“And he wears sunglasses,” sneered Hastur, “even when he dunt need to.” He raised his voice. “All hail Satan,” he said.
“All hail Satan,” Ligur echoed.
“Hi,” said Crowley, giving them a little wave. “Sorry I’m late, but you know how it is on the A40 at Denham, and then I tried to cut up toward Chorley Wood and then—”
“Now we art all here,” said Hastur meaningfully, “we must recount the Deeds of the Day.”
“Yeah. Deeds,” said Crowley, with the slightly guilty look of one who is attending church for the first time in years and has forgotten which bits you stand up for.
Hastur cleared his throat.
“I have tempted a priest,” he said. “As he walked down the street and saw the pretty girls in the sun, I put Doubt into his mind. He would have been a saint, but within a decade we shall have him.”
“Nice one,” said Crowley, helpfully.
“I have corrupted a politician,” said Ligur. “I let him think a tiny bribe would not hurt. Within a year we shall have him.”
They both looked expectantly at Crowley, who gave them a big smile.
“You’ll like this,” he said.
His smile became even wider and more conspiratorial.
“I tied up every portable telephone system in Central London for forty-five minutes at lunchtime,” he said.
There was silence, except for the distant swishing of cars.
“Yes?” said Hastur. “And then what?”
“Look, it wasn’t easy,” said Crowley.
“That’s all?” said Ligur.
“And exactly what has that done to secure souls for our master?” said Hastur.
Crowley pulled himself together.
What could he tell them? That twenty thousand people got bloody furious? That you could hear the arteries clanging shut all across the city? And that then they went back and took it out on their secretaries or traffic wardens or whatever, and they took it out on other people? In all kinds of vindictive little ways which, and here was the good bit, they thought up themselves. For the rest of the day. The pass-along effects were incalculable. Thousands and thousands of souls all got a faint patina of tarnish, and you hardly had to lift a finger.
But you couldn’t tell that to demons like Hastur and Ligur. Fourteenth-century minds, the lot of them. Spending years picking away at one soul. Admittedly it was craftsmanship, but you had to think differently these days. Not big, but wide. With five billion people in the world you couldn’t pick the buggers off one by one any more; you had to spread your effort. But demons like Ligur and Hastur wouldn’t understand. They’d never have thought up Welsh-language television, for example. Or value-added tax. Or Manchester.
He’d been particularly pleased with Manchester.
“The Powers that Be seem to be satisfied,” he said. “Times are changing. So what’s up?”
Hastur reached down behind a tombstone.
“This is,” he said.
Crowley stared at the basket.
“Oh,” he said. “No.”
“Yes,” said Hastur, grinning.
“And, er, it’s up to me to—?”
“Yes.” Hastur was enjoying this.
“Why me?” said Crowley desperately. “You know me, Hastur, this isn’t, you know, my scene … ”
“Oh, it is, it is,” said Hastur. “Your scene. Your starring role. Take it. Times are changing.”
“Yeah,” said Ligur, grinning. “They’re coming to an end, for a start.”
“You are obviously highly favored,” said Hastur maliciously. “I imagine Ligur here would give his right arm for a chance like this.”
“That’s right,” said Ligur. Someone’s right arm, anyway, he thought. There were plenty of right arms around; no sense in wasting a good one.
Hastur produced a clipboard from the grubby recesses of his mack.
“Sign. Here,” he said, leaving a terrible pause between the words.
Crowley fumbled vaguely in an inside pocket and produced a pen. It was sleek and matte black. It looked as though it could exceed the speed limit.
“ ’S’nice pen,” said Ligur.
“It can write under water,” Crowley muttered.
“Whatever will they think of next?” mused Ligur.
“Whatever it is, they’d better think of it quickly,” said Hastur. “No. Not A. J. Crowley. Your real name.”
Crowley nodded mournfully, and drew a complex, wiggly sigil on the paper. It glowed redly in the gloom, just for a moment, and then faded.
“What am I supposed to do with it?” he said.
“You will receive instructions.” Hastur scowled. “Why so worried, Crowley? The moment we have been working for all these centuries is at hand!”
“Yeah. Right,” said Crowley. He did not look, now, like the lithe figure that had sprung so lithely from the Bentley a few minutes ago. He had a hunted expression.
“Our moment of eternal triumph awaits!”
“Eternal. Yeah,” said Crowley.
“And you will be a tool of that glorious destiny!”
“Tool. Yeah,” muttered Crowley. He picked up the basket as if it might explode. Which, in a manner of speaking, it would shortly do.
“Er. Okay,” he said. “I’ll, er, be off then. Shall I? Get it over with. Not that I want to get it over with,” he added hurriedly, aware of the things that could happen if Hastur turned in an unfavorable report. “But you know me. Keen.”
The senior demons did not speak.
“So I’ll be popping along,” Crowley babbled. “See you guys ar—see you. Er. Great. Fine. Ciao.”
As the Bentley skidded off into the darkness Ligur said, “Wossat mean?”
“It’s Italian,” said Hastur. “I think it means ‘food.’”
“Funny thing to say, then.” Ligur stared at the retreating taillights. “You trust him?” he said.
“No,” said Hastur.
“Right,” said Ligur. It’d be a funny old world, he reflected, if demons went round trusting one another.
CROWLEY, SOMEWHERE west of Amersham, hurtled through the night, snatched a tape at random and tried to wrestle it out of its brittle plastic box while staying on the road. The glare of a headlight proclaimed it to be Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Soothing music, that’s what he needed.
He rammed it into the Blaupunkt.
“Ohshitohshitohshit. Why now? Why me?” he muttered, as the familiar strains of Queen washed over him.
And suddenly, Freddie Mercury was speaking to him:
BECAUSE YOU’VE EARNED IT, CROWLEY.
Crowley blessed under his breath. Using electronics as a means of communication had been his idea and Below had, for once, taken it up and, as usual, got it dead wrong. He’d hoped they could be persuaded to subscribe to Cellnet, but instead they just cut in to whatever it happened to be that he was listening to at the time and twisted it.
“Thank you very much, lord,” he said.
WE HAVE GREAT FAITH IN YOU, CROWLEY.
“Thank you, lord.”
THIS IS IMPORTANT, CROWLEY.
THIS IS THE BIG ONE, CROWLEY.
“Leave it to me, lord.”
THAT IS WHAT WE ARE DOING, CROWLEY. AND IF IT GOES WRONG, THEN THOSE INVOLVED WILL SUFFER GREATLY. EVEN YOU, CROWLEY. ESPECIALLY YOU.
HERE ARE YOUR INSTRUCTIONS, CROWLEY.
And suddenly he knew. He hated that. They could just as easily have told him, they didn’t suddenly have to drop chilly knowledge straight into his brain. He had to drive to a certain hospital.
“I’ll be there in five minutes, lord, no problem.”
GOOD. I see a little silhouetto of a man scaramouche scaramouche will you do the fandango …
Crowley thumped the
wheel. Everything had been going so well, he’d had it really under his thumb these few centuries. That’s how it goes, you think you’re on top of the world, and suddenly they spring Armageddon on you. The Great War, the Last Battle. Heaven versus Hell, three rounds, one Fall, no submission. And that’d be that. No more world. That’s what the end of the world meant. No more world. Just endless Heaven or, depending who won, endless Hell. Crowley didn’t know which was worse.
Well, Hell was worse, of course, by definition. But Crowley remembered what Heaven was like, and it had quite a few things in common with Hell. You couldn’t get a decent drink in either of them, for a start. And the boredom you got in Heaven was almost as bad as the excitement you got in Hell.
But there was no getting out of it. You couldn’t be a demon and have free will.
. . . I will not let you go (let him go) …
Well, at least it wouldn’t be this year. He’d have time to do things. Unload long-term stocks, for a start.
He wondered what would happen if he just stopped the car here, on this dark and damp and empty road, and took the basket and swung it round and round and let go and …
Something dreadful, that’s what.
He’d been an angel once. He hadn’t meant to Fall. He’d just hung around with the wrong people.
The Bentley plunged on through the darkness, its fuel gauge pointing to zero. It had pointed to zero for more than sixty years now. It wasn’t all bad, being a demon. You didn’t have to buy petrol, for one thing. The only time Crowley had bought petrol was once in 1967, to get the free James Bond bullet-hole-in-the-windscreen transfers, which he rather fancied at the time.
On the back seat the thing in the basket began to cry; the air-raid siren wail of the newly born. High. Wordless. And old.
IT WAS QUITE A NICE HOSPITAL, thought Mr. Young. It would have been quiet, too, if it wasn’t for the nuns.
He quite liked nuns. Not that he was a, you know, left-footer or anything like that. No, when it came to avoiding going to church, the church he stolidly avoided going to was St. Cecil and All Angels, no-nonsense C. of E., and he wouldn’t have dreamed of avoiding going to any other. All the others had the wrong smell—floor polish for the Low, somewhat suspicious incense for the High. Deep in the leather armchair of his soul, Mr. Young knew that God got embarrassed at that sort of thing.
But he liked seeing nuns around, in the same way that he liked seeing the Salvation Army. It made you feel that it was all all right, that people somewhere were keeping the world on its axis.
This was his first experience of the Chattering Order of Saint Beryl, however.3 Deirdre had run across them while being involved in one of her causes, possibly the one involving lots of unpleasant South Americans fighting other unpleasant South Americans and the priests egging them on instead of getting on with proper priestly concerns, like organizing the church cleaning rota.
The point was, nuns should be quiet. They were the right shape for it, like those pointy things you got in those chambers Mr. Young was vaguely aware your hi-fi got tested in. They shouldn’t be, well, chattering all the time.
He filled his pipe with tobacco—well, they called it tobacco, it wasn’t what he thought of as tobacco, it wasn’t the tobacco you used to get—and wondered reflectively what would happen if you asked a nun where the Gents was. Probably the Pope sent you a sharp note or something. He shifted his position awkwardly, and glanced at his watch.
One thing, though: At least the nuns had put their foot down about him being present at the birth. Deirdre had been all for it. She’d been reading things again. One kid already and suddenly she’s declaring that this confinement was going to be the most joyous and sharing experience two human beings could have. That’s what came of letting her order her own newspapers. Mr. Young distrusted papers whose inner pages had names like “Lifestyle” or “Options.”
Well, he hadn’t got anything against joyous sharing experiences. Joyous sharing experiences were fine by him. The world probably needed more joyous sharing experiences. But he had made it abundantly clear that this was one joyous sharing experience Deirdre could have by herself.
And the nuns had agreed. They saw no reason for the father to be involved in the proceedings. When you thought about it, Mr. Young mused, they probably saw no reason why the father should be involved anywhere.
He finished thumbing the so-called tobacco into the pipe and glared at the little sign on the wall of the waiting room that said that, for his own comfort, he would not smoke. For his own comfort, he decided, he’d go and stand in the porch. If there was a discreet shrubbery for his own comfort out there, so much the better.
He wandered down the empty corridors and found a doorway that led out onto a rain-swept courtyard full of righteous dustbins.
He shivered, and cupped his hands to light his pipe.
It happened to them at a certain age, wives. Twenty-five blameless years, then suddenly they were going off and doing these robotic exercises in pink socks with the feet cut out and they started blaming you for never having had to work for a living. It was hormones, or something.
A large black car skidded to a halt by the dustbins. A young man in dark glasses leaped out into the drizzle holding what looked like a carrycot and snaked toward the entrance.
Mr. Young took his pipe out of his mouth. “You’ve left your lights on,” he said helpfully.
The man gave him the blank look of someone to whom lights are the least of his worries, and waved a hand vaguely toward the Bentley. The lights went out.
“That’s handy,” said Mr. Young. “Infra-red, is it?”
“Has it started yet?” said the man.
Mr. Young felt vaguely proud to be so instantly recognizable as a parent.
“Yes,” he said. “They made me go out,” he added thankfully.
“Already? Any idea how long we’ve got?”
We, Mr. Young noted. Obviously a doctor with views about co-parenting.
“I think we were, er, getting on with it,” said Mr. Young.
“What room is she in?” said the man hurriedly.
“We’re in Room Three,” said Mr. Young. He patted his pockets, and found the battered packet which, in accord with tradition, he had brought with him.
“Would we care to share a joyous cigar experience?” he said.
But the man had gone.
Mr. Young carefully replaced the packet and looked reflectively at his pipe. Always in a rush, these doctors. Working all the hours God sent.
THERE’S A TRICK they do with one pea and three cups which is very hard to follow, and something like it, for greater stakes than a handful of loose change, is about to take place.
The text will be slowed down to allow the sleight of hand to be followed.
Mrs. Deirdre Young is giving birth in Delivery Room Three. She is having a golden-haired male baby we will call Baby A.
The wife of the American Cultural Attaché, Mrs. Harriet Dowling, is giving birth in Delivery Room Four. She is having a golden-haired male baby we will call Baby B.
Sister Mary Loquacious has been a devout Satanist since birth. She went to Sabbat School as a child and won black stars for handwriting and liver. When she was told to join the Chattering Order she went obediently, having a natural talent in that direction and, in any case, knowing that she would be among friends. She would be quite bright, if she was ever put in a position to find out, but long ago found that being a scatterbrain, as she’d put it, gave you an easier journey through life. Currently she is being handed a golden-haired male baby we will call the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness.
Watch carefully. Round and round they go. …
“Is that him?” said Sister Mary, staring at the baby. “Only I’d expec
ted funny eyes. Red, or green. Or teensy-weensy little hoofikins. Or a widdle tail.” She turned him around as she spoke. No horns either. The Devil’s child looked ominously normal.
“Yes, that’s him,” said Crowley.
“Fancy me holding the Antichrist,” said Sister Mary. “And bathing the Antichrist. And counting his little toesy-wosies. … ”
She was now addressing the child directly, lost in some world of her own. Crowley waved a hand in front of her wimple. “Hallo? Hallo? Sister Mary?”
“Sorry, sir. He is a little sweetheart, though. Does he look like his daddy? I bet he does. Does he look like his daddywaddykins … ”
“No,” said Crowley firmly. “And now I should get up to the delivery rooms, if I were you.”
“Will he remember me when he grows up, do you think?” said Sister Mary wistfully, sidling slowly down the corridor.
“Pray that he doesn’t,” said Crowley, and fled.
Sister Mary headed through the nighttime hospital with the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness safely in her arms. She found a bassinet and laid him down in it.
He gurgled. She gave him a tickle.
A matronly head appeared around a door. It said, “Sister Mary, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be on duty in Room Four?”
“Master Crowley said—”
“Just glide along, there’s a good nun. Have you seen the husband anywhere? He’s not in the waiting room.”
“I’ve only seen Master Crowley, and he told me—”
“I’m sure he did,” said Sister Grace Voluble firmly. “I suppose I’d better go and look for the wretched man. Come in and keep an eye on her, will you? She’s a bit woozy but the baby’s fine.” Sister Grace paused. “Why are you winking? Is there something wrong with your eye?”
“You know!” Sister Mary hissed archly. “The babies. The exchange—”
“Of course, of course. In good time. But we can’t have the father wandering around, can we?” said Sister Grace. “No telling what he might see. So just wait here and mind the baby, there’s a dear.”