It was an unassuming shop in an street of usual, small-town businesses. Most people walked past it without reading the sign above the front window. Those who did read the neat sign never considered its literal meaning. Soulbuyer in elegant silver script could not mean what it said, they felt. The addition of M. Ferendash, prop. in the bottom-right corner provided information without enlightenment.
Business was very slow at first. The display window contained just an arrangement of silk flowers in a Chinese vase set against drapes of purest black velvet. The glass pane in the upper part of the shop door was backed by more black velvet, which made a reversible sign saying either OPEN or CLOSED on a white background all the more visible. Those who looked at the premises from the street saw what looked like business premises which offered no clues as to what went on inside.
Those who ventured inside found a room which was brightly lit and almost antiseptically clean. There was a solidly built counter along the wall facing the front door. Paintings; rather eye-twitching abstracts; covered the walls to left and right, packed densely together. The team of television interviewer and cameraman were focussed on the discreet sign on the counter, which read: Souls bought for cash – £13, when the door in the back-right corner of the shop area opened and a man wearing a brown dustcoat joined them.
"Mr. Ferendash?" the interviewer said as the cameraman aimed his equipment at the newcomer.
"You can't film in here," said the man behind the counter. He was unimpressive physically and he looked quite harmless.
"This is a public place, Mr. Ferendash."
"You can't film in here without permission."
"We just want to ask you a few questions about your business, Mr. Ferendash."
"If you don't switch that camera off, I'll call the police and have you removed."
"You might find the publicity useful, Mr. Ferendash."
The man behind the counter took a mobile phone from the left side pocket of his brown dustcoat. He switched it on and keyed 999. "Police please. Yes, I have some people causing a disturbance. Forty-one Grelling Street. Could you send someone along? My name is Arthur Turvan, same address. Okay, thanks."
"I have to tell you, your behaviour is going to look very suspicious to our viewers," the interviewer pointed out, as unfazed as the man behind the counter. "It's generally a sign of dodginess when someone won't speak to us."
Turvan put the mobile phone away and glanced at his watch. "They say police response times have improved out of all recognition. It should be interesting to find out if it's true," he remarked to the camera.
"Okay, you've made your point," said the interviewer. "Can we get this on track now? All I want to do is ask you a few questions about your business."
"Unless you have permission to film here and no one told me?" Turvan said, as if continuing a conversation.
"It won't take long," said the interviewer. "And you're not exactly rushed off your feet."
The shop door opened. Two uniformed constables entered – one big, who had taken the lead, and one who was about average size.
Turvan looked at his watch again. "Impressive," he remarked.
"You reported a disturbance, sir?" the larger PC said.
"These two are making a nuisance of themselves," Turvan said.
"We're just trying to do an interview, Officer," the interviewer said smoothly.
"And they don't have permission to film here," Turvan added.
"This is a public place, Officer," said the interviewer.
"We all know the rules on interviews, sir," the constable said with deliberate patience. "You can't just march into someone's shop and do it without permission. You're violating his Human Rights."
"What about my Human Right to interview people suspected of dodginess?"
Turvan produced a cassette recorder from the other pocket of his dustcoat. "I trust you both heard that, constables? It sounded rather slanderous to me."
"Getting on that way, yes, sir," said the larger PC, who seemed to have an unfavourable history with the TV crew.
"Okay, okay, we're out of here." The interviewer drew a thumb across his throat to camera and turned for the door. He and his cameraman filed out.
"Thank you for your assistance," Turvan said to the constables.
"Always a pleasure to keep uppity media types in check," said the larger constable.
"That sign," said the smaller PC. "Souls bought for cash. Is that right?"
"Entirely accurate," said Turvan.
"What do you have to do?"
"Sign a contract ceding all rights to your soul in return for a fee of thirteen pounds. Paid in cash on the spot."
"Doesn't sound much, for your soul," said the larger constable.
Turvan shrugged. "If you think you can get a better price elsewhere, you're under no obligation to sell here."
"This contract, what's it say exactly?" said the smaller constable.
Turvan produced an A5 sheet of good quality, creamy paper from under the counter. "It doesn't say all that much, actually. It just acknowledges transfer of all rights in your soul to the company in return for the stated fee."
"After you're dead, like?"
"On payment of the fee."
"So it's not after you're dead? You'll be walking around not owning your soul any more?"
"You're wasting your time with him, sir," said the larger constable. "He doesn't have a soul. Not listening to the sort of music he buys."
"How do you get the soul out of someone?" The smaller constable pursued the subject with the air of someone who didn't quite know if his leg was being pulled.
"The short answer is, you don't," said Turvan. "My understanding is that it's left in situ."
"But I don't own it any more."
"And you pay thirteen quid for a soul?"
"So I just have to sign this and you pay me thirteen quid?"
"Correct. Except that you have to sign it in blood. Just a tiny touch of melodrama. A pinprick in the thumb to extract just enough for the job. And I need proof of identity, of course. A police warrant card will suffice."
"Are we getting back to work, or what?" said the larger constable.
"I show you my warrant card, you take a drop of blood out of my thumb, I sign this and you give me thirteen quid?" said the smaller PC. "And then I walk out of here still with my soul, but you own it?"
"Correct," said Turvan. "You also walk out with thirteen pounds in your pocket."
"Okay." The smaller PC offered his left thumb. "You're on."
Turvan wiped the thumb clean using a small, white pad of material with a hospital smell, then he asked the PC to press the clean thumb against a white plastic pad on a pen-holder, which occupied a piece of counter in front of the notice. The PC felt a brief sting. Then Turvan drew what looked like an ordinary, felt-tip pen from the holder and offered it across the counter. The constable signed his name, in red, with a flourish and returned the pen.
"Your warrant card?" said Turvan.
The constable looked at his thumb, wondering if he needed a plaster on it. The flesh looked completely uninjured and it had not leaked any more blood. He offered his warrant card across the counter. Turvan studied it briefly, compared the name with the signature and returned the plastic wallet. He reached under the counter. He was holding a £10 note, three £1 coins and a printed receipt when his hand came into view again. The PC exchanged the signed contract for them.
"There's a cooling off period of seven days," Turvan told him as he applied a date stamp to the document. "If you change your mind within the next week, just bring your receipt and the cash back here and we'll void the whole transaction. You'll find it explained on the back of your receipt."
"And you reckon you've bought his soul now?" said the larger PC.
"I certainly do." Turvan added the signed sheet of paper to a container below the level of the counter.
"I don't feel any different," said the smaller PC.
"Our clients all say much the same," said Turvan.
"Come on, you," said the larger constable. "I don't believe you at times."
The smaller constable tucked the money into his trouser pocket and left the shop looking quite comfortable with the deal. He was wearing the expression of someone who had just received money for old rope.
Arthur Turvan returned to his workshop at the back of the shop, where he produced abstract works of art similar to the ones on display on the walls when not buying souls.
The shop did irregular business over the next few weeks. By the end of the month, most of the schoolchildren and teenagers in the town had collected their £13 and a fair number had come back and tried to pretend that they were new customers. Adults had been more cautious. Many had not gone through with the transaction until their second visit.
The apparent ‘money for nothing' aspect had worried the news media, who had been unable to work out the nature of the swindle. Religious groups assessed the threat and they began to picket the shop as a protest and as a means of gaining free publicity. The proprietor, Mr. Ferendash, and his assistant, Mr. Turvan, remained unfazed.
When the elderly, avuncular owner of the business made his occasional visits to the shop, he challenged the protestors to tell him what he was doing that was illegal and what was wrong with the idea of buying someone's soul. Door-stepping journalists generally countered by asking what he did with the souls that he bought.
"That's my business," Ferendash told them.
"Why won't you tell me?" the journalist always demanded.
"Because it's none of your business," Ferendash always replied with a smile. "Just because you're standing there, holding a microphone, that doesn't mean I have to give you the time of day, never mind my company's secrets."
The police had no grounds for investigating the firm's activities, but some senior officers felt that they needed to know more. Journalists and private investigators hired by religious organizations also tried to dig into the past of the Soulbuyer business. None of the investigations was able to turn up too much.
There were no financial records on file as the company was too new to have made any tax returns. It was not registered at Companies House. The shop was rented by a holding company and following the trail of ownership back led to a dead end in an off-shore tax haven – which multiplied suspicions.
The uniformed street coppers returned to Soulbuyer following an attempted robbery at the shop. A man in early twenties had produced a gun on finding himself alone in the shop with Arthur Turvan. The assistant had let him clear out the cash box, which had contained about £200. After stuffing the cash into a pocket of his zip-up jacket, the man had backed to the door.
"What happened next, sir?" a rather pushy female detective asked, not looking at the blood and sawdust mixture on the polished marble floor.
"As I told your colleagues," Turvan said, "the door jammed when he wrenched at it. He may have hit it with the gun. Anyway, the glass pane broke and he got the door open. I didn't notice the blood until after he'd gone and I'd phoned your people."
"And this is him?" the detective looked at a frame printed from a CCTV camera's tape.
"Indeed, it is."
"He doesn't look like he's got a soul to sell."
"Not one of your regular customers at the police station, then?"
"Can't say I know him. You didn't hear a vehicle start up outside?"
"Not that I was aware of. But there's another camera outside. One the council uses for monitoring traffic flow. That should show you where he went. And how he went."
"Except, the council always make a real performance out of letting us see any of their tapes." The detective put on an expression of resignation. The falsely pious, political correctness of a number of members of the town council's ruling party had led to frequent accusations of their being on the side of the criminal in all disputes.
Her mobile phone began to ring. The detective listened, said ‘yes' a couple of times, and finished with a ‘yes, sir'.
The detective sergeant left by the back door, avoiding the blood at the front of the shop. She drove to the local hospital with no sense of urgency. She was ready for the news that the gunman was dead when she reached the Accident & Emergency Unit. The man had lost too much blood to survive. He had been DoA at the hospital.
A uniformed police patrol had spotted a couple of schoolkids robbing the dying man. They had recovered both the proceeds of the robbery and a replica firearm.
As a result of the robbery, Soulbuyer switched to a new system for payment. Customers had to supply the sort code of their bank and a valid account number. When the contract had been authenticated, they were paid the £13 by a direct transfer to their bank account. The town council's Social Justice Department immediately raised an objection to the new system on the grounds that it disenfranchised would-be soul-sellers who did not have a bank account.
Soulbuyer and the local population were less than sympathetic to this point of view and the council was unable to come up with an alternative which avoided supporting a business which most of the ruling party found repellent.
There was a surge of business when people discovered that they were also allowed to sell other people's souls if they could guarantee delivery. The ‘proxy vendor' had to sign a contract containing a clause to that effect. There was a lot of duplication as a whole string of ‘proxies' tried to sell the prime minster's soul. The first of them was paid the £13. The others supplied their bank account details but received nothing. When they challenged the lack of payment, they were told that if someone else had already sold the prime minister's soul, they were in breach of the guaranteed delivery clause of their contract.
When questioned by the news media about what happened to the bank account details once a customer had been paid – or not – Soulbuyer was unforthcoming. When the local council's trading standards officer made a formal inquiry under the terms of the Data Protection Act, she was assured that Soulbuyer did not keep personal data related to third parties on a computer.
Arthur Turvan backed up his information by showing her a collection of numbered, signed contracts in a filing cabinet and a cross-referenced collection of alphabetically ordered record cards in a bank of neat drawers. Defeated, the trading standards officer retired to report to the council's chief executive, advising him that he would have to come up with something else if he wanted to shut down Soulbuyer.
The local news media took a brief interest when someone spotted a new sign in the shop. Reporters visited the shop, with a photographer or a camera crew, they paid a media fee of £250 for the privilege of taking pictures in the shop, then the reporter sold his or her soul for £13.
Eight days later, outside the seven-day grace period, the reporter and his or her team returned to make an application to buy back the reporter's soul for the original purchase price. They all stumped up the full amount when they were informed that they would have to pay an administration and inconvenience fee of £57 on top of the £13 in order to complete the item. And then they were sarcastic about the additional fee in their articles about the extension to the service.
Soulbuyer had been in business for about six weeks before someone leaked the news that the government was looking for a way to make the trade in souls illegal. Most people assumed that the Prime Minister, who was well known to be a God-botherer, had been got at by the established Church and he thought that a ban would help to make him more popular. It was common knowledge that the Church was embarrassed by the revelation that lots of allegedly Christian British people were prepared to sell their soul.
Two months later, while the government was still trying to decide which ministry was responsible for souls and which minister should draft a bill to ban the trade in souls, the Soulbuyer shop closed its doors for the last time. Local journalists spread a rumour that Mr. Turvan had bought every available soul in the area and he intended to set up his business in another area. Conspiracy theorists went to town on the true purpose behind his enterprise, but they felt restrained by the nation's libel laws. They all expected the business to reappear elsewhere.
But, contrary to expectations, the Soulbuyer shop did not reopen and Arthur Turvan and Michel Ferendash dropped out of sight with their collection of genetic/DNA data obtained via the signatures in blood. In idle moments during their brief period of trading, each had asked himself: ‘Why on earth would someone want the sort of information that I'm gathering.' Both were able to supply their own answers, but none of the explanations was definitive or even informed.
Research for the construction of biological weapons evolved into Turvan's number one possibility. Trawling the internet for information had told him that it was theoretically possible to put something in a public water supply which would kill a group of people within a population; or even one specific person. Knowledge is power, even though the nature of the power may not be immediately obvious, and Turvan was confident that some day, someone would make billions of pounds out of the information which had provided him with an income of several thousands of pounds. ■