It had been a good sale. A musical instrument was practically nothing at all to pay for a soul nowadays. Satan had left the man gloating triumphantly over his new golden fiddle, and carried the soul away in a bottle.
Now all he had to do was find a way to fit it on his desk.
It was always a problem when you collected anything seriously. If you chose stamps you ended up with more albums than would fit in any cupboard, if you choose books you ended up with so many shelves that the floor threatened to fall through. After several thousand years collecting souls, the devil had very little room left. Shelves lined every room of his house, every one of them crammed with bottles. There were more bottles out in the garden shed, and he'd used them to fill every inch of available floor space. There seemed very little room left. Even for one more. He tried to cram it onto the edge of his desk anyway, and then had to grab to catch another before he fell.
The resulting noise brought his wife to the door. She took the scene in with a sigh and a roll of her eyes. "Another one?"
If he hadn't been the devil, the way Satan glanced up would have seemed guilty. "It was cheap!"
"Uh huh." The expression on her face said she'd heard it all before, "Let me see. How cheap exactly?"
Sheepishly, he handed the new bottle over, "Just a golden fiddle."
His wife took the bottle and shook it. The soul inside fluttered rather desperately against the glass, disturbed by the movement. "I'm not surprised." She commented, unimpressed, "Look at the colour of it! It's filthy…"
"It's not that bad." He snatched the bottle back off her, holding it protectively. Inside the little soul was still frantically beating charcoal-black wings, as if hoping it could escape through the glass. "Give it some time, and it might clean up."
She snorted, "Satan, has it not occurred to you that someone who values his soul so little that he would swap it for an instrument is probably not all that concerned with morally living his day to day life? You would have ended up with him in a few years anyway."
"I might not have done!" the devil protected, feeling defensive, "He might've repented!"
"Yeah right," She rolled her eyes again, looking around at the crammed room. "Look, Satan, I don't mind yo0u collecting, but really can't you cut back just a few of these?"
He opened his mouth to protest immediately, but she cut him off before he could speak, "I know you like them but you've got so many of these ordinary ones now and they all look the same. You can't even see the nice ones because there's no room in here. Why don't you just concentrate on the unique ones? We could get them really nicely displayed in here if we had the room."
Still he looked unhappy at the idea, but she had lived with him enough millennia to know when a certain pleading look and a shift of her hips would be more effective than any argument. Even the devil could be tempted at times.
"Maybe I cut back a few." He conceded grudgingly.
"Excellent!" The concession earned him a bright smile, "We'll sort them out later and hold a garage sale – that's always fun, getting to know the neighbours and all."
That would have brought more complaints – after all he knew who their neighbours were - but his wife was already on her way out of the room.
"After all…" came her parting shot, just before she closed the door, "What difference does it make really if you have six hundred million dirty souls, or six hundred million and one?"
Of course, there were more arguments while choosing which to sell – there always is when doing that type of clearout. Satan had to have each soul coaxed away from him and put firmly into a cardboard box.
"But I wanted that one!" He clung to a bottle as a child hangs onto an old favourite toy, "It's unique!"
His wife gave him an exasperated look, "You say that about all of them."
"They all are unique!"
"Uniquely disgusting?" She raised her eyebrows, "You can't even claim it's pretty – it's all slimy and horrible."
"But I wanted it!" Satan insisted stubbornly.
"It's been stuck out in the shed for the last three thousand years, and now you decide you want it?" she sighed, "Look, when was the last time you used it?"
The devil opened and closed his mouth for a moment or two, trying to think of a good retort, "That's not the point!"
"Yes it is the point. You didn't even really know it was there. And if we clear out all of these old dirty ones, we'd have much more room to display your more valuable ones in – like this one" She took the opportunity to distract him, seizing a bottle and waving it under his nose, "Now this one I like."
It worked. Given a chance to talk about one of his treasures the devil preened, watching the brightly coloured soul inside the bottle for a moment. This one seemed more inclined to mope than struggle, curled inside the glass, a forlorn little splash of blue and red. "Ah well – I was lucky to get that one." He answered proudly, "Would never have under ordinary circumstances, but the guy was hopelessly in love with someone miles above his station. I promised she would fall in love and marry him if only he signed over his soul."
"How romantic…" His wife had learnt long ago just how to sound interested in these stories.
"Oh yes. Of course, as soon as they were married he discovered she was a hopeless snob and ran as fast as his feet could carry him." He commented with a smirk. "They got divorced, which is a sin so I got two for the price of one."
"Very nice." She leant over to take a better look at it. Inside the bottle the soul seemed to be shivering, "Why don't you decide where to put it while I cart these nasty old dirty souls away?"
The distraction worked and she was allowed to work in peace for a while, piling the more unsavoury souls into boxes while Satan admired his pretty ones.
She didn't push her luck too far and ask him to sell the souls with her. Some things were asking too much of a man, and it wasn't as if Satan ever got on all that well with the neighbours. She judged it best too, not to mention the nice gentleman who called by and bought all she had left not long after she'd started selling them. The devil wasn't the only one to spot a bargain where souls were concerned.
And up on a hill far away, a man sat patiently opening bottles and releasing the dark little creatures inside. Some flew away, some crawled but all of them seemed in a hurry to escape from him as fast as they possibly could. They covered the hillside – dark nasty little creatures which seemed to be the stuff of nightmares. Satan's wife had been right – most of these would find their own way back to him at the end of their lifetime, no payment required.
Not all though. As the man opened one of the last bottles, the creature inside took a moment to perch on his fingers before it made its escape. Black flaked away, showing glints of colour underneath. Not all of it – purple and blue mingled with brown and dark grey as it flapped its wings experimentally. It rose into the air, flew around his head once, then twice and then away.
The man smiled. To some people there was a difference between six hundred million, and six hundred million… and one.