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

 

 

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

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was mean,” said Gabe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Amelia with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you, dear brother, are a wuss.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Nigel! Wait up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uri was watching him closely.

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

Uri nodded, “Yep. Shall we go over?”

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

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

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

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

This.

Could.

Not.

Be.

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

And Gabe was tripping down it, beaming in welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at Gabe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next episode: ‘popcorn and a blockbuster movie’

~~~~~

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011 Orders From Above: Episode 11 ‘a fateful meeting’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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3 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon and the high-spirited group of schoolchildren were being herded by their teachers to the coach waiting outside. In an upstairs room historian and archaeologist Dr. Stephen George heard them leave in a cacophony of scuffling feet, shouts and laughter, then all was blissfully quiet. For the past two hours he’d been scribbling notes for his forthcoming lecture on excavation techniques to university students and it wasn’t coming together. Several A4 sheets were scattered across his desk, covered with his untidy writing. The scrawl was scribbled-out here and there and double-headed arrows shot from one paragraph to another where he couldn’t decide whether to swap them round. When the intercom buzzed he gladly threw down his pen, grateful for the interruption.

“Yes, Stella?”

“Miss Dove is here to see you.”

“Oh, yes, the coin found in the churchyard at Ham-Under-Lymfold. I’ll be right down.”

The first thing that caught his attention as he entered from the stairwell was a cloud of shiny, dark red curls. The second thing was a very trim figure. The third, fourth and fifth things were the dazzling smile, creamy skin and pair of luminous eyes the colour of cinnamon. By the time she spoke, softly introducing herself, Dr. Stephen George was utterly lost. It even seemed, in the moment that he took her outstretched hand and didn’t want to let it go, that the usually dim, cool interior of the Heritage Centre reception was suddenly very bright and very warm.

“Miss Dove.” Had there ever been such a beautiful name? “I’m Stephen George. Won’t you come up to the lab?” It all came out in a rush, and Stephen didn’t miss Stella’s raised eyebrows and knowing smirk as he led the way back upstairs to his office.

“Here we are, please do go in.”

She preceded him with another dazzling smile that made his heart pound like it was being pummeled by a pile driver. Why had he never met her before this? Where had she been all his life?

“The last discovery was brought in by your uncle, I hope he is well?” he said with a voice half an octave higher than usual.

“Uncle Hartley is fine, thank you. It was easier for me to come this time as I work just up the road, at the Art College.”

Just up the road! And he had never seen her.

“Have you worked there long, Miss Dove?”

“Please call me Lorelei.”

Her name sang in his brain. Lorelei. Lorelei Dove. A perfect name for a perfect woman. Would she one day be Lorelei George?

She was answering his question, forcing him to wrestle his mind back from his ridiculous reverie and give his full attention to this vision of loveliness.

“It’s been just over a year, actually,” she said, “I moved from Reading when my aunt died; she left me her cottage in Ham-Under-Lymfold and I was lucky enough to get a teaching job here.”

Maybe it could be lucky for me, too, Stephen thought, coming over all daydreamy again.

Lorelei said, “I saw a group of schoolchildren leaving as I came in, and it reminded me of a school trip to London, a long time ago. We went to look at a Bronze Age collection, but I was fascinated by a display of crystals in the foyer, and a huge amethyst geode in particular. I really loved that, probably because purple is my favourite colour,” she laughed and swept a hand over her t-shirt, fringed scarf and long skirt in various shaded of purple then waggled her fingers to show off glittery lilac varnish. “I had to save up for it, but I have a super geode at home almost as tall as me.”

Stephen cleared his throat so he could speak properly. “Oh, we have geodes here, too. You must have a look at them before you go. But let’s have a look at this coin, shall we?”

Lorelei pulled a small, bubble-wrapped lump from her shoulder bag and placed it on the table. The bubble-wrap unravelled to reveal another lump, this time of cotton wool. Inside that, the coin gleamed under the overhead lights.

Stephen fetched a magnifying glass from a drawer and leaned on his elbows to study the uppermost face of the coin, a crowned king sitting on a throne. But he was distracted by the nearness of Lorelei, by the scent of her, her unwavering gaze and air of curiosity and anticipation. He didn’t want to bother with the artifact, he wanted to talk to her. To find out everything about her. To find out if she would have dinner with him. Soon.

She smiled at him, frightening Stephen into believing she could read his mind, but she said, “Uncle Hartley has a book about coins, and he thought this resembled a gold florin. It was called a Double Leopard, if I remember rightly.”

Inwardly giving himself a firm shake to make himself concentrate, he traced with a fingertip one of the two leopard heads near the kings elbow and felt excitement stir. “It could be that your uncle is right. If this is a Double Leopard it will be pretty valuable. Let’s have a look on the internet.”

He went to a dusty laptop and typed in ‘Double Leopard coin’. Within seconds, he had a picture of one on the screen, and Lorelei leaned in close as they both studied the actual coin and the large, clear picture in front of them. He breathed in the apple-scent of her, and longed to reach out and touch her hand, her hair, her face.

“It looks just like it, doesn’t it?” she breathed. “And look, it says it could be worth more than a hundred thousand pounds!”

“Yes, indeed. But let’s not make assumptions. I’m not an expert in coins, ancient pottery is more my line, so I’d like to suggest that we send this to an expert I know in London. Would that be all right, do you think?”

“Of course! Please feel free to do whatever you think necessary. Oh, Uncle Hartley will be over the moon.”

She was picking up her bag. She was going to leave. Desperately, he rooted about in his brain to find something to say that would really impress her, something intelligent, scintillating and witty. He blurted, “Oh please, don’t go!”

Lorelei looked a little startled, and he inwardly groaned that he was behaving like an idiot. Taking a deep breath, he started again, “I’m sorry, what I meant was, please stay while I photograph and document this. And I need to give you a receipt for it.”

She smiled put her bag down again, and as he looked into her golden-brown eyes he felt the floor tilt beneath his feet.

For the next quarter of an hour, Lorelei stood patiently by while Stephen photographed the coin and made notes about it. The high-windowed room started to heat up, and Stephen couldn’t help but stare at her as she removed the fringed scarf from around her soft, white neck. Her fingers were long and slender, the lilac nails quite short. Stephen, wanting to kiss those fingers very badly indeed – noted the absence of a wedding or engagement ring – but surely such a lovely woman was already taken? How could he find out? He shook himself before she caught him gazing at her, wrote out a receipt and handed it to her, saying, “That’s as much as I can do right now. It could be a week or two before the expert I have in mind is available to take a look at it, so may I, that is, may I take your, er, your telephone number to let you know when we have the, the, er, the results?”

Good grief, he thought, now I’m stuttering like a lovesick teenager!

Lorelei stated her home number, twice, very slowly, and leaned over to watch him write it down. Her incredible hair smelled of apples. Or was it her skin? “If you, er, need to, um, ask me anything, Miss Dove … Lorelei … then do call. I’ll be here most days, that is when I’m not lecturing at the university. But anyway, I shall telephone you the moment I have any news. Or before if I need to ask you something. About the coin, I mean.”

“Right. Yes. Fine. Well, I’m sure you’re busy and I have to get going, so …” Lorelei wound the purple scarf round her neck and picked up her handbag.

“I’ll show you out-”

“Oh, there’s no need. Really. I can find my way.”

And she was gone. Too late, Stephen remembered that he’d offered to show her the geodes downstairs. Bereft at the missed opportunity to spend more time with the enchanting Miss Dove, he stared at the doorway until Stella appeared there, her sleek blond bob blotting out his memory of Lorelei’s auburn curls tumbling down her slender back. Stella was looking at him with a knowing expression.

“Lovely young woman,” she said, barely able to contain her laughter at Stephen’s dumbstruck expression, “I hope you got her telephone number.”

“I did, as a matter of fact. But don’t you go getting any ideas, Stella. She might be married, or engaged, or-”

“Nope. I happen to know that she’s free as a bird and looking for her soulmate.”

“How?” he croaked, “I mean, how could you know that?”

“Because I know her Uncle, and I saw him just a couple of weeks ago. He told me that she’d just come out of another disastrous relationship and he wished with all his heart that she could meet a nice man.” Her face full of mischief, she said, “You’re a nice man, Stephen. A very nice man.”

“Now, Stella, I think we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves …”

“Stephen, you are nice. You’re kind, intelligent, you have a great sense of humour and on top of all that you’re very good-looking, a veritable Indiana Jones. And from the rapturous look on her face as she left here, I would say she was rather smitten too.” She turned on her heel, “I’ll make some tea.”

Stephen wanted to punch the air for joy at even the possibility he might be of interest to the wondrous0 Lorelei Dove, and debated with himself how soon he should call her. What would be the right amount of time to wait? Two weeks… no, far too long. One week? Yes, he thought that would be about right.

He lasted three days.

Next episode: Nigel learns the truth

~~~~~

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