The creeps, p.19
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       The Creeps, p.19

           John Connolly
 
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  Anyway, to get back to our original question of how many universes there may be in the Multiverse, some string theorists suggest the number is 10500, or one for every possible model of physics that string theory offers. (See, I told you it was complicated. It’s so complicated that this latest version of string theory, the eleven-dimension one, is known as M-theory, and even Edward Whitten, the man who came up with it, isn’t sure what the M stands for.) Mind you, there are some scientists who say that the number of universes in the Multiverse could be far more than 10500, and that the only way you can get it down to 10500 is by fiddling about with the (coarse) Moduli Space of Kähler and Ricci-Flat (or Calabi-Yau) metrics and then enforcing extra-supersymmetry conditions, which is just cheating, obviously. I mean, everybody knows that.

  XXXI

  In Which the Funniness of Clowns Is Doubted

  THINGS WERE GOING FROM bad to worse inside Wreckit & Sons, which was surprising given how bad things were to begin with. It seemed that, as Samuel and the others drew closer to the highest floor of the store, the nature of reality was becoming more and more distorted. In fact, as far as Samuel was concerned, reality had pretty much given up on Biddlecombe and gone to live somewhere slightly more down-to-earth.

  First off, there were the clowns. Everyone trapped in the store was beginning to realize that Wreckit & Sons had been designed with one purpose in mind: to provide a series of threats that would gradually drive the humans to the top floor. While they had made the best use that they could of whatever weapons they could find—bats, balls, bows and arrows, and foam blasters, for the most part—it wasn’t as if the store had been littered with rocket launchers or heavy artillery. The dangers on each floor were simply meant to force them upward, not kill them, or so Samuel believed, although Dan and the dwarfs were pretty convinced that, had the Nosferati managed to get their fangs into them, they would soon have been singing in some heavenly choir, assuming Heaven was willing to let them in.

  They saw that the next-to-last floor had been given a circus theme. There was a Ferris wheel in one corner, large enough for very small children to ride, and the wooden façade of a big top. There were signs that read HOOP TOSS and, slightly worryingly, GHOST TRAIN. Over them all hovered the head of a ringmaster in a top hat, his black mustache curling almost to his eyebrows, and his smile wide enough to swallow a person.

  The ringmaster was Hilary Mould.

  Beneath the ringmaster stood three dummies dressed as clowns. One was bald and entirely covered in whiteface makeup. He wore a suit of broad yellow checks, and a little red hat was positioned on the side of his head. Samuel wondered how it stayed in place: glue, perhaps, or a very thin rubber band. It was only as he drew closer to the clown that he saw the hat had been nailed to his skull.

  The second clown wore a huge pink wig that looked like the aftermath of an explosion in a cotton candy machine. Only the areas around his eyes and mouth were painted white: the rest of his face was a sickly yellow. He wore a long green coat with tails, and purple trousers decorated with pink polka dots. A huge plastic flower was pinned to the buttonhole of his jacket.

  The third clown was female. She was wearing white one-piece overalls decorated with big red fluffy buttons, and her wig was black. So, too, was the makeup around her mouth and her eyes, while the rest of her face was very pale. Strangely, her mouth had been painted into a frown instead of a smile. Her fingernails were long and pointed, and varnished a deep, dark red, as though she had recently been tearing apart raw meat.

  Samuel had never seen a female clown before,53 but then he had only been to the circus once in his life. Samuel didn’t care much for the circus, or clowns. He wasn’t scared of clowns; he just didn’t think they were amusing.54

  The dwarfs wandered over to join him.

  “They’re not going to get many laughs looking like that,” said Dozy.

  “Never liked clowns,” said Angry. “They always seem to be trying too hard.”

  “What do you call the gooey red stuff between a circus elephant’s toes?” asked Jolly.

  “I don’t know,” said Samuel.

  “A slow clown,” said Jolly. “Get it? A slow clown.”

  The female clown turned her head slowly in Jolly’s direction. Her fingers tested the air. The bald clown opened his mouth and licked his lips, and the clown with the fuzzy wig put his hand inside his jacket and squeezed the bulb on his plastic flower. A jet of liquid shot from it, which just missed Angry. It sizzled when it hit the floor, and began burning a hole in the carpet. The others immediately stepped out of range, but instead of joining them Angry began shouting at the clowns.

  “Losers!” he said. “I’ve seen funnier dead people.”

  The flower-wearing dwarf tried again, firing a stream of acid in Angry’s direction. Again it landed on the carpet and began eating its way through.

  “How do you get a clown off your porch?” called Angry. “You pay him for the pizza.”

  By now the bewigged clown was growling and spraying a constant stream of acid at Angry as he circled the trio. The others tried to snatch at him with their fingers, but he was too fast.

  “What are you doing?” cried Samuel. “You’re going to get hurt!”

  The smell of burning carpet and wood was very strong now, and a near-perfect acid-drenched circle was sizzling at the feet of the clowns. The liquid stopped pumping. The clown’s supply of acid was exhausted. He looked at the flower in disgust before deciding to take care of Angry and the others personally. He took one step forward. The other clowns did the same.

  The ceiling collapsed, taking the three clowns with it and leaving only a hole where they had previously stood. Carefully, Samuel and the dwarfs peered over the edge at the floor below. The clowns had shattered on impact, like china dolls. The ceiling had also landed on Miss Muffet’s giant spider: they could see the tips of eight legs sticking out from under the mass of wood and plaster, and its insides were leaking out. Lucy’s boot might not have been strong enough to crush one of the smaller spiders, but three clowns and a heavy ceiling seemed to have done the trick for the big one.

  “Like I told you,” said Angry, “I never liked clowns. Never had much time for spiders either.”

  Miss Muffet appeared beside the remains of her spider. She glared up at them.

  “Bad!” she said, pointing a web-covered finger at them. “Very bad!”

  “Uh-oh,” said Jolly. “We’ve done it now.”

  As they watched, Miss Muffet started to make her way to the stairs. She had obviously decided that someone had to pay for the destruction of her spider, but they were distracted from her approach by the ringmaster. His wooden face had contorted into a mask of rage. Thin streams of black smoke poured from his nostrils. Beside him, the Ferris wheel rattled on its foundations. Bolts popped, and its supports collapsed. The Ferris wheel dropped to the floor and headed toward them.

  “Incoming!” shouted Jolly.

  Samuel and the dwarfs dived out of the way of the rolling wheel. Samuel was relieved to see Lucy and the policemen do the same. They reacted fast, certainly faster than Miss Muffet, who reached the top of the stairs just in time to be hit by the wheel. It rolled halfway down the stairs before striking a wall at full speed, tearing through the brickwork and taking Miss Muffet with it. All that was left to show she had ever been there at all was a trail of crushed black spiders.

  And that was when the Polite Monster appeared.

  To start with, Samuel and the others didn’t know that he was polite. When monsters appear, the general approach is to assume that they don’t mean anyone any good and to set about getting rid of them. If that doesn’t work, it’s a good idea to make your apologies and leave while you still can. The Polite Monster had a lot of horns, and a great many teeth in its jaws, and four eyes, two on each side of its head. It was about twelve feet tall, and almost as wide, and was covered entirely in coarse red fur. It popped into existence in a puff of purple and yellow smoke, accompanied by the most
horrendous smell combining the worst aspects of rotting fish, dog poo, and very old eggs that had been scrambled and fed to someone with bad digestion and worse wind.

  The Polite Monster sniffed the air, made a face, and said, “That wasn’t me.”

  It had a very cultured voice. It sounded like a monster that liked light opera, and perhaps acted in plays for the local dramatic society, the kind in which chaps called Gussy popped up dressed in tennis whites, and people laughed like this: “I say, aha-ha-ha!”

  By that point, everyone who wasn’t a monster had found somewhere to hide. This floor of the shop was devoted entirely to books and some more board games, which had been a relief to everyone until the Polite Monster appeared. There was a limit to how much damage a game of Scrabble could inflict: at worst, it could probably arrange some of its tiles into a rude name.

  “Hello?” said the Polite Monster. “Anybody home?”

  Samuel poked his head up from behind a pile of boxes of Risk. The boxes were rattling alarmingly, suggesting to Samuel that some games might be more dangerous than others. This was confirmed when he heard a muffled shot from the topmost box, and a tiny cannonball pierced the lid and flew past his ear. A very small voice, muffled by cardboard, shouted, “Reload!”

  “Oh, hello,” said Samuel.

  “Ah,” said the Polite Monster. “I’m terribly sorry for intruding—nine letters, ‘to force oneself in without invitation’—but I was hoping that you could tell me where I am?”

  Samuel was still wary.

  “Where do you think you are?”

  “I can tell you where I was a moment ago,” said the Polite Monster. “I was doing a crossword puzzle in my cave. Tricky one. Two down, eight letters: ‘Insecure now that the horse has bolted.’ ”

  “Unstable,” said Constable Peel, who did a lot of crosswords.

  “Unstable!” said the Polite Monster. “Oh that’s very good, very good. Let me just—”

  It patted its person looking for something with which to write, and then it blushed, or blushed as much as a large, hairy monster could blush, which wasn’t a lot.

  “Oh dear,” it said. “This is most embarrassing—twelve letters, ‘to be ill at ease.’ I appear to be completely naked.”

  Another cannonball popped from the Risk box. This time it nicked Samuel’s left ear, and drew a little blood.

  “Hey!” said Samuel. “That’s enough!”

  He gave the box a thorough shake.

  “Earthquake!” shouted the same small voice.

  The Polite Monster was now attempting to cover itself with its arms. Samuel wasn’t sure why it was bothering. It really was just one big ball of fur. If it had any bits that it didn’t want seen, the fur was already doing a very good job of hiding them.

  “Sorry?” said Samuel.

  “Naked,” said the Polite Monster. “Five letters, ‘to be bare, or without clothes.’ ”

  The dwarfs appeared, hauling behind them a large, paint-spattered sheet that had been left behind by the decorators.

  “Will this do?” said Angry.

  “Oh yes,” said the Polite Monster. “Anything would be better than my current situation—nine letters, ‘a state of affairs.’ ”

  It arranged the sheet as best it could over its shoulders and around its hips. Jolly found a piece of rope, and the Polite Monster used it to secure the sheet. It now looked like a monster that had been cast in the role of Julius Caesar.

  “Thank you, that’s much better,” said the Polite Monster.

  Dan and the policemen had now joined Sam, Lucy, and the dwarfs. It was clear that they were in little danger from the Polite Monster. The Polite Monster looked curiously at the dwarfs.

  “I say: little men,” it said. “Did you have an accident to make you that way—eight letters, ‘an unforeseen event or mishap’?”

  “We’re dwarfs,” said Jolly. “Six letters—‘to thump someone who suggests that we’re small because something fell on our heads.’ ”

  “Oh dear,” said the Polite Monster. “I seem to have offended you—eight letters—‘to cause to feel upset or annoyed.’ I really am most dreadfully sorry.”

  “Apology accepted,” said Jolly.

  He hadn’t wanted to beat up the Polite Monster anyway. Even if he’d been able to, it wouldn’t have been, well, polite.

  “And in answer to your question,” Jolly continued, “you’re on Earth, in Biddlecombe, in Wreckit & Sons’ toy shop. And it’s not a good place to be right now.”

  “Oh, isn’t it?” said the Polite Monster. “You all seem very nice, I must say—four letters, ‘pleasant or agreeable’—and it makes a change from the cave, but I really should be getting back. I was baking scones, you see. Mother is coming to visit.”

  “We’re all trying to get out of here,” said Samuel, “but there are vampires in the basement, killer dolls on the ground floor, and spiders just below us. We’re being forced higher and higher in the store because I think that whatever is causing this is waiting for us on the topmost floor.”

  The Polite Monster adjusted its tarpaulin toga.

  “I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation,” it said. “We’ll just ask politely to be sent on our way, and that will be the end of it. I find that politeness—ten letters, ‘tact, or consideration for others’—goes a long way. Shall we?”

  It extended a hairy, clawed hand, inviting them to lead on.

  “After you,” said Jolly.

  “Such manners,” said the Polite Monster as it stepped past Jolly. “Wonderful, just wonderful.”

  “Four letters to describe that bloke,” whispered Jolly to Angry, once the Polite Monster was out of earshot. “Here’s a clue: hazel-, wal-, or pea- . . .”

  * * *

  53. The history of clowning does not record the appearance of female clowns until 1858, which is quite amazing as clowns have been around since at least the time of the Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi in 2500 B.C. The first female clown was said to have been Amelia Butler, who was part of Nixon’s Great American Circus, but the next female clown, Lulu, was not mentioned until 1939. Now, though, lots of clowns are female, and can be found alongside the various trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, and lion tamers of the circus. Interesting fact: No clown has ever been eaten by a circus animal. This is because clowns taste funny.

  54. Coulrophobia is the word for a fear, or phobia, of clowns, which is not uncommon. Some fears are strangely specific, though, and unlikely to be a real problem unless you actively try to scare yourself. For example, Zemmiphobia is a fear of the great mole rat, which is, despite its name, a small, almost hairless, slow-moving rat with protruding teeth that it uses to carve out tunnels for itself. It tends to avoid people and live underground, so it’s not like it’s knocking on doors and shouting “Boo!” Similarly, Arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth, can probably be dealt with by not eating peanut butter, or just eating it carefully. Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done about Geniophobia, the fear of chins, since you do rather bring that one with you wherever you go. Phobophobia, meanwhile, is the fear of phobias, or the fear of being afraid. Unfortunately, if you have phobophobia, then you’re already afraid, so the very fact that you’re a phobophobe means that you’re in trouble from the start.

  XXXII

  In Which We Learn That If One Can’t Go Through Something, and One Can’t Go over It, or Around It, Then There’s Only One Way Left to Go

  MARIA WAS FINDING IT difficult to keep the minds of the scientists on the problem in hand. As if suddenly finding themselves in the company of two demons from another realm—the scientists seemed reluctant to call it “Hell,” preferring instead to use the term climatically challenged dimension—wasn’t enough, they now had the bonus of Crudford, who was a gelatinous demon from the same place with a great fondness for hats. But the answers that Crudford was giving to their questions seemed to be causing them even more problems than the ones they had bee
n receiving from Nurd and Wormwood.

  “So,” said Professor Stefan, “have you always been a gelatinous mass?”

  “Indeed I have,” said Crudford proudly. “I’ve been a billion years before the ooze. It trails behind me, you see.”

  “Yes, I do see,” said Professor Stefan, who had slipped in some of Crudford’s ooze and almost landed on his head as a consequence. “And you say you work for a being called the ‘Great Malevolence’?”

  “That’s right,” said Crudford, “the most evil being that the Multiverse has ever known. It is the source of all badness, the well from which the darkest thoughts and deeds spring. No single entity has ever contained so much sheer nastiness as the Great Malevolence. On the other hand, I work regular hours, get weekends off, and the cafeteria’s not bad.”

  “And what does this Great Malevolence want?” said Professor Hilbert.

  “Well, it would really like to see the Earth reduced to a burning plain, with all life on it either wiped out or left screaming in agony. That aside, it would probably settle for Samuel Johnson’s head on a plate.”

  “Is that what you want?” asked Maria, who was quite shocked to hear Crudford speak of her friend in that way. Once you got over the fact that he was largely transparent, and clearly demonic,55 Crudford appeared very good-natured.

  “I don’t know Samuel Johnson personally,” said Crudford, “and he’s never done anything to hurt me. I wouldn’t like it if my head was lopped off, although I’m pretty sure that it would grow back again. But life is a lot easier when the Great Malevolence is happy, which isn’t very often. If you’re worried about me trying to cut Samuel Johnson’s head off, though, then don’t be. I’m not the head-cutting kind. Also, I’m here to help, because right now you have bigger problems than the Great Malevolence. In case you haven’t noticed, your town has been dimensionally shifted. It’s now stuck in the space between dimensions, and that’s somewhere you don’t want to be.

 
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