‘Hello Bishop,’ said Satan. He looked genuinely pleased to see me. ‘A glass of wine? A cigar? Cocaine?’
‘There’s no need to be like that,’ I said. Satan wasn’t wearing horns or a tail. Today at least, he looked charming and human.
‘So how many souls have you saved over the last year?’ murmured Satan. He reached into a pocket of his jacket and produced a handful of poker chips. ‘I’ve got Mrs Compton, your ex-neighbour.’ He passed me one of the chips. Disturbingly, I could see a tiny Lily Compton trapped inside, banging helplessly on the plastic.
Gradually Satan passed me more and more of the chips, but he saved his greatest triumph for the end. ‘And this is your son, William, who died in that unfortunate car accident six months ago.’
I sighed, gathering my courage for what had to come next. ‘I want to sell my soul.’
‘Of course,’ smiled Satan. ‘What is it you want? Love? Health? Money? Or do you just want to be a great evangelist, with your church full to overflowing every Sunday?’
‘I want to swap with William, of course.’
Satan looked disappointed. ‘Jesus offered me a swap, and it caused all sorts of problems. I won’t fall for that one again.’
‘The other things are tempting, but they’re not worth spending eternity in Hell.’
‘Here’s what I’ll offer,’ said Satan, pretending he’d only just had the idea. ‘We’ll have a game of poker.’ He spread the chips on the table. ‘Any souls you win, you keep.’
‘So what do I bet with?’
‘You can use your loved ones, or your own soul if you really insist.’ Satan was now grinning greedily.
I’d just about convinced myself that I should swap with my son, but this offer was just awful, and I was starting to panic. I stalled for time. ‘I don’t know how to play.’
‘Oh, it’s very simple. Just do what I do.’
‘That’s ridiculous, I’d be bound to lose!’
‘Two games, then,’ said Satan. ‘One now, and a rematch in a year’s time when you’ve had a chance to practice.’
‘I still can’t agree, I could lose everything tonight.’
‘Ten free chips for you to play with tonight, then.’ Satan pushed ten plastic chips across the table. They were similar to the others, but just clear plastic. These chips didn’t contain any souls.
I thought about it carefully, but I couldn’t see a trap. Where was the harm in playing with free chips? Of course, never having played poker before, I could only play randomly.
On the first hand, I put up two chips and Satan folded. I got my chips back, and I also found that I’d won Lily Compton. I quickly put her in my pocket. This was a snag I hadn’t foreseen. Once I’d won a soul, could I really gamble it in the hope of winning more?
My luck didn’t last and soon all my free chips were gone. Satan tried to persuade me to gamble my own soul, or the souls of people close to me, but I refused.
I realised later that Satan had short-changed me. The chip in my pocket was just a piece of plastic with a picture of Lily inside. Satan presumably still had the chip I’d seen earlier, with the imprisoned Lily struggling to get out.
‘I’ve made a list of all the souls I want to gamble,’ I told Satan. A year had gone by, and I’d spent every spare moment practising poker.
Satan smiled hungrily. ‘I didn’t realise you had it in you.’ He took the list. My name was on it, along with my family, members of my congregation, vicars from the parishes I was responsible for. Just about everyone I could think of.
Satan took the list and passed me a stack of chips. Each one contained a ghostly figure, representing the soul I was gambling.
‘Oh by the way,’ I said, ‘you gave me a fake Lily Compton last year.’
‘Yes, I’m sorry, I gave in to temptation.’ Satan laughed. ‘I won’t do it this year, though.’
We began to play, and I found that I was close to holding my own. I won William, but then lost him again in the next hand. Shortly after, I gambled my brother and won the real Lily Compton chip. I gambled Lily and myself, but lost both. I was dealt four eights, but guessed—correctly—that Satan was cheating and had something better. I lost my wife, but I could have lost a whole lot more.
I might have spent a year practising, but Satan still had the edge. Even when he wasn’t cheating, he was a formidable player. Gradually my stack of chips diminished, until there was only one chip left. I always wonder if it was a coincidence, but it was my own image in the chip.
I gambled it fearlessly. It would have been quite poetic to come back from the brink with that one chip, and win the game, but poker is brutal. The past year had taught me that, at least. I had a jack and Satan had a pair of sevens.
Satan was looking through all the chips he’d won. ‘You cheated!’ he said angrily. He spread out his chips, and they were all fake. There was a piece of plastic with a photograph of my wife in it, another one with an old picture of my son, and of course the original dud Lily Compton chip which Satan had now managed to win back.
In a way he was right. I swapped all the original chips for fakes, and whenever I won a chip I swapped it, so it didn’t matter if I lost it again. But I didn’t cheat. ‘Last year you told me to do what you did, and you gave me a fake chip. I was only following the rules of our agreement.’