016 Orders From Above: Episode 16 ‘deadly sins, heavenly virtues’

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

sins & virtues.jpg

Nigel pulled into the Turnaround and switched off the engine.

“There it is,” he announced, “Angel Falls Mill. And that name can’t be a coincidence!”

“And you’re asking me to believe,” said Amelia. “that inside that wreck is a luxury house and the De Angelo brothers are living in it?”

“Yep, and you’re about to see for yourself. Come on, I can’t wait to see your face when you step inside.”

Before they were half way across the little stone bridge Gabe came rushing out of the door of the mill, which was still hanging off its hinges. He grabbed Amelia, kissed her heartily on both cheeks and then gathered her into a hug, crying, “I’m so delighted you could come!”

“Thank you, I’m pleased to be here. Nigel has told me all about it, but nothing beats seeing the real thing.”

Nigel thought her tone was a tad sarcastic, but Gabe didn’t seem to pick up on it. With a happy grin he said, “Nick’s inside, won’t you come in?”

Gabe led the way. Nigel entered the mill behind Amelia so he couldn’t see her expression, but he certainly heard her gasp and had to move smartly to one side to avoid her foot coming hard down on his as she staggered backwards in shock.

“Good morning! Lovely to see you again, Amelia, and positively blooming, if I may say so.” Nick had taken her hand and was leading her across the vast space to the white sofa. “Nigel,” he muttered over his shoulder, a casual hello if ever he’d heard one.

“I wouldn’t worry,” whispered Gabe, “Nick seems to be very attractive to women, and he plays up to it, but your Amelia only has eyes for you. Besides, we may look like men to you, but we’re angels, and angels are asexual beings.”

Nigel started to laugh, but realised that Gabe was serious. “Is Uri coming?”

Gabe shook his head. “I’m afraid not, he’s busy playing the handyman at the vicarage.”

Amelia, sitting down now, was staring around her in wonder. “Nigel told me about this, but I didn’t believe it.”

Nick, who had sat himself close beside her, his arm across the back of her cushion, said coolly, “And he told you about us being angels, but you don’t believe that either, do you?”

“Would you like to watch the film?” Gabe was like an eager puppy. “It might make things easier. And we’ve got excellent popcorn.”

Amelia slowly shook her head. “No, it’s all right. Really. Nigel told me every little detail.”

Nick turned to face her, a gleam in his grey eyes. “But you still can’t accept it, can you?”

“What I really don’t understand,” she declared, “is why you’re going to the trouble of hiring Nigel to do up this mill? I mean, look at the place, it’s fabulous! Why don’t you just leave it as it is?”

“Amelia, Amelia,” tutted Nick, sliding his arm down the cushion so that it rested on her shoulders, “This isn’t the mill!”

This was news to Nigel, and he swung round to face Gabe. “How can it not be the mill?”

Gabe smiled at them both, “I will explain. We’re using the mill as a portal, you see. When you step through the door you step out of your reality and into ours. Well, our reality in that we’ve made it acceptable to you, if you see what I mean. No-one else would see this, only you two.”

“Is your office the same? A portal, I mean,” asked Nigel.

“Yes. We create something that you can understand, that’s all.”

Nigel struggled to process this. Their place in London was a business building, for goodness sake. He’d seen the reception, the elevator with the little uniformed operator, the long carpeted corridor to Gabe’s fantastic suite of offices with the superb views. OK, those views were strange and he’d been prevented from going outside, but that had been because the limousine was urgently needed. Wasn’t it?

Nick stood up and paced across the room. “The office is both Heaven and Hell, but what you see is an office as you couldn’t possibly comprehend the reality. It’s a representation, like the film we showed you.”

“But you asked about the mill, Amelia,” said Gabe, “Doing it up and making it into a going concern is our gift to the village for their unwitting involvement in The Plan. You and Nigel get the pleasure of doing the things you both love, the workmen will be well paid and also get enormous job satisfaction, and once it’s up and running, it will bring employment and visitors willing to spend money into the village. So there you have it. Everyone wins.”

White-lipped, Amelia whispered, “I don’t believe it; I don’t believe any of it.”

Nick sneered, “Perhaps you’d like a little more proof? Are you sure you don’t want to see the film? Then perhaps I should summon my mascot!”

“Nick-” there was both a warning and a plea in Gabe’s voice as the air rapidly chilled and their ears were assaulted by a horrid, grating buzz.

Nigel quickly crossed to the sofa and sat beside Amelia, pulling her into his arms as a huge and monstrous shape shimmered in front of the window. The sight of it made his skin crawl, and his nostrils twitched as an unpleasant smell pervaded the room. Amelia’s hand flew to her throat. With an ear-splitting screech, the thing fully formed and stretched its bat-like wings with a noise like a rug being heartily thwacked with carpet-beaters. It’s great head was horned, its beak hooked with razored edges, its powerful body covered in leathery scales. It was truly a dreadful, terrifying thing that surely belonged in the Prehistoric Age.

“On second thoughts,” drawled Nick, his eyes like flint, “I really don’t think this is a good idea: he looks hungry.”

The creature flickered and flared briefly before fading away to nothing, and the smell of raw sewage instantly went with it.

“How about my mascot then?” chirped Gabriel, desperately trying to lighten the mood.

Another bird, much smaller, appeared in the same place by the window, but this one had brightly-coloured plumage and was breathtakingly lovely. It flew on sapphire blue wings tipped with white, it’s long tail feathers fluttering like golden ribbons, and landed on Gabe’s outstretched hand.

“My bird of paradise,” he said softly, stroking its scarlet breast.

Amelia sighed, “Oh! Its gorgeous.”

The bird immediately flew to her and sang a song of such haunting beauty that her eyes filled with tears.

“Enough of this,” barked Nick, “let’s get to business.”

The bird disappeared in an instant, leaving in its trail the scent of vanilla and mint which Nigel and Amelia thankfully inhaled.

Nick disappeared for a while, then came back pressing buttons on the remote control that was now familiar to Nigel. The screen came down from the ceiling. Under his arm, Nigel could see that Nick carried the buff folder that he and Amelia had prepared, the folder that contained brief profiles of everyone he’d met or heard about in the village. Their jobs, skills, hobbies, their likes and dislikes.

“Are we going to watch another film?” asked Nigel, hoping the answer would be no.

“Nope. This also serves as a whiteboard. We can write on it and rub it off.” He waggled a packet of coloured pens, selected the black one and drew two vertical lines so the screen was divided into three columns. They were perfectly straight and perfectly spaced.

Gabe was quiet, but his body language was shouting that he didn’t want to participate in whatever was coming.

“Right,” Nick, now cheerful, had a red felt pen in his hand. “Who can name the Seven Sins?”

Nobody answered.

“Come on, come on! How about you, Nigel? Just one or two to get us started?”

Having not the faintest idea where this was leading, Nigel blew out his cheeks and came up with Pride and Envy.

“Good, good, I like those.” Nick wrote them up. “I well remember how you envied my sartorial elegance the first time we met. How about you, Amelia?”

Nigel thought she wouldn’t join in, but she seemed to have decided to rise to the challenge.

“Gluttony and Lust, I think. Wrath is another one. And is Greed the same as Gluttony, or a different sin?”

“Oh well done!” Nick pranced around like a game show host, clearly enjoying himself. “Gluttony and Greed are, I grant you, closely related, but they are different sins – gluttony is all about wanton self-indulgence, whereas greed is about selfish and uncharitable acquisition. So, that’s six. And I’ll add the seventh, because we don’t want to be here all day.” He wrote the word ‘Sloth’ on the whiteboard then read through the list, eyes aglow, pronouncing each sin with relish.

He stepped back and they all regarded the seven words written in the column on the left hand side. Nick took the blue pen from the pack and handed it to Gabe. “The Seven Heavenly Virtues, brother.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” smiled Amelia, “Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Justice, Hope-”

“Duh-uh!” said Nick. “You said Hope twice. Shall we play charades to give you a clue?”

“OK, OK, Nick! Let her think.” Gabe was sharp with his brother, but his eyes were soft on Amelia.

She said, “I can’t think of the others, sorry.”

Gabe wrote the remaining two on the board. “Temperance and Prudence. Such wonderful words, aren’t they?”

Now there were two lists on the screen, in identical, neat calligraphy. The centre column was still blank.

“Right, Nigel, who’s the most unpopular person in the village?”

Something in Nick’s tone made Nigel highly suspicious, but though his mind raced he still couldn’t guess what they were up to and couldn’t find his voice to ask. But Amelia, with narrowed eyes, posed the question he hadn’t been able to form in his mind, “Why do you want to know?”

“Now, now, Amelia, this is all part of what we’re paying you for. Nigel has been here getting to know the villagers for a reason. You’re about to find out what that reason is. ”

Gabe jumped in. “There’s nothing to worry about, I promise you. This is the good part.”

“Okaaaay,” said Nigel, trusting Gabe in a way he would never trust Gabe’s brother. “Well, then, I’d have to say Violet Cattermole.”

Gabe wrote her name up in the middle column. “Yes, that’s what we thought.”

“Is there anyone else?” demanded Nick. “What about Freddie Fordingbridge?”

Nigel was very surprised. “Freddie? No, he’s very nice and polite and extremely popular with everyone.”

“Ah, but according to your report he spends hours playing violent war games on his Xbox, the bloodier the better-”

“But that doesn’t make him bad,” Amelia said, “Lots of young lads are like that.”

“Well how about Stanley Hubertus Invincible Trout, then, he’s-” and, to everyone’s amazement, Nick collapsed into a fit of giggles.

They looked at him with raised eyebrows. “I heard something about our Stanley Trout,” he gasped, wiping his eyes, “Apparently, some youngsters used to play a version of hopscotch out in the street. One would throw a pebble into a chalked grid and as they hopped to the pebble, the chant would be: Stanley-Hubert-us-Invin-cible-Trout, take his ini-tials-and-shout-the-word-out. Then they’d all scream SHI-”

“OK, OK, we get the drift,” said Gabe.

Nigel chuckled, too, but then said, “Everyone likes Stanley actually, except Violet who doesn’t like anyone, he’s a nice chap, knowledgeable and great fun to talk to. You just need to be able to hold your breath for a long time. No, I think I would have to say it’s Violet. Everyone here is so pleasant, that one sour old lady really stands out like a sore thumb. She’s bad tempered and rude, and very mean to her poor sister, Hilda, something to do with Hilda taking Violet’s boyfriend way back when. They haven’t spoken since Hilda married him.”

Gabe circled Violet’s name on the screen. “Well, you said it when we saw her in the pub. She has money, her sister doesn’t, and Violet has no intention of helping because she’s still harbouring a grudge. So, I think it would be fitting to tempt her with Charity. Nick? Do you agree?”

Nick nodded, but didn’t sound very enthusiastic when he replied, “It’s as good as any, I suppose.”

“Well, that’s agreed then. Let’s have a coffee break shall we? Amelia, let me show you around the kitchen.”

Nigel watched Amelia as she wandered around the amazing kitchen in open-mouthed wonder. Anyone would admire such sleek, clean lines and all those gadgets, especially someone like Amelia who loved cooking but only had the most basic kitchen in their tiny flat. Gabe, getting more and more excited, showed her how everything worked, in between making and pouring copious amounts of their special-blend coffee. Nigel suspected the angels were addicted to it.

Every time Nick suggested going back to the screen and getting on with things, Gabe would pour everyone another cup and hand round slices of one of Glen Perkins’s Victoria sponge cake. Nigel, beginning to shake after so much caffeine, had the distinct impression that Gabe was delaying going back to that screen and those lists. When they could drink no more coffee and the cake was gone, and everything in the kitchen had been admired twice over by Amelia, Nick actually grabbed Gabe by the arm and dragged him into the living room. Nigel couldn’t help but notice how Gabe’s shoulders drooped when Nick let him go.

Nick picked up the red pen. “Now then, Nigel. Who would you say is the most popular person in the village?”

A sound issued from Gabe’s throat that was like a sob. He sank down on the sofa next to Amelia and grasped her hand. His other hand went to his mouth, and he started chewing at a fingernail. Amelia’s expression was one of dawning realisation.

“Nigel?” Nick stood by the screen, his grey eyes, very dark now, fixed on Nigel.

“Um, it’s hard to answer that one,” Nigel hedged, “as I said before, there are so many nice people here.”

“Indeed. But one or two must stand out, I would think?”

Nigel stared at the words on the screen. On the right were the Seven Virtues. There was Violet Cattermole’s name with an arrow pointing to Charity. On the left were the Seven Sins. He had a horrible, nauseating feeling he knew where this was going.

He squared his shoulders and held his hand out for Amelia. “We don’t want to play this game.”

“Game?” The word exploded into the room from Nick, and he seemed to grow a foot taller as he blocked their exit. “You think this is a game? We told you what this was about! We told you we needed to practice before we could change over.”

“Yes, you did, but I didn’t know that meant you would start meddling with lives like this!”

Gabe put his hands up and said, “We didn’t make the rules, Nigel, but we have to abide by them. We’ve been in our roles for an awfully long time and I don’t know how it feels to tempt someone into sin, and Nick doesn’t know how it feels not to do it. So you see, the Boss demands that we experience a reversal of our current roles in order for us to prepare for our new ones.”

“Well we won’t help you choose who gets the bad deal, that’s too much to ask,” exclaimed Amelia,

“You’ve already done it,” said Nick carelessly, pointing to the file. “I was just hoping to inject a little fun into the proceedings.”

The blood drained from Nigel’s face as he looked wildly from Nick to Gabe and back again.

Gabe pulled a large handkerchief from his pocket and swiped at the tears filling his eyes. “It wouldn’t matter who you said, Nigel. You’re right in calling this a game, because he’s already decided.”

“Who? Who has he decided on?”

Gabe’s voice was a mere whisper. “Lorelei Dove.”

Amelia stalked over to Nick, fury on her face. “Do you mean to tell me,” she said, her voice very low and dangerous, “that some poor, unsuspecting person is going to wake up one morning and find themselves afflicted with … with … wrath or lust or something else equally nasty?”

“And what’s wrong with lust?” he leered at her, “You can have a great deal of fun with lust. But I notice you say nothing about the mean Miss Cattermole waking up to find herself feeling charitable towards her fellow men.”

“Please, Amelia, please,” cried Gabe, “it’s not as bad as you think. We have the power to make people do whatever we want, but really we are only allowed to tempt them – it’s up to them whether or not to give in.”

“But that’s still not fair! They don’t know what you’re going to do!”

Nick threw his hands up in exasperation. “Well, it wouldn’t be temptation if we told them, would it? You don’t seem to understand what that word means; it means lure, coax, beguile…”

“What if I told them, warned them what you’re going to do?” she hissed.

“Well, you could, of course, but what, exactly, would you tell them? Do you think for a moment they would believe you? You don’t even believe you!”

“Well, I’m getting there…”

“Yes, dear, because we have allowed it.”

“Don’t you patronise me!”

“You shouldn’t let yourself get so upset in your condition, you know.”

“How dare you!”

Amelia and Nick were now almost nose to nose. Amelia, breathing heavily, her fists clenched and eyes narrowed with fury, glared up at Nick, but Nick didn’t glare back. He had tilted his head and was studying Amelia as if she were a rare butterfly caught in a specimen jar.

Nigel could see Nick’s admiration. He wasn’t surprised; his wife was magnificent anyway, but even more so when she was angry. Gabe, on the other hand, was still slumped on the sofa, a picture of utter dejection.

“OK, OK, that’s enough. Break it up you two,” said Nigel, stepping forward and gently pulling Amelia away.

After holding Nick’s amused gaze for another few seconds, and clearly having to fight the urge to slap his face really hard, Amelia finally relented and sagged into Nigel’s arms. “And to think,” she said, looking sadly at Gabe and then at Nigel, “that we’re involved in this.”

Nigel didn’t reply. It was true. He, especially, was involved. He’d used his private eye skills to find out what he could about the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold and typed up the profiles before he’d handed the information to the angels. All he’d done was provide basic information, but he still felt horribly guilty.

“Amelia,” said Gabe gently, patting her arm, “it won’t do any good to interfere, you know. We have to do this, you see, and, we’re hoping to tempt one person from being bad to good, don’t forget, so things may turn out all right in the end. Let me explain once more. The bottom line is, Nick has to learn how it feels to be responsible for a person changing for the good, so he can remember how it is to be an angel rather than a devil-”

The Devil,” if you please, interrupted Nick.

“Oh shut up Nick, I’m trying to explain things here. What was I saying? Ah yes – and I, well, I have to experience it the other way round. You know, lead someone into Temptation and all that.”

“But doesn’t a person get to choose whether they’re good or bad?” said Nigel.

“Yes, Nigel, they do. I keep telling you, we can only tempt them. They can choose not to be tempted. But one way or the other we have to achieve a result or the change can’t happen, so if not Violet and Lorelei, it will be someone else and someone else again until it happens.”

Nick snorted. “Yeah, but it won’t come to that. Humans are weak. Easily led. It’ll be a piece of cake – which, as it happens, is a good metaphor, since I’ve chosen the sin of Gluttony for the luscious Lorelei Dove – and you, Nigel, will be explaining to the world that I am the good guy loved by all and Gabe is the one in the dark mantle.”

Amelia walked up to Gabe and peered into his eyes. Softly, she said, “And you don’t want it to happen, do you?” She returned to Nigel’s side and pronounced, “As far as I can see, the biggest problem you’re going to have in all of this is each other. Gabe, you’re a lovely man … angel … whatever. It simply shines from you. Do you think you can really be another Lucifer?”

“And what about me?” snarled Nick, “Don’t you think I can be a good angel?”

Her withering look said it all.

~~~~~

Next episode: ‘sweet charity’

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