She sailed off down the polished corridor. Sister Mary, wheeling her bassinet, entered the delivery room.
Mrs. Young was more than woozy. She was fast asleep, with the look of determined self-satisfaction of someone who knows that other people are going to have to do the running around for once. Baby A was asleep beside her, weighed and nametagged. Sister Mary, who had been brought up to be helpful, removed the nametag, copied it out, and attached the duplicate to the baby in her care.
The babies looked similar, both being small, blotchy, and looking sort of, though not really, like Winston Churchill.
Now, thought Sister Mary, I could do with a nice cup of tea.
Most of the members of the convent were old-fashioned Satanists, like their parents and grandparents before them. They’d been brought up to it and weren’t, when you got right down to it, particularly evil. Human beings mostly aren’t. They just get carried away by new ideas, like dressing up in jackboots and shooting people, or dressing up in white sheets and lynching people, or dressing up in tie-dye jeans and playing guitars at people. Offer people a new creed with a costume and their hearts and minds will follow. Anyway, being brought up as a Satanist tended to take the edge off it. It was something you did on Saturday nights. And the rest of the time you simply got on with life as best you could, just like everyone else. Besides, Sister Mary was a nurse and nurses, whatever their creed, are primarily nurses, which had a lot to do with wearing your watch upside down, keeping calm in emergencies, and dying for a cup of tea. She hoped someone would come soon; she’d done the important bit, now she wanted her tea.
It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.
There was a knock at the door. She opened it.
“Has it happened yet?” asked Mr. Young. “I’m the father. The husband. Whatever. Both.”
Sister Mary had expected the American Cultural Attaché to look like Blake Carrington or J. R. Ewing. Mr. Young didn’t look like any American she’d ever seen on television, except possibly for the avuncular sheriff in the better class of murder mystery.4 He was something of a disappointment. She didn’t think much of his cardigan, either.
She swallowed her disappointment. “Oooh, yes,” she said. “Congratulations. Your lady wife’s asleep, poor pet.”
Mr. Young looked over her shoulder. “Twins?” he said. He reached for his pipe. He stopped reaching for his pipe. He reached for it again. “Twins? No one said anything about twins.”
“Oh, no!” said Sister Mary hurriedly. “This one’s yours. The other one’s … er … someone else’s. Just looking after him till Sister Grace gets back. No,” she reiterated, pointing to 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, “this one’s definitely yours. From the top of his head to the tips of his hoofywoofies—which he hasn’t got,” she added hastily.
Mr. Young peered down.
“Ah, yes,” he said doubtfully. “He looks like my side of the family. All, er, present and correct, is he?”
“Oh, yes,” said Sister Mary. “He’s a very normal child,” she added. “Very, very normal.”
There was a pause. They stared at the sleeping baby.
“You don’t have much of an accent,” said Sister Mary. “Have you been over here long?”
“About ten years,” said Mr. Young, mildly puzzled. “The job moved, you see, and I had to move with it.”
“It must be a very exciting job, I’ve always thought,” said Sister Mary. Mr. Young looked gratified. Not everyone appreciated the more stimulating aspects of cost accountancy.
“I expect it was very different where you were before,” Sister Mary went on.
“I suppose so,” said Mr. Young, who’d never really thought about it. Luton, as far as he could remember, was pretty much like Tadfield. The same sort of hedges between your house and the railway station. The same sort of people.
“Taller buildings, for one thing,” said Sister Mary, desperately.
Mr. Young stared at her. The only one he could think of was the Alliance and Leicester offices.
“And I expect you go to a lot of garden parties,” said the nun.
Ah. He was on firmer ground here. Deirdre was very keen on that sort of thing.
“Lots,” he said, with feeling. “Deirdre makes jam for them, you know. And I normally have to help with the White Elephant.”
This was an aspect of Buckingham Palace society that had never occurred to Sister Mary, although the pachyderm fitted right in.
“I expect they’re the tribute,” she said. “I read where these foreign potentates give her all sorts of things.”
“I’m a big fan of the Royal Family, you know.”
“Oh, so am I,” said Mr. Young, leaping gratefully onto this new ice floe in the bewildering stream of consciousness. Yes, you knew where you were with the Royals. The proper ones, of course, who pulled their weight in the hand-waving and bridge-opening department. Not the ones who went to discos all night long and were sick all over the paparazzi.5
“That’s nice,” said Sister Mary. “I thought you people weren’t too keen on them, what with revoluting and throwing all those tea-sets into the river.”
She chattered on, encouraged by the Order’s instruction that members should always say what was on their minds. Mr. Young was out of his depth, and too tired now to worry about it very much. The religious life probably made people a little odd. He wished Mrs. Young would wake up. Then one of the words in Sister Mary’s wittering struck a hopeful chord in his mind.
“Would there be any possibility of me possibly being able to have a cup of tea, perhaps?” he ventured.
“Oh my,” said Sister Mary, her hand flying to her mouth, “whatever am I thinking of?”
Mr. Young made no comment.
“I’ll see to it right away,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t want coffee, though? There’s one of those vendible machines on the next floor.”
“Tea, please,” said Mr. Young.
“My word, you really have gone native, haven’t you,” said Sister Mary gaily, as she bustled out.
Mr. Young, left alone with one sleeping wife and two sleeping babies, sagged onto a chair. Yes, it must be all that getting up early and kneeling and so on. Good people, of course, but not entirely compost mentis. He’d seen a Ken Russell film once. There had been nuns in it. There didn’t seem to be any of that sort of thing going on, but no smoke without fire and so on. …
It was then that Baby A awoke, and settled down to a really good wail.
Mr. Young hadn’t had to quiet a screaming baby for years. He’d never been much good at it to start with. He’d always respected Sir Winston Churchill, and patting small versions of him on the bottom had always seemed ungracious.
“Welcome to the world,” he said wearily. “You get used to it after a while.”
The baby shut its mouth and glared at him as if he were a recalcitrant general.
Sister Mary chose that moment to come in with the tea. Satanist or not, she’d also found a plate and arranged some iced biscuits on it. They were the sort you only ever get at the bottom of certain teatime assortments. Mr. Young’s was the same pink as a surgical appliance, and had a snowman picked out on it in white icing.
“I don’t expect you normally have these,” she said. “They’re what you call cookies. We call them biscuits.”
Mr. Young had just opened his mouth to explain that, yes, so did he, and so did people even in Luton, when another nun rushed in, breathless.
She looked at Sister Mary, realized that Mr. Young had never seen the inside of a pentagram, and confined herself to pointing at Baby A and winking.
Sister Mary nodded and winke
The nun wheeled the baby out.
As methods of human communication go, a wink is quite versatile. You can say a lot with a wink. For example, the new nun’s wink said:
Where the Hell have you been? Baby B has been born, we’re ready to make the switch, and here’s you in the wrong room 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, drinking tea. Do you realize I’ve nearly been shot?
And, as far as she was concerned, Sister Mary’s answering wink meant: Here’s 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, and I can’t talk now because there’s this outsider here.
Whereas Sister Mary, on the other hand, had thought that the orderly’s wink was more on the lines of:
Well done, Sister Mary—switched over the babies all by herself. Now indicate to me the superfluous child and I shall remove it and let you get on with your tea with his Royal Excellency the American Culture.
And therefore her own wink had meant:
There you go, dearie; that’s Baby B, now take him away and leave me to chat to his Excellency. I’ve always wanted to ask him why they have those tall buildings with all the mirrors on them.
The subtleties of all this were quite lost on Mr. Young, who was extremely embarrassed at all this clandestine affection and was thinking: That Mr. Russell, he knew what he was talking about, and no mistake.
Sister Mary’s error might have been noticed by the other nun had not she herself been severely rattled by the Secret Service men in Mrs. Dowling’s room, who kept looking at her with growing unease. This was because they had been trained to react in a certain way to people in long flowing robes and long flowing headdresses, and were currently suffering from a conflict of signals. Humans suffering from a conflict of signals aren’t the best people to be holding guns, especially when they’ve just witnessed a natural childbirth, which definitely looked an un-American way of bringing new citizens into the world. Also, they’d heard that there were missals in the building.
Mrs. Young stirred.
“Have you picked a name for him yet?” said Sister Mary archly.
“Hmm?” said Mr. Young. “Oh. No, not really. If it was a girl it would have been Lucinda after my mother. Or Germaine. That was Deirdre’s choice.”
“Wormwood’s a nice name,” said the nun, remembering her classics. “Or Damien. Damien’s very popular.”
ANATHEMA DEVICE—her mother, who was not a great student of religious matters, happened to read the word one day and thought it was a lovely name for a girl—was eight and a half years old, and she was reading The Book, under the bedclothes, with a torch.
Other children learned to read on basic primers with colored pictures of apples, balls, cockroaches, and so forth. Not the Device family. Anathema had learned to read from The Book.
It didn’t have any apples and balls in it. It did have a rather good eighteenth-century woodcut of Agnes Nutter being burned at the stake and looking rather cheerful about it.
The first word she could recognize was nice. Very few people at the age of eight and a half know that nice also means “scrupulously exact,” but Anathema was one of them.
The second word was accurate.
The first sentence she had ever read out loud was:
“I tell ye thif, and I charge ye with my wordes. Four shalle ryde, and Four shalle alfo ryde, and Three sharl ryde the Skye as twixt, and Wonne shal ryde in flames; and theyr shall be no stopping themme: not fish, nor rayne, nor rode, neither Deville nor Angel. And ye shalle be theyr alfo, Anathema.”
Anathema liked to read about herself.
(There were books which caring parents who read the right Sunday papers could purchase with their children’s names printed in as the heroine or hero. This was meant to interest the child in the book. In Anathema’s case, it wasn’t only her in The Book—and it had been spot on so far—but her parents, and her grandparents, and everyone, back to the seventeenth century. She was too young and too self-centered at this point to attach any importance to the fact that there was no mention made of her children, or indeed, any events in her future further away than eleven years’ time. When you’re eight and a half, eleven years is a lifetime, and of course, if you believed The Book, it would be.)
She was a bright child, with a pale face, and black eyes and hair. As a rule she tended to make people feel uncomfortable, a family trait she had inherited, along with being more psychic than was good for her, from her great-great-great-great-great grandmother.
She was precocious, and self-possessed. The only thing about Anathema her teachers ever had the nerve to upbraid her for was her spelling, which was not so much appalling as 300 years too late.
THE NUNS TOOK BABY A and swapped it with Baby B under the noses of the Attaché’s wife and the Secret Service men, by the cunning expedient of wheeling one baby away (“to be weighed, love, got to do that, it’s the law”) and wheeling another baby back, a little later.
The Cultural Attaché himself, Thaddeus J. Dowling, had been called back to Washington in a hurry a few days earlier, but he had been on the phone to Mrs. Dowling throughout the birth experience, helping her with her breathing.
It didn’t help that he had been talking on the other line to his investment counselor. At one point he’d been forced to put her on hold for twenty minutes.
But that was okay.
He’d got one of the Secret Service men to videotape it for him.
EVIL IN GENERAL does not sleep, and therefore doesn’t see why anyone else should. But Crowley liked sleep, it was one of the pleasures of the world. Especially after a heavy meal. He’d slept right through most of the nineteenth century, for example. Not because he needed to, simply because he enjoyed it.6
One of the pleasures of the world. Well, he’d better start really enjoying them now, while there was still time.
The Bentley roared through the night, heading east.
Of course, he was all in favor of Armageddon in general terms. If anyone had asked him why he’d been spending centuries tinkering in the affairs of mankind he’d have said, “Oh, in order to bring about Armageddon and the triumph of Hell.” But it was one thing to work to bring it about, and quite another for it to actually happen.
Crowley had always known that he would be around when the world ended, because he was immortal and wouldn’t have any alternative. But he’d hoped it would be a long way off.
Because he rather liked people. It was a major failing in a demon.
Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse. Over the years Crowley had found it increasingly difficult to find anything demonic to do which showed up against the natural background of generalized nastiness. There had been times, over the past millennium, when he’d felt like sending a message back Below saying, Look, we may as well give up right now, we might as well shut down Dis and Pandemonium and everywhere and move up here, there’s nothing we can do to them that they don’t do themselves and they do things we’ve never even thought of, often involving electrodes. They’ve got what we lack. They’ve got imagination. And electricity, of course.
One of them had written it, hadn’t he … “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
Crowley had got a commendation for the Spanish Inquisition. He had been in Spain then, mainly hanging around cantinas in the nicer parts, and hadn’t even known about it until th
e commendation arrived. He’d gone to have a look, and had come back and got drunk for a week.
That Hieronymus Bosch. What a weirdo.
And just when you’d think they were more malignant than ever Hell could be, they could occasionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of. Often the same individual was involved. It was this free-will thing, of course. It was a bugger.
Aziraphale had tried to explain it to him once. The whole point, he’d said—this was somewhere around 1020, when they’d first reached their little Arrangement—the whole point was that when a human was good or bad it was because they wanted to be. Whereas people like Crowley and, of course, himself, were set in their ways right from the start. People couldn’t become truly holy, he said, unless they also had the opportunity to be definitively wicked.
Crowley had thought about this for some time and, around about 1023, had said, Hang on, that only works, right, if you start everyone off equal, okay? You can’t start someone off in a muddy shack in the middle of a war zone and expect them to do as well as someone born in a castle.
Ah, Aziraphale had said, that’s the good bit. The lower you start, the more opportunities you have.
Crowley had said, That’s lunatic.
No, said Aziraphale, it’s ineffable.
Aziraphale. The Enemy, of course. But an enemy for six thousand years now, which made him a sort of friend.
Crowley reached down and picked up the car phone.
Being a demon, of course, was supposed to mean you had no free will. But you couldn’t hang around humans for very long without learning a thing or two.
MR. YOUNG HAD NOT BEEN too keen on Damien, or Wormwood. Or any of Sister Mary Loquacious’ other suggestions, which had covered half of Hell, and most of the Golden Years of Hollywood.
“Well,” she said finally, a little hurt, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Errol. Or Cary. Very nice American names, both of them.”
“I had fancied something more, well, traditional,” explained Mr. Young. “We’ve always gone in for good simple names in our family.”
Sister Mary beamed. “That’s right. The old names are always the best, if you ask me.”