021 Orders From Above: Episode 21 ‘satan’s whiskers, anyone?’

to read from the beginning click here: 001 Orders From Above: Episode 1 ‘discovery’

satan's whiskers

By 8 o’clock Friday evening, Nigel had had enough of going over the building plans for the mill and decided he’d earned himself a pint. With each step down the staircase from his room, the noise from the bar grew louder and louder. Bracing himself, he opened the door and walked into Cynthia’s first Theme Night.

Freddie Fordingbridge, in his debut as barman, was at the far end of the bar, rooting through a large ceramic bowl piled high with exotic fruits. Debbie, perched on a bar stool, watched his every move with rapt attention.

Skinny Freddie, whose skin still showed the signs of the acne that had plagued him since he entered his teens, had been dressed by Cynthia in a frilled red shirt, unbuttoned to show a white, hairless chest and an over-large gold medallion on a chain. The shirt was tucked into tight, shiny black trousers with a high waistband. Seeing this ensemble, Nigel couldn’t help thinking that Freddie’s legs resembled two strings of liquorice. He had to fight to control his facial muscles as Freddie greeted him.

“Hello Freddie! What’s with the fancy gear then?”

“Um, well, it’s cocktail night, Mr Nigel. What sort would you like?”

Nigel had asked everyone to call him by his first name, but young Freddie always addressed adults by putting the Mister, Missus or Miss in front of their names to be polite and respectful, as his parents had brought him up to be. Nigel really wanted that pint of real ale, so replied, “I don’t know anything about cocktails, Freddie.”

“Gosh, neither did I, Mr Nigel! It’s called mixology, you know, and Miss Cynthia gave me books about it and cocktail recipes, and I read them, and memorised them, and Miss Cynthia got loads of bottles of stuff, and now I can make anything.”

“You memorised them? But there must be hundreds of cocktails, surely?”

Debbie swivelled to face Nigel and gushed, “Oh yes there are simply hundreds of cocktails with all sorts of weird names and ingredients like vermouth and schnapps and sambuca and creme de cassis but Freddie only has to read things once and he remembers everything cos he’s got a photographic memory isn’t that right Freddie and he’s promised to invent one just for me.”

Nigel marvelled as he always did at Debbie’s ability to speak without punctuation. Freddie blushed and muttered that he was trying to think of a suitable name.

“How about ‘Debbie’s Delight’?” laughed Nigel, making Freddie’s blush flare to a painful crimson that could toast marshmallows. “I’ll have my usual pint, please, Freddie.”

“But you won’t try something a little different, just this once? Tell you what, I know you like gin, so how about a Singapore Sling? Or a Blue Lady? Much nicer names, I think than what Mr Nick over there is drinking.”

Feeling the skin on the back of neck crawl, Nigel turned and scanned the crowded room to locate the angels. He hadn’t known they’d be in the pub tonight, and didn’t have a particularly good feeling about it. “What is it?” he asked Freddie.

“Exorcist! Tequila, blue curacao, lime juice. Mr. Nick tried a Rob Roy and a Bloody Mary, but he says he says the Exorcist is the best so far.”

“I bet he does. And what is the other Mr De Angelo drinking, Freddie?”

“Um, well Mr Gabe, he’s got a Pina Colada now, but he’s had a mint julep, a Manhattan and a tequila sunrise, which he says he likes especially because they’re pretty. They’re my best customers so far, I must say. Everyone else just wants their usual, like you. Are you sure you won’t just try something?”

Debbie held up her large glass, half-full with something resembling custard. Sticking out of it was a small green and yellow paper umbrella. “I’ve got a Snowball it’s got lemonade in it and a squeeze of lime juice and it’s really nice and fizzy and sweet why don’t you try one?” She removed the umbrella to show Nigel the maraschino cherry skewered on it. “This is to stir it with but I like the way they taste and I keep eating them so Freddie has to keep giving me more.” The plump red cherry disappeared into her mouth and Nigel wondered if she realised how provocative it was. It seemed lost on Freddie, though, whose hopeful eyes were still fixed on Nigel, awaiting his order.

Nigel tapped the beer pump, making Freddie sigh in submission as he dutifully pulled a pint exactly to the marker on the tall glass and set it in front of Nigel. He took a welcome sip, then asked Freddie what time the De Angelos had come in.

“Oh, about 6 o’clock. Said they’d noticed the blackboard out front announcing our first Theme Night.”

“And they’ve had, what, four cocktails each in the space of two hours?”

Freddie scratched his head. “Well, Mr Gabe has had five, actually.”

Nigel shook his head, and observed that the locals, though chatting animatedly amongst themselves, kept throwing surreptitious glances at the brothers. “It’s certainly packed in here tonight, Cynthia must be delighted.”

“Well, yes, Mr Nigel, I suppose she is. It was quiet to start with, but when the Misters De Angelos arrived, Miss Cynthia said that everyone was always interested in what they did, so she put the word out that they were here, and, well, you know, enjoying the cocktails, and people came flocking in.” He leaned on the bar, looking for all the world like a seasoned barman, except for his youth and frilly shirt, and said, “Mr Gabe told me something interesting. Did you know that the older the whisky is, the more it will evaporate in the cask, and the evaporated stuff is called ‘the angels’ share’? Mr Gabe says it tastes wonderful, though I’m not sure how you taste evaporation.”

Agreeing with Freddie’s astute observation, Nigel paid for his drink, and walked over to join Gabe and Nick at their table. They were draining the last drops of their cocktails and discussing what to try next.

“Hey, Nigel, my man!” Slurring his words, Nick greeted Nigel with a hearty slap on the back, almost knocking him to the floor. “We’re just about to have another li’l ol’ drinkie. What’ll y’have?”

Nigel wouldn’t have believed it, but it seemed the evidence was before him: angels could get drunk! He indicated his glass of beer and declined Nick’s offer.

“Oh, tame, tame,” sneered Nick.

Gabe, his eyes bloodshot and unfocused, tapped Nick’s arm to get his attention, and slurred, “Never mind him, brother dear. He can have his borin’ old beer! What d’you wanna try next, eh?”

Nick furrowed his dark brows in concentration, ignoring the fact that all eyes in the bar were fixed upon him, and all ears attentively listening to hear what he would choose to drink next. Wow, these De Angelos could knock back the booze!

“I’ll have a, er, um, what d’yer call it, um…” Nick clumsily clicked his fingers, trying to remember.

“Oh, get on with it,” drawled Gabe, leaning into Nigel , rolling his eyes and tutting with a ‘he’s an idiot’ expression.

Nick’s face cleared and he rose a couple of inches of his seat as he yelled, “SATAN’S WHISKERS!”

Everyone jumped at the volume of Nick’s voice, then all eyes swivelled to Freddie.

“The man wants a Satan’s Whiskers, Freddie, can you do that one without cribbing from the book?” challenged Arnold Capsby.

Freddie raised his eyes to the ceiling and tapped his forefinger on his cheek in concentration. “Hmm, Satan’s Whiskers, well now… Oh yes, I’ve got it!”

He grabbed the cocktail shaker and called off the ingredients as he added them one by one: gin, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, Grand Marnier, orange juice and… three dashes of orange bitters. He added ice cubes and the silver shaker rattled as Freddie performed a manic dance, the way he imagined a professional cocktail maker would. In one deft movement, he whipped off the top of the shaker, placed the cocktail sieve in its place, whisked a cocktail glass off the shelf, and poured the mixture from a great height, like a true showman. He selected a paper umbrella but decided against it, finishing his creation instead with a thin, twirled slice of orange peel decoratively draped over the rim of the glass. He held it up, and sang ‘tah-daah’, as if expecting everyone to burst into applause.

But his effort was met with silence as the locals stared at the orange-coloured concoction before they turned back to the brothers. Gabe lurched up from the table and staggered to the bar.

“Ooh, tha’ smells nice,” he said, “Orangey-ee. Bu’ I wan’ somethin’ diff’r’nt. Wha’ d’you suggest, young Freddie?”

“How about a Bentley, Mr Gabe, sir?”

“Hmm. Car. Big thing. Posh,” said Gabe, “Too ‘xpensive for the likes of you, young Fr, Fre, Fr’ddie, m’lad!”

“I meant a Bentley cocktail, Mr Gabe, sir.”

“Ah, cockt’l, tha’s more like it. What colour is’t?”

“Um, it’s Calvados and Dubonnet, so it’s pinkish.”

“Pink!” Gabe clapped his hands in delight, and Freddie got to work again with his shaker.

The locals and Nigel, who by now had come up to the bar because he had serious doubts that Gabe could carry the two cocktails without significant spillage, once again marvelled at Freddie’s fine performance. Nigel picked up the full glasses and returned to the table, followed by a weaving, giggling, hiccupping Gabe.

Once they’d sat down, the brothers immediately picked up and clinked their glasses, and each took a delicate sip of their cocktail, eyes closed to better savour the taste. Gabe held the brew in his mouth, pursing his lips and swishing it around as if he were at a wine tasting. Nigel half expected him to spit it out, but of course he swallowed it. He pronounced it delicious and smiled a beatific smile that reached from ear to ear.

Nick gargled his drink as if it was a mouthwash before swallowing it, and it almost choked him. But he recovered, blinked his streaming eyes in ecstasy, then with them open wide, slapped the table with his free hand, and gasped, “Oh, you beauty!” before taking another, deeper drink.

The spectators were spellbound.

Reverend Hartley Cordwell chose this moment to enter The Blacksmith’s Anvil for his customary half pint of bitter. He stopped in the doorway, perplexed to see so many of his flock gathered there. Capsby was the first to sidle up to Hartley and put him in the picture.

“He’s had what cocktails?” he said incredulously.

Capsby relished telling the vicar again that Nick De Angelo had been enjoying drinks by the name of Exorcist and Satan’s Whiskers.

“Good Lord,” said Hartley, gripping more tightly the pocket Bible he always carried in his jacket.

Freddie called out “Good evening, Reverend Cordwell, sir,” and placed his half pint on the bar, not holding any hope that the vicar would be so adventurous as to order an exotic drink.

Nigel wondered if he should invite the vicar to join them, as he’d spent time with him that afternoon, but couldn’t help a little shiver at the irony – not to say risk – of inviting the parish vicar to sup with Lucifer! If only Hartley knew, thought Nigel, smiling weakly as he caught the vicar’s eye, just who he was standing a mere few feet away from.

At that point Gabe suddenly had a serious attack of hiccups, and Nigel decided it was time to sort them out. “Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “is this wise? I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you don’t seem to be used to alcohol.”

“Oh, tush,” said Gabe, “Of course we’re us’d to alco’l. Nick has the finest cellar in, in, in …”

“The cosmos!” finished Nick, sticking his chest out with pride.

“Yup, s’right, you better believe it, s’best cellar in the cosm’s.”

“And we can certainly handle these,” said Nick belligerently, “We’re angels, ain’t we?”

“Shh,” hissed Nigel, “Keep your voices down, you don’t want anyone to hear you, do you?” He indicated the other people, who fortunately were now losing interest and were conversing happily with each other over pints, half pints and only one or two strangely coloured drinks with paper umbrellas. Only the gold-flecked eyes of Stanley’s dog Digby continued to regard them with his steady, intelligent gaze.

“We don’t have to shhhhhhhh,” said Gabe, spraying spittle onto Nigel’s sleeve as he swept the expanse of the bar with his arm. “’s’no probl’m, we c’n make ’em deaf if we want to!”

“Even better,” said Nick maliciously, “We can make ’em freeze.” He snapped his fingers and the pub suddenly fell utterly silent.

Everyone but the De Angelo brothers and Nigel went still. Stock-still. Glen Perkins had a glass halfway to his lips. Freddie was in the middle of putting an olive into a martini glass. Debbie’s mouth, rimmed with pink lipstick, was open, poised to receive yet another maraschino cherry. Stanley was scratching himself where he shouldn’t and Digby resembled a poor example of taxidermy.

“What have you done?” Nigel squeaked, surveying the strange and, in some cases, embarrassing postures of all the customers.

Nick clicked his fingers again, and everyone moved as if nothing had happened. His narrowed eyes hard and graphite grey, there was no trace of a slur when he hissed, “Just to remind you, Nigel, that we are capable of doing many things if we so choose.”

Gabe hiccupped.

Nick swallowed the rest of his cocktail in one go, went white, then pink, then white again before pitching forward, striking the dimpled, copper-topped table with a hard wallop. His arms dangled to the floor, and it was plain to see that Nick, a.k.a the Devil, was out for the count.

next episode coming soon

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020 Orders From Above: Episode 20 ‘the master craftsman’

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

master craftsman.jpg

It was yet again time to visit Ham-Under-Lymfold and Nigel set off with his usual reluctance. Since that horrible meeting about Sins and Virtues, he particularly dreaded an encounter with Lorelei Dove in case the angels had succeeded in with their horrible plan.

But he had to keep a regular check on what was happening at the mill. When the angels had demanded the work be done to ridiculous deadlines, Nigel had retorted that if anyone in the building trade could start within days of asking it could only be because they were cowboys. This had been met with one of Nick’s insufferable grins, and sure enough, as Nigel had found telephone numbers and made calls from his secret behind-the-wall space in his London office, everybody but everybody had said they were available to start on the date he specified. And for very reasonable rates too. Nigel hadn’t missed how surprised they sounded by their own promises.

The old stone bridge had been widened and strengthened to make it suitable for vehicles as well as people on foot, and Nigel drove across and parked to the right of the mill, next to a white van. He could see on the dashboard two empty plastic cups stained with strong, orange-coloured tea, and a newspaper, carelessly folded to the sports pages.

Scaffolding surrounded the building, men in hard hats milled around, and a large skip was fast filling up. The clear, cold air rang with the sounds of hammering, sawing, drilling, whistling, occasional swearing and a commercial radio station that bellowed out appallingly bad local adverts after every third song.

Nigel put on his own hard hat and high-vis yellow jacket and looked up with approval at the reclaimed slate tiles that covered the roof and then strolled inside, trying not to remember the day he had stepped through the portal to the other, immaculate interior that Nick and Gabe inhabited.

He had a good look around and spoke to some of the builders, satisfied to find that all was going to plan and the work was being done to an extremely high standard. It was all going so well, in fact, he felt confident that he could get some more tradesmen lined up so there would be no hiatus in the mill’s progress.

Needing a quiet place to consult the plans and make some notes, he decided to leave his car and take a walk to the cafe.

Gwen Perkins carried over Nigel’s order of coffee and chocolate cake. On the plate was a generous slice of a rich, dark sponge, its top smothered with deep swirls of chocolate frosting. “A new recipe Glen came up with. He’s trying to come up with a name for it,” Gwen said, “It’s got chilli in it, would you believe, but I promise you, it’s absolutely divine.” She asked him if Amelia was well and if she’d be visiting the village again soon, and then, indicating his laptop and the papers he’d spread on the table, said she’d leave him in peace.

Nigel forked in a generous mouthful of the cake and almost swooned at how wonderful and delicious it tasted. He had an idea and called out to Mrs. Perkins: “Why don’t you have a little competition for someone to find a name for it?”

“What a wonderful idea! We could get a few leaflets printed and put a box here on the counter for customers to post their suggestions.”

“And maybe the prize could be a whole cake to take home?”

“Oh, Nigel, thank you! And I’ll ask Debbie to go and talk to Freddie about producing a poster or two to put in the window here and in the pub. He’s very good with computers.” Gwen looked over her shoulder to check no-one else was in earshot, then lowering her voice, confided with a wink:  “Between you and me, I think my Debbie is a bit sweet on him.”

As she bustled off to put the suggestion to Glen, Nigel switched on his laptop and called up the section dealing with the restaurant’s décor. Amelia had adored putting it all together, everything from the plaster finishes, the colour schemes, tables and chairs, soft furnishings, lighting, flooring, et cetera. The only thing she had not had any say in was the front decoration of the bar, for this was to be three panels of hand-carved ebony, designed by Nick.

Nick had provided Nigel with several detailed drawings, and he and Amelia had agreed that it was a fantastic design. Very intricate, very delicate, it took a lot of concentration, and not a little insider knowledge, to see that its four sections were actually a metaphorical depiction of The Fall, as it had been shown to Nigel on that extraordinary film. The far left section showed a host of winged and robed angels surrounded by sunbeams. The next section showed Gabriel and Lucifer standing side by side, clutching each other’s sleeve, staring down into a smoking pit. The third part was mostly a complicated pattern of loops and whorls, but, in its centre, there was a large disc, engraved with flowers. The far right section was of flames and writhing human figures being tormented by behorned imps with pitchforks.

It reminded him of those puzzles that have to be looked at in a cross-eyed way in order to see a black and white 3-D picture emerge from a mass of coloured dots, and Nigel knew that it would only take a couple of people to work out the carving and it would quickly become a major talking point which would, very probably, bring in more people who wanted to see it for themselves.

Only Uri was good enough to create such a thing, and Nigel was looking forward to seeing him to deliver the drawings as soon as he’d finished the wonderful cake. In fact, it was so wonderful he contemplated having a second slice, but his stomach was full and the teapot was empty, so he reluctantly got up to leave. As he paid Gwen Perkins she said, “We’d like to thank you for your idea, so next time Amelia is with you please come and have tea and cake on the house.”

It was drizzling with rain by the time he arrived at the old grey vicarage. Uri’s tiny cottage could only be reached through a side gate into the garden, but this was locked so Nigel knocked on the vicarage door. Hartley, wiping his hands on a striped tea towel, beamed a very warm welcome when he saw Nigel on his doorstep.

“You’re back with us, then? How are you?”

“I’m very well, thank you. Can you tell me how I can get to Uri’s place, please? The gate is locked.”

Hartley stepped away from the door and bid Nigel to come in out of the increasing rain. “Ah, well now, Uri, yes, actually he’s in the garden, tackling the rhododendrons which have gone rather wild, but Heaven knows why he wants to be out in this weather. Why don’t you go through to the kitchen and I’ll call him in. Would you like some tea?”

“Er, thank you, but I don’t want to put you to any trouble. I’ll just go and find Uri, if you’ll point the way?”

Hartley’s blue eyes twinkled. “Heavens, there’s no need for that! It’s time he had a break and you can talk to him here, in the warm and dry.” He lowered his voice, “I happen to know that Uri does not bother with heating, hardly comfortable for a chat. No, much better in here, beside my Aga.”

Nigel followed the vicar across the black and white tiled floor of the gloomy, high-ceilinged entrance hall to a very large kitchen that hadn’t been updated since about 1958. There were no fitted units, just a miscellany of cupboards and drawers and a big, very scratched pine table. The only modern thing in there, looking very conspicuous, was a huge, American-style double-door fridge. The lino on the floor was cracked and worn right through in places, it’s original sky-blue only visible in one or two spots under the table. The porcelain sink had a line of rust running down from the cold tap, and an old boiler fixed to the wall spat hot water through a long, lime-covered spout. But it was homely and the Aga threw out a welcome warmth.

Hartley gestured to him to take a chair, saying, “I think you know my niece, Lorelei? And this is her fiancé, Dr. Stephen George. I’ll just go and give Uri a call, then I’ll make a fresh pot of tea.”

Startled at coming into contact with Lorelei unprepared and so soon, Nigel took a moment to recover his wits and say hello; she didn’t look any different and he dared to hope that the angels had decided to leave her alone after all.

Hartley, having yelled at the top of his lungs to Uri, who was working somewhere deep in the bushes that lined the long garden, asked Nigel, “Have you heard about the coin?”

“The one found in the graveyard? No, I haven’t heard anything.”

“Well, it’s fantastic news! Stephen here took it to a coin expert, and it turns out be rare and worth quite a lot of money.”

“More than quite a lot, Hartley,” said Stephen, “Several thousand is the estimate.”

“Really?” said Nigel, “That’s fantastic. Does the money come to you or to the diocese?”

“Oh, to the diocese I should think, but the village church will get a large chunk of it as the coin was found here. There’s an auction fee, of course, but whatever we get it will be very welcome. The coin is going be sold in London, but not for a month or so as it’s still being examined by various other experts. Stephen has kindly offered to take us to the sale rooms and watch it go under the hammer.”

Nigel noticed that Lorelei never took her eyes from her fiancé, and Stephen George clasped her hand as if their palms were super-glued together. It was delightful to see two people so very much in love.

The handyman arrived at the door and removed his damp cloth cap, before unlacing and removing his muddy boots.

“Come on in, my good fellow, sit down with Lorelei and Stephen and get yourself warm. Here’s Mr. Hellion-Rees to see you.” As he talked, Hartley put a huge blackened kettle onto the Aga and dropped teabags into a battered metal teapot.

Uri didn’t take Nigel’s proffered hand, but held both of his up to show that they were very dirty and he needed to wash them. He scrubbed them well in the kitchen sink, and dried them on a small pink towel. Nigel surreptitiously watched him, wondering what the others would think if they were ever to discover Uri’s true identity. And Gabe’s and Nick’s, of course.

There was a smaller table to the left of the Aga, with a wheelback chair on one side and a three-legged stool on the other. On the table a game of chess was in progress. Uri studied the board as he dried his hands, then moved one of the pieces.

“Oh, Uri, not the bishop, I hoped you wouldn’t spot that!” cried Hartley, bumbling around with cups and saucers. He tipped an assortment of biscuits from a large tin onto a plate, then said to Nigel, “After tea you can use my office, if you’d like to talk in private.”

“Oh no,” protested Nigel, “that’s very kind of you, but I’m only here to ask Uri if he’ll do a piece of work for the mill, a carving designed by Nick De Angelo for the bar. I’ve brought the drawings.”

“Oh, how exciting!” said the vicar, “Have you seen everything Uri’s made since he’s been here? Bird tables, fruit bowls, walking sticks, even a garden bench, and they’re all magnificent.”

Uri gave a gracious bow of his head at the compliment. “Thank you, Hartley.” He took the drawings Nigel handed him, pulling off the elastic band holding them in a tight roll.

“Shall we make space on the table?” asked Lorelei, the first time she’d spoken since Nigel’s arrival, apart from saying hello.

Nigel glanced at her. Beside her, Stephen was helping himself to the chocolate-covered biscuits, but Lorelei didn’t so much as look at them. Surely a good sign that she hadn’t been blighted with Gluttony, Nigel thought.

Uri used their mugs to keep the corners from curling up, and they all studied the drawing.

“It’s a very intricate pattern,” observed Stephen, “and, looking at the measurements, rather big! That’ll take some doing, I should think?”

Uri suddenly laughed, a deep belly laugh that resounded off the kitchen walls. “It’s not just a pattern! Can’t any of you see what it is?”

Hartley, Lorelei and Stephen all dipped their heads for a closer inspection. After a couple of minutes of deep silence, Hartley straightened up and admitted, “Um, I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Each panel tells part of one  well-known story,” answered Uri, “And right up your street, I should say, Hartley!”

Nigel, remembering how long it had taken him to see it, watched the other three and wondered which of them would be first to recognise what the design depicted. He smiled to himself as they traced the drawings with their figures and muttered amongst themselves.

Suddenly Hartley yelped with excitement and slapped his hand on the table, making the mugs jump. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed, “You don’t see it at first, but it’s the Fall of Lucifer, isn’t it! My word, this is beautiful, just beautiful.”

Now the other two could see it as well and Lorelei exclaimed, “It takes you ages to see it, but once you do it’s so clear. That’s so clever!”

Uri drained his mug and went to the Aga to have another fill of the strong tea from the pot. Nigel could sense he was deep in thought and wondered what he thought of Nick’s design. Would he want to make it?

Hartley offered Nigel the plate of biscuits and said, “So this is for the restaurant in the mill? Oh, I’m so glad the De Angelos decided to come here, they’ve sparked new life into the place. Gabe, now, he’s a really nice chap, very pleasant indeed. He wanted to know about my ministries, you know, where I was before coming here, the history of the church, things like that, and we talked about some of the Bible stories. He’s very knowledgeable about all religions, in fact. Just like you, Uri.”

Uri merely inclined his head again in acknowledgement.

Hartley carried on, “I’m not so sure about the other one, though, that Nick. I’m a Christian man, of course, and I know I shouldn’t judge, but there’s something about him…” He trailed off, his cheeks tinged pink with embarrassment, and hurriedly turned away to pour out more biscuits.

Nigel wondered what Uri’s expression was behind his blue-lensed glasses, but his face was inscrutable as he took another gingernut and dipped it in his tea. When he’d swallowed the biscuit, he indicated the drawing and said to Nigel, “I’ll need some new tools for such delicate work.”

“That’s no problem, just tell me what you need.”

“And I like to keep myself to myself when I’m working, mind. My workshop’s private.”

Hartley said, “No-one ever disturbs you over there anyway, do they Uri?”

“True, Hartley, true. Forget I said anything.” Uri took a lump of wood and a small knife from his pocket. Within minutes, the lump had been transformed to a ballerina en pointe, her pretty head tilted to one side, her hands held delicately beneath her chin, her eyes closed in the ecstasy of the dance.

“Gosh, that’s really beautiful,” Nigel said, “my youngest niece dreams of being a ballet dancer and insists on wearing her tutu absolutely everywhere.”

“Then please take it and give it to her,” said Uri.

“Oh no, really, I didn’t mean …”

“Please, I’d be glad for your niece to have it if it will give pleasure to her.”

Nigel stammered a thank you and placed the figurine on the table so he wouldn’t forget to take it when he left. “So, I can’t think of anything else at the moment, Uri. We’ll just need to get you the tools you need, and the wood. Nick suggested ebony.”

Uri nodded, “That’d be right. I know where to get quality stuff.” He rolled up the drawings and replaced the elastic band. “I’ll leave these here for now, Hartley, if you don’t mind, and collect them when I’ve finished in the garden.”

“My dear chap, it’s absolutely pouring out there now. Why don’t you call it a day?”

“Thank you, but I’ll not stop yet. A bit of rain never did me any harm. Besides, I don’t think it’ll last.”

And as he said it, the rain stopped and a glorious rainbow arced across the sky outside the kitchen window.

Once Uri had gone, the vicar offered Nigel more tea, but Nigel said he had to be on his way. He put on his jacket and picked up the ballerina.

Hartley said, “That is an amazing little carving, isn’t it? He did one for Lorelei of a dove, for her name, of course, and it’s absolutely wonderful. I’m delighted that you’ve asked him to do The Fall of Lucifer for the restaurant, he’ll do an excellent job.”

Nigel said his goodbyes, noticing for the first time the unusual ring with a purple stone on Lorelei’s left hand. Maybe because she and Stephen George had got engaged so recently, the angels had not tried to do anything to her. Maybe they’d picked on someone else. But that thought didn’t cheer him up, not really, because it meant some other very nice person was about to have their world turned upside down. If it hadn’t been turned upside down already.

On the doorstep, he pulled up his collar and prepared to dash through the rain, but Uri was waiting for him.

“Well done, Nigel,” he said, “It wouldn’t have done for the vicar to realise that we know each other so well.”

“So you’ll start on the carving soon?”

Uri grinned, “Oh yes, and with pleasure. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Then you’d better give me a list of tools – or, I suppose it would it be better for you to go and get what you need?”

Uri laughed. “I’m an angel, Nigel, I already have everything I need. I was just pretending for Hartley’s benefit.”

“Ah, yes,” said Nigel, “speaking of Hartley, do you know if anything has been done to Lorelei? I didn’t see any sign of gluttony in there, and I was rather hoping…”

Uri laid a hand on Nigel’s shoulder, “I know what you were hoping, but I’m afraid she’s still firmly in their sights. Gabe has had a go at leading her into temptation, but failed. He’s just biding his time to have another go, but Nick is getting impatient. He hasn’t had any luck with Violet, either.” He removed his glasses and fixed Nigel with his clear grey eyes. “It will be done, Nigel, because it must be done.”

Next episode: 021 Orders From Above: Episode 21 ‘satan’s whiskers, anyone?’

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

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

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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: 020 Orders From Above: Episode 20 ‘the master craftsman’

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018 Orders From Above: Episode 18 ‘gluttony’

To read from the first episode and catch up click here: Episode 1

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It was time for them to leave, but Stephen really didn’t want to move. He was too absorbed by Lorelei’s face, her hair, the feel of her soft, warm body in his arms as she chatted about… well, he was too busy listening to her voice to take in the words. For all he cared she could be reciting train timetables, he’d still be as enchanted as he’d been when they first met. Tonight was their twenty-third date and they were going to celebrate with a candlelit dinner in his favourite place, a small and intimate Italian trattoria, just around the corner from his apartment.

“We need to go, Lorelei,” he said with reluctance. “The table’s booked for 7.30.”

Lorelei leaned into him, but after allowing himself the pleasure of just a brief kiss, Stephen sighed and pulled himself away. “If we don’t move right now, we’ll never get out of here. We’re going to be late as it is. Come on, let’s go and eat and then we’ll come back here and …” He waggled his eyebrows and did a lewd little jiggle with his hips, making Lorelei giggle.

“Do you think we’ll get to eat dessert this time? Maybe we should share one.”

It was a private joke between them that they’d never managed to stay for a pudding. From the moment they sat down, the heat between them would start to build, rising by the minute until it simply get too hot for them to eat anything else. Stephen, in a strangled voice, would ask for the bill, and they’d be out of the restaurant and entwined in each other’s arms like lovesick teenagers. The last time this had happened, a passer-by had muttered, “Get a room, why don’t you!”

Stephen held out her soft woollen wrap and kissed the tip of her freckled nose once it was settled around her shoulders. They made the short walk as if joined together from shoulder to hip.

They arrived twenty minutes after the time he had booked for, but it didn’t matter, they were greeted warmly and led to a table in the corner.

The waiter handed them a menu each, took their drinks orders, and with a flourish lit the stubby candle in the wax-covered Chianti bottle. Lorelei looked so beautiful, Stephen began to wonder if they’d manage to get beyond the starter, let alone make it to a shared dessert. He fingered the box in his pocket and wondered when would be the best time to-

His thoughts were interrupted by a chocolate-brown voice drawling, “Good evening, Miss Dove.”

Stephen blinked at the tall figure staring down at Lorelei as if he’d like to devour her. Slightly alarmed, he racked his memory … yes, it was one of the De Angelo brothers; he’d seen them once in The Blacksmith’s Anvil and Lorelei had told him who they were. At first he thought the man was alone, but then saw that behind him was the other one, the brother, looking as if he was trying to hide.

Stephen blinked some more, and then, remembering his manners, raised his bottom a couple of inches off his chair and held out his hand. “Hello, I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced? You obviously know Lorelei, and I’m Stephen George.”

“Nick De Angelo,” replied the man, giving Stephen’s hand a brief but bone-crunching shake. “And this is my brother, Gabe.”

The one called Gabe stepped forward with a shy smile and gave Stephen the merest nod of his head. He then took Lorelei’s hand, raising it and grazing her knuckles with his lips and gazing deep into her eyes. When he let go, Lorelei seemed momentarily startled, and Stephen saw such a sorrowful expression on Gabe’s face that he wondered if he’d recently had some very bad news.

There was an awkward silence as Stephen waited for the two interlopers to go to their own table and leave them alone before the romantic mood was completely broken. And he wanted tonight to be very romantic, more than any other night they’d spent together.

But Nick, directing a slightly malicious grin in his direction, rubbed his hands together, and said, “Well, isn’t this nice. Hey! Why don’t we all sit together?”

Before anyone could object – and everyone except Nick looked as if they really wanted to – he had ordered that two tables be joined up so the four of them could sit together.

Stephen was too stunned and too polite to do anything other than pretend it was what he’d wanted all along. Perhaps Lorelei was better acquainted with the De Angelos than he’d thought and she was happy for them to share their table? But as Gabe took the seat next to her, his cheeks flushed and his eyes downcast, he could see that Lorelei was as taken aback by this turn of events as he was. Of the four of them, then, only Nick De Angelo seemed totally relaxed, and Stephen felt a resentful dislike for the man start to build.

The evening that followed were utterly surreal as far as Stephen was concerned. The velvet ring box could not possibly be brought from his inside pocket and presented to Lorelei under these circumstances, even if the De Angelo brothers were to leave them alone after the meal. Maybe it was a sign, for Stephen believed in such things, that it was too soon to be thinking of marriage? They hadn’t been together other all that long, after all – but no… he had known she was the one for him since their first date in The White Lion. And Lorelei constantly declared her love for him. She’d even told him that he had a wonderful aura, and had been surprised and delighted that he’d known exactly what she’d meant.

“You’ll love my sister,” Stephen had responded, “She’s a family counsellor, but she does astrology for a hobby. She loves angel cards and psychic fairs, all that kind of thing.”

“And you don’t think it’s silly?” Her green eyes had looked worriedly into his brown ones.

“No, Lorelei, I don’t think it’s silly. My sister is one of the smartest and most sensible people I know, and her astrological readings have sometimes been of great help to me. She’s longing to meet you.”

Now he wanted to marry Lorelei as soon as possible. He’d told Stella, who had become very fond of Lorelei, that he planned to have the ring secretly placed in a glass of champagne and presented to his beloved, but she had replied, “That’s very romantic, Stephen, but fraught with danger, bearing in mind you both go all to pieces when you’re together. You’d have to hope she didn’t knock her glass over or just gulp it down and choke on it! But, really dear, Lorelei strikes me as a woman who would prefer you go down on one knee and present the ring in the traditional manner.”

So that’s what he’d planned to do, right here in this restaurant, but now he could only sit, fuming in silent frustration, as Nick De Angelo dominated the conversation. The subjects ranged from the narrow confines of village life to the political situation in Brazil and back again. Nick ate heartily, sometimes talking with his mouth full, but Stephen, Lorelei and Gabe merely picked at their food. He hoped they could make their escape after the main course, but when he tried to say that they had had enough to eat, Nick called for the dessert menu.

A waiter brought over a blackboard with the desserts neatly chalked on it and left it on the table so they could take their time. Gabe, who’d hardly spoken a word, didn’t even glance at it, muttering that he didn’t want anything.

“Would you please excuse us for a moment?” said Nick, “I just need a quick word with my brother.”

They left the table and Stephen watched in amazement as they walked out of the restaurant. Were they leaving him with the bill? But no, he could see them through the window, and they seemed to be arguing. Well, Nick was talking urgently and waving his hands about, a look of fury on his face, but Gabe was standing with his head down and his hands shoved in his pockets, looking like a schoolboy being admonished by the head master. Stephen looked ruefully at Lorelei , “I’m so sorry about this. I should have insisted at the start that we wanted to be alone.”

Lorelei smiled at him, “No need to apologise. You were being polite and I rather think Nick wouldn’t have taken no for an answer.”

“They’re a bit strange, though, aren’t they? Nick doesn’t stop talking!”

“Mm, and Gabe doesn’t say much at all. Oh, shh, they’re coming back. Let’s say we’re finished and need to leave.”

The brothers sat down, Nick grinning as he laid his napkin once more across his lap, Gabe looking for all the world as if he was holding back tears as he did the same.

“Lorelei,” he said, his shoulders still slightly slumped as he reached for the blackboard, “I do hope you are going to join me in having a dessert?”

“Er, no, thank you.” She patted her stomach, “I’m far too full.”

“Oh you can’t be,” said Gabe, his cheeks flaming for some unfathomable, “You hardly ate a thing! Now, how about chocolate mousse?”

Lorelei held up her hand, “No, really. I don’t want anything.”

“Raspberry roulade? Profiteroles? Crème Caramel? ”

Gabe sounded a bit desperate and Stephen wondered why he trying to force a Lorelei into choosing a dessert. He decided to take charge, and tried to attract the attention of a waiter, saying, “I’m sorry, but we really do have to leave now. I’ll get the bill.”

Gabe implored, “How about ice cream? Gosh, says here they have eight flavours.”

Lorelei shook her head, and reached behind her to take her wrap from the back of her chair.

Nick, looking highly amused, said, “So… no desserts, then.”

Gabe dropped his head, whether with frustration or relief Stephen couldn’t tell, until he caught a smile that Gabe was trying to hide. What on earth was going on here?

What happened next was so astounding Stephen would later believe he’d hallucinated the scene. As Nick leaned forward and made to touch Lorelei’s arm, Gabe gave a strangled cry and, to Stephen’s mind, deliberately knocked over his nearly-full glass of wine. The liquid appeared to leave the glass in a solid burgundy ball which skimmed across the surface of the crisp white tablecloth before hurling itself at Nick, spattering the front of his pale blue shirt, his red silk tie, and the lapels of his jacket. Not a speck of wine landed anywhere else.

There was a stunned silence and nobody moved until two waiters converged on their table with napkins and started to dab at Nick’s clothes. His face a picture of controlled fury, Nick pushed them away and told them not to trouble, then he calmly asked for the bill.

He insisted on paying. “After all, it was my idea that we all dine together.” He ordered Stephen to put his wallet away when Stephen tried to contribute.

The bill was settled with a large pile of new twenty-pound notes and the brothers said their goodbyes. Stephen caught Gabe, who’d spoken not a word since knocking over his wine, cast a very strange look at Lorelei as he rose from his chair, one of profound sadness, and wondered what it meant. They really were a pair of odd fellows.

But that was forgotten as with much relief, Stephen gently escorted Lorelei away from the trattoria in case the dreadful Nick De Angelo, despite his wine-stained suit, reappeared and insisted on dragging them to a nightclub or something.

Finally alone back at his apartment, they discussed what had happened. Stephen asked if she’d noticed anything odd about the wine-spilling incident, but she said her eyes had been on him so she hadn’t seen anything.

“I can’t explain why,” she mused, “but I really didn’t like Nick, there’s something about him…”

He held up his hand to stop her speaking further. “Shh! No more talk of them or anyone else!” He slid down onto one knee in front her, took her left hand in both of his. “Lorelei, my darling, sweet Lorelei, will you marry me?”

Her eyes widened and she gasped, “Stephen, I-”

“I know it’s early days for us, but I don’t care! I love you, Lorelei, I know you are the one for me, and I want you to be my wife.” He pulled out the velvet box and lifted the lid, revealing a delicate ring set with a round purple stone, two small diamonds sparkling either side. “Please say yes.”

“Oh, Stephen!” she gasped,  “It’s beautiful! Is that amethyst?”

He nodded. “I had it specially made. I couldn’t think you’d want any other stone.” He removed it from its snug velvet bed and held it up to her. “It’ll fit you, my love. I borrowed a ring-sizer from the jeweller and measured that silver ring you sometimes wear. But, Lorelei, you haven’t answered my question.”

She threw herself at him, knocking him flat on his back, crying, “Oh Stephen, the answer’s yes! Yes please! Yes, yes, YES!”

***

“So what the hell was that about? If you wanted to stop me touching Lorelei and resetting the scene you shouldn’t have done it that way! I’m sure Stephen George noticed the trajectory of that wine!” Nick waved his hands in front of himself in a downward motion, chin to hips. The red wine stains disappeared.

“Of course he didn’t! Humans see magic all the time but they brush it away. I didn’t want you resetting the scene, Nick. I just couldn’t do it, not tonight.” Gabe narrowed his eyes at his brother, “You do know what Stephen was intending to do, don’t you?”

“No I do not know and I don’t care! Unlike you, I was concentrating on the job in hand, not using telepathy to go prying into his mind.”

“He was going to propose, Nick! I just couldn’t do it to them, not tonight.”

Nick’s grey eyes narrowed and darkened to obsidian and he spoke through gritted teeth: “As you’ve so recently pointed out, it is only in your interest that neither Lorelei nor Violet succumb to temptation.” He stabbed his finger into Gabe’s chest, and continued to jab with each word while Gabe tried to back away, “So you can be sure, brother, that I shall be watching you very carefully from now on.”

Nick stalked off, leaving Gabe gazing miserably into his empty coffee cup.

Nick was right, of course. He, Gabe, didn’t want the changeover to happen, not now, not ever. But a promise was a promise, especially when it was with a capital P and made by archangels, so he had no choice.

He resolved to try harder next time, and maybe it would be easier because, surely, the engagement would have taken place. But then there’d be the wedding! Bottom lip wobbling, he dropped his head into his hands.

What an evening! And he hadn’t even had the chance to sample just one of those eight ice cream flavours!

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

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

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

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“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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