Good omens the nice and.., p.9
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       Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, p.9

           Terry Pratchett
 

  IF THERE WAS ONE THING that Mary Hodges, formerly Loquacious, was good at, it was attempting to obey orders. She liked orders. They made the world a simpler place.

  What she wasn’t good at was change. She’d really liked the Chattering Order. She’d made friends for the first time. She’d had a room of her own for the first time. Of course, she knew that it was engaged in things which might, from certain viewpoints, be considered bad, but Mary Hodges had seen quite a lot of life in thirty years and had no illusions about what most of the human race had to do in order to make it from one week to the next. Besides, the food was good and you got to meet interesting people.

  The Order, such as was left of it, had moved after the fire. After all, their sole purpose in existing had been fulfilled. They went their separate ways.

  She hadn’t gone. She’d rather liked the Manor and, she said, someone ought to stay and see it was properly repaired, because you couldn’t trust workmen these days unless you were on top of them the whole time, in a manner of speaking. This meant breaking her vows, but Mother Superior said this was all right, nothing to worry about, breaking vows was perfectly okay in a black sisterhood, and it would all be the same in a hundred years’ time or, rather, eleven years’ time, so if it gave her any pleasure here were the deeds and an address to forward any mail unless it came in long brown envelopes with windows in the front.

  Then something very strange had happened to her. Left alone in the rambling building, working from one of the few undamaged rooms, arguing with men with cigarette stubs behind their ears and plaster dust on their trousers and the kind of pocket calculator that comes up with a different answer if the sums involved are in used notes, she discovered something she never knew existed.

  She’d discovered, under layers of silliness and eagerness to please, Mary Hodges.

  She found it quite easy to interpret builders’ estimates and do VAT calculations. She’d got some books from the library, and found finance to be both interesting and uncomplicated. She’d stopped reading the kind of women’s magazine that talks about romance and knitting and started reading the kind of women’s magazine that talks about orgasms, but apart from making a mental note to have one if ever the occasion presented itself she dismissed them as only romance and knitting in a new form. So she’d started reading the kind of magazine that talked about mergers.

  After much thought, she’d bought a small home computer from an amused and condescending young dealer in Norton. After a crowded weekend, she took it back. Not, as he thought when she walked back into the shop, to have a plug put on it, but because it didn’t have a 387 co-processor. That bit he understood—he was a dealer, after all, and could understand quite long words—but after that the conversation rapidly went downhill from his point of view. Mary Hodges produced yet more magazines. Most of them had the term “PC” somewhere in their title, and many of them had articles and reviews that she had circled carefully in red ink.

  She read about New Women. She hadn’t ever realized that she’d been an Old Woman, but after some thought she decided that titles like that were all one with the romance and the knitting and the orgasms, and the really important thing to be was yourself, just as hard as you could. She’d always been inclined to dress in black and white. All she needed to do was raise the hemlines, raise the heels, and leave off the wimple.

  It was while leafing through a magazine one day that she learned that, around the country, there was an apparently insatiable demand for commodious buildings in spacious grounds run by people who understood the needs of the business community. The following day she went out and ordered some stationery in the name of the Tadfield Manor Conference and Management Training Center, reasoning that by the time it had been printed she’d know all that was necessary to know about running such places.

  The ads went out the following week.

  It had turned out to be an overwhelming success, because Mary Hodges realized early in her new career as Herself that management training didn’t have to mean sitting people down in front of unreliable slide projectors. Firms expected far more than that these days.

  She provided it.

  CROWLEY SANK DOWN with his back against a statue. Aziraphale had already toppled backward into a rhododendron bush, a dark stain spreading across his coat.

  Crowley felt dampness suffusing his own shirt.

  This was ridiculous. The last thing he needed now was to be killed. It would require all sorts of explanations. They didn’t hand out new bodies just like that; they always wanted to know what you’d done with the old one. It was like trying to get a new pen from a particularly bloody-minded stationery department.

  He looked at his hand in disbelief.

  Demons have to be able to see in the dark. And he could see that his hand was yellow. He was bleeding yellow.

  Gingerly, he tasted a finger.

  Then he crawled over to Aziraphale and checked the angel’s shirt. If the stain on it was blood, something had gone very wrong with biology.

  “Oo, that stung,” moaned the fallen angel. “Got me right under the ribs.”

  “Yes, but do you normally bleed blue?” said Crowley.

  Aziraphale’s eyes opened. His right hand patted his chest. He sat up. He went through the same crude forensic self-examination as Crowley.

  “Paint?” he said.

  Crowley nodded.

  “What’re they playing at?” said Aziraphale.

  “I don’t know,” said Crowley, “but I think it’s called silly buggers.” His tone suggested that he could play, too. And do it better.

  It was a game. It was tremendous fun. Nigel Tompkins, Assistant Head (Purchasing), squirmed through the undergrowth, his mind aflame with some of the more memorable scenes of some of the better Clint Eastwood movies. And to think he’d believed that management training was going to be boring, too. …

  There had been a lecture, but it had been about the paint guns and all the things you should never do with them, and Tompkins had looked at the fresh young faces of his rival trainees as, to a man, they resolved to do them all if there was half a chance of getting away with it. If people told you business was a jungle and then put a gun in your hand, then it was pretty obvious to Tompkins that they weren’t expecting you to simply aim for the shirt; what it was all about was the corporate head hanging over your fireplace.

  Anyway, it was rumored that someone over in United Consolidated had done his promotion prospects a considerable amount of good by the anonymous application of a high-speed earful of paint to an immediate superior, causing the latter to complain of little ringing noises in important meetings and eventually to be replaced on medical grounds.

  And there were his fellow trainees—fellow sperms, to switch metaphors, all struggling forward in the knowledge that there could only ever be one Chairman of Industrial Holdings (Holdings) PLC, and that the job would probably go to the biggest prick.

  Of course, some girl with a clipboard from Personnel had told them that the courses they were going on were just to establish leadership potential, group cooperation, initiative, and so on. The trainees had tried to avoid one another’s faces.

  It had worked quite well so far. The white-water canoeing had taken care of Johnstone (punctured eardrum) and the mountain climbing in Wales had done for Whittaker (groin strain).

  Tompkins thumbed another paint pellet into the gun and muttered business mantras to himself. Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto You. Kill or Be Killed. Either Shit or Get Out of the Kitchen. Survival of the Fittest. Make My Day.

  He crawled a little nearer to the figures by the statue. They didn’t seem to have noticed him.

  When the available cover ran out, he took a deep breath and leapt to his feet.

  “Okay, douchebags, grab some sk—ohnoooeeeeee … ”

  Where one of the figures had been there was something dreadful. He blacked out.

  Crowley restored himself to his favorite shape.

  “I hate having to do that,
he murmured. “I’m always afraid I’ll forget how to change back. And it can ruin a good suit.”

  “I think the maggots were a bit over the top, myself,” said Aziraphale, but without much rancor. Angels had certain moral standards to maintain and so, unlike Crowley, he preferred to buy his clothes rather than wish them into being from raw firmament. And the shirt had been quite expensive.

  “I mean, just look at it,” he said. “I’ll never get the stain out.”

  “Miracle it away,” said Crowley, scanning the undergrowth for any more management trainees.

  “Yes, but I’ll always know the stain was there. You know. Deep down, I mean,” said the angel. He picked up the gun and turned it over in his hands. “I’ve never seen one of these before,” he said.

  There was a pinging noise, and the statue beside them lost an ear.

  “Let’s not hang around,” said Crowley. “He wasn’t alone.”

  “This is a very odd gun, you know. Very strange.”

  “I thought your side disapproved of guns,” said Crowley. He took the gun from the angel’s plump hand and sighted along the stubby barrel.

  “Current thinking favors them,” said Aziraphale. “They lend weight to moral argument. In the right hands, of course.”

  “Yeah?” Crowley snaked a hand over the metal. “That’s all right, then. Come on.”

  He dropped the gun onto the recumbent form of Tompkins and marched away across the damp lawn.

  The front door of the Manor was unlocked. The pair of them walked through unheeded. Some plump young men in army fatigues spattered with paint were drinking cocoa out of mugs in what had once been the sisters’ refectory, and one or two of them gave them a cheery wave.

  Something like a hotel reception desk now occupied one end of the hall. It had a quietly competent look. Aziraphale gazed at the board on an aluminum easel beside it.

  In little plastic letters let into the black fabric of the board were the words: August 20–21: United Holdings [Holdings] PLC Initiative Combat Course.

  Meanwhile Crowley had picked up a pamphlet from the desk. It showed glossy pictures of the Manor, with special references to its Jacuzzis and indoor heated swimming pool, and on the back was the sort of map that conference centers always have, which makes use of a careful mis-scaling to suggest that it is handy for every motorway exit in the nation while carefully leaving out the labyrinth of country lanes that in fact surrounds it for miles on every side.

  “Wrong place?” said Aziraphale.

  “No.”

  “Wrong time, then.”

  “Yes.” Crowley leafed through the booklet, in the hope of any clue. Perhaps it was too much to hope that the Chattering Order would still be here. After all, they’d done their bit. He hissed softly. Probably they’d gone to darkest America or somewhere, to convert the Christians, but he read on anyway. Sometimes this sort of leaflet had a little historical bit, because the kind of companies that hired places like this for a weekend of Interactive Personnel Analysis or A Conference on the Strategic Marketing Dynamic liked to feel that they were strategically interacting in the very building—give or take a couple of complete rebuildings, a civil war, and two major fires—that some Elizabethan financier had endowed as a plague hospital.

  Not that he was actually expecting a sentence like “until eleven years ago the Manor was used as a convent by an order of Satanic nuns who weren’t in fact all that good at it, really,” but you never knew.

  A plump man wearing desert camouflage and holding a polystyrene cup of coffee wandered up to them.

  “Who’s winning?” he said chummily. “Young Evanson of Forward Planning caught me a right zinger on the elbow, you know.”

  “We’re all going to lose,” said Crowley absently.

  There was a burst of firing from the grounds. Not the snap and zing of pellets, but the full-throated crackle of aerodynamically shaped bits of lead traveling extremely fast.

  There was an answering stutter.

  The redundant warriors stared one on another. A further burst took out a rather ugly Victorian stained glass window beside the door and stitched a row of holes in the plaster by Crowley’s head.

  Aziraphale grabbed his arm.

  “What the hell is it?” he said.

  Crowley smiled like a snake.

  NIGEL TOMPKINS had come to with a mild headache and a vaguely empty space in his recent memory. He was not to know that the human brain, when faced with a sight too terrible to contemplate, is remarkably good at scabbing it over with forced forgetfulness, so he put it down to a pellet strike on the head.

  He was vaguely aware that his gun was somewhat heavier, but in his mildly bemused state he did not realize why until some time after he’d pointed it at trainee manager Norman Wethered from Internal Audit and pulled the trigger.

  “I DON’T SEE WHY YOU’re so shocked,” said Crowley. “He wanted a real gun. Every desire in his head was for a real gun.”

  “But you’ve turned him loose on all those unprotected people!” said Aziraphale.

  “Oh, no,” said Crowley. “Not exactly. Fair’s fair.”

  THE CONTINGENT from Financial Planning were lying flat on their faces in what had once been the haha, although they weren’t very amused.

  “I always said you couldn’t trust those people from Purchasing,” said the Deputy Financial Manager. “The bastards.”

  A shot pinged off the wall above him.

  He crawled hurriedly over to the little group clustered around the fallen Wethered.

  “How does it look?” he said.

  The assistant Head of Wages turned a haggard face toward him. “Pretty bad,” he said. “The bullet went through nearly all of them. Access, Barclaycard, Diners—the lot.”

  “It was only the American Express Gold that stopped it,” said Wethered.

  They looked in mute horror at the spectacle of a credit card wallet with a bullet hole nearly all the way through it.

  “Why’d they do it?” said a wages officer.

  The head of Internal Audit opened his mouth to say something reasonable, and didn’t. Everyone had a point where they crack, and his had just been hit with a spoon. Twenty years in the job. He’d wanted to be a graphic designer but the careers master hadn’t heard of that. Twenty years of double-checking Form BF18. Twenty years of cranking the bloody hand calculator, when even the people in Forward Planning had computers. And now for reasons unknown, but possibly to do with reorganization and a desire to do away with all the expense of early retirement, they were shooting at him with bullets.

  The armies of paranoia marched behind his eyes.

  He looked down at his own gun. Through the mists of rage and bewilderment he saw that it was bigger and blacker than it had been when it was issued to him. It felt heavier, too.

  He aimed it at a bush nearby and watched a stream of bullets blow the bush into oblivion.

  Oh. So that was their game. Well, someone had to win.

  He looked at his men.

  “Okay, guys,” he said, “let’s get the bastards!”

  “THE WAY I SEE IT,” said Crowley, “no one has to pull the trigger.”

  He gave Aziraphale a bright and brittle grin.

  “Come on,” he said. “Let’s have a look around while everyone’s busy.”

  BULLETS STREAKED ACROSS THE NIGHT.

  Jonathan Parker, Purchasing Section, was wriggling through the bushes when one of them put an arm around his neck.

  Nigel Tompkins spat a cluster of rhododendron leaves out of his mouth.

  “Down there it’s company law,” he hissed, through mud-encrusted features, “but up here it’s me … ”

  “THAT WAS A PRETTY LOW TRICK,” said Aziraphale, as they strolled along the empty corridors.

  “What’d I do? What’d I do?” said Crowley, pushing open doors at random.

  “There are people out there shooting one another!”

  “Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? They’re doing it themse
lves. It’s what they really want to do. I just assisted them. Think of it as a microcosm of the universe. Free will for everyone. Ineffable, right?”

  Aziraphale glared.

  “Oh, all right,” said Crowley wretchedly. “No one’s actually going to get killed. They’re all going to have miraculous escapes. It wouldn’t be any fun otherwise.”

  Aziraphale relaxed. “You know, Crowley,” he said, beaming, “I’ve always said that, deep down inside, you’ [re really quite a—”

  “All right, all right,” Crowley snapped. “Tell the whole blessed world, why don’t you?”

  AFTER A WHILE, loose alliances began to emerge. Most of the financial departments found they had interests in common, settled their differences, and ganged up on Forward Planning.

  When the first police car arrived, sixteen bullets from a variety of directions had hit it in the radiator before it had got halfway up the drive. Two more took out its radio antenna, but they were too late, too late.

  MARY HODGES WAS just putting down the phone when Crowley opened her office door.

  “It must be terrorists,” she snapped. “Or poachers.” She peered at the pair of them. “You are the police, aren’t you?” she said.

  Crowley saw her eyes begin to widen.

  Like all demons, he had a good memory for faces, even after eleven years, the loss of a wimple, and the addition of some rather severe makeup. He snapped his fingers. She settled back in her chair, her face becoming a blank and amiable mask.

  “There was no need for that,” said Aziraphale.

  “Good”—Crowley glanced at his watch—“morning, ma’am,” he said, in a sing-song voice. “We’re just a couple of supernatural entities and we were just wondering if you might help us with the whereabouts of the notorious Son of Satan.” He smiled coldly at the angel. “I’ll wake her up again, shall I? And you can say it.”

  “Well. Since you put it like that … ” said the angel slowly.

  “Sometimes the old ways are best,” said Crowley. He turned to the impassive woman.

  “Were you a nun here eleven years ago?” he said.

  “Yes,” said Mary.

 
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