THEY'LL BE BACK. THEY'RE NEVER FAR AWAY.
Part I: Wherein Pepper is hired as a shop assistant
"Really, angel, you can't expect tiny little sushi shops to stay in business forever," Crowley said, leaning against his companion and enjoying a spot of pleasant inebriation. "There's taxes and expenses and inspections and all that rot, practically runs the small businessman out of business."
"But it was delicious," Aziraphale protested, his less than steady stride indicating that he, too, might be indulging in the aftereffects of a dedicated application of alcoholic beverages. "Skill should trump all that, it's the whole point. That's what's, that's what's right with this world."
"'Sonly common sense, natural lifecycle of the thing. Cells to tadpoles to frogs, except sometimes the tadpoles get eaten and the tiny little sushi place gets shut down when the owner goes to Majorca after eloping with her girlfriend."
Aziraphale grumbled at him, almost tripping over the girl sitting on his shop's stoop when he tried to shove the key into the lock.
They both blinked down at her, and she glared up at them. "It's not nice to trip over customers," she said.
Crowley sighed and banished the alcohol from his system. He straightened up; judging by Aziraphale's suddenly impeccable posture, the angel had done the same.
"Miss," Aziraphale said, "I think you have the wrong shop. The, ahem, other shops on this street will probably suit your custom."
She stood up, flicked her red braid over her shoulder, and put her hands on her hips. "This is Books, isn't it?"
"Yes," Aziraphale said.
"Specialize in weird books of prophecy, don't you? Best collection this side of everywhere, isn't it?"
"Yes," Crowley said. He could see where this was going, and it was probably going to be even more entertaining than the last time1, the one that had Aziraphale swearing off paying customers for good.
∞ 1: The last time had involved a book that smelled like cat urine after two weeks in said customer's possession, three agents from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, and a late night fire set on the stoop of the bookstore. Naturally, it hadn't spread into the shop, but Aziraphale's neighbors were most displeased, and their reactions at the local business association meeting had spread malaise, headaches, and petty behavior. Crowley rather enjoyed the rise in venial sins and had tried to encourage paying customers as a result, but then he decided that it wasn't worth the genteel complaints on take-out night that inevitably followed. ∞
"Got a website saying you're open on every third Monday of the month if the moon is full, don't you?"
There was a pause.
"Well, yes," Aziraphale finally said.
"You have a website?" Crowley asked.
"Of course I have a website2," Aziraphale said. "I have a shop, and this century that means I use the internet."
∞ 2: Said website was the sole site still running on Geocities: it used animated gifs and automatically played tinny midis. Crowley screencapped the design and sent copies to Hell. Ten months later he had another commendation in his file, the midi was making an unexpected comeback in the exciting new file format .miDIS on the Transport for London website (turning one's speakers off had no effect), and the general level of crankiness, grumpiness, and just-damnable behavior in London rose correspondingly.
Personally, Crowley thought the webrings of perpetually broken links were a particularly nice touch. ∞
"And it's a stupid website, but it does say that you're open tonight. Now," she said, thrusting her chin out, "are you going to open your door or do I need to call the local council and report you?"
"I am not your dear," she said.
"—not-so-dear," Aziraphale continued, and she narrowed her eyes but didn't interrupt again, "I am in the process of opening my door, and the task would be expedited if you were not blocking it."
She folded her arms across her chest and stepped aside. However, she remained close enough that Crowley could feel the irritation emanating from her, and he basked in its prickly warmth.
"Behold," Crowley said as they crossed the threshold, "the cave of wonders. Angel, go put the kettle on. I'll get the deck of cards."
"Mmm," Aziraphale said, disappearing into the back room to grab the electric kettle. It could not, properly speaking, be called an electric kettle any more, given that it had parted ways with electricity in 1983, but the heating element thought of itself as an electric kettle still because it was much less confusing than being a 'no longer electric but still running because the expectation of habit keeps you ticking along' kettle.
"Excuse me," said the girl when Aziraphale re-emerged, kettle in hand, "but a bit of help would be useful."
Aziraphale sighed, flipping the switch on the bottom of the kettle. (Much like its relationship with electricity, the kettle's relationship with the tap had been rendered superfluous by the expectation of habit, i.e. that water would be in the kettle when a spot of tea was called for.) He joined Crowley at the battered card table where they usually finished their carouses (or, as Aziraphale would put it, enjoyed a convivial nightcap after a delightful repast), sat down, and then asked dutifully, "How might I be of service?" He practically radiated immovable object.
"I'm looking for The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter," she said. "She was a witch," she added after a minute.
Crowley sat up straight, which was rather uncomfortable when compared to his normal insouciant slouch.
"Sorry," Aziraphale said, "I'm all out of stock, can't help you." He poured for himself (into a teacup, white with a delicate floral motif, holding a delicate jasmine) and Crowley (into a ceramic mug, black and liberated from a church jumble sale, also holding a delicate jasmine).
She looked at him, and her irritation edged up a notch. It was like wasps now, cranky, buzzy, grumbly wasps, and Crowley was enjoying the sensation immensely; if he filed the paperwork correctly, he might even be able to claim credit for the negativity polluting the air. "Anathema said you had it," she said.
Aziraphale put his teacup down precisely in the middle of the table. "It would be quite impossible for Ms. Device-Pulsifer to be as well-acquainted with the stock of this shop as I am, given that I am, in fact, its proprietor. Therefore, please return to Ms. Device-Pulsifer, give her my regards, and tell her that she is quite mistaken in her assessment of my meagre holdings."
It's possible that Crowley's tongue flicked out to savor the taste of an angelic lie at this point in the proceedings, even if such a thing would be, at best, uncouth.
The girl walked over to the rickety globe on the corner of Aziraphale's desk, the one that hadn't had a clear square inch of surface area since approximately 1981, when Aziraphale acquired a copy of the miniature book Mistress M———'s Snuffbox, or, The Curious Choir (the one bound in an actual snuffbox), picked it up, pulled out a key from under its base, and put it aside on top of one of the precarious piles of catalogs that lived on the desk. She then marched over to the framed fourteenth-century map of Terra Incognita (a reproduction, quite accurate, but Aziraphale would never countenance excising a map from its atlas), took the frame off the wall, and put the key into the lock of a wall safe that the map had been concealing. She reached into the safe and pulled out a book bound in plain calf, carefully opened it, and held it before her, declaiming, in the attitude of one who has suffered through entirely too many lectures about enunciation and projection, the text from the title page: "The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Being a Certain and Precise History from the Present Day Unto the Ending of this World et cetera and so forth." She closed the book with a thud.
"Obviously," Crowley said into the silence, "you need a shop assistant to help you keep track of your inventory."
Aziraphale sputtered. "I need no such thing!"3
∞ 3: Aziraphale's opinion of shop assistants had been recently revised during his reassessment of the world following Recent Events (which had included, but were not limited to, the lost continent of Atlantis, children, a hellhound, a nuclear reactor, and space ships, to say nothing of the world-ending apocalypse). Unfortunately, his new opinion had largely been formed when he'd wandered into a shoe shop, intent on spreading heavenly goodness by randomly distributing blessings, only to be accosted by a pushy clerk who kept trying to persuade him to buy snakeskin loafers. Currently, he mentally slotted them somewhere between waiters who inquired about one's dining experience while one was chewing and anthropodermic bibliopegy* on the scale of things that irritated him. If, of course, he were subject to such petty emotions as irritation. Which as an angel he was not. At all.
*Anthropodermic bibliopegy: books bound in human skin. ∞
"How much?" the girl asked.
Aziraphale stood up and delicately took it out of her hands, caressing it as if she might have damaged it in the two feet of air between the wall safe and its current location. "It is not for sale," he said.
"This is a bookshop, isn't it? Therefore, you sell books. How much?" She put her hands on her hips, and, quite frankly, Crowley wouldn't have bet on Aziraphale against her – he was so reticent about breaking out the angelic powers of smiting, too much of a chance of damaging the books or wandering kittens or some such nonsense.
"A million pounds," Aziraphale said icily, one raised eyebrow daring her to contest it.
"Fine," she said. "I'll start work on Monday."
"My... girl, how on earth did you come to that conclusion?"
"You need a shop assistant, he said so," she said, waving a hand at Crowley, who was sedately sipping his cup of tea, now a robust Assam. "I need that book. Obviously, I don't have a million quid, so I'll work it off."
Aziraphale gaped in an angelic sort of way, which didn't involve so much jaws dropping as it did the sudden feeling of an imminent storm as all the little protons and neutrons and electrons in the vicinity vibrated in shock, and Crowley decided that he'd have to take care of certain minutiae. "It's hard to hire someone who hasn't even given a name," he pointed out. "One can let in all sorts of riffraff that way. For all we know, you're going to make off with the fine china as soon as our backs are turned."
"What use are a bunch of silly plates?" the girl replied. "And my name is Pepper."
The girl huffed. "My name is Pippin Galadriel Moonchild, but you'll call me Pepper if you know what's good for you."
Crowley ignored Aziraphale's increased agitation in the background as he reached out a hand. "Nice to meet you, Pippin Galadriel Moonchild, called Pepper. Your first shift is Thursday at 12:34."
If his hand had a slightly unusual texture, she was polite enough to not mention it. If Aziraphale stopped talking to him for two days, well, that was nothing compared to that bit of hubbub in Asia Minor.
Part II: Wherein Pepper works in a shop
The door opened, and a hellish chorus followed.
The till is alive with filthy luuuuuuuu-cre
From books that have sold for a hundred quuuuuuuuuid
Aziraphale sighed. "Really, Crowley, is that entirely necessary?"
Crowley smirked. "You own a shop that is making a profit for the first time since you hung a sign in St. Paul's Churchyard. I'm merely acknowledging your entrepreneurial spirit."
Pepper came clomping in behind him, slinging her red messenger bag on top of the desk and flicking on the new electric kettle.4
∞ 4: The old not-really-electric kettle still lived in the back room, where it kept Aziraphale comforting company when the angel balanced his books and discovered that he had actually sold more stock than he had acquired in the past month. A good kettle shouldn't be overlooked, he thought: it was dependable, provided a necessary service, and didn't, for example, sell one's sole copy of Paradise Wandering, the quite rare nineteenth-century unauthorized sequel to Paradise Lost. (All the bits about hell and damnation were taken out of the story; it was a most perplexing book, but Aziraphale was fond of it, nonetheless, as a historical artifact and Crowley thought it was hysterical and liked to read bits of it out loud when they decided to have a relaxing evening in.) ∞
"'Lo," Pepper said, grabbing the mail and sorting through it. She binned most of it immediately, extracting only a Sotheby's catalogue that she gave to Crowley, who she still thought was Aziraphale's partner. She pulled a small ledger book from the top drawer, made some notes in it, and then put it back. "I get two more pages5 today," she said.
∞ 5: Approximately eight of Agnes' prophetic visions. Through long-standing custom of three weeks, established by not asking, Pepper rounded up when a passage carried onto the next page. ∞
"You just looked at two pages," Aziraphale replied, plucking the catalogue from Crowley's hands.
"And now I get two more."
"Wages," Crowley said with mock solemnity, "are the essence of the employer-employee relationship in today's economy. And earned bonuses and commissions are time-honored. Therefore, if you sell two books, you get to look at an additional five pages."
"Bonuses," Aziraphale said, "are rewarded to employees who perform superlatively, not ones who ruin perfectly good filing systems."6
∞ 6: Pepper firmly disagreed with Aziraphale's philosophy towards filing and organization, i.e. that piling things on the desk, chairs, shelves, and china cabinet as they came in was perfectly adequate and allowed one to observe the organic growth of one's collections. As a result, the back catalogs that had once happily resided on Aziraphale's desk had met a much more tragic fate than the kettle: all the duplicates were resigned to the recycling bin, and the rest had been neatly organized and placed on shelves. No longer could they nest in comfort; instead they stood, rigid with their spines straight and on display. No longer were they caressed once a day; instead they were fetched only when of use. It soon became a warning through the shop, spread by the rustle of paper and the creak of bindings: beware, be good, or the girl will come. ∞
Pepper ignored Aziraphale and looked at Crowley carefully. "Do I get to choose the books?" she asked. After the experience with No Vel: A Novel and Double Falshood, she treated Crowley's propositions with much more skepticism.
He smiled, showing no teeth. "Yes."
Three walk-in customers (Pepper had instituted regular store hours, which allowed walk-in customers to happen to an otherwise innocent shop), two arguments (one with a customer, convincing him that he was going to pay for the book he was attempting to hide in his pocket, and one with Aziraphale, convincing him to sell the little octavo for four times its price on alibris), and one triumphant entry in her ledger later, Pepper was constructing a book support while Aziraphale hovered and fretted.
"I have done this before," she pointed out.
Aziraphale ignored her.
She carefully placed The Nice and Accurate Prophecies in the cradle, delicately opened it to the last page she had read (marked with a slip of acid free paper), and pretended Aziraphale didn't exist. Ten minutes later, he ceased hovering over her shoulder. One hour later, she tucked the slip back in the text, put the book back in the wall safe, and deconstructed the cradle.
"What wisdom did you glean from the ramblings of the olde witch?" Crowley asked. If one inquired how he managed to verbally inflect a silent 'e' on 'old', he would tell you that it was all in the tongue.
"Anathema's ninth cousin twice removed survived his roof caving in when he was living in Paris. At least, I think that's what "beware the flapping of the gargoyle's wing" means. It could just be that she was stoned."
"Agnes," Aziraphale said, "was a visionary. Your inability to understand her visions is a fault in your perception, not her foretellings."
"Agnes," Pepper retorted, "was aptly named." She grabbed a pile of recent acquisitions and set about imposing some sort of order upon them.7 She was always threatening Aziraphale with color catalogs and internet sales and, if she was feeling particularly irritated, eBay, but he had thus far prevailed by miraculous power outages whenever Pepper endeavored to boot up the computer.
∞ 7: The question of recent in this context is actually quite a vexing one. If one considers 1957, the year these particular items came into Aziraphale's possession, in terms of Aziraphale's existence, then they were yesterday's acquisition. If one locates them relative to Pepper's life thus far, then the dinosaurs might well have been the creators of said items. However, if one locates 1957 in terms of Aziraphale's bookstore's existence, presupposing that one registers its birth from the first time Aziraphale worked at the Sign of the Three Wings, which was, one must admit, a few storefronts ago, then the acquisition could indeed be considered recent. ∞
"Huh," she said, "this is kind of catchy."
"What's that, not-so-dear," Aziraphale asked.
"The bit on this sheet." She hummed a few bars and then started singing:
"The Horsemen ride across the land
Famine, War, Pollution, and Death,
They were once an innocent band
'Til they faced—"
Crowley interrupted, fearing that his eardrums would bleed if she continued any longer. "I'll give you an extra page if you quit with the heavenly chorus."
"Done," she said, smirking. She grabbed her bag and skipped out the door, letting it slam shut behind her.
Crowley looked over at Aziraphale, thinking he'd be relieved that his carefully arranged stacks were safe from the interloper for one more day. Instead the angel's brow was in a state that might, if one were so inclined, be called furrowed. "Angel," Crowley said, "what's wrong?"
"I," Aziraphale said slowly, "did not add that broadside to my collection."
"Are your books having progeny now? Maybe Pepper's right, filing is the way of the future."
"I think not," Aziraphale said. "I know every piece of written material I bring into this shop, and that was not one of them."
Crowley shrugged. "Probably came in with something else in one of those odd lots you acquire when other people liquidate their stock. It's not nice to benefit from the misfortune of others."
"Perhaps," Aziraphale said. He let the matter drop in favor of their fortnightly game of Morningstar Crescent, but it niggled in the back of his head. He did vaguely recall some odd lots at the auction of the Naggs Bros. stock – perhaps that was the ballad's antecedent.8
∞ 8: Actually, Aziraphale was correct: he had never purchased Ye Fowre Horsmen, a broadside ballad with a particularly nice woodcut vignette. Nobody had ever purchased Ye Fowre Horsmen, because Ye Fowre Horsmen hadn't existed prior to a certain night in the course of Recent Events even though it was printed in 1631 by one A. O'Bedlam, who normally traded in rude ballads about court scandals instead of apocalyptic claptrap.
The full text of the ballad, updated for modern audiences, is as follows:
The Four Horsemen
The Horsemen ride across the land
Famine, War, Pollution and Death
They were once an innocent band
'Til they faced the forces of old
First is one who orderly goes
Famine, War, Pollution, and Death
Dressed in fine suits from Savile Row
He knows all things from spies so bold
Then she comes looking all around
Famine, War, Pollution, and Death
Stomping all problems into the ground
Riding the bus 'round London old
Next he comes with scruff on his face
Famine, War, Pollution, and Death
He wanders in shoes never laced
And paints the streets in colors so bold
Last is he who alters the world
Famine, War, Pollution, and Death
He dreams of time and space unfurled
And [ ]
Unfortunately, the final line of every copy has been lost due to an unusual array of unfortunate errors in printing and storage, ranging from the trans-dimensional weasels who snacked on the broadside in a Kentish basement to the rather sadly predictable effects of a malfunctioning fire suppressant system in New York. ∞
Part III: Wherein Pepper quits her job as a shop assistant
Pepper stomped into the shop and slammed the door behind her. She flipped the sign to 'Open', and Aziraphale braced himself when she didn't begin her usual friendly harangue about his inability to adhere to the posted hours.9
∞ 9: After several months, the subsequent argument had settled down into something that went like this: She commented on how she had painstakingly determined the most auspicious opening hours. He pointed out that said painstaking determination was done by declaring that the dartboard was, in fact, a clock in essence and shape and then throwing darts at it. She rebutted that care was taken and that, therefore, his objections were meaningless, especially since he had not bestirred himself to set reasonable hours. His objection that he had, in fact, set hours was met by her commenting on the use of three different moribund calendars being incompatible with the 'reasonable' part of 'reasonable hours.'
It was a comfortable argument, and they quite enjoyed it. Sometimes, Crowley would join them, arguing for one and then the other as it suited him. ∞
"I," Pepper proclaimed, "hate people." She dropped down into the chair behind the desk, which had, by dint of her slow march of organization and use, become hers, and it creaked alarmingly with the force of her disdain for humanity.
Aziraphale started making her a cup of tea. "That's a strong statement," he said. On second thought, perhaps he should make her a nice soothing chamomile instead of the brew she favored, which she considered perfect when spoons cowered in fear of melting in the mug.
She accepted the cup and pulled a face at its soothing blandness. "No," she said, "it's an understatement. I'm going to start bashing heads together if I have to deal with one more fistfight between stupid, smelly young idiots."
Crowley looked up from where he was playing poker on his sleek black netbook.10 "You don't appreciate their displays of prowess before yonder fair maiden?"
∞ 10: Crowley had claimed the netbook as a business expense on principle, although reimbursement was hellishly slow and devilishly bureaucratic. He was experimenting in modernization by extending the reach of his temptations to the internet. Contra the claims of his brethren, this required just as much work as their artful, individualized temptations of would-be saints; however, it was work that could be done in the comfort of Aziraphale's bookshop instead of a nasty, barren room hemmed in by holy objects on consecrated ground. ∞
She glowered at him quite impressively. If he didn't know better, he would say that her eyes were reflecting the smoky glint of hellfire. "No, I think their displays of testosterone and idiocy would be better suited to drunken brawling than rallies, marches, and strategy meetings. It's hard to coordinate protests when you have to keep taking people to A&E because they've broken knuckles and given each other concussions. And it's over the stupidest things! Andy threw a punch at El because El made a longer paperclip chain when they were faffing about instead of making signs.
"And then," she continued, "I had to bail Brian out because he'd gotten picked up again for 'beautifying the Thames' with his art. He thinks he's the next Banksy, and I swear next time I'm going to let someone else deal with him and his sodding graffiti." She gulped the remaining tea and pulled the emergency rum stash from the bottom drawer, splashing it in the bottom of her mug and tossing it back. Unfortunately, this was the last of the emergency rum stash, it previously having been consumed on no less than five but no more than a dozen occasions, and she held the empty bottle out in a manner which might, if she hadn't been glaring at the world, have been interpreted as plaintive. "And now all the rum is gone. Why is all the rum gone, Crowley?"
"Because you keep drinking it, not-so-dear," Aziraphale said.
"That's a stupid reason," she said.
"Apparently," Crowley said drily, "you currently think the world is stupid, so it fits rather well into your current opinions. Isn't that nicely self-affirming?"
Her glare ratcheted up, and the impossible reflected hellfire became impossible hellfire. Crowley thought it was a rather curious effect. "I," she said, "am going to ignore you and read the Nutter. I have three pages left, so I will read three pages and then this day might have a chance at redemption."
"How scandalous," Crowley said, "reading while you are supposed to be working."
She made a rude gesture in his direction and started the ritual construction of the book cradle. Aziraphale retreated into the backroom, a compromise worked out when Crowley started describing all the very interesting ways Pepper's irritation perfumed the air when Aziraphale hovered. In and of itself, that would not have been enough to have Aziraphale retreat when someone was handling one of his precious books, but he could, even if only to himself, admit that Pepper did know what she was doing and that trusting her to do it was a Nice Thing To Do which lead to compromises in other key areas, such as the retention of auction catalogues and the stocking of a selection of herbal teas.
Crowley continued to dabble in modernization while Pepper made her way through the end of The Nice and Accurate Prophecies. Potential customers, perhaps sensing the general air of hostility in the shop, never got further than opening the door and making the usually cheerful ting-a-linging bell go clang-clang-clung to announce their arrival before promptly shutting the door again and going in the opposite direction. It must be admitted that Madame Mysteria, who worked across the street, rather appreciated the increase in custom and planned to use the unexpected windfall to go on holiday.
The door rattled.
Crowley ignored it.
The windows rattled.
Crowley looked up, and Aziraphale came out of the back room.
The bookshelves rattled.
Pepper closed the book.
The rattling stopped.
"I," she said, "am going to kill Adam Young." The it-couldn't-be-hellfire of her eyes had evolved into straight up crimson, no hell required.
"Isn't that—" Aziraphale began.
Pepper interrupted. "My former friend, the Antichrist, destroyer of world, Humanest of Humans, et cetera and so forth, he who is going to die in a painful manner, yes." Suddenly, a gleaming sword appeared before her. It was rather incongruous on top of the piles of unsorted mail, and, depending on how the light struck it, it appeared to be both a disturbingly sharp pointy thing dedicated to the killing of people and two sticks stuck together with string. Nonetheless, no matter what the angle, it made the mail, not it, appear to be the interloper.
"Not that I don't support homicide on general principle," Crowley said, "particularly homicide seasoned with the spice of betrayal, amicide if you will, but is there any particular reason that you're going to be looking into heavy duty stain removal options?"
Pepper reached out and caressed the sword's pommel with her finger. "He lied to me. He lied to us. He's a liar, and he didn't tell us what happened. We all thought we were going nuttier than Agnes, remembering a day twice, that's impossible, but it really happened.
"I quit." Pepper picked up her bag and shoved the sword inside, where it defied the laws of physics and remained sheathed without damaging the bag. She then marched to the door, throwing it open and striding off to war – or, as the case may be, War – with her head held high, her braid bouncing on her back, and her Doc Martens pounding the street. The door shut behind her. The sign flipped to 'Closed' of its own volition.
"That was unexpected," Aziraphale said.
"Next time," Crowley said, "remind me to ask people if they're the human incarnation of elemental forces before you hire them. Particularly if you're going to do it in a dodgy manner and have them work for no wages."
"I," Aziraphale said, "did not hire her. You hired her, and you didn't even ask for her last name."
"It's your shop, so I couldn't have hired her. And 'my name is Pippin Galadriel Moonchild call me Pepper' says everything we need to know about someone."
"Except that she's the human incarnation of a elemental force."
"There is that," Crowley admitted. "Since the shop is closed, shall we get sushi?"