Okay, so maybe I'm going soft. Why else would I be down on my knees, picking beets in the garden, to hand off to Muriel? I'm tugging them from the rich dirt and passing them back to her when I hear a deep chuckle. I don't even have to turn my head to know who it came from.
"Glad we can entertain you," I tell Saint Pete.
"Sorry, but I never thought I'd see you on your knees," he says.
"Enjoy it while you can. This is the only place it's going to happen."
He smiles and leans on the garden gate, all neighborly. "We can grow anything up here, no bugs, no blights, always a harvest. What are you going to do with those?"
I watch him, suspicious. Pete's usually too busy to saunter around heaven making casual visits. Every time we've met before, it's ended up being work for me. Muriel's new here, though, so she hasn't dealt with him much. She proudly holds out her full basket and says, "I want to can pickled beets. My dad loves them."
Pete nods, ready to move on. "I used to love pickled herring, but not up here. Vegetarian's the way to go."
"There's no death or suffering," Muriel says. "It's wonderful."
Pete stops and turns to look at her. "But you're suffering. Something's bothering you, I can tell. How are things going with your grandson?"
"Not well." Her face clouds, and a tinge of worry frizzles in my belly. I don't like seeing Muriel upset.
Pete nods my way. "Lenny here's pretty good at solving problems. You should tell him about it."
And then I get it. That's why Pete showed up. It's another set-up, but if it involves Muriel, he knows he's hooked me. Once he's gone, Muriel says, "Let's call it a day. I have enough beets. Would you like to come in for a glass of iced tea?" No mention of her grandson. Muriel doesn’t like to burden people with her problems.
I follow her into her cozy cabin. Muriel's idea of heaven is continual harvests, recipes that never fail, and a multitude of friends who drop in for meals. Lucky for me, I'm one of the latter. Maybe more. Since Muriel died and came to the fourth level of heaven—my placement in the seven steps of the hereafter—I've spent more and more time with her. It's different up here. No lust or quickie affairs…my specialties when I was alive and kicking on earth. (Of course, that's one of the reasons Pete swears I never made it to a higher level, that and some of the shady deals I made as a small time lawyer.) But the depth of my friendship for Muriel more than makes up for one night stands and sleazy bedroom games. That makes me think.
"Why are you a level four?" I ask when she hands me my tea.
"Because I like it. It's what I chose."
"Why? You could have gone higher. You're an honorable, decent person."
She shakes her head. "The higher you go, the more spiritual you become. I like to garden. I love the earth. Eden is the place for me, and that's this level."
I have to agree. When I had the chance to move up a notch, I decided to stay put. And I'm glad I did, especially since Muriel showed up. I take the plunge and ask the question. "What's the deal? What's bothering you? If Pete's worried about you, something's up."
She sighs. "You know we can pop down once in a while and check on the loved ones we left behind."
I nod. It's sort of a transition thing. Your spirit comes to heaven, but you've formed bonds and friendships with people you leave behind. It doesn't last long. Soon, in the old blink of an eye type thing, they're here too. But they pull on you in the meantime. If I'd had anyone I was close to, I might have been tempted to check on them, but as it was, my parents were already up here, level twos, when it was my time. They came to get me and lead me Home. Not a promising start since they were crappy parents at best. My dad had a kid with his first wife, but I never met her, so she's no big draw. Maybe if I hadn't died when I was only thirty-four, things would have been different, but as it was, no one mourned me for more than a few minutes when Rocky Monroe put a bullet through my skull for not winning his brother's case. 'Course when your client's caught plunging a murder weapon into someone for the sixth time, it's a little hard to convince a jury he didn't do it. Rocky didn't see it that way. He was never easy to reason with.
Muriel wipes at the corner of her eyes, and I'm yanked out of my memories. "What's up?" I ask.
"My grandson's in trouble. The police raided his apartment and found a load of stolen goods in his garage. He swears he didn't take them, but the police have a description of a vehicle, and it fits his van."
Boy, does this sound familiar. Pike the Shank always came to me with bedtime stories just like this one. He was always innocent.
"You believe him?" I ask.
Muriel gives a quick nod. "Sam would never steal. He was a Boy Scout and earned his Eagle badge. He's a high school counselor, graduated and got his job two years ago. He always wanted to help people."
"Every cookie grandma swears her kids are angels."
"You know, the type that bakes goodies for the kids when they come home from school, the number one fan of young ax murderers."
She raises a dark eyebrow. "Do I look like a pushover?"
No, she looks smart and no-nonsense and damned attractive. She was in her eighties when she died, but up here, we're all thirty, and Muriel at thirty is one hell of a good-looking woman. "You're his granny," I say. "You have a blind spot. Does he have a good lawyer?"
"I'm not sure that's enough." She looks worried, starts to say more, but stops.
It's the only opening I'm going to get. She won't come out and ask me, put me on the spot. "If I go down and poke around, will it ruin things between us if I find out he's guilty?" I don't know what happened between her and her ex—a level three who she never visits—but I don't want to make the same mistake.
She leans forward and gives me a hug. "You'd do that for me?"
"Anything for you, lady." I finish my tea and start for the door. "I'll let you know as soon as I learn something." I leave her to her canning and go to find Saint Pete. As usual, he's in processing, determining which new arrivals go to which level—sort of like Hogwart's Sorting Hat, but we're in school a lot longer.
"Wait a minute." Pete holds up a hand. "You want to flit back and forth from here to earth to help a mortal, and there's nothing in it for you?"
"It's a favor for Muriel," I say, offended.
Pete smiles. "And what do you get in return?"
"I like Muriel. I want her to be happy."
He shakes his head. "I've got to hand it to you, Lenny, you're starting to fit into level four really well."
"Hey, it's the right spot for me, okay? Not like level five where they get their kicks, sitting in coffee shops, talking religion and philosophy all day or stuck in a cloister, studying with the masters. Booooooring!"
Pete laughs. "Then go for it. Dig in. See if this kid deserves help or not."
"And if he does?" I ask.
"Technically, we're not supposed to interfere," Pete says.
"But off the record?"
His chuckle deepens. "Maybe we can cut a deal."
It's all I need. I think the name Sam and pop down to earth into his living room. He's pacing while I watch from the corner. One of his college buddies, a lawyer, is talking legalese, and Sam's frowning, worried. "I didn't do it," he says when his friend runs out of words. "Why should I cut a deal when I'm innocent?"
"It's only a last resort," the friend says. "The cops found the stolen goods and a witness saw your van. You're the only person who has a key to your garage, the only person with a key to your vehicle. You said so yourself. You're screwed, Sam."
"Then why am I out on bail instead of sitting in jail?"
"The cops must still have a few doubts, but they're not looking too hard for anyone else. They're too busy, so once you go to trial, it's all over except for the sound of the key turning in the lock."
"I'm not saying I'm guilty when I'm not."
"Then start praying for a miracle."
I'm no miracle, but after seeing the kid, I think Muriel might be right about her grandson. The kid's either a really good liar, or else he's been set up. I want to know one way or the other, to put Muriel's mind at rest. But where to start? Muriel said that Sam was a high school counselor, that he always wanted to help people. I decide to make the high school my first stop. I tune my mind to the heavens and say, "I need the name of the school." The Universe responds immediately, East Side High. I think the name and find myself in the principal's office.
Principal Yeats is facing a group of mutinous teens. "I'm sure you've heard about Counselor Trammel by now. He's under investigation, so we can't really let him meet with any of you until he's acquitted, which I'm sure will happen. I've never met a finer man, and I know you'll all miss him, but in the meantime, we have a substitute to take his place, Miss Eleanor Griffin."
I look at Eleanor Griffin and do a double take. A profusion of ruffles on a thirty-something woman with bleached blond hair and bright blue eye shadow is downright scary. The kids seem to feel the same way.
"I don't talk to anyone but Mr. Trammel," a young girl in torn jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black cap says. She glares a challenge at Eleanor Griffin.
"I understand exactly how you feel," Eleanor tells her. "Mr. Trammel was an exceptionally empathetic young man. You must be devastated without him, and I have no desire to take his place. I've only come to listen to you if you have an urgent problem that needs prompt attention. I'm only a substitute, not a replacement."
The kids in the room eye her warily. So do I, but the principal seems relieved. "Good, that's finished. Back to your classes, then, and when it's your usual time to meet with Mr. Trammel, you'll see Miss Griffin instead."
I spend the rest of the day, sitting in on Miss Griffin's sessions. Mostly, they don't amount to much. The kids don't trust her, won't talk to her. She takes this in her stride and asks innocuous questions, trying to break the ice. It's pretty slow going until after lunch when a kid named Toke comes to see her.
Miss Griffin glances at his records. "Mr. Trammel has seen you for two years?"
"Was there anything in particular that you were working on?"
"We just talked."
Miss Griffin looks up. "Is there anything you'd care to talk about today?"
Miss Griffin keeps her voice level. "This appears to be a very pleasant learning institution to me."
"Institution—you got that right. They treat us like prisoners, always telling us what to do."
"How else can they get you to learn?"
"They can't do that anyway, can they?"
Miss Griffin pulls out a sheet with Toke's grades on it. "Obviously not, but a student has to be willing, doesn't he?"
Toke laughs. "What did they do, send us a comedian? Are you trying to crack me up?"
"Did you find Mr. Trammel funny?" Miss Griffin snaps.
"No, he was just pathetic."
"In what way?"
"Like a Sunday School teacher set loose on us, always telling us to respect ourselves and other people, but I need to talk to him. Those feelings are coming back."
"I only talk to Mr. Trammel. Can I call him at home? Or can you let him know that I want him to call me?"
Miss Griffin looks offended, but then she gives Toke a worried look. "And if I can't reach him?"
"Then it will be on your head what happens."
Her eyes widen. "I'll call Mr. Trammel and tell him about your problem."
"I don't have a problem." Toke gives her a withering look.
Miss Griffin looks down at her notes. "Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?"
"Just make sure Mr. Trammel calls me." Toke gets up and leaves the room.
Miss Griffin's day doesn't get any better. I feel sorry for her as I see one messed up kid after another come in for counseling. When the day's done, she looks whipped, and the kids don't look much better. Whatever Muriel's grandson was doing, he seemed to be helping them, and now that his help is gone, the kids are floundering and angry.
I follow Miss Griffin out of her office and try to decide what to do next. I'm thinking about tracking down Sam's friend, the lawyer, when I realize that Miss Griffin is sitting in her car, pretending to go over notes, but glancing up every time the school doors open. Interesting. One good thing about life after death is that time loses importance. I can stall too. It's not long before one of the custodians—a guy in his mid-twenties—saunters across the parking lot and drops an envelope through her open window. Then he keeps going. Miss Griffin starts her car and drives away with me sitting in the back seat, her invisible, little passenger.
She looks at the envelope when she stops at a red light, reads the address on the front of it, and changes direction. She heads to an auto repair shop on the east side of town. The big, garage doors are down and she gives three short beeps. The doors open, and in she goes.
"Hey, Ellie, what you got for us?" the main mechanic asks when she climbs out of her car.
"Teddy sent this." She hands him the envelope. "It's perfect. The calculus teacher owns a lake cottage with a big, two-car garage across the street from the house. He closes the cottage every year before school starts. No one will be up there till spring."
The man opens the envelope and takes out a key. "How did Teddy get this one?"
"Jeff leaves his key ring in his top desk drawer, and when he went for lunch, Teddy made an impression."
"And none of these brainiacs lock anything?"
"Sure they do, but Teddy has the master keys to everything."
The guy nods. "My son's no slacker. He knows his stuff. He came through at the right time too. We're making a run this weekend."
Miss Griffin smiles. "Gotta go. Teddy's stopping by tonight for supper. I promised him ribeyes." She sways her hips while she walks to her car. She's feeling pretty perky.
I wait until she drives away. The minute she's out of sight, the men start laughing.
"Give that girl a poke or two and she'll do anything," Ted's dad says.
His assistant snickers. "I've gotta hand it to Teddy. I wouldn't try anything with an uptight girl like her, but boy, when she lets loose, she's a wild thing."
They get cruder from there, and I decide to leave. Even at my worst, I didn't sink as low as these guys. I think the name Eleanor Griffin and find her at her apartment, mixing soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, honey and fresh ginger into a plastic bag to marinate the steaks. She's humming as she starts a salad. Soon, someone knocks at the door and Teddy comes in. He walks straight to her and sweeps her into his arms.
"Teddy, the steaks…." She giggles.
"Food can wait." He starts unbuttoning her frilly blouse.
"Not yet. Everything's ready. We should eat first." She gives him a small push and flips the steaks over on the hot, stove-top grill.
"Did you get the key to my dad?"
"Of course." And then she remembers. "I need to call Mr. Trammel about a kid I saw today. It sounded important."
Teddy grabs her wrist as she reaches for the phone. "Who cares? He's a kid. Everything's life and death to them."
"But you used Sam's keys so that I could take his place and we could work in the same building. I don't want to mess that up."
"Later." Teddy steps behind her to nuzzle her ear.
I don't stay to see if they eat first or not. I start to worry about Toke and think his name. In a flash, I'm in a rundown apartment. Toke's in an empty bedroom, except for a mattress with tangled blankets, tossed on the floor. The door's locked and someone's pounding on the other side. Toke has his ears covered, trying to block out whoever's there.
"I know you're in there, you little shit!" a man's voice screams. "Let me in, or I'll break down this door, and then you'll really be sorry."
Toke caresses a rope he holds in his hands. He looks out the window at a fire escape. Metal. Strong enough to hang himself . A kick shakes the door. It almost gives, and Toke gets to his feet. No way in hell am I letting this happen. Before he can crawl out the window to the metal steps, I slam it shut. Toke jumps back and stares. "Who's there?"
The door crashes open and Toke drops his rope. A looming, six-foot-five, overweight bar crawler steps into the room. He holds up a broken beer glass. "See this? It wasn't broken when I left for work this morning. Is this what I get for letting you come to live with me instead of staying with your mom? My favorite glass broken! I'll show you…." He lifts the jagged edge to slash Toke's arm, but I've seen enough. I grab Toke's rope off the floor and rush him. "What the…?????" I wrap the rope around his neck and start to pull. His eyes bulge as he stares at Toke. "What's going on?"
"I think your place is haunted."
Toke's dad chokes and sputters, but he can't get away from me. I don't pull tight enough to cut into his skin, just enough to keep the pressure on.
"Make it stop!" he yells.
Toke looks around, wide-eyed. "Ghost, stop. Please. He's my dad."
I take a chance and say, "Some dad! He was going to cut you!"
Miracles do happen, because both Toke and his dad can hear me.
"I wasn't going to hurt him much," the dad pleads. "Just a little, to teach him a lesson."
"You're the one who needs lessons," I say. "Touch one hair on his head ever again, and I'll finish you."
"Who the hell are you?" the dad growls.
"I'm a damned angel, and I'm pissed off." I tighten the rope a tad. "Don't make me come down here again."
"Never again," the dad says.
He tries to pry the rope off his neck, like I'm going to let him off that easy. I turn the idiot toward Toke and say, "It's your call. Do you want him or not?"
"Don't hurt him." Toke rushes forward, grabs the rope, and pulls it loose.
I give the dad a shove and he falls forward, sprawling on the mattress. "Your kid's nicer than I am. Touch him again, and no one will save you. Got that?"
The dad nods, sits up, and takes a deep breath. "No more beatings. I swear."
"See to it." I try to think of some special effect that will burn itself into the doofus's tiny brain, and bless Saint Pete, a huge head with pointed horns and jagged teeth flares like fire across the walls. Clever gatekeeper! I'm impressed. The dad backs away, whimpering. "I'll be good to him. Wait and see."
"I'll be watching," I say and think myself back to Eleanor's apartment. Thank goodness, Teddy's backing out of her bedroom, his slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am finished. Eleanor's curled under a sheet, half-asleep, a smile on her face.
"See you tomorrow," Teddy whispers as he leaves. "See you at school, heart breaker."
She smiles, and so does he, but his is a self-satisfied smirk. When he locks her apartment door behind him, he starts to whistle as he jaunts to his car. I ride with him to a bar where a tall, lithe blond is waiting for him.
"Did you make Ellie happy?" the girl teases.
"Don't I make every woman happy?" He bends to give her a long, slow kiss.
I've seen enough. Sam's innocent. I know that now. On top of that, he's not the only one who's going to suffer because of Teddy's mess. There are kids who depend on Sam to help them. They need him. And then I stop in my tracks. Saint Pete already knew all this. That's why he sent me. It was another set up. For one second, I'm angry. The old gate keeper has been a step ahead of me all the time. And then I think of the whole slew of misery that's going to spin off this small time scam, and a part of me is proud that Saint Pete came to me to fix things. Well, by God, I won't drop the ball. I'm going to make a difference. One way or another, I’m not letting any of these people down.
But what to do?
I pop back into Sam's apartment and try to think. How far will Saint Pete bend the rules? And then inspiration hits me. I wait until early morning, then think myself to the garage again, grab the envelope with the teacher's address and key, and think myself to the police station, to the detective's desk who's working Sam's case. I leave everything on his desk and wait. When he comes in to start his shift, he picks up the envelope and turns on his computer. He tracks the address on the envelope and sits at his desk, deep in thought.
The next day, I tag along with the detective to East Side High. He talks to Principal Yeats and the teacher with the lake cottage, who shows him his keys locked in his top desk drawer. After asking both men to keep things quiet and confidential, he leaves the building, but comes back when it's time for school to let out. I sit and wait with him in his unmarked car. When Teddy leaves the building, we follow him at a discreet distance. Just like the previous night, Teddy stops to have dinner with Eleanor Griffin. When he leaves there, Eleanor goes to his dad's garage to set things up for Saturday. I watch the detective's face as things click into place. I decide to stay an extra day so that I can ride with him when he makes the bust and Teddy, his dad, and Eleanor Griffin are hauled in for questioning. By the time I head for Home, I'm in an excellent mood, and I have good news for Muriel.
Later that week, Saint Pete comes to lean on Muriel's garden gate. I'm handing her tomatoes and peppers for a gazpacho she wants to try.
Pete smiles and says, "Heard about your grandson, Muriel. Lenny here did him proud."
She beams. "I never knew Lenny had so many hidden talents."
Pete looks my way. "Toke's doing lots better too."
I give him a level stare. "Just ask me next time, don't set me up."
"I wasn't sure you'd say yes."
I raise an eyebrow. "You needed me, didn't you? You need shmucks like me. We can do stuff you can't."
Pete smiles. "Everything's a matter of free will and choice, but I've never called you a shmuck, Lenny. You're a lawyer with potential."
"Don't get any ideas," I tell him. "I only take on jobs that interest me these days."
His smile widens. "That's the thing about heaven. There are always endless possibilities."
I shake my head. "I'm a simple man. Heaven to me is a good meal, cold beer, and a wonderful woman."
"That's why you're level four," he says.
"Eden. Not such a bad stopping place."
"You've earned it, Lenny. Thanks for the help."
I don't give the standard reply. I'm not about to say "Anytime." Saint Pete just might take me up on it. He's that kind of guy.