It was coming down like a second flood when they went out to the pub. Job loved the old place, with its crusty regulars and veneer of the old world. In a pub, Job thought, there remained some sense of the old and the mystical, that which we gave up when we drifted away from the churches, synagogues, and mosques of our forefathers and foremothers. There was the ancient battle of gifts, the matching of pint for pint, round for round, and the suppression of rational thought. One tended to have more fun in a pub than a church however.
As his friends crowded the pool table, trying to outdo each other so as to impress the girls sitting nearby, Job noticed a man sitting by himself, just over in the corner, nursing an untouched pint.
The man was well-dressed, middle-aged, with jet black hair. It was warm enough in the pub, but the man had kept his long dark coat on, which swept down to the feet of his chair. His dark eyes were mobile, flitting around the place to the odd half-hearted fight that broke out here or there, the drunken girl stumbling on her high heels being led out of the bar by her friends, the banker trying to pick up some college students. When he saw something that amused him, he wouldn’t smile, but those dark eyes would glitter.
Job didn’t talk to his parents much anymore, but one thing that they had instilled in him was a Christian spirit to go forth and talk to the people at the edges, who seemed left out by everybody else. It was that spirit—and idle curiosity—that made him go over to the man’s table.
‘Hi there,’ he said. ‘You seem to be all by yourself. Mind if I join you?’
The man looked up at him with those dark eyes, and Job saw that his irises were so black it was impossible to tell where they ended and the pupil began. They were so large that the whites of his eyes were just thin rings around the central dark. It was quite disconcerting, seeing those eyes up close, but Job pushed that feeling down. There was no sense in judging people on account of them having strange eyes.
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ the man replied after a long pause. He waved at him to take a seat. ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your name.’
‘Job,’ he said, sticking out his hand which the man shook with a firm grip. He had an extremely warm, but dry hand. ‘Spelled J-O-B, like a job, but pronounced Joe’b, like the book in the bible.’
‘Ah yes, of course,’ the man said with a nod. ‘Very biblical indeed. You may call me Mr. Bell.’
‘Are you called other things usually?’ Job asked jokingly.
‘Oh sometimes, but Mr. Bell it has a nice ring to it.’ The man laughed at the terrible joke. ‘In truth it’s a mangling of another name I wore long ago, when I had a much larger fan base. I even got a pyramid or two, like the ones they have in Vegas.’
‘Are you famous or something Mr. Bell?’ Job studied the man’s face, trying to place him with out any luck. His features were very angular: high cheekbones and a pointed chin. His skin colour was light brown, but Job couldn’t work out even what continent he might be from. Not caucasian was the best he could come up with.
‘Once upon a time,’ Mr Bell admitted, ‘not anymore. Or at least not in the way I’d like.’ Mr. Bell looked at him like he was weighing Job with those big black eyes. ‘These days I have been going to and fro on the earth and walking up and down on it.’
‘So…you’ve been doing a lot of travelling then?’ Job was a little confused by the choice of words, which sounded strangely familiar. They had the ring of the Book to them, like some verse his parents had drummed into him long ago.
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Bell with a curt nod. ‘I have been doing a great amount of travelling, from China, to South America, the Middle East, and finally to here. You could say it is my job really, travelling and talking to people.’
‘Oh very cool,’ Job said. ‘Are you some sort of travel reporter? I’m afraid we don’t have much in the way of tourist attractions around here.’
‘I think reporter would be closest to what I do, although it’s more general people reporting than finding tourist destinations.’ He took a sip of his beer. ‘My employer likes me to go around and find out what people are thinking and doing in the world and to test them in interesting ways. I suppose it’s one part reporting and one part quality assurance.’
‘Well now I have really no idea what you do now,’ Job laughed. ‘Reporting and quality assurance? How do you get a job like that?’
‘Well I always say that I was made for what I do.’ He looked over at the pool table where Job’s co-workers were finishing up their first game. ‘I think your friends may be looking for you,’ he said.
‘Ah, I’ll be over there in a little bit. I’m enjoying talking to you. You’re a little bit of an enigma.’
Mr. Bell nodded. ‘Well I enjoy talking to you as well. You are a courteous young man. I would like to know a little about you. Where are you from Job? What brings you to this place?’
Job began talking, and before he knew it, he was recounting his entire life story, from his childhood in Manitoba, his bible banging parents, his moving out from home, the scholarship to the university, and his landing the job at the firm. It was easy telling those black eyes all these things; they looked so interested in what he was saying. When he finished he was terribly thirsty and had to take a deep drink from his glass. Mr. Bell rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
‘I have a curious question to ask you Job,’ he said. ‘It comes from your mention of your parents and their religion. Feel free to not answer the question if it is too personal, but do you believe in God? A higher power?’
Job shook his head. ‘I used to. When I was a kid, I was all about God and him being with me and doing his will, but when I grew up I saw it was all a silly fairy tale. I supposed I believed for a long even after I moved away from home, but not anymore. I mean, look at all the suffering in the world. How could there be a God who would allow all of that?’
‘Interesting point,’ Mr. Bell said. ‘Do you consider yourself a spiritual person on any level?’
‘No, made a clean break with all that sort of thing.’ He raised his glass. ‘Science and progress all the way.’
‘To science and progress,’ Mr. Bell agreed and clinked his glass against Job’s. His eyes glittered, and he leaned back in his chair. ‘Of course, even in this modern age, where science works more miracles in a day than all the prophets before us combined, the old ways do still have a hold on us. People still frown upon using the Lord’s name in vain. I believe that some atheists even encourage people to curse God as part of some strange campaign I’ve never really understood.’ He paused, leaving an opening in the conversation.
Job used the opening to cheerfully call the Almighty various unprintable names. Mr. Bell appeared surprised at the words that came out.
‘Oh,’ he said quietly. ‘Well that was astonishingly easy.’
‘Sorry,’ Job said, slightly embarrassed at his behaviour. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. I just got carried away there for a second.’ He was only two beers in and already making a fool of himself in front of a stranger.
‘Oh no,’ said Mr. Bell. ‘I’m not offended. I just didn’t think I would get you to do that by merely suggesting the possibility.’ He reached into a coat pocket and produced a black notebook. He opened the notebook, ticked off a name on a list with a pencil, and then closed it with a sigh. They sat there for a few minutes, not saying anything, with Mr. Bell just looking off into space.
Eventually, Job had to break the silence. ‘Is there something wrong?’ he asked.
Mr. Bell sighed again. ‘Honestly,’ he confessed, ‘I thought I’d be happier with winning my bet. It has been about three centuries in the making. So much careful planning went into it, and now that I’ve won it’s completely unsatisfactory.’
‘What do you mean, your bet? And three centuries? What?’
‘The bet was with my employer. It’s part of the job description really. He sets me up a challenge and sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. I was supposed to fail with you—and have all the previous times—but this time I finally beat him.’ He put away the notebook looking dejected. ‘I was just hoping for more of a challenge. A bit of last minute resistance you know? A final duel of wits, a crisis of faith? I suppose I laid the groundwork too carefully.’
‘I still have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Job was getting uncomfortable, and beginning to doubt the sanity of the man across from him.
‘Really? You haven’t figured things out by now? Didn’t your parents get you to read the Book of Job? You know, the one you’re named after?’
He shrugged. ‘Sure, but it was long ago. I forget almost all of it other than there being a man called Job, and that he remained true and faithful to God.’
Mr. Bell folded his hands together. ‘The story of Job goes like this. Once there was a man in the land of Oz whose name was Job, and he was blameless and upright and feared God. There came a day when Satan met God in heaven, and God said to him, “From whence have you come?” to which Satan replied, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”’
Job remembered Bell saying those words to him earlier. Funny choice of words those. He sipped his beer nervously. ‘That’s silly,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t make sense with the rest of the bible. If Satan is the great enemy of God, what’s he doing in heaven talking to him?’
Mr. Bell waved away his argument. ‘If you actually learned a little about the faith, instead of just mocking it, you’d know that the Devil was not always seen as the enemy of God. In his original incarnation, he was merely a feared servant of the Almighty who tested the faith of his followers. It was only later that he became to perceived as the supreme enemy, the source of evil. It is written that the faith of men and women will be tested, as gold is tested in fire.’ He leaned forward, and Job could feel the heat from behind those black eyes. ‘Young Job, I am that fire, and I burn hot.’
Job could feel his hands go all clammy with sweat, although he knew he shouldn’t be afraid of someone claiming to be the Devil. It was ludicrous after all. ‘Yes,’ he whispered, a little hoarse. ‘So I see. Do go on.’
‘Thank you, Job. Anyway, God said to Satan—who was me in case you haven’t guessed—“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” To which I put forward the claim that perhaps Job was faithful and good because he had everything so easy, that if I took away his wealth, his family, and his health, he would renounce God and curse his name. So God gave me permission to do these things, and I first destroyed Job’s family and wealth. But he did not curse God. So I inflicted him with boils and he did not curse God. I came to him in the form of his friends and urged him to curse God for the injustices he had suffered. But he did not curse God. In the end, the man above was satisfied and restored everything that Job had lost, which he tended to do in those days, if only to piss me off. He was a right ass about it too. Boasted about it for centuries.’
‘So what am I? Job the second?’
‘Job the umpteenth more like. We repeat the process every few centuries. There’s a new Job, male or female, who is beloved of God, and I try to shake their faith and turn them away. I have never succeeded until now.’
‘Never for the Jobs. I’ve succeeded for other men and women, but fail for the ones that matter. It’s a point of pride for the old man.’
Job didn’t quite know what to make of Mr. Bell’s story. ‘So what changed this time round? Why don’t I believe?’
‘Well I had a little revelation. The reason that people stop believing in God isn’t suffering or pain, like you previously claimed, or even as I thought back in the day. The problem of evil has existed since the dawn of time, but it’s only really now, when suffering has begun to abate in the world, that people are being overly concerned about it.
The first Job was born into a world where misery and suffering were commonplace. You didn’t live very long, and your friends and family would all quickly die from disease, hunger, war, accident, or murder over that brief period. Job did well compared to everyone else, but he was aware of how precarious his success was, how full of pain the world was. His faith was his refuge from the pain and uncertainty of life.’
‘So because Job knew suffering his faith was stronger than mine?’
‘Are there atheists in foxholes? Pain and loss may make people curse God or doubt his existence, but it’s security, comfort, and education that make them really lose their faith.’
‘So you’re saying because I had an easy life I lost my faith?’
‘Have you ever held a dying child in your arms? Seen dead bodies in the street? Watched your home been burned down by thugs and brutes? These are things not uncommon in much of the world, and they used to be common almost everywhere. Yet the people who lived through them still kept their faith, in whatever Gods they believed in.’
Job was not convinced. ‘What about science? If people actually learn about the world and where it’s at, it seems fairly obvious that God is unlikely. Or the devil for that matter.’
Mr. Bell smiled. ‘Prosperity weakens the basis for faith, and science cuts it out at the roots. The man upstairs built a more-or-less rational universe and expected people to believe in irrational things like him. All I needed to do was fill the world with a considerable number of well-fed, well-educated atheists such as yourself. It was all part of my grand plan.’
‘You had a grand plan?’
‘Well I had to win my bet didn’t I? That’s why I started the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. I sat down with Isaac Newton one evening, and a few philosophers the next and got the whole thing rolling. Next thing you know there was the Industrial Revolution, capitalism, and increased prosperity and education everywhere. I mean there were a few hiccups along the way in terms of the World Wars, but everything came up roses in the end. Worked out better than I expected, honestly.’
‘Wait,’ Job said. ‘You’re expecting me to believe that you, the Devil, jump-started the modern world in order to shake the faith of people in order to win a bet with God?’
Mr. Bell thought for a moment. ‘Yes, that’s exactly it.’ His black eyes were like deep pools as he stared back at Job. ‘If perhaps I elevated the brutish existence of much of humanity in the process, well that was largely a by-product.’ He turned in his seat to gesture to the girl at the bar. ‘Another beer please!’ Turning back to Job he continued, ‘Honestly, it would have been preferable if it hadn’t been such a smashing success. If you had resisted a little, I would have been happier. There’s something refreshing about breaking people’s faith one-on-one with words instead of grinding it out of them using societal pressure.’
‘I am sorry to disappoint,’ Job apologized, not certain if he should. ‘So what now? Where do you go from here?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Mr. Bell confessed. ‘From my calculations, if I can keep this socioeconomic model going without destroying the planet for a few more centuries, I should be able to turn religious belief into a minority position. He’ll be able to do the math as well, so he’ll be pulling something out of his sleeve to mess it all up. It should be an interesting coming millennium.’
‘So…what about me? Are you going to drag me to hell or something?’ It’s not like he actually believed that could happen, but he might as well ask the obvious.
‘Oh don’t be so dramatic. You’ve got a few decades ahead of you, and you’re not evil. Getting you to go out and murder some people in their beds would probably be a lot harder. No, if you do end up going to hell, you’ll probably be stuck out in Limbo with all the old pagans and philosophers. They’re not bad in terms of eternal company. I’ve heard the place can be more fun that heaven, what with all the concerts they throw.’
Job relaxed a little. Mr. Bell might be mad, but he was a harmless sort of mad. ‘Well I’m glad to hear that.’
‘So you should be.’
He was just about to get up and leave when Mr. Bell’s phone rang. Mr. Bell flipped it open and pressed it to his ear. ‘Hello you,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I assume you see I’ve won the bet this time? I was hoping to get a universe of my own for this, or at least an independent Hell. I have put in the hours after all.’
Job was wondering if he should slip away from the lunatic across from him, but then the wicked little smile on Mr. Bell’s face slipped when he heard the answer. ‘Oh don’t be childish!’ he told the person on the other end of the phone. ‘You simply lost your bet. And not badly either. He doesn’t even qualify as evil. Boring and self interested at worst.’ The voice on the other end barked something, which made Mr. Bell frown. ‘Really? You’re going to tear the whole thing down because of this? Childish good sir! Childish I tell you!’ He ended the call and slammed the cell phone down on the table. His eyes blazed with black light, and Job could feel the heat coming off him.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked, as the server brought over Mr. Bell’s next beer.
‘It turns out God is a poor loser,’ Mr. Bell replied. ‘I should have expected this.’
One of Job’s friend’s came over. ‘I can’t get any signal on my phone,’ he complained. ‘How about you?’ Job flipped open his phone to see he had no bars either.
‘I don’t think you’ll get reception ever again,’ Mr. Bell told them. ‘He’s shutting it all down.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ Job asked him.
Mr. Bell pointed outside. The street lamps were slowly going off down the street, so that the darkness was progressing towards the bar slowly and steadily. ‘He doesn’t like that he’s lost, or the direction the universe is taking. He prefers everyone acknowledging him as the greatest and never losing, not even when he handicaps his omniscience for contests with the likes of me. He’s scrapping everything and starting over.’
Job noticed that one of the cars beneath the nearest lamppost dissolved into darkness before the lamp above it went out. He jumped up, suddenly afraid, the possibility that Mr. Bell might be telling the truth having becoming more believable. ‘That car just dissolved!’ he exclaimed.
‘Well yes,’ Mr. Bell said. ‘Didn’t you hear what I just said? The universe is being shut down.’
‘You can’t be serious!’
‘I really wish I wasn’t,’ Mr. Bell said. ‘I think he’s going to scrap me along with everything else. Shoddy loser.’
The door to the bar rippled and disappeared into the black. One of the girls shrieked in fear, and the customers began to back away from the inky shadow that began to ooze into bar through the windows and doors, vanishing everything behind it.
‘I don’t want to die!’ Job said, suddenly panicking. He grabbed Mr. Bell’s hand. ‘You have to help us!’
‘It won’t hurt,’ Mr. Bell assured him. ‘You’ll be unmade, and it will be as if you never were.’ He shook off the hand. ‘Try to accept the end with a little bit of dignity.’ As the others backed into the furthest corner of the bar from the blackness, Mr. Bell looked up into the air. ‘You know,’ he said to no one in particular, as Job held onto the table with hands white with fear, ‘when it comes down to it, you’re just a bloody wank…’