- THE -

AFTERREICH

 

By Benjamin R. Croshaw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

"Death is the time of your life"

- A. Hitler, Belsen camp

 

 

It was one of those ominous nights.

Not that it flaunted its ominousity. From the outside it just seemed like any old night in mid-November, the still air at a nice mild temperature for the time of year. It was not, let me make it totally clear, dark and/or stormy. Neither did the air have that prickly sensation of possibility, hinting at what ominous treats awaited the diligent viewer. Soothsayers adamantly refused to roam around the streets, advising passing emperors to heed caution when the Ides of March came round, preferring instead to stay in and watch Blue Peter.

Sonny L. Sustenance did not believe in invisibly ominous nights, preferring instead to believe that Britain was still great, which is probably on the same level. As his shoes clumped onto the roof of the local multi-storey car park, closely followed by the feet within, he stared around at the stars that twinkled unominously at him.

Sonny was very much in the prime of his life, galloping rather distressingly fast through his late twenties and occupying a fairly senior position at the local Blockbuster video. In appearance he was rather squat and had the sort of face that was, while not unattractive, totally uninspiring. He was just a fraction overweight, said fraction preferring to hang down over his belt whenever he took his shirt off. His legs were long and bandy, making people think, when they looked at him, of an egg on two sticks of celery. In character he was nervous and retiring, but capable of being witty when there was no other way out, and had always worried about what other people thought about him.

In other words, a person who just could not win in this world.

Had someone told him just then that by the end of the chapter he would be stone cold dead, he would probably have been quite relieved. Well, no. At first he would throw his hands above his head, do likewise with his eyebrows, then run around left and right going AAAAAAAA-AAAAAAAA-AAAAAAAAARGH and words to that effect. But maybe after that, after someone gave him a coffee and maybe slapped him about for an hour or two, he would be prepared to concede that it may not be such a bad thing.

It was just fortunate, then, that Sonny did not know that by the end of the chapter he would be stone cold dead, because he would be so preoccupied with running around going AAAAAAAA-AAAAAAAA-AAAAAAAAARGH and words to that effect then the cause of his death may actually miss him. Then, and this is interesting, he would realise how fragile life was, give up his job, take guitar lessons and end up rich and a lot more overweight, eventually drowning in a jacuzzi at the hands of two excessively playful groupies. So maybe it wasnít fortunate that Sonny did not know that by the end of the chapter -

Sorry, Iím slipping from the point. The point being that literally seconds before his untimely death Sonny was standing at the door of his antique mini-Metro (parked as always right on the edge of the roof) with keys in hand and standing, and this is important, in the parking space next to it.

Just as he was trying to insert the key into the lock in the very small amount of light afforded by the lamp overhead placed there for just that reason, said light flickered and died. He was left standing next to his car in a vacant parking space on the edge of the rooftop car park, devoid of light and, and this is important, unseen to any passing motorists.

Speaking of which, here came one now. A flashy Volkswagen came screeching up the ramp and began circling the roof looking for a suitable space. It was being driven by a lady called Janice who was a senior managing director of some company or other (with that sort of title, you donít need to drop any names) and she had not a care in the world. She also liked to park in the space just to the right of another car, because she had read in Bella that thieves prefer to target isolated cars. The last thing Janice wanted was a stolen car. Especially not one she had gone through so much legal trouble to get.

So, there she was, driving around this empty rooftop car park. Suddenly, she saw another car - a clapped-out old mini-Metro sulking underneath a dead bulb. There was a reassuringly dark space to the right of it, which may have contained something but definitely didnít contain a car. The sensual rhythms of the Prodigy hammered around the interior of her car as she casually slid into the space.

Of course, the heavy bass rhythms blaring at full volume around her served to muffle the unmistakable sound of two long, bandy shins banging against her front bumper.

Now, if that had been all, Sonny would have been practically alright. A large bruise on the left shin and a small fracture in the right, but otherwise upright and very much alive. Unfortunately he happened to be standing on the edge of a rooftop car park.

The multi-storey car park was not a particularly tall one, being only four storeys high, so if Sonny had just allowed himself to smack heavily against the pavement like a sack of so much giblets, he would have been practically alright. Nineteen broken bones, a ruptured kidney and a slipped disc, but otherwise alright. Such a shame that Sonny had to twist in the air so that he could see where he was going.

In the fraction of a fraction of a second between Sonnyís head touching the ground and his neck being thrust into a rather undignified angle, he summed up his life. That done, he died.

He may have been interested to learn that Janice died seven years later after being hit on the head by a filing cabinet, and her car was stolen from the exact same spot eighteen months later, and that Sonnyís own car was stolen just over a year after his death by his own uncleís travel agentís best friendís employeeís teenage son, who promptly used it to ram-raid the local branch of Asda, managing to get away with a jar of Brylcreem and a pork joint.

Not that he did learn this information, because he was dead.

"Oh, dear. Has someone called an ambulance?"

That was the next thing Sonny heard, and it appeared to be coming from a crouching person in the company of many other crouching people apparently interested by something within their little grouping. He stepped towards the little mushroom-like huddle, and tried to see what they were looking at.

"Are you sure heís dead?" said another voice.

"Who?" asked Sonny, ignored.

"I checked his pulse," said a third, helpfully. "But it seems obvious. Necks shouldnít bend like that."

"Let me see!" said Sonny loudly, placing a hand on the nearest personís shoulder in order to propel himself forward to see whoever had a bendy neck. To his surprise, his hand went straight through said shoulder, he lost his balance, fell forward and ended up lying one inch above the ground, sticking right through a passer-by who didnít seem to notice. In this uncomfortable position he saw the corpse.

"Oh," he said, feeling he should say something. "Oh. Bum."

As he floated to his feet, or at least to a vertical position, he noticed that everyone around him seemed to be wearing drab clothes and had rather pasty skin. He examined his own hands - they were still the usual peachy-pink hue. Then he noticed that the entire world seemed to have become slightly more dull - like a television with the colour turned half-way down.

"You know," said a male voice behind him, "out of the billions of memories I have of what people say when they realise theyíre dead, ĎOh Bumí is one of the rarest."

Now that he was getting the hang of not being in the physical world anymore, Sonny allowed himself to slowly drift one hundred and eighty-degrees clockwise. Behind him was a gentleman who, although judging by his navy blue pinstripe suit was presumably unaffected by the sudden drop in colour, had a similarly grey complexion to everyone else.

"So I am dead," said Sonny flatly.

The man - he looked and spoke a bit like an accountant, or possibly a lawyer - placed an empathic hand on Sonnyís semi-transparent shoulder. "Donít get so downcast," he said. "Many people find the afterlife rather enjoyable."

Sonny twigged. "Are you ... Death?" he enquired, sticking an ominous ring onto the last word.

An outstretched hand waggled horizontally. "Sort of. Sort of. Iím Mr. Reaper, and Iím an associate of the Confederate Office of the Lately Deceased, formerly Death and Co."

"You donít look like the Grim Reaper."

"Got to move with the times, Mr. Catermole."

"Who?"

Sort Of Death examined a clipboard which had suddenly appeared in his bony hand. "Frank Catermole, aged 28?"

"No," said Sonny with the patience of the recently expired. "Sonny L. Sustenance, aged 28."

A veined eye swept the clipboard once again, then the hand of the attached body raised the top sheet. "Ah, here we are, Sonny L. Sustenance, aged 47, killed in drive-by shooting in Benidorm a week on Friday."

"Look, how can I be killed in a drive-by shooting in Benidorm a week on Friday while Iíve already been knocked off a multi-storey car park?"

Mr. Reaper looked around, apparently noting the street signs, and consulted his clipboard again. "Corner of Sheep Street and Misty Street," he mumbled to himself. "Right date, right time ... sure youíre not Frank Catermole?"

"I know who I am, Mr. Reaper," replied Sonny. For some reason he felt he didnít need to mourn his own passing away, and no longer felt particularly downhearted - not because there was nothing to be depressed about, but because he couldnít summon up the effort. He could think depressing things - he would never see his friends, family or Mini Metro again - but couldnít quite make himself feel sad about them.

Meanwhile, the pale gentleman took a bone white mobile phone from his inside blazer pocket, pressed a single button and held it to his pale ear. "Hello? Iíve got the Catermole job here, he says his nameís Sustenance, not Catermole ... yes, thatís right ... oh, I see. Well, give them a slap from me." He slapped the little door on the phone shut. "Sorry, just been calling Admin ... apparently itís work experience week. Anyway, they wonder if youíd mind signing it Catermole for now, and weíll deal with Benidorm when we get there."

Hesitantly Sonny took the proffered pen, apparently made from obsidian, and signed ĎCattermoleí as best he could. As soon as he had finished the loop on the Ďeí, he noticed the living world pause like an old video, then melt away into blackness. He and the Grim Accountant were left floating in void.

"What happens now?" asked Sonny.

He was treated to a sickly smile. "You get packed off to the Underworld, and I get shouted at."

"The Underworld?" cried Sonny in distress as he began to fade. "You mean Hell?"

Reaper didnít look up from making a little note on his clipboard. "No, we donít have a Hell anymore - there were several flaws in the concept, so we scrapped it. Youíre heading for the First Underworld - the start of your journey."

Sonny tried to say, "My what?" but he had already vanished.

 

CHAPTER TWO

"The man who walks his journey through the Eight Underworlds alone is either very self-assured or very stupid - and being self-assured when dead is also very stupid"

- Achilles Mk. 2 Userís manual

 

The entrance to the First Underworld turned out to be a pub bearing the sign ĎTravellerís Restí. Not a particularly nice pub, either - a grotty Mock Tudor tourist trap. It floated unsupported in smoky grey void and as Sonny floated towards it he noticed it was rather fuzzy round the edges, almost ghostlike. He could not tell if it was slightly transparent because there was just blank greyness behind it, but nevertheless it indeed gave the impression of having that quality. The shingle bore a skeleton holding a Dick Whittington-esque stick with a bundle on the end pointing into the middle distance, and it depressed Sonny slightly.

Sighing deeply, he swam towards the door, finding when he neared it that it seemed to be sucking him in. When he was finally inside gravity took hold and he sprawled stupidly across the red diamond-patterned carpet. As the door slammed shut behind him, he became aware from his face-down position that, where once there had been general mumbling and consternation among the inmates of the pub, now there was silence. Keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the floor Sonny got to his feet, then raised his head with trepidation.

"Oh dear lord," he said, simply.

It wasnít that the interior of the pub was particularly horrifying. There were nice black rafters going overhead set to knock out anyone taller than six foot, but that can be considered normal in Mock Tudor establishments. The walls were papered with flowery patterns on a vomit green background and punctuated with the occasional framed pencil drawing which, although morbid, was not particularly sickening. The bar was panelled with heavily grained wood and the rows of bottles, glasses and miscellaneous drinkies seemed perfectly normal. The barman was a jolly fat red-faced gent in a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

It was the clientele that caught Sonnyís attention. Not that they were heavily bearded leather-strewn biker types with threatening looks on their mostly concealed faces. They were not, in fact, human.

ĎMonsterí would be a very lazy description, and besides it didnít serve to identify the sheer variety of horrific visages sitting or doing the respective equivalents all over the bar. Most of the nearest booth to Sonny was filled with a huge green betentacled creature stuffed with tentacles, dribbling unspeakably into the pint of its companion, a three-foot red-skinned imp cloven of hoof. Sitting at the bar were, amongst others, a one-eyed very tall, very thin orange demon with a third arm in the centre of the chest holding its pint and a green seven-foot heavily armoured troll inspecting the blade of a broadsword.

The hordes of betoothed and betentacled monstrosities around him were bad enough, but the fact that they were all staring at him with the expressions of schoolchildren waiting for the teacher to choose someone to wipe the blackboard was really disconcerting. Since the barkeep seemed to be beckoning to him Sonny walked wobbly over to the panelled bar, and leant on it just before his legs buckled. Time, he decided, to blend in.

"Pint of Best, please," he quavered, as the orange creature clung to his arm with spindly fingers and stared up at him like a mistreated puppy.

"Why do you want a pint?" asked the landlord in a jolly, friendly fashion. "Youíre dead, you donít drink."

"Right. Right. Er -"

"You want to know what youíre doing here?"

"- Yes!"

"This is the start of your great journey."

The mention of that jogged Sonnyís memory. He had recalled reading something about South American folklore. "You mean the four year journey of the soul?"

He was treated to an odd look. "Could be four years, could be four months, depends on how fast you go," he said. "Youíre here to pick up a companion."

"Eh?"

The barman gave the impression that he had made this speech, or an equivalent, many millions of times. "A helpful demon is an absolute must for the soul as he goes on his journey through the Eight Underworlds to the Land of Eternal Rest - how would anyone survive the trials and tribulations on the way without one?"

"Donít ask me -"

The barman suddenly appeared to be wearing a pair of reading glasses as he dug out a very large and extremely over-used leatherbound grimoire, which he slammed onto the bar hard enough to send the beermugs rattling and opened it at, Sonny noticed, near the beginning. He checked the bar clock and ran his finger down the page, stopping 2.7 inches above and to the left of a water mark. "Frank Catermole?"

"No, Sonny L. Sustenance."

"Youíre not supposed to be here until a week on Friday."

"There was an Admin cock-up."

After a pretty lengthy explanation and an even longer look at the books, during which Sonny noticed that the assembled freakshow were all leaning forward and listening intently, the server of drinks ducked behind the bar, leaving Sonny to offer slightly lopsided smiles to the owners of the many pairs of eyes angled in his direction. Finally the barman emerged from his hidey-hole wearing a golf visor and holding a pocket calculator, and after a stream of mathematical complications he put what looked like a voting slip in front of Sonny. "Your sin/virtue ratio is looking pretty bad, so youíre only entitled to a Mark 3. I would advise you to choose quickly." With that, he threw an obsidian pen onto the bar and went off to serve a host of succubi who were clamouring for his attention.

Sonny examined the slip. He was clearly expected to pick one of the three names on the paper which meant absolutely nothing to him - ĎACHILLES Mk. 3!í blared the topmost box. ĎThe intelligent choice for the newly departed soul! With NEW IMPROVED ĎSTEELMANí TENDONS and AMAZING NEW SENSE OF IRONY!í it blagged, then it said it again in fifteen different languages.

Since the other two choices didnít have so many capital letters Sonny chose the Achilles Mk. 3 and passed the slip back to the landlord, who examined, suppressed a snigger and shouted a complicated serial number to the thronged mass. For a moment there was silence, during which all the demons groaned in unison and slumped down in despair, then the barman shouted directly to a creature slumped face-down in a puddle of demonic nectar. It sat up in surprise, tottered a bit, then fell sideways off its stool onto the floor.

The barman and two winged spirits helped the Achilles Mk. 3 to its elephantine feet and propelled him towards Sonny, who was watching in horror. The barman resumed his spot behind the panelled bar. "Sonny L. Sustenance, meet your new eternal companion, Jim."

Sonny gave Jim a long look before speaking. The demon had only two arms and two legs, and more to the point one head, but there the similarity to a human ended. Its skin was a deep orangey red and the limbs were each nearly a foot in diameter. The body was tough and slablike and mercifully covered by a weird chainmail ensemble, set off beautifully by a horned leather-covered helmet. Two bloodshot yellow eyes the size of eggs stared up at Sonny over a moisten snout. "Hi," said Sonny.

Jim coughed horribly and extracted from the depths of his codpiece an aged and heavily crumpled scrap of paper, from which he began to read with difficulty. "Con-grat-you-late-eons for choosing ter-her A-chill-ees em-kay-three," he droned. "If treated well I will be a you-seh-full com-pan-ion for ter-her long trip a-head and a loy-al and rell-ee-a-bull friend for ter-her rest of et-ern-it-ee."

Sonny smiled weakly. "Well, I suppose weíd better be going," he said.

"How about a drink first?" said Jim hopefully.

One drink became two, and two drinks became seventeen, and in the end Sonny was forced to put a choke chain around the now moronically drunk Jimís neck and drag him from the establishment. Looking back much later, Sonny couldnít remember why heíd put up with Jim watering his oesophagus for so long. He just had a dim recollection of his companion having a very persuasive manner.

The two of them, the pockets in Jimís clothing stuffed with secretly stowed alcoholic beverages, stepped out of the Travellerís Rest. The one thing Sonny was not expecting to see was the same grey, blank void, so it

was fortunate that he did not see the same grey, blank void. However, in all fairness, he was also not expecting to see a featureless grassy meadow.

Blinking under a white sun, Sonny gave his surroundings due appreciation. Dew-sodden grass squelched underfoot and a bright blue sky, unbesmirched by cloud cover, stretched from horizon to horizon. The ground neither rose nor fell in all directions, and the clear air allowed him to see for miles. There was clearly very little around him.

And yet, the landscape had an oddly artificial feel. The sky was the same flat blue colour all over, not darkening or lightening depending on proximity to the sun or the horizon. The grass, although evidently organic and full of chlorophyll just as grass should be, stood perfectly vertically to a blade, except around Sonnyís feet, and was set carefully in rows. It was as if someone with a lot of time on their hands had simply inserted each blade of grass one by one into the soil.

"This is the First Underworld?" Sonny inquired. The Travellerís Rest had disappeared, but he had been expecting that of the place.

Jim, half mummified in a complicatedly folded map which looked to Sonny like little more than a sheet of white paper with black dots of random size and position all over it, seemed to examine one particularly bespotted area carefully. "Yep," he said. "Also known as the Infinite Meadow."

Sonny cast another look around. It certainly looked like a meadow, and at first glance did betray it as infinite in size, so Jimís mapreading skills were apparently unaffected by a million billion years sitting in a pub drinking fermented nymph secretions. "Which way do we need to go?"

Jim suddenly began bashing his temples with rocky fists. "I know this, I know this," he chanted to himself, starting to smack himself about to stimulate his memory. "They told me this at school -"

Despite himself, Sonny was interested. "Demons go to school?"

"You donít think bottomless knowledge of the Eight Underworlds just appears out of thin air, do you? Anyway, I remember now. Weíve got to head for the Abyss of Eternal Torment."

"Sounds like fun," said Sonny, staring again at the featureless horizon. "Any idea in which direction that is?"

Jim stood on tip-toe, pointed a finger at nothing in particular, then began to rotate. Picking up speed, he was soon spinning like the finest of ballerinas. With great ceremony, and to the accompaniment of a sound normally heard when a vacuum cleaner is turned off, he slowed and eventually came to a complete stop. His finger swung wildly left and right a little then juddered abruptly to a stop, pointing to an equally featureless region of grass. "Thataway," he said.

Sonny was impressed, but endeavoured not to show it. "Then weíll head thataway," he said. "This Infinite Meadowís got to end somewhere." Gathering his spirits, he walked briskly in the direction Jim was still stiffly pointing.

Whereupon he smacked his head on something hard, tottered a few steps backwards and, this being inevitable, collapsed. After Jim managed to click the bones in his arm back into their sockets, he helped up his master and sat on the floor. He had been told about this, he knew, but couldnít for the life of him remember any details.

"Weíre surrounded by something," he said. Sonny slapped the empty air, hitting something very flat and very smooth and causing the landscape around him to wobble alarmingly. Like the intolerable mime artist of age he felt along the very flat, very smooth something, walking sideways as he did, before coming to an edge. The invisible wall bent ninety degrees, but he continued. After walking for a very short time he encountered another ninety-degree bend. Another five minutes past, and Sonny came to the conclusion that they were indeed surrounded by a wall that couldnít be seen. He slapped it again. Again, the sky and the grass below wavered.

Then he noticed it, taking another look at the grass. Where once there had been completely vertical grass, unstirred and unchanging, there was now a collection of footprints. Not just where he had been walking - everywhere beyond the walls. Some distance away through the wall he saw a rather oddly-shaped dent in the grass, and he was baffled until he looked around and saw that Jim was squatting on the floor, drinking from a bottle marked ĎOlde Nickís Spicy Brewí, forming a rather oddly-shaped dent in the grass.

Experimentally, Sonny poked at a small patch of grass near the invisible wall with his foot, and watched as a patch of identical size and shape wobbled beyond the wall in time with his motions.

"Itís a mirror," he said, twigging. "Weíre surrounded by mirrors."

"Iíll drink to that," said Jim, doing so.

"I donít get it, though - I canít see my own reflection. Or yours."

Finally showing interest, the little demon dragged himself to his feet and wobbled over to the wall. He gave it an experimental kick and watched the surroundings with interest. "Well, youíre dead. Everyone knows dead people donít have reflections."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

That was good enough for Sonny. He summarised the situation. "Weíre stuck in a meadow about ten foot square surrounded by mirrors. What now?"

Jim sighed pointedly and took a large and sturdy sledgehammer from his pack. Without deigning to offer an explanation, he swung it in a wide arc and hit the mirror closest to him.

Audibly there was a slow tinkle, a crack, and a crescendo of glass falling apart. But nothing happened visually - the meadow continued as its normal grassy, dewy self.

Sonny waved a hand in the direction of the invisible barrier. It didnít connect. With slightly more confidence, he took a step forward and waved again. "Itís gone," he said. "You broke it."

"It must be a very clever mirror," said Jim casually, putting away his big hammer.

The odd couple wandered away from the now three-walled box for some distance. Turning around after a few hundred yards, they could still see absolutely nothing. It was indeed a very clever mirror. They did see, however, a small village about a mile in the direction Jim had been pointing in, and rolling curvaceous mountains beyond.

"The Underworld," muttered Sonny under his breath as he and Jim began trekking towards the structure.

CHAPTER THREE

"Yep, thatís the place. Told you we werenít lost."

- Magellan, somewhere off the coast of Chile

 

Neither party knowing what to do next, they decided to take the obvious step which many travellers have taken and ultimately regretted. They decided to ask a local for directions.

Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they decided to ask the local for directions. The local pub, this being Jimís idea. When Sonny stumbled in, dew soaking the turn-ups of the ghostly jeans which had somehow followed him into the spirit world, he noticed that the place bore a remarkable rememblance to the Travellerís Rest, but the demons were a little less interested to see them. Sonny tried to grab the barmanís attention, who could have been the same barman seen earlier had his shirt not been green, but the jolly red-faced yeoman didnít seem to see him. Whereupon Jim slapped his three-fingered palms upon the bar and spoke in the loudest voice he could manage without resorting to shouting.

"Good morrow, barkeep," he semi-shouted. "Might we bend thy ear to our plight?"

"Someoneís drunk," muttered a shadowy but accurate demon in the now silent bar.

"Weíre looking for the Abyss of Eternal Torment," said Sonny, seizing his opportunity.

The barman, having recovered from Jim, rolled up his green shirt sleeves and rubbed his bristly chin, lower lip protruding with concentration. He stared at an apparently interesting rafter three feet behind and one foot above Sonnyís head, and licked his fuzzy chops. After about two minutes of this thoughtful display he said, "the what?"

After Jim patiently repeated the request, the barman went back into his routine. It was plainly clear after a further fifteen minutes that the man did not have the faintest idea what or where the Abyss of Eternal Torment was, but as Sonny turned to leave he noticed that a rafter two feet in front of his head and one foot above bore the sign ĎTRY THE PUBLIC INFORMATION BUREAUí.

The Public Information Bureau turned out to be another, identical pub directly opposite the first one, which had incidentally been called the Council Planning Office, but the barman (this time in a puce shirt) was a little more helpful. After a measly five minutes of umming, ahing and staring at arafter two foot behind and one foot above Sonnyís head he said "Do you mean the Abyss of Everlasting Torment?"

Sonny glared at Jim for a moment before answering. "Possibly."

"Try the Department of Civil Improvement."

The Department of Civil Improvement, the pub next door, was run by a fat, jolly old barman wearing a chartreuse shirt. After staring at a rafter two foot behind and one foot above Sonnyís head for a much shorter amount of time, he said, "Iíve never heard of an Abyss of Everlasting Torment, but I did hear the name Abyss of Everlasting Anguish thrown around somewhere."

I could go on. Upon closer inspection the village turned out to be a fairly wide collection of identical Mock Tudor public houses with strange names, each run by a barman obsessed with a certain rafter and wearing a brightly-coloured shirt with the sleeves rolled up - so far they had gone through green, puce, chartreuse, orange, cherry red, dirt brown, sunset yellow, navy blue, ocean blue, militant blue, toothpaste blue, grey, darker grey, turquoise, blood vessel purple and a rather ugly shade of greeny-browny orange. The Abyss of Everlasting Anguish transmuted into the Chasm of Everlasting Anguish, the Chasm of Neverending Anguish, the Chasm of Neverending Pain, the Cliff of Neverending Pain, the Cliff of Infinite Agony, the Fault-Line of Infinite Daffodils, the Fissure of Endless Forget-Me-Nots, the Crack of Endless Grass and the Hole of Large Quantities of Sand.

Finally Sonny and Jim stumbled into the very last building of the village, a quaint little public house by the name of Bengali Barryís Indian Restaurant, in which dwelt a barkeep whose shirt was a fetching shade of forest green. Sonny, being driven mad, strode right up to the bar, slapped two fists upon it, winced, and said, "We are looking for the Hole of Large Quantities of Sand. Tell us now where we can find it. If you lick your lips, stare at a rafter two feet behind and one foot above my head or stall for time in any way whatsoever, I will ask my little chum here to bite off your right arm and jam it up your rectal passage."

"Grr," said Jim.

The landlord sighed pointedly and said "I think you must be talking about the Bucket Which Might Once Have Contained Sand. Youíll find it near the west wall of this very public house."

Sonny, rather embarrassed with the nice response to his angry bearing, and Jim disappointed at not biting off any appendages - he couldnít reach the right arm anyway but anything at eye level would have done - marched from the bar and began searching for the west wall of the house. It was situated directly on the other side to the east wall.

Not only was the Bucket Which Might Once Have Contained Sand there, it was lodged between two large branches of an unidentified tree.

"Abyss of Eternal Torment, eh?"

"Thatís what they told me," said Jim defensively. "The Underworld likes to play tricks. I shouldnít worry about it."

"What now?"

"Now we get the Bucket out of the tree and see what happens."

Not for the first time Sonny wished he had not ignored so many beggars. He would have had less money, but he might have got a Mark 4 demon. On the other hand, although many companies invited you to prepare for later life, preparing for the afterlife was an exclusively religious facility and Sonny had not had much luck with such establishments.

But I digress. Getting the Bucket Which Might Once Have Contained Sand out of the tree was the easy bit. Using it to gain access to the Second Underworld was a little more of a challenge. In the end Sonny found that putting it over his head and inviting Jim to whack it repeatedly with a tree branch afforded some progress - the net result being that only his lower body was sticking out of the Bucket.

Jim thoughtfully upturned Sonny, balanced himself carefully on the underside of his masterís trainers and began jumping up and down with aplomb. It took four jumps before the two of them both disappeared into the darkness of the Second Underworld.

"That wasnít so hard," said Sonny after dusting himself down. "Iíve only been dead a few hours and Iím already at the mouth of the Second Underworld."

"They get progressively bigger," said Jim who was rubbing the spot where his armoured underpants chafed.

The mouth of the Second Underworld was a cavern - which could have been underground had there been an overground. Faintly purple rock stretched overhead, down the walls and along the floor as well, and little hunks of glowing crystal embedded in the wall provided the light. Human bones, moulded from plaster, littered the floor and a huge cast-iron gate barred the exit. The only other way in or out seemed to be a rather out-of-place steel vault door embedded in the rock wall opposite.

"This is indeed a predicament," said Sonny.

"Wait for developments," replied Jim.

Developments arrived not seventeen seconds later in the form of the vault door suddenly clicking unlocked and swinging aside. Sonnyís first impulse was to approach, but his second one was to do the opposite.

For emerging from the shadows on six spindly little pigís trotters was the biggest demon Sonny had seen yet, walking with the assured gait of one who knows they are seriously imposingly unattractive, standing taller than a house (three-bedroomed) and presumably trying to suppress a grin - I say presumably because it was difficult to tell which orifice was his mouth.

Letís not mince words. The thing was hideous. If you could imagine something which looked like the result of a poorly planned biological experiment involving a tarantula, a gorilla, and in fact sixty-seven percent of the animal kingdom, then with a few pairs of Deeley-Boppers strapped on in rather unusual places and a big bucket of phlegmy pigís offal thrown over it, youíd have something about half-way towards being as ugly as this monster.

Sonny couldnít speak. His arms were folded across his stomach. Never in just over a decade of horror films had he experienced something like that - not even Jim Henson could have come up with it. The ghostly partially digested food in his stomach which he had had just before his death was rising up to flick at his uvula. His eyes watered with the hideousness of the demon, and his nose began to bleed as the sickeningly malformed creature radiated putridity.

"Hi, Martin," said Jim.

"Hi, Jim," said Martin.

Sonny, who was apparently choking on his phlegm, swallowed rapidly and said, "You know this - thing?"

"This person," said Martin pointedly.

"Know him? I went to college with him."

Sonny had managed to adjust to being dead and being in the afterlife. He had just about adjusted to Jim. He wasnít prepared to adjust to Jim having old college pals with six legs. "What now?" he said.

"Well," said Jim in a patronising manner, "we have to answer a riddle set for us by the Infernal Gateway Beast."

"Itís a badge I wear with pride," said Martin, proffering his badge for all to see.

"Can we have this riddle so we can get on with the journey?"

Sighing with disappointment Jim said, "Go ahead, Mart."

Martin drew himself up to his full, impressive height, the effect being marred somewhat by one of his mouths choosing to vomit up its share of yesterdayís dinner, and spoke in a voice like Clint Eastwood. "ĎWhy did God give us all two hands?í" he intoned, the walls rumbling slightly as the echoes died away.

"He does a good Roger Moore as well," said Jim. "Go on, Mart, do your Roger Moore."

"Nah," said Martin shyly.

Sonny, meanwhile, was rubbing his chin in thought. "ĎWhy did God give us all two handsí, eh?" he said to himself. "Thatís a knotty one,"

"Youíll never get it," said Martin, rocking from trotter to trotter eagerly, making the ground shake.

"Heís right, you know," said Jim.

"Whoís side are you on?"

Sonnyís spirit brain was in overdrive. There were millions of neat purposes two hands could perform. Then again, there were also a few cracking things that could easily be performed with one. He had a feeling the demon Martin had one of those trick answers in mind. After fifteen minutes of thought, during which Jim and Martin talked about old times, Sonny came up with the perfect trick answer.

"In case one of them gets a splinter," he said proudly.

Jim and Martin exchanged glances. "Not what I had in mind," said the big monstrosity. "But you can go anyway."

"What?"

"Itís quite logical, Sonny," said Jim. "He said you had to answer the riddle - he never said you had to answer it correctly."

"Oh. Right," said Sonny, slightly disappointed.

"You know, Jim," said Sonny when they were on their way, "Iím slightly disappointed."

"Oh? Why?"

"Well, I thought the Journey of the Soul was going to be exciting. Full of danger and peril and really scary things. Flaming torches and spiderís webs and stuff. To tell you the truth I was looking forward to it. From what Iíve seen so far, it all looks rather... well, silly."

Jim nodded understandingly. "The first few trials are silly in order to lure you into a false sense of security. It gets better."

I have decided to speed up the narrative. The Journey of the Soul lasted just over a year for Sonny and a million and one stories could be told about his progress, but the focus of this book is the Land of Eternal Rest so I should pick things up a bit. The journey indeed became long and tortuous after a while, with Sonny exclaiming the words Ďnot another bloody mazeí on no less than seventeen occasions, and he was a very tolerant person.

"I wonder how the living are getting on," said Sonny one day when he was dangling by his fingertips over a pit full of ten-foot maggots.

The Second Underworld took just over a week to complete, and bearing in mind that the First Underworld lasted just a few hours and that the rate of acceleration was constant Sonny did not have high hopes. The bulk of this week, in all fairness, was spent trotting around and getting thoroughly lost in a cavernous maze. Jim was vaguely aware that they needed to get something from one side of the maze and drag it to another, then take the result to another side before transferring a bucket of water to a region of the maze that wasnít a side but was quite near one, then carry a golden statue to the very centre of the maze and do something else to it.

Quite straightforward in theory. Fifty-seven percent of the wasted week was spent wandering around relying on Jimís fractured sense of direction and Sonnyís Ďhuman instinctí. Forty-three-point-nine-nine percent was spent carrying something heavy around relying on Sonnyís fractured sense of direction and Jimís back not giving out. The remaining zero-point-zero-one percent was spent trying to figure out what to do with the golden statue, but it was a significant fraction of a percent because Jim lost two fingers and half a square metre of skin.

This could be considered an average excursion. The very worst maze they encountered was about half-way through the Sixth Underworld, which took the best part (meaning all) of a month to complete. I wonít bore you with the statistics, but needless to say they were very staggering. Think of the most staggering statistic you ever heard - even more so than that.

The journey was quite a strain for our two heroes. Jim, as well as the aforementioned stuff, sustained damage which could have effortlessly killed a person. Twice. Luckily demons are regenerative, else Sonny would have found himself carting a lump of misshapen flesh around. Sonny himself took no damage at all, but he did lose a large portion of his left sleeve. He was placed in afterlife-threatening situations quite a lot, the afore-mentioned maggots being a mild example. Although a dead soul cannot die, reincarnation is a possibility - and not a pretty one. When dead, returning to Earth is the very last thing most people would want to do, especially as a baby. Putting aside the unpleasant birth and having to share a womb for nine months with a placenta (which is not a stimulating conversationist), youíd have to go through the tedium of growing up, potty training and Winnie the Pooh all over again. Not to mention puberty...

In short, a soul cannot be considered safe when dead. But I digress. Sonny and Jim, having lived (bad choice of word I know, but letís not complicate matters) through the most terrible journey anyone (and everyone) has ever taken, finally popped out of the underside of the Eighth Underworld and plummeted a seemingly infinite distance towards their final destination.

CHAPTER FOUR

"Did you hear something?"

- Lazarus, the Ninth Underworld

 

Sonnyís outstretched palms felt rough concrete. The kind with those tiny bits of grit in which get stuck up your fingernails. It was also slightly warm, as if the weather had been nice. His searching hands found a crack, perfectly straight, such as the ones you get between paving stones, the same ones children and sensible businessmen endeavour to avoid, the latter when they think no-oneís looking. For an instant Sonny entertained the notion that he was lying on the pavement near a certain multi-storey car park, and that the last year had been a rather nasty dream. But then the feel of a chainmailed demon lying dazed on top of him and the presence of rather nice, warm weather in the middle of a British November deterred this thought.

"Wake up, sir, itís over," said a voice.

A pair of spiritual human eyelids flickered and their demonic equivalents did same, and soon Sonny and Jim were both blinking rapidly in the light - they hadnít seen proper light since the First Underworld - and trying to focus on the woman standing over them.

She was quite the most amazingly attractive woman Sonny had ever seen. She just seemed to radiate perfection, from the soles of her sensible shoes to the top of her golden head. She was like Denise Van Outen plus Courtney Cox multiplied by Posh Spice to the power of ten squillion.

Jim, however, saw a rather plain, dumpy lady with unkempt hair and an unflattering beige dress.

"The nightmareís over, sir," she said. "Welcome to the Ninth Underworld."

Sonny, who by now had dragged himself into a sitting position, stared at his demon who sat next to him and stared back. "We did it, Jim," he said levelly, not wishing as yet to embarass himself. "Weíve made it to the Land of Eternal Rest!"

"Oh," said Jim, not wishing likewise. "Good."

The woman, whose name badge colourfully proclaimed that HER NAME WAS ĎDEIRDREí, examined a clipboard in a hand which was to Sonny a slender creation of a kindly God and to Jim a collection of frankfurters with painted nails. "Says here ĎCatermoleí but itís work experience week again -"

"I love you," said Sonny, mind wandering. He quickly tried to rectify the embarassment, but ended up doing the equivalent of trying to remove a chocolate stain with a peanut butter sandwich. "Sustenance is the name. Sonny Sustenance. As in Sonny and Cher. Sonny L. Sustenance."

DEIRDRE checked the page underneath, then the next. "Simon Lionel Sustenant?"

"No, Sonny Lazarus Sustenance."

"Oh, yes. Time of death -"

Sonny decided to leap in before the Administration monster struck again. "November the 17th, 2002, seven-seventeen p.m." He had long ago worked it out perfectly whilst trying to evade the Nineteen Appendaged Thingy Of Somewhere-Or-Other.

"Cause of death," continued the woman, "drive-by shooting in Benidorm."

A long pause followed. "Yes, thatís right," said Jim.

DEIRDRE handed an envelope to Sonny and went off to talk to someone else who was lying nearby under an orange demon with three limbs and long spindly fingers.

As Sonny was opening the envelope, Jimís overbearing presence suddenly caught his attention. "What are you still doing here?"

"Oh, thatís a nice thing to say to your only friend for the last twelve months."

"I didnít mean that - I just thought that you would only help me get through the Eight Underworlds then bugger off somewhere."

Jim seemed genuinely upset "What? Nah, your demon is for eternity, not just for the Underworlds," he said, misquoting. "Besides, you donít think demons get eternal rest too?"

Sonny, meanwhile, had already opened his envelope and taken what was within. These turned out to be a letter, a pamphlet and a key with a tag labelled ĎNoah Apartmentsí. Putting the key and the pamphlet away for later, he unfolded the letter and read it aloud for his companion, who had never learned to read properly.

"ĎDear Mr. Sustenance,í" he read. "ĎCongratulations on your passing away and welcome to the Land of Eternal Rest, the Ninth Underworld. You are doubtless extremely tired from your great journey and will want to get some of your aforementioned Eternal Rest. You will find that the enclosed key opens Apartment 645 of the Noah Apartment Block, 16 Moses Avenue. We hope your quarters will be to the liking of you and your demon, and wish you a happy afterlife. The enclosed pamphlet will provide all you need to know about the Ninth Underworld. Sincerely, the Confederate Office of the Lately Deceased.í"

"C.O.L.D," said Jim, smiling. "I like that. Whatís the pamphlet say?"

"Letís find this apartment first."

The Land of Eternal Rest reminded Sonny a lot of what the early American film and television industry seemed to think America was like. Since these similes donít mean anything outside the Earth realm a description shall have to be provided. Here goes.

Think of a street in San Francisco. Any street at all. Remember to add the big hills, cable cars and newspaper stands, but just hold on to the key elements here - a road, with two pavements either side and with big, fancy buildings looming high over everything.

Doubtless you have pictured the buildings as flat, grey blocks. Not so in the Ninth Underworld. These are streamlined architectural masterpieces, millions of miles high, curvy and brightly coloured, but not gaudy - hued tastefully in cool melds of blue and green here, fiery blends of red and yellow there. These are the kind of buildings you can imagine smug tossers like Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen standing proud in.

You may also have imagined the inevitable things that come with cities - litter, dirt, vagrants - forget them. The streets are completely empty of things people donít want to see - the concrete and tarmac all have a kind of well-scrubbed look about them, even though they have never been cleaned in all eternity. As for vagrants, forget them. Everyone here is beautiful - even the men stir certain long-forgotten feelings in other men. Their skins have a golden, almost waxy sheen and their eyes have that come-to-bed sparkle. Theyíre all dressed in marvellous, gorgeous clothes, the sort people in the sixties thought weíd all be wearing by now but are nevertheless really neat. Oh, and everyoneís followed around by a demon, size and shape varying from minute to Martin. Everyone in the Ninth Underworld is beautiful - from the point of view of the opposite sex, that is.

Thatís about all the description you need for now. There is something else important, but Iíll leave that for later - I think thatís called an enigma.

Anyway, down this street and surrounded by people Sonny thought of as gorgeous and Jim thought of as rather plain came our heroes, the taller of the two occasionally glancing at the letter.

"I donít get it," said Sonny. "Weíve been looking for hours, I donít see any ĎMoses Avenueí."

"Donít look at me," said Jim. "Iím a demon of the underworld - I donít know diddly-squat about the Land of Eternal Rest."

They had indeed been walking around for hours. If they had been lost to start with, they were really lost now. Neither of them had been keeping track of their progress, Sonny because he was still adjusting to all this, Jim because he had a stubborn bit of phlegm in his demonic oesophagus.

"Excuse me -" said Sonny to a beautiful woman.

"Oui?" she said, obviously equally pleased to see him.

"Iím looking for Moses Avenue -"

"Quoi?"

"Moses Avenue?"

"Moo -"

"Moses -"

"- Avenue?"

"Yes. Oui."

"Non."

"Merci. Au revoir."

"Bye."

Sonny and Jim asked fifteen gorgeous passers-by between them and, although Sonny gained the phone numbers of seven and Jim gained the spiritual aura address of four succubi, neither of them were any closer to finding their new homes

In the end it was suggested that they ask one of the taxis.

A Ďtaxií turned out to be an angel in wings and a halo standing on a flying bed - four poster, brass frame, feather mattress - and apparently steering the thing by praying. Sonny was half-way through flagging it down before he noticed the unusual qualities of the thing, but by the time his hand had dropped the driver had seen him and had pulled up.

"Can I take you folk somewhere?" asked the bearded chappy in the wings.

Sonny and Jim looked at each other with perfect comic timing, then the human said, "Could you take us to Moses Avenue?"

The angel frowned. "You mean Goering Road?"

"No... I mean Moses Avenue."

The angel shrugged, losing a few feathers. "Hop in."

Sonny and Jim lay side-by-side on the bed, pinned into place by G-force, occasionally offering worried glances to each other. The bed was very comfy and the sheets were velvety, but they could take no comfort from this as buildings and people zipped past too quickly to possibly be controlled. The angel just knelt there at the end, head bowed, eyes tightly shut and hands clasped together in prayer.

"They really take this Eternal Rest thing seriously," said Jim.

Sonny didnít say anything. He had intended to, but he lost his voice when the bed narrowly missed another bed with pink drapes.

GOERING ROAD (Read the sign)

FORMERLY MOSES AVENUE

"Oh," said Sonny. "How curious."

"Whoís Goering?" asked Jim. "Whoís Moses?"

"Whatís going on here? Moses was a great religious figure. Goering was just some Nazi."

"Some what?"

"Iíll explain it to you later."

Noah Apartments were also elusive to find, mainly because they had been renamed Fò hrer Towers, and it was around about this point that Sonny noticed that important something I mentioned earlier.

High above them, draped across buildings and in many cases obscuring the old signs, were red banners. Most of them bore the unmistakable visage of a white circle with a few bent black bars on it - the Swastika, symbol of Nazi Germany. One of the pictures, however, told a different story.

The face was that of a pleasant, jolly gentleman, bearing the twinkly-eyed charm which said Ďeveryoneís favourite uncleí. A big, lovely smile was plastered over his face, but even behind this rose-tinted view there was no mistaking that forelock, and that small, square nugget of facial hair. It was the twentieth centuryís most notorious villain, the byword for evil, the Grand High Lord of wrongdoing.

"Whoís that?" asked Jim, pointing.

"Itís Hitler, Jim!" said Sonny with wonder. "Itís bloody Adolf bloody Hitler!"

"Nice-looking bloke."

If someone had told Sonny L. Sustenance that just over one year after his death he would be living (unfortunate choice of word yet again) in a magnificent luxury apartment seventy-five thousand floors up he would have given them a strange look and refused to buy anything off them.

And yet, here he was. A magnificent luxury apartment seventy-five thousand floors up. Sonny, who had had bad experiences with this kind of arrangement, was startled to come in and discover the place furnished with stuff you only see in glossy magazines or catalogues bearing price labels with lots of noughts on them. Most of one wall was occupied by a six-foot-square television screen with a zebra-skin sofa positioned in front of it, coffee table between the two at just the right height to be used for eating off or putting your feet on. The carpeting throughout was thick enough to suck at Sonnyís feet, and an ornamental Japanese archway led the way into the fitted kitchen - fitted with every labour-saving utensil Sonny knew of. He opened a few of the panelled mahogany kitchen cabinets. Stuffed with all of his favourite foods - chicken and mushroom Pot Noodles, Sugar Puffs, grape juice... even the microwave had a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie in it, which was timed perfectly so that the bell went just as Sonny approached.

Tucking into his pie he inspected the rest of the establishment. The bathroom was full of black and blue marble and those fancy clam-shell ornaments. The taps on the bath and sink were cast in purest gold, and even the air freshener in the toilet bowl was practically glowing with its pleasant smell.

Next to the bathroom was one of the bedrooms. This place was not papered, the walls rough-hewn and stoney. Flickering torches illuminated the scene and the bed was a slab of wood on the floor with a hessian blanket thrown over it. As Sonny watched, a big fat hairy spider scuttled from one corner to the other.

"Jim," he said, "I think this is your room."

Jim, who was drinking out of the toilet bowl, tottered over to his master and looked through the door. "Woah," he said. "Thatís what I call classy!"

"I just saw a spider."

"Black Widow?"

"Red-kneed Tarantula, I think."

"No expense spared, eh?"

Glad to get away, Sonny inspected his own bedroom. Naturally perfection. The duvet on the massive double bed was red and yellow striped and the pillows varied in size and shape from the usual boring rectangle to red hearts. A bedside cabinet was loaded with, Sonny noticed to his delight, a stack of international porn, and a million and one Japanese anime videos filled the wardrobe. A top-of-the-range computer with infinite megahertz on a stylish desk in one corner was loaded down with all of Sonnyís favourite games.

In short, everything Sonny loved, even the things he only liked from a distance, knowing he could never have them, was present in the apartment.

"This canít be right, can it?" he asked rhetorically. "How can someone like me live somewhere like this?"

"Stop trying to torture yourself," said Jim from the living room/dining room. "Youíve been through a lot. You deserve it."

Sonny returned to the front room and admired the decor a bit more. Jim was sitting at the dining table reading the big-print copy of the pamphlet Sonny had been thoughful enough to write for him. "Thatís interesting," he said.

"What?"

"Says here that thereís no such thing as money in the Ninth Underworld. Everything you wantís already there before you even know you want it." Jim was speaking in the manner of the proud parent boasting all to another proud parent.

"That sounds useful," said Sonny distantly, who was reading the telephone-directory-thick TV listings.

"But you still have to get a job."

"What?" said Sonny, now really listening. This he had not been expecting. "Why?"

"Society doesnít work unless people occupy jobs," said Jim. "Apparently you have to go to the regional C.O.L.D. office as soon as possible."

Sonny put on the trenchcoat by the door. It was a perfect fit. "Might as well go now, then," he said.

"Go to the rooftop car park first."

"Why?"

"Donít know. Says you have to go to the rooftop car park as soon as possible."

Sonny was a little baffled as to why a million-storey building would have a rooftop car park. Who would have the patience (or the petrol) to drive up a million storeys? Only someone trying to break a world record and other loony-brains.

By the time the light-speed elevator had taken him to the top, he was a little unsure if it was a car park at all. It looked more like a carpet showroom.

"Sonny L. Sustenance?" said a bearded angel standing nearby.

"Er, yeah?"

"Happy motoring."

A roll of carpet was handed to him. Sonny eyed it critically, then rolled it out onto the floor. It just looked like any old six-foot-by-four-foot rug patterned with Volkswagen Beetles and with frilly edges. Sonny sat on the big red circle which read ĎSit Hereí.

"Oh, right," he said to himself. "A magic carpet. I did wonder. How do I get this thing to take me to the C.O.L.D. office?"

And without warning the contraption took off and moved in a westerly direction at a hundred miles an hour.

As it moved along an unspecified skyway along which other magic carpets rocketed back and forth, Sonny clung to his new carpet with his eyes screwed shut. He didnít want to look over the side, fearing certain reincarnation, but he neednít have worried - the cloud level was just fifty feet below him, and since a soul has no mass he could, indeed, walk on clouds. This didnít occur to him, however, as air particles hammered at his clenched teeth.

After fifteen unbearable minutes which seemed like hours, and not particularly nice hours at that, the carpet parked itself on another rooftop car park on an almost perfectly cylindrical building. Sonny prised himself off the nylon, shook off the static electricity, and followed the signs.

CHAPTER FIVE

"Society is based on labour. Iíve seen it with my own eyes."

- Cheops, site of the Great Pyramid

 

"Frank Catermole?"

"Sonny L. Sustenance."

"Sorry. Work experience week."

Sonny glanced around the office. It was a nice office, there was no denying that. In fact, Ďniceí would be an understatement. To compare this office, with its immortal potted plants, water feature and black marble fixtures and fittings, to another office would be like comparing Sonnyís new apartment to most of the Seventh Underworld. Like comparing Sugar Puffs to excrement. Like comparing British sit-coms to American ones.

"Now then... you were killed in a drive-by shooting in Benidorm..."

Sonny had been reminded of this so much in the last few hours that he was willing to admit that maybe he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Benidorm and had simply dreamed the multi-storey car park while he was in the coma.

Where was Benidorm, anyway?

"Yes, thatís right."

"Youíre in Noah Apartment 645 and your demonís an Achilles Mk. 3..."

"Yep."

For a moment pity flashed over the face of the female angel. She was, to Sonny, staggering beautiful but he had managed to control his ghostly hormones by now. She took a brown paper folder from a bewinged filing cabinet and handed it to her client. "Your job. You start on Monday."

Sonny read the first paper aloud. "ĎComputer games magazine journalist,í" he said. "Thatís exactly the job Iíve always wanted."

"Jolly good. Off to the office with you, then."

"How does this society work?" asked Sonny just before he left.

"Pardon?"

"I mean, society relies on street sweepers, but who would want to be a -"

"Thereís no litter in the Ninth Underworld."

"Alright then, primary school teachers -"

"Thereíre no schools."

"Okay, farmers -"

"Food appears when you need it."

"Traffic wardens?"

"No such thing as a traffic warden. Basically, if no-one wants it, it isnít here. Thatís the rule of thumb."

"Worth knowing."

When Sonny got back from another lip-stretching ride Jim had his feet up on the coffee table watching the TV (that is, he was watching the TV, not the coffee table). He was holding a bowl full of little black crunchy things and patting the space next to him. Sonny sat himself down, put up his feet and removed his trenchcoat, leaving the latter splayed across his seat.

"Dried locust?" said Jim.

Sonny examined the bowl which was being offered to him. The contents were black and had the hint of many legs. "Iíve just turned vegetarian."

"Suit yourself."

"Whatíre you watching?"

"Dunno. What does Ďpropagandaí mean?"

Sonny had evidently caught a programme half-way through, but he picked up the gist of it. It was a live transmission of a parade going down Himmler Street - formerly Holy Ghost Way. As Sonny watched, a perfectly choreographed block of five-by-twelve soldiers marched with an unpleasantly rhythmic sound.

Each man was dressed in a completely white uniform with peaked cap and jackboots, and their upper arms bore a familiar red armband with swastika. As they goose-stepped between hordes of eerily silent crowds, a gentleman on a podium performed the Hitler salute. Quite appropriate, really, seeing as it was indeed Hitler.

"That canít be Hitler, can it?" asked Sonny to himself. "Heís actually smiling."

"Who is this Hitler bloke, anyway?"

Eyes not leaving the screen, Sonny told his demon the speed-version of the history of Nazi Germany. Basically this incorporated a few keywords strung together with a load of pronouns and verbs and adjectives, two of the keywords being Ďmassacreí and Ďslaughterí, but the message was well received.

"So he was a bit of a bastard, then," said Jim when he had finished.

Sonny tried to get his head around this. Calling the most hideously evil man the modern world had ever had the misfortune to see a Ďbit of a bastardí was like calling the sun a Ďbit hotí or Jeffrey Dahmer a Ďbit weirdí. Sonny not having the word power to express this, however, opted to say, "Pretty much."

"So presumably you donít want him ruling the world."

"Quite. Shut up now, heís making a speech."

They had missed the beginning of the speech but they got the gist of it. "My fellow dead," went the epitome of evil, "I am flattered once again to hear your great welcome for me, your humble servant -"

"Thatís never Adolf Hitler," said Sonny. "Never. He never spoke like that when he was alive. It was all shouting and slagging off Jews."

"- shopkeepers, if you wouldnít mind shortchanging your Jewish customers every now and again -" continued Adolf Hitler.

"There you go," said Jim, chewing on his locusts.

"Thatís definitely him," said Sonny uncertainly. He was thinking - perhaps he had fallen victim to the British propaganda machine. Perhaps Hitler wasnít as bad a bloke as everyone - no, no, he stopped that train of thought in its tracks. That man in the white suit and cocked hat with the white cane and the little moustache killed millions and millions of innocent people for reasons best known to himself. If you start thinking heís not such a bad bloke you might as well try and argue that the Teletubbies were heterosexual.

What was going on here? Was this mass-murdering warmongerer really ruler of the Afterlife? What sort of twisted system allowed that sort of arrangement? Slowly the logic set in - Hitler wanted to rule the world, therefore he ruled the world. Doubtless when Bill Gates or Richard Branson pop their respective clogs Hitleríll have to move over, but for now here he was in all of his megalomaniac glory, ruling all he surveyed.

Now he came to think about it Sonny could see that perhaps bad people make much better rulers. Was not Pol Pot leader of the Khmer Rouge? Was not Stalin leader of Russia? Was not Bill Clinton - actually, letís stop that legal minefield right there. Sonny tried to think of a monarch of England who was really virtuous. Harold of the 1066 eye-arrow incident? Well, at first glance the exception that proved the rule, obviously. But I bet he embarked on the occasional fox-hunting jaunt himself.

Not a day after fighting through a physical maze full of peril in the Eighth Underworld, Sonny was fighting through a moral maze. Should he just stand by and watch all this happen gormlessly from the sidelines? What if it ended like the last time Hitler was in a position of power? What would happen to the Jews and the Communists and just about everyone for that matter? Should he just leave well enough alone and enjoy his final reward?

"Fancy a brew?" said Jim, getting up.

Well, that answered that. "You mean tea, I hope."

"I mean what?"

"Just get me one of those brown bottles in the fridge."

"Right."

While Jim did serious damage to the kitchen Sonny watched the rest of the feature. Some bloke who had apparently always wanted to be a commentator wittered on as the crowd flatly refused to go ĎHeil Hitlerí.

"Well, what a big turnout there was today..." went the speaker, clearly desperately trying to say something good about this situation, threatened with reincarnation was Sonnyís theory. He pictured Goebbels holding a gun to the commentatorís temple. It made him smile for a bit.

"So, whatíd they give you?" asked Jim, bringing in a medium-sized cauldron full of bubbling green stuff and a small brown bottle with droplets of cold water all over it, just as in the adverts.

"Computer games magazine journalist."

Jim stopped draining the crucible and wiped his jowls. "Whatís that?"

Sonny had lost all patience with his predicament. "Iíve no idea. Iím going to bed."

And there we must leave our heroes for a while. Sure, it might be fun to describe in detail all the fun Sonny had in the Land of Eternal Rest, doing exactly what he wanted all the time and writing witty reviews for the local computer games magazine. Not to mention the things he got up to with those phone numbers I mentioned earlier.

It might even be fun (if not a little sickening) to hear about the incident involving Jim, two succubi, a hairbrush and a large raspberry lollipop. But the tone of the novel may be played down.

Hell, I could have written a load of garbled bollocks about Sonnyís later afterlife, maybe throw in a few paragraphs on his thoughts on the Hitler situation, but the fact of the matter is that Sonny, like everyone before, gradually came round to the idea, seeing that it was by definition impossible to make the Afterlife not nice. Let the man have his fun, was the general consensus. Heíll be down here like everyone else when Rupert Murdoch mercifully snuffs it.

No, Iím not going to thicken the book with that. Iím going to thicken the book by focusing on someone else for a bit.

The someone in question lived not a million miles away from Sonny. In fact it was just under nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand miles above him. Coincidentally he existed in the same building, occupying the penthouse suite, which was just like all the other suites but also had an indoor swimming pool, which could incidentally be filled, at the flick of a switch, with a choice of water, champagne or spaghetti hoops in tomato sauce. It had been there when heíd arrived and, although the legions of the Ninth Underworld had taken it direct from his innermost desires, he wasnít sure what it could be used for. HE DIDNíT.

This chappy was currently lying on his back in a massive water-filled paisley double bed, snoring loudly and contentedly, wearing one of those humorous nightcaps with the little fluffy bobble. With each snore the little furry blob rose and fell like ... good cue for some innuendo there but Iím determined not to lower the tone. This should be taken with all seriousness because the sleeping man was none other than the most evil man the twentieth century had ever seen.

Yes, sprawled there over pillows smeared in dribble was Adolf Hitler himself, his afterlife-wife Eva next to him, trying to ignore the noise of her husband.

Hitler talks in his sleep. Every single night, snatches of wordage were heard between great throaty, phlegmy growls. At first listen they could just have been gibberish, but Eva had been listening hard over the last few years.

"Denrub eb ton tlahs uoht," sleep-said Adolf. "Erif eht hguorht tseklaw uoht nehw."

Eva nodded to herself. Isaiah 43:2. Backwards as usual. She didnít need to check anymore, because she had been checking nightly for ages now - last night had been Isaiah 43:3, and the night before that 43:4. There was no ignoring it - her hubby was definitely progressively reciting the Bible backwards in his sleep. She wouldnít mention it to him - he was trying very hard to put his past behind him.

When Hitler had made it to the Ninth Underworld (after a very difficult journey - he hadnít qualified for a demon, just an artichoke) he had been horrified to learn of his status in the Land of the Living as the demon in human form who had terrorised the world. All he had wanted was to create a master race, was that too much to ask? Surely everyone in the world has at some point wanted to sieve out the scum from the gene pool.

Why should he be considered such a complete and utter loony-brain just because he wanted to allow the finest of the human race to reclaim the Earth as they were always meant to? What had happened to the good old days when women shouted out his name whilst giving birth? He just had a vision of a better world for everyone.

Providing they werenít Communists.

Or Jewish.

Or disabled.

Or Russian.

Or anyone from Eastern Europe, for that matter.

Or anyone who didnít think he was the best thing since chloroform.

And what in hell (bad choice of words again) was wrong with that?

Adolf got up first, as usual. Eva preferred to sleep in - for some reason she never seemed to get much sleep throughout the night. He fastened up his fluffy white dressing gown, donned his peaked cap, puffed up his cheeks and walked out into the dining room.

As usual Evaís demon Colin had laid out breakfast and gone back to his room to leaf through this morningís stack of French porn, so once again Adolf was mercifully spared looking at the wretched creature. Of course Eva had a certain affection for the thing, who wouldnít after two years traipsing through monster-infested labyrinth together, but Adolf had very little patience for giant millipedes.

Hitler sat himself down in front of the tray and took a slice of toast from the rack, withdrawing the butter plate with the other hand. He intended to eat half of the food on the table and take the rest to his wife that afternoon, just as he had done the day before. And the day before. And every single day before then. His psychiatrist (a friend of his image consultant) had said that getting into a strict routine helped you forget the ... troubles of the past.

When Adolf had heard about his reputation he was determined to turn things the other way round. No-one wants to be seen as the Ultimate Villain, in league with the Devil and all that, so naturally he had wanted to make people see him as they used to - nothing so extreme as a God on Earth, but just a likeable old gent. The sort who ran a sweet shop and organised excursions for the local children. Everyoneís favourite uncle.

Some weirdo whose dream job was image consultancy had considered this a labour of a one-armed Hercules, but could see the determination in the Fò hrerís eyes, and had accepted the challenge with some trepidation. He told him to stop shouting profanities and waving his arms about when making speeches. He told him to smile a lot and make the moustache a little more curved round the edges. He told him to wear a white uniform and walk with a special cane he could pose with. He told him to keep his opinions about certain groups of people to himself. He told him to add a bright red highlight to his forelock, whereupon he told him to bugger off, and he told him that perhaps he should speak to a psychiatrist.

Adolf began buttering his toast thoughtfully.

The chap whose dream job was evidently psychiatry was now a firm friend of Adolfís. It was Simon (for twas his name) who had reunited Adolf with Eva. It was Simon who had found him a vacant plot which was a perfect spot to build a sweet shop in. It was Simon who had begun a vigorous programme of Ďletting bygones be bygonesí.

Now Mr. Hitler was a stoneís throw away from becoming the Ďnice guyí. Now all that stuff about being in league with Satan was dying down. It was only this silly little rumour that was standing in the way of people not looking at him and seeing Belsen.

This silly little rumour cooked up by people who didnít like him.

The Jews.

The Communists.

The Resistance.

Why couldnít those ugly bastards leave him alone? Why did the path of his life have to be polluted with these impure criminals? Because they were nasty and spiteful and horrible and everyone hated him and he had to kill them all HE HAD TO KILL THEM ALL! KILL THEM ALL! KILL THE -

Adolf fell off his chair.

He pulled himself to his feet and bashed himself in the temples. He couldnít afford to have that sort of thought any more. That was behind him. A long way behind him. He was not a mass-murdering loony-brain. He was a nice, friendly old gentleman who really liked children.

If they were Aryan chi -

"Nein!" shouted Adolf, getting to his feet. "I am not a loony-brain! I am a lovely man!"

He discovered he was waving his arms about, and stopped. Then, with some trepidation, he looked down.

Even though the butter was partially melted, there was no mistaking that pattern. His mind had wandered. He shouldnít have let himself go like that, now heíd have to talk to Simon again. His subconscious brain had made his buttered knife trace a pattern.

A five-pointed star, each point joined by a straight line.

The pentagram.

"Ach, nein," mumbled Adolf Hitler. "Itís happening again."

CHAPTER SIX

"How do you spell ĎRevolutioní?"

- Louis XVI, the palace of Marseilles

 

This little scene wasnít happening. It wasnít happening in the darkened basement of a building used for adult education courses. There most certainly wasnít a circular table squatting under a spotlight, and there was a definite absence of hooded figures sitting round it.

"ĎSix men sat on the edge of Hell,í" quoth one hooded figure who wasnít there.

"ĎOne was a lawyer,í" said the next one who also wasnít there.

"ĎOne was a traffic warden,í" said someone else who was there but only to give the place the quick once-over with the hoover.

"ĎOne was a celebrity chef,í" spake another silently.

This little ditty went all the way round the table, ending with "ĎThe last was Jeffrey Archer, but only allegedly."

Suddenly, six weapons were trained on this last speaker. "Itís supposed to be ĎThe sixth was Jeffrey Archer."

"Whatís the difference?"

"Quite a lot. Take him away and throw him out."

"No!" cried the slipper of tongues as two beweaponed guards dragged him off.

"You know, Jez," said the second speaker to the first, "I canít help thinking youíre overdoing the security here."

"I told you to call me Mr. Orange."

"Call this a Resistance?" said the fourth, by way of explaining the scene. "Iím going back to professional tennis. Thereís a bit more action there." He, or possibly she, it was hard to tell, stormed out, and the rest of them exchanged slightly bruised looks.

"Whatís his problem?" asked Jez/Mr. Orange. "Harriet, whatís wrong with him?"

"ĎHarriet?í"

"Sorry. Mrs Chartreuse, whatís wrong with him?"

Harriet-cum-Mrs Chartreuse sighed. "Look, Je - Mr. Orange, this is supposed to be a revolutionary group."

"Yeeees..."

"We never seem to DO anything."

Jez looked at his colleague expectantly. He couldnít see the problem. "What do you call this, then?"

"I call it exactly what weíve been doing for the last hundred years."

"And what is that?"

"Goddammit, must you always be so bloody understanding?" said Harriet levelly, containing herself.

"Look, what is this all about? And donít swear."

The rest of the ruthless rebels, sensing a gap in which the metaphorical crowbar could be inserted, all started to clamour their arguments all at once.

"Itís all bloody committee meetings -"

"- and minutes -"

"- and agendas -"

"- and coffee -"

Jez raised two hands to silence his minions. "Look, I appreciate we donít do much revolutionary work. I appreciate youíre all eager to vanquish the forces of evil, but if we fight violence and terrorism with more violence and terrorism then itís a bit of a hypocrisy -"

Mr. Lavender slapped two palms on the circular table. "I think that Someone Up There would be prepared to turn a blind eye just this once,"

"Anyway, we firebombed that nightclub last year,"

"Yeah, exactly, last year. And I could hardly call a match a firebomb."

"Especially since you didnít light it."

"Well, someone could have been hurt!"

Not for the first time, his companions were struck with the possibility that maybe they had backed the wrong yeti.

Adolf was a happy man. He had just returned from the yeti races and had fetched quite a nifty sum from the 2:32, plus he had had a mentally strengthening phone call with Simon who had assured him that he was a cloud floating in an unstirred sky, and that all the little red men with forks were a long, long way below him. Hitler couldnít help his thoughts straying towards an image of the Luftwaffe dropping big cylindrical metal thingies with indigestion problems onto sleepy English towns, but he had managed to whack these impure thoughts away.

Around his neck he wore a big plastic apron bearing the words ĎKiss the Fò hrerí, and rubber gloves covered his gnarled hands. He was half-watching a daytime documentary about the indigenous life of the Fifth Underworld but most of his attention was devoted to his current project.

Adolf didnít like to do much work by way of ruling the dead universe. He would devote an hour or two each afternoon to talking to his government, hearing the news and outlining his ideas, but most of his time would be taken up talking to journalists, watching daytime telly or just, generally, wasting time.

As many people know, Hitler enjoyed his painting. He didnít do too much now he was dead - a brush in his hand and a wandering mind provided too much opportunity for the ... Bad Things to come through and make themselves known. So, he had taken up a new hobby.

Cooking.

Slightly limited, admittedly - his repertoire consisting of cheesy bakes and not much else - but at least chopping, whisking and stirring kept him distracted from the Bad Things.

Today he was experimenting with a new idea of his - cheese, potato, onion and herby bake. He had one synthetic block of cheese, one synthetic potato and one synthetic onion, and he was busy chopping them up.

Chopping was the second most monotonous part of the preparation, the first being the actual cooking, and therefore the second most dangerous. These were the times when the evil which was still alive inside him tried to take over.

The television had stopped showing the very interesting documentary - apparently three researchers had been reincarnated in its making - and was now showing a news broadcast.

Good, thought Hitler. Perhaps Iíll be on it.

He wasnít on it. The first item was about some form of vandalism in the town square - someone had apparently dropped a bottle of ink in the fountain and erected a banner saying ĎHITLER OUT NOW PLEASEí.

Wasnít that just typical? Could none of these people see that he had everyoneís best interests in heart? Perhaps that plan to reincarnate all the Jews - on the basis that most Jews reincarnated themselves sooner or later after catching a glimpse of who was running the show - wasnít such a great thing to include in the press release. There was always that little crowd of misfits eager to leap on the slightest mistake he made.

The Jews.

The Communists.

The Resistance.

They didnít understand. Adolf kept trying to remind himself that - they just didnít understand what he wanted this world to be. Ignorance, however, was no excuse. If he had his way all those ignorant subhumans would be marched out into the street and reincarnated right there. Yeah, thatís a great idea. Shoot every last ugly one of them. Shoot them all. SHOOT THEM ALL! SHOOT THEM -

Adolfís own left hand, in a desperate attempt, leapt up and slapped his face as hard as it could muster.

Then, screwing his eyes up tightly in despair, he lowered his head. Only after counting to ten did he consider taking a look.

Then he counted up to twenty.

Thirty.

He had a look.

The cheese, the potato and the onion had each been chopped into six equal pieces.

Three sixes.

The number of the Beast.

"Oh, schwein," said Adolf Hitler.

"Where have you been?" said Genghis Khan, who was waiting at the doors to the Government building. "Weíve been sitting here like lemons since two!"

"Apologies, Herr Khan," said Hitler as he tried to untangle his cane from the brass bedframe of the taxi. "I had anozzer episode zo I spoke to my psychiatrist."

"I donít see why you have to place so much priority on public image," said his deputy. "When I was alive, skewering seven peasants on your broadsword did the trick."

"Zings move on, Herr Khan."

By now they were on their way to the main conference room. It was a strange establishment, the Government building, seeing as a person who always wanted to rule the world will do so for a few years then let the next one have a go, so some of the fixtures dated back to as many as seventeen different rulers. Khan himself had had a crack for a little while ages ago, and the occasional scrubbed skull dangling from a chain reflected this. Gothic paintings of people not enjoying themselves much almost obscured the tasteful blood red-painted walls.

It was expected of every ruler who passed through to leave a little momento of his stay, even if the occasional goody-goody cleaned them all up after a while (a rarety - a nice person who wanted to take over the world was logically not a nice person), so Hitler had naturally thrown up a few paintings of himself looking dashing or meeting little children and curtains decorated with swastikas. The latter served to cover up a few of Genghisí wall posters which portrayed sex and death in, quite frankly, not a nice way.

Throwing both double doors akimbo in a way that made him feel powerful Adolf entered his conference room. Once again everyone seated around the varnished mahogany table stopped their casual chatter and craned their necks to watch their leader, who smiled.

The original Government of the Ninth Underworld - St. Peter and that rabble - was lost in the mists of time. Of course, when you usurp someone you did feel entitled to give them a job on the Government, just to keep them quiet, but it wasnít long before all the originals had been squeezed out.

What a mixed bunch sat round the table now.

Hitler had thought about getting the Ďladsí together - Himmler, Goering, Hess, Goebbels and all them - but had decided against it, on the basis that they probably didnít have the same intention as Adolf to reform. It didnít matter, anyway - owing to the aforementioned usurping system the Government was decided for him.

As well as Hitler and Khan, there was Judas Iscariot twiddling his thumbs on the far side of the table, clearly uncomfortable with his company. There was Rasputin, nicking all the bread rolls. There was Robert Maxwell, making notes for his memoirs. A sorry, sick bunch over whom Hitler had very little control.

"Right, first item on the agenda -" said Khan, prompting Rasputin to hurl a crusty roll at him. Like Hitler, Khan was prepared to make amends after seeing his reputation, but always gave the impression that he had been bullied into it. He was rather meek and weedy, and lots of other words with a double Ďeí in them, but he tried to disguise this with macho comments and it took a lot of imagination to compare this hapless creature with the leader of the Mongol Hordes all those years ago. "First item on the agenda," he continued bravely, "is the apparently increasing resistance movement."

There was a lot of sudden shouting and slapping palms on the table, the general consensus being ĎWE MUST CRUSH AND REINCARNATE THEM ALL!!!!", so Genghis blocked his ears, waiting for the rabble to settle down. It was a long wait.

"We have to think of the PR," he said, silencing the room if only because half of them didnít know what PR stood for. "If we just keep massacring the people, surely the resistance will grow!"

"Not if we keep massacring the resistance,"

"That wonít work, Rasputin."

"Consider the lily in the field," said a weak voice. "You can cut off the head, but a new oneíll grow."

There was metaphor-induced silence for a bit, then Khan said, "Shut up, Judas."

"Yessir."

"The point is," continued Genghis, "that if we just storm the resistance and murder everyone then itíll get rid of the immediate threat, but a new resistance will form eventually."

He had made the mistake of using too many long words, so the rabble had continued regardless.

"Sod it," shouted Hitler, suddenly standing. "None of you are taking zis seriously. Ze point is zat, alzough ve haff gained ze majority of public trust, zere is still a group off people who dislike ze idea of ze bad guys in charge. Ex-bad guys, I should say. As soon as veíff assured ze whole vorld zat veíre ze best vons for ze job, ze problem vill be solved. Massacres just donít vork."

"Fair enough," said Stalin from a distant corner.

"Sounds good."

"Makes sense."

Hitler nodded at Khan, who smiled back. "Item two on the agenda - No, that covers everything. Any other business?"

"Whoís got my coffee cup?" demanded Pol Pot. "I always have the beige ceramic cup with the flower pattern. Whatíve I got this for?" He waved around a red tankard with one of those yellow smiley faces.

"Sit down, Polly."

"Any other sensible business?"

The assembled mass exchanged glances, shrugged, and shook their heads collectively.

"Jolly good. Same time next week then, chaps."

"I donít know why we bother spying on them, Jez, they never say anything useful anymore."

"Thatís Mr. Orange to you."

CHAPTER SEVEN

"Me? Head of the YMCA?"

- J. Dahmer, Ninth Underworld Job Centre

 

Jeremy was a relationship counsellor. That had been his dream job for years. The trouble with the Ninth Underworld, however, is that no-one asks people precisely why certain other people want a specific job, and this in the past had led to rather embarassing incidents - bestialists becoming zoo-keepers, paedophiles becoming volunteer daycare centre workers - and Jeremy was one of those embarassing incidents.

Still, the scene going on in this lovely office wouldnít be out of place on Monty Pythonís Flying Circus, he reflected as he shuffled his papers. Like Khan, he was a nervous and stammering man but, unlike Khan, he made no effort to disguise this.

"Now then, Mr and Mrs Hitler, is it?" he quavered.

"Jawohl. Yes."

"And what is it exactly placing a strain on your marriage?"

Eva coughed petitely. "Itís been a problem for a while now. Adolf does try his best to make up for his past, but for some reason the Evil keeps trying to break through, and that can be a little annoying."

"In what way does the Evil try to break through?"

"Oh, anything - pentagrams on his toast, the number six occuring in threes, reciting the Bible backwards in his sleep ..."

"You never told me zat!"

"Well, you were trying very hard, I didnít like to."

Jeremy steepled his fingers and leant back in his chair. "I hope you realise that personally I donít think getting married after death is a good move," he said. "Very few people have the patience to put up with someone for all eternity, and it inevitably ends in messy divorce, and if youíre not happy with your husband being tempted by the Devil, this can only speed up the process."

"I suppose I wasnít thinking."

"Mr. Hitler, if I could turn to you for a moment - you have been identified as the most evil and power-mad warmongerer the twentieth century has ever seen, and youíre naturally upset about this - could it be that you are placing your image in a higher priority than your wife?"

"Ja, vell, I suppose you may haff a point zere... I do seem to spend more time viss my image consultant..."

"Donít worry, Mrs. Hitler, I know what itís like for someone close to you to be preoccupied - my father was a rabbi, you see -"

Suddenly Hitler was sitting bolt upright in his padded chair. "You are Jewish?"

Jeremy had that funny feeling that he may have revealed more than was good for his immortal soul. "Y-yes," he wobbled. "Does this bother you?"

Remembering himself, Hitler tried to calm himself down. He closed his eyes and did some breathing exercises, gripped the ends of the armrests and opened his eyes again. "No. Nein. Please continue."

"Okay. So, this evil trying to break through - how has this affected the, er," Jeremy rubbed his neck and swallowed hard. " - bedroom?"

There was a long, accusing silence.

"Donít be afraid to go in really, really close detail," he continued uneasily.

Eva decided to butt in, her husband beginning to look like a kettle on the boil. "We havenít actually done that since our deaths."

Jeremy was genuinely surprised. "Really? Well, might I recommend it? Weíre dead, so thereís no risk of pregnancy, no risk of disease, itís just done for a bit of a laugh, but it can cement the building blocks of a relationship."

"We donít want to just yet, Mr. Lutterworth -"

Jeremy rather unwisely patted Hitlerís hand clenched around the armrest. "Tell me the truth," he said tenderly. "Is it a problem downstairs? Because if it is, I could recommend a very good specialist, or, and I appreciate you might not fancy this idea, I would be happy to substitute -"

Hitler suppressed himself with superhuman effort. "No," he said levelly. "Zere is no problem in zat area."

A biro rattled rather quickly against the desk in Jeremyís sweaty palm. "So why have you not, er, strummed the old one-stringed banjo then?"

Eva tried to exchange glances with Adolf, but he was too busy staring into the middle distance, sweating and vibrating slightly. "We just ... donít think itís that important."

"Not important?!" Jeremyís attitude was one of someone who had just been told that the sun was an excellent place for a skiing holiday. He checked his watch. "Weíre coming to the end of the session, now, so you go off, get at it, then come back here and tell me all about it, okay?" He seemed to be sweating as much as his male patient by now.

Suddenly, a splinter flew across the room and ricocheted off Jeremyís glass of water. With an almight splintering crack Hitlerís left armrest suddenly detached from the rest of the chair, his hand still clamped around it. After a few seconds his wobbling hand opened and the armrest fell out in bits.

"I should put that on the bill," said Jeremy.

Now Hitler was on his feet, red in the face and shouting. "Now look here, you. Itís people like you who really let down ze human race. Vy donít you just reincarnate yourself like all ze others, you ignorant, perverse, money-grabbing JEW!!!!"

"Adolf! He was making a joke!"

"Vot?"

"Thereís no money in the Ninth Underworld!"

Hitler suddenly gave the impression of waking up, as if he had acted on reflex action. He lowered his accusing, pointed finger, the colour drained from his face and he lowered himself back onto the damaged chair. "Yes, right," said Jeremy, who was pinned back into his seat. "We havenít made much progress this week, have we? See you next Thursday, then." With superhuman effort he raised a hand and waggled the fingers in a Ďbye-byeí gesture. "Bye-bye."

Adolf didnít get much sleep that night.

This was partly to do with his worries. Heíd lost count of how many times the evil inside him had tried to make its presence felt recently - the toast, the cheesy bake, the incident at the relationship counsellorís, it was too clear to ignore now. Despite his best efforts the forces of Darkness were filling him up - and it wouldnít be long before it indulged in a little coup díetat. This was partly why he didnít get much sleep.

However, he mostly didnít get much sleep because of the fireball floating above his bed.

Hovering twelve or so inches above his knees was a circular ball which bathed the chamber in an eerie, flickery orange light. The fire seemed to dance inwards into a centre too bright to be looked at directly, as if this tiny circle a foot across was some kind of swirling portal to somewhere else. Somewhere Adolf wished to know nothing about.

He lay there, silently terrified, clutching and creasing the blankets in his nervous hands. Beside him Eva slept on, oblivious, snoring gently. As Hitler watched, the shimmering ball shifted to the left a few inches, then back. For an instant the fire flowed in the opposite direction and he got the impression that the thing was gesturing, and it was pretty obvious what at. Hitler tossed aside the covers and kicked his legs over the bed, slipping his feet into a pair of nearby white jackboots.

The ball made a little loop-da-loop as if to say Ďah, you cotton on at lastí and zipped in a no-nonsense fashion towards the door, where it made little motions towards that instead.

As in a dream, Hitler allowed himself to be led from the bedroom, down the hall and into the main living room. There the ball disappeared with a puff of smoke and a whiff of sulphur. The place was pitch black now, so Adolf fumbled for the switch until the spherical ceiling light filled the room with a gentle glow.

"Ah, Mr. Hitler," said a voice.

Adolf tried to reply with something along the lines of Ďwho the hell are youí but when his mind had digested the voice and the appearance of its owner it had second thoughts. To begin with the former, the voice was deep and gravelly, the sort of voice which would have intimidated Columbo.

As for appearance, that will take a fairly lengthy description. Sitting with steepled fingers - in an intimidating fashion, unlike Jeremy who did it with an effeminate flair - and legs crossed in Hitlerís favourite chair was the most frightening figure Hitler had ever seen - even more so than that thingy from the beginning of the Second Underworld. Not that this person had fifteen mouths and oozed despicable slime. He seemed like a rather handsome gentleman, with a little goatee beard and a chest so wide as to hinder access through any door you care to name. The manís muscles strained under clothes of exclusively black leather - boots, trousers, shirt, trenchcoat, all alike, but still not in a truly horrifying fashion. It was the aura that caught Hitler off guard - deepest red dotted with little sparkly bits, forming an outline around the sitting figure, shimmering like the fireball did. That and the fact his eyes were black from edge to edge, but for a pinprick sparkle of red as a pupil.

"Wh-who are you?" stuttered Hitler.

"I have many names," boomed the newcomer, who seemed to be holding a saucer in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, little finger sticking out like the safety catch of a big gun.

Hitler was not an unintelligent man, and for some reason it was obvious to him. "You are Satan?"

"Damn straight," he boomed. His accent seemed to hint at the American Deep South.

"Vot do you vant from me?"

"Stop using that accent," snapped the Prince of Darkness, dropping into a posh British dialect. "Both you and I know that accent and language are purely optional in the Ninth Underworld."

"Sorry," said Hitler in a backstreet Liverpudlian accent.

Satan took a sip of his tea. "Something troubles me, Adolf," he said upon smacking his lips. "We have tried to infect our influence on you, but you are of remarkably strong resolve these days."

Hitler tried to gather his dignity. "You are no longer welcome here," he said. "I owe no more allegiance to you, Satan."

"Oh yes you do, Adolf Hitler. You seem to forget that little contract you signed when the Nazi Party was at an all time low ...?"

Satan produced a rolled-up piece of paper tied with a ribbon. Not apparently owing to any black magic - he just proffered his hand as if to show that it had been there all along, but had gone unnoticed. With great ceremony he burned off the ribbon and unfolded the paper, which he read aloud. "ĎI, Adolf Hitler, do hereby pledge my soul to Beelzebub for all eternity in exchange for limitless charisma and supreme oratory skills.í Thereís a lot of legal rubbish dressing that up, but you get the idea. Your soul is mine for eternity, Adolf, not just until death."

"Is there no way of contesting it?"

"Mr Hitler, you have access to some of the most skilled solicitors in the world, but I think youíll find the clause is completely airtight."

Hitler, realising his fate, flopped down into the armchair opposite the one currently occupied by the Devil. "So, what more do you want from me? I am ruler of the Ninth Underworld, what more do you want?"

Satan vanished the contract and blew out sharply through his lips in that time-honoured dismissive farting noise. "The Ninth Underworld is no great prize for me," he said. "Practically mine anyway, but Iíll get to the point. My role in the universe has been exceedingly small since Hell was closed down, and I think you know that if thereís one thing I canít get enough of, itís power. Like yourself, Adolf."

"Go on."

"The ultimate prize, Adolf, is right on top of our heads. The origin of us all. Yourself from your parents, me from the belief of Godís followers."

"You canít mean the Land of the Living?"

"That is exactly what I mean."

Adolf didnít know what to say. It seemed superfluous to ask exactly why Satan wanted the Land of the Living, so he expressed his uncertainty with a raised eyebrow or two.

"Obviously I canít take it over myself - I exist only as metaphor up there. But one of my souls could."

"Satan, you could have done this centuries ago. Why now?"

"It is only now that the sins and disbelief in God on the part of mankind has risen to a high enough level to afford me enough power to complete my master plan."

Hitler stood up and went to look out of the window. He needed some distraction away from this ultimate situation of his - there he was, making deals with the Devil. This is exactly the kind of thing he was type-cast in doing. "No."

"Sorry?"

"I wonít do it. I wonít be your puppet, Satan. Do what you like with your contract - you canít do anything without a Hell."

Satan almost smiled. "I never expected you to agree first time, Mr. Hitler. I ask you to think about it. This is an opportunity to return to the good old days, Adolf. When you were a living God. When your every blink was marked on a calendar. When, indeed, women yelled out your name while giving birth."

"The good old days?"

"The good old days. Think about it, Adolf. We will meet again."

Hitler tried to ask, "When?" but Satan had already vanished. Head spinning, he returned to bed and was quickly asleep, continuing his alternative recital of the Old Testament.

And there, once again, shall we leave Mr. Hitler. His final decision shall remain a mystery for now, but no doubt if you havenít worked it out now youíll have an idea soon enough.

Time now to return to the plight of your friend and mine Sonny L. Sustenance, who had now been at work at the local computer games rag - Games for the Dead - for several months. The time is approximately two weeks after the above event, when the aftermath of Hitlerís decision is now fully in operation.

CHAPTER EIGHT

"A computer is just an abacus with a dust cover,"

- Pythagorus, the Ninth Underworld Job Centre

 

Sonny hit the ground running, rolled to avoid a high laser beam, scissor-jumped to dodge a low one, and threw himself round a corner.

Not for the first time, he realised that the system of the Ninth Underworld had a few flaws in it.

When he had been alive Sonny had been excrementally bored most of the time. He would go to work, work, come home, watch TV and go to bed. Unless there was nothing on telly, in which case he would rent a video and go to bed. Since the Ninth Underworld catered for your every whim, the underlying power had obviously been concerned that Sonny would lead exactly the same kind of afterlife, so now from the moment he parked his magic carpet to the instant he set foot inside the Games for the Dead office every security robot and laser turret in the building turned against him.

This usually meant a reincarnation-defying chase through miles of obstacle-filled corridor and laser burns more often than not, but after a few weeks Sonny had started finding the morning adventure invigorating and, after a few more weeks, rather enjoyable. No doubt in a few weeks the thrill of the chase would become boring as part of the daily routine and the Ninth Underworld would come up with some other ingenious way to keep him interested.

Today, Sonny was trying a different route, via corridors A79B, L26K and the canteen. He was finding the trip a little more of a challenge, there being more ground to cover, but took it all in his usual stride. He ran down corridor F81P, arms and legs going like pistons, a horde of football-sized guard robots with mounted rocket launchers in hot pursuit, and skidded round the corner.

To find himself facing a collection of courier droids apparently having a convivial fag. One of them pointed, yelled something in binary, and every automaton in the little platoon drew a vicious-looking laser pistol. Solid surfaces to his left and right, armed guards in front and behind, metal floor beneath, all seemed hopeless until Sonny noticed an open vent in the ceiling just above the courier droids. With renewed vigor he dashed towards the advancing group, then launched himself into the air seconds before they fired. Using one of the robots as a springboard he sommersaulted upwards into the vent and scrambled into the horizontal shaft. He crawled as fast as he could, elbows becoming rough and bruised with every movement, until the floor was shot from below him by one of the rocket-launching droids and he tumbled back down into the corridor. He was almost immediately on his feet, however, and soon high-tailing down towards his destination - the door with the picture of Pac-Man on the frosted window. He ran like a man possessed, the distance between himself and his robotic pursuers becoming smaller and smaller, before he judged himself close enough and leapt towards the door.

As Sonny discovered, some fool had wedged it shut, but this only slowed his process slightly as the flimsy wooden door erupted into fragments around him. Now he was in the office, the robots suddenly lost interest and got back to their mundane business but still Sonny got to his feet as soon as possible, ignoring the splinters which drew spirit blood from a few small cuts and paying no heed to the horrified passers-by, and ran through into the main area. He finally skidded to a halt, breathing heavily, at the desk of one of his colleagues.

"Phil, quick," he gasped. "My carpetís double parked and I forgot my card!"

Without looking, Phil proffered his card which granted him use of the rooftop car park and Sonny snatched it, throwing himself back through the door to the sound of laser fire.

The collective journalists got back to work.

Sonny finally got to his desk - with his misspelt name on the front - and hurled himself into his swivel chair which then descended itself right to the bottom, the locking mechanism having undone during the night.

So, here he was, back in the chair after another hairy moment and still, mercifully, dead. But that didnít matter now - computer games were his afterlife. Even before the unfortunate car-park incident he had keenly played them day and night. This, he suspected, was linked to his want for adventure but now since he narrowly avoided reincarnation every morning they were beginning to lose their appeal.

The computer games industry in the Ninth Underworld was a somewhat strained affair, seeing as even the most timid of games relied on things like zombies, vampires, demons, all the things that it was acceptable to include in living personís games because of the uncertainty of whether they exist or not. Now that the people of the Land of Eternal Rest were dead and had learnt that not a single case of a person returning to their own body after death had been recorded those games just didnít scan anymore. Although demons did exist, the Underworld Inhabitants Guild would be down on a software publisher like a ton of bricks if they were portrayed as vicious creatures.

The most vicious game that had been produced in the Land of Eternal Rest - and had brought with it a storm of controversy - was entitled House Of The Living and had almost been denied a certificate after showing a demon hitting someone quite lightly over the head with a sockful of sand.

Sonny, who had been brought up with the likes of Buckets of Blood on his old ZX81 and the more recent Buckets of Blood 2000 on his PC, was a little disappointed at the archives when he had arrived, and if it werenít for the convivial atmosphere and the early-morning fun he wouldnít bother turning up.

Just as he had flicked on his computer and was about to inspect the drawer which new review copies were banished to, Phil turned up at his shoulder with a memo.

"Guess what," he said.

"Youíve got genital warts."

Phil gave Sonny a look of astonishment then rapidly changed it to a donít-be-silly gurn. "Nope," he said, allowing the memo to flutter onto Sonnyís cluttered desk, "youíre doing the letters page this month."

"What? It canít be the second Thursday of the month already -"

"Carmelís off sick. Youíll find the letters in your right-hand desk drawer, and the e-mails have been re-routed to your terminal."

Sonny leant on the booth partition as Phil skipped off to harass someone else. "Phil, donít do this to me!" he called, but no-one heard. Resigned, he flopped back down into his chair and, swallowing hard, opened the right-hand desk drawer.

Not so bad, this month. Just ten or fifteen to wittle down to a choice few he then had to insult in the centre pages. He tore open the first one that came to hand, and settled back to read.

"Dear Mailbox," it read. "I was playing Invasion of the Living last week, and guess what I found? If you type the word ĎGERMANYí approximately fifteen seconds after killing the cannibal accountant on level 24, a fish bearing the face of Lionel Blair swims across the screen singing a song about artichokes -"

Sonny sighed, and dug out his old review copy of Invasion of the Living from the debris on top of his desk. He quickly booted it up and reloaded his saved game during the now legendary battle with the cannibal accountant. A piece of cake after youíve gone through it a million times - use the egg-whisk until he drops his umbrella, then pour everything you have into him until heís standing on the edge of the cliff, at which point poke him in the eye with the barrel of the AK47 - but Sonny never tired of the beautiful animation. As commanded, he counted to fifteen and typed ĎGERMANYí.

Immediately the speakers burst into song. "Artichokes, artichokes, the nicest thing about artichokes -"

Sonny blinked, reloaded, killed the accountant once again and this time, in the spirit of enquiry, typed in ĎREPUBLIC OF IRELANDí. Again, the jolly little song echoed around his little booth. Phil noticed, and started making his way towards his employee.

Sonny reloaded yet again, invoked violent death upon the razor-toothed yuppie and this time typed in ĎKZZJL<N". As he expected, the song started again.

He closed the game and started up the word processor. Heading his document, he composed a reply. "Dear Mr. ĎBaboons On Cheesy Sticksí," he wrote, silently wondering about these callsigns twelve year olds seem to delight in. "I have tested your claim and indeed my office rocked for a moment as the computer sang the praises of the humble artichoke. However, this overlooked design flaw also seems to apply if you type in any member of the European Union or, in fact, anything at all. Furthermore the fish bearing Lionel Blairís likeness was just a product of your diseased brain."

"Programming another virus?" said Phil.

"Just testing a claim," said Sonny, who made no secret of disliking his editor.

"Well, hurry up. Thereís an important review for you. In the drawer."

Sonny obediently extracted a brown paper package from the drawer and tore it open. Inside was a plain white box with just an uninspiring black logo on the front.

Vile Triumphal Sways, by Reichsoft,í" read Sonny aloud, inspecting the box. "Doesnít appear to be any details. Nothing about the game, the developers, nothing."

"Nah, there wouldnít be," said Phil, leaning on the self-assembly desk which wobbled under his touch. "You know Doubting Thomas Productions?"

"Yeah?"

"This is them. The government took them over."

"What? Why?"

"You know what Hitlerís like. If somethingís fashionable, heís in there."

Phil went away to lean on someone elseís desk, at which point Sonny stuck the CD - again, with only a logo - in the drive, and it booted up rapidly.

No installation procedure, thought Sonny. A rarity.

Something told him to give this one his undivided attention, so he ejected the CD, put it in a little carrier bag and hid it under his chair. That done, he continued with the letters page.

Pausing only to pick up Jim from the local demon-friendly bar, Sonny burnt frills on his carpet all the way back to the apartment, whereupon he seated himself in front of the computer and turned it on. Jim pulled up a chair behind him and chewed on what looked like a two-foot dead millipede.

"Whatcha doing, Sonny?" he asked, spraying legs.

Sonnyís eyes didnít leave the screen. "Some weirdo game," he said. "Have to review it for the next edition."

By now the title screen was displayed, which made Sonny and his companion lean forward and stare with perverse astonishment. "Vi-lee-try-ump-hant-sways," said Jim. "Thatís an interesting logo."

Sonny looked down. There was nothing in the box except a scrap of paper detailing the basic controls. No manual. No plot. No explanation. Not even, and this is unheard of, a registration card and catalogue of upcoming products. But there was the title screen, with its little picture.

"A young lady being attacked by a minotaur," mused Jim.

"Sheís not being attacked, Jim."

"What do you call that, then?"

Sonny told him.

"Is that allowed?"

"Iím not sure."

Mercifully, the title screen was removed to be replaced by a loading screen. Unmercifully, however -

"Now Iím certain thatís not allowed."

Then the game began.

Sonny later found it difficult to describe exactly what was in the game. Certainly he found it enjoyable, but it just radiated this pink glow that made him happy. He knew he had played the game - he had vague recollections of shooting models on the game, and every time he did so a wave of pleasure went through him - but he couldnít for the life of him remember what he shot at or where he went to do so. All he knew was that he loved every minute of it.

Jim just sat and stared, mouth open, bits of half-chewed millipede making a break for freedom. He absorbed everything, missing nothing.

And then Sonny woke up the next morning, still seated stiffly in front of the computer, fingers still brushing the keys, screen blank white. The CD had apparently ejected itself and was lying on the thick-pile carpet. Jim was nowhere to be seen, but this problem was rectified when he stumbled in. "Er, Sonny," he said slurrily. "Thereís a big red pentagram on my bedroom floor and I canít remember how it got there -"

There was also, as it turned out, a big red pentagram scrawled across the kitchen ceiling, not to mention a few rather unpleasant images all over the nice wallpaper. "What in the Ninth Underworld is going on here?" asked Sonny rhetorically.

"Maybe we were burgled," said Jim.

"You canít get burgled in the Ninth Underworld."

"Oh yes."

Sonny slumped down in front of a bowl and a box of Sugar Puffs. "Itíll take ages to clear this up," he said, pouring the cereal into the bowl in front of him.

"We could call a cleaner," he said wistfully.

"No cleaners," said Jim. "No-one wants to be a cleaner."

Sonny sighed, and reached for the milk.

Then he stopped.

Then he picked up his bowl and stared at it. The Sugar Puffs at the bottom of the item of crockery seemed to have huddled into three little islands, each of which contained six individual Puffs.

Three sixes.

"Something is going on here," announced Sonny. "And that game had something to do with it."

Just as a precaution, Sonny and Jim wore mirrored shades while they dissected the game. First they put the CD in, bypassed the autoplay and explored the contents of the disk.

The first thing they checked was the sound files. There were millions of them, but patiently they worked through every one, trying to find something that wasnít immediately apparent. This almost turned out to be a fruitless exercise, as all the sounds were either guns being fired and people getting seriously hurt, but Jim did notice something about the dying scream of the most common bad guy - the grunt.

"When I heard that sound," he said, "I suddenly felt very happy."

"I know what you mean," said Sonny. "Iíll slow it down."

He did so with some audio software, but only when the file was slowed down tenfold did they hear it - a voice speaking at normal speed and pitch, mingled with the rest of the scream.

"You are very happy," it said. "You feel extremely good about yourself."

"Soppy," said Jim flatly. "Get rid of it."

Sonny nodded and deleted the little snatch, speeded up the sound again, and played it. This time, they did not hear angels singing in their inner ears, they heard a gutteral roar of agony which made them both cross their legs. This was all they found in the sounds folder, so they moved onto graphics.

One file - a bitmap image - caught Sonnyís eye. It was called SUBLMNL.BMP and it was linked to a text document.

"According to this document," he said when the file had been opened and duly perused, "the image is projected on the screen for one hundredth of a second every five seconds."

"You wouldnít be able to see it," said Jim logically, who had found a bag of crisps somewhere.

Sonny opened the image. It was hardly a picture - just some writing in block capitals, white on a black background. "Hitler is Lord," it said. "Embrace Evil and Recant thy Blind Faith."

"Subliminal messages," said Sonny thoughtfully. "They go past too fast to see but your subconscious mind stores it. But I thought they werenít allowed."

"Delete the image, then, and letís play the game again."

Sonny did so, reprimanded Jim for spraying crisp crumbs, and started playing.

It was quite the most appalling, the most grotesque game Sonny had ever had the misfortune to encounter. The gameplay and graphics were decades behind current capabilities, and the content was too controversial for words. There was no plot to speak of - the player was just expected to shoot bishops, priests and rabbis. Lots of rabbis. Lots and lots and lots and lots...

Sonny played, stomach aching, as he removed the spleen of the Pope with a machete, then made a nutritious and filling stew from it. He played for an hour before the sub-game made him turn the thing off in disgust and destroy the disk underfoot. Armed with a crossbow and a sniper scope, the game invited him to nail Christ to the cross.

"That was disgusting," said Jim after he joined Sonny in the living room. "Iím surprised the government allow it."

"They didnít just allow it, Jim," explained Sonny patiently, "they commissioned it."

"What? Why?"

"I donít know. But I intend to find out!"

Jim watched the human stare into space for a few minutes, then trotted discreetly back to the computer room, attempting to remove the dirt from the CD Sonny had stamped on.

CHAPTER NINE

"Blu-tackís a marvellous thing,"

- Solomon ĎSonnyí Lazarus Sustenance

 

This next portion of the narrative will be taken from two perspectives. The first shall be that of Sonnyís, who had assigned himself to discovering the elusive truth, and the second shall be that of Hitler and his emergency council.

Sonny so far hadnít made much progress in his search for the truth. The only clue he had was that it was apparently Ďout thereí. Since Ďout thereí in the Underworld encompasses roughly four billion squillion trillion to the power of four billion squillion trillion square miles, he had started in the most obvious place - the government building.

The extremely helpful receptionist had given him two words - one was a profanity and the other was Ďoffí, so Sonny had decided to go with the discreet approach. Which explains why he was now trying to scale the back wall.

Unlike many buildings the Underworld Reichstag was rather short and squat, stuck between two monstrous apartment blocks like a sparrow drinking at a pond frequented by vultures. Unlike such a thing, however, the establishment just seemed to radiate menace in a way that suggested that vultures could flee or be damned. Luckily, such buildings often have a million and one hand and footholds in the form of gargoyles, elaborate pillars and window-boxes full of dope.

One hand clutching the pride and joy of a male stone gargoyle, the other resting on a window-box, the left foot planted on a windowledge and the right dangling in space, Sonny reflected that he may have overlooked something vital one has to consider when scaling buildings.

He had now finally climbed as far as his targeted window which had seemed ajar from the pavement but was now emerging from the apparent optical illusion. His knuckles rattled on the firmly closed window pane, and he muttered an expletive which shocked a passing microbe.

The roof it is then, he thought as he put his weight on an ornamental statue and placed a hand on the windowsill above. Such a pity that the same microbe had chosen to settle there along with ten billion of its mates, forming a lump of frictionless slime which Sonny unwisely tried to shift his weight to. It was also rather annoying to feel the nipple on which his left foot was settling break off.

Fortunately, his hand managed to catch the ledge below as he descended, which happened to be situated near a narrow precipice along which a passing hero could conceivably walk stiffly along.

His back to the wall, eyes fixed on the artificial moon far above, Sonny edged his way along the tiny ledge with a stiff gait. Then he reached the edge of the building, so he craned his neck around and saw his quarry - an open window. The ledge did not continue to that little architectural treat, so he was forced to take a gamble.

Repenting what sins still applied down here, Sonny raised a foot, swivelled on the other, launched himself into the air, bent his frame around the edge of the building, flung out a hand and ended up dangling from the windowsill, spirit heart pounding like a baboon in a small box. First allowing his breath to gingerly return to his body, Sonny summoned up all his strength and pulled himself onto the sill, through the window and ended up curled in a ball on the inside. It was his dignityís turn to be summoned, so he got to his feet and brushed down the trenchcoat he seemed to think he needed.

He seemed to be in some kind of bedroom, perhaps where a visiting dignitary would stay. The walls were unpatterned in blood red shades, the carpet was a darker blood red, and much of the wooden furniture was mahogany. The evil in power really know how to live, he thought. The bedspread was patterned with swastikas and all cupboards and cabinets had a tight, locked air to them. A room where a visiting dignitary would secure his treasured possessions?

Speaking of visiting dignitaries, one appeared to be occupying the bed along with his wife. They werenít asleep, unless they were both serious somnambulistic cases, but fortunately they were too busy to notice a passing self-employed spy. The door was locked from the inside, so Sonny undid the bolts and sidled out. Then, because he was an agent of justice with a sense of humour, he wedged the door open in case anyone came passing by.

Sonny took a home-made blackjack - a bit of leather from another trenchcoat tied up into a bag and filled with sand - from his inside coat pocket and tip-toed down the corridor.

Somehow Genghis Khan and Judas Iscariot had found themselves walking up to the conference room together. Both were engaged in complicated whinges, and both were unaware of each otherís.

"I donít see why he feels we should have a meeting at this time of night," said Genghis.

"Why should I be in the government?" moaned Judas.

"Whatís so important that it couldnít wait until morning?"

"Iím not an evil chap, I donít see why I should be seen as one."

"Maybe he had that dream again," speculated the Mongol.

"OK, I betrayed Jesus, but he wouldnít have died for all our sins if I hadnít."

"I told him, go and talk to that psychiatrist you seem to hold in high regard."

"Two more weeks and heídíve gone out of fashion. I reckon I did him a favour."

"He is the leader, I suppose -"

Judas stopped in his tracks. "Did you hear that?"

Finally the dastardly duo were paying attention to each other. "Hear what?"

Judas went over to the window. "Sounded like someone tapping on the glass."

"Theyíve gone now."

"Ah. Right." Judas continued walking, oblivious to the antics of the good guys.

Meanwhile, Sonny had cocked things up. The plan was to sneak around the building, rifle through all the papers he found, note down anything interesting on the back of an old envelope and run like the clappers. In fact, the only part of the plan he had gotten right so far was the last bit, as he was indeed running like the proverbial clappers. Admittedly he wasnít trying to get out of the building, if only because he didnít know the way, but he was being chased by a collection of security droids.

These werenít the football-sized rocket launcher-possessing robots Sonny frequently matched wits with at his publisherís. These were the latest models, clumping round the halls on three metallic spider legs, with two mounted laser cannons as well as the rocket launcher, heat-sensitive visual sensors, the works.

They could also, unlike Sonny, pick up a fair old lick on the unsecured carpets. After stumbling on a fold for the fifteenth time, he had lost faith in his apparent ability to turn corners faster than his pursuers. Hiding would probably be a better notion than running at this point, he thought, so he quickly nipped in the first door he found which wasnít locked. Confused by this, the robots abandoned their search. Artificial intelligence still had a long way to go.

Sonny was safe - for a moment, before he heard jackboots outside.

He leapt for the only item of cover in the room.

The conference room was filling up now with the most evil people history has ever known. In other words, and this comparison is not uncommon, the Government. They were all clad in their favourite items of nightwear, and Stalinís black two-piece was drawing several admiring glances. Genghisí underpants were not.

"Has anyone seen my blu-tack?" asked someone whose only purpose in life was to say important things which no-one pays attention to at the time.

It was fully fifteen minutes after every chair around the huge table was filled when Hitler made his grand entrance. Normally someone like Pol Pot would make a sarcastic remark at this point, and indeed he was preparing a suitable riposte, but the room fell silent when the appearance of the Fò hrer was digested by the communal mind.

Gone was that jolly everyoneís-favourite-uncle expression, the twinkly eyes, the chubby smile. Gone was the white uniform and PR-friendly white cane. Hitler was dressed in a dastardly black uniform, leather boots up to his knees, threatening black leather gloves. His peaked hat was indeed black, covered in little metal studs. The only other colour in his clothing was the red of his armbands, bearing the Nazi swastika, which were now somehow even more threatening than ever before. His face bore the expression of a serious man, with just the slightest hint of mania, and the moustache had been clipped into a perfect square, with sharpened edges striking fear into the heart of any brave man. His eyes were the piece de resistance - although they retained the human white-brown-black circular pattern, there was the little red glint in each pupil that said Ďevilí in all known languages and struck terror into everyone present. Stalin dropped his vodka. Judas wet himself.

"Good evening," said Hitler in a voice edged with the fires of Hell.

"Good evening," chorused the Government like well-disciplined schoolchildren.

All the lights went out, with the exception of the spot emitted from a hitherto unseen slide projector. Hitler stood directly in the machineís beam, but he didnít even blink. "Allow me to explain my plan," he said.

"Plan?" asked Judas. "What plan? And what happened to your accent?"

"The plan which will benefit you, me, and this entire world."

"Weíre listening," said Stalin truthfully.

"I was contacted recently by a fellow with whom I made a certain deal," said Hitler, moving nothing but his lips. "It seems my contract has not yet expired."

Himmler, who never took part much in these meetings, broke his biro in half.

"He has instructed me to perform a certain task for him. A certain task which only I may perform."

Goering made his excuses and left.

"With your help, dear friends, we are going to stride forth and conquer the Land of the Living."

The response was incredible. Every single member of the government got to his or her feet and started shouting. Soon the room was shaking with the cacophany of pompous, opinionated evil men, like a group of primary school boys who call themselves something like Ďthe Avengersí or Ďthe Ninjasí and have found one of their number murdering small furry animals. They were bad, true, but they knew where to draw the line.

Eventually, the room settled down when Judas shouted louder than anyone. "Have you gone mad, Adolf Hitler?" he yelled, right in the face of the unreacting Fò hrer. "Either this is some kind of sick joke, or youíve been doing dealings with Satan again! I warn you now, that man is nothing but trouble! You think you can just stroll into the Land of the Living and rule all you see before you? You gullible, simple-minded little - URK!"

Judasí speech came to this unusual conclusion when Hitler suddenly drew a pistol from his gun and shot Iscariot an unrecorded - but fairly high - number of times. As Judas slumped over the table he wavered and disappeared, his soul bound for a new body, leaving just a smear of spirit blood.

"He was Jewish, anyway." said Hitler to the shocked mass. "If weíre quite finished, I can continue with my explanation."

The Government were horrified. Not only had this little boy started murdering the small furry animals, he was also eating the liver raw and performing obscene sexual acts with the lower portion of the colon. Hitler had finally gone too far.

"I think perhaps he can explain in his own words," said Hitler, tossing a little capsule to the floor. It cracked open with a whiff of smoke and formed an instant pentagram in white lines on the carpet. Then there was a bigger puff of smoke, and where once there was pentagram there was now a fairly vast burn mark, with a burly man with a goatee beard and covered from head to toe in black leather standing proudly in the middle.

"Gentlemen," said Hitler, "I give you the Prince of Darkness."

The assembled throng was too shocked to speak, so Satan intervened. "Thank you, Mr. Hitler. As some of you know there has recently been a secret campaign of subliminal video which has turned over most of the general public to the cause of the Government and to the cause of the powers of Darkness. The reason for this will now be made clear, as I explain the plan to conquer the Land of the Living."

And he explained, with the Government hanging on every word and Hitler nodding behind him. It was a brilliant plan, a cunning plan, a plan which could scandalize the Government if anyone knew about it. Basically, a plan Sonny Lazarus Sustenance would have loved to hear about.

How fortunate that Sonny had heard every word, he having laboriously blu-tacked himself to the underside of the desk literally seconds before the room started filling up. And as Satan outlined his ultimate plan, Sonnyís grin became ever wider. For the first time in his period of existence, he Knew Too Much.

Jim had been playing Vile Triumphal Sways ever since Sonny had left, and had patiently fought his way to the very last level of the game - Heaven. He had battled past hordes of marauding angels armed with razor-sharp boomerang halos, and after locking horns with St. Peter and his killer cockerel he had finally reached that well-known gaming institution, the hallowed End Of Game Baddy.

God.

Jim had reloaded his saved game just before the encounter a million times, but had not yet managed to defeat the big-bearded one. He had already legged it to the two different sides of the arena and punched the switches which lowered the two electrodes either side of the robed monstrosity, who was constantly hurling streams of killer halos. Then he had jumped onto the raised platform on the balcony which sent electricity coursing through Godís teeth, and now he had the chappy on the edge of the parapet, teetering over the pit of Damnation. But every time Jim tried to think of what to do, God just recovered and unleashed the Divine Furies which stripped the flesh from his bones. Knowing his luck he would probably have to shoot a certain part of the body with a certain gun. If only he could think logically like Sonny -

"Shoot him in the eye with a Biblical Inconsistency," said Sonny.

"Thanks, Sonny," said Jim, drawing and reloading his Cunning Argument Gun. Then, after a single second, he was suddenly standing upright with his back to the computer, and the chair was mid-way through the process of falling over. "Sonny!" he said innocently. "I didnít hear you come in!"

"I told you not to play that game until I got some answers."

"I was just researching! Looking for more information!"

"And what did you find?"

"Well, er, you want to know what I found?" stalled Jim as he stared down at the CD case in his hand. "Well, er, I found that ĎVile Triumphal Swaysí is an anagram of ĎEvil Always Triumphsí -"

"Not important, but interesting."

"Are you going to lock me in the deep freeze again?"

"No, Iím going to take that CD and bend it round my shoe."

Jim took an interest in his metal boots.

"But not until Iíve seen the end-of-game sequence."

- Which turned out to be long, gory, badly-animated and very, very biblical.

CHAPTER TEN

"You should be grateful the critics write about you at all,"

- Method Acting for Fun and Humiliation, Corgi edition

 

After the friendly but rather pointed phone call from Phil, Sonny remembered that he hadnít written any review of Vile Triumphal Sways yet. He had half a mind just to delegate, as he didnít think he could talk about the game in an unbiased fashion. Then the other half of his mind took the casting vote and said - truth will out.

But how to explain what Sonny knew without getting him targetted by the Gestapo? He could make a few subtle hints, maybe, then scathe the Government with a clever joke ...

Sonny stared at the blank screen of his word processor. In his experience, the review just wrote itself after the first few paragraphs, so that was all he needed. But how to start? Arguably the hardest part.

"I donít know how they got this past the censors," - No. Fatuous. The Government were the censors.

"Iím pretty sure subliminal messages were banned in computer games," - No. Too risky. Gave too much away.

"Every now and again a game comes along which at first glance seems like every other new release, but then you take a deeper look and see that it could be a milestone of the gaming format." Brilliant. Praise at first glance, but pledging no allegiances. Sonny typed it up, and smiled.

"Vile Triumphal Sways will certainly make you happy, but then thatís what the Government wants, isnít it?" Super. Neat, satirical and 100% true.

"If, for instance, the Government was preparing some diabolical plan to take over the Land of the Living, theyíd certainly want everyone to be blindly happy so that no-one would want to object. Of course, mass murderís all very well, but you wouldnít be making an example to anyone towards the end -"

At times Sonny could be very intelligent and cunning, almost Machiavellian in his strategical ability. At other times, like this, when he was drunk on pride, he could be right thick.

Satan dropped his copy of Games for the Dead and set it alight with a steely glare. "He knows," he said.

Hitler fiddled with his moustache. His leg twitched nervously. "Nothing to do with me, O Lord Satan," he quavered. His Government would be hard pressed to recognise this snivelling cringer, but the Government wasnít there. "You know what these investigative journalists are like -"

Satan leaned back on his chair. "This is a problem, Adolf."

"Yes, sir, it is, sir."

"We canít let these small-town little blabbermouths without the sense they died with ruin everything."

"No, sir, we canít, sir."

"Solomon Lazarus Sustenance has gazed in wonder on his last Underdawn."

"Yes, sir, he has, sir."

"Tell those Gestapo chappies of yours. Signed photo of Kaiser Wilhelm for the soul who brings me the head of Sonny L. Sustenance."

Now thereís a line to close this scene with.

"Oh, and get me a Wispa while youíre out."

Bugger.

"Money for old rope," thought the Gestapo collectively.

Sonny was woken up the morning after the morning after publication by a red-hot cinder dropping on his face. There are more unpleasant ways to be woken - arms and legs being snapped off, insects crawling up your rectal passage, the footfalls of the Bogeyman - but none sprung to mind immediately when Sonny erupted into consciousness and found his bedspread on fire.

It was on fire because it had been touching the carpet which had been on fire because the curtains had caught fire and fallen lopsided because the nearby standard lamp had exploded because the electric plug had shorted because the plug had caught fire because some inconsiderate person had left a molotov cocktail lying around. Sonny leapt up screaming, beat out his burning leg hair and (ever the realist) rolled up his pyjama bottoms so they wouldnít catch fire. He hopped gingerly from one side of the room to the other, singing his tootsies, and kicked aside the door.

This served to connect the fire spawned from the molotov in the bedroom with the fire spawned from the molotov in the living room. He rolled between two rows of flame to dodge them, split-kicked over a fallen beam and leapt into Jimís room, narrowly avoiding another beam which wasnít fallen but didnít have far to go.

Jim was still snoring loudly in his pit, his room being made from stone (or at least imitation stone), so Sonny nudged him gingerly awake.

"Go back to sleep, Julian," murmured Jim.

"Jim! Itís me. Wake up."

"Sonny?" Jim checked the hourglass on a string round his neck. "Whatíre you doing getting me up at half past eleven on a Saturday morning?"

"I donít want to alarm you, Jim my old mate, but the apartment is on fire."

Jim craned his neck to look through the open doorway. His eyebrows raised like a suspension bridge when he saw the flames licking at the carpets, and he said, "Well, thereís a thing."

"Weíve got to get out of here, Jim! I think someone doesnít like me!"

The still sleep-drunk Jim staggered out into the hallway, traipsed into the living room with no apparent reaction to the flames, and sommersaulted out of the window.

Sonny rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Thanks a lot, pal," he murmured, then flung himself back through the door just as the ceiling in Jimís bedroom fell in. He got to his feet hurriedly, patted out the small fires in his pyjama top, and skipped over to the front door on tender toes. When he got there, he was not immediately surprised to find it securely locked from without.

There didnít appear to be any other way out. Flames towered over him on all sides, and there seemed little point in trying to open the door - if he was dealing with government agents, and he had a funny feeling that he was, exit by the most obvious means would be unlikely multiplied by impossible.

Sonny curled himself up into a little protective ball, and forced his back against the door, kicking out as if the fire would be deterred that way. Reincarnation was staring him in the face. He wrapped his face in his arms, and waited for the end (beginning?).

The sight of a million-storey building collapsing in a tower of flames is something youíre never going to see in the living world, so the gathering crowd made the most of it. A few enterprising chaps had set up a handful of hot-dog stands and were flogging little tubes of vegetable matter (pigs canít die twice) to everyone else. Four or five reporters were already writing up the story with laptops round their necks.

Jim stared up amongst the crowd and wondered if heíd done the right thing. He wasnít sure if Sonny had known that a soul in the Ninth Underworld is immortal to the method by which he had lost his life in the first place. Evidently not. He had been waiting for the human to come screaming out of the window after him, clutching a burning behind and fluttering gracefully to the ground. This had not happened, and Sonny was perfectly capable of being burnt or crushed to reincarnation.

Half of the building collapsed first, descending rapidly into an expanding cloud of flying brick, then the other half fell over in a perfect ninety degree faint. Dust rained down for miles around, breaking the windows of neighbouring buildings and annoying everyone who had always wanted to be a glazier. Soon nothing remained of Noah Apartments but a mountain of bricks and dirt.

Jim had always pitied humans. Being a demon was bad enough - first youíd have to come to terms with the notion of being quite spectacularly unattractive, then youíd go to a series of evening classes about the Eight Underworlds, then after the exams youíd sit around in the Travellerís Rest for a zillion years before being claimed, then youíd embark on that eventful but rather unpleasant trip through the Eight Underworlds before you get your Eternal Rest.

From what little Jim had heard about being human, heíd had the better deal. A human isnít spawned - theyíre born. They were wrenched out of some other human when their growth cycle had hardly started, then expected to go to this prison for eighteen years while knowledge was implanted in their brains. Then, of course, theyíd have to work every day so that they could get enough Ďmoneyí to pay the Ďrentí and Ďbuyí the food, then theyíd stop working when their bodies were showing signs of wear, then die. Then theyíd have to go through the Eight Underworlds, facing all those trials and tribulations, before their Eternal Rest.

Jim had always pitied the poor things. Now it looked like he was going to have to become one. Demons without humans were expected to go through compulsory euthanasia and since demons are built more or less from scratch, he couldnít be reincarnated as another one. He had to become human. Having to spend the first few decades of his existence doing this tiresome thing called dee-veh-low-ping. Having to work. Having to -

"Hi, Jim."

"Sonny!" yelled Jim, for it was he. "Youíre alive!"

"Quite the opposite, Jim, but I know what you meant."

"But - but -" Jim mouthed like a fish.

"How?" said Sonny, raising an eyebrow. "The floor had the good manners to collapse underneath me before I got burnt to reincarnation. Fell through seventy-five thousand floors and landed in the middle of a load of bricks on the ground floor. You could have leant a hand."

"I thought you -"

"Could handle myself for a bit?"

Jim gave up. "Yes."

"Shall we go and get a drink to steady our nerves?"

"Yes," Jim repeated, loudly.

Which was why the landlord of the Corpse and Castaway, who incidentally wore a shirt in sunset pink with the sleeves rolled up, found himself serving at lunchtime a man in ragged and singed pyjamas and a demon with a penchant for corrosive cocktails.

"Another Scotch, barkeep," muttered Sonny.

"Is that a pyjama top," said the barman as he poured the drink, "or a fishing net?"

He was treated to a stare from eyes that had seen Hell on a Monday morning. "Iím not in a good mood," said the owner.

"He thinks heís been targetted by the Gestapo," said his demon.

"What makes him think that?"

Jim told him.

"Heís probably right. Did I catch your name?"

"Sustenance. Sonny L."

The barman leant forward. "You wrote that review, didnít you?"

"Yeah," said Sonny, modestly but with caution. The Gestapo offered fabulous prizes to informers.

"Good for you," said the barman. "About time someone got to the bottom of what old -" he put two fingers under his nose and raised a hand in the Hitler salute, "- is up to. Have this one on me."

"I know what heís up to, and Iím not sure I wanted to know. And I wasnít paying for the drinks in the first place."

"Sorry. Forgot."

Sonny checked the time on Jimís hourglass. "Suppose Iíd better go over to the C.O.L.D. office," he said. "Get hold of another apartment and another magic carpet."

"Iíll meet you back here," said Jim.

When Sonny had left, walking gingerly on his blistered bare feet, the barman turned to the little demon. "Do you know about the Governmentís plans as well?"

"Yesss..."

"Good. Because that drink is loaded with sleeping draft."

"Bugger me."

Then, with great ceremony, Jim fell of his chair. The barman checked the snoring body and called into the back room. "Leo! The eagle has stolen the sparrowís nuts."

"Righto," came a voice.

The Ninth Underworld did have seas. This was because there are, contrary to popular belief, a lot of people who want to be sailors, fishermen, deep sea divers, all that, so a huge replica of the Atlantic surrounded the main city. And Sonnyís route took him through the docks.

There seemed to be a little grouping on the edge of the dock. There were a few people in identical black T-shirts with logos Sonny couldnít quite make out, and a few hairy men were carrying miscellanous camera equipment, including one of those furry sausages on the end of a stick. A man in what looked like a silver Superman outfit made from cardboard was inspecting a glass coffin lying on the cobbled ground of the docks. A woman in a long overcoat suddenly saw the dishevelled figure in pyjamas and called over to him.

"Excuse me, sir! Could you come over here a moment!"

Sonny was bustled into the little scene by some helpful but firm hands, and now he could take a closer look at the people he saw that the T-shirts bore the legend ĎTHE GREAT ESTAPOGAYí in bright letters. He suddenly found himself in the eye of two different cameras.

"Weíre doing a little item for an escapology TV show being broadcast soon," said the woman, who was also holding a clipboard - a bad sign. "Basically the Great Estapogay is going to lie in this coffin, remove a straitjacket and break all the padlocks, all underwater, then swim out. Understand?"

Sonny nodded slowly, and adopted that monosyllabic monotonous tone people adopt when people are rapidly firing instructions at them. "Right..."

"We need an independent adjudicator to make sure the box is really, really, firmly locked. Would you mind just lying down in the box while we lock it and see if you can break out?"

"Okay..."

As soon as the Ďkí in Ďokayí was past his lips the same helpful but firm hands pushed him into the coffin and slammed down the lid. They then screwed down the lid with heavy nuts and bolts, wrapped the whole box in chains and connected the chain with a sturdy padlock. Sonny smiled uncomfortably and pushed at the lid. It didnít move a single millimetre. He wondered briefly how it was possible for anyone to break out of here, but then thought - itís just a trick. Thereís probably a hidden trapdoor or something. Better play along for now.

"Nope," he said jovially. "Iím not getting out of here."

If you captured a gecko from the wild and took it to your top secret research facility, then scientifically fiddle with it in ninety-three different ways in order to make the thing human-sized, then scientifically fiddle with it ninety-three more different ways until it has a serviceable tongue, mouth and set of vocal chords, then fiddle with it some more until it has the English language implanted in its brain, then give it an overcoat, a pair of dark glasses and an exaggerated limp, it would probably give you some idea of the impression Sonny got when the producer woman smiled at him and said, "Good."

Too late Sonny realised he had fallen for a Gestapo trap. His head was rammed against the side of the box as it was lifted by one end, Sonny upside-down inside, from the dock by a hitherto unnoticed crane. His hands tried to push himself upwards but the endless shaking did not allow him to make much progress. He bashed his head once more as the box swung around until it was over the sea, but fortunately the box twisted round as it fell and landed with an almighty splash feet-first (that is, the box landed on the end where his feet were first. Just clearing up any confusion you might have). The little bags tied to the chains were apparently fairly heavy, judging by the way the coffin sank like a stone.

Sonny found his situation was lightened somewhat by the fascinating underwater fauna which fluttered past, looking at him with big staring eyes. It did not serve to quieten his nerves, as the box was, although tightly locked, not watertight. The level had already reached his waist by the time he realised that screaming for help was an extremely futile manoeuvre.

The box bumped gently against the sandy ground, and in the very few seconds that remained between Sonny breathing air and Sonny not breathing air any more he tried to remember that technique which let you hold your breath for five minutes. Wasnít it something to do with making your heart stop beating? Hardly practical...

In the fraction of a second before all the air had poured out of the box Sonny tried to remember if he had always wanted to be able to breathe underwater when alive. Because if that was so, he was saved, and all he had to do then was get through six heavy iron bolts, twenty feet of chain and a sturdy padlock. Had he always wanted to be able to walk through walls when he was alive?

By then the water level had gone past his mouth and nose, so Sonny put his theory into practise. He tried to breathe through his nose experimentally, and suddenly found his lungs filling with water. He tried to choke, but that only served to fill up his lungs a bit more. Obviously plan A was scuppered. Time for plan B.

That plan was quickly scuppered when he hammered away at the sturdy reinforced plastic. It was quite depressingly solid, and he estimated he had about a minute to afterlive before Reincarnationís icy hand fell upon his shoulder. Perhaps he should turn his attention to finding that secret trapdoor.

Oh, come on, said a little voice in his head. Who are you fooling? The Gestapo wants you reincarnated. They have locked you sturdily in an underwater reinforced transparent plastic box and weighed it down. Do you really think theyíd put a handy doorway in so you could nip out and put a fiver on the 3:15 before you get reincarnated?

Perhaps they borrowed this box from a real escapologist.

I donít think so.

No, think about it! Where else could they have come up with this reinforced plastic box, twenty feet of chain, six steel bolts and a sturdy padlock from at this short notice?

OK. Perhaps this line of enquiry is worth pursuing. If you were an escapologist, where would you put the little hatch?

Iíd put it in the roof or the floor.

The floorís ruled out. Thereís sand under there. Check the roof.

Sonny looked up, and instantly water shot up his nostrils.

OK, OK, bad idea. Hold your nose and look.

I canít see anything any more. My vision has clouded from oxygen deprivation.

Guess your buggered, then.

Guess so.

In the final fraction of a second between Sonny being awake and Sonny not being awake any more, he mentally cursed everything - he cursed the Gestapo, he cursed molotov cocktails, he cursed fire, he cursed Jim, he cursed escapologists for making life harder for themselves, but most of all he cursed his own lack of intelligence when it came to trying to spot the relevance of the word ĎESTAPOGAYí.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

"The very worst way to die? Drowning. Iíd be poisoned or stabbed any day."

- J. Caesar

 

"So what happened next?" asked the barman of the Corpse and Castaway.

"Thatís the problem, isnít it?" said Sonny spitefully, clutching his Bloody Mary. "I havenít got a bloody clue. Just woke up on the dock, bone dry, wearing this." He indicated the dark green off-the-shoulder evening gown someone had dressed him in while he was unconscious.

"I bet you drew a few glances," said the barman.

"You have no idea." Sonny glanced around with some trepidation. "Have you seen my demon?"

"Short guy, red skin, horned helmet?"

"Yes?"

"He left a few hours ago. Said heíd meet you at the C.O.L.D building."

Sonny sprung to his feet. "Damn! I forgot! Iíd better get over there!"

"Wouldnít you rather have another drink first?" asked the barman, pouring another. Sonny was sometimes rather good at reading inflection into a personís tone of voice, but since hunger, thirst, water in the lungs and the confusion of unwilling transvestitism stood in his way he didnít notice that underlying edge to the landlordís voice which said: you would rather have another drink first.

"Not now, thank you," said Sonny, waving a hand and stepping away from the stool. "Jimís probably worried about me."

The barman wasnít behind the bar anymore. Sonny, who wasnít in a position to pay much attention to the things around him, wasnít sure where the man had gone, nor the means by which he had done so. So he shrugged apathetically, and turned to leave via the door.

And would have done, if the barman hadnít been in the way.

"One of my regulars has a saying, you know."

"Iím sure he does."

Sonny tried to tactfully make his way around the sweating form of a barman. This was tricky to do with dignity while wearing a dark green off-the-shoulder evening gown and - now that he was in a room with a mirror - rather heavy mascara.

"He says, Ďalways take one for the roadí."

Please get out of my way, you sweaty overfed loony-brain. "How interesting."

"Of course, if he continues with that attitude," continued the same sweaty overfed loony-brain, casually leaning on the doorframe so as to block off all areas big enough to admit a person, say, Sonnyís size. "He may well get the SACK."

"Good for him," said Sonny, but the last two words were spoken to the interior of a brown hessian sack. "What the -" he continued, but the speech centre of his brain was temporarily knocked out with the aid of a big wooden stick. Becoming decidedly bored with this kind of thing, Sonny thought it prudent to feign unconsciousness.

"This is Whiskey 1 to base," came the voice of the sweaty overfed loony-brain. Through the sack Sonny saw the silhouette of the barman holding something to his ear. "The eagle has landed. Repeat, the eagle has landed."

The next thing that Sonny heard was also a voice, speaking a single word, but so distorted by hessian and travelling from one radio transmitter to another that it was unidentifiable. The barman didnít seem to have any trouble working it out, however, because he replied with some annoyance. "Whiskey 1 to base. The eagle has landed."

Again, the monosyllabic reply. Sonny saw the barman turn slightly towards the wall and hold the radio closer to his mouth. "Look, weíve knocked out this guy Sustenance and weíre bringing him in. Let his friend know heís on his way."

The radio buzzed out a series of incomprehensible words, but Sonny definitely caught the word Ďbollocksí and didnít like the implication. The door closed, so Sonny had no more light to work with and, as far as he was concerned, the room was pitch black.

"OK, letís take him out back. You, you, grab his legs."

That, the pair of hands on each leg and the undeniable sensation of claustrophobia made Sonny deduct that there were at least four people in the room, not including Sonny, where once there had been none. But for some reason he didnít get the impression that he was in the pleasant company of the Gestapo - maybe because booted feet were yet to make intimate contact with his reproductive system. He felt his dress ride up as he was dragged along the shiny floor by his legs, then after some mild concussion on what was probably a doorstep the ground changed into something not unlike gravel which was to his exposed lower back region as a bacon slicer is to a tube of toothpaste.

Sonny had heard that when one sense becomes deadened all the others heighten. He couldnít see anything through the sack, the cold water had done for his senses of smell and taste and the lack of oxygen had also impaired his hearing slightly, so that just left one more sense which was being put into vigorous use. From Sonnyís position it would have made no difference if he had been tickled or stripped of all skin and used to mop up salt.

Then he practically went upside down as he was yanked into some kind of compartment which was positioned above the floor. The back of a van, Sonny surmised as he heard two doors slam shut, the dress still creased up above his waist.

"Hey!" said the barmanís voice. "This guy gets the same underpants as me!"

The engine started and the floor rumbled. Sonny tried to record the vanís route by memorising when he felt the vehicle turn left or right, but soon he gave up on this futile exercise and concentrated on the conversation of his kidnappers, whose boots were resting on his prone form and creasing his dress.

"Whatís with this guy, Sustenance, anyway?" asked one voice. Young and impressionable, your classic cinematic Ďrookieí.

"The Big Jeez says heís important. Something about knowing too much." That was unmistakably the barman.

"Wrote an article, or something. Carelessly let on that he knew what the Government was up to, but didnít give any details. Thatís what Jez wants him for." This voice had a low pitch, and had the definite air of Ďhired muscleí about it.

Young Rookie sighed. "Iím sure heíd have come if we asked nicely."

"Shows how much you know," said Hired Muscle smugly.

"Nice dress, though."

There then followed a fair amount of jargon between the trio which Sonny didnít understand, but judging by the feel of cold rectangles of cardboard constantly falling onto him they were playing some kind of card game. Perhaps if Sonny made some kind of groaning noise theyíd hit him over the head more successfully this time, and heíd sleep through all this indignity.

"Uhhhhhh..." he went.

"Did you hear something?"

"Probably another speed bump."

"Gruuuurgle..." continued Sonny, undeterred.

"Leo!" called Hired Muscle. "Have you taken the handbrake off properly?"

Sonny gave up.

It was only after another hour of undignified lying around before the van stopped, the doors were thrown open and Sonny was dragged - by his arms this time, just for variety - out into a place which, judging by the echoes, was probably a hangar of some description. The four thugs whom Sonny had mentally named Barman, Rookie, Muscle and Leo scraped him along the ground which changed texture on numerous occasions, turning left and right at unexpected junctures. It was while Sonny was dreamily having the skin of his heels scraped away he assessed the situation.

He had been kidnapped from a pub and driven to an unspecified destination which apparently involved a hangar. From listening to the conversation he knew that Jim had probably been kidnapped a bit earlier by the same people, and that he was wanted by someone called Jez who wanted to know what the Government was up to. More specifically, what Sonny knew the Government was up to. This either meant he was in the hands of the Gestapo who didnít fancy the idea of rogue journalists with too much info clogging their heads, or the hands of someone else who wanted tactical information from the Government.

Who?

Who else?

Sonny tried to think of a good side to being kidnapped by the Inland Revenue. None sprung to mind.

He suddenly realised that he had stopped moving and was now apparently sitting upright in some form of chair, which was apparently positioned near a table.

"He looks a little beaten up," said a new voice. This was a lot better - a kindly, tolerant voice, the kind Hitler had always wanted, the everyoneís-favourite-uncle tone. The kind of voice that reassured Sonny that everything was going to be all right.

"Do you know how hard it is to drag a limp body from the pub to here?"

"Fair enough."

"Administer the stimulants," said a new voice - female, harsh, ruthless. Boadicea if anything.

Now, Sonny thought, was the time to break oneís cover. He raised two hands to stop the incoming two-foot hypodermic needle his imagination was supplying. "That wonít be necessary," he spluttered through the sack.

"How long have you been awake?" asked Hired Muscle with more than a little disappointment.

"I was never knocked out in the first place," said Sonny tactfully.

"Oh, bloody hell."

"You may as well take that sack off, then," invited Everyoneís-Favourite-Uncle.

Sonny obligingly removed the sack and blinked in the artificial light. Although the floor and ceiling were formed from metal grilles and supported by large steel pillars, he seemed to be in some kind of subterranean cavern - the walls were rock and naturally formed, and rivulets of water slid down from stalactites above the ceiling grille. The natural room was rather small, just big enough to contain a metal table, barely big enough to contain a collection of metal chairs and probably not big enough to house seven people.

The seven people sat on metal chairs around the metal table, and Sonny stared at each one in turn. Barman he knew, the only person present apart from Sonny himself not dressed head to foot in camouflage gear. Young Rookie looked a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio, with the old floppy blond hair, but with the steely gaze of mistrust inherent deep in his eyes. Leo had the sort of face instantly forgettable, so Sonny instantly forgot it. Hired Muscle did indeed have a slablike chest and a very small head, but little half-moon spectacles rested on his nose. Harsh Woman had black shoulder-length hair tied up into a miniscule pony tail, and the way she fidgeted suggested to Sonny that she didnít really want to be there. As for Everyoneís-Favourite-Uncle...

Sonny vaguely recognised him. For some reason the camouflage gear didnít suit him - not because it didnít fit, but in the same way trouser suits donít suit prostitutes. The clothes seemed to stand out from him, like a paper dress tagged onto one of those cut-out cardboard dolls. He seemed to glow with inner light, a beacon of warmth and kindness, and he wasnít wearing the suit so much as he was being wrapped in it, like a sun wrapped in an interstellar scarf.

Now Sonny came to think about it, the man seemed to be the only source of light in the room. This he found slightly disconcerting, so he concentrated all his mental energies to establishing the slightly familiar personís identity - long brown hair, moustache, little beard...

It couldnít be, could it?

"Say," hazarded Sonny. "Youíre not Robert Powell, are you?"

"Try again," said the man in a tactful, kindly voice.

Sonny thought about it a bit more, placing all the factors into consideration: beard, moustache, long hair, glowing with the inner light of good...

Suddenly he stiffened. "Jesus Christ!" he exclaimed.

"Well remembered," said Jesus Christ.

Satan looked up as Hitler entered, motioned towards the chair, but continued listening to the phone at his ear. "Yes, yes, right," he called into it. "Just give the eagle whatever he wants. And if he does this again weíll murder his children, right? Right." He replaced the receiver and leant back in his leatherbound chair. "Come on then, letís hear the bad news."

Adolf cringed. "H-how did you know it was bad news?"

"You appear to be cringing."

Hitler took the plunge. "We canít find Sustenance, lord."

It would have been tolerable, Hitler thought, if Satan had become really angry and started shouting. Adolf knew where he stood in that situation - leaning slightly backwards, receiving demonic spittle in his mush. What really terrified Adolf was when the Lord of Darkness did absolutely sod all, but just stared. Those were the worst moments. When he just stops rocking in his chair and stares right at you.

Two intolerable seconds before Satan spun on his chair and opened the blinds with a foot. "I see."

This time Hitler felt compelled to fill the silence. "We nearly had him on two occasions. He survived somehow, and now heís gone missing."

"In what way Ďmissingí?"

"We thought weíd drowned him but we couldnít find the body. The box was open and empty. We found his pyjamas on the dock, but thatís all we have. Just vanished into thin air."

"Adolf."

"Yessir?"

"If you havenít found Sustenance by the time we commence the Master Plan, I will execute your lovely wife."

"No!"

"Yes. And then I will kill one of your dogs each week until he is found."

"Please!"

"Itís a good job it wonít come to that, isnít it."

Hitler looked like he was about to complain, but then he hung his head. "Yes, sir."

CHAPTER TWELVE

"Sure, I betrayed the guy, but I did kill myself afterwards, so I donít see how it still counts."

- J. Iscariot, the Ninth Underworld

 

"I donít get it," said Sonny when the pizza had arrived. "I thought you were up in Heaven -"

"- Administration -"

"- Administration, sitting on your dadís side," Sonny tried to remember what all those American preacher people kept shouting at their customers. "Gathering people up in your arms, er, knocking them over with your love -"

He shut himself up when he caught the funny looks people were giving him. Jesus just smiled. "I told Dad that I wanted to be mortal for a bit," he said, chewing on his Stuffed Crust. "That includes the whole package - life and afterlife. Only when Iíve served an eternity in the Ninth Underworld can I go home."

Sonny suddenly remembered something. "You saved me from drowning, didnít you."

"Yes," chipped in Harsh Woman, whose name was Harriet. "When the Gestapo had gone we dived down to get you out. Surprised you didnít see the secret trapdoor in the roof, actually."

"So why did you make me wear the dress?" He was now, by the way, wearing the same camouflage get up as everyone else.

Harriet didnít like to meet Sonnyís gaze, so she met her pizzaís instead. "Your pyjamas were completely ruined. I had to dress you in something, and the dress was all I had."

"But why the mascara?"

Everyone was suddenly looking at Harriet, whose face reddened considerably. "Seemed like a good idea at the time." This not seeming sufficient, she continued with some impatience. "Well, come on! A dress like that? Itíd be a crime not to!"

In order to mitigate Harrietís embarassment, Jesus finished off his Coke and slammed the glass down on the table. "Anyway, to business," he said. "You know what the Government are up to, Mr. Sustenance. We would be quite keen to know too, being the Resistance and everything."

Sonny was half-way through his story before it occurred to him to question Jesus. Perhaps it was the manís bottomless charisma which had served him well when he was alive. Anyway, Sonny spilled all. "Satan has reminded Hitler of the long-standing contract he signed which pledged his soul to supporting the forces of Darkness, and he has now taken command of the Ninth Underworld. He is planning to send Hitler back to the Land of the Living in order to conquer the countries of the world and claim the living realm for Evil as well as the dead. That way, Satan will become the Almighty and will have the power to usurp God."

Hired Muscle (or Terence, as he was properly known) leant forward. "And how is Hitler going to conquer the living world?"

Sonny coughed. "Satan has placed the body of an enormous demon in the Atlantic Ocean. Hitlerís essence will be transferred to that."

Jesus leant back. "Are you sure, Mr. Sustenance?"

"I hid in the conference room. I was blu-tacked to the underside of the desk."

Glances were exchanged in that time-honoured fashion. "Mr. Sustenance, perhaps you can help us on some other subject. You see, none of us actually died before the twentieth century -"

Sonny had that strange feeling that he was being coerced into a deep, dark, horrible pit. Time, he thought, to get out his grappling hook. "Look, I donít want to join any Resistance, you know."

There was silence save for the mastication of pizza, then Jesus said, "Well, thatís your decision, we canít stop you. Shame, though."

Heads nodded. "Such a shame."

"A terrible shame."

"Shamey-shamey-shame."

Not for the first time Sonny got the impression that everyone else had been given a different script. "Whyís it such a shame?"

"Because now weíre going to have to shoot you in the head."

Sonny had the same impression, but with Ďguní instead of Ďscriptí and without the Ďdifferentí. This impression had justification on the basis that four colt .357 pistols were pointed at a spot between his eyes. He felt the combined effort of four laser sights tingle on his forehead. He thought he saw Jesus wince.

"Let me rephrase that," said Sonny, licking his lips. "I donít want to join any Resistance - that isnít 100% against the forces of darkness."

Four gun barrels disappeared into the ether. "Jolly good, no worries there," said Jesus, relieved. "Now then, as I said, none of us died before the year 1900 and weíve frankly no idea what Hitler got up to when he was alive. Could you fill us in?"

Sonny had just about taken as much as he was prepared to take. He had been attacked, nearly drowned, kidnapped, dragged around and threatened throughout the day, and now he was being forced to recite todayís history lesson. Reluctantly he dredged up what remained of the memory of his teenage schooldays, and on the way from his brain to his mouth it was corroded a little more. "Well, er, basically, this guy Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in nineteen thirty-something, and he started killing people who werenít blonde and blue-eyed, and he thought Germany deserved loads of land so he started conquering Europe, then Britain duffed him up and he killed himself." At least no-one could fault Sonnyís patriotism.

There was another of those unbearable silences, in which people look from colleague to colleague wondering whoís going to fill it up. "O-kay," said Jesus. "So, how does that help us?"

Harriet piped in. "Canít seem to dissect any weaknesses from that."

"Maybe we could put some land in a really, really big mousetrap -"

"Shut up, Leo."

"Sonny," said Jesus in that level way of his, "Perhaps we could get a fuller story from someone who was directly involved with Mr. Hitlerís exploits; who would you recommend?"

He was on the home strait. "Easy," said Sonny, "Winston Churchill."

Fingers snapped. "Leo, check the database."

While he went through the massive collection of tomes containing all the details the Resistance could gather from Administrative records, the Resistance engaged in small-talk. "Whereíve you put Jim?" asked Sonny, to whom the thought had just occurred.

"If you mean your demon, heís sitting out back leafing through a stack of French porn."

Natter, natter, chatter, chatter, slap -

"What was that for?"

"That was very sexist!"

"I said that the present queen was Elizabeth Regina!"

"Oh. Sorry. Bit of waxy buildup."

"Bingo!" came a voice from the database. "Churchill, Winston, born 1874, died 1965 -"

A long pause. "Well?" said Harriet. "Where is he?"

"Er - heís - somewhere."

"Where?!"

Leo stared down his tormentor. "He was reincarnated."

"Surely thatís not so much of a problem?" asked Sonny as his newfound friends escorted themselves down a crowded street. "Surely he can just kill himself and be back down here?"

"They lose all their memories of past lives upon reincarnation," said Jesus. "Only some kind of subtle trigger can bring the memories back."

"This is pointless," said Harriet. "Even if he does get himself killed, heíll have to go through the Eight Underworlds again."

"No, actually," said the know-all Messiah. "After youíve gone through once you get to go all the way through. Sort of like Frequent Flyer Miles."

"Where are we going, anyway?"

"Weíre going to see Orville."

"Who?"

"What do you mean, who?"

The Office of Reincarnated Volunteers and their Integration into the Land of the Living Estates (ORVILLE) was an office on the ground floor of another of those beautifully built million-storey office blocks. Now, ground floor offices are unbelievably difficult to get your hands on. You either have to be rich or working for the Government. But although theyíre quite stylish and flashy, they also serve to be impractical. The cumulative pressure of all the offices above you gives everyone concerned a nosebleed and/or a migraine, plus if you so much as kick the potted plants something falls off the roof.

When Sonny, Jesus and company entered there was quite a queue in front of the Ďvolunteerí desk, in which most of the participants wore Star of David armbands. While Jesus argued with the receptionist, Sonny overheard a conversation between the front person in the queue and the clerk.

"So, what would you like to come back as, sir?"

The man in the funny hat sniffed away his nosebleed and leant on the desk. "County Durham."

The young lady with the pack of frozen peas on her head gave him a Look. "You do realise that coming back as a place can be rather uncomfortable? Youíll get drilled, dug up, polluted, all that -"

"Nevertheless, I want to be County Durham."

"Plus youíll probably live for hundreds of years."

"Suits me."

Over the cacophany of sniffing the woman produced another large leatherbound grimoire (the Afterlife seems to be very keen on them) and looked something up. "Thereís a problem."

"What? Can I not come back as County Durham?"

"No, you would be able to under other circumstances, but Iím afraid not under these. County Durham, according to this, is still alive."

"Youíve never been to County Durham, have you."

Jesus and Harriet chose that moment to abandon their position at the head of the short queue in front of the public information desk. The Messiah sniffed just a little too late, and a drop of holy blood from his holy nose stained the page of the sheaf of papers he was holding. "All the Churchills," he said between slightly better co-ordinated sniffs. "This confirms it. Churchill, Winston, born 1874, died 1965, spent eight months travelling through the Eight Underworlds with a Mark 6 demon. Reincarnated as one Winslow Cahill, now seventeen, resident of Brighton, England."

"Well, thatís us buggered. Letís all push into that other queue."

"Itís not over, Sonny. I have a trick up my sleeve."

Jesus didnít deign to expand on that matter until they were back at Resistance HQ, and until then just walked along the streets with a broad, smug smile on his face. As he had insisted, as soon as they returned Harriet and Sonny were dressed in what amounted to chunky, glowing white radiation suits. Standing sheepishly like a pair of Michelin Men and holding their helmets under their arms, they jointly enquired after Jesusí plan.

"The HQ is the hub of an enormous network of ethereal tunnels," said Jesus, moving his hands in that distracted way people in the know use when explaining. "Tunnels that donít really exist in either the lands of the Living or the Dead. They connect, by way of an enormous maze, all the related Realms. Secret entrances open up in the the Land of the Living, Administration and all nine Underworlds."

"And ...?"

"My plan is simple. You two go to the Land of the Living wearing these special suits which will grant you some small physical presence, and assassinate Winslow Cahill."

This seemed a bit drastic to Sonny, but Jesus just couldnít be stopped. "Whereupon the soul of Winston Churchill will return to the Ninth Underworld, ready to do battle."

"Isnít that a little drastic?" enquired Harriet, to Sonnyís annoyance.

"Desperate times and all that," said Jesus, and wouldnít hear any more of it. He didnít like doing this, but often he found he had no choice in the matter. Closing his eyes, he allowed his aura to appear, surrounding his form in a sparkling white mist that made his agents go into a trance. With a deft flick of the wrist he sent a wave of divine energy towards them, bringing to life twinkly stars in their glassy pupils. Then, with a sudden sweeping motion of the palms, he dispersed the spell, and the two sub-Marshmallow Men returned to full alert.

"Is that settled, then?" said the Son of God.

"You certainly make a persuasive argument," said Sonny thoughtfully. "Iím in."

"Me too. I havenít assassinated anyone since I was alive."

Jesus chucked some hitherto unnoticed glowing scrolls to the two late assassins as they limbered up for an excursion back to whence they came. "These maps will show you the way," he said nonchalantly, pointing to a hitherto unnoticed wooden door embedded in a nearby wall.

Harriet hadnít seen the living world in a hundred years, Sonny in two years. Although they would be invisible (as ghosts should be), they would have the ability to move and carry small objects. Ectoplasm is not known for being a substantial material. Only select souls and with good enough reasons have the option to return to the Land of the Living as a spirit form, and only the very best of them get the suits. The suits of Sonny and Harriet clumped and flumped noisily, shredding their dignity, as they marched through the indicated door like the bold astronauts of age. Then the door slammed shut behind them, and faded into the wall.

The wall turned out to be not so much a wall as a sheet of sizzling mist that shimmered against a parallax backdrop of void. The hallway was a tube formed of the transparent but apparently solid material, which extended away from them and branched off into several more indistinct passages.

"Nice," was all Sonny could say.

Harriet, meanwhile, was examining the first roll of vellum. "According to this," she said practically to herself, "we have to get to this marked position, and jump up and down singing the first few bars of ĎBohemian Rhapsodyí in order to access the Land of the Living. First left, second right, third left," she added, then repeated it several times under her breath before rolling up the scroll once again. "I must warn you," she said sternly, finally facing Sonny, "that I am what some might call highly sexed in the Ninth Underworld, and we may be stuck together for a long time, and you are the only other dead person in the near vicinity. I just want you to know that any sexual motions I make towards you over our mission are motivated purely out of desperation and nothing more."

They stared and stared into each otherís eyes, the female pair of peepers stern and unyielding, the male wincing slightly. "Wouldnít have it any other way," coughed Sonny, and with barely a by-your-leave the two set off on their epic quest.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

"Itís not as if youíre leaving a particularly nice place."

- Reaper

 

 

"Have a good day at school, Winslow," came a voice from the other side of the road. Harrietís head snapped towards the origin, which turned out to be a woman waving goodbye her son as he went to school. Said son was spotty, tall and undoubtedly in his seventeenth year in the living world.

"This takes me back," said Sonny, who wasnít paying attention. The spectral agents had just arrived, having conveniently turned up just outside Winslow Cahillís house. Harriet was all business; creeping around with ghostly burnt cork on her face, ducking behind bushes and running from cover to cover. Sonny preferred to walk along the pavement provided, stopping occasionally to let his companion peer over walls and things.

"I havenít been here for, what, two years?" he said, giving the architecture due appraisal. "Hasnít changed a bit."

"Shut up!" barked Harriet suddenly. "Iíve seen Cahill. Heís over there. Letís follow him."

While she crept from behind a car to behind a telegraph pole in silent pursuit of Winslow Cahill, Sonny walked briskly along a good few feet behind his pursue-ee. "You know, thatís what I donít understand about you, Harry," he said, hands in pockets.

"Harriet."

"Whatever you want. I mean, you behave like Rambo Revisited, but the Resistance was spectacularly useless. So either you didnít pull your weight around in there or youíre not all that meets the eye." A passer-by walked through him, then stopped and looked around with some fear. Then, feeling a bit stupid, they continued, but didnít get very far.

"Sonny L. Sustenance? Hey, Sonny! Over here!" said a voice. For a moment Sonny thought that the game was up, but when he turned and looked at the addresser he saw a rather fatally pasty gentleman with a briefcase and a black aura, wearing a morbidly blue suit and tie. He was waving manically from a few yards away.

"Mr. Reaper?" said Sonny, perplexed. "You remember me?"

"Why shouldnít I?" said Reaper, walking over and offering a bone white hand for shaking. "Why shouldnít I remember the first person in seventy-five years to say ĎOh Bumí when they realise theyíre dead?"

"Well, thanks," said Sonny, shaking the profferred hand and feeling oddly proud. "What brings you here?"

"Oh, you know, duty calls, in fact that woman who walked through you has just dropped dead from cardiac arrest."

Sonny started. "What?"

Harriet plucked at his spiritual sleeve. "Come on!"

"Oh, donít worry," said Reaper, waving his hands in what he thought was a comfortable manner. "I should think you were the straw that broke the camelís aorta, if youíll pardon the metaphor. Anyway, sheís old, she gets to skip the sixth, seventh and eighth Underworlds."

"Good. Great. Er, Mr. Reaper," said Sonny hurriedly as the harbinger of souls turned to go, "Do you happen to have any other contracts round here soon?"

A skinny nose was tapped, and the besuited one faded away to nothing. "That man is such an enigma," said Sonny to himself.

"Come on."

Winslow Cahill was seventeen, bright, in the sixth form of his local grammar school, and not at ease with his life. True, he had nine GCSEs and was well on his way to gaining a trio of very respectable A-levels. True, he was not unpopular, had many friends and was, despite being gangly and bespectacled, sufficiently middling at sports so as not to be ridiculed.

But recently he had started feeling oddly unhappy with his lot. He didnít want to be stuck behind a desk his whole life. He didnít want to be a dull little bachelor invited to dinner parties out of pity. He wanted a life of action, of high adventure and peril, of not staying in the same place for long. If his parents had their way - which, being middle class, they almost certainly would - heíd be a very qualified and successful quantity surveyor, which didnít seem the same.

Winslow wanted to be like that weird kid, Michael something, who only last week had been kidnapped by the ĎRealí IRA and had been inexplicably teleported to various evil parallel universes three times this term alone. Michael wasnít going to become successful later in life, having been abducted by aliens during the week he was supposed to be doing his GCSEs, but by God he would have had an exciting time of it.

Winslow was thinking of running away, quite soon. He would go and live up various trees for the rest of his life and live like man was always meant to. Not as fun as what Michael usually got up to, admittedly, but fun nonetheless.

If someone had then beckoned Winslow Cahill into a dark corner and whispered conspiratorially into his ear that he was actually the elusive reincarnation of the British war hero prime minister, and if Winslow had actually believed them (unlikely), he wouldnít have been surprised. Well, in all honesty, he would be struck dumb with surprise and would go around with a smug expression on his face for as long as it took for him to forget. But he had always suspected that there was something about him, something unseen and unknown that allowed for his desires.

If that same dark-corner denizen would then have told the poor boy that by the end of the week he would be to himself what half a pound of sausages is to a pig, and if he would have believed them (slightly less unlikely), he would probably have thrown his arms up in the air and run around like a headless chicken for an hour going AAAA-AAAAAAAA-AAAAAARGH and words to that effect at the mere thought of ending up dead, gone, kaput, zonked, snuffed out and well and truly kicked.

The time was before lessons, the place was the school playing field. Winslow was discussing yesterdayís Utterly Rubbish Television Programme with a collection of friends who did not cease to voice charming and endearing jibes to each other. Such is the way of teenagers.

And in the background, Michael stood on his own for the sake of his classmates, waiting for fate to strike him down.

"Did you do the maths homework?" asked Winslow, because there are some acceptable stereotypes his generation have to adhere to.

"Shut your face, you softy middle-class tosser," said his acquaintance Carlisle, in a friendly, jibey sort of way. "Did you see that programme that was on at two in the morning?"

"Button your lip, you mouthy lower-class wankstain," retorted Winslow, inducing great merriment.

Right in the middle of this circle of friends stood two dead people, unheard and unseen, who were looking upon the teenagers with, respectively, contempt and merriment. They had realised too late that hanging around in the playing fields of a boyís school is not a good move, what with a certain breed of boy favouring pulling the legs off crane flies, and what with souls returning as ghosts only when they have some great unfulfilled purpose to fulfill or a murder to avenge, and what with crane flies not being particularly good at vengeance, there were an awful lot of crane fly ghosts buzzing around and getting in their spiritual hair.

"Golden years, eh?" said Sonny L. Sustenance.

"Shut your festering gob," said Harriet, like all good feminists should. "Iím trying to think of a way to get this spotty git killed."

"Quick and painless, I think we agreed."

"Whatever gets the job done."

They listened disinterestedly to the conversation, swatting fruitlessly at the souls of insects, wondering when they had stopped getting the joke all teenagers seem to have a firm grasp of. Or do they? Perhaps only the most influential teenagers do, and everyone else pretends to in order to up their standing. This is a mystery to me, I was always the outcast at school. That may explain the unpleasant attempted suicide business.

"Do you think I might be able to handle a garrotte wire?" asked Harriet after a little while.

"I think not."

Their conversation was interrupted suddenly by the bell being rung and the boys making their respective ways towards school, Winslow passing straight through the spirit form of Sonny L. Sustenance and making them both feel rather disorientated for a brief second. Winslow felt like he had walked over someoneís grave, as if his very mind had become encased in ice. Whereas Sonny had the odd feeling that someone had walked over his own grave, and he had been inside it at the time. Itís difficult to describe the feelings felt by a living man coming into intimate contact with a dead man and vice versa.

"That felt nice," said Sonny distantly, almost imperceptibly rocking back and forth on his heels.

"Come on, letís follow him."

The first strange event that day that happened to Winslow happened during the history lesson. And Iím not talking about Miss Naylor dropping her chalk.

"Now then, the Spanish Armada," she was trying to say, writing those two words upon the blackboard. Thirty-one forwards-staring young men scribbled briefly.

There is a certain breed of teenage boy - the grammar school upper year boys - whose minds can operate on several levels at once. While the hand works almost on reflex action, writing everything it sees written on the board, and the ears concentrate on what is said in case they are suddenly asked to repeat back a sentence, the innermost thoughts touch on such matters as life, the universe and the mental undressing of the attractive Miss Naylor. Many boys come out of the trance at the end of the lesson with page upon page of notes they donít remember making.

On this occasion, however, Winslow was distracted from his notes, his thoughts and the hormonal trouser movements attached by his pencil inexplicably hopping out of his clenched fist and dropping on the floor with a distressingly audible clatter.

"Do you have a problem, Mr. Cahill?" said Miss Naylor, breaking several louts out of enjoyable trances.

"Mumblemumblepenmumbledroppedmumblemiss," replied Winslow to his desk.

"Itís not going to pick itself up, is it?"

"Mumblenomumblemiss."

"Then pick it up and stop being so silly."

"Mumbleyesmumblemiss."

Hot with embarassment, Winslow retrieved his pen and threw himself back into his chair, clamping onto his writing implement tightly this time in his fist. With the comfortable sounds of Miss Naylor droning on about A-Level history and the reassuring swirly sounds outside as Michael was sucked into a temporal wormhole, he was soon able to return to his vacant musings.

This time the boy sitting next to him dropped his pencilcase, a problem doubled by it being one of those old-fashioned metal ones and tripled by it cracking open and scattering pens and pencils everywhere. To the boyís eternal gratitude the teacher just hmphed a bit, sending her ample chest quivering and indirectly doing likewise to thirty identical pairs of trousers. The pens were quickly gathered and returned to the table, whereupon Winslowís notepaper blew off the desk.

"What on Earth is the matter with you all today?" asked Miss Naylor incredulously, planting two slender hands on her hips. "Has gravity suddenly lost interest in its career and really let itself go?"

There was a slight titter among the boys, and the woman shrugged, inducing a second small earthquake throughout the room. When she turned back to the board and continued her lesson, the first odd thing that happened to Winslow that day happened.

As he tapped his pen against the desk thoughtfully, trying to think of some witty graffiti, he felt an odd force in his vicinity. It seemed to be pulling on his pen, and not in a euphemistic way, as that could be quite painful. It was enough to distract him from his trance once again, and when the pen was roughly yanked from his paw and remained hovering at his eye level above the desk he could only resort to being astounded. It was not even going up and down imperceptibly like all good hovering things should, it remained totally rigid and unmoving in space, defying any thought of it being on a string.

Winslow looked around in case anyone else was seeing it, but apparently not; Miss Naylor had her back to the board and the boys had all returned to a trance-like state, pens scratching and eyes roving around Miss Naylorís figure. Clearly this was his own personal miracle. He watched with golf-ball eyes as the pen bounced up and down as if someone was holding it and striking air to prove a point, then almost breathed out in relief when it clattered back down onto the desk as if it had never enjoyed the thrill of unassisted flight before.

When he felt someone breath into his ear, the yell of horror he emitted didnít help the lesson at all.

"You and me, eh Harry?" said Sonny half-heartedly. "Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Or rather Randall (Deceased) and Hopkirk (Deceased) in this case."

"Stop gabbling. Iím trying to look for weak spots."

They did make an odd pair, and any passing clairvoyant would probably have commented on the two shimmering spirits unnoticed in a class full of boys. Sonny, who had decided he had totally lost interest in the mission, was perched on a desk neighbouring to Winslowís, knees under his chin and heels on the edge of the tabletop. This would probably have brought about some damage to the desk if Sonny had not been slightly less heavy than a shadow.

Harriet was bent almost double, circling around the boy Cahill who was understandably not reacting at all, peering at him disconcertingly. She paid special attention to the ears, eyes and nose, wondering if there was any particular place a pencil could be fruitfully inserted.

"Any luck?" asked Sonny non-committedly after several minutes of silent gloating in that these kids were learning a load of old tripe at school and he wasnít.

"Nope," said Harriet, not because Sonny had asked but because she just felt like saying Ďnopeí at that particular time. "Iím stuck for ideas." She plonked her elbows on the desk without stirring anything and cradled her chin in her hands.

"Try counting to ten," said Sonny carefully.

Harriet made an angry little grunt, grabbed Winslowís pen and knocked it to the floor. The woman teacher noted this development, and made a point of embarassing the poor youth.

"School," said Sonny simply, wistfully.

"You could at least try to be a bit more helpful here," snapped Harriet, breaking from her crouch and standing straight. "All youíre doing is sitting there being wistful!"

Sonny seemed to take offence at this, prompting him to hop off the desk he was on, knocking the nearby pencilcase to the floor. "I seem to remember it was me who discovered the subliminal messages, me who went and hid in the Reichstag, ME who found out the Governmentís plans, ME who published them ..."

Harriet suddenly slapped her hands on the desk, sending papers flying. "... YOU who walked right into the hands of the Gestapo, YOU who were nearly assassinated twice ..." she continued. The two were now standing either side of Winslowís desk, faces inches apart, Harriet having grabbed Winslowís pen again and was holding it in one hand while hitting the other with every word.

"At least I didnít spend a hundred years in some tinpot Resistance doing SOD ALL!!!" continued Sonny, the last two words practically a scream.

"What happened to being wistful and soppy?" said Harriet, calming down a bit and seeming to ask out of curiosity.

"Iím a pretty deep person," said Sonny, not shouting this time but with voice still raised above normal level and with the hint of anger still there.

Then, to Sonnyís eternal surprise, Harriet dropped the pen, grabbed his face in both hands and brought it forwards until their mouths met. It was a pretty clinical clinch - no noises were made, lips remained shut and there was no head movement - but still Sonny felt his arms flop down and hang loosely from their sockets. Finally, after what seemed like blissful eternity, Harriet broke off. There was a long pause while they both regained their breath.

"Motivated purely out of desperation?" he slurred hopelessly in a monotone.

"Right. Iíll go outside and see if thereíre any heavy things we could drop on his head."

And with that, she turned and left through the wall, leaving Sonny standing in utter bemusement, mouth hanging open and arms still drooping. In the Ninth Underworld Sonny had naturally seen Harriet as staggeringly good-looking, thanks to a certain afore-mentioned rule of thumb over there, and had never until now really sized her up properly now they were back in the Land of the Living. With the shoulder-length pitch black hair and delicately carved features, she was certainly not unattractive even without the shield formed by the Land of Eternal Rest. And had he noticed some exaggerated movement in the posterior area as she had walked away from him?

He sighed heavily, unfortunately while standing too close to Winslowís ear. The boy yelled in horror and jumped out of his seat, only to find himself standing in the ghost of Sonny L. Sustenance, whereupon he yelled again at the sudden burst of ice cold pain and leapt in the other direction, tripping over his chair and landing on his chin.

"Are you feeling alright, Winslow?" asked Miss Naylor, who had turned when Winslowís performance had begun.

"Ahrl kar kar kuffy kar," he said, feeling his bruised jaw and probing for loose teeth.

"Perhaps you should go and see the nurse."

"Ar kay," he said gratefully, and scampered out, leaving a classroom of thirty-one bemused living persons and one very bemused dead one.

OK, in case you didnít notice, those last two scenes were the same one taken firstly from Winslowís point of view and secondly from that of the dead. I donít mean to patronize you connoisseurs of such enigmatic passages, but I often get concerned that Iím being too opaque. Apologies to everyone for this paragraph, then.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

"Love and death donít go together."

- Jeremy the relationship counsellor

 

The obscenely-bosomed matron peeled back Winslowís lower eyelids with her thumbs, and gave him a rather discomforting up-nostril viewpoint. "What kind of hallucinations?" she asked in the preoccupied concerned voice matronly types speak with.

Winslow was sitting on the edge of the narrow bed in the matronís office, the one with the inevitable urine-yellow woolly top sheet. It was a typical matronís office, about as big as your average council estate bathroom with a desk, swivelly chair and bed crammed in. A leatherbound accident book balanced on a wooden cupboard with a red cross on the front. Itís not like that in American schools, oh no, not with all those hormonal teenagers with AK47s they seem to have over there. No, I bet the matronís office resembles a science lab, with fifteen researchers examining new and interesting ways to apply sticky plasters and call an ambulance. I bet they have big glass cabinets with every known pill and placebo inside, and a big filing cabinet to put all the drive-by shootings in.

But I wouldnít know. I was fortunate enough to go to a grammar school in the Midlands. And thatís why this bit is set in a grammar school, right? Right. Anyway, in answer to the matronís question, Winslow explained everything - the hovering pen incident, the blowing in his ear, everything. Seeming satisfied with his eyes, she sat back in her badly assembled swivelly chair and scribbled illegibly in the accident book. "I think you could be a bit stressed, Winslow," she said over her shoulder. "Iím going to call your parents and send you home, in the meantime, lie on that bed and do some breathing exercises. OK?"

Winslow kicked his feet off the floor and swung them onto the mattress, leaning back, clasping his hands over his chest and breathing deeply. Anyone passing who wasnít a clairvoyant would probably have noticed him endeavouring to occupy only one half of the narrow mattress, leaving a good eighteen inches unoccupied, or so it would seem. He was, in fact, subconsciously making room for the ghost of Sonny L. Sustenance, who was lying in an almost identical position, staring at the ceiling and thinking about things.

He was telling himself that he was really trying to catch a glance at Winslow Cahillís medical record, in case he had any serious heart conditions or terminal diseases they could use, but was in fact thinking of Harriet. The woman had treated him with nothing but the most seething of contempt since they had been lumbered together, and just five minutes ago ... youíll have to bear with me through this bit, Iím a science fiction writer, not a Mills & Boon lackey ... Sonny was trying to convince himself that there wasnít going to be anything between them. True, she had admitted to being a bit of a nympho. True, a hate-hate relationship always led unshakably to the same end. True, they had just indulged in a lip-lock for fully five whole seconds right in the middle of a load of pubescent lads.

Sonny had never had much truck with women, even in the Ninth Underworld. When he was alive, he had tried to form meaningful relationships, but his uninspiring looks, unattractive personality and tendency to say precisely the wrong thing at precisely the right time had stood in his way, sniggering and flicking V-signs. Finding himself in a land where everyone saw everyone else as stunningly beautiful hadnít helped - that had just removed one of the three problems. Throughout his twenty-eight years alive he had held down one relationship for about a month, and that was with a girl who squeezed her spots in bed and had a tendency to burst into song in public places. As for the two years dead, Jim had had better luck.

Now faced with a woman who found some aspect of him attractive automatically forced him to consider what exactly was wrong with her. OK, a personality like a scorpionís tail and eyes like nine-inch nails to start with, but for some reason she had been sufficiently attracted to him to...

He caught himself licking his lips, and stopped. Then he heaved another heavy sigh, tossed his head back and turned it to the left. Just as Winslow Cahill breathed out therapeutically, tossed his head back and turned it to the right.

To their mutual surprise, the teenager registered the ghostís presence, and they stared with some horror into each otherís eyes for two full seconds before the boy leapt off the bed with a cry, inducing the matron to stop writing in her book and spin round in her wobbly chair. "What is it?" she asked.

White as a sheet, Winslow pointed to where Sonny still lay with a trembling finger. "I - I saw a man there," he said distantly. "He was lying next to me, then he disappeared -"

He mouthed silently for a bit, then the matron invited him to sit back on the bed. "Describe him to me, Winslow."

Calming down a little, the teenager thought hard, trying to recall those two short seconds. "He was about thirty," he said, causing Sonnyís eyes to widen. "He had short dark hair, and a little stubbly beard, and I could see through him!"

Sonny stroked his chin. He hadnít had a chance to shave the day his apartment had burned down, so he looked as if he had sprinkled the contents of a teabag onto his face.

"He was wearing camouflage gear, I think," continued Winslow, who was now starting to feel a bit silly. "Big black boots, as well."

For an agonizingly silent handful of seconds the matron stared at him over her spectacles, wearing that face that says understanding contempt; the one people reserve for talking to stupid people. "Look, Winslow," she said finally, handing him a note. "Take the rest of the week off, and if the hallucinations donít go away then see your doctor, OK?"

Winslow nodded silently, and left the room hurriedly, clutching the slip like an unexploded bomb. This left the matron alone in the room with the late Sonny L. Sustenance, and the atmosphere was more than a little strained.

Yes, all very slushy, all very dull. Tell you what, letís go and see what those denizens of the Land of Eternal Rest are up to. More specifically, what the forces of Good and Evil are doing to prepare for the upcoming conflict.

Time passes a lot slower in the Land of the Dead. Although by his own personal time scale Sonny had been dead for two years, twelve of the buggers had passed back on the Earth realm. And throughout all the events above that happened after Sonny and Harriet returned to the Land of the Living, only a handful of seconds had occurred back in Resistance HQ.

"Well, letís hope they succeed," said Jesus as the door to the labyrinth faded into the wall. "Assuming this Winston Churchill will be able to help, that is."

"And assuming Harriet can keep her mind off of her chosen hobby for long enough."

Jesus turned to his followers. "This is alright, isnít it?" he asked, worry in his eyes. "Is it appropriate for the Son of God to play a part in the assassination of a teenage boy?"

Terence placed a comforting, meaty hand on the Messiahís shoulder. "Itís all for the best, Jez," he said soothingly. "Deathís a lot more fun than life and weíll be able to obliterate the forces of Darkness once and for all, so everybodyís happy."

"Canít we just forgive them?" asked Jesus hopefully. "Iím good at forgiving people."

"Letís just obliterate them first, then you can forgive them."

"Right," said Jesus, gathering his dignity. "Right. I understand. I think you should start the construction operation now, it may take a while."

"Iíll get right on it."

Jim, who had been present all the time but hadnít said anything yet, felt he wasnít playing a big enough part. "Sonny will be alright, wonít he?" he asked, anxiously. "Heís not in any danger up there, right?"

"Providing he doesnít run into any exorcists in Brighton heíll be perfectly alright."

Jim nodded understandingly, and rubbed the side of his head. It was beginning to throb.

Itís not commonly known to demons - and rightly so, as itís assumed they may try and do something about it - that every shop-floor hellspawn has a small piece of biotechnology inside their heads. Essentially itís a beacon, transmitting the demonís position and serial number to the great big radar in the sky, or what passes for it in the Ninth Underworld.

The purpose is obvious, and fully detailed in the brochure that demons are issued with, but which always seem to end up as toothpicks or ashtrays in the Travellerís Rest after a few thousand centuries. If a soul loses his or her demon then said soul toddles off to the Demonic Service Agency, gives proof of identity, the demonís number and a few drops of spirit blood to sign a contract with, whereupon the extremely helpful angels working there isolate the demonís signal on the radar and give the position to the owner. Meanwhile, the demon has been trained to stay put if it gets lost, so it does so.

It had took a bit of work to persuade the DSA that he was Sonny L. Sustenance, but Hitler had managed it with a bit of cosmetic surgery and a magic carpet licence stolen from the wrecked building.

"So, O Lord Satan," he said in a confident manner, being betrayed by his quivering knees, "we donít know where Sustenance himself is, but we have the position of his demon and if it stays near to where he passed through to the Land of the Living then all we have to do is wait for him to return here and grab him!"

Satan had his back to him, staring out of the window again. "Excellent plan, Adolf, well done indeed," he said in a bored tone of voice, making Hitler relax slightly, only to make him stiffen again when he said "But," and followed it with "there are a few holes in your logic I feel I must identify."

"H-holes?"

"For a start, you canít be certain that Sustenanceís demon isnít in on some big plan and is staying in precisely the wrong place to throw us off the track. Secondly, Sustenance may be planning to stay in the Land of the Living forever to escape our regime, not unlike several hundred more souls targetted by that Gestapo of yours ...?" Hitler always hated the way Satan placed a question mark on the end of a sentence that didnít merit one. The truth was, he had already identified the flaws in his plans, but didnít want to jeopardize the afterlives of his wife and beloved hounds by turning up for todayís interview without a plan.

The relationship between Adolf Hitler and the Prince of Darkness had hit an all-time low (thereís a fun sentence). He seemed to have become some kind of lackey to Beelzebub as opposed to, as he was supposed to be, the second-in-command. He was constantly being sent on trivial little errands, fetching the paper, going out for doughnuts, reincarnating a few fundamentalists. He didnít seem to be doing much in the way of ruling the Ninth Underworld.

Come to think of it, thought Adolf as he was sent out for more Pot Noodles, he hadnít seen Satan do much in the way of ruling the Ninth Underworld either. All he seemed to do was watch American cable television and eat takeaway food. Apparently, as he had said, this was something expected of him as the Lord of all that was evil.

At least he had the forthcoming coup of the Land of the Living to look forward to, something he had been told he would have a heavy part in.

Satan had been suspiciously vague on that subject.

In some nondescript, abandoned workshop somewhere in the Land of the Living, more specifically a small town in New Jersey, the long-unstirred dust flickered and blew away from its home, allowing a selection of tools to be moved. This they did, with no apparent help from some other party, hovering a few feet above the floor. There was an almost inaudible noise, almost like triumph, before the tools attached by little hooks to one of the wall-mounted boards began rattling spookily. Anyone hanging around the building - how fortunate that there were none - would almost certainly have been seriously injured by all the sharp and dangerous tools in the near vicinity suddenly taking apparent lives of their own and going to join the little grouping of tools clustered in the air above a workbench.

A pair of shears bounced up and down in the air, once, twice, three times.

A nearby ten-pound lump hammer did likewise.

Soon every single one of the tools had performed three merry little jerks in the air, apparently some sort of secret gesture of allegiance privy only to tools.

A screwdriver with a yellow plastic handle, which must have been jammed at the back of a drawer for months as it looked unused, embarked on a complicated little speech formed from bounces and jerks in several directions. It would take even the most skilled of codebreakers months to decipher, but after several minutes of movement-based language the multitude all bounced twice up and down in a short nod of acknowledgement. The screwdriver rotated in the air slightly to face a small group of saws skulking at the side, then performed another little dance, much shorter than the last one. The saws twanged non-committedly, knowing what they had to do. They immediately began circling the workshop, looking for the appropriate materials.

The screwdriver then pointed its sharp edge at a collection of shovels and trowels chattering amongst themselves, who reacted with excited anticipation of their great work, such is the way of excavation implements. As one spade they filed out of the broken window and into the night.

One by one each tool or group of tools was given a task and a brief bout of communication from the head screwdriver, and when the workshop was alive with preoccupied implements the screwdriver joined in, soon lost among its brethren as an equal. Something very special was going to happen here. But that race of mankind so beloved of depressing dystopian sci-fi had nothing to worry about, this was not the long-awaited revolution of the machines, quite the opposite. Anyone present who had thus far survived would have been discouraged from this hypothesis had they looked at the drawing board.

Because, aided by inexplicably mobile rulers, set squares and protractors, a quartet of pencils flew merrily around the paper sketching a neat orthographic diagram that would have taken even the most skilled of designers quite a while. It looked not unlike some kind of spacesuit, but judging by the measurements thoughtfully written in by an unseen hand it was intended to be a lot bigger than your normal-sized spacesuit. These pencils intended the suit to be eighteen feet in height, with a chest ten feet across, two arms each as thick as barrels and fists like clusters of bowling balls. It was big, and it was strong, and it was heavy. The design had a curious glass dome atop the shoulders, obviously the helmet thing the operator would look out of.

A miniature hacksaw suddenly emerged from the storm of tools flying around the room and seemed to examine the drawing. After a few seconds, it bounced up in the air five times, whereupon a passing eraser removed part of the arm and the pencils replaced it with some kind of heavy minigun. It also provided measurements and specifications for the ammunition, bullet chamber and reload cycle.

The hacksaw bounced again, three times.

Hesitantly, as if feeling slightly put-upon, the pencils multiplied each measurement by ten.

The hacksaw did a little loop-de-loop indicating satisfaction, and returned to the fracas. The four pencils seemed to exchange glances, then each performed a kind of miniature shrug and got on with writing the novel they had been working on for a while.

The tools had already nearly finished the toes of the left foot. They themselves nearly filled a full quarter of the room, but the space problem would be dealt with when they got to it.

Over the night and the following day, there came reports of many odd disappearances in that small town in New Jersey. Various cars, sheets of metal and electrical equipment all disappeared, without a trace. The police were baffled, as usual, but justifiably so as no person was witnessed stealing anything. The thefts werenít choosy - mostly from the local scrap metal yard, only resorting to less unwanted materials when they couldnít find what they apparently needed there.

One man claimed he had gone to fix some coffee before the Jerry Springer Show and had come back to find the TV missing and the windows smashed.

One woman swore blind that she saw a convertible car drive past with no-one in the driverís seat; just two pairs of pliers on the steering wheel and a garden trowel manning the pedals.

Another, elderly woman claimed that the spirit of Liberace had come to her in the night and performed an up-tempo song and dance routine right there in her bedroom, but she did have a reputation for seeing these kind of things and was duly ignored. Besides, the spirit of Liberace only did day gigs.

If only these Americans had known that these phenomena were attempting to battle the forces of Darkness; they probably wouldnít have kicked up such a fuss.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

"Stupid colour for a whale, anyway."

- Captain Ahab, the Ninth Underworld

 

Meanwhile, a fuss of a larger magnitude was being kicked up in the Atlantic. On a small survey boat a heated argument was happening between the Captain and a few of his lackeys who were operating the sonar scope. A sonar scope was considered quite necessary for the purpose this boat had, which isnít particularly interesting.

"What is it?" the Captain had asked, referring to the readout they were receiving from the sonar, which worked by bouncing sound waves off the sea bed and whatever happened to be lurking there, in case you didnít know.

"Weíve no idea, sir," said one of the lackeys. "We took three readings and itís still there."

The sonar had produced quite an intriguing picture of something apparently lying on the sea bed. The key word here is BIG - it was huge. Massive. They had had to take several readings and stick them together with sellotape in order to get a picture of the whole thing.

It was a great big creature, that could not be shaken. Natural rock formations do not have a huge head, six spindly legs and a tail half a mile long. They also do not have hair - the edges were blurred in places, giving the impression of a thick, furry hide.

"Oh come on," said the Captain, trying to be jovial but dry in the throat, "weíre not resorting to sea monsters, are we?"

"As I said, weíve no idea what it is. Sea monster if you like, sir."

"Impossible," snapped the First Officer, a man who had difficulty making friends. "If there were any sea monsters in the Atlantic someone wouldíve noticed by now."

Another lackey, who also had difficulty making friends, snapped two fingers. "Maybe the government hushed it up," he said brightly. "They do that, you know, with this kind of thing."

"Shut up, Colin."

"Sir."

"Itís obviously a rock formation," continued the First Officer, in the face of all the evidence. "Remember all that fuss when they found the face on Mars and then found it was just a very ordinary-looking rock and a blurry photograph?"

"With respect, sir, thereís no way it could be a rock formation."

"And whyís that?"

"Because rock formations donít breathe."

The third lackey present put another reading on the board next to the first one. The Ďwaistí of the beast was noticeably narrower than in the first one. He also produced a photograph of a wide expanse of ocean, taken from the side of the boat, as a vast quantity of air bubbles rose to the surface and dispersed.

"A huge, furry monster at the bottom of the sea," said the Captain, furrowing his brow, staring into the middle distance and stroking his chin. "I wonder why no-one noticed it before?"

Sonny followed the sounds of yelling and clattering pots and pans to the schoolís kitchen, where he found Harriet.

Ah, the school kitchen. Surely one of the most enigmatic institutions in the whole of modern society. Maybe the pupils will catch a glimpse of the place over the counter, but only for a short time. They never witness the kitchens working as a living, breathing machine, with some of the women within washing up, some cooking, some serving. Do they work on a rota, think I, or all have assigned positions? Do the washer-uppers secretly covet the servers, gazing with hatred over the Fairy liquid at they who would pour the orange squash? And why do they only employ women? In other careers occupied usually by women you tend to get the odd effeminate male thrown in here and there, but why not here? Is it some conspiracy? And what do the dinner ladies precisely get up to when theyíre not serving dinner? Another idea for a book briefly flips into my mind...

But for now, all the questions above fluttered through Sonnyís head as he entered the kitchens, uncharted territory for him. Huge catering-sized sinks dominated the walls, great big ovens that contained grease and crumbs from centuries past occupied apparently strategic points in the room. Innumerable utensils dangled from the ceiling like the corpses in that horror film. Everything was made from stainless steel, except possibly the rats (Aha! Aha! Ahahahahaha!). He was just about to explore the terrain when he discovered what was causing all the noise.

A dinner lady, wearing one of those blue institutional frocks they seem to delight in, was cowering in the corner, wielding a ladle and quivering violently. She stared with perfectly circular eyes and a worryingly pale complexion at the display in the centre of the kitchens. A knife had detached itself from the ceiling-mounted rack and was moving around about two feet above the floor in an odd vibratory fashion.

Thatís what she saw. Sonny, leaning against one of those industrial toasters with the rotating grill, watched with interest as Harriet attempted to wield a ten-inch breadknife with some difficulty. Pencils and sheets of paper, easy, a weapon of such magnitude not so. She had two hands interlaced under the utensil, and her knees were buckling with the effort.

"Any luck?" asked the male ghost, feeling he should cease this undignified show.

Harriet turned her head slightly to see Sonny through the corner of her eye, then turned back to her brave efforts. "I can manage holding it, but thrustingís going to be a trouble," she said.

Sonny couldnít help but admire the woman, returning to macho business as usual when just ten minutes ago she had been ... well, you know. Perhaps this whole matter was going to be buried and forgotten.

Bollocks to that, thought Sonny. "Look, about what happened a few minutes ago ..." he began, then stopped and waited. He had seen films. No sentence beginning with Ďaboutí went uninterrupted.

Harriet, however, had apparently not seen many films, and looked at him expectantly. "Yes?"

Sonny suddenly felt inexplicably embarassed about everything about his appearance, such is the way in these instances. His hands moved to rub the back of his neck, push his hair back, scratch himself in small and hard-to-reach areas. His eyes flicked to a point two feet above and three feet behind Harrietís head. He winced, wiping away the moistness from his forehead. In other words, embarassed as hell.

"Er, well," he began, then mentally chided himself for such a poor beginning. "What I want to know is, well, er, Harriet, just then, when you ..." he performed a curious gesture which involved holding a cupped hand a few inches in front of his face and moving it back and forth. "... did you, I mean, what I want to know is, er, did you, er ... mean it?"

Harriet stared at him, and for a horrible moment seemed to be about to burst out laughing, but she retained a straight face when she said, simply, "No."

"Really?" asked Sonny, not sure whether to appear disappointed or relieved. "I mean, er, some would say that the, er ..." that curious hand movement again, "... could be considered a rather... serious... gesture?"

Harriet almost did laugh, then. "What, that? Serious? Oh, come on."

He should have seen it coming. She had obviously been luring him into some deadly and expertly-spinned web of intrigue. Or maybe not, but either way she suddenly grabbed his head again and crushed her lips against his. This time, it took a bit longer. He felt her hand stray to his shoulders. His virgin mouth was violated by someone elseís tongue. And when he suddenly lifted his leg, he couldnít help feeling he was doing everything wrong. The two of them became momentarily visible to the mortal realm, glowing inwardly with something-or-other. She didnít seem to mind, though, and when their mouths detached they didnít break off entirely, remaining locked in an embrace, pressed up against each other, foreheads lightly touching, until they had both taken a few deep breaths and returned to invisibility.

God, I hate writing this bit. I just pray it wonít degenerate into sex.

"THAT was serious," she said.

"Now youíre just making fun of me," he said weakly.

Apparently not hearing this, she released him from her iron grip and went back to trying to lift the knife. "Anyway, getting back to the matter at hand, thereís a load of scaffolding round the library, maybe we could get it to collapse on him or something."

Sonny didnít say anything until she had departed through the nearby wall, whereupon he snapped out of it and lowered his foot. "Weirdo," was all he could say.

And no-one did believe that dinner lady.

Sure Winslow was supposed to be going home, and knowing his parents he would be right back at school tomorrow at best and after lunch at worst, but he had a few errands to run before doing so, this being the A-Level course and everything. One of which involved heading to the library to take out a book on poltergeist phenomena, a pursuit he had set himself. As far as he knew, these happenings tended to be a bit less on the objects-hanging-around-in-mid-air and objects-being-knocked-onto-the-floor side of things and more on the sofas-turning-upside-down and utensils-flying-around-the-room, but he needed to get some answers.

If his school was haunted, he was going to get it closed down for a bit. Preferably before he had to hand in his biology coursework a week on Friday.

Now, as has already been mentioned, the library was swathed in scaffolding at the moment, possibly due to some renovation old buildings always seem to need, and in accordance with the Law of Renovation the scaffolding was totally deserted. Except, obviously, for two ghosts, sitting with legs hanging over the side, but they donít really count.

"Did you do what I told you to?" asked the female spirit sharply, watching as Winslow Cahill made his way along the front of the main building towards the crumbling library. There was a little alley between the north wall of Room 13 and the south wall of the library, and it was along this Winslow had to walk to get to the entrance he was heading for. It was also along this alleyway that Harriet had planned his horrible and bloody death.

Sonny, attempting to sit as close to her as he felt he could get away with, waved the end of a piece of string he was holding in a tightly clenched fist. The other end of the string was connected tightly to a suitably loosened screw, somewhere at the base of the erection. One of the hardest parts of the operation had been finding a screwdriver and wielding it with the proficiency required to remove all but one of the screws in the scaffolding and loosen the other, a screw on which Sonny judged the mission now hinged. The very hardest part of the operation, and the part Harriet had thoughtfully left solely to her partner, was tying a hastily-pilfered length of twine around the renegade screw when he didnít have physical form.

"Harriet," Sonny was trying to say to the preoccupied woman, "I just want to know something."

"Sh."

"I canít help noticing that you seem to be alternating from macho to, er, something else at unexpected intervals."

For the first time since this scene began, she turned to look at him. Did he detect pity in her eyes, or was that contempt? "I just donít like to mix business with pleasure, thatís all. Now get ready to pull on that string."

"Is that all I am to you?" said Sonny, trying to sound authoritative. "Pleasure? Is that it?"

"Shut up! Get ready!" she snapped, watching the boy intently and waving a hand.

"No, Iím not going to shut up, Iím not going to let this lie," he continued, becoming more and more stern and proud of himself for being so. "You implied that all I am in this mission is some outlet for your bottled-up feelings. Well, I put it to you once again that I have probably contributed a lot more to this revolution than you have -"

"Pull!"

"Mm?"

"The string!"

"Oh yes."

Summoning up all the ectoplasm he could, Sonny yanked on the string and sent the screw pinging out with sufficient power to yank the string from his ghostly grip. Unfortunately, thanks to his love-crazed hesitation, the delayed-action nature of the plan and Sodís law, Winslow was several feet away by the time the clumsy collation of metal rods and wooden planks collapsed in a shower of dust and splinters. Sonny and Harriet remained in the air, however, still in the same sitting position.

"Bugger," they said in unison.

"Well," continued Harriet, facing Sonny. "I didnít have any other plans for today." Then she kissed him again. Oh, I wonít bother describing it properly this time. Read the last description if youíre keen on this sort of thing. Personally Iím not. Anyway, towards the end of this particular action Sonny lost concentration and fell onto the debris, stirring not a single iota.

Winslow didnít get much sleep that night. To his eternal surprise, his parents had agreed to keep him off school just for tomorrow, if only because they werenít planning any wild orgies he knew for a fact they held on a regular basis, and he was looking forward to a day in town tomorrow, performing that hallowed act known as Ďmoochingí.

If only he had known that this intention would be indirectly responsible for his untimely death and press-ganging into an Underworld underground resistance, fit now to battle the forces of Darkness. If only. He might have thought twice about going for a mooch. On the other hand, maybe he wouldnít. But who gives a toss?

He was thinking about the apparent spiritual acts he had witnessed, and how they seemed to be bent on his destruction. He had gathered this from the collapse of scaffolding just after he had walked under it (and donít think he hadnít noticed all those screws on the floor), and from the catastrophic ten-vehicle car crash on the way home as he traversed a Pelican crossing. The driver who had caused it seemed to be talking incessantly about whispering in both ears.

So, thought Winslow, why was an invisible ghost trying to have him killed? Maybe, he thought, it was one of his ancestors, possibly burnt as a witch, who always seemed to have something against their descendants. Perhaps it was because of something he had done in a past life.

How ironic that Winslow doubted the latter.

Sonny and Harriet, meanwhile, had found themselves sitting on Winslowís chest of drawers. Hanging around him had seemed like a good idea, and it was. Following him had seemed like a good idea, and it was. Causing the car crash had also seemed like a good idea, even if it had turned out to be otherwise. But they did meet Mr. Reaper again, and Sonny had had a very pleasant chat while the souls of two women, a priest and a small dalmation puppy had been herded into the Underworlds.

Waiting in his room had also seemed like a good idea, in case an idea to slay him while he slept occurred to them in the night. The unfortunate result of putting this plan into operation was that Sonny and Harriet found themselves having to make awkward conversation in pitch darkness.

"So..." said one.

"So..." said the other.

"So, how desperate are you now, exactly?" said Sonny.

"Obviously too desperate," said Harriet.

"Look, is this going to become a regular thing?" asked he who was dead and a man. "Every time I say something roughly stern or you feel a twinge of homesickness, Iím supposed to just let you let off steam on my person."

Harrietís ghostly eyebrow bounced upwards in response to the last six words. "You can do the same to me, if you like," she said generously.

"You obviously donít get it," said he, becoming stern. "Acts of love are what distinguishes us from animals. If we just cave in to our neanderthal urges, then -" and then stopped when his partner silenced him in the only way she knew how.

"You see, there you go again," he said when she broke off, but let the matter drop.

There was a very long, very awkward pause, but now they had grown used to the darkness they could see the youth toss (and turn) in his bed, trying to drop off, but failing even to get near the edge, staying in the middle waiting for the cable car.

"Weíve got another six hours to kill," said Sonny eventually, trying to fill the very long, very awkward pause. "Whatíll we do?"

Even in the pitch darkness he could sense her looking him up and down. Even in the pitch darkness he could receive the pheromonal signals she was giving off.

"Whatever happened to dinner and dancing?" he asked fruitlessly, hopping onto the floor.

Damn, I was hoping it wouldnít come to this. Well, I donít have to stand for it. Iím the author. Both you and I know that Iím only inserting this bit to please a bigger market. Oh! Wait! I wasnít supposed to mention that. Damn, damn, damn. Oh, well. Letís just skip to the next bit, pausing only to mention in passing that when Winslow eventually did get to sleep, he was woken twice by what sounded like someone shouting indistinctly.

Hitler burst into Satanís office - formerly his own - unannounced, but Satan did manage to sweep whatever he had on the desk into a drawer too fast for the Führer to see. The Prince of Darkness adjusted his skewiffed jacket, coughed and clasped his hands together in front of him.

"Ahem. Hem. Adolf. I did ask you to knock."

"Sorry, O Patriarch of Putridity," said Hitler nervously, waving a printout. "We have some information on Sustenance."

"Excellent."

"Heís in league with the Resistance." The silence that followed forced Hitler to expand. "Heís gone to bring Winston Churchill back to the Underworld."

Satan stopped being silent. "Should I know him?"

Adolfís foot tapped impatiently. "He was the Prime Minister of Britain during that unfortunate war I did myself in over. I had him reincarnated."

"Ah. So he would be a useful ally against you."

"Yes, O Lord. And weíve picked up some very unusual readings in another part of the Land of the Living."

Satan made the face that said Ďdonít think you have to stop on my accountí.

"Poltergeist activity," continued Hitler. "Somethingís being built in the LOL and we donít know what it is."

"I thought your spy network was more efficient than that?" said Satan, using that superfluous question mark once again and setting Adolfís teeth a-grinding.

"Well, we know what it is," continued Hitler defensively, "but we donít know precisely what it is, if you catch my meaning."

Satan evidently didnít. "What does it look like, then?" he asked.

"Er, it looks like," began Hitler, trying to think of a way to explain the unusual readout he had been sent just that morning. "Like a gigantic, metal foot."

"Foot."

"Foot. Er, and itís still being built."

"Presumably with a leg destined to be attached?"

"Well, that did cross our mind -"

Satan spun round in his lovely swingy-chair and stared out of the window again. "Go and see if you can get any clearer readings," he said as Hitler turned to go. "I find it very hard to believe that a load of poltergeists have decided to build a gigantic metal leg."

When Adolf had gone, the Devil opened his desk drawer and spoke into it. "Now then, Marcus," he said to the furry thing inside. "Where were we?"

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

"That is one big foot."

- Sheriff Smithy

 

"That is one big foot," said Sheriff Smithy.

Weíre back in the little town in New Jersey now in case youíre interested. The poltergeist-possessed tools had long since stripped the workshopís walls and ceiling for materials, so a foot the size of a car and eleven feet of shin stood proud for all to see in the area of land where the building had once stood. The neighbouring buildings had all been evacuated, and wisely so, for they were no longer there.

Sheriff Smithy Smithy had arrived with all haste in his car. The army had had a crack at putting a barrier around the site, but it had been dismantled right down to the soldiersí weaponry by the rogue tools.

"What the hell is going on here?" asked the Sheriffís deputy, Jimmy Jo-Jo James, emerging from that car Sheriffs always seem to have.

Smithy looked left and right. There was no-one to arrest and no-one to be condescending to. What was he doing there, anyway?

"Weíre supposed to keep an eye on it Ďtill the Feds arrive," said Jimmy helpfully.

It was the middle of the night, but still the cloud of tools buzzed around the metallic portion of leg, silhouetted against the moonlight and the stars. Upon closer inspection a separate, smaller cloud of tools were working on another foot. They had already built the sole and most of the toes.

"How?" was a question that had been on Smithyís mouth since he had seen the spectacle. "Why?" was another.

"How can a giant robot be building itself, and why would it be doing so?" said Jimmy, neatly encompassing both half-hearted rhetorics.

"I donít know. I think -"

The world never found out what Sheriff Smithy really thought, because a separate collection of flying implements suddenly descended on them. There was a short confusion of swatting at the tools that bit and nipped at them, as their uniforms were plucked and torn by the pliers and clippers. When the cloud finally decided to leave, weighed down by large quantities of raw material, they got up off the floor to find their guns, badges, handcuffs and belts missing. As for the car, all that remained was a quartet of seats. Even the tyres had been removed for wire insulation.

"This is a danger to society!" said Smithy loudly, in that way American police do. He felt insecure without his sidearm, and he still didnít have anyone to arrest.

Then a big black car rounded the bend in the road and approached the Sheriff and his matey, one of those cool black cars with the tinted windows and no registration numbers (or Ďlicence platesí as our American cousins prefer to call them). It pulled up with a screech of brakes, and a collection of men in T-shirts, leather jackets and jeans emerged, naturally in dark glasses.

"Alright, Mr. Smithy, weíll take it from here," said the apparent leader, who flashed a collection of important-looking badges.

"You arenít the Feds," said Jimmy.

"Weíre a special branch of the Feds," said another of the strange men. "What seems to be the trouble?"

Smithy pointed at the construction work not fifty yards away. In the time of this little scene, the renegade tools had already finished the left foot and added two more feet to the right shin. "Interesting," said the sort-of-Fed. "Localised poltergeist activity. Seems to have a purpose. I donít believe weíve ever seen anything so organized. Is it posing a threat?"

"Well, itís torn apart most of the block for spare parts."

"Right." The special branch chap called to another special branch chap who had taken up his pre-arranged post nearby. "John, go to the car and fetch those kick-ass alien weapons. And the memory eraser, while youíre at it."

"We donít have a car anymore, John."

"What?" asked the ringleader, turning around just in time to see two wire cutters carry off what looked like a rear bumper, and a shovel straining under the weight of one of those kick-ass alien weapons. All that remained of the cool black car was a couplet of tyres bereft of hubcaps, the possessed tools having got enough wire insulation.

"God damn," said the special branch collectively.

... and Jesus turned away from his scanner scope.

"Everything seems to be in order," he said, more or less to himself. "I am a little worried about all that stealing theyíre doing."

"For the good of the Resistance," chorused the Resistance distractedly, who all seemed to be clustered around the other scanner scope.

"Howíre Solomon and Harriet doing?"

"Doing rather well, all things considered..." said Leo, who had somehow claimed the front seat, staring in open-mouthed wonder at the display in front of them. Jesus joined them at this scope. "Iím pretty sure thatís a bit sinful," he said, but was adamantly ignored.

"Oh my God, what on Earth are they up to now?" asked Leo and Jim in unison, respectively speaking in fascination and bewilderment.

Well, Iím not going to describe it. Use your imagination. Iím feeling a bit nauseous even just eluding to it.

Not for the first time, Jesus wondered if he had gotten into the right crowd. Perhaps opting to become mortal for a bit had been a bad idea, but then they had needed just a bit of guidance. Although now he came to think about it, the mutation of his teachings and enigmatic parables had caused a lot more death and war than anything else in the history of mankind doing each other in. In fact, you could almost say he had indirectly caused the decline in modern society.

Perhaps a Second Coming would be in order, just to explain the more unclear bits of the Bible they all seemed to be arguing about. But we all know what happens after the Second Coming of Jesus, donít we! The Book of Revelation had been quite clear on that front.

Christ heaved a heavy sigh, and went back to the scanner scope.

Once again, Sonny couldnít help feeling grudging admiration for his colleague as they followed Winslow Cahill into Brighton town centre. She seemed to have multiple personalities, and unlike other people who suffered from that affliction and tended to be locked up in small soft rooms she seemed capable of switching between them on her own command. For most of the time she was a no-nonsense macho remorseless spit-in-my-eye-and-Iíll-rip-out-every-organ-and-muscle-even-remotely-associated-with-that-action type, but Sonny had also witnessed a second woman, a woman who was, er, unlike that one.

Right now she was back in the former lady, and Sonny knew for a fact that if he even hinted at the previous nightís activities she would ignore him, or insult him, or beat him up. It was something he couldnít help finding oddly attractive.

And ten yards ahead of them, blissfully unaware of the token sexual tension going on behind him, Winslow Cahill walked briskly through the busy streets. He, too, was thinking hard, wondering if he was endangering his own life by going out into the open. A person might wonder why he was standing around like a big lemon when he was almost certain that a ghost was trying to kill him.

But that person wasnít taking into account the fact that perhaps Winslow didnít think dying was such a bad idea. After all, he had had a glimpse at the afterlife; and if hovering around the Earth as a ghost doing what you like when you like was the price to pay for early expiration, then he for one could live with that. Die with that. Whatever.

Not that he was a gibbering suicidal. He just wasnít that keen on life at the present moment. He was out in the open for the same reason a person probed at a loose tooth, with no intention of actually ripping it out.

So, the question is, would he be relieved to know that before this day was out he would be well and truly croaked, head over heels, pushing up the daisies and meeting his maker?

Who can say?

Who indeed.

His first stop was the local Dixonís, which was always the first computer games shop (amongst other things) on his route. The route that happened, incidentally, to take him through every shop in Brighton that sold computer games. It was a penchant of his.

Winslow, like many other people, had a method for shopping in establishments where the staff are can-I-help-you happy. There are three freely-available strategies for totally avoiding contact with enthusiastic sales assistants: 1) spend a few minutes outside eyeing the terrain through the glass doors, then walk directly over to the item you are interested in, spend as little time as possible choosing the particular product you wish to buy and take it over to the counter.

Should this fail, and you can actually see assistants closing in for the kill, 2) put your hand in your inside jacket pocket and look around suspiciously. Shop assistants instantly turn into wannabe-Inspector Morses when faced with an apparent shoplifter - ducking behind aisles, peeping over the top in a piss-poor impression of the infamous Mr. Chad, pretending to be making sure the TVs are tuned properly; all that, because they are actually trained not to approach thieves. I speak the truth; I used to work at Tescoís. In the fruit and veg section. And I never once saw an artichoke.

The third strategy is probably the most drastic, and should only be used when an assistant is mere feet away and is clearing the throat to state those four immortal words. In this case, pretend to be speaking in tongues. This one never fails to freak them out. I always use one of these three strategies, but then Iím a bit of a loner.

Winslow was opting for the first option, and was examining the PC CD-ROM racks for titles he was keen on, deemed safe from prying customer service assistants, who dare not touch anyone by the games for fear that they be asked about certain titles. Another tip they told me in Tescoís at training; never, never, never under any circumstances admit ignorance. Never say you donít know. Make it all up if you have to. Talk bollocks for as long as it takes for them to go away.

Winslow examined the back of the glossy box for Spssssssssh, named (according to the blurb) after the noise made by a severed jugular vein. Sonny, staring over his shoulder and having had to make do with such things as Shopping Centre Keeper for the last year, almost cried at the sheer unfairness of his death so soon before such quality titles as this were released.

Just as he was becoming interested in Tomb Raider XVIII: The Ultimate Final Last Ever Chapter, Winslow was startled by the sound of an explosion at the rear of the shop. A bank of televisions had collapsed after some inconsiderate person had knocked away one of the supports. Fire licked at the mound of electrical equipment, sending sparks flying at an array of expensive video recorders, and causing smaller explosions that sent important parts flying across the room.

Fortunately for Winslow, he was able to hurl himself out the nearby door just before a Windows 2010 CD came hurtling out of a burning display. A good job that there were few people in the shop that day, or someone important could have been seriously hurt.

"Oh, well," said the unheard voice of Harriet, "worth a try." With that, she strode out of the flames like the T1000 did in that great scene in Terminator 2 that probably cost a bomb. You know, after the lorry gets blown to bits.

"You know what that reminded me of?" said Sonny, when they were back on Winslow Cahillís tail.

"Shut up."

Of course, people like to avoid all the fuss that comes from police enquiries, so Winslow decided to depart quickly from that little complication and continue on his pilgrimage. With reflexive ease he walked that route and simultaneously cogitated on recent events.

If he was not going mad with paranoia, then the ghost baying for his blood had struck again. Admittedly it had not succeeded, but it seemed to be becoming more violent since it had first introduced itself and seemed to be not letting anything get in its way. Perhaps, he thought, he was just being a bit paranoid. OK, he had seen a pen levitate before his eyes, but that could have been the work of a perfectly benevolent ghost and all the attempts on his life could have just been coincidences.

That was, of course, the sensible supposition. He didnít believe it for a second. Especially not after a wing mirror whistled past, one inch from his ear.

"Damn," said Sonny. "So close."

"Told you a wing mirror would curve in the air."

"Oh, look. This should be promising."

He was referring to the building wrapped in scaffolding they were coming up to. It wasnít clear what purpose the building served, but it was probably one of those old ones that always seem to need renovation. It was quite a big establishment, so there were several storeys of scaffolding and, for once, there were workmen on it, carrying planks and stuff, wearing yellow plastic helmets. A cement mixer toiled on ground level. And the thing that had captured Sonny, Harriet and Winslowís attention was the stack of metal pipes about two storeys up, just on the edge of the platform, held together by fabric straps.

Winslow, who had had recent bad experiences with scaffolding, crossed over to the other side of the road and stood, arms folded, waiting.

"Whatís he waiting for?" asked one ghost.

"Dunno. Maybe for those workmen to shout at him," replied the other.

"Whatever way, heís not much use to us over there," said Sonny.

Harrietís nine-inch-nail eyes took in the situation. She examined the building layout, the traffic, Winslow on the other side of the road, the passers-by. She paid close attention to every tiny detail of the immediate surroundings, right down to the birds that flew past in a preoccupied manner and the itsy bitsy spiders in the gutters down below.

Then her eyes lit up, an action usually associated on a particular breed of film or televised series with the sound of an old-fashioned cash register or a cheery little Ďdingí, and she turned to her cohort.

"When I say, release those pipes," she said.

Sonnyís eyes didnít light up. "What? Heís over there!"

"Just trust me, OK? I know what Iím doing."

"Heard that before," said Sonny, before wordlessly accepting his assignment and floating up to the first floor of scaffolding, from which the strap that surrounded the pipes above could be grabbed and pulled downwards roughly. Experimentally he summoned feeling into his hand - so much so that, not to his own knowledge, his hand and a few inches of wrist became ectoplasmically visible to the startled workmen nearby - and fingered the strap that dangled. He could certainly feel it, but just as if his hand was numb from leaning on it for too long. He tightened his grip, and tweaked downwards. It certainly moved a little. The foreman, who had been called to see this phenomenon, was suitably impressed by the disembodied, slightly transparent hand making the strap twitch.

"Wait for it," called Harriet, watching Winslow with some concern as he observed the above display with an expression of wary expectation.

Sonny tensed himself on the scaffolding. You know how it is when someone tells you to do something when they say Ďnowí, and when they keep you waiting, you always feel your palms sweating and your fingers twitch, then when they do say Ďnowí you act with much faster reflexes than normal. Have you ever noticed that? Hmm.

Anyway, Sonnyís palms were sweating and his fingers were twitching, and when Harriet said Ďnowí he did act with much faster reflexes than normal. The entire strap came out from around the small mound of metal pipes, dropping through Sonnyís now indistinct palms and letting the pipes roll off their support. They cascaded through him, making his spirit form wobble uncomfortably. Anyway, they then dropped off the first storey onto the gormless skull of a passing work experience boy.

Lucky for him he was wearing a plastic yellow hat, but unlucky for everyone else he was pushing a wheelbarrow full of bricks. When pipe after pipe gave him a progressively unbearable migraine, he dived out of the way of the rest, lost his grip on the wheelbarrow and sent it rolling unstoppably to the cement mixer. The ensuing collision sent a steady stream of quick drying cement extend across the left-hand lane of the road. Sonny, Harriet and Winslow watched all of this with concern, anticipation and a curled lip respectively.

A passing armoured car saw the river of cement far too late and slammed on the brake. This not only served to leave him embedded in the construction ooze but also vulnerable to attacks from the rear. Speaking of which, a second armoured car and a third thundered right into the stationary vehicle.

"Not you two again," said Reaper, who suddenly turned up at Harrietís elbow. "What have you done this time?"

There was one of those horrible silences that you get after such a crash, the kind that is punctuated by a barely noticed hissing noise and brought to a hasty conclusion by a massive explosion. How fitting that there was, then, a massive explosion that blackened what remained of the vehicles involved (but then, they were black to start with). And it truly was a tribute to the art of explosions. It started with that little electric spark that somehow always ignites the leaking petrol. The main body of the cataclysm was equally awe-inspiring, sending a medium-sized orange mushroom cloud that faded spectacularly into dark grey as it rose, creating an ear-splitting, echoey, resonant starting boom which was followed by a bowel-loosening rumble. Then the main ball of the black smoke rose up into the ether and dispersed, closely followed by a column of smoke originating from the burning shells of the ex-vehicles. The crackling of the flames were the only sound remaining. On the whole Iíd give it a 5.5, but then Iím a bit mean.

"Youíll have to try harder than that," said Winslow, who had ducked to avoid the flying red-hot rear bumper.

"Was he speaking to me?" asked Harriet. Sonny shook his head, as if to say Ďdonít be silly, weíre invisibleí.

"Yes, I was," said Winslow, glaring directly at her. Sonny shrugged, as if to say Ďthatís put egg on my faceí.

"Iíve been able to see you since the incident at Dixonís," continued the teenager. "I think thatís because I know youíre there."

"Look, I think we should explain," said Harriet. Sonny smiled, as if to say Ďsheís doing the talkingí.

"Does he talk at all?" asked Winslow. The two ghosts were on his side of the road by now, and the people who inevitably turn up after an explosion were giving Winslow some odd looks.

"Iím terribly sorry," said Sonny. "I thought you could only see her."

"I think you should tell me all about it," said Winslow. "You seem like civilized people, Iím sure you have a good reason for wanting to kill me."

Harriet and Sonny exchanged glances sheepishly. "Letís go somewhere less public," said the ghost woman, referring obliquely to the gathering gawpers. She led the way down the pavement, followed by the boy and his new invisible friend.

"Sorry about all this," said Sonny. "Iím Sonny, by the way. Died 2002. Sheís Harriet. Died 1901."

"Charmed."

Letís go and see what that bundle of laughs the Prince of Darkness is up to back in his purloined office. Marcus having been dismissed back to his drawer, he was busy reading the latest Jeffrey Archer with his feet up on Hitlerís desk, leaving ugly little sulphur marks on the varnish. He had just got to what could become a promising sex scene when all at once he heard a tapping, a rapping on his chamber door. Edgar Allen Poe aside, in walked Adolf Hitler with his studded cap in hand.

He was banished almost instantly back outside with a sharp fingernailed-hand. "Go back out and do it properly," commanded Satan.

Feeling decidedly put-upon, the Fuhrer closed the door again, made two short knocks and made an extremely silly noise with his lips and tongue.

"Who is it?" called Beelzebub.

"Faust sent me," sighed Hitler through the oaken door.

"Come in, Adolf."

Security aside, Hitler goose-stepped right into the room and up to the desk, attempting to convey through body language his displeasure with the way things were being run. This was lost upon Satan, however, who had turned his back to him in order to stare oppressingly out the window.

"News, Adolf?"

There are two types of people you just canít voice your negative opinions to - little old ladies and Princes of Darkness. Hitler visibly flopped on his feet. "Still no news on Sustenance, Lord. But weíre almost certain the Resistance are up to something big."

"I think youíre right." Even through the back of his chair Hitler could see that the Devil was thinking hard, worried too.

"The thought occurs, Lord," continued Adolf, "that if Sustenance knows our plans and if he has joined the Resistance, then now the Resistance knows our plan too."

He didnít see the look of horror that crossed Satanís demonic face, but could somehow sense it some other way. Surely the Devil had taken that into account?

"Yes, yes, of course I already knew that," said Beelzebub hurriedly, undoubtedly speaking a demonic untruth. "And it is because of that, and because of the apparent plans of the Resistance, I have decided to..."

It was transparent as an underwater window. Satan was ad-libbing drastically, and the very long pause that followed confirmed this. He was worried, there was no denying this. He was edgy and restless. Events had taken a U-turn and the backlash was beginning to sting. When they had concocted the Great Plan to conquer the Land of the Living they had taken every possibility into account - apparently apart from the one involving a man with more lives than a cat secured to the underside of a desk.

"To... to begin the Great Plan immediately," he said triumphantly.

"Isnít that a little drastic?"

"No." He tried to sound definitive, but his heart wasnít in it. He had examined and confirmed accurately every possible stage of the plan, leading right up to the conquest. Now that a slippery Sustenance was let loose among them, the plan had unravelled and things were becoming difficult to keep on top of.

"Iíll go and prepare, then," said the Nazi, who then promptly left.

Being the embodiment of Evil, thought Satan, is a mugís game.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

"I am not a loony-brain!"

- J. of Arc

 

Winslow was not impressed. Of course, he was inwardly absolutely bowled over with surprise and fascination that he was chatting with a pair of expired people, but seeing as they were ghosts he was expecting no less than something along the lines of a skeleton in a ragged wedding dress or something. Sonny and Harriet just resembled two ordinary people in camouflage gear and boots, if slightly transparent.

They were huddled in the darkened rear of a back alley, Winslow ducked behind a collection of bins to stop people giving him odd looks.

"So," he began, addressing the sheepish shades standing upright nearby. "Why do you want me dead?"

"Itís a hobby," suggested Sonny.

Winslow was not impressed with this statement. He would almost go as far to say he didnít believe it.

"Oh, alright," said Harriet resignedly. "Youíre the reincarnation of Winston Churchill and we need him back. Hitler is in command of the Land of Eternal Rest and heís going to try and take over the Land of the Living. We need Churchill to help us in the battle against him."

Winslow was impressed by this statement, but he still didnít believe it.

"Itís all true," said Sonny, feeling he should offer support. "Why would we want to lie?"

"Oh, come on," said Winslow. "I can tell thereís something else here,"

"Well, there isnít."

"Sonnyís short for Solomon, isnít it."

Sonny was taken by surprise. Harriet just flicked her steely eyes from one to the other, trying to work out the purpose of this little exchange. "Er, yeah," said the male ghost.

"Well, I think thereís a little thing called far-too-much-coincidence here," said Winslow triumphantly. "Whatís that film where a ghost tried to kill his descendants?"

"Youíve lost me there. Descendants?"

"Look, you know what Iím talking about. My motherís maiden name was Sustenance."

The flap of skin atop Sonnyís brow creased exponentially. "You mean -"

"Her brother died tragically in 2002."

Harriet glanced at her partner. "You donít believe this, do you? You canít seriously believe that youíre talking to your own nephew..." she tailed off. Apparently, by the way the dead man and the live boy were staring at each other, she was being proved wrong.

"So youíre my dead uncle," finished Winslow.

A thought crossed Sonnyís mind. "Have we met?"

"I think you were probably at my christening."

"Oh, yes, I remember."

"Look," butted in the spirit woman present. "Touching as this is, we have a job to do. Weíre on a mission from God. Or at least his immediate family."

Winslow was already making his way back to the normal streetways, waving a pubescent hand at his would-be assassins. "Look, I donít care what you need me for," he called back, "but leave me out of this, OK? Find someone else."

"Oi!" called Harriet, losing her ladylike charms.

"Oh, let him go," said Sonny. "I canít kill my own nephew,"

"Youíre being wistful and soppy again," said Harriet accusingly. "Iím not attracted to you anymore."

Sonny tried to look pleased. "What now?"

"I suppose we go back to Jez and explain matters. Iím sure heíll forgive us,"

"Heís known for it."

"Wait -" said the woman suddenly, holding up a finger. "Did you hear that?"

Sonny listened. "The chaffinch?"

"No, not the chaffinch."

"The skylark?"

"Not the skylark either."

"The squeal of brakes and the crash of metal on a brick wall?"

They looked at each other for a few seconds, and, out of unspoken agreement, ran after the boy.

Damn, thought Winslow, perhaps there is something to that Highway Code after all.

There was a terrible pain in his chest. He felt dizzy and sick. Two of his limbs refused to move. He tried to pull himself up, but felt several ribs shifting sickeningly and there was another spark of pain, so he slumped back down. It was like being in a very hot bath, knowing somehow that when you stood up youíd feel horribly dizzy for a bit. He lay there for several minutes, watching with interest a pool of liquid that belonged inside his body expand from under him, listening to the cries of passers-by as they gathered round. Then, feeling he wasnít making an effort, tried to drag himself up to his feet again.

This time he seemed to succeed, feeling himself fold into the upright position. Immediately his dizziness vanished, his nausea dispersed, and the pain in several points of his body drifted away. With a grimace of hopeless expectation, he looked down.

He had indeed stood up, but his physical body hadnít come for the ride. It lay there, besmirched with blood and heavily mangled by both the bumper of the white van that he had run in front of and the wall he had been crushed against. Its eyes were open, staring glassily at some rather intriguing motes of dust that fluttered past a few inches away, and Winslow felt his ghostly bladder complain at being subjected to such horror.

"Oh bum," he said.

"Yess!!!!!" called a male voice. "Yes! Yes! Yeeeeees! Twice in so many years!"

Winslow spun round, and saw a pasty gentleman in a dark blue suit and a clipboard approach from the shadows. He seemed to settle down, adjust his tie and lower his hands, which had been raised in a fisty gesture of triumph. "Sorry," he said drably. "Winslow Theodore Cahill?"

"Er - yes?" said Winslow uncertainly, hearing two sets of running footsteps behind him. He turned, and saw his uncle and the strange woman approach.

"Mr. Reaper!" said Sonny. "Sorry about this. Heís got to come with us."

"Oh yes, Mr. Sustenance?" enquired the besuited harbinger of souls. "On whoís authority?"

"God," he said, simply.

"Well, his immediate family, at least," expanded Harriet.

Reaper seemed a little put out, as one would. "Well, heís got to sign first -"

"Alright, let him sign, then he comes with us."

As in a dream, Winslow scribbled his name on the proffered paper, and with a closing tsk of toleration the one named Reaper faded into the background. The scenery, the living world, had become duller and more indistinct, like a TV with the colour turned down. If you remember reading that simile before, may I congratulate you on remembering something so far back in the book.

"Sorry about this, Winslow," said his dead uncle. "The good news is, you donít have to travel through the Eight Underworlds."

"The what?"

Harriet, meanwhile, kicked a nearby wall three times with her left foot, twice with her right and then sang a short but obscene limerick about someone who lived in Sri Lanka. All at once a shimmering portal appeared, unseen to the living. "Come on," she said. "Weíd best be going."

"Where?" asked Winslow fruitlessly as he was shoved through the gateway.

By now the haunted tools had completed the lower waist, complete with bum and lack of front bits. They were busy at work on the delicately chiselled torso, forming the most organized swarm in the world. By now all the tools in this area of the country had joined in, and there was no shortage of raw materials.

This was because the minibus called in by the sort-of-Feds to pick them up and drop off more kick-arse alien weaponry had been nicked and stripped by the rampant inhuman builders, leaving even more sort-of-Feds to get stranded in the small town. Then the other minibus that came to pick them up was nicked and stripped as well, the driver only just managing to leap out in time. Then the armoured lorry that came to pick everyone up was nicked and stripped, much to the surprise of the top-secret government robot within. The Sherman tank that then arrived had the tools thrown for a bit, leaving the inhabitants free to stick middle fingers at them, until an oxy-acetylene torch arrived and made faces fall.

Anyway, this carried on for a while until there were now seventeen police officers, thirty-three members of the armed services, nine taxi drivers and fully sixty-one sort-of-Feds huddled in a crowd near the construction site. The American Government had already lost twelve cars, ten vans and van-like vehicles, six armoured lorries, three tanks, two mounted missile launchers and a stealth bomber to the hungry plastic handles of the lively tools. Even the many bullets fired at the construction had bounced fruitlessly off the shell or been plucked out of the air by long-nosed pincers with supreme reflexes and made into wires.

If only the Americans had thought of not trying to attack them, perhaps they wouldnít have lost so much expensive military hardware. But then thatís all they think about, isnít it? Blowing stuff up. Whatís that film? The one where the friendly alien gets blown up by the Americans? But I digress.

One of the sort-of-Feds whispered in the ear of the apparent leader. "Maybe we could blow it up with the top secret government defence satellite."

"I donít think so," retorted the leader. "We might hurt ourselves, or something. Besides, it doesnít seem to be attacking us."

"What?" said Sheriff Smithy, who was indeed still there. "Itís torn this whole town apart and stolen billions of dollars worth of military hardware!"

"Er, Sheriff," said Jimmy Jo-Jo James. "I think they only took it Ďcos it turned up. Theyíre just using whateverís available."

"Are we in any danger? Do you think it wants organic material as well?" wondered aloud one of the sort-of-Feds. "The inhabitants of the NíReksus Galaxy grow all their technology organically."

"Sh!" went all the sort-of-Feds and "What?" went everyone else.

Just before the sort-of-Feds were interrogated on such matters as Area 51 and the Official Secrets Act there was a squeal of brakes and what looked like an ordinary van pulled up some distance from the crowd. Out poured about fifteen men and women in identical black T-shirts wearing headsets and holding such delights as professional-quality TV cameras, furry sausages on the ends of poles and wires. Lots and lots of wires. Then a few men in sharp suits and women in sensible dresses all holding microphones emerged and took up positions, whereupon some of the men holding furry sausages and cameras angled their implements in the direction of the anchormen (as our American cousins call them).

Then, with perfect timing, all the presenters began talking to the viewers at home.

"Iím standing here at the site of -"

"New Jersey was rocked today by -"

"Thank you, Troy, and what a day itís been -"

"Damn," said one of the soldiers. "Who tipped them off?"

Everyone in the crowd began eyeing each other suspiciously. One of the taxi drivers looked sheepish and edged quietly away just as the newspapers arrived, hopping out of clapped out cars with their big flash bulbs and notepads, wearing brown trenchcoats and silly hats. These are the days that make mankind sigh with self-pity.

"Now what?" asked Smithy.

The leader of the sort-of-Feds addressed the army. "Go and get some wooden sticks and form a barrier round those vultures," he said in an authoritative tone, while simultaneously flashing ID and papers that entitled him to command small platoons of armed forces and launch nuclear firepower. "Theyíve got to be wooden, mind."

A man whose stripes identified him as a sergeant barked at his platoon. "You heard the man," he woofed in his best Full Metal Jacket voice. "Search those ruined buildings. Get your asses moving!"

"Sigh," went the platoon as they scampered off.

"Sheriff," said Jimmy meekly.

"Yup?"

"The tools havenít stolen those vehicles." Sure enough, the shiny belogoed van and dirty old cars were squatting a lot closer to the swarm than the missile launchers had earlier and remained untouched.

"Well spotted, Deputy," said Smithy. "Why do you think that?"

"I think because theyíve got enough material for the time being," suggested Jimmy. "But I should think theyíll be looking for more pretty soon - there, you see?" he added as a solitary pair of wire cutters nicked a pair of windscreen wipers.

"Hey!" called a journalist, partly at that and partly at the ring of soldiers bearing bits of wood closing in and pushing them backwards over each other. "You canít do that, this is media repression!"

The same journalist, and a great deal of his fellows, spun round when one of their grey dirty vans suddenly started up. Taxi drivers, police officers and sort-of-Feds were crammed aboard, throwing camera and sound equipment out of the open rear doors. "You canít do that, either!" called the pressman.

The police and sort-of-Feds exchanged glances, and all replied with a resounding "Yes, we can."

The same sort-of-Fed who flashed some ID cards earlier did the same. "Itís called commandeering."

The journalists exchanged glances, too, then all swarmed in on the crowded van. A mass punch-up ensued, the armed forces doing nothing, they having been ordered only to stop journalists go too near the giant robot which, needless to say, was still being built with haste and efficiency.

Sheriff Smithy and his deputy, who had been kicked off the van in favour of more sort-of-Feds, watched from fifty yards away, arms folded, as the van was overturned and sort-of-Feds spilled out onto the angry crowd of journalists. The vehicle was soon forgotten as fists connected with chins and elbows connected with groins. As a mountain of struggling people formed, old grudges were being called up between sides, and soon everyone was delivering blows to everyone within smacking range.

"Would you look at that," said the sheriff. "When have you ever seen anything like that?"

"Last February," replied Jimmy promptly. "Except they werenít fighting as such, and no-one was wearing any clothes, and they were a good deal more sweaty -" he wisely shut up when he saw Smithy looking at him strangely.

"Who do you thinkíll win the van?" asked Smithy in order to change the subject with all haste.

"Well, the sort-of-Feds have got strength in numbers, the police have got truncheons and guns and stuff, and the press have all got camera and sound equipment to hand, so it could go any way, really. All somewhat academic, though."

"Whyís that?"

"The tools have come back for more material."

Sure enough, there was a sudden notable absence of vehicles in the near vicinity, and a fairly vast cloud of scrap metal being carried by unseen hands to the now-completed torso of the giant metal man. This didnít bother the fighters much, having forgotten all about the vehicles anyway and concentrating only on settling scores.

Smithy took in the scene. A vast quantity of sort-of-Feds, police officers and journalists were having a scrap to his right, a giant robot was being built to his left, and a group of soldiers, having decided they werenít needed any more, were practising their Morris dancing dead ahead. It was the sort of vision a serious professional just doesnít want to admit to being part of in his CV.

It was also the sort of vision being displayed through an ethereal periscope in the depths of the Ninth Underworld, currently being watched by a vicious rebel named Leo.

"What fools these mortals be," he muttered to himself, before going to find the others.

"Sonny?"

"Yes, Jim?"

"You know when you were in the Land of the Living with that woman?"

"Yes?"

"What was that thing you were doing to her in Cahillís bedroom?"

All too suddenly a vision of ethereal periscopes appeared in Sonnyís mind, and he blushed heavily to the roots of his ghostly hair. "I was helping her overcome her fear of carpets," was the explanation he came up with.

"Ah," said his demon, nodding sagely. "I knew thereíd be a rational explanation."

"Yep."

"The others seemed to think you were having sex."

"Shut up, Jim."

They were back in resistance HQ now, in the little conference room with barely enough space for a table, let alone the chairs occupied by Sonny, Jesus, Harriet, Winslow, Leo, the one Sonny knew only as Barman, Terence the beefy bloke and the as-yet-unnamed rookie. Jim didnít get a chair, he was standing next to his master, rocking idly back and forth on his elephantine heels.

"So," said Jesus. "Took you a while, but here you are, with Mr. Churchill."

"Cahill," corrected Winslow.

"If you like."

"Look," continued the boy, "I understand this all now. I understand that youíre the Underworld Resistance, and that Hitler has been repossessed by Satan who has taken over the Land of Eternal Rest. I understand that youíre Jesus Christ and that Sonny being my uncle is all coincidence. What I donít understand is how you think I can be of any use."

"As we have explained time and time again," said the beefy bloke painfully, "You are the reincarnation of Winston Churchill, and we need his knowledge to defeat Hitler."

"I donít feel like Winston Churchill."

"Thatís what we have to do now," said Jesus. "Get your suppressed memories to return."

"How?"

Jesus beckoned to Leo, who handed over a set of cards, each about the size of a page from a school exercise book. He held them face down, and readied the first one in his palm, not letting the boy Cahill see the photo on one side. "I want you to tell me," he said, "the first thing you think of when you see this." He rotated the picture. It was a badly-shot, blurred image of a man in a white uniform, tiny little moustache and big forelock.

"Enemy," said Winslow.

"Excellent. And this?" Jesus showed him a picture of a Swastika.

"Evil."

"Perfect. What about this?" Jesus displayed a portrait of Neville Chamberlain.

"Gullible twit."

"Itís definitely him," said Sonny. "Any ideas?"

A few minutes of suggestion later, Jim and Leo found themselves running around the room, arms outstretched, making immature plane noises.

"Neeuuuuurrrrhhh! Neuuuuurrrhhh! Ratatatatatatatat!" said Jim, making the appropriate hand motions. Leo was miming bombs dropping and making explosion sounds with the back of his throat. Sonny, Jesus, Harriet, the beefy bloke and the rookie all sat watching with complete indifference, supporting their chins in their hands. Winslow was shaking his head at the display, trying not to burst out laughing.

"No, I donít feel any memories being recalled," he said eventually to end this charade.

"You donít feel anything at all?" asked Harriet.

"Just utter contempt and pity."

"This isnít getting us anywhere," said Jesus. "Stop that, Leo," he added, since Leo was still miming suburban houses being blown to bits.

"Why donít half of us goose-step across the room," said Sonny, "the other half pretend to be pushed back by them, while everyone sings the theme tune to Dadís Army?"

"Now youíve lost me," said Jesus.

The ex-barman checked his watch. "How much longer have we got until Hitler and Satan launch their attack?" he asked.

"As long as they donít decide to bring the plan forwards to tonight, we should have a few days."

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

"Oh well, best laid plans and all that."

- Vercingetorix

 

"Iím really not sure about this," said Hitler, partly to Satan and partly to himself.

"About what?" asked the Prince of Darkness.

"About bringing the plan forwards to tonight."

"Whatís the problem?"

"Well, shouldnít we wait until the Resistance have been captured, until Sustenance is reincarnated, all that? Wouldnít it be wiser to wait until all negative feedback on our Great Plan has been crushed underfoot?"

"Itís been dealt with, Adolf, do stop worrying."

Hitler suddenly had the feeling that he and Satan were competing in some kind of game, and that his master had secretly placed his counter ten spaces ahead. "In what way dealt with?"

"Iíve sent those SS chaps of yours to the place where Sustenanceís demon was last isolated to. We should expect a result quickly, even if we only capture it."

If there was a response to that, Hitler couldnít think of it. He had recently gone through a bit of a think, and had found that he seemed to be in half a mind about what was going on.

One half of his mind, the more expressive, stronger side, shouted loudly and continuously that all Jews deserved to be reincarnated with all haste, the Land of the Living had to be conquered without delay, that every command of his Lord Satan should be accepted and followed ineffably and that Evil was, by and large, the best option.

But the other half, the half that had been horrified by his reputation as the twentieth centuryís biggest monster, the half that had arranged the image consultant and the weekly sessions with the psychiatrist, the half that had fallen in love with Eva and tried to make the Ninth Underworld a better place ... that half was beginning to make its presence felt once again. It had been muffled to near silence by Satanís reminder, but now as doubts were being laid on and holes in the logic were being explored, its voice was becoming louder, a tiny beacon of white light shining brightly in the middle of the sea of black Evil that was his conscious mind. Every single fibre of this halfís being was screaming the same message - Satanís plans have gone arse over tit, heís improvising heavily, continuing to go along with him would be very, very stupid indeed.

However, voicing his concerns to Satan would, at this stage, also be very, very stupid indeed, so on reflection Hitler had decided to go along with them just for the time being.

He, Satan and a number of lackeys were in some kind of garage in the middle of the Reichstag. It looked uncannily like some kind of vehicle bay, what with corrugated iron walls and those big platforms that go up and down, but you have to ask yourself how any vehicle could get here. After concocting some plan to travel through a mile of narrow corridor in it, one would still be hard pressed to get it through the small three foot by seven foot door. No, despite its looks this was no garage.

There was a vast cylinder in the centre of the room, reflective and shining bronzely. A door in one side would apparently lead within, but why anyone would want to get inside was beyond Adolf - there was nothing inside but a little raised platform on an extremely large coiled spring. The cylinder seemed to lead up straight through the building and out the roof, but by no means stopping there, extending up all the way through the bottom of the Eighth Underworld to the top of the First Underworld, finally opening up in some isolated spot in the Land of the Living.

"Now what?" asked Hitler.

"Now, you get inside the cylinder, and I pull this lever that launches you to your new body in the Land of the Living," said Satan, clearing up any possible misconceptions.

"Is this going to hurt?"

Satan thought about this. "If you arenít launched all the way to the LOL and plummet a seemingly infinite distance back here, then yes, it should hurt quite considerably when you break every bone in your body."

Adolf winced. "Iím not too sure about this, O Putrid Master."

A heavy sigh escaped from Satanís lips. "I donít see what you have to worry about," he said. "You go up, enter the body of the giant invincible demon at the bottom of the Atlantic, storm into the Chambers of Power and demand total world domination. Itíll all go swimmingly once you get the hang of it."

"Why donít you do this?"

"Iím the power behind the throne, Adolf mate. You canít expect the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces to lead the first assault."

"Well, alright, but why do I have to do this? Why canít some other soul in your possession go instead?"

"Not questioning my wisdom, are you?"

"No, no, of course not."

"Remember, Adolf, I know what really happened on the Night of the Long Knives."

"I know, Lord, I know."

"Good. In you get, then."

Still complaining, Adolf was propelled gently but firmly into the chamber, whose door then slammed shut with what is known as an ominous tone. He looked around the bland cubicle, watching the podium on which he stood with some trepidation, and was going mad with the tension when Satan suddenly knocked on the door and spoke.

"Youíll have to hold on a few minutes," he said. "Weíve never tested this thing before, leverís sticking a bit."

Hitler groaned, and didnít even try to do it quietly.

"Oh hang on, Iíve got it now," came the voice of the Ultimate Evil. "The little flange thing was stuck on the little cogwheel thing. Sorry, Iíll try again."

"Look, I think we should rethink our agenda," said Hitler. However, the last word was drowned out by a loud creaking from below him. He had only enough time to consider becoming a Buddhist when the enormous tension of the gigantic spring below him was taken out on him. With a humorous Ďboioioioioinggggí noise, Hitler was thrust upwards at an unrecorded speed, his terrified scream echoing through all nine Underworlds.

"What was that?" asked Sonny.

Jesus looked up from his hand. "The plumbing, I should think."

"Oh."

Harriet eyed the collection of laminated cards in front of her accusingly, as if blaming them for her recent spate of bad luck. "I bet thirty," she said, hurriedly reforming her poker face and throwing thirty shreds of paper into the centre of the table.

Sonny pushed an equal amount forward. He and Harriet were the only players left in this particular round. "See your thirty," he said, then pushed some more forward. "Raise you fifty."

Harriet raised an eyebrow, and laboriously counted fifty shreds into the metaphorical pot. "See your fifty, raise you one earring."

Sonny watched as the small gold trinket clattered to a halt among the paper shreds. "I didnít know we were playing that sort of game," he said.

Harriet looked smug. "Are you going to see my bet?"

"Well I canít can I? I donít have any earrings."

"Well, improvise."

Sonny stared into the womanís eyes, trying to read something, seeing nothing. He removed his watch and placed that in the pot with some reluctance. "Letís see your cards."

Harriet laid down her five. The crowd around the table craned to see.

"A pair of fours," was all Jesus could say. Sonny put his hand down, and the crowd craned to see that instead.

"Pair of fives," said Jesus slowly. "The game goes to Sonny."

Sonny swept the huge amount of shreds of paper towards him, refastened his watch and slipped the earring into his pocket. "Doesnít suit me, but Iím sure someone would like it."

"Screw you," said his opponent.

"Again?"

"Changing the subject as quickly as possible," said Jesus, "what shall we do now?"

"Blackjack? Gin rummy?"

"Arenít we supposed to be making the memories of Winston Churchill resurface?"

"Oh, that can wait," said Harriet dismissively. "Weíve got a few days."

On cue, a knock came a-knocking on the door. It was the kind of big heavy knock that said, listen to me, I am a big heavy knock, the knocker is probably a big tough bloke who is extremely confident with his finely-honed ability to knock on the door. The sort of knock that doesnít really expect an answer, a knock whose owner will be more than likely to kick the door open anyway if no-one answers in five seconds. That sort of knock.

"Now I wonder who that could be," said Leo, because there are some conventions you have to observe.

Since no-one else seemed interested in answering the door, he stood up and approached the big wooden portal that formed the entrance to Resistance HQ. Unfortunately his five seconds had already elapsed by the time he began to open the door, so a jackbooted foot appeared in the frame, knocking the door from its hinges and sending it onto the bonce of Leo, who fell prone under the wooden rectangle. Then, conventions still being observed with admirable efficiency, a uniformed SS officer stepped on top of the fallen door and remained there.

"Is zis Resistance Headqvarters?" he asked in a thick Austrian accent.

"Ye -" began Leo, somewhat muffled.

"No!" shouted everyone else.

The officer seemed confused by this response, and consulted a few lines of writing on his palm. Then he looked around the room, and frowned deeply. "I vos told zis vas ze Resistance HQ."

"Sorry, no," said Jesus. "This is just a - uh ..."

"... uh ..." stalled the other rebels helpfully.

"- launderette," said Jim.

There was a fragile pause, after which there was suddenly a massive outbreak of head-nodding and confirming. "Yep, thatís us."

"R. E. Sistance and co. I can see how you got confused."

The soldier raised a hairy eyebrow. "So vere are all ze vashing machines?"

More glances were exchanged, becoming more and more anxious.

"Being cleaned," said he who used to be a barman.

"And vere are zey being cleaned?"

"At the launderette," said Leo, who hadnít been paying attention.

"I am zinking zat zis is ze Resistance HQ," said the soldier.

"Why, yes, thanks for noticing," said Leo, who was obviously still a bit woozy.

The soldier pointed a vicious-looking gun downwards, and fired. The door suddenly clattered to the floor as he who had been underneath disappeared back to the Land of the Living. "Move! Move! Move!" was the soldierís next bizarre contribution to the conversation, and upon saying it the room began filling up with similarly attired people with similarly dangerous guns.

"Take no prisoners," said the original officer. "Shoot to reincarnate."

Sonny kicked over the table, providing a barrier which allayed the SS briefly, and ran towards an open door that Jesus was holding open and beckoning him towards. Sonny almost dived through the door, quickly followed by Jim and Winslow, who slammed the door shut and put his weight against it. The teenager, the ex-journalist and the demon all held the door closed as gun barrels smacked against it on the other side.

Sonny cast a look around, but saw only the room he was in - just another small chamber that connected more small chambers - and Jesus waving his hands at a wall. "Whereíre everyone else?" he asked.

Jesus bowed his head in a way Sonny didnít like at all. "Still out there."

"But weíve got to go back there for them! Theyíll all be reincarnated!"

"Everythingís gone wrong," said the Messiah, still waving at the wall. "Satan has found us, we donít stand a chance here. Our only option is to return immediately to the Land of the Living and await the opening of Hitlerís plans there."

"But what about Terence?" here Sonnyís face fell perceptible, "Harriet?"

On cue, a series of short, sharp rattles of gunfire indicated the reincarnation of the three rebels beyond the door.

"Noooo!" shouted Sonny, the way one does. He pushed his way forwards and yanked on the doorknob, his progress mitigated somewhat by the door being held closed by a teenager and a demon. Realising this futile movement, he rested his forehead against the door and beat the door softly with his fists.

"Can we save this for later?" asked Winslow. "Thereíre a fair number of heavily armed soldiers beyond that door, and personally I donít want to be on the welcoming committee when they break through."

Jesus had by now finished his hand waving, and the door to the ethereal network had appeared. It was open, and he was pointing to it urgently. "Come on, everyone, let go of the door and get through!"

Winslow didnít need to be told twice, so he threw himself inside first. Jim followed, offering a quick apologetic shrug to his master, who was still leaning on the door and beating it. Jesus placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Come on, Solomon," he said tactfully. "The Land of the Living is counting on us."

Sonny nodded, turned, tears glinting in his eyes, and entered the network with Jesusí arm around his shoulder. When they were through, the entrance faded away, and a number of soldiers burst in.

"Strange," said one soldier, who spoke with a Welsh twang. "Theyíve disappeared."

"I personally donít vant to be ze von who tells Satan zat ve lost zem," said the original soldier.

"We could always tell them weíve done the job," said another officer. "After all, theyíre not here to prove us wrong."

"So ve could chust say zeyíff been reincarnated."

"Right."

"Right."

"Whoís for Blackjack?"

The Atlantic Ocean bubbled, wobbled, and gave birth to an enormous six-legged brown furry monster.

Which is a bit dismissive, now that I come to re-read this. It hardly gives the occasion justice. So Iíll take it from the viewpoint of the crew of the nondescript sea vessel which appeared in an earlier chapter. You know. The one equipped with the sonar scanner thing.

"Itís moving," said Colin.

"What?" asked the first officer, who was being interviewed by a man from the Fortean Times.

"Its leg moved. I think itís coming to the surface."

The man from the Fortean Times stormed up to the sonar. "No, we canít have that," he said. "Do you know how easy it is to fake pictures of monsters on the surface? We liked the sonar pictures. Weíre sending deep-sea divers down to take blurry photos of body parts that could easily be something completely mundane and innocent. How are the general public supposed to take an extremely clear photo of an actual monster on the surface seriously?"

"Here it comes!" cried someone as huge waves appeared around them, tossing the boat back and forth. In the nausea-inducing way, not the rather enjoyable Alton Towers way.

"Maybe I could rub some vaseline in the lens and hang upside down from the side," mused the man from the Fortean Times. "Or get the video camera out and wobble it about so much that I only catch a few brief glimpses of -" he was silenced as a wall of salt water cascaded over him, ruining his equipment and ending the discussion.

Meanwhile, Colin introduced his breakfast to the unswabbed deck and the crew collectively wet itself. A huge, indistinct mound of sea rose up, water cascading from it in sheets, then rose further to reveal something that looked not unlike the results of throwing a Pekinese in the bath and then fishing it out. Great knots of thick brown hair covered its obscene form, mercifully obscuring a twisted and demonic frame. Enormous spindly limbs, from which bones and tendons stuck out hideously, arose from the deep and quickly straddled the panicky vessel. The crew were greeted with the rather unnerving visage of the monsterís exposed rectum.

Then the six legs contracted and the flimsy boat was completely disentegrated. Itís work done, the beast began scuttling across the deep in a westerly direction, towards civilization and the seat of power. As it departed into the mist, very wet and very cold sailors clung to bits of splintery wood and waited patiently for the waves to subside. Twenty minutes later, all was peaceful again, but for one very loud voice.

"Amateurs!" screamed a voice belonging to a man from the Fortean Times, clutching an emergency waterproof camera. "What kind of evidence for the paranormal is that?! Whereís the blurring? The weird angle? The dodgy perspective? Iím ruined!" He eventually settled down, and eyed the polaroid critically. "Hey!" he said triumphantly. "I stuck my thumb in the lens! This is fantastic! Look! That big hairy arm could easily belong to a dog! YES!"

The assembled sailors ignored him, and huddled together around a nondescript floating object. "Well, that was a to do," said Colin.

"Did anyone else see anything ... odd about that sea monster?"

His crewmen wore faces that said Ďwhat, apart from the thick furry hide, six spindly legs and two mouths salivating hideous green slobber?í, and the speaker felt moved to elaborate.

"I mean, just before it went over us, I couldíve sworn the thing had a Hitler moustache."

Back in New Jersey, something new was happening with the giant robot. Sheriff Smithy Smithy, his deputy, the sort-of-Feds, the journalists, the army and everyone else had lost all faith in mankind and were now mostly sitting around in small groups, discussing issues of the day, and sharing cigarettes.

"You know root beer?" asked Jimmy Jo-Jo James to his peer.

"I sure do," replied Smithy.

"Do you think it tastes like that stuff you have to gargle with at the dentist?"

The sheriff thought about this for all of four seconds. "I suppose."

There was a rather long, awkward pause, which ended with something that sounded not unlike the wooden handle of a hammer striking a sort-of-Fed hard on the top of the head. How fortunate, because this was exactly what had happened. It was followed by the sound of metal hitting concrete, not once but twice, then of metal hitting cartilage.

Smithy looked up, and a wing nut struck him painfully in the forehead. "The tools!" he said. Several of the gathered crowd echoed him. The huge quantity of tools which had so recently been moving of their own accord was now dropping to the ground in dribs and drabs over an indiscriminately wide area.

As those few humans who remained conscious ran for cover, some were fortunate enough to see something that would never be seen again by anyone else in any other situation. A gigantic, 180 foot android with a huge glass dome for a head, which had so recently been standing defiant in the middle of a wide circle of devastation, creaked, groaned and lifted a leg with painful slowness.

Isnít it interesting how really large things always move really slowly? Well no, taking the huge weight into account, thatís probably not very interesting at all. But then, in films which involve extremely small main characters, comparatively large things (like people) always move really slowly when surely they should go at normal speed. But then, have you ever seen how fast those tiny insects move?

Anyway, the fact remains that the gigantic robot stirred and began walking in slow motion into the sunset. As it departed, the survivors emerged tentatively from their hidey-holes, and inspected the huge amounts of tools lying around on the floor.

"Officers!" called Smithy, addressing his fellow peacekeepers. "Arrest these tools!"

"Sigh," went his fellow peacekeepers.

Meanwhile, Smithy began running after the robot which, although it was moving rather slowly, was still moving far too fast for him to catch up with. "Come on deputy!" he shouted as he ran. "Weíve got to bring that giant robot to justice!"

Jimmy Jo-Jo James broke into a trot, shouting after him. "Sir! I think you might be a bit ill -"

"I think we should mark this case Ďclosedí," said a sort-of-Fed.

"Closed, sir?"

"Closed," he repeated through gritted teeth.

"But the giant robot, sir?"

"I donít see any giant robot around here, do you?"

"Understood, sir."

Tensions were also beginning to mount - to a somewhat lesser degree - among the staff of a small pavement cafe somewhere in Paris. It was your bog standard French coffee shop, with tables on the outside that never seem to get stolen. Not even the big parasols over them. Which seems a bit weird.

"Thereís something awfully weird about those two," said one of the waitresses, in French obviously.

"Youíre not paid to judge them, Monique," replied the head waiter as she pressed two coffees into her hands.

"But they keep talking to thin air!"

"If people didnít talk to themselves now and then this world wouldnít be what it is today, now go and serve them."

Monique passed the cups from the interior of the building to one of the outside tables, around which two gentlemen sat. She took the opportunity to take another critical look at the pair, but they looked no better. One was quite tall and thin, with long brown hair set into a pony tail and a little goatee beard. He seemed to be wearing a camouflage kaftan and Monique felt inexplicably reassured in his presence.

The other one was almost a direct opposite, standing at barely four feet tall, clad in a big coat, large hat and gloves, an ensemble which served to cover every single inch of his body. Monique didnít feel reassured in his presence. "Dirty" seemed more appropriate. The two men were sitting opposite two vacant chairs that they had insisted upon. Monique guessed they were waiting for some others.

Jesus smiled benignly as he accepted the drinks and took a slight sip from his own. Jim pushed his aside, and endeavoured to huddle further into his collar, if that was possible. They had spent the best part of a morning coming up with a way to disguise Jimís demonic appearance.

Sonny and Winslow were seated in - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say "positioned in a similar geographical location to" - their chairs, wasting time in their own special ways. Winslow was sitting up straight, arms folded, reading a newspaper Jesus had kindly splayed out in front of him. He was doing his best to translate the article with only GCSE French to help him, and was not making much success.

Sonny, however, looked exactly like the ghost he was. His face wore an even greyer complexion than usual, his lips were blue. His sunken eyes stared despondently at the scratched plastic tabletop. His chin was a few inches below shoulder level. His ectoplasmic fingers gripped the seat of his chair. The corners of his mouth hung down like a clownís waistband. He was not a happy camper.