"Your father is dying," the note said. "Come home at once."
For the life of me, I couldn't have told you how that note ended up on my desk. I had been in meetings all afternoon, arguing with the managing partner, Roy Blackwell, about why our law firm shouldn't close another real estate transaction for Dr. Frank Grandy. The good doctor was a charming elderly man with a lot of old New York money and no common sense whatsoever. Manhattan is among the priciest real estate markets in America, and there is plenty of money to be made there by savvy investors. There are a lot of bad investments, too, though, and Dr. Grandy had an unfailing knack for finding them. Allowing him to spend another several million on a property that was bound to lose value the instant he bought it seemed downright criminal.
I lost the battle, of course. The firm's share of the money involved in the deal would be enormous, and our managing partner's lust for that money easily trumped any argument I could make. Defeated, I stomped back into my office, trying not to acknowledge the triumphant smile on the face of Mark Davenport, a soft, sweaty fellow in a Brooks Brothers suit and Harvard club tie. Davenport made partner about the same time I did, and he was Roy Blackwell's favorite stooge. Davenport's entire legal practice seemed to consist of separating wealthy, trusting people from their money in one way or another.
Blackwell himself was the Hollywood image of a senior partner in a Wall Street law firm. He was fit, tanned, and handsome, in a Spencer Tracyish sort of way. Blackwell was always immaculately dressed in hand-tailored suits and Italian shoes, with nary a strand of his silver mane out of place. He wouldn't have tolerated the damp, sycophantic Davenport for an instant if the younger man hadn't been so willing to suck money out of clients on the firm's behalf.
The note was sitting in the center of my desk, its graceful strokes of black ink starkly noticeable on the rectangle of rich, ivory parchment. Even half-buried in the jumble of files, memos, legal magazines, and an unfinished mug of cold coffee, the note was impossible to overlook, seeming to glow as if lit from within by a thousand candles. "Come home at once," it insisted, in an elegant, old-fashioned script.
I crumpled it up and tossed it in the trash.
Then I loaded up my briefcase with the Grandy transaction files and left for the day. The note had annoyed me for some reason, and I was annoyed enough already. There are lots of ways to spend a pleasant evening in New York, and reviewing real estate documents isn't one of them. Still, there might be something in the files to bolster my opposition to the deal, which was going to close soon. If I wanted to protect poor Dr. Grandy from losing another big chunk of his inheritance, I didn't have time to waste.
My law firm was located across the street from the Wall Street stop on the Broadway-Seventh Avenue subway line, my habitual transportation home at the end of the day. The trip might have intimidated an out-of-towner, but I found it no worse than usual. Lawyers, stockbrokers, working people of all stripes, students, tourists, and beggars all crammed together in a chaotic mass ofjostling humanity. The car was hot, slightly smelly, and intensely uncomfortable — exactly what I had come to expect at the end of a typical workday in New York.
As the subway rumbled north from Wall Street, a big, lanky man of indeterminate age and heritage — Jamaican, perhaps — shoved his way into the car, raspberry-tinted dreadlocks flowing behind him. He was dressed in baggy jeans, a Bob Marley T-shirt, and ratty sneakers, and the combination made him look like some kind of urban fairy. Sure enough, the man was a busker, one of the many street musicians who haunt the New York subways in search of a meager living. I saw more than one tired New Yorker look up and smile as he sang an island working song, conjuring images of blue skies, green fields, and the sweet smell of sugarcane.
Finished, the singer worked his way through the subway car, shaking an empty coffee can. I reached into my wallet and gave him twenty dollars. It was a huge tip for a busker, but his song had touched me, though for what reason I couldn't say. He smiled, revealing one slightly crooked gold tooth, and his chocolate-brown eyes crinkled. "Come home at once," he said to me. He winked and then vanished into the crowd of commuters, looking for his next audience.
Had I misheard him? Was it just a coincidence that his words seemed to echo the anonymous, discarded note? Whatever was going on, the singer's words startled me. That increased my irritation, so I chose to ignore the coincidence.
The train lurched, slowed, and then stopped at the 79 Street station. I tightened my grip on my briefcase, pushed past the other passengers, and left the train. It was late, I was tired, and it was time to go home.
My apartment was on the Upper West Side of New York City, three blocks from the subway and not far from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. I had moved there for convenient subway access but stayed for the neighborhood's bohemian charm and for the kaleidoscope of ethnic restaurants, artsy shops, and chic boutiques — which my work schedule, admittedly, left me precious little time to enjoy. Still, just walking through the neighborhood every day was a treat, so long as I wasn't so preoccupied with some client's legal troubles that I forgot to look around.
My place wasn't huge — no rationally priced Manhattan apartment is — but it was just enough for my elderly Siamese cat, Honoré, and me. The ceilings were high, the woodwork was more than one hundred years old, and the lovely, tall Palladian windows looked north, out onto a magnificent city that came into being centuries before I was born and will continue to thrive long after I am gone.
So I'm a closet romantic, OK? Nobody's perfect.
Given my starry-eyed secret tendencies, I probably shouldn't have been surprised by what happened next. I opened the door to my apartment, and there sat Honoré on the original hardwood floor, preposterously dignified as only a mature Siamese cat can be. A piece of crumpled parchment rested between his paws, and I didn't even have to smooth it out to know what it said. "Your father is dying. Come home at once."
Oh, come on.
If this all seems a little far-fetched to you, join the club. Long ago, when I still had my baby teeth, and a world of incredible possibilities lay ahead of me, I believed in absolutely everything: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Great Pumpkin, you name it. My mother encouraged me, my beautiful, enchanting, and utterly impractical mother, who vanished without a trace one October night when I was thirteen years old. She went out for something — a PTA meeting, a church social, girls' night out — your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that she never came home.
My father called the police, filed the right reports, made the right inquiries, consulted the right people, and soldiered on exactly as everyone said he should. He was a model of perfect rectitude. And if he wasn't able to console his confused, heartbroken daughter, well, who could blame him, when he was obviously trying so hard?
I don't think my father ever realized that after my mother disappeared I left my bedroom window open every single night. I still don't know why. Even if she returned, my mother would hardly have come crawling over my windowsill at two o'clock in the morning. I guess it was sort of like lighting a candle in the window, a symbol of my hope that God or the angels or even Peter Pan would bring her back. It wasn't until early February, after the temperatures dipped so low that I shivered sleepless under two blankets for a week straight, that I finally closed the window. That was the night when I finally admitted to myself that she wasn't coming back.
Shortly thereafter, my father clumsily presented me with a Siamese kitten. He was barely three months old, a fuzzy scrap of fawn-colored fur with bright blue eyes and a brown smudge on his nose that would grow into an elegant bandit's mask. He was so tiny that he could settle down into my two cupped hands, but he had the heart of a lion even then. I named him Honoré for the debonair bon vivant that Maurice Chevalier portrayed in Gigi, my mother's favorite movie. For once, my father didn't disparage or try to improve on my choice. Little Honoré cuddled up against my jawbone night after night, the warmest thing in my drafty room, purring his tiny heart out and giving me something solid to cling to while I slept.
It's embarrassing to admit it, but Honoré became my oldest and closest friend. We grew up together, lounging for hours at a time on my bed as social studies reports and debate club projects gave way to college term papers and then law school exam preparations. He sprawled majestically across my class notes for hours, forcing me to memorize rules of law and pertinent case details because I didn't have the heart to disturb him. It annoyed me sometimes, but it also sharpened my memory and helped me ace the exams that put me at the top of my class. That, in turn, rendered me eligible for a job at one of New York's most prestigious law firms. Other law students had study groups — I had Honoré. The competitive advantage was definitely mine.
Elderly now, Honoré still slept on my shoulder, his head pressed firmly beneath my jaw. Any casual date who objected to his presence got shown the door fast. Men come and go in New York and all too rarely linger. But Honoré was always there, and I was always grateful for his loving and dignified presence.
Knowing what it said, I nevertheless took the crumpled note from between Honoré's paws and smoothed it out. "Your father is dying. Come home at once," Honoré huffed a little and walked away, tail upright, his messenger duties fulfilled. I thought about throwing the note back into the trash, but couldn't bring myself to crumple it up again. I wasn't ready to drop everything and rush out of town, but it was time to pick up the phone.
The receiver beeped when I lifted it. My father's nurse, Paula, had already left me a message. "Your father's in bad shape, Miss Kate," she said in a thick upstate New York accent. "You better come home right away, OK?"
I hung up the phone with a sigh and set the note down. The coincidence of the note arriving just in time to warn me of Paula's call should have been disquieting. Oddly enough, it didn't trouble me at all.
I went into my tiny bedroom, dragged my overnight bag out of the closet and started throwing things in. Honoré jumped up on the bed and settled in to watch as I packed. This time, though, he didn't crawl into the bag as he usually did, an old joke between us that only another cat lover could appreciate. He just sat there, solemnly watching.
At first, I decided to leave Honoré at home. I would be gone for only a day or two, and we had a reliable pet sitter. Darla was a graduate student who looked in on Honoré daily when business took me out of town. He liked Darla, and she adored him, always bringing treats of lox or smoked oysters from the tiny grocery store on the corner for her "fine French gentleman." Darla's visits would have spared Honoré the stress of traveling upstate, so leaving him behind would have been the sensible thing to do. Still ...
I was halfway out the apartment door when, on an impulse, I turned back, grabbed Honoré, and dumped him into his pet carrier. He settled down with his usual equanimity, and I shifted my overnight bag to one shoulder so I could manage my briefcase and purse in one hand while carrying him in the other. Heavily laden, I took the elevator down to the lobby and walked out into the heat, haze, and clamor of the late summer evening.
It can be almost impossible to catch a cab in New York City, but for once we got lucky. I had barely stepped to the curb when a cab pulled up. The driver, an oversize, unshaven man with shaggy dark hair wearing a red plaid shirt, rolled the window down. He smiled broadly, revealing big, uneven teeth. "Need a ride, miss?" he asked, in a thick Russian accent. "You look like you have a lot to carry. Where are you headed?"
It was such a simple question, but the unexpected kindness in his voice caught me off guard. My eyes began to water — I must have been more worried about my father than I had thought. "Penn Station," I replied.
The cabbie got out and opened the trunk. "I'll take your luggage, miss. You just hang onto your little friend there." He quickly stashed my overnight bag and briefcase as I climbed in, settling Honoré's carrier firmly on my lap. In less than a minute, Honoré and I were headed for Penn Station and the train that would take us upstate to my father's house.
For the first time in years, we were going home.
* * *
Archangel Gabriel speaks:
For a moment there, I was afraid Kate was going to ignore my message. It isn't easy to communicate with people now, when a cacophony of conflicting voices, real and electronic, distracts their minds and troubles their hearts. Add to that all the myriad complexities around free will, and the work of a messenger angel is a lot more challenging today than it was a few millennia ago. Back then, all we had to do was materialize, emit a comforting glow, and say, "Be not afraid." People fell all over themselves to listen. Those were the days, I'll tell you.
Kate's case was particularly troublesome. Young as she was, unresolved grief the loneliness that accompanies life in a big city, and the pressures of practicing law in a Wall Street firm had hardened her almost beyond recovery. She was all but deaf to her inner voice, the instrument that my angels and I normally use to communicate. We had tried more subtle means: significant song lyrics on her radio, phrases on billboards and signs that she passed every day, a few meaningful words spoken by someone in a meeting or in a conversation overheard on the street. She had ignored them all, though, and time was running short. That's why I asked for special permission to leave her a note.
We try not to communicate with physical objects like the note I placed on Kate's desk very often. Their sudden appearance is tangible proof that miracles do, in fact, happen, and miracles frighten people in the modern world. They rush to either dismiss miracles as practical jokes or explain them away by science. Even if people do believe, others laugh at them or argue. The message gets missed in the ensuring squabble about whether the miracle was "real"' or not. My job is to inspire faith, not conflict.
That note was as real, which is to say, as solid and tangible, as the half-full mug of cold coffee sitting next to it on Kate's desk. As for how it got there, well, let's just say that it took me a fair bit of negotiating and a small mountain of administrative work to get permission to do it. Consequently, when Kate crumpled the note and threw it in the trash I wasn't especially pleased.
Thankfully, though, there are always second chances in Heaven. Had she quietly gone along with the bad real estate deal, it would have been difficult for me to convince anyone that Kate hadn't simply sold her soul for money as so many people do. Even that would have been remediable before she died — everything is, after all — but not in time for the events that we had all choreographed so carefully to unfold as planned.
Fortunately, Kate fought like a tiger to protect the vulnerable old doctor. My angels and I cheered her on even as her managing partner refused to budge. That not only gave us hope for her, it encouraged us about him as well. Does that surprise you? It shouldn't. Remorse can be a marvelous teacher, and Roy Blackwell would have plenty of opportunities to learn from it before leaving the physical world. His angels continue their labors, and remain optimistic that they'll be able to bring him around to repentance once he finally starts to recognize just how badly he behaved.
At that moment, though, my primary focus was on Kate. Citing her magnificent performance as proof that she still could be reached, I was granted permission to keep trying. One of my angels suited up as a subway busker to pass my message along, but she chose to ignore him, as well.
It was frustrating but not entirely Kate's fault. New Yorkers learn quickly to tune out strangers to avoid being cheated or robbed. My angel admitted later that his costume had probably been too convincing (fie appreciated the tip, though.) Kate enjoys Manhattan's street musicians, but she lost the ability really to listen to them years ago. Pity — they are some of the best messengers I have.
Excerpted from "Dancing at Angel Abbey" by Lauren M Bloom. Copyright © 2016 by Lauren M Bloom. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.