A/N- I've changed the title. It may cause confusion, since now this, and another short story share the same name, but that's because it's the short story that grew into this.
If you have any comments or constructive criticism, I love to hear it.
Your own death, and how to cope with it
Chapter 2: Irin
They were red, glittering, and with heels that could kill a man. The shoes were also utterly impossible to walk in.
Roll up! Roll up! Come see the greatest show on earth!
See. Observe. Watch, as she teeters down the corridor, a marvel, a ballerina of balance. Briefcases, both hands. Suitcase, squidged under her armpit. Lunchbag, balanced haphazardly on her halo.
See her! Clack, clack, clack, click. Wobbling precariously, heel slipping to the side, as she rebounds off the water cooler, propelled by sheer momentum.
Because, tonight– for one night only– angel Irin wears high heels!
Before you; the sprawling corridors of the Department of Sin and Salvation, one of the units set in the municipal office of Limbo. White-washed, high-arched, pristine, the warm buzz of the AKV radio:
"– and later here in the studio with Seraphim Metatron, to discuss the latest developments in Heaven. This is Raphael, live on 5.5 Limbo longwave radio. Our proverb for the day comes from Timothy 4 : 10; "That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, and especially of those who believe." And now I'm going to hand over to–"
To our own, on air – swaying dangerously – angel of innocence. Employees, moving swiftly out the way, angels in odd ragtag combinations of gowns and suits, smart jackets and long flowing dresses.
"Morning, Irin," said an angel in the incoming direction.
"Morning Sariel!" she sung, unceasing, shifting her stack of papers from one hip to the other.
"How are you?"
"Sorry, can't talk now!" Her voice, as always, lilted along breathlessly, as though it was struggling to catch up with the rest of her.
The bag in Irin's left hand lighter than her right, she found herself careering to the side like a shopping trolley.
"Um, Xaphan," she pleaded. With a chuckle, the angel Xaphan gave her a push; she went careering off in the opposite direction.
Angels parted for her like the red sea, because, quite frankly, with Irin it was that, or be bowled over like pins.
"Ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum!" under her breath she sung.
"Good morning Irin!" they'd say. "You look lively as ever," they'd say.
And, her catchphrase, "Busyness is happiness," she'd reply!
She swerved round a dangerous corner, met a trio of angels who swiftly parted for her.
"Hullo Jeziel! Hi Johoel! Morning Steve!" A dizzying feat, she spun on her heels, and started walking backwards. "Oh, Steve. I watched that disc you leant me on the circus yesterday. It was a-mazing."
"That's great," said Steve. Adding warily, "But maybe you should watch where you're–"
Too little, too late. Irin's collision with the tea trolley resulted in carnage equivalent to a motorway crash. Poor Raziel hadn't managed to manoeuvre the trolley out the way in time, and–
Saucers went spinning like tops; teapot tumbling; cups and hot cross buns cartwheeling over the marble. A sea of egg and cress sandwiches spilled sideways; a flood of hot coffee sloshed over, enough to fill the Nile.
Steve gave Irin a hand up, and when she saw the devastation she'd caused, her hands flew to her mouth.
"Oh Raziel, I'm sorry! I wasn't looking where I was going."
The only dry part of Raziel, dripping from head to toe in lemonade, was her voice. "I did gather."
When Irin tried to pat her soaking wings down with a tea towel, Raziel snatched it away. "I'll do it," she said. Irin responded instead by grabbing cups and saucers and stuffing them higgylydypiggdly back onto the trolley. "For goodness's sake, if you're so busy, leave it to me," Raziel breathed, exasperated, following her around to fix the mess she was making.
There was more than one head poking out from the nearby office now. The commotion had begun to draw a crowd, and Irin stuffed the napkins into Raziel's hands. "Thank you. Sorry Raziel!"
A hand on her hip, Raziel sighed, and smiled at her tolerantly. "It's okay. Everyone knows how hard you work. Just please, do try and be more careful."
She felt a hand, touching her gingerly on the shoulder, and Steve held out a sodden brown bag. "I'm sorry, but I think these are..."
It was the sandwiches she'd made this morning, crafted with love with care, which, now, were completely soaking.
She wilted; her wings sunk, her halo glowed a little less brightly. "But... I did them just as he liked them. Brown bread, half a teaspoon of mustard, no crusts."
She looked so miserable that Raziel sighed, "Oh, go on then."
Irin glanced up. Raziel stepped over the wreckage and handed her one of the few cellophaned sandwiches that had avoided destruction. "Take one of mine."
Irin said, "The Judge doesn't like pickle."
"Well then, have one of the egg and mayonnaise."
"Mayo disagrees with his stomach."
Raziel said, bluntly, "Well it's that, or the ham. And-" as Irin opened her mouth wide, "before you ask, no, I'm not cutting the crusts off for you."
And, as Irin made to protest, Raziel cut her off, with a wry smile; "Judge Gabriel is big boy. He'll survive a few crusts, Irin."
In the end, Irin got to the courthouse with time to spare. She set her bags down under the grand white columns, and watched her breath rise like the curl of a question mark. It was cold, but Irin, still radiating warmth under her clothes, didn't even feel it. The courthouse lay in the heart of the offices, an imposing building set in the communal parkland. Like everything in Limbo, the weather, too, could never make its mind up about anything, and today was a soggy, universal grey. From behind the giant brass doors, she heard Gabriel's voice booming, the individual words lost in the echo. She ran her hand absently along the cool stained glass, delightful against her hot sticky palm. It felt so nice she pressed her forehead to it, and then her cheek, and her other cheek. She pulled back, and saw herself, framed by a scene of sinners, tossed into the hellfire. Her hair was golden, and at the tips, incendiary— and also, a complete mess. Hurriedly, she tugged her fingers through her locks, and hissed with pain when they snagged at the tangles.
There was a rumble, and the doors rolled open. Bright light spilled out over the marble steps, and out dawdled a dozen men in suits. Barristers in their white wigs and robes; milling members of the public gallery; stewards; chaperones, and following behind, Judge Gabriel, his long white robes trailing behind him, deep in conversation with the prosecution.
Irin dropped her hands from her hair. Unlike all the other angels, Gabriel did not have two wings, but six. His halo was incandescent. He was God's right hand man, though he was not a man; he was one of His three most loyal angels, and he shined as bright as a star on a dreary day; the seraphim, Gabriel, angel of Justice.
Irin swung up her bags, and pushed through the crowd towards him. And when she spoke, it was in a deluge, and sounded a bit like this: "Judge! How are you- how's the case going- have they fixed the heating yet- are you warm enough- I brought you your extra jacket, in case you aren't- oh, and I've got the case notes you asked for, and your sandwiches, and your schedule, and–"
Gabriel exchanged a meaningful look with the prosecutor.
"Irin," he said.
"–and some warm coffee, because of, you know, the heating- and could you have a word with the Archangel Nathaniel? He's filled up your answering phone again- and I let myself into your office and finished the statistics you were working on, and– "
"–And I put your speech together, and I've left it on your desk, and– "
Gabriel said this time, quite firmly, "Irin."
Like a train chugging to a stop, it took Irin a moment to lose momentum. At last she said, "Huh?"
"Irin, I can't understand a word you're saying."
She said, "Oh."
Gabriel took the briefcase from her, and while the prosecutor looked on in from the sidelines, lips tweaked in amusement, Gabriel clapped her on the arm. "These are the case notes? Thank you. Why don't you take the afternoon off? You look exhausted."
Her hair still poking out from all sides, clothes stained with coffee, wide, stunned eyes, Irin said, "Oh. Right. Okay."
"I'll see you then," he said, putting his head together with the prosecutor, his robe sweeping off behind him.
She called after him, "Your sandwich!"
Not looking back, he raised a hand dismissively. "I have to speak with Uriel about council matters. I'll take lunch with him. Goodbye Irin." His farewell he spoke with a certain firmness.
"Right. Of course," she said, and let the sandwiches and bag drop from her hands with a soft thud. It was lunch hour, the corridor had cleared out. For the first time all day, Irin was still. She gazed down at the shoes.
He hadn't even noticed them.
An afternoon off. What was she supposed to do with an afternoon off?
Irin liked to keep busy because she liked to work hard. And Irin liked to work hard because it stopped her thinking about things. Because thinking about things inevitably led to her feeling feelings, one of the bad habits angels were picking up, like fleas, from the lower world in the last few millenia. Because, inevitably, and particularly lately, Irin felt sad. It crept inside her, like a gloomy day, and left her sighing, and she had no idea why.
She dawdled, now, into the staff canteen, the soft lights and tinkling music, and lethargically, studied the salad behind the counter without really looking at it. The angel behind wiped his hands on his apron.
"Why- if it ain't the angel of Innocence! Don't usually see you down here, Irin."
Irin didn't look up at him, and continued studying the salad. "Hullo, Saphiel."
"Heard about the gig you got, working for the Seraphim. How's that treating ya?"
She shrugged. "'S not bad," she said, and she heard something strange- almost like a sob, except angels didn't cry. It was a strange, pointless human habit, like falling in love. But when she looked back, she saw Sandalphon weeping over his jacket potato.
"Yeah, he's been like that for almost an hour. Funny bugger won't tell anyone what's wrong. Now, what can I get for ya?"
But Irin turned her back on him, her own sadness slipping away, unnoticed, and sat by Sandalphon's side, a hand on his back.
"Sandalphon, whatever is the matter?"
He looked up. She stared. His eyes were ringed with red. He said, startled, "Irin! I haven't seen you in decades." Their work had taken them to different departments recently, but for many years, Sandalphon had been her neighbour in the same prayer call centre. He didn't live too far from her, actually; he lived across the way in the opposite flats, but then, since she'd joined the think tank, which led to her landing the job as Gabriel's PA, she hadn't much seen anyone.
"I know. I've been busy," she said.
He smiled, weakly, though his tears. "So I've heard," but then he burst into tears, crying into the table again.
"What's wrong?" she asked. "Listen, is there anything I can get you?"
He shook his head, and his voice was muffled under his hand; "I don't deserve anything. And I can't tell anyone. I've done something terrible. "
For a moment, Irin wondered what to do. Then she said, quite firmly, "Alright, that's enough of that."
Sandalphon looked up, puzzled.
"Look at the state you're in!" she said. "You'd best tell me what's wrong, immediately."
"No buts! Spit it out." She folded her arms. Sandalphon stared at her, his mouth sagging open. Then he nodded.
He wiped his eyes and said, "You know, how I've always wanted a job in the collection agency?" Irin nodded. Even in the call centre, he'd talked about it. "Well, finally I managed to convince Aniel to let me try out the open Collection Position, after Steve moved into management. Because of my hobbies, he didn't think it was a good idea, that just because of my collection of spatulas, I had something called a 'Human Obsession' – which is poppycock, by the way. You don't think having a spatula collection is strange, do you Irin?"
The way he looked at her was rather desperate, and Irin found herself saying, "Of course not..." in a very light voice.
"Finally, I managed to convince him to give me the job- though he made me throw away my cheese graters to get it, which I thought was rather unreasonable. But-" his voice twanged like a tuning fork. He put his head back in his hands. "Now I've messed it all up. And on my first assignment!" She reached out a hand towards him, but before she could touch him, he, visibly, pulled himself back together. Took a deep, shuddering breath. "Because it was my first time, I was really nervous. She caught me- off guard- and then... she got away. She stole my notebook, too."
This time, Irin really did put a hand on him. "That happens, sometimes, even with the senior angels. And like you said, it was your first time. Just report her to Aniel; they'll catch up with her, eventually. There's no need to be so upset about it."
"But that's the thing! That's not what I'm upset about. When I got back to the office, I was so worried Aniel would sack me that I told him I'd lost the notebook, and said that all the deceasees were accounted for. I lied!"
Irin was shocked into silence. And when she spoke, she spoke very seriously, "You need to go back and tell the truth..."
"I can't, now! If they know I've lied, I'll lose my position, and go back down to being a grigor!"
"But they're bound to find out eventually. She'll be on the system."
"She won't be. When Seraphim Metatron ordered everything moved over to the new server last May, the system crashed. They're still putting everything back in order. It could be years before they realise she's not accounted for."
"But I thought the system was fixed. Judge Gabriel said—"
"Judge Gabriel doesn't know. It was one of Metatron's schemes to economise Heaven- but oh, I probably shouldn't be telling you this either..."
What was happening in Heaven? Angels lying, keeping secrets from one another. This never would have happened when...
"Oh, but please Irin; don't say anything. I'm begging you. I've worked so hard to get this position; you know that—"
"But the human girl—"
"I'll find her myself. If I get all my assignments over quickly enough, I can stay on Assiah and search for her. But please Irin; don't-say-anything!"
Irin crept quietly in the back of the public gallery. She stood on someone's foot with the point of her heel; they let out a hiss of annoyance.
"Sorry!" she mouthed, and fell into an empty seat.
She looked up, at the winged angels of the jury, filling the rafters, light shining in through the stained glass windows, a coloured rippling mosaic on the marble.
The defendant, a young man, stood in the dock. High above him, Gabriel, his long solemn face a mask of calm, graceful justice.
Irin could feel the knots in her back as they loosened. A sense of peace washed over her. This was better. This was how things were meant to be.
"I'm sorry – I didn't mean—" the defendant was saying.
"The only thing you didn't mean, Mr Darling, was to get caught," Gabriel was saying, his voice smooth and cool as marble, face alight with a quiet dignity. "The jury has made their decision, and pronounced you guilty. Guilty of your hedonism, your unnatural lusts, and furthermore, your lack of any real regret for your crimes—"
Justice. Black and white. No lies, no secrets. Nothing to fret, or to worry about. Things in their proper order.
"I do not think you are sorry Mr Darling, only sorry that we are here, that there really is a God. Therefore, I sentence you to an eternity in hell, where, I hope, you may begin to atone for your crimes."
A chill went through Irin. Such dignity! Such pride! Her heart trembled to see it.
But then she thought of the shoes, the stupid, ostentatious red shoes, and her heart was clouded with a shame she couldn't comprehend.