The creeps, p.21
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       The Creeps, p.21

           John Connolly
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  “What is that noise?” said Professor Stefan. “It sounds like music.”

  A handful of Nosferati survivors, their ears jammed with dead mice to drown out the sound of the organ, had found the stairs out of the basement. They emerged from the stairwell with their fangs exposed, their clawed hands raised, and their bald heads shining under the emergency lights.

  “Me first,” said Brian. He made it to the top of the stairs in record time.

  Brian might have been a scaredy-cat of the highest order, thought Professor Stefan, but he was very agile when he needed to be. He just hoped that me first wouldn’t be Brian’s last words.

  • • •

  All of the pieces were on the board—almost. There were two missing, but they were on their way.

  The demons called Shan and Gath were probably happier than they had ever been. In Hell, they had been strictly third-level staff: their main task was to shovel coal and tend the Eternal Fiery Pits of Doom, which wasn’t very difficult as the Eternal Fiery Pits of Doom were never likely to go out anytime in the future. That was why they were called the Eternal Fiery Pits of Doom, and not the Temporary Fiery Pits of Doom, which doesn’t have the same ring about it at all. Every so often they were sent on holiday to the Quarry of Gray Meaninglessness, where they broke rocks for two weeks, and were entertained in the evenings by the swinging sounds of Barry Perry on the kazoo.59

  Then, during the attempted invasion of Earth, they had discovered the strange joys of a foul beer named Spiggit’s Old Peculiar and had never looked back. For a while they had not looked anywhere at all, Spiggit’s tending to cause temporary blindness and an overwhelming desire to be dead. Back in Hell, they attempted to brew it themselves, with mixed results, but they had never stopped trying. When they eventually managed to escape from Hell, their ability to consume large quantities of Spiggit’s without actually dying, combined with their sensitive taste buds, had brought them the job of a lifetime: as chief tasters and beer experimenters at Spiggit’s Brewery, Chemical Weapons, and Cleaning Products Ltd.60

  Yes, they were demons. Even Old Mr. Spiggit himself, whose eyesight was very poor, and who was generally regarded as a lunatic, could see from the start that Shan and Gath weren’t your usual employees. On the other hand, they didn’t stand out as much at the Spiggit’s Brewery as they might have done elsewhere on Earth. Years of exposure to Spiggit’s had caused biological changes to many of the company’s employees. Mr. Lambert in Accounts had to shave his hands at least twice a week, and had so much facial hair that the only way to be sure that you were talking to his face was to look for the bulge where his nose was; Mr. Norris in Sales had a third thumb; and Mrs. Elmtree in Quality Control had grown small but noticeable horns. They didn’t mind, though, as Spiggit’s paid well, and nobody else would employ them anyway because they looked so distinctive.

  Shan and Gath had proven particularly good at looking after the more experimental brews, including the lethal Spiggit’s Old Notorious, a beer so dangerous that a batch of its yeast had once stolen a car and held up the Bank of Biddlecombe. The yeast had never been caught, and was now believed to be living somewhere in Spain. Shan and Gath had put an end to that kind of nonsense. No yeast was going to cause trouble on their watch.

  Very few things could lure Shan and Gath out of their comfortable home at Spiggit’s Brewery, but the invitation that had landed on their doorstep a few days earlier had contained the magic words FREE BEER, which was why they were now standing outside Wreckit & Sons wondering where the party was.

  Shan approached the occult field. He suspected that it was dangerous, but he wasn’t entirely sure. To test his theory he pushed Gath against it. There was a buzzing sound, and the back of Gath’s coat disappeared, leaving only a smoking hole where the material had once been.

  “Hurh-hurh.” Shan laughed as Gath put out the last of the flames.

  “Hurh-hurh.” Gath laughed before grabbing Shan’s right hand and sticking Shan’s index finger into the field. The finger promptly vanished, leaving only a smoking stump in its place.

  “Hurh-hurh.” Gath laughed again.

  “No, hurh-hurt,” said Shan.

  He would have wagged his finger disapprovingly at Gath, who always took a joke too far, but he was still waiting for it to grow back. When it had done so, he looked again at the invitation.

  “Beer,” he said, and pointed at the shop.

  “Beer,” said Gath.

  But between them and the beer stood the barrier.

  Sometimes in life you have to lose a battle to win a war. Shan dug into one of the pockets of his coat and removed from it a black bottle. The bottle was encased in a titanium frame that kept its cork in place, and the following warning was written on the glass.



  Shan and Gath had often looked longingly at the next-to-last remaining bottle of Spiggit’s Old Resentful. It had been developed by Old Mr. Spiggit shortly before people spotted that he was clearly as nutty as a nut-brown squirrel in a nut factory. How bad could Spiggit’s Old Resentful be? Shan and Gath had wondered. The answer was, Probably very bad. Spiggit’s did not issue such warnings lightly. If your regular beer has a biohazard symbol on it, even one with a smiley face, then the special stuff must be lethal.

  And so Shan and Gath had long carried the bottles of Spiggit’s Old Resentful around with them, hoping that the day might come when they would have cause to open them. Now, it seemed, that day was upon them.

  Shan typed in the seventeen-digit combination on the bottle’s lock, and the titanium cage sprang open. As if sensing that its time was upon it, something rumbled in the glass. Shan looked a bit worried. He looked even more worried as the cork began to remove itself from the bottle under pressure from whatever was inside. Like a man who suddenly finds himself in possession of a live hand grenade, he did the only sensible thing: he handed it to the bloke standing next to him, which in this case was Gath, and began backing away. Gath, meanwhile, might not have been very bright, but he wasn’t entirely stupid. He tossed the bottle straight back to Shan, who caught it and sent it back to Gath, and so a game of Hot Potato continued until Shan saw that there was barely a finger’s width of cork left in the bottle.

  He threw the bottle at the occult field. The bottle didn’t pass through but exploded on impact, showering the field with a dark brown liquid that looked like mud and smelled like low tide at a herring factory. Shan’s eyes watered, and his nasal hairs caught fire. Gath fainted.

  The occult field didn’t have feelings, exactly. It was just an energy field generated by Hilary Mould’s great engine, aided by the entities with which Hilary Mould had allied himself, but it did have a kind of awareness, for it was alive with dark forces. When the bottle of Spiggit’s Old Resentful hit it and exploded, that awareness kicked into high gear, and the field made a swift decision to put as much distance between it and whatever was in the bottle as quickly as possible. The occult field vanished, retreating to another dimension where even the foulest of creatures had nothing on Spiggit’s Old Resentful.

  Shan slapped Gath on the cheeks to bring him back to consciousness. Once the smell had died down to a manageable level, they approached the shattered bottle. All that was left of the Old Resentful was some thick glass, and a large smoking crater in the ground.

  Shan and Gath shook their heads sadly, and went to find their free beer.61

  * * *

Do you need me to explain that joke? No? Good.

  59. Barry Perry had tortured crowds throughout the north of England for much of his life, taking innocent songs that had never done anyone any harm and murdering them with his kazoo. When he died and found himself in Hell, he also discovered that his kazoo had come with him, if only because someone had shoved it up his bottom before he was buried. Retrieving it from his bottom proved too difficult, though, so his shows in Hell tended to be a bit muffled, which was no bad thing.

  60. In case you think this is an odd name for a company, and are wondering how Spiggit’s could manage to create so many different products, let me set your mind at ease: it was all the same product, with varying amounts of water added. Supplies rarely got mixed up, not since the Goat & Artichoke pub had received a delivery of weapons-grade Spiggit’s by mistake. The pub had since been rebuilt, although some pieces of the landlord had still not been found.

  61. To return briefly to the subject of famous last words, which arose earlier in connection with Brian the tea boy, it’s a difficult job, coming up with a memorable farewell to life. If death comes unexpectedly, then last words may be something like “Aaaarrrgggggh!,” or “Ouch!,” or “Of course it isn’t loaded,” or “That bridge will easily support my weight.” It’s hard to be clever under pressure. The last words of the writer H. G. Wells were reputed to have been “Go away, I’m all right,” which was unfortunate as he clearly wasn’t. Arguably the worst last words ever spoken came from Dominique Bouhours, an eighteenth-century French essayist, and a big fan of correct grammar, who announced on his deathbed, “I am about to—or I am going to—die; either expression is correct.” I’ll bet they were glad to see him go.


  In Which the Great Size of the Multiverse Is Revealed

  THE FIRST THING THAT struck Samuel as he reached the icy-cold top floor was that he had suddenly developed two phobias: acrophobia, a dreadful fear of heights,62 swiftly followed by astrophobia, the fear of space. Samuel had never been frightened of heights before, and he had always been entranced by the immensity of space. He could spend a happy hour lying on his back in the garden at night, Boswell sleeping beside him, just watching the stars and feeling as though he were adrift among them.

  But the top floor of Wreckit & Sons was a different matter entirely, in part because there was no longer really a floor there, or a ceiling. The memory of them remained, the faintest outline of boards beneath his feet and plasterwork above his head, but they resembled little more than chalk marks that were slowly being washed away by rain. Even as fear overtook him, Samuel wondered if this was what it was like to be a ghost: perhaps ghosts felt themselves to be real and substantial, and the world around them seemed pale and faded.

  Beyond the near-vanished lines of the old store, and the fading shapes of trees, the Multiverse waited. It was a world of light and dark, of stars being born and stars dying, of clusters of swirling galaxies and gaseous columns of nebulae. Samuel could pick out the colors of the stars, shading from the blue of the new to the red of the old. He saw clouds of asteroids, and meteors turning to fire in the atmosphere of unknown worlds, and quasars, the brightest objects in the universe, their light powered by supermassive black holes. He saw universe layered upon universe, like panes of painted glass separated by distances simultaneously great and small. And he himself was both tiny and vast, for all that he saw seemed to revolve around him: he was suspended at the heart of the Multiverse.

  The second thing that struck Samuel was a dwarf, as Angry, who had been leading the way, discovered that being a leader is only fun if you’re collecting a trophy, or a cash prize. It’s not fun if, as leader, you’re the first person to put a foot where you expect a floor to be, only to find that a large number of universes have opened up in its place, and it looks like a very long way down. He slammed painfully into Samuel’s stomach, knocking the air from Samuel with his elbow.

  “Mind your step there,” said Angry. “There’s a bit of a drop.”

  The others had paused on the stairs, aware that there was some problem ahead, but now the steps behind them began to vanish, one by one, as the lower floors of Wreckit & Sons turned to mist and were gone.

  “The stairs are disappearing, Samuel,” shouted Maria. “We have to move up.”

  But Samuel couldn’t budge. His feet were frozen in place on what little solidity remained. He willed them to move in order to make room for the others to join him, but he couldn’t. It was only then that he looked down and saw there was nothing beneath him after all but stars. He waited for himself to begin falling, like a character in a cartoon who manages to run off the edge of a cliff and but doesn’t start to drop until he realizes what he’s done, but Samuel did not fall, and he could definitely feel something solid under his shoes. Tentatively, he tapped with his toe. Whatever was beneath him felt like wood, and sounded like wood, which meant that it was, in all likelihood, wood.

  Warily, testing the way before he took a step, he made room for the others to join him. Constable Peel was the first up.

  “Oh, Lor’,” he said as he took in the view. “I don’t feel at all well.”

  For a moment, he appeared to want to turn back and take his chances with the vanishing stairs, but Samuel reassured him.

  “It’s okay,” he told Constable Peel. “There’s still a floor under us. You can see it if you look hard enough.”

  Constable Peel didn’t want to look. Looking meant seeing infinity, or as good as, waiting right beneath his feet. He stretched out a hand to balance himself, and Angry gripped it.

  “It’s all right, Constable,” he said. “I have you.”

  “If I fall,” said Constable Peel, “I’m taking you with me. At least I’ll die happy.”

  With Angry’s help, Constable Peel came to grips with the concept of a floor that both was and wasn’t there. They repeated the process as the rest of the group joined them, until at last they were all standing together, alternating between fear and awe at the terror and majesty of the Multiverse, and at the one construction that really didn’t seem to belong in it, for standing before them was Santa’s Grotto.

  Samuel couldn’t understand why they hadn’t noticed it before. Maybe they’d been too concerned with not falling, and with taking in the view, but it was hard to ignore a little stone house with smoke pouring from its chimney and snow on its roof—real snow, because it had now begun to descend on them as well, tickling their faces before melting on their skin. The light flickering through its walls turned from white to orange as they watched, as though a great fire were raging inside.

  The door opened, and Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley appeared.

  “Look,” said Jolly, “it’s Mr. Smokey-Chimney.”

  “So it is,” said Dozy. “Oi, we want a word with you about this job, Slimy-Chopsticks. We’re starting to think that we might not want it after all; that, or you need to pay us more.”

  Now it was Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley’s turn to glow red.

  “It’s Sinjin-Chumley!” he screamed. “How many times do I have to tell you? Sinjin-Chumley! It’s just two words. How hard can it be?”

  Even amid the chaos of the Multiverse, the dwarfs could see that he was annoyed. The dwarfs prided themselves on their sensitivity to the feelings of others.

  “Sorry,” said Angry.

  “Yes, sorry,” said Jolly and Dozy.

  “Applidlespopop,” said Mumbles.

  “He says he’s sorry, too,” said Angry.

  “Sorry, Mr. . . . ?” said Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley.

  He cocked his head, and waited for a reply.

  The dwarfs looked at one another. Somebody had to give it a try. Angry, who had decided that he’d had enough of taking the lead for one day, gave Jolly a nudge.

  “Sorry,” said Jolly, “Mr. Slimjim . . .”

  He ran out of steam. Dozy gave it a try.

  “Sorry, Mr. Soapy-Chandling.”

  “Mr. Slightly-Chafing.”

  “Mr. Si

  “Mr. Stinky-Cheesecake.”

  There is a phrase sometimes used about people who are very angry: “he was incandescent with rage.” An incandescent light, as I’m sure you know, is one with a filament that glows white hot when heated. It does not, of course, mean that someone really glows white hot when annoyed, or it didn’t until Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley came along. As they watched, Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley’s eyes turned bright red, and then changed from red to burning white before bursting into flames. He opened his mouth, and smoke and fire jetted from between his lips. His whole body shook as smoke poured from his sleeves, and the ends of his trousers, and the neck of his shirt.

  “It’s—” he roared, but he got no further. His suit ignited and his body exploded, but there was no blood or flesh, only bits of plastic. Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley was simply a showroom dummy in a cheap suit brought to life, and now that existence was at an end. His head, which had soared high into the air with the force of the blast, landed with a thud and rolled across the nearly unseen floor, where Angry stopped it with his foot.

  The white light was fading from Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley’s eyes, and his skin was assuming the hardness of plastic. The dark force that had animated him was leaving, but there was a little wretched life left in him yet.

  “It’s—” he began again, but Mumbles interrupted him.

  “Sinjin-Chumley,” Mumbles said, pronouncing it perfectly.

  “We knew all along,” said Angry. “Serves you right for being unpleasant.”

  Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley found the strength to make his eyes glow an angry orange one last time before the light vanished from them and all that remained was a plastic head. Two thin streams of pure darkness poured from his ears and flowed beneath the walls of Santa’s Grotto, and that darkness seemed to be mirrored above their heads. More stars were snuffed out, swallowed by swirling clouds like thick black ink. Eyeless faces appeared in the void, but their very blindness made them more threatening. Long grasping fingers stretched out toward the Earth, and black tongues licked at lipless mouths, as though already tasting the planet’s light and life before consuming it. But the barrier between the Shadows and the universe held, for now. The Shadows flattened themselves against it, but they could not penetrate. It would not hold for much longer, though. Already cracks were visible, shining red like streams of lava.

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