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Chapter 2

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Two days ago, the angel Caphriel roamed the city.

He was not particularly angelic in appearance. He had dark hair and good cheekbones and the kind of smile that is usually described as 'ironic', or perhaps 'wry.' He was thin, and very, very British in a way that recalled a thousand drugged out rock stars. He wore black a lot.

He never took off his sunglasses.

Today, like every other day, he was doing his job.

At 3:17 a.m., he visited a thirteen-year-old girl dying of cancer and had a vigorous discussion with her about the virtues of glittery nail polish versus matte. They both agreed that matte, while elegant, was boring, and also that black nail polish only looked good on Taylor Hanson because anything looked good on Taylor Hanson. Caphriel kept a careful eye on the machine monitoring the girl's heartbeat throughout the argument.

Thirty minutes later, he put on his coat and left the hospital. Three minutes after he left, the nurse found the girl dead, but smiling.

Caphriel's orders had been that he should talk about her immortal soul and the wonder of God's creation, but he modified his instructions where he thought fit. This was called initiative, and was part of why he did his job so well, besides being only practical when dealing with humans.

Around 6:30, he had some cold pizza for breakfast and listened to a recitation of Pippa's Song on the BBC.

Robert Browning, he thought, was one heck of a stupid bastard. Who cared if a snail was living it up on a thorn? Probably not God, although you never could tell what God was thinking at any one time. For all he knew, He could be thinking about snails, unlikely though it seemed. He was ineffable. That was the point.

Still. Poetry. What a load of crap.

At 7:00 a.m., Caphriel watched a firefighter save a dog and a child from a burning building, and smiled.

The photographs were undoubtedly going to look very inspiring. Caphriel certainly hoped so. The dog had been roasted when he found it. It had taken any amount of effort to recreate the fur. It wasn't just a matter of resurrection; he'd had to get the shading and the individual hairs just right.

He was quite pleased with the result. It would have taken a much keener eye than the average human's to spot what had been the dead parts of the dog. Since this had basically been all of the dog, Caphriel felt he had the right to be pleased.

At 10:23, he entered a cyber cafe, where he spent the next few hours keeping servers running and systematically exterminating computer viruses.

He'd yet to find a permanent cure for pop-up ads, but he was working on that.

Later he stood up, stretched with a satisfying popping sound, and wandered out for a cup of bad coffee. On the way he nudged the conscience of a boy about to shop-lift, and reminded an old man that he only had one child and if he didn't forgive our Brenda for what she done, they'd likely never meet again until he was carried to her in a box. Don't think of it as losing a daughter, Caphriel suggested telephatically, think of it as gaining another one.

Across the city, he showered some moments of divine ecstasy around a cathedral, although he did this rather half-heartedly. Divine ecstasy just didn't cut it any more. In the old days, divine ecstasy made them leap up and run off to devote their lives to God; now it just made them think they'd taken too much cough syrup that morning, and resolve to take more as soon as possible.

In the afternoon he helped a man through his physical therapy session, advised a young woman to quit her stultifying job in the bank in favour of a career in the arts, invented a few more genuinely funny jokes, brought a kitten down from a tree, and averted the production of yet another reality TV show.

In the evening, he went to St. James' Park, where he fed the ducks and thought about being clinically depressed.

He was pretty sure he was. It was one of those things you just knew, if you were an angel. People think angels know nothing of evil or sorrow. This is as sensible as thinking pest exterminators know nothing about cockroaches. Angels know as much about the darker, more unpleasant aspects of life as the next demon, if not more. It's their job.

Caphriel knew the symptoms of depression. He'd seen it in millions of suicidal humans before.

He knew why he was depressed, too.

The truth of the matter was, plain holiness just wasn't enough these days. You couldn't ask humans to be decent to each other as a bargain for eternal life in heaven. They didn't listen. You had to add flashy lights and auras. And mystic names in Sanskrit. And aromatherapeutic herbs. And probably a couple of free action figures wouldn't hurt.

It was impossible not to get depressed. You worked and you worked and you prayed and you had faith, you really did, and every morning you woke up and the entire world hit you in the face, as full of people doing horrible things to one another as it had been the day before. What was it, if not depressing?

And Caphriel liked people. Most angels didn't, which was understandable when you considered how, well, bad humans looked in comparison. Hardly any of the angels had ever got over the Eden debacle, but they hadn't spent the last six thousand years on Earth, getting to know humans better. Caphriel had. And he'd found that he couldn't hate humans. They were just so . . . messed up. They spent their short lives wasting their time, going in circles, deliberately blocking out the light while they whinged about the darkness. There was nothing either Heaven or Hell could do to them that was worse than what they did themselves, every single day. Humans were put on this wonderful, beautiful earth, with its millions of intriguing possibilities, for a brief life-span, and they spent those short years staring at their navels and complaining about the view.

It was impossible not to like them, and want to help them. The bloody depressing thing was that it never seemed to make a difference.

What was worrying was that Caphriel suspected he was being influenced by them. Slowly but surely, he was changing. He had less than angelic impulses, which wouldn't worry him so much if it weren't for the single-minded nature of the impulses.

Caphriel sighed and massaged his temples, although he didn't have a headache. The gesture comforted him on a spiritual level.

Sometimes he just wanted a break. A little time to himself. A rest from humans . . . .

Who are you kidding, he thought. You know what you want.

He did, too. That was the worst thing. At least, it would be, if there weren't so many other worse things.

A burst of pain and a piercing shriek sliced through the grey clouds of his depression. Caphriel jerked upright. A small child of indeterminate sex sat on the grass in front of him. He'd apparently suffered a fall, and was intent on making his suffering known. In Greenland, if possible.

Caphriel winced. He hadn't had a headache, but he could feel one starting up at the shrill train whistle quality of the child's scream.

"Are you all right?" said Caphriel, knowing it was a stupid question and not caring. He could hear the strained patience in his own voice. He helped the child up, his efforts considerably hampered by the fact that the child did not want to get up. "Up you get. There. No harm done." This was true. There had been a scrape or two earlier, but they no longer existed.

"I -- hurt -- my -- LEG!" screamed the child.

"Your leg isn't hurt," Caphriel said with perfect truth. He patted the child vaguely on what seemed to be its back. "There, there. Stop screaming. Now, where's your mother?"

"I -- want -- my -- MUMMY!"

"Then we both agree," said Caphriel testily. "Be calm, child. No-one will hurt -- oh, God. Look, take this sweetie and piss off, you evil little bugger, all right?" He shoved a piece of toffee into the child's grubby hands. The child, satisfied with the tribute, stuck it in its mouth and shut up. Caphriel miserably shoved his hands in his pockets and turned to leave.

"Hwhat have you been doing with our Kevin?" thundered a voice, female and irate. Caphriel hadn't heard a voice like that since Eve had found a worm in her apple.

The woman who stalked up and swept up her child had 'enraged mother' written all over her. In capital letters. Underlined.

Caphriel submitted his soul to God. It wasn't as if things could get much worse.

"Ma'am, I assure you I was not doing anything with your Kevin--"

" . . . I know your type, swish perverts, think you can get away with hurting innocent children, do you? Think I can't tell what you've been doing, well, I know what men're like who wear long coats, I bet you're barely decent under it, if you think I'll let you prey on helpless children you've got another thought coming . . . ."


She slapped him hard. The force of it rocked his head back and knocked off his sunglasses.

His eyes were grey, and kind, and immeasurably sad, and as clear as the first morning of the world. They were eyes that were about six thousand years older than the rest of him.

Our Kevin's mother stared. Caphriel stared back at her.

"I'm sorry," said the woman. "I--"

"Forget about it," said Caphriel wearily. She did.

He picked up his sunglasses and put them back on after she left, a blank look on her face.

He felt a little better with their comforting weight on the bridge of his nose. They were a sort of protection against the world. Sometimes he needed that.

A break, thought the angel Caphriel. Something for myself.

Which was not an angelic thought, but Caphriel was beyond such things by now. Getting slapped by strange women can do that to you.

Not today, thought Caphriel.

Not tomorrow, either. It was only a month since the last time. He should show a little restraint.

The day after, then.

The day after tomorrow, he would see Zirah.

Caphriel drew a deep breath, and his face was that of a man who saw his only heart's desire.

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