Steve stepped with trembling feet onto the edge of the Bellagio Hotel and failed to notice the chaos of the Strip below him. Las Vegas had billed itself as the homeland of anonymity; the city guaranteed that your secrets would stay there.
If only that were true.
His heart burned deep in his chest, forcing anxiety to manifest in the form of self destruction. He lived with his secrets as long as he could. He couldn't go on. He was determined to jump.
"God," he whispered. "I don't know if You care, but I'm at the end. I'm too ashamed to go on. I wish it was different, but I can't undo the past. Please forgive me for what I've done and for what I'm about to do." He tapped his pocket, guaranteeing that his backup plan was in place.
There. He'd made as much peace with God as he could. Now the only thing that remained was to jump.
The Heavenly call center was an apiary of activity with angels buzzing back and forth dispatching answers and help in response to the prayers of both the saints and sinners on Earth. Harney looked down from his supervisor window with satisfaction. His troops were functioning with their A game. They were always quick to respond once the orders were cut.
Harney joined them and dismissed Etta to her regular duties. "I will take over the tour now, Athaneal. Do you understand everything?"
"Oh yes. It's absolutely fascinating!"
"Right on, then." He began walking under the display screen. "The prayers seeking repentance or salvation are coded orange until the praying human is comforted, at which time the light turns blue, and then falls into the sea. The prayers of urgency are labeled Code Red. Once the Code Reds are answered by the Lord…"
"Which actually happens before the prayer is uttered!" Athaneal interjected eagerly. "It's so cool!"
Harney smiled. "Code Reds are sent to the dispatch center, where the operator on duty activates an Agent of Change, or an ACE, for short."
"An ACE is often a Christian—or the nearest operative, who will fulfill Heaven's response."
"And it all occurs at light speed!" Athaneal was excited to be part of the team.
"Yes it does!" Harney was proud of his job and his troops. "No prayer too small!" was his team's motto. "Alright, I'm going to set you at this station. You are next to Etta, who can help you if you get in trouble. Godspeed."
One orange bulb lit up and was immediately forwarded to his team. Some lost soul was crying out for God to save them. Etta received the request and her nimble fingers hit the keyboard as she located the nearest operative. She was looking for a harvester. She activated her microphone and said, "Chaplain Smith to the OR waiting room, Penson Memorial Hospital. Look for an aged man with a brown sweater, who is wringing his hands with great urgency. He has called out to God that if He will save his wife's life, he will surrender his own in repentance. This situation has been forming for 63 years, and he has finally surrendered his life to Jesus." Harney watched as the orange light slowly faded to blue, and a cheer when up throughout the call center. Another soul was saved! What a great way to start his shift!
Harney watched as a red light flashed on the display, and then began pulsing between red and orange. He leaned forward. This light meant trouble. Something was going on, and if it wasn't handled properly, it could end in disaster. He scanned the floor to see which angel was next in the rotation and his heart sank. Athaneal. He came to them from the heavenly choir, but after some unfortunate developments, he became an Angel Junior Grade, of the 3rd Phalanx, 15th Cohort, and was transferred to Harney's company.
As rapid as a courser Harney flew from the window and landed behind Athaneal's station. "What is it?"
"Ah gee. You don't have to be so mean." He looked down at his keyboard.
Harney frowned. "Yes, you're quite right. I didn't mean to call you an oocephalus. Let us put this unpleasant business behind us and move on, shall we?" He watched Athaneal for a moment, who didn't respond. "Now get to it. Find an ACE."
"I don't know what to do, sir. He is praying that God allows him to die, but he doesn’t really want to die. Which one am I supposed to answer?"
Athaneal glanced through the orders and sighed. "This says for me to activate an Agent of Change."
"But sir, the ACE isn't anywhere around. He's in Colorado on a ski slope."
"And where is your petitioner?"
"Oh. Well, that explains the suicide! Don't just sit there staring at me. Get it done." The blank look on Athaneal's face told Harney everything he needed to know. He sighed deeply and said, "Very well. Tell me what's happening?"
Athaneal didn't move. "But sir? How?"
Harney wanted to be angry, but he remembered that Athaneal had only been at this post for a few hundred years. He was still an intern. "Allow me to help you, and then you can do it on your own, next time. Right? Let's see what resources we have here. Go on, scoot over and let me have a go at the computer." His fingers were a blur as he tapped on the key board. "First, we must get a plan together. What is your petitioner's name?"
"And Joe is a reluctant ACE. He doesn't like people. He sort of has a history."
"Yes. He was dispatched to help a woman who was having a heart attack."
Athaneal nodded slowly. "He mostly saved her."
"And how does one mostly save someone?"
"Well, he saw her heart go into defibrillation and backed his car over a telephone pole, knocking the pole over, sending the transformer to the ground, which shocked the woman and caused her heart to beat again."
Harney cracked his knuckles. "We had better get to it, eh? Let's see now. First, we need to get Steve off the roof of the Bellagio."
Harney nodded. "That will make it easier. It's a good thing we have the speed of light on our side! Now, the Bellagio is the hotel with the lake in front and the spectacular water shows with fountains, right? So, we set off the fountains at just the right angle and then, presto!"
Athaneal sat up straighter. "Incredible! You just hit him with a blast of water that pushed him higher into the sky and he landed on the crane where they are building the hotel next door. Now what?"
"There," Athaneal pointed eagerly. "That guy is looking up at him."
"Okay, that gets him on the ground. Let's switch over to our ACE, Joe. He's on a ski slope in Colorado? Ah, there he is. He's in the middle of that blizzard and is huddled up in the search and rescue line shack on the top of the slope. So, he's an emergency worker, eh? I thought he was on vacation. This is much easier. Here's what we do: He needs to hear someone calling for help, which will get him outside on his skis." He looked at Athaneal. "Have something start making a noise that will get his attention."
Athaneal nodded and pressed a button. A mountain lion crawled out of a tree and perched herself on a windswept ledge and began crying into the darkness.
"Well done," Harney bragged. "A mountain lion's cry is often confused for a woman in distress. That will get him outside the shack. Yes, there he goes! Just like clockwork."
"Now we need to get Joe to the bottom of that mountain. Can you have the cat lead him through the forest and over to that ridgeline?"
"They are not on vacation, they are getting their CEU's by attending a mock disaster drill, and they will be ecstatic to be doing anything but that. Have you ever had to endure continuing education courses? They're miserable." He keyed his microphone, "Boundary County Idaho ambulance respond to construction site next to Bellagio, where you will transport Steve to another location."
Within a minute, an ambulance from North Idaho rolled onto the scene and after a brief examination, loaded Steve into the back of the unit and began driving.
Harney nodded. "Try to keep up, Athaneal. We are going to have both parties meet at Page, Arizona."
"What's in Page?"
"Nothing much, really. Just Lake Powell, I suppose. And Antelope Canyon, if you're into that kind of thing. Anyway, that's about halfway between them, and there is a really nice hamburger joint there called Bonkers. How are we doing with that cat?"
"That's fine." He keyed his microphone again. "Search and Rescue Helicopter One, report to the top of the ridge near Pagosa Springs, keep your eyes open for a skier searching for a lost woman. Skier will need transport upon your arrival." He looked at Athaneal's screen. "How are you doing with your rerouting?"
"Fine, sir. The CSI television show is filming in the area and have a large section of the road blocked off. I've been adjusting their GPS to take them around the blockage. They will arrive on Interstate 15 any minute now, and for some reason they will hang a left instead of a right. It actually helps for them to be visiting from another town. Otherwise, they would know how to get around my road blocks."
"Excellent work! Now my helicopter is landing and Joe is explaining that he needs to use the helicopter to search for the woman. And now they are in the air. Good. Now I need to order an incredibly stiff wind from the east to blow them off course." He typed a moment longer, and then sat back. "Their next stop will be Page, Arizona. We need to get things set up at Bonkers. Any ideas, Athaneal?"
"Well, sir. We could get out a bunch of free meal coupons and distribute them to the proper players."
"And how do you propose we make that happen?"
"How about a trivia game on the radio? Human love to brag about how much they think they know. Especially about movies!"
"Genius, Athaneal. Just genius. Make it so."
Athaneal keyed his microphone and put on his best DJ voice, "Hello all you dogs and cats out there in radio land, this is Athaneal, your voice in the sky, coming to you live on K-I-N-G radio with a fantastic opportunity to receive a free meal from, are you ready for this? BONKERS! All you have to do is text the proper answer to HEAVEN. The first, fourteenth, and twenty second responders will win a free meal at BOOOONKERS, good for this night only. So don't delay! Are you ready for your question? Here it is: What 1945 movie was known as the film that ruined Jack Benny’s career? If you know the answer, text it to HEAVEN. Good luck and Godspeed."
Athaneal's panel lit up with eager text messages. "Yes," he announced. "That did it. As soon as I have texted the coupon code back to the winners, we should be ready for the participants to arrive."
Harney nodded. "Yes, I've been blowing this helicopter all over northern Arizona trying to get him lined up on Page. He should be there in less than 10 Mikes."
Athaneal said, "The lost ambulance just won a free meal at Bonkers, so they are going to stop for a bite to eat before continuing on their wild goose chase."
Harney rose from his chair. "I often forget how much fun this job can be. What do you say we take our break right now and pop in on the activities below?"
Athaneal eyed him warily. "Is that allowed?"
"Well, I'll make an exception, just this once." He looked his trooper over. "You'll need to change if you're going with me."
"What century is it down there?"
"They just started the second millennium a few years ago."
"Oh, then I'll just don this robe. Everyone will think I'm a Jedi Knight wanna be."
"Good idea. I'll do the same, and everyone will think I'm a wizard from Middle Earth."
"Or Hogwarts!" Athaneal snorted, and they laughed together.
Bonkers was busy. Locals and tourists alike loved to stop in for some excellent burgers and quality Italian food. After being eyed suspiciously by their waiter, the two angels were taken to their table, where they left their hoods covering their heads. "What's good here?" Athaneal asked Harney.
"I think the chicken parmesan is wonderful, but the chicken Italia gets good reviews as well."
"It's so hard to decide," Athaneal complained when the waiter appeared for the fifth time after being told that they only needed a few more seconds to decide. "When you only eat once ever decade or so, it's hard to make a snap decision."
"Look," the waiter replied impatiently. "I have a whole restaurant of important guests tonight. I really need you to order something or you two can take a hike."
"Oh…" Athaneal was feeling the pressure. "Then just give us two orders of Bonker's Cheesy Fries."
The waiter resisted the urge to scowl at them and quickly disappeared around the corner while murmuring, "Last of the big spenders."
Harney pointed. "Look, there comes Steve now."
"The whole ambulance team is still with him?"
"So, Steve will have a table next to Joe? Is that the idea?"
"Yes. That method works really great. Humans run into old friends in a restaurant all the time without realizing that Heaven actually orchestrated that event. They'll automatically assume it was a coincidence."
"Gosh, they really are naive, eh?"
"Why are you suddenly talking like a Canadian, eh?"
"Shhh," Athaneal whispered. Here comes the rest of the party.
"Good, they are being seated next to the others. Perfect. I love it when a good plan comes together."
Steve, who had been staring at his menu for the last few minutes, suddenly looked up to see Joe staring at him. He watched the man for several seconds before it dawned on him that he recognized him. That was Joe Ponska, his Army buddy—well, associate, from years before. Joe was an oral surgeon who was deployed with him many years ago in Iraq. They worked together for their entire tour. The last time he saw Joe was… and then he remembered. His glance suddenly faded into the floor, and he prayed dearly that Joe hadn't recognized him.
Joe, who immediately noticed Steve, sat simmering in his booth, wishing he had the freedom to throttle Steve, who abandoned him—left him holding the bag—all those years ago. He'd dreamed so often of what he would do to him if ever given the opportunity. He hardly noticed the older couple sitting down between them.
The man and his wife sat awkwardly in their chairs. They were accustomed to finer dining than Bonkers. But they did win that free meal on the radio. Who would have thought that knowing about the movie The Horn Blows at Midnight would ever benefit them? "Well, dear," Peter asked. "What do you think? Should I go with the New York Strip, or the rack of ribs?"
"Oh no, Darling. You should never eat ribs this late at night. You'll be up all night looking for the Alka-Seltzer's if you do."
"What looks good to you, Samantha?"
"Oh, I will either have the Seared Ahi Tuna, or the Idaho Trout."
The Boundary County ambulance crew overheard her say Idaho Trout and immediately began to advise her on her diner selection. "Ma'am, if you don't mind me saying so, I'd go with the Idaho Trout. We're all from Idaho and there's two things Idaho is famous for. Trout is one of them. We're mighty proud of our fish up there."
Peter rolled his eyes and folded his menu, forcing himself to look at the table of Idaho emergency workers. "Yes, there is no way to express my appreciation for your insights…" and then his eyes met Steve's, and just as Steve, his eyes immediately went to the floor, praying that he had not been recognized. But it was too late. The wheels of destiny were already turning.
Samantha noticed her husband's sudden change of mood and glanced at the Idaho boys quizzically. When she saw Steve, her jaw fell. "Why, it's that…"
Peter was suddenly on his feet. "Come on, Samantha, no free meal is worth this much trouble."
Steve, feeling the pressure building from a wound many years old, stood to his feet. Sudden movement to his left caused his eyes to shift. Joe was now on his feet as well. And if the others were shocked, Joe was angry. A storm was brewing, and Hurricane Joe was about to land.
Samantha followed Steve's gaze and when her eyes landed on Joe's square jaw, her face drained of all color. "Oh dear…"
Peter moved fast for an ageing gentleman and placed himself between Joe and Samantha. He locked in on Joe and said, "We want no trouble."
Joe growled at him. "I've waited an entire lifetime for this moment."
Steve snapped into action and positioned himself between the belligerents. "Now hold on a minute, gentlemen. There's no need for violence."
Joe pressed closer. "There is every need for violence. I've wanted a piece of him for so long I can taste it."
Athaneal watched the chaos unfolding across the room and asked, "What's happening? How does this situation resolve a prayer request?"
Harney inhaled deeply. "Well, it's like this: Years ago, Joe was an oral surgeon in the Army and Steve was his nurse. They worked very well together, and they did a lot of good healing soldiers who were injured during the war. Joe was able to repair a lot of dental damages done when a soldier suffered a head wound. He helped a lot of soldiers get back on their feet.
"Peter, there, was the commanding general of his post. Peter was the man in charge, and he didn't need or desire anyone's help when it came to managing his post or his troops. Samantha, his wife, came to their camp in Iraq with an USO tour. One day, the actors and singers with the tour were visiting the injured soldiers. Samantha was with them. They went from bed to bed and shook every soldier's hand. One soldier recognized Samantha as the Commanding General's wife and thought it would be funny to give her a gift. It was a live grenade, and the only thing that had to happen was to pull the pin, and it would explode. Samantha never imagined that it wasn't a dummy grenade, so she was walking around playing with it. Joe and Steve noticed what she was doing, and Joe tried to get the grenade out of her hand. She wasn't interested in surrendering her new play pretty to anyone. She was only playing when she did it, but she reached up to pull the pin, and Joe, fearing for the lives of everyone in the room, hit her on the jaw, knocking her cold. She collapsed on the floor and he collected the grenade, which he handed to Steve and told him to make it disappear.
"When the General's wife came too, she was lying on a gurney with a broken jaw. She was humiliated and immediately accused Joe of attacking her. Joe tried his best to explain the matter, but the General refused to hear any explanations. He ordered Joe to a Court Martial hearing. At the trial, Joe tried to explain his actions, but it was his word against her word."
"What about Steve? Wasn't he there?"
"Yes, he was. But Steve was afraid of crossing the General and allowed Joe to go down for something he didn't do. The truth was covered up, and he has lived with that guilt for the rest of his years."
"What about his petition? He said he had a problem with his pockets. Wasn't that a request about the money he lost in Vegas?"
Harney shook his head. "Not at all. He stuffed the grenade in his pocket all those years ago. Somehow he managed to make it home with that live grenade, and has had it in his pocket all those years."
"Humans. There's no way to understand them."
Steve, now standing between the belligerent parties and said, "General, Sir? I have to say something."
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"My name is Steve Collins. I served under your command in Iraq, and I served with Joe as well. I was there the day Joe hit your wife. And I have to say, Joe was wrongly accused. He's innocent of all charges."
Joe watched him for a moment, and then backed away a few steps. The General snorted his response. "What in blazes are you talking about?"
Samantha placed a hand on her husband's shoulder and calmly said. "I think he's trying to right a wrong. Years ago when I was touring with the USO, when I was attacked by Joe, there was more to the story than anyone knew. I had asked Steve to help me with some headaches that I had been having, and after some persuading, he snagged me some pain medicine. I took more of them than I was supposed to, and I was a little high. When the soldier gave me the grenade, I was not in my right mind, and I was pretending to pull the pin. Joe tried to stop me, but I was too high to know it. If he hadn't of struck me, I would have killed us all. We owe him our lives. Instead, we sent him to prison and ruined his life."
Peter's shoulders fell. "Is that true?"
Steve stepped forward. "It is all true. Worse, I lied about it because I was afraid I would loose my next promotion if I was discovered for illegally supplying narcotics. So I allowed a good man to suffer for what I did wrong. And now I can't live with the guilt anymore." He thrust his hand into his pocket and produced the grenade. "I'm sorry, but I have to end it all." His hand went to the pin and his finger slipped through the ring.
The General watched Joe for several minutes, and then at his wife. After a moment, he exhaled loudly. "Joe, I have no way of expressing how sorry I am for what happened to you. I can promise that I will restore everything I can to you, and do everything in my power to make it right."
"What about him?" Joe was pointing at Steve.
"Has he suffered enough?"
Samantha jumped into the conversation. "I sincerely doubt that he has suffered enough, but I suggest that both of you consider showing him mercy. We all deserve worse than we receive. I think we should show mercy in this situation, and I think it should begin right here, at this very moment."
Athaneal clapped his hands together fiercely. "Man, I really love humans. Sometimes they can really surprise you."
Harney nodded. "That is one of the reasons God loves them so much. And it is also why He was willing to die for them. He wanted them to have mercy as well, no matter what they deserved."
The waiter was suddenly behind them. "Hey, if you two pixies are finished, I'd like to clean your table and get some real customers in here."