The creeps, p.1
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       The Creeps, p.1
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           John Connolly
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The Creeps


  Praise for John Connolly’s Samuel Johnson Series

  “Laugh-out-loud funny . . . a cross between Eoin Colfer and Terry Pratchett.”

  —Los Angeles Times

  “Whimsical and wicked . . . Connolly’s tale screams to be shared.”

  —Minneapolis StarTribune

  “It is Madeleine L’Engle by way of Douglas Adams. The Gates is a fun book and an awfully funny one, as well.”

  —Chicago Sun-Times

  “Delightfully fresh and imaginative.”

  —Houston Press

  “A wholly original novel.”

  —People

  “Delightfully horrific and hilarious.”

  —Eoin Colfer

  “Connolly’s graceful prose, laced with acerbically witty footnotes, is a joy to read, and he easily alternates among slapstick comedy, powerful drama, and skin-crawling horror.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Brilliantly funny, often touching, with enough action to keep adventure fans on the edges of their chairs, this novel combines top-notch writing with cutting wit.”

  —Kirkus Reviews

  “The Infernals is a wonderful morality tale delving into the nature of evil, quantum physics, dark matter, and the hubris of scientists who play God. . . . A rollicking tale makes it a delightful treat for young and old readers alike.”

  —Portland Press Herald

  Thank you for downloading this Atria Books eBook.

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  For Cameron and Alistair

  I

  In Which a Birthday Party Takes Place, and We Learn That One Ought to Be Careful with Candles (and Dangling Prepositions)

  IN A SMALL TERRACED house in the English town of Biddlecombe, a birthday party was under way.

  Biddlecombe was a place in which, for most of its history, very little interest had ever happened. Unfortunately, as is often the case in a place in which things have been quiet for a little too long, when something interesting did happen it was very interesting indeed; more interesting, in fact, than anybody might have wished. The gates of Hell had opened in a basement in Biddlecombe, and the town had temporarily been invaded by demons.

  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Biddlecombe had never really been the same since. The rugby team no longer played on its old pitch, not since a number of its players had been eaten by burrowing sharks; the voice of the captain of the Biddlecombe Golf Club could still occasionally be heard crying out from somewhere at the bottom of the fifteenth hole; and it was rumored that a monster had taken up residence in the duck pond, although it was said to be very shy, and the ducks appeared to be rather fond of it.

  But the creature in the pond was not the only entity from Hell that had now taken up permanent residence in Biddlecombe, which brings us back to the birthday party. It was not, it must be said, a typical birthday party. The birthday boy in question was named Wormwood. He looked like a large ferret that had suffered a severe attack of mange,1 and was wearing a pair of very fetching blue overalls upon which his name had been embroidered. These overalls replaced a previous pair upon which his name had also been embroidered, although he had managed to spell his own name wrong first time round. This time, all of the letters were present and correct, and in the right order, because Samuel Johnson’s mother had done the stitching herself, and if there was one thing Mrs. Johnson was a stickler for,2  it was good spelling. Thus it was that the overalls now read WORMWOOD and not WROMWOOD as they had previously done.

  Wormwood was, not to put too fine a point on it, a demon. He hadn’t set out to be a demon. He’d just popped into existence as one, and therefore hadn’t been given a great deal of choice in the matter. He’d never been very good at being a demon. He was too nice for it, really. Sometimes folk just end up in the wrong job.3

  A chorus of voices rang out around the kitchen table.

  “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear Woooorrrrrmmmmmwoooood, Happy Birthday to you! For he’s a jolly good, um, fellow . . .”

  Wormwood smiled the biggest, broadest smile of his life. He looked round the table at those whom he now thought of as his friends. There was Samuel Johnson and his dachshund, Boswell. There were Samuel’s schoolmates Maria Mayer and Tom Hobbes. There was Mrs. Johnson, who had started to come to terms with having demons sitting at her kitchen table on a regular basis. There were Shan and Gath, two fellow demons who were employed at the local Spiggit’s Brewery as beer tasters and developers, and who were responsible for a 50 percent increase in the brewery’s profits, as well as a 100 percent increase in the number of explosions due to the instability of the still-experimental Spiggit’s Brew Number 666, also known as “The Tankbuster,” which was rumored to be under consideration by the military as a field weapon.

  And then there was Nurd, formerly “Nurd, the Scourge of Five Deities” and now sometimes known as the Nurdster, the Nurdmeister, and the Nurdman, although only to Nurd himself. Nobody else ever called Nurd anything but Nurd. Nurd had once been banished to the remotest, dullest region of Hell for being annoying, and Wormwood, as his servant, had been banished with him. Now that they had found their way to Biddlecombe, Wormwood preferred to think of himself as Nurd’s trusty assistant rather than his servant. Occasionally, Nurd liked to hit Wormwood over the head with something hard and memorable, just to remind Wormwood that he could think of himself as anything he liked just as long as he didn’t say it aloud.

  But in the end Nurd, too, was one of Wormwood’s friends. They had been through so much together, and now they worked alongside each other at the Biddlecombe Car Testing Institute, where Nurd tested the safety of new cars, aided by the fact that he was immortal and hence able to walk away from the worst crashes with only the occasional bruise for his trouble.

  Wormwood had never had a birthday party before. He didn’t even know there was such a thing as a birthday until he arrived on Earth. It seemed like a very good idea to him. You got cake, and gifts, and your friends sat around and sang about what a jolly good fellow you were. It was all quite, quite splendid.

  The singing ended, and everyone sat waiting expectantly.

  “What do I do now?” asked Wormwood.

  “You blow out the candles on the cake,” said Samuel.

  When they’d asked Wormwood how old he was, he’d thought that he might just be a few billion years younger than the universe itself, which made him, oh, about ten billion years old.

  “The cake’s only a foot wide!” Mrs. Johnson had pointed out. “He can’t have ten billion candles. They won’t fit, and if we try the whole town will go up in flames.”

  So they’d settled on one candle for every billion years, which seemed like a reasonable compromise.

  Nurd was seated directly across the table from Wormwood. He was wearing a red paper party hat, and was trying unsuccessfully to blow up a balloon. Nurd had changed a lot in the time that they’d been in Biddlecombe, thought Wormwood. His skin was still green, of course, but not as green as before. He now looked like someone who had just eaten a bad egg. His head, which had formerly been shaped like a crescent moon, had shrunk slightly. It was still long and odd-looking, but he was now able to walk the streets of Biddlecombe without frightening too many children or causing cars to crash, especially if he kept his head covered.

  “This balloon appears to be broken,” said Nurd. “If I blow any harder, my eyes will pop out. Again.”

  That had been embarrassing. Samuel had used a spoon to retrieve them from Nurd’s glass of lemonade.

>   Wormwood took a deep breath.

  “Make a wish,” said Maria. “But you have to keep it to yourself, or else it won’t come true.”

  “Oh, I think I’ve got the hang of the balloon now,” said Nurd.

  Wormwood closed his eyes. He made his wish. He blew. There was a loud whoosh, followed by a pop and a distinct smell of burning.

  Wormwood opened his eyes. Across the table, Nurd’s head was on fire. In one of his hands, he held the charred, melted remains of a balloon.

  “Oh, thank you,” said Nurd as he tried to douse the flames. “Thank you very much.”

  “Sorry,” said Wormwood. “I’ve never tried to blow anything out before.”

  “Wow,” said Samuel. “You have inflammable breath. I always thought it smelled like petrol.”

  “The cake survived,” said Tom. “The icing has just melted a bit.”

  “I’m fine,” said Nurd. “Don’t worry about me. I love being set alight. Keeps out the cold.”

  Samuel patted Nurd on the back.

  “Seriously, I’m okay,” said Nurd.

  “I know. Your back was on fire, though.”

  “Oh.”

  “There’s a hole in your cloak, but I expect Mum will be able to fix it.”

  Mrs. Johnson cut the cake and gave everybody a slice.

  “What did you wish for, Wormwood?” asked Tom.

  “And if you tell me that you wished my head was on fire, we’ll have words,” said Nurd.

  “I thought I wasn’t supposed to say,” said Wormwood.

  “That’s before you blow,” said Tom. “It’s all right to tell us now.”

  “Well, I wished that everything would stay just the way it is,” said Wormwood. “I’m happy here. We all are.”

  Shan and Gath nodded.

  And in the general hilarity and good cheer that followed, nobody noticed that it was only Nurd who had not agreed.

  * * *

  1. For those of you unfamiliar with mange, it is an ailment that causes a loss of fur. Think of the worst haircut you’ve ever received, and it’s a bit like that, but all over your body.

  2. Technically, that sentence should read “if there was one thing for which Mrs. Johnson was a stickler,” as nobody likes a dangling preposition, but I said that Mrs. Johnson was a stickler for good spelling, not good grammar.

  3. Such as Augustus the Second (1694–1733), King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, also known as Augustus the Strong. He managed to bankrupt his kingdom by spending all of its money on bits of amber and ivory, lost a couple of battles that he really would have been better off winning, and fathered over three hundred children, which suggests that, in between losing battles and collecting trinkets, he had a lot of time on his hands, but his party piece consisted of gripping a horseshoe in his fists and making it straight. He would probably have been very happy just straightening horseshoes and blowing up hot-water bottles for a living, but due to an accident of birth he instead found himself ruling a number of kingdoms. Badly. You should bear this in mind if your dad or mum has a name beginning with the words “His/Her Royal Highness,” and you are known as “Prince/Princess Something-or-Other.” Unless, of course, your name is really “Something-or-Other,” in which case you don’t have anything to worry about (about which to worry—darn it) as your parents didn’t care enough about you to give you a proper name, and you are therefore unlikely to amount to anything. Sorry.

  II

  In Which Someone Sees a Ghost (Yawn)

  AS HAS ALREADY BEEN established, the town of Biddlecombe was a lot odder than it once had been, but the curious thing about Biddlecombe was that it had always been ever so slightly strange, even before the attempted invasion from Hell. It was just that people in Biddlecombe had chosen not to remark upon its strangeness, perhaps in the hope that the strangeness might eventually grow tired of being ignored and just go and be strange somewhere else.

  For example, it was well known that if you took a right turn on Machen Street, and then a left turn on Poe Place, you ended up back on the same corner of Machen Street from which you had recently started. The residents of Biddlecombe got round this peculiar geographical anomaly by avoiding that particular corner of Machen Street entirely, instead using the shortcut through Mary Shelley Lane. Visitors to Biddlecombe, though, tended not to know about the shortcut, and thus they had been known to spend a great deal of time moving back and forth between Machen Street and Poe Place until somebody local came along and rescued them.

  And then there was the small matter of the statue of Hilary Mould, Biddlecombe’s leading architect. Nobody could remember who had ordered the statue, or how it had come to be in Biddlecombe, but the statue had turned up sometime in the nineteenth century, shortly after Mould disappeared under circumstances that might have been described as mysterious if anyone had cared enough about Mould to miss him when he was gone, which they didn’t because Mould’s buildings were all ugly and awful.

  The statue of Hilary Mould wasn’t much lovelier than the buildings he had designed, Mould not being the most handsome of men, and it had often been suggested that it should quietly be taken away and lost. But the statue of Hilary Mould had a habit of moving around, so there was no way of knowing where it might be from one day to the next. It was usually to be found near one of the six buildings in Biddlecombe that Mould had designed, as if the architect couldn’t bear to be separated from his work.

  As with so many of the strange things about Biddlecombe, the townsfolk decided that the best thing for it was to ignore the statue and let it go about its business.

  Which was, as we shall come to learn, a terrible mistake.

  • • •

  As it happened, the statue of  Hilary Mould was, at that moment, lurking in a still and silent way near what appeared to be an old sweet factory but which now housed a secret laboratory. Inside the laboratory, Brian, the new tea boy, had just seen a ghost.

  The effect this had on Brian was quite considerable. First of all he turned pale, so that he bore something of a resemblance to a ghost himself. Second, he dropped the tray that he was carrying, sending three cups of tea, two coffees, and a plate of assorted biscuits—including some Jammie Dodgers,4 of which Professor Stefan, the Head of Particle Physics, was especially fond—crashing to the floor, along with the tray on which they were all being carried. Finally, after tottering on his heels for a bit, Brian followed the tray downwards.

  It was only Brian’s second day on the job at the secret Biddlecombe annex of CERN, the advanced research facility in Switzerland that housed the Large Hadron Collider, the massive particle accelerator which was, at that very moment, trying to uncover the secrets of the universe by re-creating the moments after the Big Bang. The Collider had been notably successful in this, and appeared to have confirmed the existence of a particle known as the Higgs Boson, which was believed to be responsible for giving mass to the universe.5

  The Biddlecombe annex had been set up to examine the strange goings-on in the town in question, which had so far included the dead coming back to life, an attempted invasion by the Devil and all of his demonic hordes, and the abduction to Hell of a small boy, his dachshund, a number of dwarfs, two policemen, and an ice-cream salesman. It was clear to the scientists that Biddlecombe was the site of a link between our universe and another universe that wasn’t half as nice, and they had decided to set up an office there in the hope that something else very bad might happen so they could watch and take notes, and perhaps win a prize.

  The problem was that the good people of Biddlecombe didn’t particularly want scientists lurking around every corner and asking hopefully if anyone had been abducted, possessed, or attacked by something with too many arms. The people of Biddlecombe were hoping that whatever hole had opened between universes might have closed by now, or been filled in by the council. At the very least they wanted to forget about it because, if they did, then it might forget about them, as they had quite enough to be getting along with, what w
ith rescuing tourists from the corner of Machen Street and avoiding walking into old statues.

  The result was that the scientists had been forced to sneak into Biddlecombe and cleverly hide themselves in a secure location. Of course, Biddlecombe being a small place, everyone in the town knew that the scientists had come back. Now they could only pray that the scientists might blow themselves up, or conveniently vanish into another dimension.

  The location of the secret facility was slightly—well, considerably—less spectacular than CERN’s massive operation in Switzerland. The annex was housed in the building formerly occupied by Mr. Pennyfarthinge’s Olde Sweete6 Shoppe & Factorye,7 unoccupied ever since a tragic accident involving Mr. Pennyfarthinge, an unsteady ladder, and seventeen jars of gobstoppers. To keep up the pretense, the scientists had reopened the sweete shoppe and took it in turns to serve sherbet dabs, licorice allsorts, and Uncle Dabney’s Impossibly Sour Chews8 to various small persons for an hour or two each day.

  Technically, Brian was not, in fact, a tea boy, but a laboratory assistant. Nevertheless, as he was the new kid, his duties had so far extended only to boiling the kettle, making the tea, and keeping a close watch on the Jammie Dodgers, as Professor Stefan was convinced that someone was stealing Jammie Dodgers from the biscuit tin. Professor Stefan was wrong about this. It wasn’t “someone” who was stealing Jammie Dodgers.

  It was everyone.

  Brian’s proper title was “Assistant Deputy Assistant to the Assistant Assistant to the Assistant Head of Particle Physics,” or ADAAAAHPT for short.

  Which, oddly enough, was the last sound Brian made before he fell to the floor.

  “Adaaaahpt,” said Brian. Thump.

  The noise caused Professor Stefan, who was concentrating very hard on a piece of data analysis, to drop his pen, and Professor Stefan hated dropping pens. They always managed to roll right against the wall, and then he had to get down on his hands and knees to find them, or send the Assistant Deputy Assistant to the Assistant Assistant to the Assistant Head of Particle Physics to do it for him. Unfortunately, the ADAAAAHPT was now flat on his back, moaning softly.

 
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