* * *
* * *
Zirah woke up in the evening, with the last rays of day slanting in through the windows.
Caphriel lay on his side, facing away from him. He was curled in on himself in sleep, a pathetically bruised look around his eyes. Zirah touched the angel's bare back with tender fingers.
It took an effort of will to drag himself out of bed and start putting on the clothes he could find. He managed to recover everything except his left sock, although he did wonder how his trousers had ended up hanging on the lamp.
The Antichrist was still sleeping peacefully in his fortress of moth-eaten cushions on the couch. He really was the perfect baby. It was a pity they had to grow up and bring about the destruction of the Earth and all its inhabitants, really.
He looked around the flat. The impression was not cheerful.
It was technically a different place from Caphriel's last home, but it had certain similarities. Caphriel never managed to stay in one place for long, but the places he moved to always looked exactly alike. They were usually very bare, were run by unpleasant landladies, and were apparently furnished by the unpleasant landladies' blind sons, who all seemed to want to hark back to a simpler and definitely uglier era. For some reason, the wallpaper was always a dreary shade of drabness.
Oh, there were slight differences, of course, but in spirit this flat was just like the millions of flats, shacks, and occasional cardboard boxes that had come and gone before. A suggestion of mothballs hung in the air. The level of hygiene apparent indicated that the occupant was too busy worrying about the state of humanity to care if cockroaches held regular midnight revels on the floor.
And not a single book around the place. You really had to wonder why Caphriel even tried to save the world, with such living conditions.
Of course, he had such living conditions because he was always too busy trying to save the world to do things buy curtains.
Tsking under his breath, Zirah went to check the contents of the refrigerator. He had a choice between a sad box of frozen pizza, some cold Chinese food, a carton of milk that was growing fur and would shortly be developing an I.Q., and a single fresh apple.
Penance. That was the only explanation Zirah could think of. Caphriel had to be doing penance for the sins of all mankind, and possibly those of a few extra alien races from other galaxies as well. What was the point of eating, anyway, if it was to digest these excuses for food?
The problem with Caphriel, Zirah reflected, was that somewhere along the way, he'd started thinking like a human. You could only spend a certain amount of time in a body, moving and eating and living like the creature you were disguised as, before you started thinking like you actually belonged in the body. Caphriel had spent six thousand years in a human body, and he'd always been impressionable. He could never just leave things alone; he'd always wanted to understand. And the result of it was that now he subsisted on TV dinners and had living quarters for which 'hovel' would be a compliment, merely to satisfy some strange kink in his soul that insisted that doing all this made things a little better, even though it wasn't clear how it did that.
He'd gone native. Only humans did stupid things like that.
If Caphriel had stayed up in Heaven with all those other buggers, Uriel and Raphael and all that crew, he'd probably be much happier now. But then again, he wouldn't be so Caphriel.
Zirah shrugged and took the apple.
As he ate it, he wandered quietly around the flat, picking things up and weighing them thoughtfully, peeking into cupboards and corners. In the bed, Caphriel slept the sleep of the innocent, or at least the unused to debauchery. On the couch, the baby lay wrapped in whatever sweet dreams Princes of Lies enjoy.
What he needed, Zirah thought, was a blunt instrument.
You could say what you wanted about a knife, its cleanliness and simplicity and, above all, sharpness. You could praise the elegance of the single bullet to the head. You could rhapsodise over the sheer variety of what a technically-minded human could do with bent metal and sticks of wood and fortuituous chemicals. But Zirah had a fondness for the good old blunt instrument. Clubbing a man to death had a spontaneity -- a primal, fundamental honesty -- that merely poisoning him or shooting him lacked.
And Zirah was old-fashioned. He approved of hard work. Blunt instruments, he felt, showed a genuine effort on the part of the user, a real sincerity of feeling. Any madman could swing a sword or shoot a gun, but it took real dedication to kill with a paperweight. And sufficient upper body strength, of course.
He opened the wardrobe, not very hopefully. There was the usual chaos of jeans and T-shirts and dusters that had seen better days a decade ago. Sighing, Zirah made to close it again, but a gleam of mahogany amidst the varying shades of dusty black caught his eye.
He fumbled in the piles of clothes, and drew the thing out.
It was a walking stick, but it was obviously not made to walk with. It shone. Intricate carvings curled along its length: a tree, a serpent, streamlined human figures, and at the end, a heart-shaped apple. Zirah ran his fingers over it, gazing at it with wonder. It just didn't seem the sort of thing Caphriel would have in his home. Zirah knew the sort of things Caphriel had in his home. He chose them carefully -- they had to be at least ten years old, look like they had inspired the word 'manky,' and, if possible, be Dutch. None of that applied to the walking stick. It was actually beautiful. It looked remarkably like what the Garden of Eden might look if it was a walking stick, minus the irate deity.
It was also heavy. Zirah gripped it, weighing it in his hands, and smiled in a way no human face should have been able to manage. It was an expression from Bosch's worst nightmares. Certainly no other human had ever seen it.
The Lord provided.
Six thousand years, a serpent had caused the Fall of Man with an apple. Zirah would have used the entire tree.
His face relaxed into its usual expression of vague affability. He picked up the Antichrist, cradling him carefully in his arms. Then he glanced at the bed.
After all, he thought, it couldn't hurt to stop the end of the world. It wasn't such a bad place, all things considered. And it might stop Caphriel from making scenes in the park, although he couldn't be certain of that because Caphriel had a bizarre tendency to get upset over the slightest things, like murder and rape and duck torture.
Besides, Caphriel had a point. There were no sushi restaurants in Hell.
Zirah left the flat quietly, his mind made up. He took the stick with him.
* * *
Caphriel woke up alone in the darkness, guilt a shrill voice in the back of his head.
Zirah was gone. The Antichrist was conspicuously absent from the couch.
Caphriel stared at the ceiling. It seemed very far away.
He considered praying for forgiveness, but thought better of it. He didn't feel up to it. Besides, he'd been spending far too much time on his knees lately. That was the whole problem.
He examined the cracks in the ceiling, and wondered if he was going to laugh or cry. Both options seemed equally likely, under the circumstances.
In the end, he did neither. Just curled in on himself and closed his eyes, trying to sink into oblivion. Everything would look better in the morning. Not because everything would be better in the morning, but because the morning wouldn't be now.
He waited out the night in silence and solitude.
* * *
In a hospital in Tadfield, the course of destiny is being changed, and a nice cup of tea is being made. With lemon.
In Delivery Room Three, Mrs. Deirdre Young is giving birth to a golden-haired male baby we will call Baby A, for the sake of convenience.
In Delivery Room Four, the wife of the American Cultural Attache is giving birth to a golden-haired male baby we will call Baby B, though not for long.
Meanwhile, Zirah is handing the Antichrist over to Sister Mary Loquacious, and carefully planting in her mind the suggestion that the appropriate attire for an American Cultural Attache is a tie, a moustache, and a rather ugly cardigan that went out of fashion before World War II.
The sight of the man smoking gloomily outside the hospital had inspired Zirah. He'd looked like exactly the sort of man to squash any tendencies towards world domination the minute they surfaced in a young Antichrist. And Zirah had decided that it was time to use that initiative Caphriel was always talking about.
Zirah had always been good at improvising.
Now watch them.
In Delivery Room Three, Sister Mary Loquacious is quietly replacing Baby A with the Antichrist, secure in her belief that the sleeping middle-aged woman in the bed is the wife of the American Cultural Attache. Her certainty is reinforced by the appearance of the man himself, wearing the tie, the moustache, and the cardigan, which is just as ugly as she'd expected. She doesn't remember that she has only expected the cardigan since five minutes ago.
In the middle of their nice cup of tea, Baby A is wheeled away by another nun, secure in her own belief that she is taking the Antichrist to be exchanged with the son of the American Cultural Attache.
In Delivery Room Four, Baby A is cunningly switched with Baby B, who is then wheeled out into the corridor and taken into the tender arms of a pleasant-faced man with a camelhair overcoat and a gorgeously carved walking stick.
Cradling the baby, the stick tucked under an arm, the man strolls down the corridors, out into an empty courtyard full of dustbins and the smell of smoke. It's dark and quiet and they are alone: the baby, the man, and the walking stick.
You may want to stop watching now.
After a few exciting minutes, Zirah re-entered the hospital and washed his hands. The walking stick would need more than water, but it was salvageable. His coat, however, was a complete loss.
Zirah sighed at the brevity of human life, the fragility of mortals, and the unsightly mess blood made of a coat.
Tomorrow he would call the mortician. He'd seen a quiet little cemetery on the way to the hospital. It would be buried there, close to where its brief life had started and ended. It had to be done properly.
He thought of the sad little bundle, and sniffled.
Then Zirah picked up the walking stick, slung his coat over his arm so the stains wouldn't show, and left the hospital.
In Delivery Room Three, Mrs. Young cooed to the Antichrist. In Delivery Room Four, the Secret Service men gazed warily at the newly named Warlock Dowling. And Sister Mary Loquacious finished her cup of tea.
Outside, Zirah vanished into the night, suffused in the lovely warm feeling of a bad job well fucked up.