The creeps, p.8
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       The Creeps, p.8

           John Connolly
 
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  “But—” said Jolly.

  “Don’t you go making excuses! You should be ashamed of yourselves. I’ve a good mind to call the police.”

  Angry stared very intently at Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley. The singing Christmas tree continued to chirp away merrily. Angry was starting to hate it.

  “Excuse me,” he said, “but are you a mad bloke?”

  “Oh, and I suppose you don’t like them either!” said Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley. “What if I was fat and mad, eh? What then? I suppose you’d come after me with pitchforks and flaming torches. You’d want me hidden away from sight, locked up in a cell somewhere with only bread and water!”

  “Locked up might be a start,” muttered Angry.

  “I heard that!” said Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley. “Don’t think I didn’t!”

  He opened a drawer in his desk, removed a hammer, and brought it down hard on the Christmas tree. While the dwarfs watched, he continued hammering at the tree until it was reduced to little shards of green plastic. From somewhere in its workings, a final faint tinkle of bells could be heard before the tree expired. Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley moved a bin into place with his left foot and used his right hand to sweep the remains of the Christmas tree into it. They fell on the remains of lots of other Christmas trees. From what Angry could see, the bin contained nothing else.

  Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley restored the hammer to its drawer, opened another drawer, and took a Christmas tree from it. He positioned it in precisely the same place occupied by the previous tree.

  “Right,” said Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley. He smiled. “Where were we?”

  There was a long, careful silence.

  “A job?” said Jolly. “For us?”

  “Of course! Elves, by any chance?”

  “Er, if you like.”

  “Oh, fine by me. You seem just the sorts. Very festive. Very small. We like our elves small. Doesn’t work if they’re big. Doesn’t work at all. This week good for you to start? Nine until six on regular days, an hour for lunch, two tea breaks of not more than fifteen minutes each, although for the grand opening on Thursday you don’t have to get here until sixish. Don’t eat too many biscuits: they’ll make you fat, and we don’t want that, do we? Fine for Father Christmas, but bad for elves. Bad, bad, bad! Sign there.”

  He pushed the pen and blank sheet of paper toward them.

  “There’s nothing on it,” said Dan.

  “Doesn’t matter,” said Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley. “All friends here.”

  “What about money?” said Jolly.

  “Oh, I don’t take bribes,” said Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley. “That would be wrong.”

  He leaned forward, placed a hand against his face, and whispered conspiratorially.

  “And you’re supposed to offer me the bribe before you get the job,” he said. “Doesn’t work otherwise. Bear it in mind for next time, eh?”

  “Er, no, I meant that we do get paid, don’t we?”

  “Oh! I see! Ha! Forget about the bribe stuff, then. Only joking. Our secret, eh? Yes, money. How much would you like? A lot? A little? How about something in between? What about ten pounds an hour?”

  “That sounds—” Jolly began to say, when Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley interrupted him.

  “Okay, eleven.”

  “What?”

  “Twelve, but you drive a hard bargain.”

  “I think— ”

  Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley puffed his cheeks and wiped his brow.

  “Thirteen, then, but that’s my final offer.”

  “If you’re—”

  “Fourteen, but you’re robbing me, ho ho! You’re stealing me blind!”

  The dwarfs had no problem stealing anybody blind, but on this occasion they weren’t even trying. It bothered them. It didn’t seem fair somehow.

  “Listen—” said Angry, but Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley was too quick for him.

  “Fifteen,” he said. “That’s it. I can’t go any higher than sixteen. Seventeen’s my last and final offer. Absolutely. Eighteen it is.”

  Angry reached for the pen. Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley grabbed it before he could get to it.

  “Nineteen!” he said. “We need elves!”

  “Give me the pen,” said Angry. “Please.”

  Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley burst into tears and buried his face in his hands.

  “All right then, twenty,” he said, in a muffled voice. “Twenty-one pounds an hour, but you’ll be making more than I am.”

  The dwarfs eventually managed to sign for twenty-five, but it was a struggle, and two of them had to hold on to Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley’s arms while the others wrestled the pen from him. They left him in his office, and closed the door behind them. From inside came the sound of “Jingle Bells” in a foreign language, followed almost immediately by an intense burst of hammering.

  Nobody came to show Dan and the dwarfs out of the store. They had to find their own way back to the street, and they were so troubled by their encounter with Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley that only later did they notice that, throughout the course of their meeting with him, he had not blinked once.

  • • •

  Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley sat back in his chair. He was very relieved that the dwarfs were gone.

  “I think that went well,” he said to the Voice in the Wall. “I don’t believe they suspected a thing. I acted entirely normal.”

  Twenty-five pounds an hour, said the Voice in the Wall. Do you think I’m made of money?

  Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley shook his head. Whatever the Voice in the Wall was made of, it wasn’t money. Money didn’t smell that foul.

  “They were tough little negotiators,” said Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley. “Very tough indeed. They wore me down.”

  They won’t live long enough to collect a penny of it, said the Voice in the Wall. Still, it’s the principle.

  “I’ll be more careful next time,” said Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley.

  That’s nice, said the Voice in the Wall, and Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley, who couldn’t remember his past, failed to hear in its tones the sound of his very short future coming to an unhappy end.

  XII

  In Which Invitations Are Received

  THE INVITATIONS BEGAN TO arrive in the days before the grand opening of Wreckit & Sons. Samuel received one, with a special note informing him that, as the hero who had saved Biddlecombe and the Earth from a demonic invasion, he would be a guest of honor. He was also warmly requested to bring the courageous Boswell along with him. The note was signed by Mr. St. John-Cholmondeley on behalf of the new owner, a mysterious Mr. Grimly.

  “That’s very nice of him, isn’t it?” said Samuel’s mother as she examined the note. “And look at that invitation! It’s printed on ever such expensive card, and the handwriting is so lovely. It’s odd that it’s written in red ink, though, isn’t it? You’d think they’d have used black, or blue. Maybe they thought it was more festive in red.”

  The invitation made Samuel uneasy for reasons he couldn’t quite pin down. Perhaps it was the fact that Boswell took one sniff and decided he didn’t care for it at all, or that the ink didn’t look much like ink. It looked, to be honest, a bit like blood, and Samuel told his mother as much.

  “Don’t be silly,” said Mrs. Johnson. “You always see the worst in things.”

  “Fighting demons and being dragged off to Hell will do that to a person, Mum,” said Samuel.

  “Oh, hush,” said Mrs. Johnson, who didn’t like being reminded of the unpleasantnesses that had befallen her son, even if she did have two demons living in her spare room and making funny smells in the bathroom. She had decided to look upon Nurd and Wormwood as a pair of slightly eccentric lodgers, and leave it at that.

  “Anyway,” Mrs. Johnson continued, “it’s about time you got some recognition for all that you’ve done for this town. They should have put up a statue to you, if you ask me.”

  In addition to the wandering statue of Hilary Mould, Biddlecombe only ha
d one other such monument, and that was of Brigadier General Sir Charles MacCarthy, the hopeless nineteenth-century British commander, who, while on his way to be knighted in 1820, had stopped for tea in Biddlecombe and left a small tip.25 It was often suggested that the town needed another statue or two, although this suggestion usually came from mayors or local politicians, who seemed to think it would be a good idea if the statue looked a bit like them, and maybe had their name carved underneath.

  “I don’t want a statue in my honor, thanks,” said Samuel. He could think of nothing worse than having a bronze version of himself providing a convenient head on which pigeons could poo. Life was hard enough as it was.

  A thumping sound came from above, and moments later Nurd and Wormwood appeared in the kitchen. They were very excited. Samuel could tell because Wormwood had somehow set himself on fire and hadn’t noticed, and the fire had spread to Nurd’s coat but he hadn’t noticed either. Samuel discreetly put out the flames with a damp tea towel and waited to find out what was going on.

  “We’ve received an invitation,” said Nurd.

  “To the opening of the new toy shop in the town,” said Wormwood.

  He was positively glowing, which was probably how the fire had started. Wormwood had recently developed an unfortunate habit of bursting into flame when he got angry or embarrassed, or even if he coughed for too long. He would turn bright red, and the next minute you could toast bread on him.

  Wormwood had never been invited anywhere before, unless you counted being invited outside for a fight, or to make a room smell better by his absence. Even Nurd had rarely received invitations to events, largely because he had spent billions of years going through a phase of conspiring to rule worlds, and nobody wants to invite someone to a party only to find that he’s declared himself king of their house and is now trying on their slippers for size.

  “That’s very peculiar,” said Samuel.

  He examined the invitation that the demons had been sent. It was addressed to Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee, the names under which Nurd and Wormwood were living in Biddlecombe. Only a handful of people knew that Nurd and Wormwood weren’t exactly human: even most of their employers at the Biddlecombe Car Testing Institute just regarded Nurd as unusually fireproof, and quite bendy.26

  “Why is it peculiar?” asked Wormwood. “We’re good company!”

  He thought for a moment.

  “Well, we might be, if there was nobody else in the room.”

  “It’s peculiar,” said Samuel, “because, as far as most of Biddlecombe is concerned, you’re just two odd-looking men who happen to be living with us. You haven’t been drawing attention to yourselves, have you?”

  “No,” said Nurd. “Wormwood’s been drawing flies, but that’s nothing new.”

  “I like to think of them as pets,” said Wormwood. “And, sometimes, as snacks.”

  Mrs. Johnson felt queasy, but said nothing.

  “So why would this Mr. Grimly invite you two to the opening of his new shop?” asked Samuel.

  It was only after he had asked the question that he realized how unkind it sounded. He hadn’t meant it that way. He had been thinking aloud. But now he could see the hurt in Nurd’s eyes, and even Wormwood, who was harder to offend than a dead person, looked a little pained. Nurd snatched the invitation back from Samuel.

  “Why wouldn’t he invite us?” said Nurd. “We’re nice.”

  “No, you’re not,” said Wormwood.

  “And we work hard.”

  “No, you don’t.”

  “And we— Whose side are you on, anyway?” he asked Wormwood.

  “Sorry,” said Wormwood. “Force of habit.”

  “I didn’t mean it that way,” said Samuel. “It’s just that Mr. Grimly shouldn’t have heard of you. We don’t want people to hear about you, because if the wrong kind of people know about you, then there’ll be all sorts of trouble, and they might take you away. Don’t you understand?”

  Nurd’s shoulders sagged. He wanted to argue, but he couldn’t. Samuel was right.

  “Yes,” he said, “I understand.”

  “I don’t,” said Wormwood. “But then, I never do.”

  “I’ll explain later,” said Nurd.

  He placed a consoling hand on Wormwood’s shoulder, then looked for somewhere to wipe his fingers. Mrs. Johnson gave him a cloth.

  “It doesn’t matter,” said Nurd. “Honestly, it doesn’t. But just for a while, it felt like we were part of something.”

  “You are part of something,” said Samuel. “You’re part of our family. Right, Mum?”

  Mrs. Johnson didn’t answer immediately.

  “Mum?” urged Samuel.

  “Yes, yes, of course they are,” said Mrs. Johnson, under pressure. “I just tell people they’re from your dad’s side.”

  Nurd tried to smile, but couldn’t quite manage it. He took one last look at the invitation, then tore it up and threw it in the bin.

  “Let’s go upstairs, Wormwood,” he said. “You can entertain me by making unusual smells.”

  They left the kitchen. When they were gone, Mrs. Johnson turned to Samuel.

  “He has a point, you know,” she said. “We can’t keep them cooped up in here forever when they’re not working. If they’re going to stay in this world, they have to find their place in it. I don’t mean a physical place: they’ll always have a home here, even if I do sometimes wonder what Wormwood does in the bathroom, because he certainly isn’t washing, or if he is, then it isn’t working. No, what I mean is that they need to be happy in it, and to be happy they have to discover what makes them happy. Maybe you should let them go with you to Wreckit’s. They’ll have a lovely time, and it will help them. I’m sure of it.”

  Samuel nodded. “I suppose you’re right.”

  “Go on,” said Mrs. Johnson. “Bring their invitation back to them, and tell them to think about what they’re going to wear. Now, I’m late for bingo.”

  She went into the hallway, grabbed her coat, and rushed out of the door. Samuel knelt by the bin and prepared to fish out the pieces of the torn invitation, but they weren’t there.

  The invitation had vanished.

  * * *

  25. Somebody should really have given Sir Charles himself a tip, namely, don’t go into battle with only five hundred men against ten thousand spear-wielding natives, which is what MacCarthy did in 1824 when he was governor of the Gold Coast in Africa. MacCarthy ordered his men to play “God Save the King” in the hope that it might scare the natives away. It didn’t. The natives attacked and MacCarthy’s force was almost entirely wiped out, not helped by the fact that they had accidentally brought macaroni with them instead of spare ammunition. MacCarthy’s heart was eaten by the victorious natives, and they kept his head as a souvenir, displaying it on special occasions and the odd holiday.

  26. Similarly, only old Mr. Spiggit, the founder of Spiggit’s Brewery, Chemical Weapons & Industrial Cleaning Products Ltd., knew that Shan and Gath, the chief brewers in his Dangerously Experimental Drinks Department (DEDD), were pig demons. Everybody else just thought they were two big fellows who had drunk too many of their own brews, since the list of side effects caused by sampling Spiggit’s Old Peculiar on a regular basis included massive weight gain, hairy palms, molting, and unusual beard growth. And that was just what it did to women. To the list could be added speech difficulties, tooth loss, tooth growth, and explosive wind. Basically, it was Shan and Gath in a nutshell.

  XIII

  In Which We Learn That Hilary Mould May Have Been Even Odder Than First Suspected

  SAMUEL KNOCKED ON THE door of the bedroom shared by Nurd and Wormwood and waited until Nurd’s voice gave him permission to come in. Samuel was very conscious of giving Nurd and Wormwood as much privacy and space as he could. The little bedroom was their home within the home, although they hadn’t done much to change it apart from putting up a few posters on the walls. Nurd had opted for pictures of ancient monuments in far-off countries:
the Pyramids of Egypt, the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru. Wormwood, by contrast, preferred pictures of terrible boy bands. He even had a signed poster of BoyStarz, given to him by Dan and the dwarfs. According to Dan, there were plenty more posters where that came from. Hundreds.

  Thousands.

  Nurd was lying on the top bunk, flicking through the travel supplement from one of the weekend newspapers. Wormwood was listening to music on his headphones. It was loud enough for Samuel to be able to hear some of the words: something about how love was like a garden, or a rosebush, or a snail. Whatever it was, it sounded dreadful, but Samuel said nothing. It made Wormwood happy, which was all that mattered. As if to confirm this, Wormwood gave Samuel a smile and a big thumbs-up. Samuel waved back and climbed the ladder on the bunks so that he could speak face-to-face with Nurd.

  “Is everything all right?” asked Samuel.

  “Everything’s fine,” said Nurd, although his expression suggested the opposite was true.

  “It’s just that you don’t seem to be yourself lately,” said Samuel. “I’m worried about you.”

  Faced with Samuel’s obvious concern, Nurd put the travel supplement away.

  “That’s just it,” he said. “I’m not sure what being myself means anymore. When I was in Hell, I was Nurd, the Scourge of Five Deities. I wasn’t very important. I wasn’t important at all, really, but I had a name, and I knew my place, even if it wasn’t a very nice one. But here on Earth I live under a false name, and I have to hide my face. I crash cars for a living. Don’t get me wrong, I like crashing cars, or I used to, but there’s only so many times that you can crash a car and survive a fireball before it starts to get a bit samey.”27

  “What can I do to help?” said Samuel.

  “Nothing,” said Nurd. “It’s not your fault. It’s just me, that’s all. I’ll figure something out.”

 
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