* * *
* * *
Long after the beginning, there was a bookshop in Soho.
It sold rare books. It specialised in books of prophecy. Like all rare bookshops, it smelled unpleasantly of stew and silverfish, and it apparently opened every time Halley's comet dropped by.
The owner of the bookshop had clear blue eyes and a pale, serious face. It was a face that looked like it belonged in a stained glass window, which does not mean it was beautiful, but that it had the distant, alien glow usually associated with holiness. There were comfortingly human smile wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, however, and he wore a lot of tweed, which is a good way to look as if you don't belong in a stained glass window.
He had a very sweet smile. He was smiling now, as he stacked the books with a light, loving touch. He caressed them with affection, as if they were living things. He was a being who respected the finer things of life.
It was ten a.m. An 'open' sign hung inside the shop window. It was shiny with disuse and looked strange in the usually empty space.
Outside, two men glared at the sign.
At least, they looked like men. Sort of. They looked like pictures of men by someone who had had little experience of men, except in their most tortured, twisted poses. It looked like he'd tried his best to make them look normal, but there was still a hint of agony in their expressions. They walked like beings unused to having only two legs. If it was possible to lurk in broad daylight, they were lurking.
One of them held a basket.
"I don't see why we should of come to him," grumbled the taller one. "In broad daylight, too. In the middle of a street. He should of come to us. We should of done it at night, in a graveyard, proper. This is all -- right."
"Well, you know how he is," said the shorter, hunched one. He looked distinctly uneasy, and not only because of the sunlight. "You can't tell him anything. They told him, they told him all about it, and he said, come to the bookshop in the morning. And not too early, either, he said."
"They should of told him off," said the taller one. "Who's he to order us around, I'd like to know?"
"Oh, so you'd like to argue with him, would you?" said the other witheringly. "Why didn't you give him a piece of your mind, then?"
The taller one seemed to shudder at the thought.
"'S not my business," he muttered. "I'm just the messenger. And he gives me the creeps. He's not right in the head, that one."
"None of us are right in the head," the shorter one pointed out.
"Yeah, but that's just normal. Most of us are just crazy," said the taller one. "We're not insane. He's as bad as an angel, smiling all the time. Someone should do something about him."
"He does his job," said the shorter one. "Anyway, who'd be the one to do it? Only Sa -- He would have the balls to face him, I reckon. See even Beelzebub telling him off, do you?" He stared blankly at the window, swinging the basket. In it, something stirred.
"Where is he, anyway?" he said. "This is the time, isn't it? He said, come here now . . ."
The door to the shop swung open. The owner stood in the doorway, blinking amiably in the sunlight until he saw the two strangers.
He smiled. It was a sweet smile -- a terribly sweet smile. It reached his eyes, where it split into a horrible cracked brightness, like the shards of a broken mirror.
"Why, Hastur and Ligur," he said, in a golden voice. His vowels were beautifully rounded; you could have cut cheese with his enunciation. "I've been waiting for you."
The Dukes of Hell looked at each other nervously. Ligur clutched his basket as if it could save him.
"All hail Satan," Hastur said. His voice cracked.
"All hail Satan," said Zirah sweetly. "Won't you come in?"
They did. The fallen angel looked out at the street, his eyes bright and as empty as a pit where the bottom is the sky. He smiled again.
The door closed.
* * *
The inside of the bookshop was dimly lit and smelled like the taste at the back of one's throat after an exciting night. The windows were covered with dust. An air of slightly worn gentility hung over everything like a mist.
Hastur and Ligur fidgeted uncomfortably, looking even more unnatural than they had outside. In contrast, Zirah looked like the place had grown up around him. This was, in fact, more or less the truth.
He bustled -- there was no other word for it -- bustled around the shop, dragging stools out of dark corners, making ineffectual swipes at dust-covered surfaces. A cheerful muttering accompanied his movements.
"It's a little messy, isn't it? You must forgive me; I don't get many visitors, especially since the turn of the century. Nobody appreciates books any more, do they? They'd rather sit around and listen to the wireless, or whatever they call that newfangled contraption. I can't see the attraction in a mere box, to tell you the truth, but I've never claimed to understand humans. There you are. Do make yourselves comfortable. Can I offer you a cup of tea? Or maybe something stronger?"
He beamed at the demons, waving a porcelain tea-pot encouragingly. They stared back, with the stony expression peculiar to stubborn ten-year-olds and Secret Service agents.
Hastur briefly considered recounting the Deeds of the Day, but he dismissed the idea. There were flowers on the tea-pot. Blue flowers. With little bells.
He glared at Ligur, who hastily grabbed the basket and set it on the counter with an ominous thud. It was a very good thud. It had strange harmonics in it. There was the suggestion of a distant scream of agony.
Ligur had always been good at the little details.
"Here It is," the demon said sullenly. He was obviously as disturbed by Zirah as Hastur was. All that inane prattling. And the shape of his mind . . . .
The creature in the basket stirred again. Zirah's eyes widened. A soft, wonderful light broke over his face. He stepped forward.
"Is it? Oh, it is . . ." Zirah put the tea-pot down absently and picked the baby up. He gazed at the Antichrist with the slightly stunned expression of someone who had got everything he'd always wanted, and was enjoying it.
"It's so small," he crooned in the reverent whisper only a true worshipper of babies can manage. "Here you are. What a little sweetheart you are. Yes you are." The baby, apparently unflattered, started crying with a thin, persistent wail.
"Don't cry, don't cry," said Zirah, distressed. He seemed to have forgotten the existence of Hastur and Ligur entirely. "You're a little man, aren't you? Yes, and we'll give you milk and diapers and--" he groped for things babies liked -- "pacifiers, and possibly something to chew on to encourage the healthy growth of teeth. And soothing music by Mozart. You mustn't cry. Shh. There, there."
The two other demons exchanged glances as Zirah cooed over the crying baby. Their discomfort was being rapidly replaced by annoyance.
"'S a disgrace, the way he acts," Hastur muttered. "What is he, a nursemaid? Belial knows why he got kicked out of Heaven in the first place . . ."
"No, he doesn't," Ligur said. "Belial is as stumped by him as the rest of us -- bless it, what the fuck are you doing?"
Zirah had hoisted the baby up in the crook of his left arm, propping up its softly fuzzed head. In his right hand, he held aloft a book. A thick book. It was a book that could have brained a well-sized burglar. What it could do to an infant, even the spawn of Satan, was not to be imagined.
The demons could imagine it all too well.
Zirah said vaguely,
"He won't stop crying."
"And you're going to stop him by killing him?" Hastur said.
Zirah stared at him in wide-eyed innocence. He looked puzzled.
Hastur and Ligur stared at the third demon incredulously. The baby blinked up at Zirah with unfocused eyes. Zirah's grip on the book did not loosen.
With a horrible rush of knowledge, Hastur knew he would. Zirah would kill a baby just to stop him crying, and just because there happened to be a conveniently-sized encyclopaedia at hand. He wouldn't do it because he enjoyed it; he wouldn't stop because it was the son of Satan and there'd literally be Hell to pay for. He'd do it, because he was a mad bugger and anyone with a mind shaped like that would do anything. Then he'd probably wash his hands and fuss about the carpet and offer them another cup of tea, and Satan knew what he'd do with the body . . . .
"Because -- because he's the Antichrist, that's why not," Ligur sputtered. "We need him! He's the whole point! And the shit would hit the fan if you -- oh, no, you don't, put the book down . . . ."
"You'd never get the blood out of the covers," said Hastur, distantly.
Zirah stopped. He looked at the book he held.
"Why, yes. I didn't think of that," he said. He sounded amused at his own lack of foresight. "How silly of me. That would simply spoil the book for anything. Well, then, I had better get him a bottle of milk, hadn't I?" He put the book down gently and held the baby up. "How does that sound? Some nice, warm milk? Yes, you'd like that, wouldn't you? Soon chase that nasty frown away."
He wrapped an arm around the infant's bottom and boosted it up so that its tiny head lolled on his shoulder. He seemed about to meander happily away to find some milk, but Hastur croaked,
"Wait." He held up a clipboard. "Signature."
"Ah, yes, of course." He picked up a pen from the counter, tried to sign his name, found that the pen didn't write, scratched it vainly on the paper, put it down, picked up another pen, went through the entire pantomime again, swore, took a third pen, and signed his name.
His signature was as neat as print. You could read it quite easily, but what it said wasn't something you'd want to remember. It glowed disturbingly for a moment, then faded.
Hastur hid the clipboard in the recesses of his mack again and got up to leave. Ligur was already at the door, bouncing on his heels in nervousness.
"Are you sure you won't stay for a drink?" said Zirah. "I have some whiskey in the back room -- no? Perhaps some brandy instead?"
"No," said Hastur flatly. "We must be going." He hesitated. "Er. Look after the. It."
He couldn't think of how to say, "Don't kill the Antichrist or all the demons of hell will be after you," in a way that would actually leave an impression on Zirah. Zirah looked like all the demons of hell had already been after him, and he'd survived, but not all of him. His sanity, for example, had definitely been lost along the way.
And Hastur really, really didn't want to sound threatening. Not to someone with Zirah's mind.
There are some things that even demons are afraid of.
"Don't you worry about the child," said Zirah comfortably. "He'll be all right with me."
As long as he doesn't cry too loud, is that it? Hastur thought, but did not say. He said,
"Yeah. Er. Right."
Then he was gone.
Alone in the dark bookshop, Zirah cooed to the Antichrist,
"Milk, then. And some brandy for your Uncle Zirah." He put loving arms around the infant, and seemed be struck by a sudden thought.
"Caphriel's going to die when he hears about you," he said.
Chuckling, he shuffled off to the back room.