imaginary archive (ib_archive) wrote,
imaginary archive

[story] an angel's guide to bureaucracy

author: pei yi
email: dreamsmoke [at]

01. Customer Service

The angel showed up sometime during the rotation from night to day shift.

Wenhui saw him when she came in to take over Counter 1 from Lisa. It was hard to miss a tall Caucasian guy in a black suit with wings, even if he'd folded them neatly around him so he didn't take up too much space. He was standing at the back of the waiting area, past the rows of pink plastic chairs where the souls that had come in during the night were waiting their turn, and looking around with open curiosity.

She gave him a quick glance and asked, "Hey, what's that guy doing here? Shouldn't he go to the Christian or Catholic offices?"

Lisa shrugged. "Don't know, man. He wasn't there just now. Maybe he got lost?"

You'd think an angel would know the afterlife offices well enough to navigate them - the setup was supposed to be standardised worldwide - but then again, it wasn't like Wenhui really knew much about the Christian or Catholic side of things. Maybe their angels had more important things to do than pay attention to something as mundane as post-mortem processing.

What was he doing here, then?

"OK, I'm off, don't want to miss the gate back. See you tomorrow!" Lisa said, and disappeared before she could do more than nod.

Logging in, she gave her email a quick glance. Spam, a pointed reminder from Mr Tan about last week's report, a office-wide warning that a new epidemic (or maybe it was a recurring one, Wenhui didn't keep track) was predicted to start next week, so traffic might be going up.

The desk was clear, the Universal Database of Spiritual Information (UDSI) looked like it was working fine, and next to her, Meixiu had drained the last of her morning kopi-o and switched on her queue counter.

Wenhui yawned, looked up, and only long experience stopped her from jumping back in her chair. The angel loomed over the counter and flashed her a sheepish smile.

"I'm sorry," he said, "But none of the choices in your queue machine seem to fit, so I don't know if I should take a number."

Wenhui had seen immortals from the Heaven side before, so it wasn't like she was surprised at the way his fair hair glowed tastefully under the fluorescent lights. Up close, he looked younger than she expected; she couldn't place his accent and assumed it must be American, as vaguely out-of-place as his black suit looked on him.

She summoned a polite smile. "That's fine, how may I help you? Are you looking for the Christian or Catholic offices?"

"Actually, no. I'm from the Christian branch, and it looks like there's been some kind of mix-up. We've got a missing soul who hasn't turned up. They traced his processing point to the Singapore Taoism office here, so I was hoping you guys could help me out."

Wenhui's eyebrows rose. "A mix up? That's strange... Ah, who are you looking for? If you could give me his ID..."

The angel looked blank. "His ID?"

Her answering stare was equally blank. "Yes, his ID? Every soul that comes in is tagged and traced by the UDSI. ...It should be on the forms, did you bring them? We need to look at them."

"Right, right, I should have something, let's see..." He set a black briefcase on the counter and slid a thin folder under the glass. "The details should all be there. Sorry, I'm pretty new and this is my first time doing this. Still learning the ropes, you know."

Wenhui took the papers and resisted the urge to ask what exactly angels spent their time doing. The paperwork at least had the important details, and keying in the ID, date of birth and death, she found the soul listed in the database.

"Wu Hanwen... He passed through the gate five days ago, after the funeral rites. Taoist rites, and there's a recorded history of adherence, so I don't see any way this could be a mix up..." She frowned at the papers. "How did he get listed on your side? There's nothing in his history."

The angel leaned over. "If you look over there... there was a deathbed conversion." He was right. Wenhui stared.

"A deathbed conversion?" she echoed, skeptical. "But it wasn't captured by the system at all. How did you get this data? Are you sure it wasn't a mistake on your side?"

"Oh, I'm pretty sure it isn't. Deathbed conversions can be easy to miss, so we have special receptors for that. Maybe the universal system missed it?"

"But the funeral rites?" She paused. "Oh, the Final Act."

"Right, funeral rites can be overridden by prior religious affiliations at the soul's own discretion," he quipped. After a long history of souls complaining when they'd been ignored and given the wrong religious rites by family members, enough consensus had finally been reached for the revision seventy years back. It was still recent enough to be the last act listed under the universal post-mortem processing laws - and it would probably take two more inter-religion wars before any new laws got close to approved.

"But he didn't mention anything when he passed through," she said.

"Maybe he was still confused?"

Given that the Taoism office gave souls a leeway of seven days before they were required to pass through the Gate (though most souls still preferred to pass through first and then come back again for the seventh night visit), he couldn't have been that confused, Wenhui thought. But picking a fight with an angel wasn't a good idea first thing in the morning.

"Let me... get my manager," she said.

02. Transportation

"What? Why me?" Wenhui demanded.

Mr Tan ignored her and tapped the photocopier as it spat out three extra copies of all the necessary forms (and some that weren't but had been thrown in just in case). "What? Don't complain, who else do you think is going to go with him?"

"He's an angel. Shouldn't it be someone higher up? Or else it won't look nice. What if the Christian branch get upset?"

Mr Tan snorted. "Don't worry," he said. "Says he's new, right? It's not like he's one of their big guys, no one's going to care lah. And traffic today doesn't look high, so we should be okay without you."

That wasn't really the argument she'd been looking for. "And what's with this deathbed conversion thing? People can just change religions last minute? That's way too easy," she muttered.

"Don't ask me. First time I've heard of a case here, maybe it's more in the US or UK offices. Hey, if their towkay wants to accept it, then it's their problem."

The last page of the last copy floated into the paper tray, and after one last whine, the photocopier was silent again. Wenhui split the stack of still-warm paper, stapled them, and gave the originals back to Mr Tan.

"If you finish early you can just go straight home, no need to come back for the day," he told her.

Wenhui groaned. "You seriously think this will finish early? If we can get this cleared by tomorrow that's already amazing."

He chuckled. "Yes, yes, good luck. The gate's opening soon, better hurry up."

Fortunately, the angel had found the correct platform. If they missed the gate opening, they'd have to wait another two hours at least for the next slot on the schedule.

The station had been renovated recently, and all the platforms were the same grey granite, matte steel and ceiling-high walls of glass, looking down over Shenton Way's skyscrapers below. Wenhui sometimes wondered what souls felt about this last, panoramic look at the world they were leaving. It seemed cruel, in a way, but maybe people liked being able to look back while they still could.

There were three other souls waiting - an old woman, a boy who couldn't have been older than eight, and a young man. The boy had pressed his face to the glass and looked like he too busy admiring the view to worry about his current fate. The young man sitting on the bench looked like he was nursing the remains of a hangover, and kept staring at the gate, then looking away. Every now and then, he gave the angel funny looks. The old woman was watching the boy with something like pity, but otherwise seemed calm.

The angel was standing by the gate, looking down at the view himself. Wenhui glanced at the gate - fifteen more minutes before it opened - and crossed the platform to him, folder tucked under her arm.

"I'm sorry for the wait, it took us some time to get all the forms and papers ready," she said.

He looked around. "Oh no, it's cool. Thanks for the help! They gave me a map and all, but I'm sure things'll be way easier with you there to show me where to go and all that."

"You have a map?" Wenhui said, surprised. The Diyu directory got updated once a year, with varying degrees of accuracy, but she hadn't thought the other religions would bother to get hold of a copy.

"Yeah, they told me it might be a little out-of-date, though..." Fishing in his jacket pocket, he produced a square of thick paper, folded and worn at the corners. Opening it up, he set it against the glass window. "How's it look? We should probably get it updated, but I hear the diplomatic process for these things take forever, so to speak."

Well, it was... colourful. It showed eighteen levels, each level marked by miscellaneous illustrated monsters and demons, most of them anatomically incorrect and bearing no resemblance to anyone Wenhui had ever seen. She lifted the bottom corner and found a small imprint that dated it to the 1850s. She didn't know if it'd been accurate back then, but it wasn't now.

"It does seem a bit... old. We have more levels now, and the division of departments is pretty different..."

"Yeah, I thought so too. Things change pretty quick these days." Folding it up again, he slid it back into his pocket. "Hey, maybe I can help them get it a little more updated after this!"

A loud beep from the gate made them look up.

The gate is opening. Please stand behind the yellow line and await operator assistance, a mechanical voice announced.

The boy looked up, eyes wide, and the old woman reached out for him, murmuring something soothing. The young man just stared at the gate with wide, nervous eyes. The doors slid open with a low hiss, and Shimin stepped over the threshold, a sharp figure in the red jacket and black skirt of the Fengdu uniform.

"Good morning," she said, with a practised smile. "As you might have been told, this is the gate that will bring you down to Diyu. Please step forward and show me the ID tag you were given--" Her eyes had started a quick scan of the platform as she spoke, taking in the three souls. Then she noticed Wenhui, in her own uniform of white jacket and grey pants, and the angel behind her, and stared.

Wenhui gave her a resigned look and she dragged her attention back to the waiting souls. After she'd scanned each soul's ID tag and sent them through the gate with another pleasant smile, Wenhui extracted her ID card from the lanyard around her neck and handed it over.

"Didn't you just go in two hours ago?" Shimin said in a low voice. "Who's the ang moh?"

"What does he look like?" Wenhui murmured back. "There's some problem with one of the souls or something, says it's supposed to be theirs, so he wants to go look for it."

Shimin's eyebrows rose. "Serious? Hey, how come you always get arrowed for these things? You also had to go find that guy that--"

"I don't know, man. My luck sucks," Wenhui said. Her card scanned with no trouble and she looked at the angel.

"She needs to scan your ID, could you show it to her? It's just for the records, so they can keep track of who's been in and out." she said.

He nodded. "Of course, that's not a problem." He cleared his throat and released a clear, rounded note of song - and a chorus of voices echoed around it. He cleared his throat again and the unseen choir ended as abruptly as it'd begun.

Shimin's hand-held scanner gave a beep of assent and she snapped her mouth shut to stare at it.

"O-okay, everything's clear, sir."

"Oh, just call me Jake," he said. "Good thing your system read that! Had me worried for a minute there. It'd be so much easier if they'd just issue IDs like you guys, you won't believe the training it takes. But the higher-ups get worried that we'll lose the cards, or that it'll get hacked, you know what they're like."

"Training... I, um, see," Wenhui said. He had a point - higher-ups everywhere were the same, even if they liked to believe otherwise. "We're clear, shall we go?"

"Yeah, sure!"

Shimin waggled her eyebrows and mouthed 'Good luck', and they strode past her and into the heavy curtain of white fog that filled the gate--

03. Information Technology

The dead could travel a thousand miles in a single night, said the legends. To be accurate, distance was an irrelevant point to a soul; all places were the same if you had the knowledge and will to find them. Most people had neither, but that was what the gates were for.

One step through the gate and they were in Fengdu, Taoism's central ghost city, and the entrance point to Diyu. The Singapore gate was just one of the twelve gates that lined platform 9; each platform occupied its own level, and overlooked the vast arrival hall far below. Seen from up here, the polished, black marble floor was an inky expanse, broken by the crowd of people scattered across it, and the roof rose high above them to vanish in shadow, so only the massive, red-painted pillars that followed it up gave any sign that it existed at all.

The angel followed Wenhui down the long escalator that took them down to the ground floor. Wenhui studied the counters and queues and headed for the door at the far end of the hall marked "Internal use only". Another ID scan and they were in the narrow corridor leading to the far less impressive back offices.

After two left turns, one of them wrong, three right turns and a neverending corridor that looked like it should occupy its own level in Diyu, she finally found the IT office. No one bothered to look up when she opened the door, and to her relief, Li Dong was on shift.

"Oi!" he said when she plucked his headphones off. "What the--" He stopped and gawked at his visitors.

She ignored the staring, waved her folder and announced, "I need some help."

"What? So why come here? You're supposed to go through Information, not us!"

"If I go to Information my hair will be white before we get anywhere. I just need to know where this guy was assigned, it shouldn't be that hard to find."

"Eh, you know that they still haven't hooked up the tagging system on the lower levels, right? It might not even be in the database."

"I know, I know, if you can't find anything I'll go to Information. Just try it and see."

He gave her a long, pained look and she considered hitting him with the folder.

"No use saying you'll do it if I get you a date with Shimin. She won't say yes if you don't ask her yourself," she said.

Li Dong heaved an exaggerated sigh. "You're no help," he said. "Fine, what's the ID?"

Wenhui rattled off the number and he started typing. Looking around, she found the angel staring at the racks of servers stretching into the chilly, poorly-lit distance; the only well-lit area in the IT department was the conclave of desks that had been gathered by the door. Wenhui had no idea how big the room really was or how many more levels it had below it. From what Li Dong said, even the grunts in IT weren't really sure.

"It's pretty impressive," Jake said when he looked up. "But I guess you must be used to it."

"I don't come down here very often," Wenhui said, then added, to be polite, "I've heard the Christian and Catholic side has some really good technology too."

"That's true. We don't really see much of it in the day-to-day stuff either, though."

'Amazing grace how sweet the--'

Wenhui blinked. The six other tech people who'd been keeping their heads down and ignoring them turned as a choir struck up above the low hum of the machines.

Jake started and searched his suit pocket. "Forgot to turn the volume down!" Looking embarrassed, he said, "I'll be right back," and vanished through the door.

"Okay, I think this is it," Li Dong said. "Here, looks like he was assigned to level 5."

"Shit, that's Lies, isn't it? It's huge. Is there anything about which part?"

"Nope, nothing."

"Just my luck. Anyway, thanks for the help," Wenhui said. "I'm supposed to meet Shimin for dinner next week, I'll ask her if it's okay if you come."

"Yeah? Sure, let me know."

Dropping his headphones back in his lap, she left. The angel was standing a little way down the corridor and listening patiently to whoever was on the other line. As Wenhui drew closer, her eyebrows rose - they had to be yelling if she could actually hear something.

"Very helpful... sure this will be settled soon... yes, sir... But the new policies strongly discourage smiting, sir - no, sir..."

She stopped at what seemed like a discreet distance. After a few more minutes of mild agreement, Jake finally said, "Roger. I'll prepare a full report - Goodbye, sir." Hanging up, he frowned at his phone before realising Wenhui was there.

"Sorry about that, took a little longer than I expected," he said.

"No, it's fine," Wenhui said. "It looks like he was sent to Level 5, so we'll be heading there next."

"Right then, let's go."

04. Customer Service, Part 2

"What?" Wenhui said. "What do you mean we need a sign-off from the Transfer department before you process a search request? We don't even know if he's here yet, you guys move people around all the time."

The girl behind the counter looked unhelpful. "That's what I was told. People keep coming in and out without proper authorisation, everything's a mess, so they want to put a stop to it."

"I was just here last week and they let me place a search."

A shrug. "I just started yesterday, I don't know about that."

Wenhui ground her teeth. It was a well known fact that staff within Diyu weren't as well trained as the staff at the post-mortem offices, probably because the management thought sub-par staff support added an essential element of frustration to the administrative experience, but this girl wasn't even trying to be incompetent.

"Look, I just want to check if he's here at all, it's a simple search in your system. I have all the details, it'll take five seconds. If he is, we'll go get the sign-off. If he's not, then it's not even your problem anymore."

The girl look unconvinced. "That's not what I was told--"

It'd taken them one hour of waiting in line to even get as far as Level 5's Inquiries counter. Getting a Transfer sign-off would take at least another two hours, by Wenhui's estimate, and then they'd have to do this all over again. And knowing the waiting list, they'd probably already shuffled Wu off to a department with less traffic. She leaned over the counter and read the girl's name on her tag.

"Miss He, if you can't help me then I want to talk to your manager. This kind of inefficiency is unacceptable. If Level 5 is changing their inquiry process then this should have been highlighted to internal staff. Do you think my guest can afford to waste all day running around Diyu for this? Or are you trying to say Peter hasn't been following the correct procedure? He helped me the last time, where is he?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the angel shift and look uncomfortable. She ignored it. At the mention of first her manager and then Peter, uncertainty had flashed across the girl's face and under a good, hard stare, she finally caved. She wasn't as stupid as she was pretending to be, if she'd managed to figure out in a day that Peter was the manager's current favourite and the last person in the department anyone wanted to complain about or get into trouble.

"O-of course I'm not saying the other staff haven't been following procedure," she mumbled. "Mr Chao is busy right now, there's no need to trouble him. I'll place your search request."

Working under the biggest gossip in the entire Diyu administration had its hazards but Wenhui had to admit that Mr Tan had his uses - chief among them knowing who was sleeping with which manager, who to complain (or not complain) about, and the fine art of leverage and empty threats.

Ten minutes (and the young man from the adjacent counter coming over to hiss confusing instructions) later, she was finally able to say, "He's on the waiting list for the tongue piercing chambers. The earliest estimated time slot is three years from now, so they sent him down to level 39 first."

"Do you know when he was sent there?"

"It should have been two days ago if he left immediately..."

Wenhui gave her a thin smile. "So it's not your problem after all, see?" she said with perfect courtesy and less than perfect sincerity. "Thank you for the help."

05. Office Politics

The lift doors opened and blasted wasteland stretched into the distance, further than the eye could see. The ground was bare, cracked earth, heavy clouds of black dust hung over the landscape, and the only thing left to the Level 39, it seemed, was the shriveled remains of what had once been a potted plant standing by the elevator doors.

Wenhui swore before she could stop herself. Another inter-department war! They were lucky they hadn't turned up in the middle of it, but that was a small mercy at best. The administration after a war was always a mess or flat out non-existent - it was entirely possible Wu Hanwen wouldn't surface for decades after this.

The angel looked at the scene and blinked. "Um, is this..."

"Ah, I'm afraid it looks like there was probably some kind of... inter-department war. And the Littering department... didn't win. I'm sorry, I'll have to check on which department they were at war with, and where the prisoners were sent as soon as possible."

"Does this happen a lot around here?" he asked, bemused.

"Usually the damage isn't this... extensive," Wenhui said. Whichever department they'd been at war with must have been very, very pissed off, to do the job this thoroughly.

A loud groan behind them made them start. On investigation, they found a demon lying behind the the lift shaft. He'd had most of his lower half and his right arm below his elbow blown or ripped away, and was lying in a sticky pool of black blood. What remained of him was made up of a dog's head with a boar's tusks, a tiger's orange-striped body, and his remaining arm ended in an eagle's claw. He must have been left behind after the cleanup, maybe mistaken for dead.

The angel looked horrified. Wenhui knelt beside him and hoped the ash on the ground would wash off her pants eventually.

"Fuck, I thought no one was going to come down here ever again," the demon said, relieved.

"What department are you from? What happened here?" she asked.

"I'm from the Porn side. Was passing through on an errand and got stuck in the middle, the bastards."

"Which department did this?" she said.

"Looked like Level 24 and Level 16 staged the attack together. Couldn't figure out more than that. Think you could get me to an infirmary, or leave a message with my department? It'll take me forever to grow my arm and legs back otherwise."

She hesitated. She wasn't up to carrying a demon, even half of one, all by herself, and there was the angel and their still on-going search...

"I'll take him," the angel said.

The demon looked at him and his eyes widened. Perhaps in a kind of instinctive reaction against his surroundings, the angel's wings had unfurled themselves and they glowed almost defiantly in the poor light.

"What? Shit, don't tell me they got the outside branches involved--"

"He's here looking for a soul. Some kind of mix-up," Wenhui explained briefly. She looked at Jake and said, "We could leave a message at his department to send someone down for him, you don't have to."

"No way, the sooner he gets help, the better, right? It's fine, come on," he said, and leaned over the demon. "Sorry, this might hurt a bit," the angel told him, before carefully lifting him into his arms.

And that was how Wenhui found herself hitting the lift button with a demon-carrying angel following behind her. She checked her watch - at least half the day shift had passed by now - and sighed. So much for finishing early, she thought.

06. Breaktime

They dropped the demon off at the infirmary on Level 34, to the accompaniment of more shocked stares. As Wenhui had guessed, it was filled to capacity with casualties from the battle. While the nurses bustled about finding an extra bed for the demon, Wenhui asked a few more questions and got her answer - like the demon said, the attack had come from Level 16 and 24, so Wu Hanwen could have been taken by either of them.

Level 24 directed them to Level 16, where the hysterical girl behind the counter wailed that she didn't know anything - anything! Half the staff were either laid up or given up as lost causes and sent to Meng Po, no one had told her what was going on, and they hadn't received any prisoners!

Wenhui stared at her for a long moment. "Is there a... supervisor we could see? Manager? Did they send the prisoners somewhere else...?" she asked slowly.

"They're all gone!" the girl said, and burst into tears.

Wenhui pat her awkwardly on the shoulder, handed her a tissue, and they found themselves back in the lift lobby.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the angel wince and pinch the bridge of his nose.

"Are you alright, sir?" she asked. Fortunately, his black suit hid the black blood streaked across it, but his wings had acquired a fine layer of ash, and he did look rather less cheerful than he'd been when they started.

"Aaahh, I'm good, it's just the translation... think it's giving me a bit of a headache," he said. "Guess I haven't had to use it for this long before."

Wenhui blinked. "Oh." She was still speaking English to him, but she's forgotten that staff in Diyu could be speaking up to twenty different dialects. She usually heard it as Mandarin, but she was used to it. The angel evidently wasn't.

"Maybe we should take a break?" she said. She considered asking if he'd like lunch, thought of the Diyu cafeterias and reconsidered. They didn't actively try to give you food poisoning there but she had no idea what angels ate, assuming they ate at all, and anything on offer might well make his headache worse.

And the last thing she needed was to get in trouble for accidentally poisoning an angel.

"Would a drink help?" she said.

He smiled weakly. "Yeah, actually that sounds great."

She took him up to the Level 7, because their vending machine worked and usually didn't try to spit blood into your drinks. It was close enough to lunch hour that the corridor was empty and quiet, which was another plus. The angel sank down on the green plastic bench beside it and accepted the paper cup of hot tea she handed him. A well-placed kick persuaded the machine to produce a second one.

"It's a lot more complicated than I expected," he said, rueful.

"I'm sure it's very different on your side," she said. She'd wondered about that, actually - if they didn't even have reincarnation, how did they deal with the ever-growing population? Diyu's population had exploded in the past couple of centuries, especially during the wars, but at least the cycling of souls helped to keep the numbers a little steadier.

"Heh, you could say that. Though I don't really know how Hell handles things, so maybe you have more in common there?"

"It could be. I don't know much about that." She had enough to worry about as it was, and inter-religion relations were hardly her forte or business.

Finishing the last of the weak, watery tea, the angel tossed the cup in the bin, stood and stretched, wings and all.

"That's a lot better," he said.

For lack of a better idea, they went back to Level 24, where Wenhui studied the chaos packed in the waiting area and grimaced. The lines in the other departments were bad, but they were nothing compared to trying to get somewhere in the Queue Cutting department, where brute strength and rudeness were the only viable weapons and the aftermath of the war certainly hadn't improved things.

"I think you'd better wait here," she told the angel, then entered the fray. After twenty minutes of ducking elbows, stepping on unlucky feet before they could stomp on hers, and shoving, a surge in the crowd nearly pitched her into the glass.

She gripped the laminate countertop, fended off a demon who had her head on backwards, and demanded, "Where are the prisoners?"

The harried man behind the counter said, "What? You'll have to speak louder!" as he pushed a stack of forms under the glass to another woman.

"I said, where are the prisoners from Level 39!"

"Try Level 16!"

"They're not there! Where are they?!"

"I don't know!" he yelled.

"Someone has to know! Can't you go and ask!"

"Give me a minute!" Swearing loudly enough to be heard even over the noise, he abandoned his seat and disappeared into the back office. Somewhere in the crowd, someone was trying to make her get out of the way by jabbing her with a walking stick. Wenhui clung grimly on. Ten minutes later, he returned.

"Try Level 25! They're holding the prisoners until the treaties are settled!"

She barely had time to nod before someone pushed her out of the way.

"I need a Court of Appeal form! There's no way I'm--"

When the crowd finally deposited her back where she'd started, she doubled over and wheezed.

The angel looked concerned. "Are you okay--"

"I'm... fine..." Only a fine, fraying thread of dignity stopped her from crumpling to the floor, where she'd have gotten trampled anyway. She rubbed her shoulder and hoped it wasn't dislocated; she really didn't want to think about how many bruises she was going to find later.

"Anyway... Level 25..."

07. Paperwork

The woman behind the counter didn't even bother to look up before producing a stack of forms. "Fill them in and take a number," she said.

Wenhui glanced at the topmost form. "But this is a Court of Appeal form," she said. "We're not here for that."

"That's what they all say," the woman said, bored. "Just fill them in."

Muttering to herself, Wenhui carried the stack to one of the tables set at the side for the purpose. The first pen she tried was out of ink, the second had been broken in half and the third pen was, for some reason, green ink, even though they only ever accepted black. She had to wait for the middle-aged man beside her to finish his forms and grab the fourth pen almost before he put it down.

At least a quarter of the forms were irrelevant but Wenhui filled them in anyway; it was easier and faster than arguing. The angel asked politely if he could help with anything, but she shook her head. They also demanded three copies of the soul's original paperwork, so she had to find a photocopier and make an extra one.

The man behind the next counter shuffled through the forms. "You're looking for one of the prisoners from Level 39? I don't think they're processed yet. You'll have to go over and look for him yourself."

It just figured. "Where are they being held?" she asked.

"Hm... you'll need to get approval from the manager first, before you see them."

"Okay, so where's the manager?"

From a drawer, he found a different form. "Fill that in, and come back again. I'll have to check with her."

She filled in the second set of forms, he hmm-ed some more, and then said, "Usually it takes a week to get the sign-off..."

"One week just to sign off?" She gestured at the angel behind her, "I need to get this done by today, otherwise what's he going to do? Stay here and wait for one whole week? Anyway, what if they sign the treaties and reassign the prisoners again?"

"Miss, you have to understand, this is standard procedure. And there's a lot of work going on right now with the extra people..."

"Who's your manager?" she asked. "Is it Mrs Wang? I think my supervisor knows her, maybe I can make a call and get him to talk to her."

He looked uncertain, but said, "Yes, it's Mrs Wang,. Well, if your manager talks to her and she agrees, then that should be okay..."

Wenhui didn't know what dirt Mr Tan had to dig up to do it, but half an hour later, a voice over the intercom said, "Miss Zhou, please come over to Room 819."

She heaved a sigh of relief. The angel trailed after her and they passed rows of numbered doors until they found the one in question. The office inside was so neat it looked sterilised, and the woman behind the desk, with her dark hair pulled into a tight bun and her crisp, perfect uniform, matched it

Mrs Wang didn't look pleased to see them but she didn't look actively murderous either, or so Wenhui hoped.

"Miss Zhou, is it? Mr Tan just gave me a call. Technically the war prisoners aren't under our department, we're just holding them temporarily until the other departments sort things out." A twist of her mouth indicated what she thought of that. Her eyes slid from Wenhui to the angel. "So for this, we can waive a few things for you. But in future, you really need to be more organised and do this through the proper channels."

"Yes, Ma'am," Wenhui murmured.

The angel looked abashed. "I'm really sorry for the inconvenience," he said.

Mrs Wang didn't look like she believed him, but she signed the form in question and handed it over to a girl with a clipboard. "If that's clear, then Ailing will take you over to the prisoner chambers."

They followed the lackey in question down the long, too-silent corridors. It was easy to forget that behind some of the doors were the torture chambers, until a door ahead of them opened, and a tall demon in a red medical gown and black and red painted mask trundled a trolley of sharp, blood-splattered instruments past them.

A long, gurgling moan drifted out before the door slid shut and cut it off.

Ailing ignored the demon as if it'd never passed, and came to a stop outside room 267.

"There were too many prisoners, so we had to divide them into 3 halls, 267, 269 and 271."

"How many prisoners were there in all?" Wenhui asked.

"Each hall holds up to 300, so I'd say 900 or less."

Given that each level had no real physical limitations, the numbers could have been a lot higher. But finding one soul out of 900 based on a small, passport-sized photograph...

They entered to find themselves on a small platform, with stairs leading down into the hall below. The souls had been packed into the space with maximum efficiency and minimal regard for actual comfort. From what Wenhui could see, each soul had been given just enough room to lie on the ground without stretching, and they could probably count themselves lucky to have that much. The murmur of voices was a dull roar echoing off the walls.

The girl examined her clipboard. "This hall is mostly for the staff, so he's probably not here, but it might not hurt to check."

Wenhui looked down into the crowd below. "Could we make an announcement for him or something? Otherwise this will take forever."

Ailing looked like the same thought had occurred to her - and the longer they took to find him, the longer she had to spend following them too.

"Give me a moment," she said, and left them. She returned a few minutes later, megaphone in hand. Twiddling a setting on the megaphone, she cleared her throat as a test and a loud squeal filled the hall. The angel clapped his hands over his ears and Wenhui briefly wished she'd gone deaf, but at least it got attention. The souls below collectively flinched, then looked up.

The girl frowned and fiddled the knob again, then announced:

"May I have your attention, please. If your ID number is 590123849, please raise your hand."

The crowd shifted, souls looking from one to the other. A few of the newer ones checked their tags just in case. No one raised their hand, so Ai Ling shook her head and said, "Alright, the next hall then."

In the next hall, two souls tried to raise their hands, got into a brief squabble, and then when checked, proved to both be lying.

In the third hall, an old man, nudged by a neighbour into checking his tag, raised an uncertain hand. His ID and photograph were a match.


Wu Hanwen blinked at the angel. "Eh, what's this about?" he asked. "People keep telling me to run here there and everywhere, can't even take a break when you're dead, huh?"

Wenhui said, "According to the Christian office, you made a deathbed conversion before you died, so you should actually be on their side, not here. Why didn't you mention this when you were processed?"

He looked surprised. "Eh, I did? How come I don't remember?"

She opened her mouth, then snapped it shut. "You... didn't?"

Mr Wu thought about it, and then brightened. "Oh yar! Mary got that pastor to come and see me. Didn't really know what he was talking about, but aiyah, wanted to make her happy, so just said yes lah."

"Um..." She looked at the angel. "Does that still count?" she hissed out of the corner of her mouth. It wasn't like she had a stake in it either way, but after all the trouble they'd taken to find him--

Jake was still staring at the old man, face perfectly blank. He shook himself and said, "Ah. Uh. Well, do you, Wu Hanwen accept the Heavenly Father as your Lord God, and repent of such sins as you committed in your life?"

The old man considered. "Hm... Yar, of course I can be sorry, easy to do that when you're already dead, you know? But you fellows don't do reincarnation, right?"

"That's right..."

"Mary told me something like that before. I don't mind having one or two more rounds, you know, can't say I'm tired of living yet. Maybe next time, I see how lah."

The angel was very, very still and Wenhui started to get a bad feeling about this. She said, "Mr Wu, next time please try to be clearer about these things. Otherwise it's very confusing and makes a lot of trouble for everyone, you know."

He nodded obligingly. "Yes, yes, I see. Sorry lah, they put you on so many drugs in that hospital, it's not easy to know what you're thinking anymore. And when you're going to die anyway, everything just starts to look the same."

Wenhui's own death sixty years ago had been too sudden to allow for that luxury, but she supposed that made some sense.

She leaned over to the angel and said, carefully, "I heard that smiting is against the new Christian policies, sir."

The angel started. "Ah. Yes. I mean--" He fixed a stern eye on the old man and for a moment, seemed to swell and grow larger, though maybe that was just something to do with his wings.

"As you have failed to accept the Heavenly Father as your Lord God in true faith, so the gates of Heaven have closed against you," his voice boomed. "In the name of the Father, so be it."

Mr Wu blinked and for a moment, he did look abashed. "Yes, I see," he said. "Mary will be sad, but can't be helped. Maybe next time I'll give it another try."

After he'd shuffled back into the crowd, Ailing led them back to Mrs Wang's office, where she sniffed disapprovingly over their report, ordered Wenhui to fill and sign a second stack of forms, then finally released them.

Standing in the lift lobby, Wenhui watched the angel out of the corner of her eye, but he seemed more dejected than angry.

"So... we'll be heading back, sir, unless you have any other requests?" she said as the lift doors opened.

He sighed. "Nope, that's all. Back it is."

08. Exercises in Futility

One week later, Li Dong suddenly asked, "Hey, how come he didn't just let his side file the request through the transfer department? Isn't that how they usually do it?"


He added more vinegar to his noodles, and said, "The Transfer department handles external transfers too, not just internal. The red tape probably takes forever, but he didn't have to come and do it himself."

Shimin looked at the expression on Wenhui's face and bit back a snigger, but not very well.

"I don't know anything about that," she said grimly, and stabbed a dumpling with a chopstick.

"Maybe he was a spy," Shimin said in conspiratorial tones. "If we get invaded by the Christian branch after this, it'll be all your fault."

Wenhui snorted. "He was probably just curious or something," she said. "Seemed like a busybody kind of guy."

She thought about it some more and added, "And seriously, after everything, I don't think he wants to come back ever again."

the end

Notes/A glossary:
Kopi-o: Coffee with sugar
Towkay: Singlish slang for boss
Ang moh: Hokkien slang for Caucasian
Diyu: The Mandarin name for the underworld/afterlife
Arrowed: Singlish slang for "to be delegated a boring or unpleasant task"
Meng Po: A Diyu figure who serves a tea that removes memories of previous lives to souls before they are reincarnated. Wikipedia
Aiyah: A Singlish/Chinese exclamation
Lah: Also a common Singlish exclamation
* All names are in Mandarin Chinese, hanyu pinyin
Tags: author: pei yi, book 20: heaven and hell, story

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