019 Orders From Above: Episode 19 ‘the baker gets timely advice and a new recipe’

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

secret recipe.jpg

Gabe was not happy to be heading for the bakery at 4.30 in the morning, but Nick, who’d  finally stopped sulking after the failed temptations of Violet Cattermole and Lorelei Dove, was determined that they would go together.

“Come on, bro,” Nick cajoled.  “It’ll be interesting!”

“The only thing that interests me about baking is eating the result. How do you know that he starts so early anyway?”

“It’s all in Nigel’s profiles, which you would know if you bothered to read them. Perkins wakes very early without the aid of an alarm clock and leaves his warm double bed without waking his wife, who doesn’t rise until four hours later. He tiptoes downstairs in his dressing gown, and into the kitchen, where the only sound is a loudly ticking clock. Laid out for him by Gwen the night before are his work clothes, a large, clean white apron, and a mug with a spoonful of instant coffee and two spoonfuls of sugar in it. Then he gets dressed while the-”

Gabe butted in, “Are you really telling me that Nigel’s reports go into such fine detail?”

“Well, he hasn’t done a bad job, but, no, he could hardly know all the really intimate details. So I’ve checked them out for myself.”

“You mean you’ve been spying?”

Nick tutted at that but ignored the question and carried on speaking. “Where was I? Oh yes. Perkins gets dressed while the kettle boils, and carries his mug of tea through to the bakery ready to start on the dot of 5 o’clock. By the time the ovens have reached the correct temperature, the tea is drunk and the ingredients for the various batches of bread and rolls, some of which have been left to rise overnight, are spread about the worktops, as well as whatever he needs for that day’s cakes.”

“That’s all very fine, but as I’ve already said, as much as I love bread and cakes – particularly cakes – I have no wish to stand in a hot kitchen watching them get made. And what will Glen Perkins think, us just turning up unannounced and interrupting his work?”

“He won’t mind, Gabe. And if he does, it’ll be very easy to make him unmind.”

“I still can’t see why you’re so keen to do this and why you have to drag me along.”

Ignoring Gabe’s remark again, Nick chattily passed on more information about the baker, “Our man Perkins used to sell high-spec kitchen equipment all over Europe. He and Gwen had a very fine house in Richmond, where Debbie was born. He made good money because he was good at his job, but when the company hit hard times, he took voluntary redundancy and used the money and his savings to return to the place of his and Gwen’s birth and buy this little place. He’d had a dream of having his own bakery ever since his mother had shown him how to make sourdough bread when he was eight or thereabouts.”

“Really?” said Gabe, brightening up as he loved to hear nice stories about people and, anyway, he couldn’t hold a bad mood for long.

“Yes. And his wife, the magnificent Gwen, had been more than happy to move back to the village as well, thinking it would be a better place to raise their delightful young daughter. Ah, here we are.” Nick peered through the darkened window of the bakery. “There’s light at the back, let’s go round.”

They went down a narrow alley and through the wooden gate that led into the Perkins’ tiny garden. The gate creaked on its hinges and Nick cursed as a big ginger tomcat yowled as it darted between his legs. The back door opened a crack, spilling light onto the dark lawn, and Glen called out, “Is someone there?”

Nick replied, “Good morning, Mr Perkins. I hope you don’t mind me calling round, but you did say that I could watch you bake if I could ever get myself up in time. Well, this morning I awoke particularly early and I thought, aha, today is the day to take Mr. Perkins up on his word, and my brother decided to come along too!”

Gabe could see that Glen Perkins was struggling to remember promising any such thing to anyone, but he stood back to allow them both into his kitchen.

Nick stepped over the threshold ahead of Gabe, and rubbing his hands in anticipation, said, “I’m really excited about this, you know!”

Glen watched in bewildered silence as Nick walked over to where the ingredients and tins were laid out, studying them for a bit and then turning to the two large ovens, which were working themselves up to temperature. Gabe heard a strangled cry come from Glen’s throat when Nick opened the door to one of the ovens, and stuck his head right in.

“Fascinating!” echoed back at them, then Nick withdrew his head, closed the oven door and turned to Glen, his beaming face scarlet from the intense heat, and trilled, “Let’s get started then, shall we?”

Glen Perkins merely nodded, cleared his throat, and then, like a man in a trance, launched into an explanation of what he was about to do. “It gets pretty messy in here, what with the flour getting everywhere, so may I suggest you wear an apron? You certainly don’t want flour or dough on your smart clothes, do you?”

He opened a small cupboard by the door that led into the café and took out two freshly laundered aprons.

Nick, more delighted than Gabe had seen him in a long time, shrugged off his leather jacket, hung it on a hook on the door, and donned the apron; Gabe more slowly followed suit. As Glen Perkins was more than twice the size of him and his brother, the aprons should have wrapped round them twice with room still to spare, but once he and Nick had tied theirs round their waists with neat bows, they seemed to have readjusted themselves to a perfect fit.

Gabe stood beside Nick and they watched in absorbed concentration as Glen worked with the risen dough, knocking and shaping loaves and rolls before putting them into tins and onto baking sheets. Some were wholemeal, some brown, some white, but all quite plain.

Nick broke the silence. “Have you ever thought of making something a little, um, more interesting?” he asked, once all the trays and tins had been slid into the ovens.

Glen set about cleaning the work surface of flour and sticky bits of dough so he could start on the cakes. “No, Mr. De Angelo, sadly there’s no call here for exotic breads. The villagers like their loaves and rolls plain; they wouldn’t buy bread with herbs and seeds in it.”

“Are you sure about that?”

Clearly a little irritated by Nick’s questioning of his expertise, Glen banged his bowls and utensils into the sink with too heavy a hand causing one to cracked and fall apart in two pieces. Glen said a very rude word before exclaiming, “That was my favourite mixing bowl. What a nuisance.”

“Oh, I’m sure it can be fixed,” cried Gabe. “Here, give the pieces to me. I promise you I’ll bring it back good as new.”

Behind Glen’s back, Nick rolled his eyes, then went on the attack again. “Well, now, Glen, I wonder if you’re right about the villagers not wanting fancy breads? I happen to know that Mrs. Capsby buys sundried tomato and green olive ciabatta from the bakery in Monkton Combe every Saturday, and Mrs. Fordingbridge buys cinnamon rolls there because Freddie loves them. The Reverend Hartley Cordwell is very fond of their walnut bread, so, you see…..”

Glen, paying attention now, handed the pieces of his mixing bowl to Gabe, and faced Nick, who casually informed him, “I also happen to know that that very bakery is closing down soon as the owners are retiring to the coast. The new buyers are going to turn it into a gift shop – which will fill the residents of Monkton Combe and Ham-Under-Lymfold and many other villages with despair. Think about it – where will Olive get her olive ciabatta and Freddie his sweet rolls then, hmm? Must the good vicar deliver his sermons without being fortified by walnut bread? Why make them go all the way into the city when they could get want they want right here?”

“Well, I-”

It slowly dawned on Gabe that Nick had just performed a Very Good Deed for Glen Perkins of his own volition, and that’s why he’d wanted Gabe there, to be a witness to it. He beamed at Nick to show his approval, and said to Glen, “My brother is right, Mr. Perkins. If they have to go into the city, they’d most likely buy all their bread there to make the effort worthwhile. But not if you start offering such things now. It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?”

“And let’s not forget that the new restaurant will be in need of plentiful supplies of fancy breads. ”

Glen slowly nodded his head. “Um, maybe you’re right… I’d certainly enjoy making such things.”

“Good man!” said Nick, patting Glen on the shoulder. “You mull that over then, but in the meantime let’s do some cakes. We’re particularly fond of cakes, aren’t we, Gabe! In fact, I have a rather special recipe to share with you, if you’ve got some fine dark chocolate handy.”

***

Back at the mill, Gabe sat at the breakfast bar, carefully gluing the bits of Glen’s mixing bowl back together. “Feels good, doesn’t it, brother?”

“What?”

“You’ve just done something really kind by showing Glen Perkins the way to improve his business!”

Nick shrugged his shoulders and a sly look came into his eyes as he said with studied nonchalance, “How about we count it as an achievement for Charity, and leave Violet to her wonderful, nasty little ways?”

“Oh, Nick, is that why you did it? But there was no tempting, and Glen is already a good person so there was no change of any kind! You performed a straightforward act of beneficence and you should feel proud of yourself, but Violet is still your target.”

Nick shrugged. “Oh well, it was worth a try. And at least we’ll get some decent bread and cakes around here now.”

“Always an ulterior motive with you, isn’t there?” Gabe held up Glen’s bowl. “Good as new, with a little bit of glue and a touch of angel magic.”

Next episode coming soon

~~~~~

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017 Orders From Above: Episode 17 ‘sweet charity’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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Gabe was in a very good mood, because today Nick was going to begin the process of tempting Violet Cattermole from being a rich, mean old lady into becoming a rich, generous old lady. He’d hummed all the way through breakfast, causing Nick to growl at him at a couple of times, and he’d taken great satisfaction in reminding Nick that he had to learn how to appreciate the Seven Virtues, not denigrate them. “You seem to forget, brother, that you must put the old Lucifer behind you and remember that you are returning to the hierarchy as a reformed archangel.”

“Fsst!” or something like it had been the sour reply as Nick had stalked away.

There had been a light rain shower during the night, but the day had dawned dry and bright. They spotted Violet sitting on the bench on the green, the flowerpot hat on her head and a large bag of toffees at her side. She was chewing furiously while she monitored the goings-on in the neighbourhood.

“Now, Nick,” whispered Gabe as they approached, “All you need to do is to entice her in the nicest and politest possible way to give you one of her sweets. I’ll show you how it’s done, okay?”

They sat down on the bench, one either side of Violet. With a ‘tut’ of irritation she snatched up her toffees before Nick could squash them. She eyeballed them both with her most haughty expression, but Gabe responded with a hearty, “Good morning, Miss Cattermole. Lovely day!”

“What do you want?” she snapped, false teeth clacking.

Gabe pointed to the colourful bag she clutched on her lap and said in the politest of tones, “I love toffees, may I have one?”

“No, you may not.”

“Well that’s rather mean,” Nick grinned, and before she had time to slap his hand away, had grabbed a few toffees from the packet.  “Mint, nope. Butter, nope. Ah, treacle, that’s more like it!” He removed the red wrapper, popped the sweet into his mouth, and started chomping noisily. “Mmm, delicious.” That was followed by a liquorice and then a rum & raisin, the wrappings carelessly dropped to the grass at his feet.

“Nick!” hissed Gabe, “Pick up your litter! And that’s not temptation, that’s force!”

Nick, making no move to pick up the wrappings, just laughed, “Yeah, but I’ve got a toffee and you haven’t.” He waved a green-wrapped sweet in the air, “Want this mint one?” Gabe huffily refused, so Nick nudged Violet and said, “See it all from here, do you?”

The old lady pursed her lips like a drawstring bag and a malicious gleam came into her black, piggy eyes. “That I do. Lived here all my life, and I’ve watched people arrive, born in the village or come from elsewhere, and I’ve seen them go, either to pastures new or to the graveyard in a coffin. Way back I saw young Jack Heavysides sneak out of his father’s pub to pay a visit to Carmen Watson, as she was then, who was obviously not as pious as she made herself out to be. Always said she wanted to be a nun but she became Mrs. Heavysides quick enough, because there was a baby on the way. Said it was premature when it arrived a month early!”

“Naughty Carmen,” drawled Nick. “Who else did you spy on?”

“I watched Gwen Brown set her cap at Glen Perkins, brazen as you please and she had him marching him up the aisle within a year. And now there’s that Debbie Perkins, nothing but a wayward teenager whose legs are obscenely long and skirts far too short.”

“Ooh,” said Nick, “Spiteful little cat, aren’t you! What about Lorelei Dove over there, what do you think of her?”

“Nick,” hissed Gabe, “Stop it.”

“Oh, I’m sure Violet is more than happy to talk.” He nudged her again, “Right, Violet?”

“The hussy has a new boyfriend.” Violet pointed to Lorelei’s tiny cottage opposite. “Stays overnight he does, and I know full well there’s only one bedroom over there. And sometimes she doesn’t come home at night, and there’s no need to guess where she goes. Puts a little case in her car, and off she goes with a silly grin on her freckled face.” She was glassy eyed now, as if in a trance.

“That’s enough, Nick! Let’s start again, and do it properly this time.” Gabe touched Violet’s arm. “Good morning, Miss Cattermole. Lovely day!”

“What do you want?” she snapped.

“A toffee would be nice,” said Nick.

“Then go and buy your own, young man. I’m a pensioner, you know!” She clutched her bag of toffees to her chest and tried to shrink away from the brothers.

But for the next hour they kept her there, held tight between them, while they chattered about everything from the narrow confines of village life to the political situation in Brazil. Nick kept asking for a toffee, and Violet kept refusing, not daring to open the bag to take any for herself in case it was taken as an invitation.

Gabe could see that what Nick really wanted to do was wrestle the bag from the old lady and scoff the lot. He wasn’t even trying to come up with another way in to tempt Violet to niceness.

Nick eventually came up with, “See much of your sister?”

Gabe shook his head with a warning, thinking that this was not a good opening gambit.

Violet sucked in her breath and fixed Nick with furious eyes, “What’s me and Hilda got to do with you?”

Nick shrugged. “I just wondered. I mean, you’ve got your nice house and all this money, thanks to us, and she doesn’t, so it stands to reason that you might like to help her out.”

“I’ll have you know, you cheeky devil, that my sister’s house is far larger than mine!”

“Oh sure,” Nick drawled, highly amused at being called a cheeky devil, “But I bet yours doesn’t have a leaking roof, rotting floorboards and heating so ancient it gave up the ghost years ago.”

This was met with a furious intake of breath and Gabe watched in alarm as Violet’s face turned a mottled purple with indignation.

“Excuse me,” he muttered, “I just need a word with my brother.” He scooped up the discarded wrappings, grabbed Nick’s arm and pulled him away.

“Nick, you’re going about this all wrong! You’re not tempting her to do a good deed, you’re just annoying her.”

“I know, isn’t it fun! She’s such a splendid woman!” He looked back over his shoulder at her and sighed. “I like her just the way she is.”

“Of course you do, but I must remind you, brother, of your mission. It’s Charity, Nick, and only Charity. And all you have do is get a toffee given to you willingly. Now let’s try again.”

Nick’s lip curled as he went back to the bench and sat down, lightly touching Violet’s arm before saying with a false joviality, “Good morning, Miss Cattermole. Lovely day!”

“What do you want?” Violet snapped.

“A toffee would be nice,” he replied.

“Then go to the shop and buy some. I’m not a charity, you know!”

Gabe frowned at the irony of her choice of words. This was obviously going to take a lot longer than they’d thought. “Let’s go, Nick.”

They traipsed back to the mill and sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, coffee and cake in front of them.

“All you had to do was get Violet to give you a single toffee. But no, you had to steal a handful and then get her all worked up about her sister. Now we’ve got to think of something else.”

“Bad habits are hard to break, bro.”

“It doesn’t bother me, Nick.” He gave a careless shrug, trying not to show any sign that he was actually delighted at Nick’s mess up. But Gabe was an angel and angels did not renege on their promises. And this particular Promise, one with a capital P, simply could not be avoided for long. He knew he had a duty to remind Nick of what was at stake, but he couldn’t bring himself to look his brother in the eye as he muttered, “After all, it just means I get to stay in Heaven longer.”

That made Nick sit up. “Blast it, you’re right! I hadn’t considered that!” He hopped off the stool and paced the floor. “All right, Gabe, while I work out my next move you can take your turn. All you have to do is tempt Lorelei Dove into having something loaded with calories. She was a greedy girl once who ate half a dozen cakes a day, so it should be easy. One mouthful of chocolate cake or whatever should trigger Gluttony, and then I’ll make sure I sort out our delicious Violet Cattermole. Such a shame to have to meddle with such a glorious sourpuss, but it has to be done!”

Gabe sighed. Why oh why did he have to be so honest all the time? Why couldn’t he have kept silent and let Nick just bumble along, getting it wrong? Now, he was sure, his brother would not make the same mistake again, and the time was creeping ever nearer when he, sweet and gentle Gabriel, would have to accept the horrid, evil mantle of Hell.

~~~~~~~

Next episode: ‘gluttony’

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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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015 Orders From Above: ‘It’s so hard to explain, Amelia’

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

speech bubbles.jpg

“And the screen furled itself back up to the ceiling and I half expected to find myself sitting in the middle of a row of red plush chairs with empty cartons and sweet wrappers swirling round my feet.” Exhausted at relating the long and complicated story, Nigel took a deep draught from his can of beer and looked at Amelia, waiting for her reaction. For days he’d agonised over this conversation, but he hadn’t been able to put it off any longer. It wasn’t going well.

“Angels,” Amelia said now, with a measured and somewhat dangerous calm, “You expect me to believe we’ve been employed by angels?”

“Archangels, actually.”

“Gabe is Gabriel and Nick is Lucifer?”

“Yes. And Uri is Uriel, who’s here as an observer for Michael.”

“And that would be the Michael, would it, the guardian and protector with the flaming sword and all that? Oh really, Nigel! I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous. You’re having a joke, right? So stop being so silly and tell me what really happened.”

“I just told you what really happened! It’s not a joke, Amelia, it really isn’t. I wish it was.”

“Did they give you something, drugged coffee, or something in the cake, that made you hallucinate?”

Nigel sighed. “But why would they drug me? My darling, I truly don’t know what to make of it. On my honour, I’ve told you the absolute truth. Gabe sprouted wings before my very eyes! And how can you explain what they’ve done to the mill? When I left there, and looked back, what I saw was the wreck of an old building with it’s door hanging off the hinges.”

“Like I said, some kind of hallucinogenic drug.”

“I can only say that it seemed very real to me at the time, and it still does.”

Amelia looked deep into his eyes, as if hoping to read his mind and find the truth there.

“OK,” she said eventually, “I’m going to play along. Setting aside the number of times we’ve met Gabe and Nick and they’ve behaved like perfectly normal human beings, we are now to believe that they are really Gabriel and Lucifer and they have to change angelic roles because some sort of disc has been dug up?”

“The Divine Instrument for Settlement of Conflict, yes.”

“Which has been found in Ham-Under Lymfold?”

“In the churchyard by the gravedigger, yes. He gave it to the vicar.”

“But the gravedigger has been replaced by another angel?”

“Uriel, yes.”

“So why hasn’t this great coin discovery hit the news? I mean, a – what did you call it again?”

“The Divine Instr-”

“Oh, never mind. The thing is, if something like that were dug up, surely there’d be some hue and cry about it? I mean, the thing must be incredibly valuable!”

“Yes, I know.” He dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his scalp. She was not going to believe this next bit either. “Apparently, the vicar cleaned it and activated it somehow and this gargoyle thing flew out of it and-”

Amelia rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “Oh, Nigel, please!”

“I’m telling you what they told me! So, Michael sent someone in to swap the DISC for a real gold coin, something went wrong, and they had to knock out the vicar with an amnesia dust. He doesn’t remember the DISC at all and he’s now in possession of a very valuable English coin.”

There was a long silence, and Nigel could tell by the tightness of Amelia’s jaw that she was holding her temper in check.

Eventually she said, sarcasm in every word, “It just gets better and better.”

He put his hand out to stop her rising from the sofa. “OK, OK, I can understand your scepticism, but you weren’t there! I’m telling you, Gabe and Nick-”

“You mean Gabriel and Lucifer, don’t you?”

“Yes, precisely! It’s so hard to explain, Amelia, but it was real. I’ve been over and over it a hundred times, but it’s as if I understand the truth in some part of my brain that I didn’t know I had.”

“Hmm. So, you’re telling me that all this is so that Lucifer gets to sit on a fluffy little cloud in Heaven strumming a harp, and poor old Gabriel turns into a creature with horns and hooves and takes up the dark throne of evil?”

“That about sums it up, yes, but only metaphorically speaking. I don’t think clouds, harps, hooves and horns come into it.”

“But Gabe sprouted wings, you said!”

“Only momentarily.”

She ignored that. “But before any of it can happen, they have to – what did you call it – practice?”

“Yes,” said Nigel wearily. “It’s been so long, you see, Gabe needs to get acquainted with sinners so he can run Hell efficiently, and Nick has to learn to be nice so he can return to the hierarchy and behave like a good little angel. I suppose they want to get close to ordinary people and, um, study them.”

“They could do that in their own office, surely? You said you went up more than a hundred floors, so they must employ thousands of people. Nigel, surely you know how ridiculous this sounds?”

“Oh, yes. I know exactly how ridiculous it sounds. But, the thing is, Amelia, even the office must have been an illusion. You try and find an office block in London that has 108 floors. Not only that, but their building has an impossible view! Tell me how a wrecked mill that’s been abandoned for years can become a fully furnished mansion inside a week. Explain to me how that appointment got into the diary and how we were given a business card we couldn’t read until they wanted us to be able to read it. And what about-”

“All right, all right!” Amelia held up her hand for him to stop. She chewed her bottom lip. “I don’t know. But Nigel, just think for a minute. If these … these people … or whatever they are … can do all these fantastic things, why are they hiring you to renovate the mill? It seems such a …” she waved her hand in circles as she searched for the right words, such a pedestrian thing to do.”

Nigel shook his head; explaining the impossible was extremely tiring. “I didn’t ask them. Perhaps you can.”

“I’m not going there, not after what you’ve told me!”

“I know how crazy it sounds, Amelia, believe me. I saw it all, and it still sounds utterly mad. That’s why you must come to Ham-Under-Lymfold with me tomorrow, maybe see that blasted film for yourself. And you can ask your questions and then we’ll be able to talk about it properly and decide what to do.”

He waited. Amelia sat with her arms folded, her legs crossed, her whole body emanating utter confusion. Then she unfurled herself and sat up straight, and Nigel knew he’d won – at least for now.

“OK,” she said, raising her chin in a challenging manner, “I’ll go, if it’ll put a stop to this nonsense. Can we eat now? I’m hungry.” She glared at him and stood up, then sat down again. “There’s something else, isn’t there? I can tell by your face.”

Nigel hesitated before telling her, then blurted, “I’ve been chosen to be their Witness.”

Amelia gave him a long look and Nigel saw her jaw tighten again as she said, her voice withering and cold, “Witness?”

“You know, like, um, like the Gospels. I’m to inform the world that Lucifer has returned to Heaven and Gabe has-”

But he was talking to an empty room.

Next episode: deadly sins, heavenly virtues

~~~~~

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014 Orders From Above: Episode 14 ‘coup de foudre’

To read from the beginning of the story click here: Episode 1

coup de foudre

After making himself wait an agonizing three days it took an even more agonizing three attempts to dial the right number. After apologising twice to a gravel-voiced man who clearly did not like being telephoned by stuttering strangers, he punched the numbers out slowly and extra carefully then paced up and down while he waited for this vital call to be answered.

A woman, sounding rather breathless and distracted, said, “Yeff?”

His heart sank. He knew he’d dialled correctly this time… had she deliberately given him the wrong number? Had he read the signs wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time. “Er, sorry, I’m not sure I have the right number. Is Lorelei Dove there, please?”

“Yeff, thiff iff fshe,”

He didn’t remember her having a lisp.

There was a light clatter, then she spoke again, the lovely voice he remembered, “Yes, it’s me. I’m so sorry, I had a paintbrush in my mouth.”

Stephen, heartbeat accelerating, punched the air with joy and danced a little jig in his narrow hallway. It was her, it was really her!

“Are you there?”

“Yes, sorry. Hello! It’s Stephen George here. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time, are you doing a landscape painting or are you decorating?”

“It’s an animal portrait, actually, a sideline of mine to supplement the rather meagre teaching salary. I’m doing a gorgeous African rock python that’s eighteen feet long.”

“Must be a large canvas, then.”

Her warm laugh trickled into his ear. “She’s called Betty and I’m painting her all coiled up with her forked tongue coming straight out of the picture at you. It’s a retirement gift for one of the keepers at the zoo. So, Dr. George, any luck with my uncle’s coin?”

Stephen leaned against the wall because her voice was doing strange things to his insides. “Do call me Stephen. I’ve spoken to a coin expert about it, and he’s very excited. I… um… I hoped to be able to discuss things with you over dinner. I mean, are you free for dinner? Tonight?”

“Oh good golly yes!” laughed Lorelei, making Stephen go weak at the knees because she sounded so very keen to see him. Or maybe she was just excited about the coin?

“Great,” he said, “Will your uncle want to join us, do you think?” He hoped she could hear the reluctance in his voice at this proposal.

“Oh, I shouldn’t think so. I can report back to him.”

“Terrific! Do you know The White Lion in Monkton Ridge, opposite the monument?”

“Yes I know it, but I’ve never been inside.”

“It’s very nice, and they do excellent food. Shall I pick you up at 8?”

“Oh, are you sure? I’d be happy to meet you there.”

“I wouldn’t hear of it. Just tell me where to find you.”

She objected a little more, saying she didn’t want to take him out of his way, but his persistence won the argument. He scribbled down the directions she gave him.

“See you at 8, then, Stephen. Goodbye.”

Stephen put the phone down. She had sighed, definitely sighed, and he was sure it was with pleasure. Now, how could he occupy himself for the four hours in between now and the time he would, once again, be gazing at the heavenly Lorelei Dove?

He rushed upstairs, impatiently pulling off shirt, trousers and underwear as he went. He left them in a straggly line on the stairs and the landing, and dashed, naked, into the bathroom. A hot shower and a shave should use up some time.

Ten minutes later, still damp from the shower and dressed only in socks and tartan-patterned boxer shorts, Stephen started pulling clothes out of his wardrobe and flinging them on the bed. When he had an unsatisfactory heap of shirts and trousers, he started on his shoes, scattering them on the floor.

“I need help,” he said out loud.

He ran downstairs and keyed in a number on the phone. It was answered almost immediately, and he didn’t give the person at the other end a chance to even say hello.

“Stella! Stella, it’s me. Stephen. Help!”

Stella’s husband laughed, “An emergency, eh? Just a minute, I’ll call Stella.”

Stephen tapped his foot impatiently.

“Yes, Stephen dear, what can I do for you?” Stella said, amusement very evident in her voice.

“Stella, listen. I’ve got a date with Lorelei Dove. You remember? She came to the Centre with that coin? Of course you remember, you remember everything. You probably already know that I’m crazy about her! Did you notice her hair? Her eyes? The freckles across her perfect nose?” He ran out of breath and stopped.

“And?”

“And what?”

“Is that what you called to ask me? If I remember all her many attributes?”

“Uh? Oh, sorry, I’m all over the place. Stella, listen …”

“Stephen, dear, I am listening, and you are babbling. I’m delighted that you have a date with that lovely young woman. I suppose you don’t know what to wear, is that it?”

“Stella, you are amazing.”

“I know, dear, I know. Where are you going?”

“The White Lion.” He felt panic rising, “Gosh, Stella, is that a good place to take her? Should I be taking her to a swanky restaurant in Bath instead?”

“No, dear, I think the White Lion is a very good choice for a first date, it’s cosy and informal; the state you’re in you wouldn’t be able to handle all the cutlery in a posh place. Now then, is that pale blue striped shirt you bought last month clean and pressed? Good. Now how about the dark grey flannel trousers I picked out for you at Mason’s? Good. Wear those. Your black brogues, polished of course. Leather jacket. Don’t overdo the aftershave. OK? Well, have a wonderful time, and I look forward to hearing all about it tomorrow.”

Stephen heaved a sigh of relief and rushed upstairs to dress as instructed. He was buttoning his shirt when the phone rang again.

“Hello?” he said, out of breath from the dash back down the stairs.

“Stephen, dear, I forgot two things. First, your hair. Don’t forget to comb your hair, it can be rather wild.”

“Hair. OK, right. And the second thing?”

“Grey socks, Stephen. Not your cartoon ones. Lorelei needs to get to know you better before you start wearing those.”

“Gosh, Stella, you’re a witch and I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

In his room, he hopped on one leg as he tore off first one sock decorated with images of Tweety Pie and then the other, before frantically searching in his sock drawer for a clean pair of grey ones.

*

He found Lorelei’s delightful little cottage easily and she came outside as soon as his car drew up beneath the lamppost. He couldn’t remember what they talked about on the short drive, but it seemed like no time at all before they were settled at a table in front of the inglenook fireplace. Stephen, having consulted Lorelei for her preference, asked for a bottle of red wine to be brought over immediately so they could have a drink while they perused the menu. Now that they were seated opposite each other instead of side by side in his car, conversation seemed awkward. Stephen felt ridiculously tongue-tied, and it appeared that Lorelei felt the same.

“So,” said Lorelei, eventually, when the smalltalk had been exhausted, “what did your colleague, the coin expert say? I’ve been dying to know if it’s something special.”

Stephen gave her a rueful grin and held up his hands. “Confession time, I’m afraid, as I’ve brought you here under false pretences. Ambrose Alt, the expert I want to look at it, can’t come to the Centre so I’ve arranged to take the coin up to him next week. But I’m pretty sure you have got something special and I’ve emailed him a set of photographs and some detailed notes.” He swallowed a mouthful of wine for courage. “So, I can’t enlighten you at the moment, I’m afraid, but I did so want to see you again. I hope you’re not cross at the subterfuge?”

“Cross? Oh no,” breathed Lorelei, her gorgeous green eyes softening in a way that made him feel like he was melting inside, “I’m not at all cross.”

“Good, good.”

They gazed at each other.

Stephen was the first to blink, and he squeaked, “Have you decided what you’d like to eat?” He cleared his throat and said it again, melting even more at Lorelei’s warm laughter.

She chose a vegetable lasagne and rocket salad, and refused the bread when a basket of rolls was brought to the table.

“I’m sorry, I should have asked, are you a vegetarian? Will my eating steak be a problem for you?”

She laughed. “I don’t mind what you eat,” she said, “but yes, I am a vegetarian. I’d be vegan, only I like cheese and eggs too much. And, of course,” she held up her glass of wine, “some food and wines you might think are vegetarian actually aren’t and I’m too lazy to check the labels, so I guess I’m not a committed veggie at all.”

When their food arrived, Stephen immediately tucked in, and was worried when Lorelei took just a few bites then pushed her lasagne round the plate.

“Isn’t it any good?”

“It’s delicious. It’s just that I don’t have much of an appetite. My mother says I eat like a bird, and Uncle Hartley says that at least I’m a cheap date.” She blushed at that and apologised.

“I think you’re a wonderful date, Lorelei, and I’d buy you the most expensive item on the menu, should you want it. Except I think that might be lobster, and you wouldn’t want that.”

“I certainly wouldn’t!” She shuddered, “Boiling the poor thing alive.” She placed her knife and fork on her plate and took a sip of wine.

“Ah. Well, I shall remember never to order lobster.”

“Thank you,” Lorelei laughed, “Does that mean we’ll be having more dinners together?”

Stephen grinned happily and clinked his glass to hers, “Oh, I do hope so!”

By the time Stephen had driven Lorelei home, he was deeply, irrevocably in love, and the signals he had received from Lorelei gave him cause to think that she felt something for him too. When he escorted her to her door, she had reached up on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. He’d so badly wanted to crush her to his chest and kiss her lips, but had forced himself to settle for a promise that she would have dinner with him again very soon.

An hour later, in his own bed, he replayed every minute of the evening. She was perfect in every way. Her name. Her voice. Her figure. The colour of her hair. The scent she wore. He loved her company, the way their conversation moved easily from subject to subject. He wondered if he could wait another three days to call her.

No. He definitely couldn’t wait that long.

“Hello?” her voice was husky.

“It’s me.”

“Hello me.”

“I couldn’t wait to hear your voice again.”

“It’s lovely to hear your voice again.”

“Lorelei?”

“Mmm?”

“Do you believe in love at first sight?”

She laughed, a sound that tricked down the phone wires and into his ear like warm honey. “Coup de foudre? As a matter of fact, I do.”

“Lorelei, can I see you again?”

“Oh yes. Yes, please!”

“I’ll call you. Very soon. Good night, Lorelei. Sweet dreams.”

With the buzzing phone clutched to his chest, Stephen fell back against the pillows, heart racing. He didn’t recognise himself. He’d never, ever felt like this before, and he’d never, ever done anything like this before. But then, he’d never met anyone like Lorelei before.

As he drifted off to sleep he wondered if calling before breakfast tomorrow would be too soon.

Next episode: ‘It’s so hard to explain, Amelia’

~~~~~

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013 Orders From Above: Episode 13 ‘Popcorn and a Movie’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

popcorn

A large white screen slowly and noiselessly descended from the ceiling and flickered to life with a grainy black and white countdown from ten to zero. Sweat beading on his forehead, Nigel sat staring at it, bemused and befuddled by the strange turn of events. Everything else in the mill, including Gabe, Nick and Uri – had they really said they were angels? – seemed to recede from his vision. The sound of a hundred trumpets boomed from concealed speakers, forcing Nigel to clamp his hands over his ears to prevent his eardrums bursting.

“Sorry, sorry,” cried Gabe, hastily pressing buttons on a remote control to turn the volume down. “Is that better?” He gently pulled Nigel’s hands away from his ears, “I said, is that better? Here, have some popcorn.”

A huge red and white striped cardboard bucket was placed on Nigel’s lap. Nick leaned over and grabbed a handful for himself.

The screen turned a sparkly pale blue while a deep voice announced: “Welcome to the Great Hall of All Angels.

There was another trumpet volley, and the camera panned through billowing clouds to a colossal white building. The great, gilded doors, more than twenty feet tall, parted and swung slowly inwards, revealing a hall of breathtaking proportions. At the far end, a staggeringly beautiful stained glass window glowed in jewel colours. The scene panned over a golden altar on a high platform, at each end of which were candle holders eight feet tall bearing huge creamy candles. Large silver bowls overflowing with bunches of grapes and other fruits of all shapes and sizes covered the altar’s surface. Nigel registered the sounds of birdsong and tiny, tinkling bells as he gazed at the amazing scene opening up before him.

The narrator continued, and Nigel felt as if it was specifically directed at him: “If you could have been there – which you couldn’t, of course, because you didn’t exist then – you would have been dazzled by the light and laughter of ten thousand angels.”

And he was indeed dazzled.

“Aaaaagh! My eyes. You’ve burned my eyes!”

“We always forget, brother,” drawled Nick, taking another fistful of popcorn from Nigel’s bucket, “how weak is the flesh of mortal men. Give him a pair of sunglasses.”

Nigel wiped his streaming eyes and put on the dark glasses handed to him by Gabe.

“I’m so sorry, Nigel. Are you OK now?”

Nigel managed a nod and focused again on the screen, where a throng of shimmering figures milled about.

“That’s us,” said Gabe wistfully, “All of us. The whole hierarchy of angels. We’re waiting for Father.”

A bell rang, nine deep, solemn tolls; Nigel felt the reverberation rise through the soles of his feet to the hair follicles on his scalp. A figure, a head taller than all the others, stepped up onto the platform and raised a huge, gleaming sword. The blade burst into flames.

“That’s Michael,” whispered Gabe, and Nigel didn’t miss the awe and respect in his voice.

“Doesn’t wield that sword much these days, ” muttered Nick.

Gabe shushed him and touched Nigel’s arm. “Now, pay attention. I’ll explain things as we go along. Popcorn OK, is it? Sweet and salty, absolutely the best!”

Dumbstruck, Nigel shoved some popcorn into his mouth for something to do that felt vaguely normal and watched the movie unfold as he chewed. The babble of indistinct but animated conversations dropped and then fell away to silence. The angels’ wings and bright white gowns shimmered and quivered as a huge shadow with a glowing edge appeared above, below and around them.

“That’s our father,” whispered Gabe, clasping his hands and sighing with adoration, “You can’t see him as he really is, of course, because it would be too much for your fragile mind, so he’s kind of represented here in light and shadow.”

The buzz of excited voices and laughter started up again and reached a crescendo, before dropping once more to sibilant whispers. Nigel spotted Gabe – or Gabriel as he should think of him up there on screen – amongst the crowd and Nick, no, Lucifer, next to him.

Gabe stepped up to the screen and pointed out various angels.

“That’s Zadkiel. And those two giggling together are Cassiel and Raziel. Ooh, and there’s you, Uriel!”

Michael waved his sword and there was a lot of loud shushing until all the angels fell absolutely silent again and they all stood in alert stillness.

“You can’t hear Father’s words either,” said Nick with a mocking grin, “It would fry your brains. Literally.”

“That’s right,” chimed Gabe, throwing his brother a warning look. “Father believes it does us good to change roles every hundred thousand years or so, so what’s happening here is, as our names are called out, we step up to the altar to receive our new orders. See? And once they’re given, you’ll note that the angels kind of… dematerialise? Well, they rematerialise in that part of the cosmos to which they’d been assigned. Exciting isn’t it?”

Nigel numbly took another handful of the sticky popcorn and pushed it into his mouth. A particle in his bemused brain registered that the popcorn was absolutely the best sweet and salty he’d ever tasted.

The scene of the angels going up to the altar and disappearing went on for a while, until Nick snorted with impatience and picked up the remote to fast-forward the film. “Honestly, we’d be sitting here for decades if we were to watch every single assignment.”

Nigel had to look away, for the speed of the film made him nauseous. At last, Nick stopped the fast-forward at a point where just two figures stood before Michael in the Great Hall.

“Gosh,” said Gabe, stuffing more of Nigel’s seemingly bottomless bucket of popcorn and speaking with his mouth full, “I remember this so well. I got more and more excited as the places I really didn’t fancy were assigned to others.” His face took on a dreamy expression. “I was wondering, would I get Hephterion, with its silver skies and twin purple suns? Mazhtesh, which is entirely covered in ocean the colour of topaz? Either would have been very nice, thank you, but I really, really hoped it would be Eshmerien, which is populated with cute and cuddly, furry, chirrupy creatures that live harmless lives in beautiful magenta-leaved trees.”

“You mean there are such places?” asked Nigel incredulously.

Nick pressed the pause button and, his voice dripping with sarcasm, said, “Nigel, what humans know about the Universe wouldn’t even make a microscopic dot on the most microscopic of microscopic things.”

The figures on the screen started to move again. Despite the  dark glasses, Nigel’s eyes burned because he was finding it impossible to blink. Gabriel and Lucifer, larger than life against the brilliance of the screen, had turned and were looking at each other in confusion.

“Ah, now, you see us there? We’ve just been told that our destination was right where we’re standing now … Earth!” Gabe clapped his hands, clearly enjoying himself. Nick glowered at him.

Planet Earth, thought Nigel desperately. The blue planet. I’m on Earth. I am an Earthling. This is not happening.

Gabe started prattling again. “You humans think that Earth must be the most wonderful planet in the whole wide universe, but it isn’t really. Oh yes, the design of its geography and geology, its flora and fauna are the work of pure genius, but they’re not unique in the cosmos. Far from it! Angels have been on Earth since its beginning, of course, watching over what you call the primordial soup and on through the arrival of the great beasts that walked the land, flew in the air and swam in the oceans, followed by the new, improved and much smaller versions of birds, insects, sea creatures and plants that appeared.”

Nick stepped up in front of the screen to take over the story. His countenance was sorrowful, an expression Nigel would never have expected to see, as he said, “I was so innocent then.”

Nigel flicked his eyes from the two brothers standing near him, to the two, shimmering, quivering, winged creatures in the film.

Nick explained, “We were the only ones left and we knew at this point that we had been chosen for Earth. Then we were told about a new species. Humans.”

Gabe, who had been bouncing on his heels with impatience, butted in, “We found out that humans had been perfected after eons of frustration and many failed experiments, but, apart from a little niggle here and there, Father was pleased with the end result and expected great things of them. Of you,” he pointed at Nigel. “The male gender of the species handsome and strong, the females beautiful and placid. Of course, these attributes were not guaranteed in their offspring, but there’s only so much One can do.”

Nick said, “Father told us that he’d given them the entire planet to play in, although it was thought they’d largely avoid the North and South Poles, at least until they’d invented clothing, and the oceans would cause a few problems because you don’t have gills, and – and this was the pièce de résistance – for the first time ever, he’d taken the suggestion of one of the keen-as-mustard boffins that work in the laboratories and given all people brains that could operate beyond pure instinct.”

“In other words,” interjected Gabe, “You were given the capacity to choose your actions in a way a wild animal can’t…”

“If you don’t mind Gabe, I’m telling this part of the story. Now, where was I? Oh yes. All other creatures so far created lived purely by instinct, they didn’t really think beyond where their next meal was coming from, and where it would be safe for them to sleep so they wouldn’t, in turn, become a meal for something bigger and meaner. But a human can think great thoughts and make decisions and take responsibility…”

Gabe couldn’t help himself and butted in again, “It was something new and untried, and we had been specially chosen as your guardians!”

There was such pride in Gabe’s voice, but for the first time Nigel wanted to slap him rather than Nick. It was all too much.

But it wasn’t over yet.

“Specially chosen, my eye! I’d say we drew the short straw,” Nick drawled. “See us up there? Gabriel and Lucifer, full of joy and happy anticipation! Father’s words are burned into my memory. He cleared his throat and intoned in a sing-song voice:

“My children, humans will have an intellect way above anything else so far created, although, I have to admit, it will be hard to tell sometimes. I am experimenting by giving this new species a unique brain that will enable them to choose their actions and be accountable for them; but, as in all experiments, we need to run tests and analyse the results, and that’s where you two come in. I am particularly interested to discover which of them will be able to resist temptation to do bad things and which of them will dedicate their lives to selflessly doing good works. And to give them an incentive to be good, the boffins have come up with the notion of Paradise.”

The air above the angels turned from a white nothingness to an azure blue sky dotted with fluffy, gold-rimmed clouds. Unseen harps played beautiful music.

Gabe blew out his cheeks. “Nice, yes. But then Father said that there had to be an opposite otherwise it would be too easy, so there was also to be the concept of Hell.”

Lightning flashed and flickered in the Great Hall on the screen and Nigel watched Lucifer and Gabriel jump into each other’s arms, white-faced and clinging to each other like frightened children. The camera zoomed in on their terrified faces.

The ground beneath their feet turned from white nothingness to a roiling grey surface littered with rocks and scree. There was a deep rumble and the rocks reared and rolled and they had to let go of each other to keep their balance as the ground in front of them groaned and split with a mighty crack. It yawned open into a gaping, smoking hole.

The angels gingerly tiptoed forward, holding tightly on to each other’s sleeve, and peered over the ragged edge. The scene zoomed in for another close-up, this time to show bright red molten lava bubbling and burping far below, a veritable pit populated by menacing black figures wielding pitchforks. Flames like solar flares leapt upwards and singed the tips of the angels’ glorious wings.

The camera focused on the angels again as they both jumped smartly back from the brink and turned to face each other, their expressions mirroring blind panic.

“What you see is representative, of course,” drawled Nick, “There isn’t actually a stinking hole in the ground, Hell is far more sophisticated than that! But that’s by the by. The bottom line at this point was, one of us was to be the good angel and help humankind to be, well, kind to each other, and the other one would have to be, as it were, the bad angel taking care of the evil side of things.”

“Yes,” Gabe’s voice was tinged with sorrow, “and Father said we had to choose.”

Nick took up the story again. “Neither Gabriel nor me dared be the first to speak. Or move. We both understood the concept of ‘selecting a volunteer’, i.e. if no-one immediately puts their hand up to accept the mission, then the first one to blink, cough, scratch or fall to the ground in a dead faint, gets picked. We stood there like statues for, oh, I don’t know how long. Father went away to do other things, and kept popping back to see if we had come to a decision, but we neither spoke nor moved a muscle. He said he had more important things to do and handed the matter over to Michael, but we still didn’t move.”

Gabe said, “Michael also got exasperated with us, of course, and I asked if there wasn’t some other way to make the decision. He decided we’d flip for it, so our destiny was hinged on the toss of the Divine Instrument for Settlement of Conflict, the DISC. See?”

A large golden coin filled the screen. It flew high into the air, paused as if enjoying the view from up there, then tumbled down again, glinting as it spun over and over in the dazzling sunlight.

Nigel heard Lucifer say, “Heads, I stay.”

And at the exact same time Gabriel said, “Tails, I stay.”

The camera panned in to give a close-up of the DISC as it landed on the floor of the Great Hall, puffing up a small cloud of silvery dust. It teetered on its edge, turned slowly seven times, then tipped and fell with the merest tink of metal on stone.

The angels, clutching each other’s sleeve again, stooped down to see how the Disc had landed. There was a long silence.

Until Lucifer exclaimed, “Damn and blast!”

The words ‘The End’ appeared on the screen before it went blank and rolled silently up into the ceiling. Uri announced that he would make some coffee and Nick suggested that  Nigel might benefit from a slug of brandy first.

Nigel downed the brandy in one gulp, gasped, and croaked, “So you lost on the toss of a coin and went to Hell?” In his heart of hearts, he still didn’t believe any of it, but felt he had no choice but to behave as if he did; these individuals were clearly deranged and he wanted to get out of there safely.

“Yep. End of my innocence, as you can imagine. I didn’t think it was fair, though. I mean, it should have been best of three at least. But that’s by the by, it was a long time ago. The thing is, I accepted the challenge as my destiny. I asked only one thing.”

“And that was …?”

“When good and evil had been thoroughly tried and tested, all the kinks ironed out, and fully understood by all concerned and utilised fair and square by the people,” he paused to take in air, then ended with a rush, “Then Gabe and me would swap. I would return to the golden angelic hierarchy and Gabe would don the mantle as Lord of Eternal Darkness.”

“Yes,” said Gabe, rather sourly. “I didn’t think Michael would listen to any conditions, but he actually chuckled and agreed to it. To my utter dismay, I might add. The DISC was transported to Earth and buried deep. We weren’t allowed to know where. There it remained for thousands of years until it was dug up here, in the churchyard, thereby triggering the swap.”

Nick took over. “At the time of the DISC’s burial, Michael, Defender of Goodness and Chief of all Archangels, devised The Plan which we are now implementing. Uriel is Michael’s right-hand man and is here to keep an eye on things. You see, in order for us to prepare for our new roles, we have to have a little practice.”

“Yes,” said Gabe, “Nick has to tempt a bad person into doing something good …”

“And Gabe has to tempt a good person into doing something bad. And then we will swap jobs.” Nick patted Nigel’s shoulder, “You’re the Witness.”

Nigel, seriously beginning to wonder if these madmen would let him live to see another day, said, “Er, Witness?”

Gabe sighed. “People will have to know, Nigel! You’ll have to inform the world that Lucifer has returned to the Heavenly Hierarchy and that I …”  His grey eyes filled with tears and he was unable to go on.

Nigel leapt up and whirled to face Nick and Gabe, his tormentors. “This is insane!” he yelled. “I don’t know what your game is, but I want no part of it. Angels? It’s preposterous! You… you… can’t be angels! You don’t even have wings!”

There was a soft sound, no more than a sigh. A light breeze ruffled Nigel’s hair, and before his very eyes a pair of giant feathery wings sprouted from Gabe’s back as Uri carried in the cups of coffee and large slices of Battenberg on a tray.

“I must say, my man,” said Nick, clapping him heartily between the shoulder blades, “You’ve gone awfully pale.”

Not knowing what else to do, Nigel crammed a big piece of cake into his mouth.

Uri laughed at his bulging cheeks. “When you’ve finished that I’ll walk you back to The Anvil. I don’t think you can take any more today!”

Almost weeping, Nigel swallowed the cake and allowed himself to be led from the room. Only later, after he’d downed almost a whole bottle of wine, did the ominous meaning of Uri’s words occur to him.

More? What did he mean by more?

Next episode: ‘coup de foudre’

~~~~~

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012 Orders From Above: Episode 12 ‘nigel learns who his clients really are’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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Nigel pulled open the drawers of the pine chest one by one to unload the contents of his travel case, releasing a faint odour of mothballs and old lavender. With his dressing gown hung from the hook on the door, his shoes tucked beneath the bed, and his book and toilet bag placed on the nightstand, he considered himself once again ensconced in the largest of the guest bedrooms at The Blacksmith’s Anvil. His room had a firm double bed, brown faux-leather two-seater sofa with comfy cushions, and a drop-leaf table with two chairs in the bay window, where he could sit and view the green. He had a small television, tea-making facilities and a tiny fridge. There was a warm, clean bathroom next door, which was shared by the room on the other side. Nigel didn’t mind this, and anyway, it had so far turned out on each visit that he was the only guest.

He’d stayed here several times now, to be on hand as the contract for the purchase of Angel Falls Mill was dealt with, to take measurements for his architectural plans, research local building contractors, and also to fulfil the other, more mysterious part of his task, that of getting to know the inhabitants of Ham-Under-Lymfold.

He was to meet the De Angelo brothers in the bar later, and decided that a breath of fresh air first would be a good idea. The brothers had taken ownership of the mill a month ago – at too high a price as far as Nigel was concerned, but they had insisted the sale went through without haggling – and as far as he knew, had arrived early in the morning to start whatever it was they were really in Ham-Under-Lymfold to do. He couldn’t say why exactly, but he had a hunch that not everything was above board.

Autumn was coming and the evenings were beginning to draw in. Nigel strolled along the picturesque High Street, admiring the cottages that lined the opposite edge of the green, remembering how much Amelia had liked them when they’d visited together a fortnight before. The buildings were all different in some way, whether it be a thatched roof or a slate one, a green solid door or a half-glazed red one, leaded windows or modern glazing. At this time of day, the kidney-shaped village green was ringed with cars, as the owners of the houses had no space in their tiny front gardens for driveways. Cooking smells pervaded the air, and Nigel wondered wistfully what meals were being cooked behind the closed curtains.

In the distance, the sky was blackening swiftly, something additional to the oncoming night, and Nigel sniffed the air, sure he could smell rain. A streak of lightning lit up the sky over the hills, making him shiver as he recalled the tales of gloom and doom Stanley Trout had told him on his first visit here, a visit that now seemed to have taken place a very long time ago.

Large, cold raindrops began to splash on his head and spatter the ground around his feet, so he turned up his collar and hurried back to The Blacksmith’s Anvil, going straight up to his room to fetch his plans for the conversion of the mill.

When he entered the bar ten minutes later, he nodded and waved to Stanley, who was nursing a half pint of milk stout at his usual corner table. Digby lay at Stanley’s feet, his eyes closed and body relaxed but his whippy tail thumped up and down in recognition of Nigel’s voice. The fire in the beautiful inglenook fireplace was set but not yet lit, which Nigel thought a pity as it would create atmosphere and warmth in the place. He hoisted himself onto a bar stool and ordered a gin and tonic for himself and another half of milk stout for Stanley.

“Settled in all right?” Cynthia asked as she tonged ice and a sliver of lemon into a glass.

“Yes, I have, thank you. I’m beginning to feel very much at home here.”

“I’m so glad. And I look forward to seeing Amelia here again soon, I’m so sorry she’s suffering from morning sickness.”

Nigel frowned. “It’s been more like all-day sickness, but she is getting better.”

“Oh, I’m happy to hear that. Here you go, then.” She placed the glass, which he knew had a very generous measure of gin in it, and an open bottle of tonic, on the bar. “On the house. To welcome you back as our guest.” She poured the stout and said, “I’ll take this over to Stanley.”

“Thank you, Cynthia, that’s very kind of you.”

With rising anticipation he tipped the tonic into his glass, relishing the sound of the gentle fizz and the sharp whiff of juniper and lemon. He closed his eyes and took an appreciative sip, savouring the sensation and taste on his tongue.

The Capsbys and Fordingbridges arrived in a clamour of voices and claimed one of the larger tables, each calling out hello to Nigel. They were shortly followed by Glen and Gwen Perkins, who pulled up extra chairs and joined them, everyone talking at once. Five minutes later, a clap of thunder boomed right overhead, making Nigel jump and Olive Capsby shriek in fright then giggle with embarrassment. Another boom, even louder, shook the windows and reverberated around the room, just as the door opened and the De Angelo brothers sauntered in. Nigel felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle.

The brothers seated themselves at the table in front of the fireplace, and Cynthia bustled over to light the fire. Soon, orange and yellow flames merrily flickered, instantly raising the ambience, and she asked what they’d like to have. Nick asked for two pints of Speckled Hen and two packets of smoky bacon crisps.

Nigel walked over to their table and said hello. Nick merely inclined his head, but Gabe said warmly, “Nigel! Halloo to you! Have you got a drink? Oh good, have a seat, then.”

Nigel remembered that when he’d first met Gabe, he’d thought he was so like Nick that it would be difficult to tell them apart, but now he had spent a little time with them during the negotiations to buy the mill, it was simple. Gabe was a paler version of his brother. Or Nick was a darker version of Gabe. Personality-wise, it was even easier to tell who was who: Gabe was warm and friendly, Nick wasn’t.

As soon as the crisp packets were opened, Digby rose onto his long legs, shook himself vigorously, and trotted over. He rested his handsome head on Gabe’s thigh and stared fixedly up at him through shaggy grey eyebrows.

“Ooh, lovely doggy! What’s your name, boy, eh?”

“It’s Digby,” supplied Nigel, as Gabe fed the grateful dog some crisps.

Digby, making that strange, gruffling sound that indicated his pleasure, transferred his attention to Nigel. “I haven’t got anything, Digby, sorry.”

The dog turned his head to Nick, who curled his lip and muttered, “What a scruffy animal. That tail looks like a piece of frayed rope.”

As if ashamed of it, Digby tucked his tail between his legs and actually backed away from the table.

“That was mean,” said Gabe.

“You don’t like dogs, then?” said Nigel, feeling sorry for Digby as he pushed himself under Stanley’s table and laid down, his shaggy head on his paws, his golden eyes fixed balefully on Nick. Nick shrugged.

“Hey, Nigel,” said Gabe, “So what’s been happening around here?”

“Well, mostly it’s all talk about the mill. Everyone’s speculating how much Violet Cattermole got for it, and how it will look when we’ve renovated it.”

“Talk of the devil,” grinned Nick, pointing his thumb at Violet, who had just walked in.

She stalked across to the bar and ordered a port and lemon. Nigel had been there on the day the sale was agreed, had heard Glen Perkins say wouldn’t it be a wonder if Violet bought a round of drinks. But she hadn’t. She’d only ordered her usual port and lemon and announced that she had no plans to move to a bigger house or buy a new television or three-piece suite. No, she’d insisted, she was fine where she was and perfectly happy with the things she already had, thank you very much. The money would go in the bank and she’d treat herself to a few luxuries now and then, that was all.

So far, to the obvious disappointment of the locals, Violet had been true to her word, and shown no signs of flashing her money about.

Stanley had turned to Nigel just last week and said, “It’s not right that that woman should have all the money from the mill. ‘Twas her sister’s childhood home, too, y’know’, but I doubt Hilda’s seen or ever will see a single penny, despite being in dire need of help. She’s a fine lady, is Hilda, ’tis hard to believe they be sisters.”

“Have you settled into your room?” Gabe asked politely, bringing Nigel’s attention back from the grumpy old lady, who had seated herself as far away from Stanley as was possible.

“Oh yes, I arrived about two hours ago. It’s basic but very comfortable; I’ve had the same room each time I’ve been here, so it’s getting to feel like a home from home.”

“Is Amelia with you?”

Nigel explained again that she hadn’t been up to the journey, but he’d spoken to her earlier and she was feeling much better.

“Are you two having a bite to eat?” he asked. “I’m going to have ham and chips and a glass of wine.”

“We’ve eaten,” said Nick, draining his glass “but another two pints would go down well.” The way he said it made it clear that he expected Nigel to go fetch.

Like Nigel, the brothers were dressed casually in jeans and sweaters, but unlike Nigel’s, they were expensive jeans and sweaters. Two coats, one chocolate-coloured suede and one biscuit-coloured cashmere, were piled on a chair nearby. They were expecting to see Nigel’s initial plans for the conversion of the mill, so before going up to the bar, he handed the file of drawings to Gabe. Gabe placed it on top of the coats, saying they’d look at them later.

Nigel noticed then that the pub had filled up but was unusually quiet. Word must have spread that the two strangers were the ones who were going to do up the mill and open a grand restaurant. He had talked it up on each of his visits, insisting that the development would bring jobs and visitors, people who would spend their money in the village pub, the café and the general store. It was a Very Good Thing, he assured them, his fingers crossed behind his back in case it turned out to be a disaster, and they said they were looking forward to welcoming the De Angelo brothers and offering any help needed.

Nigel placed his food order, but before he could order the drinks, Arnold Capsby appeared at his side. In a loud voice, no doubt so everyone would be aware of his benevolence, Arnold told Cynthia that whatever the De Angelos were drinking, he was paying.

The brothers inclined their heads in thanks to Arnold, and Arnold self-importantly puffed out his chest. The other men present ignored him and Nigel smiled wryly to himself, thinking that they were probably kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.

He picked up his glass and returned to the table, putting the question to the brothers that he’d been dying to ask, “So where are you staying? Did you check into the hotel I recommended?”

“No, Nigel,” answered Nick, speaking as if talking to a halfwit, “We’re staying at the Mill.”

Eyebrows raised in shock, Nigel exclaimed, “But how? How can you possibly manage? There’s no electricity, no hot water…”

“We’re fine, Nigel, really,” assured Gabe, “Come round tomorrow morning and see for yourself. You’ll be surprised at what a little, uh, effort can achieve.”

Baffled, but seeing he would have to wait until tomorrow to see their living arrangements, Nigel asked, “So what happens now?”

Gabe took a long pull from his beer and burped quietly. “Beg pardon,” he said, “Marvellous stuff, this. We’ll fill you in when you come tomorrow.”

Nick chimed in, “Now is not the time and here is not the place.” He leaned forward and tapped the side of his nose as he spoke, his fine grey eyes gleaming with amusement. Or was it malice that Nigel could see?

He shivered at the thought, and turned around to find that everyone’s attention was fixed on them. Most people hastily dropped their eyes, or turned to their neighbour and started chattering. Only Violet didn’t look away. Her port and lemon raised partway to her mouth she seemed mesmerised by the men who had unexpectedly brought her so much wealth. Nick raised his glass in a salute to her, but Nigel sensed it was mocking gesture. Cynthia arrived again, this time bringing Nigel’s ham and chips. Eyelashes fluttering, she looked only at Nick, even as she asked Nigel if he wanted ketchup and mustard.

Hungry, he picked up his knife and fork and tucked in. Digby, ever the hopeful hound, was soon back by his side.

“It’s a nice village, this,” said Gabe, “I’m keen to visit the church, have you been inside, Nigel?”

“Oh, yes, in fact the first day I came here.” He recounted the story of Walter Sidney Hopkins and his unfortunate run-in with a loose organ pipe.

Gabe, visibly upset, exclaimed, “Oh, the poor boy!”

Nick snorted into his Speckled Hen and laughed out loud, making Digby scamper back to Stanley.

Gabe snapped, “You have no feelings whatsoever, Nick!”

“And you, dear brother, are a wuss.”

They bickered like children for a few minutes, much to Nigel’s amazement, then as suddenly as it had flared up, it was over and Gabe’s good humour restored. He turned to Nigel, “We ought to be going. We’ll see you in the morning, Nigel, come about 11 o’clock for coffee.”

And in minutes they’d donned their coats and were gone.

Nigel declined Cynthia’s offer of dessert and went upstairs to his room, not wishing to get drawn into conversation with any of the people in the bar, who were clearly bursting with curiosity.

He was curious himself: how could those two men possibly be staying at the mill? How could they offer him coffee in a place that had no kitchen and no power?

Then it came to him. Of course! They were in a caravan, a luxury caravan, parked somewhere near the mill, probably in the village hall car park. Yes, that would explain it. Happy he’d thought of it, he turned on the television to watch the news.

***

The next morning, because Cynthia was busy with a delivery from the brewery, Nigel treated himself to a full English breakfast in the café. Gwen Perkins took his order, Glen Perkins fried the eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms and two thick slices of bread fresh baked that morning, and Debbie Perkins brought it to his table, with a large brown pot of tea that had a small chip on the spout.

“There’s enough to feed a small army here!” Nigel declared.

Debbie giggled and said in one breath, “Well you just eat what you can and leave the rest nothing goes to waste all our leftovers go to West Haven pig farm as pigs eat absolutely anything now do you need tomato or brown sauce we have both or mustard maybe we have three different kinds?”

She brought a red plastic squeezy bottle over and Nigel liberally poured ketchup over everything on his plate, before picking up his knife and fork and tucking in with relish. Chips last night and full English this morning, not good for his waistline, but oh so tasty. He didn’t think he’d manage half of it, but it was all so delicious and he was so hungry, he found himself asking for another slice of Arnold’s scrumptious bread to mop up the remains of yolk, ketchup and fat. After draining the pot of tea, he put his napkin on the table and sat back with a happy sigh.

The three Perkins stood in a line behind the counter and grinned at him. “Another happy customer,” trilled Mrs. Perkins, wiping her hands on a blue tea towel.

The only customer, Nigel thought to himself, as he left the steamy warmth of the café. They could do so much with the café, give it a lick of paint and replace some of the tables and chairs, make it more enticing. Then more people would come and discover a place that served excellent home-cooked food.

He planned to spend an hour in his room going over his copy of the plans again before his appointment at the mill. But the prospect of coffee on top of all that tea and breakfast made him feel slightly ill, so he hoped they hadn’t gone to any trouble.

Out on the pavement, he pulled his collar up. It was a chilly day, but at least it was dry. As he passed the Post Office, Arnold Capsby waved at him through the window and he waved back. It gave Nigel a warm glow to think that he’d been in the village just a few times and already he was accepted with warm smiles. So different to life in London, where the pace of life was so fast, too fast for a cheery hello from anyone. Here, people had time for a chat, and he loved it. In fact, it hadn’t been at all difficult finding things out about people, because everybody talked so openly about themselves and each other.

“Hey, Nigel! Wait up!”

Nigel turned to see who was calling him. “Uri! Hello. How are you?”

“Just dandy, Nigel, just dandy. Are you on your way to the mill? Mind if I walk with you?”

Nigel glanced at his unexpected companion. He and Uri had talked a few times on his previous visits and he found him very interesting. He was knowledgeable about so many things, and made such superb things with wood, Nigel wondered why he chose to be a gravedigger and handyman in an insignificant little village.

“I’m surprised to find you’re still here, Uri. I thought your cousin was only taking a short holiday?”

“Originally, yes, but .. well, some family business came up, and I’m happy to stay on as long as needed, so here I am!”

They reached the Turnaround, Nigel expecting to see a huge gleaming caravan, maybe something like an American Winnebago, parked there. But there was no caravan, luxury or otherwise. He scanned the area around the mill in case they’d somehow managed to get something over the narrow stone bridge, but there was no sign of anything habitable beside, behind or anywhere near the crumbling building.

Uri was watching him closely.

“Are you …?” Nigel pointed to the Mill, not at all sure why Uri would be going there.

Uri nodded, “Yep. Shall we go over?”

They crossed the bridge and walked up to the door of the decrepit mill. Like the church door, it was made of thick oak planks studded with black, dome-topped nails. It was severely warped by time and weather and hung loose on its rusting hinges. Nigel heard voices inside, so he called out to let them know that they were there.

A face appeared at the unglazed window above his head, and Gabe cried, “Good morning, Nigel! And there’s Uri with you, excellent! Come on in.”

Nigel knew there was no staircase inside and couldn’t imagine how Gabe had got up there. He pushed the door open very carefully in case he dislodged him from a ladder or something, but what he saw when he stepped over the threshold made his blood freeze then go hot, as if he’d been dipped in an Arctic ice-hole and then a vat of boiling oil.

Feeling dizzy he clutched the doorframe to keep himself upright, aware that the muscles in his jaw could not hold his mouth closed. His eyes darted madly about, right to left, left to right, up and down, down and up.

This.

Could.

Not.

Be.

There was a staircase. A very wide staircase with a beautiful banister painted the colour of clotted cream. A burgundy wool runner covered three quarters of the width of the steps, held in place on the shallow steps with shiny brass stair rods.

And Gabe was tripping down it, beaming in welcome.

Nigel gingerly let go of the doorframe and stepped forward onto a polished parquet floor. His stunned brain registered the very large open-plan space, which should have been exposed to the elements, but there was a smooth white-painted ceiling above his head hung with crystal chandeliers. On his left was an area tastefully furnished with two large multi-cushioned sofas, one cream, one red, two armchairs likewise, a glass-topped coffee table, a walnut bookcase and, on another low glass-topped table, a very high-spec music centre. On the wall was a flat-screen television, the biggest he’d ever seen.

To his right was a carpeted dining area, with a huge oval table and twelve high-backed chairs made of a gleaming honey-coloured wood, and a gorgeous matching dresser with gold-rimmed white china arranged on its shelves. Beyond that he could see a kitchen with all the latest gadgets, including a rotisserie and a coffee maker Starbucks would be proud of. Somewhere at the back, he just knew, there would be several large bedrooms, each exquisitely decorated and furnished. Each with an en suite bathroom. That had piles of fluffy white towels on warming rails. And gold taps.

His ears buzzed as if full of bees and he thought he was going to pass out, but then he felt Uri’s steadying hand on his elbow.

Even with a vast army of workmen, how could they possibly have done this in the short time Nigel had been away from the village?

Gabe stood before him and patted him on the shoulder. “A shock, I know old bean. Take some deep breaths and come on into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I know you don’t care for the most expensive coffee in the world, so instead so I’ve got some of our special Italian blend on the go, and a slice or two of Battenburg cake fresh from the splendid Perkins’ bakery. I trust your breakfast has gone down enough now to allow room? The delightful Debbie told me you had the full fry-up.”

Dazed and still unsteady on his feet, Nigel allowed himself to be led by Uri to the breakfast bar and placed on a swivelling chrome chair with a red leather seat. Nick appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and took the seat next to Nigel without saying a word. Gabe, having prepared mugs of fragrant hot coffee for all of them and cut large slices of the yellow and pink sponge, sat on the other side, so Nigel was between them, like the filling in a sandwich. Uri stood opposite, leaning against the sink.

“I suppose,” said Nick, “now you’ve seen this, we’d better give you an explanation?”

Nigel could only nod. He was feeling quite nauseous now, and it wasn’t because of the black pudding. No, it was because he knew that if he were to step back outside and look at the mill, he’d see an old, wrecked, empty building. He knew too that if anyone else should come to the mill for any reason, they too would only see an old, wrecked, empty building. And even if someone were to venture inside, they wouldn’t see all this. Oh no. Only Nigel was allowed to see this. He didn’t know how he knew, but he was absolutely certain that he was right. And obviously Uri was connected to the De Angelo brothers, was clearly here in place of Topps, as part of the plot. But what was the plot? Maybe, at last, he was going to find out.

He looked at Gabe.

Gabe grinned. “We’re angels,” he said, cheerfully and with immense pride, “Archangels actually. Gabriel – that’s me, obviously – and Lucifer. Only we call him Nick as no-one is called Lucifer and Luke would confuse him with Luke the Evangelist. Maybe you’d worked that out?”

The brothers waited for a reaction. Worked it out? Were they mad? Nigel could only able shake his head, opening and closing his mouth like a fish that had unwittingly leapt out of its bowl.

“And this,” said Gabe, pointing to Uri, “is Uriel. He’s here at the Boss’s behest as an observer.”

Uri removed his blue-tinted glasses and Nigel could see that his eyes were exactly the same unusual grey as Nick’s and Gabe’s, framed with the same thick, long, very black lashes. “If I didn’t wear these,” explained Uri, tucking them in his shirt pocket, “people would soon notice the similarities between us, and that could raise awkward questions.”

“Yep,” said Nick, taking up the explanation, “Angels really do walk among you mere mortals. Thought we were spies, didn’t you? The Boss was thrilled at that, let me tell you.”

“And the Boss is…?” stuttered Nigel, looking beseechingly at Gabe.

“Why, Michael of course! He of the flaming sword.”

“And I’m the villain. The bad guy. Old Nick. Satan. The Dark Lord. Tempter of Humankind.” Nick shrugged. “But it was somewhat forced upon me, and a Promise was made at the beginning of your – by that I mean Humankind’s – time that one day I would get my turn to be the good guy again. That day is now.”

Gabriel leaned forward and touched Nigel’s arm. “It would be impossible for us to explain it to you, so we thought we’d show you.”

“Show me?” It came out as a croak. “Show me what?”

“How it came about. How Lucifer came to Fall into Hell, and The Promise that was made at the time.”

Nick took up the story. “What you’ll see and hear will just be like watching a film at the cinema. It’s what happened to us and it will explain things far better than we could if we were to just tell it to you. The human imagination is rather limited, I find.”

As he listened incredulously to this nonsense, Nigel realised he was now feeling woozy as well as nauseous. Dimly, he wondered if they’d put something in his coffee.

“Don’t worry,” said Gabe, patting his arm, “you’re perfectly safe. Come and sit in this armchair over here. That’s right. Now just watch and listen and then we’ll talk some more.”

Next episode: ‘popcorn and a blockbuster movie’

~~~~~

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