Jersusalem: Book Two – Mansoul.
An Asmodeus Flight
The devil couldn’t call to mind the last time he’d enjoyed himself as much as this. This was a great laugh in the greatest sense of the word great: great like a war, a white shark or the Wall of China. Oh, my sweethearts in damnation, this was priceless.
There he’d been, just leaning on somebody’s old dream of a balcony and puffing on his favourite pipe. This was the one he’d whittled from the spicy, madness-seasoned spirit of an eighteenth century French diabolist. He fancied that it made his best tobacco taste of Paris, sexual intercourse and murder, somewhere between meat and liquorice.
Anyway, there he’d been, loafing around above the Attics of the Breath, close to the crux of Angle-land, when up had come this builder, Master Builder mind you, with a split lip and a shiner like he’d just been in a fight. I mean, the devil thought, how often do you get an opportunity to take the piss on such a sewer-draining scale as that?
“My dear boy! Have we walked into a pearly gate?” Not too bad for an opening remark, all things considered, dripping as it was with obviously false concern, as if enquiring on the health of an obnoxious nephew you transparently despised. The thing with builders, master builders in this instance, was that while they were quite capable of levelling a city or a dynasty, they hated being patronised.
The Master Builder – the white-haired one who’d made something of a name for himself playing billiards; held his cue in one hand at that very moment, for that matter – stopped and turned to see who was addressing him. Scowled like a fondled choirboy when he found out, naturally; that thing the builders did to make their eyes flash a split second before they incinerated you. My word, he was in a bad mood, was Mighty Whitey.
To be honest, this made a refreshing change from the unasked-for pity and the bottomless forgiveness that was usually in their gaze. Builders would order you at snooker cue-point to inhabit depths that were unspeakable, lower than those endured by syphilitic tyrants, and then add insult to injury by forgiving you. It was a treat to come across one in the throes of a demeaning temper tantrum. The rich possibilities for some inflammatory satire made the devil’s ball-sack creep.
The builder, sorry, Master Builder, sounded entertainingly slow-witted, with his speech slurred by the swollen lip as he replied.
“Murck naught mye shamfall strate, thyou dungcurst thorng…”
It was the same profound, exploded rubbish all the builders talked, the strangely resonant and blazing words reverberating off to whisper in the extra set of corners that there were up here. Delightfully, however, even phrases of world-ending awesome fury, spoken through a split lip, were quite funny.
Unaware that everything he said sounded hilariously punch-drunk, the indignant master builder had gone on to justify his woebegone condition by explaining that he’d just been in a fight with one of his best mates over a game of snooker. It seemed that this chum had wilfully endangered a specific ball that everyone had known the white-haired master builder had his sights on. Technically this was permitted, but was thought of as appalling form. As was invariably the case this ball had got a human name attached to it, but it was somebody the devil hadn’t heard of. Not at that point, anyway.
It turned out that the builders had got into an unseemly row across the billiard table, and that the white-haired one had eventually called his colleague something dreadful and suggested that they step outside to settle it. They’d left the shot unplayed, gone out and had their brawl, and were now skulking back towards the game-hall to continue with their uncompleted competition. Talk about showing yourself up. All the scrounging Boroughs ghosts had stood round in a ring shouting encouragements, like boot-faced school-kids at a playground punch-up. “Goo on! Give ’im one right up the ’alo!” Talk about ruffling your feathers. It was all so wonderfully wretched that the devil had to laugh.
“It’s not your fault, old boy. It’s just competitive sports, in a neighbourhood like this. Brings out the hooligan in everybody. I’ve seen people have their throats cut over games of hopscotch. What you ought to do is drop the snooker and go back to organising dances on the heads of pins. Not half so violent, and you’d have a good excuse for wearing ball gowns all the time.”
The devil nudged the builder in the ribs good-naturedly, then laughed and clapped him on his back. The one thing that they hated more than being patronised was people being over-intimate, especially if that went as far as someone touching them. All of those pictures that depicted builders holding hands with wounded grenadiers or sickly tots, in the opinion of the devil, were just mock-ups for the purpose of publicity.
Slow as the builders generally were in understanding jokes, the white-haired chap had finally caught on to the fact that he was being made fun of, which they hated almost as much as they hated being condescended to or touched. He’d spouted some blood-curdling holy gibberish which more or less boiled down to “Leave it out, Tosh, or I’ll ’ave yer”, but with extra nuances involving being bound in chests of brass and thrown into the lowest depths of a volcano for a thousand years. Whips, scorpions, rivers of fire, the usual rigmarole. The devil raised his thorny eyebrows in a look of hurt surprise.
“Oh dear, I’ve made you cross again. I should have known this was your ladies’ special time, but I barged in making insensitive remarks. And right when you were no doubt trying to calm down in order to take this important shot. I should be inconsolable if just as you were lining up your cue you thought of me and ripped the baize or broke your stick in half. Or anything.”
The master builder reared up with a sudden sunburst of St. Elmo’s fire around his snowy head and bellowed something multi-faceted and Biblical, essentially refuting that this was his ladies’ special time. The second part of what the devil had just said then seemed to sink in, about ruining his game by being in the throes of rage. He checked himself and took a deep breath, then exhaled. There followed a celestial burst of nonsense-poetry where a gruff, unadorned apology would have sufficed. The devil thought about a further goading, but decided not to push his famous luck.
“Think nothing of it, old sport. It was my fault, always taking jokes too far and spoiling things for everybody else. You know, I worry privately that deep inside I’m not a terribly nice person. Why am I aggressive all the while, even when I’m pretending to be jovial? Why do I have all these unpleasant defects in my personality? Sometimes I convince myself it’s work-related, as if having been condemned to the unending torments of the sensory inferno was an adequate excuse for my regrettable behaviour. Good luck with the snooker tournament. I’ve every confidence in you. I’m sure that you can put this unimportant fit of murderous rage behind you, and that you won’t irrevocably mess up somebody’s only mortal life by having acted like a petulant buffoon.”
The fellow seemed uncertain how to take this, narrowing his sole functioning eye suspiciously. Eventually he gave up trying to work out who, precisely, was at fault here and just grimaced as though indicating that their conversation had been satisfactorily concluded. With a curt nod to the devil, who had gallantly tilted his leather hat-brim in reply, the master builder carried on along the walkway, lifting up one hand occasionally to tenderly explore the purple flesh around his pummelled brow.
You could tell from the stiff way that he held himself as he was flouncing off that the white-robed chap was still fuming. Anger, as with handicrafts and mathematics, was amongst the devil’s fields of expertise. All three things were exquisitely involved and intricate, which sat well with the devil’s admiration for complexity. He could have hours of fun with any of them. Oh, and idle hands. He liked those too. And good intentions.
He’d relit his pipe, striking a spark off of a thumbnail like a beetle carapace, and watched the builder as he stalked off grumpily towards the vanishing point of the lengthy balcony. Poor loves. Walking around all day looking Romantic, feeling like the very spinning clockwork of the fourfold Universe with everybody singing songs about them. All those Christmas cards they were expected to live up to and the work that it must be to keep those robes clean all the time. How did they cope, the precious poppets?
He’d been leaning on the pitch-stained balustrade and wondering what he should do next to amuse himself when suddenly, as if in answer to his seldom-answered prayers, a door creaked open in the long wall of accumulated dreams that was behind him and a little boy clad in pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers padded hesitantly out onto the bare boards of the balcony. He was adorable, and secretly the devil had a weakness for small children. They were scared of absolutely everything.
With blonde curls and with eyes song-lyric blue, the little sleepwalker had not at first appeared to realise that he was in the presence of the devil, with the door that he’d emerged from being some yards off from where the fiend was standing. Looking apprehensive and with eyebrows lifted in perpetual startlement, the youngster slippered over to the blackened railings of the walkway and gazed out between them at the stretching Attics of the Breath. He’d kept this up for a few moments, looking puzzled and disoriented, then had turned his head and glanced off down the landing to where you could just make out the battered builder vanishing into the distance, dabbing at his eye.
The kid still hadn’t noticed that the devil was behind him, but then people never did. The devil wondered if the boy were dead or merely sleeping, dressed up in his night-clothes as he was. Conceivably, it might not even be a human child at all. It could have been a figment wandered off from someone else’s dream or possibly a character out of a bedtime storybook, a fiction given substance here by the built-up imaginings accreted over many readings, many readers.
In the devil’s judgement, though, this lad seemed to be real. Dreams and the characters from stories had a tidy quality to their construction, as if they’d been simplified, whereas this present nipper had a poorly-thought-through messiness about his personality that smacked of authenticity. You could tell from the way he stood there, rooted to the spot and gazing after the retreating builder, that he didn’t have the first clue where he was or what he should do next. People in dreams or stories, to the contrary, were always full of purpose. So, this little man was definitely mortal, although whether he was dead or dreaming was a matter harder to determine. The pyjamas indicated that he was a dreamer, but of course small children generally died in hospital or in their sickbeds, so infant mortality was still a possibility. The devil thought he’d enquire further.
“Well, now. It’s a ghostly little fidget-midget.”
There. That hadn’t been an over-terrifying opening remark in his opinion. While he might from time to time enjoy a bit of fun with helpless humans, even to the point of driving them insane or killing them, that didn’t mean that he was undiscriminating. Children, as he’d noted, were already frightened as a natural consequence of being children. Burst a crisp-bag and they’d jump. Where was the sport or the finesse in that?
The small boy turned around to face him, wearing a ridiculous expression on his elfin face, eyes goggling and his mouth stretched at both sides into a rubber letterbox. It looked like he was trying to conceal his real expression, which was probably pure dread, in order not to give offence. His mum had more than likely taught him it was rude to scream at the deformed or monstrous. Quite frankly, the child’s blend of paralysing fear and genuine concern for other people’s feelings struck the devil as being both comical and rather sweet. He thought he’d try another pleasant conversational remark, now that he had the lad’s attention, so to speak.
“You look lost, little boy. Oh dear, oh dear. We can’t have that, now, can we?”
Even though the devil’s tone was clearly that of an avuncular child-murderer, the tousled moppet seemed to take it at face value, visibly relaxing and assuming he was out of danger at the first sound of a sympathetic voice. This trusting little dickens was a find, and no mistake. The devil wondered how he’d lasted for five minutes in the unforgiving mechanisms of the living world, and then reflected that most probably he hadn’t. Actually, the longer that he spent in the tyke’s company, the likelier it seemed that this was someone dead rather than someone dreaming, someone who’d been lured into a stranger’s car or an abandoned fridge dumped on an out-of-earshot wasteland.
Watching the boy’s features you could almost see what he was thinking, almost see the cogs turn in his as-yet undeveloped mind. He looked as though he thought that he was trespassing, but that if he kept up an act the devil wouldn’t realise this was the case. He looked like he was trying to come up with an excuse for being here, but, being young, had not yet had a great deal of experience in telling lies. As a result of trying to construct an alibi, when he eventually piped up he sounded tremulously guilty, even though his flimsy story was most probably the truth.
“That’s right. I’m lost. Can you see in that window for me so that I’ll know where I am?”
The boy was nodding to the glinting memories of windows set into the dream-wall he’d emerged out of. He clearly couldn’t care less what was on the other side but, once, told, would pretend to have his bearings and then thank the devil nicely before running off as fast as his short legs would carry him, getting as far away as he could manage, the direction unimportant. He was obviously frightened but was trying not to show he was afraid, as if the devil were no more than an uncomfortably big dog.
Frowning in mild bemusement, the arch-enemy of mankind shot a casual glance through the glass panes the child had indicated. Nothing of much interest lay beyond, just an exaggerated phantom of a local schoolroom plucked from someone’s night-thoughts. It was a location that the devil knew, that much went without saying: there were no locations that the devil didn’t know. The world of space and history was big, no doubt about it, but then so was War & Peace, yet both were finite. Given enough time – or, if you liked, given no time at all – then you could easily attain a detailed grasp of either of them. There was no great trick about omniscience, the devil thought. Just read the story through enough times at your near-infinite leisure and you’ll be an expert. He looked back towards the apprehensive toddler.
“Looks like it’s the needlework-room that’s upstairs at Spring Lane School, only a fair bit bigger. I hang out round here because I’m very fond of handicraft. It’s one of my great specialities. I’m also rather good at sums.”
This was all true, of course. One of the ways in which people continually misunderstood the devil, woundingly so in his own opinion, was that they thought he was always telling lies. In fact, though, nothing could be further from the case. He couldn’t tell a lie if he was paid to, not that anybody ever paid him to do anything. Besides, the truth was a far subtler tool. Just tell people the truth and then let them mislead themselves, that was his motto.
What the truth was with regard to this small boy, however, wasn’t really clear. Assuming that the child was dead and not just dreaming, he did not appear to have been dead for long. He looked like someone who had only just that moment found themselves here in the second Borough, in Mansoul, somebody who had yet to get their bearings. If that was the case, what was he doing scuttling round here in the dream-sediments? Why hadn’t he just automatically dived back into his short life at the point of birth, for one more go-round on his little individual carousel? Or if, after a million turns on the same ride, he felt he’d finally absorbed all that it had to offer and elected to instead come up to the unfolded town, why was he unaccompanied? Where were the beery crowds of celebrating ancestors? Even if there were some unprecedented circumstance in play here, you’d still think that management would have arranged an escort. In fact, management was so efficient that an oversight was quite unthinkable. Actually, the devil thought, that was a good point. It suggested more was going on here than immediately met the eye.
The devil puffed his pipe and contemplated the intriguing half-pint specimen that shuffled nervously before him, who was visibly attempting to compose an exit-line and end their conversation. That would never do, and so the devil plucked the pipe-stem from his smouldering maw and made sure he got his two penn’orth in before the infant did.
“But you don’t quite add up to anything that I’m familiar with. Come, little chap. Tell me your name.”
That was the point at which the foundling child made his astounding revelation.
“My name’s Michael Warren.”
Oh, my dears, my cousins in the sulphur, can you possibly imagine? It was better than the time when he tricked self-important, brooding Uriel into revealing where the secret garden was located (it was in a fizzy puddle in Pangaea). It surpassed, in terms of comedy, the look on his ex-girlfriend’s perfect features when her seventh husband in a year died on their wedding night, the devil having stopped his heart a second prior to the intended consummation. Why, it even beat that moment of hilarity during the Fall, when one of the low-ranking devils, Sabnock or some other marquis, who’d been consequently pushed down further into the excruciating quagmire of material awareness than the others, had called out “Truly this sensate world is one beyond endurance, though I am delighted to report my genitals have started working”, whereupon the builders and the devils they were using as a form of psychic landfill all put down their flaming snooker cues for a few minutes until they’d stopped laughing. This dazed baby trumped all that though, knocked it into a cocked hat: his name was Michael Warren. He’d just said so. He’d just come straight out with it as if it was of no significance, the modest little beggar.
Michael Warren was the name attached to the precariously-balanced billiard ball that had kicked off the fight between the builders.
And they hadn’t had a fight since, what, Gomorrah? Egypt?
The events that were in orbit around this unwitting child had an intoxicating whiff of intricacy to them, complex as a clockwork anthill, complex as the mathematics of a hurricane. The possibilities for convoluted entertainment that this clueless little soul presented to the fiend were such an unexpected gift that he took an involuntary step backwards. All the dragon frills that edged the image he was wearing rippled in anticipation, flaring up in a display of his heraldic colours, red and green, bloodshed and jealousy.
“You’re Michael Warren? You’re the one to blame for all this trouble?”
Oh, the way his little jaw dropped, so that you could tell it was the first he’d heard about his sudden notoriety. This whole thing was becoming more delicious by the moment, and the devil laughed until he thought he’d burst a testicle. Wiping the hydrochloric tears of mirth from his peculiar eyes, he focussed them once more upon the boy.
“Wait till I tell the lads. They’ll be in fits. Oh, this is good. This is extremely good.”
That set him off again, the thought of how his fellow devils would respond when he informed them of his latest stroke of undeserved good fortune. Belial, the toad in diamond, would just blink his ring of seven eyes and try to make out that he hadn’t heard. Beelzebub, that glaring wall of porcine hatred, would most likely cook in his own rage. And as for Astaroth, he’d simply purse the lipstick-plastered mouth upon his human head into a vicious pout and would be looking daggers for the next three hundred years. The devil really had the giggles now. He laughed so hard his broad-brimmed hat fell back around his neck, at which point the already nervous child abandoned all the manners that his mother had instilled in him and screamed like an electrocuted aviary. The infant’s eyes began to well with frightened tears.
Ah, yes. The horns. The devil had forgotten he had horns in this particular ensemble. Horns, for some unfathomable reason, always made them jump when actually they should consider themselves lucky. Horns were nothing. Horns were just his work-clothes. They should see him when he was in fancy dress, for state occasions and the like, wearing one of his more finely-tailored robes of imagery. The coruscating spider/lizard combination, for example, or the gem of infinite regress. By Jingo, then they’d have something to cry about.
Blubbing profusely now the lad looked up with that expression of mixed accusation and outraged betrayal with which people generally seemed to greet him. He had seen it on the faces of Renaissance alchemists and Nazi dabblers alike. The message it conveyed, in essence, was ‘This isn’t fair. You’re not meant to be real.’ That was the main thrust of what the aggrieved and weeping cherub was now saying to him.
“You’re the devil.”
Children. They’re so wonderfully perceptive, aren’t they? Probably the horns were what had given him away. He felt a flicker of mild irritation at the fact that while people continually identified him as a devil, nobody was ever sure which one he was. It would be like somebody greeting Charlie Chaplin in the street by shouting “You’re that bloke out of that film”. It was insulting, but he didn’t let it get him down. He was in much too fine a mood for that. He’d broken off his laughing-jag and glanced down at the tot, good-humouredly.
“Well…yes. Yes, I suppose I am.”
Poor mite. He looked like he was getting a stiff neck from craning up to keep his brimming gaze upon the demon regent. Out of pure consideration and concern, the devil squatted down upon his haunches and leaned forward so that he and the small boy were eye to eye, the child’s blue puddles staring earnestly into the devil’s traffic-lights. He thought he’d tease the kid, just for a bit of mischief. What could be the harm in that? He spoke in puzzled tones of the most innocent enquiry.
“Why? Where did you think you were?”
That, thinking back, would seem to have been the remark that finally undid the little scamp. He’d shrieked something that sounded like “But they were only ants” and then had taken off along the endless landing, going nineteen to the dozen, holding his pyjama bottoms up with one hand as he ran to stop them falling down around his ankles.
Oh dear. Him and his big mouth. Despite the wholly innocent intent behind the devil’s harmless query, it appeared that Michael Warren had inferred from it that he’d been sent to Hell, possibly for a crime involving ants. Wherever did these jumped-up monkeys get all their ideas from? Not that he was saying that this wasn’t Hell, mind you. More that the actual situation was far less simplistic than that word implied, and where this devil was concerned one over-simplified at one’s own risk.
So there he was, watching the famous Michael Warren running full tilt down the walkway, trying to hold his pants up, squeaking like a fresh-hatched banshee. Was it any wonder that the devil couldn’t call to mind the last time that he’d had such fun?
He straightened up out of his crouch and flexed his two-tone rags to straighten them. The fleeing boy was some way off along the monstrously extended balcony, slippers flapping comically against the floorboards underfoot. The devil wondered where the child thought he was going.
Leisurely, he knocked his screaming, man-faced pipe against the balustrade to empty it, and then put it away into a pocket of himself. His smoke-break was now evidently over, and he couldn’t stand round here all day. He eyed the by-now tiny figure of the child as it continued its disorganised retreat into the distance of the elevated boardwalk. It was time to get on with some work.
The devil took a short unhurried step, putting his boot down on the boards, heel first and then the ball of his foot in a soft, percussive double thump a little like the beating of a heart: bump–bump. He took another step, this time a longer one that swallowed up more ground, so that it seemed like a protracted pause before the double footfall came again: bump–bump. He took a further pace. This time the pause went on and on. The twin thud that would signify the step’s end never came.
The devil floated a few feet above the floor, still carried slowly forward by the slight momentum of the step or two he’d taken when he launched himself. He narrowed his mismatched eyes, like malefic 3D spectacles, fixed on the dwindling form of the escaping child along the balcony’s far end. He grinned and let his scarlet and viridian pinions snap like stormy flags behind as he began to gather speed. He crackled and he burned. He did his trademark chuckle.
Comet-arsed and showering coloured embers like a Roman candle in his wake, the devil sizzled down the walkway, screeching after the small fugitive, closing the gap between them effortlessly. In a way, the boy’s intuitive attempt to treat the fiend as an uncomfortably big dog had not been so far off the mark. Certainly, you should never run from devils. Your retreating back will simply lend you the appearance of absconding prey, which, when it comes to dogs and demons, only tends to get them going.
Hearing from behind him the approaching firework rush, mixed as the sound was with that of the devil’s escalating cackle, the boy glanced back once across his shoulder and then looked as if he wished he hadn’t.
Whoosh. The devil reached down with both scorched and blistered hands to grab the squealing escapee beneath his armpits from the rear, snatching him fast into the whistling air, across the balustrade and up into the glass and ironwork altitudes above the Attics of the Breath. The child’s scream rose as they did, spiralling aloft with them to ring amongst the giant painted girders, startling the pigeons nested there into a brief ash-flurry of activity. With his slipper-clad feet pedalling frantically, the kid first pleaded for the fiend to let him go, then realised how high up he was and begged instead not to be dropped.
“Well, make your mind up,” said the devil, and considered dropping Michael Warren a few times then catching him before he hit the floor, though on reflection he thought better of it. It would over-egg the lily. It would gild the pudding.
They were hovering there, treading air, a thousand feet or more between them and the vast checked tablecloth of square holes spread below. Having considered all the aspects and the angles of this novel circumstance, the devil opted for a gentler approach in his communications with the boy. You caught more flies with honey than you did with vinegar, and you caught more with bullshit than you did with either. Tipping forward his horned head he whispered in the lad’s ear to be heard above the flap and flutter of his banners, red and green, hot coals and absinthe.
“Something tells me that we’ve got off to a bad start, haven’t we? I’m sensing, from the screaming and the running off, that I’ve said something to upset you without meaning to. What do you say we put it all behind us and begin afresh?”
With frightened, pin-prick eyes still fixed upon the hideous drop beneath his kicking slippers, Michael Warren answered in a wavering falsetto, managing to sound scared witless and indignant at the same time.
“You said this wiz Hell! You said you wiz the devil!”
Hmm. Good point. The devil had at least implied both of those things, but took care to sound pained and woefully misunderstood in his response to the boy’s accusation.
“Come now, that’s unfair. I didn’t claim that this was Hell. I merely asked you where you thought you were and you jumped to your own conclusions. As for me being a devil, well, I am. There’s no escaping it. I’m not the Devil though, or at least, not the one that you were probably expecting. I’m not Satan, and besides, he doesn’t look like this. You’d be surprised what Satan looks like, and I promise you you’d never recognise him in, ooh, what, nine billion years?”
By now more confident that his small body would not be allowed to fall, the dangling darling tried to twist his head around, to face the fiend across his shoulder as he spoke.
“Well, if you’re not him, who are you, then? What’s your name?”
That was a tricky one. The rules that governed what he was – essentially, a field of living information – meant that he was more or less compelled to answer any direct question and to do so truthfully. It didn’t mean, of course, that he was under any obligation to make matters easy for the questioner. Given that devils were reluctant to reveal their names, which could be used to bind them, he would generally employ some form of code, or else engage human interrogators in a guessing game. With Michael Warren, he decided to provide his answer in the manner of a crossword clue.
“Oh, I’ve been given dozens of old nicknames, but in truth I’m just plain, mixed-up Sam O’Day. Why don’t you call me Sam? Think of me as a roguish uncle who can fly.”
Oblivious to the anagram, the child seemed to accept this, albeit grudgingly. Young as he was, he was already obviously acquainted with the concept of the roguish uncle, and yet was still of an age where he was probably uncertain as to whether they could fly or not. He ceased his futile struggling at any rate, and simply hung there acquiescently. When the boy spoke again, the devil noticed that he had his eyes shut to block out the horrid plunge beneath his tingling toes.
“Why did you tell me that I wiz in trouble?”
All these bloody questions. What had happened to the days when people either exorcised you or else haggled with you for a good price on their souls? The devil sighed and once again took on the same slightly offended tone he’d used before.
“I didn’t say you were in trouble. I said that you’d caused some trouble. Quite unwittingly, of course, and nothing anybody’s blaming you for. I just thought you’d like to know, that’s all.”
The kid persisted. That was a big problem these days: everybody knew their rights.
“Well, if I’m not in trouble, wizzle you please put me down? You’ll make my arms fall off holding me up like this.”
The fiend clucked reassuringly.
“Of course I won’t. Why, I’ll bet they’re not even aching. I don’t know how you could possibly mistake this place for Hell. Bodily pain’s unheard of up here.”
Agonizing torments of the heart and spirit, though, were well known everywhere, but naturally the devil didn’t think to mention this. Instead, the fiend glossed smoothly on with his persuasive patter.
“As for me putting you down, are you quite sure that’s what you want? I mean, your arms aren’t really hurting, are they? And you didn’t look as if you knew where you were going when you were down on the ground. Putting you back and leaving you alone would just mean you were lost again. Besides, I’m quite a famous devil. I can do all sorts of things. Dismiss me, and you’re passing up a deathtime’s opportunity.”
The lad’s eyes opened, just a crack.
“What do you mean?”
The devil glanced down idly at the Attics of the Breath below. Some of the wandering ghosts and phantasms down there were looking up at Michael and the devil, hovering just beneath the green glass ceiling of the grand arcade. The fiend could see a group of urchins, dead or dreaming, who seemed to be paying him particular attention. No doubt they could see he’d caught a child and wondered if they might be next. Have no fear, little children. For today, at least, you’re safe. Perhaps another time. Returning his gaze to the back of the suspended boy’s blonde head and breathing hot upon the nape the devil answered his last query.
“I mean there are things that I can tell you. There are things that I can show you. It’s well known. I’m practically proverbial. I get a mention in the Bible…well, in the Apocrypha, but that’s fairly impressive, don’t you think? And I was Adam’s first wife’s second husband, though that got left out of Genesis. It’s like with any adaptation, really. Minor characters omitted to speed up the story, complex situations simplified and so forth. You can’t blame them, I suppose. And I was very close to Solomon at one point, though again, you wouldn’t guess that from the Book of Kings. Shakespeare, however, bless him, Shakespeare gives me credit where it’s due. He talks about a kind of trip I can take people on. It’s called ‘Sam O’Day’s Flight’, and it’s more wonderful and thrilling than the biggest fairground ride you ever dreamed of. Do you fancy one?”
Dangling limply in the devil’s arms, the Warren kid seemed unenthusiastic.
“How do I know if I’d like it? I might not. And if I didn’t, how do I know you’d stop when I wanted to?”
The Fifth Infernal Duke, noting that this was not quite a refusal, bent his head close to the lad’s pink ear as he moved in to make the sale.
“If I hear you ask me to stop, I’ll stop at once. How’s that? And as for payment for the ride, well, I can see that you’re an offspring of the Boroughs, so I don’t expect that you get pocket money, do you? Doesn’t matter. Tell you what, because I’ve taken quite a shine to you, young man, I’ll do this as a favour. Then, at some remote point in the future, if there’s ever something useful you can do for me, we’ll call it quits. Does that sound fair to you?”
The child’s eyes were wide open now, at least in the most literal sense. Still trying not to look directly downwards, he was tilting back his curly head to stare up through the arcade roof at the unfurling geometeorology. The devil could see an enchantingly baroque arrangement of some several dozen tesseracts that were engaged in folding up to form something resembling a ten- or twenty-sphere. No wonder the small boy looked mesmerised and sounded far away when he eventually replied.
“Well…yes. Yes, I suppose so.”
That was all that the fiend needed. True, a minor’s spoken affirmation couldn’t technically be called a binding compact, nothing written down, nothing in red and white, and yet the devil felt that it could be interpreted as an agreement to proceed.
Dived like a crippled bomber, the descending engine drone, dropped like a stone or like an owl that’s sighted supper, plunged like the astounding cleavage of his ex-wife, fell out of the vaulted heights above the Attics of the Breath as only he could fall, his coloured streamers rustling in a deafening cacophony. The child was screaming something, but above the wind of their descent you couldn’t make it out. As a result of this the devil could say, in all honesty, that he had not yet heard the infant ask to stop.
At the last moment, barely fifty feet above the boarded floor with its enormous vats, the devil pulled out of his plummet in a sharp, right-angled swerve that took them soaring off along the length of the immense emporium. The scruffy little Herberts who’d been rubbernecking at the devil and his captive only a few moments back were now running for cover, probably convinced that he’d been swooping down to gather them up in his claws as well. He seared down the gigantic corridor, a dangerous gobbet of ball-lightning shedding sparks and keening with the process of its own combustion, scattering those few scant souls who were about the Attics at that precise juncture of the century, the year, the afternoon, holding a baby in his sweltering arms. The toddler’s howl was stretched into the Doppler wail of an approaching train by the velocity of his blurred transit, streaking yards above the pale pine boards which were lit briefly by the demon’s passage, red and green, poppies and putrefaction.
They were heading west towards the blood-burst of that day’s specific sunset, where the light poured in like smelted ore through the glass panels of the arcade roof. The devil knew the nipper’s eyes would be wide open during all of this. At speeds like these, with all the spare flesh on one’s face rippling towards the rear side of the skull, it was impossible to close them. Saying anything, even a single syllable like ‘stop’, was quite out of the question.
The boy’s head was angled down, watching the huge square vats flash by beneath them. The experience, the devil knew, was very much like viewing a surprisingly engrossing abstract film. The files of apertures that ran along the length of the great attic each allowed a view into a single room at different stages of its progress in the fourth direction. Living beings in those rooms appeared as static tentacles of gemstone, inner lit and still as statues as they wound amongst each other, only the elusive darting lights that were their consciousnesses lending the illusion of mobility and motion. Zooming down a row of tanks from just above them, though, the vats became like single frames on an unreeling spool of celluloid. The winding, frozen shapes appeared to move in the unchanging confines of the endlessly repeated room containing them, sometimes withdrawing altogether for brief stretches when the space was empty, flickering into view again a moment later to resume their strange, fluorescent dance. The fluctuations of the coloured forms mapped random mortal movement through these worldly chambers in a way that was hypnotic and, at times, hauntingly beautiful. The little boy, at least, appeared to be absorbed, in that his high-pitched shriek had sunk to a low moan. This probably meant it was time to step on the accelerator, since the devil didn’t want his passenger to nod off out of boredom. He’d his reputation to consider.
A reverberating peal of layered thunder marked the point where they surpassed the speed of sound, and then a little after that there was a pocket of unearthly stone-deaf hush when they exceeded even the velocity of silence. The resplendent devil and the scamp that he was baby-sitting roared down the unending throat of the arcade, the sky beyond the hall’s glass roof changing its colours every other moment as they dashed through days and days. The sunset red became first violet and then purple, deepening to a profound black in which the construction lines of the unfolding hyper-weather were picked out in silver. This was followed by more purple and then the cerise and peach of dawn. Blue mornings and grey afternoons smeared past in stroboscopic washes. Long and sleepless nights were gone in seconds, swallowed in the brief flare of another molten sunrise. Faster still they hurtled until neither of them could distinguish the exact point at which one hue turned into another. Everything became a tunnel of prismatic shimmer.
Swerving on a sixpence and without reducing speed, the devil veered all of a sudden so that they were locked on a collision course with one of the enormous trees that thrust up through its fifty-foot-square hole on the far side of the emporium: an elm expanded to an ancient redwood by the variation that there was between dimensions. The ear-piercing screech that came from Michael Warren indicated to the devil that at least his charge had shrugged off the ennui from which he’d earlier seemed to be suffering.
The stretch of corridor that had the giant elm erupting through its floor was in the night-miles that provided punctuation along the vast Attics’ length at measured intervals. The firmament seen through the darkened glass above was lustrous ebony. Chrome traceries of snail-slime were delineating the evolving contours of the supra-geometric cumuli outside, the radiance from those huge bodies lending these benighted reaches of the never-ending hall a moonlit and crepuscular appearance. Mixed-up Sam O’Day, the King of Wrath, the groom-slayer, the devil, he scorched through the shadows and the cloudlight, heading for the leafy wooden tower that swelled up terrifyingly out of the silvered murk before them.
Pigeons, rendered almost microscopic in comparison with the huge boughs that sheltered them, awoke from their slow-motion dreams and flapped up in alarm at the loud, spitting pyrotechnics of the fiend’s approach. The devil knew that this most special family of birds were more or less unique in their ability to pass between the Upstairs and the Downstairs world, and often would take refuge in a tree’s higher dimensions where they knew that they’d be fairly safe from cats. Cats, it was true, could sometimes scrabble through an aperture into the Attics of the Breath – the fiend assumed they’d learned this trick originally by climbing after pigeons – but the higher realm was petrifying for a living feline. Usually, they’d noisily evacuate their bowels and leap straight down the nearest window back into the world. The whole manoeuvre was so stressful for them that they seemed to only use it when they needed to move straight from one room to another without passing through the intervening space. The talent wasn’t any use, though, when it came to hunting, so the roosting birds were safe. Not from the devil, obviously, but from practically every other predator that they might reasonably expect to whiz out of the dark towards them, coughing fire. The flock had just been woken unexpectedly from sleep and taken by surprise. There isn’t much, the devil thought, which takes a pigeon by surprise. That was no doubt the reason for their agitation.
A split second before he and Michael Warren would have smashed into the thirty-foot-wide trunk the devil executed one of his most showy moves, a sudden spiral swoop that cleverly combined the Golden Section and the Fibonacci sequence, blazing in a corkscrew-tight trajectory that took them down around the tree, just inches from the elephant-hide of its enlarged bark. The zip and zing of it, the helter-skelter swish, was wickedly exhilarating. They looped five times round the wood Goliath, and somewhere in the hair-raising rip of their descent the devil felt his inner compass flip into the new orientation that attended the inferior, three-sided world. He and his passenger were now immersed in the tenebrous gelatine of Time, careening on a left-hand thread around an elm that now appeared to be of normal scale. They came out of their circling nosedive only feet above the tufted knuckles of its roots, then shot up and away into the intermittent twinkle of the overcast night sky above. Swimming as they now were in the sequential soup of minutes, hours and days, they left a Technicolor mess behind, an afterburn procession of spent images trailing flamboyant in their wake. Predominantly these were in the devil’s signature array of reds and greens, a wild rose-garden stripe bursting from nowhere that wound down around the tree and then fired itself up into the dark and starlight.