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Late Back

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It was a bright, warm day in London and the people milling about in Trafalgar Square and along the Charing Cross Road were clad in little more than jackets and light overcoats - which was rather curious, given that this was England in late December, not usually known for its temperate weather conditions. Crowley had even put the top down on his Bentley, and as he turned left onto Shaftesbury Avenue, he basked in the purrs and coos of appreciation from various pedestrians as he passed by.

The city was teeming with people, it being the first full day of trading after Christmas, and Crowley’s progress into Soho was slow, but for once he didn’t mind. It was pleasant to be back in London after such a long time away, and a peculiarly warm London for the time of year was all the more welcome. He had spent most of the last year in America; a brief visit to Syria had revolted even him, a demon hardened in Hell’s fires, and had sent him reeling away, sickened by the depths of horror achievable only by humanity, to seek out a more gentle evil, and after a few weeks spent in Vegas getting as drunk as the most bacchanalian of skunks, he had inveigled his way onto a certain Republican candidate’s speechwriting team and had spent a very enjoyable year putting ever more absurd and crazed sentences into the mouth of his new master and relishing the fallout across social media. But now he was home, and though he was as intent as ever on stirring up mischief, there was someone he wanted to see first.

As he swung round the corner into the little Soho side street where Aziraphale’s bookshop was, he felt an odd flutter inside him. He had not seen Aziraphale at all since New Year’s Day 2015, and for some reason this was making him nervous.

As he pulled up outside the shop, it was obvious even from the car that the main lights were out, and the whole building had a forbidding aspect. Next to the large CLOSED sign was a handwritten notice of Christmas opening times in Aziraphale’s usually neat copperplate, but the angel must either have been drunk or deliberately obfuscating, because it was illegible even to Crowley.

He went in anyway. Locked doors never meant much to a demon of Hell.

There was a pathetic string of fairy lights around the books in the window, as a very Aziraphalean token gesture to the season. They were out. Crowley picked up a book from a pile beside the front door and examined its spine, then dropped it back onto the pile again and wandered through to the back room.

“Angel? Angel - are you in there?”

There was a scuffle, and then a ting and rattle of cutlery on crockery. Emboldened, Crowley put his head round the door in time to see a mouse scurry under the door to the kitchenette; he’d disturbed it in the middle of gnawing at a piece of very stale bread on a plate on Aziraphale’s battered old coffee table. Next to the plate was a copy of the Daily Telegraph folded with the crossword uppermost, a pencil, and a mug of what proved on closer inspection to be cold and ancient tea, with large spots of milk floating unpleasantly on the top of it. Crowley bent automatically to replace the knife which the mouse had dislodged in its flight, then picked up the crossword. It was dated the 23rd of December. Crowley knew that the angel didn’t always do his crosswords on the same day they came out, but nonetheless it was clear that Aziraphale had not been here for several days. There was an eerie air of the Marie Celeste about the place, and Crowley didn’t like it.

He poked around the back room a little longer, then tried the shop, but there was nothing more to be found in either. Aziraphale was not there and had left no hint of where he might have gone to, or when he might return.

“And I’ve been away for a whole year!” said Crowley, aloud, giving voice to a growing peevishness.

Eventually he gave up and went back out into the street. He examined the sign on the front door again with no greater success, but just as he was about to get back into the Bentley and drive home, he heard a voice calling to him. He turned to see a tall man, slender, with hair turning to grey at the temples, standing in the doorway of Intimate Books, the shop next-door.

“He’s not in,” the man said.

“Yes, thanks, I can see that,” said Crowley, testily. He opened the driver’s door, then shut it again and went back round the car. “You don’t know where he’s gone, do you?”

The man shook his head.

“Nae idea, pal,” he said. “He was here on Christmas Day, that I know ‘cause I saw him, then he took off on Boxing Day and hasnae been back since. Said he was goin’ away for a bit but he never said where nor how long. I’ve been keepin’ an eye on the place for him - I always do, when he goes off places.”

“Oh.” Crowley nodded. “Right. Thanks.”

He turned, leapt into the Bentley, and swung off round the corner back onto Wardour Street, and Aziraphale’s neighbour shook his head and sighed in sympathy as he went back into his own establishment. For the owner of a bookshop named Intimate Books, he was really rather a romantic.