Good omens the nice and.., p.21
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       Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, p.21

           Terry Pratchett
 

  He was in the mood in which people burned witches. His life was quite complicated enough without it being manipulated across the centuries by some crazed old woman.

  A thump in the grate sounded like part of the chimney stack coming down.

  And then he thought: my life isn’t complicated at all. I can see it as clearly as Agnes might. It stretches all the way to early retirement, a whip-round from the people in the office, a bright little neat flat somewhere, a neat little empty death. Except now I’m going to die under the ruins of a cottage during what might just possibly be the end of the world.

  The Recording Angel won’t have any trouble with me, my life must have been dittoes on every page for years. I mean, what have I ever really done? I’ve never robbed a bank. I’ve never had a parking ticket. I’ve never eaten Thai food—

  Somewhere another window caved in, with a merry tinkle of breaking glass. Anathema put her arms around him, with a sigh which really didn’t sound disappointed at all.

  I’ve never been to America. Or France, because Calais doesn’t really count. I’ve never learned to play a musical instrument.

  The radio died as the power lines finally gave up.

  He buried his face in her hair.

  I’ve never—

  There was a pinging sound.

  Shadwell, who had been bringing the Army pay books up to date, looked up in the middle of signing for Witchfinder Lance-Corporal Smith.

  It took him a while to notice that the gleam of Newt’s pin was no longer on the map.

  He got down from his stool, muttering under his breath, and searched around on the floor until he found it. He gave it another polish and put it back in Tadfield.

  He was just signing for Witchfinder Private Table, who got an extra tuppence a year hay allowance, when there was another ping.

  He retrieved the pin, glared at it suspiciously, and pushed it so hard into the map that the plaster behind it gave way. Then he went back to the ledgers.

  There was a ping.

  This time the pin was several feet from the wall. Shadwell picked it up, examined its point, pushed it into the map, and watched it.

  After about five seconds it shot past his ear.

  He scrabbled for it on the floor, replaced it on the map, and held it there.

  It moved under his hand. He leaned his weight on it.

  A tiny thread of smoke curled out of the map. Shadwell gave a whimper and sucked his fingers as the red-hot pin ricocheted off the opposite wall and smashed a window. It didn’t want to be in Tadfield.

  Ten seconds later Shadwell was rummaging through the WA’s cash box, which yielded a handful of copper, a ten-shilling note, and a small counterfeit coin from the reign of James I. Regardless of personal safety, he rummaged in his own pockets. The results of the trawl, even with his pensioners’ concessionary travel pass taken into consideration, were barely enough to get him out of the house, let alone to Tadfield.

  The only other people he knew who had money were Mr. Rajit and Madame Tracy. As far as the Rajits were concerned, the question of seven weeks’ rent would probably crop up in any financial discussion he instigated at this point, and as for Madame Tracy, who’d only be too willing to lend him a handful of used tenners …

  “I’ll be swaggit if I’ll tak the Wages o’ Sin frae the painted jezebel,” he said.

  Which left no one else.

  Save one.

  The southern pansy.

  They’d each been here, just once, spending as little time as possible in the room and, in Aziraphale’s case, trying not to touch any flat surface. The other one, the flash Southern bastard in the sunglasses, was—Shadwell suspected—not someone he ought to offend. In Shadwell’s simple world, anyone in sunglasses who wasn’t actually on a beach was probably a criminal. He suspected that Crowley was from the Mafia, or the underworld, although he would have been surprised how right he nearly was. But the soft one in the camelhair coat was a different matter, and he’d risked trailing him back to his base once, and he could remember the way. He thought Aziraphale was a Russian spy. He could ask him for money. Threaten him a bit.

  It was terribly risky.

  Shadwell pulled himself together. Even now young Newt might be suffering unimaginable tortures at the hands of the daughters o’ night and he, Shadwell, had sent him.

  “We canna leave our people in there,” he said, and put on his thin overcoat and shapeless hat and went out into the street.

  The weather seemed to be blowing up a bit.

  AZIRAPHALE WAS DITHERING. He’d been dithering for some twelve hours. His nerves, he would have said, were all over the place. He walked around the shop, picking up bits of paper and dropping them again, fiddling with pens.

  He ought to tell Crowley.

  No, he didn’t. He wanted to tell Crowley. He ought to tell Heaven.

  He was an angel, after all. You had to do the right thing. It was built in. You see a wile, you thwart. Crowley had put his finger on it, right enough. He ought to have told Heaven right from the start.

  But he’d known him for thousands of years. They got along. They nearly understood one another. He sometimes suspected they had far more in common with one another than with their respective superiors. They both liked the world, for one thing, rather than viewing it simply as the board on which the cosmic game of chess was being played.

  Well, of course, that was it. That was the answer, staring him in the face. It’d be true to the spirit of his pact with Crowley if he tipped Heaven the wink, and then they could quietly do something about the child, although nothing too bad of course because we were all God’s creatures when you got down to it, even people like Crowley and the Antichrist, and the world would be saved and there wouldn’t have to be all that Armageddon business, which would do nobody any good anyway, because everyone knew Heaven would win in the end, and Crowley would be bound to understand.

  Yes. And then everything would be all right.

  There was a knock at the shop door, despite the closed sign. He ignored it.

  Getting in touch with Heaven for two-way communications was far more difficult for Aziraphale than it is for humans, who don’t expect an answer and in nearly all cases would be rather surprised to get one.

  He pushed aside the paper-laden desk and rolled up the threadbare bookshop carpet. There was a small circle chalked on the floorboards underneath, surrounded by suitable passages from the Cabala. The angel lit seven candles, which he placed ritually at certain points around the circle. Then he lit some incense, which was not necessary but did make the place smell nice.

  And then he stood in the circle and said the Words.

  Nothing happened.

  He said the Words again.

  Eventually a bright blue shaft of light shot down from the ceiling and filled the circle.

  A well-educated voice said, “Well?”

  “It’s me, Aziraphale.”

  “We know,” said the voice.

  “I’ve got great news! I’ve located the Antichrist! I can give you his address and everything!”

  There was a pause. The blue light flickered.

  “Well?” it said again.

  “But, d’you see, you can ki—can stop it all happening! In the nick of time! You’ve only got a few hours! You can stop it all and there needn’t be the war and everyone will be saved!”

  He beamed madly into the light.

  “Yes?” said the voice.

  “Yes, he’s in a place called Lower Tadfield, and the address—”

  “Well done,” said the voice, in flat, dead tones.

  “There doesn’t have to be any of that business with one third of the seas turning to blood or anything,” said Aziraphale happily.

  When it came, the voice sounded slightly annoyed.

  “Why not?” it said.

  Aziraphale felt an icy pit opening under his enthusiasm, and tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.

  He plunged on: “Well, you can simply make sure
that—”

  “We will win, Aziraphale.”

  “Yes, but—”

  “The forces of darkness must be beaten. You seem to be under a misapprehension. The point is not to avoid the war, it is to win it. We have been waiting a long time, Aziraphale.”

  Aziraphale felt the coldness envelop his mind. He opened his mouth to say, “Do you think perhaps it would be a good idea not to hold the war on Earth?” and changed his mind.

  “I see,” he said grimly. There was a scraping near the door, and if Aziraphale had been looking in that direction he would have seen a battered felt hat trying to peer over the fanlight.

  “This is not to say you have not performed well,” said the voice. “You will receive a commendation. Well done.”

  “Thank you,” said Aziraphale. The bitterness in his voice would have soured milk. “I’d forgotten about ineffability, obviously.”

  “We thought you had.”

  “May I ask,” said the angel, “to whom have I been speaking?”

  The voice said, “We are the Metatron.”32

  “Oh, yes. Of course. Oh. Well. Thank you very much. Thank you.”

  Behind him the letterbox tilted open, revealing a pair of eyes.

  “One other thing,” said the voice. “You will of course be joining us, won’t you?”

  “Well, er, of course it has been simply ages since I’ve held a flaming sword—” Aziraphale began.

  “Yes, we recall,” said the voice. “You will have a lot of opportunity to relearn.”

  “Ah. Hmm. What sort of initiating event will precipitate the war?” said Aziraphale.

  “We thought a multination nuclear exchange would be a nice start.”

  “Oh. Yes. Very imaginative.” Aziraphale’s voice was flat and hopeless.

  “Good. We will expect you directly, then,” said the voice.

  “Ah. Well. I’ll just clear up a few business matters, shall I?” said Aziraphale desperately.

  “There hardly seems to be any necessity,” said the Metatron.

  Aziraphale drew himself up. “I really feel that probity, not to say morality, demands that as a reputable businessman I should—”

  “Yes, yes,” said the Metatron, a shade testily. “Point taken. We shall await you, then.”

  The light faded, but did not quite vanish. They’re leaving the line open, Aziraphale thought. I’m not getting out of this one.

  “Hallo?” he said softly, “Anyone still there?”

  There was silence.

  Very carefully, he stepped over the circle and crept to the telephone. He opened his notebook and dialed another number.

  After four rings it gave a little cough, followed by a pause, and then a voice which sounded so laid back you could put a carpet on it said, “Hi. This is Anthony Crowley. Uh. I—”

  “Crowley!” Aziraphale tried to hiss and shout at the same time, “Listen! I haven’t got much time! The—”

  “—probably not in right now, or asleep, and busy, or something, but—”

  “Shutup! Listen! It was in Tadfield! It’s all in that book! You’ve got to stop—”

  “—after the tone and I’ll get right back to you. Chow.”

  “I want to talk to you now—”

  BeeeEEeeeEEeee

  “Stop making noises! It’s in Tadfield! That was what I was sensing! You must go there and—”

  He took the phone away from his mouth.

  “Bugger!” he said. It was the first time he’d sworn in more than six thousand years.

  Hold on. The demon had another line, didn’t he? He was that kind of person. Aziraphale fumbled in the book, nearly dropping it on the floor. They would be getting impatient soon.

  He found the other number. He dialed it. It was answered almost immediately, at the same time as the shop’s bell tingled gently.

  Crowley’s voice, getting louder as it neared the mouthpiece, said, “—really mean it. Hallo?”

  “Crowley, it’s me!”

  “Ngh.” The voice was horribly noncommittal. Even in his present state, Aziraphale sensed trouble.

  “Are you alone?” he said cautiously.

  “Nuh. Got an old friend here.”

  “Listen—!”

  “Awa’ we ye, ye spawn o’ hell!”

  Very slowly, Aziraphale turned around.

  SHADWELL WAS TREMBLING with excitement. He’d seen it all. He’d heard it all. He hadn’t understood any of it, but he knew what people did with circles and candlesticks and incense. He knew that all right. He’d seen The Devil Rides Out fifteen times, sixteen times if you included the time he’d been thrown out of the cinema for shouting his unflattering opinions of amateur witchfinder Christopher Lee.

  The buggers were using him. They’d been making fools out o’ the glorious traditions o’ the Army.

  “I’ll have ye, ye evil bastard!” he shouted, advancing like a moth-eaten avenging angel. “I ken what ye be about, comin’ up here and seducin’ wimmen to do yer evil will!”

  “I think perhaps you’ve got the wrong shop,” said Aziraphale. “I’ll call back later,” he told the receiver, and hung up.

  “I could see what yer were aboot,” snarled Shadwell. There were flecks of foam around his mouth. He was more angry than he could ever remember.

  “Er, things are not what they seem—” Aziraphale began, aware even as he said it that as conversational gambits went it lacked a certain polish.

  “I bet they ain’t!” said Shadwell triumphantly.

  “No, I mean—”

  Without taking his eyes off the angel, Shadwell shuffled backwards and grabbed the shop door, slamming it hard so that the bell jangled.

  “Bell,” he said.

  He grabbed The Nice and Accurate Prophecies and thumped it down heavily on the table.

  “Book,” he snarled.

  He fumbled in his pocket and produced his trusty Ronson.

  “Practically candle!” he shouted, and began to advance.

  In his path, the circle glowed with a faint blue light.

  “Er,” said Aziraphale, “I think it might not be a very good idea to—”

  Shadwell wasn’t listening. “By the powers invested in me by virtue o’ my office o’ Witchfinder,” he intoned, “I charge ye to quit from this place—”

  “You see, the circle—”

  “—and return henceforth to the place from which ye came, pausin’ not to—”

  “—it would really be unwise for a human to set foot in it without—”

  “—and deliver us frae evil—”

  “Keep out of the circle, you stupid man!”

  “—never to come again to vex—”

  “Yes, yes, but please keep out of—”

  Aziraphale ran toward Shadwell, waving his hands urgently.

  “—returning NAE MORE!” Shadwell finished. He pointed a vengeful, black-nailed finger.

  Aziraphale looked down at his feet, and swore for the second time in five minutes. He’d stepped into the circle.

  “Oh, fuck,” he said.

  There was a melodious twang, and the blue glow vanished. So did Aziraphale.

  Thirty seconds went by. Shadwell didn’t move. Then, with a trembling left hand, he reached up and carefully lowered his right hand.

  “Hallo?” he said. “Hallo?”

  No one answered.

  Shadwell shivered. Then, with his hand held out in front of him like a gun that he didn’t dare fire and didn’t know how to unload, he stepped out into the street, letting the door slam behind him.

  It shook the floor. One of Aziraphale’s candles fell over, spilling burning wax across the old, dry wood.

  CROWLEY’S LONDON FLAT was the epitome of style. It was everything that a flat should be: spacious, white, elegantly furnished, and with that designer unlived-in look that only comes from not being lived in.

  This is because Crowley did not live there.

  It was simply the place he went back to, at the end of the day, whe
n he was in London. The beds were always made; the fridge was always stocked with gourmet food that never went off (that was why Crowley had a fridge, after all), and for that matter the fridge never needed to be defrosted, or even plugged in.

  The lounge contained a huge television, a white leather sofa, a video and a laserdisc player, an ansaphone, two telephones—the ansaphone line, and the private line (a number so far undiscovered by the legions of telephone salesmen who persisted in trying to sell Crowley double glazing, which he already had, or life insurance, which he didn’t need)—and a square matte black sound system, the kind so exquisitely engineered that it just has the on-off switch and the volume control. The only sound equipment Crowley had overlooked was speakers; he’d forgotten about them. Not that it made any difference. The sound reproduction was quite perfect anyway.

  There was an unconnected fax machine with the intelligence of a computer and a computer with the intelligence of a retarded ant. Nevertheless, Crowley upgraded it every few months, because a sleek computer was the sort of thing Crowley felt that the sort of human he tried to be would have. This one was like a Porsche with a screen. The manuals were still in their transparent wrapping.33

  In fact the only things in the flat Crowley devoted any personal attention to were the houseplants. They were huge and green and glorious, with shiny, healthy, lustrous leaves.

  This was because, once a week, Crowley went around the flat with a green plastic plant mister, spraying the leaves, and talking to the plants.

  He had heard about talking to plants in the early seventies, on Radio Four, and thought it an excellent idea. Although talking is perhaps the wrong word for what Crowley did.

  What he did was put the fear of God into them.

  More precisely, the fear of Crowley.

  In addition to which, every couple of months Crowley would pick out a plant that was growing too slowly, or succumbing to leaf-wilt or browning, or just didn’t look quite as good as the others, and he would carry it around to all the other plants. “Say goodbye to your friend,” he’d say to them. “He just couldn’t cut it … ”

  Then he would leave the flat with the offending plant, and return an hour or so later with a large, empty flower pot, which he would leave somewhere conspicuously around the flat.

 
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