient than him,with all of the wickedness that implied. She was also twice his height and weight, and her eyes were glowing coals.
Would the actor’s soul transform this pathetic young man’s life ? Matt knew how hard it had been for him to make his way in London,and only the lucky break of having a tolerance for goriness saw him move from butcher’s delivery boy to his role as surgeon’s assistant. How unbearable would a newly invigorated lawyer with the soul of a shameless egotist be ?
He was thinking way too much – just do,Matt,don’t think about what you’re doing. Time to flit back to the swanky hotel. On the leathery wings that comprised his cloak Matt made the journey in a few flaps and one long glide. Big in Hollywood he might want to be,but the actor’s anorexic body and tiny anteater penis weren’t going to help matters. And,when his new shrunken soul came to join in the act,what would become of the actor’s career ?
Leaning against the foot-board Matt contemplated the supine trio. There were aspects of his baleful existence that hinted at some power in determining donors’ fates,such as where he placed the soul,but most of the time Matt felt like what he really was – just a demonised courier of pirated souls.
Reaching over one of the tarts,Matt briefly considered probing the actor’s nethers – giving him erectile dysfunction as well as a wilted soul would be cruel though….We all need our compensations in life,even if they’re small ones. Matt could place the soul in the actor’s brain,though he wasn’t keen on that procedure,as the skull’s edges felt uncomfortable scraping the side of his talons. Also,the mind was a tricky thing to fathom. A soul placed in one part of the brain could encourage a madman to flourish,while injudicious relocation of a soul once saw Matt produce epilepsy in a trapeze-artist – with disastrous results.
Best stick with more elemental organs in the torso…he could predict with reasonable accuracy what the effect would be.
This damaged soul needed a healthier environment than the proximity of the liver,which the actor treated without respect,sousing it in vintage brandy. Although this irksome celebrity was not noted for his intellect,his big heart was often praised – a few carefully chosen charity fund-raising ventures giving him popularity with the public,as well as raising his profile of course,so maybe sabotaging his good nature would be meddlesome enough.
Moving one of the tart’s arms off the actor’s hairless chest,Matt corkscrewed the student’s soul beneath the gently beating heart,lifting the chambers to drape over the edges. How would his heart cope with so little support from his soul ? Job well done,Matt looked enviously around the luxurious room. It had been an age since he felt warmth and comfort,his quarters being one of the few unimproved warehouses in dockland.
No use feeling sorry for his fate – nobody else did,and he’d brought it on himself.
Under Satan’s eternal curse,his damnation consisted of interfering with the fates of others : it mattered not if they were good or bad people,souls were swapped without thought,it appeared to Matt,though he could detect malice in Beulah’s instructions more readily than he could other demons. Unfurling his wings,Matt took off to find her.
Standing,thigh-high leather boots astride a grate above an underground bakery Beulah looked as unlike Marilyn Monroe as was possible. If anything,she resembled a gigantic transvestite dominatrix,one who was once a wrestler in a previous life,and the few would-be clients brave or desperate enough to approach her were instantly repelled by the stench of sulphur that emanated from her black lips.
BDSM might have become more mainstream,but no one fancied being consumed by a seven foot tall hell-hag. Even the police crossed the road when they saw Beulah,averting their gaze to examine shop-windows while avoiding the hungry stare of her reflection.
The increased popularity of steam-punk fashion meant that Matt’s once unusual garb of cloak,top-hat,spats and cane was now more cause for compliments than ridicule. He still avoided tourists’ cameras whenever possible though,as seeing their anxious reaction when his image failed to appear on their screens was more trouble than the amusement it offered. One group of Japanese holiday-makers had pursued him through Soho,repeatedly snapping away,bemused by his digital disappearance.
Beulah stood tall,erect and defiant of a world she was only visiting. Matt wondered how many of the fumes rising from around her legs came from baking bread and how many rose in brimstone eddies from her mighty thighs. She always seemed to know when he was there,even though her head never moved. As cautiously as he could,without looking creepy,Matt gingerly approached Beulah. Perhaps she had radar,for when he was still several yards from her she hissed
“ Done it ? “ – her mouth agape,but lips not moving.
Matt was a demon,but Beulah scared the hell out of him. What was with this guttural back-of-the-throat growling ? Was she a ventriloquist ? Which would make him her dummy,a realisation that made him quiver as he contemplated her huge metal-studded leathered fists – some thoughts were better off unthought.
“ Yeah,all done,just as you instructed. One supercharged law student and one emasculated film star coming up soon. Though what you think will …”
One of Beulah’s red-veined eyes swivelled his way with a glare,so he shut his stupid mouth,as she flipped payment at him in a filthy brown envelope sealed with a red wax seal. Beulah loved the old ways,and who was he to comment ? A very foolish demon,that’s who – but one who’d just earned a few more credits to gain readmission to Hell. This might not sound like a desirable destination,but a quiet corner of Hades with minimal punishment inflicted was vastly preferable to scuttling around cold draughty London like a rat on a mission.
Weeks passed. Matt worked now and again,doing soul-swaps for demons with too many credits on talon to warrant wondering about their motivation. Most of these wastrels were just bored,stuck in their ways of making mischief and dispensing torment to even bother viewing the results of his endeavours. When he wasn’t hunting out suitable souls he lurked around parliament,a relaxing atmosphere to be as all of the politicians’ souls had been sold long ago.
Although Matt was in this world,he was obviously not of it,not since he departed 150 years ago,his neck snapping with a gristly ‘thwack’ as the incompetent hangman jerked on his calves with his weight. This was annoying enough,especially in light of the fact that his trial had been a rush-job,hushed-up too,so as not to cause embarrassment to the government,but the executioner’s tugging bent his neck at an angle when his spine finally broke. Going through a damned eternity with a wry neck hadn’t made his lot any easier,though a stiff collar helped.
Attaching a top-hat to his remaining locks with a hat-pin one morning Matt noticed a tattered newspaper flapping in the gutter – there was a familiar name in the headline,that of the tiresome actor. Matt didn’t really keep up,so the news was several weeks old. All the same,the demon was rather shocked at what had transpired.
Far from being a disaster for the irksome celebrity,the soul-swap he’d made enabled him to turn in an egoless performance in the film that made the critics hail his versatility and generosity. His vastly more experienced cast members were clamouring to work with him again,and he was being nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. It was seen as a way of increasing any future fees that the actor announced his decision to leave show-business and devote his life to working for medical and peace charities,but Matt felt other suspicions.
Mr Super-Ego may have turned into Mr Ego-free,but his powerful humility was more likely to do great good in the world than his pathetically over-ambitious former self would ever have achieved. This couldn’t be what the boss downstairs was after – he loved disease and war,after all. Could Matt be in trouble – what had Beulah dropped him into ?
How was the hapless law student faring ? Would his booze raddled body have been able to merge with a soul as powerful as a volcano ? He’d been on the point of dropping-out – perhaps the new soul simply put him back on track and he was now steaming happily away towards qualification,followed by prestige in the courts. How to find out though – there was nothing in this old newspaper.
Perhaps Matt could discover something at the library – they had up-to-date newspapers,as well as the journal of The Law Society,and he’d mastered the art of looking over shoulders as people surfed the Internet.
Scurrying along the high street in the direction of the nearest branch library,Matt’s eyes were drawn to flickering images displayed on televisions in an electrical showroom. It couldn’t be ! But it was – the gormless student,bright and scrubbed,seriously stylish haircut bouncing away as he strummed his guitar and puffed at the harmonica which Matt last saw disappearing down the side of the would-be lawyer’s cider-stained jeans.
This loser had dropped out,and entered a TV talent-show,which he’d won easily – he was hailed as the new Dylan,won a lucrative recording deal and his album was racing up the charts.
Surely the student was fated to blow up in some trial,overwhelmed by hubris and wrecking the case against some criminal who Beulah had made an investment in – at least that was as far as Matt allowed himself to go with his theories. Why else would Beulah have placed such an explosive time-bomb in so placid a character ? Not to take over the pop-charts and go onto fame and glory. This soul-swap was working way too weirdly…..
Beulah was in her usual location,her black leather trench-coat sucking up the innocent aroma from cinnamon buns and cottage loaves.
“ All right,butcher-boy ? “she intoned charmlessly as Matt shuffled as close as he dared.
She looked pleased with life,if a huge rhino-demon was able to show pleasure. Her cracked charcoal lips smirked as she explained how she’d won her wager. Failed law student turned pop superstar was the latest performer of the devil’s music,who would drift from anodyne pop,through protest songs and onto raunchier more corrupting material that would have churches anxious at the influence of Satan on the souls of the young and impressionable.
He’d burn out,turn to drugs and join the infamous 27 Club,alongside past members Brian Jones,Jimi Hendrix,Janis Joplin,Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison,all dead from infernal excess. His music sales would rocket as a result of his death,further spreading the Devil’s philosophy.
“ Why do you think I chose that self-absorbed prick’s soul for you to transplant into a dull student ? He could have stayed blotto on booze for years,all of his life in fact,but a few speed-balls will see off anyone. He’ll just stay true to his soul’s former owner’s hedonism. “
“ OK,OK,I get that bit.” Matt tried not to whine, “ But what about our new white knight,the up-himself actor who’s going to save the world from AIDS,cancer and war ? “
“ Who do you think owns the pharmaceutical companies that make medicine to control epidemics ?” Beulah sneered. “ Satan might lose some entertainment value from having fewer conflicts to watch,but peace-keeping forces need armaments too,as do the new stable governments,all of which we’ll sell to them. We’ll make ground under the flag of peace,just as we’ve always done. The actor-turned-saint will do us proud – though he’s still a pretentious wanker ! “
Matt hated his job sometimes,and this was one of them. The prospect of returning to Hell one day seemed cheerier than ever. The politics of demons were too much for him to comprehend. He was a simple demon,damned but hard-working and looking for a break.
He couldn’t be dealing with show-business types at all,wherever their souls once resided. Give Matt really nasty psychos like war-lords,torturers,serial killers,bankers and tax inspectors and he could cope – at least they were consistent – honest in their evil .
He was going for a quiet lie-down.
Beulah had another soul-swap for him to do that night – a poodle-breeder and a chartered accountant – what could possibly go wrong?