Good omens the nice and.., p.34
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       Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, p.34

           Terry Pratchett
 
“Yes?” he said politely. “And what can I do for you, Mr. Baddicombe?”

  “You could let me in,” said Mr. Baddicombe.

  “You’re not serving a writ or anything, are you?” said Newt. The events of last night hung in his memory like a cloud, constantly changing whenever he thought he could make out a picture, but he was vaguely aware of damaging things and had been expecting retribution in some form.

  “No,” said Mr. Baddicombe, looking slightly hurt. “We have people for that sort of thing.”

  He wandered past Newt and put the box down on the table.

  “To be honest,” he said, “we’re all very interested in this. Mr. Bychance nearly came down himself, but he doesn’t travel well these days.”

  “Look,” said Newt, “I really haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

  “This,” said Mr. Baddicombe, proffering the box and beaming like Aziraphale about to attempt a conjuring trick, “is yours. Someone wanted you to have it. They were very specific.”

  “A present?” said Newt. He eyed the taped cardboard cautiously, and then rummaged in the kitchen drawer for a sharp knife.

  “I think more a bequest,” said Mr. Baddicombe. “You see, we’ve had it for three hundred years. Sorry. Was it something I said? Hold it under the tap, I should.”

  “What the hell is this all about?” said Newt, but a certain icy suspicion was creeping over him. He sucked at the cut.

  “It’s a funny story—do you mind if I sit down?—and of course I don’t know the full details because I joined the firm only fifteen years ago, but … ”

  . . . It had been a very small legal firm when the box had been cautiously delivered; Redfearn, Bychance and both the Robeys, let alone Mr. Baddicombe, were a long way in the future. The struggling legal clerk who had accepted delivery had been surprised to find, tied to the top of the box with twine, a letter addressed to himself.

  It had contained certain instructions and five interesting facts about the history of the next ten years which, if put to good use by a keen young man, would ensure enough finance to pursue a very successful legal career.

  All he had to do was see that the box was carefully looked after for rather more than three hundred years, and then delivered to a certain address …

  “. . . although of course the firm had changed hands many times over the centuries,” said Mr. Baddicombe. “But the box has always been part of the chattels, as it were.”

  “I didn’t even know they made Heinz Baby Foods in the seventeenth century,” said Newt.

  “That was just to keep it undamaged in the car,” said Mr. Baddicombe.

  “And no one’s opened it all these years?” said Newt.

  “Twice, I believe,” said Mr. Baddicombe. “In 1757, by Mr. George Cranby, and in 1928 by Mr. Arthur Bychance, father of the present Mr. Bychance.” He coughed. “Apparently Mr. Cranby found a letter—”

  “—addressed to himself,” said Newt.

  Mr. Baddicombe sat back hurriedly. “My word. How did you guess that?”

  “I think I recognize the style,” said Newt grimly. “What happened to them?”

  “Have you heard this before?” said Mr. Baddicombe suspiciously.

  “Not in so many words. They weren’t blown up, were they?”

  “Well … Mr. Cranby had a heart attack, it is believed. And Mr. Bychance went very pale and put his letter back in its envelope, I understand, and gave very strict instructions that the box wasn’t to be opened again in his lifetime. He said anyone who opened the box would be sacked without references.”

  “A dire threat,” said Newt, sarcastically.

  “It was, in 1928. Anyway, their letters are in the box.”

  Newt pulled the cardboard aside.

  There was a small ironbound chest inside. It had no lock.

  “Go on, lift it out,” said Mr. Baddicombe excitedly. “I must say I’d very much like to know what’s in there. We’ve had bets on it, in the office … ”

  “I’ll tell you what,” said Newt, generously, “I’ll make us some coffee, and you can open the box.”

  “Me? Would that be proper?”

  “I don’t see why not.” Newt eyed the saucepans hanging over the stove. One of them was big enough for what he had in mind.

  “Go on,” he said. “Be a devil. I don’t mind. You—you could have power of attorney, or something.”

  Mr. Baddicombe took off his overcoat. “Well,” he said, rubbing his hands together, “since you put it like that … it’d be something to tell my grandchildren.”

  Newt picked up the saucepan and laid his hand gently on the door handle. “I hope so,” he said.

  “Here goes.”

  Newt heard a faint creak.

  “What can you see?” he said.

  “There’s the two opened letters … oh, and a third one … addressed to … ”

  Newt heard the snap of a wax seal and the clink of something on the table. Then there was a gasp, the clatter of a chair, the sound of running feet in the hallway, the slam of a door, and the sound of a car engine being jerked into life and then redlined down the lane.

  Newt took the saucepan off his head and came out from behind the door.

  He picked up the letter and was not one hundred percent surprised to see that it was addressed to Mr. G. Baddicombe. He unfolded it.

  It read: “Here is A Florin, lawyer; nowe, runne faste, lest thee Worlde knoe the Truth about yowe and Mistrefs Spiddon the Type Writinge Machine slavey.”

  Newt looked at the other letters. The crackling paper of the one addressed to George Cranby said: “Remove thy thievinge Hande, Master Cranby. I minde well how yowe swindled the Widdowe Plashkin this Michelmas past, yowe skinnie owlde Snatch-pastry.”

  Newt wondered what a snatch-pastry was. He would be prepared to bet that it didn’t involve cookery.

  The one that had awaited the inquisitive Mr. Bychance said: “Yowe left them, yowe cowarde. Returne this letter to the bocks, lest the Worlde knoe the true Events of June 7th, Nineteen Hundred and Sixteene.”

  Under the letters was a manuscript. Newt stared at it.

  “What’s that?” said Anathema.

  He spun around. She was leaning against the doorframe, like an attractive yawn on legs.

  Newt backed against the table. “Oh, nothing. Wrong address. Nothing. Just some old box. Junk mail. You know how—”

  “On a Sunday?” she said, pushing him aside.

  He shrugged as she put her hands around the yellowed manuscript and lifted it out.

  “Further Nife and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,” she read slowly, “Concerning the Worlde that Is To Com; Ye Saga Continuef! Oh, my … ”

  She laid it reverentially on the table and prepared to turn the first page.

  Newt’s hand landed gently on hers.

  “Think of it like this,” he said quietly. “Do you want to be a descendant for the rest of your life?”

  She looked up. Their eyes met.

  IT WAS SUNDAY, the first day of the rest of the world, around eleven-thirty.

  St. James’ Park was comparatively quiet. The ducks, who were experts in realpolitik as seen from the bread end, put it down to a decrease in world tension. There really had been a decrease in world tension, in fact, but a lot of people were in offices trying to find out why, trying to find where Atlantis had disappeared to with three international fact-finding delegations on it, and trying to work out what had happened to all their computers yesterday.

  The park was deserted except for a member of MI9 trying to recruit someone who, to their later mutual embarrassment, would turn out to be also a member of MI9, and a tall man feeding the ducks.

  And there were also Crowley and Aziraphale.

  They strolled side by side across the grass.

  “Same here,” said Aziraphale. “The shop’s all there. Not so much as a soot mark.”

  “I mean, you can’t just make an old Bentley,” said Crowley. “You can’t get the
patina. But there it was, large as life. Right there in the street. You can’t tell the difference.”

  “Well, I can tell the difference,” said Aziraphale. “I’m sure I didn’t stock books with titles like Biggles Goes To Mars and Jack Cade, Frontier Hero and 101 Things A Boy Can Do and Blood Dogs of the Skull Sea.”

  “Gosh, I’m sorry,” said Crowley, who knew how much the angel had treasured his book collection.

  “Don’t be,” said Aziraphale happily. “They’re all mint first editions and I looked them up in Skindle’s Price Guide. I think the phrase you use is whoo-eee.”

  “I thought he was putting the world back just as it was,” said Crowley.

  “Yes,” said Aziraphale. “More or less. As best he can. But he’s got a sense of humor, too.”

  Crowley gave him a sideways look.

  “Your people been in touch?” he said.

  “No. Yours?”

  “No.”

  “I think they’re pretending it didn’t happen.”

  “Mine too, I suppose. That’s bureaucracy for you.”

  “And I think mine are waiting to see what happens next,” said Aziraphale.

  Crowley nodded. “A breathing space,” he said. “A chance to morally re-arm. Get the defenses up. Ready for the big one.”

  They stood by the pond, watching the ducks scrabble for the bread.

  “Sorry?” said Aziraphale. “I thought that was the big one.”

  “I’m not sure,” said Crowley. “Think about it. For my money, the really big one will be all of Us against all of Them.”

  “What? You mean Heaven and Hell against humanity?”

  Crowley shrugged. “Of course, if he did change everything, then maybe he changed himself, too. Got rid of his powers, perhaps. Decided to stay human.”

  “Oh, I do hope so,” said Aziraphale. “Anyway, I’m sure the alternative wouldn’t be allowed. Er. Would it?”

  “I don’t know. You can never be certain about what’s really intended. Plans within plans.”

  “Sorry?” said Aziraphale.

  “Well,” said Crowley, who’d been thinking about this until his head ached, “haven’t you ever wondered about it all? You know—your people and my people, Heaven and Hell, good and evil, all that sort of thing? I mean, why?”

  “As I recall,” said the angel, stiffly, “there was the rebellion and—”

  “Ah, yes. And why did it happen, eh? I mean, it didn’t have to, did it?” said Crowley, a manic look in his eye. “Anyone who could build a universe in six days isn’t going to let a little thing like that happen. Unless they want it to, of course.”

  “Oh, come on. Be sensible,” said Aziraphale, doubtfully.

  “That’s not good advice,” said Crowley. “That’s not good advice at all. If you sit down and think about it sensibly, you come up with some very funny ideas. Like: why make people inquisitive, and then put some forbidden fruit where they can see it with a big neon finger flashing on and off saying ‘THIS IS IT!’?”

  “I don’t remember any neon.”

  “Metaphorically, I mean. I mean, why do that if you really don’t want them to eat it, eh? I mean, maybe you just want to see how it all turns out. Maybe it’s all part of a great big ineffable plan. All of it. You, me, him, everything. Some great big test to see if what you’ve built all works properly, eh? You start thinking: it can’t be a great cosmic game of chess, it has to be just very complicated Solitaire. And don’t bother to answer. If we could understand, we wouldn’t be us. Because it’s all—all—”

  INEFFABLE, said the figure feeding the ducks.

  “Yeah. Right. Thanks.”

  They watched the tall stranger carefully dispose of the empty bag in a litter bin, and stalk away across the grass. Then Crowley shook his head.

  “What was I saying?” he said.

  “Don’t know,” said Aziraphale. “Nothing very important, I think.”

  Crowley nodded gloomily. “Let me tempt you to some lunch,” he hissed.

  They went to the Ritz again, where a table was mysteriously vacant. And perhaps the recent exertions had had some fallout in the nature of reality because, while they were eating, for the first time ever, a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

  No one heard it over the noise of the traffic, but it was there, right enough.

  IT WAS ONE O’CLOCK ON SUNDAY.

  For the last decade Sunday lunch in Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell’s world had followed an invariable routine. He would sit at the rickety, cigarette-burned table in his room, thumbing through an elderly copy of one of the Witchfinder Army library’s57 books on magic and Demonology—the Necrotelecomnicon or the Liber Fulvarum Paginarum, or his old favorite, the Malleus Malleficarum.58

  Then there would be a knock on the door, and Madame Tracy would call out, “Lunch, Mr. Shadwell,” and Shadwell would mutter, “Shameless hussy,” and wait sixty seconds, to allow the shameless hussy time to get back into her room; then he’d open the door, and pick up the plate of liver, which was usually carefully covered by another plate to keep it warm. And he’d take it in, and he’d eat it, taking moderate care not to spill any gravy on the pages he was reading.59

  That was what always happened.

  Except on that Sunday, it didn’t.

  For a start, he wasn’t reading. He was just sitting.

  And when the knock came on the door he got up immediately, and opened it. He needn’t have hurried.

  There was no plate. There was just Madame Tracy, wearing a cameo brooch, and an unfamiliar shade of lipstick. She was also standing in the center of a perfume zone.

  “Aye, Jezebel?”

  Madame Tracy’s voice was bright and fast and brittle with uncertainty. “Hullo, Mister S, I was just thinking, after all we’ve been through in the last two days, seems silly for me to leave a plate out for you, so I’ve set a place for you. Come on … ”

  Mister S? Shadwell followed, warily.

  He’d had another dream, last night. He didn’t remember it properly, just one phrase, that still echoed in his head and disturbed him. The dream had vanished into a haze, like the events of the previous night.

  It was this. “Nothin’ wrong with witchfinding. I’d like to be a witchfinder. It’s just, well, you’ve got to take it in turns. Today we’ll go out witchfinding, an’ tomorrow we could hide, an’ it’d be the witches’ turn to find US … ”

  For the second time in twenty-four hours—for the second time in his life—he entered Madame Tracy’s rooms.

  “Sit down there,” she told him, pointing to an armchair. It had an antimacassar on the headrest, a plumped-up pillow on the seat, and a small footstool.

  He sat down.

  She placed a tray on his lap, and watched him eat, and removed his plate when he had finished. Then she opened a bottle of Guinness, poured it into a glass and gave it to him, then sipped her tea while he slurped his stout. When she put her cup down, it tinkled nervously in the saucer.

  “I’ve got a tidy bit put away,” she said, apropos of nothing. “And you know, I sometimes think it would be a nice thing to get a little bungalow, in the country somewhere. Move out of London. I’d call it The Laurels, or Dunroamin, or, or … ”

  “Shangri-La,” suggested Shadwell, and for the life of him could not think why.

  “Exactly, Mister S. Exactly. Shangri-La.” She smiled at him. “Are you comfy, love?”

  Shadwell realized with dawning horror that he was comfortable. Horribly, terrifyingly comfortable. “Aye,” he said, warily. He had never been so comfortable.

  Madame Tracy opened another bottle of Guinness and placed it in front of him.

  “Only trouble with having a little bungalow, called—what was your clever idea, Mister S?”

  “Uh. Shangri-La.”

  “Shangri-La, exactly, is that it’s not right for one, is it? I mean,

  two people, they say two can live as cheaply as one.”

  (Or five hundred and eighteen, thought Shadwell, reme
mbering the massed ranks of the Witchfinder Army.)

  She giggled. “I just wonder where I could find someone to settle down with … ”

  Shadwell realized that she was talking about him.

  He wasn’t sure about this. He had a distinct feeling that leaving Witchfinder Private Pulsifer with the young lady in Tadfield had been a bad move, as far as the Witchfinder Army Booke of Rules and Reggulations was concerned. And this seemed even more dangerous.

  Still, at his age, when you’re getting too old to go crawling about in the long grass, when the chill morning dew gets into your bones …

  (An’ tomorrow we could hide, an’ it’d be the witches’ turn to find us … )

  Madame Tracy opened another bottle of Guinness, and giggled. “Oh Mister S,” she said, “you’ll be thinking I’m trying to get you tiddly.”

  He grunted. There was a formality that had to be observed in all this.

  Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell took a long, deep drink of Guinness, and he popped the question.

  Madame Tracy giggled. “Honestly, you old silly,” she said, and she blushed a deep red. “How many do you think?”

  He popped it again.

  “Two,” said Madame Tracy.

  “Ah, weel. That’s all reet then,” said Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (retired).

  IT WAS SUNDAY AFTERNOON.

  High over England a 747 droned westwards. In the first-class cabin a boy called Warlock put down his comic and stared out of the window.

  It had been a very strange couple of days. He still wasn’t certain why his father had been called to the Middle East. He was pretty sure that his father didn’t know, either. It was probably something cultural. All that had happened was a lot of funny-looking guys with towels on their heads and very bad teeth had shown them around some old ruins. As ruins went, Warlock had seen better. And then one of the old guys had said to him, wasn’t there anything he wanted to do? And Warlock had said he’d like to leave.

  They’d looked very unhappy about that.

  And now he was going back to the States. There had been some sort of problem with tickets or flights or airport destination-boards or something. It was weird; he was pretty sure his father had meant to go back to England. Warlock liked England. It was a nice country to be an American in.

 
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