Crossing his legs at the ankles, carefully pinching the creases in his bespoke pinstriped trousers as he did so to maintain their military precision (and lifting them slightly to reveal surprisingly racy red silk socks), the gentleman currently making the acquaintance of James P. Dunne, bachelor of this town, encouraged him to begin his story.
“Tell me”, he smiled, in that deceptively lazy, upper-class drawl, which would not have sounded out of place in a Nöel Coward drawing room farce –
“Tell me, Mr Dunne – what prompted the start of this – what shall one call it, to do it justice, one wonders?” and he tapped his pointed chin consideringly, and waved a pale, languid hand in a vague, all encompassing gesture around the large, otherwise sparsely furnished room. This simple back and forth of his wrist mesmerised James ‘Jimmy’ P. Dunne, and somehow managed to indicate the magnitude of the many and varied birdcages lining the walls, tilting forlornly on stands, even tipping sideways on the floor.
“…collection of yours, Mr Dunne.”
James P. Dunne blinked, aware that his guest was staring at him, not the birdcages, awaiting his answer. Despite the pleasant smile on his new connection’s face, he felt a need to answer rather quickly.
With extreme urgency would not be understating it.
There was something about – what had he said his name was again? Luke? Lucius? He shook his head. The gentleman was tapping his foot. He clearly wanted to hear about his collection. Jimmy felt quite proud. Collection. That was a rich folks’ word. Smart, moneyed folks used words like collection. That old tightfisted bastard, up at the big manor house – one of the Rockefellers, way back, somewhar, in the family, or so they reckoned, still had a holda their money that’s fer certain – he had a collection of butterflies, or some sich shit.
He hastened to share.
“Well, sir, I gotta tell yuh, it started out small, yessir, it did at that. But gradual like, and I won’t lie to yuh, it jist seemed to start a-growin’ of its own sorta – I cain’t quite put the finger on the word, now –”
The other man smiled, smoothly, but it was a smile containing no humour, if Jimmy Dunne had been watching carefully.
“Momentum?” he suggested.
Jimmy slapped his knee.
“Yessir, that’s it exact. Momentumum. Yessir. Until, as you see right here, sir, as sure as eggs is eggs, I had to start layin’ in a stock of birdcages from clear cross county lines. State lines, even. People started sayin’ ‘bout me ‘oh, that Jimmy Dunne, he sure loves him his birds!’”
James P. Dunne looked at his visitor and grinned.
“I fooled them, dint I?”
The glow on his face was that of a malicious and wicked happiness at pulling the wool over the eyes of the good citizens of his little town.
His guest was, against his better nature – and yes, he did have one – impressed. He hadn’t seen that level of true evil since his last visit to the special place collectively reserved for Herrs Hitler, Goebbels, Hess and Eichmann.
Lucifer looked around at the contents of the birdcages. Four hundred and thirty three innocent souls looked back at him, pleading for release. He nodded at Gabriel, who was standing in the corner, invisible to the black heart and mind of Jimmy Dunne, and with a nod back, Gabriel and the four hundred and thirty three balls of light were gone, to a place of sanctity, to drink in the well of forgetfulness, peace, and happiness.
The devil stood up, brushed off his immaculate lapels, and smiled again, brightly, at James P. Dunne.
“Well, then, Mr Dunne. You have done – forgive the pun – marvellously well, haven’t you? Four hundred and thirty three birdcages, equating to four hundred and thirty three acts of venal, repulsive murder that even I gag to think about.”
Jimmy nodded eagerly. He hadn’t taken most of the words in, but he wanted to show willing. Besides, he was proud; nobody round these parts had put one over on old Jimmy, nohow!
Lucifer, star of the morning, fallen angel, once the most beloved of God’s generals, looked at him thoughtfully, as he snapped his fingers, and the walls of James P. Dunne’s shanty faded away, to be replaced with far less bland landscapes. Jimmy looked around him in confusion, then relaxed. His birdcages were still there… everything was alright. He sat up straighter, then looked again. What the?
The devil smiled, and this time it reached his eyes.
“I’m sure, as a collector, you’ll appreciate that sometimes the price you pay for the items you collect is not necessarily market value. So I think the best thing for you to do, really, to truly appreciate the worth of what you had in your birdcages” –
– and he turned, ready to walk away –
“– is to live your collection, too.
“All four hundred and thirty three specimens worth.”
And James P. Dunne, avid collector of humanity, started to scream in the depths of his own circle of hell, as the bars of a truly special birdcage closed in around him, and the Devil walked away, singing, in perfect pitch, and with a light heart, one of the many, many, songs dedicated to his glory.