As he zoomed down the - thankfully mostly empty – stretch of road that ran along the South Devonshire coast Crowley's foul mood began to gradually dissipate, and he found himself allowing the Bentley to slow down to a sedate 120mph. The radio was on and currently tuned to a local station that seemed to have a bit of a fixation with seventies disco, despite the jingle's assurances that Radio Otter only played Today's best hits, everyday. Crowley was quite enjoying the vitriolic argument the DJ was currently having with one of the people calling in to participate in the Name that tune competition.
He supposed that a week or two in a quaint little out of the way village could be entertaining, depending on how he played things. There was, after all, nothing like a bit of scandalous half-true gossip, to get a small insular community to enter into a frenzy of petty wrath, envy, anxiety, self-satisfaction and greed. Alas, the focus of Crowley's trip was to be the temptation of a devoutly religious local librarian, whose corruption would be a long, tedious process, which probably do very little to increase the net amount of sinfulness in the vicinity. It was petty, even by the standards of Hell's middle management, who to Crowley's mind couldn't organise a soul appropriation at a satanic orgy: but then he did strongly suspect that the whole thing had more to do with Dagon's childish war of one-upmanship with the angel Amitiel (who had apparently taken a paternal interest in the librarian's moral wellbeing throughout the man's teenage years) than it did any sort of coherent damnation strategy.
He glanced at his watch: it was twenty-eight minutes past ten. Not too bad all things considered, he was only fifteen miles away from his destination and the thought of getting a good night's sleep before the temptation campaign began in earnest was starting to increasingly appealing. It was, of course, too much to hope that the little town was going to have anything as basic as a four star hotel, but there would doubtless be some bog-standard, reasonably clean place that he could inhabit without too much fuss, for the duration of his infernal business trip.
On the radio, the sound of the contestant hurling expletives at the equally irate DJ gave way to the half-hourly news summary. The announcement that reports of spontaneous violent and bloody riots springing up at three very upmarket locations in London were coming in, caused Crowley to snort, raise an eyebrow and experience a wave of gladness that he was not currently residing in the capital. The telltale signs that the humans involved were being given a slight nudge in the wrong direction by outside forces were easy enough to spot if you knew what to look for: and Crowley preferred to have as little to do with the Four as possible. They were, even by demonic standards, a little disturbing. It was, Crowley supposed, something to do with the fact that they were so downright intangible. Demons tempted and tormented, but that was just the job description, they didn't personify damnation, even if they did have to devote tedious amounts of time to representing it. The Horsepersons though, they were what they were.
Crowley slowed the Bentley down to a crawl of 90 mph as road sign declaring the turn off leading to Willowholme to be located 200 metres away zipped by. As he took said turn several other road users honked angrily at his apparent disregard for some of the more sensible motoring laws.
Within a matter of seconds a large village began to rapidly emerge into view: a mishmash of quaint, old-worldy buildings that many people would call charming, but that was possessed, in Crowley's opinion, of a rather unattractive level of twee. It was, he though, as the Bentley shot past the Welcome to Willowholme sign, a sure bet that there was something a bit off with a place when 60 of dwellings appeared to have a thatched (or at least faux-thatched) roof. Aziraphale would have doubtless found it all rather endearing, if perhaps a tiny bit false, but Crowley really couldn't understand the appeal of a town wherein the primary areas of economic expansion were 'interesting little antique shops' and 'places selling odd bits of misshapen hand-made jewellery'. The demon didn't, by and large, have much of a problem with such businesses: he was after all a firm proponent of gratuitous spending and conspicuous consumption (especially if it involved thousands of pounds worth of credit card debt). It was just that, in his professional opinion, a place should have a little more diversity in its consumerist temptations.
Still, he supposed that trying to get a few more soulless chain stores, fast food outlets, and coffee franchises into the area would give him something to do during his – hopefully brief – stay in the picturesque town. Turning his attention from shopping outlets to possible accommodation for the weary traveller of an infernal persuasion, he noted that there seemed to be a dearth of establishments that didn't scream 'Middle Class Family Holiday'.
In the end he pulled up outside a small but reasonably upmarket-looking place with the words The Willow Tree Hotel spelled out in dark green letters on the whitewashed stone between the ground and first floor windows: the double yellow lines at the curb receding to make way for a Bentley-sized parking space.
It might not be the Ritz, but it would do for now.
Jeremy Wensleydale was not happy. He'd been in a state of not-happiness for several minutes now and the sensation was not showing any signs of abating. In anything, it was promising to blossom into a state of downright pissed-offness.
It had all started when Brian and Pepper had turned up on his doorstep in a condition of moderate drunkenness and begged in what they clearly thought were hushed tones to be let in; which he had consented to do lest the neighbours be woken up.
After allowing them in and ushering them into the living room, Brian had promptly taken up residence on the newly cleaned cream sofa, not considering the effect that the dirt that was caked onto the bottom of his jeans (an unfortunate consequence of the shortcut the pair had earlier taken through Tadfield Woods) would have on the pristine fabric. Pepper, displaying slightly more consideration and wherewithal had remained standing.
They had then both proceeded to start babbling incoherently about something to with Adam, socks and the balance of the universe.
"Look, what the hell are you on about?" Wensley demanded, after five minutes of trying to deduce what they were trying to tell him about Adam. He'd managed to glean that he and they been in the pub until some event, which Wensleydale hadn't quite been able to discern, had caused their friend to suddenly get up and leave.
"We were just sitting there talking about Greasy Johnson's socks," said Pepper, who currently seemed to be the more lucid of the two, "and Adam… well, he suddenly stood up, said something about the cosmic balance being thrown out of synch and how he needed to make sure everything was alright, and then he just walked out."
All of this was about as clear as mud to poor sober Wensleydale, to whom only the words 'Adam' and 'just walked out' were at all salient and meaningful. They weren't particularly surprising words: Adam did, after all, have a tendency to do the unexpected at odd and seemingly inopportune moments. However, it was clear that something about this particular incident, if one could call it that, had phrased Brian and Pepper enough to send them stumbling to him. Therefore Wensleydale, too sensible to walk out into the night and try and locate his friend but too prone to concern to leave the matter be, did the only thing he could think of: he got out his mobile phone and dialled Adam's number.
After five rings the call was answered.
Hi Wensley, came the very familiar and slightly careworn voice on the other end.
"Adam, are you okay?" asked Wensleydale, not quite sure how to phrase his concerns in a sensible manner. Opening a conversation with: 'Brian and Pepper have turned up at my place completely plastered and seem to think you've gone a bit weird', just didn't seem like a particularly good idea.
I'm alright, but something important's come up, Adam replied, seeming, as always, to understand the reason for the late night interruption. I need to go to the Philippines.
Wensleydale gaped. "What?"
Look, I really can't explain everything right now, but it's pretty urgent.
"But the Philippines are on other side of the world."
Which is why I've got to set off right now.
I'll call you again as soon as I get to Manila.
The line then went dead.
For about half a minutes Wensleydale found himself quite unable to articulate his thoughts on the information he'd just received. Eventually Pepper and Brian's intent and worried stares prompted him to deliver as cogent a summary as possible.
"Er… he says that he needs to go to Manila."
There had, over the last few years, been very few occasions on which Wensleydale, Pepper and Brian had all simultaneously found themselves all in agreement on a particular issue. Right now however they were experiencing one of those increasingly rare moments when all three were of the same mind
Adam Young had quite clearly gone mental.
There were few things, Crowley decided as he stood in the moderately classy yet distinctly boring lobby of the Willow Tree Hotel, quite as entertaining to watch as a verbal battle between pompously irate, middle-aged guest and intellectually disadvantaged teenaged receptionist.
The guest in question had been checking out at the same time that Crowley was entering the building, and the demon had been unable to keep himself from, with the blink of an eye, adding £2000 pounds in room service charges to the man's bill: £1200 of it listed under 'intimate massage services'.
It had really been so very very amusing to watch as the wronged customer's face was first vacated by all colour and then flooded with the hue Crowley tended to think of as Road Rage Beetroot, as anger quickly replaced shock.
Even funnier however was the receptionist's confused notion that litigation was something that farmers did to keep the crops watered in summer.
"Young lady," the man boomed, at the receptionist's insistence that she wasn't allowed to alter the database without supervision because of what had happened the last time she'd tried it. "If you don't withdraw these ludicrous – not to mention slanderous – charges I shall be forced to take you to the highest court in the land."
The girl's jaw dropped. "What, you mean you want to take us on… on The Jeremy Kyle Show?"
Crowley snorted and wondered whether he could once again place 'advances in daytime television' on his annual of list of diabolic activities undertaken.
When the man began to loudly demand to speak to the manager however, Crowley realised that the situation would continue to escalate for quite some time; and that, entertaining as the whole thing may be, sticking around to watch it play out to its inevitably violent and expletive ridden conclusion would eat into the time he planned to devote to the practice of sloth at its most fundamental level. Thus, with a snap of his fingers the key to one of the larger rooms on the second floor materialised in his hand and he headed for the staircase.
He could always inspect the damage in the morning.
"We're closing in five minutes."
White, who had been contemplating the chemical composition of his mostly untouched cider, looked up to see the barmaid once again standing over him. She was a prettily plump woman with fair skin and a friendly face whose scent indicated that she was the sort to conscientiously seek out the least environmentally damaging toiletries available. Two months ago White would have taken great delight in willing a few rather nasty little chemicals to the bottle of rosewater she kept upstairs, but today the thought had held no appeal.
They'd been fascinating to listen to, she and her friend: the way the conversation had gone from trivial to serious to salacious to sardonic to heartfelt and back again. White had never really taken the time to observe humans interacting outside of what one might call his specialised sphere before; where exchanges seemed to centre either around how laughably implausible it was that anything could go wrong with all the fail-safe systems in place or the rather more fraught question of how the hell the leak had happened and whether now would be a good time to book those tickets to Venezuela. It was all so very… odd. He'd never thought of them being otherwise engaging before.
"Closing?" he queried.
She nodded in a slightly apprehensive fashion, taking a quick glance behind her as if to make sure her friend was still there.
"We always shut at eleven," she said, pointing to a clock on the wall that proclaimed it to already be twenty past the hours. "You can finish your drink before you go though," she added.
He considered the idea for a moment. Alcohol was a relatively simple chemical that, on passing through the human digestive system, was broken down into a multitude of little poisons: and he'd earlier, despite the fact that his form could manifest far more horrific toxins at will, felt an odd compulsion to experience what the process felt like first hand. After all, having a form that sprung from the collective human consciousness meant that it shared more or less the same anatomical structure, no matter how twisted and warped.
However, now that it was in front of him the sight of the lukewarm, hours old beverage seemed somehow unappealing.
"No," he said after a long pause. "I think I'll go now."
"You've got somewhere to stay, haven't you?" she asked, picking up the glass containing the unappealing liquid, voice tinged with something that was almost-but-not-quite like discomfort.
"Oh yes," White replied. "I'm staying in the field behind the Richardson & Sons Abattoir."
The barmaid gaped at him. "You've parked a caravan up there?"
"I don't have a caravan."
Her expression when from surprised to utterly incredulous. "You mean, you've… you've pitched a tent?
He shook his head and, dropping a handful of extremely corroded looking coins on the table, got up and left. He couldn't see what was so shocking about spending the night in a tent: humans did it all the time. But then, they did sometimes tend to be a little reluctant to spend prolonged periods of time in the areas where their food was killed. He wasn't quite sure why. Most of the really harmful chemicals got added later on in the ready meal construction process.
As he stepped out into the cool night air, he recalled the work he'd done with Sable: the time spent aiding the development of the diet pills and suggesting 'improvements' to the MEALS(TM) production processes. It had been camaraderie of a sort, and he experienced a twinge of something that he couldn't name, but that was… not positive, at the thought that such a thing was unlikely to happen again.
It was an experience that prompted him to do something he had never before attempted or indeed experienced the need to attempt.
He pushed the thought from his mind.
At half past three in the morning the whole world seemed to be at a lull.
In a passably expensive room at the Willow Tree Hotel the demon Crowley snoozed soundly.
In a clean, tidy and distinctly middle-class home in Lower Tadfield Wensleydale, having given into sleep after several hours of worrying, dozed uneasily in his bed. On the floor, his two friends lay in a deep sleep, blessedly unaware of the hangovers they were going to suffer through in the morning.
In a Devonshire police cell slept a man who'd been arrested for causing affray and damage to property after venting his 'perfectly reasonable' displeasure at a thoroughly outrageous bill.
In a room above a Devonshire pub a soft-hearted barmaid experienced uneasy dreams about a pale man with nowhere to call home.
In a quiet, if foul smelling, field Pollution stood staring up at the sky and, in a state of mind that was almost trancelike.
And in a plane about to take of from Gatwick Airport an Antichrist fretted. It wasn't the mundane, everyday kind of fretting he did after forgetting to pay the phone bill or saying something unkind to a friend whilst in the grip of annoyance. It wasn't even the 'I know that I could make my kind, friendly and dog loving neighbour's chronic and debilitating illness go away, but if I did it would be the thin end of the wedge that would lead to me being obliged to help everybody' type fretting. This was full on, fate of the world is about to be to be decided, variety fretting; and he wasn't sure if he was dealing with it correctly.
Nine years ago an entity had told him that one day there might be an end to Famine, Pollution or even War, but that Death, which is creations shadow, would endure until the end of creation. Adam had contended the latter part of the statement on the basis that, well, who knew what the rules were apart from the one who'd set them, but he'd accepted the first premise with fairly little consideration. Hideously optimistic it might be; but it did seem possible that one day humanity might make a considered and honest collective appraisal of itself and somehow find a way to permanently send three of the Four into retirement.
What he hadn't considered however was that one of the Horseperson's might just, well, stop of their own accord. It was one thing for one of them to retire owing to decline in opportunities: but to just cease when they had all the potential in the world? It was dangerous. Perverse and counter-intuitive as it was, it was very very dangerous. The type of very very dangerous that led to threads snagging in the material of the universe.
Adam had been sensing that something was slightly off kilter for several weeks, but it had only been when Pepper had commented that despite her commitment to recycling she though that Greasy Johnson's socks belong on a toxic waste dump, that the realisation had dawned.
He knew that couldn't very well make Pollution to return to active duty (well, no, he could, but the consequences of that would probably be far worse in the long run than any trouble the anthropomorphic personification could induce). So he was going to do the only thing he could think of and seek out what one might call a 'stop gap measure', until the situation could be resolved. Unfortunately, being the Antichrist didn't guarantee infallibility and he couldn't be certain that what he was about to attempt would work.
In the seat next to him Dog, sensing his worry, gave him a comforting nuzzle. It wasn't much, but it eased the anxiety a little. Adam tried not to gratuitously use the powers that had been conferred upon him, but some rules were so ridiculous that he felt it morally justifiable to nudge reality in such a manner that quarantine and seating exceptions were made by British Airways for really well behaved Hell Hounds.
As the announcement that take off was imminent came over the intercom he lay back in the seat and shut his eyes. If he was going to stop reality from fraying round the edges he should probably try and get a few hours sleep first.