War In Heaven

A Sequel to "More Joy in Heaven"

Prologue

"And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon fought with his angels. . ."

-- Revelation 12: 7, KJV

There were many things to be said for being an angel: comforting the ill or injured; giving encouragement to the despairing; rescuing someone in danger. . .

. . .never having to stand in line at the baggage counter to pick up your luggage.

Andrew smiled as he walked down the ramp from the plane to the main terminal, balancing one perfectly packed flight bag. Thanks to the suspension of a few minor scientific details such as mass and volume, that suitcase now contained two weeks' worth of clothing and necessities. . .all of it weighing not one ounce over the forty pound limit for carry-on baggage and packed so neatly that even Martha Stewart would have been envious.

Not that would have probably mattered a great deal even if his suitcase had been over the weight limit, Andrew shrugged to himself as he stopped for a moment to get his bearings. The 727's first class section had been almost empty, and judging from the handful of passengers who now straggled past him, even the coach class hadn't been very crowded, either.

But I'm certainly not complaining, he thought.

Ordinarily, an angel didn't need an airplane to reach his destination, and anything that he required for his assignment was provided for him when he arrived on site. But this time, God had specifically directed Andrew to travel on a commercial carrier without telling him why, and it hadn't occurred to him to question his instructions. Obedient to the will of the Father as always, Andrew had simply reported to the gate and boarded his flight to Paris without even bothering to check his tickets.

A few speculations did go through his mind about why an angel from his particular department might be on board a commercial airline, but he'd tried to dismiss them. And if the angel of death himself had been a bit edgy during the flight, he could just imagine what the passengers would have felt like if they had known the real identity of the tall blond "tourist" in the first class section. Fortunately, the entire trip had gone smoothly, and the exhausted angel had slept through what was surely one of the fastest intercontinental flights on record.

Andrew shook his head at that thought, then picked up his luggage once more and set out to find a taxi. Tucked in the outside flap of his suitcase were dozens of brightly colored and well-thumbed travel brochures, each one claiming to offer the "vacation of a lifetime."  Bastille Day festivities; every gastronomic enticement from bistros to the Michelin Guide's top-rated restaurants; film festivals. . . the travel brochures promised all of those things and much more.

But considering that some of his previous vacations had included meeting Ernest in Spain that time to run with the bulls or scuba diving with his friend Jacques off the coast of Australia, Andrew wasn't holding out any real hopes that the travel folders were going to deliver what they promised. Especially when things were starting out on such a discouraging note.

For one thing, Andrew had envisioned just a little grander introduction to the City of Lights. . .porters still smelling of Gitanes and vin rouge as they offered to carry Monsieur's luggage, perhaps, or elegantly dressed men and women greeting each other in a language that was like music. But even the airport terminal itself was disappointing as he looked around at it. For one thing, it was just. . .well, just so small. It was certainly nothing like the imposing structure that Andrew always pictured when he thought of a major European airport -- soaring arcs of glass and steel, glittering with light and activity.

Then there was the little matter of all those signs and billboards wherever he looked. As far as he could tell, there didn't seem to be a single advertisement for Brie or Pernod or Châteuneuf-du-Pape anywhere.

I spent all that time over the last few years practicing my grammar and accent with Michel and Jean-Pierre and the other Angels of Elocution. . . for this? Andrew shrugged ruefully as he inspected a bright red and yellow poster on one wall. "Excusez-moi, Mademoiselle. Je voudrais un 'Happy Meal,' s'il vous plâit. Et hold le ketchup."

Not that all those elocution lessons really mattered much at the moment, anyway, he sighed to himself. For all his ability to hear what was going on around him, he might as well have been at the bottom of a swimming pool. . .

. . .ever since that afternoon in May, he winced at even the thought.

And for reasons that were equally inexplicable, the Father had chosen to do nothing about His angel's disability, even after repeated petitions from Andrew. Even now, he frowned, trying to follow the conversations that he could see taking place around him. But people were speaking too rapidly for him to understand them, no matter what language they were using, and finally, he gave up the attempt.

Now, if I could only turn off the sounds in my mind this easily, too. . .

With a shiver, Andrew let that thought trail away. Feeling even more disoriented than he usually did after a long flight, he stepped up to a near-by Information Desk. The attendant had her back to him, and Andrew rapped softly on the counter to get her attention. He wanted to ask her a question about the local hotels, and he was hoping that he would be able to read her lips well enough to understand what she was saying.

But at that instant, a young woman walked past Andrew, carrying a tiny black-haired girl in her arms. And with a child's instinctive knowledge, the toddler recognized the angel for what he truly was: laughing and cooing, she reached out to touch him.

"Shiny man," she laughed. "Man shine."

The little girl's hand closed around a fold of his jacket, and even that small touch was enough to make him recoil unthinkingly. The child's mother saw the horrified look that Andrew now wore, and he could see the woman's lips moving in something that might have been an apology or a rebuke as she snatched her daughter away from him. Red-faced, Andrew wanted to follow the woman and try to make her understand what he himself didn't completely comprehend.

But before he could take a single step, a wave of dizziness and nausea swept over him, until he felt as if his legs were about to buckle underneath him. The Information Desk attendant turned around in time to see Andrew make a desperate grab for the edge of the counter, and now his face was almost as pale as the white linen suit that he wore. But in his haste to regain his balance, he accidentally brushed against a stack of brochures piled up on one corner of the desk.

And from the flustered Andrew's perspective, it seemed as if there were thousands of pamphlets falling in a storm of brightly-colored paper. He ducked his head in embarrassment, then knelt down and started to pick up the booklets that had fallen on his side of the counter -- anything to avoid meeting the woman's gaze for a moment.

"Pardonez moi, mais. . ." Andrew winced, hoping that he remembered the right words to make his apology.

He stood up and started to replace the brochures on the desk -- only to find himself staring into a familiar pair of eyes. She might have been wearing a very official-looking uniform, but there was no mistaking the identity of the person with the silver-streaked black hair and warm brown skin who now smiled at him.

"Tess!" Andrew yelped, then blushed as dozens of people turned to stare at him: apparently his voice was working quite well, even if his hearing wasn't. "What are you doing here?"

"The same thing you are, Angel Boy," Tess grinned. "We're all here on assignment -- you, me, Monica, all of us."

Over the past two months, Andrew had become reasonably proficient in lip-reading if the other person spoke slowly enough, and now he had no trouble following what Tess was saying to him. But he shrugged in confusion, remembering why the Father had sent him here in the first place.

"Uh, Tess, I'm on vacation, remember?" he protested, gesturing down at his suitcase. "The Father gave me two weeks off after. . .what happened a few months ago. He said that I needed to rest and take some time to . . ."

He swallowed hard at even the memory of that bright California afternoon not so long ago, and the amusement instantly vanished from Tess' eyes. She saw the way that Andrew's knuckles whitened as he clutched the handle of his suitcase even more tightly. . .and despite his brave smile for her benefit, there was still an edge of pain in his green eyes that the angel of death couldn't quite conceal.

"I know, Andrew. . .the Father told me all about it," Tess nodded. "That's why He sent you to Paris to rest and take some time to heal up. That's part of your assignment for the next two weeks. And part of our assignment is to make sure that you follow your instructions to the letter. As a matter of fact, Monica is getting everything ready for you right now. "

Andrew sighed heavily, then immediately felt a stab of guilt over his less-than-grateful thoughts. He could already imagine himself trying to lip-read Monica's endless chatter over the next fourteen days: the little brown-haired angel with the Irish accent always seemed to have more questions than the average TV game show host.

And then there was Tess. Andrew watched as she turned over the "Open" sign behind her desk, so that it now read, "Closed."  She walked around the counter, then paused for a moment and looked down at the desk. Then, with a snort that all but rattled the glass ceiling panes above her, she tossed her 'official' hat down on the counter top.

That gesture had a great deal of finality about it. . .perhaps a little too much finality, Andrew shrugged wearily to himself. And judging from the "take charge" expression that Tess now wore as she walked towards him, any hopes of long, peaceful strolls down les rues de Paris by himself were fading away quickly.

Well, so much for the idea of having some time to myself, he sighed. Father, forgive me for even thinking this because You know I do love Tess and Monica with all my heart. . .

. . .but is there any chance that Monica might develop a sudden case of laryngitis? Not a very bad case -- oh, let's just  say for the next two weeks or so? And if You needed Tess somewhere to take care of something more important, I'll manage to get by on my own, somehow.

"I know what you're thinking, Mr. Halo -- and not a chance," Tess spoke slowly and with great emphasis. "The Father sent us all here for a reason, and as one of your supervisors, it's my job to see that you rest and enjoy yourself. And you will enjoy yourself, one way or the other. Am I making myself perfectly clear on this subject?"

"Yes, ma'am," Andrew nodded meekly, then managed a reasonably cheerful smile for her benefit.  "So, where are we staying while we're here? The Michelin guide talks about this really great hotel near La Rue de Les. . ."

"Forget it, Angel Boy," Tess shook her head and gestured imperiously towards the front of the terminal. "We already have reservations at a place not far from here. And it's a good thing that we had some divine intervention to find a place to stay, too. Most of the hotels are already filled up because of the big food industry convention that's in town this week."

"A food industry convention? Wine producers from Bordeaux, maybe, or a meeting of cheese makers?" Andrew asked as they walked down the concourse. "I love a good Brie with some water biscuits and a glass of  pastis. . ."

"Well, not exactly," Tess said, and now Andrew was certain that he saw a 'wicked' glint in her eyes as she stopped and faced him. "Try the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Soybean Growers Association."

"A soybean convention?" Andrew frowned. "In Paris?"

"Of course there's a soybean convention going on here this week. . . and why not?" Tess smiled. "I'll have you know, Mr. Halo, that this is rapidly becoming one of the prime soybean-producing areas in this country. I can't think of a better place to hold a convention."

"Tess, I didn't know that soybeans even grew in France. . .much less near Paris," Andrew shook his head. . .and suddenly he had a sinking feeling about why that plane had been so empty.

The feeling only grew worse when he looked up at the glass and steel ceiling and saw a white dove hovering like a messenger outside. It might have been just an ordinary dove. . .but somehow, Andrew had his doubts.

"Who said anything about France?" Tess grinned again. "Let me be the first one to welcome you to Paris. . ."

She made a sweeping gesture towards the front of the building, then added, "Paris, Nebraska."

Chapter One

Ten minutes later, Andrew sat in the front seat of Tess' red convertible, trying not to choke on the dust thrown up by the car's tires as the two angels sped along a gravel road. And to his way of thinking, Tess' smile was unnecessarily smug as she occasionally took one hand off the steering wheel to point out some feature of the landscape. . .scenery which seemed to consist mainly of soybean fields and advertisements for fast food restaurants.

Neither topic had ever been of particular interest to him -- even though they did seem to have a certain affinity for each other, now that he considered it. And at the moment, it was taking every ounce of his angelic discipline to keep his annoyance with the entire situation under control.

This is not my idea of a " vacation in Paris," Andrew grumbled to himself as he spit out something. . .and fervently hoped that it wasn't a bug. There's almost as much dirt in the air as there is on the ground, the insects around here are the size of  helicopters, and so far, all that I've seen are miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles!

But suddenly, he felt ashamed of his complaining -- especially when he stopped to think about the way that he had ended up here, contrary to his expectations. The Father had gone to great lengths to see to it that His angel arrived at this particular destination, and it certainly wasn't God's fault if Andrew's failure to consult Him had led to some erroneous assumptions along the way. And even if he didn't exactly understand how Nebraska and/or soybeans factored into God's perfect plan for a certain tired and heartsick angel of death, Andrew was still confident in the Father's love for him.

Father, I thank You and praise You -- even for Paris, Nebraska, he prayed quietly. Please forgive me for my attitude, lately, and not just about the travel plans, either. I know Your will is perfect, even if we don't always understand it. . .

"He knows how you feel, Angel Boy, and He loves you very much. Not in spite of your honesty with Him -- but because of it," Tess turned her head toward him slightly so that he could read her lips. "That's why He sent you to the wrong place at the right time. . .and I'm not just talking about the flight out here, either."

Andrew gave her a puzzled look: ordinarily, only God had the right to know the thoughts of His creation, whether of men or angels. But now Tess seemed to have acquired the ability. . .that, or else Andrew was going to have to have a long discussion with his face about what it was saying behind his back. So to speak.

"No, I'm not suddenly into mind-reading," Tess said. "You were praying louder than you thought you were. And no matter what happens over the next few days, I want you to remember what I just told you about being exactly where God wants you to be. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Andrew's nod was noncommittal, at best. He was well acquainted with Tess' penchant for being mysterious -- a habit of hers that had been hard enough to deal with before he'd lost his hearing, let alone now. But before he could think of a diplomatic way to ask his 'chauffer' what she really meant, Tess turned off the road and onto a long, tree-shaded driveway.

To one side of the road, a neatly hand lettered sign proclaimed, "Rooms for rent -- by the week or by the month." There was a smaller sign underneath it, but weeds had grown up in front of it. Now the only letters that Andrew could read as they drove past were ". . .tle Angels Da. . ."

"There it is. . .home, sweet home for the next two weeks," Tess pointed towards a two-story white farm house at the end of the lane.

The house was a far cry from an elegant hotel with a spectacular view of  la Tour Eiffel. But it certainly looked nice enough in a home-y sort of a way, Andrew decided as Tess parked the car in front of the building. A comfortable old rocking chair beckoned from the shaded porch, while bright red and orange marigolds spilled out luxuriously from wooden planters on either side of the steps.

As the two angels got out of the car, a big black and tan German Shepherd yawned at them from a mat by the front door, and its tail beat a staccato welcome against the wooden floorboards. On the top step, a yellow cat blinked lazily in the hazy afternoon sunshine, and Andrew bent down to scratch its ears before he followed Tess to the door. The cat purred softly as it rubbed against Andrew's legs, and for the first time since he'd stepped off the plane, he felt some of the tension starting to melt out of his shoulders and back.

More like the first time in two months that you've been able let your guard down, Andrew, he nodded to himself. Maybe this place isn't going to be so bad after all.

He still couldn't hear anything that was taking place around him. But now that he stopped to pay attention, he could feel the vibrations of footsteps on the other side of the door, just as he had felt, rather than heard the dog's tail thumping on the boards and the cat's purring.

The cat rubbed against Andrew's ankles once again, and just as he bent over to give it one more pat, the screen door opened. He straightened up and glanced over at Tess, who now exchanged greetings with the woman inside the house. Feeling like the proverbial lost ball in tall weeds, Andrew dropped his head sadly for a few seconds, unable to read Tess' lips when she was speaking so quickly.

But then the woman stepped outside, and Andrew braced himself for the exaggerated attempts to communicate and the uncomfortable smiles that inevitably seemed to follow whenever he introduced himself to someone who could hear. He looked up with the bright smile of a child putting on a brave front, despite its fear of the unknown. . .

. . .and found himself staring into yet another very familiar pair of eyes. Green eyes with crinkly lines at the corners, as if their owner laughed a great deal -- just as she was doing right now. Andrew's suitcase hit the porch with a thump that made the floorboards quiver under his feet, and he stepped into a pair of outstretched arms that beckoned lovingly to him.

"Jane!" he buried his face against the tall, silver-haired archangel's shoulder for a moment, and it was impossible to tell from his voice whether he was laughing or crying. "It's so good to see you! But what are you doing here? I thought you were still the archangel in charge of Search and Rescue."

"That's still my department," Jane smiled at him. "As a matter of fact, I'm on assignment here, too. My job here is a little different than yours, but God asked me to handle this case personally."

Andrew stepped back slightly and looked down into the face of the angel who had been his teacher and his friend.  Judging from the slow, calm way that Jane spoke, someone -- or Someone -- had already filled her in on his hearing loss, he realized now. But something about the archangel's innocent comment about her assignment made Andrew shiver, and she saw his involuntary reaction. She rolled her eyes with comic exaggeration and then slapped her forehead with the palm of her hand.

"Duh, Jane, way to go -- let's just stand here and let Tess and Andrew keel over from heatstroke," she gestured at the door. "Come on in, and I'll see what I can do about getting us some iced tea or lemonade. You do still like lemonade with a touch of sirop de framboise in it, don't you, Angel Boy?"

"Absolutely," Andrew grinned as he bent down and picked up his suitcase. "I learned that little trick from you. . .among other things."

Jane chuckled as she held the door open for Tess and Andrew, then followed them inside. The archangel took Andrew's suitcase and set it down at the foot of a long staircase, then gestured for the two angels to come with her. They walked into the living room, and Tess immediately collapsed onto an overstuffed sofa, kicking her shoes off with a groan of relief.

Andrew sat down in a high-backed chair near a set of swinging doors, then looked at his surroundings with an interest that he hadn't felt in several months now. The furniture was lovingly cared for and obviously of Victorian vintage. . .in fact, time almost seemed to have been suspended here. Even now, he almost expected a mustachioed Victorian gentleman to walk in and hang his bowler hat on the hall tree made from deer antlers or a woman in a long dress to pick up the stereopticon laying on the marble-topped table by the front window.

As if she, too, could read his thoughts, Jane smiled and gestured around her at the room. "It's not exactly the Ritz, but it's home for awhile. At least until the woman who owns the place gets back from a trip to New Jersey to take care of her sick daughter, anyway. Sharon needed someone to fill in for her around here, and I just 'happened' to be the only person in Paris with the necessary credentials for the job. And it's certainly a step up from the last place that I took care of.  Isn't that right, Andrew?"

He nodded in agreement, trying not to flinch as he thought about that time in the not-so-distant past when he'd spent time in a group home run by Jane. The Adversary's minions had driven him nearly to the brink of insanity, until all memory of being an angel vanished completely from his heart and mind. And like Andrew, Jane had also been under a cloud of forgetfulness, although for far different reasons than her friend and former student. But in the end, God's love and compassion worked more than one miracle in the lives of everyone involved -- man and angel alike.

Now Andrew smiled as Jane walked by him: the archangel gently ruffled his long blond hair in her usual gesture of compassion and concern, then disappeared through the swinging doors for a moment. He sighed in pure contentment as he leaned back in his chair, and for the first time in months, some of the pain lessened in his eyes and face.

He glanced over at Tess and started to say something to her. But she met his gaze for no more than a second or two at most, then turned away from him and stared at a carved ebony table at one end of the sofa. Andrew watched as Tess elaborately inspected an antique bisque statue of an angel protecting a small child.

Her actions effectively cut off any chance that he might have had to ask her a question. . .and that appeared to be her intention, too. Andrew frowned to himself unhappily: it wasn't like Tess to ignore her "Angel Boy" like this. Her expression was strained, and this time, there wasn't even a trace of smugness in her face as she stared at the figurine.

Is Tess mad at me because I was glad to see Jane? Andrew looked plaintively up toward Heaven. Surely that can't be it, Father -- Tess never gets jealous just because Monica and I are friends with other angels. Well, almost never, anyway.

But before he could finish his prayer, Andrew felt the floor give a little under his feet, and he looked up just as Jane came through the swinging doors once more. She balanced a heavy silver tray that held three glasses full of ice and a cut glass pitcher of lemonade that had been delicately colored and flavored with a few drops of raspberry syrup.

Linen napkins, three small plates, and a china platter heaped with molasses spice cookies also sat beside the pitcher of lemonade. Andrew's nose told him that the cookies were still warm from the oven, and for a moment, he was distracted by the thought of one of his favorite treats. Jane saw Andrew's delighted expression and smiled at him as she sat the tray down on a mahogany sideboard.

"Lemonade with sirop de framboise, exactly as promised," she turned toward him so that he could read her lips as she filled the glasses with the pink liquid. "And I knew you like molasses spice cookies, so I baked a double batch of them this afternoon while I was waiting for you and Tess to get here."

But the sight of three glasses reminded Andrew of something else. "Monica likes lemonade, too," he said as he took the beverage that Jane held out to him. "Where is she, by the way? I thought you said she was on assignment here, too, Tess."

"That's right, Andrew, she is," Tess shrugged in weary resignation as Jane sat down beside her on the sofa, and the archangel raised a questioning eyebrow at her co-worker. "She's just a little busy right now, that's all."

"Tess, you mean you haven't told him about this place and what. . .?" Jane began, and this time there was no way to mistake Tess' expression for anything except what it was --  a wince of discomfort.

But before Jane could finish her sentence, Andrew felt the wooden floor creak and give under his feet again. This was a much different sensation from even the powerfully-built Tess and Jane's firm footsteps: judging from the way that the boards bounced and swayed, a herd of elephants was playing tag on the other side of the swinging doors with half a dozen rhinoceroses and a Mack truck.

He looked up just as Monica walked through the doors, and he quickly muffled a small smile. The brown-haired angel looked as disheveled as if she had just tap danced with a tornado, and she wore a desperate expression as she gestured over her shoulder towards the kitchen.

"Jane, I need some help!" Monica gave the archangel a piteous look, and now more than ever, Andrew realized exactly how much he missed being able to hear her warm Irish accent.

He made a noise under his breath, and Monica gave him a startled look, as if she hadn't even noticed him sitting there, less than three feet from her. She smiled at him, but it was obvious that she was too distracted by whatever was going on out in the kitchen to talk to him.

"Andrew, it's good to see you, and we'll talk later, but right now, I really need some help!" Monica moaned. "Tess, Jane -- will one of you please come out and stop wee Jeffrey from eating up all the graham crackers? I told him that they were meant for everyone's snack and that he had to share with the other children. . .and he bit me on the ankle!"

In her agitation, Monica spoke too rapidly for Andrew to understand everything that she was saying, but he caught one word with ominous clarity: 'children.'  The blond angel put down his glass and stumbled to his feet, then took a step toward Tess. His face was suddenly ashen, and his eyes were full of desperation as he looked at his supervisor.

"Will one of you please explain what's going on around here?" Andrew's voice cracked slightly. "What's this about children?"

"I. . .didn't want to tell you until I had to," Tess said, and she dropped her head to avoid meeting his gaze -- a gesture that Andrew had never seen her make before. "Andrew, one of the reasons that God sent you here is because this is a day care center -- Little Angels Daycare Center, as a matter of fact. The Father said that there's something that He wants you to do for Him while you're. . ."

But before Tess could finish her sentence, the swinging doors burst open behind Monica, and what seemed to be an entire flock of children tumbled into the living room. One small red-haired boy carried an empty graham cracker box, and he wore a smug look of triumph on his crumb-covered face -- which no doubt accounted for the anguished wails that were being sent up by the other children.

"He ate all the snacks, Miss Monica! Jeffrey ate. . ." a blonde girl in a red gingham sun suit sobbed. . .at least until she looked up and saw Andrew, who sank slowly back down on his chair.

The little girl's expression brightened instantly, as if she had just spotted a friend. She stared in delight at him for a few seconds and then ran toward him as fast as she could. Before Andrew could voice a protest, the child crawled into his lap and rested her small golden head trustingly on his shoulder -- seemingly unaware of his frozen stance or the pain that wrenched his face.

When the other children saw what the girl had done, they, too, surrounded Andrew's chair, demanding their share of attention from him. There were probably no more than seven or eight children at the most. . .but in his present state of mind, there seemed to be dozens of toddlers, all of them pulling at his coat with sticky hands or trying to touch his face and his shining blond hair. Jane saw the look of horror on Andrew's face, and she jumped to her feet, pausing only to exchange worried looks with Tess. The archangel crossed the room in a few swift steps and reached out to put a steadying hand on Andrew's shoulder, but her efforts were too late.

Oblivious to anything except the need to escape, Andrew stood up and thrust the child at an alarmed Monica. As Monica held her, Therese's mouth opened in a sob, and she held out her arms to her newfound friend. The angel of death shook his head desperately as he stumbled past them, but Monica could have sworn that she saw him mouth the words, "I'm sorry. . .I'm so sorry" at the little girl.

Jane caught Andrew's arm before he could stumble through the swinging doors into the kitchen, but he wrenched free of her light hold. And when Andrew turned toward her, even the unexcitable archangel flinched at the pain and anger that she read so clearly in his face.

But then his expression crumpled as he looked into Jane's eyes -- eyes that were warm with the reflected light of God's love and mercy.  He dropped his head for a second or two, unable to meet that loving gaze. . .and when he looked up at the children who huddled around Tess and Monica, his face was nearly expressionless.

"Not again, Jane. . .not the children," his voice was barely above a whisper. "Father, forgive me, but I just can't do this again -- not this soon."

He shook his head again, then stumbled past Jane into the kitchen: in a few seconds, the other three angels heard the back door open and then close again with a bang. Monica sat the child down on the chair that Andrew had just vacated, then looked up just in time to see the glances that Tess and Jane exchanged. Jane nodded as if Tess had asked her a question, and the archangel smiled down at the children, gesturing toward the kitchen.

"How about if we go find a snack for everyone? I just happen to know where there's a big pan of brownies," Jane held open the kitchen doors. "Monica, I can handle this one. Why don't you sit down and rest for a few minutes? You've certainly earned a break this afternoon -- not to mention combat pay and a Purple Heart, courtesy of Jeffrey."

The room was momentarily filled with squeals of glee as the children eagerly followed Jane into the kitchen, and even Tess managed a small smile at the sight. She sat back down on the sofa, then looked over at Monica, who still stood by Andrew's empty chair.

"Tess, Jane. . .aren't one of you going to go after Andrew?" Monica frowned. "And what did he mean about not being able to do this again? Does it have anything to do with his hearing? And how can he refuse an assignment that God has given him?"

"No, Baby, we aren't going to go after him -- not yet, anyway," Tess shook her head wearily as she leaned back against the sofa. "And as far as Andrew's disability is concerned, the problem isn't that he can't hear. The problem is that he's hearing just a little too well right about now. . .except that all the sounds are locked inside him, where he can't get away from them. No matter how hard or fast he tries to run away, they're going to follow him, just like the tail on a kite."

Tess sighed and closed her eyes, her lips moving quietly in prayer. The only other sound in the room was a big ceiling fan, its blades sluggishly re-arranging the July heat. . .but when Tess opened her eyes again and looked over at Monica, it felt as if  the temperature had dropped by several degrees.

"Andrew thinks that by running, he's going to get away from the pain and guilt that have been haunting him for the last two months," Tess said somberly as she glanced over at the bisque figure of the angel and child again for a moment.

And this time, there was definitely a chill in the room when she added, "But the only question he should be asking himself right about now is whether he's running away from something. . .or straight toward it."

Chapter Two

The white farm house was little more than a dot in the distance behind him by the time that Andrew finally collapsed under an ancient oak tree. He'd stumbled again and again as he ran, tripping over roots and rocks in the field behind the house: now his face and clothes were smeared with dirt, and his hair was plastered wetly against his forehead. But he seemed oblivious to the scrapes and bruises on his hands and face as he rocked back and forth on his knees. He could hear sounds all around him -- popping noises like a car backfiring and then the shrill sounds of . . .

"No!" he cried as he pressed his hands against his ears to block out the noise.

But when he looked up at the tree branches swaying silently overhead in the breeze, he realized that there had been no change in his actual ability to hear. Even so, the noises continued to grow louder, and now they seemed to strike him physically, like blows from a heavy fist..

"Please, Father. . .please make it stop," he begged, unable cope with the sounds any longer -- especially the most terrible one of all.

Silence.

But not the silence that most people thought of when they heard the word: the reverent hush of a church, perhaps, or the almost inaudible whisper of the wind in some scenic place, far from traffic and city noise. No -- this stillness seemed to have more in common with an animal crouching in triumph over its prey or a thief stealthily entering a building to steal and to kill.

Now that silence pressed down on Andrew until he felt as if his heart and mind were about to be shattered under it, and he cried out unthinkingly.  He shut his eyes even more tightly, but the late afternoon sunlight still flooded through his closed eyelids. A shadow fell across his face, and he gasped in surprise as he quickly sat up to face whatever loomed above him.

He half-expected to see Tess or Jane standing over him, or even Monica, perhaps. Instead, he found himself looking into a large pair of brown eyes that were level with his own: the German Shepherd wagged its tail and then gave the angel's dirty, tear-stained face a swipe with its tongue as it leaned against him in comfortable companionship.

"Ok, boy, I get the idea," Andrew managed a small, sad smile as he put his arm around the dog's broad neck. "Seems like we both could use a friend right about now. . .at least I know I could, anyway."

The dog laid its head on Andrew's knee protectively, and its tail swished in a wide, happy arc on the dusty ground behind it.  Dog and angel sat together for a few moments, and gradually, Andrew felt some of the pain and panic begin to ease in his heart and mind. He turned his face up to the sun and closed his eyes for a moment, letting the warmth penetrate his aching muscles.

But a shadow once more fell across his face, and this time, he could feel the low rumbling that was the Shepherd's growl as the dog stood up protectively. Andrew opened his eyes and looked around him, then shook his head. As far as he could see, there was nothing except fields and the distant house.

Probably the shadow from a tree branch, he thought. It must have swayed in the wind just enough to. . .

But there it was again -- a flicker of movement just barely inside the range of his peripheral vision. And at that moment, the sun disappeared behind the clouds, while a sudden breeze sent the tree branches swaying overhead again. The wind now carried with it an unmistakable odor that made the dog snarl and Andrew recoil: the acrid smell of cheap alcohol and unwashed clothing.

"Who's out there?" Andrew called, as he caught a glimpse of another dark shape dancing just outside his full range of vision.

But this movement was on the opposite side from the first, and with all the speed and strength of an angel, Andrew spun low to face whatever it was that was playing games with him. But there was nothing except soybean fields as far as he could see in any direction. . . and certainly no sign of anything living -- human or animal.

He turned around again, and he would have felt foolish. . .except that when he looked down, the Shepherd's hackles were still raised and its upper lip was curled back over its sharp white teeth. It stared towards the distant house, and as Andrew glanced in the same direction, the dog threw its head back in a series of thunderous warning barks.

He was too far away to see more than vague shapes and outlines of anything around the house. But for an instant, he could have almost sworn that he saw something slipping around the side of the building -- a dark form, like the shadow of a human being. But even if someone had been playing tricks on Andrew a minute ago, he knew that it couldn't possibly be the same person.

No human being can move that fast, he thought.

He looked down at the dog. . .or more accurately, the empty place where the dog had been. Somehow the Shepherd had managed to slip away from Andrew without his knowledge and had run the length of the field with the speed that only four legs could manage. Now the dog was almost at the far edge of the field near the house, and all that Andrew could see of the animal was a distant black and tan blur.

Andrew watched as the dog swept across the playground, then lunged straight for the shadowy figure. . .and this time, the angel didn't bother with anything as slow and mundane as running to get from one end of the field to the other.  Making use of his supernatural privileges, he materialized in the back yard, less than five feet from the swing set and the snarling dog. He took a step toward the spot where he had seen the figure, then stopped abruptly. There was no sign of anyone or anything beside the house. . .nothing at all.

And like his angelic companion, the Shepherd also seemed confused by what had just happened. The dog took a step forward and sniffed at the ground, near the spot where Andrew thought he might have seen someone. But there were no footprints in the dust to attract the dog's attention. . .nothing except what looked like a small puddle of oil or an oddly-shaped shadow thrown by the house's ornate wooden trim. As the angel and the dog both watched, the sun came out from behind a cloud, and even the black spot disappeared -- although Andrew could have almost sworn that it seemed to melt into the ground instead of vanishing instantly like a shadow.

At that instant, someone touched his shoulder, and he gasped in fear and surprise. Suddenly he was furious with his own helplessness, thanks to the deafness that seemed to cancel out the rest of his angelic abilities. His fists were clenched at his sides as he spun around -- only to find himself looking into Jane's eyes once again. 

"I. . .thought I saw someone slipping around the corner over there," he stammered, uncomfortably aware of the dirt on his face and clothing. "The dog saw something, too -- at least he acted like he saw something, anyway. I saw him barking over there by the side of the house."

Jane nodded, speaking slowly so that Andrew could understand her. "I heard King barking, so I came outside to check out the situation. We've had some problems lately with a man who lives out in this area. And with the children here, I try to keep a close watch on what's going on."

"Problems?" he asked, trying not to flinch at even the mention of the word 'children.' "What kind of problems?"

"The man's name is Thomas Kayne, and he's a drifter with a criminal background. No one seems to know where he stays -- an abandoned house, or maybe an old barn that no one uses much, anymore," she said. "At first, he went from farm to farm, doing odd jobs for people: cleaning out gutters, painting houses, little things like that. He talked to himself and to imaginary people a lot while he worked -- yelling, screaming, cursing, the whole schizophrenic routine. Needless to say, that sort of behavior upset people, and most of them asked him to leave. And that's when the real trouble started."

"What kind of trouble, Jane?" Andrew frowned at the archangel. "And why haven't the police done anything about it?"

"Trouble like a barn full of livestock catching on fire late at night or a house vandalized even while the owners were at home," Jane ran her fingers through her long silver hair in agitation. "It's only been on the farms where Kayne was fired from a job, but the police can't do anything about it. There's never any solid evidence to link Kayne to the incident, and he always has an air-tight alibi. Whenever trouble starts, people remember seeing him down at the local bar having a drink, or a cashier says that he was in her line at the grocery store. Believe me, people around here don't like Kayne, and they certainly wouldn't lie to protect him. The bottom line is that the police don't have enough evidence to arrest him, much less get a conviction."

As she spoke, Jane deftly managed to steer Andrew toward the house with one hand on his shoulder. He followed her for a few steps, then realized what she was doing and shook his head.

"Jane. . .I can't go in there," he dropped his eyes, unable to meet her steady gaze. "I don't know what I'm going to do for the next fourteen days, but I just can't. . ."

"It's all right, Angel Boy -- you don't have to deal with it right now," Jane put her arm around his slumped shoulders and pulled him closer as they walked back to the house. "The children are all gone for the day. Jeffrey was the last one here, and his mother just picked him up a few minutes ago. Why don't you go on up to your room and get cleaned up before dinner?  I made a big pan of lasagna and some garlic bread, Tess is fixing a nice tossed salad, and Monica is making another pitcher of lemonade. It seems that Jeffrey finished off the last one by himself when she wasn't looking. You can set the table when you come back down, OK?"

Andrew nodded gratefully and followed Jane up the stairs, but the archangel paused on the top step and looked down at King. She gestured wordlessly toward the front of the house, and the dog woofed once as if acknowledging some unspoken instruction. It loped around the side of the building and was gone -- no doubt to take up its post on the front porch once more.

In a few more minutes, Andrew made his way through the house and up the staircase to the room that would be his for the next two weeks. And although he almost hated to admit it, the bedroom had an old-fashioned charm about it that even the most elegant Parisian hotel would have been hard pressed to match.

The room seemed to be full of light -- from the shimmering lace curtains to the crisp white-on-white quilt on the big brass bed. Everywhere that Andrew looked, there was something to delight the eye, like the masses of white roses in a cut glass vase on a table by the window or the shining row of Victorian snuff boxes shaped like whimsical animals that were arranged along the fireplace mantel. 

But then he winced as he caught a glimpse of his own dirt-smeared face reflected in the mahogany bureau's oval mirror. An old-fashioned porcelain pitcher and wash basin sat underneath the mirror: now Andrew walked over to it, then took down a wash cloth and towel from a rack beside the dresser. With his back toward the bedroom door, he bent over the basin and began to clean up.

A few minutes later, his face was bright pink from the scrubbing it had just received, and his hair was combed neatly.  He smiled at his reflection in the mirror. . .at least until he looked down and saw that his once-shining white suit and shirt were also stained with grass and dirt.  Those garments had not been fashioned on earth, however, and as such, were not bound to the laws that governed terrestrial fabrics.

Andrew looked down at the dirt and stains, then spoke two simple words. "Be gone."

With that, the fabric instantly regained its unearthly beauty and glow, outshining even the quilt and the curtains with its pristine whiteness. And even more pleasant was the fragrance of heaven itself that once more surrounded his garments -- a scent that had no counterpart on earth.

Andrew nodded in approval at his reflection, then turned around, intending to join the other angels downstairs. Even now, the smell of lasagna and garlic bread was filtering up to him, and his stomach growled in anticipation of the meal to come. But as he turned, he caught a flicker of movement in the mirror -- a dark shape that seemed to hover somewhere behind him. And at almost the same instant, the first acrid wave of odor poured over him. . .that same smell of cheap wine and unwashed clothing that he had noticed earlier out in the field behind the house.

Someone must have slipped into the room while I was cleaning up, Andrew thought uneasily.

Now the odor was strong enough to overpower even the intense perfume of the while roses on the table by the window, and Andrew gagged at the smell. He whirled around to face the intruder, his angelic strength and senses on full alert. . .

. . .only to find himself looking at nothing except a pleasant room where white curtains fluttered in the breeze from an open window. Everything appeared to be exactly as it had been before he'd bent over the wash basin to freshen up: nevertheless, he carefully inspected each high corner of the room and each piece of furniture. Nothing -- not as much as a picture tilted on the walls or a knickknack out of place on the mantle.

Just the curtains blowing in the wind, Andrew. . .that's all it was, he reassured himself, then shook his head ruefully at his own jumpiness. Angel Boy, if you're letting yourself be spooked by something as simple as curtains moving in the breeze, then I'd say that you're long overdue for a vacation!

But as he walked towards the door, a tiny movement in one corner of the room caught his eye. . .and this time, there could be no mistake. Something dark, like ink or oil, pooled up over by a tall armoire, and as Andrew watched, it seemed to seep through the floorboards and disappear instantly.

He stood there, staring at the unmarred oak floor for a moment. Almost without thinking about what he did, he reached up and touched a thin white scar on his face -- the one that Jane and Tess called his "combat medal."  Jane carried an identical mark on her face, while Tess' arm had been branded in similar fashion. . .and all three angels had received their wounds from the same source.

Andrew still vividly remembered his encounter with demons whose claws burned instead of cut. He had been on assignment in Chicago, but when he arrived at the abandoned building to receive the souls entrusted to him, three of the Adversary's most vile spirits were already waiting in ambush for him.  It was their part in the children's deaths that had almost driven Andrew insane that night: even the physical torture that he underwent at their hands was nothing compared to the pain caused by seeing the children. . .

He let that thought die away quickly, unable to cope with it. But as if the simple act of touching the scar had opened a door in Andrew's mind, he suddenly understood what he had just seen.

I'm being watched. . .and by something that's not human, the thought flashed through his mind as if someone had whispered that information to him.

He had no real facts to substantiate that impression, but even so, it was the only explanation that made sense to him. The thought was instantly followed by another idea just like it. . .and this one didn't seem to originate from his own mind any more than the first one had.

And Tess has a good idea of what we're up against, too. But why wouldn't she tell me if she knew there was some kind of trouble? We work together as a team! Or at least we used to before. . .

He felt himself beginning to tremble, and he cringed, shutting his eyes tightly against the images that now came to him unbidden. Those images were bad enough in and of themselves, but Andrew knew that when the sounds started, they would be worse. . .much worse.

Before the noises could begin in his mind again, he ran out of the room and down the stairs toward the kitchen -- too upset to even think of using his angelic privileges. He shoved the swinging doors aside and walked into the high-ceilinged kitchen, trying unsuccessfully to control the fury that was swelling in his mind. And even though he couldn't hear the bang that the doors made as they hit the wall, he could still feel the vibrations through the floor. . .to say nothing of seeing the shocked expressions that his fellow angels wore when they looked up at him.

Monica had been in the act of setting a full pitcher of lemonade down on the table when the doors burst open. Now she flinched when she saw the expression in Andrew's stormy green eyes, and some of the beverage slopped over the edge of the container. Tess gave Andrew a startled look as she stood at the counter, peeling cucumbers for the salad, and even the unflappable Jane turned around from the sink with a puzzled expression.

"Tess, Jane. . .will one of you please tell me what's going on around here?" he managed to keep his voice level -- or at least he hoped that it was level, anyway. "I may not be able to hear right now, but I'm still an angel and a caseworker. I think one of you could have at least warned me about. . ."

But he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence. From his position by the door, he could look out through the kitchen window and into the back yard. . .and now there was no doubt about what he was seeing over by the swing set. A small, wiry man in faded blue overalls crept towards the house: even at a distance, Andrew could see that his expression was a paradoxical mixture of bold furtiveness that made the angel think of a snake eying a fallen nest of baby birds.

The man's lips were moving rhythmically, but at that distance, Andrew couldn't make out more than one word in five. And even the ones that he did understand were strangely garbled, as if they were intermingled with a foreign language or being chanted in a way that was unlike normal speech.

That guy must be drunk or stoned, he shook his head.

With a sullen grin of triumph, the man raised something long and thin toward the window, and Andrew could see light glinting off a metal surface. And even though Andrew hadn't been assigned to Search and Rescue for many centuries, the instincts that had been honed by Jane's teaching now came rushing back to him in full force.

"Everybody, get down!" he shouted. "That man's got a gun!"

Chapter Three

Seeing Jane's look of incomprehension, Andrew lunged toward her in one smooth, fluid motion, and his efforts carried him across the kitchen in less time than would have been humanly possible. He tackled Jane with enough force to knock the solidly built archangel off her feet, and as they sprawled across the linoleum floor, he felt a  rush of air above them.

At the same time, a shower of glass rained down on the two angels, then sprayed across the floor in glittering, sharp-edged fragments. A moment went by, then two and three, until Andrew was at last convinced that there was no more danger.  There was no sign of the intruder out in the back yard, and he stood up cautiously, then reached down and helped Jane to her feet.

"Are you all right?" he asked in concern, even though the archangel seemed to be as calm as ever.

"I'm fine, but thanks for asking. You know me. . .when the Father created me, He gave me the nervous disposition of the average goldfish," Jane shrugged and then winked mildly at him. "Which is good, because we seem to be doing this sort of thing a lot, lately, you know that, Angel Boy?"

Andrew nodded, remembering the time in Chicago when the three evil spirits had thrown a chunk of concrete with deadly force through the kitchen window of the group home. Only Jane's vigilance had prevented anyone from being injured that day, and now Andrew smiled -- feeling more than just a little proud of himself for repaying part of the debt he owed to the archangel.

But his mood quickly sobered when he glanced at Monica. She crawled out from under the table where she had taken refuge, and she appeared to be badly shaken as she slowly stood up. She sat down heavily on a kitchen chair, and Andrew walked over to her, then put a protective arm around her shoulders for a moment.

"Hey, you OK over there?" he asked gently.

"I'm all right. . .thanks," Monica tried to smile at her friend as he released her and stepped back.

The expression was a complete failure, however, and even though he couldn't hear her voice, Andrew could see the way that she was still shaking. Only Tess seemed to be undisturbed by what had taken place a moment ago: in fact, it didn't even appear that she had moved from her spot by the counter during the entire incident.  She shook her head, then gestured towards the broken window with the large bullet hole at precisely the level that Jane's head had been. And there it was again -- that faint but censuring look in her face and eyes when she looked at Andrew.

"Andrew, we're all angels. Even if that man out there had hit one of us with a bullet, the Father would have instantly healed these physical forms that we wear," Tess shrugged. "Why did you think you had to protect Jane? You're still an angel, at least. You should have known better than that."

I'm still an angel 'at least?'  Andrew snapped to himself with uncharacteristic hostility. Gee, thanks a lot, Tess. . .I think!

In all the excitement a few minutes ago, Andrew had forgotten why he had come down to the kitchen in the first place. Now that earlier anger came rushing back to him once more -- even if he couldn't quite remember just why he'd been upset in the first place. The anger was joined by the bitterness that flared in his heart and mind over his supervisor's choice of words, and he started to make a sarcastic reply.

But at that moment, he caught a dark flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, and he turned back to Monica, thinking that she was about to come to his defense. He started to shake his head surreptitiously at her, knowing that such 'interference' was never a particularly good idea when Tess was in this kind of mood. But when he looked in her direction, Monica was still sitting on the kitchen chair. . .and there was no sign that she had ever moved from that spot at all.

Suddenly, he felt a tug deep within his spirit, and he instantly recognized it for what it was -- a warning from God. Andrew had been given an unusually obedient nature by the Father, as well as a gentle, loving disposition: now the discipline that he had learned over the centuries quickly reasserted itself in his heart and mind. He bowed his head swiftly, then offered up a prayer of repentance for the angry words that he had been about to speak 

And almost before the last word had been whispered in the privacy of his own heart, he felt the answering warmth and glow that was the Father's forgiveness towards him. Andrew might have still been upset with his supervisor, but at least his feelings were under his control again, and that was all that mattered to him. He turned back toward the others and then managed a wink and a grin for their benefit.

"Hey, what can I say, Tess?" he shrugged. "Once a search and rescue angel, always a search and rescue angel. Isn't that right, Jane?"

"To quote a Russian proverb, 'To the first trade, ever the hand returneth,'" Jane smiled at her fellow angels -- an expression that always made Andrew think of walking into a warm room after being outside for a long time on a cold winter's day.

But then her face became somber as she gestured over her shoulder at the broken window. "We're going to have to file a report on this incident with the County Sheriff's Department. Andrew, do you think you could identify the man that you saw a few minutes ago?  If you're pretty sure that you can ID him, I'll ask the deputies to bring along some photos for you to take a look at. "

Andrew nodded affirmatively: even now, the image of the man's sharp, thin face under a few greasy strands of thinning brown hair seemed to be burned indelibly into his eyes and mind. For a second or two, he once more felt a surge of pride in his abilities. . .then caught himself with a frown.

"I'm pretty sure that I could recognize that guy from a photo. I got a good look at him just before he took that potshot at us," he nodded levelly, but he was still baffled by the sudden onslaught of emotions that he was feeling.

Probably just the last few months catching up to me, he thought with a sigh.

"That's good enough, " Jane smiled at him and gestured over her shoulder at the telephone hanging on the wall. "I'll give the Sheriff's Department a call, then."

"And I'll sweep the floor and put some cardboard over the window while the three of you wait for the police," Monica offered, then winked at Jane and Andrew. "After the time I spent with you in Chicago, Jane, I'm practically an expert on mending windows and cleaning up broken glass, you know."

In less than ten minutes, a brown squad car pulled into the driveway and stopped in front of the house. Two uniformed officers got out and walked towards the porch where Jane, Tess, and Andrew now waited for them. The older of the two deputies, a middle-aged man with stooped shoulders and a slight paunch, grinned wearily up at Jane. . .especially when he saw the pitcher of iced tea and two glasses sitting on a small wicker table beside her.

"Miss Jane, if the devil himself came calling, I swear you'd offer him a rocking chair and a glass of iced tea," the deputy touched the brim of his hat in respect as he walked up the steps.

"Don't bet on it, Bill," Jane shook her head with a knowing glint in her eye. "Bill, Trey -- these are some friends of mine, Andrew D'Angelo and Tess Engel.  Tess, Andrew, let me introduce you to Deputies Bill O'Connor and Trey Autry."

"So what happened here this evening, Jane?" O'Connor asked as he reached out to take the glass of iced tea that she offered to him. "Something about someone taking a shot at you through the kitchen window?"

"I was standing at the kitchen sink when Andrew walked in, and I turned around to say something to him," Jane gestured back at the house, and she turned toward Andrew as she spoke. "But from where he was standing by the swinging doors, he had a clear view through the kitchen window out onto the playground.. .and that's when he spotted the guy with the gun."

As she spoke, Jane's hands moved gracefully, forming the same words in American Sign Language, and Andrew looked at her with a puzzled frown. ASL wasn't a skill that he'd even begun to acquire in the months since he'd gone deaf -- let alone master well enough to follow such intricate sentence structures. But the archangel merely winked at him. . .and suddenly knowledge flooded his mind in a great wave of understanding.

I got a good look at the man, Andrew's hands formed the words as perfectly as if he had been using sign language ever since he'd been called into being by the Father. I could identify him if I saw a picture of him.

"Do you guys need me to translate for Andrew?"  Jane looked questioningly at the deputies. "He reads lips, but he's profoundly deaf, and it's just a lot easier for him to sign."

"That's OK, Miss Jane, but I can handle it just fine on my own," O'Connor shook his head as he turned toward Andrew. "My kid sister is deaf, and my whole family knows ASL."

I have some "mug-shot" books out in my squad car, the deputy signed to Andrew. Would you mind taking a look at them?

No problem, Andrew replied, still awe-struck by his new ability.

The second deputy, a tall, dark-haired man with the build of an ex-linebacker, had been staring at Andrew for several moments. He frowned to himself, as if he couldn't quite remember where he had seen the angel before. Now Autry leaned down over Andrew so that the angel could read his lips. . .but before the deputy could say anything, O'Connor turned to his partner with a grin and gestured over his shoulder at their squad car.

"Come on, Trey -- quit guzzling iced tea like you haven't had anything to drink since Memorial Day, and give me a hand with the books," O'Connor rolled his eyes in mock disgust. "Andrew here says that he can ID the guy who took a shot at them. I'd sure love to get my hands on whoever's responsible for the stuff that's been going on in this county for the last two months."

As the two deputies vaulted lightly down the steps and trotted back to their vehicle, Tess turned to Jane and Andrew with an annoyed expression. "And just what was that all about?" she demanded suspiciously, gesturing down at Andrew's hands. "Since when does he know sign language? And why wasn't I told about it? I am still a supervisor, and I think I should have been informed about any changes in plans, don't you?"

"Since a few minutes ago, Tess. That's when I asked God to protect Andrew from being embarrassed and upset when he has to deal with the hearing public," Jane said calmly, and she put just a whisper of emphasis on Andrew's name, as if to counteract Tess' apparent reluctance to use it. "This whole ordeal has been hard enough on him as it is, and the Father answered my prayer by instantly giving him the knowledge he needs to use ASL."

Andrew shivered at the strange anger that he could read so clearly in Tess' face and eyes. Father, please. . .I don't understand what I've done to make Tess so mad at me, he looked up sadly at the sky. I thought we were all friends, but Tess is treating Jane and me as if we were her enemies. Is she ashamed of me now that I can't hear? Or is she angry with me because I haven't dealt with that. . .situation out in California very well for the last couple of months?

But before he could finish his prayer, the deputies once more walked up the stairs, and they each balanced a stack of thick books. Autry frowned again as he approached Andrew: now the deputy shifted restlessly from foot to foot, and he wore an uneasy expression as he stared at the blond angel for a moment.

"You sure look familiar, somehow," Autry said to Andrew in the loud tones that most people used around deaf persons -- as if he thought that by speaking louder, the angel would miraculously be able to understand him. "Ask him where he comes from, Bill. I swear he looks like somebody I've seen before -- maybe on TV or a picture in the newspaper. . ."

. . .and not necessarily in the society columns, either, Andrew mentally finished the rest of Autry's unspoken words. He must have seen the  picture of me that the news reporter from San Diego took before I could stop him.

"Andrew is from my Home town," Jane smiled with gentle double meaning at the two officers. "In fact, he used to be a student of mine years ago, and we've been friends ever since. Trey, I believe you have some photos to show Andrew, don't you?"

Technically, Jane's words were a command instead of a question, and she spoke in the calm voice that she used to address her angelic subordinates -- the tone that clearly said all further discussion was at an end. O'Connor nodded, and Autry reluctantly handed Andrew the stack of books. Andrew frowned as he carefully inspected each page, but none of the faces matched the man he had seen earlier. He closed the first book and handed it back to Autry, then opened the second volume and began to look through it. Five minutes went by, then ten, and none of the pictures looked even remotely familiar to him.

But just as he reached the last few pages, Andrew grinned in triumph. He gave the opened book to O'Connor, then signed, There. . .that's him! The man on the bottom of the right-hand page.

But instead of looking pleased, O'Connor frowned and held out the page for Autry's inspection. The two men exchanged puzzled glances as Tess and Jane both stood up and took a look at the photograph.

"Uh, Jane. . .maybe you'd better ask Andrew if he's sure that this is the man that he saw a little while ago," O'Connor nodded at Andrew. "Maybe my ASL is a little rustier than I thought it was. Which photo did he pick out of the book?"

"I'll ask him again, but I'm sure that he said that it was the photo at the bottom of the right hand page," Jane shrugged. She quickly signed the deputy's question and received an answer from Andrew, then turned back to the deputies. "He says that he's sure it's the same man that he saw out in the back yard. Bill, isn't that. . .?"

"Yeah, it is, Jane, and ordinarily, I'd be thrilled to have this kind of positive ID," O'Connor sighed, then gestured toward the back of the house. "Trey, why don't you go around back and check for shell casings, footprints, anything."

"Why bother? You and I both know that I'm not going to find anything once I get there," Autry snapped, glaring first at Andrew and then at Jane. " Oh, come on, Bill, isn't it obvious? She's got the same kind of grudge that we all do when it comes to Kayne, but the difference is that she talked some poor handicapped guy into giving false testimony against him -- and I'm still not convinced about her 'witness,' there. We ought to run both of them into the station and. . ."

Andrew followed the conversation as well as he could, given the machine-gun pace of the deputy's words, and now he looked nervously over at Jane. A run-in with the police was the last thing that any of them needed, he knew -- especially given the unusual nature of Jane's 'credentials' as a day care supervisor  But the archangel simply drew herself up to her full height and glared down at Autry, anger flashing dangerously in her eyes. Both police officers recoiled involuntarily at the sight of Jane's tightly-controlled fury, and even Tess backed away a few steps -- looking for all the world as if she would like to sink into the floorboards and disappear.

"Andrew has never been to Paris before, Trey.  He came straight here from the airport this afternoon, and the only people he's been in contact with are Monica, Tess, and me," Jane said in a voice that was much too calm -- like the silence before a tornado.

The archangel paused for a moment to let her words sink in, then added, "And yes, I did tell Andrew about the problems we've had in this neighborhood with Kayne. Andrew saw someone lurking around here this afternoon -- as a matter of fact, I saw the same person, too, when I heard King barking and came out to investigate. That's why I told Andrew about what's going on, so that he'd be able to keep and eye out and protect himself, if necessary. But I certainly don't keep mug shots around here so that he'd be able to pick Kayne out of a line-up. . .much less fire a shotgun through the back window of this place just so that we can all give false evidence against the man in court."

"I. . .uh, understand, Miss Jane, and I apologize if you thought we were accusing you or your friends of any misconduct," O'Connor stammered nervously. "It's just that there's, uh, a problem with Andrew's identification of the suspect."

"And what would that be, pray tell?" Tess asked as she stepped forward and inspected the photo again. "Andrew identified the man in the photograph as the one who fired a shotgun through our back window, less than an hour ago. You know who that man is, we know who he is, and I'm sure that Andrew will testify against him in court, if that's what you're concerned about. So why don't you just go find him and arrest him? "

"Well, that's just the problem, ma'am. . . you see, we've already got Thomas Kayne under arrest," Autry shook his head with a condescending little smile. "Bill and I picked him up around two o'clock this afternoon for assault with a deadly weapon. Seems he got into a fight with George Grayson over some money that he claims George owes him. Kayne walked into Jackson's Tavern and stabbed Grayson twice. He's been over at  the County Jail all afternoon, waiting for a bail hearing."

Chapter Four

Rain thudded silently against the window the next morning when Andrew awoke, but it was the bright flares of lightening like the muzzle flash of a gun that invaded his dreams and robbed him of a few extra precious moments of rest. He came up from sleep like a drowning man, clutching desperately at anything to avoid slipping under again, and his mind jangled with fearful echoes. . .

. . .cries and popping sounds and screams, and then the silence. Always the silence, like a smothering black blanket pressed down over his face until his lungs felt as if they would burst.

He sat up in bed, gasping for air, just as the room was lit with another brilliant burst of lightening.  In the large playroom directly below him, children were already running and playing: Andrew could feel the faint vibrations of their feet through the wall when he reached through the headboard's brass bars and touched the paneling. And for a moment, he permitted himself to feel a little of that joy and laughter as he imagined the children at their games: Therese, the blonde girl who had climbed into his arms yesterday, now playing with her rag doll, perhaps, or Jeffrey eying the chocolate chip cookies that Jane had baked last night for a mid-morning snack.

Those cookies might last that long, but only if Monica is on her guard. . .that, or else Jane locks them up in a bank vault somewhere! Andrew thought to himself with a smile.

He chuckled at the image of Jeffrey stalking the plate of cookies with the finesse of a big game hunter, but his amusement quickly faded away when he thought of the words "on guard."  He was still bewildered by what had taken place yesterday. . . even now, he could picture the two deputies as they walked back to their squad car, shaking their heads and exchanging disbelieving comments under their breath.

I know what I saw, he thought as he got out of bed. If that wasn't Thomas Kayne who fired a gun at us yesterday, then he has a twin running around this county. . .I'm sure of it!

The memory of that incident and everything that had taken place afterward was still vivid in Andrew's mind. That also included his new-found talent for sign language -- a skill that was going to make his life much easier until God chose to heal him. Andrew was half-fearful that the gift had been withdrawn while he slept, and yet he knew instinctively that the Father would never cause His angel such pain. With that thought in mind, he looked around the bedroom, happily signing the words for the things that he saw there.

Dresser, mirror, window, rain, lightening, bright, closet, blue jeans, work shirt, old, comfortable, darkness. . .

Any residual drowsiness now instantly vanished from Andrew's mind as he realized what he had just signed. In the gray half-light of a rainy day, the room was full of shadows: all those decorative objects which had seemed so cheerful on a bright, sunny afternoon now cast their own strangely-shaped bits of darkness everywhere that he looked. And each time that the lightening flashed, the shadows flickered and seemed to take on a life of their own -- now appearing against one wall, then dancing briefly along the floor.

It's just the lightening, that's all, Andrew reassured himself as he hastily dressed. . .but even so, he couldn't shake the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched once more.

He got dressed quickly and slipped into a comfortable old pair of boots that had emerged from the depths of that capacious (to say nothing of miraculous) suitcase. He started to head towards the door, but at that instant, a burst of lightening lit up the room. . .and this time, Andrew barely managed to suppress a cry of fear.

A shadow seemed to slither across the floor only a few inches in front of his boots, then disappeared once more into the grayness. An unaccountable sensation of panic spread through him as he bolted for the door, then threw it open. And this time, he couldn't quite muffle a yelp when he saw another flicker of movement out in the hallway. 

"Monica, it's you!" Andrew heaved an enormous sigh of relief as he recognized the familiar figure, and now he felt foolish for letting his nerves get the better of him.

"Andrew, are you all right? You look like you've just been scared half out of your wits," Monica frowned as she balanced a heavy tray. "Tess and Jane sent me up here to bring you some breakfast, that's all. I didn't mean to frighten you so badly. I know things haven't been going so well for you after. . ."

Her words trailed away, and it took all of Andrew's discipline not to give into the panicked feeling that once more unaccountably swept over him. He managed to keep his voice level as he tried to smile at her -- but only with an effort that left him trembling inside.

"It's OK, Monica, you don't have to tip-toe around the subject," he said, and he hoped that he was managing to keep the bitterness and pain out of his voice. "You were going to say that things haven't been going very well for me after the shooting in the San Diego day-care center."

There. . .he'd managed to say the words that had haunted him for so long now. A feeling of weariness swept over him, as if he hadn't just had a full night's sleep, and now he dragged himself back over to the table in front of the window. He moved the crystal vase of roses to one side, then pulled two chairs over to the table and patted its round marble top.

"If you've got a few minutes, why don't you come in and have something to eat with me? Knowing Tess and the way she loves breakfast, she probably fixed enough food for an entire buffet line," he smiled at her as she joined him. "Why don't you put that down right here -- thanks."

Monica set the tray down and lifted its cover. True to Andrew's prediction, it contained everything from fluffy scrambled eggs with lots of bacon and sausage to grits with gravy. . .not to mention plenty of the hot biscuits dripping with butter and sorghum that Andrew loved. There was a bowl of cinnamon apples and a large carafe of coffee, as well -- the latter being Monica's contribution to the feast, no doubt. For a few minutes, the two angels ate in companionable silence, and Andrew was surprised at how hungry he really was, as several biscuits and a generous portion of the eggs and bacon disappeared from his plate. He looked up from the act of mopping up gravy from his plate with half a biscuit. . .only to find Monica watching him with a puzzled expression.

"Sorry. . .I know that's not how the etiquette books say it should be done," he shrugged sheepishly. "Guess I spent too much time down South, huh?"

"That's not what I was thinking about," Monica shook her head.

She paused for a second or two, staring down at the floor. And when she spoke again, it was a moot point as to whether her hesitance was because of Andrew's deafness or her reluctance to approach the subject that she wanted to discuss.

"Andrew. . .can I ask you a question?" she finally asked.

"Sure, why not?" he frowned at her reticence. Ordinarily, the ebullient Monica wouldn't have hesitated to ask him a question. . .or two. . .or three. "We're friends. You can ask me anything, you know that."

"Maybe I shouldn't say this because we both know that God's will and timing is perfect," Monica spoke slowly and deliberately so that he could read each word without any difficulty. "But doesn't it seem unfair that God is punishing you for what happened at the day care center a few months ago? I mean, it's not as if that horrible tragedy was your fault or anything. . .why should you be the only one who had his hearing taken away?"

Andrew's fork hit his plate with a clank of silver against china, and color flamed across his cheeks. He turned stricken eyes toward Monica as images once more flooded his mind. Dark red droplets splattered against a mural of characters from children's nursery rhymes; a baby doll crushed under the boots of the emergency personnel who poured into the area. . .those memories and dozens more now came back to him as vividly as if they were taking place in front of his eyes right now.

He shivered violently as if gripped by a fever, and he stared down at the floor, unable to meet Monica's gaze any longer. She tucked a heavy comforter around his shoulders, but he still couldn't seem to control the shaking.

"I. . .don't know why the Father took away my hearing after that day," he said dully. "All I can remember is listening to the screams and the sounds of the sirens coming toward the building, and then everything got really quiet. Adam was there that day, too, along with Henry, Toby, and a few more of us. . .it was too big an assignment for just one angel of death to handle. After it was all over, Toby asked me a question, and I could see his lips moving, but there was no sound. And that's when I realized that I was deaf."

His voice trailed away, but there was an ironic sense of accomplishment running through his mind, too. . .he'd actually done it. For the first time since the shooting at the Catholic day care center had taken place, he'd managed to talk with someone about what had happened that day -- someone other than God, that is. Not that God seemed to be particularly interested in hearing from His angel, if His response to Andrew's prayers were any indication. . .

. . .you stop that, Andrew! he admonished himself sternly, hearing an echo of Tess' voice in the back of his mind. The Father loves me, and He knows what's best for me. Who am I to question the will of the One who shaped me according to His purpose?

But the thought had no sooner formed itself when a surge of anger flared in Andrew's heart. The white comforter fell noiselessly to the floor as he stood up from his chair, his fists clenched at his sides. Monica recoiled from the fury that she saw in his face as he paced up and down the room -- seemingly unable to stop himself. The voice that he heard in his mind. . .that definitely sounded like his own voice. But the questions pouring out of Andrew's heart in a bitter flood were ones that had never crossed his mind before in all the centuries since the Father had called him into being.

. . .does God really love you, Andrew? If He loves you, then why hasn't He answered your prayers and healed you of the deafness -- even after you begged and pleaded with Him? After all, wasn't He the One Who inflicted that deafness on you in the first place?

"Stop it!" Andrew cried desperately, although he couldn't have said exactly who it was that he now addressed. " Just stop it! Please -- no more. No more. . ."

He collapsed on the edge of the bed, then rocked back and forth for a moment, clutching his head in real pain. And when he looked over at Monica, the brown-haired angel hadn't moved from her chair -- apparently too frightened by his response to offer her usual comfort.

Still, there was no lessening of the turmoil that filled Andrew's heart and mind like some oily substance that stained everything it touched. He continued to tremble violently, struggling to regain some semblance of peace, and he prayed frantically for help.

For a moment, nothing seemed to be happening, but suddenly, he felt a rush of air from somewhere behind him. He stood up and spun around, his senses on full alert as he looked for the source of that influx of air. But it was only Jane who now stood in the doorway, and she wore a puzzled frown when she saw the look of pain and horror that filled Andrew's eyes.

"Monica, Tess needs you downstairs," the archangel gestured over her shoulder.

Before Monica could respond, Jane crossed the room in a few swift steps until she stood directly in front of Andrew: with that, the archangel put her hands on his shaking shoulders and looked down into his face. But when Monica made no move to get up, Jane turned away slightly for a moment and stared meaningfully at the brown-haired angel.

"But, Jane, Andrew is really upset, and he needs. . ." Monica started to protest as she stood up.

"I'll handle this. You go help Tess with the children," the archangel said, and the warning glint in her eyes was more effective than a dozen verbal rebukes from anyone else would have been.

Reluctantly, Monica walked toward the door, pausing to look back over her shoulder at Jane and Andrew for a moment. Then she disappeared through the doorway so swiftly that Andrew didn't even feel the floorboards vibrating under her steps. He stared after Monica for a moment. . .until a slight movement from Jane made him focus on her, instead.

Peace. . .be still, Andrew, the archangel signed quietly. God is not the author of confusion. Focus upon Him, instead of on your feelings.

As if someone had turned on a lamp and driven away the shadows of night, Andrew felt the pain and darkness suddenly begin to dissipate in his mind. He walked over to the basin and pitcher, then splashed some cool water on his face. Feeling much better, he returned to the table where Jane now sat. With her usual calm, unhurried gestures, the archangel replenished his plate with more biscuits and sorghum, as if serving others was second nature to her. She smiled at Andrew, then gestured for him to sit down and finish his breakfast.

And he wasn't even particularly surprised to find that the food was still hot and the coffee steaming -- just another example of the way that God's love and concern extended even to the smallest details of His children's lives. Jane waited until Andrew drank a little of his coffee, then shaped a series of questions with her hands. 

OK, Angel Boy. . .what got you so upset? she asked.

"I was sitting here, eating breakfast and talking to Monica," Andrew frowned. "She asked me about what happened at the day care center out in California a few months ago."

But he was once more at a loss to explain why the memories of only a few moments ago suddenly seemed to blur and fade in his mind. He shook his head in bewilderment -- unable to remember anything except the huge influx of emotions that had almost overwhelmed him. He really didn't want to think about what would have happened to him if he had yielded to those feelings, either: too many of his friends and former colleagues had allowed similar emotions to overcome their loyalty to the Father.

"I tried to explain everything to her, and all of a sudden, I got really angry with God for taking away my hearing. But I don't even know why I got so upset," he spread his hands with a questioning shrug. "This huge wave of anger and resentment just came crashing down on my spirit before I even knew what hit me."

Jane looked at him intently, and he could almost see the flashing scalpel of her thoughts as they cut away at his vague descriptions and uncovered the truth that was hidden underneath them. The archangel's face filled with a sternness that Andrew had seldom seen there before: now she seemed to radiate a power and strength that were far greater than any she might have possessed on her own.

Other angels have fallen for lesser thoughts of rebellion against the Father's will, Jane's hands swiftly formed the words, and in the room's thin gray light, her strong white fingers looked like flashes of lightening. What stopped you from giving in to your feelings? And this is not merely an idle question, Andrew. I need your answer right away.

At that, all of the fogginess left Andrew's mind, and now he could "hear" the echo of Tess' voice again. He looked over at Jane with a rueful smile, but she didn't seem to pay any attention. . .if anything, the archangel's expression was even more intense than before.

"It was as if I could hear Tess telling me to stop what I was thinking, right that very minute," he said slowly. "And believe me, I know better than to ignore anything that you and Tess have ever taught me. I recognize the voice of God when He talks to me through the two of you."

Jane nodded, her forehead furrowed in concentration. But then she smiled at Andrew. . .and he suddenly felt a warmth that was like being enfolded in a down-filled comforter on a cold, rainy day. 

Guess that means you need to go downstairs and tell Tess that you love her. . .right, Angel Boy? Not to mention thanking her for the obedience she taught you,  Jane signed. If Monica did as I told her and took over for Tess, then your supervisor should be sitting in the kitchen right about now.

Jane winked knowingly at Andrew, then added, I imagine she's kicked off her shoes and is sitting there, eating what's left over from the breakfast that she fixed for you. Although now that I stop to look at your tray, I think there were probably more "leftovers" than food served!

Andrew started to return the grin, but then all the harsh words that Tess had spoken to him the night before came rushing back to him. He dropped his head for a moment, still unable to understand what he had done to cause her coolness toward him.

"Uh -- that's probably not such a good idea right now, Jane,"  he shook his head. "Tess acts like she's really mad at me, but I don't know why. . .do you? Is she upset because I did something wrong, or is it because I'm deaf and she's not comfortable being around me?"

Jane frowned again, but this time, Andrew somehow knew that her expression wasn't aimed at him. I don't think either one is the case, the archangel sighed sharply. Something strange is going on around here. . .and you can bet your halo that I intend to find out exactly what it is!

Andrew quickly took a bite of his biscuit, but the gesture had more to do with muffling his smile than with actual hunger. There were few forces in the universe more powerful than a determined archangel. . .Andrew knew that from considerable experience with the subject. And when Jane focused her entire attention on something, even a certain armor-clad, sword-carrying colleague of hers had been known to find a perfectly plausible reason to visit the farthest reaches of Heaven for a while.

Still trying to hide his amusement, Andrew bent down to pick up the napkin that he had dropped earlier, but as he straightened up, another wave of air swept over him again. He glanced toward the hall, half-expecting to see Tess standing there. . .but instead, Monica reappeared in the doorway.

Jane stood up, and anger crackled in her face at what appeared to be a blatant act of defiance on Monica's part. Andrew thought back briefly to the lessons that he'd learned from Jane over the years: even if he hadn't learned anything else from her teaching, he would have still come away with a clear understanding of the consequences of disobedience. Instead of being a burden, God's laws had been designed to protect His children from their own foolish choices. And those poor choices definitely included disobeying instructions from legitimate authority -- just as Monica seemed to be doing right now.

"Monica, I thought I asked you to go help Tess," Jane said in a voice that was dangerously calm.

In contrast, Monica's words almost tumbled over each other. "I did, Jane, but she asked me to come back up here and get the two of you, right away. That Thomas Kayne fellow is back. . .he's standing at the end of the driveway right this very minute."

Chapter Five

Andrew threw his napkin down on the table as he followed Jane out of the room at a dead run. He was alert and focused on the current problem with Kayne, but something still caught his attention as he ran by the marble-topped table.

Maybe those white roses were a lot drier than they looked, he shrugged to himself as he vaulted down the stairs, three steps at a time. One of us must have bumped the table, and that's why all the petals fell off the stems.

But he had more important things to think about as he reached the bottom step in what surely had to be a new record time. He skidded to a halt, then waited while Tess and Monica herded the children toward the comparative safety of the basement. Images of that other day care center once more floated in front of his eyes, but he succeeded in batting the memories aside as he followed Jane outside. Both angels shivered in the cold rain and wind that blew under the eaves, but they were too focused on the man at the far end of the driveway to pay a great deal of attention to the discomfort.

Thomas Kayne stood just inside the property line, and he stared unblinkingly at the house. Like the angels, Kayne wasn't wearing a hat or coat. . .and like them, he, too, showed no signs of discomfort as the rain drenched his overalls and long-sleeved shirt. Andrew could see that his lips were moving rhythmically, and now he was certain that Kayne's words were some kind of song or chant. He wasn't carrying a shotgun this time, but Jane and Andrew were too mindful of the children's safety to let down their guard -- Andrew perhaps even more so than Jane.

As Jane walked over to the edge of the porch, King stood up from his place by the front door. The German Shepherd followed her to the top of the steps, then stood beside her, his head pressed protectively against her leg.  Kayne made a  slight movement at end of the driveway, and Jane made a grab for King's heavy leather collar just as the dog started to lunge down the steps.

"Stay!" Jane ordered firmly, and the Shepherd grumbled a protest but made no further attempts to escape.

Jane turned her attention back to Kayne, who now shook his fist and ranted unintelligibly at the two angels. The archangel sighed wearily, then bowed her head for a moment in prayer. Andrew knew that Jane would never act out of her own strength in a situation like this, and in a matter of only a few seconds, her expression told him that she had just received the necessary authorization from God to do whatever had to be done.

"Thomas Kayne, you're trespassing," Jane called to him, and her voice was full of power and authority. "Get off this property before I call the Sheriff's Department and have you arrested."

But far from being intimidated by her words, Kayne merely threw back his head and laughed. He pulled down the collar of his filthy red plaid shirt, as if he intended to show the two angels a necklace or a bandana that he was wearing. However, the only thing that Jane and Andrew could see at such a distance was a thin blue ring around his throat -- like a chain or a piece of string, perhaps.

The two angels waited for a moment, but when Kayne made no effort to leave, Jane looked down at King and nodded. With that, the dog lunged down the steps and ran toward Kayne with the precision of a soldier performing a bayonet drill.

But Kayne didn't flinch, even when the snarling King came within ten feet of him. Instead, he picked up a jagged rock and threw it at the dog's head with all the strength that he possessed. King was too well acquainted with the perfidiousness of human beings to allow himself to be hurt in such a manner, however. He swerved fluidly to one side, then pivoted and returned to the attack. . .all without breaking his momentum.

Kayne feinted to one side, then jumped back as King snapped at his arm. The dog's attack might well have succeeded, too, except for something that neither the animal nor the angels could have foreseen. In a movement that was almost too swift to see, Kayne reached into a concealed pocket and pulled out a knife with a thin, evil little blade like the fang of a rattlesnake. Just as the dog's teeth closed over the man's out flung arm, Kayne swung his free hand up in a deadly arc, aiming the knife at the German Shepherd's exposed chest.

Jane cried out a belated warning, but it was Andrew who made the first move. With the speed and strength that only an angel could muster, he disappeared from the porch. He rematerialized several inches behind the spot where he had last seen Kayne and his intended victim, then made a desperate grab for Kayne's arm. . .

. . .only to find himself clutching air. He stared in bewilderment at the spot where the man had been standing, but as far as Andrew could tell, Kayne had simply vanished in the fraction of a second that it took to reach him. In fact, the only evidence that a struggle had ever taken place was the churned-up mud where man and dog had fought. . .and even those prints were swiftly being washed away by the rain.

No. . .there was one other bit of evidence. Andrew pounced on the object with a satisfied smile, just as Jane materialized beside him.

What do you have there? she signed to him.

"Take a look at this," Andrew nodded triumphantly.

Apparently King's teeth had proven to be a far more effective weapon than Kayne's knife. Andrew held out a piece of  faded plaid material for Jane's inspection, and the ragged bit of fabric from Kayne's shirt sleeve was still wet with blood.

All right -- way to go, King and Andrew!  Jane grinned. Now let's see our good friends at the Sheriff's Department tell us that we're crazy because we saw Thomas Kayne out here. I have an idea that there's going to be a nice big bite mark on his arm when they arrest him. . .that ought to give them the  hard evidence they need!

But something was still bothering Andrew, and now he looked at Jane with a quizzical frown.

"I still don't understand one thing, though,"  he gestured down at the muddy ground. "Kayne must have been moving pretty fast when he left here. . .did you see which direction he went?"

I saw him stagger back when King hit him, and then he disappeared over there behind the sign, Jane pointed toward the heavy undergrowth on the other side of the driveway. I saw the weeds moving, so I guess he took off toward the old Skinner place. It's that farm down the road -- the one with the stone barn. You  must've seen it when you and Tess drove by on your way here, yesterday.

Being a firm believer in the theory of  "if you've seen one barn, you've seen them all," Andrew hadn't really paid much attention, one way or the other. Nevertheless, he gave Jane a polite nod of agreement, and she continued with her thoughts.

Guess I'd better give the Skinner family a heads-up call before I report this to the police, she signed. We don't want them to accidentally run onto the guy when he's this dangerous.

The two angels walked back to the house with King prancing between them. . .and Andrew could have almost sworn that the German Shepherd was grinning in satisfaction as he curled up on his mat by the front door. Ten minutes and several phone calls later, Jane and Andrew found themselves ensconced in the kitchen by a worried Tess, while Monica and the children returned to the playroom after their "tornado practice drill."

Jane and Andrew quickly filled Tess in on all the details, and the black-haired angel whistled softly under her breath as she handed each of them a towel and a steaming cup of tea. Tess gestured down at the scrap of plaid fabric tucked safely into a plastic bag, then smiled at her co-workers as they dried themselves off.

"Sounds like you two angel babies had yourselves quite an adventure this morning," Tess said. She sat down at the round oak table beside Andrew, and he was relieved to see that she didn't pull away from him this time. "Oh, and by the way, Andrew, Monica filled me in on everything that happened earlier while you two were eating breakfast. She said that you were finally able to open up and talk about some of the things that have been hurting your spirit. I'm really proud of you. . .that took a lot of courage."

Andrew dropped his head and winced: the memory of his anger at God was still far too vivid in his mind to permit even the smallest drop of pride to enter his heart over Tess' praise. Tess saw his sad expression, then reached out and squeezed his cold hand for a few seconds.

"Andrew, I said it once before, but I'll say it again. God loves you very much, not in spite of your honesty with Him -- but because of it," she told him, then raised an eyebrow when he started to protest. "I know what you're thinking. You think that you rebelled against God's will when you got angry with Him a little while ago. Let me fill you in on the facts, Mr. Halo. . . someone has been getting angry with God ever since there's been a creation to get angry with Him. That includes man and angels alike. And if you hadn't fought against your own self-will with every bit of strength you had, we wouldn't be sitting here having this discussion. You would have already been handed over to the powers of darkness by now."

Andrew, it's easy to figure out when you've crossed the line between asking God a question about His will and rebelling against that will, Jane's hands punctuated the air with short, precise gestures. If you ask Him to do something and He says, "No," or "Not yet," do you still decide to let God be in control of the situation. . .or does God decide to let you be in control of it?

Andrew nodded thoughtfully as Jane finished her "lesson," and as always, he suspected that he would still be mulling over her pithy comments several millennia from now. Jane winked at him, then nodded imperceptibly at Tess -- as if the archangel was encouraging him to follow the suggestion she had made to him earlier that morning.

He looked up and saw that Tess was watching him closely. And even though he was still unsure of the reception that his next words would receive, he decided to take the chance, anyway.

"Tess, you know that I love you," he said quietly. "I've learned so much from you -- things that have saved me from a lot of pain and problems over the years. And if I've done something to make you mad at me, then I apologize. Just tell me what I've done to upset you, and I'll ask God to help me so that I don't do it again."

Tess winced, then shook her head. "You haven't done anything to me, Angel Boy. . .and I love you, too, by the way," she tried to smile, but Andrew and Jane could see the pain in her eyes. "As a matter of fact, I'm the one who owes you the apology. It seems like I've been on edge ever since I walked into this house. Your hearing problems; having to submit to Jane's authority as an archangel; that little defiant attitude that Monica has been copping with me every once in awhile. . .all of it has really gotten to me. And the worst part is that I don't even understand why I feel like this."

"So I wasn't mistaken, and she is acting. . ." Jane began, but at that moment, the swinging doors opened, and Monica walked into the kitchen.

"Jane, the men from the Sheriff's Department are here to see you and Andrew," she gestured over her shoulder toward the front of the house. She shrugged ruefully and held up her arm for their inspection: a neat red circle now stood out against the whiteness of her skin. "I have to get back to the children now -- it seems that wee Jeffrey is in one of those moods. I told him that he had to share the dump truck with Samuel. . .and when I reached down to take it from him, he bit me again!"

"With Jeffrey around, it's a good thing that angels don't need tetanus boosters. . .or rabies shots," Jane sighed as she stood up. "Tess, we'll finish our talk later, OK? But in the meantime, Andrew and I have a little matter to discuss with the local constabulary."

She winked at Andrew, then picked up the sealed plastic bag that contained the scrap of fabric from Kayne's shirt. Andrew followed the archangel into the parlor, where O'Connor and Autry now waited for them.

"Don't you two ever go home?" Jane teased as she sat down on the sofa and patted the cushions for Andrew to sit down beside her. "I thought there was some regulation on the books about down-time between shifts. At the rate this is going, you boys are going to have to start showing your driver's licenses as you walk through the door. . .just so your wives will be sure that it's really you!"

"We had a little. . .uh, problem over at the county jail this morning," O'Connor's laughter was strained, and he carefully avoided meeting Jane's eyes. "Sheriff Jamison asked us if we could put in some OT until everything is squared away again. But Dispatch said that you'd had another run-in with someone. Want to tell us what happened this time?"

"Same story as before," Jane said. "This time, Kayne was down at the end of the driveway. . ."

". . .excuse me, but who did you just say that it was?" Autry wore a look of mild derision.

"Thomas Kayne, of course -- who else has been causing all the uproar around this city for the last few months?" Jane said with a hint of exasperation in her voice.

"Whoa, Miss Jane. . .everything's OK," O'Connor held up his hand as he tried to give her one of his usual hearty, 'hail-fellow-well-met' grins, but the expression was almost indistinguishable from a grimace. "So Kayne showed up, down at the end of the driveway. Do you remember what time that was, by any chance?"

"I know exactly what time it was, Bill. The grandfather clock in the hall struck 8:15 just as Andrew and I ran out onto the porch," Jane frowned, not understanding the significance of the question. "Andrew and I went outside, and I ordered Kayne to get off the property. He just stood there, yelling a bunch of nonsense and shaking his fist at us. Rather than bother you guys with another pointless call, I decided to handle it on my own. I sent King after him, just to scare him off. You know how King is -- he's not going to attack someone unless they're a real threat."

"I gotta give you credit for that, Jane. That dog of yours is a wonder, and that's a fact," O'Connor nodded, and Andrew gave Jane a puzzled look. . .it was the first time that he'd realized that King didn't belong to Sharon, the owner of the day care center. "But anyway, what happened then?"

"Kayne pulled a knife from somewhere and tried to stab King, but King was just a little faster than he was. He got Kayne's arm in a good solid crunch," Jane finished up smoothly, neatly managing to omit the small details of Andrew's angelic intervention. "Kayne still managed to get loose somehow and took off through the brush out there. He was headed toward the Skinner farm, from the looks of it. But this time, he didn't get away without leaving some proof that he'd been here."

Jane held out the bit of fabric in the plastic bag, then finished quietly, "Andrew found this on the ground where Kayne and King were fighting. It's a piece torn from Kayne's shirt sleeve, where King bit him. I suspect that our dear Mr. Kayne is nursing a pretty badly chewed-up left arm."

O'Connor looked at the angels for a moment. . .and now Andrew was certain that he was seeing fear and more than just a hint of panic in the deputy's eyes. Autry was a different story, however; he snorted derisively at Jane and thumbed over his shoulder at the driveway.

"You're absolutely sure that it was Thomas Kayne out there?" Autry asked with that faintly bullying tone in his voice. "You said he was down at the end of the driveway. Maybe it was someone who looked a lot like him, and from that distance, you just thought it was Kayne."

Jane rolled her eyes in exasperation, and to stave off a potential archangelic explosion, Andrew turned toward O'Connor. The angel's hands quickly wove his thoughts into words, and his expression was intense -- as if challenging the two deputies to question the veracity of what he was saying.

It was Kayne, he signed. He was wearing the same clothes as yesterday -- blue denim overalls and a long-sleeved plaid shirt. 

"I. . .believe you, Andrew," O'Connor said as he signed the words to Andrew, then turned to Jane. "Jane, I only met you a couple of months ago, but I do know this much about you. You're about the smartest person I've ever met in the twenty-two years that I've been on the force. If anybody can help the Sheriff's Department figure out what on earth is going on around here, I'd put my money on you."

"Thanks for the compliment, Bill, but any wisdom that I have comes from God, not from myself," Jane said in a matter-of-fact voice. "I can see that something's got the two of you spooked. Want to tell me what's bothering you?"

O'Connor shuddered at her words. "It's not just the two of us, ma'am. It's the whole Sheriff's Department. . .and about half the people in town, too. The other half is too busy hauling out the garlic and the silver bullets right about now."

"Excuse me?" Jane raised an eyebrow.

"This gets tough to explain," O'Connor swallowed hard. "You said that you saw Thomas Kayne standing at the end of your driveway about quarter after eight. That wasn't the first time that someone's seen Kayne today, though. The guy that delivers the newspapers out here saw him staggering down the road, about half drunk as usual. Pete Caldwell called it into Dispatch before somebody ended up hitting Kayne -- not that anyone around here would have been real sorry to see that happen. The log shows that Pete's call came in at 7:08."

"And at five thirty, a woman had already called in a report that Kayne was hanging around her cattle barn," Autry said. "She heard her collie barking, and when she went out to investigate, Kayne took off down the road."

"All right -- so Kayne has had a busy day," Jane shrugged. "I mean, it's not exactly surprising that he gets up early for some binge-drinking and barn-burning, is it?"

"Well, if you'd asked me that yesterday, I would have said that it's pretty normal for Kayne," O'Connor said, and his lean, weather-beaten face slowly drained of all its color. "But right about now, I can't think of one single thing that's normal about this case."

O'Connor took a deep breath and then looked over at Jane and Andrew. And this time, Andrew could feel the hair stand up on his arms, even before O'Connor spoke again.

"You and Andrew saw Kayne, Mrs. McCallum saw him, and Pete saw him," O'Connor ticked the numbers off on his fingers, and his voice was flat and level, as if he was reciting the weather report. "Four credible witnesses, all telling the same story."

He looked down at the floor for a moment, as if trying to get his nerves under control again. But before he could finish his story, Autry rolled his eyes in disgust and took over the narrative where O'Connor had left off.

"The only problem is that Kayne couldn't make bail yesterday and since he's a good candidate for flight, the judge told us to hang onto him until the trial," the deputy shook his head. "The jailers found Kayne dead in his cell when they were handing out the breakfast trays this morning -- he'd hung himself with strips that he'd torn from a bed sheet. It's too early to know, yet, but the coroner thinks that he died somewhere between midnight and two a.m.. . .over three hours before Mrs. McCallum saw him outside her house."

"And there's something else, too," O'Connor volunteered as he picked up the bag with the scrap of cloth. "Trey and I both saw the body when the coroner got there, just a few minutes before we left the station to answer your call. Kayne was wearing a shirt made out of this fabric, all right, and there was a big ragged hole in one sleeve. The skin underneath the hole was all bloody and bruised, too, like he'd just gotten bit by a dog. . .and a big dog at that. But how did he get fresh wounds like that when he was sitting in a locked jail cell -- much less if he was already dead? How?"

Chapter Six

It was a silent and shaken group of angels who sat around the kitchen table at the end of the day, rearranging food from one side of their plates to the other. The children had already gone home for the day, and now Andrew found that he was actually missing them. He'd given them all an impromptu lesson in basic sign language that afternoon, and he hadn't even flinched when Therese once again crawled into his lap, resting her tiny blonde head against his shoulder.

Father, I don't understand everything that's going on around here, but I do sense the presence of the Adversary at work, Andrew prayed silently as he toyed with a forkful of meatloaf. And I know that I'm here for a reason. If You sent me here as an angel of death, then please help me with the work that You have for me. But if You can use me for life, Father -- then I'm here for that, too.

And above all, please help us protect these precious little ones of Yours. I will serve them in whatever capacity that You want me to. . .but You know what the real desire of my heart is.

He looked up from his prayers and saw Monica watching him from across the table. Like the other three angels, Monica hadn't eaten a great deal of her food, although Andrew suspected that her lack of appetite might have had more to do with pain and exhaustion than worry. Occasionally, she rubbed the spot on her arm where Jeffrey had bitten her, and now Andrew could see that there was a feverish glitter in her eyes.

An angel's physical form was seldom prone to the kinds of accidents and illnesses that were the common lot of mankind. But when those bodies did go wrong on occasion, an angel's surest and swiftest recourse was to turn to the Father for healing. For a second or two, the thought of his own deafness flashed through Andrew's mind, but he simply looked upward with a trusting nod until the temptation to give in to his bitterness and fear faded away.

Jane had seen Andrew's nod, however, and she correctly guessed his thoughts. 'What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee,' she signed the familiar passage to him with a smile. Monica tossed her fork down onto her plate with such force that a few peas danced off the edge and fell onto her place mat.

"I hate it when you do that, Jane," she whined at the archangel. "Tess and I can't understand what you and Andrew are saying, and it makes us feel like you two are talking about us behind our backs. Isn't that right, Tess? You said so yourself this morning before that awful Kayne fellow showed up again."

"I said a lot of things this morning that I had no business saying, Miss Wings," Tess snapped. "And believe me, I have spent the rest of this day repenting before God for my bad attitude and my grumbling. As far as Thomas Kayne is concerned, it doesn't matter if you or I or anyone else thinks he was an 'awful' man. He's in God's hands tonight, one way or the other, and it's not for us to say how far God's mercy extended when Kayne was dying in that jail cell. Am I making myself clear?"

"Yes, Tess," Monica turned her head away from Tess, and now her shoulders shook with silent sobs.

But then her hands clenched into fists at her sides, and when she looked up at her three co-workers, anger flashed in her eyes. She gestured defiantly around her at the snug kitchen where copper pans gleamed on the walls behind the stove and dozens of whimsical angel figurines peeked out from potted plants or marched across the top of the cabinets. But for all of the enjoyment that Monica evidenced in such pleasant surroundings, she might as well have been locked in a dungeon.

"I don't know what's the matter with me, anymore. Ever since we came to this dreadful place, I feel as if everyone hates me, and I can't do anything right," she cried to Tess. "You hate me, Jane hates me. . .even the children hate me!"

Before one of the other three angels could say anything, Monica threw down her napkin and ran out of the back door toward the playground. Always tender-hearted toward those in pain of any kind, Andrew stood up and started to follow her, but Jane shook her head and gestured for him to sit back down.

The archangel had been silent through the entire exchange between Tess and Monica: in fact, she'd said very little since the two deputies had left earlier that day. O'Connor had glanced nervously all around the yard on his way back to the squad car, as if he expected Thomas Kayne's apparition to jump out from behind a rock or a bush and yell "Boo!"

But now Jane looked at Tess and Andrew, and for a few seconds, she absently ran her fingers along the long, thin white scar that extended from her forehead to her chin.  When she spoke, her words were like flashing sabers, slicing through the Enemy's maneuvers with deadly effectiveness.

"The reason that I wanted you to let Monica go is because she hasn't faced demonic power in quite the same way that we have, Andrew," Jane was careful to sign and speak her words at the same time for both Andrew and Tess' benefit. "She's had clashes with the Adversary's troops before, but God has shielded her from direct spiritual contact with them -- the kind that can crush the very hope and faith out of your heart. The three of us, on the other hand, know what it's like to fall into the Enemy's hands. . .which makes us more sensitive to unseen forces operating around us."

Tess and Andrew nodded, and judging from the distant expression in their eyes for a moment, the two angels were reliving the times that they had received their own "combat medals."  Jane smiled ruefully at them: obviously her own experience was still fresh in her mind, no matter how many centuries had passed between that time and the present.

"Now the three of us know that Thomas Kayne has already received a just recompense for the deeds he committed while in the body," she said, and her expression grew even more intense. "And we also know that there are no such things as ghosts, because God said that it is appointed for men to die but once and then the judgment. So that was definitely not an apparition of Thomas Kayne that we all saw today -- all human belief to the contrary."

"It is also written that 'by their fruits, ye shall know them,'" Tess picked up the thread of Jane's thoughts. "And believe me, there has been absolutely nothing godly about what's happened around here over the past two days. And since all spiritual activity comes from only one of two sources -- God or the Enemy -- it doesn't take much to figure out what our so-called 'ghost' actually was, now does it?"

"Which leaves us with one question: why is the Adversary sending his evil spirits in disguise to this little city of ours? Good old Paris, Nebraska: population 82,786 -- not including children and dogs. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer for that question right now," Jane raised an eyebrow at the other two angels. "The only thing that I do know for certain is that we were all sent here as part of God's plan, whether we fully understand His design or not. In your case, Andrew, the Father wanted you to stay here at this day care center, even though you hadn't recovered from that terrible tragedy out in California, yet. And what's even more important is that God wanted you to come here exactly as you are now -- deaf ears, wounded spirit, and all. But why?"

Tess stood up and walked over to Andrew, then put her hands on his shoulders. She looked down into his face for a moment, and even though he couldn't hear her voice, Andrew could feel the gentleness and compassion that once more radiated from her.

"Angel Boy, I know this is hard for you to talk about, but I think the time has come for you to tell Jane and me about what really happened out there at that day care center in California," she said slowly so that he could read her lips. "I have an idea that this situation and that one have got something in common with each other. . .something that might just help us figure out what the Enemy has got planned for this city. I've had my suspicions all along but no solid proof of anything."

Andrew took a deep breath and tried to steel himself to tell the story to Jane and Tess. But before he could begin, the back door burst open, and Monica ran inside, then skidded to a stop. And it might have been Andrew's imagination, but he could have sworn that he saw a flicker of annoyance or jealousy in Monica's eyes as she saw the three angels standing together. 

"Tess, Jane. . .there's someone standing down by the barn," the speed at which Monica now spoke made it difficult for Andrew to read her lips. "I was sitting out in the gazebo out back, when all of a sudden, this man was just standing there -- as if he'd just appeared out of nowhere. I didn't get a good look at him, but when the wind blew toward me, I think I smelled gasoline!"

"We'll talk more about this, Andrew, but for right now, we're gonna take the A-Train out to that barn and see exactly what we're up against," Tess said firmly. "Angel train, that is. Jane, will you do the honors this time?"

Jane nodded, and instantly, the four angels vanished from the kitchen -- only to reappear outside the barn a second or two later. The sun had set a short time before, and even the security light in the back yard did little to illuminate the growing darkness. But one thing was clear enough: the angels could see that smoke was pouring out of the open barn doors, carrying with it the sweet-acrid smell of burning hay.

An evening breeze suddenly sprang up, fanning the tongues of flame that burst from the barn's loft, and just as Monica had said, the air was heavy with the smell of gasoline. With a groan that sounded almost human, a section of the barn roof collapsed into the flames, and the wind blew the shower of sparks in every direction. A few of those sparks landed on the roof of the house, and Monica cried out a warning.

The human reaction would have been to run to the telephone and call the fire department or else grab a hose and try to put out the fire without their help, but Jane chose to do neither. Instead, the other three angels watched as she calmly walked up to the barn and stood there for a few seconds, awaiting her instructions.

She looked up just as a chunk of burning wood crashed down to the ground, missing her head by only a few inches, and as if that was her cue, she took another step closer to the structure. Andrew was standing only a few feet away from Jane: even so, he could barely hear her when she spoke. But judging from the calm, relaxed tone that she used, the archangel might have been addressing a misbehaving toddler instead of an inferno.

"Peace. . .be still," she commanded with the authority that she had been given by God.

The wind died down immediately, and the flames were instantly extinguished, as if as if they had been turned off by a valve. However,  smoke continued to billow from the hayloft and the open doors, and Jane gestured for her three co-workers to stay where they were. The archangel walked through the thick gray haze and into the barn: now Tess and the others could see her vague outline as she appeared to be searching for something. She re-emerged a few moments later, carrying a small object in her hand, and her eyes were full of anger.

Jane walked over to Tess, Andrew, and Monica, and even though she had been in the smoke, not a trace of it clung to her denim skirt and white peasant blouse. . .not even the odor.  She held out what she was carrying, and despite the darkness, the other three angels could see what it was: a large piece of plaid fabric.

"Recognize this?" Jane asked as Tess and Andrew inspected it. "It was hanging from the ladder that goes up to the hayloft. And you can bet that it wasn't left there accidentally, either."

The cloth was identical in pattern to the scrap that Andrew had found on the ground after the battle between King and Thomas Kayne, but there was something else -- something that only Andrew would have noticed. Another eddy of wind blew a familiar odor toward him from the piece of cloth: the smell of alcohol and sweaty clothing that he had noticed whenever he'd seen Kayne the day before.

"Well, this makes it official. We have now been put on notice, ladies and gentlemen. . .war has just been declared. We don't know what the Enemy's plans are here in Paris, but we do know that he sent an evil spirit to masquerade as an apparition of Thomas Kayne while he's trying to accomplish his goals. And since the Father specifically sent Andrew here, I have an idea that part of the Adversary's plans have to do with this day care center," Jane said and then gestured toward the house. "I'm going to go call in an arson report to the police department -- leaving out one or two minor details, that is. And as far as depending upon them for protection, you and I both know that they don't have the same caliber of "weapons" that we do."

"Hah," Tess shook her head as they walked back to the house. "They're trying to fight a spiritual battle with earthly weapons -- and that's like trying to stop a Sherman tank with a squirt gun!"

As they approached the house, Jane walked up the steps, then paused for a second and looked down at her fellow angels. Tess and Andrew were only a few steps behind Jane, while Monica lagged almost fifteen yards away. And when Jane spoke, her voice was low and level, as if she only intended for Tess and Andrew to hear her.

"Like I said, the Enemy has declared war on us. . .and just like any other army, we're only as strong as the weakest soldier in the ranks," Jane said quietly, then glanced briefly back at Monica.

Tess and Andrew exchanged puzzled glances, and their bewilderment only intensified when Jane started to step onto the porch but then turned back toward them, as if she had changed her mind. Now the archangel's powerful expression was enough to make the other two angels pull back slightly as she looked down at them. . .and her next words did little to reassure them, either.

Jane sighed sharply, then said, "And I have an idea that the biggest danger that we're going to face may just come from friendly fire, too."

Chapter Seven

The next two days passed without incident, although Andrew was still uncomfortably aware of a sensation like unseen eyes watching every move that he made. However, except for a minor tantrum or two among the children and an occasional outburst of whining from Monica, there was no sense of being under siege. . .and to a veteran caseworker like Andrew, that was the most unnerving part of all.

But when he awoke early on the morning of the third day, the sky was a strange greenish-gray color, and the air was already sullen with heat and humidity. Feeling as if he hadn't gotten any rest at all that night, Andrew got out of bed and slowly walked across the room to the window. He pulled back the lace curtains and inspected the landscape: across the road, a sharp wind kicked up dust out in the soybean fields, and the clouds were low and heavy with rain.

He glanced over at the ornate ormolu clock sitting on the fireplace mantel: it was only five o'clock and still too early for the other angels to be up yet. Which gave him an idea. . .

He walked over to the closet and quickly slipped into a pair of blue jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, then made his way downstairs to the playroom. With its heavy drapes and window air conditioner, the dark, cool room was the perfect place to worship God and pray. . .and now Andrew felt an almost overwhelming need to be alone, in order to focus his entire attention on his 'assignment.'

Well. . .maybe not entirely alone, he smiled ruefully.

As he approached the sliding door that separated the playroom from the rest of the house, he saw that the partition had been pushed open slightly. The space wasn't very wide -- just the perfect size to admit one large, but agile German Shepherd body.

Starting with the German Shepherd nose that pushed the door open in the first place, no doubt! Andrew chuckled to himself as he walked into the room.

And true to the angel's prediction, King thumped his tail in a lazy greeting as he lay on his side underneath the air conditioner.  In view of the possible storms, Jane had decided to let the dog sleep indoors, but Andrew suspected that her decision had as much to do with King's prowess as a watch dog as it did with the animal's safety.

"Some people have it made around here, you know that, don't you?" Andrew shook his head with a grin, as King yawned and shifted positions on the cool tile floor. "But let me give you some advice, buddy. . .when Jeffrey shows up, you'd better head for the hills. His bite is definitely worse than his bark -- in fact, his bite is probably worse than yours. Just ask Monica if you don't believe me."

At the mention of the two names, King sat up and tilted his head to one side, as if he was giving serious thought to what Andrew had just said. . .and not necessarily liking what he had heard, either.  But when Andrew got down on his knees and prepared to prostrate himself before God, as angels always did in Heaven when they prayed, the Shepherd stood up and crossed the room until he reached Andrew's side.

The angel's back was to the door now, and King turned around several times, then stretched out beside Andrew, facing the partition. Andrew started to say something, then shrugged and thought better of the idea. After all, it wasn't as if the dog was a bother. More of a comfort, actually. . .

. . .especially when you can't hear what's coming at you, he sighed, then caught himself just before he gave into thoughts of self-pity again.

Andrew quickly turned to his prayers, despite the reluctance that had troubled him ever since that afternoon in May. The deepest need of his heart was to praise and worship the One who had created Him, and yet a nagging sense of guilt had intruded upon his spirit every time that he'd tried to pray over the past few months.

Now, that uneasy sensation once more stood between him and the unfettered communion with the Father that he so urgently desired, like a wall of brass. But then Andrew felt a tug deep in his spirit, and he knew that he was being called to intercede for the people of Paris, including the children.

No, not including the children. . .especially for the children, he realized suddenly. For the sake of others who needed his intercession, he instantly obeyed that prompting, managing to set aside his own feelings for the time being. And as he prayed, gradually the room took on something of the very air of Heaven itself -- a perfume that made even the sweetest lilies or roses seem astringent in contrast.

Father, I ask you to protect the little ones of this city, Andrew pleaded, and even if he wasn't aware of it, his prayer was almost indistinguishable from a groan. Have mercy on them, and. . .

But before he could finish his petition, he felt King's sides rumbling in a low growl, and at that instant, he was suddenly assaulted by a flood of light. Even though Andrew's eyes were still shut, the abrupt shift from semi-darkness to full florescent light was painful. . .

. . .but being torn out of his communion with the Father was even more excruciating to his spirit than the light was to his eyes.

Still reeling from the transition, Andrew stood up quickly and turned to face the person who had turned on the overhead light. He found himself looking down into Monica's disapproving eyes, and even the sight of her scowl made him feel foolish, as if she'd caught him playing the air guitar or scribbling on the walls with crayons.

"Andrew!" she shook her head. "You're supposed to rest and take it easy while you're here. . .and instead, you're sprawled out here on the cold floor. What are you doing down here at this ridiculous hour of the morning?"

"I suppose I could ask you the same thing, Monica," he frowned, trying to read her lips. "But to answer your question, I came down here to. . .oww! What was that for, boy?"

Andrew yelped and then rubbed his hand: King's nip hadn't been strong enough to break the skin, but the pinch was certainly sharp enough to sting. The Shepherd shifted positions slightly, so that it now stood directly in front of Andrew, and the dog's ears were up as it stared at Monica.

Monica met the dog's eyes briefly, then dropped her own gaze when King continued to watch her closely. She absently rubbed her sore arm for a second or two: apparently there had been more truth than exaggeration to Andrew's earlier comparison between King and Jeffrey's orthodontic abilities.

"Well, I suppose it's all right that you're down here this early," Monica shrugged reluctantly. "You just don't want to get Tess and Her Majesty mad at you, that's all. . .otherwise, you'll never hear the end of it."

"Uh. . .Her Majesty?" Andrew raised an eyebrow mildly at her. "You mean Jane -- the archangel appointed by God?  The archangel who's always loved and taken care of everyone around her? Which includes a couple of former search and rescue types standing right here in this very room, I might add."

Monica made a little noise under her breath, and even though Andrew couldn't hear the sound, he would have been willing to bet that it was a snort of disgust. She gestured around the playroom with an obvious look of distaste, then turned back to him and spoke slowly so that he could understand her.

"You don't know what it's been like around here for the last few weeks," she shook her head and took a step closer to him. "Every time I turn around, it's 'Monica, you need to give the children their snacks,' or 'Monica, you need to put out the mats for the children's nap time.' Any time that I have a chance to sit down and pray, Jane always seems to want something done at that very moment. . .and I know this may sound crazy, but there are times when I swear she's doing it deliberately."

Monica's words sent a cold shiver throughout Andrew, and for a moment, he seemed to be standing in another time and place, listening to a strident voice that constantly interrupted the few free moments he had for prayer. King pressed closer to him, and now he could feel the dog's snarls, as if the Shepherd could somehow sense the evil that clung to even the memory of that voice.

Andrew stumbled over to the row of chairs along one wall and sat down heavily, unable to shake the disorientation and fear that gnawed at him. Monica followed him over to the chairs, but before she could sit down beside her co-worker, King darted in between them and interposed himself between the two angels.

"Easy, boy," Andrew reached down and ruffled King's ears, but the gesture was as much to distract himself as it was to calm the Shepherd.

Even now, he was almost overwhelmed by the steady stream of images from that day: the splattered mural, the glint of light from something metallic. . .all of those memories now came back to him, each one more terrible than the last.  And he knew that unless he acted quickly, he would once more be locked in the prison of his mind with only the sounds of screams to keep him company.

With what he hoped was a casual tone, he asked, "So what else is Jane doing lately that seems out of character for her?"

Monica turned away for a second or two, and when she looked back at Andrew, he was shocked to see real fear in her face.

He started to put his hand on her shoulder in a gesture of comfort, but she pulled away from him suspiciously.

"I wouldn't blame you if you thought I was crazy when I tell you this," Monica's eyes darted around the room as if she expected to see someone spying on them. "Last week, I cut a bouquet of those peach colored roses for the dinner table, and I brought them inside to put them in a vase. Well, before I could get them in water, naturally Herself needed me to do something with the children, and she said that she'd take care of the flowers for me. But that night at the kitchen table, I saw the roses that I'd just cut that afternoon. . .and they were all dried out, like they'd been dead for weeks! But Jane was the only other one who touched them besides me!"

Now it was Andrew's turn to shiver with fear as he remembered the withered white roses up in his room -- and who had been standing near them just before he discovered that they were all dead. Monica saw his reaction and then leaned closer to him so that he could read her lips again. . .

. . .and with that, King lunged straight toward her arm, his teeth showing in a snarl as she jumped away in terror.  Andrew made a grab for the dog's collar, and the Shepherd's snapping teeth missed Monica's arm by less than an inch.

"That does it," she cried furiously. 'I hate that sickening air freshener that Jane uses in here all the time, and now I have to put up with this filthy, vicious dog of hers, too! I hate this place and everything about it!"

Air freshener? Andrew took a deep breath and smelled nothing except a faint, lingering fragrance that was sweeter than all the  lilies and roses of earth.

"Andrew, we have got to do something about what's going on around here before we end up losing sight of God altogether," Monica continued, and her eyes were desperate. "Tess is a supervisor, and she and Jane will back each other up, of course, but you and I are just case workers. Or at least you were a caseworker before that whole terrible tragedy out in California, anyway. But still, you understand why we have to find a way out of here. . .there's something terribly wrong with Jane, and it has me scared half to death! How can we serve God if we're always being harassed by something evil?"

There was a second or two of delay while Andrew laboriously pieced together the meaning of what he had just read on Monica's lips -- but then the full impact of what she had just said rolled over him like an icy wave of black water. He winced at her choice of words. . .in his heart, he was still a caseworker, even if the Father had chosen to put him on a leave of absence for the time being.

Even so, that wasn't the real reason why his spirit recoiled so violently that he felt as if he had been punched in the stomach.

Fear suddenly gripped him -- fear of a kind that he hadn't experienced since that night in the abandoned building in Chicago.

Everywhere he looked, he seemed to see nothing except a high wall of blackness and silence that shut him away from everything good and pure and holy.

Still clutching King's collar, the angel turned stricken eyes toward Monica, and he felt himself beginning to shiver as if he had a high fever. And speaking of fevers, perhaps that accounted for Monica's uncharacteristic rebelliousness, Andrew thought dully as he watched her rub her red, swollen arm again. Her eyes had a febrile glitter to them as she met his shaken gaze, and there was a defiant tilt to her chin that Andrew had never seen before.

For a second or two, Andrew felt as if he was in the great San Francisco earthquake again -- except that this time, it was the very foundations of his own mind and spirit that were being shaken, instead of the earth beneath his feet. But the training he had received from Tess and Jane over-rode his own momentary panic, and instinctively, he turned to the Source of all truth.

Father, please show me what to do, he pleaded frantically. I don't understand what's going on around here, and I'm afraid. Please help your angel to see Your truth.

There was no immediate lessening of the darkness that pressed down on him, just as there was no change in the smothering silence that filled his ears. But then as if someone had suddenly turned on a switch in the back of his mind, the shadows in his thoughts and emotions abruptly disappeared -- dispelled by the floodlights of obedience and truth.

"Monica, what you're suggesting is rebellion against God -- plain and simple. He set authority over us for our protection, and He's the only One who has the right to remove someone from that position," Andrew's voice was calmer now as he watched Monica stand up and back away towards the door. "If you think that there's something wrong with Jane, and you're afraid to confront her about it, let's pray together right now and ask God to help us. And while we're at it, why don't you let me pray about that arm of yours, too? I can ask the Father to heal you and. . ."

"Don't be ridiculous!" Monica snapped, and she took another step toward the door. "God won't even answer your prayers when you've asked him to heal your own deafness. What makes you think He'd listen to you if you asked Him to heal me? Face it, Andrew, you failed God when you couldn't even handle your assignment out in California. He obviously doesn't trust you enough yet to give you another assignment. . .and at the rate that things are going, I'm not sure if He ever will trust you again, either."

She stood just inside the door for a few seconds, her eyes still fixed on the growling dog at Andrew's feet. She shook her head in disgust. . .and with that, she shoved aside the sliding partition and stepped through the doorway so swiftly that she simply seemed to vanish. Andrew waited until she was gone, then bowed his head and tried to pick up the thread of his prayers.

But the words that Monica had said to him still hung in the air like a cloud of dust after a building is demolished. . .and seemingly without trying, she had just managed to tear away the bandage of silence from the deepest wound in his spirit. Andrew loved God with a depth and tenderness that was rare even among angels, and even the thought of failing the Father was enough to crush his spirit within him again. He sat there for a moment, staring down at the scuffed tile floor, and pain once more flooded his heart as sharply as if he was still standing on the playground of the day care center in San Diego.

But before unhappiness overwhelmed him completely, he saw King's head go up, and the dog wagged his tail in greeting as he looked toward the door. Andrew glanced up and saw Jane standing just inside the room. . .but before he could stop himself, he recoiled involuntarily from her, still hearing the words that Monica had just spoken. However, Jane gave no indication that she had seen his reaction at all as she walked over to him.  She sat down on the chair that Monica had just vacated, and her face was full of concern.

Are you all right, Angel Boy? she signed to him. I thought maybe you were praying, and that's why I waited for a minute before I came in, so that I didn't disturb you. But it looks to me like something's gotten you pretty upset this morning. Want to talk about it?

Jane's words were phrased as a question, but after all the centuries that he had known her, Andrew recognized a gentle 'command' when he didn't hear one. Even so, he hesitated before he said anything to the archangel. . .he could still see the look of alarm on Monica's face as she described the incident with the roses. Now that same kind of fear once more started to crawl unbidden through his own heart and mind again as he struggled to speak.

But the obedience to authority that was the strongest part of his nature didn't desert him, even in the face of his fears. He breathed a quick prayer toward Heaven and then looked resolutely into Jane's eyes.

"Jane, there are a lot of things going on around here that I don't understand," he said simply. "I'm scared, and I don't know who to trust any more. . .not after what happened out in California. I need your help."

Whew! For a minute there, you had me worried! Jane smiled at him. It's much too early in the morning for this old archangel to be answering the mysteries of the universe -- like why people do what they do, for example. Not to mention a really tough question like what happens to the Chicago Cubs' pennant prospects every September. But come over here with me to the chalkboard, and I think I can answer your question.

Andrew followed Jane over to the blackboard hanging on the wall, and the archangel picked up two pieces of colored chalk -- one a bright red and the other a yellowish-green. In a few swift strokes, she outlined two figures, then turned back to Andrew and gestured at what she had just drawn.

OK, Andrew, can you tell the difference between these two things? she asked.

"That's an apple, and that looks like a poison ivy leaf," he shrugged. . .and if anything, he was more mystified than ever. "Now I'm really confused."

No, you're not. You already  know the difference between an apple and poison ivy. An apple feeds you, but poison ivy only makes you feel miserable. One, you trust, and the other, you avoid,  Jane signed calmly. It is written, "By their fruits, ye shall know them." Anything that is good and pure and lovely and feeds your spirit with truth is of God. Anything that comes from the Enemy just leaves you itchy.

The archangel's expression might have been serious, but there was nothing somber at all about the twinkle in her eye as she replaced the pieces of chalk. Andrew chuckled at her solemn air, as if she had just pronounced judgment in some complicated legal matter, but before he could say anything to Jane, King suddenly barked.

Who needs a doorbell? Jane smiled as she gestured over her shoulder in the direction of the front door. Andrew automatically glanced up at the wall clock and saw that it was almost six fifteen -- the time that Jeffrey's mother usually dropped him off at the day care on her way into work. Sounds like the first arrival of the day, and apparently Monica isn't waiting out front like I asked her to.

She walked across the room, then paused for a second by the partition. She turned back to Andrew and signed, Think about what I told you whenever you feel confused or afraid, Angel Boy. It is written that God is not the Author of confusion, but of peace.  Ask Him to show you the truth, and He will.

Jane smiled at him again before she walked out of the room and headed toward the porch. Andrew stood up and started to leave the room, too, but he just reached the sliding partition when he looked up and saw Jane walking toward him again. And instead of having Jeffrey in tow, she was followed by Bill O'Connor: the deputy's face was furrowed with grief and worry, and there was still a streak of what looked like dirt or smoke along his jaw.

What's going on, Jane? Andrew felt a shiver of apprehension go through him.

"Bill wanted to let us know that the county is under a tornado watch until four o'clock, but he also has some information that I think is very interesting, "Jane  said as she signed the words to Andrew. "Go ahead and tell Andrew what you told me."

"Remember how Mrs. McCallum and Pete Caldwell both said they saw Thomas Kayne's ghost, after he hung himself?"  O'Connor also spoke and signed at the same time. "Well, Laura was out in the cattle lot last evening, checking to make sure that everything was OK for the night. Somehow, one of the gates didn't get latched tightly, and her prize Black Angus bull got out and trampled her before one of the farm workers could get in under control. She's in critical condition at Memorial Hospital, and the doctors don't know if she'll make it or not."

And what's happened to Pete? Andrew frowned.

"Early this morning, we got a citizen's report of a vehicle that hit a tree and was on fire, about five miles south on Old County Line Road," the deputy's hands were subdued as he described the situation to Andrew. "Trey and I got there even before the fire department did, and we managed to get Pete out of the car just before it blew up. We think he fell asleep while he was doing his early morning paper route and just lost control of the vehicle. He's in the Burn Unit, and his prognosis isn't any better than Laura's. Looks like seeing Thomas Kayne's ghost was some kind of omen or something for Laura and Pete. . .and not a good one, either. And since you guys said his spook showed up here, too, I just figured you'd want to know."

"Thanks, Bill," Jane said, then gestured in the direction of the kitchen. "We appreciate the fact that you're watching out for us. You look like it's already been a long, rough morning. Tess is fixing breakfast. . .why don't you go join her for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat before you go back on patrol?"

"Thanks, Miss Jane. . .I think I'll do that very thing," O'Connor nodded. "I'll go call it in, and I'll be right back."

Andrew waited until the deputy was out of earshot, then asked quietly, "Jane, do you have any idea why the Enemy chose those two people, out of everyone who lives in this city?"

I think I know at least part of the reason why those two were singled out, Jane said. Laura and Pete are both strong believers in God, and they don't hesitate to speak out when they see the Enemy at work in this town. In fact, Laura spear-headed the efforts to keep an adult bookstore from opening up in Paris, and Pete is the one who blew the whistle on an alleged 'church' that was trying to get a foothold in the community. That 'church' was actually a group of Satanists, and one of their members had just been hired as a math teacher at the local high school.

"I understand," Andrew nodded knowingly. "They cost the Adversary a lot of souls. . .and now he's trying to take their lives out of revenge."

You can bet on it, Jane's expression was grim. You know as well as I do that the soldiers on the front line of the battle are the ones that can expect the heaviest shelling. Well, it sounds like the Enemy has opened fire, and we can't afford to let down our guard until God gives us permission to lob a grenade right in the middle of his camp.

"Well, it may not be time to fight face to face just yet, but that doesn't mean that I can't haul out the grenade launcher and make sure that it's loaded and ready to fire," Andrew paused at the foot of the stairs with his hand on the banister, and his eyes were intense. "And I think I know exactly which grenade launcher that God intends for us to use, too!"

He walked up the stairs toward his room, but then he paused on the middle step and looked longingly toward the kitchen, where the smell of sausage and pancakes now beckoned to him. But when he glanced down at Jane and saw her amused expression, he shook his head with a sheepish smile.

"You know, I think it's finally happened. . .I'm starting to sound like Tess," he sighed. "I'm even turning into a breakfast-aholic like she is, too. I hope she and Bill leave me some pancakes and sausage, but there's something that I need to do first before I eat breakfast."

Jane chuckled at his woebegone expression, as he turned and went upstairs. She listened carefully, and in a moment, she heard the soft "creech" as his bedroom door swung open on its hinges. That was followed by the faint squeak of floorboards as he walked across the room, and in a few more seconds, she heard muffled sounds overhead as Andrew rummaged through his bureau in search of something.

There was a moment of silence until he found what he was looking for, and then the floorboards creaked again as Andrew crossed the room and sat down in the chair over by the window. Now Jane listened to the soft rustling of pages being turned, and she nodded once more to herself.

You know, some things just come with the territory, Andrew, she addressed the absent angel with a smile that was best described as Machiavellian. And to quote a certain junk-carrying, jewelry-jangling archangel of death that we both happen to know. . .

. . .hoo boy, kiddo, are you ever gonna be one surprised angel boy when this is all said and done with!

Chapter Eight

Some time later, Andrew's stomach gave a low rumble, and he glanced over at the mantle clock. He was surprised to see that it was already ten thirty -- almost four hours later than the last time that he'd checked the time. He'd been so focused on what he was doing that he hadn't paid any attention to anything else.

Including breakfast, he thought with a tired but satisfied smile, and he closed a small spiral notebook whose pages were covered in his neat Spenserian script.  I wonder if there are any pancakes and sausage left that I could heat up. . .or if Jeffrey made another "midnight requisition" on the refrigerator?

"Hey, boy, wanna bet on whether there's any breakfast left for us. . .or if  Jeffrey got to the leftovers before we did?" Andrew shrugged at King.

The dog had spent the morning curled up on the braided rag rug at Andrew's feet: now the Shepherd grumbled under its breath, and he looked up at he with an almost human expression of disgust. King put his ears back against his head and pulled himself into an even tighter ball, still grumping and growling to himself. 

"I don't blame you," Andrew grinned as he stood up. "I don't like sucker bets, either."

He closed the soft black leather covers of the book that had occupied all his attention, then walked across the room to his bureau and replaced the volume in the top drawer. He started to put the notebook in the drawer, too, but then he suddenly yelped and danced back from the sharp white teeth that had just nipped his ankle.

"Oww, boy, that hurts!" now it was Andrew's turn to grumble as he looked down at King. The dog met his eyes with an unwavering stare for a moment, then looked at the notebook and fixed his gaze on Andrew again. "OK, 'Lassie,' I get the idea. 'Timmy' is supposed to hang onto the notebook, right? If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were an. . .OWWW!"

This time, the nip was even firmer than the first, and Andrew shook his head ruefully as he picked up the small notebook again and put it in his shirt pocket. Limping a little, he allowed himself to be herded out of his bedroom and down the staircase by King. . .and this time, the look of accomplishment and satisfaction in the dog's face was unmistakable.

With a few nudges from his "bodyguard's" cold, wet nose, Andrew quickly reached the bottom of the steps -- perhaps a little more quickly than he had intended to. The house was quiet now as he walked toward the kitchen, and even the playroom was dark and silent.

It hadn't taken him long to pick up on the day care center's routine: if the weather permitted, the children played outside on the swings and slides from ten thirty to eleven thirty. Andrew also knew Jane or Monica supervised the children during the morning recess, while Tess usually took the afternoon session from three thirty until four o'clock. And for the last two days, Tess had spent her mornings down in the kitchen, cleaning up the breakfast dishes and doing the prep work for lunch.

But when Andrew pushed open the swinging doors and stepped into the kitchen, the room was dark and empty. No welcoming smell of vegetable soup or beef stew bubbling cheerfully on the stove greeted him, and the only light on in the room was the small one above the kitchen sink. As he walked toward the refrigerator, he saw a small piece of paper under one of the magnets, and he immediately recognized Jane's precise handwriting.

"'Andrew:  the left over pancakes and sausage are in the blue plastic dish on the top shelf. Try 45 seconds in the microwave to start with. Unfortunately, there's not much syrup left. . .and three guesses as to who the culprit was, too,'" he read the note aloud. "'Monica is taking care of the children while I meet with Sharon's insurance agent about the damage to the barn. Tess spent two hours cleaning Jeffrey's masterpiece in maple syrup off the kitchen walls. The last time that I checked, she was up in her room, studying cartography -- a.k.a., mapping out the inside of her eyelids. Talk to you soon. Jane.'"

He chuckled to himself as he rummaged through the refrigerator. Finally, he located the blue plastic container, and forty nine seconds later, he sat at the kitchen table, trying to coax the last few drops of maple syrup out of the bottle. With a sigh of contentment, he lifted a forkful of pancakes to his lips. . .

. . .just as the back door burst open, and a panting Monica ran inside. Andrew put down his fork and looked up at his co-worker with a worried frown.

"What's wrong, Monica?" he stood up and crossed the short distance until he stood directly in front of her. "Easy. . .just tell me what's wrong. Did something happen to one of the children?"

In her haste and fright, Monica babbled something at him, and even with his ability to read lips, he still couldn't understand what she was saying to him. He reached out to put his hand on her shoulder, but she turned away from him and gestured frantically out at the playground as she spoke to him.

"Slow down, please. . .I can't understand you," he said, desperately wishing that Jane was here to interpret for him. "What's wrong?"

She said something that he didn't quite catch and then turned and started to run outside again. But before she had taken more than one or two steps, Andrew lunged forward and caught her arm, then pulled her back toward him. As she turned back to him, she spoke to him again: now he could understand a few words of what she was saying. . .and it was enough to make a cold shiver of fear run down his back.

". . .Thomas Kane. . ." she said, as Andrew struggled to read her lips. ". . .outside. . .swing set. . .children. . ."

""Go upstairs and get Tess. . .and please hurry!" he said frantically. "She's up in her room, taking a nap. Tell her what you just told me. I'll go outside and see what's going on."

Monica nodded and ran through the swinging doors toward the staircase, while Andrew dashed for the back yard. He ran down the steps towards the playground, and now he could see that most of the toddlers were huddled together by the slides as they stared in terror at something over by the swing set.

Only two children sat side by side on the swing set, too frozen by fear to move. Jeffrey stared blankly at nothing in particular, and his face was now a chalky white, but Therese's entire attention was focused on something directly overhead. Andrew looked up -- only to see a transparent shape sitting on the heavy wooden support beam overhead.

The figure was dressed in the same overalls and plaid shirt that Andrew had last seen the real Thomas Kayne wearing, and now he knew that the thin blue mark around the creature's neck was meant to represent the ligature mark caused by hanging. It gibbered and spat as it perched on the swing set beam, and it wore a look of sullen, spiteful pleasure as it gestured first at the two children and then at the angel.

Somehow, Andrew forced himself to cross the playground until he was less than ten feet away from the transparent form. But as he drew closer, he felt as if he was wading in some tarry substance or trying to push his way past an invisible wall of ice. The spirit threw its head back in an obscene parody of mirth at Andrew's inability to overcome the barrier of pure evil that surrounded it.

"In the name of the Lord, I rebuke you. . . not by my strength and power, but by the power of the Almighty God!" Andrew managed to cry out, despite the memories and sounds that now flooded his mind. "Father, receive the prayers of your servant Andrew, and rebuke the Devourer for Your Name's sake!"

This time, there was no immediate easing of the resistance that surrounded him, but Andrew continued to pray with all the strength and determination that he possessed. He closed his eyes tightly against the words that he could now read on the figure's lips -- vile curses and obscene taunts that made his spirit recoil as violently as if he had been struck physically.

But as the sensation of being crushed grew even greater, Andrew gasped involuntarily as something brushed past him.  His eyes flew open, and he spun around to face what might well be a new threat to the safety of the children. . .only to see King run toward the swing set and its terrified occupants. The German Shepherd made no attempt to lunge at the figure, however: instead, King growled menacingly at the evil spirit and met its gaze without flinching.

"No, boy. . .get back!" Andrew called out to the dog, knowing that the animal's teeth weren't going to do any good against an opponent who wasn't made of flesh and blood.

But to his amazement, the feeling of resistance disappeared as if that invisible wall of ice had instantly melted. He found that he could move forward easily, and as he ran up to the swing set, the evil spirit shrank back in fear and loathing. And even if Andrew didn't know it, the power and authority that now radiated from him was as great as that wielded by any archangel.

"In the Name of the Almighty God, be gone from this place!" Andrew commanded firmly.

As if the angel's words had been acid, a look of anguish spread across the transparent figure's face, and it wavered for a second or two on top the beam. Then the demonic figure screeched in rage and fury. . .and at that instant, Jeffrey and Therese came out of their trance-like state. They began to cry, but Andrew smiled and dropped down onto one knee.

"Jeffrey, Therese, it's OK. . .come to me," he said softly and held his arms out to them. "That's it. . .you're OK. Just walk over here to me."

The two children shook their heads as if they were awakening from a bad dream, then ran toward the kneeling angel  as quickly as their small legs would carry them. And with that, the evil spirit above them vanished with a stench and a popping noise, like a rotten egg dropped on a tile floor. . .but not before the heavy wooden support post gave way below it with a shriek of splintering wood. Therese and Jeffrey looked up as the beam hurtled down toward their heads, and they screamed in fear and panic, unable to move out of the way in time.

"No!" Andrew cried to the departing demonic figure. "Not this time, you don't!"

With the skill he had mastered in Search and Rescue, Andrew moved so swiftly that any human observer would have only seen what looked like a heat ripple in the air. He made a desperate grab for both children and pulled them out of the way before the piece of timber could touch them. But even with all his speed and dexterity, the massive post still hit his shoulder with a glancing blow as it clattered harmlessly to one side of the children.

As the force of the impact drove him down onto one knee, the pain made him gasp involuntarily, and now he could feel his left arm dangling uselessly from his shattered collarbone as he tried to stand up. But when he saw the look of fear on Jeffrey and Therese's faces, he quickly decided to remain where he was in case his shaky legs wouldn't hold him.

No point in scaring them worse than they already have been, he gritted his teeth, then started to pray. Father, heal their hearts and minds so that this encounter with evil does them no harm. . .have mercy on Your little ones.

But Jeffrey and Therese saw the way that he winced in spite of his efforts to hide the pain, and this time, their wails of anguish were for their friend Andrew. Therese wordlessly pointed to the angel's torn shirt, and her big blue eyes were full of tears as she patted his cheek, trying to comfort him. The other children hesitantly came toward him as well, but this time, he wasn't overwhelmed by fear or panic, even when they surrounded him and clutched at his shirt sleeves and hands.

They were all trying to talk to him at once, and he couldn't understand more than a word or two at a time. But the important thing was that they could understand him, and he took a deep breath, waiting for the Father to give him permission to speak.

That permission was swift in coming, and Andrew put his good arm around Therese's tiny shoulders for a moment until she stopped sobbing. He stood up, and even though the glory of the Lord was not visible around him this time, the children instinctively felt the joy and triumph that surrounded him.

"It's OK. . .shhh, that's it," he smiled at her and the others. "There's nothing to cry about. God loves all of us, and He's going to take good care of me. See. . ."

Still silently praying, Andrew pulled back his shirt collar so that they could see his injured shoulder. . .and even before he finished the last word of his petition to the Father, he could feel a healing warmth pour over him. Now there was no trace of cuts or swelling left, and the children laughed and clapped their hands in joy and relief.

Two shadows fell across the ground, and Andrew spun around lightly to face whoever -- or whatever -- now stood behind them. Tess looked at the fallen beam, the tear-stained faces of the children, and Andrew's torn shirt, then nodded at Jane who stood beside her. Both angels saw the look of victory in Andrew's eyes and smiled approvingly at him.

"Looks like you had yourself quite a time of it out here this morning, Angel Boy," Tess said, as Jane signed for her. "I imagine it's going to make for one mighty interesting story here in a few minutes."


"Interesting isn't exactly the word for it, Tess," Andrew shook his head, then gestured at the still shaken children and switched over to sign language. Jane, I've prayed for the little ones, but they're still pretty upset. Can you come up with a way to calm them down?

First rule of caring for children: when all else fails. . .distract 'em, Jane smiled quietly as she gathered the children around her and bent down slightly. Observe.

"You know, I talked to everyone's mommy and daddy last week, and they said that you guys could go someplace special today," the enthusiasm in Jane's voice was contagious, and even Therese and Jeffrey looked at her with interest. "Some nice people from one of the local churches are going to put on a play this afternoon, and they asked me if you wanted to come see it. It's called, 'Joe Nah and His Whale of a Tale.' So, let's all go out to the front yard and. . .yes, Jeffrey?"

The red-haired boy tugged at Jane's sleeve and pointed at Andrew's shoulder. "I fall down and Mommy kiss and say 'love you Jeffrey' and make it better. Andy say God love us, and God, He fix him arm all better," he announced with all the solemnity that only a three year old could muster.

OK, so I have been known to be wrong about things from time to time! there was a twinkle in Jane's eyes as she surreptitiously signed the words to Andrew.

Aloud, she said quietly, "You're right, Jeffrey. God does love us, and He takes good care of us, the way that your mommy takes good care of you. And Miss Monica will take good care of you, too, this afternoon, while you're watching the play. She's already. . .yes, Jeffrey?"

"I like God. . .Him nice," Jeffrey nodded. "That ugly man bad. . .but doggy make him go away. Doggy shine."

"You've got that right, baby. . .on all accounts," Tess smiled over Jeffrey's head as she gestured toward the front of the house. "But didn't you tell me that there's going to be popcorn and cookies at the play, too, Miss Jane? So everyone needs to follow me out to the van, and we'll get you all ready to have lots of fun this afternoon!"

Right principle. . .wrong distraction, Andrew chuckled as he signed the words to Jane, and the archangel shrugged wryly at him.

"Miss Monica is already waiting in the van, so let's hurry up now," Jane smiled amid smiles and cheers.

The children willingly followed Tess, but what Jane had just said a moment earlier now made Andrew frown to himself. He hurried his pace until he caught up with Tess and Jane, then gestured quietly to catch their attention.

"Jane, you said that Monica is already waiting out in the van?" Andrew asked as he helped Jane and Tess herd the children around the corner of the house. "Didn't she go upstairs and tell you about what was going on out here like I asked her to, Tess?"

"She may have tried, but I don't know for sure," Tess shook her head, then smiled sheepishly. "Between cleaning up after little Mister Rembrandt there and trying to ride herd on this stampede, I was so tired that a couple of elephants could have done the tango across my bedroom floor, and I don't think I would have noticed."

"Maybe she couldn't wake Tess up and decided to wait out front for me," Jane offered mildly as they walked toward the van. "She told me all about our unearthly visitor when I got here a few minutes ago, and I told her to wait in the van. I went upstairs and got Tess, then came down to see if we could give you a helping hand. But I'd say you took care of it just fine on your own."

"Not me, Jane. I couldn't even move -- the Enemy's power was just that strong," Andrew said. "All I could do is pray and let God fight the battle for me."

"That's all we're expected to do," Jane smiled as they reached the van where Monica now sat. "Anything else would be from our own strength, and that isn't enough. We have to rely on Him for everything."

Monica climbed out of the van and inspected Andrew thoroughly as Jane and Tess herded the children into the van and buckled them into their seats. The brown-haired angel frowned at the sight of his torn shirt, but then shook her head in confusion when she didn't see any obvious sign of injuries.

"Andrew, are you all right?" she said anxiously as she unthinkingly rubbed her own swollen arm. "I tried to wake Tess up, but she was so asleep that she didn't even hear me when I pounded on the door. I knew that Jane was due back any minute, so I came out front here to wait for her. I don't think I would have been much good in a fight against something like that."

"No problem, Monica," Andrew shook his head and then moved his perfectly healed arm in all directions for her benefit. "See, it's like I just read a while ago. It is written, 'I am the Lord that healeth thee.'"

"Well. . .that's good," Monica nodded absently as if she hadn't really heard what her fellow angel had said at all. "I just didn't know what else to do, that's all. I'm glad that you're all right. It looks like everyone is ready to go, so I'll talk to you later about what happened."

"Sure," Andrew managed to sound calm, despite a sudden uneasiness in his spirit at her apparent nonchalance. "We'll talk about it this evening, after things settle down."

"You sure you don't want one of us to go along and help you with this, Angel Girl?" Tess asked as Monica climbed back into the van. "Eight little ones can be enough to put a dent in any angel's halo, not to mention a double half hitch knot in their last nerve."

"I'll be fine, Tess," Monica said, but there was a dreamy, sing-song quality to her voice that made Andrew even more uncomfortable than before.

But before he could say anything, Jane closed the van's sliding door and gave her the thumbs-up sign. Seeing her chance, Monica turned on the van engine and quickly rolled up the window -- neatly cutting off any question that Tess or Andrew might have been about to ask her. She waved casually at her fellow angels, then made a three point turn and quickly made her way down the driveway.

With another wave, she turned onto the highway, and the three angels watched until the van and its passengers were out of sight. Jane nodded toward the house, and her hands moved swiftly as she spoke to Tess and Andrew.

"OK, time for tea and a long talk," she said as they walked up the steps. "I'll put the kettle on while you change your shirt, Andrew, and then I know three angels who are going to put their heads together and figure out what's going on around here."

Andrew nodded in agreement as he followed his two co-workers inside. He trotted upstairs to his bedroom and reached for the doorknob to open it. . .but the door swung open as if it had been left off the latch.

That's odd, he thought as he started to walk inside. I could have sworn I shut that door before I. . .what in the world?

He stepped into the middle of the room and then stared in dismay at the wreckage all around him. As if an angry arm had swept the mantle clear of its trinkets, the snuff boxes were shattered on the wooden floor, and the clock lay smashed against one wall. All the bureau drawers had been ripped out of their frame, and their contents were now piled together in a tangled heap in the middle of the floor, as if someone had been searching for a specific item.

But what sickened Andrew's spirit most of all was the sight of  the book that he had been studying earlier. The volume's thin black leather cover was on top of the pile of clothing and personal items, as if someone had wanted to taunt him by leaving it out in plain sight. The book's gilt-edged pages were another matter altogether, however: each sheet had been torn out of the binding and was now strewn across the room in tiny fragments of black and red print.

He was too stunned to move, and for a few seconds, he could do nothing except stare at the empty leather shell of the book. He could feel the contempt and loathing that still lingered after such an act, and it took every bit of his will and concentration not to respond in kind. . .even though the effort left him shaking inside. Still forcing himself to remain calm, Andrew made use of his angelic powers and rematerialized a second later in the middle of the kitchen.

Jane was in the act of pouring water into the tea kettle, and Tess had just put a plate of cookies out on the table. But now both angels turned toward their co-worker, and they were both clearly startled by what they saw.

Andrew, what's wrong? Jane signed to him, seeing the stunned look in his eyes and the pallor of his face.

Quickly, Andrew explained what he had just found in his vandalized room, and now it was Jane and Tess' turn to fight down their own anger at the Enemy's blatant attacks. Tess sat down at the table and patted the empty seat beside her, gesturing for Andrew to sit down. He nodded and joined her, while Jane put the kettle on to boil and then sat down on the other side of the table.

The archangel's expression was intense, but she said nothing, and finally Tess spoke up. She looked at Andrew and then at Jane, who nodded knowingly and translated her words into sign for Andrew.

"All right, Angel Boy. . .the Enemy has just upped the ante, and it's time that we do the same," Tess said firmly. "A couple of days ago, you were going to tell us what happened out in San Diego, but then that barn fire just conveniently 'happened' to break out before you got the chance. Take your time, but I want you to tell us exactly what happened out there. . .and don't leave out a single thing."

Chapter Nine

"Last March, God assigned me to a day care center out in San Diego," Andrew nodded reluctantly. "The Father told me that I had work to do there, but He didn't give me any specific information about my assignment. I was hired as a teacher's aide, working with the special needs group."

He smiled sadly at the memories that now came back to him: playing games with the children; helping them with their meals; making sure that each one was tucked in with a favorite stuffed animal during nap times. Jane saw the wistfulness in Andrew's face, then stood up and walked around the table. She sat down beside him and put a steadying hand on his shoulder until he could go on.

Andrew gave her a tiny smile, then continued, "One afternoon toward the middle of April, the director of the day care center called a meeting for the teachers and staff. She said she wanted us to meet the person that she'd just hired to replace one of the teachers who was going to be out on medical leave. The director called in someone who was waiting outside in the hallway, and then she. . ."

Once again, he paused until he could control  the pain that now filled his face. ". . .and then she introduced us to Tammy Kingston. I'm sure you remember seeing her picture in all the television and newspaper reports. Tammy shook hands with all of the teachers and the staff. She was laughing and smiling at everyone. . .at least until she got to me, anyway. She stopped smiling and acted like she didn't even want to look me in the face, much less shake hands with me. But finally, she gave me this feeble handshake and the usual 'Hi, nice to meet you' routine. She got really quiet for a second or two and then looked me straight in the eye. . .and that's when I knew."

What you saw looking at you through Tammy Kingston's eyes wasn't human, was it?  Jane signed the words to him, and he shook his head.

"No, Jane, it wasn't," Andrew toyed with the edge of the lace tablecloth. "I didn't know what kind of evil spirit it was, but I knew that she wasn't acting completely under her own power, either. But in a minute, Tammy shook her head and moved on to the next person like nothing had ever happened. And after that day, things really started to go downhill fast."

Much of the color had drained out of Andrew's face while he was speaking, and his lips were a chalky blue. Jane walked over to the stove and poured hot water from the kettle into a china teapot. She let the orange spice tea steep for a moment, then poured a cup of the strong brew and sweetened it with honey. She handed it to Andrew, then stood back and waited until he took a few appreciative sips: gradually, a little color came back into his face.

"You're doing fine, Andrew. What happened next?" the archangel nodded approvingly as she sat back down.

"Up until that day, the teachers and staff had really gotten along well with each other and the children," Andrew leaned back in his chair, and his eyes were distant. "But after the director hired Tammy Kingston, it seemed like there was always some kind of a fight going on. Either the teachers would be arguing with each other, or else the children were bickering out on the playground -- hitting, kicking, biting, the usual kid stuff. And it seemed like every time that something happened, Tammy would be right there in the background. Not that she never had anything to do with the problems. . .not directly, anyway. But she'd make these little comments to the people involved. She always sounded so innocent, but if you listened to what she wasn't saying, you could tell that she was really up to."

Andrew saw Jane frown to herself at his words, but she motioned for him to continue. "I tried to talk to the teachers and the other staff members whenever there were problems. . .you know, trying to calm things down between everyone," he shrugged. "And of course, I was praying every chance that I got. Except it seemed like whenever I had a minute to talk to the Father about what was going on, there was Tammy. 'Andrew, I need you to help Lucy with her therapy,' or 'Andrew, the director told me that she wasn't happy with the way that you were taking care of the exercise equipment, so shouldn't you be doing the repairs on the mats now?'"

Now it was Tess' turn to frown. "OK, so what happened then?"

"It was about a month after Tammy first started working at the day care," he said quietly, but a hard line of tears glittered in his eyes. "I came into work that Tuesday, and the director, Sister Mary Agnes, called me into her office. She asked me a lot of questions about Tammy -- did I think she was getting along well with the staff, had I seen her do anything to one of the children, questions like that. I told Sister Mary Agnes the truth. . .I told her that there had been times when I'd found one of the children crying right after I'd seen Tammy walk out of the room. But when I asked them what had happened, the children wouldn't say anything -- like they were too scared to talk."

Now Andrew seemed to be drawn back in time to that sunny May morning. He could see the nun's concerned face as she talked to him, and once again, he could feel that strange uneasiness that had tickled the back of his neck like a spider as he answered her questions.

"She thanked me for telling her what I'd seen, and she said that the other teachers and staff members had all told her pretty much the same story," Andrew closed his eyes for a moment, still seeing those images vividly in his mind. "I went back to what I was supposed to be doing, and around 10:30 or so, Sister Mary Agnes called Tammy into her office. And when Tammy came out fifteen minutes later, she was crying and screaming. She said that the reason that she lost her job was because we were all against her -- especially me. She walked up to me while I was playing a game with a couple of the kids, and then she started to curse me, but it wasn't Tammy's voice. It was the voice of the demon, and that look of hatred in her eyes. . ."

Andrew shuddered, unable to go on for a moment. Tess stood up and put her arm around Andrew's shoulders, while Jane quietly prayed in the background. When Tess saw that he was calmer, she gave him an extra hug, then sat back down.

"Thanks, Tess," he said softly. "Anyway, when Tammy got done screaming at me, she left the building. That afternoon, she came back with a plastic garbage bag. . .she told Sister Mary Agnes that she needed to clean out her desk and that she had something for me. I was out on the playground with the children when she walked up to me, still carrying that plastic bag. And when she started to talk to me, it was the voice of the demon again."

Once again, Andrew seemed to stand on the playground, listening to that grinding, inhumanly deep voice issuing from the throat of a 5'3" tall, one hundred and ten pound woman. It was the same voice that had taunted him that night in Chicago -- only seconds before the demonic spirit had hurled the frail body of a small child directly into an inferno of burning planks and drywall.

That demon had also been present when the man responsible for the fire repented of his evil before he died. Andrew could still hear the shrieks of rage as the evil spirit watched John Richmond escape from eternal darkness at the very last possible moment. Now he heard that same hatred and loathing in Tammy Kingston's voice as she took something out of the plastic bag -- something that had a metallic glint in the bright May sunshine.

"You thought you'd won, you thought you'd beaten us. . ." the voice hissed at Andrew. "You and that weak, pathetic God of yours.  . .here, let me give both of you something to remember me by. I want you to suffer the way that I have!"

Andrew opened his eyes again, and when he looked at Tess and Jane, it was as if he wasn't really seeing them at all. He toyed with the edge of the table cloth as he tried to finish his story.

"That's when Tammy -- excuse me, the demon in Tammy aimed the gun at me," Andrew wore a dazed expression. "I thought that she was going to shoot me, and I wasn't afraid because I knew that there was nothing she could do to me that the Father couldn't heal. She looked at me for a second or two. . .then opened fire on the children. Four of them were in wheelchairs, three wore leg braces, and none of them really understood what was happening, so they didn't try to get away. I tried to grab Tammy's arm, but by that time, she'd emptied the Glock's clip. All I could hear was the sound of the children screaming and the gun going off again and again. And that's when I looked up and saw Henry, Adam, Toby, and the other angels of death standing outside the fence, waiting. Just waiting."

He dropped his head and then wept silently for a moment, his hands clenched tightly against a pain that wasn't physical. Jane continued to intercede for him, and in a few more minutes, Andrew looked up at his two friends with a shaky nod.

"The demon used the last round in the clip to destroy the body it was in," he said, and his voice was steadier now.  "Then there was nothing but silence. I looked around me and saw what the demon had done because of me. . .and then it was like I was standing in that abandoned building in Chicago again, Jane. Henry and Adam had already taken the children Home to be with the Father, but I couldn't help them."

He paused for a moment, staring down sadly at the table top. "I remember asking God to put me somewhere so far away from everything and everyone that I could never be the cause of that kind of suffering and pain again. Then Toby came up and asked me a question, and that's I realized that God had taken away my hearing. And when the Father put me on a leave of absence from my own department and re-assigned me to jobs that didn't involve being around people, I thought that He was correcting me for mishandling my assignment."

Now it was Tess' turn to listen to a message that only she was privileged to hear. She nodded in acknowledgement, then turned back to Andrew and Jane with a knowing look in her eyes.

"Andrew, God answered your prayer, all right, but you've made the mistake that a lot of people make," Tess shook her head firmly. "You've misinterpreted God's mercy toward you as a sign of His anger and disapproval. And what's even sadder is that you felt too ashamed to ask Him about what His real intentions were."

"I don't understand. . ." Andrew spread his hands questioningly.

What Tess is saying is that God didn't give you exactly what you asked for -- at least not in the way that you asked for it, anyway. But He did answer your prayer, just the same!  Jane's hands flew through the signs. He took you as far away from everything and everyone as it is possible to get. . .He sealed you inside your own mind. But like Tess said, He wasn't correcting you because you did something wrong.

"How can you say that, Jane?" he asked, and once again, there was a note of guilt and desperation in his voice. "I couldn't stop the demon from taking seven innocent lives. I couldn't even do my job when it came time to take the children Home. All I could do is stand there and pray for the families, the people in the community, and everyone else who had to deal with that kind of tragedy. No, that's not quite true. I did do something else that day. . .I cried. For the children, for their families and friends. . .and for the pain that I knew the Father was feeling right about then."

"Andrew, you don't leave a bullet wound or a knife cut open so that dirt and bacteria can get inside and cause an infection," Tess said as Jane signed for her. "You put a bandage over the wound so that it has time to heal up. God gave you a very gentle, beautiful spirit, Angel Boy -- that's why you're so good at your job. But your heart can be hurt by things that wouldn't even slow down a tough old soldier like Jane or me for a minute, and when it comes to something big like this, you get hit even harder by it than we would. God knew you were hurting, so He bandaged your spirit with silence these last few months. That way, you had time to heal and didn't have to deal with anything else. It was a gift from the Father. . .not a punishment."

Jane nodded her agreement, and now the power of God that radiated from the archangel would have been enough to throw a full-grown man down to the ground. As it was, that strength overflowed onto Andrew's spirit like a flood, and once again, Jane's hands looked like flashes of lightening as she 'spoke.'

And as far as not doing what the Father expected of you, how do you know that you didn't fulfill your assignment exactly as He wanted you to do? Jane's eyes were stern but loving as she met Andrew's questioning gaze. You're assuming that God sent you to that day care to save the children or, if that was not possible, then to take them Home to Him. The truth is that you did exactly what you were sent there to do. . .you prayed.

Prayer is an action, my friend. . . and it's the most important one of all. And that was your real assignment, Andrew: to intercede before God for those who desperately needed your prayers. The Father has just told me of the way that you touched His heart with your tears and your love that day.

"Then I. . .I didn't fail God?" Andrew's voice was shaky with relief. "I thought that I failed the Father, and that's what hurt my spirit so badly. I knew that the children were safe with Him forever, but I couldn't stand the idea that I'd hurt Him or disappointed Him in any way. That's why I was afraid to go to Him."

You didn't fail Him, Jane signed gently. He knows the desire of your heart is to love and serve Him, and He is well able to keep what you have entrusted to Him. . .

Andrew looked up into the archangel's eyes -- and what he saw there made him want to weep again. He could see only love and compassion mirrored in Jane's face: instinctively, he knew that she was now acting as a conduit for a much greater Mercy and Love than any she possessed of her own.

And like another lost son who had come home from a far country to find a welcoming embrace awaiting him, Andrew flung himself into Jane's outstretched arms. He buried his face against her strong shoulder, feeling the guilt and pain melting out of his heart. In a few moments, he stepped back, and Jane put her hand on his shoulder as she began to pray again.

Now the soft golden glow that was the reflection of God's love surrounded the two angels, like a healing ointment flowing over the wounds in Andrew's heart and mind. Peace filled his spirit for the first time in months as he stood there, and even though there was no change in his hearing, he knew that the physical healing would follow the spiritual one -- just as the fruit of the apple tree inevitably followed its flowering.

Moments (or perhaps eternities) passed, and slowly, the glory of God was lifted from the room: otherwise, the three angels could easily have remained where they were for hours, praising and glorifying their Creator. When Jane released him, Andrew slowly sank down onto his chair once more, still overwhelmed by the love and mercy that had been poured down upon him by the Father.

And when he smiled at Tess and Jane, it was an exhausted smile -- but a genuine one, nevertheless. Tess put her arm around Andrew's shoulders once more, and the two angels sat together quietly for a moment, silently contemplating what had just taken place.

Only Jane seemed to have distanced herself from her surroundings. And even though she appeared to be doing nothing more important than doodling figures in the condensation from her glass of iced tea, her face was furrowed in concentration. Tess shrugged wryly at Andrew, as if to say, 'Archangels. . .go figure 'em.' But at that moment, Jane looked up and saw the quizzical looks that her colleagues now gave her, and she shrugged ruefully.

"Sorry -- you know me when I get focused on something," the archangel said. "And in this case, I think I'm starting to understand the connection between the San Diego day care center and this one."

She gestured down at what she had been doodling on the table top, and now Tess and Andrew could see the letters "T.K." in blurred script. And when Andrew looked into Jane's eyes, he saw an expression that he recognized only too well -- the one that made even strong warrior angels duck for cover.

"Don't you see?" Jane looked at Tess and Andrew intently. "The Enemy loves to drop little hints about what he's doing. . .it's his way of taunting us. Unfortunately, he's never quite as subtle or as smart as he thinks he is. T.K. -- Tammy Kingston and. . ."

". . .Thomas Kayne!" Tess finished up triumphantly. "It'd be just the Adversary's style to send the same demon out here to taunt Andrew. The Enemy isn't all-knowing, by any stretch, but he can sometimes make a pretty good guess about what God is doing in any given situation. That's how he gives all those so-called psychics their information. . .and that's why their predictions are wrong more often than not. He can't tell them what he really doesn't know, so he either guesses or else uses information that he picks up from the things that people talk about."

Andrew gave Tess a startled look as he rubbed the hand that King had nipped earlier in the day. For reasons that he didn't quite understand himself, there seemed to be a correlation between Jane's words and the dog's actions, but when Andrew looked over at the archangel, she merely smiled and nodded at him.

"But back to what we were talking about a minute ago. So not only was the San Diego day care shooting done by a demon-possessed woman, but it just conveniently 'happened' to be the demon who had a score to settle with you, Andrew," Jane continued her thoughts aloud.  "And now that demon sets up shop near another day care center where you've been assigned."

"Maybe that evil spirit wasn't satisfied with the pain and the suffering it caused Andrew and followed him out here to finish the job," Tess offered. "We all know that the Enemy doesn't make things very easy on one of his slaves who lets a soul slip out of its hands at the last moment. Maybe the demon plans to get back at all of us who had anything to do with helping John Richmond escape eternal darkness. I mean, we are all here together in one place again."

"I think that's part of the explanation, all right, but not all of it. The Adversary seldom does anything overtly if he can operate behind the scenes," Jane shook her head, and her eyes were distant as she struggled with the puzzle. "I think that he has something else in mind -- something on a much grander scale."

"It seems hard to believe that there's something so important about a simple day care center in the middle of Nebraska," Andrew said. "And how do we stop the demon if we don't know when it's going to strike again or through whom?"

"I remember this little stable in Bethlehem that didn't look all that important, either, Angel Boy," Tess nodded with a small smile.

"I don't know what the Adversary specifically wants to do here, but I do know what his ultimate goal is. It is written that, 'the thief cometh not, but for to steal and to kill and to destroy.' And when you stop to think about everything that's gone on around here over the past few days, that just goes to prove it," Jane sighed sharply. "I mean, just look at what's happened to Mrs. McCallum and Pete Caldwell -- not to mention what almost happened to Therese and Jeffrey. And as far as who the demon plans to possess or what disguise it's going to use next, I don't. . ."

Jane stopped in mid-sentence, and all the delicate color of her peaches and cream complexion drained away suddenly, leaving her face ashen. She gave her fellow angels a horrified look -- even as she was already scrambling to her feet.

"Oh no! For the archangel in charge of search and rescue, how could you be so stupid, Jane?" the archangel cried, as she ran toward the back door. "Father, protect Your innocent ones from the wolf that masquerades as the shepherd!"

"Jane, wait!" Tess called out to her, and Jane paused by the back door, her hand on the doorknob. "What are you talking about?"

"Don't you two see?" Jane's hands flashed through the signs for Andrew's benefit as she spoke to Tess. "The easiest way for a thief to break into a house in order to steal and kill and destroy is not to break in at all. No, he becomes a servant of the household until he learns all the secrets of his employers and gains their trust. Then he can move at will among his master's possessions, until that day when he decides to bring his plans to fruition. That's exactly what has happened to us here. . .and I know who's pretending to be our ally, too."

"Monica!" Tess' face filled with shock as the realization struck her. "I know all the evidence is there, Jane, but I just can't believe it. . .or maybe I just don't want to believe it. Now if jumping to conclusions was an Olympic event, Monica would be a gold medallist some days, and she can ask enough questions to give a brass monkey a nervous breakdown. But she's got a good heart, and I just can't believe that she would deliberately turn her back on God this way."

"Let's not jump to conclusions ourselves. . .again," Jane shook her head. "It may not be the real Monica at all, but a demon spirit sent to masquerade as her. Or if that actually is Monica, we could be dealing with some combination of influence and impersonation. Tess, when we both first arrived in Paris, you told me that you were surprised to see Monica here, too, because you thought she had a previous assignment. We know that the Enemy can disguise himself as an angel of light, so it's not surprising that his followers can, too. But you and I both assumed that the Father would have told us if there was a problem. . .and you know what you make out of 'u' and 'me' when you assume something. In fact, I'd say that this whole situation has been based on one wrong assumption after the other, right from the very beginning."

"And that explains Monica's rebelliousness and her anger. . .not to mention a whole lot of other strange things that have happened around this place lately," Tess shook her head. "It sure looks like we've had a counterfeit running around the house for the last few days, and now we know who it is, too!"

"I can't believe that we let ourselves be taken in like this. . .the Enemy did a good job this time," Andrew shuddered, and like Tess, he was already moving toward the back door. "It's probably the same evil spirit that's also been impersonating Thomas Kayne. I mean, whenever Kayne's so-called 'ghost' has shown up around here, 'Monica' has always conveniently been somewhere else at the time. And then there's the bite on her arm. . .maybe Jeffrey wasn't the one who bit her after all. Maybe King sensed that something is wrong with her and took a chunk out of her arm."

"And now the wolf is out in the field with the lambs," Jane winced at the thought. "We'll take my truck to get to the church. The Enemy may have figured out by now that we're onto him. But just in case he hasn't, then there's no point in giving ourselves away before we stage a direct offensive."

The three angels crossed the porch, then ran down the steps and headed toward Jane's pick-up truck. Jane and Tess climbed into the cab, while Andrew vaulted over the tailgate and crouched down on the bed of the truck. He flinched when he felt a silent rush of air, and he looked back over his shoulder just in time to see a black and tan blur leap into the back of the truck with him. Now the angel smiled at his companion, and he put an arm around King's broad neck as the dog leaned against him.

"Well, boy, we're not exactly warring against flesh and blood, but it's still good to have you along for the ride," he nodded and ruffled King's ears lightly.

King gave one sharp bark, and even though Andrew knew that the idea would have seemed strange to anyone else, he could have almost sworn that the bark was the Shepherd's way of saluting a friend and fellow fighter. In the cab, Jane nodded at the dog's 'comment,' then reached into the pocket of her blue jeans and took out her keys.

She paused before she turned the key in the ignition, and Tess could hear the intensity in the words that the archangel now spoke so softly.  "Deliver them from evil, Father," she prayed.  "Deliver us all from evil."

Chapter Ten

Ten miles had never seemed so long to Andrew as he tried to cling to the side of the truck and still remain focused on his prayers at the same time. Up ahead, he could see a towering gray-green wall cloud -- judging from its position, he was almost certain that the line of thunderstorms probably hadn't reached Paris, yet, but when it did hit. . .

That looks like it could be the thunderstorm to end all thunderstorms,  he shivered to himself, then resolutely batted that thought aside and returned to his prayers.

His sense of direction and ability to remember landmarks were excellent, and now he recognized a barn-shaped mailbox and then an oddly twisted pine tree a little farther down the road.  He remembered seeing both of them during his trip with Tess a few days ago, just after she had turned off the main highway and onto the smaller side road.

And true to his recollection, the truck slowed down as they approached the T-junction, but instead of turning, Jane came to a complete stop. Andrew turned slightly and looked out past the cab window and through the windshield at the road up ahead, trying to see the reason for the delay. A county patrol car sat with its red lights flashing in the middle of the road to Paris, and a familiar uniformed figure now walked up to Jane's truck.

Andrew peered around the edge of the truck cab as Trey Autry and Jane spoke to each other. Given the barrage of words that were being exchanged between all parties, Andrew made no attempt to read lips, but it appeared that Jane was frantically trying to explain the situation to Autry.

But the deputy merely folded his arms across his chest and shook his head "No" at her. . .and from Andrew's angle, Autry appeared to be smirking. The blond angel was momentarily distracted from the discussion as King pushed his head past the kneeling angel and peered around him at Autry. King's fur was raised in a dark ridge along his spine, and he curled his lip back over his teeth as the discussion between Jane and Autry grew more intense.  

"Easy, boy!" Andrew whispered to the dog as he held onto its collar. "No point in making things worse than they already are."

But the dog continued to snarl under its breath, and its eyes were fixed on Autry in a way that seemed strangely familiar to Andrew. And when the deputy slammed his fist into the door in fury, Andrew was barely able to restrain the big German Shepherd and prevent him from jumping out of the truck. Andrew glanced at Tess through the cab's back glass, and he was shocked to see that she was shaking in anger, while even the even-tempered Jane appeared to be seething.

Uh-oh. . .when Jane's about to lose it, the rest of us would have already erupted worse than Mount Saint Helens, he thought uneasily. Maybe it's time for me to play peacemaker out there, hearing loss or no hearing loss.

Jane and Tess both opened their doors and stepped outside, and at almost the same instant, Andrew jumped over the side of the truck. He gave Autry a cheerful smile as he walked up and stood beside Jane.

Is there a problem, Officer? he started to sign.

"Just forget the sign language garbage. I know you know how to talk, so don't pull the dummy act on me, Mister," Autry snapped at Andrew. "And as far as everything else is concerned, I've already told you people that the road into Paris is closed. So you might as well just climb back in your truck and go home before I decide to arrest all of you."

There didn't seem to be any reason to keep up the pretense of not being able to speak, and now Andrew turned toward Jane, intending to ask her a question. But before he could speak, he felt an uneasy trembling in his spirit -- a warning from God that he knew not to ignore.

What's going on here, Jane? Andrew silently signed to her. I don't understand why he's trying to keep us out of. . .

But before he could complete his sentence, King pushed his way past the two angels and stood slightly in front of them. The dog still snarled at Autry, and the deputy stepped back uneasily with a muttered curse. He continued to glare at King for a moment, then patted his gun with a meaningful look at Jane.

"You people just clear on out of here!" he snapped, and this time, Andrew managed to read his lips well enough to understand what he was saying. "We've got our orders to keep outsiders from going into town until the National Guard gets here and clean-up of the tornado damage gets underway. . .and as far as I'm concerned, you're all just a bunch of troublemakers from out of town -- maybe even looters. We don't need your kind around here at a time like this."

Tornado? Andrew frowned to himself. But that wall cloud must still be miles away from Paris. . .did  another storm hit Paris, and we just didn't hear about it yet?

He started to ask his earlier question again, but something about Jane's intense expression made him stop instantly. And for her part, the archangel said nothing as she looked down at the dog beside her. King gave one sharp bark, and Jane nodded as if the dog's 'comment' had just confirmed what she had been thinking.

"Fine, Trey. . .no problem," Jane suddenly smiled at the deputy, but her eyes were narrowed at the corners.

"Are you going to just let him. . .?" Tess started to protest, but a warning look from the archangel silenced her immediately.

 Tess stepped back, still grumbling under her breath, and Jane nodded sharply. Autry stepped back and hooked his thumbs around his belt, then tried to resume his professional demeanor.

"That's better," Autry gave Jane a thin smile. "Now you folks go on home, and let me do my job, and we'll just forget this ever happened."

"Sure, Trey," Jane returned the smile, and Autry nodded in satisfaction as he turned around. "We don't want trouble with the law. . ."

She waited until he took six or seven steps toward the squad car, then added, ". . .or whatever you are."

Autry spun around with the speed and dexterity of the football player he had once been, and he took a step toward Jane, his fists once more clenched at his sides. His eyes burned with barely concealed fury as he swaggered toward her, but the archangel stood her ground without saying a word.

"Don't you get smart with me, lady," Autry grumbled. "Just who in hell do you think you're talking to?"

"Good question," now it was Jane's turn to give the officer one of those knife-edged smiles. "Why don't you tell me who in hell you really are?"

"Well, so much for the Saint Jane image you like to put on for everybody. You've sure got poor old stupid Bill O'Connor fooled, but I never did buy that load of bull you put out, lady.  I always figured you were a head case, but now I know for sure," Autry circled his temple with his index finger and gave her a smug smile. "When this whole tornado thing is over, I'm going to have a talk with Family Services. . .I just wonder how valid that day care certificate of yours really is?"

"Oh, it's valid, all right. . .which is more than you can say for your own credentials, isn't it?" Jane gestured at his badge. "But we were talking about who 'in hell' you really are. And you know as well as I do that I'm not cursing right now, either."

Andrew watched as Jane calmly met the enraged Autry's stare, and for a few seconds, nothing seemed to be happening. But then Autry broke the eye contact and stared down at the ground uneasily, even though he swore viciously under his breath.

"I don't have time for games," Jane said in a level voice. "Answer me. Who. . .?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Autry swallowed feebly and looked at Tess and Andrew, as if appealing to them to keep their lunatic friend under control. "You know who I am. . .you've known me ever since you got here."

"No. . .I know who you used to be," Jane shook her head. "But since you don't want to answer my original question, let me ask you one that's simpler. You told Andrew not to play the deaf mute around you because you know he can speak. When did you find that out?"

"I don't know," Autry said sullenly. "I must have heard him talking, or else you told me. Yeah, that must have been it. You must have told me that he can talk when Bill and I came out to answer those bogus calls you made about Thomas Kayne."

"Wrong on all accounts,"  it was Tess' turn to shake her head, and now she, too, wore a knowing expression. "Jane told you that Andrew is profoundly deaf and that he can read lips, but that it's easier for him to use sign language. You're right. . .he can talk.  But none of us ever told you that."

"Whatever," Autry snarled and cursed under his breath. "You're both a couple of crazy broads, and that dummy friend of yours there is just as bad. I'm getting out of here. . ."

He turned away and started to walk back toward his car, but before he had gone more than a few feet, Jane took a single step forward. She said something that Andrew couldn't quite make out. . .and with that, Autry stopped in mid-step, as if he was suddenly paralyzed.

"Not until you tell me your name. Your real name, not that identity which you have stolen from your victim," the archangel now spoke in ringing tones. "In the name of the Lord God, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, I command you to reveal your true name and face! Not by my power or strength, but by the power of the Almighty God."

With that, Autry was wrenched by a series of violent spasms that almost doubled him over, and he fell to the ground, writhing and cursing as froth covered his lips. He was laying on his back, and he began to pound his head against the ground, his teeth bared like a dog's. As he struck his head violently against the hard-packed earth, Autry's body was as straight and unyielding as a board. . .but his face and features were a different matter altogether.

The three angels watched in horrified fascination as the deputy's face seemed to soften like a wax mask left in the sun. Autry's features momentarily ran together to form a smooth, blank oval -- like the surface of an egg or the shape that an artist draws in charcoal to indicate where the head will be on a portrait. Involuntarily, Tess and Andrew stepped back, repulsed by the strange spectacle in front of them and yet unable to look away from the sight at the same time.

But the effect only lasted for a second or two. Like images in a computer morphing program, Autry's features reappeared momentarily, then blurred into an image of Monica's face. And in its turn, Monica's features blended into a likeness of Tess, followed by a brief glimpse of Andrew's profile. Then, the semblance of Andrew's face disappeared, only to be replaced instantly by the visage of  Thomas Kayne.

Suddenly, Kayne's face softened and took on feminine features again -- ones that Jane and the real Tess had only seen in photographs. But Andrew knew that face altogether too well, and he recoiled unthinkingly as Thomas Kayne's features "morphed" into those of Tammy Kingston. For an instant, 'Tammy' looked at Andrew with a malicious smile, and then 'her' features abruptly changed into those of Trey Autry again. . .thus completing the list of those whom the demon had tried to influence or impersonate.

But what now looked out at the angels through Autry's eyes was not human, and despite the heat of the July afternoon, Andrew could feel the unrestrained evil that poured out from the demon like icy blasts of winter wind. And that evil was just as numbing to the angel's spirit as a real winter wind would have been to his physical form.

A sudden lethargy swept over him, and he felt if he had fallen through a sheet of ice on a lake and was about to be swallowed up by the cold black water. He fought to speak or take a step forward -- anything to free himself from that sensation of drowning -- but his efforts met with no success. He looked desperately over at Tess and Jane for help, but Tess seemed to be as unable to move as he was. Only Jane appeared to be unaffected by the demonic power unleashed against them, but to Andrew's surprise, she did nothing to help her fellow angels.

Instead, she stood apart from the others, her lips moving silently in prayer, while King sat beside her, his eyes never leaving her face. Bewildered by Jane's actions (or lack of them), Andrew redoubled his efforts to free himself from the grip of evil that crushed his spirit as if it was a dried leaf, but he was still unable to move. The demon saw his struggles, and with a howl of laughter that sounded like a handful of tenpenny nails raked across a chalkboard, it swaggered toward them in its borrowed form.

"You fools -- you've lost this round!" the demon taunted them through Autry's lips, and Andrew knew that it was speaking slowly so that he could understand every word that it said. "You and that poor, weak God of yours are too late.  My master has already set the storm into motion that will destroy the city and those brats you're all so concerned about. This time, we're going to win. . .and there's nothing you can do to stop us!"

Chapter Eleven

So we were right, and the Adversary does want to destroy the children, Andrew thought numbly, and for a second or two, he was overwhelmed by a fresh sense of pain as memories of California washed over his mind.

But then righteous anger swept through his spirit at the thought of more suffering, and somehow, he found the strength to cry out, "Father, protect Your children, and deliver us from all evil!"

The last word had barely left his lips when two things happened simultaneously. The weight pressing down on Andrew and Tess eased almost immediately, and they staggered back as if a physical burden had been lifted instead of a purely spiritual one. And at the same time, Autry slumped to his knees and began to retch violently, but what emerged from his lips was black and oily-looking. The substance looked exactly like the shadows that Andrew had seen in his room when he first arrived, and now it seemed to solidify on the ground as Autry slumped limply to one side. As it came together, the shadowy form grew taller as well, and now it swayed in front of the angels like a column of swirling black "smoke." 

Without warning, King charged between the three angels and the vaguely human-shaped object that was the demon in its pure spirit form. But then something like an arm seemed to form out of the black mass and swiped viciously at King, who howled in pain as the burning "claws" cut into its side. The force of the blow was enough to send the dog tumbling several feet away, and it landed in a heap of tangled legs.

Even at a distance, Andrew could smell singed fur, but it seemed that not even the pain could deter King. Limping slightly, the dog ran behind the demonic spirit and interposed himself between it and the waiting squad car -- effectively cutting off its escape route. Too bewildered to understand what he was seeing, Andrew turned to Jane and started to ask the archangel a question, but as soon as she saw that he was looking at her, her hands began to weave the signs so swiftly that he could barely follow what she was saying.

OK, Andrew, the Father says that this one is all yours. . .and that's why I left it up to you to make the first move just now, Jane said. Needless to say, the demon was lying a few minutes ago, and the tornado hasn't hit Paris, yet. And since the demon was only impersonating Monica from time to time, that means she isn't really our culprit after all.

The odds are good that the children are safe with her -- for the time being, at least. The Father just gave me leave to mobilize the angels in my department, and I'm going to need Tess' help to keep the Adversary's boast from becoming a reality. Oh, and by the way, don't forget to use your 'grenade launcher.'

She gestured at the notebook in Andrew's shirt pocket, but he gestured frantically at her to stay where she was. He fumbled for the notebook with shaking hands, then held it out to her.

Wait, Jane, I can't do this by myself! he protested. You saw what happened just a few minutes ago. . .

You remember what I told you about how we fight the Enemy, and you'll do just fine, she shook her head firmly. Besides, you're not as alone as you think you are, Angel Boy. . .you've got a royal ally, whether you realize it or not. Just ask God, and He'll show you.

Before Andrew could say anything else, Jane smiled and gave him the thumbs-up sign. And in the next instant, both Jane and Tess vanished in a great burst of white light that sent the demonic figure reeling backwards. . .

. . .but not for long. The black mass suddenly collapsed onto the ground, where it rested like a pool of ink beside the unconscious Autry. Andrew watched in fascinated horror as the darkness formed a long, thin rope, then writhed closer to Autry. Still squirming and wriggling, the black tube reared up beside Autry's head. . .then vanished down the deputy's ear until it disappeared completely.

Now it was Andrew's turn to leap back as the demon stood up, once again manipulating its stolen body like a puppeteer. The evil spirit leaned toward the angel with a leer on its borrowed face, then started to speak in a dreamy, hypnotic way. Recognizing its ploy, Andrew quickly turned away so that he wouldn't be able to read its lips and understand what it was saying to him.

But the demon continued to croon in a way that would have maddened anyone who could actually hear it -- at least until it realized that its efforts were meeting with no success. With a contemptuous smile, it gestured at Andrew's forehead, and suddenly images flooded the angel's mind: the splattered mural, the glint of light from the gun barrel, the empty wheelchair. . .

"No!" Andrew cried out as the sound of gunfire and screams once more began to fill his mind. He flipped open the notebook and began to read the words that he had so carefully copied, "It is written, 'For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.' In the name of the Lord, I rebuke you, you spirit of fear!"

The evil spirit threw back its head and howled in rage. With a speed that the real Autry could never have managed, the demon lunged forward and made a grab for the notebook in Andrew's hand -- almost before the angel even realized what was happening.

Unlike the angels who relied on God for their power, the Adversary's demons had been given all the speed and strength that their master could manage to summon up for them. . .and now Andrew tried to duck aside, but it was too late. The notebook went flying out of his hand and landed several feet away, near the edge of the ditch.

Shrieking in triumph, the demon casually brushed Andrew aside as if the solidly built angel weighed no more than a small child. Andrew fell to the ground with a groan and then tried to stagger to his feet, but the evil spirit rushed past him and made a dive for the fallen notebook. But just as the deputy's hand closed over the cardboard cover, something hit the stolen body from behind with enough force to sent it sprawling.

Snarling wildly, King snapped at Autry's arm, pulling him off balance, but even as the deputy went down, he managed to grab the Shepherd's collar with his free hand. The demon twisted slightly on the ground, and with a movement that was almost too fast to see, it turned and pinned King down. It began to choke the dog with both hands as Andrew materialized near the deputy and made a lunge for his arm.

The demon batted the angel aside, then returned to what he was doing, and in another second or two, there was a sharp crack. With that, King went limp, his head dangling to one side at an unnatural angle. Andrew could have wept in anger over the death of his friend and fellow 'warrior,' but there was no time to mourn the loss of a comrade now.

As if it could read his thoughts, the demon tossed the dog's body to one side with a chortle of obscene pleasure, then made a grab for the notebook laying on the ground nearby. This time, it succeeded in retrieving the paper, and it gave Andrew another of those malicious grins before it started to tear out a handful of the pages.

"No!" Andrew cried out again, but the word was as much a prayer as a protest. "Father, help your servant Andrew in this war against evil, for it is written, 'Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.'  I don't know what Jane meant when she said that I have a royal ally, but You do, Father, and I'm asking You to show me what to do."

Once again, two things happened at almost the same instant that Andrew finished his prayer. Suddenly, the demon dropped the notebook and then flapped its hand in anguish -- as if the flimsy paper had somehow become red-hot iron, instead. Andrew dove for the fallen papers and retrieved them, but as he straightened up, he caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. He whirled around to face this latest potential threat, but he could only stand and stare for a moment. . .and then it was his turn to grin triumphantly.

King's body had landed several feet away in the ditch, but as Andrew watched, the Shepherd's limp form suddenly blurred, as if the angel was looking at it through the viewfinder of a badly focused camera. Then the dog's body disappeared altogether, and in its place stood a tall, shining figure wearing the white linen tunic and brown trousers that made up the uniform of a warrior angel.

Power from God radiated from every line of his massive frame, and muscles bulged underneath the sleeves of his tunic as he climbed out of the ditch. Now the fighting angel towered above the cringing demon, who seemed to be just as frozen in place now as Andrew and Tess had been earlier.

"Hiya, kid," Roy grinned at the dumbfounded Andrew, and he spoke slowly enough for his fellow angel to read his lips. "How's this for a disguise. . .even better than the one in Chicago, huh? Gives a whole new meaning to the term 'doing dogsbody.'"

"Nah, it can't be. . .it wasn't really you in the fur suit. . .it couldn't have. . ." Andrew spluttered, then groaned as he realized the full extent of Jane's humor. "Wait a minute, I get it now. You're my royal ally!  Jane meant 'roi,' the French word for 'King.'  Only she could come up with a multilingual pun -- and a pretty awful one at that!"

"That's our Jane -- she never met a pun she didn't like. But how about giving me a hand here, and let's take care of this little menace to navigation," Roy chuckled as he reached down toward the cowering spirit in its stolen physical form, then hauled it up by the shirt collar. "Suppose you start by telling us how you took over this man's body?  And when you're done with that, you can tell us what your master sent you to do in this town and why. "

"You can't drive me out," the demon snarled defiantly. "I own him now. He listened to me when I whispered to him that he was better and smarter than those idiots at the Sheriff's Department. He was mad when Bill O'Connor got the promotion he wanted, and he wanted to make fools out of the other cops. I told him how to burn down barns and vandalize houses and then see to it that people blamed Thomas Kayne for everything.  I was the one who thought up all those things. . .not him! He was just the one who gave me permission to come inside, and you can't make me go."

"Don't bet hell's half acre on it," Roy looked down at the evil spirit with a snort. "OK, so you and the real Trey Autry set up Thomas Kayne. I gotta give you credit where credit is due -- you did a great job of that. Now, tell us what your master has in mind for this city."

Flattered, the demon started to speak. . .then caught itself just in time. Stubbornly, it turned its head away and refused to talk to the two angels -- at least until Andrew stepped forward once more.

"It is written, 'Lord, even the devils are subject to us through Thy name,'" he read the words he had copied down in the notebook, then started to turn the page. "In the name of the Lord, I command you to. . ."

"Stop it -- just stop it! I hate those words. . .they burn!" the demon screamed in pain and fury before Andrew could read anything else. "I'll tell you what you want to know, just don't say those words. Five years ago, one of your God's ministers came to this city and preached out of that miserable Book of yours for three days. But he wasn't just a minister -- he was one of that One's prophets, too. He prophesied over two women who came to hear him, and he told them that they would bear children who would be instrumental in taking back many of the souls that rightfully belong to my master. He said that an angel would touch them when they were very little. . .and that they would never forget the miracle that they saw performed through the angel. Because of that, they would both become servants of that God of yours!"

The last few words were spat out in contempt, but Roy ignored the demon's outburst. Still holding Autry's body a few inches off the ground, he nodded at the notebook in Andrew's hand.

"So your master decided he'd try another pre-emptive strike like the one he talked King Herod into that time, huh? Kill the children before one of them grows up to set the captives free and proclaim the year of liberty," the warrior angel shook his head. "Andrew, I think we've heard about enough out of this character. I'm here as your back-up, but the honors are all yours, my friend. You've got the weapon, there. . .fire when ready."

Andrew nodded and then took a step forward as he opened his notebook once again. "It is written, 'Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul; let them be turned back and brought to confusion that devise my hurt. Let them be as chaff before the wind; and let the angel of the Lord chase them.'"

Each word seemed to fall on the demon like drops of acid, and it screeched and writhed in Roy's grasp, unable to escape. Overhead, the darkness intensified, while streaks of lightening flashed from cloud to cloud: now an icy wind tore at the tree branches and threw up great clouds of dust along the road. But Andrew ignored the wind and the cold as he went on with his reading, and he spoke slowly, giving each word the full measure of strength and power that he now felt flowing through him.

"'Let their way be dark and slippery; and let the angel of the Lord persecute them. For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit, which without cause they have dug for my soul,'" he said as the evil spirit within Autry began to whimper piteously.

The sound would have wrung tears from a stone, but Andrew ignored its self-serving emotionalism and continued relentlessly, "'Let destruction come upon him at unawares, and let his net that he hath hid catch himself; into that very destruction let him fall.'"

"And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord: it shall rejoice in His salvation!'" Roy finished the words of the psalm triumphantly.

With that, rain cascaded down from the black clouds as the demon gave one final shriek of rage, then came out of its stolen form in a great gush of oily black "smoke."  It hovered before the two angels for a few seconds, its hold not entirely broken on the deputy. But then Autry managed to raise his head feebly: he was barely conscious, but he was awake enough to recognize the thing that hovered in front of him, and he moaned in terror.

The pillar of darkness leaned forward, and Andrew knew instinctively that it was speaking in the same monotonous voice that Tammy Kingston had used on so many occasions. Autry's eyes became glazed, and he smiled faintly as he listened to the demon's coaxing voice. Roy gave Andrew a worried frown, and the blond angel took a step forward, then quickly flipped through the pages of his notebook.

There aren't too many things to be said for being deaf, Andrew thought with a grim smile. But not being able to hear the voice of a demon is certainly one of them!

"It is written, 'Incline not thy heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men that work iniquity,'" he read aloud in a firm voice. "Again, the word of the Lord proclaims, 'Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh unto God, and He will draw nigh unto you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners, and purify your hearts, ye double-minded.'"

The evil spirit snarled once more at Andrew's words, but Autry suddenly shook his head, as if his ears had been full of water after swimming. Now he stared at the demon in its true form, and his eyes were full of bewilderment, as if he was really seeing the demon for the first time. The two angels heard him whimper, "No more, please, no more. . .so sorry. Oh God, please help me!"

The words were broken and barely understandable, but apparently, Autry's confession was heartfelt and acceptable in the sight of the Lord. Now even greater power flowed from God through His angels to free the deputy, and the evil spirit screamed wildly in rage and terror as its last hold over its victim was broken.

Autry's eyes widened as he saw the golden glow around Roy and Andrew, and he smiled feebly in acknowledgment. He gave them the thumbs-up sign: with that, he collapsed, and his breath became shallow but regular. The demon hissed and spat as Roy carefully laid the unconscious deputy on the ground, and the warrior angel turned back to his co-worker and the screeching demon in front of them.

"Andrew, I'll finish up this chore if you'll take our friend here into town and get him to the hospital," Roy gestured toward the waiting squad car. "Just tell the doctors that he got caught in the storm. It's the truth. . .even if this particular 'storm' didn't have a whole lot to do with the weather!"

Andrew nodded and watched as Roy rolled up his sleeves and turned toward the evil spirit with a cheerful grin. The warrior angel was too intent on the task ahead to pay any attention to the rain that now soaked him to the skin, and Andrew chuckled to himself as he shouldered up Autry. But as he carried the deputy back to the car, he had time for one last look back at Roy and the demon.

Judging from the way that the black column now writhed and twisted in Roy's grasp, it was going to be some considerable amount of time before that particular demon had the strength to attack anyone again, Andrew nodded to himself with a smile. He watched for a few seconds as Roy subdued the evil spirit, and then the angel disappeared with a cry of triumph, still clutching his rightful prey.

But Autry groaned and stirred a little, which reminded Andrew that there were more pressing matters to occupy his attention at the moment. He fought his way against the wind and the rain until he reached the squad car, then opened the back door and carefully laid Autry's limp frame across the seat. He closed the back door and started to reach for the driver's side door handle. . .

. . .just as one final bolt of lightening split a pine tree, less than fifty feet away. Andrew jumped at the sound of splintering wood and the roaring echoes of thunder, then started to scramble into the comparative safety of the car. But he froze in the very act of opening the car door, as the implications of what had just happened now struck him with full force. He ran out into the middle of the road, and for a few moments, he did a kind of demented victory dance in the downpour, laughing and crying all at once.

That burst of energy spent, he stood quietly in the storm and bowed his head for a moment, then listened to raindrops thudding softly on the roof of the squad car and pattering against the tree leaves overhead. As the shower slowly died away to a sprinkle, he lifted his face to the sky, then let the water wash away the last of his pain and unhappiness. Something that might have been a soft growl of thunder (but probably wasn't) made him smile joyously, and now he raised his hands in praise and thanksgiving.

"Blessed be the Name of the Lord forever, my Rock and my Fortress!" he cried triumphantly. "Thank you, Father -- thank You for Your healing touch. I can hear again. . .I can hear!"

                                                                                    Epilogue

As the August sky became a sea of crimson and lavender and pearl-colored clouds, a soft breeze slowly meandered its way past a small sidewalk café where a celebration was taking place. Candles flickered on wrought iron tables, red and white checkered table cloths fluttered brightly, and above it all, the trees swayed and danced to the music of the wind. Andrew listened to the sounds in delight, savoring each tiny creak of a branch or whisper of cloth in a way that he had never done before.

That same breeze carried with it the distant but unmistakable smell of a garlicky cassoulet, as well as the warm fragrance of fresh-baked baguettes. . .and now Andrew took a deep, appreciative breath in anticipation of the meal to come. He sipped at his pastis, savoring its tang of licorice, then paused to look around at his fellow celebrants before he scooped up another portion from a thin, pale gold wheel of Brie.

Everywhere he looked, he saw only smiling faces. Roy and Monica sat at a nearby table, enjoying their appetizers of pork terrine in pastry and celeri rémoulade, and Andrew could smell the anchovies and black olives from the bowl of tapenade on Jane and Tess' table. The two supervisors had kept everyone laughing with their jokes and "war" stories for well over an hour now, while the cassoulet slowly finished bubbling into a rich, savory meld.

Good food, good friends, plenty of ambience, he thought with a smile. In fact, life would have been very nearly perfect at that moment. . .

. . .if it hadn't been for the little matter of that pesky soybean field at the edge of the "Parisian" café -- otherwise known as the back yard. To say nothing of the fact that the shadowy silhouette of  la Tour Eiffel in the distance bore an uncanny resemblance to a grain silo! Andrew shrugged to himself with a wry grin.

But even if this was the City of Soybeans instead of the City of Lights, there was still much to be thankful for, he sighed happily. Somehow it seemed a fitting conclusion to their adventures that Pete Caldwell and Laura McCallum had both been moved out of the Intensive Care Unit just that afternoon. . .on this, the angels' last day in Paris, Nebraska.

Thank you, Father, for sparing them, and thank You for sparing the city from the worst of the tornado damage, Andrew breathed a quiet prayer of gratitude. But most of all, thank You for protecting the children. If they hadn't been in the basement of the church enjoying their refreshments when that tree crushed the roof, I don't want to think about what could have happened.

Almost a month had gone by, but he could still vividly picture every detail of that day clearly in his mind. He could see the massive oak tree uprooted from the violence of the tornado and the way that the roof of the church had been reduced to so much kindling. . .but most of all, he remembered the way that the unseen Jane and her team of search and rescue angels had held up the collapsing ceiling beams until everyone could escape with only minor injuries.

There had been one "casualty" at the church that afternoon, however. Jeffrey had taken advantage of the chaos around him to finish off almost an entire pan of brownies. . .and the resulting stomach ache seemed to have cured him of any tendencies toward kleptomania when it came to food.

Which is good, because if all goes well, that kid is going to grow up to be one of God's most powerful ministers some day, Andrew chuckled to himself when he thought about the information that the evil spirit had told the two angels and that Jane later confirmed with the Father. Otherwise, he would only have been able to preach a sermon on the six deadly sins!

He looked up and saw Jane smiling at him, and he replied with a nod and smile of his own. The archangel waited until Roy and Monica were almost in tears from laughing at Tess' description of  Noah and an unruly rhinoceros, then slipped quietly over to the table where Andrew sat.

"It's not Paris, but it still has its own kind of beauty, n'est-ce pas?" Jane gestured out at the soybean fields, where fireflies punctuated the night like tiny golden commas. "Well, Angel Boy, this is it -- your last day of vacation. Tomorrow, you start work again. . .but are you looking forward to getting back to being an angel of death?"

"Jane, I'm going to miss the children and people in Paris, especially Jeffrey and Therese. . .or should I say, 'the future Senator Therese from Nebraska, the human rights activist?'  But I never knew how much I love my job until I couldn't do it any more," Andrew nodded quietly. "I've always known that it was a real privilege to be allowed to bring God's children Home to be with Him. But now I think I'm really beginning to understand just how precious the gift of eternity truly is. Just like the little ones out in California. . .no more wheelchairs, no leg braces, no more pain or operations or a lifetime full of suffering. Just joy and peace and beauty, safe in their Father's arms forever. I only wish that the ones who were left behind could know that, the way that I'm finally starting to understand it."

Jane smiled mysteriously, then stood up and picked up the cheese knife that Andrew had been using to scoop up portions of the Brie. She tapped the curved blade against the side of the pastis bottle until all eyes were focused on her, then looked down at Andrew with another of those enigmatic smiles before she began to speak.

"Friends and fellow workers in the fields of the Lord, I'd like to ask you to take a moment and join me in a toast," Jane said, as Tess emerged from the house, carrying a silver tray of thin champagne flutes and a bottle of Dom Perignon.

"Sounds like a plan. Here, kid, lemme give ya a hand with that," Roy took the bottle and grinned at Tess' wince as the cork popped out of the neck with just a flick of his massive thumb.

Although now that Andrew stopped to think about it, he wasn't really sure if Tess' grimace was because of the noise from the bottle's popping  cork. . .or from trying not to 'pop a cork' of her own at being called 'kid' by Roy. Either way, her discomfited expression was delightful (even if laughing at it was interdit), and the blond angel hastily went into a fit of coughing before Tess reached his table with two brimming glasses of champagne.

She handed him his glass with a "Hmmph!" under her breath, and even the imperturbable Jane was clearly fighting a smile as she took the crystal flute from her fellow angel. Jane waited until Tess sat back down before she spoke. . .although Andrew suspected that the delay had as much to do with mastering a fit of the giggles as it did with etiquette. But then Jane's face and eyes grew serious as she held up her glass and gestured toward the city of Paris.

"I'd like to propose a toast. To the people of Paris and their children -- may the Lord bless them and defend them," Jane said. "May they see length of days, and may He grant them His peace now and forever."

"Amen!" the reply was swift and strong from Andrew and the other three angels.

Jane waited until everyone had taken a sip of their champagne, then reached over and put her hand on Andrew's shoulder. "And I'd also like to propose a second toast, if I may. To Andrew, whose promotion to the rank of Liaison Officer takes effect tomorrow when he resumes his duties as an angel of death. Congratulations, Angel Boy. . .God is very proud of the work you did here in Paris."

"Liaison Officer. . .?" Andrew's voice failed him, and he looked up at Jane with tears brimming in his eyes.

But they were tears of joy, not sorrow. . .of the many duties that an angel might perform in the Father's service, the role of Liaison Officer was considered the most rewarding and desirable job of all. Andrew knew that angels who held that rank in his department were given the most difficult and challenging assignments: working closely with souls in danger of being lost forever; supervising mass casualty incidents; bringing words of hope and comfort to those who were in despair over the death of a loved one.

"You were sent to California to learn how to intercede for God's people, and you came here to learn the art of warfare against the Enemy and his servants," Jane continued, and her eyes were full of love and compassion. "You overcame your own pain and fear to help others, and in doing so, you yourself received healing.  The Father says, 'Well done, Andrew, servant of God and intercessor before the Most High.'"

"Blessed be the name of the Lord forever," he said in a voice that was barely above a whisper, but his smile was bright.

There was a long moment of silence as his fellow angels gave him the chance to savor the magnificence of the promotion that he had just received. Andrew closed his eyes as he pictured all the ways that he might be able to serve God by caring for His children. . .and those thoughts were the sweetest joy of all to him. Gradually, the solemnity began to dissipate, and Andrew slowly opened his eyes.

He glanced over at his friends, just as Tess smiled at him and gave him a nod of approval.  And in its own way, that gesture meant as much to him as the promotion had, he realized with a small sigh of satisfaction.

"Well, Mr. Halo, I always knew you were Liaison Officer material, and you just proved it here in Paris, once and for all," Tess laughed. "Oh, and by the way, Cleo sends her love and congratulations. She would have liked to have been here tonight, but it seems that her physical form is allergic to a certain kind of mold. . .one that grows on soybean plants."

It's probably just as well that she didn't try to make it here tonight, then, Andrew grinned to himself, and he could picture the archangel of death as clearly as if she stood in front of him. With as much costume jewelry as Cleo wears, all it would have taken would have been one good sneeze. . . and the recoil from all those beads and bangles would have sent her flying ankles over halo from one end of that soybean field to the other!

But thinking about soybeans also made him think of the cassoulet with its tender white beans and chunks of spicy sausage, and his stomach growled just as Monica carried out the oval earthenware dish. She sat it down in front of him for his approval as the guest of honor, and he scooped up a generous portion, then waited until Monica had served the others before he sampled his food.

Everything seemed in order: just the right tang of onions and fresh ground pepper; homemade beef stock and good red wine; carrots and tomatoes fresh out of the garden. Smiling at Monica, Andrew took a forkful of his dinner. . .

. . .then tried desperately to swallow it without choking. The beans rattled down his throat like shotgun pellets, and the taste reminded him of a handful of dirt and rancid garlic sautéed in used motor oil. The angel's fair complexion turned several interesting shades of burgundy and crimson as he tried to smile at Monica, but he was forced to look away quickly. He glanced over at Tess, Jane, and Roy -- anything to avoid meeting Monica's gaze -- and it was obvious that his fellow angels were having much the same reaction as he was. 

"So, how do you like it?" Monica beamed proudly. "I made it all by myself, you know. I thought we ought to have a special dinner to celebrate Andrew's promotion."

"It has a, uh, distinctive flavor," Jane gasped as she hastily swallowed a gulp of the Dom Perignon. "And the beans are so, uh, unusual. What kind are they?"

"Soybeans, of course," Monica gestured out at the fields. "I thought since it's our last night here, we ought to have a meal made with some of the local produce, so I got some beans from the field, there. You don't think I used too much garlic, do you, Tess?"

"No, Baby, trust me," Tess' mouth puckered as she tried to smile at Monica. "If anything, I don't think you used quite enough garlic. Uh. . .you forgot the bread, though. How about if you go get that for us?"

"Sure, Tess, no problem," Monica smiled brightly, then disappeared into the house once again.

He looked over at Jane just as the archangel stood up with her bowl in her hand. "Well, my friends, desperate times call for desperate measures," she sighed as Tess and Roy nodded in agreement and picked up their own bowls. "On the count of three. . ."

"Three!" Roy, Andrew, and Tess called out simultaneously. . .and with that, four portions of food went flying in the direction of the shadowy soybean field.

Jane picked up a pot holder, then looked down at the remaining cassoulet in its earthenware dish and shook her head sadly at it. She balanced the container for a moment in her hand. . .and then with a wide grin, she tossed it straight up into the air.

The dish seemed to hang suspended for a second or two, contrary to all laws of gravity -- then suddenly blurred into the shape of a white dove. It hovered gracefully above the angels for a moment, and Andrew was once again reminded of all the blessings that had been poured out upon him.

"God, I thank You and praise You for all that You've given me -- good friends, a wonderful job, joy and peace beyond measure or counting,"  he whispered softly. "But most of all, Father, thank You for Your love."

The dove seemed to respond to the joy he now felt, as it swooped and swirled in the fiery sunset sky above him. Its cooing was the sweetest "laughter" that he had ever heard. . .and when it soared toward Heaven a moment later, it carried with it the grateful, loving prayers of an angel's heart.

The End