Good Omens | Chapter 8 of 13

Author: Terry Pratchett | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 573653 Views | Add a Review

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Wednesday

It was a hot, fume-filled August day in Central London.

Warlock's eleventh birthday was very well attended.

There were twenty small boys and seventeen small girls. There were a lot of men with identical blond crew cuts, dark blue suits, and shoulder holsters. There was a crew of caterers, who had arrived bearing jellies, cakes, and bowls of crisps. Their procession of vans was led by a vintage Bentley.

The Amazing Harvey and Wanda, Children's Parties a Specialty, had both been struck down by an unexpected tummy bug, but by a providential turn of fortune a replacement had turned up, practically out of the blue. A stage magician.

Everyone has his little hobby. Despite Crowley's urgent advice, Aziraphale was intending to turn his to good use.

Aziraphale was particularly proud of his magical skills. He had attended a class in the 1870s run by John Maskelyne, and had spent almost a year practicing sleight of hand, palming coins, and taking rabbits out of hats. He had got, he had felt at the time, quite good at it. The point was that although Aziraphale was capable of doing things that could make the entire Magic Circle hand in their wands, he never applied what might be called his intrinsic powers to the practice of sleight-of-hand conjuring. Which was a major drawback. He was beginning to wish that he'd continued practicing.

Still, he mused, it was like riding a velocipede. You never forgot how. His magician's coat had been a little dusty, but it felt good once it was on. Even his old patter began to come back to him.

The children watched him in blank, disdainful incomprehension. Behind the buffet Crowley, in his white waiter's coat, cringed with contact embarrassment.

"Now then, young masters and mistresses, do you see my battered old top hat? What a shocking bad hat, as you young'uns do say! And see, there's nothing in it. But bless my britches, who's this rum customer? Why, it's our furry friend, Harry the rabbit!"

"It was in your pocket," pointed out Warlock. The other children nodded agreement. What did he think they were? Kids?

Aziraphale remembered what Maskelyne had told him about dealing with hecklers. "Make a joke of it, you pudding-heads—and I do mean you, Mr. Fell" (the name Aziraphale had adopted at that time), "Make 'em laugh, and they'll forgive you anything!"

"Ho, so you've rumbled my hat trick," he chuckled. The children stared at him impassively.

"You're rubbish," said Warlock. "I wanted cartoons anyway."

"He's right, you know," agreed a small girl with a pony tail. "You are rubbish. And probably a faggot."

Aziraphale stared desperately at Crowley. As far as he was concerned young Warlock was obviously infernally tainted, and the sooner the Black Dog turned up and they could get away from this place, the better.

"Now, do any of you young'uns have such a thing as a thruppenny bit about your persons? No, young master? Then what's this I see behind your ear…?"

"I got cartoons at my birthday," announced the little girl. "An I gotter transformer anna mylittleponyer anna decepticonattacker anna thundertank anna…"

Crowley groaned. Children's parties were obviously places where any angel with an ounce of common sense should fear to tread. Piping infant voices were raised in cynical merriment as Aziraphale dropped three linked metal rings.

Crowley looked away, and his gaze fell on a table heaped high with presents. From a tall plastic structure two beady little eyes stared back at him.

Crowley scrutinized them for a glint of red fire. You could never be certain when you were dealing with the bureaucrats of Hell. It was always possible that they had sent a gerbil instead of a dog.

No, it was a perfectly normal gerbil. It appeared to be living in an exciting construction of cylinders, spheres, and treadmills, such as the Spanish Inquisition would have devised if they'd had access to a plastics molding press.

He checked his watch. It had never occurred to Crowley to change its battery, which had rotted away three years previously, but it still kept perfect time. It was two minutes to three.

Aziraphale was getting more and more flustered.

"Do any of the company here assembled possess such a thing about their persons as a pocket handkerchief? No?" In Victorian days it had been unheard of for people not to carry handkerchiefs, and the trick, which involved magically producing a dove who was even now pecking irritably at Aziraphale's wrist, could not proceed without one. The angel tried to attract Crowley's attention, failed, and, in desperation, pointed to one of the security guards, who shifted uneasily.

"You, my fine jack-sauce. Come here. Now, if you inspect your breast pocket, I think you might find a fine silk handkerchief."

"Nossir. 'Mafraidnotsir," said the guard, staring straight ahead.

Aziraphale winked desperately. "No, go on, dear boy, take a look, please."

The guard reached a hand inside his inside pocket, looked surprised, and pulled out a handkerchief, duck-egg-blue silk, with lace edging. Aziraphale realized almost immediately that the lace had been a mistake, as it caught on the guard's holstered gun, and sent it spinning across the room to land heavily in a bowl of jelly.

The children applauded spasmodically. "Hey, not bad!" said the pony-tailed girl.

Warlock had already run across the room, and grabbed the gun.

"Hands up, dogbreaths!" he shouted gleefully.

The security guards were in a quandary.

Some of them fumbled for their own weapons; others started edging their way toward, or away from, the boy. The other children started complaining that they wanted guns as well, and a few of the more forward ones started trying to tug them from the guards who had been thoughtless enough to take their weapons out.

Then someone threw some jelly at Warlock.

The boy squeaked, and pulled the trigger of the gun. It was a Magnum .32, CIA issue, gray, mean, heavy, capable of blowing a man away at thirty paces, and leaving nothing more than a red mist, a ghastly mess, and a certain amount of paperwork.

Aziraphale blinked.

A thin stream of water squirted from the nozzle and soaked Crowley, who had been looking out the window, trying to see if there was a huge black dog in the garden.

Aziraphale looked embarrassed.

Then a cream cake hit him in the face.

It was almost five past three.

With a gesture, Aziraphale turned the rest of the guns into water pistols as well, and walked out.

Crowley found him on the pavement outside, trying to extricate a rather squishy dove from the arm of his frock coat.

"It's late," said Aziraphale.

"I can see that," said Crowley. "Comes of sticking it up your sleeve." He reached out and pulled the limp bird from Aziraphale's coat, and breathed life back into it. The dove cooed appreciatively and flew off, a trifle warily.

"Not the bird," said the angel. "The dog. It's late."

Crowley shook his head, thoughtfully. "We'll see."

He opened the car door, flipped on the radio. "I—should—be—solucky,—lucky—lucky—lucky—lucky,—I—should—be—so—lucky—in—HELLO CROWLEY."

"Hello. Um, who is this?"

"DAGON, LORD OF THE FILES, MASTER OF MADNESS, UNDER-DUKE OF THE SEVENTH TORMENT. WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU?"

"The hell-hound. I'm just, uh, just checking that it got off okay."

"RELEASED TEN MINUTES AGO. WHY? HASN'T IT ARRIVED? IS SOMETHING WRONG?"

"Oh no. Nothing's wrong. Everything's fine. Oops, I can see it now. Good dog. Nice dog. Everything's terrific. You're doing a great job down there, people. Well, lovely talking to you, Dagon. Catch you soon, huh?"

He flipped off the radio.

They stared at each other. There was a loud bang from inside the house, and a window shattered. "Oh dear," muttered Aziraphale, not swearing with the practiced ease of one who has spent six thousand years not swearing, and who wasn't going to start now. "I must have missed one."

"No dog," said Crowley.

"No dog," said Aziraphale.

The demon sighed. "Get in the car," he said. "We've got to talk about this. Oh, and Aziraphale…?"

"Yes."

"Clean off that blasted cream cake before you get in."

* * *

It was a hot, silent August day far from Central London. By the side of the Tadfield road the dust weighed down the hogweed. Bees buzzed in the hedges. The air had a leftover and reheated feel.

There was a sound like a thousand metal voices shouting "Hail!" cut off abruptly.

And there was a black dog in the road.

It had to be a dog. It was dog-shaped.

There are some dogs which, when you meet them, remind you that, despite thousands of years of man-made evolution, every dog is still only two meals away from being a wolf. These dogs advance deliberately, purposefully, the wilderness made flesh, their teeth yellow, their breath a-stink, while in the distance their owners witter, "He's an old soppy really, just poke him if he's a nuisance," and in the green of their eyes the red campfires of the Pleistocene gleam and flicker…

This dog would make even a dog like that slink nonchalantly behind the sofa and pretend to be extremely preoccupied with its rubber bone.

It was already growling, and the growl was a low, rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace, the sort of growl that starts in the back of one throat and ends up in someone else's.

Saliva dripped from its jaws and sizzled on the tar.

It took a few steps forward, and sniffed the sullen air.

Its ears flicked up.

There were voices, a long way off. A voice. A boyish voice, but one it had been created to obey, could not help but obey. When that voice said "Follow," it would follow; when it said "Kill," it would kill. His master's voice.

It leapt the hedge and padded across the field beyond. A grazing bull eyed it for a moment, weighed its chances, then strolled hurriedly toward the opposite hedge.

The voices were coming from a copse of straggly trees. The black hound slunk closer, jaws streaming.

One of the other voices said: "He never will. You're always saying he will, and he never does. Catch your dad giving you a pet. An int'restin' pet, anyway. It'll prob'ly be stick insects. That's your dad's idea of int'restin'."

The hound gave the canine equivalent of a shrug, but immediately lost interest because now the Master, the Center of its Universe, spoke.

"It'll be a dog," it said.

"Huh. You don't know it's going to be a dog. No one's said it's going to be a dog. How d'you know it's goin' to be a dog if no one's said? Your dad'd be complaining about the food it eats the whole time."

"Privet." This third voice was rather more prim than the first two. The owner of a voice like that would be the sort of person who, before making a plastic model kit, would not only separate and count all the parts before commencing, as per the instructions, but also paint the bits that needed painting first and leave them to dry properly prior to construction. All that separated this voice from chartered accountancy was a matter of time.

"They don't eat privet, Wensley. You never saw a dog eatin' privet."

"Stick insects do, I mean. They're jolly interesting, actually. They eat each other when they're mating."

There was a thoughtful pause. The hound slunk closer, and realized that the voices were coming from a hole in the ground.

The trees in fact concealed an ancient chalk quarry, now half overgrown with thorn trees and vines. Ancient, but clearly not disused. Tracks crisscrossed it; smooth areas of slope indicated regular use by skateboards and Wall-of-Death, or at least Wall-of-Seriously-Grazed-Knee, cyclists. Old bits of dangerously frayed rope hung from some of the more accessible greenery. Here and there sheets of corrugated iron and old wooden boards were wedged in branches. A burnt-out, rusting Triumph Herald Estate was visible, half-submerged in a drift of nettles.

In one corner a tangle of wheels and corroded wire marked the site of the famous Lost Graveyard where the supermarket trolleys came to die.

If you were a child, it was paradise. The local adults called it The Pit.

The hound peered through a clump of nettles, and spotted four figures sitting in the center of the quarry on that indispensable prop to good secret dens everywhere, the common milk crate.

"They don't!"

"They do."

"Bet you they don't," said the first speaker. It had a certain timbre to it that identified it as young and female, and it was tinted with horrified fascination.

"They do, actually. I had six before we went on holiday and I forgot to change the privet and when I came back I had one big fat one."

"Nah. That's not stick insects, that's praying mantises. I saw on the television where this big female one ate this other one and it dint hardly take any notice."

There was another crowded pause.

"What're they prayin' about?" said his Master's voice.

"Dunno. Prayin' they don't have to get married, I s'pect."

The hound managed to get one huge eye against an empty knothole in the quarry's broken-down fence, and squinted downward.

"Anyway, it's like with bikes," said the first speaker authoritatively. "I thought I was going to get this bike with seven gears and one of them razorblade saddles and purple paint and everything, and they gave me this light blue one. With a basket. A girl's bike."

"Well. You're a girl," said one of the others.

"That's sexism, that is. Going around giving people girly presents just because they're a girl."

"I'm going to get a dog," said his Master's voice, firmly. His Master had his back to him; the hound couldn't quite make out his features.

"Oh, yeah, one of those great big Rottenweilers, yeah?" said the girl, with withering sarcasm.

"No, it's going to be the kind of dog you can have fun with," said his Master's voice. "Not a big dog—"

—the eye in the nettles vanished abruptly downwards—

"—but one of those dogs that's brilliantly intelligent and can go down rabbit holes and has one funny ear that always looks inside out. And a proper mongrel, too. A pedigree mongrel."

Unheard by those within, there was a tiny clap of thunder on the lip of the quarry. It might have been caused by the sudden rushing of air into the vacuum caused by a very large dog becoming, for example, a small dog.

The tiny popping noise that followed might have been caused by one ear turning itself inside out.

"And I'll call him…" said his Master's voice. "I'll call him…"

"Yes?" said the girl. "What're you goin' to call it?"

The hound waited. This was the moment. The Naming. This would give it its propose, its function, its identity. Its eyes glowed a dull red, even though they were a lot closer to the ground, and it dribbled into the nettles.

"I'll call him Dog," said his Master, positively. "It saves a lot of trouble, a name like that."

The hell-hound paused. Deep in its diabolical canine brain it knew that something was wrong, but it was nothing if not obedient and its great sudden love of its Master overcame all misgivings. Who was it to say what size it should be, anyway?

It trotted down the slope to meet its destiny.

Strange, though. It had always wanted to jump up at people but, now, it realized that against all expectation it wanted to wag its tail at the same time.

* * *

"You said it was him!" moaned Aziraphale, abstractedly picking the final lump of cream-cake from his lapel. He licked his fingers clean.

"It was him," said Crowley. "I mean, I should know, shouldn't I?"

"Then someone else must be interfering."

"There isn't anyone else! There's just us, right? Good and Evil. One side or the other."

He thumped the steering wheel.

"You'll be amazed at the kind of things they can do to you, down there," he said.

"I imagine they're very similar to the sort of things they can do to one up there," said Aziraphale.

"Come off it. Your lot get ineffable mercy," said Crowley sourly.

"Yes? Did you ever visit Gomorrah?"

"Sure," said the demon. "There was this great little tavern where you could get these terrific fermented date-palm cocktails with nutmeg and crushed lemongrass—"

"I meant afterwards."

"Oh."

Aziraphale said: "Something must have happened in the hospital."

"It couldn't have! It was full of our people!"

"Whose people?" said Aziraphale coldly.

"My people," corrected Crowley. "Well, not my people. Mmm, you know. Satanists."

He tried to say it dismissively. Apart from, of course, the fact that the world was an amazing interesting place which they both wanted to enjoy for as long as possible, there were few things that the two of them agreed on, but they did see eye to eye about some of those people who, for one reason or another, were inclined to worship the Prince of Darkness. Crowley always found them embarrassing. You couldn't actually be rude to them, but you couldn't help feeling about them the same way that, say, a Vietnam veteran would feel about someone who wears combat gear to Neighborhood Watch meetings.

Besides, they were always so depressingly enthusiastic. Take all that stuff with the inverted crosses and pentagrams and cockerels. It mystified most demons. It wasn't the least bit necessary. All you needed to become a Satanist was an effort of will. You could be one all your life without ever knowing what a pentagram was, without ever seeing a dead cockerel other than as Chicken Marengo.

Besides, some of the old-style Satanists tended, in fact, to be quite nice people. They mouthed the words and went through the motions, just like the people they thought of as their opposite numbers, and then went home and lived lives of mild unassuming mediocrity for the rest of the week with never an unusually evil thought in their heads.

And as for the rest of it…

There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm. It wasn't just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They'd come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout "The Devil Made Me Do It" and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn't have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley's opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

"Huh," said Aziraphale. "Satanists."

"I don't see how they could have messed it up," said Crowley. "I mean, two babies. It's not exactly taxing, is it…?" He stopped. Through the mists of memory he pictured a small nun, who had struck him at the time as being remarkably loose-headed even for a Satanist. And there had been someone else. Crowley vaguely recalled a pipe, and a cardigan with the kind of zigzag pattern that went out of style in 1938. A man with "expectant father" written all over him.

There must have been a third baby.

He told Aziraphale.

"Not a lot to go on," said the angel.

"We know the child must be alive," said Crowley, "so—"

"How do we know?"

"If it had turned up Down There again, do you think I'd still be sitting here?"

"Good point."

"So all we've got to do is find it," said Crowley. "Go through the hospital records." The Bentley's engine coughed into life and the car leapt forward, forcing Aziraphale back into the seat.

"And then what?" he said.

"And then we find the child."

"And then what?" The angel shut his eyes as the car crabbed around a corner.

"Don't know."

"Good grief."

"I suppose—get off the road you clown—your people wouldn't consider… and the scooter you rode in on!—giving me asylum?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing—Watch out for that pedestrian!"

"It's on the street, it knows the risks it's taking!" said Crowley, easing the accelerating car between a parked car and a taxi and leaving a space which would have barely accepted even the best credit card.

"Watch the roadl Watch the road! Where is this hospital, anyway?"

"Somewhere south of Oxford!"

Aziraphale grabbed the dashboard. "You can't do ninety miles an hour in Central London!"

Crowley peered at the dial. "Why not?" he said.

"You'll get us killed!" Aziraphale hesitated. "Inconveniently discorporated," he corrected, lamely, relaxing a little. "Anyway, you might kill other people."

Crowley shrugged. The angel had never really come to grips with the twentieth century, and didn't realize that it is perfectly possible to do ninety miles an hour down Oxford Street. You just arranged matters so that no one was in the way. And since everyone knew that it was impossible to do ninety miles an hour down Oxford Street, no one noticed.

At least cars were better than horses. The internal combustion engine had been a godse—a blessi—a windfall for Crowley. The only horses he could be seen riding on business, in the old days, were big black jobs with eyes like flame and hooves that struck sparks. That was de rigueur for a demon. Usually, Crowley fell off. He wasn't much good with animals.

Somewhere around Chiswick, Aziraphale scrabbled vaguely in the scree of tapes in the glove compartment.

"What's a Velvet Underground?" he said.

"You wouldn't like it," said Crowley.

"Oh," said the angel dismissively. "Be-bop."

"Do you know, Aziraphale, that probably if a million human beings were asked to describe modern music, they wouldn't use the term 'bebop'?' said Crowley.

"Ah, this is more like it. Tchaikovsky," said Aziraphale, opening a case and slotting its cassette into the Blaupunkt.

"You won't enjoy it," sighed Crowley. "It's been in the car for more than a fortnight."

A heavy bass beat began to thump through the Bentley as they sped past Heathrow.

Aziraphale's brow furrowed.

"I don't recognize this," he said. "What is it?"

"It's Tchaikovsky's 'Another One Bites the Dust'," said Crowley, closing his eyes as they went through Slough.

To while away the time as they crossed the sleeping Chilterns, they also listened to William Byrd's "We Are the Champions" and Beethoven's "I Want To Break Free." Neither were as good as Vaughan Williams's "Fat-Bottomed Girls."

* * *

It is said that the Devil has all the best tunes.

This is broadly true. But Heaven has the best choreographers.

* * *

The Oxfordshire plain stretched out to the west, with a scattering of lights to mark the slumbering villages where honest yeomen were settling down to sleep after a long day's editorial direction, financial consulting, or software engineering.

Up here on the hill a few glow-worms were lighting up.

The surveyor's theodolite is one of the more direful symbols of the twentieth century. Set up anywhere in open countryside, it says: there will come Road Widening, yea, and two-thousand-home estates in keeping with the Essential Character of the Village. Executive Developments will be manifest.

But not even the most conscientious surveyor surveys at midnight, and yet here the thing was, tripod legs deep in the turf. Not many theodolites have a hazel twig strapped to the top, either, or crystal pendulums hanging from them and Celtic runes carved into the legs.

The soft breeze flapped the cloak of the slim figure who was adjusting the knobs of the thing. It was quite a heavy cloak, sensibly waterproof, with a warm lining.

Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men.

The young woman's name was Anathema Device. She was not astonishingly beautiful. All her features, considered individually, were extremely pretty, but the entirety of her face gave the impression that it had been put together hurriedly from stock without reference to any plan. Probably the most suitable word is "attractive," although people who knew what it meant and could spell it might add "vivacious," although there is something very Fifties about "vivacious," so perhaps they wouldn't.

Young women should not go alone on dark nights, even in Oxfordshire. But any prowling maniac would have had more than his work cut out if he had accosted Anathema Device. She was a witch, after all. And precisely because she was a witch, and therefore sensible, she put little faith in protective amulets and spells; she saved it all for a foot-long bread knife which she kept in her belt.

She sighted through the glass and made another adjustment.

She muttered under her breath.

Surveyors often mutter under their breath. They mutter things like "Soon have a relief road through here faster than you can say Jack Robinson," or "That's three point five meters, give or take a gnat's whisker."

This was an entirely different kind of muttering.

"Darksome night/And shining Moon," muttered Anathema, "East by South/By West by southwest… west-southwest… got you…"

She picked up a folded Ordinance Survey map and held it in the torchlight. Then she produced a transparent ruler and a pencil and carefully drew a line across the map. It intersected another pencil line.

She smiled, not because anything was particularly amusing, but because a tricky job had been done well.

Then she collapsed the strange theodolite, strapped it onto the back of a sit-up-and-beg black bicycle leaning against the hedge, made sure the Book was in the basket, and wheeled everything out to the misty lane.

It was a very ancient bike, with a frame apparently made of drainpipes. It had been built long before the invention of the three-speed gear, and possibly only just after the invention of the wheel.

But it was nearly all downhill to the village. Hair streaming in the wind, cloak ballooning behind her like a sheet anchor, she let the twowheeled juggernaut accelerate ponderously through the warm air. At least there wasn't any traffic at this time of night.

* * *

The Bentley's engine went pink, pink as it cooled. Crowley's temper, on the other hand, was heating up.

"You said you saw it signposted," he said.

"Well, we flashed by so quickly. Anyway, I thought you'd been here before."

"Eleven years ago!"

Crowley hurled the map onto the back seat and started the engine again.

"Perhaps we should ask someone," said Aziraphale.

"Oh, yes," said Crowley. "We'll stop and ask the first person we see walking along a-a track in the middle of the night, shall we?"

He jerked the car into gear and roared out into the beech-hung lane.

"There's something odd about this area," said Aziraphale. "Can't you feel it?"

"What?"

"Slow down a moment."

The Bentley slowed again.

"Odd," muttered the angel, "I keep getting these flashes of, of…"

He raised his hands to his temples.

"What? What?" said Crowley.

Aziraphale stared at him.

"Love," he said. "Someone really loves this place."

"Pardon?"

"There seems to be this great sense of love. I can't put it any better than that. Especially not to you."

"Do you mean like—" Crowley began.

There was a whirr, a scream, and a chink. The car stopped.

Aziraphale blinked, lowered his hands, and gingerly opened the door.

"You've hit someone," he said.

"No I haven't," said Crowley. "Someone's hit me."

They got out. Behind the Bentley a bicycle lay in the road, its front wheel bent into a creditable Mobius shape, its back wheel clicking ominously to a standstill.

"Let there be light," said Aziraphale. A pale blue glow filled the lane.

From the ditch beside them someone said, "How the hell did you do that?"

The light vanished.

"Do what?" said Aziraphale guiltily.

"Uh." Now the voice sounded muzzy. "I think I hit my head on something…"

Crowley glared at a long metallic streak on the Bentley's glossy paintwork and a dimple in the bumper. The dimple popped back into shape. The paint healed.

"Up you get, young lady," said the angel, hauling Anathema out of the bracken. "No bones broken." It was a statement, not a hope; there had been a minor fracture, but Aziraphale couldn't resist an opportunity to do good.

"You didn't have any lights," she began.

"Nor did you," said Crowley guiltily. "Fair's fair."

"Doing a spot of astronomy, were we?" said Aziraphale, setting the bike upright. Various things clattered out of its front basket. He pointed to the battered theodolite.

"No," said Anathema, "I mean, yes. And look what you've done to poor old Phaeton."

"I'm sorry?" said Aziraphale.

"My bicycle. It's bent all to—"

"Amazingly resilient, these old machines," said the angel brightly, handing it to her. The front wheel gleamed in the moonlight, as perfectly round as one of the Circles of Hell.

She stared at it.

"Well, since that's all sorted out," said Crowley, "perhaps it'd be best if we just all got on our, er. Er. You wouldn't happen to know the way to Lower Tadfield, would you?"

Anathema was still staring at her bicycle. She was almost certain that it hadn't had a little saddlebag with a puncture repair kit when she set out.

"It's just down the hill," she said. "This is my bike, isn't it?"

"Oh, certainly," said Aziraphale, wondering if he'd overdone things.

"Only I'm sure Phaeton never had a pump."

The angel looked guilty again.

"But there's a place for one," he said, helplessly. "Two little hooks."

"Just down the hill, you said?" said Crowley, nudging the angel.

"I think perhaps I must have knocked my head," said the girl.

"We'd offer to give you a lift, of course," said Crowley quickly, "but there's nowhere for the bike."

"Except the luggage rack," said Aziraphale.

"The Bentley hasn't—Oh. Huh."

The angel scrambled the spilled contents of the bike's basket into the back seat and helped the stunned girl in after them.

"One does not," he said to Crowley, "pass by on the other side."

"Your one might not. This one does. We have got other things to do, you know." Crowley glared at the new luggage rack. It had tartan straps.

The bicycle lifted itself up and tied itself firmly in place. Then Crowley got in.

"Where do you live, my dear?" Aziraphale oozed.

"My bike didn't have lights, either. Well, it did, but they're the sort you put those double batteries in and they went moldy and I took them off," said Anathema. She glared at Crowley. "I have a bread knife, you know," she said. "Somewhere."

Aziraphale looked shocked at the implication.

"Madam, I assure you—"

Crowley switched on the lights. He didn't need them to see by, but they made the other humans on the road less nervous. Then he put the car into gear and drove sedately down the hill. The road came out from under the trees and, after a few hundred yards, reached the outskirts of a middlesized village.

It had a familiar feel to it. It had been eleven years, but this place definitely rang a distant bell.

"Is there a hospital around here?" he said. "Run by nuns?"

Anathema shrugged. "Don't think so," she said. "The only large place is Tadfield Manor. I don't know what goes on there."

"Divine planning," muttered Crowley under his breath.

"And gears," said Anathema. "My bike didn't have gears. I'm sure my bike didn't have gears."

Crowley leaned across to the angel.

"Oh lord, heal this bike," he whispered sarcastically.

"I'm sorry, I just got carried away," hissed Aziraphale.

"Tartan straps?"

"Tartan is stylish."

Crowley growled. On those occasions when the angel managed to get his mind into the twentieth century, it always gravitated to 1950.

"You can drop me off here," said Anathema, from the back seat.

"Our pleasure," beamed the angel. As soon as the car had stopped he had the back door open and was bowing like an aged retainer welcoming the young massa back to the old plantation.

Anathema gathered her things together and stepped out as haughtily as possible.

She was quite sure neither of the two men had gone around to the back of the car, but the bike was unstrapped and leaning against the gate.

There was definitely something very weird about them, she decided.

Aziraphale bowed again. "So glad to have been of assistance," he said.

"Thank you," said Anathema, icily.

"Can we get on?" said Crowley. "Goodnight, miss. Get in, angel."

Ah. Well, that explained it. She had been perfectly safe after all.

She watched the car disappear toward the center of the village, and wheeled the bike up the path to the cottage. She hadn't bothered to lock it. She was sure that Agnes would have mentioned it if she was going to be burgled, she was always very good at personal things like that.

She'd rented the cottage furnished, which meant that the actual furniture was the special sort you find in these circumstances and had probably been left out for the dustmen by the local War on Want shop. It didn't matter. She didn't expect to be here long.

If Agnes was right, she wouldn't be anywherelong. Nor would anyone else.

She spread her maps and things out on the ancient table under the kitchen's solitary light bulb.

What had she learned? Nothing much, she decided. Probably IT was at the north end of the village, but she'd suspected that anyway. If you got too close the signal swamped you; if you were too far away you couldn't get an accurate fix.

It was infuriating. The answer must be in the Book somewhere. The trouble was that in order to understand the Predictions you had to be able to think like a half-crazed, highly intelligent seventeenth-century witch with a mind like a crossword-puzzle dictionary. Other members of the family had said that Agnes made things obscure to conceal them from the understanding of outsiders; Anathema, who suspected she could occasionally think like Agnes, had privately decided that it was because Agnes was a bloody-minded old bitch with a mean sense of humor.

She'd not even—

She didn't have the book.

Anathema stared in horror at the things on the table. The maps. The homemade divinatory theodolite. The thermos that had contained hot Bovril. The torch.

The rectangle of empty air where the Prophecies should have been.

She'd lost it.

But that was ridiculous! One of the things Agnes was always very specific about was what happened to the book.

She snatched up the torch and ran from the house.

* * *

"A feeling like, oh, like the opposite of the feeling you're having when you say things like 'this feels spooky,'" said Aziraphale. "That's what I mean."

"I never say things like 'this feels spooky,"' said Crowley. "I'm all for spooky."

"A cherishedfeel," said Aziraphale desperately.

"Nope. Can't sense a thing," said Crowley with forced jolliness. "You're just over-sensitive."

"It's my job," said Aziraphale. "Angels can't be over-sensitive."

"I expect people round here like living here and you're just picking it up."

"Never picked up anything like this in London," said Aziraphale.

"There you are, then. Proves my point," said Crowley. "And this is the place. I remember the stone lions on the gateposts."

The Bentley's headlights lit up the groves of overgrown rhododendrons that lined the drive. The tires crunched over gravel.

"It's a bit early in the morning to be calling on nuns," said Aziraphale doubtfully.

"Nonsense. Nuns are up and about at all hours," said Crowley. "It's probably Compline, unless that's a slimming aid."

"Oh, cheap, very cheap," said the angel. "There's really no need for that sort of thing."

"Don't get defensive. I told you, these were some of ours. Black nuns. We needed a hospital close to the air base, you see."

"You've lost me there."

"You don't think American diplomats' wives usually give birth in little religious hospitals in the middle of nowhere, do you? It all had to seem to happen naturally. There's an air base at Lower Tadfield, she went there for the opening, things started to happen, base hospital not ready, our man there said, 'There's a place just down the road,' and there we were. Rather good organization."

"Except for one or two minor details," said Aziraphale smugly.

"But it nearly worked," snapped Crowley, feeling he should stick up for the old firm.

"You see, evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction," said the angel. "It is ultimately negative, and therefore encompasses its downfall even at its moments of apparent triumph. No matter how grandiose, how well-planned, how apparently foolproof an evil plan, the inherent sinfulness will by definition rebound upon its instigators. No matter how apparently successful it may seem upon the way, at the end it will wreck itself. It will founder upon the rocks of iniquity and sink headfirst to vanish without trace into the seas of oblivion."

Crowley considered this. "Nah," he said, at last. "For my money, it was just average incompetence. Hey—"

He whistled under his breath.

The graveled forecourt in front of the manor was crowded with cars, and they weren't nun cars. The Bentley was if anything outclassed. A lot of the cars had GT or Turbo in their names and phone aerials on their roofs. They were nearly all less than a year old.

Crowley's hands itched. Aziraphale healed bicycles and broken bones; he longed to steal a few radios, let down some tires, that sort of thing. He resisted it.

"Well, well," he said. "In my day nuns were packed four to a Morris Traveller."

"This can't be right," said Aziraphale.

"Perhaps they've gone private?" said Crowley.

"Or you've got the wrong place."

"It's the right place, I tell you. Come on."

They got out of the car. Thirty seconds later someone shot both of them. With incredible accuracy.

* * *

If there was one thing that Mary Hodges, formerly Loquacious, was good at, it was attempting to obey orders. She liked orders. They made the world a simpler place.

What she wasn't good at was change. She'd really liked the Chattering Order. She'd made friends for the first time. She'd had a room of her own for the first time. Of course, she knew that it was engaged in things which might, from certain viewpoints, be considered bad, but Mary Hodges had seen quite a lot of life in thirty years and had no illusions about what most of the human race had to do in order to make it from one week to the next. Besides, the food was good and you got to meet interesting people.

The Order, such as was left of it, had moved after the fire. After all, their sole purpose in existing had been fulfilled. They went their separate ways.

She hadn't gone. She'd rather liked the Manor and, she said, someone ought to stay and see it was properly repaired, because you couldn't trust workmen these days unless you were on top of them the whole time, in a manner of speaking. This meant breaking her vows, but Mother Superior said this was all right, nothing to worry about, breaking vows was perfectly okay in a black sisterhood, and it would all be the same in a hundred years' time or, rather, eleven years' time, so if it gave her any pleasure here were the deeds and an address to forward any mail unless it came in long brown envelopes with windows in the front.

Then something very strange had happened to her. Left alone in the rambling building, working from one of the few undamaged rooms, arguing with men with cigarette stubs behind their ears and plaster dust on their trousers and the kind of pocket calculator that comes up with a different answer if the sums involved are in used notes, she discovered something she never knew existed.

She'd discovered, under layers of silliness and eagerness to please, Mary Hodges.

She found it quite easy to interpret builders' estimates and do VAT calculations. She'd got some books from the library, and found finance to be both interesting and uncomplicated. She'd stopped reading the kind of women's magazine that talks about romance and knitting and started reading the kind of women's magazine that talks about orgasms, but apart from making a mental note to have one if ever the occasion presented itself she dismissed them as only romance and knitting in a new form. So she'd started reading the kind of magazine that talked about mergers.

After much thought, she'd bought a small home computer from an amused and condescending young dealer in Norton. After a crowded weekend, she took it back. Not, as he thought when she walked back into the shop, to have a plug put on it, but because it didn't have a 387 coprocessor. That bit he understood—he was a dealer, after all, and could understand quite long words—but after that the conversation rapidly went downhill from his point of view. Mary Hodges produced yet more magazines. Most of them had the term "PC" somewhere in their title, and many of them had articles and reviews that she had circled carefully in red ink.

She read about New Women. She hadn't ever realized that she'd been an Old Woman, but after some thought she decided that titles like that were all one with the romance and the knitting and the orgasms, and the really important thing to be was yourself, just as hard as you could. She'd always been inclined to dress in black and white. All she needed to do was raise the hemlines, raise the heels, and leave off the wimple.

It was while leafing through a magazine one day that she learned that, around the country, there was an apparently insatiable demand for commodious buildings in spacious grounds run by people who understood the needs of the business community. The following day she went out and ordered some stationery in the name of the Tadfield Manor Conference and Management Training Center, reasoning that by the time it had been printed she'd know all that was necessary to know about running such places.

The ads went out the following week.

It had turned out to be an overwhelming success, because Mary Hodges realized early in her new career as Herself that management training didn't have to mean sitting people down in front of unreliable slide projectors. Firms expected far more than that these days.

She provided it.

* * *

Crowley sank down with his back against a statue. Aziraphale had already toppled backward into a rhododendron bush, a dark stain spreading across his coat.

Crowley felt dampness suffusing his own shirt.

This was ridiculous. The last thing he needed now was to be killed. It would require all sorts of explanations. They didn't hand out new bodies just like that; they always wanted to know what you'd done with the old one. It was like trying to get a new pen from a particularly bloody-minded stationery department.

He looked at his hand in disbelief.

Demons have to be able to see in the dark. And he could see that his hand was yellow. He was bleeding yellow.

Gingerly, he tasted a finger.

Then he crawled over to Aziraphale and checked the angel's shirt. If the stain on it was blood, something had gone very wrong with biology.

"Oo, that stung," moaned the fallen angel. "Got me right under the ribs."

"Yes, but do you normally bleed blue?" said Crowley.

Aziraphale's eyes opened. His right hand patted his chest. He sat up. He went through the same crude forensic self-examination as Crowley.

"Paint?" he said.

Crowley nodded.

"What're they playing at?" said Aziraphale.

"I don't know," said Crowley, "but I think it's called silly buggers." His tone suggested that he could play, too. And do it better.

It was a game. It was tremendous fun. Nigel Tompkins, Assistant Head (Purchasing), squirmed through the undergrowth, his mind aflame with some of the more memorable scenes of some of the better Clint Eastwood movies. And to think he'd believed that management training was going to be boring, too…

There had been a lecture, but it had been about the paint guns and all the things you should never do with them, and Tompkins had looked at the fresh young faces of his rival trainees as, to a man, they resolved to do them all if there was half a chance of getting away with it. If people told you business was a jungle and then put a gun in your hand, then it was pretty obvious to Tompkins that they weren't expecting you to simply aim for the shirt; what it was all about was the corporate head hanging over your fireplace.

Anyway, it was rumored that someone over in United Consolidated had done his promotion prospects a considerable amount of good by the anonymous application of a high-speed earful of paint to an immediate superior, causing the latter to complain of little ringing noises in important meetings and eventually to be replaced on medical grounds.

And there were his fellow trainees—fellow sperms, to switch metaphors, all struggling forward in the knowledge that there could only ever be one Chairman of Industrial Holdings (Holdings) PLC, and that the job would probably go to the biggest prick.

Of course, some girl with a clipboard from Personnel had told them that the courses they were going on were just to establish leadership potential, group cooperation, initiative, and so on. The trainees had tried to avoid one another's faces.

It had worked quite well so far. The white-water canoeing had taken care of Johnstone (punctured eardrum) and the mountain climbing in Wales had done for Whittaker (groin strain).

Tompkins thumbed another paint pellet into the gun and muttered business mantras to himself. Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto You. Kill or Be Killed. Either Shit or Get Out of the Kitchen. Survival of the Fittest. Make My Day.

He crawled a little nearer to the figures by the statue. They didn't seem to have noticed him.

When the available cover ran out, he took a deep breath and leapt to his feet.

"Okay, douchebags, grab some sk—ohnoooeeeeee…"

Where one of the figures had been there was something dreadful. He blacked out.

Crowley restored himself to his favorite shape.

"I hate having to do that," he murmured. "I'm always afraid I'll forget how to change back. And it can ruin a good suit."

"I think the maggots were a bit over the top, myself," said Aziraphale, but without much rancor. Angels had certain moral standards to maintain and so, unlike Crowley, he preferred to buy his clothes rather than wish them into being from raw firmament. And the shirt had been quite expensive.

"I mean, just look at it," he said. "I'll never get the stain out."

"Miracle it away," said Crowley, scanning the undergrowth for any more management trainees.

"Yes, but I'll always know the stain was there. You know. Deep down, I mean," said the angel. He picked up the gun and turned it over in his hands. "I've never seen one of these before," he said.

There was a pinging noise, and the statue beside them lost an ear.

"Let's not hang around," said Crowley. "He wasn't alone."

"This is a very odd gun, you know. Very strange."

"I thought your side disapproved of guns," said Crowley. He took the gun from the angel's plump hand and sighted along the stubby barrel.

"Current thinking favors them," said Aziraphale. "They lend weight to moral argument. In the right hands, of course."

"Yeah?" Crowley snaked a hand over the metal. "That's all right, then. Come on."

He dropped the gun onto the recumbent form of Tompkins and marched away across the damp lawn.

The front door of the Manor was unlocked. The pair of them walked through unheeded. Some plump young men in army fatigues spattered with paint were drinking cocoa out of mugs in what had once been the sisters' refectory, and one or two of them gave them a cheery wave.

Something like a hotel reception desk now occupied one end of the hall. It had a quietly competent look. Aziraphale gazed at the board on an aluminum easel beside it.

In little plastic letters let into the black fabric of the board were the words: August 20—21: United Holdings [Holdings] PLC Initiative Combat Course.

Meanwhile Crowley had picked up a pamphlet from the desk. It showed glossy pictures of the Manor, with special references to its Jacuzzis and indoor heated swimming pool, and on the back was the sort of map that conference centers always have, which makes use of a careful misscaling to suggest that it is handy for every motorway exit in the nation while carefully leaving out the labyrinth of country lanes that in fact surrounds it for miles on every side.

"Wrong place?" said Aziraphale.

"No."

"Wrong time, then."

"Yes." Crowley leafed through the booklet, in the hope of any clue. Perhaps it was too much to hope that the Chattering Order would still be here. After all, they'd done their bit. He hissed softly. Probably they'd gone to darkest America or somewhere, to convert the Christians, but he read on anyway. Sometimes this sort of leaflet had a little historical bit, because the kind of companies that hired places like this for a weekend of Interactive Personnel Analysis or A Conference on the Strategic Marketing Dynamic liked to feel that they were strategically interacting in the very building—give or take a couple of complete rebuildings, a civil war, and two major fires—that some Elizabethan financier had endowed as a plague hospital.

Not that he was actually expecting a sentence like "until eleven years ago the Manor was used as a convent by an order of Satanic nuns who weren't in fact all that good at it, really," but you never knew.

A plump man wearing desert camouflage and holding a polystyrene cup of coffee wandered up to them.

"Who's winning?" he said chummily. "Young Evanson of Forward Planning caught me a right zinger on the elbow, you know."

"We're all going to lose," said Crowley absently.

There was a burst of firing from the grounds. Not the snap and zing of pellets, but the full-throated crackle of aerodynamically shaped bits of lead traveling extremely fast.

There was an answering stutter.

The redundant warriors stared one on another. A further burst took out a rather ugly Victorian stained glass window beside the door and stitched a row of holes in the plaster by Crowley's head.

Aziraphale grabbed his arm.

"What the hell is it?" he said.

Crowley smiled like a snake.

* * *

Nigel Tompkins had come to with a mild headache and a vaguely empty space in his recent memory. He was not to know that the human brain, when faced with a sight too terrible to contemplate, is remarkably good at scabbing it over with forced forgetfulness, so he put it down to a pellet strike on the head.

He was vaguely aware that his gun was somewhat heavier, but in his mildly bemused state he did not realize why until some time after he'd pointed it at trainee manager Norman Wethered from Internal Audit and pulled the trigger.

* * *

"I don't see why you're so shocked," said Crowley. "He wanted a real gun. Every desire in his head was for a real gun."

"But you've turned him loose on all those unprotected people!" said Aziraphale.

"Oh, no," said Crowley. "Not exactly. Fair's fair."

* * *

The contingent from Financial Planning were lying flat on their faces in what had once been the haha, although they weren't very amused.

"I always said you couldn't trust those people from Purchasing," said the Deputy Financial Manager. "The bastards."

A shot pinged off the wall above him.

He crawled hurriedly over to the little group clustered around the fallen Wethered.

"How does it look?" he said.

The assistant Head of Wages turned a haggard face toward him.

"Pretty bad," he said. "The bullet went through nearly all of them. Access, Barclaycard, Diners—the lot."

"It was only the American Express Gold that stopped it," said Wethered.

They looked in mute horror at the spectacle of a credit card wallet with a bullet hole nearly all the way through it.

"Why'd they do it?" said a wages officer.

The head of Internal Audit opened his mouth to say something reasonable, and didn't. Everyone had a point where they crack, and his had just been hit with a spoon. Twenty years in the job. He'd wanted to be a graphic designer but the careers master hadn't heard of that. Twenty years of double-checking Form BF 18. Twenty years of cranking the bloody hand calculator, when even the people in Forward Planning had computers. And now for reasons unknown, but possibly to do with reorganization and a desire to do away with all the expense of early retirement, they were shooting at him with bullets.

The armies of paranoia marched behind his eyes.

He looked down at his own gun. Through the mists of rage and bewilderment he saw that it was bigger and blacker than it had been when it was issued to him. It felt heavier, too.

He aimed it at a bush nearby and watched a stream of bullets blow the bush into oblivion.

Oh. So that was their game. Well, someone had to win.

He looked at his men.

"Okay, guys," he said, "let's get the bastards!"

* * *

"The way I see it," said Crowley, "no one has to pull the trigger." He gave Aziraphale a bright and brittle grin.

"Come on," he said. "Let's have a look around while everyone's busy."

* * *

Bullets streaked across the night.

Jonathan Parker, Purchasing Section, was wriggling through the bushes when one of them put an arm around his neck.

Nigel Tompkins spat a cluster of rhododendron leaves out of his mouth.

"Down there it's company law," he hissed, through mud-encrusted features, "but up here it's me…"

"That was a pretty low trick," said Aziraphale, as they strolled along the empty corridors.

"What'd I do? What'd I do?" said Crowley, pushing open doors at random.

"There are people out there shooting one another!"

"Well, that's just it, isn't it? They're doing it themselves. It's what they really want to do. I just assisted them. Think of it as a microcosm of the universe. Free will for everyone. Ineffable, right?"

Aziraphale glared.

"Oh, all right," said Crowley wretchedly. "No one's actually going to get killed. They're all going to have miraculous escapes. It wouldn't be any fun otherwise."

Aziraphale relaxed. "You know, Crowley," he said, beaming, "I've always said that, deep down inside, you're really quite a—"

"All right, all right," Crowley snapped. "Tell the whole blessed world, why don't you?"

* * *

After a while, loose alliances began to emerge. Most of the financial departments found they had interests in common, settled their differences, and ganged up on Forward Planning.

When the first police car arrived, sixteen bullets from a variety of directions had hit it in the radiator before it had got halfway up the drive. Two more took out its radio antenna, but they were too late, too late.

* * *

Mary Hodges was just putting down the phone when Crowley opened her office door.

"It must be terrorists," she snapped. "Or poachers." She peered at the pair of them. "You are the police, aren't you?" she said.

Crowley saw her eyes begin to widen.

Like all demons, he had a good memory for faces, even after ten years, the loss of a wimple, and the addition of some rather severe makeup. He snapped his fingers. She settled back in her chair, her face becoming a blank and amiable mask.

"There was no need for that," said Aziraphale.

"Good"—Crowley glanced at his watch—"morning, ma'am," he said, in a sing-song voice. "We're just a couple of supernatural entities and we were just wondering if you might help us with the whereabouts of the notorious Son of Satan." He smiled coldly at the angel. "I'll wake her up again, shall I? And you can say it."

"Well. Since you put it like that…" said the angel slowly.

"Sometimes the old ways are best," said Crowley. He turned to the impassive woman.

"Were you a nun here eleven years ago?" he said.

"Yes," said Mary.

"There!" said Crowley to Aziraphale. "See? I knew I wasn't wrong."

"Luck of the devil," muttered the angel.

"Your name then was Sister Talkative. Or something."

"Loquacious," said Mary Hodges in a hollow voice.

"And do you recall an incident involving the switching of newborn babies?" said Crowley.

Mary Hodges hesitated. When she did speak, it was as though memories that had been scabbed over were being disturbed for the first time in years.

"Yes," she said.

"Is there any possibility that the switch could have gone wrong in some way?"

"I do not know."

Crowley thought for a bit. "You must have had records," he said. "There are always records. Everyone has records these days." He glanced proudly at Aziraphale. "It was one of my better ideas."

"Oh, yes," said Mary Hodges.

"And where are they?" said Aziraphale sweetly.

"There was a fire just after the birth."

Crowley groaned and threw his hands in the air. "That was Hastur, probably," he said. "It's his style. Can you believe those guys? I bet he thought he was being really clever."

"Do you recall any details about the other child?" said Aziraphale.

"Yes."

"Please tell me."

"He had lovely little toesie-wosies."

"Oh."

"And he was very sweet," said Mary Hodges wistfully.

There was the sound of a siren outside, abruptly broken off as a bullet hit it. Aziraphale nudged Crowley.

"Get a move on," he said. "We're going to be knee-deep in police at any moment and I will of course be morally obliged to assist them in their enquiries." He thought for a moment. "Perhaps she can remember if there were any other women giving birth that night, and—"

There was the sound of running feet downstairs.

"Stop them," said Crowley. "We need more time!"

"Any more miracles and we'll really start getting noticed by Up There," said Aziraphale. "If you really want Gabriel or someone wondering why forty policemen have gone to sleep—"

"Okay," said Crowley. "That's it. That's it. It was worth a try. Let's get out of here."

"In thirty seconds you will wake up," said Aziraphale, to the entranced ex-nun. "And you will have had a lovely dream about whatever you like best, and—"

"Yes, yes, fine," sighed Crowley. "Now can we go?"

* * *

No one noticed them leaving. The police were too busy herding in forty adrenaline-drunk, fighting-mad management trainees. Three police vans had gouged tracks in the lawn, and Aziraphale made Crowley back up for the first of the ambulances, but then the Bentley swished into the night. Behind them the summerhouse and gazebo were already ablaze.

"We've really left that poor woman in a dreadful situation," said the angel.

"You think?" said Crowley, trying to hit a hedgehog and missing. "Bookings will double, you mark my words. If she plays her cards right, sorts out the waivers, ties up all the legal bits. Initiative training with real guns? They'll form queues."

"Why are you always so cynical?"

"I said. Because it's my job."

They drove in silence for a while. Then Aziraphale said, "You'd think he'd show up, wouldn't you? You'd think we could detect him in some way."

"He won't show up. Not to us. Protective camouflage. He won't even know it, but his powers will keep him hidden from prying occult forces."

"Occult forces?"

"You and me," explained Crowley.

"I'm not occult," said Aziraphale. "Angels aren't occult. We're ethereal."

"Whatever," snapped Crowley, too worried to argue.

"Is there some other way of locating him?"

Crowley shrugged. "Search me," he said. "How much experience do you think I've got in these matters? Armageddon only happens once, you know. They don't let you go around again until you get it right."

The angel stared out at the rushing hedgerows.

"It all seems so peaceful," he said. "How do you think it will happen?"

"Well, thermonuclear extinction has always been very popular. Although I must say the big boys are being quite polite to each other at the moment."

"Asteroid strike?" said Aziraphale. "Quite the fashion these days, I understand. Strike into the Indian Ocean, great big cloud of dust and vapor, goodbye all higher life forms."

"Wow," said Crowley, taking care to exceed the speed limit. Every little bit helped.

"Doesn't bear thinking about it, does it," said Aziraphale gloomily.

"All the higher life forms scythed away, just like that."

"Terrible."

"Nothing but dust and fundamentalists."

"That was nasty."

"Sorry. Couldn't resist it."

They stared at the road.

"Maybe some terrorist—?" Aziraphale began.

"Not one of ours," said Crowley.

"Or ours," said Aziraphale. "Although ours are freedom fighters, of course."

"I'll tell you what," said Crowley, scorching rubber on the Tadfield bypass. "Cards on the table time. I'll tell you ours if you tell me yours."

"All right. You first."

"Oh, no. You first."

"But you're a demon."

"Yes, but a demon of my word, I should hope."

Aziraphale named five political leaders. Crowley named six. Three names appeared on both lists.

"See?" said Crowley. "It's just like I've always said. They're cunning buggers, humans. You can't trust them an inch."

"But I don't think any of ours have any big plans afoot," said Aziraphale. "Just minor acts of ter—political protest," he corrected.

"Ah," said Crowley bitterly. "You mean none of this cheap, massproduced murder? Just personal service, every bullet individually fired by skilled craftsmen?"

Aziraphale didn't rise to it. "What are we going to do now?"

"Try and get some sleep."

"You don't need sleep. I don't need sleep. Evil never sleeps, and Virtue is ever-vigilant."

"Evil in general, maybe. This specific part of it has got into the habit of getting its head down occasionally." He stared into the headlights. The time would come soon enough when sleep would be right out of the question. When those Below found out that he, personally, had lost the Antichrist, they'd probably dig out all those reports he'd done on the Spanish Inquisition and try them out on him, one at a time and then all together.

He rummaged in the glove compartment, fumbled a tape at random, and slotted it into the player. A little music would…

… Bee-elzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me…

"For me," murmured Crowley. His expression went blank for a moment. Then he gave a strangled scream and wrenched at the on-off knob.

"Of course, we might be able to get a human to find him," said Aziraphale thoughtfully.

"What?" said Crowley, distractedly.

"Humans are good at finding other humans. They've been doing it for thousands of years. And the child is human. As well as… you know. He would be hidden from us, but other humans might be able to… oh, sense him, perhaps. Or spot things we wouldn't think of."

"It wouldn't work. He's the Antichrist! He's got this… sort of automatic defense, hasn't he? Even if he doesn't know it. It won't even let people suspect him. Not yet. Not till it's ready. Suspicion will slide off him like, like… whatever it is water slides off of," he finished lamely.

"Got any better ideas? Got one single better idea?" said Aziraphale.

"No."

"Right, then. It could work. Don't tell me you haven't got any front organizations you could use. I know I have. We could see if they can pick up the trail."

"What could they do that we couldn't do?"

"Well, for a start, they wouldn't get people to shoot one another, they wouldn't hypnotize respectable women, they—"

"Okay. Okay. But it hasn't got a snowball's chance in Hell. Believe me, I know. But I can't think of anything better." Crowley turned onto the motorway and headed for London.

"I have a—a certain network of agents," said Aziraphale, after a while. "Spread across the country. A disciplined force. I could set them searching."

"I, er, have something similar," Crowley admitted. "You know how it is, you never know when they might come in handy…"

"We'd better alert them. Do you think they ought to work together?"

Crowley shook his head.

"I don't think that would be a good idea," he said. "They're not very sophisticated, politically speaking."

"Then we'll each contact our own people and see what they can manage."

"Got to be worth a try, I suppose," said Crowley. "It's not as if I haven't got lots of other work to do, God knows."

His forehead creased for a moment, and then he slapped the steering wheel triumphantly.

"Ducks!" he shouted.

"What?"

"That's what water slides off!"

Aziraphale took a deep breath.

"Just drive the car, please," he said wearily.

They drove back through the dawn, while the cassette player played J. S. Bach's Mass in B Minor, vocals by F. Mercury.

Crowley liked the city in the early morning. Its population consisted almost entirely of people who had proper jobs to do and real reasons for being there, as opposed to the unnecessary millions who trailed in after 8 A.M., and the streets were more or less quiet. There were double yellow no-parking lines in the narrow road outside Aziraphale's bookshop, but they obediently rolled back on themselves when the Bentley pulled in to the curb.

"Well, okay," he said, as Aziraphale got his coat from the back seat. "We'll keep in touch. Okay?"

"What's this?" said Aziraphale, holding up a brown oblong.

Crowley squinted at it. "A book?" he said. "Not mine."

Aziraphale turned a few of the yellowed pages. Tiny bibliophilic bells rang in the back of his mind.

"It must have belonged to that young lady," he said slowly. "We ought to have got her address."

"Look, I'm in enough trouble as it is, I don't want it to get about that I go around returning people's property to them," said Crowley.

Aziraphale reached the title page. It was probably a good job. Crowley couldn't see his expression.

"I suppose you could always send it to the post office there," said Crowley, "if you really feel you must. Address it to the mad woman with the bicycle. Never trust a woman who gives funny names to means of transport—"

"Yes, yes, certainly," said the angel. He fumbled for his keys, dropped them on the pavement, picked them up, dropped them again, and hurried to the shop door.

"We'll be in touch then, shall we?" Crowley called after him.

Aziraphale paused in the act of turning the key.

"What?" he said. "Oh. Oh. Yes. Fine. Jolly good." And he slammed the door.

"Right," mumbled Crowley, suddenly feeling very alone.

* * *

Torchlight flicked in the lanes.

The trouble with trying to find a brown-covered book among brown leaves and brown water at the bottom of a ditch of brown earth in the brown, well, grayish light of dawn, was that you couldn't.

It wasn't there.

Anathema tried every method of search she could think of. There was the methodical quartering of the ground. There was the slapdash poking at the bracken by the roadside. There was the nonchalant sidling up to it and looking out of the side of her eye. She even tried the one which every romantic nerve in her body insisted should work, which consisted of theatrically giving up, sitting down, and letting her glance fall naturally on a patch of earth which, if she had been in any decent narrative, should have contained the book.

It didn't.

Which meant, as she had feared all along, that it was probably in the back of a car belonging to two consenting cycle repairmen.

She could feel generations of Agnes Nutter's descendants laughing at her.

Even if those two were honest enough to want to return it, they'd hardly go to all the trouble of finding a cottage they'd barely seen in the dark.

The only hope was that they wouldn't know what it was they'd got.

* * *

Aziraphale, like many Soho merchants who specialized in hard-to-find books for the discerning connoisseur, had a back room, but what was in there was far more esoteric than anything normally found inside a shrink-wrapped bag for the Customer Who Knows What He Wants.

He was particularly proud of his books of prophecy.

First editions, usually.

And every one was signed.

He'd got Robert Nixon, [A sixteenth-century half-wit, not related to any U.S. president.] and Martha the Gypsy, and Ignatius Sybilla, and Old Ottwell Binns. Nostradamus had signed, "To myne olde friend Azerafel, with Beste wishes"; Mother Shipton had spilled drink on his copy; and in a climate-controlled cabinet in one corner was the original scroll in the shaky handwriting of St. John the Divine of Patmos, whose "Revelation" had been the all-time best seller. Aziraphale had found him a nice chap, if a bit too fond of odd mushrooms.

What the collection did not have was a copy of The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, and Aziraphale walked into the room holding it as a keen philatelist might hold a Mauritius Blue that had just turned up on a postcard from his aunt.

He'd never even seen a copy before, but he'd heard about it. Everyone in the trade, which considering it was a highly specialized trade meant about a dozen people, had heard of it. Its existence was a sort of vacuum around which all sorts of strange stories had been orbiting for hundreds of years. Aziraphale realized he wasn't sure if you could orbit a vacuum, and didn't care; The Nice and Accurate Prophecies made the Hitler Diaries look like, well, a bunch of forgeries.

His hands hardly shook at all as he laid it down on a bench, pulled on a pair of surgical rubber gloves, and opened it reverentially. Aziraphale was an angel, but he also worshiped books.

The title page said:


The Nife and Accurate Prophefies of Agnes Nutter

In slightly smaller type:

Being a Certaine and Prefice Hiftory from
the Prefent Day Unto the Endinge of this World.

In slightly larger type:

Containing therein Many Diuerse Wonders and
precepts for the Wife

In a different type:

More complete than ever yet before publifhed

In smaller type but in capitals:

CONCERNING THE STRANGE TIMES AHEADE

In slightly desperate italics:

And events of a Wonderful Nature

In larger type once more:

'Reminifent of Noftradamus at hif beft'
—Ursula Shipton


The prophecies were numbered, and there were more than four thousand of them.

"Steady, steady," Aziraphale muttered to himself. He went into the little kitchenette and made himself some cocoa and took some deep breaths.

Then he came back and read a prophecy at random.

Forty minutes later, the cocoa was still untouched.

* * *

The red-haired woman in the corner of the hotel bar was the most successful war correspondent in the world. She now had a passport in the name of Carmine Zuigiber; and she went where the wars were.

Well. More or less.

Actually she went where the wars weren't. She'd already been where the wars were.

She was not well known, except where it counted. Get half a dozen war correspondents together in an airport bar, and the conversation will, like a compass orienting to North, swing around to Murchison of The New York Times, to Van Home of Newsweek, to Anforth of I.T.N. News. The war correspondents' War Correspondents.

But when Murchison, and Van Home, and Anforth ran into each other in a burnt-out tin shack in Beirut, or Afghanistan, or the Sudan, after they'd admired each other's scars and had downed a few, they would exchange awed anecdotes of "Red" Zuigiber, from the National World Weekly.

"That dumb rag," Murchison would say, "it doesn't goddamn know what it's goddamn got."

Actually the National World Weekly did know just what it had got: it had a War Correspondent. It just didn't know why, or what to do with one now it had her.

A typical National World Weekly would tell the world how Jesus' face was seen on a Big Mac bun bought by someone from Des Moines, with an artist's impression of the bun; how Elvis Presley was recently sighted working in a Burger Lord in Des Moines; how listening to Elvis records cured a Des Moines housewife's cancer; how the spate of werewolves infesting the Midwest are the offspring of noble pioneer women raped by Bigfoot; and that Elvis was taken by Space Aliens in 1976 because he was too good for this world. [Remarkably, one of these stories is indeed true.]

That was the National World Weekly. They sold four million copies a week, and they needed a War Correspondent like they needed an exclusive interview with the General Secretary of the United Nations. [The interview was done in 1983 and went as follows:

Q: You're the Secretary of the United Nations, then?

A: Si.

Q: Ever sighted Elvis?

So they paid Red Zuigiber a great deal of money to go and find wars, and ignored the bulging, badly typed envelopes she sent them occasionally from around the globe to justify her—generally fairly reasonable—expense claims.

They felt justified in this because, as they saw it, she really wasn't a very good war correspondent although she was undoubtedly the most attractive, which counted for a lot on the National World Weekly. Her war reports were always about a bunch of guys shooting at each other, with no real understanding of the wider political ramifications, and, more importantly, no Human Interest.

Occasionally they would hand one of her stories over to a rewrite man to fix up. ("Jesus appeared to nine-year-old Manuel Gonzalez during a pitched battle on the Rio Concorsa, and told him to go home because his mother worried about him. 'I knew it was Jesus,' said the brave little child, 'because he looked like he did when his picture miraculously appeared on my sandwich box."')

Mostly the National World Weekly left her alone, and carefully filed her stories in the rubbish bin.

Murchison, and Van Home, and Anforth didn't care about this. All they knew was that whenever a war broke out, Ms. Zuigiber was there first. Practically before.

"How does she do it?" they would ask each other incredulously. "How the hell does she do it?" And their eyes would meet, and silently say: if she was a car she'd be made by Ferrari, she's the kind of woman you'd expect to see as the beautiful consort to the corrupt generalissimo of a collapsing Third World country, and she hangs around with guys like us. We're the lucky guys, right?

Ms. Zuigiber just smiled and bought another round of drinks for everybody, on the National World Weekly. And watched the fights break out around her. And smiled.

She had been right. Journalism suited her.

Even so, everyone needs a holiday, and Red Zuigiber was on her first in eleven years.

She was on a small Mediterranean island which made its money from the tourist trade, and that in itself was odd. Red looked to be the kind of woman who, if she took a holiday on any island smaller than Australia, would be doing so because she was friends with the man who owned it. And had you told any islander a month before that war was coming, he would have laughed at you and tried to sell you a raffiawork wine holder or a picture of the bay done in seashells; that was then.

This was now.

Now a deep religio-political divide, concerning which of four small mainland countries they weren't actually a part of, had split the country into three factions, destroyed the statue of Santa Maria in the town square, and done for the tourist trade.

Red Zuigiber sat in the bar of the Hotel de Palomar del Sol, drinking what passed for a cocktail. In one corner a tired pianist played, and a waiter in a toupee crooned into a microphone:

"AAAAAAAAAAAonce—pon—a—time—dere—was

LITTLE WHITE BOOOL

AAAAAAAAAAAvery—sad—because—e—was

LITTLE WHITE BOOL…"

A man threw himself through the window, a knife between his teeth, a Kalashnikov automatic rifle in one hand, a grenade in the other.

"I glaim gis oteg id der gaing og der—" he paused. He took the knife out of his mouth and began again. "I claim this hotel in the name of the pro-Turkish Liberation Faction!"

The last two holidaymakers remaining on the island [Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Threlfall, of 9, The Elms, Paignton. They always maintained that one of the nice things about going on holiday was not having to read the newspapers or listen to the news, just getting away from it all really. And due to a tummy bug contracted by Mr. Threlfall, and Mrs. Threlfall rather overdoing it in the sun their first day, this was their first time out of their hotel room for a week and a half.] climbed underneath their table. Red unconcernedly withdrew the maraschino cherry from her drink, put it to her scarlet lips, and sucked it slowly off its stick in a way that made several men in the room break into a cold sweat.

The pianist stood up, reached into his piano, and pulled out a vintage sub-machine gun. "This hotel has already been claimed by the proGreek Territorial Brigade!" he screamed. "Make one false move, and I shoot out your living daylight!"

There was a motion at the door. A huge, black-bearded individual with a golden smile and a genuine antique Gatling gun stood there, with a cohort of equally huge although less impressively armed men behind him.

"This strategically important hotel, for years a symbol of the fascist imperialist Turko-Greek running dog tourist trade, is now the property of the Italo-Maltese Freedom Fighters!" he boomed affably. "Now we kill everybody!"

"Rubbish!" said the pianist. "Is not strategically important. Just has extremely well-stocked wine cellar!"

"He's right, Pedro," said the man with the Kalashnikov, "That's why my lot wanted it. Il General Ernesto de Montoya said to me, he said, Fernando, the war'll be over by Saturday, and the lads'll be wanting a good time. Pop down to the Hotel de Palomar del Sol and claim it as booty, will you?"

The bearded man turned red. "Is bloddy important strategically, Fernando Chianti! I drew big map of the island and is right in the middle, which makes it pretty bloddy strategically important, I can tell you."

"Ha!" said Fernando. "You might as well say that just because Little Diego's house has a view of the decadent capitalist topless private beach, that it's strategically important!"

The pianist blushed a deep red. "Our lot got that this morning," he admitted.

There was silence.

In the silence was a faint, silken rasping. Red had uncrossed her legs.

The pianist's Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "Well, it's pretty strategically important," he managed, trying to ignore the woman on the bar stool. "I mean, if someone landed a submarine on it, you'd want to be somewhere you could see it all."

Silence.

"Well, it's a lot more strategically important than this hotel anyway," he finished.

Pedro coughed, ominously. "The next person who says anything. Anything at all. Is dead." He grinned. Hefted his gun. "Right. Now everyone against far wall."

Nobody moved. They weren't listening to him any more. They were listening to a low, indistinct murmuring from the hallway behind him, quiet and monotonous.

There was some shuffling among the cohort in the doorway. They seemed to be doing their best to stand firm, but they were being inexorably edged out of the way by the muttering, which had begun to resolve itself into audible phrases. "Don't mind me, gents, what a night, eh? Three times round the island, nearly didn't find the place, someone doesn't believe in signposts, eh? Still, found it in the end, had to stop and ask four times, finally asked at the post office, they always know at the post office, had to draw me a map though, got it here somewhere…"

Sliding serenely past the men with guns, like a pike through a trout pond, came a small, bespectacled man in a blue uniform, carrying a long, thin, brown paper-wrapped parcel, tied with string. His sole concession to the climate were his open-toed brown plastic sandals, although the green woolen socks he wore underneath them showed his deep and natural distrust of foreign weather.

He had a peaked cap on, with International Express written on it in large white letters.

He was unarmed, but no one touched him. No one even pointed a gun at him. They just stared.

The little man looked around the room, scanning the faces, and then looking back down at his clipboard; then he walked straight over to Red, still sitting on her bar stool. "Package for you, miss," he said.

Red took it, and began to untie the string.

The International Express man coughed discreetly and presented the journalist with a well-thumbed receipt pad and a yellow plastic ballpoint pen attached to the clipboard by a piece of string. "You have to sign for it, miss. Just there. Print your full name over here, signature down there."

"Of course." Red signed the receipt pad, illegibly, then printed her name. The name she wrote was not Carmine Zuigiber. It was a much shorter name.

The man thanked her kindly, and made his way out, muttering lovely place you've got here, gents, always meant to come out here on holiday, sorry to trouble you, excuse me, sir… And he passed out of their lives as serenely as he had come.

Red finished opening the parcel. People began to edge around to get a better look. Inside the package was a large sword.

She examined it. It was a very straightforward sword, long and sharp; it looked both old and unused; and it had nothing ornamental or impressive about it. This was no magical sword, no mystic weapon of power and might. It was very obviously a sword created to slice, chop, cut, preferably kill, but, failing that, irreparably maim, a very large number of people indeed. It had an indefinable aura of hatred and menace.

Red clasped the hilt in her exquisitely manicured right hand, and held it up to eye level. The blade glinted.

"Awwwright!" she said, stepping down from the stool. "Finally."

She finished the drink, hefted the sword over one shoulder, and looked around at the puzzled factions, who now encircled her completely. "Sorry to run out on you, chaps," she said. "Would love to stay and get to know you better."

The men in the room suddenly realized that they didn't want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, not up close.

And she held her sword, and she smiled like a knife.

There were a number of guns in that room, and slowly, tremblingly, they were focused on her chest, and her back, and head.

They encircled her completely.

"Don't move!" croaked Pedro.

Everybody else nodded.

Red shrugged. She began to walk forward.

Every finger on every trigger tightened, almost of its own accord. Lead and the smell of cordite filled the air. Red's cocktail glass smashed in her hand. The room's remaining mirrors exploded in lethal shards. Part of the ceiling fell down.

And then it was over.

Carmine Zuigiber turned and stared at the bodies surrounding her as if she hadn't the faintest idea of how they came to be there.

She licked a spatter of blood—someone else's—from the back of her hand with a scarlet, cat-like tongue. Then she smiled.

And she walked out of the bar, her heels clicking on the tiles like the tapping of distant hammers.

The two holidaymakers climbed out from under the table and surveyed the carnage.

"This wouldn't of happened if we'd of gone to Torremolinos like we usually do," said one of them, plaintively.

"Foreigners," sighed the other. "They're just not like us, Patricia."

"That settles it, then. Next year we go to Brighton," said Mrs. Threlfall, completely missing the significance of what had just happened.

It meant there wouldn't be any next year.

It rather lowered the odds on there being any next week to speak of.

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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