Goodness nodded.

“As for you, Mercy . . .” He looked down over his notes and, flustered, ran a hand over his face. He glanced up at the third angel. “Oh my, you’re going to need all the help you can get.”

Five

“Gabriel handed you an assignment on a piece of paper.” Goodness was offended on Shirley’s behalf, and rightly so. Never in their two-year history of working the Christmas holiday prayer rush had they been treated so shabbily. It was downright degrading.

“It might not be so bad,” Mercy suggested, gathering close to her friend’s side. The third angel was the peacemaker of the group. “The least we can do is give Gabriel the benefit of the doubt.”

Shirley peeled open the folded sheet. Goodness and Mercy crowded close in an effort to read over her shoulder.

“The prayer request is from Craig Houle,” the angel told them. “He’s ten and has asked God for a chess set for Christmas.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” Mercy flapped her wings in a display of disgust. “A chess set for a ten-year-old boy. Why, that’s an insult to our good names.”

“We have a tradition to uphold.”

Goodness couldn’t stay in one spot, not when she was this angry. “It’s a matter of pride. If anyone could help Brynn Cassidy with those high schoolers, it’s Shirley. This other stuff is child’s play.”

“Exactly!” Shirley declared. “We have something to prove, so let’s do it.”

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Indignant, the three returned to earth, their feathers in a dither, swirling down on the unsuspecting city like the Horsemen due from the Apocalypse.

“Exactly where does this Craig Houle live?” Goodness demanded as the three hovered over the Queensboro Bridge. Gabriel should count his blessings. There was a time, not so long past, when Goodness would have taken delight in dallying with streetlights and rerouting New York City traffic.

“According to this, Craig lives on Roosevelt Island,” Shirley answered, reading over the request form. “At this time of day, he’s most likely in school.”

“Yes, but it’s his parents we need to influence, right?” Mercy asked, thinking on her feet—er, wings.

“Right,” the other two agreed.

“Then all we need do is convince his mother or father to do a little pre-Christmas shopping.”

Goodness made a tsk-tsk sound. “I think it’s time we taught Gabriel a lesson on just how good we are.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever been more offended,” Shirley said as the three briskly headed toward Roosevelt Island.

Peggy Houle walked down the quiet hospital corridor and sat at the nurses’ station. Her rubber soles barely made a sound on the polished tile floor.

She started to make a notation in one of her patient’s charts when she noticed a newspaper spread open across the top of the counter.

“That’s odd,” she mumbled to herself, and scooted the paper aside.

She looked around, wondering who’d left it. One thing was certain: none of the nurses were accorded the luxury of sitting down and reading. Not while on duty, at any rate. The hospital was short-staffed as it was, and breaks, even the ones allotted them in the terms of their contract, were often few and far between.

“My dogs are barking.” Ellen Freeman, another nurse, joined Peggy. She slipped off her shoe and rubbed her sore toes. “This is what I get for not breaking in these new shoes first.” She reached for the newspaper. “Who left this?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t here five minutes ago.”

“Look,” Ellen said, pointing to the printed page. “There’s a gigantic toy sale going on for the next couple of days. I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping.”

“I was finished last week,” Peggy said, feeling almost smug. She’d hit the stores her first day off following Thanksgiving and finished it all in one fell swoop—wrapping paper, new decorations, tinsel, the whole nine yards.

There wasn’t a reason on this earth good enough for her to voluntarily step inside a store again in the whole month of December. Not when it seemed the entire city had gone crazy. At the end of her shift all Peggy wanted to do was head home.

“I’ve been thinking I’d buy the kids educational gifts this year,” Ellen murmured. “Something that will stir their minds instead of those brainless television games. I can’t tell you how sick I am of them sitting like zombies holding on to their joysticks.”

“A chess set?” Peggy said, and snapped her head back, startled.

“A chess set,” Ellen repeated, oblivious of her friend’s chagrin. “Now that I think about it, you’re right. A chess set is an excellent idea.”

“What did I just say?”

“A chess set.” Ellen looked up, surprised. “Is something wrong?”

“No . . . the funniest thing just happened.” Peggy slapped the side of her head, hoping that would help.

“What?” Ellen was curious now.

“The words a chess set echoed in my ear. Three times, and each time I swear I was hearing a different voice.”

“I still think it’s an excellent idea,” Ellen said, and replaced her shoe. “Are you sure you won’t come to the toy store with me?”

“Ah . . .” Peggy hesitated, then found herself agreeing. “Sure,” she mumbled, “why not?” For the life of her, she couldn’t imagine why she was doing such a thing. “Who knows, maybe Craig would be interested in learning how to play chess himself,” she said to justify her actions. After all, it was a good idea. Her son would enjoy learning the game.

Peggy leaned back on her chair. Abruptly she shook her head, then repeatedly slapped her hand against her ear. “It happened again,” she said incredulously.

“You heard the words a chess set?”

“No,” Peggy said, and shook her head like a dog fresh out of the water. “It was the same three voices, only this time they said . . .”

“Yes,” Ellen prodded.

“You aren’t going to believe this.” Peggy wasn’t entirely sure she believed it herself. “Piece of cake,” she mumbled, and shrugged, completely baffled.

“Oh, my,” Shirley said, pointing into the distance. “Brynn Cassidy’s in trouble.” It was just what she’d expected would happen.

“Trouble?” Mercy repeated. “What’s wrong?”

Cocky with their success, Goodness brushed the grit from her hands. “Trouble’s our middle name. Brynn doesn’t have a thing to worry about.”

“Brynn might not, but we do,” Mercy said, looking skeptical. “Gabriel isn’t going to like this one bit. Not after the warning he gave us to stay away from her.”

“Brynn’s car won’t start,” Shirley informed her friends, her voice growing more concerned. “And I don’t like the looks of those men, either.” Clad in black leather jackets, two men stood on the other side of the chain-link fence, watching Brynn.

Brynn climbed out of her car and opened the hood. She cast a wary eye toward the men.

“If ever I’ve seen anyone with evil intentions, it’s those two,” Shirley informed her friends.

“They’ve got knives,” Mercy said, tugging on Goodness’s sleeve.

“We’ve got to do something,” Shirley cried, hoping to hide her panic.

“You don’t dare,” Goodness insisted, gripping Shirley by the arm and stopping her. “Mercy’s right. If Gabriel finds out, it’d be just the excuse he’s looking for to stick us with guard duty.”

“Then I’ll take matters into my own hands,” Shirley insisted.

“Talk to Gabriel,” Mercy suggested. “Goodness and I can keep those two thugs occupied while you reason this out with him.”

“Did I hear someone mention my name?” Gabriel appeared just then, startling the three angels.

“Gabriel,” Shirley said boldly, “we need to talk.”

“Indeed we do. What’s this I hear about Peggy Houle experiencing hearing problems?”

Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy clammed up so fast their teeth made clicking sounds when their jaws closed.

“I strongly suspect a bit of . . . intercession.”

“I have a question of my own.” Shirley stepped forward and bravely confronted the archangel. “Exactly whom have you assigned to work with Brynn Cassidy?”

Gabriel hesitated. “As a matter of course, I hadn’t gotten around to choosing anyone just yet.”

This was all Shirley needed to hear. “It’s exactly as I suspected,” she turned to inform her two friends with an indignant huff. “In the meantime Brynn Cassidy flounders, while heaven looks on unconcerned.”

When she dared, Shirley chanced a look in his direction. “I want in,” she informed Gabriel, her hand braced against her hip.

“What makes you think you can handle this case?” Gabriel’s intense eyes burned holes straight into her.

“I can’t,” Shirley admitted. “At least not alone, but I have two friends who can help. In addition to . . .”

“Yes,” Gabriel prodded.

“In addition to my friends, there’s you.”

“Me?”

“And a host of heavenly assistance that’s always on call.”

Gabriel sighed. “You just might need it.”

Shirley opened her mouth to further her argument, then realized what the archangel had said. “You mean to say you’re willing to give me the assignment?” The winds of indignity that had ruffled her sails fell slack. “Really?”

From the tight set of his mouth, the archangel looked as if he already regretted this. “One condition. You must agree to call for help when you need it.”

“I promise,” Shirley said solemnly, and smiled at her two friends.

“Just remember we can accomplish all things with the power of God.”

“All things,” Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy repeated.

“We’ll start right now,” Gabriel suggested. “I’ll let you take care of the problem of those two malcontents.”

“Sure thing,” Shirley said, eager to get started on the assignment now that it was officially hers. She eyed the two men watching Brynn, and almost felt sorry for them. It seemed to her they were prime candidates for a bit of intervention. Perhaps they should meet up with an old friend, one they weren’t eager to see. Like their parole officer. Angel Shirley in disguise.

“I sincerely hope you know a good mechanic.” Gabriel cast his gaze over to the disabled vehicle; then without a sound, without a clue, he disappeared.

“We do know a good mechanic, don’t we?” Shirley asked, looking to her friends.

Goodness and Mercy stared back blankly.

“No,” said Mercy to Shirley. “We thought you did.”

It was barely after four and already the sky was growing dark. Within a half hour night would settle over the city like a black velvet quilt.