“How are we doing?” asked the taller. His name was Al. He liked to appear tall and broad-shouldered, with wavy blonde hair slicked back. Sometimes he wore sunglasses, but today it wasn’t worth the effort.
“Terribly.” Lee favoured a shorter appearance, darker hair and a pot belly. “We were meant to turn twenty by sundown. Thirty, if they’d already sinned and we could lead them further down the dark path.”
“What are we on?”
From here they watched the crowds, but more importantly, they could see the aura of every person too. Auras not only broadcast a person’s emotional state to these two. They could read a person’s lifestyle, habits, choices... and propensity for certain kinds of behaviour.
Al sighed. “I thought it’d be nice to come up here. For a change, you know? I miss the pigeons. We don’t get pigeons down there. But this, if I’m really honest, is bloody boring.”
“Tell me about it. I spend most of my time up here. Not through choice, mind you. I seem to get lumped with this gig whether I want it or not. I remember when this was a craft. You could spend years destroying a man’s life, piece by piece, choice by choice until his soul was as black as slate. Nowadays, it’s a couple of sins and on to the next one. Still, at least it’s not misty. Mist gets everywhere. Takes hours to dry out after a day spent sat in the mist. And it fuzzes up the auras something terrible.”
“Oh!” There was the sound of air imploding, and Al disappeared briefly. When he reappeared he was grinning. “Heh heh heh.”
“What did you get?”
“Adultery. That fella, there. The one with the brown jacket, the ginger one. Got a silly little beard. His PA has been flirting with him for weeks now, and he’s going to decide to take her out when he gets back to the office. A few drinks, then back to hers for a quickie in the kitchen. He’ll dump her a few weeks later out of guilt before his girlfriend gets suspicious.”
Lee squinted. “Yep, got him.” He opened the app on his phone and pressed an icon. “Adultery. Bingo. That’s four, then.”
“What time is it?”
“About half past eleven.”
Time passed. The sun climbed the sky and discovered more cloud. Whether or not it was a better class of cloud made little difference to those below. In Trafalgar Square more and more humans were carrying food. Many auras dimmed as people threw leftovers and litter to the ground. Some felt guilty as they did so; other couldn’t care less. London’s rats and pigeons were indifferent as to why food hit the floor or how the humans felt about it.
“Got anything to eat?” asked Lee.
“Penguin or Kit-Kat?”
“Um, Penguin if you don’t mind. Tea? I’ve a flask here.”
“Yeah, why not.”
More time crawled by as they scanned the crowds. No likely prospects were found. People passed beneath them, every one with a small hint of sin about them. Some carried biros stolen from the office. Some fancied their best friend’s partner but would never do anything about it. Some knew they had been given too much change at the till and kept it. Some never tipped when they knew they should. But there was nothing of real consequence, no sin to cause harm enough to register towards their quota.
“There! There!” Al pointed into the crowd. “Two O’clock. Carrying an Iron Man messenger bag!”
“I see him, but...”
Lee frowned at Al. “How many decades has it been since they let you up here last?”
Al’s hand dropped to his side, his finger still pointing. “Not a sin anymore?”
“But I thought-“
“Lots of people did. Turned out it was just a typo.”
“Yep. Love thy neighbour didn’t specify any type of neighbour for a reason. Funny how many people ignore that key fact when they find someone to fear. Nowhere was it written Love thy neighbour except the ones who are a slightly different colour or worship at a different church or fancy different people than you. That’s the problem with humans. Give ‘em an instruction clearer than pure spring water and they’ll still twist it to suit their own prejudice.”
Minutes passed. Five or six pigeons were now vying for Al’s attention. One decided to try his luck with Lee and was swatted away.
“D’you think He did that on purpose?” asked Al.
“Put all that stuff in there that contradicts all the other stuff.”
“Never really thought about it.”
“Because if you read the book, his side killed a lot more people than our side did. If he’s screwing with them he could easily be screwing with us.”
“Never really thought about it.”
“Maybe he’s a double agent. Maybe he runs both departments, just wears a different glamour when he manages us.”
“That’s no way to speak to people. Anyway, have you ever seen the two bosses in the same room at the same time?”
“No, but... no. I can’t see it myself. Ham sandwich? It’s got some of that red Welsh mustard in it, got a zing to it but lots of flavour.”
“Sorry. I can’t. Vegetarian. Got any cheese?”
The crowds ebbed and flowed to the clock of the day. Two more potential adulterers were tipped over the edge of temptation into action, one man planned to solve his financial woes by conning an old business partner, and one teenager decided to steal a Mars bar from the local Tesco express after finding he had left his wallet at home.
“Every little helps,” said Lee as he tapped away at his phone.
Al fed Red Leicester crumbs to a pigeon. “This job is harder than it used to be. D’you think?”
“Sometimes. Yeah, I guess so.”
“It’s as if they’re doing most of the work for us.”
“Remember when everyone was expected to live by The Book?”
“Only in certain places, mind.”
“True, but it was easier then. Sin, or not a sin. Now it’s all ‘free thought’ this and ‘personal responsibility’ that. Where does that leave us?”
“Yeah, I know.”
More minutes passed. One person collected a tenner from the floor when they knew who had dropped it. A teenage girl in a denim jacket picked wallets and purses from the crowd. An adult male downloaded a Justin Bieber track to his iPhone in full knowledge of what he was doing, for reasons not even Al and Lee could fathom. They decided to leave that one alone.
Al drained the last of his tea and handed the mug back. “Got any crisps?”
“Got some Monster Munch.”
“They’ll do. Pickled onion or roast beef?”
“Pass them over anyway.” He opened the packet and inspected the contents, frowning. “Oh. What happened? Didn’t these bags used to be bigger? And look, there can’t be a dozen in there!”
“You have been away, son. They’ve been like that for ages.”
After finishing the Monster-Munch, Al scrunched the packet and threw it over the edge of the roof. He watched as it opened a little way, and floated down to the steps below.
“Don’t do that, it makes the place look untidy.”
“We’ve a Hell of a lot more to worry about than that, my friend.”
“True. But still, don’t do it.”
“D’you ever think we’ve made the wrong career choice?”
Lee shrugged. “There’s only two options open to the likes of us. And really, we’re both two sides of the same coin. Once people start to question everything, start to act out of responsibility instead of the fear of retribution, we’re pretty much redundant. We need to be a lot more creative than we used to be.”
Al checked his watch and let out a long sigh. “Sod this. Shift’s over in ten minutes. May as well start packing up now. Tomorrow, I think, we’ll play this game at The Garrick Arms. Or maybe the Harp.”
“You mean clock off early? Isn’t that against the rules?” And two more auras, invisible to their owners, turned the slightest shade darker.
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