The Imam-Pope Rabbi Boniface XI Surajananda dropped into his chair with an audible sigh. He averted his eyes from the window, because he had no desire to see the sun shining on the dome of the Temple Mosque of the Cathedral of Saint Tenzing Gyatso. He’d just spent three hours in there, which was about three hours too much, and he felt as though he never wanted to see the Temple Mosque again.
Tugging on his long grey beard to make sure it was glued on securely, the Imam-Pope fumbled under his robe and brought out a hip flask. It was only whisky, and just cheap malt, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Closing his eyes, he tipped the entire contents of the flask down his throat. It burned going down, but he was more than used to that.
Pressing a buzzer, he summoned his personal secretary. The nun was young and would have been very pretty but for the fact that her order compelled her to look as unattractive as possible, so she had painted reddish splotches on her cheeks, neglected to clean her teeth, and completely removed her eyebrows. In combination with her wimple, it made her look like nothing on earth.
“Yes, Your Holiness?” she asked formally, glancing quickly around the office to check for visitors. “You buzzed?”
“You know damn’ well I buzzed,” the Imam-Pope snapped. “What’s this emergency? Why did I get called back from the Friday Namaz and Mass?”
“The Commissar-Ambassador of the Red Horde wants an audience,” the nun said. “He said it couldn’t wait.”
“Everything can wait,” the Imam-Pope grumbled. “Whatever it is, it can wait. Is he even here?”
“Yes, he’s been sitting in the library for the past half hour, reading through the records of past fatwas.” The nun glanced conspiratorially over her shoulder and tiptoed into the room, giving the Imam-Pope an overpowering whiff of her unwashed body. “He seems to be in a right state, sir.”
“Wonder what it can be about,” the Imam-Pope said. “As far as I know, there haven’t been any recent incidents between the Red Horde and the Chrislamic Emirate. Did you hear anything?”
“Who, me?” the nun asked, aggrieved. “You know my order doesn’t allow any access to news sources, even though we agitated for it, and the appeal signed by our nuns and forwarded through the Mother Superior has been sitting on your desk for the last eighteen weeks, unsigned, and...”
“All right. I’ll get round to it, OK?” The Imam-Pope reached for his hip flask again, and then remembered he’d already emptied it. “I suppose you’d better show him in,” he said reluctantly.
The Commissar-Ambassador of the Red Horde answered to the name of Kim Bong-Chol. He was dressed in full uniform, the red star on his helmet shining, but he was obviously deeply worried. He did not even perform the ceremony of exchanging ritual insults.
“Your Holiness,” he said, in his bitten-off English, “we have a problem. That means, your side and mine – we both have the problem.”
“What problem, Commissar-Ambassador?” The Imam-Pope had offered the Red Horde representative a chair, but Kim Bong-Chol had ignored it, so he, too, had perforce to remain standing. The whisky had begun to work, and his knees felt a bit weak. “What’s the emergency?”
The Commissar-Ambassador leaned over the desk and put his mouth to the Imam-Pope’s ear.
“We’ve found the Devil's bones,” he said.
The Commissar-Ambassador and the Imam-Pope sat side by side in the turret of an armoured personnel carrier, looking down the slope at the place where the soldiers and workmen were digging.
“You can see it’s right on the border,” the Commissar-Ambassador pointed out. “Our soldiers were digging a trench...just as an exercise, you understand, Your Holiness, there’s no truth to anything you may have heard about us preparing new fortifications, none at all. As I was saying, the soldiers were digging the trench, and they found that. And of course people on your side were watching as well.”
“Yes,” the Imam-Pope murmured. “I see.”
“It’s undoubtedly the Devil’s skeleton,” the Commissar-Ambassador continued, “and if you want to go down to the excavation, we can. Alternatively, you can take another look at these photographs –“
“No, no,” said the Imam-Pope, hurriedly waving away the pictures. The alcohol still lay sour in his stomach, and he had a growing conviction that he was going to throw up. “I’ve seen them already. I’ve seen enough.” He closed his eyes, imagining the gigantic skeleton with the curved horns, the sharp teeth, the struts of the wings and the goatlike hooves. “I really don’t think I can stand another look at it,” he said. "Thanks very much all the same."
“You realise the problem,” the Commissar-Ambassador said. He was sweating with anxiety. “If word of this gets out...for you, it’s a disaster, because the Devil is dead, and who will ever want to obey you again if they aren’t scared of the Dark One? And for us, it’s a disaster, because if the Devil existed, God might. Something has to be done.”
“I see that, of course,” said the Imam-Pope. “But what?”
“I have a solution,” said the Commissar-Ambassador. “But it requires a certain amount of ruthlessness.”
The Imam-Pope listened, frowning. At length he relaxed slightly, the knot in his stomach loosening.
“Go right ahead,” he said.
The war between the Red Horde and the Chrislamic Emirate lasted only two days. It was a curious war, without any bombing of each other’s cities, or even an exchange of long range missiles. Only a couple of armoured divisions on each side were involved, and they only fought each other over a particular bit of the border, the tanks, self-propelled artillery and personnel carriers charging at each other and blasting away until the soil was as churned up and cratered as the surface of the moon. The fighting was savage, and the toll was high, but it only lasted two days. And after that there was peace.
It was almost, some people said, as if both sides had arranged the war to suit some hidden purpose, and when that was fulfilled, they quit.
But then conspiracy theorists will say anything, and nobody should ever listen to them.
Nothing they say has anything to do with the truth anyway.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012