A/N: Thanks to CaptainEmo and Manicr for the kind comments on the dialogue and characterisation (I defnitely agree on Pollution being 'the artistic one').
The philosophy shelf of the Willowholme Lending Library transpired, much to White's disappointment, to consist of a very limited number of mostly dull looking tomes. There were a few bright paperbacks amongst the greying blues and reds of the aged hard-covers, but further inspection revealed them to be self-help guides that had ostensibly been dumped there by a lazy reader who couldn't be bothered to locate and return them to the correct shelf. Still, they were glossier than their dourer and more appropriately located companions, and White – momentarily distracted from his quest to determine the meaning of life, the universe and everything – found himself idly picking them out and inspecting the blurbs on the back. How to Win Friends and Influence People did not seem particularly relevant to his existence. He had, after all, never had much difficulty convincing people to put their faith in the fails-safes on the toxic waste containment units. Similarly useless looking was Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, though the title was ironically amusing when one took the embodiment of War into account. However, Understanding Your Inner You did pique his interest. It promised to: "…help the reader get a sense of the place in they want to take in the world by revealing to them the needs of their inner self" and appeared to be comprised predominantly of self-test multiple choice quizzes. It was a format White approved of. With the exception of the more theoretical of the physics and chemistry papers (one sometimes needed a little help generating ideas) he had never really been one for reading long blocks of text.
As he considered the first question, a rather banal yet puzzling query as to whether a) family, b) friends or c) making more money was most important to you, White became aware that the demon was moving in his direction. As he decided to move on from said question, owing to the fact that alternative d) comprehending existence was not available (an oversight that he quickly rectified with the aid of a leaky biro he managed to dig out of his pockets), the former Serpent of Eden drew up alongside him.
"I helped write that one, you know," the demon said, by way of opening.
"A book on self-improvement for humans?"
"Best way to lead them astray is to tell them that it's the right thing."
"Oh, like Sable's diet books."
The demon visibly bristled at this comparison. "Look, a lot of people suspect that they're greedy, unkind and selfish, but don't want to see themselves that way. I give them what they want: books that'll tell them they're good, ethical people without necessitating any lifestyle change bigger than a furniture rearrangement and twenty-minutes a day of looking in the mirror and repeating a series of affirmations about how wonderful they are. End result is that they're as greedy, unkind and selfish as ever, but they've now got added narcissism, from all the mirror gazing, and smugness, from thinking that they're all enlightened."
"Does that actually work?" enquired White, mildly intrigued. He'd always known that human's had some rather pronounced tendencies towards unfounded hopefulness – it was after all the reason why he'd been so successful in convincing all of those managing directors that corners could be cut on the chemical plant safety systems – but he'd never thought that the human desire to perceive the world as they wanted could make them that, well, distant from reality.
The demon gave a small smirk. "Never underestimate the power of telling people that the things they like to do are all completely moral, upstanding and correct."
"Perhaps that's why so many of them like to deny my existence, or minimise it, at least," he said. "But then they never do seem to notice me until it's too late, and I'm usually forgotten very soon afterwards… though not always." An image of Chernobyl sprang into his mind, causing him to experience a wave of something that was very much like, but slightly different from, satisfaction: causing him to briefly wonder if this was what nostalgia felt like. Sable had during the times they had worked together talked about experiencing it, but then, the personification of Famine had been around for so much longer than Pollution had. Well, that wasn't entirely true, White had a vague idea that he'd been gestating in the minds of men, since the first forge released the first burst of toxic smoke into the atmosphere, but he hadn't truly been birthed until old Pestilence had started to wane.
"They're noticing you now." It was a casual observation, spoken in a surprisingly unloaded manner, but White nonetheless found himself tensing at the words.
"Things have changed."
"I'll bet, now you're attracting attention like nobody's business."
"I am?" He had of course noticed that people were taking far more notice of him than usual, but for some reason the 'like nobody's business' part made him a little uneasy.
"Well, you've certainly caught their imagination." The demon jabbed a finger in the direction of the two library staff. "He thinks you might be disoriented, confused and most probably suffering from some kind of mental illness. She's certain that you're suffering from some kind of mental illness, but just assumes that's situation normal for starving artist."
"Starving artist?" queried White, somewhat surprised by the assumption. True, like Sable and Carmine, he had considered the fruits of his function to have great aesthetic merit, but he'd never once expected humans – philistines in denial of their own desire for self-destruction that they were – to label him an 'artist'.
"I told them that you did performance art," said the demon, "which is true, in a way. I mean, those sunsets you get these days because of the crap in the upper atmosphere are pretty bloody awesome"
White nodded, feeling, despite his current apathy towards his designated occupation, a tiny surge of pleasure at the very-nearly compliment the demon had just paid him. "Yes, I suppose it was true."
"I mean, you're too bloody pretty to pass for a common-or-garden rough sleeper."
"I am?" he said, feeling another – though this time rather less explicable - tiny surge of pleasure. Sable had called him pretty several times during their acquaintance. The elder Horseperson had clapped an arm around his shoulders and told him that, just as his own visage reflected ascetism and the strange virtue humanity seemed to attribute to the denial of the things needed to sustain life , War's reflective the primal seductiveness of the urge to bash one's neighbour over the head for a perceived minor slight and Pestilence's the unavoidable and inevitable ugliness of decay; Pollution's form was beautiful because the creation of pretty, shiny, appealingly-packaged objects was what truly drove the destruction of the environment.
We complement each other so well the personification of Famine, had once said, after Pollution had told him about a new zero-nutrient substance he'd stumbled across, which would appeal to the taste-buds but lead to the creation of several nasty waste products in its production. I'm the direst frustration of need, you're the most frivolous indulgence of want.
The comparison had both delighted and irritated him. Delighted, because as exhilarated as he had been with the fruits of the fulfilment of his function, it was… pleasing to have some kind of acknowledgement. Irritated because the way He'd phrased it seemed to imply that he felt that White's role was somewhat secondary to his own. Still, irritated or knew he knew that he'd miss Sable: the only other entity in the universe to who he'd developed any sort of, what was the word, attachment.
"Hey, are you all right?" said the demon suddenly. A worried – well, more worried – expression suddenly consuming his features.
"Yeah, you looked as though you were a bit upset for a moment there."
"Why would I be upset, it's not in my nature to experience any great level of distress?"
"Yes, but – if you don't mind me pointing it out – your nature seems to have changed since the last time I saw you." The demon swallowed, an indication, White could tell, that he knew he was taking a risk in bringing 'the last time' they saw each other up. Until recently White had been extremely put out about the aborted apocalypse and his banishment back into the collective human consciousness, and had made a mental note to do something unpleasant to the angel and demon who, should they ever cross his path. However, now that he'd lost interest in his intended purpose the whole matter of the Apocalypse that Wasn't was more or less a moot point.
Besides, the wary interest that the demon was showing in his existence was an experience that felt – for now, at least – to be more positive than negative.
"My function no longer interests me. The aesthetics of it no longer enthral me and without seeing beauty on the play of light on an oil slick or the starkness rainforest turned barren there doesn't seem to be any point in continuing."
"Oh bloody Manchester," said the demon, a look of horrified realisation dawning in his eyes. "You're having a sodding crisis of creative direction. You're… you're a-"
The demon did not get to finish elaborating on what White was, owing to the fact that the thin computer-protective woman picked that moment to tap him on the shoulder.
"Hope I'm not interrupting anything," she said, expression still faintly amused, "but I thought I'd let you know that Howard's just called to say that he won't be coming back to work this afternoon. Said he sprained his wrist trying to help a pensioner change a tyre and could I pass his home address onto you." She pressed a scrap of paper into the demon's hand, before turning her attention to White.
"Oh and Leon's had an attack of social conscience and wants to know if you'd like to have some of his old clothes."
White wasn't sure quite how to answer. He'd always been the one to offer to lend things to others. Things that tended to be more along the lines of bolts that fell out two minutes after you'd used them to repair the containment hold and Geiger Counters that always declared the radiation levels to be within safe limits, than clothing. But it was still a novel experience.
Clearly taking his lack of response as a negative she shrugged. "Well, if you decide that you want them just go and ask him."
"Look, if you want to attract less attention it'd probably be a good idea to change into something less muddy," said the demon once she was out of earshot. "Though personally I wouldn't touch the kid's cast-offs with a ten-foot Styx bargepole."
White considered this; the stares he'd been receiving did make him uncomfortable, despite the novelty of the situation.
"What kind of thing should I wear then?" he asked.
The demon made a subtle but physically impossible gesture and a paper carrier bag emblazoned with the words Emporio Armani on appeared in his hand.
"You could try this," he suggested, handing it over.
Two months ago White would have been highly offended at the thought of somebody trying to give him a gift in such clearly biodegradable packaging, but right now he felt rather intrigued.
The demon swallowed, the nervousness seeming to return with a vengeance. White wondered if he thought that he'd overstepped some kind of mark. "Anyway, I, er, better be going. Got to see a man about his damnation."
And with that the demon Crowley fled. Well, it wasn't so much overt fleeing as a really fast saunter, but there was a definite hint of escape about it.
Curious, White opened the bag.
Dagon, Lord of the Files, Master of Madness, Under Duke of the Seventh Torment, prided himself on his ability to keep abreast of current events. Being the sort of being who, whilst by no means weak, was no match in terms of raw diabolic power of the fallen Seraphim and Cherubim whom now formed the bulk of Hell's nobility, he had been forced to attain his position in the upper echelons of the Diabolic Civil Service by keeping his bulbous eyes firmly fixed on the indiscretions of his peers, his ears (well, those of his underlings at least) to the ground and filling a role that was beneath the dignity and beyond the ability of his more diabolically endowed colleagues.
You found out a lot when you organised the filing.
Right now, Dagon was interrogating a succubus of middling demonic rank about her knowledge of what she'd observed on the earthly visitation from which she'd just returned. To any human who'd worked in an office environment it was a sight which looked near-identical to the time honoured practise of 'gossiping at the water cooler'.
They'd be wrong, of course. No self-respecting denizen of the Pit would be caught discorporated consuming anything as bland as water, even if it was of the extra-foetid variety. The content of this drinks dispenser was one-hundred percent Tears of the Tormented.
"Well, it was certainly very different from the last time I was up there," she said. "There I was, in a physically implausible position with a member of the European Parliament, when his eyes suddenly glazed over and he muttered something about needing to make sure all his colleagues were using energy saving light bulb at completely lost interest. Then the next night I tried the Head of PR for a cosmetics firm and she stops half-way through, jumps up and declares she's just had a brilliant idea for a high speed vehicle that doesn't rely on carbon-based fuel. I don't know what's got into them, I really don't. I mean, I would have noticed if there were any angels in the immediate area, but there weren't."
Had Dagon been, say, Duke Hastur or Prince Belphegor, he would have doubtless felt the need to snidely and loudly put this down to her losing her touch. However, Dagon being possessed of a tad more insightfulness than the majority of his infernal brethren (though he was still distinctly mediocre by human standards) and of a mind that the best time to talk negatively of somebody when they were out of earshot, did not immediately sneeringly dismiss this example of human strangeness as a consequence of seduction failure.
"Tell me," he said. "Did you notice anything else strange – well, stranger than usual – going on up there?"
The succubus gave a long sigh. "There were an awful lot of people who seemed to have developed a fixation with recycling and that tedious television thing of theirs seemed to be constantly abuzz with stories about effective green energy. Anybody would think that Pollution had gone on holiday."
For a few moments Dagon quietly pondered this statement.
The idea that one of the Four would abandon their post whilst at the height of their influence was utterly unthinkable.
But then, so had been the idea that the Antichrist would decide that he wanted to preserve the Apocalypse.
With a curt smile he looked the succubus in the eye. "Excuse me a moment, I've just remembered a soul contract I need to counter sign."
Technically, there was only one time in Hell, and that was Too Late. But the administrative wing had long ago realised that this wasn't particularly conducive to good organisation, and they had informally adopted what they liked to call Sisyphus Mean Time: with the clerical pseudo-day based around the time it took for the hapless damned soul to roll his boulder up to the point on the hill where it would inevitably start rolling back down.
Thus it was that at half past 'About a Sixth of the Way Up' a memo was discretely sent to one of the imps in Admissions.
At quarter to 'Just Under Half Way' he received a note back from Nasty the Imp, stating that there had been a small decline in the number of souls admitted over the last earth month, but that over the last two days the drop had been dramatic.
By twenty past 'Ohshitohshitohshit She's Rolling Down Again' A Dark Council had been called: a function to which the perpetually social climbing Lord of the Files felt rather smug to be invited.
As chance would have it, twenty past 'Ohshitohshitohshit She's Rolling Down Again' corresponded with the point of time, on earth, that Adam's plane touched down.
The flight from Gatwick to Manila had, most of passengers agreed, been remarkable in its uneventfulness. The brief stop-off in Dubai had been, well, brief, and nobody's luggage had been lost, damaged or accidentally sent to Oslo. Some of them had idly wondered why the quiet, fair-haired young man in seat 13a had been allowed to bring his pet dog on board, but inevitably concluded that there was probably a good reason for it. After all, it had been a very friendly, if rather scruffy, creature.
Adam himself was feeling slightly more focussed and alert for the sleep he'd managed to get on the flight: though it had not completely extinguished his fretfulness about the situation. Still, he was here now and had to try and do something to mitigate the short term effects of Pollution's indefinite sabbatical, even if he wasn't quite certain whether the something in question was going to work or not.
It was therefore with some trepidation that he got out his mobile phone and dialled the number that he'd obtained from the internet before leaving Lower Tadfield. He hadn't want to give the person he was contacting too much forewarning, but eighteen years of upbringing in the Young household had had some inescapable effects, and he just couldn't escape the overwhelming feeling that dropping in on somebody who was effectively a stranger without giving them some indication that you were dropping by was just plane rude.
It took him a few seconds to get through to the university switchboard and just over half a minute to have his call transferred to the appropriate office in the Department of Microbiology.
There was a good bit of crackling as the phone was picked up, followed by the sound of a hacking cough."
"Hello, Dr. Gelb speaking," said a wheezing, bubbling voice.
"It's Adam Young."
There was a pause in which Adam came to realise that crackling was not static on the line, but rather the sound of Dr. Gelb trying to breath.
There was something that sounding like it was trying to be chuckle on the other end. "Well, well, well, never thought I'd be hearing from you in my dotage."
"I need to speak to you. It's urgent."
"You'd better come round then, Adam Young. I'm transferring to a post in Great Britain."
Adam's brow furrowed. "You are?"
"I've got to get out of this country. It's proving horribly resistant to avian flu. When can I expect you?"
"I should be there in an hour or so."
"Then I'll await your arrival."
The gurgled chuckle returned. "It's Dr. Gelb these days. A Horseperson am I no longer."
"That's what I need to talk to you about."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "I'm intrigued."
"See you soon then." Adam pressed the end call button, took a deep breath and, with Dog at his side, headed out of the airport.
It was, he knew, going to be a very taxing day.