Authors: Carolyn Hart
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
A Bailey Ruth Mystery
To Philâ“Side by Side” has been our song since
that sunny summer of 1957
Incandescent dashes of pink and gold spangled the fluffy whiteâ¦
Brrr. I hadn't been cold in a long time. Aâ¦
The wheelbarrow squealed as Kathleen jolted to a stop.
A cuckoo clock warbled the quarter hour. No wonder Iâ¦
I sat on the branch of a cottonwood and watchedâ¦
I lightly touched the meshed grille as the police cruiserâ¦
I drifted deliciously between sleeping and waking, luxuriating in theâ¦
I knelt by the chimney on the rectory roof andâ¦
Judith Murdoch fingered the faux pearls at the neck ofâ¦
If possible, Kathleen looked even more stricken. “You're going toâ¦
Partitions separated six cubicles. Each held a computer. Voices roseâ¦
I popped to the rectory. A lamp shone in theâ¦
I tried to be quiet as a mouse.” Bayroo satâ¦
Father Bill picked up a small Dresden shepherd, but hisâ¦
The chief sat at a circular table near his desk.
Chief Cobb gestured up the hallway. “Let's find her. I'llâ¦
Cries and shouts rose. “Jan, where are you?” “Wait forâ¦
My eyes adjusted to the almost impenetrable darkness. Slowly shapesâ¦
The Rescue Express thundered into the familiar red-brick station. Iâ¦
ncandescent dashes of pink and gold spangled the fluffy white clouds that arched over the entrance to the Department of Good Intentions. The opening was wide and welcoming. Heaven doesn't run to doors. No one is shut in. Or shut out.
If I entered, I was committing myself to an unknown adventure. Possibly. Or possibly not. Perhaps I wouldn't be considered a worthy candidate. My natural effervescence immediately bubbled, banishing that negative thought. Of course I was a worthy candidate. I love to go and do and hold out a helping hand. I was a superb candidate.
I hurried forward even though I didn't know what to expect. Unctuous solemnity? Goody Two-shoes stuffiness? Earnest exhortations? That hadn't been my experience of Heaven. Surely the Department of Good Intentions was filled with kindred spirits eager to offer a boost up to those in need.
A wash of golden light spilled out, beckoning, encouraging, welcoming. I was drawn by the warmth, yet wary of the unknown. I had felt the same conflict of anticipation and reluctance when I was a kid at the swimming hole a few miles outside of Adelaide. I remembered the dammed-up pool with shivery delight, the water deep and cold,
shaded by majestic oaks. We clambered up the rope ladder to the top of a huge red rock, teetered on the sloping surface, scared yet eager, and took a flying leap. That plunge through air was as near to weightlessness as I ever knew. Until now, of course. The first jump was always the hardest. The shock of the icy water took your breath, turned your skin cold as ice. The thrill was worth the scare.
Could I, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, late of Adelaide, Oklahoma, take the plunge now? Certainly, if I ever, within an eon or two, intended to offer my services, it was time and time past. Time and age do not exist in Heaven, but I had the sense that Bobby Mac and I had been here quite awhile. Our cabin cruiser went down in a sudden August storm in the Gulf of Mexico. I expected much had changed since we departed the earth. If I hoped to be helpful, possibly I should volunteer while I still had some memory of earthly ways.
Our arrival here had been precipitous, but, as Scripture warns, the householder knows not the appointed hour. Dark clouds had scudded toward us. Blinding rain pelted our struggling boat. Thunder crashed, lightning blazed.
our small but sturdy cabin cruiser, capsized beneath a thirty-foot wave. I'd chosen our cruiser's name. I always felt that I was in the right place at the right time, even then. Now, that's a funny thing. I'd come close to being lost at sea when I was seven. I'd been visiting my California cousins and we'd taken the excursion boat to Catalina. Ever a daredevil, I'd scooted behind a lifeboat and hung over the edge. I lost my balance and tumbled overboard. Happily for me, a brawny seaman saw me fall and raced to the railing and climbed to the top to jump after me. I'd flailed to the surface, choked and stunned. The excursion boat faded in the distance. Happily, perhaps fatefully, the sailor kept me afloat, and not long after a sailboat ran near enough to find us. I doubt I would have survived on my own.
Maybe it was full circle that Bobby Mac and I were lost at sea. Of course, our daughter, Dil, was furious with her dad and even more
furious with me for tagging along. There had been warnings of a coming storm, but Bobby Mac had lost a big tarpon the day before and he was determined to go after him again. That man was what they call a fishing fool. Still is, and he's thrilled that the tarpon have never been bigger than here in Heaven. Dear Bobby Mac, built like a bull rider with coal-black hair, flashing dark eyes, and a rollicking grin. I smiled, grateful for love that had spanned our years together and flourished still. We two were as youthful in Heaven as on the day we'd met at Adelaide's famous rodeo, Bobby Mac dust-streaked and swaggering after his event, but blessed as well in Heaven with the glorious depth of all we'd known and shared together, happiness, passion, sorrow, tears, and, always, laughter.
From my watery adventure off the coast of California to the
's demise in the Gulf of Mexico, I was convinced I'd led a charmed life, thanks to the brave sailor on the excursion boat. Now I wanted to do my bit for someone in trouble. As I understood it, the Department of Good Intentions specialized in lending a hand to those in tight spots.
I strode under the arch of clouds, as much as an ethereal figure who isn't terribly tall can stride. I'm not small, but then again I'm not large. Five foot five on a good day in slingback pumps. I glimpsed my reflection in a shining crystal wall, curly red hair, a skinny face with curious green eyes, lots of freckles. I remembered a Polaroid picture Bobby Mac had taken when I was twenty-seven at a church picnic. That's how I looked now! Heaven is full of wonderful surprises and perhaps one of the sweetest was knowing that others see me always at my best, my brightest, my happiest. Age doesn't matter. There is no old, no young. The dear children who left the earth too soon are what they were meant to be in full flower and the aged who are worn and bent and frail at death once again blossom. It was such a thrill for me to see Mama in a flapper's dress with a little tilted red hat and a glittery beaded dress and high heels, her beautiful face shining with
love. In Heaven, your essence determines your appearance. You are the best you ever were and yet nothing is lost of your lifetime.
My image was crisp in the glittering crystal. I must admit I paused for an instant to admireâcertainly not in a prideful manner because we all know what pride goeth beforeâmy charming seersucker jacket and slacks and comfortable white sandals. Heaven is simply heaven-sent for fashion. Picture what you want to wear and you are wearing it. It's that easy and never a concern about sizes. We are all a very good size, whatever it is.
I gave my reflection a two-finger salute, a remnant of my days as a Cub Scout mom, and felt a thrill as I swung around the soft cumulus corner. Suddenly I was confident. I hurried, passing a cool rushing stream and tall pines.
Ahead of me, nestled against a green hill, was a little red-brick country train station. A train whistle sounded in the distance. I smelled coal smoke, saw a dark spiral curling into the sky, and heard the clack of great iron wheels.
Was I going in the right direction?
Not more than a half dozen feet away, a small white arrow pointed toward the steps. On the arrow was painted
. Oh, I was expected. I took the steps two at a time and laughed aloud as I reached the platform. Wooden carts were lined up against the wall, filled with luggage of all sorts, the kind that speaks of faraway places, satchels and grips and great leather trunks, tagged and plastered with travel stickers. I was already eager. Maybe I would get a ticket to adventure, always keeping in mind, of course, that the objective was to help someone in travail, not to provide me with excitement. Certainly I understood that.
I rubbed my hand along the top of a leather trunk. Mama and Daddy had owned a trunk just like that one.
Suddenly a florid-faced man with a huge walrus mustache appeared directly in front of me. He wore a high-collared white shirt.
Substantial suspenders and a wide black belt with a heavy silver buckle combined to hold up gray flannel trousers above sturdy black shoes. Arm garters between his elbow and shoulder pulled his shirt cuffs up a trifle. Pencils poked from his shirt pocket. He looked in charge, the man I was meant to see. Heaven is like that. People appear. Who and when depends upon what you are seeking.
A stiff dark cap topped his curly brown hair. His round face was made heavier by his mustache and thick muttonchop whiskers. Penetrating brown eyes seemed to look into my soul. “Bailey Ruth, I've been waiting for you. I'm Wiggins.” He reached out both hands to fold mine in a warm clasp.
“For me?” I wished now I'd not tarried. But, as Wiggins well knew, Heaven offers so much. The wondrous glory of God and His angels permeates every thought with love. There are people to cherish, books to read, plays to see, songs to sing, colors and nuances and beauty to absorb, God and all God's creations to adore.
He beamed at me. “I knew you'd come.”
The train whistle sounded nearer. The acrid smell of coal smoke tickled my nose. I looked around the platform. “I wasn't expecting a train station for the Department of Good Intentions, Mr. Wiggins.”
“Simply Wiggins, please. As for my station, isn't it beautiful?” He gazed around with innocent joy. “Since my section of the department could be whatever I wanted it to be, I chose a station just like mine used to be. I was the station agent. I helped people travel, make the right connections. When I got to Heaven, I felt right at home when I was asked if I'd like to keep on helping. There are many other sections and they are all different. But we know that you love to travel. So, here you are.” His smile was avuncular. I don't suppose I'd ever had a proper use for the word, but it suited him. He was jolly and made me feel jolly. I smiled in return.
“I'm glad to see a smile on your pretty face and glad that you've come. However.” He dropped the word like a boulder and peered at
me from under thick beetling brows, his gaze questioning. “Am I correct in understanding that you want to go back to earth?”
I tried to look properly solemn, though I could have tap-danced with excitement. “That's right. I want to help someone in big trouble.”
“Admirable. Sterling. Inspiring.” He was nodding, his walrus mustache quivering. “Right this way.” His hand was on my arm and he shepherded me into the main waiting room with its great wooden benches. We passed through to an office with
above the lintel.
He waved me to a seat on the hard wooden bench to the right of his desk. He carefully hung his hat on a coat tree, replaced it with a green eyeshade, and settled behind the huge oak desk. The stacks of paper and folders on top of the desk were geometrically aligned. A telegraph key was fastened to the right side of the desk next to a sounder to amplify the sound of incoming messages.
The desk sat in a big bay window that overlooked the platform. From his seat, Wiggins could look out and see the track in both directions. The windowpanes showed not even a trace of grime despite the inevitable soot from coal-burning trains. The left side of the office faced the waiting room and had a ticket window. Blank tickets rested in a slotted rack. A clutch of rubber stamps hung on the wall.
He sat comfortably in his four-legged oak chair, tapped a folder. “I know a bit about you.” He tugged at his mustache, eyes intent. “You grew up in Adelaide, Oklahoma. Your daddy, Paul, had the drugstore on Main Street. Your mama, Kate, kept you rascally kidsâ”
Four of us, all redheaded as a woodpeckerâSammy, Joe, Kitty, and me. We were rambunctious as colts and got into our share of scrapes.
“âbright as new pennies and in church every Sunday. You were the liveliest of them all.” His gaze was searching. “Inquisitive.” It was a pronouncement.
I nodded. After all, how else would I ever know what was going on?
His gaze was thoughtful. “Impulsive.”
I'd been known for responding first, quick as a lightning strike, thinking later. Mama had often urged me, “Bailey Ruth, honey,
before you speak.”
Wiggins placed his fingers in a tepee.
I was afraid I understood the direction he was going. I tried for a bland smile. “I've changed a lot since I arrived here. After all, Heaven encourages grace in all matters. I'm much more reflective.” I hoped I didn't sound defensive. I repeated with assurance, “Reflective.” Such a dignified word, though I suppose no one would ever think of me as dignified. I almost told him I'd recently reread
It was our book-club selection. We have a lovely book club, but that is not germane at the moment.
“Rash.” He wasn't talking about measles or poison ivy.
I waved a deprecating hand, hoped my nail polish wasn't too vivid. I wanted him to take me seriously. “Such a long time ago.” My tone invited him to join me in rueful dismissal of impulsive behavior. I wondered if he was thinking about the time I lost my temper at a faculty meeting and told the principal he was an idiot. Of course I had justification. Of course I lost my job. It all turned out well. I got a job as the mayor's secretary. The principal had put Bubba, the mayor's oldest son, on probation and Bubba missed his chance to be quarterback at the state championships. I loved being in city hall. Nothing happened in Adelaide that I didn't know about.
He flipped to another page. “Forthright.”
We gazed at each other with complete understanding. All right, so I called a spade a spade. I liked forthright better than tactless.
“Daring.” He shut the folder.
“I would hope”âI tried to sound judiciousâ“that a willingness to take chances might be just what the department is seeking. In appropriate circumstances.”
“Mmm. That is always a possibility.” Wiggins dropped his hands to his desk, reached for a pipe from a rack. As he tamped sweet-smelling tobacco, he looked thoughtful. “A good-hearted emissary is always prized. No doubt you are offering your services for the best of reasons. It wouldn't do to send someone seeking adventure.”
I tried to banish all thoughts of adventure from my mind. Adventure? Of course not. I gazed at him sincerely, eyes wide, expression soulful, an approach I'd always found very effective when I'd explained to Bobby Mac that the latest crumpled fender was an utter mystery to me, that certainly I thought I'd had plenty of room to back out. “I truly want to be of help to someone in dire straits.” My pronouncement had a nice ring to it and I hoped
conjured up a vision of a hapless victim stalked by an Alfred Hitchcock villain.
He nodded, his green eyeshade glistening in a golden glow. “Very well.” Now he was businesslike. “Where do you want to go?”