Watch for Your Souls

"Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy and not with grief. . ."
-- Hebrews 13:17

Prologue

"Angel Boy, if you don't settle down and relax, you are going to wear a hole in the concrete, not to mention your shoe leather. . . AND your supervisor's patience!"

Startled, Andrew looked up at the sound of Tess' voice. "Sorry, Tess," he gave her a flustered smile. . .then once more resumed his pacing, seemingly without being aware of what he was doing.

He had been waiting on this particular street corner in a little Midwestern town for almost an hour, and he was growing more agitated with each passing moment. Behind him, Tess and Monica sat together on a bench in a bus stop shelter: now they watched their angel colleague with barely concealed amusement.

And Andrew was certainly providing them with an impromptu (to say nothing of unintentional) comedy act: at the moment, he wore the joyous expression of someone about to have a root canal done. He paused in his restless perambulations long enough to look at his reflection in the shelter's glass sides. . .and his expression would have been wobbly enough, even without the distortion caused by his make-shift 'mirror.'

He inspected his clothing, giving his immaculate beige linen suit coat a nervous little tug. That done, he checked his hair and winced a little at a stray gold wisp that had somehow escaped -- in spite of the carefully combing that he had given it every ten minutes for the last hour.

"Andrew, it's just a review. . .not the Spanish Imposition," Monica teased.

Under ordinary circumstances, the little brown-haired angel's warm Irish accent -- not to mention her penchant for mangled metaphor -- would have been enough to calm her friend 's jangled nerves. However, these were anything but ordinary circumstances, if Andrew's pre-occupation with his appearance was any indication.

"Uh, what was that, Monica?" he asked, still distracted by his efforts to corral the renegade lock of hair.

A pair of identical little "Hmmphs!" from his co-workers made him look up from his efforts to achieve the perfect "GQ" look. . .or "AQ," as the case might be. Now, however, he found himself staring into the bemused -- and slightly exasperated -- eyes of his co-workers.

"Oh, come on, you, two. . .have a little mercy," he managed what he hoped was a charming but masterful smile. "It's not like I'm not nervous enough already, without my friends picking on me, too."

But his supplication had no effect on either of them, especially on Tess. Hastily, Andrew reviewed his strategy and decided that under the circumstances, the 'lost puppy in a snowstorm' approach had the best chance of success.

"It's just that I've never had a review by -- well, you know. . .by. . ." he looked piteously at Tess. "You know. . .her."

Tess rolled her eyes, as if beseeching Heaven for a whisper, an iota, just one more drop of patience than she already possessed -- which wasn't an extravagant amount, by anyone's reckoning. And apparently her prayers were answered. . .although whether for her sake or for Andrew's was something that only God Himself could have said. Assuming that He wasn't too busy laughing at the moment, that is.

"Andrew, come here and sit down with Monica and me, will you please?" Tess calmly patted the open spot on the bench between Monica and herself.

Andrew started to comply, then paused and looked down at the green wooden slats. Now he wore the expression of someone who had just come home from a walk in the park -- only to discover something decidedly unpleasant on the bottom of his shoe.

He shifted from foot to foot, reluctant to sit down. . .and equally reluctant not to, given Tess' current mood. "Oh, what is the matter now, Mr. Halo?" Tess sighed heavily, seeing the repugnance in his face.

"There's. . .uh. . .chewing gum on the seat. Chewed chewing gum," Andrew said with considerable meekness in his voice -- no doubt hoping to stave off a Tess explosion.

He smiled ingratiatingly at her, especially when he saw the "I am trying to be patient with this angel boy, but enough is enough, already!" expression that she wore. With another "hmmph!" under her breath, Tess reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out a handkerchief. Its ample proportions suggested a beach towel, rather than a personal accessory: she spread it across the wooden seat and then gestured for Andrew to sit.

Andrew sighed, then hesitantly sat down between Tess and Monica -- carefully arranging his clothing so that the crisp linen wouldn't be wrinkled. "Andrew, this is a review, not a fashion show," Tess rolled her eyes once more.

But Andrew's woebegone expression softened Tess' irascible disposition, the way that it usually did. . .and exactly the way that he'd hoped it would. Oblivious to any creases that she might be putting in his suit jacket, Tess put her arm around his slumped shoulders.

"Now you listen to old Tess, and you listen good. I have known the archangel in charge of your department for many, many centuries, and trust me -- the two of you will get along famously," she hugged her charge for a moment until he managed a small smile for her benefit. "That's better, Angel Boy. . .there is nothing worse than an uptight angel of death. And I've been around long enough to know."

Monica had been listening to the entire exchange, and now she shook her head as she pondered something. "There's something that I don't understand, though," she said before Tess could aim another of those looks in her direction instead of Andrew's, for a change. "You've been doing this job since the end of the Civil War, and yet you've never met the archangel of death? Not once? You never even laid eyes on her. . .?"

"I think he gets the idea, Monica!" Tess snapped, seeing all her good work about to be undone. But then she paused for a second and looked thoughtfully over at Andrew. "That is a good question, though. Seems a little strange that someone can do the same job for a hundred and thirty some odd years and never once see the archangel in charge of the entire department -- until now."

And if Andrew's earlier expression had bordered on panic, it was obvious that he was no longer in need of a passport for that particular border crossing. Nervously, he dug at a weed growing up through a crack in the sidewalk with the tip of his carefully-polished boot. And for a moment, he stared down at the concrete -- as if he expected to see the answers to Tess and Monica's questions engraved there in letters of fire.

"Up until now, either you or Sam has handled my review, Tess. . .I don't know why that's been changed all of a sudden," he said anxiously. "I mean, let's face it, it is a big department and the archangel in charge has her work cut out for her. I can certainly understand why she delegates responsibilities to Sam and the other supervisory angels. I just don't know why she decided to handle my review personally this time, that's all."

"You just relax, Angel Boy, and when this is all over, Monica and I will treat you to a fabulous supper at the best restaurant in town," Tess winked at him as she stood up and gestured for Monica to join her. "You'll do fine. . .just trust me."

"But, Tess. . ." Andrew spluttered beseechingly, but any further appeals for assistance were drowned out by the big Metropolitan Transit District bus as it pulled up in front of the shelter and stopped.

"Come on, Miss Wings," Tess gestured at Monica. "We've got a lot to do and a short time to do it all in, if we're going to get that little, ah hem, 'project' done before seven o'clock tonight. I wonder if we should go for the neo-classical image or that subtle Impressionist look? Oh, well, we might as well do this up right and just go for Baroque."

Tess gave Andrew a thumbs-up as she stepped onto the bus, then disappeared inside. Monica paused long enough to smile at him: then she, too, turned and walked up the steps to join Tess in one of the front rows of seats. The two angels waved cheerfully as the bus pulled away, leaving their forlorn-looking friend standing disconsolately beside the curb.

With a heavy sigh, Andrew turned around and sat back down on the bench. He reached into his pocket and took out his gold watch on its heavy chain, but the gesture was as much to calm his nerves as it was to determine the time.

"2:28," he said aloud, and he could feel the little timepiece's steady tick-tick-tick through his fingertips -- its 'heart beat,' as he sometimes liked to think of it.

He'd been given the watch shortly before he became an angel of death by one of the few human friends he'd ever had. And now, just holding the watch was almost like being in Sarah's presence. Of course, he was a frequent visitor to her heavenly home. . .but it wasn't quite the same, somehow.

Me and half the host of heaven -- seems like everyone loves Sarah, he thought with just a twinge of sadness, remembering those days when the two of them had been able to spend time alone together.

I miss just being able to sit and talk to her without anyone else around. . .she was so full of love, even when she was still here on earth, and I learned so much from her. Father, I know I'm just being selfish now -- please forgive me.

The angel smiled again, so lost in his memories for a moment that he didn't even pay attention as another MTD bus pulled up at the stop. He was vaguely aware that a passenger had gotten off the bus before it pulled away again, but he was oblivious to anything else but that remembered voice. Andrew started to close his watch's upper case, and he could almost hear Sarah telling him how to push down on the stem, so that the latch wouldn't wear a hole in the gold rim.

". . .good job!" someone said enthusiastically. "That's the right way to close a watch like that, so you won't wear a hole in the rim. You'd be surprised how many people don't know how to close a hunter case the right way -- let alone angels."

It was enough startle Andrew back to the present day with heart-pounding effectiveness. He jumped to his feet, frantically looking around him for the source of the explosion that had apparently just taken place. . .and only a matter of inches from his left ear, at that.

But finally he identified the source of that blast. . .uh, make that, ' voice,' he thought, trying hard not to stare at the woman who had just gotten off the bus a moment ago. It's not possible that she could be. . .nah, no way!

Then again, she had correctly identified him as an angel, he realized belatedly. And just as belatedly, he remembered his manners. . .but if something as simple as his name had vanished from his mind, his carefully prepared welcome speech didn't stand a prayer.

So to speak, he thought with a snort of amusement that he hastily tried to cover up with a polite introduction. "I'm. . .uh. . . I'm. . ." he stammered, as he tried to bring that elusive information to mind once more.

"Relax, kiddo," the woman grinned at him and stuck out her hand. "I know who you are, Andrew. I'm the archangel in charge of your department. My name's Cleo."

Chapter One

For a second or two, Andrew was unable to speak as he continued to gaze at the archangel of death. . .but his reaction to the figure in front of him had less to do with awe than it did with a feeling akin to hysteria. And when he did finally manage to open his mouth again, what fell out of it was anything but what he intended.

He was horrified to hear a gasp, then a snort, followed by a chuckle, and finally a full-fledged roar of laughter -- all of them apparently coming from his own traitorous set of lips. But there was worse yet to come. Much worse. . .if that was possible.

"Well, so much for the whole 'black shroud and tasteful matching scythe' image," he heard himself mumble. "I wonder if there's some way we can get an anti-Halloween campaign going? And I know who I'd pick to be the poster child, too."

But far from being offended, the plump little black-haired archangel in the brightly-flowered purple caftan howled in amusement at his joke. As she guffawed, her fair skin turned a pink that was a fascinating enough hue by itself -- and that was before any contrast with her vividly-colored clothing was taken into account. Andrew found himself laughing with her, but suddenly there was a horrified expression in his eyes when he realized what they were both chuckling at. . .

. . .or more specifically, what his mouth had just said without his permission. He looked piteously at the archangel -- even as he continued to laugh uncontrollably. For her part, Cleo chortled for another moment or two, then reached into her pocket and pulled out the very twin of Tess' towel-sized handkerchief.

Maybe the local tent and awning company had a sale, Andrew thought. . .and started to laugh even harder.

"I know -- it's a real hoot, isn't it?" Cleo said after she blew her nose with a sound that would have been the envy of any air raid siren. "Who'da ever thought that the Head High Queen Mama of Death would look like this, huh?"

She gestured at her vivid clothing and clinking, clanking costume jewelry, then elbowed him solidly in the ribs with a conspiratorial wink -- no meek little tap from some meek little pastel angel, that gesture. She shook her head ruefully, and the movement sent dozens of long "cornrow" braids into something that looked like a demented hula dance. . .at least from Andrew's slightly skewed perspective, anyway.

"Can you just picture the reaction if people ever found out what Death really looks like?" Cleo grinned and gave Andrew another of those rib-bruising nudges. "You case workers would be putting in more overtime than you'd know what to do with. . .the human race would be keeling over in droves. They'd laugh themselves to death. Literally."

Her comically exaggerated expression ignited another firestorm of laughter from the over-stressed Andrew. But then the sane, sensible part of his mind (or whatever passed for it at the moment) finally remembered the reason that he was meeting this particular archangel in the first place.

The dreaded word "review" popped into his thoughts unbidden, and his laughter trailed away to no more than the occasional snort or chuckle. Then he dropped his head in embarrassment, and he was quiet for a few seconds.

Behind that silence, however, there was a scrabble of frantic thoughts going on as he tried to find something to say. . .at least something that wouldn't get him into more trouble than he already was. The only possible response was the simplest of apologies, Andrew decided as he tried to work up the courage to make that gesture.

"I am so sorry," he said quietly. "I don't know what came over me just now."

"I do. You're so uptight about this review and being observed while you handle an assignment that you practically squeak when you walk," the archangel said, and Andrew was amazed at the amount of gentleness that she managed to pack into that foghorn-sized voice. "You blew a mental and emotional gasket just now, that's all. And you really needed that laugh, too. Just relax, kiddo. . .we're on the same team. God's team."

The June day was still a little cool -- not an unheard of thing in Illinois during late spring: even so, the external temperature was nothing compared to that icy cold lump of nervousness that had been in Andrew's spirit. But when Cleo reached out and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder just as Tess would have done, Andrew felt the panic melt away, and he returned her grin with a smile of his own.

"Thank you for understanding," he said simply, and she winked her acknowledgement. "So, where are we headed today? I understand that I have an assignment here in town somewhere, but I haven't been given any of the details."

Cleo reached into the capacious blue canvas tote bag that she had sat down on the ground earlier, and now she fumbled among its contents for a moment. From his angle, Andrew could see just a few of the items that it contained: a half-eaten Twinkie, a yo-yo, several books in jewel-studded leather bindings, three unopened boxes of purple markers, an autographed photo of Englebert Humperdink, and a small bronze statuette that had been old when Caesar Augustus was on the throne.

Not to mention several other objects that might have served some useful purpose in the distant past. . .but that were currently candidates for "Unsolved Mysteries." Finally, Cleo retrieved a battered metal clipboard and ran a practiced eye down a list of names.

She looked up and saw Andrew's bemused expression, then shrugged eloquently. "One of these decades, I'm going to get organized," she sighed as she looked down at the grease and food spattered list. "But anyway, moving right along here. Now, let's just see what's on the schedule for today. Your assignment is. . .uh, your assignment is. . .oh yes, there she is."

Cleo pointed to a name on the list with a triumphant grin. "Your assignment is an Elizabeth Ragland. Beth Ragland at the Peaceful Hills Rest Home -- 76 years old, never married, and only a couple of relatives in the area. The nursing home staff doesn't really expect her to die any time soon, so they aren't going to be in and out of her room, interfering with your assignment -- the way that they would be if they knew."

Andrew nodded at Cleo, but the archangel didn't seem to notice the strained look in his eyes as she continued to read from the information on her list. "She's on the usual chemical soup -- antidepressants, sleeping pills, high blood pressure medication, this med, that med. Basically, the people at this nursing home just want to keep Beth drugged until she's the mental equivalent of a lace tablecloth. That way, she's not a problem to them. . .and believe me, she has definitely been a problem to them in the past. She doesn't want to be there, and she lets them know about it in every way that she possibly can -- kicking, hitting, biting, spitting, you name it, she does it."

Andrew sighed sharply, and the archangel looked up just in time to see the odd look that crossed his face for a moment. "Is there something wrong, Andrew?" she asked in a voice that seemed much too quiet to actually be hers. "Some problem with this assignment that I need to know about -- Beth's violence bothering you, maybe?"

"No, not really," he replied with a cheerfulness that he didn't genuinely feel at the moment.

At the very worst, his answer was only a minor gloss on the truth: even so, it was a serious thing in a being who was a spokesman for the God of all truth. But then the absolute honesty that was the hallmark of an angel of God reasserted itself in his spirit.

Andrew closed his eyes briefly, his lips moving in a prayer of contrition. When he opened his eyes again, he wasn't particularly surprised to see Cleo watching him intently.

Well, you just blew the first part of your review, didn't you, Andrew? he murmured sadly to himself. By the time this is over, I'll be doing good if the Father trusts me to work in the Climate Control Department, making sure that no two snowflakes are ever alike.

"No, that's not entirely true. There is something that's bothering me. . .that name," he sighed. "It's not a particularly common one, and I wonder if Beth Ragland could be related to someone I used to know, a long time ago."

"Quite possible," Cleo nodded, just as a bus pulled up to the stop, and Andrew started to reach into his pocket for some change. "This should be the bus that we want. Hop on and I'll give you as much of a case history as I've got while we ride over there. And just hold on for a second, Andrew. I've got bus fare for both of us here. . .somewhere."

There was a delay of several moments while the archangel dug to the bottom of her tote bag and retrieved a handful of coins -- everything from modern day lira and shillings and pesos to ancient denarii and ax-shaped bronze coins from some long-ago Chinese dynasty. Finally she found a few silver quarters and a half dollar that was almost worn smooth, and she dumped the entire lot into the bus driver's hand. . .along with a sixpence, a small dust bunny, and part of a Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie.

With a weary sigh, the driver nodded his assent, and the two angels walked down the aisle to an empty section of the bus. Cleo sat down with a grateful sigh, and Andrew took the seat beside her, but his eyes were still distant as he stared out the window.

All these years later, and it still hurts to hear that name, he thought as Cleo checked the list on the clipboard. What if this woman is some relative of. . .that other Ragland? A great-great niece, maybe, or even a great-great granddaughter?

Andrew, this is absurd. It's been over a hundred and forty years as this earth reckons time, and you still can't bring yourself to say that woman's name, he admonished himself sternly just as the archangel finished looking over the information on the list. And Father, if that's the case, how am I going to carry out this assignment with the love and compassion that I know You want me to do?

Angels who ministered God's gift of eternity were frequently given a few details about the lives of the soul entrusted to their care. . .especially when the person's passing promised to be unusually difficult. Alcohol, dementia, drugs (whether prescribed or illegal), and a host of other problems could leave a dying person agitated and disoriented, making that soul's transition harder than normal.

In Andrew's experience, finding something to talk about with the dying person -- some common ground -- often made his job easier than it might have otherwise been, both before and after the individual's passing. That was the reason for the personal information on Cleo's list, and now Andrew waited to hear what the archangel had to say to him.

The bus passed a row of houses, and in front of one home, a magnificent white rose bush bloomed at the very peak of its beauty. Andrew's expression may have been tranquil, but beneath his calm exterior, painful memories still entangled his heart like the thorny branches of that rosebush.

There were roses blooming outside Sarah's house that afternoon, he could smell the fragrance of blossoms that had passed out of time almost a century and a half ago.

But best not to think about that right now. And wouldn't it be ironic if Elizabeth Ragland really is a descendant of Jonah and. . .and Leah Ragland? They had other children, I know, Andrew finally managed to say the name, but only with difficulty and then only to himself.

He sighed sharply as the bus turned the corner onto a side street. If that's the case, then Beth Ragland will die in peace, and her angel will be the one who has a war going on inside himself.

Cleo looked up at the sound of Andrew's sigh, and she pointed to the piece of paper. "Well, according to the information on my list, Beth Ragland is descended from the Kentucky branch of that family -- she's the great-great granddaughter of John. . .Jonas Ragland, something like that. Sorry. . .I got a little plop of mustard on the list right above the name."

She shrugged ruefully and stuffed the clipboard into her tote bag, then stood up. "Next stop is ours, kiddo. This may be a rough passing for Miss Ragland, so you'd better be prepared for the worst," she said, then added quietly, "And there's something else you'll need to know before we go meet her. I'll tell you about it once we get off the bus."

Andrew stood up slowly and followed Cleo down the aisle towards the front of the bus. He was grateful that the archangel's back was towards him, so that she couldn't see the anger mixed with pain that fought together in his eyes.

This is ridiculous, he reproached himself once more. It doesn't matter if Beth Ragland is related to Leah. . .all that happened a long time ago. Even Sarah has forgiven her -- so what gives you the right to hang onto your anger, Andrew?

The thought had a calming effect on him as he stepped off the bus and took a deep breath of the perfumed June air. The bus had let them off almost exactly in front of a narrow sidewalk that led up to a large red brick building. As they set off down the pathway, Cleo and Andrew walked past a sign that announced in dispirited Gothic letters, "Peaceful Hills Rest Home."

Some luckless landscaper had been given the thankless job of disguising the structure's squat, disproportionate lines, and he had chosen to do so with a few sagging trellises along the walls. Now masses of white and pink and red roses now climbed the wooden lattice work, and the richness of their perfume was enough to make Andrew momentarily forget his fears and concerns. He took a deep breath of the fragrant air as he followed Cleo towards the building, and her chatter made him smile to himself.

". . now why do people stick a place that's neither a home nor particularly restful in the middle of a state that has the topography of an ironing board. . .and then call it some ridiculous name like 'Peaceful Hills Rest Home'?" she shrugged just as they reached the door. "Then again, I guess if you called it 'Ugly Little Brick Building Stuck Squat in the Middle of Nowhere,' you probably wouldn't have much of a clientele."

In fact, Cleo's nattering reminds me of Tess'. Kind of relaxing. . .just as long as you don't actually listen to it, Andrew thought to himself with a grin that he wisely concealed.

But his pleasure in the day, the flowers, and the present company was short-lived at best. The archangel paused and then gestured somberly at the nursing home.

"Like I said, Andrew, there's something you need to know about your assignment," she said in a voice so quiet that Andrew had to strain to hear her above the traffic noise behind them. "It's something that may make Beth's transition very difficult, especially since she's too angry at God to turn to Him for help."

Andrew could feel the seriousness that lay behind that handful of words. "OK, " he managed to nod, despite that coldness that once more crept into his heart. "What's Beth holding onto that's going to make her death difficult?"

Cleo shook her head sadly. "About thirty-five years ago, Beth was baby-sitting for her younger brother's son and daughter while Harry and Annie went out to a movie," the archangel's face, ordinarily so full of animation, now seemed to lose all expression. "Harry and Annie's nine year old daughter was mentally challenged. Ruth Ann had Downs Syndrome."

Andrew visibly flinched, and his face went pale, as if he knew what was coming next. Almost without thinking about what he did, he reached into his pocket and took out the gold watch, then held it tightly for a moment.

Cleo watched him for a second or two, then went on. "According to the information that the Father gave me a little while ago, Beth never did really understand her niece because of Ruth Ann's disability. Anyway, when Harry and Annie got back from the movie theater, there was an ambulance and a bunch of police cars around Beth's apartment complex."

"Ruth Ann was dead, wasn't she?" Andrew looked up, and he wore a slightly dazed expression.

Cleo nodded sadly. "According to Beth, Ruth Ann was in the living room with her brother, when all of a sudden, she just fell over, hit her head against the edge of the coffee table, and stopped breathing. The autopsy showed that she had a congenital heart defect, and Beth's story was certainly plausible enough, so the police let the whole thing drop. But when Ruth Ann's brother grew up, he started seeing a psychiatrist. Danny underwent hypnosis, and that's when a completely different story came out. He said that Beth had gotten mad at Ruth Ann for picking up a porcelain dog figurine on the coffee table and accidentally breaking its ear."

A faint noise made her look up from her story. And when she did, even the archangel was a little alarmed by what she saw in Andrew's eyes.

"Don't tell me, let me guess what happened next," he snapped angrily, all traces of any other emotions now gone from his face. "Danny said that Beth tried to grab the figurine out of Ruth Ann's hand and ended up knocking her off balance. And that's how Ruth Ann really hit her head on the edge the table. Am I right?"

"Like you were reading the doctor's transcript, kiddo. And speaking of that transcript, Danny's psychiatrist parleyed it into a book about repressed memory, not to mention a whole bunch of TV interviews and a movie of the week," Cleo rolled her eyes. "And since there's no statute of limitations on murder, there was even talk about prosecuting Beth, even after all these years. But she'd developed some hardening of the arteries at that point, so her brother had her declared mentally incompetent. . ."

". . .and just shuffled her off to this nursing home, so that the whole thing would be swept under the rug. It figures," Andrew muttered, shaking his head in disgust. "And it's certainly not the first time that something like this has happened."

"There is something I'd like to know, Andrew," Cleo raised an eyebrow questioningly at him. "Ruth Ann wasn't one of your assignments. So how did you know exactly what happened to her?"

Chapter Two

This time, there could be no dissimulation, Andrew knew as he followed Cleo into the nursing home, and he paused just inside the door. The angels were unseen as they stood in the entranceway: now Andrew stared down at the scratched and chipped linoleum, his face full of misery.

Although Cleo said nothing else, it was obvious that she was still waiting for an answer to her question. And again, Andrew instinctively realized that the only possible answer was the simple truth.

"About a hundred and forty years ago, I was given a special assignment by the Father," he said softly, and his eyes were wistful. "It was just a few years before I was transferred to your department -- but I guess you knew that, already. I was assigned to protect a young mentally challenged girl from her abusive stepmother. . .at least I thought that's what my assignment was, anyway. I failed, and Sarah ended up dead because of it. And it sounds like history may have repeated itself with Beth Ragland and Ruth Ann thirty-five years ago. Beth Ragland is a direct descendant of Jonah and Leah Ragland. They lived in Kentucky in a town called Makepeace."

Cleo nodded, then gestured at a small waiting room opposite the front desk. She sat down on a battered vinyl sofa and patted the cushion beside her, just as Tess had done to the bench a short time earlier. And when the archangel spoke again, her voice made the air seem to shake a little with its power.

"You listen to me, kiddo," Cleo said as she put her hand on Andrew's shoulder. "You know that the Father never permits anything to happen without a reason. If Sarah went home to be with God, it was by His knowledge and consent. . .which means it certainly wasn't outside of His plan. And I know for a fact that you've never received a rebuke from the Father for a willful act of misconduct, no matter what department you've been assigned to. So that means that you didn't fail your assignment, no matter what the circumstances might have looked like to you at the time. Are you with me so far?"

Andrew swallowed hard, then nodded. "I know you're right," he said, but his voice was still a little shaky. "But the facts are that I did make a mistake -- an unintentional one, but a mistake all the same. And it had some terrible consequences. At the time, I felt like I failed God and Sarah both. . .and I've felt that way ever since."

"Well, feelings aren't reliable, but facts are. . .God's facts, Andrew, and not our interpretation of them, either. And God spelled out one fact pretty plainly awhile back. He said that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge," Cleo said firmly. "And if He cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, Andrew, then how much more precious in His sight was the death of one of His children? He didn't abandon Sarah, any more than He abandoned Ruth Ann. Or for that matter, any more than He's going to turn His back on Beth Ragland here in a little while. The only question now is whether or not you should handle this assignment, or if I should take care of it myself."

Her last sentence was clearly a challenge. And for a second or two, Andrew was tempted to make a reply that was born of bravado instead of a realistic assessment of the situation. But once again, that deep, God-given wisdom within him asserted itself, and he shook his head.

"I don't know, Cleo," he said with quiet seriousness. "I'd like to be given the chance to try, if that's all right with you. And then all I can do is pray and ask the Father to help me as I help Beth. . .the way that I ask Him to be with me during every assignment."

That was clearly the response Cleo had been waiting to hear, and she stood up. "That's all He asks of anyone," she smiled down quietly at him. "Just remember, if it gets to be more than you can handle, I want you to tell me, and I'll take it from there. None of this trying to 'tough it out' stuff, either. You know as well as I do that a dying person needs all the love and compassion that we can give him. . .not our second-best."

Andrew nodded and stood up, then followed Cleo out of the waiting room. He trailed behind her as she rounded a corner and headed down a long corridor -- and there was reluctance in every movement he made and in every line of his face.

He was glad that his supervisor couldn't see his hesitation. . .and that was even before he reached a door at the end of that hallway. Now he could hear someone screaming again and again -- a high-pitched, shrill sound that made even the two calm-tempered angels flinch. Cleo paused just in front of the door and shrugged at Andrew, indicating with a little twist of her head that the patient in the room was his assignment.

Reluctantly, Andrew held the door open for his supervisor, then followed her inside. Cleo shook her head sadly and sighed as she looked down at a small woman, who was confined to the bed by heavy canvas restraints. Despite the straps that held her down, the woman still struggled with a violence that did not seem possible in one so frail-looking, and her face was contorted by rage.

"Hoo boy, this is gonna be one of those days -- I can tell already," the archangel shook her head at Andrew. "Hope your nerves are in good shape, kiddo. . .because this is just about enough to make anybody a little slaphappy."

Andrew wanted to tell her that the woman's shrieking was the least of what would drive him over the edge, if anything accomplished that feat today. But this time, his mind managed to veto his mouth, and he stood silently just inside the door, staring at the elderly woman for a few long seconds.

It was as if he was seeing another face superimposed over Beth Ragland's -- a younger face, perhaps, but with almost identical features. Both faces were sharp-edged and narrow, as if they had been carved out by swift slashes of a knife. Although the wrinkles were deeper on Beth Ragland's face, both women's expressions seemed to be stitched into permanent frowns by the lines at the corners of their lips and eyes.

Even their eyes were similar in shape and color. . .narrow and restless with a bitter light glittering harshly in them. Almost without thinking about what he did, Andrew started to turn away in anger, then caught himself just in time.

. . .you stop that, Andrew! he admonished himself sharply, hearing an echo of Tess' voice in the back of his mind.

He managed to bring his thoughts back to the present, but only by an extreme effort of will. And once again, he had reason to thank God for the angel who had helped to refine his essential nature with her tough-but-tender discipline and love.

Andrew quickly looked over at Cleo, but the archangel didn't appear to have noticed his momentary lapse in self-control. At the moment, she was busy rearranging Beth's pillow and smoothing the thrashing woman's thin gray hair in an attempt to soothe her and make her more comfortable. But the loving gestures had no effect whatsoever, and Beth continued to fight against the restraints: she stared blankly up at the ceiling, her sharp white teeth grinding together in mindless fear or panic. For a second, Andrew was almost too repulsed by that sound to move from the spot where he stood by the door.

Leah made that same little teeth-gritting sound just before she. . .

. . .enough! Andrew snapped, forcing himself to walk over to the bed and pick up a washcloth from the bedside table.

He dampened the cloth with a little water from the pitcher sitting there, then turned towards Beth -- praying desperately to the Father for help even as he did so. Managing to summon up the intention of compassion, if not the actual emotion itself, Andrew bent down and sponged away the sweat from Beth's face.

He put as much tenderness as he could into the gesture, and apparently even that intent to obey was acceptable to God. With an inner strength that he hadn't possessed a moment before, Andrew murmured quietly to Beth as he finished wiping the tears stains from her wrinkled cheeks.

Her screams grew quieter as the angel ministered to her, and in another moment, those cries died away entirely. "Would you like me to undo those straps? You have to promise me that you won't try to hurt yourself or anyone else, though. OK?" Andrew asked quietly, and Beth nodded without hesitation.

It took Andrew several moments to undo the canvas webbing, but when he was finished, Beth groaned in wordless relief. She stared blankly at the angel for a few seconds, then frowned as if trying to understand who he really was.

She tried to shape the words "Who are you?" but her mouth was too dry from screaming, and her lips were cracked and bleeding. Even the thought of touching her again was repellant to Andrew, but he managed to smile gently down at her, as he took a tube of lip balm from the night stand.

"My name is Andrew, and I've been assigned to help you for the next few hours," he rubbed a little of the lip balm onto her mouth, then put the tube back on the table.

He poured a glass of water, then lifted Beth's head and let her take a few sips at a time until the water was gone. "I know this may be hard for you to believe right now, but I'm an angel sent to you by God," Andrew said quietly as he sat the glass back on the nightstand. "I'm going to be right here with you until it's time for me to take you home to be with Him. But before that can happen, I think you have some unfinished business with Him, don't you?"

Beth's eyes widened at his words, but not even the veteran angel of death was prepared for what happened next. At even the mention of God's name, the disorientation vanished from Beth's face so rapidly that even Andrew found it hard to believe. Summoning up some tiny reserve of strength, she lifted her head towards him. . .and then spat full in his face.

"That's for you and your God!" she hissed with more venom than he had ever heard in a human voice before. . .with one possible exception. "Your God never sent me an angel before, even when I begged and pleaded with Him to help me a few years ago. Where was that almighty, all-seeing God of yours ago when my so-called loving family had me put in this hellhole, huh? Where was He then, Mr. Angel-Sent-from-God? You and your God can both just go straight to hell!"

For a fraction of a second, it seemed as if her curse at Andrew was a distinct possibility: the angel felt himself teetering on the edge of an abyss of hate that threatened to swallow up everything good and pure and holy that God had ever placed within him. He heard a small noise from the chair behind him where Cleo sat, and he turned away from Beth's bedside, almost blinded by the irrational fury that burned inside him.

The archangel said nothing, but simply put her hands together in the age-old symbol for prayer. Andrew understood her meaning clearly enough, but for a few seconds -- or perhaps eternities -- he felt as if he was about to be torn in two by the opposing forces within him.

But obedience was stronger than any other part of his nature, and Andrew swiftly bowed his head in prayer. Father, I don't have enough love within me to minister to Beth Ragland. . .but You are Love itself, he whispered desperately.

Please, God, give Your angel the love and the wisdom he needs to break the shell of anger that's around Beth. . .before it's too late. I know how it hurts You so badly when one of Your beloved children is suffering and yet wants nothing to do with You and Your mercy. I would never want my disobedience to cause You pain, Father. Please help me -- I can do nothing of myself, but You can do all things.

That prayer was swiftly answered, although perhaps not in the fashion that he had expected. Although there was no real lessening of the turmoil inside him, he turned back towards the bed, intending to get a tissue from the box sitting on the nightstand. He took a Kleenex from the package and wiped the saliva from his face. . .

. . .and at that moment, the gold repeater watch in his pocket began to play its melody, just as it had every hour since Sarah had first placed it in his hands almost a century and a half ago. The little chimes sounded like delicate bits of glass tinkling together, and Beth stared at the angel until the last note had faded away.

"It's just the watch that Sa. . .that someone gave me a long time ago," Andrew managed to smile at the dying woman, despite the pain in his heart. "Would you like to see it?"

And to his surprise, Beth nodded at him with an interest in her eyes that didn't seem possible. Her eyes were still wary, like a trapped animal's, but there was a spark of something within them that wasn't rancor or disorientation.

"My father was a watch maker," she said calmly. "And his father before him, and his father before that. Papa taught me to appreciate a fine watch. . .if only I'd learned to appreciate time as well, while I still had some left. So, let's see this repeater of yours."

Andrew took the watch from his pocket and held it up so that she could see the delicate enameled roses that adorned its face. Beth nodded her approval, admiring the watch's ornately-engraved case and the fine tracery of scrollwork on its elegant hour and minute hands.

Hands that are slowly but surely ticking away the last moments of this woman's life, Andrew reminded himself, still a little stunned by the bitter strength Beth had summoned up a few moments ago. And she isn't ready to go home yet, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Imagination. . .

The word sparked something inside Andrew, and he started to turn towards Cleo to explain the idea that was taking shape in his mind -- praying even as he did so. But to his surprise, Cleo merely put her finger to her lips and shook her head.

"No need to even ask, kiddo," she said softly and nodded at the watch. "The Father just told me what you have in mind. He says the plan's a winner -- it's common ground between you and Beth. As a matter of fact, He's even going to grant you a special dispensation and take this room out of time, so that you can tell her your story without being interrupted by nurses and staff."

She stood up and nodded towards the door. "And while you're doing that, there's a young man in town who has a little unfinished business to transact with his aunt before she dies," Cleo announced as she once again fumbled in the bottom of the tote bag, presumably for another bus fare. "I'll be back with Danny before you can even say, 'The End.'"

As she walked past him, the archangel reached over and rumpled his hair affectionately. Andrew started to groan a protest over his now disheveled locks. . .then shrugged ruefully and smiled at his supervisor.

The battle going on inside Andrew was far from over, Cleo knew. But at least there was a momentary lull in the fighting, she thought, and with the help of God, it would give them all just enough time.

And speaking of that! Cleo reminded herself. With that, she tip-toed quietly out of the room. . . or as quietly as anyone who was wearing several pounds of clanking bracelets and necklaces ever could, anyway.

She looked back at the room and its occupants for a moment, just as Andrew pulled a straight-backed chair closer to Beth's bed. He took his jacket off and casually tossed it over the back of the chair, then sat down and prepared to tell Beth his story.

It's all in Your hands now, Father, Cleo prayed fervently as she closed the door after her. And maybe by the time this is all over with, peace will have come to more than one heart at last. At long last.

Chapter Three

"This happened a long time ago," Andrew told Beth as he opened the watch case and then sat it down on the nightstand where she could see it.

He hesitated slightly before he could continue, summoning up all of his reserves of mental and emotional strength. "It would have been about the time your great-great grandmother was alive. I know that's kind of hard for someone who's not an angel to imagine, so why don't you just close your eyes and try to picture everything in your mind while I tell you what happened?"

For a second or two, it appeared that Beth might be reluctant to follow his suggestion, but then she nodded and slowly closed her eyes. Her face almost looked peaceful for once, and without warning, she reached out blindly to him. And to his surprise, Andrew felt no twinge of revulsion this time as he gently closed his fingers over her thin, cold hand.

"All of this took place in Kentucky," he began softly. "The Father sent me to a town called Makepeace as a watchmaker's apprentice, but my real assignment was a little girl. A little girl named Sarah."

"How curious -- a watchmaker's apprentice," Beth murmured in surprise. "And what a small world it is. . .my people were originally from that very state and town."

"It's pretty down there," Andrew smiled at the memories. "I remember the red color of the soil, the way the mimosa trees were in blossom. . .and I remember the roses. Seems like every woman in town had a beautiful rose garden. There was every color of rose that you could imagine -- red and pink, yellow and peach and one that I've never seen before or since, a pure white rose with just a splash of bright red at its heart. . ."

To give himself something to focus on while he talked, Andrew stared up at a cheap reproduction of an oil painting in a plastic wood tone frame that hung over Beth's bed -- the kind of picture sold in roadside souvenir shops all over the country. The painter had portrayed a row of old-fashioned shops, using considerable artistic license. . .and in Andrew's opinion, that license should have been revoked years ago. Shaking his head a little, he started to find something else to look at while he talked. . . then stopped abruptly as he realized why those buildings looked so familiar, even when rendered by an artist with more enthusiasm than talent to match it.

Only You, Father! the angel chuckled to himself as he looked at the picture. If people only knew what a wonderful sense of humor You have, how could they not love You?

He looked down and saw that Beth had opened her eyes and now stared at him, one eyebrow raised in faint censure at the delay. "Oops, where was I?" he smiled at her. "Oh, yes -- Sarah and the roses. Sarah was going to be seven years old that year. 'Seven years old on the seventh of June,' as a matter of fact. I knew that because she'd reminded me of that every day since April. Sarah and her stepmother came into the watchmaker's shop a lot, when I was 'apprenticed' to her father."

Now Andrew stared at the picture once more, and it was as if he had stepped backwards in time. . .right into the middle of that very same scene. Once again, he could smell the acrid odor of the oil used to lubricate the watch mechanisms, and he could feel the way that the sun streamed in from the window across his aching shoulders as he bent over his work.

In the six months since he'd been assigned to this case, Andrew had learned a great deal about the fine art of watch-making. . .and very little indeed about the real reason that he'd been sent there in the first place. It had something to do with his employer's little daughter -- but that was all the information he had been given.

And since he only saw Sarah whenever her mother brought her to the shop, the entire assignment made very little sense to him. But the Father had blessed Andrew with an unusually obedient spirit: now the angel turned all his concentration on the work at hand, confident that God would reveal everything to him when he needed to know it.

He looked up as Jonah Ragland picked up the watch that he had just cleaned. The watch maker inspected the delicate escapement mechanism, making certain that everything was done just -- so. Ragland laid the watch back down on the bench, and Andrew felt his heart pounding as the dark-haired man looked at him for what seemed like hours to the angel. . .and that was probably something closer to three seconds.

"Excellent, Andy. . .you're learning quickly!" Ragland beamed. . .then laughed at his apprentice's noisy sigh of relief.

But before Ragland could say anything else, the shop door opened, and a tiny dark-haired tornado in a bright dress of Italian silk burst into the store --a scene that had been played out many times before during the past few months. But Andrew paused in his work, taking as much pleasure in the event as though this was the first time he had seen it.

"Papa!" Sarah cried as she threw herself into her father's arms and covered his cheek with exuberant kisses. "I missed you all morning. . .I love you, Papa."

Ragland returned the kisses with a number of his own, even though his daughter had been eating something of an extremely sticky (not to mention vividly-colored) nature before she came into the shop. That 'something' now spread like a crimson smear across the watchmaker's immaculate coat and shirt front, but he was too busy enjoying Sarah's hugs to care about the ruin of his clothing.

Even in such a short period of time, Sarah had become very dear to Andrew. . .more so than the angel would have believed possible. And the feeling was mutual: the little girl's enthusiastic hugs and kisses were now divided between her beloved Papa and Andrew whenever she came into the shop. Papa still received quite a few of those hugs and kisses. . .but Andrew didn't miss that same total by very many at all.

Andrew watched the scene for a moment, then dropped his head. He looked forlornly at Sarah, making little sniffling noises to himself. His quivering lower lip and sad eyes would have been the envy of any third-rate Shakespearean actor, and for a few seconds, Sarah looked anxiously at her friend, trying to understand why he was so 'unhappy.'

But then she saw the way that Andrew hid a smile underneath that "wounded" expression, and her brown eyes crinkled in mock annoyance. She wrinkled her face up in a pretend frown, then wriggled out of her father's arm and launched herself straight at the laughing angel.

"Andy, you're silly!" she laughed at him. "I didn't forget you. . .I love my Andy, too."

He caught her up in his arms, then swung her around in dizzying arcs until she was almost out of breath with laughter. It didn't matter to Andrew that Sarah's smile was a little lop-sided or that a thin thread of saliva trickled down the corner of her mouth as she laughed: it was simply enough that she enjoyed the romp with her best friend and self-appointed guardian. Jonah joined in that laughter for a moment as he watched the pretty scene playing out in front of him -- the tall blond 'apprentice' and the little girl with the sweet smile and brown eyes that were almost Oriental in their slant.

But then something like a cloud or a shadow seemed to pass over the room, and Andrew stopped in mid-twirl. Jonah Ragland's expression fell and shattered like a dropped watch crystal -- even before he heard his wife's voice from a spot near the door. Unfortunately, this scene, too, had been re-enacted in front of Andrew on many occasions over the past six months. . .and he regarded it with far less pleasure than the first.

From all that Andrew could tell, Ragland's wife seemed to have far more interest in the cash box and the amount of business being transacted in the shop than most women did in their husbands' trades. She made a point of dropping by the shop several times a day -- just to "keep 'watch' on things, so to speak," as she was fond of telling anyone who would listen.

She had even gone so far as to admonish Andrew when she thought that the apprentice was wasting time or materials. . .as if she knows the difference between a verge escapement and a tin weathervane! the angel snorted to himself, as he balanced Sarah on his hip for a moment.

But now Leah Ragland stalked towards the pair, and even the angel was hard-pressed not to quail at the sight of her tightly-compressed lips and annoyed look. Sarah quickly scrabbled down, then stood in front of Andrew: the little girl dropped her head, her eyes downcast to avoid meeting her stepmother's angry stare.

Leah might have been a pretty woman, Andrew thought, except for that sour expression. . .the one that seemed to be permanently quilted to her face by the lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth. Now Leah turned that same expression on Sarah, her eyes full of disgust as she saw the little trickle of saliva at the corner of the child's lips and the small rocking motions that Sarah made whenever she was upset.

It certainly wasn't the first time that Andrew had seen someone react badly to Sarah's "strange" appearance and behavior: more than one customer had responded the same way when they came into the shop and saw the child for the first time. But as always, it brought a rush of indignation to the angel's gentle heart -- especially whenever he saw that look of aversion in Leah's face

Sarah can't help being what she is, Andrew wanted to shout those words, not only to Leah but to everyone else in Makepeace, as well. The Father created this child to be exactly what He wanted her to be. . .no one has the right to judge her for not being like everyone else!

But he hadn't been given permission from the Father to speak, and now Andrew sighed heavily, watching as Leah stepped forward and pulled Sarah away from the "apprentice." The child muffled a little whimper as Leah's fingers dug into an old bruise on her thin arm -- the one she had gotten from falling down the stairs a few days ago, according to Leah.

"Sarah. . .how many times must I tell you that it is unseemly for a child of your years to behave in such a manner, especially around your father's employees," Leah's pale blue eyes blazed with anger, even though her voice was chill and precise. "You will be seven years old tomorrow, and if you cannot obey my instructions, then I shall have no choice but to rescind the invitations to your birthday celebration. Perhaps then you will learn to pay more attention to what I have told you."

"I'll be good, Mama Leah," Sarah appealed to her stepmother and started to throw her arms around Leah's skirt. "I promise."

But Leah side-stepped the affectionate gesture with a little sniff of disapproval. For her part, Sarah continued to sob inconsolably as she stood in the middle of the shop.

"Please don't 'cind my birthday party away. . .please, Mama Leah?" she pleaded. . .and it took all of Andrew's angelic self-control not to walk across the room and shake Leah until her teeth rattled.

And as usual, Jonah merely gave his wife a pleading look, which had the same effect on Leah that it might have had on a charging bull. That helplessness in the face of his wife's temper tantrums was one of the few flaws in Jonah's character. . . one of the very few, in Andrew's assessment of his kind-hearted employer.

Even without being aware of what he did, Andrew sighed sharply: at the moment, he was fighting back the urge to sweep little Sarah up in his arms and tickle her until he had made her laugh once more. Something in the angel's sigh seemed to affect Jonah, however, and now he took a step forward with just a suggestion of reproof in his eyes.

"My dear, she is only a child," Ragland murmured in his wife's direction, even though he only had eyes for his daughter.

And that fact that was not lost on Leah, either. Andrew could see the jealous anger that flared in the blonde woman's eyes when she looked at Sarah and then at her husband. Her thin lips were compressed tightly for a moment, but then she gave Jonah a 'tolerant' smile.

"Of course you are correct, my dear," she said sweetly. . .a little too sweetly, in fact. "One certainly cannot hold a imbecile to the same standards as a normal child. And since I am not the child's natural mother, I sometimes tend to forget these things."

Even for an angel, Andrew had an exceptionally kind and gentle nature. But now anger of a type that he had seldom experienced before flared up in his heart -- especially at the sight of Sarah's stricken expression and the look of pain that wrenched Jonah's face at Leah's choice of words.

Ragland shook his head sadly, then nodded at Andrew. "Perhaps you would do me the kindness of taking Sarah out back to the well and drawing some water for her," he met the angel's sorrowing gaze with a smile, but the expression was largely a failure. "The two of you must be quite worn out with your exertions. . .and if a bit of that water should happen to 'accidentally' wash away the remains of Sarah's rock candy, then I'm quite sure you could be forgiven, my friend."

"Yes, sir," Andrew nodded. He bowed his head slightly towards Leah in a gesture of respect. . .but only with great difficulty.

He reached down and took Sarah's hand, then led her towards the back of the shop and the well behind it. In true child fashion, she had already forgotten her stepmother's comments, and now the little girl prattled happily about the forthcoming birthday celebration. But behind them, Andrew could still hear two voices, one shrill with anger and the other one heavy with resigned sadness, long after he was outside the building.

Sarah stopped abruptly, and Andrew looked down at her: he'd been too lost in his own thoughts and prayers to pay much attention to her chattering. Somewhere in all the descriptions of the good things to eat and the games to be played at her party tomorrow, she had apparently asked him a question. . .one that had escaped him completely.

Now Sarah sighed and tapped her foot on the ground, her small hands on her hips. She looked up at her friend with enormous disgust showing in every line of her face -- the way that only a small person of the female persuasion could.

"Andy, you're not payin' 'tenshun to me," she said, and Andrew could almost hear the echo of Leah's voice behind those stiffly pronounced words. "I asked you a question. You know when my birthday is, but I don't know when your birthday is."

Andrew smiled at her as he let the bucket glide down the well on its rope, and in a moment, he heard the container hit the surface of the underground spring. "I really don't have a birthday, Sarah," he said, waiting until he heard the hollow-sounding boom that meant that the bucket was full.

He turned the handle until the dripping bucket came into sight, then pulled it over and sat it on the edge of the well. He took down the tin dipper that hung from a nail on the windlass' support beam, then filled the ladle with the cold, sweet water and handed it to Sarah.

But she shook her head -- too busy pondering his words to pay any attention to the drink that he offered her. "No birthday, Andy? No presents from your papa and mama?" she asked, saddened by the thought of what he had missed. "Nothing?"

The angel hid a little smile at Sarah's disconsolate expression on his behalf. "I'll tell you a secret, though," Andrew said in a low voice as he picked her up and balanced her on his hip once more. "I did have a wonderful present from my Papa this year. . .He let me come here to spend some time with my very best friend in the whole world."

Adults and even most children would have caught the incongruities in Andrew's last two statements. But the concept of "birth" (let alone how it actually related to a specific "day") was a little foggy in Sarah's mind -- to say nothing of how one's "Papa" could be unaware of that particular date. However, something about his words had disturbed her, and now she frowned uncertainly at him.

"Your very best friend in the whole world?" she asked sadly. . .and with just a hint of innocent jealousy in her eyes, too. "What's your friend's name, Andy?"

Andrew leaned closer to her and whispered confidentially, "My very best friend's name is. . .Sarah Elizabeth Ragland, who is going to be seven years old tomorrow on the seventh of June, 1853."

It took a few seconds for what he had just said to sink in, but when it did, Sarah squealed and clapped her hands with glee. "And my Andy is my very best friend in the whole world," she put her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss, now that she was certain that her place in Andrew's heart was secure.

Something else occurred to her, and she added, "Someday, I want to meet your Papa. . .is he as nice as you are?"

"Sarah, someday you will meet my Papa," the angel nodded with a gentle double meaning behind his words. "And when you do, you'll find that He's the most wonderful, kind, loving Person you've ever known."

Once again, Sarah laughed with the sheer enjoyment of a child. Andrew joined in that laughter as he picked up the dipper with his free hand and raised it to her lips. She took a few half-hearted sips, but it was clear that she was still pondering the earlier subject of birthdays. . .or the lack of them.

And in a moment, she pointed imperiously at the ground. Obediently, Andrew sat her down, and she looked up at him like a diminutive general about to issue a command to her troops.

"Since my Andy doesn't have a birthday, he shall share mine," she announced in tones that brooked no argument. "I will tell Papa. . .I know he'll say 'Yes.' I know he will!"

"But tomorrow is your special day," Andrew protested, smiling gently down at his small friend.

"But I want to share it with my very best friend in the whole world -- and besides, I'll have lots more birthdays," she said, as tears threatened to spill down her face. "You shall have some cake and play forfeits and blind man's bluff. . ."

The momentary unhappiness in her face was quickly replaced by a wide smile as she once more outlined the next day's happy activities, but Andrew barely heard the rest of her chatter. A bitterly cold sensation gripped the angel's heart as he looked down into Sarah's face -- something she'd just said had triggered that panicked reaction.

But before he could identify the source of what he was feeling, he was aware that there was another lull in the 'conversation'. . .and that his inattentiveness was once again the cause of that hiatus. Sarah gave him another of those looks, and under the circumstances, Andrew decided that the "lost puppy in a snowstorm" approach had the best chance of success.

"Please forgive your humble servant, my lady," he placed his hand on his chest and made an elaborate stage bow, then looked at her with large, sad eyes. "I fear that I have once again failed in polite society. Do forgive your most abject Andrew and once more admit him to the privilege of your conversation."

Sarah probably hadn't understood more than a quarter of his elegant apology, but she recognized good-natured teasing when she heard it. "I asked you what you wanted for your birthday present tomorrow," she said, but then frowned a little.

Her next question may have seemed like a non-sequitur, but Andrew suspected that there was far more to it than was immediately obvious. "Andy, where is your watch?" she asked. "Papa says that all gentlemen of qual'. . .of qual'ty carry fine watches. And he says that you are a real gentleman -- so where is your watch?"

Andrew muffled a small smile, both at Sarah's immensely dignified expression and the innocent way in which she had just conveyed her father's feelings concerning his apprentice. "I'm quite sure your Papa is correct, as always," he reached down and took her small hand in his as they walked back to the shop together. "But I'm afraid I don't have a watch of my own at the moment."

It was useless to explain to her that a being who spent a great deal of his "time" outside that particular temporal phenomenon had very little use for something like a watch. . .let alone the fact that a humble 'apprentice' could scarcely have afforded a luxury as a gold timepiece. But it was equally useless to attempt to dissuade Sarah of a notion once it was fixed in her mind -- and Andrew could see just such an idea taking shape behind her big brown eyes.

Now she pulled free from his light grasp on her hand and ran ahead into the shop. Andrew stepped up his pace a bit, but even so, by the time he reached the workroom, Sarah was already whispering confidentially to her father, while Leah glowered in the background.

Andrew couldn't hear what Sarah had told Jonah, but judging from the pleased expression on the watchmaker's face, he approved her plan whole-heartedly. "That's a wonderful idea, Sarah," he winked conspiratorially at her, then smiled at his slightly embarrassed apprentice. "And I have just the thing for our Andrew's 'birthday' present, too."

Sarah nodded joyfully up at her father, but her happiness was quickly doused by the storm clouds that were gathering in her stepmother's eyes. "Jonah, that is the most preposterous notion that I have ever heard. . .to say nothing of the most impudent!" Leah snapped, giving Andrew a particularly malevolent look. "I am quite sure that Sarah didn't concoct such a scheme out of her own head -- her mind being seriously lacking in reasoning skills, as we both know."

Leah continued to glare at Andrew, then included Sarah in that look, as well. The little girl had slipped away from Jonah and now stood 'protectively' in front of her friend. Andrew put his hands on Sarah's shoulders. . .and he did not drop his head when he met Leah's eyes.

Jonah looked at his daughter first and then at his apprentice, and he saw the pain that hovered just behind their solemn expressions. And this time, he did not immediately capitulate to his wife, as he might have done if the matter had been strictly between Leah and himself.

"I think it's a splendid idea," he said firmly. Leah gulped angrily, her pale face turning a variety of interesting colors at this new-found temerity on the part of her spouse. "In point of fact, Andrew, you shall have the whole day off tomorrow in honor of your appointed 'birthday.' If a man has lived his entire life without so much as a gift or a game to celebrate the fact of his existence, then it's high time that we correct such an oversight! Isn't that right, Sarah?"

Again, Sarah had understood perhaps one word in five of what her father had just said. But of those words, the ones that stood out in her mind had clearly been "the whole day off" for her beloved friend and confidant Andrew.

"The whole day off!" she clapped her hands in excitement. "You can come to my house and help decorate for our party, and I will show you all my dolls and my hobby horse and my Noah's Ark, and. . ."

Now there were two round splotches of a particularly vivid crimson color above Leah's cheekbones as she spluttered in impotent rage. She glared viciously at the three 'conspirators,' but when that strategy produced no visible signs of repentance in them, she reverted to her earlier tactics.

"The very idea, Sarah! I have tried to instill in you that persons of good manners and breeding do not associate with servants and apprentices," she sniffed, rolling her eyes at even the thought of Andrew setting foot in her home. "If your father insists in indulging you in this foolish whim of yours, then Andrew may come to the back door after your party, and I will see to it that Annie gives him a slice of your cake."

It took a second or two for Sarah to understand her step-mother's loftily phrased refusal to let Andrew attend the party, but when the little girl did piece together Leah's meaning, her face crumpled. Sarah began to sob as she turned around: she clutched Andrew's hand in both of hers, then appealed to her father for help.

"But it's Andrew's party, too, Mama Leah," she wept, soaking Andrew's shirt cuff with her tears. "Papa, please. . .you said Andrew could have the whole day off and come to the party and you had a present for him and everything. Please, Papa -- please say that Andrew can come to our house."

Again, Jonah Ragland might have backed down, but something in Andrew's calm, dignified stance seemed to communicate itself to his employer. "Of course he shall come to the party, Sarah," Ragland said -- ostensibly to his daughter, but Leah was not oblivious to the real target of his words. "As a matter of fact, it's long past time for Andrew to visit our home. Perhaps he will even do us the honor of joining us for supper some evening this week."

At that, Leah's composure threatened to give way completely at the very notion of sitting at the same table with an apprentice. But for the first time in the three years that she had been married to Jonah, it was apparent to her that she had somehow lost control of the situation. And not only had she lost her position of absolute authority over her husband and stepchild -- but blame for the entire matter could be laid at the doorstep of that impudent young apprentice.

Even if he is a rather attractive young man, Leah thought to herself suddenly.

And no doubt more manly than Jonah, who had already begun to slide into stodgy middle age, in her opinion. She eyed Andrew in a way that made the angel feel as if he'd been plunged headfirst into barrel of squirming rattlesnakes and copperheads. . .and with that, Leah smiled thinly at her husband.

"Very well, then," her voice dripped condescension as she looked at Andrew. For a moment, she seemed to be appraising him with the same cool expression that she might have given a length of dress materials that she was giving thought to purchasing. "Since my husband has chosen to over-rule my attempts to instill a sense of propriety and decorum in his child, then I suppose I have no other alternative than to acquiesce to his wishes. You may come to my home at one o'clock tomorrow afternoon, Andrew, to assist me in preparations for Sarah's party."

Father, protect your angel from all evil, Andrew prayed hastily, then managed a civil but not excessively friendly nod. "I can help with the decorations and preparations for Sarah's party," he chose his words carefully. "And then perhaps I can occupy Sarah's time with reading or games until it's time for the celebration to begin."

Neither the nuances of Andrew's words nor the whisper of emphasis that he put on the little girl's name were lost on Leah. She grabbed Sarah's hand so tightly that the little girl whimpered under her breath, then flounced towards the front door of the shop, where she paused for a moment.

Leah paused and aimed one last salvo at her husband before she left. "And Jonah, dinner will be served promptly at seven o'clock this evening. I would like you to be home on time for once. You and I have a number of matters to discuss."

"Yes, my dear," Jonah nodded. And judging from the weary expression in his employer's face, Andrew would have guessed -- and rightly so -- that all so-called 'discussions' were apt to be rather one-sided.

There was a long silence in the shop after Leah and Sarah had gone -- much like the one that inevitably seems to follow any violent natural phenomenon like an earthquake or a tornado. Finally Jonah smiled in resignation at Andrew and then nodded at a watch whose delicate internal workings were now scattered all over the apprentice's workbench.

"Very well, then, my friend, let's get back to work, shall we?" Jonah smiled at him. Andrew nodded, then sat back down at his workbench. "Now, when you're dealing with a lever escapement with free standing bridges and compensation balance, you must always take care to. . ."

The rest of the day passed quickly for Andrew, and soon Jonah shut the door of the shop. He locked the door, then handed the key to his apprentice. From all that Andrew could gather by listening to other businessmen every night when he ate his supper at the local tavern, Jonah had displayed an unusual amount of trust in his employee by allowing him such free access.

Not only had the watchmaker given him a key to the shop, he'd allowed Andrew to sleep in the back room on a trundle bed, instead of the customary "boarding out" at an inn or tavern. Both the food and the accommodations at such places were often of dubious quality, Andrew knew, but Jonah had provided him with the princely sum of five dollars a week for meals. That amount was the envy of many other apprentices. . .especially since the cost of breakfast and dinner at the tavern was twenty-five cents per meal.

That night after Andrew ate his usual frugal repast and returned the shop, he made sure that the building was secured, then stretched out on the low bed. But instead of drifting off easily to sleep as he normally did, something still gnawed at the angel's spirit as he stared up at the ceiling.

Something about Sarah's innocuous words still haunted him, and after a half hour of restless tossing and turning, Andrew gave up the fruitless efforts. He climbed out of bed and knelt on the rough wooden floorboards, prostrating himself before God as angels always did in Heaven.

Father, You told me that You sent Your me here for Sarah's sake, he prayed silently. A heart as full of love as hers must be so precious to You. . .especially since she's known so much pain in her few short years. Please, Father -- please keep her safe. And show me what I was sent here to do in order to help her.

"And did He answer that prayer? Did He keep little Sarah safe?" a voice brought Andrew back into the present abruptly.

Andrew looked slightly dazed as he stared around him at Beth's room in the nursing home -- trying to understand how he came to be in this strange place. But when he finally realized where he was, he looked at the elderly woman. . .and he saw a softness in her face that hadn't been there before.

"The Father always answers prayer, whether it comes from men or from angels," Andrew said, and there was a wistfulness in his eyes for a moment as he stared at the shimmering gold watch sitting on the nightstand.

Andrew squeezed Beth's hand again, feeling the warmth beginning to drain from it completely now. Then he picked up the watch and pressed the tiny button that activated the chimes. Once again, the repeater sent its tiny shimmering notes into the silence of the room, and the angel waited until the melody was finished before he went on.

"And sometimes we don't understand those answers when we do get them," he said so softly that Beth could barely understand him. He paused for a moment, as if lost in thought --or perhaps in his memories.

"You see, Beth, people have knowledge of some things, angels have understanding in other areas, but we're all limited. Only the infinite mind of God knows how all the pieces of His plan fit together," the angel said with a new awareness growing in his eyes. "And in this case, I didn't understand the answer that He gave me back then. . .but I think I'm beginning to now. A hundred and forty years later, but I'm finally beginning to understand. And it's all thanks to you -- but what took so you long?"

"To me?" she snorted, answering his teasing with a gentle derision of her own. "And just how did I do that, may I ask?"

Andrew smiled again when he saw the new softness that had crept into her face. But that face was also starting to take on a gray-white pallor as her breathing became increasingly more labored.

Cleo, if you want to get here with Beth's nephew in time to do any good, then you'd better hurry, my archangel friend! he thought with a small sigh, then turned back to Beth.

"It might be easier to explain once you've heard the rest of the story," he said gently, imitating a famous radio broadcaster's intonation of those words. "Like I said, that was June 6, 1853, and the next day was Sarah's seventh birthday. . ."

Chapter Four

Andrew smiled at the shopkeeper as the man handed him a parcel neatly done up in brown paper and string. Thanks to his employer's generous compensation every week, the angel had managed to save up the enormous sum of twenty dollars and a few pennies over the past six months. Most of that savings had just gone into the contents of the package tucked under his arm, but Andrew's walk was as jaunty as any millionaire's as he set out for the Ragland house at the other end of town.

The merchant's supply of toys hadn't been extravagant, but it was certainly adequate --especially for a town the size of Makepeace. Andrew knew that the big, brightly-painted wooden horse on its wheeled platform would make a perfect steed for Sarah's beloved wooden dolls Rachel and Clara, and he smiled at the thought of the pretend gallops and imaginary journeys that Sarah could take her doll friends on now.

The porcelain puppy and kitten had come all the way from Italy, and they would be a cheerful addition to the little girl's room, brightening up a mantel with their soft greens and pinks and yellows. And Sarah would always have the gold locket to remind her of him after God called him back. . .

Andrew didn't finish that thought, and suddenly the warm June afternoon seemed to turn a little cooler. He sighed sharply and paused for a moment, looking around him at the peaceful little town under the brilliant blue sky.

You know this assignment has to end sometime, he admonished himself, as he made his way down the narrow pathway, past the businesses on Main Street, then towards the residential part of town. You're not Sarah's permanent guardian, and you'll have to return to Heaven again soon for another assignment.

Obedient as he always was to the prompting of God, Andrew tried to resign himself to the inevitable leave-taking -- just as he knew that the Father expected him to do. He had never known love in the human sense of the word, and the pain of separation had been equally unknown to him until now.

Human emotions were only pale shadows of an infinite Love. . . and to Andrew, who drew his very being from that Love, the lesser would have simply been swallowed up by the Greater, like a single drop of water falling into the ocean. And too, like all angels, Andrew was a citizen of an eternal Country. Until now, he had never experienced the inevitable pain of parting that came with living inside the boundaries of time.

But there was something about Sarah that had touched Andrew in a way he had never experienced before. With a child's ease and simplicity, she had reached out to him and touched even deeper reservoirs of gentleness and compassion inside himself. . .ones that he hadn't even known existed.

Andrew knew that any separation from his little friend was only temporary -- a matter of a few decades at most and hardly the blink of an eye to an angel. And yet a portion of his heart still grieved at the thought of not being a part of her life until one of the Father's angels of death took her home.

Father, I thank You and praise You for the time you've allowed me to spend with Sarah, the angel paused outside the wrought iron gate of the house next to the Raglands' home. And thank You, too, for all that she's taught me -- even in that short space of time.

He stood there for a moment, trying to summon up the fortitude to deal with Leah all afternoon, and as he did, he studied the front yard of the house next door. Andrew had never met the woman who lived there, but he'd heard Sarah speak often of "Aunt" Abigail who grew such pretty flowers in her yard -- including Sarah's favorite white roses.

Masses of those white roses now bloomed just inside the fence, including the odd ones that he had never seen before: the snowy roses with just a hint of crimson at their centers. He stood there for a moment and admired the blossoms, taking in a deep appreciative breath of their perfume.

"Like a breath of Heaven itself, are they not?" a voice interrupted Andrew's thoughts, and he looked up just as an elderly woman walked around the side of the house, carrying a wicker basket and a sharp knife. "Here, young man. Wait just a moment, and you may have a rose to give to your lady."

"Thank you, and God bless you," Andrew smiled, taking the rose that she now handed to him over the fence.

"Oh, He has, young man, He has -- all the days of my life. And inasmuch as my years now number seventy-four, you may judge for yourself how many days of blessing I have received from the Almighty," she nodded at him, then gestured at the parcel he carried. "You must be Jonah Ragland's new apprentice. . .and little Sarah's 'sweetheart.' The child has spoken of you so in the past few months that I almost feel that I know you."

"My name is Andrew, and you must be Sarah's "Aunt" Abigail Compton. She's spoken of you so often that I, too, feel as if we've met," Andrew bowed his head in respect. "I'm on my way to the Raglands right now to help with party preparations, and with your kind permission, I would like to give this rose to the birthday girl herself. Seven years old. . ."

". . .on the seventh of June!" Abigail finished up the litany with a little laugh, but then her face grew somber, and anger crackled in her eyes. "As long as the rose is for the child and not that stepmother of hers, then you are more than welcome to the flower, my friend. No doubt I shall one day stand before my Maker and repent of my lack of charity . . .but I would not spare a single withered petal that an insect had eaten upon, if I knew it was intended for Leah Ragland."

Andrew started to say something, but then he felt a deep tug within his spirit, and he remained silent. He watched while Abigail cut a number of the white roses, and the old woman's face was full of anger as she worked. But finally she paused and gestured for Andrew to step a little closer to the fence, as if she had finally made up her mind about his trustworthiness.

"Young man, if you have any influence upon your employer, then I beg of you to speak him for the sake of his child," Abigail leaned forward and spoke in a low tone of voice. "Even in the midst of winter with all the windows shuttered tightly, I have heard Sarah's cries as Leah strikes her for the most trivial offense -- and sometimes for no offense at all, I suspect. I have seen bruises beyond counting on Sarah's arms and legs. . .but she is too fearful of her stepmother's wrath to tell her father. Who knows what threats Leah has made to coerce the child into silence?"

She paused, seeing the distress in Andrew's face. "I know this must sound difficult to believe," she said, but the urgency in her tone told Andrew all that he needed to know about her sincerity. "Perhaps I should not have spoken as I did just now, but I felt that I must appeal to you for help. . .for the sake of the child who loves you so dearly."

"I. . .believe you," Andrew said slowly, but he was deeply troubled. "But I cannot understand why a woman would make an innocent child the target of her anger. Mrs. Ragland has a temper, that's true, but to harm a child -- and one as innocent as Sarah? It seems incomprehensible to me. Why would she do such a thing?"

"Andrew, I have lived seventy-four years as I may have made mention of before, and I fancy that I am a good judge of character after such a lengthy span of life. In your case, I read nothing but kindness and compassion. . .to say nothing of an innocence in the ways of the world in general and of women in particular," Abigail said with a 'wicked' sparkle in her eyes, but that amusement quickly faded. "Leah hates the child because of Sarah's weakness, but also because the child reminds Jonah of his first wife. And Leah is jealous beyond all measure, even of her sister Rachel's memory. Could she be any less jealous of Rachel's child, who is a memorial to the mother that died giving her life?"

". . .Andrew!" a voice shrilled from the front porch of the house next-door, and Leah emerged, her lips compressed tightly as she saw him talking to Abigail. "Why in the name of heaven are you standing there wasting time, when there are so many things to be done before Sarah's party?"

"When I've spoken of this to Jonah before, he assures me that I am mistaken -- kindly heart that he has, he cannot believe evil of his beloved Rachel's sister. I am sure you have remarked on his goodness and candor, yourself, but in this case, innocent mistakes may threaten Sarah's life unless something is done soon, Andrew," Abigail spoke quickly and quietly. "Remember what I told you, and speak to Jonah before it's too late. A man will listen to another man. . .but the words of an old woman are just an old woman's words."

"I will remember," Andrew said softly, and with that, Abigail nodded and walked away, her basket now full of white roses.

The angel's reply may have been calm but there was nothing peaceful about the earthquake of anger that was going on inside his spirit at the moment. Abigail had assessed his character accurately: even though he had been promoted to caseworker many years earlier, Andrew was still an innocent in many ways. Even the idea that someone might want to vent her anger and jealousy on a child was incomprehensible to him. . .to say nothing of sickening.

Is this what You sent me here to do, Father? he prayed hastily. See to it that Jonah is made aware of what's being done to his daughter before something worse happens to Sarah than cuts and bruises? It seems so hard to believe that a woman might hurt a child, though. . .perhaps Abigail is mistaken.

But suddenly memories and images from the six months flashed through his mind as he walked down the flagstone path towards the Ragland house. Little things -- the bruises on Sarah's arms that Leah always glibly explained away as the result of the child's clumsiness, the way that Sarah cowered away whenever her stepmother called her, and a dozen more incidents just like them that he hadn't understood at the time.

Now all of it made perfect sense to Andrew. And once more, he felt apprehensive as Leah simpered down at him from her vantage point on the cool, shaded porch.

"Oh, a rose for me, how sweet of you. . ." Leah giggled as Andrew walked up the steps, and she started to reached for the flower.

"Actually, it's for our little birthday girl," the angel neatly side-stepped Leah, just as Sarah emerged from the house with a little squeal of delight when she saw her friend. "Miss Abigail gave it to me to present to Sarah in honor of the day. And speaking of the guest of honor herself. . ."

Andrew bowed to Sarah and presented her with the rose with a flourish. Sarah giggled happily as she returned Andrew's bow with a small curtsey, just as a grown woman would have done.

But then the child within her reasserted itself, and she threw herself at Andrew. He caught her up, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, smothering him with exuberant kisses for a few seconds.

"I love my Andy," she laughed in between those hugs and kisses . . .and even though she was oblivious to the storm brewing in her stepmother's eyes, Andrew was not.

"That will be quite enough, Sarah," Leah snapped after a few seconds, glaring at Andrew over the top of Sarah's mop of black curls. "I mean what I say. . .if you do not stop all this foolish behavior, I will not permit Andrew to step foot inside my house this afternoon, party or no party."

"Yes, Mama Leah," Sarah slid down from Andrew's arms and stood in front of him. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she bowed her head in what might have been a sign of obedience in some children. . .

. . .but that was pure mindless fear in Sarah's case, Andrew now realized. Unlike other children, Sarah lacked the mental abilities to read the signs that accompanied her stepmother's impending rages. . .and that makes Sarah an even easier target, he thought to himself.

Despite another surge of that unaccustomed anger, Andrew summoned up every bit of love and tenderness that he possessed, for Sarah's sake. He smiled at her and then dropped down on one knee in front of her.

"I think we should see about those decorations now, don't you?" he asked quietly, and the gentleness in his voice was enough to make Sarah nod her head at him -- even though she still sniffled quietly to herself.

He stood up, and Sarah took his hand, intending to lead him into the house. But then she caught sight of the parcel that he had laid down on the porch a moment ago, and her eyes widened.

"Is that. . .?" she breathed hopefully as Andrew picked up the package.

Andrew smiled his confirmation of her unspoken question and held the presents out to her. She reached out to him and took the package with a smile of pure happiness. No matter what that parcel might contain, it would have been perfect, as far as Sarah was concerned. . .if no other reason than it came from her Andy.

But the child's joy did not go unnoticed by her stepmother. At the moment that Sarah's fingers closed clumsily over the bulky package, Leah casually brushed past Sarah, knocking the parcel out of her hand in something that might have been an accident. . .but probably wasn't. The package fell heavily against the wooden floorboards, and Andrew heard something shatter inside it, despite the thick layer of brown paper that covered it.

"Oh, what a pity," Leah said sweetly as Andrew picked up the damaged package, and her eyes were full of spiteful pleasure when she heard the unmistakable noise of broken porcelain. "You really must be more careful and pay attention to what you are doing, Sarah, and then accidents like these wouldn't happen so often."

Sarah's face crumpled in grief as she finally understood what had happened to the contents of her birthday parcel. "My birthday present from my Andy. . ." she sobbed disconsolately, and tears splashed down onto her white silk dress.

But the unadorned collar of Sarah's dress gave Andrew an idea. He leaned down towards her, speaking in a low, confidential tone of voice.

"You know, I've been to a great many cities throughout the world -- London, New York, Paris -- and I've become something of an expert on fashion," he told her with complete seriousness. . .even as he was deftly undoing the parcel.

Still distracting Sarah with his chatter, the angel felt among the package's content, trying to salvage the situation somehow. The porcelain cat had shattered into irreparable fragments, but the dog only had a chipped ear, and there was nothing more than a small crack in the base of the wooden horse. Then his fingers came in contact with a thin gold chain: the locket was intact, and he breathed a small smile of relief.

"For example, did you know that Queen Victoria often wears a gold locket with her very best Sunday dress?" he asked Sarah, as if the answer should be immediately obvious. "Why, I've heard her say to her ladies-in-waiting, 'Whatever do you mean by bringing me that dreadful crown with all those diamonds and rubies and sapphires? Take it away at once, and bring me my gold locket. . .'"

With that, Andrew produced the locket from the package, and Sarah's eyes grew wide when she saw the bit of gold jewelry, her momentary grief forgotten now. "A locket for me!" she cried rapturously. "Look, Mama Leah -- a present from my Andy for my birthday! Help me put it on, please, Andy?"

Oblivious to the jealousy that Andrew could read so clearly in Leah's face, Sarah smiled happily up at her stepmother. Sarah turned around so that Andrew could fasten the clasp for her, and as he put the chain around her neck, he looked over the little girl's head towards Leah. He met her hate-filled eyes, and once again, the angel felt that icy sensation at the center of his spirit -- as if a frost had suddenly touched his heart.

Father, help me, he prayed with the intensity that only desperation could give. There's something terribly wrong here, but I don't know what it is and how I'm supposed to protect Sarah. . .

Instantly an answer came back to the angel. Not ' protect,' Andrew. . .'help,' the Father's words were gentle but insistent.

I don't understand. Father, please. . .? Andrew pleaded. But before he could continue his petition, Sarah whirled around and threw her arms around his neck again.

"You wait right here, Andy," she told him firmly. "Papa said that I could give you your present anytime that I wanted to. . .he brought it home last night, 'specially for you."

Before Andrew could say anything, Sarah had already run back into the house, and the angel smiled a little as he bent over to pick up the rose she had dropped. In her excitement over the locket and her haste to give Andrew his 'birthday' gift, Sarah had forgotten all about the flower. . .but not so Leah.

The blonde woman looked at the rose, then stared at Abigail Compton's house for a moment before she finally spoke. Leah's eyes were full of anger, and it was obvious that she had correctly guessed the nature of the conversation that had taken between Abigail and Andrew -- information that could very well threaten her comfortable marriage to Jonah.

A quick look of panic spread across her face, followed by a scheming little smile as she looked at Andrew. And when she finally deigned to address him, it was in that chilly voice that she ordinarily reserved for servants, children, and others that she considered beneath her.

"I'm glad that we have a moment to discuss something privately, Andrew," Leah said with a thin little smile that made the angel think of knife blades and slivers of broken glass. "Perhaps you will do me the courtesy of telling me what you hope to gain by this charade of affection for my husband's daughter? Jonah is a simple country man, easily deceived by any charlatan, and it goes without saying that Sarah is a hopeless imbecile. But unlike my husband and his weak-minded child, I am not so easily taken in by your duplicity."

Andrew hesitated for a second, trying to think of some plausible explanation for his actions -- preferably one that didn't involve the fact that he was an angel. But Leah saw his reluctance to answer: she nodded with a knowing smile and swiftly pounced on this 'proof' of his guilt.

"As I thought, you have no answer for my question," she hissed at him with a cold enjoyment glittering in her eyes. "You see, Andrew, I've had a friend of mine investigate your alleged background. . .and yes, such things can be done even in a little town such as this. Those glowing references that you presented to Jonah were all fabricated, and as naïve as he is, he didn't bother to contact any of those people to confirm that you are who you claim to be. Everything you've told my husband is a pack of lies . .and before this day is out, I intend to see that he knows exactly what you are, Andrew."

. . .exactly what you are. Exactly what you are. . .

The words echoed in Andrew's mind for a second or two. But then the angel was shocked to realize that they were exactly that: the echoes of another Voice within his spirit.

Tell her exactly what you are, the Voice said gently but insistently. . .

. . .and for one of the very few times in his existence, Andrew hesitated for a fraction of a second before he moved to obey his orders. The entire idea of revealing his angelic identity to this cold-eyed, sneering woman seemed almost comical to him -- to say nothing of fruitless.

Even so, he knew that the command came from the Father, and he sighed heavily, trying not to think about the ridicule that would no doubt accompany his announcement. But before Andrew could overcome his reluctance, Sarah burst through the front door once more, and she carried a clumsily wrapped parcel.

"This is for you, Andy," she announced happily as she thrust the package at him. "It's my very favorite in the whole shop, and Papa said that I could give it to you for your birthday present. And I wrapped it all by myself, too. Go ahead and open it."

For a second or two, Andrew was torn between instantly performing his instructions from the Father and doing as Sarah wished. Like all finite beings, the angel's understanding had its limitations, compared to that of God -- in much the same way that Sarah's ability to reason was less than that of another person.

And even though Andrew's intent to obey God's commandments was perfect in the Father's sight, sometimes his execution of those orders was not. What followed was not an act of willful disobedience, but rather a misjudgment on his part. . .and even though the mistake was innocent, still it was not without consequences.

Surely another few moments can't make a difference, he thought as he took the gift from Sarah and sat down on the top step of the porch. I'll go ahead and open Sarah's gift now, and later on when she's occupied with other things, I'll have a private talk with our dear, sweet Mrs. Ragland!

Even as he was planning his strategy, Andrew had been unfastening the awkwardly-tied string and undoing the brown paper. Now he looked down as the paper fell away from a brown leather case whose gold embossed lettering was quite familiar to him after the past few months: "J. Ragland, Maker of Fine Watches. 103 Main Street, Makepeace, Kentucky."

"Go ahead, Andy -- open it!" Sarah clapped her hands together in excitement.

Andrew opened the tiny gold-colored hook and lifted the lid. A heavy gold pocket watch glimmered against the red velvet lining, and he carefully picked it up, amazed at the delicate tracery of engraving on the hunter case. He had admired that same repeater watch for many days now as it lay in the shop window, but its price tag had been far beyond the purse of a simple 'apprentice.'

"Oh, Sarah. . .it's wonderful!" Andrew said with genuine awe in his voice as he opened the case and looked down at the delicate enameled roses on the watch face.

He pressed a tiny button, and for a moment, the repeater's melody tinkled like bits of spun glass shaken together. And although he had no way of knowing it, his expression was as innocent as Sarah's when he said in a small voice, "No one has ever given me such a wonderful gift before."

"Papa said last night that you were a fine man, and a fine man 'serves a fine watch," Sarah repeated proudly as Andrew continued to admire his watch. "He was going to give it to you later, when you got done being a 'prentice. But I wanted you to have it now because it plays pretty music and because it has roses on it and. . ."

Her face filled with horror as the angel started to close the hunter case with what he thought was extreme gentleness. "Oh no, Andy!" she protested, taking the watch from him. "You mustn't close a watch like that. Papa showed me how to close it so you won't wear a hole in the rim. See, this is how you do it."

Sarah pushed down on the stem and shut the case gently before she released the button again. There was no snap of the latch against the rim of the case that way, and Andrew nodded with understanding. "I see," he said with a little chuckle at her baby seriousness. "I shall endeavor to always close my watch properly in the manner in which I was so expertly instructed.

But throughout the whole exchange, Leah had been eyeing the ornate gold watch -- easily one of the most expensive models that her husband offered for sale. Fury at such 'waste' blazed in Leah's eyes, and she made a grab for the watch just as Sarah placed it in Andrew's hand once again.

"You will give me that watch this instant," Leah demanded, and for a second or two, Andrew could hear the rasp of her teeth as she ground them together. "Is there no limit to your duplicity, Andrew? Now you've stooped so low as to persuade a weak-minded child to help you steal an expensive watch. You will return that article this very moment, or I shall be forced to go to the authorities and have you arrested. I can see to it that they have ample reason to arrest you for theft or worse. . .if you take my meaning."

"No, Mama Leah!" Sarah protested as Leah once again tried to snatch the gold watch from Andrew's hand. "That's my Andy's birthday gift -- Papa said we could give it to him. . ."

But Leah continued to ignore the frantic little girl and made one final lunge to grab the watch from Andrew. As she started to struggle with the angel for possession of the watch, Leah's arm caught Sarah in the head with full force, knocking her off balance. The little girl tottered on the narrow porch step, then seemed to regain her balance for a fraction of a second.

Or at least until the heel of her slipper became entangled in the hem of her long white dress. Thrown off balance again, Sarah tottered on the narrow board. . .and before Andrew could lunge even that short distance to grab her, she fell backward from the high step. With a shrill cry of terror, she landed against the path, striking her head heavily against the rough stones.

In the years that were to follow, Andrew would see that moment again and again, as if it had been burned indelibly into his eyes and heart. He could smell the air that was so heavy with the scent of roses: he could see the rich June sunlight sparkling off a little gold locket at the throat of a crumpled white silk dress. . .a dress that now bore a little red splotch across its heart.

"Sarah!" Andrew cried out in agony as he ran down the steps.

Above him, he heard Leah scream, and then there was a thud against the wooden boards as she crumpled in a faint, but the angel was oblivious to her theatrics. His sole focus was upon Sarah, and he fell to his knees beside her, his face almost as ashen as hers.

For a moment, he knelt beside the little girl, and he prayed frantically, almost without being aware of what he was doing. A little smear of blood showed at the corner of Sarah's mouth -- a dark stain made even darker by the shadow that now fell across her face.

Andrew looked up, dreading what he knew he would see. There were many angels who ministered the gift of eternity, and no one angel could be expected to know all his co-workers -- to say nothing of those in other departments. But even without recognizing this particular spirit, Andrew knew who she was and why she was there.

"No. . .oh please, no," Andrew begged. "Please. . .she's just a baby."

The sheltered porch had been well-shaded from the bright afternoon sun, and Andrew's eyes hadn't had time to adjust -- to say nothing of the fact that he was almost too blinded by his tears to see. All he could really see was the angel of death's brilliant white dress with its soft iridescence, as if the finest opals had somehow been spun into fabric.

Now Andrew squinted a little, trying to see the face of his fellow angel through sun-dimmed eyes, but adding to that dazzle was the soft golden glow that surrounded her. The light was far brighter than the sun behind her, and Andrew knew that the glow was the love that the angel of death radiated from the Father, as a polished mirror might reflect a ray of sunlight.

And even though he couldn't see the other angel's features clearly, he could feel the warmth of her smile as she looked down at Sarah. Andrew, too, looked down at the little girl just as she groaned softly and struggled to open her eyes.

"Andrew, the Father is calling Sarah home now," the black-haired angel said softly. "But God knows that you have a special love for this child, and He wants you to rejoice in the knowledge that she will be safe with Him forever. . .safe from angry fists and from angry voices that leave deeper scars than hands ever could. But there's something He wants you to do to help make Sarah's passing easier."

At that moment, Sarah's eyes opened, and she looked up beseechingly at her angel friend, as if he could somehow take away the pain. The words he had heard earlier from the Father now came back to him, and Andrew finally understood exactly what kind of help it was that he had been sent here to give.

Somehow in his frantic lunge down the porch steps, Andrew had still managed to keep a tight grip on his pocket watch, and now tears poured down his face once more as he held the time piece close to Sarah's ear. He pushed the little button and the melody tinkled sweetly for a moment in the warm, soft afternoon air.

"It's all right, Sarah," Andrew said softly, putting all the love he possessed into his voice as he smoothed her hair. "It's all right -- shhh, just close your eyes now and rest. My Papa is waiting for you, and there'll be a wonderful party for you, too. And I'll see you again very soon. Shhh, that's my girl."

"I. . .love. . .my. . .Andy. . ." Sarah's lips formed the words softly, and she managed one last tiny smile for his sake.

"And I love my Sarah," he smiled through his tears. "I'll see you again soon."

The angel of death looked down gently at her co-worker and then nodded. "Sarah, Andrew. . .it's time," she said as she turned away and gestured at something in the distance.

And with that, a golden portal seemed to open in the distance, summoning human and angel alike with its promise of eternal peace and joy. Andrew closed his eyes in that place, that time. . .

. . .and opened them again in a far different world. His eyes were wet with the tears of almost a century and a half earlier, but he summoned up a small, reassuring smile for the woman who was now his assigned charge.

Just like I did for Sarah, when I was an "apprentice" angel of death, he thought, and that smile took on a wistfulness that was not lost on Beth.

Her eyes were wet, too, as she squeezed his hand gently. "And did you ever tell Leah 'exactly what you are'?" she asked, somehow finding the strength to form the words despite her growing weakness and shortness of breath. "Did my great-great grandmother ever repent of the evil she'd done?"

"Yes to both of your questions. I confronted Leah right after Sarah's funeral, as a matter of fact," he nodded. "But I can't take much credit for the changes in Leah. Abigail Compton was the one who was responsible for that."

He chuckled a little at that memory. "Aunt Abigail had seen everything from her upstairs window. She cornered Leah on the morning of Sarah's funeral and put the fear of God in her. . .literally. I've always thought that after Abigail's tongue-lashing, anything that an angel had to say to her must have almost seemed irrelevant. I won't claim that Leah was the warmest, most loving person I ever took home to be with the Father, but she really did change in the last thirty years of her life. She and Jonah went on to have children of their own, three sons and two daughters, and she was a good mother to them. And I don't think I have to tell you who their oldest son was."

"John Andrew Ragland. . .my great-grandfather," Beth nodded quietly, then gestured weakly towards the nightstand drawer. "There is a small leather box in that drawer, Andrew. I want you to get it for me."

Andrew nodded and stood up. He picked up his watch and tucked it back into his pocket, then reached into the drawer and pulled out a small box whose leather was cracked and peeling with age. The gold lettering was almost worn away but he could still make out a few of the words: ". . .Ragland, Maker of. . ."

"Open it," Beth said with something of her old imperiousness -- and for a second, Andrew heard the echo of another voice across the years. "There's something in there that I want you to have. . .something I think that you'll recognize right away."

Obediently, he opened the box and looked at the bits of antique jewelry that it contained: a few old-fashioned rings, their shanks worn thin from age, a pair of dangling rhinestone earrings from the '20's. . .and near the bottom, a small gold locket on a thin chain.

With wonder shining in his eyes, the angel lifted the fragile locket out of the box and looked at it. Its soft gold was battered and scratched after such a long time, but he could still see the tiny letter "S" engraved on its surface. . .and for an second, he heard the delighted laughter of a child once more.

"Thank you," he whispered softly, almost unable to speak for the tightness in his throat.

He looked down at Beth, trying to say something else, but he couldn't force the rest of the words out. Instead, he simply held the locket tightly for a moment, then tucked the bit of jewelry in his pocket along with his only other earthly treasure. . .the watch that had also been a sacrificial gift of love.

"You're welcome," Beth nodded, smiling fiercely at him. But then her eyes grew wistful as something else occurred to her. "But you never did answer my question. I asked you if God answered your prayer and kept Sarah safe. But since she died, I suppose that's my answer, isn't it?"

Andrew sat down beside the bed again and took Beth's hand in his. He looked deeply into her eyes, knowing that she hadn't really been asking about Sarah at all: now he paused for a few seconds, waiting for God's permission to go ahead. That permission was swift in coming, and Andrew nodded his gratitude before he spoke.

"But don't you see? God did protect Sarah -- just the way that He protected Ruth Ann," the angel's voice was gentle, and his eyes were full of love and mercy. "Not safe here on earth. . . safe forever in Heaven with Him. You and I both know there's really no such thing as real peace and safety here on earth. Even if no one ever willfully disobeyed the Father, this is a fallen world. People still make mistakes -- and angels, too."

Beth sighed sharply, and he paused for a moment. With the compassionate relentlessness of all his kind, the angel of death continued, "They may be innocent mistakes, but they can still have tragic consequences -- just like the one that happened to you a few years ago. But God still had a plan for your life when you were brought here, just like He was in charge when Sarah and Ruth Ann were taken home."

There was no real comprehension in Beth's face, and Andrew shook his head gently. "Don't you see, Beth?" he asked. "No matter what you and I did or didn't do, it wouldn't have changed God's will for the ones we loved. When they went home to be with Him, it was all a part of His plan for their lives, done in His perfect will and with His perfect timing. We may have made mistakes, but we didn't cause what happened to Sarah or Ruth Ann. That's what you've helped me understand, Beth, just by listening to me. I've known it all along in my mind. . .but now my heart knows it, too."

"And I did love Ruth Ann, you know," she said in a conversational tone, even as tears streamed down her face. "I didn't have children of my own, of course -- let alone a child with a disability. I wasn't always the most patient person on earth, and I may not have always understood Ruth Ann. . .but I loved her very much. I would never have hurt her, Andrew."

For a moment, Beth was too agitated to speak, and she gasped for air. But Andrew held her hand tightly, and in a moment or two, she recovered enough to continue with her thoughts.

"Yes, she did break a very old porcelain dog figurine, one that had been in my family for several generations. But then again, it had already been broken before at that same spot and repaired, so there was no harm done," she said quietly. "Andrew, I never touched Ruth Ann except to take the figurine away from her before she cut herself on the broken piece. She was crying because she loved the dog so and didn't mean to break it. That's when I took her hand, intending to show her something that I kept in my bedroom -- a wonderful old-fashioned pull toy. A little painted wooden horse on a wheeled base. I wanted to give it to her anyway, and that seemed as good a time as any."

Andrew nodded, once again remembering Sarah's sobs over her broken gifts. . .and this time, it was Beth's turn to smile and squeeze his hand comfortingly. When she saw some of the sorrow lessen in his face, she tried to finish her recollections, just as another wave of pain passed through her.

That spasm left her too weak to say another word, however, and she appealed to Andrew with her eyes. He nodded again, then listened for a moment to something only he could hear.

"She got so excited because you were going to give her a present, and even that little bit of added stress was enough to make her heart give out," he finished quietly for her, relaying the information that he had just been given. "She may have hit her head against the edge of the table when she fell, but Beth. . .Ruth Ann didn't feel any pain. One of my fellow angels had already taken her spirit home to be with God -- just as I've been given the privilege of leading you home, here in just a few more minutes. Ruth Ann is waiting for you, and the two of you will be safe at Home with the Father. . .safe in His arms forever."

His words had been meant as encouragement and hope, but when Beth heard them, she managed to summon up some last tiny reserve of energy. She sat straight up in bed, and the expression in her eyes was heartbreaking.

"Don't you see?" she gasped desperately. "How can I die in peace, knowing that my brother and the rest of my family still think that I killed Ruth Ann? Oh, I don't mind so much for my sake and the sake of my reputation. . .that doctor of Danny's made sure that I didn't have much of a reputation left."

She smiled bitterly for a moment, then regained a little composure. "But Andrew, I can't bear the thought of my brother living with the pain of thinking that his sister killed his child," she shook her head sadly. "How can I rest, knowing that there's no rest for the ones I left behind? If only I could make Danny remember the truth. . .and not some web of half-truths and lies fabricated with the help of a psychiatrist with a great deal to gain by them. The truth, Andrew -- that's what I want them all to know. God's own truth."

At that moment, another wave of pain wrenched Beth, this more violent than the first, and she clutched her chest, panting a little until the paroxysm eased. But Andrew instinctively knew that the physical pain she was experiencing was nothing compared to the suffering in her heart and soul at the moment.

Cleo. . .where are you? he thought with a fresh sense of urgency as he gently supported Beth for a moment, then slowly lowered her back down against the pillows.

Father, please. . .?

Once again, his prayers took on the intensity that came with urgency. Without warning, the watch in his pocket gave a single, insistent chime that was so unlike its usual delicate sound, and he felt an odd little sense of dislocation as the special dispensation was withdrawn.

It was the feeling that all angels experienced when they stepped out of eternity into time. . .which was exactly what had just happened to the room and its occupants. Now he could hear the sounds of footsteps and voices out in the corridor, and in a moment, the door opened again. And he could have almost hugged Cleo in sheer relief as she walked into the room, followed by a young man.

As a matter of routine procedure, the angel of death was invisible to anyone except the person who was dying, and Danny Ragland saw nothing except an "empty" chair as he walked towards his aunt's bedside. But as Andrew stood up, the angel caught his first full glimpse of the dark-haired man's face.

Danny was smooth-shaven and wore the neat, short sideburns of the modern-day man's haircut. . .and except for those two small details, his face was almost identical to that of his ancestor and Andrew's friend, Jonah Ragland. The angel of death shook his head a little, as if trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind -- a look that was not lost on his supervisor.

Cleo grinned at him, then took his arm and led him to a spot over by the window. From that angle, he had a perfect view of the room and its occupants, and he smiled a little to himself as he continued to look at Danny's familiar face for a moment or two.

But then he looked up and saw that his supervisor was once more watching him intently. Andrew felt his heart pounding as the dark-haired archangel looked at him for what seemed like hours. . .and that was probably something closer to three seconds.

"Good work, kiddo," she whispered to Andrew. "I have it on the Highest Authority that you did a great job just now!"

Well, maybe there's hope for my review after all, Andrew thought to himself with a rueful smile as he abruptly remembered why he had been given this assignment in the first place.

The two angels watched as Danny stood beside his aunt's bed, and a number of emotions fought together in the young man's face for a moment -- anger, sorrow, but mostly regret. Beth's eyes were closed now, and each breath grew shallower than the one before it. With a deep sigh, he started to stand up, obviously believing that he had arrived too late.

But if the angel of death was invisible to Danny, the archangel of same clearly was not. Cleo "hmmphed!" under her breath and pointed sternly at the chair: sheepishly, Danny sat back down. . .and at that moment, Beth's eyes fluttered open.

She looked up at Danny and tried to speak, but she was now too weak to shape the words. Once again, Andrew prayed fervently, and he saw that Cleo was doing the same thing

We can do nothing of ourselves, Father, but You can do all things. Have mercy on Beth Ragland and grant her peace -- grant us all peace, he whispered urgently. . .

. . .just as his watch gave another of those strange, insistent chimes. One special dispensation per assignment wasn't particularly usual -- but two such exceptions to the laws of time and nature were almost unheard of.

Nevertheless, a silence once more came over the room and its occupants, as time itself ceased to flow around them. And now that she was almost a citizen of an eternal Country, Beth felt that sense of dislocation and understood its meaning -- even if a bewildered Danny did not.

A little color now came back into her face, and she looked up at her nephew with complete awareness in her eyes. Danny looked over at Cleo in awe, but the archangel merely nodded for him to go ahead with what he had come to say.

"Aunt Beth," Danny said, as he reached out and took her hand, "there's something you and I have to talk about. Something that I just remembered a little while ago with some help from a friend. . ."

Fifteen minutes later, a tall blond angel walked down the corridor of a shabby little nursing home with his arm around the shoulder of the spirit entrusted to him. Both the angel and the woman were laughing as they walked towards a shimmering golden "door" at the end of that hall -- and both of them wore identical expressions of peace at last. At long last.

Behind them, an archangel stood inside a room at the end of the hallway and watched as Danny prayed silently. After a few moments, the young man nodded as if something had been settled deep in his heart: then he reached over and pushed the call button at the head of his aunt's bed.

He looked up and smiled at Cleo, who gently winked at him. . .and with that, the angel simply seemed to disappear like a light that had been turned off at the switch. But for several seconds afterward, Danny still could hear an assortment of metallic clinks, clanks, thuds, and thunks as several pounds of costume jewelry shifted positions -- like girders after an earthquake.

Part of that sound was the jingling of various bangle bracelets as Cleo once more materialized at the bus stop in front of the nursing home. Now she rummaged in her big blue tote bag, trying to locate the forms that she needed to fill out before she met with Andrew in a few hours to discuss his review.

She shoved aside a partially-eaten corn dog, a jeweled Faberge egg, a spark plug for a John Deere tractor, a sheet of papyrus sealed with the cartouche of Ramses the Great, and a Woolworth necklace whose peeling "pearls" were the size of robin eggs. Finally she retrieved the forms, then sat down on the bench at the bus stop and began filling out the mustard-splotched paperwork with the only thing she could find -- a purple marking pen.

Hoo boy, Andrew, she addressed the absent Andrew with a head shake and a smile that could only be described as Machiavellian. . .

. . . the Father is disappointed. And lemme tell ya what, kiddo -- you are certainly gonna be one surprised angel boy here in just a little while!

Epilogue

A party of some kind was taking place in an elegant restaurant, not far from the bus stop where Andrew had been waiting earlier in the day. At that time, the building had borne an uncommon resemblance to an abandoned warehouse -- broken windows, trash-covered floors, and all. But it also went without saying that when Tess turned her entire focus on a project, she wasn't about to let a mere detail like consensual reality stand in her way. Hence, "D'Angelo's Restaurant."

And "D'Angelo's" would certainly have been a valuable addition to a much larger city's register of fine restaurants, Andrew thought to himself. A very small addition, admittedly, since it had exactly three tables at the moment -- but a valuable one, nevertheless. Few in number though they might have been, the tables and chairs themselves were magnificently crafted in solid mahogany, ornamented with exquisite marquetry, and fit for a king or queen.

And unless Andrew's memory was playing him false, that's exactly what they'd been. He was practically positive that he'd seen the identical furnishings at Queen Victoria 's beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland, when he'd been invited to go stag hunting that time with his friend, Prince Albert. . .

. . .shaking that thought aside, he turned his attention to the soup course that Monica now placed with such pride in front of him. He nodded his approval of the sopa estilo de zamboanga -- only the coffee-loving Monica could have figured out a way to work her favorite beverage into every course of the meal. And he was too busy chuckling at that thought to even notice that the delicate porcelain soup bowl bore the elegant "WSL" monogram of a certain luxury ocean liner he'd once taken a cruise on, many Aprils ago.

Behind him, he could hear Tess conferring in heated tones with her culinary associate. It would seem that she and Sam were having a lively debate on the exact amount of dillweed that went into an authentic agurkai su rukcscia grietne, given the amount of cucumbers and sour cream that were being used in the salad.

Hoo boy, here it comes -- indigestion of international proportions. 'And what will you have for dessert, sir?' Andrew sighed heavily as he sipped a spoonful of the soup with its hint of coffee and oatmeal. 'Oh, I think I'll have the karidopita garnished with Tums and to finish, a demitasse of Pepto-Bismol, please.'

As if this day hasn't already been enough to give a garbage truck a stomach ache! And speaking of this day. . .Cleo, where are you?

He looked over at the restaurant's main entrance for perhaps the tenth time in as many minutes, then started to reach into his pocket to take out his watch. But at that moment, he felt a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up into Tess' bemused eyes.

"Relax, Angel Boy, before you get a kink in your neck looking over at that door. That, or else wear a hole in your pocket taking out your watch to check the time," she said in those joking tones that meant she was completely serious. "Cleo is many things, but she's seldom if ever late -- comes with the territory, you might say. But tell me. . .now that you've met the head of your department, what do you think of her?"

"She's very wise and very funny -- and very loving, too. Reminds me of my friend Sarah, in a way," he said with a quiet smile. "And speaking of Cleo, there she is now. At least I. . .think that's Cleo, anyway. Isn't it?"

"Well, who else would it be. . .?" Tess turned around and looked towards the front door, just as a small black-haired woman entered the restaurant.

And for the first time in several centuries, Tess was rendered completely speechless. Not for long, admittedly -- but for Tess, even a silence of several seconds was a remarkable phenomenon.

"Cleo? Is that you, Baby?" she managed to gasp.

"Well, who else would it be, kiddo?" the archangel winked at Tess and Andrew, and that foghorn-sized voice was proof positive of her identity. . .

. . .even if it was the only such proof left at the moment. Gone were the bright purple caftan, the clunking costume jewelry, and the dozens of beaded cornrow braids. Instead, she wore a flowing dress made of a fabric that no earthly manufacturer could have ever duplicated -- a material that seemed to be composed of melted opals and iridescent soap bubbles.

The archangel's long hair was caught up in a chignon and held in place by jewel-studded gold combs that Tess recognized as the work of some ancient Etruscan goldsmith. And a master of his craft, too, from the looks of the granulation and the wonderful fantasy beasts that adorned his work, Tess thought to herself.

And instead of the blue canvas tote bag, Cleo carried an evening purse that glittered under the soft light with an intricate Art Deco pattern of calibre-cut sapphires and rose diamonds. However, some things remained eternal: as Cleo walked past Andrew, she gave the astonished angel a wink and yet another of those bone-crunching nudges with her elbow.

"Hey, kiddo, I hear that the cuisine here at D'Angelo's is exquisite, simply exquisite," she grinned as she plopped down on the chair opposite Andrew. "And besides that, the food ain't bad, either."

Andrew groaned at her humor and started to reply with a joke of his own. . .then stopped abruptly. There was something hauntingly familiar about the archangel as she was now dressed -- something that had danced just outside his awareness all day long.

She saw that look and instinctively knew its source. "You still don't remember me, do you, Andrew?" she asked with a rueful head shake. "You weren't in my department when we first met, and you were pretty shaken up, so I guess it's not surprising that you don't remember seeing me before today. And I look a lot different now than I did then. . .but we have met before, my friend."

Andrew frowned once again, as that memory continued to flit tantalizingly just out of his grasp. But when the archangel smiled gently at him once again, the last piece of the puzzle fell neatly into place for him. Now, with a little help from the Father to sharpen his memory, he could clearly see the face of the angel that bright June day. The seventh of June. . .

"Sarah's angel!" he cried in recognition. "You were the angel who took Sarah home that day. . .I remember now! The sun was in my eyes and I was pretty upset by what had just happened, so I never really did get a good look at your face."

He paused for a moment, then reached out and put his hand on Cleo's arm. "You were so gentle with her -- I can still see the way you held her and kissed her while you were walking towards the light," he said softly, and the archangel instinctively recognized the gratitude that lay behind Andrew's simple words. "Then you sang to her until she laughed and wasn't afraid any more to go with you. That's when I remember asking the Father for the kind of love and compassion that angels of death always seem to have."

She bowed her head, and the reflected glow that was God's love and mercy around her was almost too brilliant to bear. And when she spoke, the archangel's words were as sweet and rich as the golden light surrounding her.

"He knew the desire of your heart was to serve Him through loving and caring for His children, Andrew. And He answered your prayer, my friend -- answered it above and beyond anything you could have dreamed or imagined. He has poured love and mercy into your heart until it overflows upon everyone that you meet. The Father is well-pleased with His angel. . ." she said in a voice that was an echo of a much greater Voice, as the glory grew even greater still.

Now that glow was directed towards Andrew, and the love of God enveloped him in a great tidal wave. Time, place, memory, thought, emotion -- all were swallowed up by that infinite love and approbation, until it seemed that Andrew himself no longer existed except as a song of praise to the Source of that love.

Just when it seemed that he could bear no more, the glory was gently and slowly lifted from him. It took several long moments for him to understand where he was, however: he was cognizant of nothing except the rich reward that he had just been given. He was vaguely aware that Tess and Sam now stood behind him and that Monica had lovingly placed her hand on his shoulder, but he was still too dazzled to respond to his friends.

At least until Cleo looked at him and shook her head 'reproachfully' at him. Still overwhelmed by what he had just experienced, Andrew was too shaken to understand the sudden change in his supervisor's expression. . .even though Tess and Sam could see the laughter sparkling just below the surface of Cleo's 'stern' gaze.

"The Father has asked me to convey something to you, however, Andrew," the archangel told her co-worker firmly, and once more, Andrew felt himself on the edge of babbling panic. "There is still one small area in which He is disappointed. . ."

A half-dozen disjointed thoughts and memories flashed through Andrew's mind. . .among them, that small untruth he had told Cleo at the beginning of his review and his initial reluctance to care for Beth. Every nuance of his behavior, every subtle shade of his attitude now rushed back to him -- as well as the inflections of his voice and even the facial expressions that he knew he had must have worn.

Andrew loved God with a tenderness that was extraordinary, even among angels. And just the thought of somehow disappointing the Father he loved so much was enough to make tears well up in the angel's large green eyes.

"Oh no. . .Father, please forgive me," he started to fall to the floor to prostrate himself before God -- long before he knew or had even thought to ask what he'd done.

He was oblivious to anything else, even the lovingly amused look that Cleo exchanged with her fellow angels above his head. The archangel caught his arm just before he could go down onto his knees, and this time, he saw the laughter in her eyes.

"The Father is disappointed that you still don't always confide the desires of your heart to Him, even after all these centuries," she continued with that gentle 'sternness' in her voice. "If you wanted to spend some time with your friend Sarah without 'half the host of heaven' hanging around. . .all you had to do was ask. You and Sarah are both very special and very precious to the Father, my friend. You delight in Him, and in His turn, He delights to give you the desires of your heart. But He does like to be asked, all the same. . .answering prayer is a great joy to Him, as you well know."

Andrew recognized the words he had prayed earlier that afternoon, just as he knew that the archangel's words were once again the echoes of a greater Voice. But he was still a little dazed by what had happened a few moments ago, and he looked questioningly over at Cleo and the other angels.

His fellow angels had already understood the archangel's meaning, and now they all chuckled at his bewildered expression. Cleo shook her head with a grin: she recognized it as the same look that Andrew had worn earlier that afternoon when his mind had temporarily abdicated to his mouth.

"Translation -- a whole week off to do whatever you want to, kiddo," she grinned at the thoroughly confused 'Angel Boy.' "You can spend your vacation with Sarah, just talking and enjoying each other's company the way that you did while she was still on earth. Although if you didn't mind sharing a little of that time, there's a lady named Beth and another named Ruth Ann who would certainly love to get to know you and your friend Sarah a little better."

He gave Cleo a smile that was nothing short of radiant, then happily turned to say something to Tess. But she and Sam had once again disappeared into the kitchen, and when they returned, Tess was carrying a large silver platter.

"Well, Angel Boy, to celebrate such a glowing review, Sam and I have created a dish especially in honor of the occasion," she winked at the guest of honor as she sat the platter down in front of him. "We call it Poulet á la Tess."

". . . á la Sam. . .Poulet á la Sam, remember?" her fellow cook raised an eyebrow. "After all, adding the pistachios and apricots to the wild rice stuffing was my idea, if you'll recall!"

"And just exactly whose idea do you think that wild rice stuffing was in the first place, Sam?" Tess asked indignantly. "That absolute marvel of Epicurean delight is Poulet á la Tess, I'll have you know!"

"But it was my idea to add the decafe mocha latte to the marinade, so it should be called Poulet á la Monica," Monica said innocently, then saw the cool stares that she received from her two supervisors. "All right, so I didn't really add it, not technically anyway. But any famous chef could tell you that's how most great dishes are created -- by accident. So surely spilling my cup of coffee in the marinade should count for something, shouldn't it. . .?"

"Enough all ready, you three!" Cleo's voice once again left Andrew feeling slightly dazed, as if a firecracker had exploded several inches from his left ear. "I'm the senior angel here, and I'll decide what it's going to be named. And since Andrew is the one who's had the rough day and since he is the guest of honor here tonight, I'm officially declaring that it's Poulet á la Andrew!"

Cleo made a sweeping gesture, first towards Andrew and then at the covered dish sitting on the table. For his part, Andrew returned the gesture with a courtly bow, then removed the heavy silver dome with an elegant flourish. . .

. . .as a white dove soared up from the otherwise empty platter. And for several long seconds it hovered high above the table, cooing softly -- as though borne upward by the laughter of angels.