Solomon's Crossing

Solomon's Crossing

 

Prologue

 

 

A swirl of bright leaves danced in front of a red convertible just as it passed the "Welcome" sign at the edge of a small Midwestern town, and the air was hazy with smoke. Several people paused in their leaf-raking chores and stared at the unfamiliar car as it drove by. But the car's passenger seemed happily oblivious to the looks and comments that she and her companion received -- and not particularly friendly ones, at that.

 

"I love fall, don't you, Tess?" Monica took a deep breath of the warm wind, and when she spoke, her Irish accent was almost as rich as the air itself. "All the beautiful colors and the smell of burning leaves, the way the sun feels so warm across your shoulders."

 

The car's driver shook her head with a brief but meaningful look up at the brilliant blue sky overhead. "Father, give me strength! All this time we've worked together, and this angel baby still cannot keep her mind on her work," Tess sighed as she slowed down to observe the 15 mile an hour speed limit sign. "Miss Wings, have you noticed anything for the last twenty miles besides the leaves and the sunshine?"

 

"The. . .uh, campaign signs and posters everywhere?" Monica offered hopefully, catching a glimpse of one as they drove past a row of Victorian houses.

 

There were signs in several yards, and the little brown-haired angel carefully studied the faces portrayed on them. "'Re-elect Steve Flynt for Mayor, The Right Man for the Job,'" she read aloud as they drove past the houses. "'Raeburn for Sheriff -- He will Keep Solomon's Crossing the Safest Little Town in the Midwest.'"

 

"Safest little town in the Midwest, indeed!" Tess snorted with a disgust that didn't quite seem angelic to Monica, somehow. She stopped at a stop sign for a moment, then slowly made her way down the main street. "It's safe, all right -- safe if you're the right color and safe if you vote the right way. But the good Lord Himself will be the only One who protects you in Solomon's Crossing if you're like that poor man."

 

As she pulled into a parking space in the town square, Tess nodded at a man sitting on a park bench in front of the courthouse. His face was turned away from the two angels, so all that Monica could see was his torn, grease-stained clothing and the way that his long hair was tangled and dirty. "Is he part of our assignment, then?" Monica asked.

 

"In a way. . .but only like a match is part of an explosion, Baby," Tess said sadly. She paused before she got out of the car and gestured down the length of Main Street. "But you're not seeing the big picture. Look all around you and tell me what you see. And then tell me what you don't see."

 

In all the time that she had spent with Tess, Monica still hadn't gotten used to her supervisor's penchant for being mysterious. . .and this was one of those times when Tess was more cryptic than usual. But there was no escaping the inevitable, and Monica looked down the street, then shrugged at her angel co-worker.

 

"I see stores and cars and trucks and a lot of people walking down the street. And I see campaign posters in some of the store windows, some pigeons over by the fountain, a wee boy and his mother going into the drugstore, and a man walking his dog over in the park," she shook her head. "There are some teen-agers outside that little restaurant down the street, probably on their lunch break. Oh, and the police officers, of course -- the squad car over there by the Laundromat and the three officers on foot down by the restaurant. It just looks like an ordinary day in a small town to me, Tess."

 

"And that's exactly what it is, Monica. . .at least until you start to look at what's not there," Tess said as she put some coins in the parking meter. She held out her arm with a meaningful glance down at her warm brown skin. "You don't see anyone who's my color, now do you? And you certainly don't see a homeless shelter, a drug rehabilitation clinic, or a community-counseling center, either. All you see are the police making sure that Solomon's Crossing lives up to its self-proclaimed image. . .an image that is about as real as a campaign promise, I might add."

 

"But Tess, maybe they don't need those things," Monica protested innocently. "Maybe this town really is safe, and the people are happy here. If it's not broken, why fix it?"

 

Tess sighed in exasperation. "Monica, there is no safety apart from God, you know that as well as I do. And don't let that church building over there fool you, either. 'These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me, says the Lord.'"

 

She paused long enough for that salvo to sink in, then added quietly, "Oh, and by the way, Miss Wings -- you forgot to look in all directions."

 

Tess pointed up at the sky as they walked down the sidewalk, and Monica looked in the direction that Tess indicated. To her surprise, Monica saw a familiar figure perched debonairly on the edge of the courthouse's shining copper dome -- unseen by anyone except his angelic co-workers. Even at a distance, she could see that the angel was impeccably dressed in a gray suit, a cream colored shirt, perfectly tailored overcoat, and black patent leather shoes complete with immaculate pearl-colored spats.

 

"Look, Tess, it's Adam!" Monica waved cheerfully at the angel of death. Adam deigned to raise one gloved hand in recognition, then grimaced in distaste as a pigeon landed beside him. As the two angels walked by him, even Tess muffled a smile at Adam's attempts to shoo away the bird. . .only to see it blur in mid-air and become a white dove, instead of a common pigeon.

 

"And that will teach Adam to judge by appearances, too," Tess chuckled as the dove flew past them, cooing softly. It landed on the edge of the park bench for a second or two, then took off again with a flash of white wings. "I tell you what, Baby -- by the time that this assignment is over, there are going to be a lot of people here in Solomon's Crossing who will find out just how deceiving appearances can be! And I can name an angel or two who's going to be among that number."

 

Monica frowned a little as they neared the park bench, where the transient now sprawled out limply, an old newspaper spread over his face to block out the sunlight. "Then Adam is part of this assignment, too. . .but I wonder why God sent Adam instead of Andrew? Andrew usually works with us nowadays."

 

"Because Andrew is already on the job," a muffled voice answered from underneath the newspaper. "And please tell me that you have a better idea of why we're all here than I do, Tess. . .because right about now, I am one confused angel boy!"

 

"Andrew! Is it really you under all that dirt?" Monica exclaimed as the tall blond angel slowly lowered the newspaper and smiled at his two friends. "You look a right mess!"

 

"Thanks a lot, Monica," Andrew shook his head with a rueful expression, and he ran a grimy hand over the reddish stubble on his chin. "You try living on the streets for almost two weeks without being able to take a bath and see how good you look."

 

And looks aren't the only problem, either! Monica involuntarily wrinkled her nose as a gust of wind carried a pungent odor towards them. But Tess sat down on one side of Andrew as if the angel of death was as well groomed as ever, then gestured at Monica to sit down on the other side of the bench.

 

Reluctantly, Monica did as she was told, but she found herself edging away from Andrew almost without being aware of what she did. He saw the way that Monica unthinkingly withdrew from him, and his quiet green eyes, ordinarily so full of love and compassion, suddenly grew sad.

 

"I can't help it, Monica," he said softly. "The Father sent me here without any money or any way to take care of myself. I've tried to find work, but no one will hire me, and this town doesn't have a homeless shelter. Mr. Kang, who owns the Laundromat down the street, lets me sleep in the back door of his building. It's a little warmer there, and at least it's out of the wind and rain. And Mr. Kang gives me something to eat every night, too. But the other businessmen don't like me hanging around, and they've harassed him because of me."

 

He looked up, just as a squad car pulled into the parking space nearest the bench. "And speaking of harassment. . .time to move on. The police have tried to run me out of town every day since I got here," Andrew stood up wearily and held up his hands in surrender, as two officers got out of the vehicle and walked towards him. "OK, OK, I know. I'm leaving now."

 

"Was he bothering you ladies?" the older of the two deputies touched the brim of his hat respectfully to Tess and Monica. "Because if he was, we'll take care of it. See, we have a philosophy here in Solomon's Crossing. We think women ought to be able to walk down the street at any hour of the night or day and not be harassed by some bum."

 

The deputy patted the leather case that held his handcuffs and then looked meaningfully at Andrew. Anger flared in Tess' face as she walked up to the officer and looked directly into his eyes. . .and now the she wore an expression that had been known to send strong archangels into babbling panic at times.

 

"That 'bum,' as you call him, is a person. He has a name, a past, and people who care about him," Tess snapped at the luckless deputy. "And if you spent a little less time polishing that pair of handcuffs and a little more time trying to learn about why people are homeless in the first place, then maybe you'd know that, too!"

 

And judging from the nervous looks that those two officers are giving each other, Tess' expression is every bit as effective with human beings, too! Monica thought with a smile that she wisely muffled.

 

For his part, Andrew paused and listened for a moment to a heavenly message that only he was privileged to hear. He flinched a little, but then he quickly nodded his assent, despite the agitation that Monica could now read in his eyes and face.

 

"I didn't mean any harm, Officers," his expression suddenly became heartrendingly submissive, as if he only expected more mistreatment from them. "These ladies are from the County Legal Aid Office, and they were just asking me about what it's like not to have a place to live or anything to eat, that's all."

 

But his humble expression had no effect on the deputy who had spoken to Tess a moment ago. However, the younger of the two, a balding little man in his mid-thirties, seemed to be paying more attention to Andrew than his partner was. And for a moment, it almost seemed to Tess and Monica as if he was trying to understand Andrew's plight.

 

Really understand it, Monica thought, instead of just following some departmental policy about the homeless.

 

But before Arthur Forrest could say anything, Deputy Clark snapped, "Yeah, well, you can just take that sob story of yours someplace else, buddy. We don't need your kind here in Solomon's Crossing. The next time I catch you loitering in a public place, you can tell your hard luck story to the judge and see if he buys it. You'll have a place to sleep and plenty to eat, all right -- thirty days' worth, down at the County Jail."

 

Still grumbling under his breath, the big black-haired officer stalked back towards the waiting squad car, but his partner paused for a moment. But Forrest wore a sheepish expression as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of small bills and some loose change.

 

"Here, go get yourself something to eat," he slipped the money into Andrew's hand, then quickly turned and walked towards the car before his partner could see what he had done.

 

Tess waited until Clark backed the squad car out of the parking space and drove away with a loud squeal of tires. Then she looked up and prayed quietly, "'Inasmuch as ye have done this for the least of these My brethren.' Father, bless that little man and keep him safe from the storm that's about to break over this town. You know he's truly one of Your children, and in Solomon's Crossing, that's a rare thing, indeed. That's why You've sent us here on this assignment -- to bring this town back to You. And I also ask You to bless the one whose heart is so filled with love and compassion that he's willing to pay the price to accomplish that very thing."

 

She exchanged glances with Andrew, and this time, the grief was very real in the tall blond angel's face when he looked intently at his friends for a moment. The thought was a strange one, but it seemed to Monica as if Andrew was trying to fix his friends' faces as firmly in his memory as he possibly could.

 

Monica frowned a little, not understanding his reaction at all. "Tess, Andrew, will one of you please explain what's going on?" she sighed sharply, feeling a wee bit farther out of the loop than she usually did. . .and that was saying quite a bit. "I still don't understand what we're doing here, and did you really mean what you told those two officers, Andrew? You know -- about Tess and me being from the Legal Aid Office?"

 

"Yes, Monica, that's what God just told me a minute ago," Andrew said quietly. And once again, the sadness in his face was heartbreaking -- even more so than it had been a moment ago because there was nothing staged about it. "Tess is going to act as an attorney for someone who couldn't afford legal representation otherwise, and you're going to be her assistant. I can't tell you anything more than that right now. But you'll know what this assignment is all about soon enough."

 

Like Tess, Andrew was not in the habit of giving out any more information than he was absolutely sure God wanted him to share with his co-workers. Monica sighed heavily and resigned herself to not really knowing what was going on. And Tess' next gesture didn't make any more sense than Andrew's explanation had. She paused as the three of them walked down the street, and she put her hands on Andrew's shoulders, looking deeply into his face for a moment.

 

"Angel Boy, God has never taken you any place that His love hasn't kept you, now has He?" she asked gently.

 

Andrew shook his head, trying to smile for his supervisor's benefit. . .but the expression was a failure. "I know, Tess, I know," he said, dropping his head to avoid meeting her gaze -- a sure sign of his agitation. "I shouldn't be afraid. . .but I am. I know what's going to happen to me now and so do you. I'm just scared, that's all."

 

Oblivious to the stares she received from people passing by, Tess hugged Andrew for a moment. And when she released him, her face was a perfect blend of strength and love.

 

"Baby, He will be beside you each and every moment during these next few days," Tess' voice was gentle but uncompromising. "But you have to reach out and tell Him that you love Him and trust Him -- now, while you still can."

 

Andrew nodded and bowed his head for a moment, his lips moving in prayer. Monica watched as his face went through a series of transformations. At first, his expression was contorted as if he was struggling with some secret pain or terror: in a moment, however, that look gave way to resignation. Finally, peace filled his face, washing away the last traces of the fear in his eyes. And when he opened his eyes and looked at his friends, his smile was genuine as he gestured at the diner down the street.

 

"Hey, how about if I take my enormous fortune here and buy you each a cherry Coke?" he asked, holding up the crumpled dollar bills and handful of coins. "Anything more expensive than that, and you're on your own."

 

"Oh, I think you ought to hang onto that fortune -- all four dollars and eight-three cents of it," Tess chuckled, as the three angels resumed their walk. "Monica and I will treat you this time, Angel Boy. . .all you can eat."

 

"Tess, I hope the Father sent you here with plenty of money," Andrew grinned and patted his lean stomach -- even flatter now after two weeks of semi-starvation than it usually was. "Right about now, I think I could eat my way through a salad bar the size of Rhode Island. . .and still have room for a banana split afterwards!"

 

He winked over at Monica, but somehow, the laughter in his face only made her wince a little. Andrew saw her reaction and rightly guessed that it had nothing to do with his physical condition this time.

 

"It's OK," he said quietly as he gently ruffled her long hair -- and this time, Monica didn't even notice the dirt on his hands or his broken fingernails. "God's got everything under control."

 

Monica nodded and smiled at him, then paused for a moment as Tess and Andrew set off down the sidewalk. Once again, the courthouse bells sent a shimmering rill of notes cascading down over Solomon's Crossing: once more, Monica saw nothing but peace and safety whenever she looked at the little town.

 

As usual, I don't understand what's going on, God, she sighed as she trailed behind the other two. Tess says that what doesn't meet the eye is what's important here. So I'm asking You to let me see this town as You see it, Father. . .or what You don't see, as the case may be.

 

A dark line of clouds had been slowly building up on the horizon -- a portent of the cold rain and falling temperatures to follow later that evening. Monica shivered a little in the sudden chill as she paused long enough to look around her. But suddenly she could see what wasn't there, just as she had prayed a moment earlier. She paused and looked at the church building across the street: its door was tightly padlocked, and one of the stained glass windows had been boarded over. It was obvious that no one had used the building in a considerable length of time. . .and that one detail was enough to open Monica's eyes to other things that were going on around her.

 

Or weren't taking place, as the case might be. She watched as the townspeople passed each other on the sidewalk, seldom speaking or making eye contact with one another. Even before she could finish that particular thought, she had to jump aside to avoid being run over by a man who didn't particularly seem to notice that she was standing there.

 

"Excuse me," Monica said in those rich Irish tones, and the man looked up in obvious annoyance. He growled something under his breath about "bums and foreigners," then stalked past her, still muttering to himself.

 

Father, I think I understand what Tess means. These people are all so caught up in themselves that they don't even see anyone else. No wonder they can't look past the surface and see the beauty You placed within Andrew. They can't even see that same beauty inside the people who are supposed to be their friends and neighbors! Monica thought with a heavy sigh. They've tried to keep out all the fear and pain that comes with living in this world, but they only succeeded in trapping those things with them, here inside the prison they've built for themselves.

 

Instead of clinging to false security, perhaps these people need to remember what righteous fear truly is, Father. . .after all, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

 

Even a wiser and more experienced angel might have given the entire matter serious consideration before praying such a prayer. Monica, however, thought nothing more of her words as she set off down the sidewalk after Tess and Andrew.

 

But above her, the sky grew increasingly dark as the line of clouds rolled in. And a knife-edged wind swept through Solomon's Crossing, scattering withered brown leaves before it.

 

Chapter One

 

Monica caught up to her friends just as Andrew held the restaurant door open for Tess with a courtly bow that even the chic Adam would have been hard-pressed to match. Tess and Monica both chuckled when Andrew's stomach gave a most un-angelic growl at the smell of the daily special.

 

"Spaghetti and garlic bread. . .my favorite!" he grinned, taking a deep, appreciative breath of the basil and tomato fragrance as he followed his coworkers inside. " One of these days, I'll have to fix spaghetti á la Andrew for you. I make a killer sauce -- you should pardon the expression. I start out with plum tomatoes, fresh garlic, and some. . ."

 

His voice trailed away as he became uncomfortably aware of the silence that had fallen over the small restaurant. An elderly couple sitting by the window stared at the three newcomers until even the ebullient Monica began to fidget restlessly. And when the woman spoke to her husband, it was in a voice that was just a little too loud to be natural.

"I remember a time when decent people could sit down in this restaurant and not have to worry about being bothered with some trash off the streets," she snapped, throwing down her napkin beside her half-eaten plate of food. "Let's go home, George. . .we don't have to eat a meal with the likes of that."

 

The man stood up and tossed a large bill on the table with an ostentatious flourish. "You know, maybe we ought to consider voting for Allan Davies instead of Tom Raeburn for sheriff this year," he said in the same loud tone as his wife had used a moment earlier. "If the sheriff we've got now can't keep this town free of all the garbage from the city, then maybe Solomon's Crossing needs a change in leadership."

 

They stalked past Tess and her companions, staring pointedly at both the dark-skinned angel and the thoroughly embarrassed Andrew. Unlike her protégé, however, Tess returned a look that was every bit as good as the one she had been given. And in a few seconds, the couple slammed the door shut behind them with a wild jangle of bells.

 

Those bells were apparently the cue for a short, round-faced man to appear through the swinging doors that led into the kitchen, and he greeted the two women with a smile. "Hello, and welcome. . ." he started to say, but his smile faded quickly when he saw Andrew standing shyly behind Tess and Monica. "You ladies go ahead and find a table you like. I'll be with you in a minute -- just as soon as I get rid of him once and for all."

 

"If that 'him' you just mentioned refers to Andrew, here, he's with us," Tess said in a pleasant tone -- just a little too pleasant, as a matter of fact. "And we'll just take that booth over there in the corner. . ."

 

"Huh-uh," the restaurant owner shook his head. He wiped his hand on his grease-spattered apron and then gestured at the door. "You two ladies are welcome. Not him. He's bad for business -- people don't want to eat with a stinking bum sitting beside them."

 

"But you can't refuse to serve someone just because you don't like the way he looks," Monica said firmly, and she put a protective hand on Andrew's arm. "That's not legal."

 

"Look, lady, I don't care what you think. . .I don't have to serve anyone if I don't want to, especially not some filthy, stinking bum off the streets," the man drew himself up to his full height and glared at Andrew. "As a matter of fact, we're just closing up for the day. Sorry, but there's been a problem in the kitchen. . .a grease fire. Yeah, that's it, a grease fire. You people will have to leave now. Unless of course you want me to call the police and have you escorted out of my restaurant."

 

He reached around Monica and turned off the neon "Open" sign in the window. Without looking at Andrew, the owner pushed his way past the angel and flipped over the cardboard sign hanging on the door, so that it now read "Closed." He held open the door and gestured at the parking lot. And with that, Andrew turned and slowly walked outside, his head down and his shoulders slumped in resignation.

 

Indignation flared in Monica's face at the sight of her friend's pain, and she started to say something to the restaurant owner. Tess saw her expression and shook her head, touching a finger to her lips for silence. Monica reluctantly obeyed and followed Andrew outside to the parking lot. But it took every ounce of discipline she had ever learned from Tess not to tell the man what she thought of him -- especially when she saw the smug little smile he now wore as she walked past him.

 

Monica turned around, just as Tess paused in the open doorway and faced the restaurant owner. But this time, the smirk quickly faded from the man's face when Tess took a whiff of air and calmly said, "Excuse me, Baby, but did you say something about a grease fire? Well, apparently you didn't get it put out very well the first time. . .just turn around and take a look for yourself."

 

"I don't know what you're. . ." he started to say, just as the smoke alarm shrilled and the sprinkler system went off above him. Even in the deluge, he turned in the direction that Tess was pointing, and he yelled frantically at the sight of flames billowing up behind the glass panes in the swinging doors. "Call the fire department, somebody. . .the deep fat fryer must have overheated! Everybody, out!"

 

"This is our cue to disappear, angel babies," Tess grinned. The restaurant's staff and customers began pouring out of the building, and most of them were now drenched from the sprinklers or coughing from the smoke. "That fire was purely an accident caused by someone not paying attention to what he was doing. . .but I can guarantee you that Andrew will get blamed for it if we don't get out of here right now."

 

"Then God didn't have anything to do with the fire?" Monica asked, following Tess and Andrew over to a row of trees that lined the back edge of the parking lot.

 

"Of course not, Miss Wings. I'm surprised that you could even ask such a question!" Tess looked indignantly at her charge. "All these centuries of being an angel, telling people that God loves them, and then you can still think something like that! God doesn't send fires and floods and catastrophes to punish people. He can use those things to teach and correct them, but He doesn't hold a stick over their heads and threaten to clobber them with death and disaster if they step out of line."

 

In the distance, the three angels could hear the wail of fire trucks, and Tess gestured at her two companions: in a fraction of a second, she and Monica had disappeared from human sight, even if they were still both visible to Andrew. All throughout the exchange between the other two angels, Andrew had stood silently in the shadow of the trees, and now he smiled sadly at them.

 

"Angel Boy, didn't you hear what I just said about making yourself scarce?" Tess asked with a little frown. "Come on, now -- let's get back to my car. Monica and I passed a little motel and restaurant on our way through town. I'll get a room for us girls and one for you. You can get cleaned up, and then we'll go get you something to eat. . ."

 

"No, Tess, I can't do that," Andrew shook his head. He was uncomfortably aware that the group of teens had regrouped and stood within ten feet of him. . . now they all stared at him and snickered under their breath as he seemed to be talking to himself. "The Father just told me that I have to stay on the streets for one more night. But tonight's the last time I have to sleep in the alley. . ."

 

He winced and closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, a line of tears shone in his eyes. "Oh, Andrew. . ." Monica said sympathetically and started to put a comforting hand on his shoulder, just as Tess had done earlier."

 

But Andrew turned away from her, one hand raised slightly as if to push her back. And for a moment, it almost seemed to Monica that he was afraid to accept compassion from a friend in case it would weaken his resolve. . .

 

. . .a resolve that was shaky enough as matters stood, it seemed. He dropped his head again at the sound of the high school students' whispers and comments, and the unhappiness in his eyes spilled over at last. One of the teens, a slender blonde girl with the face and figure of a professional model, giggled at the sight of tears washing a clean track down Andrew's face.

 

"Probably the first 'bath' he's had in months," she said in a theatrical whisper to her friends, who all joined in her laughter. "My dad says that once he's re-elected mayor, he's going to make the sheriff do something about all the bums coming here from the city. He says they're just trying to freeload off the decent people who have jobs and pay taxes."

 

A boy wearing a football jacket snorted at her, "Yeah, Jessica, just like your old man promised to see to it that drugs are kept out of our public schools, right?"

 

The other students found the comment uproariously funny, but for some reason, Jessica turned a vivid shade of red. She stomped away from the group, muttering indignantly under her breath.

 

"That's a good one, T.J.," one of the girls grinned, thumbing over her shoulder at their departing classmate. "Bet if a bum like that could vote in the election next month, Jessica's old man would give him the key to the city."

 

From their invisible vantage point, Tess and Monica saw the way that Andrew's face went still and pale under its layer of grime. Once again, Tess put a restraining hand on Monica's arm just before the angel could reappear to the teens with a message that was entirely too tainted with her own indignation to be of heavenly origin.

 

"Tess, it's not fair!" Monica protested -- neatly managing to forget for the moment that she, too, had not reacted well at first to Andrew in his present condition. "How can they take such pleasure in someone else's pain? Andrew can't help being the way he is right now. . .don't they see that? "

 

Tess charitably refrained from making any number of comments and observations. . .especially about some people's attitudes that she could mention. But before Tess could decide what she actually did want to say, Andrew shook his head at Monica.

 

"No, they don't see that," he said aloud to his invisible companions, and with that, the high school students edged away from him with nervous little smirks. "Father, forgive them. . .they don't know what they're doing."

 

"You tell 'em, Preach," the boy in the football jacket sauntered past Andrew, deliberately bumping into him and all but knocking the angel off his feet. "Hey, man, you'd just better watch who you're running into like that. Jessica isn't the only one whose old man is running for office. My dear old dad is the one who's going to throw your kind out of town once he's re-elected sheriff next month. Better live it up while you can."

 

His companions broke into laughter once more, and the black-haired girl who had laughed at Jessica a moment ago now pointed at her watch. "T.J., you are too funny, but if we don't get back to class, you're going to be the hit of Detention for the next week," Kelly Clark giggled as she walked by Andrew, and the other students followed her.

 

Clark stopped long enough to wink at the others. "Maybe we can blame being late on the fire," she grinned. "Hey, it'll be the first time Kincaid's was ever good for anything besides heart burn and high cholesterol. . .not to mention other things that end up high from that place!"

 

The rest of the group broke into laughter once more, and in a moment, they had reached the sidewalk and were headed towards the high school. Only one girl stayed back slightly, away from the others. . .and it was obvious to the angels that her presence was merely tolerated, the way a younger sister might be allowed to tag along with her older and more popular siblings -- but only at a distance.

 

The girl's clothes were clean and neat, but they didn't carry the designer labels of her companions' clothing, and her tennis shoes weren't decorated with a famous brand name and logo, either. With her brown hair and nondescript features, she seemed to blend into the background as she walked past Andrew. But unlike the others, she paused and looked directly into his face, as if trying to see beyond the dirt and his "strange" behavior to the person he really was.

 

She frowned a little at first, as if she remembered Andrew's face but just couldn't quite match it with a name. But then she smiled at him, and when she did, her expression gave her a beauty that dimmed Jessica's -- even if she had no way of knowing that.

 

"Hi, I'm Christy Jameson," she held out her hand calmly. "You look familiar, somehow. What's your name, and where do I know you from?"

 

"Hi, Christy. I'm Andrew," he started to shake her hand, then winced as he saw the layer of dirt on his skin. He started to pull away in embarrassment, but Christy only smiled at him again and shook his hand. "I visited Solomon's Crossing a few years ago. . .maybe you remember me from then."

 

"That must be it, Andrew. Hey, would you like to share part of my lunch?" she asked and then held out a paper bag with the name 'Kincaid's' printed on it -- the same restaurant where Andrew had just been refused service. "I've got an extra hamburger and some fries, and you can have my Coke, too, if you don't mind the fact that I already took a couple of drinks from it."

 

Andrew nodded and smiled at her through a haze of tears: for a few seconds, he was unable to speak for the tightness in his throat. "Thank you," he finally managed to choke the words out as he took the food and soda from her. "God bless you. . .that's one of the nicest things anyone's done for me since I got here."

 

"Well, my dad may not be running for office, but he's a pretty important guy here in Solomon's Crossing -- at least to my mom and my brothers and me, anyway," she smiled at him with immense dignity. "He used to be pastor of that church over there until people around here decided that they didn't need to rely on God any more -- not when they had the police department to keep them safe. That's what my mom says, and I think she's right. But like I said, my dad used to be a preacher, and one of his favorite texts was Matthew 25: 40."

 

"I know that one. Your mom and dad must really be special to God -- I mean after all, He gave them a pretty neat daughter, didn't He?" Andrew winked gently at her, just as the courthouse bells began to ring once more. "Hey, you'd better hurry up now, so you won't get in trouble for being late to class. Thank you again. . .and not just for the food, either."

 

"You're welcome. . .and not just for the food, either," Christy gave him a thumbs-up and a wink. "And oh, by the way -- my dad said just this morning that he was going to have to find someone to help him paint our house before the weather gets bad. It's that big two-story white house at the corner of Madison and First Street. I bet he'd hire you if you wanted the job."

 

"All right! Thank you, my friend. . .thank you for everything!" Andrew nodded, and Christy smiled at him once again, then broke into a trot to catch up with the others.

 

Andrew reached into the paper bag and took out a foil wrapped hamburger -- seemingly oblivious to everything but the food. Only Tess' little "Ahem!" under her breath made him look up, and he grinned sheepishly at his unseen companions.

 

"Sorry, Tess," he ducked his head a little in embarrassment. "I guess I was so hungry that I just forgot you and Monica were still standing there."

 

"It's not us that you need to be worried about, Andrew," Tess admonished him gently as she pointed at something behind him. "They're the ones you need to watch out for."

 

During the entire exchange with Christy and the other teens, Andrew had been only vaguely aware of the fire engines and confusion going on at the restaurant. Now he looked in the direction that Tess was pointing, and he saw the owner of the restaurant in deep conversation with several police officers and the Chief of the Fire Department.

 

The men were huddled together as if to keep others from overhearing their conversation, but from time to time, one of them would look over at Andrew, standing 'alone' under the shelter of the trees. Larry Kincaid occasionally gestured at Andrew, and the anger in his face made it clear that he blamed "that bum" for everything that had just happened to his place of business -- no matter how unfair that accusation might have been.

 

"You and Monica go on back to the motel, Tess," Andrew nodded in the direction of the courthouse. "I'll talk to both of you again soon."

 

"But Andrew, we can't just leave you here alone with no money and nowhere to stay," Monica started to protest, but Tess shook her head wearily as she listened to the same thing that Andrew was now hearing.

 

"Come on, Monica," she gestured down the street at the waiting convertible. "We'll be seeing Andrew again real soon. Later tonight as a matter of fact. You have God's word on that."

 

Once again, Monica watched as Andrew's face filled with pain, and just as before, Tess reached out to him. "It's going to be all right, Angel Boy," she said softly, brushing a long wisp of blond hair out of his eyes. "'If God is for us, who can be against us?'"

 

"Oh, the sheriff, the mayor, most of the police force, and half of Solomon's Crossing -- especially the hungry half," Andrew shrugged ruefully at the restaurant building, as smoke continued to pour through the windows that had been broken out by the fire crews. "But I have a confession to make before you go, Tess. I cheated on this assignment."

 

"Oh? And just how did you do that, Mr. Halo?" Tess asked, trying to sound stern in spite of the amusement in her eyes. . .

 

. . .a laughter that was now mirrored in Andrew's own expression. He winked at Monica, and she was relieved to see that there was still a spark of joy left in her friend's heart, despite whatever secret pain that was weighing down on him at the moment.

 

"I read the last chapter of the Book, and guess what?" he grinned. "The good guys are gonna win! God is still going to be the undefeated Champion. . . even here in Solomon's Crossing."

 

Tess and Monica both groaned at the old joke, and as Andrew walked away from them, they could still hear him chuckling to himself. Tess shook her head with a smile and then carefully checked the area to make sure no one was paying attention to that particular part of the parking lot. Like a light bulb with a loose filament that suddenly made full contact, the two angels flickered back into sight before they started to walk back to the car.

 

"Come on, Angel Girl," Tess nudged Monica, who watched Andrew until he turned a corner and was gone from sight. "We need to get settled into the motel and get some rest while we still can. God says it's going to be a long night -- and tomorrow isn't going to be anything to write Home about, either."

 

As they walked down the street towards the courthouse, a sharp gust of wind blew a cold spatter of rain down on them, and Monica shivered, clutching her heavy coat more tightly around her. She thought back to an assignment she had been given once, not so long ago: like Andrew, she had found herself on the street with no money and no shelter.

 

Now she felt more than a twinge of guilt when she thought about the thin, torn jacket that Andrew had been wearing and the night that promised to be cold and damp. She remembered the helplessness of being alone on the street without money or shelter. . .but, worse still, the hopeless feeling that life would never be any different than it was at the moment.

 

But surely that's not why he's so afraid, she shrugged to herself as she crossed the street with Tess. I know this can't be a pleasant assignment, but Andrew is an angel, and he knows that God is with him all the time. Andrew is strong enough to handle whatever happens to him. . . isn't he?

 

"Tess, why is Andrew so afraid of what's going to happen to him in the next few days?" she asked as they reached the red convertible sat. "You know that I was given an assignment like this once, and I remember how difficult it was not to have any place to stay or any way to take care of myself. But then again, I don't remember being quite so terrified by it all as Andrew is, either."

 

"That, Miss Wings, is because you're remembering the wrong assignment and looking at the wrong kind of storm warnings," Tess sighed as they both got back into the car. "There was a time when you went through everything that Andrew is about to

experience -- and believe me, you were just as afraid then as he is now. At least God spared you the knowledge of what was barreling down on you like a freight train. . .but Andrew knows exactly what's going to happen to him."

 

Tess paused, seeing nothing but incomprehension in Monica's face -- not precisely an unknown state of affairs with the little brown-haired angel. Tess shook her head once more as she quickly hit a button on the dashboard, and the convertible top glided smoothly into place over them, blocking out the wind and rain.

 

"Baby, you're just going to have to trust me on this one," Tess said quietly as she backed the car out of the parking space. "Right now, Solomon's Crossing is like a cancer that someone is covering up with a Band-Aid and pretending that nothing's wrong. God is going to cut out that cancer so that everything can be cleansed and made whole again. But it's going to be like any other surgery. . .there's going to be a lot of pain and some blood spilled before the healing can begin. That's why he's here."

 

Monica looked out the passenger window in the direction that Tess was pointing as they drove by the courthouse once more. This time, Adam stood beside the marble fountain, and even though his hair and face were drenched with rainwater, his eyes were fixed unblinkingly on something that lay at the end of Main Street.

 

The restaurant, perhaps? Monica thought, turning a little in her seat to see what was behind them at the end of the street. No, not that. Now just what is Adam staring at down there, I wonder?

 

In the distance, she could barely see the two-story, red brick high school that sat at the end of Main Street, its outlines blurred and dimmed by the falling rain. As he watched the school building intently, the angel of death was oblivious to anything else around him -- even the thunderstorm that now prowled and snarled above him.

 

Monica let out a muffled shriek when a sudden flash of light split the air around them, followed instantly by a gigantic roar of thunder and the sound of splintering wood. An enormous old oak tree in the town square gave a groan that sounded almost human as it fell, mortally wounded by the bolt of lightening.

 

And this time when Monica cried out, it was in concern for Adam. Now she could see that what had appeared to be a strong tree was little more than a hollow shell, eaten away by disease from the inside out. The oak tree toppled down into the fountain, and it fell so close to the angel of death that a few of the branches actually brushed against his back.

 

But Adam seemed unaware of anything except the building on which all his attention was focused. He didn't even flinch when the statue in the center of the fountain collapsed with a shriek of shattering metal under the weight of the downed tree. Monica hadn't paid much attention to the figure earlier, but now she saw that fallen bronze statue was a smaller copy of the famous original: a blindfolded woman clad in flowing garments and carrying a set of scales in one hand.

 

"That's right, Baby. God is getting ready to overturn what passes for justice in this town with a few righteous judgments of His own," Tess finally broke the silence as she swerved around a tree limb that had been blown into the street by the gusts of wind.

 

She shook her head sadly, then added, "And people here in Solomon's Crossing are going to be like that oak tree, too. They're going to find out that what they thought was peace and safety turned out to be nothing but a hollow shell. Because you and I both know that apart from God, there is no refuge in time of trouble."

 

A single thought ran through Monica's mind, and she looked over her shoulder to catch one last glimpse of Adam. Unseen by any except his own kind, the angel still stood motionless beside the fallen tree and shattered fountain, his eyes fixed on the school building at the end of the street.

 

"'Men cry "Peace, peace," but there is no peace,'" Monica quoted softly, just as Tess drove into the motel parking lot. "Father, grant us peace. . .Your peace."

 

"Amen to that, Baby," Tess responded fervently before she turned off the engine. "Amen to that!"

 

Chapter Two

 

The trouble with nighttime is that it's entirely too long. Not to mention dark, Monica thought to herself. She rolled over onto her side, trying to avoid the lump on that side of the mattress -- which was not to be confused with its identical twin on the opposite side. Or its cousin squarely in the middle of the bed, or the one. . .etc.

 

Lots of etceteras, she sighed. She wriggled around on her side for a moment, trying to find a comfortable position on the single bed -- a bootless exercise, at best. With another curtain-rattling sigh, she rolled onto her back again and scrunched her eyes tightly shut against the onslaught of green and orange light from the neon sign across the street.

 

That reminded her of a question that she had been meaning to ask, ever since she and Tess had eaten supper at the motel restaurant a few hours earlier. A fund-raising dinner for the incumbent mayor had been going on in the private banquet hall next to the main dining room: from time to time, scraps of speeches and the sound of applause had filtered through the partition and had been audible to the two angels.

 

"Tess, why do people spend so much time and money on things like advertisements and neon signs and political campaigns?" Monica shrugged in confusion. "I mean, if a product or a candidate is good to begin with, surely people are going to know that, aren't they? And if the thing that's being sold isn't so good, all the words in the world aren't going to make it any better. So why do people bother with all the fuss and expense of advertising and making speeches?"

 

In the room's semi-darkness, Tess groaned to herself. She had been expecting a question of that sort ever since the political rally, but when Monica hadn't asked it by bedtime, Tess had cherished the fond delusion that perhaps she was going to be off the hook for the evening. It was only one of many such hopes that she had seen shattered in the centuries since the Father had called her into being.

 

"Baby, I have been around ever since God shaped this world and created the first human beings to put on it. And in all that time, I've only come to two major conclusions about why people do what they do," she stared up at the rhythmic flashes of neon light from the Laundromat sign. "First, the human race has an almost infinite capacity for fooling itself. And secondly, the whole world is in search of a good excuse."

 

There, Miss Wings. . .chew on that for awhile! Tess thought as she rolled over onto her side -- the one facing away from Monica and the advertising sign. The angel could almost hear assorted mental gears grinding from the direction of other bed, and she muffled a little snort of amusement into her pillow. That chuckle reminded her of Andrew's laughter that afternoon as he walked away from his friends. . .and Tess sobered instantly.

 

Father, please take good care of our Angel Boy tonight, she prayed silently, listening the cold rain as it spattered against the window. You never promised to spare anyone pain, be it man or angel, because that's how You refine us and make us into what You want us to be. But You created a gentle and compassionate spirit when You created Andrew. . .and You alone know what's best for him. Just keep him close to You, Father, no matter what happens.

 

Tess opened her eyes, then listened intently to the sounds outside the motel room. Apparently there was some truth to the tired old joke that the waitress had told them at dinner -- the one about the sidewalks being rolled up at ten o'clock every evening in Solomon's Crossing. It was well past midnight now, and for the last hour or so, Tess hadn't heard anything except the occasional car drive past the motel.

 

But like all angels, Tess' senses were as far above the human range of hearing and awareness as a man's ability was above that of a slug. Now she could hear footsteps across the street and a strange whispery sound like a bundle of cloth rubbing against something. That noise was followed by an almost inaudible thud and a series of dull thumps: then she could hear the sound of muffled steps running down the sidewalk, away from the Laundromat.

 

Somebody in a hurry to get away as quickly and as quietly as he possibly can, Tess thought to herself. Or maybe that's more than just one somebody I'm hearing. . .of all the times for a car to be out on these deserted little streets, why did it have to be now, Father? And just why did that car slow down, I wonder?

 

The sounds themselves were meaningless to Tess, but suddenly, she felt a deep inner tug at her spirit that could only come from God Himself. With that, she concentrated on fixing each tiny noise in her memory, until at last, she was confident that she could recall every detail of what she had heard.

 

Now that angel baby finally decides to fall asleep! Tess thought with a sigh as she sat up and fumbled for the lamp on the table between the beds. Monica was indeed snoring softly --a condition that lasted only as long as it took for Tess to flip the switch and flood the room with light.

 

"Come on, Angel Girl, it's time to get dressed," Tess said, ignoring Monica's moans of protest. "There's something we're going to have to do here in just a little while, and you need to be ready for it."

 

"But Tess. . ." Monica groaned in bleary-eyed dismay as she listened to the rain and wind pounding down on the motel roof.

 

One look at her supervisor's expression told Monica that there would be no appeal process for this particular decision, and in a few moments, she was dressed and ready to go. Exactly where she was going was still something of a mystery to her sleep-befuddled mind, but whenever the call came, at least she was prepared for it. And in just a few minutes, she had at least part of her answer. . .now she could hear the sound of running footsteps and voices shouting in anger and dismay, while sirens wailed in the distance. She could understand most of what was being said, but none of it made any sense to her.

 

". . .should have run his kind out of. . .knew there'd be some kind of trouble. . .police when you really need them?" the voices blended together in a swirl of sound for a moment, until at last the sound of sirens drowned them all out.

 

Now the Laundromat sign's vivid flashing colors were all-but lost in the rhythmic pulse of red emergency lights across the street, and Monica peered out the window -- only to see what looked like every squad car in the police department surrounding the building. But before Monica could comment on that fact, Tess took Monica's elbow and steered her towards the door.

 

"All right, this is our cue to get over there, on the double, and please, no more questions right now," she said, seeing the incomprehension in her charge's face. "There are some things you need to see for yourself. But I want you to remember what I told you earlier about things not being what they appear to be, here in Solomon's Crossing. You remember that, and remember it good. Oh, and by the way, I think we'll just use our angelic privilege here tonight, while we're at it."

 

Monica nodded, and the two angels quickly made their way across the street, that "angelic privilege" rendering them invisible to the dozens of people who now gathered on the street. The entire area around the laundry was surrounded by police officers, while a frantic little Oriental man babbled in a blend of Chinese and English to several of them as they tried to take his statement.

 

An ambulance's flashing lights blended in with those of the police vehicles, and Monica saw just a glimpse of the paramedics as they disappeared down the alley that led to the back of the building. But that was not all that she glimpsed, and she watched as a familiar figure walked past the ambulance crew -- away from whatever was taking place behind the Laundromat.

 

This time, however, Adam was not alone: the angel of death had his arm around the shoulder of the spirit who had been placed in his care that night. He paused, then looked over at his co-workers who still stood at a distance from the entrance to the alley. . .and for once, even the unflappable angel of death appeared to be shaken badly.

 

"Tess, is that who I think it is?" Monica's eyes widened in shock and disbelief at the sight of the slender blonde figure who leaned heavily on her angel guardian. It took her a moment to remember where she had seen the girl, and then the memory came flooding back to her. "That's the girl in the parking lot this afternoon. . .the one who made fun of Andrew."

 

"Jessica Flynt -- Mayor Steve Flynt's daughter and his only child," Tess said, and her voice was thick with sorrow. "His wife died suddenly from an aneurysm five years ago, and Jessica is. . .Jessica was the only family he had left on this earth."

 

Monica turned stricken eyes towards her mentor. "Tess, she was just a wee bit of a girl," the angel said softly. "What happened to her, and what on earth was she doing in an alley at this time of night?"

 

"Well, to begin with, she wasn't in that alley by her own choice, and as far as your first question is concerned, that's part of what we're here to find out," Tess answered with a strange expression that was not precisely grief or anger, but a mixture of the two. "I don't know who -- or what -- killed that poor little girl, but I do know who the police are blaming for it. Take a look for yourself. . ."

 

She gestured at a spot beside the entrance to the alley, and Monica trudged along beside her supervisor until they had a clear view of the activity. Monica was almost certain that she didn't really want quite this good of a view, and in a moment, her suspicions were confirmed. The two grim-faced paramedics walked past the angels, pushing a stretcher with a blanket-shrouded figure on it. The gray blanket was splotched with what could only have been blood. . .and there were entirely too many of those spots, as well.

 

But not even that sight prepared her for what followed next. As Clark and Forrest walked down the alley, the two men were struggling with something that might have been a piece of rolled up carpeting or a bundle of rags . They half-carried, half-dragged the bulky object along the pavement, but just as they reached the spot where the two angels stood unseen, the 'bundle' groaned and lifted his head towards them. Even so, it took a few seconds for Monica to realize who it was that looked so beseechingly at her.

 

Andrew was all but unrecognizable: there was no part of his face that wasn't already puffed and bruised. The angel's mouth was badly cut, and his eyes were nearly swollen shut as he staggered past his friends. And it was obvious that he could barely stand upright -- even with his arms pulled behind him to accommodate the handcuffs that bit sharply into his wrists.

 

"Tess, we have to do something. . .!" Monica cried out frantically. But at that second, she saw something that she hadn't noticed before, and her voice died away to an unintelligible gurgle. "Oh, no, no. Tess, it's not possible. It can't be!"

 

Now she saw that Andrew's filthy gray sweatshirt, blue jeans, and nylon jacket were all spattered with the same dark patches that had been on the blanket covering Jessica Flynt's body a moment ago. And when the wind blew towards them, it carried with it the unmistakable reek of cheap alcohol. Monica watched in horror as Deputy Clark threw Andrew into the back seat of the waiting squad car. The angel landed so heavily that his bruised chest and stomach muscles cramped from the impact, and his friends heard him moan softly under his breath.

 

A crowd of people had already gathered, drawn by the sirens and the flashing lights, and now they surged in an angry wave towards the squad car where Andrew sat in dazed incomprehension. "Go on, get him out of here!" a sergeant waved frantically at Clark and Forrest as the rest of the officers regrouped in an effort to quell the potential riot.

 

The two officers were more than willing to obey that order, and Clark threw the squad car into reverse. He backed the vehicle away from the curb just as someone in the crowd picked up a rock and hurled it at the side window. The safety glass shattered under the impact, leaving a star-shaped hole just at the same level as Andrew's face, and the angel's bewildered expression crumpled altogether.

 

"Oh, Tess, no. . ." Monica cried once again as the squad car took off with a squall of tires. She caught a brief glimpse of Andrew as he rocked back and forth. His eyes were closed tightly and his face was full of misery, and that image seemed to be burned into her mind, even long the police car was gone from sight. "What's happening here? Father, please help me -- I don't understand."

 

"Come on, Angel Girl, we have to go back to the motel now," Tess said quietly, leading Monica through the crowd as easily as a whisper of wind. "We've already got angels in the County Legal Aid Office who know what's going on, and in a little while, we're going to be getting a call to come down to the Sheriff's Department. And when we do, you're going to have to get a tight grip on your feelings. I know you're hurt and confused right now, but you're going to have to be strong -- for God, for Andrew, and for the people we've been sent here to help."

 

Numbly, Monica nodded, then stumbled after her mentor back to the motel room, but her eyes were nearly blinded with tears as she collapsed heavily onto a chair beside her bed. Nearly an hour passed while the two angels waited for their telephone call, but something in Tess' expression kept Monica from asking the questions that filled her heart and mind at the moment.

 

She stared out of the window at the people who still huddled together in front of the Laundromat while the police detectives continued their investigation. But she wasn't seeing the townspeople or the flashing lights on top of the squad cars: all that she could see were those dark patches of blood on Andrew's clothing. Her nostrils still seemed to be filled with the pungent odor of cheap whiskey that had clung to him, and she could still picture the way he had staggered down the alley, barely able to stand up. But whether it had been from the beating he had received or from the alcohol was something that Monica didn't want to think about.

 

It was unthinkable -- no, it was unspeakable that Andrew, her co-worker, her friend, could have had anything to do with the death of Jessica Flynt in that dirty little back alley. But Monica shuddered once again as a vivid mental picture of Andrew in the alley with a knife or a blunt object in his hand arose in her mind before she could even stop it.

 

Surely he's not capable of something like that -- not our Andrew, Monica thought with a shiver of fear. But if even archangels have fallen before. . .

 

She started to say something to Tess, but the sight of fury crackling in her supervisor's face made her voice sputter and fade away like a dying sparkler. Tess had watched as fear crept into Monica's face over the past few minutes. . .and it took no supernatural gift to know what kind of misjudgments and imaginations had produced that terror, either.

 

"You stop that right now, Miss Wings! I told you that things weren't what they appeared to be tonight, but you didn't listen to me. And now you've left a door open in your imagination for any kind of fear to come marching through!" Tess snapped, and she stood up over Monica. "I mean it. . .thoughts like those come straight from the father of lies! In God's sight, they are an abomination for any angel to consider, even for a fraction of a second."

 

The anger in Tess' voice was enough to jolt Monica completely out of her thoughts and back into the present. She stared up at Tess, and although Monica didn't know it, hers was the same dazed and bewildered look that Andrew had worn only moments ago. Even so, Tess' expression didn't alter in the least as she looked down at the angel in her charge. She crossed her arms over her chest, and the look in her eyes would have been enough to make the strongest of warrior angels cringe.

 

"If Andrew really was the one who killed that poor little girl, believe me, he wouldn't be facing anything as pleasant or easy as an earthly court and a murder charge right about now," Tess said in a tone that left no room for debate. "He would have already been given over to the powers of darkness. . .and if you don't hear anything else I have to say, then make sure you hear this. Andrew is not -- and I will say this again -- not a fallen angel. In just a little while, he's going to need every bit of love and compassion that you and I can give him. . .not our panic and wild imaginations."

But then her eyes softened as she saw the fear and misery in Monica's face. Tess sat down on the edge of the bed beside her charge and put her arm around Monica's shoulders.

 

"It's all right, Angel Girl," Tess let the little angel rest her head against her own powerful shoulder for a moment. "I know you don't understand what's going on here in Solomon's Crossing. Believe me, there are some things about this whole sad, sorry situation that even old Tess doesn't know just yet, either."

 

Monica swallowed hard, then nodded, still unable to speak. Finally, she managed to speak in what she hoped were calm and quiet tones. "Tess, if. . .I mean, since Andrew didn't have anything to do with that girl's terrible death, then someone went to a great deal of trouble to make it look as if he was responsible," she struggled to stay strictly within the realm of fact and logic. "But who? And why would they kill her and then make it seem as if Andrew did it?"

 

Tess released her, then sat up straight and pointed at the neon sign still flashing its insistent message into the night. "You remember the question you asked about why people go to all the trouble of advertising a product?" she asked, and something in her tone of voice made Monica pay particular attention to what her supervisor was about to say. "Baby, the reason that people advertise something is because they want to make it look as good as possible. That way, people will buy what they're selling instead of what the other guy has to offer."

 

Tess paused for a second or two to let Monica mull over that thought, then went on. "The same thing is true of political campaigns. If you can throw mud all over your opponent, then you'll look better by comparison, right?"

 

"Right, Tess. . .I think, " Monica nodded, although as usual, she wasn't quite sure what direction that Tess was headed.

 

"Don't you see, Monica? A grocery store owner wouldn't go around telling people, 'Hey, the apples have brown spots, and most of the peaches are rotten,'" Tess nudged Monica, who managed a tiny smile and chuckle for her co-worker's benefit. "No, he'd cover the apples with a layer of wax, and he'd make sure that the best peaches were on top of the basket. Well, Baby, that's exactly what's happening here in Solomon's Crossing. There's a lot of rottenness here under all that 'safest little town in the Midwest' wax job they're trying to sell us!"

 

Monica stared thoughtfully at the framed print on the wall for a moment, until it seemed that she was trying to memorize every insipid line of the wide-eyed children's faces. "And so what you're saying is that someone is using Andrew to make him or herself look better?" she shrugged, only moderately more knowledgeable about the situation than she had been a few moments before. "But why? And what does that poor wee girl's death have to do with it?"

 

"That, Miss Monica, is what you and I are going to have to find out for ourselves," Tess stood up and walked back over to her own bed. She sat down and stared meaningfully at the telephone. "And we'll start doing that very thing just the minute that we get our phone call to come down to the police station. You know, these silly things just about jangle right off the hook when you don't want them to, so I guess it's not surprising that they never let out as much as a peep when you do want them to ring!"

 

Obediently, the telephone began to ring -- apparently unwilling to risk an encounter with the black-haired angel. She picked up the receiver before the phone could ring a second time, then listened intently to the instructions she was being given.

 

Even before Tess hung up the phone, Monica had already retrieved her own coat from the closet, as well as Tess' jacket and her briefcase. And now her face was calm and dispassionate -- just as if she was about to swoop down on the flaws in an opposing attorney's case. Tess looked up and saw the professionalism in her protégé's stance and expression, then nodded approvingly.

 

"That's it, Baby. Now you've got the idea!" Tess smiled as she put on her jacket and took the car keys from her pocket. "Emotions are going to be running high enough in this little town, as it is. And emotions aren't going to help anyone find God's own truth about everything that's happened here tonight. That truth is the only thing that's going to help Andrew now. . .and Andrew is the only one who can help Solomon's Crossing see itself the way that God sees it."

 

"I understand, Tess," Monica nodded, holding the door open for her friend. "Or if I don't, then God will show me what I need to know, when I need to know it."

 

Tess smiled as she walked down the flight of steps to the parking lot and the waiting convertible. You know, Father, she looked up at the sky with an amazed and delighted expression, I think these angel babies might actually be learning something!

 

There was nothing menacing about the low rumble of thunder that shook the clouds -- in fact, there was a pleasant quality about it. Something like the low, friendly sound of Someone chuckling under His breath.

 

Chapter Three

 

By the time that Tess and Monica reached the police station, a thin gray light had begun to show in the eastern sky, but far from being cheering, it only made Solomon's Crossing look even more dismal than it usually did. A carnival seemed to be going on in the parking lot when Tess pulled into the parking lot. Newspaper and television vehicles already surrounded the building, and wherever the angels looked, all they saw were cameras and lighting equipment being set up.

 

Reporters were chatting with the townspeople, who had gathered in tight clusters around the police station. Monica heard bits and scraps of the conversation as she reluctantly left the relative sanctuary of Tess' car. . .and the mindless anger that she saw in the people's faces made her feel a little sick.

 

". . .Tom Raeburn can't do the job, then maybe it's time we elected someone who can," a plump woman in a faux leopard fur coat was telling a newspaper reporter as Monica and Tess made their way through the crowd. "As a matter of fact, it's just about time that we took a lot stronger measures against all the trash that's blowing into Solomon's Crossing from the big cities. We don't need a bunch of outsiders coming here and getting a lot of trouble started."

 

That last comment was aimed squarely at Tess and Monica, but Monica saw her supervisor mouth the word, No! at her. With that, Monica held her head up resolutely and walked past the reporter and the woman as if neither of them existed.

 

"Excuse me, but are you two ladies from the County Legal Aid Office," the reporter turned away from the woman, and he obviously saw a far more interesting story than the tired old rhetoric that the housewife had been spouting.

 

"We are. . .and no comment," Tess turned a cold eye towards him as she and Monica reached the steps into the police station.

 

But the reporter was not to be put off so easily, and he frantically tried to press the advantage -- especially when he saw that his colleagues had also correctly guessed who these two well-dressed women actually were. He tried to block the angels' path, matching move for move with Tess as she tried to step around him.

 

"Now surely you ladies don't mind answering just a few questions for us," he smiled ingratiatingly at them.

 

"I do mind," Tess said, and for a fraction of a second, Monica could have sworn that the air temperature dropped several degrees. Tess muttered something under her breath about fools and the kinds of places that not even a celestial being would tread.

 

Then she turned back to the reporter, and this time, her smile was friendly. Much too friendly, Monica realized belatedly.

 

"Besides which, Baby, isn't there something wrong with your microphone?" Tess nodded down from the top step at the microphone in the reporter's gloved hand.

 

"I. . .OW!" he bellowed, and he looked down at piece of electronic gear just as it began to spit bright sparks. He dropped the microphone, and his gloves were already smoldering from contact with the metal surface as he yanked them off and threw them down to the rain-soaked pavement.

 

With that, Tess winked at Monica as they slipped inside the building. "No, Baby, God didn't cause that to happen, any more than He caused the restaurant fire," Tess shrugged, seeing the look in Monica's eyes. "Cheap cables and rain water caused that man's microphone to short out. . .but you can bet that God can put it all to good use!"

 

Tess and Monica exchanged smiles for a second, but their amusement disappeared instantly when they approached the officer sitting at the front desk. "We're from the Legal Aid Office," Tess told him. "My name is Tess, and this is Monica. We've been chosen to represent the man who's accused of murdering that young girl."

 

"You people sure do work fast," the Sergeant shook his head. "I just heard them put in the call to your supervisor a little while ago. I'm surprised they managed to get in touch with the head of Legal Aid so fast at this hour. . .let alone get someone over here that quick."

 

"My Supervisor is always on call, twenty four by seven," Tess said with deliberate double meaning. "Now, who do we talk to about seeing our client?"

 

"That would be Lieutenant Anderson, the Watch Commander. His office is the first door on the right down that hallway," the Sergeant pointed down the corridor. . .and Monica was almost sure that she hadn't imagined the nervousness in the officer's face when Tess had first mentioned seeing Andrew. "You ladies just go through our little check-in procedure here, and then you can talk to the Lieutenant."

 

This time, there could be no mistake. As she and Tess filled out what seemed to be interminable amounts of paperwork, Monica saw Sergeant Williams signal with his eyes to an officer, who disappeared down the hall way in the direction of the lieutenant's office. And in a moment, a tall, silver-haired man walked towards them, wearing a smile that could only be described as patronizing.

 

"Hi, I'm Lieutenant Anderson," he smiled lazily down at the two angels. "I understand you two are going to represent the prisoner we just brought in a little while ago -- the one who's accused of murdering that poor little Flynt girl."

 

"That's right. I'm Tess, and this is my aide, Monica," Tess said in a tone that dripped ice. "We'd like to see our client before you interview him. I'm sure that you did wait until we got here to start the interrogation process so that his counsel would be present with him during all questioning."

 

Anderson's ruddy complexion turned pale as Tess' well-place comment went home. But he recovered quickly, despite the annoyance that still flickered behind his eyes as he tried to patch together his blandly pleasant exterior.

 

"Well, actually, Miss, we haven't really been able to do much of anything by way of interviewing your client just yet," he shrugged and spread his massive hands in what was meant to be an expression of helplessness. "I'm afraid he's not exactly the most co-operative prisoner we've ever had here."

 

"What do you mean, he's being uncooperative?" Monica asked, envisioning the damage that those fists could inflict on a fragile human form.

 

"Maybe it would be just as easy to show you, Miss, rather than try to explain it to you," Anderson gestured at a sign and arrow that pointed down a flight of stairs to their left. "If you'll just follow me, I'll take you down to see your client. But I think I ought to tell you right now that you're not apt to get much out of this guy. I've been on the police force here at Solomon's Crossing for over twenty years, and I've seen some pretty bizarre behavior. But I think your client just about tops it all."

 

Monica started to say something, but again, Tess shook her head almost imperceptibly. She motioned for Monica to follow her, and they walked down the stairs behind Anderson until they reached a door with an electronic lock. The lieutenant slipped his pass card into the control box, then quickly punched in a series of numbers, so that his two companions wouldn't be able to read them.

 

Monica jumped a little when the alarm shrilled for a second or two, letting the jailers know that there were new people on the cellblock. Anderson saw her look of discomfiture, and once again, a condescending smile played around the corner of his mouth for a second or two. But then he was all business again as he gestured at a jailer, who sat at a desk just inside the door.

 

"Jerry, these ladies are from the Legal Aid Office," Anderson thumbed down the corridor towards the far end of the row of cells. "They're here to see the new prisoner. I want either you or Paul to be with them at all times while they try to talk to that guy."

 

The jailer whistled under his breath. "You got it, Lieutenant," he stood up and took a pass card out of his desk drawer.

 

Anderson nodded in Tess and Monica's direction, and he touched the imaginary brim of an equally imaginary hat in something that might have been respect. "You stop by my office before you leave and let me know how things went, OK?" he smiled at them, then gestured at the jailer to open the electronic door.

 

As soon as the lieutenant was gone, Jerry McNeil nodded down at the row of cells. "If you two will just follow me, it's right down here at the end of the corridor," he said as he puffed and panted along in front of the two angels.

 

He paused just before they reached the cell, and like his lieutenant, the jailer gave them a respectful nod. "I gotta hand it to you ladies -- you've got a lot of guts going in there," he shook his head, then circled his temple with his index finger. "This poor guy is out of it. . .I mean, like really out of it."

 

"Thank you for your concern, but we'll be fine," for a long second, Tess seemed to be looking straight through the jailer, until he began to fidget uncomfortably under her gaze. "Now, if you don't mind, we'd like to talk to him. I believe his name is Andrew."

 

Again, some unspoken exchange seemed to be taking place between Tess and the jailer, as if the angel had somehow challenged McNeil to say or do something. He gulped miserably, then looked down at the relative sanctuary of his desk and shook his head faintly. Tess sighed sharply -- and with that, the sense of conflict suddenly seemed to evaporate. McNeil fitted the pass key into the electronic lock, trying to avoid Tess' gaze at all costs, and at that, the cell door swung open with a silent rush of air. Monica wasn't exactly sure what she had just seen, but she made a mental note to ask Tess about it later.

 

"Remember, I'll be right outside here if he goes off the deep end again," McNeil tried to meet Tess' eye, then dropped his head and let the two angels pass by him.

 

The corridor had been well lit, but the cell itself was much darker, and it took several seconds for Monica's eyes to adjust. "Tess, what did he mean about Andrew going off the deep end again. . .?" she whispered, as she peered into the small, dank enclosure.

 

Tess gestured noiselessly towards a figure huddled into a tight ball of misery at the end of the cot -- as close to the wall and as far out of harm's way as possible. Tess gestured at the shivering Andrew, then touched a finger to her lips for Monica to be silent.

 

"Hush, Angel Girl, and go stand over by the door," Tess' voice was almost inaudible as she gestured back towards the corridor where McNeil hovered protectively. "Keep his attention away from Andrew as much as you possibly can, all right?"

 

Under the circumstances, there was very little that Monica could do but comply. She walked over to the cell door and stood there for a moment, giving the jailer what she hoped was her most winning smile. McNeil grinned back at her, and it was obvious that he was enjoying the flirtation with someone as pretty as Monica -- despite the fact that a heavy gold wedding band gleamed on his left hand. And even though she played her part with finesse, Monica still managed to keep an eye on what was taking place behind her.

 

Tess lifted Andrew up from the floor as easily as if she had been picking up a small child, but he groaned at even that gentlest of touches. She laid him down on the cot, continuing to murmur reassuringly to him as she carefully assessed his injuries. Those injuries were frightening enough in and of themselves, she thought, but nothing prepared her for what was to follow.

 

A guttural scream tore through the cell's silence as Andrew frantically tried to fight his way past her, and his expression made it clear that he wanted to go back to his "refuge" -- the small space formed by the end of the cot and the wall. But when Tess lovingly blocked his way, Andrew once more curled up into a tight ball.

 

He began to rock back and forth, and his expression went through a kaleidoscope of changes in only a matter of seconds. Laughter, sorrow, silliness, and terror. . .all those emotions and a dozen more like them flashed across his face in a way that even a professional actor would have been hard-pressed to duplicate. But then Andrew looked up at Tess, and he wore a horrified expression as he stared at her for a moment.

 

It's as if he finally remembered who I really am, Tess thought to herself. Oh, Angel Boy. . .

 

Now tears filled Andrew's eyes, and he turned his head away from her, so that she couldn't see his humiliation and grief. "Go away, darlin'. . .please just go away," he begged, but there was something strange about his voice. "Ah don' want you here. Don' want you tuh see me like this. Go home, darlin'. . . please? Y'hear me?"

 

That accent! Monica frowned, trying to remember where she had heard that kind of deep drawl before. It sounds like something out of that dreadful old movie that Tess likes so much. . .now what was the name of it? Oh yes, I remember now. "Gone with the Wind."

 

The sorrow in Andrew's eyes suddenly vanished, and he began to laugh at nothing in particular as he rambled from subject to subject -- everything from buttermilk to college football, and a number of equally disjointed topics in between. Monica stared at Andrew, who finally noticed the strange look that she gave him. He sat up straight and smiled at her, but his expression was only a parody of his usual warmth and charm.

 

"Wherever are my manners?" he made a formal little bow of apology, his hand on his chest. He bent his head slightly, and now his accent was a travesty of a blue-blooded Southern gentleman from the old school. "I don't believe we've been properly introduced, my dear. My name is. . .my name is An. . ."

 

His face crumpled as he tried to force the words out, and Tess caught him just before he fell heavily to the floor. Once again, he curled up into a tight package on the cot, then rocked back and forth as he looked plaintively all around at the cell.

 

"Please help me," he sobbed under his breath, and for a second, Monica thought he was speaking to Tess. But then he whispered, "Help me, Father -- please come find your angel and take him Home. I'm so scared. . .ah am so. . ."

 

His voice trailed away until even those thickly accented words were unintelligible, but he continued to rock and weep softly to himself. Tess knelt down beside the cot, then reached out and gently put her hand on Andrew's shoulder -- hoping that she wasn't hurting him more than she was comforting him.

 

There was something terribly familiar about this situation, something that Monica should have recognized but just couldn't quite recall clearly. The peculiar accents, the fear and disorientation: all of it was disturbingly like something she had seen before. . .a television program, perhaps, or a story that she had read somewhere. She started to say something to Tess, but the other angel shook her head, touching her index finger to her lip for silence.

 

Later, Tess mouthed as she met Monica's eye.

 

Tess nodded towards the corridor and the waiting jailer once more, then put her hands together in an attitude of prayer. And suddenly, Monica understood her supervisor's meaning as clearly as though Tess had spelled everything out for her. Monica winked broadly at her co-worker, then turned back to the jailer.

 

"You know, you look so familiar," Monica frowned thoughtfully, as she studied McNeil's round red face for a moment. "Did you ever work as an actor, by any chance? You remind me so much of the man who used to play in that one police show on television. Oh, I'm sure you know who I mean. . .you must hear this all the time from people."

 

In spite of the grimness of the situation, Tess found herself smiling a little at Monica's smooth line of patter. Always send an Irish angel when you need a line of blarney that would choke a mule, Tess shook her head quietly, but a small groan brought her attention back to the reason that she had needed Monica's acting skills in the first place.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Monica could just barely see a soft golden light that surrounded Tess as she prayed quietly. That glow was the love of God as He sometimes permitted it to be reflected by one of His angels, and now it enveloped Andrew with the warmth and tenderness of a Father holding a hurt, terrified child in His arms.

 

"That's right, Angel Boy," Tess murmured quietly as Andrew looked up at her with the smallest of questioning smiles. "The Father loves you very much, and He's proud of you, too. He knew He could trust you to carry out this assignment, no matter how hard it was or how scared you got. Things may get worse before they get better, but God will be with you. . .you have His promise on that. You just rest now, and Monica and I will see you again soon. That's it, just go to sleep now."

 

Tess hummed an old spiritual in her deep, rich alto voice as she stroked his tangled blond hair, and Andrew's eyes slowly drifted shut. Another smile -- this one full of peace -- now touched his swollen lips, and in another moment, his breathing was deep and regular. With that, the golden light faded away slowly until that corner of the cell was dark again. Tess stood up slowly and remained where she was for a few seconds, looking down at the sleeping Andrew's tranquil expression.

 

Thank You, Father -- thank You for taking care of that Angel Boy of ours, she nodded gratefully as she rejoined Monica. The little angel was still trying to keep up her bantering with McNeil at the entrance to the cell, and she gave Tess a piteous look, appealing for help without saying a word.

 

"All right, that'll have to do for the night," Tess told the jailer firmly, then gestured over her shoulder at the sleeping Andrew. "Poor man was so exhausted and disoriented that he fell asleep in the middle of the interview. You can just tell your Lieutenant for us that we'll be back in the morning. None of us are going to get much out of Andrew tonight, that's for sure."

 

"He's. . .asleep?" McNeil tried to peer around Tess and Monica as he let them out of the cell. "That's something else. Poor guy's been screaming and talking in all these weird accents for the last hour since he's been here, but I sure never saw anybody get over a case of the DT's that fast."

 

There was something very much like fear in the jailer's eyes as he made sure that the cell door was secured and then escorted the two angels down the corridor to the exit. He smiled nervously at them as he opened the electronic door for them, but Tess imperiously swept past him, gesturing for Monica to follow her.

 

Just before the door closed silently, Tess turned and gave McNeil another of those looks that were so heavy with hidden meaning. This time, the jailer mumbled something under his breath in obvious annoyance and then sat down heavily at his desk. And the last thing that Monica saw before the door clicked shut was McNeil's uneasy expression as he stared down the corridor towards Andrew's cell.

 

It only took a few seconds for the two angels to climb to the top of the stairs, but Lieutenant Anderson was already waiting for them by the front door. "Well, ladies, I hope you were able to help your client," he smiled at them again, but this time, Monica could feel the question that lay behind his innocent words. "Mac had to ask me a question about something, and he mentioned that the two of you weren't planning on stopping back by my office, the way I asked you to do."

 

Once again, he leaned down towards them, and it took all of Monica's concentration not to wilt under the intensity of the lieutenant's stare. Tess, however, returned Anderson's look with a knife-edged expression of her own, and for a second or two, the lieutenant's smooth veneer of control seemed on the verge of shattering altogether.

 

"We certainly didn't want to disturb the Watch Commander since we didn't learn anything of any importance," Tess smiled coolly and leaned forward a little, just as Anderson had done. "That poor man was so exhausted that he fell asleep before we could even talk to him."

 

"Uh, yeah, that's what Mac said," Anderson tried to recover his blandly pleasant expression. "Kind of strange for someone with DT's to sober up that quickly. Well, what do you know about that!"

 

But this time, Monica knew that she wasn't imaging things and that the fear in the lieutenant's eyes was very real, indeed. But why? Monica thought to herself. Why are these police officers upset because Andrew fell asleep? This just doesn't make any sense!

 

"That's assuming for a moment that Andrew was intoxicated," Tess replied coldly, and the anger in her eyes flared again when Anderson started to chuckle paternally at such naiveté. "You did do a Breathalyzer test on him when you first brought him in, and you'll be able to produce those results in court. And of course, those test results will be available to Andrew's legal counsel well in advance of the trial date."

 

There was not even a hint of a question in Tess' words, and she once more met the Anderson's gaze directly. Monica was forced to muffle her smile with a stage cough as she watched Anderson fidget: from her angle, the lieutenant resembled nothing more than a toddler caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

 

"Well, I. . .I'm sure the arresting officers must have taken care of that," Anderson stammered for a second or two before he finally recovered his equilibrium. "Hey, I know what you're thinking, and it's not true. I don't have anything against the guy, just because we arrested him on suspicion of murder. Innocent until proven guilty, that's the way the American justice system works."

 

"You're right. That's how it's supposed to work," Tess smiled, putting just a whisper of emphasis on the word. "But I'm glad to know that we can expect full co-operation from your department, Lieutenant Anderson."

 

"Of course. And it's a good thing your client's settling down some, because he'll need to be in top form for arraignment later this afternoon," Anderson winked conspiratorially at Tess and Monica. "Makes a better impression on the judge that way."

 

The lieutenant smiled again and added in a confidential tone, "And since you're both new here in Solomon's Crossing, I think you'd better know up front that Judge Jensen is as tough a judge as they come. He gets back from vacation this morning, and he's going to want to hear this case, I'm sure. You see, he's lived in this town all his life, and he doesn't have much use for outsiders who come in and try to stir things up. The best possible thing you can do for your client is enter an insanity plea."

 

"We'll see to it that Andrew is taken care of," Tess nodded, and again, Monica could hear the different levels of meaning behind those innocuous words. "We'll be in touch with your department again before the arraignment, Lieutenant. I hope you get plenty of sleep when you get off duty in a few hours. Rest well."

 

"Good night, ladies," Anderson held open the door for them, and as the two angels passed by him, the lieutenant gave Tess another of those strange looks.

 

No doubt to match Tess' strange words about sleep and rest, Monica shrugged. Just for once, Father, I wish I knew what was going on without having to be told everything!

 

But then Anderson shook his head as he looked out at the parking lot, where the camera crews and news reporters had all clustered together now around one man. "Well, looks like you won't have nearly as much trouble getting past the news crews on your way out as you did on your way in. Looks like our candidate for Sheriff is already giving a press conference. Allan Davies isn't going to let any grass grow under his feet -- that's for sure. He's running against Tom Raeburn, the incumbent."

 

Even at a distance, Monica could hear Davies' precisely enunciated words. ". . .death is a devastating blow to the peace and tranquility of this community. When I am elected Sheriff, I will see to it that Jessica Flynt's killer is brought to justice, and that. . ."

 

A voice from the crowd called out, "That's a bunch of horse manure, Allan," and in a moment, a tall man in a crisp brown uniform shouldered his way to the platform. Tom Raeburn smiled at his opponent for the cameras, and it was clear that he intended to eclipse any further comments by Davies.

 

"I'm afraid that my opponent simply doesn't have the experience in law enforcement to understand the true nature of the situation, " Raeburn said with an unctuousness that Tess associated with used car salesmen and certain television evangelists.

"What happened here tonight was a random act of violence, committed by someone who is an outsider to this community. The problem is not with our police department. The real problem lies with the inadequacies of the laws dealing with transients and outsiders who come to Solomon's Crossing solely to cause trouble."

 

Barely pausing to take a breath, Raeburn plunged on with his speech before Davies could interrupt him. "When I am re-elected Sheriff of this town, I will work to see that more stringent laws are passed concerning transients, and I will make sure that those laws are rigorously enforced. And you have my promise that our schools will remain drug-free environments where children can learn without the fear of violence that plagues the rest of this country. Women will still able to walk the streets of this town at any time of the day or night, and. . ."

 

Tess snorted to Monica, "Come on, Angel Girl, I've heard about all this man's line of political corn syrup that I can handle. Besides which, you have some work to do between now and the time that Andrew is arraigned this afternoon. . ."

 

". . .uh, Tess, you and Monica might want to stay here and listen to him," a familiar voice interrupted quietly as the two angels walked back to Tess' car.

 

Tess and Monica turned around in time to see Adam appear in the parking lot, and for once, even the elegant angel of death looked deeply troubled by something. Adam added quietly, "He's promising something he can't deliver -- and it's going to have a big impact on how the two of you defend Andrew in court."

 

"But most campaign speeches are like that, anyway, Adam," Monica said knowingly, and for once, she felt as if she was on familiar ground, thanks to her earlier conversation with Tess on the subject of campaign speeches. "Political speeches are like covering up rotten apples with waxed pears. Or maybe it's the other way around. But anyway, you know what I mean."

 

"Monica, my dear, I assure you that I haven't the foggiest idea of what you're talking about," Adam shrugged with the resignation that came from several centuries' practice in dealing with Monica's non-sequiturs. "But in any case, there's something you both need to know about the death of the Flynt girl. . .something that knocks at least one of that man's campaign promises into a cocked hat."

 

"Go ahead, Angel Boy, I'm listening," Tess met Adam's eyes with an intensity that made even the angel of death a little nervous for once. "From the looks of all the blood on the blanket that covered her body, the poor child must have been stabbed over a dozen times. What else is there to know about how she died?"

 

Adam shuddered, closing his eyes for a moment as if to block out the sight of what he had witnessed in the alley. In a moment, he had mastered his emotions, and when he spoke, his voice was level.

 

"Jessica was stabbed, but that's not what caused her death," Adam said with quiet authority.

 

"What do you mean, Adam?" Monica asked, trying to hear over the roars and shouts of applause behind them, now that Tom Raeburn's speech was over. "Tess, will someone explain what's going on here? I saw that poor wee girl's body covered in that bloody blanket, and so did you."

 

"Jessica Flynt wasn't killed in that alley, Monica, but that's all I know for sure," Tess said, then nodded at Adam. "If we want to know how she died, we need to ask the angel who took her Home."

 

"Despite what the good Sheriff there says, Solomon's Crossing already has a drug problem in its schools. And apparently it's a bigger one than anyone either knows about or would be willing to admit to, even if they did know it exists," Adam said levelly. "Jessica Flynt didn't bleed to death from stab wounds, Tess -- she died from an overdose of cocaine."

 

Chapter Four

 

Half an hour later, Monica sat cross-legged on the end of her bed, drinking a cup of coffee from the local fast food restaurant. Adam balanced with genteel precision on the edge of the motel room's one chair, and the angel tried not to grimace every time that he took a drink of a brackish brew alleged to be tea from a Styrofoam cup.

 

For her part, Tess paced the length of the small area, and her own food sat untouched on top of the television set -- a sure indicator of the breakfast-loving Tess' true frame of mind. She hadn't said much since they had all pulled out of the police station parking lot, but Monica and Adam could almost feel the way that her thoughts hammered relentlessly at the stone wall of misinformation surrounding what had taken place in Solomon's Crossing.

 

It also went without saying that when Tess applied the wrecking ball of fact and logic to a situation, something was going to fall down -- period, end of subject, as the angel herself might have said. Finally, she paused in mid-step, then looked over at her two colleagues, and her eyes were bright with understanding.

 

"That's it! Thank you, Father!" she exclaimed, then turned to her two companions. "I had a good idea of what they're planning to do to Andrew, but I couldn't figure out how they were going to do it until God just showed it all to me."

 

Adam sighed heavily, and this time, it had nothing to do with the sip of lukewarm brew that he had just taken. The angel's expression suggested that he was almost used to Monica's penchant for mangled metaphor -- but that Tess' tendency to be mysterious was more than one angel of death could reasonably be expected to cope with.

 

For her part, Monica tilted her head thoughtfully. "Tess, there was something familiar about the way Andrew was behaving in that jail cell a little while ago," she said as she stared down into her coffee cup. "The fear, the disorientation, that silly accent. . .but I just can't remember where I've seen something like that before."

 

Tess grinned as she took a big bite of her breakfast sandwich. "That, Angel Girl, is because you were too close to the situation at the time to remember much about it," she shook her head as she sat down on the end of her bed. "Does the word 'Mayday' mean anything to you?"

 

Monica had put her coffee cup down on the nightstand in order to unwrap her cinnamon-raisin roll, and she was in the act of reaching for the beverage again when Tess smiled mysteriously at her. Something like a cold wave of air went across her back and neck at the word "Mayday," and she looked at Tess with startled recognition.

 

"Of course! The mental institution. . .Claire, our lost angel," Monica cried, and Adam's expression made it clear that he thought both of his colleagues might have gone over the edge.

 

Monica saw the look that he gave her, and she explained patiently, "God used me to help Claire remember that she was an angel. She forgot who she was because of something that happened during the Vietnam War. She'd been trying to help a little Vietnamese girl -- the one they nicknamed 'Mayday.'"

 

Both Tess and Monica remembered that assignment altogether too vividly. Like Andrew, Monica had been falsely accused of a crime, but she had been committed to a mental institution and given anti-psychotic medication to overcome her "delusion" of being an angel. She had vague memories of what she had said and done while drugged. . .things that she now suspected might have been a great deal like the ones she had just seen Andrew doing. Tess nodded at her -- ignoring Adam's raised eyebrow and questioning look for a moment.

 

"That's right," Tess shook her head knowingly. "You were every bit as out of it while you were in that institution as Andrew is right now. Angels in human form simply don't have the same tolerance as human beings do for drugs. . .or alcohol."

 

"That's it, Tess!" Monica exclaimed, wrinkling her nose at even the memory of the alcohol reek that had surrounded Andrew earlier. "But I don't understand why Andrew would even drink alcohol in the first place. Surely he must have known how it would have affected him."

 

Adam frowned, then looked at Tess. "As usual, I have no idea of how Monica and mental institutions fit together in the same equation, although I might hazard a guess or two," he shrugged with a pointed look at Monica. "But I can tell you this, Tess -- you were right when you said that Jessica didn't die in that alley. The Father permitted her spirit to linger around her physical form when it was placed in that alley because there was something she wanted to do before I took her Home."

 

"Go on, Adam," Tess' voice was quiet, but her expression was intense.

 

"Jessica told me that she wanted to apologize to Andrew for making fun of him and hurting him so badly yesterday afternoon," Adam shrugged, obviously no stranger to the final requests that humans often made before going into eternity. "She was so strung out when she died that she didn't remember any of the details of her passing or what happened afterward -- except that she'd been doing cocaine with some of her friends. All she knew was that someone had done terrible things to her physical body and then dumped it in the alley, near the doorway where Andrew was sleeping."

 

"That's right, Tess. You remember, don't you. . .Andrew told us that Mr. Kang, the owner of the Laundromat, used to let him sleep back there because it was out of the wind and rain," Monica nodded. "But what does this have to do with Andrew being drunk?"

 

"That's just it, Monica. He wasn't -- not intentionally, anyway. Andrew would never do something to dishonor the Father like that," Adam shook his head. "When I arrived to take Jessica home, there were two police officers already in the alley, and one of them was standing over the body. I could have almost sworn that he was making sure everything was exactly the way it should be -- no details overlooked and nothing out of place."

 

"That, Angel Boy, is exactly what he was doing," Tess snorted, and once again, righteous anger crackled in her eyes. "And do tell what the other deputy was doing in the meantime. . .as if I couldn't already guess!"

 

"The other deputy had Andrew down on the ground and was pouring something down his throat from a bottle in a brown paper bag," Adam closed his eyes against the memory, and he shivered a little in spite of himself. "Andrew was struggling, trying not to choke on the whiskey, but it was obvious that he was holding back his full strength because he didn't to hurt the man, either. And when they finally did let him up, he was already starting to feel the effects of the alcohol, from the looks of it."

 

Adam opened his eyes and gave Tess a stricken look that seemed so out of character for the normally unemotional angel. "Tess, what they did to him. . ." his voice was barely above a whisper. "Andrew was already shaking and disoriented when those two men started to hit him. I suppose they wanted to make it look like he was drunk, violent, and resisting arrest."

 

Adam flinched at even the thought of what he had seen earlier, and Tess walked over to him, then put a comforting hand on his shoulder -- just as she might have done for her other "Angel Boy." In a moment, Adam had mastered his emotions and was able to continue in a calmer tone, but there was still a grief in his eyes that was in sharp contrast to the rest of his impassive expression.

 

"They beat him up so badly that all I wanted to do for a minute or two was go over to them and do the same things to them that they were doing to Andrew. . .but with all the strength of an angel behind me," he sighed heavily, staring at the cracked plaster wall opposite his chair. "I knew I couldn't do it, of course, and that it was wrong to even think those kind of thoughts. But that didn't stop me from wanting to -- Father God, forgive me for that."

 

"What happened after that, Adam?" Monica asked softly. . .and she suspected that she, too, would have been praying that same prayer of contrition if she had been in Adam's place a few hours earlier.

 

"Andrew never fought back against those men -- not even to defend himself," Adam answered, trying to smile a little for the benefit of his co-workers. "He prayed for them, Monica . .he asked the Father to forgive them and to help him carry out his assignment for the sake of the people here in Solomon's Crossing."

 

There was a long moment of silence while each of the three angels contemplated Adam's words. Finally Tess managed to speak, but her voice was tight with barely controlled anger and pain. "And then what happened, Angel Boy? Anything else we ought to know about?"

 

"You're right, Tess. There is something else -- something you need to know," Adam smiled sadly at her, and for once, he didn't even seem to mind the term of endearment that he usually found to be well beneath his dignity. "When the two officers finished working Andrew over, the one officer said something odd to his partner. He told him, 'Well, that ought to do the trick until we get him back to the station. They'll take it from there and make sure that he stays as off the wall as he is right now.'"

 

Suddenly, everything became clear to Monica -- the strange looks that she and Tess had gotten earlier at the police station when they had announced that Andrew was sleeping.

 

"No wonder they were surprised that Andrew had recovered so quickly!" now it was the little brown-haired angel's turn to feel a flare of righteous anger at what had been done to her friend. . .

 

. . .and was probably still being done to him, she realized abruptly. It would be a small thing for them to slip drugs into Andrew's food and water. . .or, if there was no other choice, to administer the drugs in the same way as the whiskey had been given to him.

 

"Tess, they mean to keep Andrew too disoriented to function when he goes before the judge this afternoon," Monica winced at the thought of what would happen when Andrew appeared before someone as strict as Jensen. "That's why they were so upset when he seemed to recover so quickly -- they were afraid that he had too high a tolerance for alcohol or drugs for their plan to work the way they intended it to!"

 

"I just came to that same conclusion myself, a few minutes ago with some help from the Father," Tess nodded in agreement, then gestured upward with a grateful nod. "They're going to keep Andrew disoriented by putting drugs in his food and water. That way, he'll be completely out of it when he goes before the judge this afternoon, and we'll look like total incompetents if we don't enter an insanity plea on his behalf. I knew that the jailer, Jerry McNeil, was up to something. . .that's why I kept trying to make him nervous, thinking maybe he'd spill the beans. No such luck -- not yet, anyway."

 

So that was what those strange looks were all about! Monica thought to herself. But even that piece of the puzzle didn't add appreciably to her small store of understanding about the things that had just taken place.

 

"But this makes no more sense than anything else has," she shook her head in confusion. "Why set Andrew up for a murder charge if you don't want him to be mentally competent enough to stand trial? And why did everyone seem so concerned about him, anyway? I mean, what about Lieutenant Anderson's suggestion that that we enter an insanity plea on Andrew's behalf?"

 

Tess smiled with the expression of a veteran attorney calmly demolishing a witness' testimony. "That one's simple, Baby. It's nothing but a smoke screen," she said, then paused for dramatic effect before she went on. "Someone wants Andrew arrested for the so-called 'murder' of Jessica Flynt. . .but they don't want to see him stand trial for that crime. Just like a whole lot of other things in this town, they'd rather sweep the whole situation under the rug and forget it ever happened."

 

"I understand now!" Adam said with excitement in his voice. "If Andrew is found incompetent to stand trial, then he'll be sent to a mental institution, and all the furor over Jessica's death will be allowed to die down naturally. More to the point, if Andrew is never tried for the crime, then all the little unpleasant details of how Jessica really died will never be brought out in court -- things that someone doesn't want anyone else to know about!"

 

"Give that Angel Boy a cinnamon-raisin. . .whatever," Tess held out the dubious object in its greasy paper wrapping, and Adam managed at least a modicum of politeness as he accepted his 'prize.' "There are some people in this town who stand to gain a lot by covering up all the little ugly details about the drug problem that Solomon's Crossing claims it doesn't have. And especially right now."

 

Monica frowned a little, and Tess braced herself for the inevitable questions. But then Monica smiled as if she had just put the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place -- and a thousand piece puzzle, at that.

 

"The election, of course," she nodded seriously at her supervisor. "No wonder Sheriff Raeburn showed up so quickly to refute what Mr. Davies was saying!"

 

"You got it -- but that's only half of it," Tess sat down on the edge of her bed and for a moment, she listened to a message that only she was privileged to hear. When she turned to her companions, Tess wore a weary look of disbelief. "What threatens one man's political career can benefit someone else's."

 

"You mean Allan Davies is behind this cover-up? It would stand to reason. . .if people believed that Tom Raeburn isn't keeping this town safe anymore, then they'd be more likely to vote for Davies," Adam gave Monica a complacent little smile, certain that he had just solved the riddle of Tess' last statement.

 

But his smile of triumph faded quickly when Tess shook her head. "No, that's not what the Father just told me. The office of sheriff isn't the only political race in Solomon's Crossing . . .and believe me, if word ever got out that Jessica Flynt's death was drug-related, there would be another incumbent looking for work in a couple of weeks," she said softly.

 

She paused for a second or two, and then added, "But the tragic death of a candidate's only child, right before an election. . .now that's an entirely different matter altogether. More than one candidate has been elected on the sympathy vote."

 

It took a few seconds for the implications of Tess' words to sink in. But when Adam and Monica finally did understand her meaning, the two angels stared at each other in shock and disbelief.

 

"Are you trying to tell us that Steve Flynt could have participated in something as hideous as this cover-up, just for the sake of being re-elected Mayor of this town?" Adam finally managed to force the words out. "Tess, I saw Jessica's body before the paramedics covered it up. There were at least a dozen stab wounds. . .wait a minute! So that's what they were doing!"

 

This time, it was Tess' turn to be confused -- a turn of events that she clearly did not relish. "What are you talking about, Adam?" she asked suspiciously.

 

"Tess, this is unbelievable! One of the paramedics from County General had a plastic bag of some dark liquid with him. At the time, I was too involved with caring for Jessica to realize what I was actually seeing. She was still disoriented -- not to mention being upset by what she saw happening to Andrew before I could get her out of there," Adam stood up and paced around the room in agitation. "I didn't really stop to think about what that paramedic must have been doing!"

 

He saw no comprehension in his co-workers' faces, so he continued reluctantly. "Maybe the two of you don't realize something that an angel of death would know. You see, a dead body doesn't bleed like that when it's stabbed. Without heart action, blood doesn't spurt out and leave big pools over the body. That was blood in that plastic bag, Tess. They had to splash it on the body and then all over Andrew to make it look like he'd gotten covered with blood when he 'stabbed' her. Even the paramedics are in on this!"

 

"But for Mayor Flynt to allow his own daughter's body to be mutilated like that, just for the sake of a political race!" Monica was on the verge of tears. "I know that a body is only a tent made of flesh, an earthly dwelling that is dissolved when the spirit leaves it. But what kind of a man could allow his own beloved daughter's body to be brutalized like that? What kind of a monster is he?"

 

"Steve Flynt may truly be under the powers of darkness, Monica, or he may just be a sad, confused man who's seen everything of any importance taken away from him. And now that his daughter is dead, maybe he thinks that his job is all that he has left in this world," Tess shook her head sadly. "And then again, he may not be the real force behind what's happening in this town at all. . .someone else may be making his decisions for him. And if that's the case, then there's someone in this town who's skating on the thin edge of God's judgment right about now."

 

She gestured at the door, then added, "But that's something we'll just have to find out for ourselves. The Father told me that we each have something we need to do before Andrew is arraigned this afternoon. Adam, you're going to stay with Andrew right up until the very minute that he steps foot into that courtroom. And you see to it that he doesn't touch anything to eat or drink that they give him, understood? He has to be in good mental condition when he's taken to court."

 

"But what if they try to do what they did to him last night?" Adam's tight-lipped expression made it plain that he didn't relish the thought of this assignment at all. "How am I supposed to stop them without hurting them or Andrew -- let alone without being seen?"

 

"Be creative," Tess smiled, and Adam had more than a mild suspicion that she was enjoying his discomfiture. "You'll think of something. Monica, I want you to talk to Jessica's friends, especially that little girl who was so nice to Andrew."

 

"Christy, Christy Jameson," Monica nodded, and like Adam, she wasn't particularly looking forward to her job. "What am I supposed to talk to them about?"

 

"Try to get them to talk about Jessica's drug habit -- see if any of them would be willing to admit to it in court," Tess opened her briefcase on the dresser and took out a list of names and addresses. She looked upward with a smile and nodded, "Thank you, Father. That'll save us time. . .and time is something we don't have much of."

 

"But, Tess. . ." Monica protested as Tess handed her the piece of paper. "No one's going to talk to me about Jessica doing drugs. The students here in Solomon's Crossing don't use drugs, remember? At least that's what Sheriff Raeburn wants us to believe."

 

"That's why you need to talk to Sheriff Raeburn's son -- T.J. Raeburn, also known as Tommy. You remember him from yesterday, too. . .he was the young man in the letter jacket. Tommy was dating Jessica. And before you say anything that might tend to annoy your supervisor, I will give you the same advice that I just gave Adam. . .be creative," Tess saw the reluctant expression in Monica's face and gave her a look that clearly said any further discussion was out of the question.

 

She waited until Monica gave her a resigned nod, then continued with her thoughts. "From the sounds of what he said to Andrew, Tommy Raeburn isn't exactly the biggest fan his father has. . .and with good reason, I suspect," Tess said with a knowing smile. "It may just be that he's more willing to help bring the truth to light in this town than you think he is, Monica."

 

"All right, Tess, I'll get busy on it right away," Monica nodded as she looked down at the list of names. . .

 

. . .the long list of names, she sighed to herself.

 

Tess smiled at her forlorn expression, then sobered quickly and added, "And remember, Monica, these teens have lost a friend in a horrible way. They're going to be hurting and angry, and it's up to us to bring the love of God to them."

 

"All right, Tess, I'm on my way, then," Monica said, and Adam nodded in agreement. "And what will you be doing while Adam is taking care of Andrew and I'm trying to get the young people to open up to me?"

 

Tess smiled mysteriously. "Well, Angel Girl, let's just say that some people in the local law enforcement community are about to entertain angels aware," she chuckled to herself as she picked up her coat and briefcase. "And when I say 'entertain,' I do mean, entertain!"

 

The sound of Tess' laughter hung in the air for several seconds after the angel herself had disappeared in the traditional style of heavenly messengers. Adam sighed and looked up, murmuring something under his breath that might have been a prayer, a protest. . .or a little of both.

 

When he obviously received no celestial reprieve from Tess' orders, he shrugged and said, "Well, I suppose I'd best get over to the jail and take care of Andrew. Not precisely the locale in which I'd envisioned spending the day -- but for the sake of a friend and fellow angel of death, one does what one must."

 

"I think you're getting the easy end of the bargain," Monica sighed once more as she retrieved her coat and took one final sip of her coffee before she headed out to fulfill her part of the assignment. "These young people are going to be angry and bitter over the death of their friend. Somehow, I think I'm going to be the last person they're going to want to talk to, today."

 

"You might have a point, at that," Adam nodded, then stood up. "Until this afternoon, then, Monica. Father God, help us to serve You and care for the people You love."

 

There was a brief flash of white light that might have looked something like the rush of powerful wings to a human observer as Adam disappeared. Monica smiled, then stepped outside into the cold, gray morning and closed the motel room door behind her. She looked down at the piece of paper, then set off resolutely to interview each and every high school student on that list.

 

Six hours later, the bells in the court house tower struck noon as Monica walked past them, and she shook her head grimly, looking down at the now crumpled piece of paper. There were few other people out on the streets that morning, even though the schools and many of the businesses had been closed for a day of mourning. Many of the townspeople now attended impromptu political rallies or clustered together at the fast food restaurant to discuss what had happened the night before.

 

And most of the students had gathered at three or four of their classmates' homes -- huddled together in shock and disbelief. In theory, that should have made Monica's job much easier. . .and like most theories, it was quickly proven wrong.

 

Monica sat down on the park bench in the same spot that she had first seen Andrew sitting yesterday, and her expression was almost as hopeless as his had been. It seemed that she'd had almost every door in Solomon's Crossing slammed in her face that morning. She'd been chased by a dog that had been turned loose on her, and she'd even had a dripping wet sponge thrown at her -- the only 'weapon' that one woman was able to find on such short notice.

 

And that was to say nothing of the fact that she had been roundly cursed by most of the parents and students alike, at even the mention of Andrew's name. Now she stared at the last two names that hadn't been already crossed off the list, and she sighed heavily as she looked up at the heavy gray clouds overhead.

 

Father, I've tried so hard to minister to the people of this town, she shook her head sorrowfully. But no one wants to hear about Your love and mercy. . .especially if it means that they might have to show a little of that same love and mercy to someone like Andrew.

 

Please help your angel, God, because time is running out, and I haven't been able to do anything to help this town or our Andrew.

 

"There she is," a voice said from behind her, interrupting her prayer. "I figured she'd still be around here somewhere. . .her and that friend of hers are all that people are talking about in this town, right about now. Hey, lady, I need to tell you something."

 

The voice was vaguely familiar, and Monica wasted no time as she jumped lightly to her feet and spun around. Unlike Andrew, however, there was nothing meek in her face or eyes as she prepared to defend herself against anyone who intended to attack her. But that anger quickly melted when she saw who now approached her -- the answer to her prayer of only a moment ago.

 

T.J. Raeburn and Christy Jameson both walked swiftly towards her, and Monica studied their expressions carefully, trying to read their mental and emotional state at the moment. For her part, Christy wore her customary calm expression: Tommy, on the other hand, looked uneasily around the nearly deserted town square, as if he was afraid that someone might be watching them. Monica nodded to herself, then remained where she was, in order not to frighten or alarm either of the teens.

 

"Hello," she said quietly. "My name is Monica. Can I help you?"

 

She caught herself just before she started to greet them by name. She had been invisible during Andrew's entire encounter with them yesterday, and there was no way that she could have known their names, she realized suddenly.

 

Carefully now, Monica, she admonished herself as she smiled reassuringly at them. You don't want to scare them off.

 

"Yeah, uh. . .I'm. . .uh," Raeburn stammered nervously.

 

"This is Tommy Raeburn, and I'm Christy Jameson," Christy said quietly as she reached out and squeezed Tommy's arm reassuringly. "Yesterday, we met the man that you're going to be representing in court -- the one that supposedly killed Jessica Flynt."

 

"Yeah, and there's something you've got to know," emboldened by Christy's calmness, Raeburn blurted the words out. "Something about Jessica that might help your case this afternoon."

 

"Go ahead, Tommy. . .it's all right," Monica said quietly, trying not to let her excitement show at Christy's choice of words -- it was the first time all morning that someone hadn't automatically assumed Andrew's guilt. "What did the two of you want to talk to me about?"

 

"Huh-uh, not here, lady," Raeburn shook his head. "Too many ears and eyes, if you know what I mean."

 

He gestured knowingly down the street in the direction of the police department. "Oh, I see," Monica nodded knowingly. " I'm staying at the Crossroads Motel, Room 212. Why don't I go on back to the motel and the two of you can join me in a little while. Just make sure that no one is watching the two of you when you come upstairs to the room."

 

"That's a good idea, Monica," Christy smiled, then gestured towards the other side of the street. "We'll just walk around town for awhile, like we're not doing anything special. And then we'll just 'happen' to walk down that way in a few minutes."

 

"All right, I'll see you then," Monica picked up her briefcase calmly, but her heart was pounding with excitement.

 

An excitement that quickly changed to fear as a squad car turned down the corner and moved towards them. Father, help! Monica prayed that briefest but most effective of all prayers, and in less than a heartbeat, she had her answer.

 

"Quick. . .pretend that you're angry," Monica whispered, and she quickly rearranged her expression to one of fear. "Yell at me. Act like you're furious that I'm even here."

 

It took the panic-stricken Tommy a few seconds to react, but Christy responded instantly. She took a step towards Monica, and the young girl's face was contorted with the best stage fury that Monica had seen since the days of silent movies.

 

"I hate you and your kind!" Christy cried out, and Monica jumped back before Christy's carefully-orchestrated blow could connect with her arm. "All you ever do is come here and make trouble for the decent people in this town!"

 

The police car slowed down, and now Monica saw that it was being driven by one of the officers who had harassed Andrew the day before. But there was no sign of Arthur Forrest: instead, a younger, more powerfully-built officer sat beside Clark, and he gave the two teens a thumbs-up when he saw what they were doing.

 

"Yeah, and if it wasn't for that scum you're defending, Jessica would still be alive," Tommy ranted loudly, getting into the spirit of things for the benefit of Clark and his new partner. "You're no better than he is -- just some trash off the street!"

 

Monica turned away quickly so that the two police officers could see her tearful expression, and she caught a glimpse of Clark's smug grin of triumph as they drove past her. She hurried down the sidewalk towards the motel, and from somewhere behind her, Tommy's precisely-aimed stone bounced off the cement, just a fraction of an inch from her left ankle. Behind her, she could still hear the teens' "angry" voices, but she muffled a small smile as the squad car turned the corner ahead of her and took off with a screech of tires.

 

No doubt to report the news back to Sheriff Raeburn and Mayor Flynt, Monica thought with a smile as she quickly walked back to the motel.

 

But something else occurred to her, and Monica recognized the source of that deep, inner tug at her spirit. Obedient to that prompting, she moved swiftly in prayer as she reached the motel parking lot.

 

Father, send your warrior angels to protect Tommy and Christy, she said as she felt the Spirit lead her. Defend them against anyone who might want to stop them from telling us what we need to know. And Father, help me to minister Your love, not only to them. . .but to the others here in Solomon's Crossing.

 

There was a slight hesitation in the last part of her prayer as an image of Andrew's badly bruised face came unbidden to her mind. Anger flared in her heart for a fraction of a second: then she remembered his response to the ones who had done such terrible things to him.

 

If Andrew could ask You to forgive the ones who hurt him so terribly, then who am I to condemn them? Monica thought as she climbed the stairs and walked towards her room. Father, forgive them -- they truly don't know what they've done.

 

Once again, the rain started to fall as she unlocked the door and stepped inside, and a low rumble of thunder echoed through the nearly deserted streets of Solomon's Crossing. The rain water slowly began to wash away the dark, ugly stains from the pavement behind the Laundromat, opposite a motel room where an angel waited. . .and prayed.

 

Chapter Five

 

Monica glanced nervously at a little travel alarm clock sitting on the nightstand beside Tess' bed. It had been over half an hour since she'd spoken to Tommy and Christy in the town square, and now the angel was becoming uneasier as each minute passed. To calm her nerves and reassure herself that nothing was wrong, Monica once more picked up a small square of paper that she had set down by the small clock.

 

That note had originally been propped up on top of the television where it would be the first thing that caught her eye when she walked into the room. Now Monica smiled as she once more looked down at Tess' firm, unmistakable handwriting.

 

"'Arraignment at 3:30 this afternoon,'" she read the note aloud as she paced restlessly around the small room. "'Andrew much better this morning -- can't say the same for Adam, however. Be prepared for some surprises this afternoon. . .this is one angel who has been thoroughly entertained! Love, Tess.'"

 

A soft knock at the door brought Monica back to the present, and she slipped the note into the pocket of her skirt. She crossed the room and opened the door for Christy and Tommy, who quickly stepped inside. . .although Monica could have sworn that Tommy didn't breathe until she had shut and locked the door behind them.

 

"No one saw us. "At least I don't think they did, anyway. Everybody's either sitting around the burger joint, talking about. . .about Jessica, or else they're listening to Jessica's old man or my dad blowing off hot air at some political rally or something," Tommy paced nervously as Christy sat down on the room's one chair.

 

He gestured vaguely towards the north end of town. "The only other people out on the street are the cops, and man, they are all over the place. That's what took us so long to get here. . .we had to wait until they got busy at the other end of town. They just about had a riot on their hands when Allan Davies challenged Mayor Flynt at the debate down at the high school auditorium."

 

"Jessica's father is out campaigning?" Monica asked in disbelief. "His daughter hasn't even been buried yet, and he's out making political speeches?"

 

"It's not exactly as if there was any love lost between Jessica and her father, these past few years," Christy said as she stared sadly down at the carpet's cigarette burns and worn spots. "Ever since Jessica's mom died, Jessica's dad threw himself into his job. . .among other things. Jessica used to tell us that her dad was either down at City Hall or else up in his bedroom, so drunk that he didn't even know he still had a daughter."

 

"I see," Monica said thoughtfully, and she decided to proceed very carefully with her questioning, the way that a good attorney would. "Is that what you wanted to tell me, then -- that Jessica and her father weren't very close?"

 

"After his wife died, the only thing that Mayor Flynt seemed to care about was booze -- Jessica came in second to the bottle. And drinking is the reason that Mr. Flynt leans so much on guys like my dad when it comes to actually running this town. Which suits Dad just fine," Tommy shook his head, and his face was full of sorrow as he stared down at a girl's class ring on his little finger.

 

After a moment, he looked up at Monica again, and this time, his expression was full of derision. "And if you've been in this town for more than ten minutes, you've heard the line of bull that people like Jessica's dad and my old man put out about keeping drugs out of our school system. That's a real laugh -- most of the kids around here have been smoking grass or doing some kind of drugs since we were in fifth or sixth grade. . .if not earlier."

 

"There's a big drug dealer right here in town. As a matter of fact, it's the man who owns the restaurant that caught on fire yesterday," Christy sighed. "His name is Kincaid, Larry Kincaid. He gets the drugs from the truck drivers who deliver the food, and then he sells them out in back of his restaurant. I don't do drugs myself, but a lot of my friends do. I've even tried calling the County Crime Stoppers number. . .but nothing ever gets done about Kincaid's."

 

So that's why the high school students go there, and that's what Kelly Clark meant about other kinds of highs! Monica thought to herself, but she was careful to keep her emotions in check, just as Tess had taught her.

 

"I appreciate you telling me all this," she said calmly. "I'm not sure exactly how Tess will use this information, but it may help us when we defend Andrew. . ."

 

Tommy dropped his head and gulped miserably, then looked over at Christy as if appealing for help. She nodded at him, then gestured at Monica.

 

"That's not all that Tommy wants to tell you. . .you see, he knows what really happened to Jessica," Christy said softly. "He asked me what I thought he should do, and I told him that he has to tell the truth about what happened last night."

 

"See, Christy and I talk a lot," Tommy scuffed the tip of one tennis shoe against the floor in embarrassment. "I went out with Jessica, sure. . .she was a cheerleader and all. But Christy and I talk -- I mean, really talk about the important stuff. Life and God and things like that."

 

"I'm a preacher's kid. . .comes with the territory," Christy winked and smiled at Monica. She nudged Tommy and gestured at him to go on. "And what he has to tell you is really serious. He can't go to anyone here in town with this, so I told him he ought to talk to you or your friend about it."

 

"I'm glad you did," Monica smiled reassuringly at Tommy. "Why don't you just relax, take a deep breath or two, and then tell me what you know about how Jessica died."

 

Tommy took several deep, shuddering breaths, then nodded at Christy and Monica. "Last night around eleven thirty, a bunch of us were over at Jessica's house, down in the game room in the basement," he said, and his eyes were distant. "Her old man was upstairs in front of the television set, and he was loaded as usual. He had no idea of what was going on downstairs. We were all. . .well, we were. . ."

 

"Go ahead, Tommy, it's all right," Christy coaxed, meeting Monica's eye with a look of appeal. "Monica isn't going to come down on anything you say."

 

"That's right," Monica agreed quickly. "So you and your friends were downstairs at Jessica's house. Then what happened?"

 

"We were all doing a little smoke. . .but that's all I was doing," Tommy defensively amended his words. "Grass is one thing, but I don't do the hard stuff. A lot of my other friends do, though."

 

"Like Jessica, perhaps?" Monica asked quietly, and Tommy nodded miserably.

 

"Yeah, like Jessica. She'd gotten some cocaine from old man Kincaid yesterday afternoon, right before she. . .before we started to hassle the guy that you're defending," he said fiercely, as if he had decided to come entirely clean about everything and not just the drugs. "Anyway, she. . .well. . ."

 

". . .she did the coke, and then what happened?" Monica coaxed gently, when it became obvious that Tommy couldn't bring himself to describe that scene.

 

"We knew something was wrong with the stuff, almost from the minute she did it," he shuddered at the memory, and his fists were clenched, as though he wanted to hit out at someone, anyone. "She started acting strange, telling us that she couldn't breath very good. I wanted to go get her dad, call an ambulance. . .something. But she didn't want her father to know what she was doing, so we tried to take care of her ourselves."

 

He paused and took a deep, shuddery breath before he could go on. "I thought maybe it would be OK, but then she grabbed her chest like she was having a heart attack. And the next thing we knew, she. . .she just stopped breathing," he said in a voice that was barely above a whisper. "One of the kids we hang out with knows some CPR, and he tried to revive her, but it was too late. Jessica was. . .she was gone."

 

Tears poured down Tommy's face, and Monica felt a sharp stab of pain go through her spirit. For all his attempts at sophistication, Tommy's expression made him look like a small boy caught in some terrifying nightmare -- one from which he couldn't awaken, no matter how hard he tried.

 

"I know this is hard for you to talk about, but you're doing the right thing," Monica put her hand on Tommy's shoulder and looked deeply into his face, putting all the love and gentleness that she possessed into her voice. "Can you tell me what happened next?"

 

He swallowed hard and nodded. "When Jay couldn't get Jessica to breathe again, almost everybody took off -- they were really scared. But I couldn't just. . .leave her there, " Tommy stared down at the class ring on his little finger again. "Me and a couple of the other guys from the football team finally worked up the nerve to go upstairs and tell her old man that Jessica was having problems breathing. I mean, we didn't just want to blurt out that she was dead."

 

For a moment, Tommy was unable to go on, and his body shook with sobs. Christy put her hand on his arm once more, and he looked up at her gratefully. He managed a small smile that made Monica think of the one that Andrew had given Tess before he had fallen asleep the night before. Gradually, the intensity of Tommy's sobs lessened, and he was finally able to continue, but his voice and face were full of numbed misery.

 

"At first, Mr. Flynt was too drunk to even know or care about anything we had to say," Tommy said in a nearly toneless voice. "And it didn't get any better when he went downstairs and saw all the paraphernalia laying around and Jessica there on the floor, either. He started crying and talking to Jessica like she was still alive -- I guess he really did love her, after all. Then he started screaming at us, told us that we killed his daughter and to just get out. The other guys freaked out and took off, but I stuck around. I was pretty scared, but I figured I'd better do something, so I called my dad."

 

It took all of Monica's discipline to maintain her calm, professional demeanor, but she managed to nod quietly. "And did your father come to Mayor Flynt's house?"

 

"Oh, yeah -- did he ever," Tommy shuddered. "In a little while, my dad pulled up, but he wasn't in a squad car and he wasn't wearing his uniform. Mr. Flynt let him in and took him downstairs. When my dad saw Jessica's body, he started screaming at her . . .he called her a 'no good little tramp' and a 'druggie.' He said that he'd see to it that she wasn't going to ruin his political career. He told me to get out and to forget that anything ever happened, or he'd make me wish that I'd never been born. And if you knew my father, you'd know that he wasn't just talking to hear himself talk."

 

"But I take it you didn't just leave, the way that your father told you to do?" she asked levelly, despite the feeling of nausea at what she was hearing.

 

"I left the house, but I hid out to watch what Dad was going to do next, " Tommy shook his head, and he clenched his fists angrily at the memory. "There's this row of bushes beside the garage, and I ducked down behind them. In a little while, Dad came outside and got back in his car, but Mr. Flynt stayed in the house."

 

Tommy looked at Monica, and his face was full of bitterness. "Dad drove off, and then in a few minutes, a couple of his deputies pulled up, but they weren't driving a marked car, either. They went down the outside basement steps, and when they came back up, they were carrying something wrapped up in a bedspread. I knew it was Jessica's body, but I couldn't figure out what they were going to do next."

 

"So you followed them?" Monica asked, trying not to let her own anger show.

 

"They drove off, and I waited a few minutes, then got in my car and took off down the street in the same direction they were going -- hey, Solomon's Crossing isn't big enough for someone to hide out for very long," Tommy shrugged. "I turned off onto a side street. and then followed them on foot, but I kept back far enough that they didn't see me. They dumped Jessica's body in that alley, and I heard the big guy, Deputy Clark, say something about calling in a favor from one of the local paramedics. Then they took off, and in awhile, a couple of their buddies just "happened" to drive by and check the alley. I heard one of them call it in on his radio, and I took off before all the cops and the ambulance crews started showing up."

 

He took a deep breath and exhaled heavily, as if he had said his last few sentences all on one gulp of air. He met Monica's eyes once more, and she nodded reassuringly at him, but her thoughts were a jumbled knot of worry and panic as she tried to choose her words carefully.

 

What do I do now, Father? she prayed desperately. If I say the wrong thing, I could frighten him away, and then all of this will have been for nothing. It's almost time to leave for the court house, and I don't know what I should do. If only Tess was here!

 

But when Tess failed to appear after a few seconds, Monica knew that she was going to have to say something -- and quickly, at that. She chose her words carefully, waiting for even the slightest inner warning from God, and when she felt no such alarm in her spirit, she spoke calmly.

 

"Tommy, thank you for telling me this," Monica put all the love and gentleness that she possessed into her voice. "You're the only one who actually witnessed what happened to Jessica, and you're the only one who can keep an innocent man from paying for a crime that he didn't commit. . ."

 

It took a few seconds for the implication behind Monica's innocuous words to sink in. But when he finally understood what she was suggesting to him, Tommy's face filled with horror.

 

"Huh-uh. . .no way!" he yelped, jumping to his feet. "My dad would kill me if I did anything to jeopardize his job. . .and that's not just some fancy figure of speech, either. I'm telling you, he'll do whatever it takes to make sure that he gets re-elected, and if that means me and my buddies take the fall for what happened last night, it's all the same to my dad. Sorry, lady. . .I already did the right thing when I told you what really happened to Jessica. It's up to you and that friend of yours to figure out a way to use what I told you and get that guy off the hook."

 

Tommy stumbled towards the door, sidestepping Christy as she reached out to him. He shook his head and gave her a desperate look, then lunged toward the door.

 

"Tommy. . ." she pleaded with him, just as he made a grab for the doorknob.

 

But before he could open the door and escape, something caught his attention -- some change in the motel room's dim lighting. Tommy and Christy turned around at almost the same instant: their faces filled with awe as they saw the source of the warm golden light that filled the dingy little room.

 

Thank you, Father! Monica acknowledged the permission to reveal her true identity with a grateful smile. Around her, the glory of God shimmered, a living gold radiance that was as far above any earthly light as a diamond was above dirt. The two teens stared in awe at the angel, and Tommy raised one hand in front of his eyes, as if he was unable to bear such radiance.

But Christy's face was almost as luminous as Monica's, as she took a single step closer to the glorious being in front of her.

 

"An angel? Hey, wait a minute!" she cried softly, then smacked herself lightly in the forehead with her open palm. " Duh, Jameson, you can be such a dim bulb at times. I thought maybe I'd imagined what happened nine years ago, but it was real -- it was real! I knew I'd seen Andrew somewhere before. . .he's an angel, too, isn't he, Monica?"

 

Monica hesitated for a second but felt no warning within herself. "Yes, he is," she finally nodded, wondering how it was that Christy could have known such information. "He's an angel who ministers the gift of eternity. . ."

 

". . .she means he's an angel of death," Christy explained to Tommy, rolling her eyes a little at Monica's careful euphemism. She turned back to Monica, and her face was alight with the memory. "It was right after the Board of Elders decided that there weren't enough people still attending to keep the church going here in Solomon's Crossing. We were all going to have to go to the church in Clay Ridge, about ten miles from here. My dad was heartbroken. . .he grew up in this town, and all he ever wanted to do was serve God by helping the people here."

 

Christy's eyes filled with tears for a moment, but she smiled and managed to go on. "I was six years old, and it felt like my whole world was crashing down around me. Daddy was going to have to go to work at the factory just to make a living, and everything was going to be different. That was on Wednesday afternoon. The following Saturday morning, I went with Dad to the church one last time so that he could finish cleaning out his office. I was just sitting there, waiting in my favorite pew -- the one where you could see the stained glass window with the angel. I was crying, and I felt like even God didn't love me any more."

 

"And that's when you met that Andrew guy?" Tommy asked incredulously. "Man, have I got a news flash for my mom about the next time she starts in on that 'cleanliness is next to godliness' business!"

 

"Silly, that's not how Andrew looks all the time. Maybe God sent him here looking like a street person so that people in this town will remember not to judge by appearances," Christy nodded somberly, and even Monica was impressed with her understanding of the situation. "Anyway, I was sitting there, crying and yelling at God. . .when all of a sudden, I saw that same kind of golden light that's around you now, Monica."

 

"And it was Andrew?" Monica smiled gently, knowing the answer before it was given.

 

"It was Andrew, just sitting there beside me in the pew. He was wearing a white suit that made the whitest, cleanest fabric you ever saw on this earth look dull and dingy. And when he smiled at me, it was like when you've been outside on a cold, rainy afternoon and you walk into a room where it's warm and full of light," Christy smiled, and her eyes were distant. "My parents always told me to be careful around strangers -- not terrified of them, just cautious. But when Andrew put his arm around my shoulder and hugged me, I couldn't have been scared if I'd wanted to be."

 

"But you said he's some kind of angel of death or something. . ." Tommy shrugged in confusion. "So if you weren't dying, then why was this Andrew guy hanging around?"

 

"Because something was dying," Christy replied softly. "A church isn't just a building -- it's the people who come together to love God and love each other. And our church was going to die in just a few minutes, when the elders closed and locked the door. It felt like they weren't just shutting the door on the congregation, but on God, too, in a way. I'll never forget what Andrew told me that afternoon."

 

Her voice was so quiet that both Tommy and Monica had to listen intently to hear her. "He said that he was an angel, sent from God to give me a message. He told me that God loved me very much and that it was OK to cry because I was losing something very important. And not just me, but everyone in Solomon's Crossing, too. But Andrew said that the church was like a seed that was going to have to go underground for a little while before it would start to grow. And when it grew up into the light again, it was going to be a strong tree that would shelter many people under its branches."

 

Christy's face was wistful for a moment as she recalled each word of the message she had been given. But then she came back to the present with a firm nod, as if she had just solved a particularly complicated riddle.

 

"I didn't understand everything that he meant then, but just the sound of his voice made me feel better," she smiled at Monica and Tommy. "And now I think I do understand a lot of the message that God gave Andrew that day."

 

There was a long moment of silence, as each one in the room contemplated the message that Andrew had been sent by God to deliver. "And then what happened?" Tommy asked. . .and even though he was unaware of it, his face was filled with the delight and expectation of a child waiting to hear the final chapter in a wonderful storybook.

 

"Andrew just let me cry on his shoulder for a minute or two, and when I finally stopped, he told me the silliest joke I've ever heard before or since," she giggled at the memory. "He asked me if I knew how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. I said I didn't know, and he said 8,936,414. I gave him one of those looks, and he said, "Well, if it's a pin the size of Chicago." And while I was still laughing, he just. . .disappeared."

 

Monica groaned at the joke. "It's one of Andrew's favorite jokes -- that and the one about why did the chicken cross the road," she sighed, and her expression suggested that the second joke was even more of a stinker than the first one had been.

 

Tommy shrugged with mock reluctance and gestured for Monica to go ahead with the punch line. The angel shook her head and said, "The chicken crossed the road to get away from all those 8,936,414 angels dancing on the other side."

 

"Is it pretty safe to say that he made those jokes up by himself?" Tommy rolled his eyes, chuckling in spite of himself.

 

"To quote Tess, 'What gave it away?'" Monica giggled, but even the mention of Tess' name sobered her. Christy and Tommy saw the way that the laughter vanished from her face, and they both guessed the reason for her suddenly solemn expression.

 

"Tommy, don't you see?" Christy turned to him and asked calmly. "We have to help Andrew. God doesn't send His angels somewhere just to be doing something. Monica and Tess and Andrew must have a message from God. . .one that the people in Solomon's Crossing need to hear right now. And like I said a few minutes ago, if God sent Andrew here looking like a street person, then there must be a really good reason for it."

 

"But he's an angel!" Tommy protested vehemently. "I don't claim to know as much about God as you do, Christy, but you said once that angels were really powerful beings. So why didn't Andrew just flatten those two cops last night and then vanish, the way that you said he did at church that time?"

 

A voice from behind them startled all three of them. "Two perfectly good reasons, Tommy," Tess now stood in the middle of the room, and she, too, was surrounded by the same golden radiance as Monica. "First off, Christy is absolutely right. Andrew was sent here with a message from God, and Christy, you spelled it out perfectly. The people of Solomon's Crossing have forgotten how to see with their hearts instead of just with their eyes. Andrew is the only one who can make people here remember that God doesn't judge by outward appearances -- only by what's in the heart."

 

"People in this town don't need to see someone who will return violence for violence, Tommy. They've already seen enough of that," Monica smiled sadly, as she thought about Adam's description of what had happened the night before. "Andrew may

have looked like a dirty, unlovable bum to you yesterday. I know, because I had the same thoughts for a few moments myself, despite the fact that he's my friend and a fellow angel."

 

She winced at even the memory of her reaction, then remember to keep her emotions under control. She added quietly, "But underneath that scruffy surface, Andrew has a beautiful spirit -- one that's full of love and gentleness and compassion. That's what the people of Solomon's Crossing need to see. . .a person who's willing to forgive the very ones who hurt him so badly."

 

"I wasn't close enough to hear what he was saying," Tommy dropped his head, and he, too, was obviously recalling what he had seen. "But it looked like he was praying, even while those cops were working him over last night. . .except I don't think he was praying for himself. More like for them, somehow."

 

"He was, Baby, believe me, he was," Tess smiled gently. Tommy sank back down on the chair -- all thoughts of running away temporarily gone from his mind. "And the second reason that he can't just vanish from that jail cell is because even angels aren't all-knowing when it comes to the will of God. The Father shows us what we need to know, when we need to know it. Right now, Andrew is exactly where he's supposed to be, and he understands that."

 

"What happens after 3:30 this afternoon is in the Father's hands -- all we know for sure right now is that you need to tell that judge exactly what happened to Jessica Flynt last night," Monica finished up, trying to remain as matter of fact as possible.

 

She saw the fear creeping back into Tommy's face, and she added, "Tommy, God loves you very much. He doesn't want you to get caught up in a web of lies and deceit that will ultimately destroy the person He wants you to be. That's what's happened to your father during the time that he's been sheriff here."

 

"It's like that tree in the town square, the one that got hit by lightening yesterday," Christy added, and both angels were impressed by the young girl's quiet wisdom. "My dad says that tree didn't have to fall down the way that it did, if people hadn't just assumed that it was OK. Trees can withstand even a lightening strike, but that oak wasn't much more than a hollow trunk. It had been eaten away by disease from the inside out. And that's what living a lie does to people. . .it eats away at everything that's good inside them until there's nothing left but a hollow shell."

 

In the distance, the court house bells began to chime, and it was only Monica's imagination, but there seemed to be an urgency in their silvery notes now. 2:45, she thought as she glanced over at the travel clock. Father, we've done all we can. Now it's up to You to do the rest.

 

A look of anguish spread across Tommy's face, making him appear far older -- and yet somehow much younger -- than he really was. For several long moments, he continued to struggle with all the choices that lay before him.

 

Finally, Tommy sighed heavily and shrugged over at Tess. "You know, my dad and I don't get along very good. . .but even so, I don't want him to get hurt," he sighed heavily, and for a moment, Monica's heart sank at the implications of his words.

 

There was another long space of silence while Tommy struggled with himself. Tess busied herself with a sheaf of official looking papers that she pulled out of her briefcase, and Monica, too, found make-work to keep her mind occupied. But her mind was a whirl of prayers, and when she looked over at Christy, Monica wasn't particularly surprised to see that the young girl's lips were also moving in petition.

 

Just when it seemed that Monica's nerves were about to give way under the strain of being quiet for so long, Tommy broke that silence with another sharp sigh. But when he looked up at the angels again, there was a maturity in his face and eyes that hadn't been there a few moments before.

 

"But then again, what my dad is doing is wrong," Tommy shook his head firmly, continuing his thoughts as though there had never been a break in them. "What we've all been doing is wrong -- me and the other kids for buying the stuff that killed one of our friends and for keeping a low life like Larry Kincaid in business. But everybody else in Solomon's Crossing has been blind, too. . .they've let someone else tell them what to think and believe. And unless somebody stops it right here and now, other people are going to get hurt. What happened to Andrew was just the beginning, wasn't it?"

 

"You've got that right, Baby," Tess nodded, and she put a comforting hand on Tommy's shoulder for a few seconds. "Andrew is an angel, but even with all his strength and power, he was injured badly. And worse still, he was hurt by the very same people who are supposed to protect everyone, innocent or guilty. Imagine what would have happened to an ordinary homeless person who fell into the hands of men like Deputy Clark and the rest of the police in this town."

 

"All right, I'll do it. I'll tell Judge Jensen what really happened last night," Tommy nodded fiercely, then turned to Christy with a look that was almost shy. "Will you come with us? I sure could use a friendly face, not to mention some prayers. . .and I bet Andrew feels the same way right about now."

 

"You've got it -- both of you," Christy smiled as she slipped into her coat. "It'll be OK, Tommy. No matter what happens this afternoon, it'll be OK. If God is for us, who can be against us?"

 

Monica smiled sadly, thinking of Andrew's response to those same words when Tess had quoted them, just the day before. Tess saw Monica's reaction and rightly guessed the source of her protégé's wistful expression.

 

"Hang in there a little while longer, Baby," Tess said softly, as she followed the others outside the motel room. "You just remember what Andrew said yesterday about the last page in that Book. . .because our Angel Boy is about to preach it chapter and verse to Solomon's Crossing."

 

As the angels and their human companions climbed into Tess' red convertible, the court house chimes began to ring the three o'clock hour. And perhaps it was some trick of the heavy, humid air or some echo from the buildings in that part of town, but it seemed to Monica that now there was a sonorous depth to those bells -- ordinarily so light and shimmering in their tones.

 

Like church bells ringing for a funeral, Monica suddenly realized, then looked up at the sky as the sun tried to emerge from behind leaden-colored clouds. The death of a town, perhaps, Father. . .but the only question is, will there be a resurrection afterwards?

 

And at that, Monica's prayers suddenly took on a new depth and urgency. Prayers that even a wiser, more experienced angel would have been hard-pressed to match.

 

Chapter Six

 

It took almost fifteen minutes to drive the eight short blocks and park the car, and another five minutes to make their way through the crowds that spilled out of the court house and onto the front lawn. A hush fell over the town square as Tess and Monica made their way down the sidewalk towards the red brick building -- especially when the spectators and news crews saw the two teens who accompanied them.

 

All around them, Monica could hear whispered voices, as speculation swept through the crowd. ". . . going on around here -- has everybody lost their minds?" was mingled with ". . .Raeburn, the sheriff's son, but who's that with him?"

 

"Just keep walking, Baby, that's it. . ." Tess said almost inaudibly as she steered Tommy and Christy towards the steps with a hand on their shoulders. "Don't let them get to you. We're almost there. . .that's right."

But as they reached the top of the court house steps, the heavy metal and glass door suddenly opened, and a man in a crisply-pressed brown uniform stood in front of them. Even though the man was balding and had a noticeable 'spare tire,' there was still a clear resemblance between the tall, massively built officer and the lean, trim Tommy -- like an artist might 'morph' an image of a young man into stodgy middle age with the help of computer graphics.

 

"Where the hell do you think you're going, boy, and what are you doing hanging around the likes of those two?" Sheriff Raeburn snarled at his son, but his glare was aimed at the two angels. He put his hand on the heavy service revolver that he wore on a wide and elaborately tooled leather belt, and his meaning was as clear as if he'd shouted it at Tess and Monica. "You get back to the house and stay there, do you hear me?"

 

When she saw the sudden look of fear that crossed Tommy's face, Tess began to say something about a "material witness to the case. . ." But before she could get the words out, Christy put one hand on Tommy's arm and pointed upward with her free hand. Tommy gulped and nodded as Christy quietly began to pray. But even before she had finished her intercession, new strength suddenly seemed to fill Tommy as he stood up straight and looked down at his father. . .and when he did, the intensity in his eyes was enough to make even Sheriff Raeburn shift uneasily from side to side.

 

"Sorry, Dad, but this is one time that you and Mayor Flynt aren't going to get away with the stuff that you've pulled for years, just so you can both stay in office," Tommy shook his head firmly. "That man in there is innocent. . .and you and I both know who the real killer is. And in a few minutes, everyone in this town is going to know, too."

 

During the confrontation, Tess had managed to maneuver Sheriff Flynt out of the doorway with the skill of a professional linebacker. Now, Monica and the others made their way through the gap that Tess' strategy had opened up but as Tommy passed by, Sheriff Raeburn made a lunge toward his son. He managed to grab Tommy's shirt sleeve, then pulled him to one side, away from the others.

 

"Boy, have you lost your mind?" Raeburn hissed under his breath, but his eyes never left Tess' face. "You graduate next year. . .if you go to jail, you can just kiss any chance of getting into a good college on those football scholarships good-bye. And I certainly won't be able to pay for your school -- if you go in there and shoot your big mouth off, I won't get elected as dog catcher, much less sheriff."

 

For a second, it seemed to Monica that Tommy's resolution was wavering once more. His back was turned away from the court room door, almost fifteen feet away. And as a result, he might have missed what took place there, if Tess hadn't gestured almost invisibly at a spot behind him.

 

Sheriff Raeburn also looked in the direction that Tess had pointed, and comprehension quickly flooded his face. With that, he made another lunge for Tommy's arm, as if to make sure that his son didn't see what was taking place near the courtroom door. But Raeburn's hand closed on nothing but air as Tommy neatly sidestepped, like a quarterback narrowly avoiding being sacked.

 

Now Tommy looked in the direction that Tess had pointed, and he caught a glimpse of two deputies as they led their prisoner over the courtroom door's wide bronze threshold. Only an alert observer standing at exactly the right spot in the court house would have seen the way that Clark 'accidentally' managed to trip Andrew. . .and Tommy was that person.

 

In full body shackles, it was impossible for Andrew to keep his balance, and all that Tommy saw was a flash of the bright orange coveralls as the angel pitched forward, face down onto the ground. But even at a distance, Tommy and the others could hear the dull thud as Andrew's head struck part of the metal threshold and his soft groan as the air was driven out of his lungs.

 

"Well, lookee here," Clark snorted in amusement. "We got us a clumsy one today, that's for sure. Guess you just got all worn out from murdering that poor little girl last night, huh? Here, let me help you up."

 

His words were ostensibly addressed to Andrew, but they were as much for the benefit of the assembled townspeople as anything else. Clark winked at the crowd, then pulled his prisoner back onto his feet, using one massive hand on the collar of Andrew's coveralls. But along with the fabric, the officer managed to get a fistful of the angel's long blond hair in one of those accidents that were anything but accidental.

 

There were shouts of laughter and muffled cheers from the onlookers when a wince of pain wrenched Andrew's face for a few seconds until Clark released him. Clark shoved his shaking prisoner ahead of him into the court room, and Andrew shuffled unsteadily down the aisle, an ugly lump now showing on his already bruised forehead. And this time when Tommy turned back to his father, even the smallest hint of fear or hesitation had vanished from his face.

 

"Those are the men you hired, Dad," Tommy's voice was barely above a whisper, but the intensity in it made each word as sharply defined as if it had been shouted. "You don't care about justice -- all you care about is your job. 'Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law'. . .those are just words to you. That's over, as of today. And I'm going to see to it that another innocent person doesn't pay for what you've done."

 

"So you're going to throw away your entire life for some stinking, filthy bum off the street -- and not just your life, but your mom's and mine, too," Raeburn snapped, determined to somehow regain control of the situation before it was too late. "He's not worth it, Tommy. . .I mean, who gives a damn about some homeless guy? He hasn't got a life, or else he wouldn't be out on the streets. Nobody's going to care if he spends some time in a jail cell or a mental institution. Hell, we're probably doing him a favor -- at least he'll get three meals a day and have a warm place to sleep."

 

The sheriff paused, but when he spoke again, there was a pleading note in his voice. "But you do have a life, Son -- don't throw it down the sewer along with mine and your mother's," Raeburn's voice wavered a little. "This job is all I've ever really wanted out of life. Don't take it away from me for the sake of some drunken bum."

 

If Raeburn's words had been meant to evoke pity from his son, the last part of his plea was exactly the right wrong thing to say. He knew from the look on Tommy's face that he had inadvertently tipped the balance. . .and not in the direction he had hoped, either. As Tommy started to follow Tess and the others into the court room, he turned towards his father. But the sheriff only continued to curse under his breath, and he shook his fist at his son in impotent fury.

 

"You're wrong, Dad," Tommy said softly. "There is Someone who cares about what happens to Andrew here today, and that's God. For years now, all of us -- you, me, this whole town -- we've turned our back on God. Andrew's got a message from Him for everyone here in Solomon's Crossing. . .and you might want to listen to what that 'bum' has to say."

 

"You little. . ." Raeburn ranted as Tommy walked away from him again. Although he acted as if he hadn't heard anything else that Tommy had just said, even the mention of God's Name seemed to infuriate the sheriff. He aimed one last comment at his son's back. "You go ahead and tell everything you think you know in that courtroom, but when you do, you're no son of mine. Do you hear me? You're no son of mine!"

 

If Tommy even heard his father's last few venomous words, there was no change in his steady, calm pace. In a few more seconds, he had disappeared into the court room behind Monica and Christy. However, Tess paused before she crossed the threshold, and her face was full of deep sorrow as she looked back at Sheriff Raeburn.

 

She bent down for a moment, then touched the tips of her fingers to the floor where Andrew's head had struck it a moment before. Raeburn walked up behind her, then snarled a curse at her -- one that was meant to intimidate her into moving out of his way. But Tess stood up, drawing herself up to her full height as she calmly faced the sheriff, and she held out a hand towards him.

 

"Innocent blood cries out for vengeance, Sheriff," Tess said quietly, showing the dark red smear on the end of her fingers. "And those aren't my words. They come straight from the God of all Righteousness. Justice is on its way here this afternoon from a much higher Court than this one. . .you might want to make sure that you've got a good Advocate when it arrives."

 

But Raeburn shook his head as he shoved his way past her, muttering under his breath about "crazy people spouting all that God gibberish." For her part, Tess sighed heavily, then walked towards the front of the crowded courtroom, where Monica now sat with Tommy and Christy just behind the railing that separated them from Andrew and his guards.

 

Monica started to smile and give her supervisor a thumbs-up, but at that moment, someone else sat down beside her in that 'inexplicably' empty first row. It took Monica a moment to realize where she had seen the balding little man before, but then she suddenly remembered her first few moments in Solomon's Crossing, the morning before.

 

That's Deputy Forrest, Monica watched as Tess turned around and smiled at the police officer, who returned her greeting with a nervous little grin of his own. Now what is he doing here?

 

Another man slipped into the other end of the row and sat down beside Christy. And like his friend and fellow officer, Jerry McNeil wore a sheepish little smile as he met Tess' eye and gave her a knowing nod. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement of some sort between the three of them, although Monica couldn't have said what those tacit nods and looks were all about.

 

What is going on here? Monica tried to catch Tess' attention, but Tess merely shook her head and smiled once more at her protégé.

 

For lack of any other alternative, Monica sighed and shrugged ruefully as she sat back in her seat. I wonder if this has something to do with what Tess said in her note. . .the part about being entertained? she thought to herself.

 

But now Tess was all professionalism as she sat down in the empty chair beside Andrew and then gave Clark and his fellow officer a cool stare. "I need to speak with my client for a minute. . .alone," she put just a whisper of emphasis on the last word, and her smile would have frozen rubbing alcohol in a matter of seconds.

 

Clark's new partner started to say something, but Clark shook his head and gestured for the other man to follow him. . . apparently one run-in with Tess was enough for any lifetime, in the deputy's opinion. The two men stood against the wall, exchanging whispered comments as they continued to watch Andrew carefully.

 

Tess nodded, then turned her attention towards Andrew as she carefully inspected his face and eyes. Andrew appeared to have recovered somewhat from the previous night's ordeal: his face was still pale, but some of the swelling had gone down around his left eye and along his jaw. But more importantly, all traces of the fear and disorientation had vanished along with the alcohol and drugs that had caused them in the first place.

 

But just to make sure, Tess asked quietly, "You doing all right this afternoon, Angel Boy? You were pretty messed up, the last time I saw you."

 

"I'm OK, Tess," he managed a weary smile for her benefit. . .and for that reason alone, she suspected. But at least that thick Southern drawl in his voice was gone, leaving just that faint suggestion of an accent that gave his words their usual warmth and charm. "Adam made sure that I didn't get any of their drugged food or water all day. But it looks like I'm going to be 'running two territories' for awhile once I finally get out of here. At least until he recovers from what they did to me."

 

He gestured with a little toss of his head towards the back of the courtroom, and just a hint of a smile touched his lips. Both Tess and Monica turned in the direction that Andrew indicated. . .then looked away for a second or two for fear of erupting into a giggle fit. Adam glowered at them from the back row, and the disheveled angel's expression would have been enough to thaw that same rubbing alcohol again in less time than it took to freeze it. Much less time.

 

There were several rips in his once-immaculate gray suit, a wide food stain of some sort spread across the front of his cream-colored shirt, and he was missing a pearl-colored spat. An assortment of lumps and bruises on Adam's face suggested that he might have arrived at the jail only marginally too late that morning to prevent Andrew from drinking a little of the drugged water.

 

And from the looks of things, the rest of the day has been downhill from there for a certain angel of death! Even if Tess' smile was innocent, her amusement was anything but. Oh well, Angel Boy, you knew this job was dangerous when you took it!

 

Tess ducked her head and went into a fit of elaborate stage coughing, in order to hide a little smile at Adam's thoroughly disgusted expression. But that amusement quickly disappeared from her face when Adam gestured almost imperceptibly at a tall, distinguished-looking man who walked into the courtroom. The silver-haired man slipped into the seat beside the glowering Tom Raeburn, but even before Adam silently mouthed the words 'Steve Flynt' at Tess, the black-haired angel had already guessed correctly that the man was Jessica Flynt's father.

 

The redness of his eyes might have been caused by weeping, but Tess suspected that it had more to do with alcohol than grief -- especially when she saw a lump about the size of a flask concealed in the mayor's coat pocket. She watched for a few seconds as Flynt and Raeburn exchanged whispered remarks, and when Raeburn angrily pointed at Tommy, the mayor's face drained of all its ruddy color.

 

Flynt stared numbly at Tommy, but it was Raeburn who stood up and gestured angrily at Tommy. He looked meaningfully at the two officers standing near Andrew, but Tommy firmly shook his head, "No."

 

And with that, Raeburn started to walk towards Clark, obviously intending to have the officer carry out the sheriff's earlier threats. But before Raeburn could follow through with his intentions, a uniformed bailiff walked into the courtroom, and the sheriff sat back down in obvious annoyance. Behind her, Tess could hear Monica's little yip of surprise as she recognized that officer of the court. But 'Bailiff' Rafael didn't even seem to notice his angel co-workers as he made the opening announcement.

 

"All rise," Rafael said firmly, and the courtroom noise died down to a shocked whisper as people stared at the Hispanic angel. "Court is now in session, the Honorable Sam Angelino presiding."

 

If Monica had been surprised by Rafael's appearance, she was stunned into total silence when Sam, the highest-ranked of all the angel supervisors, walked into the courtroom a moment later. Dark-skinned and dignified in a way that only centuries of accumulated wisdom could produce, Sam now wore the robes of a judge, and he took his place at the bench without looking at his co-workers.

 

But Monica was not the only one shocked by the presence of the angel: around her, the buzz of voices swelled to a roar of disbelief and anger. Above the pounding of Sam's gavel, she could still hear individual voices and fragments of sentences -- comments that ranged from vitriolic observations about the legal system to blatantly racist slurs.

 

"Silence in the court!" Sam demanded in a voice that easily carried above the noise. "If there isn't silence immediately, I'll have the bailiff clear the courtroom!"

 

The noise quickly died away to nothing more than an occasional whispered comment, and the 'judge' nodded in satisfaction. Well, it seems that no one is willing to risk missing the most sensational event to happen in Solomon's Crossing in years, Monica thought to herself.

"I will be filling in for my esteemed colleague, the Honorable Judge George Jensen. He has unfortunately been delayed by severe weather at Chicago's O'Hare Airport while returning from his vacation in the Bahamas," Sam smiled with fierce enjoyment as he replaced the gavel. "Bailiff, you may now proceed."

 

Monica listened half-heartedly as Rafael read the case number and the obligatory information. But her real attention was focused on what was taking place at the district attorney's table opposite Tess and Andrew: a man slipped into the row of seats behind the tall, dark-haired DA and then tapped him on the shoulder.

 

Sanders turned around in annoyance as the plain clothes officer handed him a folded piece of paper and tried to gesture imperceptibly towards the back of the courtroom. The district attorney nodded and opened the note, but as he read it, his expression went through an astounding number of changes in just a few seconds. Shock, disbelief, and anger all fought together in his face, and he turned to look back at the mayor and the sheriff with a questioning frown.

 

"Is there a problem, Counselor?" Sam asked, and his tone was icy as he gave DA Sanders a hard look. . .interruptions of any sort in Sam's courtroom were clearly unacceptable.

 

Now Sanders' eyes were full of anger as he once more looked back at Flynt and Raeburn. The sheriff nodded, indicating that the contents of the note were indeed accurate: reluctantly, the district attorney nodded up at the judge.

 

"Your Honor. . .I've just been handed some new information concerning this case," Sanders held up the piece of paper that he had just been given. "If I may approach the bench?"

 

"You may. And if this has direct bearing on the plea that's about to be entered, then the counsel for the defense will also approach the bench," Sam gestured at Tess.

 

Sanders swallowed hard before nodding an affirmative and then walked slowly towards the judge, still shaking his head in disbelief. Tess patted Andrew's shoulder as she stood up, and she bent down to whisper something to him before she walked towards the bench. He nodded in understanding, and he sat up straight, as if preparing himself for his part in what was to come next.

 

The room was filled with a low hum of voices as the spectators nudged and whispered to each other at this new turn of events. Sanders shook his head as he glanced back at Andrew, but there was no malice in his expression, Tess realized -- only concern for justice.

 

"Your Honor, I've just gotten word that the, uh, sheriff's department is dropping all charges against the defendant," Sanders could barely choke out the words through a solid lump of anger in his throat. . .clearly, he had believed his case to be airtight against Andrew. "It seems that they've received new information about the death of Jessica Flynt, and they're about to take another suspect into custody."

 

Tess shook her head wearily: she was willing to bet a dollar to a solid gold gavel that the new 'suspect' had the same last name as a certain sheriff. Over the centuries, she had seen more than her share of human treachery and deceit. . .but sacrificing a child on the altar of ambition was certainly a new high on Tess' list of all-times lows.

 

So they'll do anything to sweep this under the rug, will they? Tess glanced up for a second or two, then glanced reassuringly at Tommy. Including railroading another innocent person for a crime he didn't commit. Well, we'll just see about that, won't we, Father?

 

"That's quite an amazing turn of events," Sam's expression was cool as he looked down at the fidgeting Sanders. "From all that I've heard today, the sheriff's department was absolutely certain that they had the right suspect under custody. Would you care to comment on that, Counselor?"

 

"I. . .uh, really don't have any more information at the moment, your Honor. . ." Sanders stammered, but before he could go on, Tess smiled pleasantly at him and then turned slightly towards the spectators.

 

"Well, that's not exactly surprising," Tess' voice was loud enough to carry to the back of the courtroom. "That's because the sheriff's department still doesn't have the right person in custody, your Honor. I have a material witness to the death of Jessica Flynt sitting right here in the front row of this courtroom."

 

"Counselor, may I remind you that this is an arraignment, not a trial," Sam snapped at Tess, but his eyes held a quiet spark of amusement. "If you have evidence pertaining to the death of Jessica Flynt, then why didn't you give that information directly to the police and not waste this court's time?"

 

"Because she can't, Your Honor," Tommy Raeburn stood up and nodded respectfully at the judge. "The police, the mayor, and even some of the paramedics are involved in a cover-up, sir. I was there when Jessica died. I know what really happened to her."

 

Tommy took a deep breath, and Sam raised a warning hand as the district attorney tried to jump into the battle with an objection of his own. "Go ahead, son," Sam said calmly, raising an eyebrow meaningfully at Sanders, who sighed sharply. "Finish your story."

 

Tommy swallowed hard, but when he spoke again, his voice was strong. "Jessica died from an overdose of cocaine. . .and she bought those drugs from someone we all know in this town. The police have known about Larry Kincaid selling drugs out of the back of his restaurant for years, but Kincaid contributes to campaign funds for both Mayor Flynt and my dad. But Larry Kincaid isn't the only one who helped murder Jessica. . .everybody in this courtroom did by their silence and by refusing to admit that there might just be a problem here in our 'perfect' little town."

 

Sanders spluttered in rage as he gestured sharply at Tommy. "Your Honor, this is preposterous," he snapped in his best courtroom tone of voice. "I don't know what this young man thinks he's trying to prove with all this grandstanding and making such ridiculous allegations. But I can assure you that there was no cover-up by any official in Solomon's Crossing in the death of Jessica Flynt."

 

"That's not true, your Honor," Arthur Forrest also stood up, and suddenly, his perpetually meek expression was replaced by a look of strength whose source could only have been from God. "I was ordered by Sheriff Raeburn to remove Jessica's body from the Flynt home last night. Deputy Clark and I were told to dump the body in an alley behind Kang's Laundromat. Deputy Clark then repeatedly stabbed the body to make sure that Jessica's death looked like a murder, not a drug overdose. And when he was done, he called in a couple of the local paramedics to finish the cover-up. They splashed blood over the body and on the homeless man over there -- the one that they planned to accuse of the 'murder.'"

 

Sam looked down at Forrest, and the angel's eyes were fill of anger. "Are you trying to tell this court that you willingly and knowingly participated in this alleged cover-up?" he demanded.

 

"Your Honor, I may have participated in that cover-up last night, but not willingly," Forrest said firmly, and again, his face was full of new-found strength. "As a matter of fact, I quit my job this morning because I couldn't be a part of something like this. But even then, Sheriff Raeburn said that if I didn't keep my mouth shut, he'd make sure I never worked anywhere in this county again -- even shoveling manure, as he put it. And knowing the sheriff, he probably could do just that."

 

"That's a bunch of garbage!" Raeburn shouted from the back of the courtroom. "If you got those orders from anywhere, you useless little S.O.B., you sure as the hell didn't get them from me!"

 

"You know I'm telling the truth, Tom," Forrest replied quietly, then smiled at Tess. "All I have to say is, thank God for that lady over there. She helped me see what I had to do this afternoon. . .what the good Lord wanted me to do. And I'm not the only one here with information about what really happened last night, either."

 

With that, Tess turned and looked back at Jerry McNeil, who nodded wearily and stood up. Once again, the district attorney started to protest this highly-irregular turn of events: once again, Sam shook his head sharply and gestured for McNeil to continue.

 

"If it please the court, I have information concerning police participation in the cover-up of Jessica Flynt's death. I was just about to go on duty when the defendant was brought in last night," the jailer's voice was shaking, but he managed to continue. "I was called into the Watch Commander's office before I went down to the jail. Sheriff Raeburn was there, along with my boss, Lieutenant Jim Anderson. Sheriff Raeburn had a vial of some kind of drug that he said he'd gotten from Larry Kincaid. The sheriff said that he really didn't know what it was, but that it would keep the prisoner higher than a kite."

 

A disturbance from the back of the courtroom interrupted him, and he looked back as Sheriff Raeburn raised an angry fist in his direction. But Mayor Flynt grabbed the sheriff's arm and mumbled something at him: reluctantly, Raeburn sat back down, still mumbling threats under his breath at the jailer.

 

McNeil continued, "Sheriff Raeburn said that the mayor had gone along with the whole idea because if word ever got out about his daughter's drug use, it would ruin his chances of re-election. And not only would it damage the mayor's bid for re-election, but it would destroy the Sheriff's campaign, too. He said that if we told anybody about what was going on, he had ways of making us wish we'd decided to be garbage collectors instead of cops. And knowing the sheriff, I wouldn't doubt that threat in the least."

 

"Your Honor, all this is unsubstantiated testimony and certainly not appropriate for a simple arraignment hearing -- especially when all charges against the suspect are being dropped," Sanders interrupted. "I really must object. . ."

 

"Objection so noted. . .and over-ruled," Sam shook his head firmly, then nodded at McNeil. "Witness, you may continue."

 

McNeil gulped miserably, then plunged into the rest of his story. "I was ordered to administer the drugs to the prisoner in his food and water, so that he would appear disoriented and psychotic when he appeared in court this afternoon," he said, seemingly all on one breath.

 

He dropped his head in embarrassment for a moment, then continued, "Your Honor, I knew it was wrong. But I went along with it because Sheriff Raeburn kept me on the payroll when nobody else would have. . .you see, your Honor, my health isn't the best any more. I've got a wife and three kids to support, so I've always done what Sheriff Raeburn and Lieutenant Anderson told me to. But not anymore. That man sitting there is innocent, but the sheriff figured he was the perfect fall guy -- no money and no one to stick up for him. That's why they chose him, Your Honor. . .because he couldn't fight back."

 

When McNeil finished, there was a second or two of stunned silence in the courtroom, and then a roar of voices drowned out even the pounding of Sam's gavel. Behind her, Tess could hear Sheriff Raeburn snarling curses and threats at his two renegade officers, while Steve Flynt whimpered under his breath in a near stupor. But McNeil and Forrest gave each other shaky smiles before they sat back down on either side of Christy and Tommy.

 

Order was finally restored in the courtroom, but only when Sam had made it clear that he was about to hand out contempt of court citations. And now Tess could almost feel the atmosphere of rage and bitterness that was now aimed at the angels and their human companions. She waited until not even a whispered comment disturbed the uneasy silence, then gestured over at the three witnesses: Tommy Raeburn, Arthur Forrest, and Jerry McNeil.

 

"Your Honor, we've heard testimony from these three men who have spoken out for the sake of justice, even knowing that they may have to pay a heavy price for their honesty. On behalf of my client, I want to thank them for their courage," Tess said as she walked back over to Andrew and placed a hand on his shoulder. "But there is something going on in this town that is even more frightening than the blatant misuse of authority."

 

The room was so silent that even the soft hum of the electric clock on the wall seemed loud. Tess looked down into Andrew's bruised and battered face for a moment, then looked back at the spectators. And when she did, a line of pitying tears shone in her eyes -- but whether for Andrew or the people of Solomon's Crossing, it was impossible to say.

 

"The people of this town have turned their backs on God. You've forsaken the only true Source of peace and safety and relied on man-made walls to protect you, instead," Tess spoke quietly, but her words seemed to echo as if she had shouted them. "But now God has spoken forth His Word, and those false walls have collapsed around you."

 

Above the courtroom, the carillon sent its silvery tones cascading down over the town, and Tess waited until the last note had faded away. And when she spoke again, her voice sounded like the rush of a powerful river, sweeping away all lies and dishonesty before it.

 

"There is a way back to real peace and genuine safety. . .and that's what this man was sent here by God to tell you. But most of you couldn't see past his outward appearance to the spirit of love and truth within him," Tess said in those deep, ringing tones. "Now, God is going to open your blind eyes and allow you to see the truth once more. With your permission, your Honor. . .?"

 

Tess gestured at Andrew, and Sam nodded in agreement. Andrew smiled and then stood up, slowly turning to face the people behind him. But even in the short space of time it took to complete that small movement, the angel's face and physical form underwent a stunning transformation.

 

The body restraints and the orange coveralls vanished instantly -- replaced by Andrew's usual shimmering white suit and immaculate shirt. The dirt caked into his skin had also disappeared, along with the cuts and bruises on his face. His long blond hair shone like golden fire even in the room's subdued lighting, and his eyes were once more alight with love and compassion as he looked out over the crowd.

 

But the most amazing transformation was not physical: instead, it was the power and authority that filled Andrew's face as the glory of God shone down around him. There was a collective gasp as the spectators involuntarily drew back from him: fear of this unknown phenomenon filled their faces, and several of them fell to their knees, their eyes fixed on the angel before them.

 

"Don't be afraid," Andrew smiled gently at the terrified townspeople, and the tenderness in his face was heartbreaking. "I've been sent to you by God with a message of great joy."

 

Even with such love and mercy shining in Andrew's eyes, there were still those who shook in fear before him. He smiled again -- a little sadly this time -- and then walked over to an elderly woman who had fallen on her knees. He helped her up, steadying her until she had recovered a little, and she gave him a tiny smile as she looked up into his face for a moment.

 

Monica and Tess exchanged knowing glances as Andrew returned to the front of the court room and faced the crowd once more. "God sent me here to tell you that He loves you and that He hasn't forgotten about Solomon's Crossing. You may have forgotten about Him, but He knows each and every one of you better than you could ever know yourselves."

 

He paused, and in the silence, he could hear several people weeping softly -- including Mayor Steve Flynt, who stared at the angel through his tears. Something had softened in the mayor's expression as he listened to Andrew, and Flynt closed his eyes for a moment, seeing the faces of his wife and daughter as clearly as if they stood before him.

 

Angels were not privileged to read human thought, but Andrew listened intently to the message that he now received from the Father, Whose sole right it was to know the heart of His creation. The angel bowed his head in acknowledgement of that message and then looked back at Flynt.

 

"Your wife and daughter are safe with the Father forever, Mr. Flynt," Andrew said, putting all the love and mercy that he possessed into his voice. "God doesn't want you to blame yourself for what happened to them. You feel as if you let them down, that you couldn't protect them from the bad things that happen in this world. And you've tried to deaden the pain you've felt all these years in ways that only caused you more suffering. But God doesn't want you to bury those feelings, Mr. Flynt. He wants to walk with you through that pain during the years to come -- until it's time for you to go home to be with Him and with the ones you love. But you have to open your heart to Him and ask Him to be with you. He won't force you to accept His love."

 

Surprise flickered in Steve Flynt's face for a moment at Andrew's understanding of the mayor's deepest thoughts and sorrows. A war seemed to be taking place inside Flynt's heart -- a war in which surrender was the only possible victory. But then Flynt gulped and nodded, still weeping as he bowed his head. He was oblivious to a few whispers and snickers around him as his former constituents watched while he prayed publicly without a hint of self-consciousness.

 

Gradually, a change came over the mayor: his shoulders were less slumped, and he sat up straight on the bench. And when he looked up from his prayers a moment later, it was as if a mask of anger and self-loathing had fallen away from his face, leaving it looking years younger and full of peace.

 

"Thank you, Father," Flynt murmured in a choked voice, then gave Andrew a tiny smile through his tears. "And thank you, too, my friend."

 

While Andrew was speaking, Tom Raeburn had sat motionless beside Steve Flynt. But the only sign of emotion in the sheriff's face had been rage and loathing as he watched the angel and listened to his appeal. Now Andrew saw that hatred still smoldering in Raeburn's eyes, and he dropped his head for a few seconds, praying silently. And when he looked up again, the sorrow in the angel's face would have been enough to break the heart of a stone.

 

"You've turned away from God's Word and put your trust in the words of men," he said softly, but each word was as distinct as if it had been cut into the air in letters of fire. "You've substituted man-made laws and regulations for the commandments of God. The first and greatest of God's commandments is this: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. And the second is like it -- you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

 

Andrew gestured at his shining white clothes, and once again, his face filled with that gentle sternness. "When God sent me to Solomon's Crossing two weeks ago, He didn't send me here the way He usually sends his angels on assignments. Usually, He sends us the way that you see me now -- with all of His strength and power surrounding us," he said in a matter of fact tone.

 

He stopped for a moment, as if remembering all the things that had happened to him during those two long weeks. He winced a little at those memories, but then continued levelly, "Instead, God sent me here disguised as a homeless person, someone who was dependent upon other people even for the things that you take for granted -- food, shelter, clothing. But what was worse than being hungry and cold was being invisible. Most of you couldn't see past the way I looked to the person underneath. . .the one who was hurting and in need of your kindness."

 

Andrew stopped long enough to smile gently at Christy and Mr. Kang, who had slipped into the back row of seats just after the arraignment had begun. He looked out at the crowd for a moment, and he was not surprised when one by one, they all dropped their heads or looked away to one side, unable to meet his loving gaze.

 

"Only one man -- a foreigner to Solomon's Crossing, himself -- and a young girl managed to see past the dirt and the 'strange' behavior," Andrew said softly. "They reached out to help me and offered me their love and compassion, as well. And believe me, I needed that love as much as I did the food and shelter they gave me."

 

There was an uneasy stirring among the crowd. . .and their faces were proof enough that the tacit "charges" being read against them in the privacy of their own hearts were more than substantiated. In the back of the court room, Steve Flynt managed to stumble to his feet, and he gestured at the others as if he was suddenly aware of the responsibility that came with his position as mayor of Solomon's Crossing.

 

"We. . .were wrong," he said, and there was nothing left of the politician's theatrics in his voice. "I was wrong. Is God going to punish this town for what we've done. . .or in this case, what we haven't done?"

 

"God doesn't work that way, Mr. Flynt," Andrew shook his head. "When people turn their backs on God, He doesn't punish them. But without His love and guidance, they start to stray from what He would have wanted for them. And when that happens, they make one bad choice after another -- you know that from your own experience. It's the consequences of those bad decisions that seem like a punishment. . .when in reality, that's not what God wanted for you at all."

 

"Amen, Baby, preach it plain," Tess murmured from her spot near the judge's bench, and Andrew turned slightly, then smiled lovingly at his teacher and friend for a moment.

 

When he once more faced the people, he said gently, "The good news that I was sent here to tell you is that it's never too late to turn back to God and learn His ways. If you ask for His forgiveness and His guidance, He will be there with you even before you're finished speaking to Him. He will never leave you or forsake you. . .and that's the only real security you'll ever need. Not guns, not man-made laws, not a strong police department. Just the everlasting arms of God there to hold you."

 

With that, Tom Raeburn stood up and snarled a curse at Andrew as he walked down the aisle towards the front of the court room. "That's a bunch of garbage," he stopped in front of Andrew and glared down into the angel's face for a moment. "All that God talk is nothing but a bunch of fairy tales, and you're fools if you listen to him."

 

The sheriff reached down and patted the gun in its holster at his side. "This is the only real security you'll ever have in this world -- that, and a police department that isn't afraid to use whatever force is necessary to protect the people of this town against all the garbage that's out there on the street."

 

"Mr. Raeburn, God loves you and wants you to. . ." Andrew started to say, but before he could finish his sentence, the sheriff shook his head in loathing.

 

"This is what I think of you and your pathetic little God," Raeburn smiled coldly -- then spat in Andrew's face.

 

Once again, Andrew dropped his head for a moment, his eyes closed and his lips moving in prayer. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked into the sheriff's face.

 

"Father, forgive him," Andrew said simply, without anger or malice, even as the saliva still ran down his face. "Forgive them all."

 

Once again, Andrew's expression was full of love and mercy as they were reflected from God by the person of His angel. Now it was clear that the same war Steve Flynt had fought only moments was now going on inside of Raeburn, but this time, it appeared that there was to be no victory through defeat of self. Andrew continued to look at the sheriff in a wordless appeal, as if he hoped that his words of forgiveness would be enough to turn the battle in the right direction.

 

For a second, there was no response from Raeburn, but then the sheriff began to shake as he continued to look into Andrew's eyes. Raeburn's trembling was almost imperceptible at first, then grew stronger as he tried to glance away, but he seemed unable to turn away from Andrew's calm, loving eyes, no matter how hard he tried. An expression of loathing or perhaps terror wrenched Raeburn as he struggled to free himself from the invisible hand of guilt and fear that now held him in its crushing grip. And for a brief second, it seemed to the sheriff as though the angel's face was a mirror in which he was seeing himself -- really seeing himself -- for the first time. . .

 

. . .with that, the sheriff fell to his knees and began to rock back and forth, just as Andrew himself had done in the jail cell, the night before. Raeburn's expression seemed to shatter like a bit of spun glass under the weight of his hatred, leaving behind only fragments of the man he had once been. There was madness in Raeburn's eyes now as he screamed again and again -- unable to bear the truth that he had seen in the angel's calm, loving eyes.

 

"The only thing that evil can't do is look at itself and see itself as it really is," Tess said quietly to no one in particular. "And the only weapons that can defeat it are love and truth . . .God's love and truth."

 

For a few moments, the court room was a babble of voices, some calling out for help, some raised in fear or petition or wonder. Some of the spectators fled the courtroom, while others huddled together, shock and awe blended together in their faces. Some, braver than the rest, approached the shrieking Raeburn, intending to offer help or comfort -- only to shrink back from the insanity they saw in his eyes now.

 

For his part, a clear-eyed Steve Flynt calmly issued orders to the police officers in the court room: Jerry McNeil ran to telephone for assistance, while Arthur Forrest worked to calm the panic-stricken people in the crowd. But much like his superior officer, Clark was huddled into a tight package of fear over by the wall: now he, too, trembled uncontrollably as he stared at Raeburn's contorted face.

 

In less than ten minutes, an ambulance pulled up in front of the courthouse, and paramedics quickly loaded the now whimpering Raeburn onto a stretcher and took him away. Tommy watched sadly until his father was gone, but when the door swung shut, there was a new maturity in his eyes -- very much like that in Steve Flynt's expression now. In a few moments, the sound of the sirens died away in the distance, but the courtroom was still filled with agitation as the crowd tried to make some sense of everything that had just happened.

 

With that, the carillon struck the hour -- four perfect, silvery notes that echoed softly in the late afternoon air. And as if that was a signal, the confusion slowly died away: people shook their heads in bewilderment as they looked to each other for confirmation.

 

Did I really see. . .? their expressions said as clearly as if they had shouted the question. Was there really. . .?

 

But as the people of Solomon's Crossing looked at each other, it seemed to many of them that the faces of their neighbors had changed in those few moments since Andrew's prayer. Now, it was as if they had never seen these familiar faces before: here and there, a neighbor tentatively smiled at the person who had lived next door for so many years, and eyes that had been hard with hate seemed softer than they had been only moments ago.

 

It was several minutes before anyone really noticed that Andrew was gone. Only Tommy and Christy saw the angel as he left Solomon's Crossing -- his message delivered and his assignment completed.

 

See you again soon, Andrew mouthed to them over the general noise and confusion. With a broad wink at Christy, the angel did a little soft shoe routine across the marble floor. . .

 

. . .and then was gone, as if he had simply stepped through a door and closed it behind him. Tommy watched the entire "angels dancing" routine, then rolled his eyes and looked at Christy. He shrugged wryly, but before he could say anything, Tess walked up to them. Her smile was warm as she put her hand on his shoulder for a moment.

 

"God is very proud of you and what you did here, this afternoon," she said, as people slowly filed out of the courtroom. "It wasn't easy to stand up and admit to a mistake. . .but God will be there to help you, no matter what happens afterward."

 

"What about my dad. . .is he ever going to get better?" Tommy asked, but his face was full of strength and determination.

 

"That depends on whether or not he lets go of his anger and hatred and allows God to heal him," Tess shook her head sadly. "Tommy, just remember that no one is ever given more than one day at a time. For right now, just concentrate on taking care of yourself and your mother. She's going to need you now, more than ever."

 

"No, Tess. . .what she's going to need now is God's help," he said as he took Christy's hand and started to walk out of the courtroom. "And I think I know just the guy who can help all of us find our way back to Him, too. Come on, Christy -- let's go talk to your dad. And when we get done there, how about if I buy you something to eat somewhere?"

 

"Sure, but you're going to have to settle for fast food," Christy nodded, then turned back to Tess and the others. "I think Kincaid's is about to be closed for business -- permanently. Tess, Monica, do you and your friend want to join. . .?"

 

She stopped in mid-sentence and looked at the now empty courtroom. Like Andrew, Tess and her companions had simply vanished, leaving only a lingering sense of warmth and love behind them.

 

"8,936,414 angels, and God sends us a bunch of comedians," Tommy shook his head, and he continued to mutter under his breath as Christy led him out of the courtroom. "A pin the size of Chicago, chickens crossing the road, tap-dancing angels of death, the whole nine yards. Angels -- go figure 'em!"

 

Somewhere above them, Tommy and Christy smiled as they heard a little "tap-tap-tappity-tap" sound that might have been a branch brushing against the courtroom window. Or not.

 

Epilogue

 

A flurry of pink and white blossoms from a tulip tree blew down over the hood of a red convertible just as it passed the "Welcome" sign at the edge of a small Midwestern town -- a sign that had recently been replaced. The car's driver smiled to herself as she read the words written on that sign: "Welcome to Solomon's Crossing. Join Us as We Learn and Grow Together."

 

There had been a number of these visits by the two "legal aid" representatives over the past few months. But with the exception of two high school students and the pastor of a now-thriving church, no one in Solomon's Crossing was any wiser about the angelic identity of the visitors.

 

The vehicle's passenger took a deep breath of the perfumed air and smiled happily as they drove past a row of old Victorian houses. Spring cleaning and yard work were in full swing. . .now, several people looked up, pausing in their window-washing and flower-planting chores to wave pleasantly at the car's two occupants.

 

But the blossoming trees and the flower-planting had inspired the little brown-haired angel, and she launched into a rhapsody to the season. "Spring is such a wonderful time of the year," Monica smiled as she returned the greetings with a cheerful wave of her own. "All the trees in blossom, the smell of lilac blooming, the way the sun is so bright and warm across your shoulders. I just love springtime, don't you, Tess?"

 

"That I do, Baby, that I do," Tess nodded as she turned onto Main Street and slowly drove past the courthouse.

 

She spotted an empty space in front of the red brick structure and parked the car, then gestured expansively at the town. "But what's even more beautiful than a tree in blossom is a town that's come back from a cold, dead stump and is starting to bloom again. Take a look around you, and tell me what you see."

 

Monica stepped out of the car and did as she was told, while Tess put a few coins in the parking meter. "I see a new tree that was planted to replace one that was struck by lightening and a repaired marble fountain with a new bronze statue. . . and one of an angel, at that," she winked at her supervisor as they walked down the street towards a newly-painted and restored church building.

 

The two angels paused at a street corner and said "hello" to a woman and an older man, who smiled and returned the greeting. Monica continued her observations just as she and Tess reached the church, where a lively practice session for the upcoming Easter celebration was currently in progress.

 

"And I see people smiling at each other as they walk down the sidewalk, and over there, a man is playing with his dog in the park," Monica said, then added with a grin, "And there's not a campaign poster in sight, thanks be to God!"

 

She had to speak a little louder than usual to be heard above the sound of the "Hallelujah Chorus," being sung by a choir of forty people -- an impressive number, given the size of the town. An ordinary person might not have been able to distinguish an individual voice out of so many, but both Monica and Tess could recognize Christy Jameson's clear soprano and a deep, strong baritone that could only belong to Tommy Raeburn.

 

Monica looked over at Tess and winked, trying to gesture imperceptibly up at something above them -- a shining white figure that she had just glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. Tess ducked her head to muffle a smile, instinctively knowing what her protégé was about to do.

 

"And oh, down by the corner, there are a couple of police officers talking to some of the high school students," Monica said with studied seriousness. "It looks like one of the officers just told a funny story, and everyone's laughing, so it couldn't have been one of Andrew's jokes!"

 

"I heard that!" a voice floated down to them, and Monica looked up 'innocently' at the source of that comment. Andrew wore an expression that would have done credit to a third-rate Shakespearean actor, and his lower lip quivered in 'wounded' indignation. "Thanks a lot, Monica. . .I guess I know who my friends are. If I had any, that is!"

 

Unlike Tess and Monica, Andrew was invisible to the townspeople walking past the church. And that was probably just as well -- considering that he was currently perched on the edge of the roof with his feet dangling a good twenty-five feet above the ground. He wore a crisp white linen suit that was perfect for the warm April afternoon, and his long blond hair gleamed in the brilliant sun that poured down over Solomon's Crossing.

 

"Andrew, what are you doing up there?" Monica waited for a moment until a woman and older man had passed by, then looked up at her unseen friend with laughter shining in her eyes. "You look like one of those funny stone statues on all the famous old cathedrals. . .you know, the ones that have water spouts in their mouths!"

 

"Oh, terrific -- first I'm a lousy comedian, and now I'm a gargoyle," Andrew snorted down at the meekly smiling Monica, then looked to his supervisor for assistance. "Tess. . . please do something about that angel girl of yours, will you!"

 

But his appeal fell on stony ground, and Tess grinned up at him with a 'wicked' sparkle in her eyes. "Sorry, Angel Boy, you're on your own," she shook her head, then gestured towards the open church doors. "I'm just here to listen to the music, same as you are."

 

"And such glorious music it is, too," Monica breathed a sigh of delight as the voices blended together in magnificent harmony. "It seems as if the people of Solomon's Crossing have finally opened the door to God and to each other."

 

"And when that happens, the only natural response is praise and worship to the Author of peace -- blessed be His Holy Name forever," Tess closed her eyes for a few seconds as her two companions echoed her words.

 

When she opened her eyes again, it was at the very height of the song, and she smiled broadly in appreciation. "From the sounds of it, I'd say that the people of this town have a lot to praise God for this year. And if this is just part of the service, I'd sure love to know what else they have planned. Maybe they'd have room for just one little itty bitty angel voice in the choir."

 

The music-loving Tess measured a minute distance between her thumb and index finger, as if to demonstrate exactly how little that voice was in her estimation -- and that, despite the fact that both Monica and Andrew were well-acquainted with Tess' powerful alto. That voice was the "envy" of many a heavenly choir member with a lesser set of lungs. . .let alone an earthly choir singer, who had as much of a chance of being heard above Tess as a canary did above an explosion in a dynamite factory.

 

But to Monica's surprise, Andrew nodded in agreement with his supervisor's last statement. Although from the entirely too meek expression that Andrew now wore, Tess suspected that there might be just a little more to his rapid response than was immediately obvious. That suspicion was quickly confirmed when he held up a piece of paper for her inspection. He was too far away for her to be able to make out all of the details, but from Tess' angle, that paper looked very much like a weekly church bulletin.

 

"As a matter of fact, they do have room for an angel in the choir, Tess. . .at least they did, anyway," Andrew said cheerfully. "And it certainly was nice of Pastor Jameson to let me sing with them, even if I do have to stay out of sight up in the steeple. He says one angelic visit is about all that any town can handle in a given century!"

 

He winked knowingly at Monica, then added, "And as it just so happens, I have an advanced copy of this Sunday's bulletin. . .it helps to have an in with the pastor and his daughter. I thought you might want to see the way that Christy managed to work my name into the list of choir members. See, right there it is, Tess -- Andrew D'Angelo. Pretty clever of her, huh? "

 

Andrew pointed to something that might have been his "name" printed in infinitesimal lettering amid a sea of other such names on the back cover. But it would have taken far more than even an angel's extraordinary vision to be able to decipher such miniscule wording at that distance.

 

And Andrew was clearly aware of that fact, if his wide grin was any indication. Tess looked up at the brightly colored folder, and she spluttered under her breath for a moment at the effrontery of "SOME angels!". . .especially the one who had apparently just beaten her out for the coveted choir position. Finally she managed to recover enough to glare up at the 'innocently' smiling Andrew.

 

"Surely you are in jest, Angel Boy. . .and this joke isn't any funnier than any of your other ones," she gestured at the piece of paper. "Let me see that bulletin, Andrew."

 

But Andrew only continued to grin, dangling the bulletin temptingly above Tess' head. "Do you hear me, Mr. Halo?" Tess shook her fist up at her charge. "You just toss that bulletin down here, right this very minute! If I have to come up there and get it, you are in more trouble with your supervisor than twenty angels could get out of -- even working weekends and holidays!"

 

"Sure, Tess, no problem," Andrew smiled 'meekly' down at her. "Here, catch!"

 

He tossed down the brightly colored folder with its dove of peace printed on the front cover. The paper fluttered in the breeze for a second or two. . .

 

. . .and with that, the printed figure suddenly blurred and became a real dove. It hovered just out of reach above Tess' head for a moment -- as if it, too, was participating in Andrew's good-natured teasing of his much-loved teacher and friend. With that, not even Tess could maintain her elaborate charade of annoyance, and she began to laugh along with her two charges.

 

Not to be left out of the fun, the courthouse carillon sent a joyous ripple of sound into the air, and those shining notes blended with the angels' laughter and the voices of the choir. The dove circled once above Solomon's Crossing, then soared towards Heaven, as if borne upward by the sound of voices raised in worship and thanksgiving.

 

"Hallelujah!" man and angel alike praised their Creator in one accord. "Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!"

 

The End