Good omens the nice and.., p.23
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       Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, p.23
 

           Terry Pratchett

  She disappeared in a clacking of bead curtains.

  Suddenly Shadwell was alone on what he was just capable of recalling, through the wreckage of his shattered nerves, was a bed of sin, and right at this moment was incapable of deciding whether that was in fact better or worse than not being alone on a bed of sin. He turned his head to take in his surroundings.

  Madame Tracy’s concepts of what was erotic stemmed from the days when young men grew up thinking that women had beach balls affixed firmly in front of their anatomy, Brigitte Bardot could be called a sex kitten without anyone bursting out laughing, and there really were magazines with names like Girls, Giggles and Garters. Somewhere in this cauldron of permissiveness she had picked up the idea that soft toys in the bedroom created an intimate, coquettish air.

  Shadwell stared for some time at a large, threadbare teddy bear, which had one eye missing and a torn ear. It probably had a name like Mr. Buggins.

  He turned his head the other way. His gaze was blocked by a pajama case shaped like an animal that may have been a dog but, there again, might have been a skunk. It had a cheery grin.

  “Urg,” he said.

  But recollection kept storming back. He really had done it. No one else in the Army had ever exorcised a demon, as far as he knew. Not Hopkins, not Siftings, not Diceman. Probably not even Witchfinder Company Sergeant Major Narker,38 who held the all-time record for most witches found. Sooner or later every Army runs across its ultimate weapon and now it existed, Shadwell reflected, on the end of his arm.

  Well, screw No First Use. He’d have a bit of a rest, seeing as he was here, and then the Powers of Darkness had met their match at last …

  When Madame Tracy brought the tea in he was snoring. She tactfully closed the door, and rather thankfully as well, because she had a seance due in twenty minutes and it was no good turning down money these days.

  Although Madame Tracy was by many yardsticks quite stupid, she had an instinct in certain matters, and when it came to dabbling in the occult her reasoning was faultless. Dabbling, she’d realized, was exactly what her customers wanted. They didn’t want to be shoved in it up to their necks. They didn’t want the multi-planular mysteries of Time and Space, they just wanted to be reassured that Mother was getting along fine now she was dead. They wanted just enough Occult to season the simple fare of their lives, and preferably in portions no longer than forty-five minutes, followed by tea and biscuits.

  They certainly didn’t want odd candles, scents, chants, or mystic runes. Madame Tracy had even removed most of the Major Arcana from her Tarot card pack, because their appearance tended to upset people.

  And she made sure that she had always put sprouts on to boil just before a seance. Nothing is more reassuring, nothing is more true to the comfortable spirit of English occultism, than the smell of Brussels sprouts cooking in the next room.

  IT WAS EARLY AFTERNOON, and the heavy storm clouds had turned the sky the color of old lead. It would rain soon, heavily, blindingly. The firemen hoped the rain would come soon. The sooner the better.

  They had arrived fairly promptly, and the younger firemen were dashing around excitedly, unrolling their hosepipe and flexing their axes; the older firemen knew at a glance that the building was a dead loss, and weren’t even sure that the rain would stop it spreading to neighboring buildings, when a black Bentley skidded around the corner and drove up onto the pavement at a speed somewhere in excess of sixty miles per hour, and stopped with a screech of brakes half an inch away from the wall of the bookshop. An extremely agitated young man in dark glasses got out and ran toward the door of the blazing bookshop.

  He was intercepted by a fireman.

  “Are you the owner of this establishment?” asked the fireman.

  “Don’t be stupid! Do I look like I run a bookshop?”

  “I really wouldn’t know about that, sir. Appearances can be very deceptive. For example, I am a fireman. However, upon meeting me socially, people unaware of my occupation often suppose that I am, in fact, a chartered accountant or company director. Imagine me out of uniform, sir, and what kind of man would you see before you? Honestly?”

  “A prat,” said Crowley, and he ran into the bookshop.

  This sounds easier than it actually was, since in order to manage it Crowley needed to avoid half a dozen firemen, two policemen, and a number of interesting Soho night people,39 out early, and arguing heatedly amongst themselves about which particular section of society had brightened up the afternoon, and why.

  Crowley pushed straight through them. They scarcely spared him a glance.

  Then he pushed open the door, and stepped into an inferno.

  The whole bookshop was ablaze. “Aziraphale!” he called. “Aziraphale, you—you stupid—Aziraphale? Are you here?”

  No answer. Just the crackle of burning paper, the splintering of glass as the fire reached the upstairs rooms, the crash of collapsing timbers.

  He scanned the shop urgently, desperately, looking for the angel, looking for help.

  In the far corner a bookshelf toppled over, cascading flaming books across the floor. The fire was all around him, and Crowley ignored it. His left trouser leg began to smolder; he stopped it with a glance.

  “Hello? Aziraphale! For Go—, for Sa—, for somebody’s sake! Aziraphale!”

  The shop window was smashed from outside. Crowley turned, startled, and an unexpected jet of water struck him full in the chest, knocking him to the ground.

  His shades flew to a far corner of the room, and became a puddle of burning plastic. Yellow eyes with slitted vertical pupils were revealed. Wet and steaming, face ash-blackened, as far from cool as it was possible for him to be, on all fours in the blazing bookshop, Crowley cursed Aziraphale, and the ineffable plan, and Above, and Below.

  Then he looked down, and saw it. The book. The book that the girl had left in the car in Tadfield, on Wednesday night. It was slightly scorched around the cover, but miraculously unharmed. He picked it up, stuffed it into his jacket pocket, stood up, unsteadily, and brushed himself off.

  The floor above him collapsed. With a roar and gargantuan shrug the building fell in on itself, in a rain of brick and timber and flaming debris.

  Outside, the passersby were being herded back by the police, and a fireman was explaining to anyone who would listen, “I couldn’t stop him. He must have been mad. Or drunk. Just ran in. I couldn’t stop him. Mad. Ran straight in. Horrible way to die. Horrible, horrible. Just ran straight in … ”

  Then Crowley came out of the flames.

  The police and the firemen looked at him, saw the expression on his face, and stayed exactly where they were.

  He climbed into the Bentley and reversed back into the road, swung around a fire truck, into Wardour Street, and into the darkened afternoon.

  They stared at the car as it sped away. Finally one policeman spoke. “Weather like this, he ought to of put his lights on,” he said, numbly.

  “Especially driving like that. Could be dangerous,” agreed another, in flat, dead tones, and they all stood there in the light and the heat of the burning bookshop, wondering what was happening to a world they had thought they understood.

  There was a flash of lightning, blue-white, strobing across the cloud-black sky, a crack of thunder so loud it hurt, and a hard rain began to fall.

  SHE RODE A RED MOTORBIKE. Not a friendly Honda red; a deep, bloody red, rich and dark and hateful. The bike was apparently, in every other respect, ordinary except for the sword, resting in its scabbard, set onto the side of the bike.

  Her helmet was crimson, and her leather jacket was the color of old wine. In ruby studs on the back were picked out the words HELL’S ANGELS.

  It was ten past one in the afternoon and it was dark and humid and wet. The motorway was almost deserted, and the woman in red roared down the road on her red motorbike, smiling lazily.

  It had been a good day so far. There was something about the sight of a beautiful woman on a powerful moto
rbike with a sword stuck on the back that had a powerful effect on a certain type of man. So far four traveling salesmen had tried to race her, and bits of Ford Sierra now decorated the crash barriers and bridge supports along forty miles of motorway.

  She pulled up at a service area, and went into the Happy Porker Café. It was almost empty. A bored waitress was darning a sock behind the counter, and a knot of black-leathered bikers, hard, hairy, filthy, and huge, were clustered around an even taller individual in a black coat. He was resolutely playing something that in bygone years would have been a fruit machine, but now had a video screen, and advertised itself as TRIVIA SCRABBLE.

  The audience were saying things like:

  “It’s ‘D’! Press ‘D’—The Godfather must’ve got more Oscars than Gone with the Wind!”

  “Puppet on a String! Sandie Shaw! Honest. I’m bleeding positive!”

  “1666!”

  “No, you great pillock! That was the fire! The Plague was 1665!”

  “It’s ‘B’—the Great Wall of China wasn’t one of the Seven Wonders of the world!”

  There were four options: Pop Music, Sport, Current Events, and General Knowledge. The tall biker, who had kept his helmet on, was pressing the buttons, to all intents and purposes oblivious of his supporters. At any rate, he was consistently winning.

  The red rider went over to the counter.

  “A cup of tea, please. And a cheese sandwich,” she said.

  “You on your own, then, dear?” asked the waitress, passing the tea, and something white and dry and hard, across the counter.

  “Waiting for friends.”

  “Ah,” she said, biting through some wool. “Well, you’re better off waiting in here. It’s hell out there.”

  “No,” she told her. “Not yet.”

  She picked a window table, with a good view of the parking lot, and she waited.

  She could hear the Trivia Scrabblers in the background.

  “Thass a new one, ‘How many times has England been officially at war with France since 1066?”’

  “Twenty? Nah, s’ never twenty … Oh. It was. Well, I never.”

  “American war with Mexico? I know that. It’s June 1845. ‘D’—see! I tol’ you!”

  The second-shortest biker, Pigbog (6' 3"), whispered to the shortest, Greaser (6' 2"):

  “What happened to ‘Sport,’ then?” He had LOVE tattooed on one set of knuckles, HATE on the other.

  “It’s random wossit, selection, innit. I mean they do it with microchips. It’s probably got, like, millions of different subjects in there, in its RAM.” He had FISH across his right-hand knuckle, and CHIP on the left.

  “Pop Music, Current Events, General Knowledge, and War. It’s just I’ve never seen ‘War’ before. That’s why I mentioned it.” Pigbog cracked his knuckles, loudly, and pulled the ring tab on a can of beer. He swigged back half a can, belched carelessly, then sighed. “I just wish they’d do more bleeding Bible questions.”

  “Why?” Greaser had never thought of Pigbog as being a Bible trivia freak.

  “’Cos, well, you remember that bit of bother in Brighton?”

  “Oh, yeah. You was on Crimewatch,” said Greaser, with a trace of envy.

  “Well, I had to hang out in that hotel where me mam worked, dinni? Free months. And nothin’ to read, only this bugger Gideon had left his Bible behind. It kind of sticks in your mind.”

  Another motorbike, jet black and gleaming, drew up in the car-park outside.

  The door to the café opened. A blast of cold wind blew through the room; a man dressed all in black leather, with a short black beard, walked over to the table, sat next to the woman in red, and the bikers around the video scrabble machine suddenly noticed how hungry they all were, and deputed Skuzz to go and get them something to eat. All of them except the player, who said nothing, just pressed the buttons for the right answers and let his winnings accumulate in the tray at the bottom of the machine.

  “I haven’t seen you since Mafeking,” said Red. “How’s it been going?”

  “I’ve been keeping pretty busy,” said Black. “Spent a lot of time in America. Brief world tours. Just killing time, really.”

  (“What do you mean, you’ve got no steak and kidney pies?” asked Skuzz, affronted.

  “I thought we had some, but we don’t,” said the woman.)

  “Feels funny, all of us finally getting together like this,” said Red.

  “Funny?”

  “Well, you know. When you’ve spent all these thousands of years waiting for the big day, and it finally comes. Like waiting for Christmas. Or birthdays.”

  “We don’t have birthdays.”

  “I didn’t say we do. I just said that was what it was like.”

  (“Actually,” admitted the woman,“it doesn’t look like we’ve got anything left at all. Except that slice of pizza.”

  “Has it got anchovies on it?” asked Skuzz gloomily. None of the chapter liked anchovies. Or olives.

  “Yes, dear. It’s anchovy and olives. Would you like it?”

  Skuzz shook his head sadly. Stomach rumbling, he made his way back to the game. Big Ted got irritable when he got hungry, and when Big Ted got irritable everyone got a slice.)

  A new category had come up on the video screen. You could now answer questions about Pop Music, Current Events, Famine, or War. The bikers seemed marginally less informed about the Irish Potato Famine of 1846, the English everything famine of 1315, and the 1969 dope famine in San Francisco than they had been about War, but the player was still racking up a perfect score, punctuated occasionally by a whir, ratchet, and chink as the machine disgorged pound coins into its tray.

  “Weather looks a bit tricky down south,” said Red.

  Black squinted at the darkening clouds. “No. Looks fine to me. We’ll have a thunderstorm along any minute.”

  Red looked at her nails. “That’s good. It wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have a good thunderstorm. Any idea how far we’ve got to ride?”

  Black shrugged. “A few hundred miles.”

  “I thought it’d be longer, somehow. All that waiting, just for a few hundred miles.”

  “It’s not the traveling,” said Black. “It’s the arriving that matters.”

  There was a roar outside. It was the roar of a motorbike with a defective exhaust, untuned engine, leaky carburetor. You didn’t have to see the bike to imagine the clouds of black smoke it traveled in, the oil slicks it left in its wake, the trail of small motorbike parts and fittings that littered the roads behind it.

  Black went up to the counter.

  “Four teas, please,” he said. “One black.”

  The café door opened. A young man in dusty white leathers entered, and the wind blew empty crisp packets and newspapers and ice cream wrappers in with him. They danced around his feet like excited children, then fell exhausted to the floor.

  “Four of you, are there, dear?” asked the woman. She was trying to find some clean cups and tea spoons—the entire rack seemed suddenly to have been coated in a light film of motor oil and dried egg.

  “There will be,” said the man in black, and he took the teas and went back to the table, where his two comrades waited.

  “Any sign of him?” said the boy in white.

  They shook their heads.

  An argument had broken out around the video screen (current categories showing on the screen were War, Famine, Pollution, and Pop Trivia 1962–1979).

  “Elvis Presley? ’Sgotta be ‘C’—it was 1977 he snuffed it, wasn’t it?”

  “Nah. ‘D.’ 1976. I’m positive.”

  “Yeah. Same year as Bing Crosby.”

  “And Marc Bolan. He was dead good. Press ‘D,’ then. Go on.”

  The tall figure made no motion to press any of the buttons.

  “Woss the matter with you?” asked Big Ted, irritably. “Go on. Press ‘D.’ Elvis Presley died in 1976.”

  I DON’T CARE WHAT IT SAYS, said the tall biker in the helm
et, I NEVER LAID A FINGER ON HIM.

  The three people at the table turned as one. Red spoke. “When did you get here?” she asked.

  The tall man walked over to the table, leaving the astonished bikers, and his winnings, behind him. I NEVER WENT AWAY, he said, and his voice was a dark echo from the night places, a cold slab of sound, gray, and dead. If that voice was a stone it would have had words chiseled on it a long time ago: a name, and two dates.

  “Your tea’s getting cold, lord,” said Famine.

  “It’s been a long time,” said War.

  There was a flash of lightning, almost immediately followed by a low rumble of thunder.

  “Lovely weather for it,” said Pollution.

  YES.

  The bikers around the game were getting progressively baffled by this exchange. Led by Big Ted, they shambled over to the table and stared at the four strangers.

  It did not escape their notice that all four strangers had HELL’S ANGELS on their jackets. And they looked dead dodgy as far as the Angels were concerned: too clean for a start; and none of the four looked like they’d ever broken anyone’s arm just because it was Sunday afternoon and there wasn’t anything good on the telly. And one was a woman, too, only not ridin’ around on the back of someone’s bike but actually allowed one of her own, like she had any right to it.

  “You’re Hell’s Angels, then?” asked Big Ted, sarcastically. If there’s one thing real Hell’s Angels can’t abide, it’s weekend bikers.40

  The four strangers nodded.

  “What chapter are you from, then?”

  The Tall Stranger looked at Big Ted. Then he stood up. It was a complicated motion; if the shores of the seas of night had deck chairs, they’d open up something like that.

  He seemed to be unfolding himself forever.

  He wore a dark helmet, completely hiding his features. And it was made of that weird plastic, Big Ted noted. Like, you looked in it, and all you could see was your own face.

 
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