Good omens the nice and.., p.7
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       Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, p.7

           Terry Pratchett
 

  “I got cartoons at my birthday,” announced the little girl. “An I gotter transformer anna mylittleponyer anna decepticonattacker anna thundertank anna … ”

  Crowley groaned. Children’s parties were obviously places where any angel with an ounce of common sense should fear to tread. Piping infant voices were raised in cynical merriment as Aziraphale dropped three linked metal rings.

  Crowley looked away, and his gaze fell on a table heaped high with presents. From a tall plastic structure two beady little eyes stared back at him.

  Crowley scrutinized them for a glint of red fire. You could never be certain when you were dealing with the bureaucrats of Hell. It was always possible that they had sent a gerbil instead of a dog.

  No, it was a perfectly normal gerbil. It appeared to be living in an exciting construction of cylinders, spheres, and treadmills, such as the Spanish Inquisition would have devised if they’d had access to a plastics molding press.

  He checked his watch. It had never occurred to Crowley to change its battery, which had rotted away three years previously, but it still kept perfect time. It was two minutes to three.

  Aziraphale was getting more and more flustered.

  “Do any of the company here assembled possess such a thing about their persons as a pocket handkerchief? No?” In Victorian days it had been unheard of for people not to carry handkerchiefs, and the trick, which involved magically producing a dove who was even now pecking irritably at Aziraphale’s wrist, could not proceed without one. The angel tried to attract Crowley’s attention, failed, and, in desperation, pointed to one of the security guards, who shifted uneasily.

  “You, my fine jack-sauce. Come here. Now, if you inspect your breast pocket, I think you might find a fine silk handkerchief.”

  “Nossir. ’Mafraidnotsir,” said the guard, staring straight ahead.

  Aziraphale winked desperately. “No, go on, dear boy, take a look, please.”

  The guard reached a hand inside his inside pocket, looked surprised, and pulled out a handkerchief, duck-egg-blue silk, with lace edging. Aziraphale realized almost immediately that the lace had been a mistake, as it caught on the guard’s holstered gun, and sent it spinning across the room to land heavily in a bowl of jelly.

  The children applauded spasmodically. “Hey, not bad!” said the ponytailed girl.

  Warlock had already run across the room, and grabbed the gun.

  “Hands up, dogbreaths!” he shouted gleefully.

  The security guards were in a quandary.

  Some of them fumbled for their own weapons; others started edging their way toward, or away from, the boy. The other children started complaining that they wanted guns as well, and a few of the more forward ones started trying to tug them from the guards who had been thoughtless enough to take their weapons out.

  Then someone threw some jelly at Warlock.

  The boy squeaked, and pulled the trigger of the gun. It was a Magnum .32, CIA issue, gray, mean, heavy, capable of blowing a man away at thirty paces, and leaving nothing more than a red mist, a ghastly mess, and a certain amount of paperwork.

  Aziraphale blinked.

  A thin stream of water squirted from the nozzle and soaked Crowley, who had been looking out the window, trying to see if there was a huge black dog in the garden.

  Aziraphale looked embarrassed.

  Then a cream cake hit him in the face.

  It was almost five past three.

  With a gesture, Aziraphale turned the rest of the guns into water pistols as well, and walked out.

  Crowley found him on the pavement outside, trying to extricate a rather squishy dove from the arm of his frock coat.

  “It’s late,” said Aziraphale.

  “I can see that,” said Crowley. “Comes of sticking it up your sleeve.” He reached out and pulled the limp bird from Aziraphale’s coat, and breathed life back into it. The dove cooed appreciatively and flew off, a trifle warily.

  “Not the bird,” said the angel. “The dog. It’s late.”

  Crowley shook his head, thoughtfully. “We’ll see.”

  He opened the car door, flipped on the radio. “I-should-be-so-lucky-lucky-lucky-lucky-lucky, I-should-be-so-lucky-in- HELLO CROWLEY.”

  “Hello. Um, who is this?”

  “DAGON, LORD OF THE FILES, MASTER OF MADNESS, UNDER-DUKE OF THE SEVENTH TORMENT. WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU?”

  “The hell-hound. I’m just, uh, just checking that it got off okay.”

  “RELEASED TEN MINUTES AGO. WHY? HASN’T IT ARRIVED? IS SOMETHING WRONG?”

  “Oh no. Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s fine. Oops, I can see it now. Good dog. Nice dog. Everything’s terrific. You’re doing a great job down there, people. Well, lovely talking to you, Dagon. Catch you soon, huh?”

  He flipped off the radio.

  They stared at each other. There was a loud bang from inside the house, and a window shattered. “Oh dear,” muttered Aziraphale, not swearing with the practiced ease of one who has spent six thousand years not swearing, and who wasn’t going to start now. “I must have missed one.”

  “No dog,” said Crowley.

  “No dog,” said Aziraphale.

  The demon sighed. “Get in the car,” he said. “We’ve got to talk about this. Oh, and Aziraphale … ?”

  “Yes.”

  “Clean off that blasted cream cake before you get in.”

  It was a hot, silent August day far from Central London. By the side of the Tadfield road the dust weighed down the hogweed. Bees buzzed in the hedges. The air had a leftover and reheated feel.

  There was a sound like a thousand metal voices shouting “Hail!” cut off abruptly.

  And there was a black dog in the road.

  It had to be a dog. It was dog-shaped.

  There are some dogs which, when you meet them, remind you that, despite thousands of years of man-made evolution, every dog is still only two meals away from being a wolf. These dogs advance deliberately, purposefully, the wilderness made flesh, their teeth yellow, their breath a-stink, while in the distance their owners twitter, “He’s an old soppy really, just poke him if he’s a nuisance,” and in the green of their eyes the red campfires of the Pleistocene gleam and flicker. …

  This dog would make even a dog like that slink nonchalantly behind the sofa and pretend to be extremely preoccupied with its rubber bone.

  It was already growling, and the growl was a low, rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace, the sort of growl that starts in the back of one throat and ends up in someone else’s.

  Saliva dripped from its jaws and sizzled on the tar.

  It took a few steps forward, and sniffed the sullen air.

  Its ears flicked up.

  There were voices, a long way off. A voice. A boyish voice, but one it had been created to obey, could not help but obey. When that voice said “Follow,” it would follow; when it said “Kill,” it would kill. His master’s voice.

  It leapt the hedge and padded across the field beyond. A grazing bull eyed it for a moment, weighed its chances, then strolled hurriedly toward the opposite hedge.

  The voices were coming from a copse of straggly trees. The black hound slunk closer, jaws streaming.

  One of the other voices said: “He never will. You’re always saying he will, and he never does. Catch your dad giving you a pet. An int’restin’ pet, anyway. It’ll prob’ly be stick insects. That’s your dad’s idea of int’restin’.”

  The hound gave the canine equivalent of a shrug, but immediately lost interest because now the Master, the Center of its Universe, spoke.

  “It’ll be a dog,” it said.

  “Huh. You don’t know it’s going to be a dog. No one’s said it’s going to be a dog. How d’you know it’s goin’ to be a dog if no one’s said? Your dad’d be complaining about the food it eats the whole time.”

  “Privet.” This third voice was rather more prim than the first two. The owner of a voice like that would be the sort of person who, before maki
ng a plastic model kit, would not only separate and count all the parts before commencing, as per the instructions, but also paint the bits that needed painting first and leave them to dry properly prior to construction. All that separated this voice from chartered accountancy was a matter of time.

  “They don’t eat privet, Wensley. You never saw a dog eatin’ privet.”

  “Stick insects do, I mean. They’re jolly interesting, actually. They eat each other when they’re mating.”

  There was a thoughtful pause. The hound slunk closer, and realized that the voices were coming from a hole in the ground.

  The trees in fact concealed an ancient chalk quarry, now half overgrown with thorn trees and vines. Ancient, but clearly not disused. Tracks crisscrossed it; smooth areas of slope indicated regular use by skateboards and Wall-of-Death, or at least Wall-of-Seriously-Grazed-Knee, cyclists. Old bits of dangerously frayed rope hung from some of the more accessible greenery. Here and there sheets of corrugated iron and old wooden boards were wedged in branches. A burnt-out, rusting Triumph Herald Estate was visible, half-submerged in a drift of nettles.

  In one corner a tangle of wheels and corroded wire marked the site of the famous Lost Graveyard where the supermarket trolleys came to die.

  If you were a child, it was paradise. The local adults called it The Pit.

  The hound peered through a clump of nettles, and spotted four figures sitting in the center of the quarry on that indispensible prop to good secret dens everywhere, the common milk crate.

  “They don’t!”

  “They do.”

  “Bet you they don’t,” said the first speaker. It had a certain timbre to it that identified it as young and female, and it was tinted with horrified fascination.

  “They do, actually. I had six before we went on holiday and I forgot to change the privet and when I came back I had one big fat one.”

  “Nah. That’s not stick insects, that’s praying mantises. I saw on the television where this big female one ate this other one and it dint hardly take any notice.”

  There was another crowded pause.

  “What’re they prayin’ about?” said his Master’s voice.

  “Dunno. Prayin’ they don’t have to get married, I s’pect.”

  The hound managed to get one huge eye against an empty knothole in the quarry’s broken-down fence, and squinted downward.

  “Anyway, it’s like with bikes,” said the first speaker authoritatively. “I thought I was going to get this bike with seven gears and one of them razorblade saddles and purple paint and everything, and they gave me this light blue one. With a basket. A girl’s bike. ”

  “Well. You’re a girl,” said one of the others.

  “That’s sexism, that is. Going around giving people girly presents just because they’re a girl.”

  “I’m going to get a dog,” said his Master’s voice, firmly. His Master had his back to him; the hound couldn’t quite make out his features.

  “Oh, yeah, one of those great big Rottenweilers, yeah?” said the girl, with withering sarcasm.

  “No, it’s going to be the kind of dog you can have fun with,” said his Master’s voice. “Not a big dog—”

  —the eye in the nettles vanished abruptly downwards—

  “—but one of those dogs that’s brilliantly intelligent and can go down rabbit holes and has one funny ear that always looks inside out. And a proper mongrel, too. A pedigree mongrel.”

  Unheard by those within, there was a tiny clap of thunder on the lip of the quarry. It might have been caused by the sudden rushing of air into the vacuum caused by a very large dog becoming, for example, a small dog.

  The tiny popping noise that followed might have been caused by one ear turning itself inside out.

  “And I’ll call him … ” said his Master’s voice. “I’ll call him … ”

  “Yes?” said the girl. “What’re you goin’ to call it?”

  The hound waited. This was the moment. The Naming. This would give it its purpose, its function, its identity. Its eyes glowed a dull red, even though they were a lot closer to the ground, and it dribbled into the nettles.

  “I’ll call him Dog,” said his Master, positively. “It saves a lot of trouble, a name like that.”

  The hell-hound paused. Deep in its diabolical canine brain it knew that something was wrong, but it was nothing if not obedient and its great sudden love of its Master overcame all misgivings. Who was it to say what size it should be, anyway?

  It trotted down the slope to meet its destiny.

  Strange, though. It had always wanted to jump up at people but, now, it realized that against all expectation it wanted to wag its tail at the same time.

  “YOU SAID IT WAS HIM!” moaned Aziraphale, abstractedly picking the final lump of cream cake from his lapel. He licked his fingers clean.

  “It was him,” said Crowley. “I mean, I should know, shouldn’t I?”

  “Then someone else must be interfering.”

  “There isn’t anyone else! There’s just us, right? Good and Evil. One side or the other.”

  He thumped the steering wheel.

  “You’ll be amazed at the kind of things they can do to you, down there,” he said.

  “I imagine they’re very similar to the sort of things they can do to one up there,” said Aziraphale.

  “Come off it. Your lot get ineffable mercy,” said Crowley sourly.

  “Yes? Did you ever visit Gomorrah?”

  “Sure,” said the demon. “There was this great little tavern where you could get these terrific fermented date-palm cocktails with nutmeg and crushed lemongrass—”

  “I meant afterwards.”

  “Oh.”

  Aziraphale said: “Something must have happened in the hospital.”

  “It couldn’t have! It was full of our people!”

  “Whose people?” said Aziraphale coldly.

  “My people,” corrected Crowley. “Well, not my people. Mmm, you know. Satanists.”

  He tried to say it dismissively. Apart from, of course, the fact that the world was an amazing interesting place which they both wanted to enjoy for as long as possible, there were few things that the two of them agreed on, but they did see eye to eye about some of those people who, for one reason or another, were inclined to worship the Prince of Darkness. Crowley always found them embarrassing. You couldn’t actually be rude to them, but you couldn’t help feeling about them the same way that, say, a Vietnam veteran would feel about someone who wears combat gear to Neighborhood Watch meetings.

  Besides, they were always so depressingly enthusiastic. Take all that stuff with the inverted crosses and pentagrams and cockerels. It mystified most demons. It wasn’t the least bit necessary. All you needed to become a Satanist was an effort of will. You could be one all your life without ever knowing what a pentagram was, without ever seeing a dead cockerel other than as Chicken Marengo.

  Besides, some of the old-style Satanists tended, in fact, to be quite nice people. They mouthed the words and went through the motions, just like the people they thought of as their opposite numbers, and then went home and lived lives of mild unassuming mediocrity for the rest of the week with never an unusually evil thought in their heads.

  And as for the rest of it …

  There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm. It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real
McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

  “Huh,” said Aziraphale. “Satanists.”

  “I don’t see how they could have messed it up,” said Crowley. “I mean, two babies. It’s not exactly taxing, is it … ?” He stopped. Through the mists of memory he pictured a small nun, who had struck him at the time as being remarkably loose-headed even for a Satanist. And there had been someone else. Crowley vaguely recalled a pipe, and a cardigan with the kind of zigzag pattern that went out of style in 1938. A man with “expectant father” written all over him.

  There must have been a third baby.

  He told Aziraphale.

  “Not a lot to go on,” said the angel.

  “We know the child must be alive,” said Crowley, “so—”

  “How do we know?”

  “If it had turned up Down There again, do you think I’d still be sitting here?”

  “Good point.”

  “So all we’ve got to do is find it,” said Crowley. “Go through the hospital records.” The Bentley’s engine coughed into life and the car leapt forward, forcing Aziraphale back into the seat.

  “And then what?” he said.

  “And then we find the child.”

  “And then what?” The angel shut his eyes as the car crabbed around a corner.

  “Don’t know.”

  “Good grief.”

  “I suppose—get off the road you clown—your people wouldn’t consider—and the scooter you rode in on!—giving me asylum?”

  “I was going to ask you the same thing—Watch out for that pedestrian!”

  “It’s on the street, it knows the risks it’s taking!” said Crowley, easing the accelerating car between a parked car and a taxi and leaving a space which would have barely accepted even the best credit card.

  “Watch the road! Watch the road! Where is this hospital, anyway?”

  “Somewhere south of Oxford!”

  Aziraphale grabbed the dashboard. “You can’t do ninety miles an hour in Central London!”

  Crowley peered at the dial. “Why not?” he said.

  “You’ll get us killed!” Aziraphale hesitated. “Inconveniently discorporated,” he corrected, lamely, relaxing a little. “Anyway, you might kill other people.”

 
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