Authors: Carolyn Hart
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery Fiction, #Murder, #Humorous, #Mystery, #Humorous Fiction, #Humorous Stories; American, #Investigation, #Detective and Mystery Stories; American, #Ghost, #Murder - Investigation, #Ghost Stories, #Ghost Stories; American, #Spirits, #Oklahoma
To Rona Edwards and Tiffany Ward
in great appreciation
I lounged on a deck chair, comfortable in an orangeâ¦
Frogs wheezed, barked, and trumpeted in a dimly seen pond.
Kay's bedroom was enchanting. I wondered if all the guestâ¦
It is better to give than to receive. Especially ifâ¦
Evelyn Hume sat at a stone table on the upperâ¦
Kay slid behind the wheel of a canary yellow Corvetteâ¦
Sorry to have kept you waiting.” His voice was pleasantlyâ¦
I didn't bother going to the campus. It had neverâ¦
I waited until the convertible was well out of sightâ¦
Hidden from view behind crape myrtles with lavender blooms, Iâ¦
I loved the cemetery that adjoins St. Mildred's. Rustling leaves ofâ¦
Drawn velvet curtains blocked any vestige of late-summer sunlight fromâ¦
Evelyn and Jimmy were in the dining room when Kayâ¦
Chief Cobb hooked a finger to loosen his tie. “Hotterâ¦
Evelyn Hume smiled as she pointed toward the painting whichâ¦
Kay folded clothes, stacked them on the bed next toâ¦
lounged on a deck chair, comfortable in an orange polka-dot bikini. A breeze fluttered the brim of my wide-brimmed straw hat. Unlike the sun, Heaven's golden light never burns, but a lovely white straw is always flattering to a redhead. Oh, you're wondering about Heaven. Heaven, Montana? Heaven, Florida? Not even close.
I said Heaven. I meant Heaven. Quite possibly that calm statement either amuses or offends you. The worldly dismiss Heaven as a fable. With kindly, condescending smiles or cold sneers, they refuse to face up to the Hereafter. Their choice is to whistle while Rome burns. That's fine. They can tap-dance until the curtain falls, but they mustn't expect to take any bows. However, I would be lacking in candorânever one of my failingsâif I didn't frankly state that Heaven is my customary residence.
I am Bailey Ruth Raeburn, late of Adelaide, Oklahoma, popu
lation 16,234. My husband, Bobby Mac, and I were lost in a Gulf storm on
our beloved cabin cruiser. Bobby Mac wasâand isâa fishing fool. It was his determination to track a tarpon that led to our precipitous arrival here in the latter part of the last century, but we've never lost our love for sea, sand, and serenity.
as bright and fresh as on her launch day, rocked in a swell in turquoise waters. I enjoyed happy memories and admired Bobby Mac's muscular back as he struggled against the strength of a determined tarpon.
Bobby Mac and I fell in love in high school. I was a skinny, redheaded sophomore and he was a black-haired, laughing senior. We are still in love and having fun a lifetime and beyond. He's definitely the handsomest man in Heaven, but most of all I treasure his boisterous eagerness. Bobby Mac never met a steak he couldn't eat, an oil well he wouldn't drill, or a beautiful woman he didn't notice. Of course, he always assured me I was the loveliest of all. What a guy, then and now.
I was content, drowsing in the golden light, enjoying the gentle rock of the boat, occasionally waving to friends in other boats, feeling quite sublime.
A telegram sprouted from my hand.
I knew at once the telegram must be from Wiggins. Who else still tapped a Teletype to make contact? Wiggins had sent me a telegram! Nicely enough in Heaven, there's never a need to wait. A message arrives at once. A friend remembered suddenly appears. Wherever you want to go, there you are. Solitude is yours if you wish. Companionship is available instantly. In need of spiritual rousing? Saint Teresa of Avila strides along a mountain path, smiling, talking, welcoming everyone. Ready to laugh? Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's new skit is as funny as their long-ago movie about the vacation trailer. Want to perfect your culinary skills? Julia Child's kitchen is simply Heavenly and her reminiscences
of World War II derring-do riveting. You suddenly recall your childhood friend who helped you staff a lemonade stand on hot August days? Why, here she is, smiling, arms wide. Perhaps you always wanted to play the piano? Fingers flying, ragtime pounds.
I jumped to my feet. “Bobby Mac, a telegram!” I tore open the yellow envelope, read aloud, my voice rising in eagerness, “âUrgent Delivery to Bailey Ruth Raeburn. Skulduggery afoot in Adelaide. Come at once if interested. Wiggins.'”
At the bottom of the telegram was Wiggins's special stamp of a shiny silver locomotive bearing the legend:
Department of Good Intentions
Bobby Mac held tight to his bending rod as he looked over his shoulder. “Are you sure, sweetheart? You had quite a challenge when you helped Susan Flynn.”
I flapped the telegram, dismissing the past. “Everything will go better this time.” Wiggins, who can be a bit stiff, had actually unbent with an approving smile after my last advenâmission to earth.
Bobby Mac grinned. “What are the odds? You have a talent for trouble.”
I blew him a kiss and zoomed away. Bobby Mac understood. He couldn't resist the lure of fishing. As for me? I was already excited.
Dashes of pink and
gold highlighted the arched clouds at the entrance to the Department of Good Intentions. There was a welcoming glow, warm as a friendly smile.
As I'm sure I've explained before, the department is under the supervision of Wiggins. In the early days of the twentieth century,
he was station agent at a train depot. When he came to Heaven and was given the opportunity to continue assisting travelers (and all earthly creatures, whether they know it or not, are surely travelers in the best sense of the word), he joyfully re-created a small, redbrick country train station with a wooden platform and tracks running away into the sky.
When the signal arm dropped and the Rescue Express thundered on the rails, sparks flying, dark smoke curling to infinity, my heart raced. I wanted to leap aboard immediately, a blithe spirit.
The first time I'd approached the department, I'd felt anxious. I had no idea whether I would be welcome. Happily, Wiggins had immediately made me feel at home. In fact, he'd commented that he'd been expecting me.
Wiggins obviously had been well aware that I wanted to offer my services to his department. He knew how grateful I was to the brave and generous sailor who'd saved my life when I was a girl and I fell off an excursion boat en route to Catalina. I still remembered the shocking coldness of the sea. A deckhand jumped into the water and saved me. Thanks to him, I enjoyed a full and happy life. Ever since I arrived in Heaven, I'd been eager to offer help to someone in trouble.
Wiggins and the Department of Good Intentions gave me that chance, sending me to my beloved hometown in hilly, south-central Oklahoma. I knew the terrain, understood the mores.
Admittedly, there had been a few mishaps. Perhaps I'd become visibleânot a desired status for a Heavenly emissaryâa bit more often than the department wished. You will note that I avoid using the term
. Wiggins insisted that we consider ourselves emissaries. Ghosts, you see, have an unfortunate reputation on earth and evoke quite pitiful reactions of fear and shock. In any event, I had appeared a good deal more than Wiggins considered desirable. Moreover, he remained doubtful about the
pleasure I took in the new styles. I'd pointed out that a naked emissary or, Heaven forfend, an emissary droopily draped in an ill-fitting sheet, would surely be more shocking. I'd simply taken advantage of the ease afforded me as a traveling spirit. All I had to do was envision clothing and I was clothed. I saw no reason to eschew fashion. What was the moral worth of appearing as a frumpy emissary?
He'd had no answer to that.
Now, as I hurried through the station waiting room to his office, I could scarcely contain my excitement. I passed under the lintel with the sign marked
. There was no door. Heaven has no need for doors. No one is shut in. Or out.
The office was just as I remembered. From his golden oak desk positioned in the big bay window, Wiggins could look out and see the platform and shining silver tracks. He sat in his desk chair, head bent, green eyeshade hiding the upper portion of his face, finger rapidly tapping the telegraph key.
I didn't want to interrupt. I edged inside, waited behind him. Was I ready? I'd dressed more formally than usual in a pale blue springlike tweed suit. Not a heavy tweed. Indeed, a rather ethereal tweed as befitted a vivacious though equally ethereal redhead. A rose floral pin added a softening note and rose leather sandals afforded a jaunty air. I felt a moment of unease. Too jaunty? Quickly the artificial flower and sandals changed into a matching blue. My nose wrinkled. Boring, but perhaps it would be best if Wiggins thought me a trifle boring.
I patted one of the jacket's patch pockets. Wiggins's telegram crinkled. In my other hand, I held a roll of parchment which contained the Precepts. Unlike my first visit to the department, I now knew the Precepts well, but I hoped bringing the parchment roll might impress Wiggins. While he was engaged, I unrolled the parchment and admired the ornate gold gothic letters:
PRECEPTS FOR EARTHLY VISITATION
This time I would remember each and every Precept. This timeâ¦
“Wiggins, I'm here.” I intended to sound cool and casual, but my voice, eager, bubbly, and excited, gave me away.
Wiggins's wooden chair swung about. He came to his feet, large face breaking into a warm smile. Shining chestnut curls poked from beneath the green eyeshade. His walrus mustache gleamed in Heaven's golden glow. He was unmistakably of his time, high-collared white shirt stiff with starch. Arm garters between his elbows and shoulders puffed the upper sleeves. Substantial suspenders and a wide black belt held up heavy gray wool trousers. Black leather high-top shoes glistened with polish. His golden brown eyes glowed. “Bailey Ruth. Good of you to respond. I knew you would. Your intentions are always of the best.”
There was an unmistakable emphasis on
I dismissed a suspicion that he sounded like a man trying to convince himself.
“In any event”âhe looked harriedâ“matters may soon be out of control. We are very concerned. I feel that a woman's delicate touch is needed. And there isn't anyone else available who knows Adelaide.”
I decided to overlook the implication that he'd scraped the bottom of the volunteer barrel.
He waved me to a seat beside his desk and settled in his chair. His face furrowed. “Before we get into the particulars, let's discuss the Precepts. The last two times you were dispatched in such a rush, you hadn't had time to study them. I'm sure that accounted for”âhe cleared his throatâ“a rather wholesale departure from the directives.”
He opened a drawer and pulled out a thick folder. When he opened it, I recognized the untidy mass of paper that had comprised my initial report. He skimmed through it, murmuring aloud about the flying crowbar in the mausoleum, impersonation of a police officer, liberation of the tan-and-black houndâ¦His face drew down in a frown as he reminded himself about my Christmas visit at a historic Adelaide home. “â¦serious breach of Precept Twoâ¦and Precepts Three and Fourâ¦” He looked discouraged. “Your efforts are well meant but”âhe shook his headâ“so often you don't stop and think.”
Actually, I often did stop and think, but possibly I should not share that truth with Wiggins. I scooted to the edge of the hard wooden bench. “Wiggins, this time I will have everything under control.” I placed one hand on my heart, looked deep into his golden brown eyes, and quoted the Precepts verbatim. From memory. In the sixth grade I'd won a prize for reciting “Thanatopsis.” The Precepts were a snap in comparison. If I do say so myself, I spoke with resolution and beautifully clear diction and concluded, “Now that I am aware of my obligations, you can count
on me. I shall be the most tactful, behind-the-scenes, unobtrusive emissary ever!”
A flicker of a smile touched his face. His eyes softened. “A willing heart counts for much. That's what Heaven is all about.”
I maintained a look of selflessness or as near as I could manage, selflessness not being a customary attitude for an energetic, exuberant redhead who loves to tango, reel in a fish, or cherish a romantic moment in the moonlight.
Slowly, he nodded. “Very well.” He slapped my folder shut, reached for a slim file on his desktop. “Kay Clark intends to stir things up. That can be dangerous.” His tone was grave. “Foolhardy. She has returned to Adelaide after an absence of many years. She is still as willful and headstrong and recklessâ”
I watched a flush mount in his cheeks. I'd never seen Wiggins so exercised.
“âas ever. Of course, free will complicates everything.” He looked at me doubtfully.
“Free will.” I gave him a bright smile.
He looked pained.
Possibly that wasn't the response he'd hoped for. Quickly, I achieved an expression of thoughtful inquiry and folded my hands prayerfully. “Free will.” My tone was musing, almost rueful. I tried to imply that I spent much of my time engrossed in this fascinating topic. Actually, I'd never given free will a thought.
“Ah, well.” His tone was long-suffering. “We can only work with the materials we have at hand. But there is that complicating factorâ¦” He flipped through sheets, muttering to himself. “Oh, my.” He shut the folder. “I'm in a quandary. Perhaps another volunteer would be a better choice.”
“Wiggins, please pick me. You know how much I love Adelaide. I can handle anything. I promise.”
Wiggins leaned back in his chair, stared at me. “Very well. Let
me give you a brief history. The family circumstance is exceedingly complicated and the situation is exceedingly volatile. You'll be spending most of your time at The Castle.”
“The Castle!” I felt a quiver of delight. The Castle was Adelaide's showplace, built by J. J. Hume, an oil baron. Bobby Mac found oil, too, but he was a wildcatter, not a multimillionaire. The Castle, a Mission-style mansion with a series of descending terraces, sat high on Spotted Owl Ridge. The spectacular centerpiece was an active pump jack in the middle of the garden. As J. J. had told his wife, “Roses are fine, but nothing smells as sweet as fresh crude.”
I'd attended charity balls and civic functions there. Every small town has its aristocracy. In Adelaide, the Pritchards and the Humes fulfilled those roles in strikingly different fashion. The Pritchards were aloof, elegant, and the great patrons of St. Mildred's Episcopal Church. The Humesâ¦Suffice it to say that J. J. was a hard-drinking, rabble-rousing iconoclast, though his long-suffering wife, Millie, was a stalwart Baptist who loved her Sunday school class and spent much of her life murmuring, “J. J. didn't meanâ¦”