* * *
* * *
So far, Adam Young's eleventh birthday had not been much of a success.
He'd got given some video games by his parents, and a model plane set by her sister Sarah. Only Wensleydale thought the model plane was cool. Adam had offered it to him, but Wensley had refused with the air of one who did not deserve such earthly delights, and thought his noble sacrifice had better score him some points with Heaven, or else.
Adam hadn't got what he really wanted. He tried to share his pain with his friends, but Pepper was obstinately unsympathetic.
"I tole you your parents wouldn't give you a dog," she said. "Huh, catch your parents givin' you a dog. They'd always be complaining about the stuff it eats and the mess and everything. And they'd think it was bad for your health, too. They'd say it was dirty."
"Your mum says dirt's good for you," Adam said. "She says--" he squinted, as if reading off an invisible script -- "she says, dirt's the nat'ral state of the, the nature of things, and bein' dirty is part of the harmony of the cosmical harmony of the cosmic harmonic universe." Considering the previous sentence, he added,
"Well, something like that, anyway."
"Yes, but that's my mum," said Pepper dismissively. "My mum thinks burnin' herbs in your bedroom will bring peace an' tranquility to the troubled soul."
"Does it?" Brian asked idly. He crackled one of his empty crisp packets. It had been a slow day. Adam's continuing lack of a dog had made him unusually unforthcoming with ideas, and the Them now lounged in the Pit, at loose ends.
"I dunno," said Pepper. "It just makes me sneeze. But the point is, Adam's mum thinks burnin' herbs in your bedroom is illegal. They've diff'rent views of life."
This sparked Brian's interest.
"Is it illegal?" he said.
"'Course it isn't," said Wensleydale authoritatively. "It's just aromatherapy. It's an alternative method of holistic healin'. My aunt does it all the time; she burns the leaves and there's this smell. She says it rids your soul of the shadows of the mind."
"My mum says it makes you hallucinate the shadows of the mind," Adam objected.
"Could be both," said Pepper peacably. "Depends which herbs, really. 'S like meat. You use ham to make hamburgers, and beef to make beefburgers, and chicken to make, to make McChicken burgers. Herbs is like that, only it's diff'rent herbs for burning and seeing things."
Brian looked vaguely disappointed.
"Huh. So sage wouldn't work for seeing things, then?" he said.
"No," said Wensleydale firmly. "If you sniff sage you'll just get leaves stuck up your nose."
"Mint smells nice, though," Pepper said brightly. "You could try that."
"Prob'ly just halluc'nate my mother yellin' at me for wasting it," muttered Brian.
"Anyway, I am getting a dog," Adam inserted abruptly, feeling that his grievance was getting lost in the stream of botanical discussion. "You'll see."
"No, you won't," said Pepper. "You always say you will, but you never do. And your parents'd never stand for it. They always think you'd get asthma or fever or something from all the dog hair."
"Maybe you'll get it next year," said Wensleydale, more comfortingly. "I asked my dad for one of those train sets with the trains that really move once, and he said next year, and I got it next Christmas."
"Yeah, but it was your uncle give it, not your dad," said Pepper. "Who's goin' to give Adam a dog? He hasn't got an uncle."
"I do too," said Adam defensively. "In South Africa. He grows oranges."
"Nah, that's apples," said Brian. "They grow apples in South Africa. I heard it somewhere."
"That's apartheid, actually," said Wensleydale. "And it's already over, anyway. Nelson Mandela got rid of it, and they put him in jail, and then he got out and the Spice Girls stole his toilet paper."
"What sort of fruit is that, then?"
"Your uncle wouldn't give you a dog," Pepper persisted, undeterred. "He's old. He's just like your grandparents."
"I'm goin' to get a dog," Adam said stubbornly.
Pepper put on an expression she probably thought was calm and forbearing.
"Who from?" she said. "I said. You haven't got anybody to give you stuff."
"There's Mr. Rah," said Adam, goaded beyond endurance.
There was a pause.
The Them all knew Mr. Rah. He was more Adam's friend, really, but he conscientiously brought presents for all four of them on his yearly visits. And, well . . . .
"Mr. Pickersgill doesn't like Mr. Rah," Brian said. "I heard him one day, when Mr. Rah was coming down the road. He said it was a disgrace, lettin' people like that walk around."
The Them glanced at one another uneasily.
The Them's inclination was to like people whom the local adults disliked. They reasoned that anyone who could earn the dislike of Mr. Pickersgill, a man more wooden and entrenched in mire than any stick-in-the-mud in existence, had to have some good qualities. And Mr. Rah gave them things. Even if the things he gave weren't much good, they were still presents, and there was always the hope that a Toys 'R' Us might catch his eye one day when he'd run out of books to bring them.
They didn't dislike him. He was nice. He never yelled or lectured; he had no tiresome opinions on the advisability of behaving oneself and keeping one's jeans untorn. He was strange and old-fashioned, and he moved in a perpetual odour of book dust, but he was no weirder than most adults. On the surface.
It was the something lurking underneath the surface that worried the Them. There was definitely something there. You couldn't have eyes like Mr. Rah's and not have something lurking underneath the surface. It wasn't that there was anger or hatred or suppressed violence in their blue depths. That was the point. There wasn't anything in Mr. Rah's eyes.
It was creepy.
But the Them were all human, especially Adam. They had the human ability to not see anything they didn't want to see. And Mr. Rah brought presents.
Still, there was always that feeling of unease, a skulking nightmare they could see just out of the corner of their eyes.
"He's never done anythin' wrong," said Adam. He shifted on his milk crate. "He's not a murderer or anythin'. Don't see why he can't walk around if he wants to."
"Yes," said Wensleydale. The Them were watching each other intently. They chose their words carefully, with the sensation of edging around a very deep abyss. "And, and I'm sure he's gettin' therapy. I mean, he would, if there was anythin' wrong with him, I mean. Only there isn't."
"Yeah, there isn't," said Pepper. "Huh, I r-reckon it's not possible for there to be anythin' wrong with him. He isn't excitin' enough to have anythin' wrong with him. All he ever does he sell books."
"Yeah," said Adam. The Them relaxed, the tension dissipating.
"I don't reckon Picky was talkin' about that, 'zactly," said Brian thoughtfully. "I asked my brother about it, and he said it was 'cos Mr. Rah's a faggot."
There was a longer silence.
"What -- like a cigarette?" said Pepper eventually.
"No, that's fags," said Wensleydale. "A faggot's a piece of wood that you burn."
"Mr. Rah's not a piece of wood," said Pepper reasonably. "Stands to reason he can't be a piece of wood. And I bet he'd be jolly angry if anyone tried to burn him. Well -- really annoyed, anyway."
"I don't know anythin' about it," said Brian doggedly. "That's just what my brother said."
"And I reckon your brother knows everythin' about Mr. Rah, does he?" said Pepper witheringly. "Huh, 's obvious your brother's never even seen Mr. Rah. If he ever saw Mr. Rah, he'd know straight off he wasn't a piece of wood. If he was a piece of wood, he wouldn't be able to talk then, would he?"
"I dint say he was a piece of wood, I said--"
"I don't think he'd give Adam a dog, anyway," Wensleydale said hastily, in the face of what appeared to be working up to a serious argument. "You know Mr. Rah's never given us anythin' but books."
Brian subsided. He sniffed.
"Yeah, an' they're not even real books, I bet," he said. Mr. Rah's gifts were a grievance of his. "Bet he jus' makes 'em up."
"What was the one he gave you?" said Pepper. "Zen And The Art Of Sometimes, Perhaps, If It's At All Possible, Washing Your Face, wasn't it?"
"See? I bet he had a talk with my mum before giving me that one."
"His presents are jolly interesting," Wensleydale disagreed. "Adam's last birthday he gave me a book all about the importance of nutrition and the way the human digestive system works. It had coloured pictures and everythin'."
"And I got the one about the SAS," said Pepper, brightening at the memory. "With the fighter planes and the military strategies and the spec'fications. That was wicked." She paused, and added,
"'Cept for the part at the end with the moral, goin' on about how war is evil and you should try to avoid causing the end of the world as hard as you can."
"I usually skip that part," Wensleydale agreed. "But the rest is brilliant."
"But he wouldn't give Adam a dog," said Pepper. "A book about dogs, maybe, but not a real dog."
"Well, maybe he'll give something different this year," Adam said hopefully. His optimism was half-hearted, though. It wasn't likely at all that Mr. Rah would bring him a dog. He didn't seem like the sort of man who had ever done more with animals than pat them on the head with vague kindness and then back off quickly.
"Huh, bet he wouldn't even give Adam a book about dogs," said Brian. "Adam never gets anything int'resting. He only ever gets poetry."
"The one by Yeats was pretty good, actually," said Wensleydale.
"I didn't like it," said Adam flatly. "It was boring. All those falcons and beasts goin' to Bethlehem. Who cares about beasts goin' to Bethlehem?"
"Paradise Lost was good, too," Wensleydale went on thoughtfully.
"I liked The End Of The World For Dummies," Pepper said.
"I don't like any of 'em," said Brian. "An' I don't see why Mr. Rah should start givin' you a dog this year. He never has before."
"Well, maybe not from him, then," said Adam. "But I am goin' to get a dog."
(And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouched towards Lower Tadfield that muggy afternoon?)
"Oh, right?" said Pepper sarcastically. "What sort of dog will it be, then?"
Adam told her, while around them a fight broke out over a difference of opinion on Milton's Paradise Lost. The difference being, Wensleydale thought it was a great albeit flawed work, and Brian thought his knuckles on Wensleydale's scalp might possibly get him to stop goin' on forever about Milton.
In the distance, a dog growled like a buzzsaw. It was the sound of the end of an era.
* * *
Caphriel had never actually held a fiery sword.
He wasn't an important angel. Of course, all angels were important, in the same way that all falling sparrows and all random dust mites were important in the eyes of the Lord, but there were different degrees of importance. Some angels got the flaming swords of righteousness, while others had to be satisfied with the inflammable staves of virtue. In terms of importance, Caphriel had only ever rated the theoretically combustible broom of hardly ever breaking the rules.
Even knowing this did not make actually picking up a broom easier, Caphriel thought.
It wasn't that he was a slob. He just never bothered with cleaning up. He spent very little time in his flat anyway, except to sleep and occasionally make another use of the bed, so it made little difference. The vermin never gave him any trouble. It was cheating, of course, but he had a pact with the cockroaches of the building. They didn't show up when he chose in his angelic wisdom to have a guest over, and he stepped over their unholy revels when he wanted a glass of water in the middle of the night.
Now, though, it looked like their arrangement would have to end. Caphriel swiped a broom at a dusty corner with unnecessary violence.
More than eleven years he'd stayed here. He'd have had to move sooner or later, he knew; Caphriel never felt comfortable staying in one place for more than twenty years, although he made sure his landlords never noticed their unaging tenant. But it unsettled him to be forced to move so soon. Caphriel had grown to be a creature of habit. Zirah thought of him as a sort of rolling stone, but that was because Zirah had basically stayed in the same place for the last five hundred years. Time didn't have the same meaning for Zirah as it had for everyone else.
Come to think of it, nothing had the same meaning for Zirah as it had for everyone else.
Caphriel looked around his flat, and sighed.
But there was nothing for it. The landlady's daughter had returned after ten years abroad, and she had all sorts of ideas to make the lodgings more profitable. The idea that furniture came in brighter colours than brown and grey, for instance. And that the lodgers should be able to open their windows without using a crowbar. Caphriel didn't want to be able to open his windows. He hadn't come so far only to start trusting the London air.
And he just knew she'd called in an exterminator when he was out. He thought he hadn't seen some of the cockroaches for a while, and the ones that were left had a distinctly reproachful expression when they scuttled across the floor.
It was definitely time to move when he couldn't look his vermin in the face anymore.
And because he was an angel, and angels had certain moral obligations, he was cleaning up the flat before he left. Then, Caphriel thought sourly, please-call-me-Aimee could paint the flat in lemon yellow to stimulate the imagination all she liked. Where he was going, it wouldn't matter.
He shoved the swishy end of the broom at the floor again. It didn't seem to make any difference to the dirt. Caphriel grit his teeth and did not swear.
Oh, to hell with standards. The flat was clean, if it knew what was good for it.
Now to pack.
He shouldered open his wardrobe and gingerly poked around in the masses of clothes. Really, it was amazing the way clothes piled up. He didn't remember buying them, although he must have at some point, because Heaven did not hold with creating black trenchcoats from the raw firmament. He didn't even remember putting them into the wardrobe. He hadn't done more than stick a hand in and grab the first piece of clothing he touched for -- well, decades.
He took a deep breath, and started digging.
He wouldn't take much with him, of course. He didn't need that many clothes, however oversupplied his wardrobe appeared to be in that department. A few pairs of trousers, T-shirts, a coat or two, and he'd be set for the next decade. As for the rest -- well, it looked like the Salvation Army was going to find it had more faded black clothes than it knew what to do with.
Caphriel blinked when his hand touched something hard and smooth. Not a button, unless it was really big . . . . He curled his fingers around the object and drew it out.
Oh. The walking stick. He'd forgotten all about it. Caphriel smiled in simple, uncomplicated pleasure at the gleam of light on the wood.
When had he got the stick, anyway? In the fourteenth century, hadn't it been -- he'd been given it by a carpenter he'd helped in a small matter involving a priest, three goats, and a rosebush. It had been a highlight of an otherwise unremarkable and -- if Caphriel was honest with himself -- extremely boring century. The stick should have fallen to pieces years ago, of course, but Caphriel had liked it. It had been given to him in an act of kindness, and, well, it was beautiful. He'd kept it carefully; it was shinier than it had been the day he'd got it, in fact. . . .
There was a discoloration on the stick. A stain. Caphriel frowned, puzzled. What on earth -- oh, Christ.
Blood. It was blood. There was blood on his walking stick, and how the hell had it got there, had his dusters started bleeding or something because surely no-one could have got their hands on it; Caphriel himself hadn't touched the stick in a . . . .
Enlightenment struck a direct blow on the back of his head.
He'd just bet the stick had struck a direct blow on the back of someone else's head, too.
* * *
Zirah was meticulously rearranging his books for the billionth time when an avenging angel burst into his shop.
"Ah, I think you're looking for Intimate Books next door," Zirah began automatically, before he saw who it was. He beamed in delight.
"Why, Caphriel, what a pleasant--"
"What did you do with it?" said Caphriel. He was even more dishevelled than usual. There was an odd glint in his eye, a glint Zirah hadn't seen since the Sudanese war (which had been unfair, because Zirah had had nothing to do with that one).
"Do with what?" said Zirah, honestly puzzled.
"Don't try to lie to me!" yelled Caphriel. Zirah jumped. "I know you did it! No-one else could have! What the hell did you do with it? Why it? You couldn't have just used a rock or a, a cosh or something?"
"Caphriel, I don't know what you're talking about," said Zirah patiently. "Perhaps if you just calmed down and explained--"
Caphriel wasn't listening.
"I mean, why? I know you have a job to do, and yes, sometimes it has to involve blood, but with this? Was it impossible to use a, a blackjack, or something more suited to the purpose? Because I understand that you don't mingle much with humans, but it's really just basic manners to not use your -- your -- your acquaintances' personal possessions to commit murder!"
Caphriel waved his hands wildly, disturbing the dust. He held a staff in one of his hands -- no, not a staff. Zirah's eyes lit in recognition.
"Oh, you're talking about the stick," he said. He reached out and plucked it out of Caphriel's hand easily. Holding the stick up to the light, he studied it. "Ah, yes, I see what you're talking about. How careless of me."
"Careless?" Caphriel stared at Zirah in disbelief. "What, you tripped over a pebble and accidentally brought the stick down on someone's head?"
"No, I was talking about how I put it back without cleaning it," said Zirah serenely. "It was very inconsiderate of me; you're quite right to be upset." He looked sadly at the stick for a moment, then he brightened. "But don't you worry, I'll have it fixed in two shakes. A little elbow grease and, ahem, careful thought should clean the stain, no problem. . . ."
"I'm not talking about the stain!" said Caphriel. "I don't give a damn about the stain! I want to know how the hell it got there in the first place!"
Zirah looked hurt.
"There's no need to shout," he said. "I'm sure I don't know why you're so angry about this. It was your idea."
Caphriel looked at Zirah. He rolled the stick in his hands, looking at Caphriel with the honest, hurt bewilderment of a man who had just had his bouquet of roses thrown in his face. The avenging spirit that had led Caphriel in a white heat from his flat to the shop left him in a sudden rush to avoid the emotional traffic there would be later. He slumped down.
"Zirah," he said wearily, "what did you do?"
Zirah was peering at him warily, as if worried he might explode at any moment.
"I don't want the Apocalypse any more than you do, you know," Zirah said diffidently. This produced no explosions.
"It was really necessary," he went on, more confidently. "We couldn't have him running around, now could we?"
Caphriel could feel a horrible realisation hanging over him, a feeling like the pressure of a coming avalanche. Trying to avoid it was futile, but he tried anyway. He could have a few more blessed, beautiful seconds in which he would not know what it was that Zirah had actually done. He would never have this time again.
"I -- I'm not sure who you're talking about, Zirah," he said weakly.
"Well, no, you wouldn't, would you," he said. "You've never met him. Had," he corrected himself. "Had never met him. Not that it would have made much of a difference, really; they're not very developed at that age. I found it quite difficult to tell them apart, to tell you the truth."
Caphriel put his head in his hands, trying to dodge the inevitable enlightenment.
"Quite difficult?" he said slowly. His words seem to come from very far away. "So how did you tell which one to murder?" He looked up as a thought struck him. "It was murder, wasn't it? Not just a concussion, or a couple of broken bones?" The expression on Zirah's face killed his hope a-borning, and he slumped back down.
"And after all, it's all in the past now," said Zirah obliviously, continuing whatever conversation he imagined it to be in his head. "It's been eleven years. Let bygones be bygones, is what I always say." He paused. "Actually, didn't you ever find the stick before this? You should have mentioned it earlier. I would have been glad to clean it. . . . Caphriel, are you all right?"
Caphriel was staring off into space with the glassy gaze of the irrevocably damned. The realisation had hit, and stunned several of his higher brain functions in the process.
"Oh, my God," the angel said. "Eleven years ago. My God." He fixed an unseeing look of horror on a brownish stain on the far wall, then whirled around to face Zirah.
"Don't tell me you killed the Antichrist!"
"Of course I didn't," said Zirah. "Was that all you were worried about? No, I didn't hurt the Antichrist, bless his Armageddon-bringing little heart."
"Ah." Caphriel exhaled in relief.
"It was a pity about the other one, of course, but we must all make sacrifices," Zirah went on. "We couldn't have him alive; we'd have an extra ten-year-old. Somebody might have noticed him, and then where would we be?"
The frozen look returned to Caphriel's face as he vainly tried to escape enlightenment.
"With a clean walking stick?" he said. "Ahaha. Zirah, I, I'm not entirely sure I understand what you're saying. . . ."
Zirah wasn't listening. A calendar on the counter had caught his eye. His face dissolved into dismay.
"Not an extra ten-year-old," he muttered. "An extra eleven-year-old. Oh dear, oh dear. How could I have forgotten?" He went behind the counter and started scrabbling vaguely amidst the stacks of books. "And they'll all be waiting for their presents. I really should have written it down somewhere. . . ."
He unearthed an ancient tome, putting it down on the counter. He straightened up and glanced at his watch, and sighed.
"It's too late to go now," he said. "By the time I get there it'll have been past their bedtime. And I still haven't got that book for Wensleydale. I must hunt up that dealer; it's been a week since I ordered it. . . ."
He swept past Caphriel and started putting on his coat. Caphriel stared at his back in confusion.
"Where the hell are you going?" he said.
Zirah looked up distractedly. He seemed to have completely forgotten Caphriel.
"Ah, yes," he said. "I'm terribly sorry to leave you like this, Caphriel, but I have very urgent business. You do understand, don't you? It was nice talking to you; perhaps we could have dinner some other day. . . ."
"I don't want dinner some other day, I want answers -- Zirah! Zirah! God da -- for fu -- for pity's sake, Zirah!"
Zirah was gone.