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The Infernals aka Hell's Bells, Page 2

John Connolly

  And why is that? Because you can’t go back to a time before there was a time machine. You just can’t. You’re linking two different points in time, and the earliest of those points has to be the moment at which the time machine came into existence. Sorry, those are the rules. I don’t make them, I just enforce them in books. So the reason why there are no visitors from the future is that nobody has yet managed to build a time machine in our own time. Either that, or someone has invented one and is keeping very quiet about it so that people don’t keep knocking on his door asking him if they can have a go on his time machine, which would be very annoying. 5

  If Mrs. Abernathy had been able to go back in time, there are a number of things she might have done differently in the course of the attempted invasion of Earth, but principal among them would have been not to underestimate the boy named Samuel Johnson, or his little dog, Boswell. Then again, how could she have imagined that a small boy and his dachshund would prove her undoing? She might have been a demon, but she was also an adult, and most adults have a hard time imagining that small boys, or dachshunds, could possibly be superior to them in any way.

  It might have been of some consolation to Mrs. Abernathy to learn that the person responsible for most of her problems was experiencing some rejection and humiliation of his own, for Samuel Johnson had just tried to ask Lucy Highmore on a date.

  Samuel had been in love with Lucy from the moment he set eyes on her, which was his first day at Montague Rhodes James Secondary School in Biddlecombe. In Samuel’s eyes, little bluebirds flew ceaselessly around Lucy’s head, serenading her with odes to her beauty and depositing petals in her hair, while angels made her schoolbag a little lighter by helping her with the burden of it, and whispered the answers to math questions into her ear when she was stuck. Come to think of it, that wasn’t angels: it was every other boy in the class, for Lucy Highmore was the kind of girl who made boys dream of marriage and baby carriages, and made other girls dream of Lucy Highmore falling down a steep flight of stairs and landing on a pile of porcupine quills and rusty farm equipment.

  It had taken Samuel over a year to work up the courage to ask Lucy out: month upon month of finding the right words, of practicing them in front of a mirror so that he wouldn’t stumble on them when he began to speak, of calling himself an idiot for ever thinking that she might agree to have a pie with him at Pete’s Pies, followed by a squaring of his newly teenage shoulders, a stiffening of his upper lip, and a reminder to himself that faint heart never won fair lady, although faint heart never suffered crushing rejection either.

  Samuel Johnson was brave: he had faced down the wrath of Hell itself, so there could be no doubting his courage, but the prospect of baring his young heart to Lucy Highmore and risking having it skewered by the blunt sword of indifference made his stomach lurch and his eyes swim. He was not sure what might be worse: to ask Lucy Highmore out and be rejected, or not to ask and thus never to know how she might feel about him; to be turned down, and learn that there was no possibility of finding a place in her affections, or to live in hope without ever having that hope realized. After much thought, he had decided that it was better to know.

  Samuel wore glasses: quite thick glasses, as it happened, and without them the world tended to look a little blurry to him. He decided that he looked better without his glasses, even though he couldn’t be sure of this as, when he took them off and looked in the mirror, he resembled a drawing of himself that had fallen in a puddle. Still, he was pretty certain that Lucy Highmore would like him more without his glasses, so on the fateful day-the First Fateful Day, as he later came to think of it-he carefully removed his glasses as he approached her, tucking them safely into his pocket, while repeating these words in his head: “Hi, I was wondering if you’d allow me the pleasure of buying you a pie, and perhaps a glass of orange juice, at Pete’s emporium of pies on the main street? Hi, I was wondering if-”

  Somebody bumped into Samuel, or he bumped into somebody. He wasn’t sure which, but he apologized and continued on his way before tripping over someone’s bag and almost losing his footing.

  “Oi, watch where you’re going,” said the bag’s owner.

  “Sorry,” said Samuel. Again.

  He squinted. Ahead of him he could see Lucy Highmore. She was wearing a red coat. It was a lovely coat. Everything about Lucy Highmore was lovely. She couldn’t have been lovelier if her name was Lucy Lovely and she lived on Lovely Road in the town of Loveliness.

  Samuel stood before her, cleared his throat, and without stumbling once said, “Hi, I was wondering if you’d allow me the pleasure of buying you a pie, and perhaps a glass of orange juice, at Pete’s emporium of pies on the main street?”

  He waited for a reply, but none came. He squinted harder, trying to bring Lucy into focus. Was she overcome with emotion? Was she gaping in awe at him? Even now, was a single tear of happiness dropping from her eye like a diamond as the little tweety birds-

  “Did you just ask that letter box on a date?” said someone close by. Samuel recognized the voice as that of Thomas Hobbes, his best friend.

  “What?” Samuel fumbled for his glasses, put them on, and found that he had somehow wandered in the wrong direction. He’d stepped out of the school gates and onto the street where he had, it seemed, just offered to buy a pie for the red letter box and, by extension, the postman who was about to empty it. The postman was now regarding Samuel with the kind of wariness associated with one who suspects that the person standing before him may well be something of a nutter, and could turn dangerous at any time.

  “It doesn’t eat pies,” said the postman slowly. “Only letters.”

  “Right,” said Samuel. “I knew that.”

  “Good,” said the postman, still speaking very slowly.

  “Why are you speaking so slowly?” said Samuel, who found that he had now started speaking slowly as well.

  “Because you’re mad,” said the postman, even more slowly.

  “Oh,” said Samuel.

  “And the letter box can’t come with you to the pie shop. It has to stay where it is. Because it’s a letter box.”

  He patted the letter box gently, and smiled at Samuel as if to say, “See, it’s not a person, it’s a box, so go away, mad bloke.”

  “I’ll look after him,” said Tom. He began to guide Samuel back to the school. “Let’s get you inside the gates, shall we? You can have a nice lie-down.”

  The students near the gates were watching Samuel. Some were sniggering.

  See, it’s that Johnson kid. I told you he was strange.

  At least Lucy wasn’t among them, thought Samuel. She had apparently moved off to spread her fragrant loveliness elsewhere.

  “If it’s not a rude question, why were you offering to buy a pie for a letter box?” said Tom as they made their way into the depths of the playground.

  “I thought it was Lucy Highmore,” said Samuel.

  “Lucy Highmore doesn’t look like a letter box, and I don’t think she’d be very happy if she heard that you thought she did.”

  “It was the red coat. I got confused.”

  “She’s a bit out of your league, isn’t she?” said Tom.

  Samuel sighed sadly. “She’s so far out of my league that we’re not even playing the same sport. But she’s lovely.”

  “You’re an idiot,” said Tom.

  “Who’s an idiot?”

  Maria Mayer, Samuel’s other closest friend at school, joined them.

  “Samuel is,” said Tom. “He just asked out a letter box, thinking it was Lucy Highmore.”

  “Really?” said Maria. “Lucy Highmore. That’s… nice.”

  Her tone was not so much icy as arctic. The word nice took on the aspect of an iceberg toward which the good ship Lucy Highmore was unwittingly steaming, but Tom, too caught up in his mirth, and Samuel, smarting with embarrassment, failed to notice the way she spoke, or how unhappy she looked.

  Just then, Samuel discovered that Lucy Hig
hmore was not elsewhere. She appeared from behind a crowd of her friends, all still whispering, and Samuel blushed furiously as he realized that she had witnessed what had occurred. He walked on, feeling about the size of a bug, and as he passed Lucy’s group he heard her friends begin to giggle, and then he heard Lucy begin to giggle too.

  I want to go back in time, he thought, back to a time before I ever asked Lucy Highmore for a date. I want to change the past, all of it. I don’t want to be that strange Johnson kid anymore.

  It’s odd, but people are capable of forgetting quite extraordinary occurrences very quickly if it makes them happier to do so, even events as incredible as the gates of Hell opening and spewing out demons of the most unpleasant kind, which is what had happened in the little town of Biddlecombe just over fifteen months earlier. You’d think that after such an experience, people would have woken up every morning, yawned, and scratched their heads before opening their eyes wide in terror and shrieking, “The gates! Demons! They were here! They’ll be back!”

  But people are not like that. It’s probably a good thing, as otherwise life would be very hard to live. It’s not true that time heals all wounds, but it does dull the memory of pain, or people would only go to the dentist once and then never return, or not without some significant guarantees regarding their personal comfort and safety. 6

  So, as the weeks and months had passed, the memory of what had happened in Biddlecombe began to fade until, after a while, people began to wonder if it had really happened at all, or if it had all been some kind of strange dream. More to the point, they figured that it had happened once, and consequently wasn’t ever likely to happen again, so they could just stop worrying about it and get on with more important things, like football, and reality television, and gossiping about their neighbors. At least that was what they told themselves, but sometimes, in the deepest, darkest part of the night, they would wake from strange dreams of creatures with nasty teeth and poisonous claws, and when their children said that they couldn’t sleep because there was something under the bed, they didn’t just tell them that they were being silly. No, they very, very carefully peered under the bed, and they did so with a cricket bat, or a brush handle, or a kitchen knife in hand.

  Because you never knew…

  In a peculiar way, though, Samuel Johnson felt that they blamed him for what had happened. He wasn’t the one who had conjured up demons in his basement because he was bored, and he wasn’t the one who had built a big machine that inadvertently opened a portal between this world and Hell. It wasn’t his fault that the Devil, the Great Malevolence, hated the Earth and wanted to destroy it. But because he’d been so involved in what had happened, people were reminded of it when they saw him, and they didn’t want to be. They wanted to forget it all, and they had convinced themselves that they had forgotten it, even if they hadn’t, not really. They just didn’t want to think about it, which isn’t the same thing at all.

  But Samuel couldn’t forget it because, occasionally, he would catch a glimpse of a woman in a mirror, or reflected in a shop window, or in the glass of a bus shelter. It was Mrs. Abernathy, her eyes luminous with a strange blue glow, and Samuel would feel her hatred of him. No other person ever saw her, though. He had tried to tell the scientists about her, but they hadn’t believed him. They thought he was just a small boy-a clever and brave one, but a small boy nonetheless-who was still troubled by the dreadful things that he had seen.

  Samuel knew better. Mrs. Abernathy wanted revenge: on Samuel, on the Earth, and on every living creature that walked, or swam, or flew.

  Which brings us to the other reason why Samuel couldn’t forget. He hadn’t defeated Mrs. Abernathy and the Devil and all of the hordes of Hell alone. He’d been helped by an unlucky but generally decent demon named Nurd, and Nurd and Samuel had become friends. But now Nurd was somewhere in Hell, hiding from Mrs. Abernathy, and Samuel was here on Earth, and neither could help the other.

  Samuel could only hope that, wherever he was, Nurd was safe. 7


  In Which We Delve Deeper into the Bowels of Hell, Which Is One of Those Chapter Headings That Make Parents Worry About the Kind of Books Their Children Are Reading

  AFTER OUR BRIEF DETOUR to Earth, and that lesson in love, life, the importance of good eyesight in relationships, and the perils of killing grandfathers, let’s return to Hell.

  As has already been noted, the woman currently striding purposefully through the dim recesses of the Mountain of Despair while wearing a severely tattered floral-print dress, was Mrs. Abernathy, formerly known as Ba’al. Mrs. Abernathy had been making a daily pilgrimage to the Great Malevolence’s lair ever since the attempt to break into the world of men had come to naught. She wanted to present herself to her master, explain to him what had gone wrong, and find a way to insinuate herself into his favor again. Mrs. Abernathy was almost as ancient and evil as the Great Malevolence himself, and they had spent aeons together in this desolate place, slowly creating a kingdom out of ash, and filth, and flame.

  But now the Great Malevolence, lost in his grief and madness, was apparently refusing to see his lieutenant. Mrs. Abernathy was cut off from him, and the demon was troubled by this; troubled and, yes, frightened. Without the protection and indulgence of the Great Malevolence, Mrs. Abernathy was vulnerable. Something had to be done. The Great Malevolence had to be made to listen, which was why Mrs. Abernathy kept returning to this place, where foul creatures watched from the shadows in amusement at the sight of one of the greatest of demons, the commander of Hell’s armies, reduced to the status of a beggar; a beggar, what’s more, who seemed troublingly keen on wearing women’s clothing.

  Oddly enough, Mrs. Abernathy, having initially been distinctly unhappy at being forced to take on the appearance of a lady in her forties, had grown to like wearing floral-print dresses and worrying about her hair. This was partly because Mrs. Abernathy had, until quite recently, been neither male nor female: she had simply been a distinctly horrible “it.” Now she had an identity, and a form that wasn’t mainly teeth, and claws, and tentacles. Ba’al might originally have taken over Mrs. Abernathy’s body, but something of Mrs. Abernathy had subsequently infected Ba’al. For the first time there was a use for a mirror, and nice clothes, and makeup. She worried about her appearance. She was, not to put too fine a point on it, vain. 8 She no longer even thought of herself as Ba’al. Ba’al was the past. Mrs. Abernathy was the present, and the future.

  As she descended deeper and deeper into the mountain, she was aware of the sniggers and whispers from all around her. The great bridge along which she walked was suspended over a gaping chasm so deep that, if you were to fall into it, you would keep falling forever and ever, until at last you died of old age without ever nearing the bottom. Metal and chains held the bridge in place, linking it to the inner walls of the mountain. Set into it were countless arched vaults, each hidden in shadow, and each inhabited by a demon. The vaults stretched upward and downward, as far as the eye could see and farther still, until the flaming torches set haphazardly into the walls, the sole source of illumination to be found in the chasm, became as small as stars, before at last they disappeared entirely, swallowed up by the gloom. Here and there beasts peered from their chambers: small imps, red and grinning; fiends of fire, and fiends of ice; creatures misshapen and creatures without shape, formless entities that were little more than glowing eyes set against smoke. There was a time when they would have cowered from her presence, fearful that, even by setting eyes on her, they might incur her wrath. Now, though, they had begun to mock her. She had failed her master. In time, his cries would cease, and he would remember that she should be punished for her failings.

  And then, what fun they would have!

  For now, though, the wailing continued. It grew louder as Mrs. Abernathy drew closer to its source. She saw that some of the demons had stuffed coal in their ears in an effort to block out the sound of their master’s grief, while others appeared to have been dri
ven as mad as he was and were humming to themselves, or banging their heads repeatedly against the walls in frustration.

  At last the vaults were left behind, and there were only sheer dark walls of stone. In the murk before her, a shape moved, detaching itself from the shadows the way that someone might detach a shoe from sticky tar, tendrils of blackness seeming to stretch from the entity back into the gloom as though it were part of the darkness, and the darkness part of it. It stepped beneath the flickering light of a torch and grinned unpleasantly. In aspect it resembled a vulture, albeit one with somewhat human features. Its head was pink and bare, although the light caught the tiny bristles that pocked its skin. Its nose was long and fleshy, and hooked like that of a bird of prey, joining a single lower lip to form a kind of beak. Its small black eyes shone with inky malevolence. It wore a dark cloak that flowed like oil over its hunched shoulders, and in its left hand it held a staff of bone, topped with a small skull. That staff was now extended before Mrs. Abernathy, blocking her progress.

  The creature’s name was Ozymuth, and he was the Great Malevolence’s chancellor. 9 Ozymuth had always hated Ba’al, even before Ba’al began calling itself Mrs. Abernathy and wearing odd clothing. Ozymuth’s power lay in the fact that he had the ear of the Great Malevolence. If demons wanted favors done, or sought promotion, then they had to approach the Great Malevolence through Ozymuth, and if their favor was granted or they received the promotion that they sought, then they in turn owed Ozymuth a favor. This is the way that the world works, not just Hell. It’s not nice, and it shouldn’t happen, but it does, and you should be aware of it.