The Woman Who Made a Pact with the Devil


Chapter 1


She hadn't expected to like him.

He was too skeletal, for one thing, his eyes set a little too deeply inside his skull, his gaze a little too unabashed, too knowing. Longish black hair swept up off a high forehead, with sea-green eyes and a prominent brow-ridge, he reminded her of a certain breed of dog, vaguely satanic.

For another thing, she'd read his literature - or some of it - and she'd found it stylistically flawed: sophisticated, she had to admit that, with a most unorthodox manner of punctuating, which, despite herself, she found logical and even addictive the more of it she read, but ultimately obtuse.

Furthermore, she basically preferred women.

Here she was, however, their business concluded, not quite willing to pull herself away - feeling, indeed, more deeply drawn in.

What was it held her?

Raking her fingers through her brown bobbed hair and glancing out the plate-glass window which was flecked with rain, Abby asked herself that very question. She sipped her coffee.

The calm about the eyes - that was one thing. It relaxed her and made her feel certain he was listening to every one of her words, which as a matter of fact he was. Also, somewhat to her surprise, she likewise enjoyed listening to him - his voice specifically, apart from the content. It was an unmannered voice, not deep, not rich, not remarkable or sonorous, but slow and soothing. It captured the laid-back quality of his disposition, she thought, which had also surprised her, so at odds was it with his literature.

All of this, in collaboration with his manner of moving and his hard-to-read half smile, gave him a sort of languorous confidence the exact likes of which she couldn't recall ever having come across. His name was Michael Kumulous, but everybody, herself included, called him Kumulous, and she liked that too. It was a name she'd never heard before.

And there was, as well, the fact that he was erudite. She had no doubt about this now, though she had in the beginning. Even if she hated admitting it now because his ideas were in many ways opposite her own, she had nonetheless gotten the sense several times in the course of interviewing him that concerning those subjects he was most interested in, he was a near-bottomless source. Four or five times, in fact, she had the overwhelming impression that she was only glimpsing the depth of his understanding, and when she recognized this, it somewhat frightened her - frightened her in a way should couldn't explicitly name.

Finally, she could feel his interest in her, in the questions he asked, which were smart and authentic, and in the way he listened to her answers. It all made very little sense to her, given their age gap, which was significant, and their ideological differences. Still, it radiated off him like heat, and it was an interest that touched her on all levels: intellectual, psychological, sexual. She could almost feel him sniffing her out.

Thus, in spite of everything, she found herself, two coffees later, smiling and nodding assent when he asked her if she'd like to join him across the street for a drink.

CHAPTER 2

It was a darkly burning bar. He held her loosely by her coat sleeve and led her out of the rain and into the shadows toward the back. She wore a long thin jacket, olive green, and low black heels. Once again she caught herself admiring the way he moved: calm yet purposeful. She liked his big knuckles, the prominent veins on the back of his hands. There were only four other patrons in the entire place, all of whom were seated on the other side of the lounge, near the entrance.

The bartender was heavily pierced. He had on a black v-neck tee-shirt, ribbed and form-fitting, and his entire right arm was covered in an intricate tattoo that snaked up to his jugular. He came out from behind the bar to serve them. He was soft-spoken and polite. He brought them water. His hair was blonde and spiky. Abby guessed him around her age, which was twenty-five. She draped her jacket over the back of the chair and ordered whiskey on the rocks. Kumulous ordered a glass of dark beer.

Not bad, Abby thought. She liked that he'd not chosen something complicated or quasi-sophisticated. It was her opinion that people who are overly particular about the drinks they order in bars are sexually uninteresting. In fact, she regarded gourmandizing or snobbery of any kind as a sign of stupidity.

"Are you comfortable?" Kumulous said.

"Very," she said. Which was true: she couldn't remember the last time she felt so calm and at peace.

The bartender returned and set their drinks on thick black cocktail napkins. He was clean and efficient. "Will there be anything else?" he said.

"No, thank you," Kumulous said.

The bartender nodded once and removed himself.

Kumulous lifted his black beer and toasted Abby:

"To the wound that never heals," he said.

Lightly she touched the foot of his beer glass with her sweating tumbler, which contained a single cubic rock.

Her amber-colored whiskey winked in the burning light, and for a moment's fraction she wasn't entirely sure if it was the light winking, or him.

They drank. Neither spoke. There was a soft jazz trumpet coming almost unnoticeably through hidden speakers. It was very soothing. No awkwardness hung between them in the silence. A white candle burned in the middle of the mahogany table. The flame was creamy and soft, and from its lovely light he could clearly see the flecks of gold in her eyes, which were pensive and hazel, and he thought this place became her.

"You're quite a star," he said.

"Hardly that."

He took a swallow of beer.

"I read your book," he said.

"Oh?"

"Yes."

"And?"

"I thought it was stellar."

She cast him a long steady stare.

"You're not exactly what I expected you'd be," she said.

"No? What did you expect?"

"I don't know. Someone a little less ..."

"Yes?"

"Relaxed."

She thought she saw his mocking half smile lift a little.

"I'm all knots on the inside."

"Please," she said. She gulped her whiskey. She could feel it coursing through her veins like morphine already, and she liked it. It emboldened her. "When the magazine gave me this assignment, I initially turned it down."

"What changed?" he said.

"I read something you wrote. It infuriated me. But then, an hour later, I realized something."

"What did you realize, Abby?"

"That I couldn't stop thinking of your words." She paused. "And ..."

He waited, watched.

"And that you may actually have a point," she said.

He blinked slowly in the candlelight. "I think that may be the greatest compliment I've ever received."

She was now hyper-aware of his mocking half-smile.

"May I ask you something which might come off sounding more insulting than I intend?" she said.

"Implying that you don't mind coming off a little insulting. Please do!"

She paused again, took another drink of her whiskey. She wore a pale-green blouse, open at the throat, with a shirred collar from the lacy corolla of which her long neck gracefully rose, like the stem of a water lily. He watched her. She was staring at the candle flame. Her chest was delicately beaded with perspiration or rainwater, and it rose and fell in a soft pneumatic heave.

"How is it you come to have such ... outrageous ideas?" she said. Only then did she look up at him.

He regarded her in silence for several beats.

"I kept asking why," he said.

Abruptly, then, he finished the rest of his beer in one swallow. She watched his Adam's apple twist and right as he gulped. For all his erudition, there was something so physical about him, she thought. It captivated her. He rose from the table and stood next to her. She was still seated. He wasn't especially tall, but she suddenly thought him a looming presence.

"Would you come with me to my home?" he said. "I'd like to show you something."

He held his veiny hand outstretched to her.

Abby thought for a moment. Then she too finished the rest of her drink in one swallow and stood up. She gripped his hand.

"Let's go," she said.

CHAPTER 3

The moment they stepped outside, dusk swept in around them. The remains of the sunset, through a lake of clear sky deep in the west, flickered burgundy-and-purple on the surface of the Hudson River. A soft breeze came off the water. There were small raindrops in the air.

He hailed a taxi and they got into the back and rode in relative silence. It was a long and peaceful drive. There was something vaguely unsettlingly in the way this was playing out, she thought, and yet at the same time she felt perfectly secure. One thing was sure: this was not at all like her. Why, then, this untouchable sense of calm inside her?

When, at last, they made it to his doorstep, it was fully dark. The rain had increased. She stood two paces behind him while he unlocked the door. She stood in the rain. She didn't have any idea where they were. The instant before he opened the door, he turned back to her.

"It's not too late," he said.

"Pardon?"

"If you walk through this door with me, you won't come out the same person. You'll never be the same again."

She looked up at him from the steps and started to smile, but even before she saw that there was no longer any smile on his face, she somehow knew, if only briefly, that he was telling her the truth. It all happened in the span of a second, and then she dismissed it.

She nodded. He turned and opened the door.

A cool greenish light poured out onto the pavement, transforming the raindrops into emerald beads, and Abby followed Kumulous into the glow...


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