More Joy In Heaven

Prologue

A red convertible glided noiselessly down a narrow residential street, swerving now and then to avoid an overturned garbage can or an empty beer bottle that had been thrown there from a passing car. The neighborhood had once been part of a fashionable Chicago suburb, and even now, there were still touches of elegance left to the faded buildings. Here and there, an ornamental lead glass window was still somehow miraculously intact above a triple-locked door, or a bit of ornately carved wooden trim still stood above a porch that was missing half its steps.

But most of the old houses had long ago been hacked into apartment buildings by the kind of landlord who seldom saw his property except on rent day. Now almost all of the buildings sported at least one or two boarded-up windows like eye patches, and what had once been lush green lawns were choked with broken toys and discarded furniture.

Only one house in the center of the block had been given a fresh coat of paint, and its cracked sidewalk showed signs of a recent encounter with a broom. Glass wind chimes tinkled softly in the cold morning air, while several pots of bright red silk chrysanthemums sat on either side of the front door.

A row of mailboxes was nailed beside the door, each one carefully hand-labeled with the owner's name. And even if some of the letters were crooked or a little smeared, the tags had obviously been written with love and pride by the owners of those boxes.

Tess parked in front of the house, and as she did, a white dove flew past the car. It landed on the porch rail and perched there for a few seconds, cooing softly. And then, as though it had delivered a message in some secret heavenly code, the dove flew away, swiftly vanishing into the sweep of sky above.

Monica gestured up at all the mailboxes. "An apartment building, is it?" she asked in a voice that was warm with an Irish accent. "My assignment is one of the tenants?"

"Not exactly, Monica," Tess shook her head, and she gestured up at the house. At that moment, a glum-faced mail carrier trudged up the stairs and slowly began to sort letters into the boxes. "Part One of your assignment ought to be opening up that front door right about. . .now."

As if on cue, the steel security door swung open, and a tall, silver-haired woman stepped outside. She smiled at the mail man and exchanged pleasantries with him for a moment as he continued to sort the envelopes into the correct boxes.

And when the man turned around, Monica was surprised to see that his morose expression had been replaced by a smile. Even his step was jauntier than it had been a moment before, and he whistled cheerfully as he went down the street.

The woman glanced up at the gray winter sky with a knowing smile, then looked out over the neighborhood: there was nothing but pity and compassion in her face as her lips moved quietly in prayer. She turned to go back inside the house, but then stopped suddenly and tilted her head -- as if she had caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye and wasn't exactly sure what she had seen.

She shook her head, as though her senses were playing tricks on her, but she continued to look down for a moment at the spot where the two angels now sat. And even though the convertible and its occupants were hidden from sight, Monica had the strange feeling that the woman could sense the presence of the two angels. . .even if she couldn't see them.

The woman started to turn around, but she smiled at the 'empty' spot by the curb before she did. And suddenly Monica felt a warmth and dazzle, as if a ray of sunlight had somehow managed to pierce through the clouds and now fell directly on the spot where she sat.

"She has that effect on people, but you'll find that out for yourself soon enough," Tess chuckled, nodding up at the woman on the porch.

Tess' skin was a warm mahogany color, and the other woman's complexion had a delicate peaches and cream tint. But other than that, the two of them bore more than a passing resemblance, Monica realized suddenly.

They have the same build, the same facial structure, the same expression, she thought with a smile. Not to mention the same 'commanding presence' about them!

But there was something else familiar about the woman, something that danced just outside of Monica's ability to focus on it. "Tess, I . . .think I know her," a small frown furrowed Monica's forehead. "But I can't remember where or how."

"Of course you do, Angel Girl, and when the time is right, you'll be given all the information you need. But not until then, so don't even bother trying," Tess said calmly. "For right now, let's just say that Ms. Jane Smith there is the first part of your assignment. She runs this group home. And Part Two of the assignment ought to be arriving here almost any minute now. . ."

And as though once more responding to Tess' prompt, a silver Mercedes turned the corner and glided towards the house, coming to a stop only a few inches from the bumper of the convertible. A tall, brown-haired man in a sleek gray suit and expensive overcoat stepped out of the Mercedes and waited for a moment.

Three younger men seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and the man reached into the side pocket of his coat. He casually tossed them a handful of small bills and coins at them, then watched as the three scrabbled for the money at their feet.

"You make sure that those hubcaps stay where they're supposed to be, and I may just be able to come up with some tickets to the Bears game next week," he nodded with a conspiratorial wink at them.

"You bet, Mr. Rich Man -- sure thing," one of the three nodded, triumphantly flourishing his handful of the loot.

"That's Richmond, Mr. Richmond," he corrected them with a knowing wink up at the woman who still stood on the porch. "Isn't that right, my angel of the morning? Jane, you are certainly the finest sight these tired eyes have seen in days! Is that horde of yours gone and the coffee pot plugged in yet?"

"Who is that man?" Monica asked, and the two angels watched as the man carefully navigated the uneven walkway leading up to the house. "And what's someone like that doing in a neighborhood like this?"

"J.D. Richmond, an attorney who's living way above his means. A man with an agenda. . .and one whose time on this earth is a whole lot shorter than he'd like to think it is," Tess shook her head darkly. Richmond followed the woman into the house, and Monica could hear his smooth patter for another moment or two, even with the door closed.

"One of his clients is a huge real estate development company that wants to buy up all the properties around here. They plan to bulldoze these old houses and build a bunch of those ugly condominiums," Tess continued. "Jane's been one of the few friends that Richmond hasn't managed to alienate. She met him almost twenty years ago, back when he was fresh out of law school and still had some ideals left. He worked for Legal Aid at first, and he represented her in a competency hearing, if you can believe that."

"That's hard to believe," Monica shook her head, looking at the house and the efforts that had been made to maintain and decorate it. "She certainly looks competent right now."

"Oh, she is, Baby, believe you me, she is," Tess chuckled, then grew serious again. "Jane is also one of the few hold-outs in the neighborhood, and the company that keeps John Richmond on retainer knows about their friendship. It isn't ethical, but they've ordered him to exploit that friendship with her or else he's going to lose the account that's paying for his expensive car and nice condo. If you can call any of those places 'nice.'"

Tess' face made her feelings on all the topics of discussion very plain, even before she continued," So J.D. just 'happens' to drop by every so often, on the pretext of wanting to talk to Jane about a couple of her favorite subjects. He says she's one of the few people he's ever met who makes any sense. He's more right about that than even he knows, but he's listening to her for all the wrong reasons. And Jane is too tenderhearted to tell him that she knows what he's really after."

Monica shifted restlessly, only half focused on what Tess might have to say next. Not only was she cold, but even the mention of the word coffee had made Monica's mouth water in a most un-angelic fashion.

"What does she like to talk about? And is her name really Jane Smith?" Monica asked absently, and she shivered a little as a cold wind suddenly lifted bits of newspapers and tossed them across the hood of the car. She caught a glimpse of part of one headline: 'Ten Transients Killed' before the paper blew away. "I mean, I really don't know anything about my assignment, other than it has two parts."

Tess saw the distant look in her co-worker's eyes and rightly guessed the reason behind it. Monica's fondness for coffee in any form or flavor was well known in angelic circles, especially to her long-suffering supervisor.

"You just keep your mind focused on God, Miss Wings, and He'll tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it," Tess said firmly, then closed her eyes as though listening to something only she could hear.

She opened her eyes and added in a gentler tone, "Jane Smith is the name that the court gave her, after the police found her wandering the streets almost twenty years ago. She can't remember a thing about her past, and no one ever came forward to claim her. And like J.D., Jane has an agenda. Except that hers has to do with loving God by serving His special children, the ones that need a little extra help to get by in this world. Those are the two things she loves to talk about: God and the people that she helps at this group home."

"I'll remember that, Tess," Monica nodded somberly as she climbed out of the convertible, and all thoughts of coffee vanished from her mind. She looked over at Tess, but the other angel made no move to get out of the car. "I thought you said we were working together on this assignment, since it has two parts and all."

"I said we were working together on this assignment, but I didn't say anything about how many pieces it had," Tess shook her head with a knowing grin. "As a matter of fact, I'm on my way to get the third part of it right now. You just go on up there and introduce yourself. I'll be back in a little while, and when I do, I'll have the key that's going to unlock the puzzle box of Jane's past. Not to mention one that might just help open a certain gate in Heaven -- a gate that's shut up tight against Mr. J. D. Richmond right about now."

Monica shrugged and started to walk towards the sagging wrought iron gate in front of the house. Something else occurred to her, and she turned around to ask Tess a question. But the red convertible and its driver were gone as though they had vanished instantly, leaving only a dull gray sky, a bitter wind, and a dirty little side street behind them.

Shivering with a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature, Monica trudged on through the gate. Tess usually spoke of God's love and the welcome He prepared for His returning children -- not of those who had chosen to turn away from that same Father's lovingly outstretched arms.

For Tess to say that Heaven's gates were closed against someone was enough to make even the toughest warrior angel shudder. . .and Monica was anything but a battle hardened veteran. Taking a deep breath, she stepped onto the porch, but it was a moment or two before she could summon up her courage and actually ring the doorbell.

It was going to take a lot more than just coffee to get rid of that icy feeling. . . Monica was certain of that now.

Chapter One

"Come in, Monica, and welcome," Jane smiled a few moments later, as she ushered Monica inside the house. Jane took Monica's coat, then hung it on an old-fashioned coat tree in the foyer. "This mess is a place, just in case you were wondering, but you'll get used to it -- that or else have a screaming nervous breakdown. But you'll have to wait your turn. . .I signed up first this week, and no one's going to deprive me of it!"

Jane's eyes were a warm green, and there were crinkle lines at their corners as though she laughed often, just as she was doing right now. A thin white scar ran the length of her face, from the bottom of her chin until it disappeared into her hairline. Something about that scar made Monica shiver once again, and not even she could say exactly why.

Jane saw Monica's reaction, and she smacked herself in the forehead with an open palm. "Way to go, Jane," she rolled her eyes with comic exaggeration. "Let's just stand here in the foyer and let poor Monica freeze to death. Ah well, I'm fresh out of St. Bernards with casks of brandy around their necks, but I think we can manage some hot coffee, at least."

Jane gestured towards the heart of the house, and Monica gratefully allowed herself to be led into a high-ceiling living room. Like everything else in the building, the room was structurally sound enough to pass the mandatory state inspections. But it had definitely seen better days. . .much better days, she thought.

The ceiling was water stained in several spots, and the floorboards creaked a little as she walked over them. The flocked wall paper had peeled away in a few places, showing the cracking white plaster surface below, and from somewhere in the basement, an ancient furnace wheezed out just enough warm air to keep the temperature bearable.

But someone had gone to great lengths to make the room as warm and inviting as possible. The furniture was old, but it was still solid and had recently been polished with lemon oil, Monica's nose told her. Bright crocheted afghans covered a sofa's worn nap or a hole in a chair's fabric, and tatted doilies hid burn or scratch marks on the wooden tables.

Much-loved stuffed animals spilled out of a wooden crate at the far end of the room, while luxuriant potted plants filled every nook and alcove in the room that hadn't already been taken up by books and magazines. And as a crowning touch, a fire danced in the grate, sending its heat out into the room.

"Come on in, have a seat," Jane pointed at an overstuffed chair whose ample proportions and soft velour cushions seemed to have a magnetic effect on Monica. "How about a cup of coffee to warm you up? Hey, J.D., pour another cup of coffee while you're out there, will you, please? Besides which, you'll need the caffeine to stay awake while I explain our routines to you."

"I'd love some coffee, thanks," she smiled at Jane. "But I didn't mean to interrupt you if you have company. I know you weren't expecting me until later this afternoon, and if it's not a good time, I can always come back later."

"Don't worry about it, Monica. J.D. just had to drop off some insurance papers that I asked him to take a look at for me. You know how confusing some of these 'the party of the first part' legalese things can be," Jane shook her head. She thumbed back towards the kitchen and the sounds of crashing and clanking as someone rummaged through cupboards. "Not everybody is lucky enough to have an attorney who takes his payments in coffee. . .much less an attorney who serves himself!"

"Oh, I see," Monica nodded thoughtfully. "I suppose there's quite a difference between a lawyer who serves himself and one that's just self-serving."

Jane giggled at the 'joke,' and Monica hesitantly joined in, not entirely sure what she had said that was so funny. But the warmth of Jane's laughter was enough to drive away a little of that strange uneasiness that Monica felt every time that J.D. Richmond's name came up in conversation.

"I'm just glad you didn't take one look at Castle Dracula here and decide to run for the hills," Jane gestured at the room. "This isn't exactly the Ritz, but it's the best we can do on the money that we get. And compared to the hell that some of our residents went through while they were living out on the streets, this place looks like Heaven to them."

"Oh come on, Jane -- some of those homeless people have enough money socked away in their grocery bags to buy and sell me ten times over. You read about it all the time in the papers," a voice scoffed from the door way. "It's just easier to panhandle and live off the system, that's all."

John Richmond walked briskly into the room, balancing a slightly warped tea tray with three cups of steaming coffee. He put the tray down on a battered old coffee table in front of the couch, then handed Monica and Jane their cups.

Richmond paused long enough by the fireplace to take an appreciative whiff of the burning pine logs' fragrance. Then he sat down on the sofa opposite Monica's chair and grinned as he held up his cup, "Salud!"

Jane waited until everyone had taken a few sips of their coffee, then picked up a newspaper from the stack of kindling piled in a wicker basket beside the fireplace. She held out the front page for J.D. and Monica's inspection.

"Maybe what you said a minute ago is true in some cases, J.D., but these two families certainly didn't have shopping bags full of money, now did they?" she said quietly. "All they had in this world was some wood that they'd scavenged and a cheap butane lighter. The police say they were just trying to stay warm, and the fire got out of control somehow while they were sleeping."

It was a copy of the same newspaper that had blown across the hood of Tess' convertible, but now Monica could read the entire headline and see the picture beside it. "'Ten Transients Killed in Fire,'" she read out loud, then saw the words in smaller print, "'Six Children Die in Abandoned Building.'"

There was a moment of silence that not even Richmond seemed capable of breaking with one of his wisecracks that weren't actually jokes. Monica's eyes were stricken when she looked up at Jane. "The poor little ones. . .was there no where for them to go that night, no shelter that would accept them?" she asked softly.

"There are plenty of shelters they could have gone to, Monica, places that I help support with my tax dollars, I might add," Richmond shook his head. "Those people had a choice. . .they didn't have to commit arson."

"Or maybe 'those people' were new to the city and didn't know how to get the help they needed," Jane answered quietly, but Monica could feel the pain behind the other woman's calm expression. "They might have been illegal immigrants who were too afraid to go to someone for assistance. Or, Heaven help us, maybe they just had the unmitigated gall to have some self-respect left and were trying to take care of themselves and their families on their own."

For nearly a full minute, there was nothing but silence in the room except for the soft crackle of burning logs in the fireplace and the distant tinkling notes of the wind chime on the front porch. And as strange as it might have sounded to anyone except an angel, there seemed to be some kind of fragile balance in the room. . .one that all but cried out to be tipped.

But then a piece of wood burned in two and crashed quietly against the grate that held it. It was only the smallest of sounds, but even so, it was enough to upset that delicate invisible balance -- and not in the right direction either, Monica knew. John Richmond leaned back against the sofa cushions, and his smile was sardonic as he looked over at the new 'aide.'

"Monica, Jane says you're a fairly new caseworker, so let me give you a piece of advice," he smiled lazily at her. "Don't go all soft and mushy over just anybody that wanders off the street with a hard luck story and a mouth full of gimme. I see that kind in my business all the time -- losers with a pocketful of excuses why they never got anywhere in this world. You have to grab every opportunity you can get and you make your own luck. . .remember that."

Monica met Richmond's cat-like gaze for a second or two, then dropped her eyes. Angels were sometimes surrounded by a golden glow that was the reflected love of God. But for a fraction of a second, it seemed to Monica that John Richmond was enclosed in some kind of smoky, gray-brown cloud -- one that appeared to draw all the room's light and warmth into itself.

That strange darkness disappeared instantly, however, when Jane began to laugh at Richmond's stern pronouncement. The topic of discussion was clearly an old one between the two of them, and now Jane moved in swiftly with a reposte of her own.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," Jane met Monica's questioning gaze and smiled reassuringly at her. "They shall also probably need plenty of malpractice insurance and a good lawyer along the way, but that's why we have men like J.D. Richmond. Right, John Du. . .?"

"Uh, let's not go there, girl," something seemed to shift behind Richmond's eyes, and suddenly the room felt much brighter and warmer. "Jane, let's make a deal. You don't tell the pretty new caseworker my middle name. It was one of those "give the kid the wealthy maiden auntie's last name so maybe she'll be generous when she kicks off" deals. She ended up leaving the whole pile to her poodle, except for the name, and I got stuck with that."

Richmond paused and winked at Jane, "And in return for your tact and discretion, I don't tell her about the time that I dared you to ride a bicycle down Michigan Avenue at high noon, wearing nothing but a. . ."

"Thanks for exercising your attorney-client privilege, O Most Exalted Legal One. And to think I once believed that attorneys have no sense of humor," Jane made a disgusted salaam in Richmond's direction.

She rolled her eyes and added, "It's not as bad as it sounds, Monica. I was wearing a flesh-colored body stocking, and all the, uh, 'relevant parts,' from the neck on down, were covered up by a couple of big Republican banners. It was Election Day, and most of the people were too occupied to notice what I was or wasn't wearing, as the case might be. The money I won off old J.D., there, paid the heating bill for this barn for a month."

"I'll never tell," Monica giggled at the idea of the dignified Jane cycling through the heart of downtown Chicago at mid-day, wearing little more than campaign posters and a smile.

"Well, Jane, Monica -- as much as I hate to, I have to run. I have to be in court in an hour or so, and you know how traffic gets around here at noon," Richmond smiled as he downed the last of his coffee. "Monica, good morning and good luck. You have quite an interesting clientele here at the Roachway Inn. Jane, I really wish you'd give some more thought to getting out of this neighborhood. You know how much I worry about you and your 'kids' living in a rat trap like this. Catch you later."

Richmond bent over and kissed the top of Jane's head as he walked past her. Whistling jauntily, he strolled toward the front door, and Jane waited until she was sure that he was out of hearing range.

"Sure, John, I'll sell out to you and your real estate developers. . ." Jane said so quietly that Monica had to strain to hear her.

The silver-haired woman paused as the front door slammed shut, then muttered under her breath, ". . .about the time that the Cubs move to Honolulu or win the pennant, whichever one comes first!"

Monica snorted, then chortled -- a sound that rapidly escalated into a full blown, side-aching giggle fit. Jane joined in the laughter, and when it subsided, she added, "Seriously, this is one of the few places that we can afford, Monica. The building is structurally sound, and we pass state inspections with no problem, but we just don't have the money for all the extra little luxuries. The people who have jobs contribute a fixed amount out of their income each month. That's what puts food on the table and keeps the heat turned on around here."

Jane gestured around her at the house. "We occasionally receive donations from charitable organizations, and three of the residents are boarders whose families pay monthly fees. Out of that money, I have to pay salaries, make repairs on this place, keep up the insurance, and all the rest of the things that go with day to day living. Let me tell you what, Monica -- some days, I feel like the light bulb, and other days, I feel like the moth. Flutter. . . flutter. . .SPLAT!"

Monica laughed at Jane's pantomime of a moth spiraling down in flames, but then sobered at the thought of being on the streets without money or aid. She had been given an assignment like that once, and even the memory of those days wasn't something she liked to think about.

"It's God who keeps this place going and sees to it that all the bills are paid. Sometimes it's at the last possible moment, but He always comes through for us," Jane smiled with a thumbs-up gesture, then finished quietly, "Because if anything ever happens to La Dumpe here, there'll probably be twelve mentally-challenged people back in institutions again. That is, if they're considered disabled enough to be placed there at all."

"I don't understand, Jane," Monica frowned a little. "I know I'm really new to all this, but I still don't see how so many people just fall through the cracks of a system that's supposed to be protecting them."

Jane sighed heavily. "A lot of them can't cope with all the complicated paperwork for mental or emotional reasons, and some of them have been so badly treated by the system that they're just too terrified or too angry to deal with it, anymore. And then there's the rule that requires you to have a fixed residence in order to receive help. A lot of people can't get a fixed residence without assistance. . .instant Catch 22."

She stared down into her empty coffee cup, then looked up at Monica again. . .and this time, indignation crackled in every line of Jane's face. "And then there's the fact that the latest mainstreaming theories just conveniently coincided with major funding cuts a couple of years ago. All of a sudden, a lot of the mental institutions decided that their high-functioning residents were ready to live on their own after a few hours of so-called 'independent living' classes. . .boom, just like that."

Jane snapped her fingers sharply, then shook her head. "All of a sudden, people found themselves on the streets with barely enough skills to even buy a meal at a fast food restaurant -- let alone deal with something as complicated as filling out government forms to qualify for low income housing or food stamps. A few of them landed in places like this one, where they could learn to live as independently as possible. But most of them weren't that lucky."

"It must have been terrible for them. . .and for people like you, who had to watch it all happening," Monica added softly, seeing a hard line of tears in Jane's eyes. Jane smiled sadly and dropped her head for a moment -- but whether in prayer or remembrance, Monica could not have said.

When Jane looked up again, her face was calm, and Monica added in a more cheerful tone, "By the way, where is everyone this morning?"

"Come on, and I'll explain while I give you the grand tour," Jane grinned as she stood up. She led Monica towards a narrow staircase whose steep steps seemed to stretch upward forever. Monica paused long enough for a deep sigh, then braced herself for the long trudge.

"Nine out of the twelve people who live here have full or part-time time jobs in sheltered workshops or small businesses where the stress factor is comparatively low. It's more a matter of self-respect than money. . .they can only make so much a month, or else they'd lose their SSI benefits. They're gone from around eight thirty in the morning until about five thirty in the afternoon," Jane explained as she climbed the stairs with Monica in tow. "The other three are high-functioning autistics -- they're the boarders I was telling you about. Roy Armstrong, our resident behavior mod specialist, took the three of them out to a PT session at the local YMCA."

She stopped for a moment at the landing and looked back at her new aide. "Our other worker, Katie Phillips, is a nurse with fifteen years of psych ward experience. She lost her first job a couple of years ago in one of those budget cuts I was telling you about. Right now, Katie's in a meeting with DCFS about placing one of their clients with us. Jacob has Downs Syndrome, but he turns eighteen in a couple of months and won't be eligible for foster care any more."

Jane waited until a panting and puffing Monica caught up with her, then added, "And just a couple of hours ago, I got a call from a intake worker down at the local homeless shelter, wanting to know if we had room for another resident. We really don't have the resources. . .but that's never stopped us, yet. Like I said, God's never led us anywhere that His provision hasn't taken care of us."

SSI, PT, DCFS, YMCA, Monica mentally ticked off the expressions. The terms were obviously supposed to be familiar to her in her role as an aide, but instead, she felt as though she was drowning in a bowl of alphabet soup.

Worse still, the old Victorian house seemed to be a maze of rooms and hallways that would have been enough to confuse a bloodhound. By the time that Jane triumphantly led her back to the main staircase, Monica's head was spinning with everything that she had learned. Everything, it would seem, except what she was doing there in the first place.

Oh come on, Tess, she thought desperately. You said we'd work on this assignment together. But if there's a problem here, I don't even know what it is. Jane loves God, and I know God loves her. . .and that's the message that we're usually sent to deliver. So what's wrong here?

"Relax, Monica, it all takes some getting used to," Jane smiled as they walked back down the stairs and towards a large kitchen that was filled with the scent of ginger and allspice. "I know I was certainly in over my head for the first few months or so. The residents will try you, just to see what they can get away with, and you'll see behaviors that most psychiatrists find difficult to cope with."

"But do you ever get used to it all?" Monica asked, sinking down on one of the kitchen chairs with a sigh of relief. "I mean, really get used to it?"

"Oh, there are days when you start to feel like, 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,'" Jane shook her head knowingly. "But just about the time that you don't think you can take another minute of it, that's when God lets something happen that you don't expect. . .like a little gift to remind you that He's still out there and He still loves you."

"What kinds of little things?" Monica asked quietly, trying not to look too surprised at Jane's nonchalant references to God and His love.

Monica had seen all kinds of faith during her time as a caseworker: faith that was weak and shallow at best, and faith that was powerful enough to reach out and touch the heart of God. But she'd seldom seen such joyful assurance in God's presence and provision before, especially not under conditions like these.

"Maybe it's our most severely autistic resident, Steve, coming out of his shell long enough to pick a dandelion bouquet for Katie or me. Or, it could be Jesse finally mastering the fine art of making a box of macaroni and cheese by himself. When I asked him why it was so important for him to learn that, he said it was so he could take care of everyone if something ever happened to me," Jane surreptitiously wiped her eyes. "And then again, maybe it's just ten blessed minutes of silence and a cup of coffee between the previous crisis and the latest one -- which is not to be confused with the one that'll be along in another ten minutes!"

Jane walked over to a battered but still functional expresso maker sitting on a counter and patted the machine as if it was a faithful dog. "Jesse scavenged this from a dumpster behind the office where he works. It may not look like much of a blessing to you at the moment," she grinned knowingly and kissed the tips of her fingers, ". . .but, ah, the decafe mocha latte that I've learned to make with it. Now thatsa cuppa coffee!"

"My favorite -- how did you know?" Monica sighed happily at even the thought.

"Oh, let's just say your guardian angel told me," Jane flashed a wicked smile at Monica, then took down three coffee mugs from a metal shelf above the sink.

"Three mugs?" Monica asked as she watched Jane prepare the latte with the finesse of a Starbucks employee. "I thought Mr. Richmond had to be in court. Is he coming back or are you expecting someone else? I can always go up to my room . . .if I can find it again, that is."

"Actually, Monica, the 'guardian angel' I mentioned a minute ago says she's a friend of yours from 'waaay back when. She's the caseworker I told you about earlier, the one who's bringing our new person over here," Jane chuckled at Monica's forlorn expression. "She ought to be getting here in a few minutes, and from the sounds of it, I think she's going to need a good strong mug of coffee just about as much as you do."

"Does it have something to do with the new resident?" Monica asked. She sipped the latte, then sighed in appreciation. Tess would have no doubt had something to say about her protégé's eternal curiosity, but Jane's calm, even disposition seemed to loosen Monica's tongue. "Is he autistic like the others you mentioned, perhaps?"

"Possibly, but we're not really sure yet," Jane stared at a crack in the wall, and for the first time, Monica noticed the hint of sadness that always seemed to lie behind the other woman's eyes. "The intake worker couldn't give me much information, only that this man had been found not far from that burnt-out building where those two homeless families were killed. We think he may have been a victim of the red tail light syndrome."

"Red tail light syndrome?" Monica spread her hands questioningly. "I'm sorry. . . I'm really new at all this."

"It's OK, Monica. Not everyone's heard of the red tail light syndrome, even people who've been in this business a lot longer than you have. We're seeing a lot more of it lately, now that the baby boomer generation is caught between raising their own children and taking care of elderly or disabled relatives," Jane sighed heavily and sat down at the kitchen table.

Once again, she seemed to be lost in her own memories as she stared at the pattern of nicks and scratches on the table top. After a moment, she continued quietly, "Emergency room doctors and nurses first coined the term to describe people who abandon family members at hospitals or public places in the hopes that someone else will take care of them. All you see of the relative is the red tail light of the car as they take off and leave the person behind."

"And you think that the new resident must have been abandoned like that?" Monica asked. "But surely his family could have found somewhere safer to leave him than near a burned-out building?"

"This fire has generated a lot of public sympathy for the homeless. Maybe this man's family thought that someone would be more likely to take good care of him if he was found near the site of a tragedy," Jane sipped at her coffee, but there was a simmering anger behind her words. "According to the caseworker, this poor guy hasn't been on the street for very long. He can't or won't speak, but all the signs point to someone abandoning him."

"But if he can't speak, how do you know that he hasn't been on the streets for months, maybe even years?" Monica shrugged in confusion. "I mean how can you just look at someone and know something like that?"

"Boy, you are new to this business, aren't you?" Jane chuckled ruefully. "After awhile, you get to where you can look at a person and pretty much tell how long he's been out on the street. Someone who's been well taken care of doesn't have years of dirt caked into their skin from not being able to take regular baths. Their feet aren't full of sores from poorly-fitting shoes and bad hygiene, and their health hasn't been ruined from cheap food and constant exposure to the elements."

She got up and took out a plate of cookies from on top of the refrigerator, then placed it on the table, invitingly close to Monica. Jane sat back down with a weary smile, and her eyes were distant: for a moment, she seemed to be lost in memories of all the people she had cared for over the years.

"When I see a person who's in good shape, it tells me that he's probably lived at home all his life," Jane broke the silence at last. "And then his parents get old and die or else can't take care of themselves any more -- let alone an grown child, no matter how much they love him. The other family members all have kids, jobs, and responsibilities of their own. A mentally challenged or autistic relative is just too much of a burden on resources that are already strained to the limit. That's when they dump the person at an ER or at a public place somewhere. And that's when I get to go make up another bed and add a little more water to the soup pot."

There was no condemnation in Jane's tone or face, Monica instinctively knew that much -- only an aching compassion for everyone involved. She's a wonderful woman, the perfect director for a group home like this, Monica smiled to herself as she watched Jane's graceful movements. . .gestures that were somehow hauntingly familiar.

I've met her before, I'm sure of it, she thought as she munched on a cookie and sipped her coffee. But how and where?

A few minutes of silence went by as Monica struggled with what could only be several large and inexplicable holes in her memory. But Tess had told her not to try to force the memories, and in any event, a firm knock at the back door brought her out of her reverie.

"That sounds like your friend now. . .that knock is about as unmistakable as a twenty-one gun salute," Jane stood up and walked towards the back door. "I always have case workers bring new residents in the back way -- tends to make for less neighborhood gossip that way. But more on that subject later. Hi, Tess, come on in!"

The sight of Tess' strong-boned face and commanding presence was enough to make Monica feel a little light-headed with relief. Tess strode purposefully into the kitchen and took several deep breaths of the coffee and spicy cookie fragrance.

"Umm-mm-mm, now there's something that'll warm you up from the top of your head to the tips of your toes," Tess smiled as she gestured at someone who still stood on the back porch. "Isn't that right, sweet boy? Now you just come on inside and don't be afraid of anything. . .Miss Jane's going to take good care of you."

"That's right, Tess. And for starters, how about if I fix you a plate of those cookies and a big glass of milk?" Jane asked gently, just as Monica turned around for her first glimpse of the newcomer. "Left up to little old chocolate lover me, I would have baked a pan of brownies. But Tess told me earlier this morning that you don't seem to like chocolate very much, so I thought maybe some molasses spice cookies would fit the bill a little better. That's it, you don't need to be afraid. . .just come on inside."

Tess stepped aside, and the tall man unwillingly shuffled into the middle of the kitchen. He ducked his head away from the three women in shyness or in fear, and the hood of his jacket fell across his face, concealing his features. Monica quickly inspected the newcomer, wincing a little at what she saw.

He wore a dirty red sweat shirt, and a pair of torn and baggy blue jeans that were precariously held up by a cracked leather belt. A pair of ripped tennis shoes had been jammed onto his bare feet, even though the shoes were at least a size too small for him. His gloveless hands were reddened from exposure to the cold wind, and his only other article of clothing was a thin nylon jacket that was clearly meant for someone much larger. It had been mended many times. . .and none too expertly at that, Monica could tell.

Jane gestured at Monica to stay where she was for the time being. Then Jane walked towards the newcomer slowly until she stood directly in front of him: once again, bitterness flared in her face as she assessed his condition.

Jane's anger was aimed solely at the unfairness of the situation and not at anyone in particular, Monica instinctively knew. But the man himself had no way of understanding that, and he cried out wordlessly under his breath as he saw Jane's expression. He frantically twisted away from Tess' light grasp on his arm, trying to escape what was obviously a familiar situation. Bruises and cuts on his hands spoke clearly of someone else's anger -- a wrath that he could not understand, much less hope to escape.

"It's all right, angel boy," Jane said softly, slipping around behind him. She wrapped powerful arms around his shoulders, rocking him a little as she restrained his flailing movements. "It's going to be all right. I'm not mad at you -- just at what's been done to you, that's all. Shh, it's OK. . .that's it. Easy, my friend."

"She's right, you know," Monica stood up and took a few steps towards the terrified man. "It's going to be all right. God loves you, and He's found a wonderful place for you, a place where you'll be safe."

But her words had no effect on him. He continued to struggle, and he threw his head back against Jane's shoulder. The hood fell away from his face, just as Monica stopped directly in front of him.

"You're safe here now with all of us," Monica began, but her voice died away as she caught her first glimpse of a battered and bruised profile under a mass of soft gold hair. ". . .Andrew?"

Chapter Two

At the sound of his name, Andrew stopped fighting, but there was no recognition in his dull green eyes as he met Monica's gaze. "You know this man, Monica?" Jane asked as she slowly lowered the trembling Andrew onto a kitchen chair.

Jane gave Monica a strange look: it was obvious that she didn't exactly understand how someone involved with the social services system could know a client by name and yet not remember the unusual details of his case well enough to match the two. Monica looked over at Tess, signaling with her eyes for help in explaining her 'blunder.' Tess met Monica's eyes and nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Sure she knows him. He's only been with us for a few days, but he's already worked his way into just about everybody's heart. Isn't that right, Andrew?" Tess smiled reassuringly, first at Andrew and then over at Jane. "Monica only worked on a part-time basis down at the shelter until she got this job with you, and she really didn't get a chance to know much about each individual client."

"I'm so new to this job that I never knew where they found him in the first place, Jane. Otherwise I would have put two and two together," Monica shrugged with an ingratiating smile. "And how are you doing today, Andrew?"

Again, there was no response from Andrew, who continued to stare blankly at the wall. Monica could have almost wept at the sight of her friend and fellow angel as he cringed away whenever someone got too close to him.

Now that's a convincing performance, Andrew! Monica thought.

But at least Tess' explanation for Monica's strange 'memory lapse' seemed to satisfy Jane. She moved quickly around the kitchen, pouring a glass of milk and putting a few cookies onto a plate.

"There you go, Andrew, a little snack to tide you over until lunchtime," she smiled at him as she sat the plate and glass down in front of him. Andrew looked up shyly at Jane and managed the smallest of smiles before he turned his attention to the food in front of him. "That's right, you just relax and enjoy those cookies, angel boy."

Angel Boy? Monica frowned to herself. It was Tess' pet name for Andrew, one that sometimes didn't seem much in keeping with his role as an angel of death. But Jane had just used it twice in the last five minutes. Now how does she know that?

Monica spent some time in a mental institution as part of an earlier assignment: she'd seen that same kind of fear and disorientation over and over again in the patients. And Andrew's portrayal of those emotions was surely a performance worthy of one of those television awards, she thought with a sigh.

Jane waited until she was sure that Andrew's attention was focused on his food: then she stood up and walked slowly towards the kitchen door. She paused beside Monica's chair at the far end of the long table and bent down a little to keep Andrew from overhearing.

"It's pretty obvious that clothing vouchers haven't been issued for Andrew yet," she said so quietly that Monica could barely hear her. "You think you and Tess can hold down the fort for a few minutes while I go up to the attic and see what I can find by way of clean clothes and some decent shoes for him? Just keep an eye on him, and if he tries to make a run for it, the two of you restrain him as best you can, OK?"

Monica nodded her head, and Jane slipped out of the kitchen almost as quietly as one of the angels themselves could have disappeared. There were only a few crumbs left on Andrew's plate, and Tess winked at Monica.

She stood up and refilled the plate from the tray on the table. "There you go, Angel Boy," Tess smiled as she sat the plate down in front of him, and without thinking about what she did, she put her hand on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort and love.

If Monica had expected Andrew to look up and smile in recognition at his two friends, she was badly disappointed. Andrew flinched from Tess' touch, moving as far away from her as he could. His head was tilted at an odd angle towards Monica, and he seemed to be too caught up in some pain-filled world of his own to pay attention to anything else around him.

Now that she could look directly into his face, Monica began to notice the details that she had missed earlier. There was a dark bruise under Andrew's left eye, and Monica saw what appeared to be an abrasion or some kind of burn scar across his cheek.

But the worst of all those injuries was not physical. Instead, it was the emptiness in his eyes -- eyes that had once been alight with love and compassion.

"Andrew, what's the matter with you?" Monica demanded desperately. "Tess, what's wrong with him? Why doesn't he stop pretending to be so afraid now that Jane's not here to see him?"

Tess' face suddenly seemed wearier than Monica had ever seen it before. "Because he's not acting, Monica," she said sadly, motioning for Monica to follow her towards the back door. The two of them stood together for a few moments, watching as Andrew slowly began to relax a little now that the 'threat' was gone.

"You need to remember something, Monica -- anyone can lose his way, be it man or angel," Tess told her firmly. "Some people get lost because of the choices that they make, even though they know deep down inside that those decisions are wrong. And some people get lost because they have a heart full of love and compassion for others. Hearts like that can be crushed underneath the weight of this world's evil until you'd swear that all the pieces couldn't ever be found again. . .let alone put back together."

Tess paused for a moment to let her words sink in, then added softly, "But remember, Baby, you're never really lost. . .because Someone always knows where you are."

Monica didn't understand Tess' meaning -- not really, anyway. But if she'd learned one thing from her mentor, she'd learned to pay the most attention to the things that seemed to make the least amount of sense.

"I don't understand," she said, then added confidently, "but God does, and He'll tell me what I need to know when I need to know it, just like you said earlier."

"You got that right! All we ever see are the little pieces of the puzzle that God shows us when we need to know them," Tess nodded as she put an arm around Monica's shoulders and pulled her a little closer. "But God sees the big picture. . .and that's something else that you need to remember over the next two days while you're here. The big picture -- you remember that, no matter what."

Tess' words sent a warning chill throughout Monica. "But you'll be there to help me figure out what's happened to Andrew, won't you, Tess?" she asked plaintively.

"Baby, I will never be more than a thought or a prayer away. God will see to that," Tess smiled. . .and in the next second, Monica was alone.

Well, not exactly alone, she sighed wistfully as she walked back to the kitchen table. Andrew looked up from his glass of milk, and if there was no recognition in his eyes as he met Monica's gaze, at least there was no panic or terror, either.

"Andrew, it's me, Monica," she whispered as she sat down beside him. "You remember me now, don't you? Angel Girl. . .Miss Wings? Surely you know who I am."

Andrew tilted his head to one side a little again, looking over at Monica through a wisp of long blond hair. For a second or two, Monica was almost certain that he was about to say her name, but then he turned his head away once more and stared sadly down at the pattern of scars and dents on the table top.

And at that moment, Jane walked back into the kitchen, and her arms were full of used but still perfectly good clothing and a pair of clean tennis shoes. She dumped the clothes on the table with a triumphant smile, then glanced around the kitchen with a questioning expression.

"Tess had to leave suddenly," Monica explained, rightly guessing the reason for Jane's inquiring look. "But I think we'll be seeing her again soon."

I hope, anyway, she sighed almost inaudibly at the ceiling.

"Happens all the time in this business," Jane nodded knowingly, reaching down to pat the beeper that she wore on her belt.

Andrew flinched a little at the sudden movement, and he stared timidly at the pile of clothes in front of him. "Easy there, Andrew," Jane said calmly. "What would you say to some new clothes, my friend? A couple of snazzy outfits, a good pair of shoes, and a winter coat that's got more fabric than holes. . .now that's the ticket! Isn't that right, angel boy?"

Jane winked at Monica as she held up a soft white sweater and a pair of clean blue jeans for Andrew's inspection. Warily, he reached out and grabbed the sweater that Jane dangled temptingly in front of him, and there was a brief spark of pleasure in his eyes as he held the warm material against his face for a moment. Jane smiled at his response and then gestured at a small door just off the back porch.

"There's a bath room back there," she said so quietly that her words almost seemed subliminal. "Why don't you go try on those new clothes and see how well they fit? If those don't quite work for you, there's plenty more where they came from."

Obediently, Andrew shuffled towards the bath room, and he held his new clothing tightly, as though fearful that someone might try to snatch it away from him. Jane waited until she heard the door click shut, then turned to Monica once more.

"This is a strange neighborhood in some ways. There's a big real estate company that wants to buy up all the property in this area. A few of us have refused to sell, and everyone else accuses us of holding up the deal just to squeeze a few more bucks out of these old places," Jane sighed heavily.

She gestured up at the kitchen window with its bright gingham curtains pulled back to either side. "We've had rocks thrown through the windows, we've gotten threatening phone calls, and the van's tires have even been slashed a couple of times," Jane shook her head in disgust. "But then we'll get up one morning and someone around here has left big boxes of canned goods or good used clothing out on the back porch. Sometimes I kid Roy and Katie that we must have a secret angel infestation around here somewhere. . .and boy, do they ever hide their real identities well!"

There it was again, that casual way that Jane spoke about angels -- to say nothing of the fact that she'd called Andrew "Angel Boy" again a moment ago. Monica decided to approach the subject cautiously, and she waited a few moments before saying anything else.

"You know, I believe in angels," she smiled brightly at Jane. "I think that they're all around us, and sometimes we just don't recognize them."

"Amen to that, sister, preach it plain," Jane grinned as she rummaged through the cabinets for cans of tomato soup, a loaf of bread, and some bowls. But something in Monica's tone caught her attention, and she put the cans down on the counter. "But I get the idea that you're really wanting to ask me a question or two."

"Well, actually, it's about Andrew," Monica gestured towards the closed bath room door. "Tess is the only other person I know who uses the term Angel Boy or Angel Girl. Did you pick that up from her? And why do you call Andrew that?"

"Well, to hear Tess tell it, she picked it up from me a long time ago. But if she did, it's been so long ago that I've forgotten all about it," Jane shrugged as she reached under the sink and pulled out a pot and a large skillet. "And as for calling Andrew 'angel boy,' all you have to do is take a look at him to know that up until very recently, he was somebody's angel."

Jane's voice was a little muffled as she hunted through the refrigerator for cheese slices and a tub of margarine. "Oh, not an angel from God, of course -- but definitely an angel in the sense of someone who's been loved and treasured. Maybe it's like we were talking about before, Monica. Maybe his parents died and he didn't have anyone besides the good Lord who loved him enough to watch out for him. But he was definitely someone's own special angel boy. . .just take a look for yourself."

As if on cue, Andrew stepped back into the kitchen, and even Monica was impressed by the transformation. But it was more than the clean, well-fitting clothes or the fact that he had obviously scrubbed his face and hands and tried to comb the tangles out of his hair.

Something of the old gentleness and trust was back in his face as he stood shyly in the middle of the kitchen, waiting for the two women to approve his new wardrobe. He looked at Jane with a questioning expression, and for a second, Monica could have sworn that she saw a spark of recognition in his eyes. But then the momentary alertness vanished, leaving him looking sad and wistful once more.

"Oh Andrew, you look wonderful!" Monica quickly nodded her approval, not wanting to see the emptiness in Andrew's eyes again. "Doesn't he, Jane?"

"Absolutely gorgeous," Jane winked at Monica, then gestured with a toss of her head at Andrew. "Drop-dead gorgeous, as a matter of fact."

She must know who and what we are, Monica peered at Jane's face. She half expected to see a knowing smirk after Jane's off-handed remark about death -- especially in connection with Andrew. But why doesn't she just come right out and say something, instead of playing all these silly games?

But as Monica continued to look at Jane, she felt a little shock of disorientation: there was no such mocking look in the other woman's eyes or even as much as a flicker of recognition. Jane turned to the stove and began preparations for lunch, whistling cheerfully as she buttered slices of bread for grilled cheese sandwiches to go with the tomato soup.

Monica turned her gaze away from Jane and back towards Andrew, who stood directly in front of her now. And at that moment, a ray of sunlight fell through the kitchen window and across Monica's shoulders, dazzling her with its unexpected brightness. The sunlight seemed to deliberately seek out Andrew, making his white sweater and blond hair appear to glow softly.

Monica had already seen a similar effect many times when Andrew had served in his capacity as an angel of death. Frequently, he had been permitted to display a little of the reflected splendor of God's glory to a dying person, both as a comfort and as a foretaste of the wonderful things that lay ahead for that soul.

But this was just a natural phenomenon, Monica thought to herself, and true to her expectations, the ray of sunlight suddenly disappeared. Andrew's sweater was once more just white yarn with a few small stains, and now that Monica looked more closely, she could see that his hair was dull and still tangled in a few places. Monica started to turn towards Jane and say something, but at that moment, she heard Jane shout a few words that made absolutely no sense.

"Get down, Monica. . .now!" Jane cried out even as she was already in motion towards Andrew.

Seeing the incomprehension in Monica's eyes, Jane veered slightly to include her in the same trajectory as Andrew. In a movement that seemed almost too fluid to be humanly possible, Jane tackled Monica, then let their momentum carry them towards Andrew.

The three of them hit the linoleum with a thud, and Jane's hands pressed against Monica and Andrew's backs, pinning them down. As they sprawled across the kitchen floor, Monica could hear the shattering of window glass above her.

She caught a swift movement out of the corner of her eye, and she looked up just as a heavy lump of concrete smashed against the kitchen wall and bounced harmlessly onto the table. Even though there was nothing but silence for many long seconds, Jane continued to hold the other two down until she was satisfied that there was no more danger.

She stood up and held out a strong hand towards Monica, helping her to her feet. For her part, Monica was grateful for the assistance: it seemed that her knees were just a wee bit wobblier than she'd thought at first.

"You OK, Monica?" Jane asked her quietly, helping Monica over to one of the chairs.

"I'm all right now, thanks," Monica managed a small smile, then gestured down at Andrew, who was still curled up on the floor. "I'll help you with Andrew."

"Don't worry about it. I'll take care of him -- you just take care of yourself," Jane nodded knowingly, just as a shaky Monica sat down heavily. "Sorry about the 'You're Not Welcome' Wagon call. This is one tough way to start your first morning on the job. But it might help if you just think of those things as a kind of concrete greeting card. You know, 'when you don't care to send the very best.'"

Even while she was joking with Monica, Jane casually lifted up the solidly built Andrew as though he weighed no more than a child. She gently lowered him onto a chair beside Monica, and this time, he made no attempt to pull away from either of them.

Monica saw that he was shivering, and she disappeared towards the living room, only to return a few seconds later with one of the brightly colored afghans. As she tucked the cover around Andrew's shoulders, Monica could hear Jane making a call from the phone by the back door. . .

. . .a call that was abruptly terminated when she slammed the receiver down on the hook. But Jane continued to mutter under her breath for several minutes afterward about the general worthlessness of "SOME police departments."

Even as Monica attempted to comfort Andrew, she found herself looking at the lump of concrete again and again. Behind her, shattered glass was strewn all over the counter, and Jane was already rummaging in a cupboard for a piece of cardboard big enough to cover the hole. There were several such pieces neatly tied together in obvious anticipation of just such a need.

Someone hates Jane and these people so badly that he or she would gladly kill, just to be rid of them once and for all! Monica closed her eyes, and she could clearly picture the piece of concrete hitting someone's head with deadly effectiveness. Dear God, I don't know what one lone angel can do against hatred like this.

Please help me, Father. . .and please help Andrew, too. Protect us all from evil.

Chapter Three

Like all prayers, Monica's was answered. . .and just like most of those answers, the one that she received wasn't necessarily the one she had anticipated. She heard the sound of footsteps on the back porch, and when she looked up, she half-expected to see Tess striding into the kitchen in her usual masterful way.

Instead, an older man bounded into the room, herding three much younger men in front of him as he went. With his unruly mop of white hair, luxurious beard and moustache, and large frame, the man resembled nothing more than Santa Claus wearing a vivid orange sweat suit.

Even the sight of his round face and stomach shaking with indignation was enough to make Monica giggle a little under her breath. Well, it looks as though Santa has just added a name or two to the "who's naughty" list, she tried to hide her smile.

"You don't even have to tell me," the man held up a hand as Jane started to explain the situation. "We saw that bunch of little hoodlums take off just as we pulled into the driveway. And I suppose you got the same answer we usually get when you called the police. 'I'm sorry, but it's probably just a couple of neighborhood children playing a prank. . .you know how kids can be.' Wonder how much the real estate company has to kick into the Police Benevolent Fund every month to pay for a snow job like that?"

"Easy, Roy -- if even an archangel doesn't have the right to rail, then I doubt that God's given the rest of us that privilege. But you're right about the police coming out to investigate any time soon," Jane said, and once again, her voice was almost subliminal in its calmness. "Fortunately for us, God's still in the security business."

With that, Jane smiled, and the effect was nothing short of dazzling, Monica thought. Everyone seemed to relax a little, even Andrew who had been staring warily at the newcomers.

"Hey, where are my manners?" Jane grinned and made a courtly bow. "Monica, Andrew, this is Roy Armstrong, behavior modification specialist, house parent, and all round good guy. And these other three handsome gentlemen are Steve, Larry, and Chris, newly buffed and tanned from a Physical Therapy stint at the local YMCA gymnasium. You guys, this is Monica, our new aide. And this is Andrew -- he's going to be living in the room next to yours, Chris."

There was little response from the other three to Jane's introduction. Larry, a stocky red haired man wearing a Nike sweatshirt and green nylon pants, stared at nothing in particular as he made a rhythmic little sound like the rise and fall of an ambulance siren. Chris, a slender blond with vacant eyes, continued to mutter, "The square root of 7 is 2.645751. The square root of 8 is 2.828427. The square root of 9 is 3."

Monica watched as the tallest of the three, Steve, rocked back and forth, his eyes never leaving the broken window. There was something disturbingly familiar in those movements -- something that reminded her a little too much of Andrew's earlier fearful response.

Roy saw Monica's somber expression and winked reassuringly at her. "Come on, you guys, let's go show Andrew that neat new Nintendo game that someone was nice enough to leave for us on the back porch last week," he gestured at Steve and the others, then pointed towards the living room. "I think Monica's had about all the introduction to La Dumpe that she can handle for one morning."

Roy reached down and put his hand on Andrew's shoulder, guiding him to his feet almost before Andrew realized that he was standing. Monica expected Andrew to respond with a full blown panic attack, and she involuntarily tensed for what she thought would follow.

But to her surprise, Andrew smiled happily, apparently in anticipation of the Nintendo game, and he allowed Roy to steer him behind the others with nothing more than a tactful hand on his shoulder. As Roy walked past, he winked again at Monica, and his voice was almost a whisper, "You're doing just fine, kid. . .hang in there."

It might have seemed like the smallest of encouragements, but it was exactly what Monica needed to hear. Jane looked up from the kitchen counter where she had been wiping up slivers of glass with a wet paper towel. She smiled wanly over at Monica, but the expression was only a pale imitation of her usual warmth and laughter.

"Now you see why Roy's our behavior mod specialist," Jane gestured towards the living room where the Nintendo now bleeped and blooped. "Let's face it -- if he can persuade you to hang around after all the stuff that's gone on around here this morning, the man must be a genius in his field, right? Monica, I am so sorry that you landed in the middle of this mess. There have been times lately that I've started to think maybe J.D. is right. Maybe I ought to just sell this house and try to find safer placements for everyone."

"No!" Monica stood up and swiftly crossed the kitchen in three steps. Jane turned to face her, and Monica put her hands on the other woman's strong shoulders. "Don't you see? That's exactly what they want you to do. But when you sell this house, what will happen the next time that someone from the homeless shelter calls? There won't be a good place, a safe place for a Chris or an Andrew -- someone who's been so badly hurt that he doesn't know how to trust anyone anymore."

Jane nodded bitterly at the pile of glass shards on the counter, and there were angry tears in her eyes. "You call this safe, Monica?" she gestured at the hole in the window. "If I hadn't looked up long enough to admire God's own beautiful sunshine, I wouldn't have caught a glimpse of those three hood. . .those three people outside, getting ready to throw that hunk of concrete at you and Andrew. And then how safe would Andrew have been? Who would he have ever trusted again, assuming for a minute that he lived long enough to get the chance?"

Suddenly one piece of the puzzle that was her assignment fell into place for Monica. "But that's just it, Jane," she said slowly, giving each word its full measure of importance. "Don't you remember what you told me earlier? You said that God's never led you anywhere that His provision hasn't taken care of you. But now you're trying to do your job and God's, too. You're not the one who's ultimately responsible for everyone here. He is. Don't try to take back what you've already placed for safe-keeping in His hands."

"Ouch. . .point taken," Jane winced slightly at the realization.

The tears that had threatened to spill over a moment before now dropped silently down Jane's face. She closed her eyes for a moment, her lips moving in what could only have been a prayer of contriteness. And when she opened her eyes again, Jane reached out and hugged Monica for a few seconds -- a good solid crunch of a hug that even Tess would have been hard-pressed to duplicate.

Jane let go and then shook her head as she smiled upward with a rueful expression. "Only You, God! Only You can deliver such a gentle, loving, compassionate. . .bop to top of the head!"

Monica quietly smiled to herself for a moment at Jane's expression. She'd met all kinds of people during her time as a caseworker: people who deeply loved God, a few who were frightened of Him, and even some who hated Him with a rage that was almost terrifying. But she'd seldom met anyone who simply seemed to enjoy God, the way that Jane did -- as if one friend was taking pleasure in another old Friend's company.

You must treasure a heart like that so much, Father , Monica thought as she held up a piece of cardboard to the broken window while Jane taped it down securely against the cold December air. Please, God, please help me to help Jane stay strong and not give in. There are so many lives that depend on her.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. . .even if all the details of it were a blur in Monica's mind when she finally closed the bedroom door behind her that night. She'd talked to Roy Armstrong during lunch, and she'd grown more and more impressed with his steady warmth and wicked sense of humor with each new joke or anecdote he'd told.

Then Katie Phillips had put in a brief appearance -- just long enough to grab a sandwich and head out the door towards another meeting. Katie had proven to be almost the exact opposite of the tall, unflappable Jane: the little nurse was a five foot tall, hundred pound blonde dynamo of a woman, whose mere presence in a room seemed to fill it full of crackling energy.

She'd shaken Monica's hand without saying a word, and she wore a serious expression that her pixie face hardly seemed capable of. But when Katie had let go, there was a Hershey bar in Monica's hand with a hand-written note wrapped around it. . .a note that simply said, "Glad you're here, kid."

And then there were all the names to remember when the nine other residents had come pouring into the house that afternoon, shouting and laughing and all trying to talk at once.

God, please bless them all and keep them safe, Monica thought that night as she lay in bed, picturing all those wonderful and funny and loving faces in turn.

Chris, Steve, Larry, Jesse, Alan, Roberto, she named over each one, counting them off on her fingers to make sure that she hadn't missed anyone. And Terry, Micah, Clarence, Tony, Luis, Max -- and Andrew. Oh dear Father. . . our Andrew.

Andrew still hadn't spoken to anyone that day, shying away whenever the boisterous Terry or the fun-loving Clarence tried to include him in one of the games or activities that always seemed to be going on. But at least he no longer flinched whenever someone moved too quickly around him, and Monica had seen him touch Jane's hand at the end of dinner, as if thanking her for the food.

He had even stayed in the kitchen while some of the others went down to the basement for a game of ping pong. And to Monica's surprise, he'd hesitantly reached out for a dish towel to help with the dishes. By the time the last pot was dried and the final plate stacked in the cupboard, Andrew was smiling and almost -- but not quite -- laughing at Roy's steady barrage of silly knock-knock jokes.

The night seemed twice as long as usual, and Monica stared up at the ceiling, seeing nothing but an image floating in front of her eyes of Andrew's vacant eyes and that ugly red mark across his cheek. Katie had definitely identified it as a burn, but she hadn't been able to say for sure what had caused such a strange scar.

Under Katie's careful scrutiny, Andrew had reverted to his earlier behavior for a few seconds, crying out softly under his breath and trying to pull away. In a few moments, however, he shook his head slightly, then rejoined the others at the Nintendo game as though nothing had ever happened.

But Monica had other things to occupy her time, as well as praying and thinking of Andrew. She was listening for the smallest sign of trouble out in the back yard, footsteps on the gravel or whispered voices. . .anything that might mean trouble. Once she thought she heard something outside, a faint swishing noise like fabric rubbing together as someone walked.

And she could have almost sworn that she heard a tiny noise like the "creech" of a hinge, followed by what might have been a soft thud. She crossed her tiny room with the speed that only an angel on a mission could have mustered, but even so, there was nothing to be seen when she pulled back the dusty old curtains at the window.

There was nothing different about the back yard: just the same high wooden fence, now missing many of its slats; a broken marble fountain that probably hadn't worked since Truman was President; and a battered old gazebo that, like everything else, was a remnant of far more elegant days. Monica let the curtains fall, then went back to bed and resumed her prayers.

And when the first gray light of morning filtered into her room, Monica saw that snow had begun to fall sometime in the night. Now thick, heavy flakes blanketed the ground and thudded almost silently against the window glass.

Such wonderful, peaceful silence, God, Monica smiled up at the sky. It seems almost heavenly after all the noise and confusion around here.

A 'heavenly' silence that was split by an unholy racket less than five minutes later. At 6:30, the first of the house's occupants awoke and squealed with glee at the sight of the snow that was now piled up almost four inches deep.

Now who in the world could that be. . .? Monica wondered, then abruptly realized that the source of the sound wasn't coming from one of the clients.

"Come on, wake up, you guys! First snow of the year!" Jane pounded on doors up and down the hallway. "Snow cream for breakfast, and maple wax for 'dessert'! Last one out to the back yard is a rotten snowball!"

Oh well, there are worse things to be than a rotten snowball, Monica thought to herself fifteen minutes later as she joined the whole laughing, running, snowball-tossing crew out in the back yard. I hope, anyway.

To Monica, it looked as if a winter carnival was already in full swing, even in such a short time. In one corner of the yard, Clarence and Max had already begun to roll the base of what was surely going to be one of the world's largest snowmen -- assuming for a moment that both snow and dedication held out commensurably. And out beside the gazebo, Jane was showing individual snowflakes under a magnifying glass to Alan, Tony, and Terry.

Over by the back door, Katie handed out bowls partially filled with milk and vanilla, and a moment later, Roy rocketed past her towards a half-buried picnic table. He carried a large mixing bowl and a saucepan of warm maple syrup whose smell in the cold morning air made Monica' mouth water.

My first snow cream and maple wax. . .whatever that is, Monica giggled to herself, starting to be caught up in the holiday atmosphere. Wouldn't it have been lovely if Tess could have joined us? Even Andrew seems to be having fun, just enjoying the snow.

Someone had found a pair of heavy, warm coveralls for Andrew, as well as boots and some bright green mittens with a matching scarf and stocking cap. And even though he didn't join in any of the snowball fights or the snow cream making, he wore a happy smile as he wandered around the yard, occasionally turning his face up to the soft touch of the falling snow.

He didn't even particularly seem to mind when little Jesse ran up to him and took his hand. "Come on, Andy, let's go make snow angels," Jesse's wide grin almost split his face as he led Andrew over to a section of the yard near the fence where none of the others had walked yet.

The snow had piled up a little deeper beside the fence, and Andrew watched with a gently puzzled expression while Jesse fell backwards into the drift. Jesse flapped his arms for a moment, and when he stood up, he pointed down at the wobbly outline of an 'angel' in the snow. "See, Andy, a snow angel," Jesse grinned proudly. "And I made it, all by myself!"

Monica had quietly walked over to the fence line, and now she applauded Jesse's artistic efforts. Although she suspected that she might be doing something just the tiniest bit outside of God's perfect timing, Monica decided that there was no harm in gently jogging Andrew's memory a little.

"Oh, good work, Jesse!" Monica smiled. She gestured at Andrew, putting just a whisper of emphasis on one word. "Why don't you make a snow angel, Andrew? Oh, come on, Andrew. . .you remember how to do it."

Andrew frowned as he looked down at the shape in the snow, then up at Monica again. For a moment, Monica thought that she saw a spark of recognition in his eyes, but just as quickly, she realized that he was actually staring at something just beyond her.

She turned around and looked behind her at the space in the fence where some of the slats were missing. Someone was standing on the other side of the fence, and Monica was startled when she realized who it was.

Or more accurately, who they were. "I saw all of you yesterday," she forced a calmness into her voice that she did not feel as a second and then a third figure joined the first. "You're the ones Mr. Richmond hired to look after his car. He must trust you a great deal to. . ."

". . .shut up," the one who appeared to be the oldest hissed at Monica, then added an expletive that she'd seldom heard applied with such venom. "We just want to talk to 'Angel Boy,' there. Yeah, right, Andrew -- I'm talking to you. Remember me?"

And with that, Monica made the second bad decision of the morning. A warning voice seemed to be whispering to her, telling her to run and get Roy or Jane in case there was trouble with these men.

And that definitely seemed to be their intent. The biggest of the three, a towering young man with coarse features and a seemingly permanent sneer set on his lips, now shoved his way past his companions.

"Yeah, Angel Boy," he snarled over at Andrew, who was once again trembling. "Come here. . .we just want to have a little fun with you, too. Just like we did a few nights ago, remember?"

I'm an angel. I can handle this, Monica took a deep breath of the frosty air and tried to draw her small height up to its fullest, hoping that she looked sufficiently imposing to intimidate this gang of hood. . .of people. That's all they are -- just people. And people are no match for angels in strength.

"Leave Andrew alone," she commanded, hoping that her voice wouldn't crack. "He hasn't done anything to any of you."

"Oh, but we've done plenty of things to him," the third man grinned, and that mockery of a smile made his face look even more vicious than it usually did. In a movement that was almost too swift to see, he held out something that he had been concealing behind his back. "Hey, Andrew, let's have a snow ball fight. Here, catch!"

Something flashed past Monica, something round and white that thudded softly against Andrew's head. The snowball should have simply disintegrated into a shower of white flakes. Instead, the sharp point of a rock traced a jagged line down Andrew's forehead, and the missile had been thrown with enough force to drive him backward onto the ground.

"No!" Monica cried out in stunned anger and started to lunge towards the one who had thrown the rock. But there was no one on the other side of the fence to receive the full force of her anger.

The three young men had vanished so swiftly that they seemed to have been swallowed up by the ground or simply melted into the whirling white veil of falling snow. For a second or two, Monica could only stare through the missing fence slats at the dazzling white cover of snow in the yard next door.

But at that moment, a soft sound at her feet quickly brought her back to the present. Monica fell to her knees beside a dazed and shivering Andrew, and she started to call out for help to Jane or Katie.

It was a belated thought on her part, at best. Jesse had seen the trouble brewing from the beginning and had long since gone for help. So much wiser in the ways of the world than I am -- even for all his innocence, it would seem, Monica thought bitterly as she cradled Andrew's head in her lap.

In a few seconds, both Jane and Katie had reached them, followed quickly by Roy and the others. "How bad is it?" Jane asked as Katie knelt down and inspected the ugly lump that now stood out darkly on Andrew's forehead.

"Hard to say without an X-ray," Katie shook her head. "His pupils are equal and reactive, and there's no sign of bleeding from the ears or nose, but he could still have a hairline fracture or a bad concussion."

"Terrific -- that's just terrific," Jane snapped, running her fingers through her hair in exasperation. "He hasn't been in the system long enough for anyone to get him a medical card, so even the subsidized clinics aren't going to want to accept him as a patient. And without proof of insurance, none of the local emergency rooms are going to want to treat him, either."

"Maybe Dr. Harrison would take a look at him and bill us later in installments," Roy offered hopefully, but Jane shook her head.

"He's out of town for the next two weeks, and that young kid that fills in for him wouldn't treat his own sainted grandmother without proof of insurance or cash on the barrel head," Jane rolled her eyes, but her expression quickly sobered. "Well, troops, I think it's about time that we said the caseworker's favorite prayer."

"And what one might that be?" Monica asked quietly as she continued to stroke Andrew's hair. Guilt gnawed at her, but she knew that this was neither the time nor the place to give vent to that feeling.

"Boy, you are new to this business, aren't you?" Katie looked up at Monica with a little head shake. "Jane, tell her what the caseworker's favorite prayer is."

Jane looked up for a second, then said softly, "Dear God. . .help!"

"Well, I may not be God, but is there something I can do?" someone said behind them, and Monica could have wept with relief at the sound of that familiar voice. The circle of residents parted, and in another second or two, Tess made her way to the spot where Monica knelt beside Andrew.

"Tess, am I ever glad to see you!" Jane heaved an enormous sigh that sent a cloud of steam billowing into the cold air. "Andrew's been hurt. . .seems one of the neighborhood brat pack nailed him a good one in the head with the old 'rock in the snowball' routine. Your agency still has temporary legal guardianship of him, right?"

"We most certainly do, and that's why I stopped off this morning on my way to work," Tess held up a long white envelope with its official-looking 'Division of Children and Family Services' label affixed to the top corner. "We managed to ramrod a temporary medical card through for him, and from the looks of it, it's a good thing that we did."

"Tess, if there was ever any question in my mind, that just settled it," Jane smiled wryly. "I always suspected you had your own private hotline to Heaven, but pulling off a miracle like this proves it once and for all!"

"All right -- way to go, Tess! We're in business now," Katie crowed triumphantly. "Roy, you go bring the van around and help me get Andrew onto the bench seat. He's certainly stable enough to transport, and we're less than ten minutes out from the ER at St. Michael's, even if things do go sour fast. Jane and I can drive him over. It'll save us the cost of an ambulance ride. . .not to mention not scaring him half to death with a bunch of lights and sirens. You think you can hold down the fort while we're gone?"

"Oh, I think so," Roy nodded. He gestured at the other residents and then back towards the house. "OK, you guys, go get your bowls of snow cream and take them back inside while I get the van. You can eat breakfast and watch some of the new cartoon videos that someone left for us last night until it's time to go to work."

So I did hear something on the back porch last night, Monica nodded her head knowingly.

But any momentary flash of pride at her own alertness was quickly balanced by the sight of the lump on Andrew's forehead. . .and then outweighed by the pain in his eyes as he stared plaintively up at the sky. A tear threatened to trickle down Monica's cheek, but Jane met her gaze and then shook her head gently.

It's Ok, she mouthed quietly over at Monica. Just hang in there -- for Andrew's sake.

"Hey, Andrew, we're going to go for a little ride here in a few minutes," even the sound of Jane's voice seemed to lessen Andrew's trembling. . .and not only his, but Monica's, as well. "We're going to have someone take a look at that bump on your head. And you know what? I bet Tess and Monica would go along with us, if you want them to. Then when we get back home in a little while, Tess can have some snow cream with us. Roy'll put our bowls in the freezer for us while we're gone. Sound OK to you, angel boy?"

But instead of smiling at the endearment this time, Andrew's face crumpled, and he began to thrash wildly in an effort to escape. Katie and Jane managed to pin him down as they spoke soothingly to him, and in a few moments, he stopped struggling.

"That's it, An. . .Andrew," Jane hastily corrected herself, even though Monica knew that she couldn't have heard anything that the three men had said. "Easy does it, my friend."

Monica may have understood Andrew's reaction to that pet name now, but she didn't certainly didn't know how Jane could have come to a similar conclusion without being told. But before Monica could ask Jane about it, Roy pulled the van as close to them as possible. Quickly, he helped Katie lift Andrew onto the van's long back seat, then tossed the keys to Jane.

"Hop in, Monica," Jane slipped into the driver's seat and gestured at the empty passenger seat beside her. "Katie'll ride in back with Andrew. We need to get a move on."

"Uh, how about if Monica rides over to the hospital with me?" Tess asked, even as she gave Monica a look that said 'You and I are going to talk about this!' "I can fill her in about proper procedures on a case like this."

"Sounds good, Tess," Jane flashed the thumbs-up sign and then put the van in reverse. "Meet you over at the ER, then!"

In a few minutes, Tess and Monica were alone in the back yard. But before Monica could say anything, Tess pointed imperiously at the gazebo whose rickety sides still managed to provide a small windbreak. Monica followed her into the small structure, and she already cringed a little at the reprimand she knew was to follow.

A reprimand that came quickly. "You blew it, Miss Wings," Tess said in that tone of voice that brooked no argument. "You felt that little tug inside that said, 'Don't push Andrew to remember before he's ready,' and yet you went ahead anyway. Snow angels, indeed! There's your snow angel."

She pointed over to the mound of disturbed snow where Andrew had fallen. The spot had already begun to fill in, but a distorted, not-quite-human shape still remained as a result of his terrified attempt to escape.

"I know, Tess, and I have to ask God forgive me for that," Monica dropped her head slightly. "And I should have sent wee Jesse for help when those three men first showed up instead of playing the big strong angel heroine and taking care of matters myself."

"You're right on all accounts," Tess said firmly, but then her face and stance both softened a little. "We work strictly by the power of God, not out of our own strength. And even the smallest disobedience to what God tells you can open up doors that aren't nearly as easy to shut. Baby, things can come marching through those doors that you'd be a lot better off not ever having to know about."

"I don't understand, Tess," Monica looked out at the falling snow and the fence, and her eyes were full of desperation. "Are you talking about those three men who attacked Andrew? But what kind of a door do you mean, and who opened it?"

"Go over there and look into the yard where those three. . .men were standing," Tess pointed at the missing section of fence. "Then tell me what you see."

Obediently, Monica walked over to the property line and looked down at the ground. "I don't see anything except clean white snow on the ground," Monica shrugged.

She started to turn around, just as Tess materialized beside her. And in true angelic fashion, Tess' mode of travel left no trace of footprints between the fence line and the gazebo where she had just been.

Slowly, comprehension dawned in Monica's face. . .and with it, a look of fear that came very close to matching the one that Andrew had worn.

Drifts had only partially filled in the marks all around the yard where everyone had walked and played: Monica could still see the crisscross of footprints and even the tracks left by the van tires. But on the other side of the fence where the three men had stood, there was nothing but a blanket of snow. . .

. . .snow that was as smooth and level as though nothing had ever stood there. Nothing at all.

Chapter Four

The Emergency Room was a babble of voices speaking in the smorgasbord of languages that Chicago had to offer: English, Spanish, Polish, German, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and all the rest. But the only voice that Monica heard as she sat in the waiting room was that of Tess, and the words were the ones she had repeated several times on the drive over to the hospital.

"I keep telling you, you've got to remember the big picture. The big picture, Baby," Tess had said one last time as she carefully maneuvered the red convertible into a space in the parking garage.

To Monica's untrained eye, the space barely seemed big enough for one of those little compacted cars. . .or whatever they called them. Tess saw the nervous look in Monica's face and added, "And that's another thing, Monica. Remember that you can either spend your time doing a whole lot with just a little. . .or a little with a whole lot. Case in point, right there."

She thumbed over her shoulder as a big silver Mercedes roared past, doing at least twice the posted speed limit of 15 miles an hour. John Richmond screeched the Mercedes into a parking spot several car lengths away, neatly cutting off an elderly man in an equally elderly white Buick, who had been waiting for the space.

"That's a man who's in a big hurry to get somewhere, but he lost the map a long time ago. The only place he's going is nowhere, and he's making fine time getting there, too," Tess frowned disapprovingly. "He hasn't exactly chosen the best traveling companions along the way, either. But enough of all this. Let's let Mr. High and Mighty Attorney get past before we go find Jane and Andrew. . .not that his legal services are going to do much good. His client is going to be standing before a much Higher Court in just a few minutes. But like I said, John D. Richmond is a man with an agenda."

Monica had watched as Richmond ran past them, clutching his attaché case in a grip so tight that the leather handle might have been a lifeline. Intent on his goal, he aimed his way through the crowds of people streaming in and out of the hospital, not caring who he shoved to one side. And in a few seconds, he had disappeared from Monica's sight.

But not from her thoughts. Even now, almost an hour later, she could clearly picture Richmond and all the other people who were living quietly hopeless lives just like him.

She looked around at the people huddled together in clusters around the waiting room: over in the corner, an impeccably dressed woman sobbed into a sodden handkerchief, her large diamond rings flashing in the ER's overhead lighting. She waved aside any offers of comfort from the staff and continued to weep uncontrollably, instead.

And on a bench along one wall, a small, shabbily dressed man and his wife sat side by side. He read something to her from a small leather-bound book whose title was printed in golden Oriental characters. The cadence was unmistakable, even if the words were unfamiliar to Monica: just the sound of his voice seemed to have a calming effect on his wife and everyone else around him, as well.

Our Father, who art in Heaven, Monica followed the prayer, then shook her head sadly. So much pain here, Father, and so few people who will reach out and take the loving hand that You hold out to them. Why is that, Father?

"To slightly misquote an old Russian proverb, 'Asking a question whose answer you cannot comprehend is as futile as pounding on a split drumhead," a voice made Monica jump slightly. "There are as many reasons as there are people in this world who've never learned that God loves them and has a plan for their lives."

When she looked up from her reverie, Monica half-expected to see Tess standing in front of her. Instead, it was Jane who handed her a cardboard cup containing a lukewarm substance. The muddy brown liquid was trying very hard to keep up some pretext of being coffee. . .and none too successfully at that, if Monica's grimace was any indication when she took her first sip.

"Don't look so shocked, Monica. I'm not suddenly into mind reading," Jane sank down on the seat beside her. "Just lip-reading, thanks to dealing with Roberto's hearing loss all these years. And you were definitely moving your lips while you were praying just now. "

"You had me worried there for a few seconds, but I'm not sure if I was more concerned about you. . .or myself," Monica shrugged with a wry smile. "And speaking of being worried, how's Andrew? Have they treated him yet?"

"They took him up to X-Ray about half an hour ago. Tess and Katie are with him," Jane rubbed the back of her neck with one hand. "Seems that they're running a little bit behind around here this morning. Just before we got here, the paramedics brought in a man who was in a serious car accident. From the bits and pieces that I've overheard, they don't think the guy's going to make it. That's his wife, over there, Mrs. Clayton McArthur."

Jane gestured over at the woman who still sobbed inconsolably over in the corner. "And you want to hear something else that's really ironic?" Jane said so quietly that Monica had to strain to be able to hear her. "Clayton McArthur is the owner of the real estate development company that wants to put the wrecking ball to our whole neighborhood. He has all that property and wealth. . .and in the end, all he's going to need is enough money to buy a box and a six foot piece of sod. God, have mercy on him and everyone else just like him."

Monica looked over at Jane, almost expecting to see a mocking smile or a gloating look on the other woman's face. But instead, a line of pitying tears shone in Jane's eyes, and she stood up with a new rush of energy.

Like a woman with a mission from God, Monica thought with a small smile.

"Excuse me for a minute, Monica," Jane nodded almost imperceptibly towards Mrs. McArthur. "I'm going to go see if there's anything I can do to help her. And I certainly wouldn't object to any backup prayers you might be able to spare me, angel girl."

She winked gently at Monica, then threaded her way swiftly across the crowded waiting room. Jane dropped to one knee beside the weeping woman and spoke a few words to her.

Monica couldn't hear what Jane was saying, but in a moment or two, Mrs. McArthur blew her nose and stopped sobbing in such a heart wrenching way. She even accepted the cup of coffee that Jane bought for her from the vending machines: in a few more minutes, the white-haired woman's face was calm and almost resigned to what she must have instinctively known was ahead of her.

And that news was quick to arrive. Fifteen minutes later, a somber-faced doctor dressed in surgical scrubs made his way across the waiting room towards Mrs. McArthur, followed by an entourage of nurses and interns.

Mrs. McArthur remained calm as the doctor made his tersely-worded announcement, and only once did the older woman reach out and clutch Jane's hand tightly for few seconds. The doctor and the rest of the staff left almost as quickly as they had come, and Jane stood up, then reached down to help Mrs. McArthur to her feet.

Monica stood up out of respect as Jane and Mrs. McArthur passed by. "I'm going to go help Mrs. McArthur with some of the details that need to be taken care of," Jane caught Monica's eye and spoke quietly. "When Katie and Tess get back from X-Ray, tell them what's going on, OK?"

Monica nodded and made a palms-together gesture, indicating wordlessly that she would be praying for the two of them. "I'll go get the elevator for us, Mrs. McArthur," Jane said quietly, then walked down the little side hallway where the elevators were located.

Jane's back was turned towards Monica and Mrs. McArthur, and as a result, the tall man who dashed into the ER didn't see her standing there. He looked around the room, carefully composing his cheerful expression into something a little more somber and appropriate for such a serious occasion.

"There you are, Edith. . .I am so sorry about Clayton," J.D. Richmond's familiar voice split the hush that always seemed to fall over a waiting room like this one, especially in the wake of such an announcement.

Oblivious to the look of pain that crumpled the older woman's face, Richmond plunged on, "But don't you worry about a thing. I was with Clayton this morning, right before he left the office, and we got most of the last minute details taken care of on that big condo deal. Now I just want you to know that you have nothing to worry about -- you can just leave everything in my hands from now on. I'll manage you. . . for you, just the same way that I always took care of things for Clayton. As a matter of fact, I'm leaving here and going straight back to the office to deal with some unfinished business."

Richmond covered his slip of the tongue quickly, but at that moment, Jane turned around and took a few steps back into the ER. Richmond's face drained of color when he looked up and saw who now walked towards him.

"Jane?" he demanded as she stood in front of him. "For the love of God, what are you doing here?"

"It was for the love of God that I came here," Jane said in a strange voice -- one that was far deeper and more powerful than Monica had ever heard it before. "And it was for the love of God that I remained. So it was, and so it must ever be."

All light in the room suddenly seemed to be caught in the long shimmering strands of hair that tumbled across Jane's face and down her back. So much so, in fact, that she appeared to be in the center of a soft glow as she stepped between Edith McArthur and the attorney.

The radiant effect around Jane was heightened by the uncanny strength and power in her face as she calmly faced Richmond. It was obvious that Jane was no stranger to Richmond's bullying tactics. . .and it was just as clear that she had no intentions of backing away until he left Edith McArthur alone.

Once more Monica felt that sensation of a fragile balance in the room, as though Jane's strange words had evoked a power far greater than any she might have otherwise possessed on her own. It felt strangely like a battle over disputed territory, even though Monica herself could not have explained her own analogy.

Richmond huffed under his breath and took a step towards Jane, drawing himself up to his full height and trying to look as imposing as possible. And there it is again, Monica thought, that peculiar grayish brown cloud around Mr. Richmond. What do you suppose could be causing such a thing?

Richmond's face filled with anger and loathing as he tried to sidestep Jane, but once again, she interposed herself between him and his intended target. Monica wasn't even particularly surprised to see Richmond clench his fist and take an angry half step towards Jane as if to strike her. And if the attorney knew that he was trembling violently, there was no sign of that awareness in his face as he looked deeply into Jane's eyes.

But before the situation could come to violence, Edith McArthur spoke up, and that alone served to shift the balance once again. Her voice was timid at first, but something in Jane's 'warrior' stance must have communicated itself to her: the rest of her words were spoken firmly.

"Oh, John, I'm so afrai. . .," she began, then swallowed hard. "That is to say, you must have other things to take care of now that Clayton is gone. Jane has offered to help me with the things that have to be done here. . .and before you even say a word to me about it, yes, I do know who she is. Unlike a great many people I know, John, she was completely straightforward with me from the very beginning."

Edith smiled at Jane, and suddenly, Richmond's aggressive stance crumpled a little. With that, some of the power surrounding Jane seemed to dissipate, too. As if that was his cue, Richmond swaggered a little closer to Mrs. McArthur.

"All right, Edith, I'm sure Jane is very good at handling all the mundane little details that need to be taken care of," there was more than just a suggestion of a sneer in his voice. "She certainly has to do enough of that sort of thing for her menagerie. I'll go take care of all the important paperwork for you now. I'll drop by your place tonight with some things that you'll need to sign -- nothing important, just a few loose ends with a couple of business deals. Jane, you and I will be talking again, very soon."

Jane said nothing, but calmly continued to meet his angry gaze, and in a moment, he dropped his eyes. But in order not to appear beaten -- and by a woman at that -- Richmond strutted away towards the exit.

Monica once more started to say something, but before she could speak, Jane aimed one last comment at Richmond's retreating back. And like her earlier words, these were just as full of strength and power. . .and every bit as confusing to Monica, too.

"The Lord rebuke you!" Jane said quietly with her arms folded across her chest.

What followed might have been coincidence. . .and then again, it just might not have been. The last of those four tersely spoken words had barely left Jane's lips when Richmond slipped on a newspaper that had fallen to the floor. He staggered and almost lost his balance, barely managing to catch himself before he landed heavily against the concrete flooring.

A snicker of laughter ran around the waiting room, and Richmond shook with indignation as he stalked through the swinging glass doors. Monica watched as he stomped angrily down the crosswalk towards the parking garage and what he clearly hoped would be the refuge of his Mercedes.

And no one, least of all Monica, seemed particularly surprised when a car roared past, ignoring the carefully posted "Caution: Pedestrian Crossing" signs. No one except Richmond himself, that is. He looked up just in time to see an old white Buick coming towards him, and he leaped aside, avoiding the car's gleaming front bumper by less than six inches.

Even so, his expensive Burberry overcoat was spattered by mud and slush from the melting snow, and once again, several of the pedestrians in the crosswalk with him muffled giggles at his wildly indignant expression. Giving the ruined coat a yank to untwist it from around his lean frame, Richmond huffed away and soon disappeared into the depths of the parking garage.

Monica turned back to Jane and Mrs. McArthur . . .only to find herself looking up into Tess' reproving eyes instead. "Hello, Tess," Monica said with a hint of the same nervousness that had been on Richmond's face a few minutes earlier when he had tried to outstare Jane. "I didn't hear you come in. Or Jane and Mrs. McArthur leave, for that matter."

"You were too busy enjoying the Lord's little wake-up call to that man to pay attention to anything else," Tess said in a low but firm voice. Very firm, as a matter of fact. "Gloating is not, I repeat, not something that's supposed to be high on an angel's 'To Do' list."

"I know, Tess, I know. The Eleventh Commandment: 'Thou shalt not exult over thine adversary's fall,'" Monica shuffled uncomfortably under her supervisor's stern gaze -- a scene that they seemed to be playing out quite frequently on this particular assignment. "How's Andrew? Did the x-rays show anything? These human forms are so fragile, it seems sometimes. The least little thing makes them go wrong and. . ."

Monica was aware that she was very close to babbling, and her voice died away slowly, like a record player that had been unplugged in mid-song. "And don't try to change the subject, either," Tess aimed a warning glance at her protégé, but the sight of something behind Monica made her expression soften considerably. "But as far as Andrew is concerned, turn around and see for yourself."

Monica did as she was told, then began to smile. Katie was pushing a wheelchair towards them, but all that Monica could see of the chair's occupant was an occasional gleam of blond hair or glimpse of dark coveralls. Both Katie and Andrew were almost swallowed up by the wave of nurses and staff who surrounded them, and Andrew clutched a pile of gifts that ranged from a large teddy bear to plates of cookies and fudge.

"Seems like our Angel Boy made quite a splash with the nurses and staff around here, too," Tess chuckled at Andrew's gently bewildered expression over all the attention he was receiving. "Having everyone want to hang around him like that must be quite a new experience for the angel of death. And before you even ask, Monica, he still doesn't remember anything about how he ended up like this. So there'll be no more 'hints,' if you catch my drift. So to speak."

Monica winced and nodded just as Katie managed to thread her way through Andrew's new admirers and reach them. "We made it, finally. . .no thanks to Mr. Popularity here," Katie teased Andrew, affectionately rumpling his soft blond hair.

A bandage now covered the lump on Andrew's forehead: his face was pale, and his eyes were still devoid of any real comprehension. But before Monica could ask about the results of the x-rays, Katie triumphantly held up a sheaf of discharge papers.

"We caught up with Jane on our way down here, and she filled us in on what's going on with Edith McArthur. Andrew's going to be fine -- just a few bruises, thank God. But before we can get this guy home for some rest, we've still got a couple of last minute administrative things to clear up," Katie pointed at the sign on the wall that read 'Billing' and the arrow that pointed towards that office. "Tess, since you drove over here and have your own transportation back, do you think you could finish up the paperwork? I need Monica to ride back in the van and keep an eye on Andrew."

Tess nodded her agreement -- albeit reluctantly. Katie paused long enough to take in a quick breath, then finished, "And speaking of that, Monica, how about if you stay here with him while I go get the van? And for pete's sake, try to fend off his fan club, will you? Any more cookies or fudge and we're going to have to rent a trailer to get it all home!"

Compliance was a foregone conclusion, Monica decided as Katie tossed the clipboard towards Tess. The little nurse disappeared out the glass double doors like a small blonde tornado, scattering everything in her path.

"Paperwork, always paperwork," Tess muttered, rolling her eyes at the ceiling. "And speaking of commandments, it's a good thing God Himself wrote the tables of the Law for Moses. If it had been left up to humans, it would have probably been the Ninety-six Commandments! Filed in quadruplicate, no less."

She continued to mutter under her breath as she walked away, and Monica managed to suppress a comment or two about other attitudes that weren't exactly up to angelic standards, either. But a small questioning sound made her look down into Andrew's eyes, and she smiled, rightly guessing what he wanted.

"All right, you Rudolph Valentine, you," she teased him gently. She pushed the wheelchair over to the wall, well away from the nurses who continued to smile at him and talk among themselves.

Monica took the food and teddy bear from Andrew and piled the items on an empty chair. She started to sit down, and as if she was being corrected for her earlier laughter at Richmond, Monica's foot slipped on the same piece of newspaper. She sat down in her chair a little more heavily than she had intended and then harrumphed under her breath down at the offending newsprint.

But as she looked down at the front page, something about the photograph caught her eye, and she picked up the damp piece of paper carefully. The headline above the picture read, 'Arson, Not Accident, Now Suspected In Building Fire.'

Monica stared down at the big picture of a burned out building: it was the same structure that she'd seen in the newspaper photograph that Jane had shown to Richmond. But now something was niggling at Monica's memory, something about that big picture. . .

". . .the big picture," she said aloud as she held it up triumphantly for Andrew's inspection. "Oh, Andrew, do you think this is what Tess is talking about?"

She glanced back down at the photograph for a second or two, but a small, strangled sound made her look up quickly at Andrew. . .and she was instantly alarmed at what she saw there. His eyes were fixed on that photograph, and he moaned again under his breath as he tried to pull away from the image in front of him.

But the comprehension that now flooded his face was worse than the vacant look had ever been -- much worse. "No. . ." he turned his head away from the picture and held out a hand as though to push the image as far away as possible. "Not the little ones. . .no, please don't do this to them."

"Andrew, shh, it's all right," Monica tried to comfort him, but he twisted away from her once more.

Silent tears poured down his face as he seemed to curl in around a solid core of pain, his hands clenched in front of him. In a moment, he lifted his head: now his eyes were fixed on the blank expanse of wall behind her as if he was watching distant events unfolding on a television screen.

"This makes no sense. Surely you can't hate them that much, can you?" Andrew's voice was full of horror as he addressed someone that only he could see. "They're just innocent babies. What could they have ever done to you? Please don't let them do this, Father. Rebuke the Destroyer for Your Name's sake. No. . .no!"

The last word was a cry that tore through the waiting room like shards of glass exploding outward from a broken window. Andrew clawed at the ugly burn mark on his face as he started to fall from the wheelchair: only Monica's frantic grab for his shoulders kept him from landing heavily against the scarred concrete floor.

Monica was dimly aware of people running towards her as she fought to keep Andrew from falling. Some of them were the nurses and staff members that had been so taken with Andrew, but there was another, more welcome sight, even though Monica only caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of her eye.

"It's a good thing I had to come back down here and get some papers from Admitting for Mrs. McArthur," Jane made her way through the group of people as casually as if she were waving aside a few gnats.

She stood in front of Andrew and held his shoulders firmly, taking some of the strain from Monica's aching arms. "He was doing fine when I saw him a few minutes ago with Tess and Katie, but now he's this bad off again. What in the world happened here, Monica?"

"He saw the picture in the newspaper of that building where the homeless families died, and he just. . ." Monica began, and at that moment, she suddenly realized that Andrew had stopped struggling so violently.

In fact, he now sat so calmly in the wheelchair that Monica tentatively let go of him after a few more seconds had passed. And he remained upright without support, while both Jane and Monica surreptitiously edged into a better position -- just in case it became necessarily to restrain him again. From her new vantage point, Monica could now see his face clearly, and what she read there made her eyes widen with the surprise of it all.

Andrew's expression was as alert as Monica had ever seen it, and there was nothing but joyful recognition in his eyes. He looked up deeply into Jane's face, and it was as though he was really seeing it for the first time since this whole strange ordeal had begun.

"There you are," he laughed, holding out his arms like a child wanting a hug. "I knew you 'd be here for me."

Jane was clearly as startled as Monica, but she bent down a little and permitted Andrew to wrap his arms around her neck. He buried his face against Jane's shoulder, and Monica could barely hear the words that he now murmured happily.

"It's been so long, but I knew you'd be back when I needed you the most," tears still ran down Andrew's face and over the burn scar, but his eyes were full of peace. "God promised me that a long time ago. I didn't understand what He meant then, but I do now. You remember, don't you, Jane?"

But before Jane could reply, Andrew sighed joyfully once again. And in another few seconds, he was asleep, his head still resting against Jane's shoulder.

Chapter Five

An hour and a half later, Monica and Jane once more sat at home in the living room, listening to Katie and Tess out in the kitchen as they prepared a belated breakfast. Monica's nose told her that breakfast included a pot of strong coffee. . .and from the shell shocked look in Jane's eyes, that was a good thing, too, Monica thought to herself.

Roy had gone down to the police station, armed with Monica's description of the entire incident. It was an exercise that was apt to be bootless, Monica knew, but Roy had insisted on filing the report in person this time.

"So they gotta look me straight in the eye and hand me that line of malarkey -- if they can," he'd snapped on his way out to the van. "I'm starting to wonder if they're not running scared themselves about all the stuff that's going on in this neighborhood."

Now, the house was almost silent: the others were at work or at a group therapy session sponsored by one of the local mental health agencies. And Andrew was peacefully asleep up in his room. . .it had taken some quick thinking and a hastily concocted explanation by Katie and Tess to persuade the hospital staff not to keep him over night for psychiatric observation.

It was funny in a way, Monica thought as she sat on the sofa and watched the flames dance in the fireplace. None of the three senior case workers -- Jane, Tess, or Katie -- had exchanged a single word, but they'd all launched into an almost identical story of stress and panic disorder to explain away Andrew's strange behavior.

It's as if they'd somehow decided among themselves to make sure that Andrew got back here today. . .or maybe it was God Who made that decision, Monica thought, and she shuddered even now at the memory of that smooth white sweep of snow where those three. . .'beings' had been standing. Andrew would have been so vulnerable in that hospital if they decided to come looking for him.

Andrew had awakened briefly on the ride home, but when he looked up at Monica, the earlier alertness and comprehension had vanished from his eyes once again. He stared dully at his surroundings for a few seconds, then fell asleep so deeply that he seemed to be drugged -- even though Monica knew that wasn't the case.

And speaking of someone who looks like she's been drugged. . . poor Jane and what she must be going through right about now, Monica sighed once more as she looked over at Jane. God, please help me to help her.

Jane continued to stare into the fire as though she had been hypnotized. Monica stood up slowly, then picked up a small object someone had left on the edge of the coffee table. She sat down by Jane and quietly dropped the copper disk into her lap.

"A penny?" Jane looked up at Monica with a slightly dazed expression. . .she had clearly been lost in some mental wilderness of her own.

"For your thoughts," Monica coaxed gently.

She reached out and took both of Jane's cold hands in her own warm ones for a few seconds. Monica felt the tension in Jane's arms and shoulders relax a little, and she let go of the other woman's hands with a comforting squeeze.

Jane got up and added another small log to the fire. And when she sat back down, it was with a sigh that was almost strong enough to shake the heavy velvet curtains

"I think it's finally happened, Monica. I think I've gone off the deep end," she shook her head ruefully. "First I end up comforting the widow of the guy who wanted to destroy the only real home that some of us around here have ever had. Then I go head to head with John Richmond like I'm taking on the Devil himself. . . and I don't even know what corner of my peculiar little psyche all that stuff popped up from."

Jane rubbed the back of her neck for a moment before she continued. "And then poor little Andrew looks up ever so calmly and rationally at me and starts talking to me like I'm his long-lost best friend. What's next -- a tornado and an explosion and a circus complete with clowns, all showing up on my doorstep at once?"

Something had flashed through Monica's mind as she listened to Jane's exasperated speech. . .and unlike her earlier experience out in the yard, this time there was no warning tug deep inside her. The thought was an odd one, but it had the compelling ring of truth that was one of the foremost hallmarks of any message genuinely sent from God.

"Jane, what if Andrew is telling you the truth, and he does know you from somewhere in your past?" Monica asked cautiously, watching Jane's reaction. "Tess told me that you don't remember anything about who you really are or where you came from. I don't mean to upset you with all this, but isn't there just the tiniest possibility that you could have met Andrew before you lost your memory?"

"It's more than a small possibility, and to tell you the truth, it scares me half to death. There have been times over these past few hours when I look over at him, and I almost swear I remember him from somewhere," Jane shivered as though a cold wind had blown across her, and Monica quickly tucked one of the crocheted afghans around her shoulders.

Jane nodded her thanks, then continued with her thoughts. "I don't know how that could be, though. I'd remember him if I'd met him any time over the past twenty years. And if I'd met him before then, he couldn't have been much more than a small child, as young as he is right now. It would have been during those missing years before I ended up down at the New Hope Mission with no idea of who I was or how I'd gotten there."

She frowned a little as she snuggled down deeper into the afghan. " But there is one possibility from a psychological standpoint. If I'd made a deep enough impression on Andrew even at an early age, maybe the stress and trauma that he went through today could have abreacted those old memories."

"If Andrew really does remember you, then those memories were obviously happy ones," Monica said carefully, just as Katie and Tess came into the room carrying trays of food and coffee. "He certainly held onto you this morning as if you were going to save him from going under for the third time."

"That's just the thing," Katie said seriously, handing her a large cup of coffee. "Andrew may be so stressed out from being abandoned and then attacked that he's just clutching at straws. Jane makes him feel safe and secure again. He may have invented a fictitious relationship to her, just so she won't abandon him, too. I've seen similar situations before -- patients who create elaborate fantasy worlds complete with imaginary families, just to make up for the isolation and helplessness that they feel in real life."

There was a long pause as Tess settled into the big overstuffed chair by the fireplace, balancing a large breakfast tray and a huge cup of steaming coffee as she did so. She sighed heavily, and Monica rightly guessed that she was thinking back to a certain summer morning not so long ago. They had all been on an assignment together down in New Orleans, and Andrew had offered to bring a picnic breakfast to one of the city parks for his angelic coworkers.

"Here you go, Monica -- two raspberry-almond croissants and a decafe mocha latte," Andrew had worn a serious expression as he sat the food down on the wooden table, but Monica had seen the laughter dancing in his eyes. "A couple of beignets and a café au lait, New Orleans style, for me. And for you, Tess. . .Breakfasts-R-Us."

Tess sighed again and took a sip of her coffee as she listened to the snow softly hitting the window. Monica suspected that despite all her tough talking ways, Tess had more than just a small soft spot for that most gentle and tender hearted of all the angels who ministered the gift of eternity -- her own "Angel Boy." And once again, Monica's suspicions would have been well founded.

"Now, let's examine all the possibilities here," Tess said after a few bites of eggs and toast. . .and bacon. . .and sausage. . .and grits with gravy. "First off, Jane, when did Andrew seem the most sane to you: the way he's been since he first got here, or during his panic attacks. . . if that's what they really are? And if he's invented some kind of imaginary relationship, Katie, why isn't he keeping up the pretense? Why did he revert almost instantly to his previous behavior?"

Even the ebullient Katie seemed to wilt a little under Tess' verbal barrage, and Monica met her supervisor's amused gaze with a look that clearly said, 'You go, girl!' And for her part, Jane gave each of the questions careful consideration -- a habit she seemed to have with almost any inquiry that was made of her.

"The answer to question number one is pretty obvious, Tess. Andrew looked more alert and responsive during those two or three minutes down in ER than he has at any time during the past twenty-four hours," Jane finally shrugged as she stared down into her coffee cup.

There was a moment of silence before she continued, "As far as the second question, Katie might be right. Andrew might have thought somehow that I was going to abandon him and reacted in desperation. Once he saw that I wasn't going to leave him, the trigger for that response was gone, and he didn't need to maintain the behavior any more. I must admit, though. . .he did seem much calmer and more peaceful during that so-called panic attack. Certainly not like someone who was desperate to hang on to the little bit of security he's managed to find."

"And what about the possibility that Andrew really does know you, Jane?" Monica had seen the faint nod that was Tess' go ahead, and she asked the question quietly.

"She's got a point," Tess nodded firmly. "Unless you just fell off a passing cloud into this world, somebody somewhere must know who you are. . .and I think that the odds are just as good as any that Andrew might be that somebody. And even if you did just fall off that cloud, Somebody still knows who you are."

She pointed upward, and at the mention of God, some of the pain and old sorrow seemed to melt out of Jane's face. But she frowned after a moment or so, then looked over at Monica. "You know, speaking of questions, Monica -- you never did answer the one I asked down in the ER when Andrew was so upset. Do you have any idea of what triggered the panic reaction? If we knew that, it might go a long way to prove or disprove the first part of Tess' theory."

Monica saw Tess nod almost imperceptibly towards the pocket of the long denim skirt that Monica was wearing. It took a second for understanding to sink in, but when it did, Monica muffled a little sigh of relief.

"I'd slipped on a bit of newspaper just as I was sitting down beside Andrew to wait for Katie to bring the van around," Monica reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out the piece of newsprint. "I picked it up, and that's when Andrew saw the picture and became so upset by it. And there's something else you need to know. When Andrew talked to you, Jane, it wasn't the first time that he'd spoken. He said something when he first saw this photograph, the one of the building where the homeless families died."

"May I see that, Monica?" Jane stood up and walked over to Monica. She took the picture and stared down at it for several long moments. "What exactly did Andrew say when he saw this picture?"

Again, Monica looked quickly over at Tess, and once more, Tess nodded her approval with a little upward thrust of her head. "Odd things, really," Monica tried to sound as matter of fact as possible. "It was as if he was begging someone for the lives of a group of innocent little children. As a matter of fact, he was praying for them, asking God the Father to rebuke the Destroyer for His Name's sake."

At the sound of those words, something like a violent tremor seemed to rock Jane's powerfully built frame, as though she had stepped onto a downed electrical line. Her eyes widened as she stared down at the newspaper, but she quickly looked up at the thoroughly bewildered Katie.

"Katie, could you do me a favor?" she looked up, and her expression was unreadable. "Could you go out in the kitchen and find the magnifying glass that's in the top right hand cabinet -- the one that I had out for a few minutes this morning so everyone could look at the snowflakes? Thanks."

"Sure, no problem," Katie nodded, and in a minute or two, she returned with the magnifying glass that Monica had seen in Jane's hand earlier that day.

Without another word of explanation, Jane put the newspaper down on the coffee table and carefully smoothed out all the lines and creases it had acquired from its sojourn in Monica's pocket. It had been face down when both she and John Richmond had stepped on it, so there was only the faintest hint of footprints on the side with the photograph, and the image was intact.

The other three women watched as Jane meticulously inspected every inch of the picture under ten power magnification. The room was so silent once more that Monica could hear the tick of the old wall clock and the way that the burning logs hissed softly in the grate.

"Monica, come here for a second, please," Jane looked up slowly, and her face all but drained of its usual delicate color. "Look at this and tell me what you see. And if you do see something out of the ordinary, tell me if you've ever seen it before."

Monica sat down beside Jane on the sofa and looked down at the section of the photograph that was under magnification. At first, all she saw was a meaningless blur of lighter and darker colored gray and black dots, but gradually, the dots organized themselves into a meaningful pattern.

The photographer had captured not only the burned out shell of the building, but patterns of smoke blowing across the vacant lot beside it, as well. Monica could see the blackened remains of a sign that had been put up beside the building, and she could even make out a few of the letters: ". . .rthur Reality and Develop. . ."

But as she continued to stare at the picture, something else came into sharp focus -- something that had first appeared to be only a random pattern. As she stared down at the patterns of smoke from the smoldering ruins, her eyes widened, and she, too, grew pale.

"Those are. . .faces," without even thinking about what she did, Monica shuddered. "Distorted and warped, perhaps. . .but they really do look like human faces in the smoke! Tess, please look at this and tell me if you see them, too?"

Tess walked over and gave the picture only the most cursory of glances before she met Jane's equally knowing eyes. "Faces, maybe," Tess said with a meaningful pause, then added, "but human faces? I don't think so, Baby."

For some reason, Jane didn't seem to find anything unusual about Tess' offhand remark. Katie, however, was another matter altogether, and she joined the circle around the coffee table with a snort of annoyance.

"What are you three talking about?" the practical little Katie seemed on the verge of losing her temper. "Here, let me see that. Wait a minute -- it does look like there are faces in that picture. Faces in the smoke. . .could that be why Andrew freaked out when he saw this photograph?"

"Tess, what if he was either in or near that building, the night it caught on fire?" Jane sank back against the sofa pillows.

Her posture might have been relaxed, but it was only to conserve energy for the whirl of activity that was going on in her mind. Jane gestured down once again at the headline, 'Arson, Not Accident, Now Suspected in Building Fire.' And now Monica could almost follow the flashing needle of Jane's thoughts as they stitched together the scraps of information into a recognizable pattern.

"You mean you think Andrew may have had something to do with that fire?" Katie demanded in disbelief. "That just doesn't make any sense to me, based on what I've seen of his personality and behavior around here."

"No, no, Katie, don't get me wrong. I don't think for a minute that Andrew set that fire or anything of the sort," Jane continued slowly, as she stared intently at the photograph. "But what if he saw the people who did burn the place? If he was there and did see whoever it was that torched the building, no wonder he's too afraid to speak. He must be terrified that they're coming to kill him, and the way those neighborhood bullies attacked him this morning would have just confirmed that belief. And then to see what looks like faces in that picture. . .it's a miracle that he isn't completely schizo right about now!"

Tess looked deeply into Jane's eyes, and something like a spark of understanding seemed to pass between the two of them without a word being spoken. "Oh no, no, no. Tess, that's just not possible," Jane shuddered and involuntarily clenched her fists at her side. "Surely you can't mean to say. . .?"

". . .that's exactly what I mean to say. There is no question about what those faces really are, and deep down inside, you know it as well as I do, Jane," Tess said in a deep, ringing voice, then gestured over at Monica. "And you also know who sent them there in the first place, too. But don't just take my word for it. Monica, you didn't answer the second question I asked you. Do you recognize anything about them?"

Monica nodded and swallowed hard. "Those are the same faces that I saw through the fence this morning when Andrew was attacked," she said somberly. "Those are the, uh, 'people' who hurt him."

Katie rolled her eyes and muttered something about being 'surrounded by 'em.' But this time it was Jane who shook her head and pointed down at the wispy faces in the smoke.

"Maybe the paranoid shouldn't be quite so quick to call the catatonic, 'Schizophrenic,' Katie," Jane said quietly. "Take another look at those. . .those things in the picture, will you, please? Recognize anyone?"

"Oh dear Lord help us," Katie prayed as she continued to stare at the picture. "I've seen those three before, too. They're the ones that J.D. Richmond hires to keep an eye on his car while it's parked out front. They're the ones that have been terrifying the neighborhood. . .but what in the name of Heaven are they?"

"Nothing in the name of Heaven," Tess shook her head, then closed her eyes for a moment in prayer.

When she opened them again, she added quietly as she pointed straight down, "More like the opposite direction, as a matter of fact. And unless I miss my guess, hell is about to come to breakfast, too. Right about. . .now."

Chapter Six

Almost before Tess finished speaking, the solid steel front door reverberated under the blows from a fist, and John Richmond bellowed, "Jane, open this door. I know you're in there, so don't try pretending you're not! Jane!"

At the sound of Richmond's voice, Jane's right hand curled into a fist, and she jumped lightly to her feet, her eyes full of anger. "Easy, Baby," Tess murmured to Jane, and she, too, used that tone of voice that was almost imperceptible. "Leave the Lord's work to the Lord, remember?"

Jane met Tess' straightforward gaze for a few seconds, then slowly bowed her head a little. "Monica, Katie, please go in the kitchen and wait. This will only take a few minutes," Jane gestured over at the door that led into the kitchen, and her expression was calm and full of strength. "Tess, I won't presume to tell you what to do. . . you go or stay, just as you think best."

"Oh, this is one party that old Tess wouldn't miss for the world. . .and you can just quit giving me that Eleventh Commandment look, too, Miss Monica," Tess raised one eyebrow and jerked her head meaningfully towards the kitchen.

Jane waited until Monica and Katie were out in the comparative safety of the kitchen before she opened the door. Richmond started to shove his way past her into the room, but he would have had equal success in trying to push past Mt. Everest.

"Anything you have to say to me, John Duquesne Richmond, you can say from right where you're standing," Jane said, and her voice was only marginally less icy than the snow and bitter air that blew into the room. "Speak your piece, and then get off my property."

"All I have to say is that I hope you're satisfied now. I just spoke with Mrs. McArthur, and she's ordered that the entire condo deal be stopped, just so you can keep this roach motel of yours going. You've cost a lot of people a lot of money, and I hope that all this makes you very happy," Richmond snarled at first.

But he shivered piteously as another blast of cold air threatened to freeze his slush-drenched coat into a solid mass. "Oh come on, Jane, let me in. I'm freezing out here."

"I'm not cold at all," Jane said casually. She smiled at him -- a knife-edged expression that was enough to make Richmond shiver again. . .but not from any external temperature this time. "As a matter of fact, you might say that I'm on a real hot streak right about now. Not to mention being a little hot under the collar. Are you catching a spark here, John Richmond?"

"Not in the least," Richmond tried to keep up the look of righteous indignation, but the effort was doomed to fail from the start. Snowflakes stuck to his hair and eyelashes and melted into a cold trickle down his face, as he whined, "For the love of God, Jane, will you let me in before I freeze to death?"

"For that reason and that reason only. . .and I don't mean the part about freezing, either," Jane stepped aside slightly, and Richmond stumbled into the house. But Jane continued to block his path, giving him only enough room to close the door behind him with a few inches left over for standing room. "And at that, it would have been a lot more merciful than burning to death, now wouldn't it?"

"I. . .don't understand what you mean, Jane," Richmond tried to bluff his way around the issue, but once again, Jane wasn't about to leave him that option.

"You know exactly what I mean," Jane watched his every move, and her eyes were full of anger once more. "How much did it cost Clayton McArthur to have that building torched -- the one that those homeless families died in the other night? Oh, but I forgot. This is big business we're talking about. No doubt McArthur still had insurance on that property, so any little amount that he had to pay you to hire those thugs was well worth the initial investment, wasn't it? And no doubt your silence was worth something to him, too. . .probably a lot more than you were making every month as his attorney."

Jane continued to speak in a much too calm tone of voice that made even Tess back away involuntarily. "So, just exactly how much is human life worth nowadays -- five hundred dollars? A thousand? Twenty-two hundred, tops? But certainly you didn't pay full price for the children, did you, John? No profit it in that, is there? What was the cost of one of those beautiful innocent little lives. . .answer me!"

"We never meant for it to happen that way," Richmond's face crumpled, and he tried to twist away, but Jane's grasp on his arm was implacable. "Clayton McArthur just wanted to clear away some of those worthless old buildings and maybe make up a little with the insurance money for what he's lost in the past week months. The company has been losing its shirt on the condo deal every day because of the people in this neighborhood who won't sell out. He figured maybe a few fires would help persuade the hold-outs to go ahead and sell while their properties were still worth something. So he offered to split the insurance money with me if I'd take care of the details for him."

Richmond looked at the room around him, and something about his expression told Tess that he was seeing it -- really seeing it -- for the first time. His voice was full of desperation as he said, "But when I gave those three guys the money to torch the place, I didn't know that there were people sleeping inside. I swear to you, Jane, I just didn't know!"

"The only one who sold out is you," Jane's voice was so low that even Tess could barely hear her. "You thought you paid those three. . .associates of your off in cash. But you paid a much heavier price for that fire, John Richmond -- one you don't even begin to understand. The real currency was your soul."

"Oh come on, Jane, we've had this discussion about God and souls and all the rest of that stuff, ad nauseum, for the last twenty years, and you've never convinced me that there was any such thing as a soul," Richmond tried one last bit of bravado. "It was a mistake, just a mistake, plain and simple. If there is a God floating around up there, surely He can't hold me responsible for a simple human mistake."

"A mistake? You make it sound like an accounting error," Tess walked up quietly and stood behind Jane. "God calls it sin, Mr. Richmond. Not a mistake, not human error. . .sin, plain and simple."

"Well, so much for this all-loving God of yours, then. He creates all these imperfect human beings who commit a bunch of so-called sins from some big list that He's arbitrarily set up," Richmond wore the look of an attorney who had just uncovered a fatal flaw in his opponent's logic. "He's just sitting up there, waiting for people to do something wrong so He can pounce on them for it -- whether they know it's wrong or not."

He finished up triumphantly, "And then when people do cross the line, He sends them all packing to some fictitious hell to punish them just for being what He created in the first place. He's our judge, jury, and executioner. . .that's some God you believe in, there, Jane."

"My God is a God of love, but He is also a God of righteousness who cannot look upon sin. . .sin that He clearly defines within the human heart, among other places," Jane said quietly, but there was enormous power behind each word. "Without true repentance, there is no forgiveness. That is His Law, and who are we to dispute with our Creator? Does the clay argue with the One who forms it?"

"Oh, yeah, yeah. The old 'God isn't answerable to man' bit. I could pick logic like that apart in court in about thirty seconds flat, " Richmond sneered. "And speaking of that, just in case either of you is thinking about running to the police with what you just heard a minute ago -- don't bother. You don't have a shred of solid evidence that will link me to that fire. As a matter of fact, I've just come back from Clayton McArthur's office, and I made sure of it. It's your word against mine. . .and I have a lot more experience in law and the justice system than either of you."

"This world's pale shadow of the Law, perhaps. . . but justice, no. And when you do finally stand in God's court, John Richmond, it won't be as an advocate but as a client," Jane said in that powerful tone of voice that she had used earlier in the emergency room. "Clayton McArthur could no doubt tell you that right now."

Richmond began to fidget a little under her steady gaze. And as she continued to look into his eyes, he was forced to drop his head and gaze away.

"God Himself will be the Chief Justice, and there are no appeals because His judgments are righteous and true. And unless you repent of the evil you've willingly and knowingly committed, there won't be an Advocate beside you to plead your case," Jane said quietly, then paused for a second as if listening to something that Richmond could not hear. "Oh, and by the way, God has just seen to it that you have been informed of your rights. You have the right to plead "no contest" and accept a sentence of premeditated Mercy. The choice is yours, John Richmond. . ."

"Jane, don't talk like that," he begged, and his expression was frantic, despite his efforts to remain in control. "I made a mistake, that's all. Like I said, Clayton McArthur came to me and ordered me to get some trouble stirred up in this neighborhood so the hold-outs would come to him, begging the company to buy their properties. And I -- I just got in over my head. I was about to lose everything. . .if I lost the McArthur account and all those bonuses on this deal, there went my condo, my car, everything."

There was no reply from Jane. Except for the anger that flashed dangerously in her eyes, she might as well have been carved from stone for all the response she made. Richmond gulped and then tried one last desperate ploy to convince her.

"It wasn't really my fault. It was Clayton McArthur. . .he was the one who ordered me to take care of things. It's all his fault, not mine," Richmond's voice was shrill with panic now. "Besides which, I just couldn't. . .I just can't go back to being a little nobody junior partner in some two bit law office that always smells like mildewed old law books and stale cigar smoke. Surely you can understand that, can't you, Jane? You know what it's like to lose everything."

"Everything but her integrity," Tess put a hand on Jane's shoulder. "She's kept that before the sight of God and man all these years. And if she could do it, you could have, too. You deliberately chose to disobey the law of God, plain and simple. And when you did, you let all hell loose against a lot of people who didn't deserve it."

"And I want you to know one more thing before you walk out of this house for the last time," Jane began edging Richmond backwards towards the door -- a trip of spirit more than actual distance. "The only thing that I ever lost of any importance was a friend of mine, an attorney. You might even remember him."

Jane paused to let her words sink in, then continued softly. " He had a really good heart, even if he liked to act tough. He used to leave food and clothes and little luxuries on the back porch of this group home, for people who might not have had those things otherwise. Funny thing, though. He changed so much that I don't think I'd recognize him any more even if I saw him again. But I won't be seeing him again in this world. . .or the next one, either. Good bye, Mr. Richmond."

Jane had reached around behind Richmond and opened the door while she was talking: now she took one more step forward, and he staggered backward, out onto the porch. Tess caught one last glimpse of his open mouth and staring eyes as the door swung shut in front of him. Jane locked the door and walked away, and even though her stance was tall and dignified, tears poured down her otherwise expressionless face.

Outside the door, Tess and Jane could hear Richmond's voice rising in a thin wail. Now, his voice almost seemed to be part of the bitter wind blowing smothering clouds of snow in its wake. "Jane, let me in, I need to talk to you. I have to talk to you. I've got to try and make you understand somehow, or I swear I'll lose my mind. Jane, please. . .please let me in."

Jane paused at the bottom of the stairway, her hand on the banister, and if she heard the sounds of Richmond's pleading any longer, she gave no sign of it. When she finally did speak, her voice was nearly toneless. "'Shall My Spirit contend with man forever?'" Jane quoted, and she gestured at a small plaque that hung beside the front door.

Tess looked at the little picture of a dove and the words 'Peace to All Who Enter Here' written underneath it. She nodded, then glanced over at Jane, whose face was filled with an ancient grief and weariness. But then Jane managed a small smile -- more for Tess' benefit than any other reason.

"Tess, you're welcome to come back for supper tonight or any other night, you know that, I hope. And feel free to stick around as long as you want to this morning. Heat up what's left of your breakfast, make yourself at home," Jane said quietly, and once again, Tess felt that sensation of warmth and love flow all around her. "But right now, I need to go up and check on Andrew. The doctors want us to wake him up every hour, just to be on the safe side. And even if they hadn't, I still wouldn't want him to wake up alone and be frightened."

Jane slowly trudged up the stairs, her shoulders slumped and her head down. And when Tess turned around again, she wasn't even particularly surprised to see Monica standing in the living room, trying to look nonchalant as she inspected a large potted plant.

"Oh, there you are, Tess," Monica smiled with an air of innocence. "I just thought you might like to know that Katie had to leave to go to a meeting, and Roy just called a few minutes ago. He said that someone slashed two of the van tires in the police station parking lot, if you can believe that, and he'll be. . ."

"Just cool it with the news report, Miss Wings," Tess' lip was curled -- never a particularly good sign. "I assume that you heard everything that just went on between Jane and Mr. Richmond? Good, I'm so glad you were paying attention because there's going to be a pop quiz here in just a minute. So, what did we learn from our little eavesdropping session this morning?"

"That some humans would rather store up treasures on earth than in Heaven, where the interest isn't compounded annually but eternally, instead," Monica said thoughtfully, remembering what Jane had said about Clayton McArthur earlier that morning in the emergency room.

"Very good," Tess nodded approvingly, but Monica had the tiniest of suspicions that the lesson wasn't over -- not a chance of it. "And what else did you notice about what just took place?"

Monica shivered slightly, remembering the sound of John Richmond's voice as he pounded in futility against a door that was forever closed to him. Something suddenly occurred to her, and she turned stricken eyes towards her mentor.

"Oh, Tess -- I just thought of something. Poor Andrew. . .what must he feel like when someone has refused again and again to accept God's forgiveness, and he has to turn his back while that soul is separated from God for all eternity?" Monica said quietly, then added, "And if it hurts someone as gentle and loving as Andrew that badly, how much more does God grieve when one of his precious children is lost forever?"

"Congratulations, Angel Girl, you just got an A-plus on your test," Tess said, but there was sadness in her eyes and voice. She gestured towards the living room, and Monica obediently followed her. "Come on and let's go talk about our assignment while this place is quiet. I have it on the Highest Authority that it's about time you knew what really happened to Andrew, and why we're all here in the first place -- you, me, Andrew, Jane, all of us."

"All right, Tess," Monica sat back down in her chair and started to pick up her cup of coffee. But before her fingers could close around the mug's handle, the full implications of Tess' statement sank in, and Monica's eyes widened. "Us? Jane is one of us? An angel? But what is she doing here, and why didn't she tell me that she was an angel? Is she like Claire and just doesn't remember that she's an angel? Or is she being corrected for something that she did wrong? Or is she. . .?"

"If you'll please just close those flood gates otherwise known as your lips for a second, I'll explain," Tess shook her head. She took a sip of her coffee and found that it was still steaming hot.

With that, she looked upward and smiled, "Thank You, Father. . .You knew it was gonna be a long, long day. Now, to answer some of the Encyclopedia Monica's questions, Jane is not an angel."

"She's not?" Monica looked disappointed for a second or two before Tess continued.

"No, she's not. She's an archangel, and if God hadn't deliberately hidden that knowledge from you for a short time, you would have remembered her. Up close and personal, you might say." Tess winked knowingly.

With that, the barrier in Monica's thoughts was lifted, and knowledge and memory flooded over her in a great wave. "I remember now! Jane was our supervisor. . .the archangel in charge of search and rescue! But then one day, she disappeared and no one would ever tell us what happened to her. Those of us in search and rescue were all afraid that perhaps she'd been tempted and fallen, or at the very least, was being corrected for some mistake she'd made."

"Jane? It's always possible but not very likely," Tess snorted in amusement. "About twenty years ago as this world reckons time, God called for the entire hierarchy of supervising angels and the archangels to appear before Him in the Throne Room. Of course, we were all excited and a little nervous, too, about what He wanted. It didn't take long to find out, though. God told us about a difficult assignment on earth, one that would involve not only the lives and souls of many humans, but the safety and well-being of one of our fellow angels, as well. And then He explained everything that the assignment would entail."

"I think I see. . ." Monica said hesitantly, but Tess held up a hand.

"Oh no you don't, Baby," Tess' eyes were distant as she pictured that scene in detail that was still as vivid as if it had only taken place a few minutes earlier. "What that assignment amounted to was an indefinite period of exile on this poor sad little planet. God told us that this assignment was going to be for a long period of time and involved a lot of preparation. And because of all that, it was going to be necessary for the one who was chosen for this mission to put aside even the memory of being an angel. He would have to live among people and share every detail of their lives exactly as anyone born into flesh would."

"Oh, Tess, that must have been so frightening -- even the thought of losing your identity and not having any of your powers or privileges left, I mean," Monica shuddered. "And God chose Jane for the mission?"

"No, not chose, exactly. There was a long moment of silence in the Throne Room, and God asked for a volunteer for the assignment. It was an awesome thing, one that I can't even begin to describe to you," Tess closed her eyes for a moment, then looked around the room as if slightly dazed. "But you did get one part right. We were all a little apprehensive -- well, just plain scared about everything you just mentioned. And our Jane, Father bless her brave little heart. . .Jane must have known how we felt."

"And so she volunteered for the assignment, to spare everyone else that fear," Monica looked up at Tess with a smile. "I remember everything now. I remember how Jane was always there for us after every search and rescue mission, encouraging and supporting us. Oh, Tess, she was wonderful!"

"You got that right," Tess nodded in agreement. "Anyway, after the request went out for a volunteer, Jane didn't even hesitate. She stepped forward out of the ranks and asked God to send her. But she had one request of her own, and until you've seen God smile down in love and approval on someone, Baby, you won't even begin to understand what I'm about to tell you next."

There was a pause until Tess could master her feelings. Then she said quietly, "The only thing Jane asked of God was that He keep her from doing anything to dishonor Him while she was under the cloud of forgetfulness here on earth. And He's done that for her, step by step and day by day while she's been here. Now her assignment is about to be over here in just a little while. . .and Baby, I tell you I can already hear the sounds of the 'Welcome Home' celebration that they're getting ready to throw in Heaven for her."

There was a long moment of silence while the two angels contemplated the scenes that must have played out over that twenty year time period. Finally, Monica spoke up quietly, "And Andrew. . .Andrew was the angel that Jane was sent here to help? I still don't understand, Tess. Andrew is an old hand at casework. He's seen the worst that men can do to each other: Auschwitz, Cambodia, Serbia."

Tess nodded with a heavy sigh. It was a sound that was echoed by Monica before she went on, "From what I read in the newspaper, the coroner thinks those people in that building died of smoke inhalation, probably in their sleep. What could have been so terrible about a relatively fast and merciful passing that it was enough to send him over the edge? The little ones? But, Tess, Andrew's helped so many children cross over before, even children who have died violent deaths. . .surely that alone couldn't have been the cause of it all?"

By way of answer, Tess stood up and walked over to a mirror hanging on the living room wall. "Watch me, and tell me what you see." Tess nodded. She took her fingers and wiped them against the wall. "Well?"

"I don't see anything except the wall, Tess," Monica shrugged.

Tess' fingers were still a little greasy from the buttered toast that she'd enjoyed for breakfast. And now, when she dragged her hand down the mirror, she left a long ugly streak down the glass' bright surface.

"Some of us are like that wall -- rough and tough and capable of standing up to a lot of dirt that gets thrown at us," Tess said as she sat back down. "And then some of us are like that mirror, refined and polished to reflect back as much of God's love and glory as possible. When stones and filth are thrown too hard at a beautiful, fragile surface like that, sometimes the mirror shatters. But here, it's easier to show you than explain it all to you."

With that, the streaks from her fingers seemed to swirl together on the mirrored glass. Now Monica watched as shapes and images began to coalesce in the mirror as though it had become a television screen. . .and what she saw there was almost enough to make her want to turn away again.

Monica watched as the events leading up to the fire unfolded before her. And this time, when the three 'men' stood in front of J.D. Richmond to tempt him, Monica saw them as they really were, not as they wished to appear. In his pride and arrogance, the Adversary had mocked God's creative power by warping and twisting the features and forms of his fallen angels into loathsome animals -- and these three were among the worst caricatures.

Their half-humanoid, half-animal bodies were now black and burnt from centuries of being immersed in flames. But their faces were far more terrifying to see, Monica thought. . .scabrous, bestial mockeries of the glorious angelic features they had once borne before the Great War of Separation had been fought in Heaven.

She watched as the deal between the demons and Richmond was completed -- watched, too, as Richmond's features imperceptibly seemed to grow coarser and more brutal like those of his 'associates.' Then the scene in the mirror suddenly changed, and Monica could see the three demonic figures outside the building, gleefully preparing to do what they did best: kill and maim and destroy.

But now there was someone else walking towards that building, just as the first gasoline-soaked rag ignited a pile of drywall that had been torn down from its lathe work. Monica involuntarily cried out, as if trying to warn that tall, shining figure in the white suit of the danger he was about to encounter when he turned around the corner.

Monica watched in numbed fascination as Andrew came face to face with the demons. But even she had to turn her eyes away for a second when one of them casually reached out towards Andrew with a twisted paw of a hand. In a movement almost too swift to be seen, the creature swiped contemptuously at Andrew's cheek with claws that burned instead of cut. And that had been the origin of the ugly scar that now marred her fellow angel's face like a brand, Monica realized.

Or perhaps, seen from Another's perspective, that mark now distinguished Andrew, like a soldier wearing his combat medals as he stood in the ranks. With that thought in mind, Monica found that she could look back into the mirror again: in the reenactment, Andrew was now inside the building, intent on completing his assignment despite the demonic interference.

But the demons were not so easily brushed aside. It was obvious that an angel was a far more interesting target than mere human beings, and their faces were full of hellish glee as they surrounded Andrew in a ring.

Monica watched as they hit him and spat in his face again and again. For his part, Andrew stood still, never uttering a bitter or accusing word against his tormentors: instead, he looked up trustingly, praying for deliverance from them.

And even though she was separated by time and distance, Monica could sense a little of what it was to be attacked by such unrelenting evil. She could almost feel the way that it pressed down like a solid black mass on the heart until everything good and pure and lovely seemed to shatter and then vanish for a time beneath its crushing weight.

And as Monica also knew well from recent experience, no one angel -- no matter how powerful -- was a match for three demons unless God intervened. To rely entirely on God was the way of Heaven, and His power alone was the only way to overcome evil. Bur for reasons that Monica could only guess, He chose to withhold much of that strength and might from His angel in the present situation.

There was a deep sadness in Andrew's eyes, and it would have been easy to think that it was the result of feeling 'abandoned' by God. But now Monica could sense that the grief and pain in his face was actually a reflection of an infinitely greater Sorrow -- just as the glow around the angel of death was always the reflection of a much greater Glory, as well.

And in a few more seconds, the scene played itself out fully before Monica's eyes. She watched as one of the demons -- the one who had thrown the stone at Andrew that morning -- snatched up one of the sleeping children and dangled the small body in front of the angel for a second.

Andrew's prayers took on a new urgency, but his petitions were not on his own behalf. It took all of Monica's will to force herself to watch as Andrew prayed desperately. . .only to watch as the demon casually hurled the tiny form directly into the fire. The evil spirit laughed at his cry of pain, and Monica watched as it seemed to feed off that emotion with the same enjoyment that a human being might eat a meal.

The last thing that Monica saw was the look of anguish in Andrew's face, while the demons gloated over him. Monica watched as he slowly sank to the ground: his eyes were numb and his face empty as he stared at the flames around him. With that, the picture winked out suddenly -- leaving nothing but the bright, still surface of the mirror shining softly in the light.

There was still so much that Monica didn't understand, even if some things were a little clearer at last. "Tess, I was in search and rescue for a long, long time, and I never once had a demon interfere with an assignment," she shook her head in confusion. "Not once."

"Well, guess what, Angel Girl, neither had Andrew -- not head-on like that, anyway." Tess sighed heavily. "Not every angel will have to deal with demons. . .just the ones that God is training to put on the very frontlines of the battle."

She unbuttoned the cuff of her long-sleeved blouse and rolled the fabric up so that Monica could see her arm. A thin white scar glimmered faintly just below the elbow, and Monica instinctively knew that it had the same source as the marks on Andrew and Jane's faces.

"Usually, God sends warrior angels to protect us while we protect humans," Tess rolled her sleeve down and re-buttoned her cuff. "Oh, you usually can't see them, any more than the people usually see us, but they're there, all the same. You have to understand something, Baby. Andrew's not hurting because he felt like God abandoned him. He's hurting because this is the first time he's been in direct contact with pure evil, and it was like pouring straight sulfuric acid on his heart."

Tess paused to let Monica absorb that information, then added gently, "What Andrew doesn't know yet is that the Father took those people home without any fear or suffering, not even that little girl you saw thrown into the fire. God heard Andrew's prayers for them and rebuked the Destroyer. Oh, it was their time to go home, all right, but it wasn't the ordeal that it could have been if he hadn't prayed for them."

"I'm still confused. Why didn't God send warrior angels to protect Andrew this time instead of setting up such a complicated situation to rescue him afterwards? Or is that another question whose answer I can't comprehend?" Monica's thoughts flashed back to Jane's proverb, earlier that day.

"Oh no, Baby, you'll be able to understand the answer because old Tess is going to preach it plain, to quote my favorite search and rescue archangel," Tess smiled, giving Monica an extra squeeze. Monica sat up straight, and seldom had she ever paid any closer attention to what someone was about to say to her.

"The answer is simple, but it's not always easy," Tess continued. "God works all things to the good for those who love Him and are called together according to His purpose. In a fallen world like this one, bad things are going to happen to good people sometimes. . .and to good angels, too. But even when evil does happen, God knows about it and is still in control. God never promised to spare anyone pain because it's all part of the refining and polishing process that makes us into what He wants us to be. And in the end, God will weave what we think are the dark and broken threads into a beautiful tapestry, whether we understand what He's doing or not. Period, end of subject!"

Tess held up a restraining hand, just in case Monica's question had a few more brothers and sisters just like itself. "But sometimes, God does give us a glimpse of why things happen the way that they do," she continued. "You know yourself that you don't really understand something until you've experienced it firsthand. I can guarantee you that Andrew will be even more effective at his job, now that he personally understands some of the horror that lies ahead for people who choose darkness instead of light. God can and will use the pain Andrew's been through to work an eternity of good for others."

Monica understood the analogy completely. She had gone into case work with many naïve ideas, only to run headfirst into the brick wall of reality -- and with each new case, her understanding of people had grown. If that kind of knowledge was vital to help humans make right choices about temporal things, it must be even more critical when it came to helping people make the most important decision of all, Monica knew.

"Just like this morning," Monica nodded thoughtfully. "I didn't do what I was supposed to, and Andrew got hurt again because of it. But it was part of God's plan to get Jane over to the hospital waiting room. And because of that, Mr. Richmond couldn't take advantage of Mrs. McArthur when she was so vulnerable after her husband's death."

"You got that right. . .and that's one story that's anything but over yet," Tess continued. "As far as your other questions are concerned -- if Andrew had been the only one who needed Jane's help, you might very well have a point about prevention rather than intervention. But as long as we're talking about the big picture, take a look around you and tell me what you see."

Tess gestured at the room around them with all its mementos of the people who lived in the group home. A row of little clay pots that Luis had made stood all along the fireplace mantel, while Tony's lop-sided but lovingly woven raffia and bead wall hanging fluttered on the wall. Everywhere that Monica looked, there were more such tokens of love that had been given to Jane over the years.

"God sends archangels when a situation involves many lives. Jane's rescued a lot more than just a lost angel boy, Monica. She's created a place of safety for a lot of people -- a refuge that's going to continue on in one form or another long after she's returned to her Heavenly home," Tess said. Then she added with a wink, "And if all goes well, she may have one last earthly rescue to her credit before she takes over her responsibilities as an archangel again, too."

Until that point, Monica had understood everything that Tess had just told her. But now, Monica once more struggled with Tess' well-known talent for being mysterious. And when she failed to reach any conclusions, she turned towards Tess and started to ask the latest barrage of questions. . .

. . .only to discover that her timing, so carefully honed during her tenure in search and rescue, had apparently "taken a powder," to quote another favorite Tess expression. Her breakfast tray empty and her coffee cup drained, Tess now snored peacefully beside Monica on the sofa.

The sleeping angel wore an expression of complete relaxation -- no doubt due in part to the fact that it was impossible to nap and answer questions at the same time. With a rueful shrug, Monica got up quietly and tiptoed out of the room. With a wee bit of luck, she might be able to squeeze one more cup of coffee out of the pot in the kitchen, she thought to herself.

Ah, good! she smiled a minute later as she hefted the carafe and found that it still contained several inches of coffee.

Even if I don't understand the last part of what Tess said. . .well, Father, I still have the feeling that I'm really, REALLY going to need this coffee by the time things are all said and done around here.

And even though the pot had been turned off well over an hour ago, it came as no particular surprise to Monica that the coffee she now poured for herself was as hot and steaming as though it had just been freshly brewed.

Chapter Seven

The snow continued to fall all day, and by early afternoon, schools and business had already begun to shut down in the face of near blizzard conditions. It had only been with some difficulty that Roy and Katie had managed to round up all the residents from their respective offices and sheltered workshops and transport them back to the group home before roads were closed. And when she woke up from her nap, even Tess had admitted defeat, gratefully accepting Katie's offer of dinner and a place to sleep until the red convertible could be dug out of its cocoon of snow the next morning.

But the house was strangely quiet, Monica thought as she watched Clarence and Luis putting together a jigsaw puzzle on the living room floor in front of the fireplace. Even the Nintendo's beeping and buzzing seemed oddly subdued in the background, and whenever anyone spoke, it was in tones that would have been appropriate for a funeral home or a hospital ward.

Which, in a way, I suppose it is, Monica sighed. She looked up the darkened stairway as she walked past on her way out to help Jesse with the supper of macaroni and cheese and hotdogs that he was preparing. A light shone dimly from one of the rooms at the other end of the upstairs hall, and Monica gave a brief thought to going upstairs to check on Jane and Andrew both.

But the last three times that she'd tiptoed past the opened door of Andrew's room, she'd seen the same thing, and there wasn't a great deal of reason to believe that anything had changed much. When Monica had seen him last, Andrew was still sleeping, although somewhat fitfully now: occasionally, he murmured a few words that might have been a prayer, but whether for himself or someone else, Monica had no way of knowing.

Jane sat in a straight backed chair in one corner of the darkened room. She clutched the big teddy bear that Andrew had been given at the hospital, her chin resting on top of its soft brown head. And apparently she hadn't moved from that spot or even changed position all afternoon, from all that Monica could tell. Several mugs of cold cocoa sat on the nightstand only inches from her left elbow, and even the Almond Joy candy bar that Katie had set down beside her was untouched. . .a sure sign of the chocolate-loving Jane's real mental state, if ever there was one.

At first Monica had thought Jane was watching Andrew as he slept. But after a few seconds, she realized that Jane was actually staring beyond him at the frosted window pane and past that, out toward the evening darkness. Her lips were moving quietly, and if Monica had been the betting type, she would have wagered that Jane was praying for everyone concerned: Andrew, Mrs. McArthur, the people here in the group home, and yes. . .even for John Richmond.

Some silences were too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of speech, and Monica knew this was one of them. She had backed away quietly from the door, then rejoined the others in the warm, well-lit kitchen and living room below. Then she'd spent the rest of the afternoon playing games with the other residents and reading to them until it was time to begin supper preparations.

But before she could step into the kitchen, a blast of cold air swept over her as Roy Armstrong came running inside the house. He had been outside, shoveling a path between the porch and the sidewalk, but at the moment, the redness of his round face had more to do with fury than with the cold air.

"Monica, go call the police and tell them that I said to get their sorry behinds over here, right now and no excuses this time, either," he snapped, trying to untangle himself from several feet of brightly knitted scarf and a heavy down-filled jacket. "I just saw John Richmond walk past here on the other side of the street about ten minutes ago, and if he's wandering around on foot in weather like this, it's not to pay a social call, you can bet. And then that bunch of hoodlums of his came by, and now they're hanging around outside. They've got pop bottles full of something with them, and I'm also willing to bet it ain't the pause that refreshes. Go on now. . .hurry!"

Tess looked up from the game of cats cradle that she had been playing with Micah, and her face was stern. "Go on, Monica, do what the man tells you," Tess started to add something else about "Molotov. . ."

And at that moment, something came hurtling through the front window and landed against the floor with a bright flash of burning rags and exploding gasoline. Micah shrieked as the flames erupted by his feet, but before a single curl of fire could touch him, Tess had swept him up in her arms and was already headed towards the back door.

"Fire!" Roy shouted as the shrill of a smoke alarm tore through the house's silence. "Everybody out, just like we practiced!"

A second fire bomb shattered another window, sending more flames leaping against a chair: in less than thirty seconds, the afghan over it had melted from the intense heat, and the chair itself was an inferno of burning cotton and wood. The mirror on the wall shattered from the sudden change of temperature, and the entire room quickly filled with a cloud of lung-wrenching black smoke.

It seemed to Monica that the world was filled with nothing but the crackle of flames and the pounding of feet as the residents emerged from the basement and out of the other first floor rooms. They had all been trained well in evacuating the premises in the event of fire: Monica could tell that by the way that they ducked low to the ground, away from the layer of smoke and gas that was as deadly as the fire itself. They moved quickly in single file, and soon everyone was headed towards the back door, even Larry and Steve, the most severely handicapped.

Behind Monica, the living room was now fully engulfed: the dry and crumbling plaster had ignited quickly and now spread the fire from wall to wall. Something else suddenly occurred to her as she turned to join the line of fleeing people.

Angels could not die, even when in human semblance, but those bodies could still suffer pain -- Monica knew that from personal experience as well as simple observation. And given Jane's frame of mind, as well as Andrew's recent traumatic encounter with fire, almost anything could be happening to them right now.

"Jane and Andrew!" she blurted out, not entirely sure what would happen to them in their present state of unknowing. "We have to help them!"

"No! Not that way!" Katie cried out, grabbing Monica's arm just before the angel could turn around and dash back up the stairs. "There's a fire escape from the second floor, right down the hall from Andrew's room. They'll be able to get out that way, but we can't get to them from here. We'll have to go outside and then up the stairs to be able to help them if they need it!"

She was right, Monica knew that even before an enormous chunk of ceiling crashed down only a few feet from the kitchen doorway, effectively blocking off the staircase. With a desperate look backward, Monica allowed Katie to lead her outside to the back yard where the rest of the residents huddled together now, as much as for security as for warmth in the cold night air.

Tess came running back from the house next door. "The fire trucks are on their way, but it's going to take a few extra minutes because of the snow," she panted, then looked around at the frightened cluster of faces. "Mrs. Hoffman says that everyone can stay in her house until things are under control. Katie, why don't you take everyone over there and keep an eye on them? And where's Roy?"

"He went around to the side of the house. He said he was going to go help Jane," Monica gestured at the east side of the house as Katie led her charges towards the house next door. "I suppose he meant that he was going up the fire escape and then help Jane with Andrew."

"Wonderful -- that's just what we need," Tess nodded, but Monica could have almost sworn that there was no sarcasm in her voice. "I thought I saw one of those three characters running away just when I stepped out of Mrs. Hoffman's house. . ."

As if punctuating Tess' sentence, a boom ripped through the air, diminishing even the enormous crackling and snapping noises of burning wood. A few seconds later, the darkened east side of the house was illuminated by a gigantic wave of flame just as Tess and Monica rounded the corner and headed towards the fire escape.

"Baby, there is no time to waste with anything as silly as walking if we're going to get there in time to help Jane and Andrew," Tess announced firmly as she inspected the scene. "We're going to have to get up to that room, angel style."

"But Tess, Jane and Andrew are angels. It's not as if they're going to die. They can't die," Monica started to protest as Tess reached out to take her hand.

"Maybe they can't, but there's someone else up there who can and will," Tess snapped. "That's why we're taking the express bus to get there."

With that, everything vanished around Monica. . .fence, snow, flames, even the world itself seemed to disappear. She found herself standing inside Andrew's room: the floor boards were already starting to sag as the fire ate at them from underneath, and the walls were alive with dancing, darting tongues of flame.

Monica peered through the smoke as Andrew walked towards them, but he was not as she had seen him only an hour before. Once more, he was dressed in a shimmering white suit that no ash could ever discolor, no flame destroy, and he was surrounded by the golden glow that was the reflected glory of God.

But now, it was a healing light that bathed Andrew, and it slowly increased in power and intensity until its radiance dimmed even that of the fire. And as the light grew, the pain and fear vanished from his face: soon, even the burn scar dwindled to a thin white thread on his cheek. Now, his eyes were full of awareness instead of that terrible emptiness, and he smiled warmly at Monica and Tess.

"Andrew, where's Jane?" Monica asked before Tess could say anything. "Let's find her and get out of here, please. . ."

". . .not so fast, Miss Wings," a deep, rich voice said from the corner of the room. "We have one last bit of business to transact here before we can go. . .the final thing that I was sent here to do."

Like Andrew, Jane now stepped through the smoke and billowing waves of heat, and her movements were as casual as if she was walking through a garden instead of an inferno. And like Andrew, too, Jane had been transformed. Instead of faded blue jeans and a secondhand sweater from some box of used clothing, she wore a flowing white garment: its rich golden brocade work caught the fire light and reflected it in a splendor that was almost as dazzling as the glory around her.

White flowers of a kind that had never bloomed on earth were entwined in her long silver hair, and their fragrance was even stronger than the smell of smoke. She wore a belt made of some golden-colored leather studded with hundreds of bright gemstones, while a pair of sandals made from the same two materials flashed on her feet.

And it was the firelight glittering from those jewels that drew Monica's eye downward. At first, she thought that the dark object at Jane's feet was a pile of clothing or a bundle of rags. But then the figure groaned and stirred, and Jane gestured down at John Richmond's burned form. And when she did, there was a compassion in her face that was more beautiful than any earthly painter could have ever hoped to capture.

"He came on foot so as not to attract attention. He wanted to warn me of his suspicions," Jane said in a voice that was like the ringing of a great bronze bell. "He wanted to tell me that he thought the three 'men' were planning to destroy this house and everyone in it. He'd seen the light on in this room and rightly guessed that I was here. And when he saw them throw the firebombs at the house, he came up the stairway to help me get the residents out of the building. He was caught in the explosion a few minutes ago."

"Jane, we're running out of time," Andrew said gently, holding up his gold pocket watch.

"Very well, my friend," Jane smiled, then gestured at Tess and Monica. "We each have our part to play if this soul is to be given one last choice before it departs from the body that housed it. Tess, we need your intercession. Monica, Andrew -- I leave it to you to speak the words of God's love and His power to forgive. As for me, I will help hold back these creatures of evil until the choice is made. And then, what must be will be."

She stepped aside just long enough for Monica to catch a glimpse of three blackened and twisted forms huddled together in the corner. They gibbered and spat at Jane as she turned once more to face them. . .but the glory of the Lord that reflected from her held them at bay more effectively than any chains.

A glory that surrounded yet another figure, as well. If the transformation in Jane and Andrew had been awe-inspiring, it was equally so in Roy. All illusion of softness had vanished from his face and body, and Monica could see massive muscles rippling under the white linen tunic and brown trousers that made up the uniform of a warrior angel. Roy's eyes were like bits of flame themselves as he looked down at the trio of demons at his feet, even though his voice was cheerful when he spoke to Monica.

"Hi ya, kid," he smiled at her. "Bet you never would have guessed me for the warrior angel type, huh? Must mean I'm doing my job right."

"Tess. . .Monica -- somebody?" Andrew interrupted Roy's ebullience with a meaningful look down at Richmond. He tapped the pocket watch's gold hunter case, and the gesture was heavy with significance.

"This one's all yours, Baby. . .yours and Andrew's," Tess gave Monica a little push forward. "You two can speak the truth like a house afire, and this man's gotta hear that truth, like right now."

Monica nodded and stepped forward, then knelt down and turned John Richmond's bruised and battered face towards her. "Mr. Richmond, I am an angel of God, sent here with a message for you," she said firmly, and she could feel strength radiating from herself, as well as from Tess and the other angels.

Richmond groaned and opened his eyes -- eyes that went wide with surprise and a little fear, too. "You can't be an angel," he gasped, choking on the smoke and the heat. "They don't exist."

"Angels do exist. Why, you've entertained one for the last few years," Monica smiled and stepped aside briefly to let Richmond catch a glimpse of Jane and Roy. "Several of them, in fact."

"The message that God sent me to tell you is that He loves you. He can't just gloss over the things that you've done, but He still loves you very much," Monica continued gently but inexorably. "In a few moments, Mr. Richmond, your body is going to die. And then the part of you that is eternal will either go to be with God or you will depart to the place that's appointed for all murderers and those who make and love a lie."

"If God exists at all, He hates me for what I did," Richmond choked out the words, just as a burning piece of ceiling tile crashed down only inches from his head. "I already made my choice. . .I knew that when Jane closed the door on me this afternoon. That's what it's going to sound like in a few minutes when God slams the door on any chance of His love or forgiveness."

"That's not true, Mr. Richmond. You're still alive, and you can still make a different decision, even here at the last possible minute. And let me tell you right now that no choice is a choice, as far as God is concerned," Andrew said quietly. "You can do one of two things. You can ask God's forgiveness for your part in the deaths of those ten people. And in that case, I will be here to take you to a place that is more beautiful than you can ever begin to imagine -- a place where God Himself will wipe away your tears."

He paused briefly, and Monica was awed that a face so gentle and loving as Andrew's could be as stern and uncompromising, as well. Andrew brushed the thin scar on his cheek, then gestured at the three demons still held at bay in the corner.

"Or you can say no to God's offer of love and mercy. And when you die, then Roy and Jane will have no choice but to step aside and let those three take you with them," Andrew continued. "The place that Monica told you about is so terrible that the worst suffering you ever experienced on this earth will seem pleasant in comparison. And those aren't just words -- I know what it's like to fall into the hands of evil. You feel as a solid steel wall has been put up between you and everything that's good and pure and beautiful and holy. And if I don't want that to happen to you, imagine how much more God wants you to escape from it."

"But I'm afraid. . ." Richmond whimpered, and Monica started to speak, but a warning head shake from Tess made her stop instantly. "I'm so afraid."

He continued to moan under his breath, and it was obvious that he was too caught up in his fear and guilt to respond. Monica looked at Andrew, who shook his head and looked away, deep regret showing in every line of his face.

But at that moment, Monica remembered something she had heard Jane say earlier, and now she whispered the case worker's favorite prayer, "Dear God. . .help!"

Like all prayers, her prayer was answered. And like many answers, what she received was not what she had expected: nevertheless, it was the only thing that could have lifted John Richmond out of his labyrinth of self-pity and useless incrimination. Useless, the angels all knew, because it was mere self-serving emotionalism, with nothing of true repentance about it.

"John Richmond, you fear death, not because it is separation from all that you have known, but because you are afraid to face God," Jane suddenly spoke in a voice that made the very air seem to tremble under the weight of her words. "And you are right to be afraid, for it is a terrible thing to stand before God in His anger and judgment."

Richmond moaned again and tried to shrink away, while the three demons leaned forward, peering around Roy at the dying man. The glitter in their eyes intensified, but then they snarled in rage as the air once more became heavy with the scent of the flowers in Jane's hair.

Jane knelt down beside Richmond, and he took in a deep breath of the perfumed air that was part of the fragrance of heaven itself. With that, some of the terror and confusion in his eyes seemed to dissipate, and even the tone of his weeping changed. All the coarseness and brutality suddenly melted out of his face, making him look as vulnerable as a small child. Andrew smiled and nodded at Monica to go ahead with the words he knew God have given her.

"But it is a wondrous thing to stand before God as one of His precious children. Don't you remember what it was like when you were a little boy, coming home late in the afternoon when it was getting dark?" Monica spoke again, and her voice seemed liquid with love and mercy. " Maybe you'd been in a fight with one of the other children, and you were dirty and tired and your shirt was ripped. But when you got home, your father was already standing there with his arms held out to you to comfort you."

"And that's how you have to come to the Father. . .as one of His little children who needs His outstretched arms and His love. You see, people think they can buy their way into Heaven with charity and good works, but that's just not true. Because in the end, it's not so much what you did or didn't do for God. It's what you let God do for you that matters," Andrew said, then snapped the pocket watch shut. "It's time, Mr. Richmond. Choose this day who you will serve."

The room was suddenly flooded with a silence that seemed to go on and on forever, and Monica knew without being told that its origin was in the very heart of God. Again, she felt that sense of balance all around her: now she knew that it was the invisible fulcrum of human choice -- the only choice that ever really mattered.

Even the crackling of the flames was momentarily hushed before that eternal balance point. And it seemed to Monica that the world itself must split in two under such a great force as this: two sides in an ancient war, each one relentlessly pulling at the soul that was caught between them.

Even a tiny sigh was enough to tip the balance, however, and Monica saw Richmond look up towards the source of that enormously small sound of compassion. A single tear glittered on Jane's cheek, a living gem that far outshone the ones that she wore, and as that tear fell, it was enough to outweigh all fear and hesitation.

Despite the sobs that still shook him, Richmond's face filled with a peace that he had never known before. "I'm so sorry, God," he managed to whisper a few words into the silence. "I'm so sorry. . .Father."

His head slumped to one side, but that look of peace continued to glimmer on his face. Andrew smiled and tucked the watch back into his pocket, then reached out and put his arm around the shoulder of the person who now stood beside him. John Richmond stared down in bewilderment at the small tattered bundle of flesh that he had once been, then shook his head as though awakening from a long and unpleasant dream.

Behind Roy and Jane, the three demonic spirits wailed and writhed, knowing altogether too well what punishment lay before them for allowing a soul to escape. One of them slashed at Roy's ankle, then howled in pain and rage: its claws bounced impotently off flesh that might as well have been made of iron.

"You cheated!" one of them spat up at the angels. "All of you cheated! This soul belongs to us, and we're taking it with us!"

As if by way of answer, the glory of God grew even more intense around Jane as she stood up, and the three demons screeched in an agony of terror. "You foolish ones, you cannot even stand before a reflection of the glory of God," the archangel said firmly. "How then do you mean to stand before His throne and tell Him that His judgments are not just and true? Be gone from here, and depart to your own appointed place. The Lord rebuke you!"

The three spirits seemed to shrink in on themselves: then they vanished with a pop and a sour little stench that hung in the air for a fraction of a second. John Richmond stared at the place where they had been, and his expression was still a little dazed, like that of a man who has unexpectedly won some magnificent prize or uncovered some great treasure.

Roy grinned at the four angels and gave a thumbs-up sign. "I'm outta here, folks! Mr. Richmond, I'll be seeing you again in just a little while. I can already hear the sounds of rejoicing in Heaven for both you and Jane. . .and this is one celebration that I'm not about to miss!"

Roy disappeared instantly, but the sound of his laughter seemed to hang in the air for a few seconds after he was gone. Andrew continued to support Richmond for a little while, but then the floor that had only been sagging now collapsed with a roar and an enormous shower of sparks. Without their support, the burning walls caved in, swallowing up the room and what it contained.

None of that mattered very much, either to the spirit that was John Richmond or to the four angels who now once more stood unseen in the back yard, watching as fire companies tried vainly to save the old house. In their present state, time meant no more to any of them than cold or discomfort, and they stood there for several long hours until the last fire truck pulled away from the smoldering ruins of the building.

Jane had stood apart a little way from the group as the house was consumed by the fire. Now she sighed sharply, and Andrew started to take a small step towards the archangel who was his friend and teacher. Perhaps he intended to comfort her just as she had once done for him. Or he might have wanted to thank her for the sacrifice she had made on his behalf, even without knowing precisely which angel she was eventually to rescue.

And judging from the look on Andrew's face, he wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to tell her, himself. But Tess once again put a restraining hand on his arm and smiled gently at him.

"Not right now, Andrew," Tess said softly. "There's all of eternity to tell Jane how much you appreciate what she sacrificed for you and everyone else, and what her love and friendship has meant to you. But for now, let's just let her say goodbye to the people and the place that she cared about on this earth, OK?"

Andrew nodded, and he obediently took a few steps back until he was beside the spirit entrusted to his care once more. Finally, he looked meaningfully over at Richmond and at that, a glowing doorway seemed to open up in the distance, beckoning man and angel alike with its promise of peace and beauty.

"I know we have to go now, and I'm looking forward to it," Richmond smiled at the angels. "But before we go, there's something I want to do first."

"All right, Mr. Richmond," Andrew looked hesitantly over at Tess, who merely winked and nodded her reply. "What is it that you wanted to do before we go?"

"Just this," Richmond took a few steps until he was directly in front of Jane. "Jane, about that sense of humor that you always said attorneys don't have. . .?"

He leaned forward, and for a second, it appeared that he intended to kiss her on the forehead. It was a moot point, however, as to which angel looked the most surprised when Richmond tapped Jane's arm and yelled triumphantly, "Tag, you're it. . . I'll race you! Last one to the light is a rotten snowball!"

Three angels, one with his arm around the shoulder of a departing spirit, left the back yard suddenly: three angels trailed three identical blazes of glory behind them like stars falling to the sky, instead of from it. Only one angel remained beside the old gazebo, and she shook her head, rolling her eyes upward.

"I am much, much too old and a wise an angel for nonsense like this," Tess grumbled, then tilted her head to the side for a second. "Then again, maybe somebody ought to show these angel babies that the race is really not to the swiftest or the strongest. . .but to the one who knows all the short cuts!"

If some celestial referee had been watching the race, it would have no doubt been too close to call.

Epilogue

A line of cars moved through a suburban neighborhood in Chicago: the section was slowly but surely recovering from the urban blight that had once threatened to eat away at it. More and more of the old houses had been given fresh coats of paint, and several of the vacant lots now contained playground equipment or small flower gardens.

Most of those cars seemed to be headed towards one particular house: a brand new two story brick building with a beautifully restored marble fountain and white gazebo in the back yard. Some kind of a celebration was taking place at the house: people swarmed the side walks and filled the front yard, while a crowd of VIPs stood on the front porch.

Even with such celebrities as the mayor and a former U.S. senator standing next to her, an older woman still seemed very much at ease, her large diamond rings flashing in the late August sunlight. She stood beside a plaque that had been fastened to the wall over the front door. Now, Edith McArthur's gaze strayed over the crowd of people who were waiting to see the plaque unveiled.

And her gaze rested on a bright patch of sunshine on the sidewalk across the street for several inexplicably long moments. Even the empty spot on the sidewalk was unusual in and of itself: none of the people who filled the area seemed willing to stand there, even though it afforded a good view of the house and ceremony.

"Do you think she knows we're here?" Monica asked uneasily after another minute had gone by and Mrs. McArthur continued to glance over at the spot where she, Tess, and Andrew now stood. "She keeps looking over here like she can tell we're standing here."

"You just relax, Monica," Tess advised with a knowing smile. "Take my word for it, no one can see us."

"Hi, Angel Ladies! Hi, Andrew," a voice made all three of the angels jump a little. . .Andrew more so, perhaps, than his two companions.

Little Jesse smiled widely at them as he rode by on his new bicycle. "Boy, you sure do come around here a lot lately, Andrew. When you go back to Heaven, tell God I said hi and give Him a hug for me."

"Will do, Jesse," Andrew fought to hide his smile, and Tess watched as Jesse disappeared into the crowd once more.

"Are you sure that kid isn't an angel?" Tess demanded, and Andrew shrugged eloquently.

"Hey, don't look at me. I'm just your friendly neighborhood angel of death. What do I know?" his face was a study in beatific innocence as he hastily added, "I mean, other than everything that you and Jane ever taught me, that is, Tess."

"And speaking of Jane, where is she, anyway? Sometimes I think she'd be late to her own funeral, " Tess rolled her eyes at Andrew's last attempt at appeasement.

"But angels don't die, so they don't have funerals," Monica said with a studied innocence of her own.

"Don't you think I might just know that, Miss Wings, after a few centuries on the job?" Tess found herself in the cross fire, and she glared in exasperation at her two meekly smiling companions. "But if -- I say IF -- they did, she'd be late for hers!"

"I taught them humor, strategy, and good timing, Tess. The only things that I left for you to teach them were tact, prudence, and wisdom," a voice behind them made all three angels start a little. . .again. There was a long pause before the inevitable, " So what happened?"

For lack of any other angelically acceptable alternative at the moment, Tess turned around to greet Jane. And for that reason, she missed Andrew's elaborate charade of the wind-up, the pitch, and the umpire signaling that the batter was most definitively. . .

". . .Out!" he mouthed silently at Monica with a wink.

Tess saw Jane's bemused expression and whirled around again -- just in time to see Andrew exploring a crack in the pavement with the tip of his shoe, as if he had never seen such a phenomenon before. His hands were jammed into his pockets, and he wore an expression that would have done credit to any seasoned poker play or ten year old school boy caught under similar circumstances.

Tess' back was now to Jane, who smiled and raised a conspiratorial eyebrow at Monica and Andrew. This time when Tess turned around again, Jane gestured graciously over at the house.

"So, Tess, it seems that I'm just in time," Jane said calmly, and Tess would have been willing to bet that there was more than just a little veiled meaning behind those carefully phrased words. "Since only Jesse can see us and I've sworn him to secrecy with the help of the occasional Almond Joy bar -- why don't we try to get a little closer before the ceremony begins?"

Tess grumbled her assent and walked across the street ahead of the other three. But they could still hear her mumbling to herself under her breath, ". . .surrounded by 'em. Everywhere I look, I am just plain surrounded by 'em."

They made their way through the crowd until they stood directly in front of the house. They watched as Katie Phillips herded a group of men onto the porch: then a deep silence fell over the crowd as the mayor handed Mrs. McArthur a microphone.

"Mr. Mayor, esteemed Senator, my friends and neighbors, we have come here today to pay special tribute to the people who lost their lives here, eight months ago today," she said quietly then paused for a few seconds. "I will not call their deaths a tragedy because a tragedy implies hopelessness and despair. There was nothing hopeless about those who willingly laid down their lives in an attempt to save another -- only joyful courage and a loving sacrifice."

A gentle breeze stirred the edges of the plaque's cover, and for a moment, there was no other sound except the song of a bird and the distant sounds of the city. Mrs. McArthur smiled and went on, "And as their friends, we who are gathered here today must not give into despair. We grieve our loss, yes, but we know that they are with God even now, enjoying such beauty and joy as we may only glimpse from time to time, 'as though in a mirror darkly.' One day, we will see them and know as they now know, but until then, we must carry on with the vision of a better world that was their legacy to us."

As he stood there listening, Andrew once again flinched almost imperceptibly at a sudden movement near him. Jesse had slipped away from the others on the porch and wriggled his way through the crowd until he stood directly in front of Andrew and the other angels. He smiled a huge, gap-toothed grin up at Andrew, who winked down at him.

For a moment, Mrs. McArthur and many in the crowd struggled to master their emotions. But then the older woman spoke again, this time in soft but ringing tones that were so like Jane's. "And in keeping with the dreams that Jane Smith shared briefly with me before her death, it is my privilege to formally open this new residence which will be a place of love and shelter for many, many people in the years to come."

The crowd applauded vigorously, and Mrs. McArthur gave a solid tug to the cord that released the plaque's cover. It fell away, and there was a moment of silence, followed by another round of applause -- this one even more enthusiastic, as everyone saw what was written on the plaque for the first time.

An angel had been portrayed in the center of the bronze marker, but not the usual sweet, meek figure so popular in certain kinds of pastel art prints. This angel was powerful, and the bronze eyes looked out over the crowd as though seeking out the lost and helpless.

And above them all were the words that Mrs. McArthur now said in those ringing tones that were so reminiscent of Jane's own, "Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome you to 'Circle of Angels' Group Home."

Andrew applauded with the rest of the crowd, and when he looked over at Jane and Tess, he wasn't at all surprised to see them each surreptitiously wiping their eyes. He put his arms around their shoulders and gently pulled them a little closer.

"Hey, after this is over, how about if I buy my three very favorite 'angel ladies' a bite to eat? Tess, I know a little place downtown that serves a wicked breakfast any time of the day -- you should pardon the expression," he smiled with equally 'wicked' intent. "The coffee is great at this place, so you'll be happy, Monica. And Jane, they make a fudge brownie pie that is to die for, especially á la mode. Take it from the guy who knows."

"About which part. . .the pie, the á la mode, or the 'to die for'?" Jane asked mildly.

"Absolutely," Andrew nodded. "Like I said, my treat."

Jane met Tess and Monica's gaze with a questioning little shrug, and they nodded their approval of his offer. But before she could confirm that consent with Andrew, she paused, listening to a message that the other three angels were not privileged to hear.

"Looks like your plan's a winner, Andrew," Jane said with a quick glance upward. "There's still something that needs to be done here, though, and you're the angel for the job. Tess, Monica, and I will go on ahead, and we'll meet you at Al's Diner in about ten minutes."

With that, Jane, Tess, and Monica all vanished in a great flash of white light, like the sweep of powerful wings. Something occurred to Andrew, and he started to call out after the others.

"That's Al's Diner on the corner of. . ." Andrew's voice trailed away as he realized what Jane had just said. "Why is the angel of death always the last one to know about everything?"

A small tug on the edge of his coat brought Andrew's thoughts sharply back into focus, and he looked down into Jesse's face. He had forgotten all about Jesse standing there. . .let alone the fact that he and the other angels were perfectly visible to Jesse, for whatever reason God might have. Most of the crowd had already headed towards the refreshment tables, and now the two of them were left standing together in front of the house.

"Hey, buddy, what can I do for you?" Andrew dropped down on one knee beside Jesse. "I don't have any candy bars like Jane does, but how about a hug, instead? Makes you feel almost as good as chocolate and doesn't do nearly the same number on your teeth."

"I wanted to tell you a secret," Jesse whispered and then pointed up to the plaque. "God said I'm going to live here for a long, long, long time. Jane told me that the other day. And she's an angel like you, so she should know. And so is Tess and so is Monica. Did you know that, Andrew?"

"Yeah, Jesse, I knew that," Andrew smiled quietly over at him. "Hey, pal, I've got to run now. If I miss picking up the tab for those three 'Angel Ladies,' I'm going to be in big, big trouble. You go get some punch and cookies now, and I'll talk you again soon, OK?"

"But you didn't hear the secret yet," Jesse pointed at the marker once more. "I pray all the time now like you told me to. And the other night, God told me that He was going to give you a present just because He loves you and doesn't ever want you to be afraid again. God told me He wants you to look at the picture really, really, really good."

If the truth were to be told, Jesse's words had shaken Andrew more than he even wanted to admit. There were times when he was still afraid . . .a fact that he had confessed only to God and himself. Shadows, sudden movements, even the sound of a lighter being clicked nearby -- all of them were enough to disturb him, despite his attempts to master that fear.

"So God told you to tell me that?" Andrew asked gently, testing Jesse's reaction. "Jesse, are you sure that God told you all that. . .or do you think you might have just wanted to make a friend happy and maybe made some of that stuff up? You and I have talked about being afraid before, especially the way you feel sometimes now that Jane isn't always around. And you know I was pretty scared when I lived here, so maybe you just wanted to make me feel better if you thought I was still afraid sometimes."

But now Jesse shook his head emphatically. "I did NOT make that up, and God really, really, really did tell me to tell you to look at the picture," he insisted. "I didn't know about that silly old picture until they put it up there this morning. And besides which, even I don't know why you're supposed to look at it 'cause God didn't tell me that part. So there, Andrew!"

"OK, OK. . .I get the idea," Andrew nodded as he stood up. Seeing Jesse's indignant look, Andrew pretended to wave an invisible flag in surrender, then gently teased him, "Guess that means I need to take a really, really, really good look at it before I go, then, huh? Talk to you later, buddy!"

Jesse nodded, a little more mollified than he had been only seconds before. "Bye, Andrew. . .and don't forget to give God that hug like you promised!"

"OK, Jesse, I won't forget," Andrew nodded as Jesse ran off towards the refreshment tables.

Out of the mouths of two or three witnesses, Andrew thought to himself as he walked towards the house.

Once given, an angel's word was never to be broken if at all possible, and now Andrew vaulted lightly up the stairs and onto the porch. He smiled down at Katie, the new director of the group home: she walked among the crowd, talking with the people whose lives Jane had touched.

Father, if they only knew what Heaven is really like, Andrew smiled, watching as people wept and hugged and traded reminiscences with Katie. If they knew how much You really love them and what's waiting ahead for them, they wouldn't ever need to cry or be afraid again.

And as he stood there, he looked more closely at the angel on the plaque, then felt something like a small electrical shock go down his back. Line for line, expression for expression, the face was his own. . .even down to the small slip of an engraving tool that had formed a thin white 'scar' on the figure's cheek. Andrew smiled as he touched the almost invisible mark on his own face -- the one that Tess and Jane called his 'combat medal.'

Something rustled at his feet, and when he looked down, he saw that it was the piece of paper that had covered the bronze marker a few minutes ago. A sudden gust of air caught the paper and lifted it, just as a piece of newspaper had blown across the hood of Tess' car on that winter day, not so many months ago. But this time, the paper's shape blurred and coalesced into the shape of a white dove. . .

. . .and as Andrew watched, the dove flew past him, lightly brushing the top of his head with its wings. He shook his head as he smiled ruefully up at the sky.

"Message received and understood, Father. 'Preach it plain, Andrew. . .and don't forget to start with yourself when it comes to trusting and not being afraid of what lies ahead,'" he chuckled out loud. "Only You, God! Only You can deliver such a gentle, loving, compassionate. . .bop on top of the head!"

With that, his face was entirely peaceful again, untouched by even the smallest shadow of fear. Above him, the dove circled once, then disappeared into the sweep of sky above, hurrying towards Heaven.