* * *
* * *
You've seen this before. You know how it goes. But this is a different world, a different time, a different ending. This is somewhere else.
Now watch. Whatever the loopier kind of philosopher may say, nothing ever happens in exactly the same way twice -- because you can say a lot of things about God, but you can't accuse him of being boring.
* * *
A man in a camelhair coat, and a van in a car park.
It was getting dark, but it was still warm. Zirah didn't actually need the coat, but he had never understood his body well enough to factor in things like heat or cold. Caphriel had learnt to shiver without having to think about it first. Zirah wore the same clothes all the time, winter or summer, and when he walked in the dark he did not stumble.
He was, when you got right down to it, simple, with the stark simplicity of a blow to the head. It was one of the things that drew Caphriel to him. Caphriel chased simplicity with breathless desperation, but he wouldn't cheat, and he cared too much, which is a surefire recipe for complexity.
Zirah, however, was simple, and this made most things easy for him. Murder, for example.
He jerked his weapon from the man's back and looked around for something to clean it with.
After all, he reflected, there was no helping it. He had the greatest esteem for the Four, as colleagues of a sort and skilled professionals. They always got the job done, and there was no better praise than that, surely; Kipling would have agreed. Zirah believed in Kipling the way he believed in Jaffa cakes and the spring.
It was nothing personal. No doubt they would agree that it was all for the best, if Zirah had had the time to explain it to them. But that was the problem, wasn't it: time. Nobody was going to have much of it left, if things were left to go on their usual messy way without any help nudging them in the right direction. And the Four were precisely the people who were trying to make sure that things were going to go on to their deplorable conclusion, so in a way they were bringing it on themselves, really. Zirah couldn't help it.
It was a pity he wouldn't be able to have a chat with them before he, well, before he dispatched his purpose. But that was how it was in these modern times -- nobody ever did things properly anymore.
He wiped the blood off onto the corpse's blue uniform, and lifted the weapon out of the shadow, inspecting it critically. In the dying light, the blade gleamed like a witty remark.
But there, there was nothing to be done, he thought. He would just have to get on with business. The Four would understand, once they thought things through.
And if they didn't -- well. Sacrifices had to be made for an enterprise of this sort to run smoothly. Zirah knew that better than anyone.
He shoved the delivery man's limp body into the back of his own van, and glanced around it one last time to make sure he hadn't missed anything. Three parcels lay in a heap by his feet. Beside the parcels, tattered scraps of brown paper fluttered in the wind.
Zirah nodded to himself, and flicked the sword, as if trying to slice a fly in mid-air. The sword burst into flame. Zirah smiled.
A thought made him turn and lean into the van again, stabbing the sprawled body with controlled, impersonal viciousness, until he was sure that the spirit had left the temple of his body. A spark caught on the man's clothes, and they flared up.
Zirah straightened, shaking the sword absently to put the fire out, and pondered while the smell of dead meat burning wafted from the van.
He still wasn't sure what he thought of this television business, but he had watched a few films over the years, usually in Caphriel's company. Caphriel did so like taking an interest. He seemed to think modern technology held some sort of key to the way people thought, but that was Caphriel for you -- always looking for truth in the most unlikely places, as if it was a plastic toy that came in cereal boxes.
Zirah didn't like the way they talked and dressed in the pictures, and he suspected that they contained far too many Americans to be any good for anybody, but you could learn even from the films, though of course this was not really the right sort of knowledge and not a patch on books. Still, Zirah had picked up some things.
There was, he remembered, something about explosions . . . .
Five minutes later, the sky brightened by the fire engulfing the van, Zirah remembered what it was about explosions. The thing about them was: they looked good.
He felt extraordinarily happy. The situation was terribly grave, of course, and time was running out, but Zirah felt there ought always to be time to appreciate the beauty of the world. What else was life for, after all?
He was only trying to protect that, to keep that beauty alive for everyone. Except the man whose carcass was now cinders floating in the wind, granted, and all right, except for the people he was planning to kill with the lovely things whose delivery had been entrusted to that man, but everyone else would get to enjoy the fruits of his endeavour, definitely. And they would thank him for it. They would understand, if only they made the effort. He had to do this. It was the right thing to do.
More than one soul in Hell had ended up there with Zirah's kind, endlessly patient voice echoing in their ears. Hell had been something of an improvement.
Explanations later, Zirah thought. For now, there was work to be done.
He got on with it.
* * *
Adam turned over in his sleep, snuffling gently. Magazines lay crumpled where he had dropped them when he'd fallen asleep. Ideas spiralled out of his head, weighting the air with expectation.
Outside, in the world, a sapling unfurled. A few nuclear power stations found themselves abruptly missing the nuclear part of the equation. A group of extremely intelligent ancient men in waterproof robes decided that they were, after all, alive, and that somewhere like, say, Monte Cristo would probably be more interesting than the soggy island on which they'd spent their last few -- no longer fictitious -- millennia. A pair of alien coppers were ordered to drop by Earth and have a word with the inhabitants about its shoddy atmosphere. A bunch of Tibetans started digging, for reasons unclear to themselves. A really, really big whale woke up.
There's nothing more dangerous than giving an intelligent child something new to think about.
* * *
In Anathema's cottage, a witch, an angel, and a bewildered wages clerk and part-time Witchfinder Private were holding a war council.
"Maybe," said Newt, "maybe we could find some way to put the nearest power plant out for the count for the next 24 hours? You couldn't start the end of the world without electricity, right? I mean, it'd be too awkward. People stumbling over each other in the dark and that. So they'd have to stop it. And it wouldn't have to be for any longer than a day, if it's really going to happen as you say."
"It is," said Anathema. "And that idea's even worse than 'maybe we could write to the Times about it'. Think of something else."
Neither of them looked at the other side of the table. The angel hadn't spoken since they'd returned from the cemetery. It was like sitting at the table with a dead person. Newt and Anathema were both pretending that there wasn't anybody there, because in a way there wasn't.
When Newt had just met the angel, he had thought of him, a bit mockingly, as Mr. Smith. When he had explained things, Newt had thought of him as Caphriel, because at least it was a better name than Mr. Smith, and it seemed to suit him.
Now, when Newt thought about him at all, which happened only when the fear overcame the careful ignorance, he thought of him as the angel. It was as good a word as any. It wasn't a name, because the thing sitting at the other side of the table wasn't a person anymore. You didn't name a vacuum.
"Right," he said, because silence seemed to focus everything, terrifyingly, on the angel, and even pointless babble was better than that. "Maybe we could call the mayor and -- "
"We have to kill him," something said.
Newt and Anathema froze, but there didn't seem to be any way around it. The angel had sat up and was leaning his elbows on the table. He looked strangely out of focus, as if Newt and Anathema were only looking at the sized-down representation of something much bigger, something huge and terrible. Newt noticed that the angel was clenching his fists so hard the knuckles were white with the strain, and immediately felt sick. Nothing about the angel was quite real anymore. There was something subtly wrong about his using his body the way a human might. It was like watching a doll being made to laugh. It was creepy.
Anathema then did the bravest thing she had ever done or would ever do in her life, the one thing Newt never forgot or stopped loving her for. She said,
* * *
Once you've seen one wartorn country, you've seen them all. The minor details of geography, climate, architecture all blur into meaninglessness under the heavy pall of human suffering.
Zirah disliked warzones intensely. They were so untidy. Caphriel had been surprised by how cross he had been over World War II, pointing out that this was the sort of thing Zirah's side generally approved of, but Caphriel had had it all wrong. Of course Zirah approved of carnage and destruction in theory. More souls for his side and all that sort of thing, oh yes, certainly he approved of it. And he would do his best to encourage war when it was happening in other countries; that was his job, after all.
He just objected to it when it was happening down the street. You couldn't keep a bookshop in a street where bombs were coming down all the time. It was bad enough having to let customers come in all the time, and they didn't even leave shrapnel lying around the place.
He'd had to put an end to it, naturally. Poor Caphriel; how tired he'd looked after that debacle. Zirah had made him a cup of tea and pointed out that after all, they hadn't bombed the bookshop, and Caphriel had buried his head in his hands and sobbed like a child. His tears had tasted like rain.
Poor Caphriel. This was for him, too.
Zirah picked his way through the psychic muddle of pain and fear, ignoring the smell of desperation in the air with practised ease, and went into a hotel.
Moved by an instinct that was one part angelic premonition and three parts simple thirst, he headed straight for the bar.
It was more or less deserted, except for a middle-aged couple who were sitting alone at their table, somewhat unnecessarily radiating the sentiment that they were quite happy by themselves and weren't looking for any company, thank you.
Zirah smiled with genuine pleasure, and pulled out a chair at the table.
"Lovely weather today," he said cheerfully.
This was something about Zirah that had always puzzled Caphriel. Zirah was good with people. He had a way with them.
He never had to try. That was what was so magical about it. To the untrained human eye, Zirah was unequivocally middle-aged, middle-class English white male, besides clearly being what they used to call in his day -- or at least, what would have been his day if he had been what he appeared to be -- a "confirmed bachelor". He never even tried to adapt to his surroundings -- he looked the same, sounded the same, dressed the same wherever he went. He had been known to wear tweed in the deepest heart of the Amazon. He probably wore tweed in Hell. He spoke every language of the world, but always, always with a plummy BBC accent.
But no matter where he went, he fit in. Zirah could stand in a sea of kimonos in his camelhair coat and not stand out. He always looked like he belonged exactly where he was.
Caphriel got along with people because he tried, and he listened, and it was rare enough to find a stranger who gave a damn that people forgave him his oblivious cool and his ill-judged habit of wearing sunglasses in the night-time. But Zirah got along with people because he wasn't a stranger. He was, no matter where he went, no matter who he was with, clearly and indubitably, one of their own.
It made striking up conversations incredibly easy. Caphriel gave understanding and compassion, but Zirah brought familiarity.
Which was why, in five minutes, he was acquainted with the intimate details of Mr. and Mrs. Threlfall's daily lives, their daughter's troubles with her David, the new refrigerator they had just bought that would keep acting up, and Mr. Threlfall's delicate stomach. Zirah was an excellent listener. He nodded in all the right places, and he was neither too interested nor too bored. He cared, but not too much.
It was something, Zirah reflected, Caphriel had never got the hang of. Pity, really. It would have saved so much trouble if Caphriel had learnt how to stop.
"And what are you doing here, Mr. Rah?" said Mrs. Threlfall chummily. His suspiciously foreign name had given her pause at first, but Zirah's sympathy over the refrigerator had shattered her misgivings. Besides, it was impossible to doubt that Zirah was English.
He gave her his most charming smile. He liked the couple. Such nice people.
"I'm on business, I'm afraid," he said. "I'm supposed to meet a colleague here. Settle our affairs, tie up a few loose ends. You know the sort of thing."
They made sympathetic noises.
"Well, I hope you get the time to enjoy yourself after your work is done," said Mrs. Threlfall. "The beaches are lovely. And so peaceful. I always think, you know, that's what we lack in the civilised world. Peace and quiet."
"Nothing like peace and quiet for setting a man up," said Mr. Threlfall.
"I quite agree," Zirah said gently.
The door swung open. Without looking around, Zirah got up.
"Peace and quiet," he repeated. Behind him, a woman with blood-red and eyes the colour of the skies at the end of the world leaned against the bar and ordered a drink. "That's what I'm doing here, you might say. Speaking of which, if you'll excuse me . . ."
He drew a sword, apparently from thin air. Mr. and Mrs. Threlfall stared.
"It does seem a bit extreme," Zirah admitted, "but hints simply don't work with these people. I'm sure you've had colleagues like that before."
He smiled at them, friendly, familiar, the ideal neighbour they never had, and turned away, the blade already describing a curve through the air.
* * *
And then there was One.
He bent down to look at the broken thing slumped on the bar. It no longer looked human -- in death, War had revealed its true self. It was a nasty sight for anyone who wasn't used to the sort of thing, which was why Mr. and Mrs. Threlfall lay unconscious some distance away.
Death turned to face -- or, more accurately, skull -- Zirah.
Zirah met the pitiless blue glows that passed for eyes with Death serenely. You never got used to Death, precisely, but Zirah had seen him a great many times in the course of his work. And besides, he had nothing to fear. Only the unrighteous fear death.
Still, there was an awkward pause. Death had no taste for chit-chat. He didn't have a stomach or a daughter, and you couldn't imagine a seven-foot skeleton having much use for a refrigerator.
Finally he said,
WHAT ARE YOU PLAYING AT?
Zirah felt relieved. This was the sort of talk he understood.
"It's not a game," he said. "You'll see when it's over. Don't interfere more than you absolutely have to, there's a dear."
DO YOU PLAN TO DISPATCH THE OTHER TWO?
"Oh, one does one's best," said Zirah vaguely.
"Nothing personal, of course," he added hastily. "They're splendid workers and all that. But I have my reasons. There is one's duty to think of, you know."
Death was silent for a while, possibly reflecting that it could be said of Zirah that he, like the heart, had reasons of which reason knew nothing. He seemed to come to a conclusion that didn't altogether please him. Death didn't do discomfort -- it would have spoiled the image -- but even so there was something suspicious, even nervous, in the way he next said,
YOU CANNOT KILL ME.
This ought to have been obvious, but people got into the habit of saying obvious things to Zirah, usually in the kind of slow, careful voice they used for madmen and imbeciles. It made them feel safer. You could never tell what was obvious to Zirah.
"Oh, no, of course not," said Zirah. He was examining his sword for traces of blood, and spoke in an abstracted voice. "I'm sure I hope that won't be necessary. I shouldn't think it would be. You won't mind letting this whole Armageddon business slide, will you? There's such a lot yet to be done in this world, you see. Having it end would be dreadfully inconvenient at this particular moment."
Death took a few moments to reply. Zirah looked up from the sword to cast a glance of inquiry at him, and saw the bar. He frowned.
"Oh dear, what a mess," he said.
YOU, said Death gravely, ARE SO FUCKED.
"It's a little late for that, I'm afraid," said Zirah, in exactly the same preoccupied tone as he had been using for the entire conversation. Having satisfied himself that the sword was as clean as occult intervention could make it, he turned up his palms. The sword vanished.
"Don't let me keep you from your work, now," he said. The light glinted off the pair of silver scales in his hands. "I expect I'll see you again soon."
YES, said Death. YOU WILL.