017 Orders From Above: Episode 17 ‘sweet charity’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, you may not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nick,” hissed Gabe, “Stop it.”

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

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

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

“What do you want?” she snapped.

“A toffee would be nice,” said Nick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?” Violet snapped.

“A toffee would be nice,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

“Bad habits are hard to break, bro.”

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

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

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

~~~~~~~

Next episode coming soon

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

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

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Nigel pulled into the Turnaround and switched off the engine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amelia sighed, “Oh! Its gorgeous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who? Who has he decided on?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I’m getting there…”

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

“Don’t you patronise me!”

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

“How dare you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil,” if you please, interrupted Nick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her withering look said it all.

~~~~~

Next episode: ‘sweet charity’

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

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

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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

~~~~~

what i do

 

 

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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