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By Tom Holt
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $5.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 4, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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‘You mean God,’ said the insurance man dubiously, ‘singular.’
‘That’s not what the woman told me,’ said the voice at the other end of the line. ‘Gods, she said, plural. Quite definite about it. Even spelt it - G-O-D-S. Me, I just believe what I’m told. Anyway, does it make any difference?’
‘Well . . .’ The insurance man hesitated. No reason why it should, in layman’s terms, but when it comes to policies of insurance, one has to be careful. Insurance contracts, as any lawyer will tell you, are contracts of the utmost good faith, which probably explains the references to acts of God. God singular; not plural. If it was an act of gods, plural, would he need to send the claimant more than one claim form?
‘You still there?’ said the voice.
‘Yes, still here,’ said the insurance man, and he noticed that he had bitten halfway through the stem of his pencil. ‘Could we just run this through one more time?’
The voice sighed. ‘All right.’
‘Your two pet rattlesnakes,’ said the insurance man, ‘somehow got out of their tank—’
‘Which conforms,’ emphasised the voice, ‘to the strictest Ministry regulations. I’ve got receipts.’
‘Yes, I’m sure. They somehow got out, anyway, crossed the main road, and crawled up the drainpipe of Number Seventeen, where they entered the bedroom of Mrs. Derry’s six-month-old baby. Who strangled them.’
‘That’s it, yes.’
‘Mrs. Derry then told you about the incident, and claimed that it was an act of the gods.’
‘I see.’ The insurance man choked suddenly; he had swallowed the severed end of his pencil, rubber and all. ‘Right, fine, well, I’ll get a claim form off to you in tonight’s post and we’ll take it from there, shall we? Thank you so much.’
He put the phone down, and blinked about four times. Gods? Snakes? He hadn’t heard such a load of old cod since the last lot of heavy storms . . .
Inside his head, a sweet, extremely feminine but distinctly authoritative voice told him that he’d better believe it all the same.
The insurance man looked over his shoulder, but there was nobody there. He got up and opened the door; the next-door office was empty. In the end he even looked in the desk drawers and the waste-paper basket. Nothing. Inside his head the voice asked him what he thought he was doing. Then it giggled.
Two months later, Mrs. Derry’s snake-fancying neighbour opened his post, looked at the cheque, whistled, and immediately phoned a pet shop to enquire about their special deal on anacondas.
In the back garden of his house, Mr. Derry was digging a very large hole. Every now and then he stopped and looked nervously over his shoulder. His wife stood by and said nothing.
‘I mean,’ said Mr. Derry, leaning on his spade and sighing, ‘where did he get it from, that’s what I want to know.’
Mrs. Derry mumbled something under her breath, and looked at the dead bear. Her best duvet cover concealed the upper parts, the massive head and enormous chest, but it wasn’t big enough to reach down to the feet.
‘And it’s not,’ said Mr. Derry, ‘as if it’s the first time.’
Mrs. Derry nodded uncomfortably. All over their small garden were the irregular shapes of small burial mounds; wolves, tigers, wild boar, and that very peculiar lizard thing. Soon there wouldn’t be a single geranium left.
‘Quite soon,’ Mr. Derry said, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief, ‘someone is going to notice something. Like, some zoo keeper somewhere is going to see all the empty cages.’
Mrs. Derry made a little whimpering noise. ‘I’ve told him, Doug,’ she said, ‘I’ve said, it’s naughty, don’t do it. But he just doesn’t listen. He’s only three, for heaven’s sake; he don’t know right from wrong yet.’
‘Don’t give me that,’ Mr. Derry replied. ‘When I was his age I didn’t go around thumping dangerous animals. If I so much as laid a finger on the cat, it was straight up to bed and no tea. Panthers . . .’
Mrs. Derry bit her lip. Perhaps she should have told him right at the start, with the snakes. Or before that, even.
‘Right,’ said Mr. Derry, ‘that should be deep enough. Now, you just get round that side and push.’
As he bent down, he became aware of something and stood up quickly. A small child was scampering happily down the path. In one hand it held a two-foot length of scaffolding pipe; in the other, the tip of the tail of an enormous crocodile.
‘Oh for crying out loud,’ said Mr. Derry. ‘Not another one.’ He looked around him wearily and sighed.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘bang goes the rockery.’
It wasn’t going terribly well, decided the games teacher.
Well, it never was the most brilliant of occasions; school sports days never were. But that was usually because all the contestants would far rather be at home watching the snooker, not because . . .
He ducked. A javelin, travelling like a small cannon-shell, passed about an inch over his head, embedded itself in the pavilion door and quivered resentfully. At the other end of the field, a small seven-year-old was looking rather sheepish.
It had been the same, the games teacher remembered, with the discus and the shot-put. As for the egg-and-spoon race, that was best forgotten about. He passed his tongue across his dry lips and looked quickly at the programme. Four-hundred-and-forty-yard race. What could possibly go wrong with that?
The contestants were lined up, and the games teacher lifted his little flag.
‘ON YOUR MARKS,’ he said, ‘GET SET, G . . .’
Something very fast started moving round the track. A few seconds later, it had completed four circuits and had wandered off into the bushes at the edge of the field, from which it emerged a little later trailing a large dead fox. Bigger than a fox, really, almost wolf-sized.
‘Jason,’ said the games teacher, ‘put that down just a moment, would you?’
‘Jason,’ said the games teacher, ‘do you know what . . . sportsmanship means?’
The games teacher swallowed hard. The boy was looking up at him with innocent, trusting eyes. Unfortunately, a large number of parents were also looking at him, and their body language was rather less appealing. He was going to have to ask the youngster to throw the next race.
‘It means,’ said the games teacher, ‘sometimes letting somebody else win. Do you understand?’
‘I know,’ the games teacher went on, ‘I know it’s not really fair, but sometimes in this life, Jason, we have to cheat in order to be fair. Do you see what I’m . . .?’
‘I know, sir,’ said the boy. ‘And I did try.’
The games teacher swallowed. ‘What?’
‘I keep trying, sir,’ said the boy. ‘But somehow . . .’ looked down at his feet and blushed.
He was discovering that sometimes it isn’t easy, being a Hero.
Mr. Derry parked the car, same as usual, got out and went to open the garage doors. He opened them. He stared.
After a few seconds, he rubbed his eyes. It was still there.
‘That does it,’ he said. ‘It’s got to stop.’
He closed the doors, pushing the tip of an outstretched trunk out of the way with his toe, and went into the house. There was a dead gorilla on the coatrack, so he put his anorak on the chair instead.
‘Phyllis,’ he called, ‘there’s a dead elephant in the garage. It’s got to stop, do you hear me?’
The lounge door opened and a strange figure appeared in the doorway. Blue light burned around his shoulders, and his eyes burned deep scars on Mr. Derry’s retinas. In his hand he held a slice of walnut cake.
‘Doug,’ said Mrs. Derry’s voice from behind the apparition’s shoulder, ‘here’s an old friend of mine I’d like you to meet.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr. Derry, ‘I understand all that—’ He closed his eyes, eased his brain carefully into first gear and opened them again. ‘I think,’ he went on. ‘But why all the bears and wolves and tigers and . . . ?’
Outside, the garden was a blaze of colour, as the first marigolds turned their golden faces to the sun. In between them, the white tips of innumerable rib cages poked out through the earth.
The stranger took a deep breath. This wasn’t going to be easy.
‘You see, Mr. Derry,’ he said. ‘Douglas,’ he added.
‘Young Jason isn’t like other boys his age.’ Mr. Derry nodded vigorously. ‘He has this sort of - well, you might say it’s in the blood. You might say he - well, takes after his . . .’
Mr. Derry was about to protest, but then he remembered what he’d just heard. He wished, somehow, that he could feel angry about it, but that was apparently a luxury he wasn’t to be allowed.
‘You do a lot of that?’ he asked. ‘Clobbering wild beasts and so on?’
‘No, no, not at all,’ said the stranger, ‘that’s not what I’m trying to get at. It’s more a sort of instinct, really, among Us.’
‘Us,’ said the stranger, ‘yes. Really, it’s what we’re here for.’ He remembered something. ‘Were here for, that is. Were there for,’ he experimented. ‘Anyway, it’s just a phase We all go through.’
‘You mean he’ll grow out of it?’
‘And how long will that take, do you think?’
The stranger wished he hadn’t asked. Sure, all his other children had grown out of it, eventually, but it had taken rather a long time, if you were using a mortal timescale. And what with the erosion of the rain forests and the disappearance of natural habitats, it looked like the supply of large feral cats was going to run out long before young Jason had tired of braining them.
‘Look at it another way,’ said the stranger.
Oh hell, thought the stranger, what’s the point? You try being nice to them and where does it get you? ‘Do you know who I am?’ he said.
‘Well,’ Mr. Derry said, ‘you told me just now you were Jason’s real . . .’
‘Yes,’ said the stranger, ‘but as well as that?’
‘As well as that?’ Mr. Derry said. ‘No.’
The stranger told him. He didn’t say anything; it would be impossible to communicate this particular piece of information verbally. Instead, he just relaxed his grip on his disguise very, very slightly.
Mr. Derry fell on his knees and started to bang his head on the carpet. He didn’t know why; it just seemed the right thing to do. All around him, beams of blue and gold light leaped and sparkled. The air crackled with static electricity. In the kitchen, the silver plate started to peel off the canteen of cutlery that had belonged to Mr. Derry’s grandmother’s cousin. Just then, the back door opened, and Jason came in backwards. Behind him, he was towing the carcass of an enormous lion.
‘Hi, Dad,’ he said absently.
‘Hi, son,’ said the stranger.
Jason dumped the lion, kicked it scornfully, and put his school satchel on the table. He looked at the stranger.
‘Is it all right if I go to the football with Stuart and Terry on Saturday?’ he asked. ‘Terry’s dad said he’d take us.’
The stranger considered for a moment. ‘I suppose so,’ he said, ‘so long as you get your homework done first. And mind you come straight back,’ he added. ‘You know how your mother worries.’
‘Okay, Dad,’ said Jason, and went upstairs.
The stranger grinned, and tiny flashes of lightning played round the light fittings. ‘It’s a shame they have to grow up, isn’t it?’ he said.
Mr. Derry looked up, his face a curious mix of fear, reverence and jealousy. ‘You’ve met, then?’ he said.
‘Oh yes,’ said the stranger, ‘who do you think picks him up from school every day?’
Mr. Derry turned and glowered at his wife, who shrugged.
‘Anyway,’ said the stranger, ‘if all the er . . . animals and things are bothering you, just say the word and I’ll send someone, all right? Mercury or . . . well, someone,’ he concluded. The thought of asking Mercury to go traipsing across the solar system with a huge dust-pan and brush every evening to sweep up his younger brother’s mess wasn’t exactly appealing. ‘Don’t give it another thought,’ he added. He turned to Mrs. Derry. ‘Nice seeing you again,’ he said, shuddering slightly. ‘We mustn’t leave it so long next time, must we?’
He smiled weakly, snapped his fingers, and stepped into the great golden chariot which had suddenly materialised on the carpet. There was a peal of thunder and he was gone.
On his way back to the Palace of the Sun, Jupiter found himself feeling strangely guilty. Perhaps it was seeing how old and flabby the female mortal had become. It had only been - what, ten years? Twelve at the most, and already she was starting to look like a dried apricot. He shook his head sadly, whipped up the horses, and galloped through the fiery gases of the Sun’s outer rays, hoping that his wife hadn’t noticed he’d been out.
Apollo, sheltering under the rim of a huge bronze shield, looked at his watch.
‘How long’ve they been at it now?’ asked a voice from the corner of the ceiling.
‘Six hours,’ Apollo replied. ‘And if you knew how silly you looked up there, you’d come down at once.’
The spider twitched nervously, slid quickly down its thread, and joined Apollo under the shield, where it changed back into Minerva, ex-Goddess of Wisdom.
‘Push off,’ Apollo said, ‘there isn’t enough room for two.’
A thunderbolt whizzed past his ear and crashed into the billows of burning helium that made up the conservatory floor. There was a shower of brilliant blue sparks, one of which landed on Minerva’s nose.
‘Ouch,’ said Minerva. ‘Move over, Pol, for pity’s sake. It’s not safe out there.’
Apollo shrugged. ‘It’s not exactly marvellous back here, either,’ he said, and Minerva noticed that his eyebrows were singed. ‘Just makes me feel better, that’s all.’
Out in the blackness beyond the crystal windows, a comet suddenly appeared, blazed fervently for a few moments and burned itself out. Apollo relaxed slightly.
‘I’ll say this for Auntie Ju,’ he said, ‘her aim always was terrible.’
‘You remember when Vulcan was born,’ Minerva whispered, ‘and He chucked him off the edge?’
‘Vividly,’ Apollo replied. ‘Who do you think it was had to explain to the people of Lemnos why they suddenly had an extra valley where the mountains used to be?’
‘Wasn’t easy, Min,’ Apollo went on. ‘There’s such a thing as prestige, you know. Can’t go telling mortals their island’s just been flattened by a falling God. There’d be grumbling. You know, why don’t you look where you’re putting your bloody great feet, that sort of thing. You can lose a lot of respect that way.’
Minerva nodded. ‘Good job we don’t have to worry about that any more,’ she said. ‘And it’s always Him, isn’t it?’ she added in a whisper.
Apollo looked over his shoulder carefully, then nodded. ‘It’s just not fair,’ he said. ‘And it was always us got the blame. I suppose that was why we had to leave.’
Minerva sighed. ‘You miss the old place, then?’
‘Sometimes,’ Apollo admitted. ‘I mean, this is all very nice in its way, but . . .’
They both ducked instinctively as a mass of burning magma whistled overhead and exploded. Far off, a voice like a female earthquake was saying that it wished it had listened to its mother.
‘What I want to know is,’ said Minerva, ‘if they do split up, who’ll get custody of the Fates?’
Suddenly, there was quiet. Dead silence.
‘Come to that,’ said a dreadful voice, ‘who is it leaves her toenail clippings lying around the bedroom carpet every time she has a . . .?’
There was a blinding flash of red light, a dull thump that set the moons of Pluto wobbling on their axes, and a terrific hissing noise.
‘She’s thrown the kettle at him,’ said Minerva.
‘And missed,’ Apollo added. ‘Come on, let’s make a run for it while we can.’
They jumped up and ran, crouching, towards the stables.
‘We’ll take mine,’ Apollo said. ‘It’s faster.’
Minerva nodded. Her chariot was drawn by four silver owls; this was only proper for the ex-Goddess of Wisdom, but it didn’t make for a smooth getaway.
It was only when they had passed the moons of Venus that they dared look back. Even from this distance, they could hear a voice like a shrill avalanche pointing out that at least she didn’t leave wet footmarks all over the bathroom floor whenever she had a bath. Minerva winced.
‘And people wonder,’ she said, ‘why I never married.’
Picture if you can (don’t be ashamed if you can’t) the highest point of the Caucasus mountains. Imagine the bare crags, the dizzying ravines, the blinding whiteness of the snow.
On the very highest peak, there is a human figure. The shape is human, but the scale is somehow wrong; this figure is huge. It covers the mountainside like a man-shaped town.
It is sprawled, face down, like a body that has just fallen from a high window. Its wrists and ankles are bound with adamantine chains (adamant is not the first choice of experienced chain-makers, but since what’s keeping the prisoner there is the wrath of God, that is largely academic) to the surrounding peaks. Around the prisoner’s body circles a great, red-beaked eagle. You are looking at Prometheus.1
You guessed? Well done.
The eagle lifts itself towards the eye of the Sun, banks and swoops down, extending its meat hook talons; it pitches on the prisoner’s back and drives its beak into the half-healed flesh. Then, as it has done twice a day since the creation of the World, it starts to gorge itself on the prisoner’s liver.
‘Huh,’ it says, again. ‘No onions.’
Prometheus lifts his shaggy head from the rock. His teeth are clenched, his eyes screwed shut, his lips parted in a scowl of effort. He is trying not to giggle.
Thousands of millions of years ago, when the gods first created Man, Prometheus took pity on the wretched, naked mortals and stole fire (and something else) from heaven. He carried the fire down to Earth in a hollow stalk of fennel and gave it to Mankind, so that they would have warmth in winter, light in darkness, and something to boil the kettle over. The gods, as a matter of fact, didn’t mind too much about the fire. It was the other thing that aggravated them.
‘Morning,’ said the eagle.
‘Morning,’ replied the good giant.
The eagle hesitated for a moment and stared at the clouds through its cruel, lidless eyes. ‘Weather’s on the turn again,’ it said.
‘Oh yes?’ replied the giant politely.
‘More snow,’ said the eagle. ‘Heavy frost, I shouldn’t wonder. Anything I can do for you?’
‘You could turn my page if you like,’ said the giant.
‘Hold on,’ said the eagle, wiping its beak on its wing-feathers. Then it hopped over to the giant’s head, flipped over the leaf of the huge book spread out under the giant’s nose, and weighted the pages down with small stones to stop them blowing over in the biting wind.
‘Good, is it?’ asked the eagle.
‘It’s okay,’ said the giant. ‘Not as good as his last one, though.’
‘You can’t win ’em all,’ said the eagle.
Prometheus wiggled his ears - it was the only gesture he could make, what with the chains and everything - and sighed. ‘A bit self-indulgent in places,’ he continued. ‘Slightly over the top, you know. Still, it’ll do.’
‘You got much more to read?’ asked the eagle.
Prometheus considered. ‘No, not really,’ he replied. ‘Could you just switch on the dictating machine before you go?’
‘Sure,’ said the eagle, scratching its ear with a meat hook talon. ‘Oh, and by the way.’
‘Faldo was one up on the thirteenth,’ said the eagle, ‘with Ballesteros trailing by three and Langer nowhere. I thought you’d like to know.’
‘That’s right,’ groaned Prometheus, ‘cheer me up.’
The eagle shrugged its wings. ‘I could bring you a radio,’ it said. ‘No trouble.’
Prometheus smiled. ‘That’s very kind of you,’ he said, ‘but how could I switch it off when it started playing music again? It’s not exactly fun and games up here as it is without Vivaldi banging away at you as well.’
‘Well, if you’re sure . . .’
The eagle spread its wings, pressed the record button on the dictating machine perched beside the giant’s nose, thanked him for lunch and soared away. Soon it was nothing but a tiny speck among the distant peaks.
No, what really got up the noses of the immortal gods wasn’t fire. Give human beings fire, they reasoned, and sooner or later they will use it to burn each other’s houses down, which scores four any day of the week and six when the moon is in Scorpio. It was the other thing they could never forgive. Remembering, Prometheus chuckled. Then he lifted his head and started to roar with laughter.
‘What time is it?’ asked Apollo as they raced across the firmament towards the Earth.
‘April,’ Minerva replied. ‘If we get a move on, we’ll be there in time for Easter.’
They looked at each other for a moment. Then they started to snigger.
Among the gods, there is a dispute as to which one of them originally thought of Christianity; or, as they call it, the Great Leg Pull. Apollo has the best claim, but a sizeable minority support Pluto, ex-God of the Dead, on the grounds that he has a really sick sense of humour.
How would it be, suggested the unidentified god, if first we tell them all to love their neighbour, pack in the killing and thieving, and be nice to each other. Then we let them start burning heretics.
It is therefore scarcely surprising that the Olympians find it hard to keep a straight face when they think of the religion that has effectively replaced them all over the world (except, of course, for parts of California). What they think of as the world, at any rate; the Olympians were always a touch on the xenophobic side and preferred to ignore the existence of the world beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire, probably because the inhabitants couldn’t speak Greek or Latin and the gods could speak nothing else. They tried, of course; they tried speaking very loudly and slowly, but the mortals didn’t understand, taking the peculiar noise for thunder.
The chariot of the Sun soared down over the Iberian peninsula, causing a flurry of frantic arguments amongst half the air traffic controllers in Europe, and landed on a hillside outside Delphi.
‘Why are we stopping here?’ Minerva asked.
‘I just want to see if there are any messages,’ replied Apollo. He hopped out of the chariot, transformed himself into a small, elderly German with a video-camera, and made his way down towards the ruins of his temple.
Over the lintel of the door of the Treasury of the Athenians is an inscription. Time has ground it almost smooth, but that still doesn’t excuse the generations of distinguished classical archaeologists who translated it as
when it actually says
and certainly doesn’t explain why none of them has ever gone on to read the rest of it. This would, of course, be difficult, as the text of the inscription changes subtly every few years.
WHILE YOU WERE OUT
The German tourist paused and looked up at the faint lettering. As he did so, he became aware of a small, dumpy female figure beside him.
‘Betty,’ he said, ‘I do believe your writing is getting worse.’
‘Sorry,’ said the female. ‘It’s my arthritis,’ she explained.
‘Ah.’ Apollo made a mental note to do something about it. ‘Anything important, was there?’
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 350 pages