Searing streams of lava sliced through the rocky foothills, ran together in pools and lakes, rolled into rivers and flowed sluggishly, scorching the earth. Acrid fumes bubbled upwards, caught in the air, drifted out across the poisoned landscape in lethal black clouds. A deep rumble, a subterranean grumble, shattered through the valley. The ground quaked and deep chasms were wrenched open, releasing foul vapours like stale breath. The sky was dark; dark and angry; dark and lethal; raining fire.
Ah, home sweet home.
Nick De Ville tapped his long slender talons against the glass and bared his pointed yellow teeth in a parody of a smile. He brushed a mote of dust from his sleeve and straightened his tie as he turned away from the window.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen," he crooned, clasping his hands together. His smile grew broader, becoming a leer.
The boardroom was square, functional, finished in shiny black marble. Twelve foul and loathsome demons sat around the long oval table; twelve heads of department. Old Jed, The Horned One, had just finished reading the minutes of the previous meeting. He laid his papers down on the table, meticulously arranged them so that they sat in a neat pile, then looked up at Mr De Ville.
"And might I just add, on a personal note, " he said pleasantly, "how delighted we all are to have you back amongst us after your recent trip."
"It's good to be back," De Ville acknowledged. He took his seat at the head of the table. "Much as I abhor these business excursions to the mortal world, I am afraid they are becoming increasingly necessary. The odd 'personal appearance' here and there can pay great dividends to our operation."
De Ville sat back, closed his eyes and recalled his most recent engagement. It had been, he thought immodestly, a sterling appearance. He had appeared to a city stock broker at the stroke of midnight (timing was everything) spitting fire and brimstone, roaring and cursing in some arcane tongue, and smelling like the darkest, dankest filth pit in Hades. To say that the stockbroker in question had been somewhat impressed would be putting it mildly. He had immediately signed over his soul in return for a pot full of cash and the attentions of a slightly saggy former 'Page Three' model. Sadly, De Ville had neglected to inform him that he only had forty-eight hours to enjoy his spoils, before fate decreed that his worthless life should be snubbed out beneath the rear axle of the 3.30 to Shepherd's Bush. Ah well, ignorance is bliss.
De Ville suddenly scrunched up his face and sneezed. Tiny flames leapt from his nostrils and mouth. He found his attention abruptly jolted back to the meeting.
"Do excuse me," he apologised. He pulled a pair of half-moon spectacles from his top pocket and perched them on the bridge of his spiky nose. Then he glanced down at his agenda sheet. "Right, shall we proceed? Mr Bezzlecrag, perhaps you would like to start us off by filling us all in on the progress made by your department while I've been away?"
Bezzlecrag grunted and leaned forward. He was a wiry, fidgety little creature with pale, damp skin, angular limbs and a slender, barbed tail which curled up over his head like a scorpion's sting. Or, in a certain light, like the pick-up on a dodgem car.
"We've had a quiet month in the Natural Catastrophes Department, I'm very much afraid to say," he reported. His voice was hoarse, coarse, and difficult to follow. Furthermore, a faint tremble underlined each word: when he said he was 'afraid to say', he meant it. Mr De Ville, perhaps understandably, had a very Draconian attitude to staff relations.
"Oh dear," De Ville said disappointedly, giving his minion little room for hope.
"But we have got something exciting lined up for February," Bezzlecrag added quickly. "A major season of earthquakes, plus a few one-off specials - a typhoon in South East Asia, some tidal waves in Australia and a really spectacular volcanic eruption that we've got pencilled in for the 25th. They won't be expecting that."
"No?" said De Ville, peering at him inquisitively over the top of his spectacles.
"No - it's in Coventry," said Bezzlecrag.
De Ville smiled approvingly. "Nice one," he said.
"Right outside Woolworth's," Bezzlecrag added with some relief. He drew a sharp intake of breath, then belched loudly. An abominable stench began to waft through the room.
"Bless you," someone thoughtfully intoned.
Bezzlecrag thanked them and continued, his confidence growing. "Now, as you know, we've been giving Trinidad a hard time just lately - hurricanes, plagues of locusts, that sort of thing."
"Yes, I've been keeping my eye on that one," said De Ville with a giggle.
"Their population is decimated," Bezzlecrag expounded. "Their economy is shattered, their crops are ruined. Nevertheless, the islanders have struggled admirably against all the odds; they've shown considerable courage and resolve in the face of such tragedy."
"Well, we thought it might be a bit of a giggle to have the whole island suddenly sink into the sea," Bezzlecrag said gleefully. "We're working very closely with Mr Scarramank and his people in the Implausible Coincidences Department on this one."
Scarramank acknowledged the name-check with a wave of one bloated, blood-red paw.
"Good, very good," De Ville said. "Which brings us very neatly onto you, Mr Scarramank. What else has your department been up to?"
Scarramank scratched his head - a blotchy, crimson dome, hairless save for the odd tuft of curly black fur. "Well, I can't claim to have caused quite as much havoc as my colleagues in Natural Disasters," he said guardedly.
"Of course," De Ville acknowledged gracefully. "I appreciate that your particular area of expertise is indeed a fine art."
"I like to think so," Scarramank said smugly. He opened a file, took out a large glossy photograph and held it aloft for the others to see. It was a head and shoulders shot of a pasty-faced man in his forties, his thinning hair scraped unconvincingly over the top of his head. "This is Mr Francis Wimble of 46 Mercia Terrace, Scarborough," Scarramank explained. "This one has been on our books for some time, actually. Oh yes, we've had quite a lot of fun with this gentleman over the years."
A low murmur passed around the others present. This was going to be a good one, they could feel it. Scarramank could almost taste their anticipation and, ever the showman, he paused to savour the moment before resuming.
"In his childhood," he continued, "Mr Wimble contracted measles five times, chicken pox three times and tonsillitis twice. More recently we've given him appendicitis, meningitis, scurvy and the clap. He's been in fourteen car accidents, nine industrial accidents, three plane crashes and an incident with a hovercraft. In 1974 we arranged for him to be struck by lightening on six consecutive evenings - one of my personal favourites, that one."
Mr De Ville nodded. "Ah yes, Wimble. We all have a good laugh about him at home, when there's nothing on the telly."
"Then you will know," Scarramank continued, "that for the last ten years he's been imprisoned in Dartmoor for a crime he did not commit. He gets out next week, and seeing as how he's got off lightly so far, we thought it might be a nice idea for him to be struck by a meteorite."
"Oh bravo!" an enthusiastic admirer called out.
"Very good, very good!" De Ville commended him, as a ripple of applause carried around the table.
De Ville allowed the jollity to die down of its own accord. Then his gaze came to rest on a small, impish figure, almost dwarfed by the chair in which he sat. His skin was pale green, except for the tips of his pointed ears, which faded to yellow. His eyes were red and slanted, restlessly darting left and right.
"Sir," the impish creature croaked nervously.
"This is young Mr Frutterbugs," De Ville announced to the rest of the table. "Mr Frutterbugs has recently been promoted to the head of the Electrical Appliances Department. As I'm sure you will know, it is his responsibility to ensure that all gizmos, gadgets and suchlike break down the very day after the guarantee has expired. So, how are things in your department, Mr Frutterbugs?"
"Err, very well," Frutterbugs said, noticeably anxious. "Yes, erm, there's not much to report really. It's all pretty routine stuff."
"Oh come now, Mr Frutterbugs," De Ville said in friendly, parental tones. "Please don't be intimidated by all this talk of earthquakes and meteorites. We do appreciate just how important your department is to our operation. It might seem to you that your work involves only minor devilry, but do I assure you that the cumulative effect of all your efforts is quite devastating."
"It's just that, ah -"
"Problems, Mr Frutterbugs?" De Ville pressed him.
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