I’ll come to reclaim it soon, the angel said. I should be less than a week, the angel said.
It’s been a week and a half since “the visitation,” as Adrian has taken to calling it in his head – and only in his head. After all, if he told people what happened, who would believe him? She hasn’t returned. He wonders if there’s some sort of celestial paperwork she has to fill out before she can manhandle him again.
The book arrived three days ago, and it’s been sitting, barely touched, in the draw underneath his desk. It’s hideous. Adrian’s never really concerned himself too much with aesthetics, but even he can tell. It’s large, somewhere around A4, and as thick as a damn housebrick. Also, someone, for some godforsaken reason, has dyed the leather of its covers lime green. It’s as if it has been designed especially to warn people off – to go, Pick this book up? Read it? God no, why would you ever do that?
Even so, Adrian almost thinks he can feel it watching him. It sits there in its little cave, singing to him. Calling him to open it and discover what lies in its pages.
That’s overly poetic nonsense, of course. He’s well aware of why he feels this way. It’s because the angel ordered him not to open it. He wonders if he could do it without her knowing. Maybe she’ll smite him if he does. Or she might think of something worse – something devious – like…
He’s honestly not sure, now he thinks about it. Would an angel be petty enough to give him genital warts or something? Perhaps this angel would.
He wonders why the key to saving the Scholars seems to lie in such an unwieldy, and, as his sister would say, fugly book. His hands twitch, his fingertips itching, tingling as though they’re already turning phantom pages. He’s never been a man of particularly impressive willpower, and the wait has become more of a trial with every passing day. He’s uncertain how much longer he can hold out.
Genital warts, he thinks desperately, wincing as he does so. Genital warts, or maybe even crabs…
The bell above the door rings. “Adrian?”
He opens his eyes and a woman is standing by the door, frowning at him – she just isn’t the one he expected. “Hi,” he says, caught between sighing in relief and grunting in frustration.
“Hello yourself,” his sister replies. She stands silhouetted in the light streaming through the door window, rocking on her heels a little. She’s never been able to keep still; you can read her body like a book, any kind of emotion expressed in the way she moves, in the way she holds herself. Both she and the angel take up space in a room, space that amounts to far more than their actual size, but the angel does it with a terrifyingly placid sort of stillness and surety; Olivia might as well be a hurricane in comparison. Sunlight touches hair as blonde as his, making it shine. The heavy leather jacket she seems to live in pads her frame, makes her seem broad. It’s deceptive. She’s ridiculously strong – he knows from personal experience that she could fairly easily pick him up, and she does a lot to stay in shape – but that strength’s expressed in wiry, lean muscle, not bulk. She approaches him cautiously. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” he lies. Never mind that his entire world view’s been turned upside-down, and that bloody angels exist, contrary to everything he’s been told. There are more things in heaven and earth, something whispers at the back of his mind, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. “Would it be really pretentious if I felt like quoting Shakespeare because it applies very well to my situation?”
“Yes,” Olivia says, without needing a moment’s thought beforehand. Adrian wonders if he should be offended. “Yes it would.”
“Thought so,” he sighs.
Too long spent on a bloody Literature course. He’s always reckoned that Literature degrees do bad things to the mind. They fill you with pseudo-profundity, make you feel like everything in your life is foreshadowing for the action and the associated revelations. Then the actual action never comes along, so you end up having a mid-life crisis at the age of twenty-one and setting up a bookshop.
He doesn’t even like Shakespeare that much, for God’s sake.
“Why?” she asks. “What’s got you desperate enough to resort to Shakespeare?”
He shakes his head, a rueful half-smile creeping onto his face. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
She sits on the edge of the counter, looking down at him with her “listening” smile, the one she uses when she’s determined to be understanding. Unfortunately, it also means that she won’t stop until she’s wormed the entire fantastical, ridiculous story out of him – every last word of it. Then she’ll laugh at him.
“Trust me,” he says again. He glances at the clock. It’s just turned eleven-thirty. “Want a cuppa?”
She shrugs. “Why not?”
He scrabbles for the “closed for lunch” sign – really nothing more than a hastily scrawled-on piece of lined paper – and then heads over to blu-tack it onto the door. “Right.”
When he returns from the kitchen with a couple of cups of tea, Olivia is in the back room; she’s sprawled on the sofa, her legs tucked underneath her and resting on the seat cushions. At least she’s taken off her Doc Martens – they sit, neatly placed next to the sofa, their scuffed, old red leather seeming to match the darkwood around the room and the glass coffee table. “Thanks,” she says, gratefully accepting the mug when he offers it. She’s taken off her jacket, too, he notices – it’s folded and placed on the arm, leaving her in a slightly faded London Calling T-shirt.
“How’s the job-hunting going?”
She winces. “It’s not. That’s kind of the problem. I’ve even been desperate enough to look for bloody waitressing work, but one of the places had a skirt as obligatory uniform.”
“For the male members of staff?”
She gives him a very eloquent look, and it’s enough to make him shut up. “That seemed like such total bollocks that I didn’t exactly try that hard for the job.”
“Surely there were other places…?”
“A few. Not that many vacancies, though. Most of them are taken up by students who are young, enthusiastic and so skint they’ll work for anything.”
He takes his usual chair, sighing a little. Oh God. He’s already old. He’s making noises when he sits down. One minute it’s sighing and the next it’s ooh, me knees. “You could always go back to the old place,” he suggests. “I’m certain they’d be glad to have you.”
“I’m not.” She keeps her eyes on her cup. There’s a slight shake of her head, but otherwise she seems eerily still. It bothers him, and, though he’s loath to admit it, scares him a little. He wonders if his life is settling into a pattern – odd women barging into his shop and scaring the shit out of him, simply in different ways. He hopes not.
“I’m sure you’d be glad, at least.”
She shrugs, still doesn’t look at him. “Maybe.” She finally seems to rejoin the land of the living, lifting her head and frowning at him. “What was the quote?”
He looks up. “Hm?”
“What was the quote? And does Mum have anything to do with this? I know she’s been a little… her lately, but – ”
He shakes his head. “No, no. We’re fine. We’re always fine.” He tries to put it in words that won’t end up with him getting institutionalised. “Basically, there’s… there’s this buyer.” When Olivia frowns a little but doesn’t say anything more, he continues, “She’s a little demanding. She said she’d return for a book in a week, and it’s been – well, it’s been three days longer than that.”
“Sounds like she’s messing you around.” Olivia frowns. “Just cancel the order. Tell her to cough up the money or sod off.”
“I wish it were that simple.” He takes a half-hearted sip of the tea before putting it back down. “I’ve already bought the book. And I have to wait for her, or…” His hands start shaking, and he trails off, trying once again to find the words.
Olivia’s spotted it. She’s watching his trembling fingers. Bugger. “You know,” she says, levelly, overly casually – and that’s when you should be afraid, when Olivia talks to you like she hasn’t a care in the world – “it sounds awfully as if she threatened you.”
“It’s not…” Adrian chokes on it in his fear, can’t possibly think of a way to explain it. “She didn’t. Exactly.”
“Then what did she do, Adrian?”
He wishes she wouldn’t do that. Their mother does it too, when she’s angry with him. Olivia would murder him if he said that; any similarities to her mother, perceived or otherwise, cause her to bristle. Or worse – more likely – curl in on herself, try and hide the hurt but not quite succeed.
“Well, you know how it’s always seemed that angels are mythical? They don’t in any way exist?”
“Yes,” Olivia says slowly, frowning and obviously not following at all.
“That… isn’t strictly true.”