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by Oonah V Joslin

The invitation was unexpected. I was little acquainted with Xselian, although our properties adjoined. His globe-trotting lifestyle piqued my curiosity: business trips, weekend conferencing; so I decided to check him out.

I didn’t know the other dinner guests. They all seemed lacking in some way; self-obsessed maybe. Xselian was polite but distant with all of them but he showed me through the house. “Just bring your brandy along,” he said and walked into the gallery. “I want you to see something.”

“Oh you’re a photographer,” I said. The range and quality of the prints were impressive.

“Thought you’d like these. You’re the guy with the turret room. Camera obscura, right?” I couldn’t read his expression. Reading mine, he added, “Word gets around.”

It was pure voyeurism, like omniscience.

“I lived among these people,” he said strafing the line of photographs of Native Americans with cigar smoke like some purification ritual. “Mountain Horse, there, distrusted photographers. Some nonsense about ’em stealing your soul, like it would remain trapped in the celluloid, fixed by silver nitrate for all eternity. Yet there he is.”

I examined the picture. It had superb clarity of definition but the chief looked like he was caught naked; laid bare. “So why’d he sit?”

“Fame! Whoever would’a heard of him if it wasn’t for this photo? He’s gone now.” Xselian looked fleetingly solemn. He puffed his cigar. “If he did lose his soul, it wasn’t anything to do with my lens. It’s signed, see? No come-backs.” He strode across the gallery.

“Colleagues?” I asked.

He grunted affirmation. “Business is business. There’s no ‘board’ room for sentiment, I always say. Take this young man here, Matthews. Heads things up these days and I put him where he is. When I was in personnel I could smell ambition. It was my job to cut back deadwood. Of course I wasn’t about to unemploy myself, but you can get others to do the dirty work for you with the right... incentives. Matthews earned a heap o’ bonuses.”

As Xselian turned, the dead ash sloughed onto the parquet. He kicked it to one side. “Wages,” he continued. “If you get half as many people doing twice the work, the whole operation gets leaner.”

“Game theory,” I interrupted.

“You’re an intelligent guy,” he said. “A few judiciously rewritten job descriptions, asses on the line, bonuses for middle managers to... implement change. Here’s the team before and after the cuts. Matthews there, signing his Deputy Manager contract. You met Matthews downstairs.”

I’d met Matthews. He’d aged a lot since this photograph.

“And this?” I asked. The young woman’s eyes had the same clarity and expression, but this looked more like a mug shot.

“Ursula. She was always so soft-spoken, then all of a sudden she refuses to sign the new agreement. Starts kicking up about quality of care, cleanliness, budget cuts... details for Christ’s sake! Everybody knew she couldn’t afford not to have a job. Her boy was ill. She had time off. Legit but let’s face it: a sticking plaster, right? So we decided to cut three jobs to one and she lost. Like a month later she comes in spraying the executive canteen with automatic fire. I was out of the office that day. That’s her signing the confession. No use getting angry. It’s dog eat dog out there.”

I looked at my host. He was titanium. I wondered when we’d get to a portrait of him, and whether it would look like Dorian Gray’s. He kept talking like I wasn’t really there.

“Offering people something for nothing is easy. Fat-cat money without much work; talk the talk to shareholders; cream the profits. Offering people nothing for something is a real skill. Never sell anything tangible.”

He showed his teeth.

“Sell finance, insurance, sell fear — and then security. Sell some new psychological condition and corner the market for the cure. You got me?”

He moved on.

“These were some of the biggest deals I’ve ever done.”

The photos certainly reflected that; celebrities, Nobel winners, politicians, fashion moguls, drugs barons, clerics even.

At the far end of the gallery he stopped. “Here’s a good example.”

It was hard core like I’d never seen.

“You think the girl wanted to do that? Nah! She wanted a fix, but she was willing to do a shoot for the fix and the guys got their fix too. They all have their price.”

I felt nauseous. “All that stuff about stealing souls,” I said, “it’s true isn’t it?”

“And I thought you were intelligent? I never stole nobody’s soul.”

My relief was short-lived.

“They sold ’em to me!”

“And you keep them locked in these photographs?” Mounting fear replaced disgust.

“Hell no!” he protested. “I store components.” He pointed to a cabinet in the alcove, where glowing diaphanous shapes constantly changed contour and tone, like light forms struggling to break free.

“Purple — that’s a vanity jar. Think of it like a containment field for humility. The chief didn’t want humility, he wanted fame, and he gave up his most sacred beliefs to get it. Once a soul is shattered, I just pick up the pieces. It’s a fair exchange.”

I saw all the spectrum of deadly sins there. Red for anger restraining patience, green for envy imprisoning kindness, blue for lust: desire without conscience. Inside the bulging plasma jars, his victims’ agonies played out, writhing in a torturous dance on the white walls of this sepulchre of souls.

I swung round to face Xselian. “What do you want with me? My soul is not for sale.”

“No indeed,” he said. “You don’t remember me?”

The final picture in his gallery was of a young man, in Edinburgh, outside a building that used to house the camera obscura that was now in my turret room. I recognized that exposed look.

He held out a pen. “You can run!” he taunted.

Xselian’s hollow laughter pursued me as I vainly fled my own emptiness.

Copyright © 2008 by Oonah V Joslin

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