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Imagine a maple leaf tinged with red and gold drifting in air buoyant as a salty sea. That effortless lightness is as near as I can come to sharing my feeling on another lovely day in Paradise.
Do I see a startled stare? Think what you wish, but Heaven is as real as the sound of a melody or the joy of effort or the welling of love when you see your special other. There is the reality of atoms and there is the reality of spirit.
I simply wish to explain this particular moment. A brief introduction is in order.
I, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, late of Adelaide, Oklahoma, am not in hog heaven, as we used to say in Adelaide when enjoying a succulent baby back rib or holding a winning hand at bridge, but in God's Heaven. Not, I am quick to say, because of merit. Heavens no. But when our cabin cruiser sank in the Gulf during a storm and Bobby Mac and I made our way here, we were welcomed with open arms.
I shaded my eyes as I strolled on a sandy beach with Mimi, our nippy wirehaired terrier, and gentlemanly Sleuth, a gleaming black Lab. Mr. Easy, our golden retriever, bounded into the surf. Ahead an umbrella shaded two beach chairs. Bobby Mac, my tarpon-seeking husband, was out in the bay in Serendipity, our cabin cruiser. Curled next to my chair were Spoofer One and Two and Three and Four. We always called our cats Spoofer. Now they have various nicknames, Mama Spoo, Spoof, S. G. (Spoofer Grande), and S. P. (Spoofer Primus). The cats, instinctively attuned to our thoughts, knew my destination and arrived to relax comfortably until I reached them.
I detect skepticism. I am aware that some on earth darkly say, "Don't expect to see your dogs and cats in Heaven." I can state declaratively (I once taught English) that this claim is false and cruel. Dogs, cats, llamas, goats, parakeets, animal friends of whatever persuasion, are here. Saint Francis wouldn't have it any other way. As he prayed, "Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures." And talk about creatures! I saw Saint Francis recently with a goldfinch on one shoulder, a rabbit hopping nearby, and- Oh, I forgot. According to the Precepts for Earthly Visitation, I'm not supposed to share everything I know about Heaven.
Perhaps my realization that I was being a bit too forthcoming about my surroundings accounts for my summons from Wiggins. It is my honor to work for Heaven's Department of Good Intentions, and Paul Wiggins is my supervisor. Wiggins, as he prefers to be addressed, dispatches emissaries from Heaven to help those in trouble, and each emissary is charged to reticence about Heavenly ways. After all, each soul's day will come when all will be known.
Or perhaps the paperback book tucked in my beach bag caught Wiggins's attention. I enjoy Dickens and Trollope and Galsworthy, Emily Bront‘, Pearl Buck, and Theodore Dreiser, all suitable to peruse in an English class. But beach reading? Give me a good Erle Stanley Gardner, Brett Halliday, or Donald Hamilton while I wiggle my toes in the sand. The '30s, '40s, and '50s were the heyday of the private-eye novel with a fifth of rye (preferred by John J. Malone) in the bottom desk drawer and a come-hither blonde in the shadows (present in ninety-nine point nine percent of tough-guy books).
In any event, one moment I was heading for a lazy day with a fast-paced hard-boiled novel and the next I was reading a telegram from Wiggins. Wiggins is a man of his time. Telegrams heralded important news in the early twentieth century. Black letters streamed on a flimsy yellow sheet: In a dilemma. Little choice. Please hasten for consultation.
"Yoo-hoo." Not dignified but I was ecstatic. My shout reached Bobby Mac. He looked toward the shore. His midnight black hair gleamed in the sun. He is stocky and powerful, as handsome now as when he was a senior and I was a sophomore and he told me firmly that he was taking me to the prom. We've been dancing together ever since. His hand lifted in a generous farewell wave that said: That's my gal. Go do your stuff. Nobody takes care of business like you do. What a man. Always on my side. And vice versa. That's the secret to a happy marriage.
One of Heaven's charms is the ability to go from here to there as quick as a thought. Picture your destination, you are there. I quickly changed from a one-piece swimsuit, the Esther Williams style is my preference, and fetching Hawaiian cover-up and white sandals, to a suitable costume to visit the Department of Good Intentions. Wiggins admires modesty. I keep up with earth's fashions. Wiggins would be most approving of the new style of longer skirts. I could dress appropriately and yet feel quite swanky. A blue box-top blouse with cute cap sleeves and an almost ankle-length slim knit skirt made me feel like a model. Tall heels with a beaded strap and open toes were a perfect match. Choose your costume. Dress is our choice and is subject to any whim. If I am in an elegant Bergdorf black dress mood, presto. If I prefer a subdued tweed suit and a silk blouse with pearls and sensible heels, presto. Paradise affords joy for fashionistas.
The heels rat-a-tatted as I hurried up the steps. On earth Wiggins ran a country train station. He had re-created his station to serve as the departure point for the gleaming Rescue Express that rumbles on silver rails to carry emissaries to earth.
I burst through the waiting room and into his office, which overlooks the platform. Wiggins strode toward me, big hand outstretched. Wiggins's florid face looked perplexed. His reddish brows were drawn in a worried frown. His walrus mustache seemed to quiver with uncertainty. "Bailey Ruth." He came to a full stop. On his desk the telegraph sounder clattered.
"I'm here," I said brightly. "Ready to go."
He did not appear reassured. His frown deepened. "I need a skilled detective. C. Auguste Dupin. Sherlock Holmes. Allan Pinkerton."
I was familiar with the authors Wiggins enjoyed. Obviously Wiggins sought ratiocination. Well, I can ratiocinate with the best of them. My turn for a full stop. Heaven compels honesty. Perhaps my claim was an exaggeration. Okay. I'm no equal to his heroes. But I didn't spend all my time as an English teacher reading Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities (though my heart will always belong to Charles Darnay). A copy of Brett Halliday's Bodies Are Where You Find Them sprouted in my hand, a red-haired man leaning forward to support the body of a blonde on the cover. The all-cap title in stark black letters ran down the right side of the cover.
I thrust the book at Wiggins. "I've read them all." It pleased me that Mike Shayne, the Miami PI, was a redhead. I considered that a good omen. I fluffed my own shining red curls. For the record, I'm five foot five of energy and enthusiasm with curious green eyes in a skinny freckled face. Since in Heaven we can be what we wish to be, I chose myself at twenty-seven. It was a very good year.
Wiggins held the paperback in his hand, looked down. Clearly he found the cover a trifle shocking.
I hastened to explain. "Mike Shayne outfoxed the bad guys. Simple. Direct. No b-" I started to say bull but feared Wiggins might find the term unladylike. "-boring diversions. Give Shayne a problem and he waded right in. He figured out who was pulling the strings, tracked down the bad guys. What he did, I can do."
The telegraph sounder clacked louder. Wiggins shoved his rounded stiff blue cap with its black brim to the back of a thick shock of russet hair and strode to his desk, looked down. When he faced me, his kind face held despair. "Susan loves her little sister. She'll risk everything. I don't see any way out. An impossible situation. But"-his gaze was imploring-"you always do your best."
I stood a little taller, was tempted to salute.
In two long steps he was at the cabinet with tickets in slots. He reached up, grabbed a red ticket.
A rumble of wheels announced the arrival of the Rescue Express. The deep-throated whoo was a clarion call. The telegraph sounder clattered at a frantic pace.
Wiggins hurried to his desk, stamped the ticket, held it out for me.
I grabbed the red piece of cardboard.
A final shout as I headed for the platform, "Try to remain invisible."
"I will." I meant every word of the brave declaration. This time I would make every effort to be unseen, which is the preferred mode of Wiggins's emissaries. Emissaries have the ability to appear in earthly form. We arrive, of course, unseen. However, if we wish to be present, we simply think Appear. When it is better to be unseen, we think Disappear. There was one time, I remember my sense of panic, when I lost my ability to disappear. That was a challenge. Being able to appear and disappear is terrific. I suppressed a squiggle of eagerness. I sometimes-oh well, let me be frank-I often feel that I can better assist my charge if I am actually on the earth. This time I would try hard to curb that instinct.
I clutched the red piece of cardboard. I didn't need to look at my destination. I was on my way to Adelaide, my old hometown in the rolling hills of east central Oklahoma. On the platform, I rushed to climb aboard, welcomed the conductor's boost. As the Rescue Express began to roll, I didn't try to suppress my excitement. Wiggins was sending me into an Impossible Situation that required the skills-and toughness?-of a private eye. Move over Mike Shayne. Bailey Ruth Raeburn is on the case.
She was perhaps my height, about five foot five. Ebony black hair framed a face with character, deep-set intelligent eyes, high cheekbones, determined chin. She wasnÕt conventionally pretty. Hers was an interesting face, shapely black brows, a high forehead, rather thin nose, a generous mouth. She looked like a tennis player or golfer with an aura of easy movement, of quickness. I liked her indigo wool sweater with alternating lines of gold and rose in a zigzag pattern above black wool slacks and indigo leather flats. She stood stiffly in the center of a small living room, a very ordinary room not suited for high drama. A leather shoulder bag was tossed on the seat of a worn wooden rocking chair. Two easy chairs, one with plaid upholstery, the other a nondescript tan, were unoccupied. Library books were scattered on a coffee table, a biography of Douglas MacArthur, Lives of the Poets by Samuel Johnson, a thriller by Hank Phillippi Ryan, a collection of e. e. cummings poetry. An inexpensive grandfather clock near the front door ticked loudly.
A comfortable room except for the stricken young woman, her face the color of putty, the hand holding a cell phone shaking. "Please"-her voice was uneven, scarcely more than a whisper-"you won't hurt her?" The cell phone was pressed against her face. "Where is she? . . . A hundred . . ." Her left hand rose to her throat. "I don't have that kind of money. I don't have a key. I can't-" She began to shiver. "I can't do that."
She moved unsteadily to the sofa, dropped down, braced herself against the armrest, the phone still hard against her face. A voice was speaking to her, a voice was telling her something that drained her youthful body of strength. "I can't-" Her shoulders drew tight as if in defense. "Tonight? He's having a party. How-" She broke off. Perhaps her caller had interrupted, told her to listen, told her she had no choice.
I knew when the call ended. Her hand, her still shaking hard, came away from her face. She stared down at the cell phone, touched the screen, touched again, likely calling a Favorite number. Her trembling hand held the phone close. She listened, then her shoulders slumped. Clearly her call had not been answered and she was being invited to leave a message. Her voice frantic, she cried, "Sylvie, call me. Tell me you're all right. Please." A tap. She stared down at the phone, as if willing her message to be heard. She rose, slipped the phone into the pocket of her slacks. She stood indecisively for a moment, then hurried across the room. She stepped into a narrow hall, passed one room. She stopped at a closed door to a second room. She turned the knob, reached for the light switch.
I blinked as the light revealed a strikingly different milieu. Nothing shabby and worn here, though the furnishings were inexpensive: bright white furniture, a dresser, a chest, a bed with a red satin coverlet. A lop-eared teddy bear with a missing eye sat in an angular metal chair on a fluorescent-bright orange cushion. On the dresser every inch of space was crowded with bottles of perfume and lotions. Heaps of clothes dotted the floor. I had a feeling that the room's inhabitant arrived with armloads of clean laundry and carelessly deposited them wherever, a mound of jeans here, a tangle of panties and bras there, cotton tees loosely strewn on a fuzzy throw rug. It might have been just a messy bedroom except for the watercolors tacked to every bit of free wall space. The work was amateurish, but oh, what a feast of color, magenta, cobalt, royal blue. The paintings weren't simply splashes of color but almost childlike evocations of sunrises, parrots, maple leaves, a football jersey, a yellow brick road rising to the sky, and a huge red question mark surrounded by happy faces.
Happy faces, a happy room. I didn't know the occupant, but the casual disorderliness and vibrant watercolors suggested warmth and originality and unquenchable eagerness.
"Sylvie. Oh, Silly, Silly." The words were a cry of heartbreak from the woman who clung to the doorframe. Her gaze swept the careless, chaotic room. Then she drew in a sharp breath. She darted to the dresser, reached out among the bottles of lotions and sprays and jars of cream to pick up a bright red cell phone. It took only a moment, and the message she'd left on this phone played and she listened to her own voice, shaking with stress, "Sylvie, call me. Tell me you're all right. Please." Woodenly, she replaced the phone on the dresser.
I was at her shoulder when she picked up a note written in bright red crayon: Will have lots (underlined three times) to tell you tomorrow!!!!