The Rapture: In the Twinkling of an Eye / Countdown to the Earths Last Days | Chapter 3 of 4

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Leon Fortunato had never been a ladies' man. And while he respected, even somewhat admired, the elderly (to him) Viv Ivins, he was not excited about enduring an international flight with her. He had been impressed by her efficiency and especially her loyalty to Nicolae. But as so often happens with teammates on a powerful person's staff, jealousies arose.

They had never had words, but Leon found himself passive-aggressively ignoring her suggestions and comments, unless they clearly reflected Nicolae's wishes. In truth, he had little to fear, because he had learned a few things about Carpathia. First, he was a chauvinist of the old school. Second, though Nicolae called Ms. Ivins "Aunt Viv"--Leon was aware of their interesting background and connection--Nicolae did not treat her with familial respect.

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Viv was close to him, obviously--part of his inner circle. And Nicolae relied on her a great deal. But Leon had never heard him say anything affectionate or even affirming to her. Neither did Leon feel slighted because Viv had known Carpathia longer. Viv's role had certainly shifted from spiritual adviser and parental figure to day-to-day logistical assistant and manager of the private household. She had become more of a background person, a servant.

Leon wondered if she resented that and anyone who got between her and her boss. He detected a certain coolness in her, perhaps even suspicion of his motives. But Leon did not feel the need to defend himself. His proximity to Carpathia--despite this temporary and necessary separation--brought with it great capital, which he intended to invest wisely.

He was pleasantly surprised, then, during the trip to New York, to find Viv Ivins remarkably warm and effusive and even solicitous. She proved polite, self-effacing, helpful, and curious about him and his background. Leon sensed no ulterior motive in this, though he was careful to not be too forthcoming. Nicolae was the only person who really needed to know Leon's history, and he was fully aware of it.

"My expectation," Viv said after they had enjoyed their first in-flight meal, "is that you will handle the more public arrangements and I the private. I am open to suggestion and correction, of course, but in other words, I will make certain Nicolae's accommodations are acceptable, including all the amenities and so forth.

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Correct me if I am wrong, but I assumed you would handle diplomatic arrangements, the press, and the like."

Leon nodded. "All I know, ma'am, is that budget is to be no object, that we are all to stay and set up headquarters at the Plaza, and that President Carpathia expects to be accorded the privileges commensurate with his office."

To Leon's delight, he and Viv worked separately and efficiently, and within a day of their arrival, nearly everything had been set in motion for a successful visit by the new president and guest U.N. speaker. The Carpathia retinue took over an entire wing of an upstairs floor, augmenting Romanian securitate with New York policemen and both U.N. and U.S. security personnel.

Leon and Viv enjoyed beautiful rooms on either end of the corridor, and a set of rooms turned into an office separated Viv's quarters from Nicolae's. Every technological marvel known to man was installed in the office suite within twenty-four hours, and Leon busied himself arranging meetings for Nicolae with a list of dignitaries that covered three computer printout sheets.

Leon's most strategic private meeting was with U.N. Secretary-General Mwangati Ngumo. The large, very dark Botswanan, known for a beatific smile, exhibited no warmth. While he vigorously shook Fortunato's hand, he did not utter any variation of the normal nice-to-meet-you sentiments. He seemed busy and preoccupied, and within minutes of Leon's being seated--across from Ngumo, who stayed behind his desk, despite two separate, more informal meeting tables--they were

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interrupted by a reminder that the secretary-general had fewer than twenty minutes.

"That should be enough," Leon said.

"I certainly hope so," Ngumo said.

"This is just a get-acquainted session."

"I trust we can accomplish more than that and eliminate the need for redundancy."

"I'll certainly try. First, of course, I bring you greetings from the honorable Dr. Nicolae Jetty Carpathia, president of the Republic of Romania."

"Thank you. What an unusual middle name. One of its meanings is "black," as you may know. But I have seen photographs of President Carpathia, and he is anything but dark. Do you know the origin of that name?"

"I do not."

Ngumo waved him on.

"President Carpathia thanks you for your kind invitation, and--"

"Can we, in the interest of time, dispense with these rote sentiments? I accept his greetings; I send mine back; he's been invited; he's thankful; he's welcome--all right?"

"Well, uh, sure. Is there a problem, Mr. Secretary-General? Something I should be aware of?"

"You are his chief of staff and you are not aware of how this invitation came to him?"

"I suppose I'm not, if there was anything untoward about it."

"Untoward? Only that it was coerced from outside standard diplomatic channels. It was suggested not by a friend or associate of this body but rather by an international

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financier with whom, I am without doubt, you are acquainted."

"Jonathan Stonagal, sure. And that is a problem?"

"It doesn't have to be. But neither should I be expected to celebrate it. The invitation has been treated by the international press at its face value: the U.N. seeking to familiarize itself with a new leader. Fine. Misleading. Untrue. But fine. We will adjust."

Leon crossed his legs, shifting his weight and making the chair squeak. "I can assure you that President Carpathia had nothing to do with angling for an invitation, sir."

"You'll forgive me if I find that difficult to believe. We have file cabinets full of such requests. But even if that is true, that is all the worse. It makes some sense, a head of state wishing to address us. The interests of a billionaire, on the other hand..."

"Then why did you acquiesce?"

Ngumo shook his head. "You're asking a question to which you know the answer."

"Because you, like anyone else, have to be concerned about a bottom line."

Ngumo cocked his head at Leon, as if to say, So we do understand each other.

"Well, let me tell you my goal for this event, Mr. Secretary. In spite of how it came about, I hope you will be glad you extended the invitation and that President Carpathia will prove a worthy occupant of the lectern."

"We shall see."

Leon told the man of Nicolae's fascination with the

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U.N. and his savantlike memory of its history. "Trust me, sir, he will be able to tell you the day of your inauguration, how many five-year terms you have served, and how many you are expected to serve."

Buck Williams was off the plane and headed for his rental car at O'Hare when Steve Plank called.

"We're clear that you're making nice with Lucinda, right?"

"That's why I'm here, chief. And to see if I can scoop her and her people on another story."

"Not funny."

"Seriously, Steve, I can't believe she complained about this... especially to you. We're buddies, she and I. We always got along great, I thought."

When Buck reached the Chicago bureau, he bribed the receptionist to let him sneak in to Lucinda Washington's office unannounced. She had stepped out, so he leaped into her chair and turned his back toward the door. That put him face-to-face with her gaudy religious knick-knacks. He was studying a fake gold-leafed one when he heard her enter.

She hesitated, obviously wondering if she herself had turned her chair around, and when she swung it back to sit down, she jumped and squealed to find it full of Cameron.

"You gonna shoot me?" he said. "Can I still work here?"

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"Only if you get on your knees and beg my forgiveness," she said.

He slid onto the floor, but she reached and yanked him up. "Quit that now," she said. Buck settled into a side chair, and Lucinda planted herself where she belonged.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"You are not. You don't even know what I'm mad about."

""Course I do. Bears Hall of Famer finally gets the money together to buy a football franchise, and I sniff it out, track him down, and run with the story."

"I admire you, Cameron. I always have, as irritating as you can be. But the very least you should have done was let me know."

"And let you assign somebody who should have been on top of this anyway?"

"Sports isn't even your gig, Cameron. After writing that Newsmaker of the Year thing and covering the defeat of Russia by Israel--or I should say by God Himself--how can you even get interested in penny-ante stuff like this? You Ivy League types aren't supposed to like anything but lacrosse and rugby, are you?"

"This was bigger than a sports story, Lucy, and--"

"Hey!"

"Sorry, Lucinda. And wasn't that just a bit of stereotyping? Lacrosse and rugby?"

They shared a laugh.

"I'm not even saying you should have told me you were in town," she said. "All I'm saying is, at least let me know before the piece runs in the Weekly. My people and

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I were embarrassed enough to get beat like that, especially by the legendary Cameron Williams, but for it to be a... well... total surprise--"

"That's why you squealed on me?"

Lucinda laughed. "That's why I told Plank it would take a face-to-face to get you back in my good graces."

"And what made you think I'd care about that?"

"Because you love me. You can't help yourself. But, Cameron, if I catch you in my town again on my beat without my knowledge, I'm gonna whip your tail."

"Well, I'll tell you what, Lucinda. Let me give you a lead I don't have time to follow up on. I happen to know that the NFL franchise purchase is not going to go through after all. The money was shaky and the league's gonna reject the offer. Your local legend is going to be embarrassed."

Lucinda was scribbling furiously. "You're not serious," she said, reaching for her phone.

"No, I'm not, but it was sure fun to see you swing into action."

"You creep," she said. "Anybody else I'd be throwing out of here on his can."

"But you love me. You can't help yourself."

"That wasn't even Christian."

"Don't start with that again," he said.

"Come on, Cameron. You know you got your mind right when you saw what God did for Israel."

"Granted, but don't start calling me a Christian. Deist is as much as I'll cop to."

"Hey, how long you in town for?"

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"Until tomorrow."

"Tonight with my hubby and me for barbecue then, right? He's looking forward to meeting you."

"You sure he wants me interfering with your date?"

"We've been married more'n thirty years, Cameron. That's right. We started early. Having a young white boy eat with us won't get in our way. You're just afraid to be in the minority; is that it?"

"Hardly."

For the first time since he'd been married, Rayford Steele lied to his wife about where he was going, just so he could see another woman. "Running some errands," he said. "Sports store, then the hardware store. Need anything?"

"Don't think so, hon. But why don't you wait until Raymie gets home and let him go with you? You're going to be gone the rest of this week, and--"

"Nah, just let me get this done, and I'll spend some time with him tonight."

Rayford would have to remember to buy something at both the stores he had mentioned on the way home to cover that he drove straight past them and into Des Plaines.

He picked up Hattie outside her apartment. "What's up?" he said. "You needed to see me?"

"Yup," she said, grinning mischievously. "That's all. I just needed to see you."

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He didn't know what to say or do. Had they already been engaged in a full-fledged affair, which seemed not so far off now, he guessed he might have simply asked if he could head back into her apartment with her. But in broad daylight? This was risky enough. He was flattered, but he didn't want to be stupid.

"What do you want to do?" he said, feeling like a thirteen-year-old.

"What do you want to do?" she said.

"Don't ask me. This was your idea. I'm running errands. Sports store. Hardware store."

"Ooh, you're good," she said.

"I'm new at this."

"Not for long. Hey, I'm hungry. You?" I "Not really, but I'd love to get you something to eat."

l! "Let's order Chinese and pick it up. I'll eat it in the car-"

That was a relief to Rayford. He wasn't ready to be

seen having a meal date with Hattie in the middle of the afternoon. He always figured he could cover if someone he knew saw them dining at night, when they were both in uniform and it should be obvious it was just business. But now both were dressed casually, and it would simply make no sense to anyone.

He called in an order and they drove off to pick it up.

"You sure you don't want some?" Hattie said, trying to feed him rice with chopsticks as they sat in the parking lot next to the place.

He shook his head but had to laugh when she spilled

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rice in his lap. She broke open a fortune cookie and read, "'A new friend will make you happy.""

"That yours or mine?" he said, and she leaned over and rested her head against his shoulder.

Charles Washington proved to be a rangy, bony man with thinning hair and a wise look. He greeted Lucinda first, slipping his long arm around her ample waist and pulling her close.

"Charles!" she said.

"Lu-cinda!" he said, drawing out the first syllable as if savoring it. "Still the best-lookin' gal in Chicago."

"Stop it and be polite," she said, and Buck was amused at how she beamed. "Meet the friend I told you about."

"Pleasure," Charles said, offering a big calloused hand. "Trust me, you've never had ribs like these."

"I've had some good ones."

"They'll be bad memories in about half an hour, young man. Call me racist, but your people don't even start to know how to barbecue. Know how you can tell? You see white people in our establishments. You don't see us in theirs, not that we don't feel welcome. We do. We just go where the food is best, and that's right here."

Charles and Lucinda sat close and giggled like school-kids until the food came. Then it was time to get down <*» to serious eating. "I'll show you how to do it best,"

Charles said, "but let me pray first, all right?"

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"Sure."Right here in public? Buck had never felt so conspicuous.

Charles took his wife's hand and reached for Buck's. "Lord," he began, "we're grateful for everything but most of all for these provisions. Thank You and thanks for our friend. In Jesus' name, amen."

Buck said amen too, almost before he realized it, and after he tasted the ribs, he felt like praying himself.

"I won't put you on the spot this evening, Cameron," Lucinda said, "but one of these times we're going to have to get into why the press--yes, us, the Weekly-- seems so afraid of God."

"Afraid of God?"

"C'mon, we run articles about Him as if He's some sort of strange phenomenon that has to be examined from every angle. Polls show that more than half the population believes in God. But you could never tell that from our pages or those of our competition."

"Can't argue that."

"We'll solve it another time," she said, smiling. "You look like you need to sleep off some calories."

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

"I'm not that hungry," Rayford told Irene.

"It's nothing heavy. I just thought we could sit down together before you're off to England."

Rayford shrugged, and as he and Raymie sat at the table, Irene stepped into the garage to toss some trash. She noticed the light on inside Rayford's car. As she reached in to turn it off, she smelled Chinese food and saw an empty soy-sauce packet on the passenger floor mat. She smelled something else too. Perfume? Maybe, but the food smell overpowered it.

In the ashtray lay a receipt from The Happy Lucky in Des Plaines. Well, at least it was for only one meal.

"No wonder you aren't hungry," Irene said, returning to the kitchen.

"Hmm?"

"Your car smells of Chinese food."

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"What? Still? Uh, that's from the other day."

"What were you doing in Des Plaines?"

Rayford looked puzzled. "Oh, I was dropping off that flight attendant. Then I was just famished, so..."

Why did he seem so nervous? Irene doubted the smell would linger that long. And hadn't Irene been in his car since then? This was new. This was today. And even if he had been alone, what had taken him to Des Plaines?

Irene didn't want to think about it.

The next morning, Irene attended her weekly women's Bible study at Jackie's house. She didn't know why, but attendance was growing there too. Jackie's little home looked even smaller as women crowded in, having to employ the piano bench and even children's chairs. Irene was impressed by a new face, a woman about her age with salt-and-pepper hair, done up right and clearly expensively, and wearing very fashionable clothes. She carried a briefcase and a purse, so Irene assumed she was a businesswoman. Besides her appearance, the woman had a confident air, as if, though in a new and strange setting, she still knew how to conduct herself.

Irene introduced herself and welcomed the woman. She said her name was Amanda White and that she was a local executive who had been to New Hope Village Church once, after her husband had been invited to a men's outing and wanted to check out the services.

During the Bible study, each time Irene caught

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Amanda's eye, Amanda nodded and smiled. And when Irene contributed to the discussion, she sensed the woman really paying attention.

When the study was over, Mrs. White made a beeline for Irene, thrust out her hand, and said, "Well, aren't you the most precious thing? So vibrant and pleasant."

"Thank you. I hope you enjoyed this."

"Oh, just processing it, you know. My family and I have been churchgoers all our lives, but something's really caught my husband's fancy here. This might all be a little too religious for me, if you know what I mean. It's interesting and all, don't get me wrong, and you ladies seem so into it. To tell you the truth, I didn't know what to expect." She leaned close. "Frankly, I was afraid it was going to be a little hokey. But you're like normal people."

"Oh, believe me, we are," Irene said. "In fact, with my church background, I'm sort of your mirror image. My family--except my son, Raymie--is more comfortable in the typical, less overt church. But my son and I have genuinely encountered God here. We've received Christ."

"Have you}"

Irene nodded. "We believe He is the way to God." And suddenly she teared up.

"Oh, you poor thing! What is it?"

"I'm sorry. This is embarrassing."

"Not at all. This is clearly important to you."

"I just pray I'll be able to reach my husband and my daughter before it's too late. That's my greatest fear. I want to know they're going to heaven."

"Well, isn't that something? Isn't that sweet? You

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know, my own family is saying the same thing to me lately. Got to be saved, they say. Saved by grace."

"You know all you have to do is admit to God that you're a sinner and that you need Christ to forgive your sins and change your life."

"I know. I'm not ready yet, but I do appreciate your concern. I really do."

"May I tell you one more thing, Amanda? I don't mean to be pushy."

"Sure."

"Just let me encourage you not to put off your decision too long. With all that's going on in the world right now, you just never know what's going to happen, how much time you'll have."

But Irene had pushed too far. She could see it in Mrs. White's eyes. She just hoped she hadn't turned the woman completely away.

That afternoon, as Raymie was getting home from school, Rayford was on his way out the door for his London flight.

"My, you smell good," Irene said. "You seem excited about this trip."

"Always love these--you know that."

"But it's not like this is anything new," she said.

"I know."

"Fresh uniform. Wow, you're ready. Almost like you're headed for a date."

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He laughed a little too loudly, Irene thought. "Your Des Plaines honey on this flight?" she said lightly.

"Hmm? Who?"

"You know who."

"The young one? Miss Durham? I have no idea."

"You have no idea."

"I haven't checked lately; that's all. So what if she is?"

"Nothing. Just wondering."

"Hey, Raymie! Take care of your mom for me till I get back,eh?"

"Sure, Dad. Have a safe trip and wish me luck."

"Luck?"

"For tonight."

"Tonight?"

The boy's shoulders drooped. "My program, Dad!"

"Oh, yeah! I almost forgot! I'll be thinking of you. You be a good leaf or whatever it is, and--"

"Tree."

"Hmm?"

"I'm the whole tree, Dad. There are four of us."

"Well, see, that's even better. My son the big tree. Break a leg. Or break a branch, or whatever."

"And don't forget your promise, Dad. Sunday?"

"Right. Got it. See you in a few days."

On the way to the airport, Hattie Durham seemed to have lost any trace of inhibition or restraint. As soon as Rayford had put her bag in the backseat and slid behind

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the wheel, she loosened her seatbelt and leaned against him. She barely moved, pressed against him for the entire drive. He was in heaven. And already debating whether he was going to take this relationship further, once they were on foreign soil. Every few minutes he talked himself out of it, but he knew deep down that the distance from home alone would embolden him.

His number-two man in the cockpit would be Christopher Smith, a pleasant-enough guy he'd flown with before. The closer they got to O'Hare, the more positive he was feeling about the night. Not to mention the weather, which was perfect. His job, once they were in the air and settled into the flight path, should be largely routine until the descent into London.

Dinner at home was rushed as Raymie talked about how embarrassed he was to have to climb inside a cylindrical painted-cardboard tree trunk with his face sticking out. "I have to hold the leaves out and drop them when the north wind comes blowing through. It's such a play for babies. I can't believe they're making us do it."

"But you know your part, and you'll do well. This is probably your last year for stuff like this."

"But, Mom, have you heard my lines?"

"No."

"Just wait."

"Tell me now."

"No chance. It'll be bad enough there."

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He was right. When Raymie's big scene came, he was the only tree to forget to drop his leaves. Everybody in the place could hear the stage whispers from the wings: "Drop your leaves! Raymie, drop your leaves!"

Finally he paled and let them go, and the crowed twittered. Then a bird pranced through, asking each tree if she could build a nest in its branches to keep her chicks warm. All, of course, were to sternly turn her down except for the last tree, an evergreen.

When it was Raymie's turn he said, "No! I cannot be bothered with you! I have not yet recovered from the confusion and noise the squirrels made when they tried to gather my acorns for winter!"

This elicited a roar of laughter from the crowd, which warmed Irene but clearly humiliated Raymie. Never had she seen him so eager to be finished with something.

When she met him afterward, she was smiling broadly. He was still blushing.

Irene hugged him and noticed he stiffened a little, looking around. So it was happening already. "I thought you did fine!" she said.

"I was awful. Forgot to drop my leaves. Then I didn't think I sounded like a tree at all. I don't think any of us did."

Irene laughed loudly. "And what do trees sound like?"

"I don't know, but not us."

The more she laughed, the more Raymie lost his scowl. "Well, you've made yourself a memory, anyway, haven't you?"

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"That's for sure," he said. "No matter how hard I try to forget this..."

By the time they got to the drive-through for milk shakes, Raymie was mimicking his own monotone performance and cackling about how silly it all was. Irene was grateful that he was so good about it. At his age she had been so awkward and shy that a goof like his would have haunted her for days.

The windshield steamed over as they sat and talked. Irene had prayed, including for Rayford's safety and for his soul.

When she finished, Raymie added, "And thanks that he's coming to church with us Sunday."

"That means a lot to you, doesn't it?" Irene said.

""Course. Dad just doesn't seem happy anymore. Plus, I want to be sure he's going to heaven when he dies."

"Me too."

They arrived home later than Irene liked on a school night, so she pushed Raymie to get to bed. When she checked on him a few minutes later, he was under the covers. "You're not wearing socks, are you?" she said.

He sighed. "Yeah."

"You know you've got to let your--"

"Feet breathe, yeah, I know. But my feet are so cold. Just let me wear them for a little while, and I'll kick them off later."

"What if you fall asleep? I don't want to have to come in here and pull them off you in the middle of the night."

"Mom, I'm not going to die if my feet don't breathe."

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"Just try to remember to take them off, once you've warmed up."

Irene prayed with Raymie again, and as she headed to the lonely master bedroom, she questioned why she was so obsessed over his wearing socks to bed. Feet didn't really breathe, and what was the harm? Had her parents not allowed her to do the same? Where had she gotten that old wives' tale? She could only hope that was the biggest issue she ever had with the boy. Fat chance.

As Irene slid between the cool sheets, she wondered if she too should have socks on. She lay there on her back, silently running through her prayer list. But her mind kept coming back to Rayford. He had been her life for almost as long as she could remember, but things were clearly not the same.

Could he be having an affair with this Durham girl? And if he was, what should Irene do?

She still didn't want to think about it, but she couldn't help it. She would not be walked on, not be treated that way. But if there was something she could be doing differently or better, she hoped God would tell her what it was. In the meantime, Irene would just keep praying for Rayford. She didn't want to lose him, particularly to another woman. But above all, she didn't want to see him lost to the Kingdom of God.

Rayford Steele was a conflicted man. During the O'Hare-to-Heathrow preflight preparation he began to feel less

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than the professional he had always been. He was not perfect; he knew that. But he was one high-level accomplished pilot, supremely confident in his ability to safely transport hundreds of people thousands of miles in a craft worth millions of dollars. He was well paid and respected, and he believed he deserved both.

The problem was, Rayford had never been this distracted before a flight. He'd always had the ability to compartmentalize the various areas of his life. Irene knew better than to try to call him between the time he left for the airport and when he called her upon arrival at his destination. Only a couple of times during their long marriage had she violated that. Both times she had caught him in the car on the way to the airport, and she was just telling him she missed him or loved him or would be thinking of him. And both times he had realized he sounded distracted and had apologized, but he was--in essence--getting his game face on.

Preflight routine was indeed routine, but it was nothing to sleepwalk through, and he had to start thinking of the myriad checklists and protocols so necessary to safety and efficient flight operation. He was not just the pilot; he was the captain, responsible for everything, and he would have to answer for anything that went wrong.

Rayford loved the responsibility and his ability to focus on it. He was known as a nice, friendly guy, a captain that people enjoyed flying with. His first officer tonight would be Christopher Smith, an earthy, down-home kind of guy he enjoyed chatting with. Chris had a couple of young sons he liked to talk about, and he also

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seemed to get a kick out of reverting to his youthful colloquial language. Rayford and Chris Smith had flown a good bit together and had even been through a dangerous incident together, but Rayford had to admit that they had never bonded to the point where Rayford even knew where that accent had come from. Not quite Southern. But country. Could have been southern Indiana or even Oklahoma.

Rayford knew Chris had the skills to become a captain but perhaps not the demeanor or character. If any first officer of Rayford's ever violated protocol, like trying to sneak a nap during a flight or exhibiting a bit of selfishness, it would be Chris. Not to the point that he required more than a reminder rather than an official reprimand, but enough that Rayford had to wonder about his future. And Chris was an ambitious guy. Rayford couldn't figure it. He would've thought a guy who had his sights set on the top job would do everything in his power to show everybody he was dead serious and committed to it.

Hattie had informed Rayford that one of his favorite attendants would be aboard. Antonio Salazar was a veteran and a passenger favorite. A family man, he was funny and entertaining and helpful, seemingly a ball of indefatigable energy with a great smile. He was just one of those types who appeared happiest when busy and helping people. Tony had actually turned down a promotion to senior flight attendant, citing his pleasure with his current role as well as family responsibilities that made him want more control over his own schedule.

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Rayford's problem this evening, however, was the new senior flight attendant herself, the leggy young woman who had ridden from Des Plaines to O'Hare with him. Their flirtation dance had accelerated, and something had to give. Either Rayford would have to nip it in the bud and tell Hattie it simply wasn't wise and wasn't going to work--the old "I really can't do this to my loyal wife and kids" tack--or he was going to have to quit pretending he didn't notice her every look, touch, and remark.

The conflict, then, was not really over whether he was going to pursue this out-of-bounds relationship. Rather it was tension between knowing full well that this was his intention--especially since they would have a couple of days in London with time and distance from his conscience (which he had apparently left at home)--and his need to keep his professional mind on his business.

While boarding and greeting the crew and getting himself situated, Rayford knew he should be in full preflight mode, eyes and mind on the task. But he was formulating his approach to Hattie. She seemed on high alert, excitedly talking about her new role as senior attendant, yet giving him other obvious signals that she knew they were headed toward the inevitable point of no return.

Even while lugging his boxy flight attache case, shedding his coat, greeting Antonio and the others, and finding Chris already in the cockpit, Rayford had to admit his mind was elsewhere. Salazar had been busy in the galley when Rayford moved through, and the

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smaller man flashed a smile and shook the captain's hand warmly.

"Hey, Tony," Rayford said. "Good to see you."

"Likewise. Diet Coke with a lime or are you ready for some coffee?"

"Oh, thanks," Rayford said, "but I think Miss Durham's already on it."

"We're excited about her, sir. She's going to be a good senior. And she credits you for being a great mentor."

"Really?" Rayford said, trying to appear pleasantly surprised.

Hattie was accomplished at hiding her feelings for Rayford from the rest of the crew. She always referred to him as the captain or Captain Steele or the pilot, never using his first name. And she didn't ogle him on board as she did in the car or from across the table at a restaurant. How she was able to lightly touch him as they passed each other or when she delivered something to him in the cockpit without anyone else being the wiser, Rayford would never know.

Even now, when he finally settled in behind the controls and she brought him a Diet Coke, she shielded Christopher Smith's view with her body as she leaned to hand Rayford the drink. Meanwhile, with her left hand she dragged a finger across his shoulder to the base of his neck. There was nothing but professionalism in their tones of voice and thus seemingly no suspicion aroused on anyone else's part.

When she left the cockpit, Smith chortled, "Whoo, boy, that is one gorgeous young thing, ain't she?"

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"Miss Durham?" Rayford said. "She is attractive."

"Attractive?" Smith said, adding a crude remark about his own fantasies concerning her.

"Pretty young for you, wouldn't you say, Chris?"

"May it never be so, Cap'n. Tell me you'd turn down a chance with her."

Rayford pursed his lips and shook his head, as if admonishing a student. "Let's have a little class, man. She's not much more than a child. And you, a family man."

"Well, I'm not dead, and I'm sure not blind."

"Back to business there, cowboy."

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Irene Steele was not the type of person that bolted straight up in bed, regardless of what she felt or heard. Rayford might sit up or even creep out to see what had awakened them, but Irene tended to freeze if something startled her awake.

And that's what happened this night. She'd had trouble falling asleep, as usual when Rayford was away. But soon she was soundly out, hands clasped under her cheek as she lay on her side.

What woke her was a shout so loud that it was as if someone were in the room. Clear as day came the piercing precision of every syllable, and her eyes popped open, her heart resounding against her ribs.

"IRENE STEELE!"

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Liem, a graduate school student, had worked in the Jakarta, Indonesia, Sunrise Crematorium throughout his university tenure. In fewer than three years he had risen to the point that he was responsible for the actual burning of corpses.

The hardest part of the job was the paperwork. Obviously one had to be sure he was cremating the right body and following whatever religious instructions had been outlined.

The modern ovens, which each held one standard-size cremation coffin and remains, burned at more than 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit and consumed approximately 175 pounds every thirty minutes.

Liem left everything on the coffins except the name-plates, as ornaments and fittings were combustible plastic. Once he was certain the paperwork matched the corpse, he would slide the coffin out of storage and onto an oversized steel gurney, which he would then roll to the oven door. The coffin was then transferred to the top level of the chamber, the door secured, and the burners turned to maximum.

During the process, the heavier bones and calcium deposits would fall through openings to the lower chamber. When what was left had cooled, Liem would use a magnet to separate surgical pins, nails, screws, or other artificial elements. He would then grind the final residue into a fine powder and deposit it in a decorative urn selected by the family.

Liem was cremating the body of a missionary pilot

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whose religion was designated Christian. Without incident, he made certain of the paperwork, slid the coffin into the chamber, adjusted the settings, and left for his late-morning lunch break.

Upon his return just after noon, Liem noted that the burning was finished and the cooling had begun. But when the remains should have been cool enough to begin the magnetic procedure, Liem was stunned to find nothing in the lower chamber. His brow knit with confusion, he rushed to his supervisor.

"Show me the paperwork," the man said. "Did the coffin feel full?"

"Absolutely. I know the difference."

"Then what happened in the process that kept the bones and calcium from dropping?"

"No idea, sir."

They checked the upper chamber and found only the ashes and dust from the coffin and plastic.

"Liem, you were mistaken. That coffin had to have been empty."

"How could that be? That has never happened before. And no... no, sir. I clearly recall that coffin being difficult to get rolling from the gurney. It was not empty."

"Liem, see for yourself. No residue of human remains. What will we tell the family?"

Liem was terrified, though he could not imagine he bore responsibility for this. "I will open every coffin before burning it from now on. But what could have caused this?"

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"You said you took a break. Do you suspect body snatchers?"

"I cannot imagine. That is the stuff of horror movies. How would anyone get in here to steal bodies? And I put the coffin in the oven myself. Someone would have had to remove it, take the body, and replace the coffin into the fire."

"How many more do you have today?"

"Four."

"Check them now."

Liem found all the paperwork and began comparing it with the form affixed to each coffin. The first body, a local whose family had checked None for religion, was there. The second, a young female exchange student from Canada, had Unknown listed under religion.

Another Christian was supposedly in the third coffin, but as soon as Liem slid it onto the gurney, where he would have room to open it, he could tell it was empty. "We've got no body here either, sir."

"How do you know?"

When the lid opened, the supervisor gasped. Only the clothes remained. "This suit was buttoned back up after the body was stolen. What kind of a sick--?"

Liem's cell phone rang, and he took a call from his sister.

"Turn on the news," she said.

"We don't have a television down here."

"Find one and turn it on."

"Maybe after my shift."

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"Trust me, Liem--do it now!"

Liem hung up and told his boss that something big was on the news.

"Unless it has something to do with missing bodies, we don't have time for that, Liem. We're in big trouble."

The door burst open at the end of the corridor. "You guys hear what's going on? Get up here!"

Liem and his boss ran up the stairs and joined a scrum of fellow workers crowded around a TV. News footage showed a funeral parlor with coffins empty, save for the clothes and artificial body parts of the deceased. Panic broke out and people rioted. A fresh story, fed from a network TV station in California, showed an anchorman disappear from his clothes on camera as the nine o'clock news began. His coanchor frantically pulled the clothes from the man's chair, screaming.

Liem, unable to get his mind around any of this, staggered out into the noonday sun and was struck to see the traffic hopelessly gridlocked. From his first moment in Jakarta years ago, he had heard the cacophony of car horns as he heard them now. And while the traffic had always been insane, it somehow kept moving. Even when cars brushed against each other in the roundabouts, people had kept their heads and managed to pick their way through.

But now no one was moving. Liem walked into the street and joined others who peered speechlessly into driverless cars--cars with engines running, radios on, even air-conditioning humming. But in each no one sat behind the wheel. Shoes and socks lay on the floor. Pants

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on the seat. Shirts on the back of the seat. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, jewelry--all still there.

From one of the radios Liem heard a horror-stricken reporter say that this sudden disappearance had struck all over the globe at the same time and that experts were already predicting the toll would rise to more than a billion. Other major cities where this phenomenon had occurred in broad daylight, including some during the afternoon rush hour, saw traffic disasters just like this one.

Liem slapped himself to be certain he was not dreaming. This was a living nightmare.

In cities where the disappearances had happened in the middle of the night, those left behind were awakened by frantic phone calls from loved ones in other time zones. Soon the modes of communication were hopelessly jammed as the biggest news story in history swept the globe.

For an instant, Irene Steele had lain terrified, but before she could move even an inch she heard a loud trumpet blast and felt transported out of her bed, passing through the ceiling, the attic, the roof, and into the dark night sky. Strangely, though she had left her jewelry and nightgown, she did not feel naked, nor was she cold. Not for a

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second did she believe this was a dream or anything other than real. She was more in the moment than she had ever been in her life.

And there was Raymie, right next to her, as they soared.

"Is this it, Mom? Is this it? Somebody shouted my name!"

She could see clearly, even in the dark, and as they rose Irene saw millions rising with them from horizon to horizon. Oh, praise God! She would soon see Jesus!

But for now she was fixated on Raymie. She had known it was her son; she had recognized his face and his voice, though it had changed, and he was a full-grown man, over six feet tall with a clear face and chiseled features. She too had changed. Her face felt smoother, her skin taut. And while she still bore nicks and scars from various minor injuries over the years-- even Jesus' scars would still be visible, she knew--her body and tone reminded her of several years before, when she had been in her early thirties.

When she and Raymie reached the clouds, they slowed and were suspended there. Irene could not keep from grinning. She had always been afraid of heights, but here she was, higher than she'd ever been outside a plane, and she feared nothing. She wondered aloud where Jackie was, and suddenly, there she was, with Dooley and their grown-up child. They embraced and stared and shook their heads.

"It was you, you know," Irene said. "You really led me to Christ."

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"Me too," Dooley said. "I wonder if Pastor Billings--"

And there he was with them, embracing everyone, rejoicing. "I always wondered what this would feel like," he said, looking half his age.

"Thank you for your faithful preaching and teaching," Irene said.

It was then that she realized that there was no barrier between thought and action. "Raymie, it seems everything we think about happens instantly. I mentioned Jackie and here she is. Dooley mentioned the pastor, and here he is. It's as if time has stood still and all of this is happening simultaneously."

"I want to see Grandma and Grandpa," Raymie said, and they appeared, youthful, lucid, no trace of the Alzheimer's that had claimed them both.

"Irene," Rayford's father said, "you led us to Jesus. We are eternally grateful."

"Yes," her mother-in-law said, "and we must pray for Rayford, who is not here, is he?"

Irene shook her head, and the four of them huddled to pray. "I don't know what comes next, Lord," Irene said, "but I know Rayford must endure difficult days. Give him strength to resist the evil one, and bring him to Yourself, God."

All around them Irene could hear cheers and squeals of delight as more reunions took place. People of all races and creeds celebrated. Irene knew they had to be speaking in their own languages, yet she understood every word.

A Chinese woman announced for all to hear, pointing

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at another woman, "My daughter was in a wheelchair twenty years! Look at her now!"

From somewhere else, a father introduced a handsome, smiling young man. "This boy was born with Down Syndrome."

"I can't wait to sing to Jesus," the boy said.

Irene saw two women embracing and weeping. "Your child?" Irene said.

One met Irene's eyes and nodded. "I had her aborted sixteen years ago. She forgives me."

"I have both arms!" a man shouted, waving.

"I'm whole!" came from somewhere else.

Had they been here for an hour or only a second? Irene couldn't tell. All she knew was that anticipation crashed over her like a waterfall. She turned to Raymie, and they said in unison, "I want to see Jesus."

And the entire throng from all over the world ascended yet again.

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Everything in Irene's past paled to insignificance as she soared into the heavens, the earth shrinking from sight. She had to wonder how the billions of people in the air would ever be able to share the attention of the One they had believed in, the One who had beckoned them home.

But then it hit her. If Jesus' shout had been heard in the same instant by true believers all over the world as their own names, it proved yet again that He was omnipotent and omnipresent, unbound by space or time. He could do anything and everything all at once.

As Irene's new, glorified body was transported through Earth's atmosphere above the clouds, she let her head fall back and spread her arms wide, closing her eyes tight. When the light of glory flooded her being, she had to peek.

High above her was Jesus, His gleaming incandescence

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brighter than a million suns. With arms outstretched He welcomed His beloved, and while Irene remained vaguely aware that she was just one of so many on this same journey, His beautiful piercing eyes seemed to bore into hers alone. She wanted to cry out, to thank Him a thousand times a thousand for forgiving her, for saving her soul, for calling her to Himself. His face shone with love and compassion and welcome, as if her arrival was His highest joy.

Irene immediately felt unworthy, and all she had wanted to express seemed to leak from her mind. She could not speak. She tried to bow, to lower herself, to hide from Jesus' perfection, which seemed to permeate her own darkness like a beacon.

But He reached for her, lifted her to Himself.

"Irene," He said as He enveloped her. "My child, My own. I praise you for believing in Me, for trusting in Me, for calling upon My name to be saved. This is what you were saved for, to be with Me. And yet it is only the beginning of a journey that has no end. Come with Me to My Father's house, for as I promised, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.""

Irene was aware only of blinking, and in the next instant she had been transported into outer space and then into what Pastor Billings had called the third heaven, into the presence of a vast and beautiful crystal city so overwhelming that she could scarcely take it in. This made Soldier Field and Wrigley Field look like toys.

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From certain vantage points, even when those stadiums were full, she had been able to see almost everyone at once. With a mere turn of the head on Earth, her eyes could take in forty, fifty, sixty thousand people. But this. This was something else.

Clearly there were hundreds of millions of others, more than a billion, maybe two. Yet without rising above their heads, Irene was aware of them all. And not just aware. It was as if, without so much as moving an eye-- let alone her head--or even standing on tiptoe, she saw and recognized every one. She knew them. Their histories, their stories, were known to her. She could pause and concentrate on one or another or a thousand at a time.

There was a reason for this, she knew. Irene had never realized how limited her mind had been until now when all things became known. Every story, every person, every insight and intuition, had a purpose. And the purpose was Jesus. Everything here was for and about and because of Him. Irene's eternal life was for the purpose of worshiping Him. As people's stories were revealed to her heart and mind, Irene's entire focus was on the work Christ had done in their lives. Forgiving them. Loving them. Saving them.

No amusement-park imitation of a real experience came close to this. There were no holograms, no 3-D, no pretending. Friends and loved ones left behind would assume her dead, but Irene knew with all of her being that she had never been more alive.

Had Raymie had the same experience?

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He appeared next to her. "Jesus welcomed me personally," he said. "And this is the house of God."

Irene was agape. It seemed that if she were able to back up a million miles into space she would not be able to see the beginning and end of this masterpiece built foursquare. Her pastor had recently reminded the congregation that if God had created the entire world in seven days by merely speaking it into existence, imagine what He could do with two thousand years to fulfill Jesus' promise of going to prepare a place for them. The Scripture told that it was just under fourteen hundred square miles, the length, breadth, and height the same. If superimposed on the earth it would extend from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from Colorado to the Atlantic Ocean. With the raptured saints and the resurrected dead, perhaps two billion people would be there, with enough room for each to inhabit a cubed space of seventy-five acres. Talk about high ceilings!

It all lay before her in incomprehensible grandeur, radiant and delicate and yet somehow, she knew, indestructible. Gold and silver and brass and platinum complemented diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and pearls, and these were so perfectly arranged that the appearance did not offend as gaudy or extravagant. Naturally, everything looked perfect, every gate--consisting of one giant gem each and attended by angels--every wall, every pillar. And yes, its roads were as glassy as spun gold.

Irene noticed not a shadow anywhere. None. Yet there was no sun. The light of God illumined this place from within and cast no shadow in any direction. Irene had

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always wondered and, frankly, worried about what heaven would look and feel like. Would it feel alien to her? Would it appear as such a great monument to God that she would be merely a spectator, a museum patron?

This, however, immediately felt like home. It was as if she had been an alien on Earth, just waiting for the day when she could return here. In spite of its immensity and splendor, a strange intimacy radiated from it, and she felt it had indeed been prepared for her.

Irene did not know how she knew that the next voice was of God Himself; she simply did.

"This is the city I have prepared for those who had the faith to believe My Word and follow My will. Behold the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where are now gathered the general assembly of the church of the firstborn and the just, whose spirits have been made perfect in the great resurrection. To this city came all the spirits of those who died in Christ and have now been resurrected. The resurrected and the living saints shall dwell here until the earth is made new, when this city shall descend to abide there forever."

This, Pastor Billings had taught, was the new Jerusalem that would descend onto the new earth after the seven-year tribulation and Jesus' glorious appearing. So Irene would live here until Jesus' second coming upon the earth and then would remain in this relocated city for eternity. She wondered how long the next seven years would seem from this perspective.

And God said, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and I will dwell with them, and they shall be My

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people. I will be with you and be your God. And I will wipe away every tear from your eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away."

Irene had read those words and heard them read, but what an unspeakable thrill to hear them from the very mouth of God. Their truth resounded and engulfed her. No more tears, death, sorrow, or pain. The former things had passed.

In the next instant, along with everyone else, she was inside the ground floor of the cubic city where a crystalline sea led to a gleaming throne. There sat Jesus, majestic, triumphant, and again, somehow making Irene feel as if she were the only other person in the room. Her eyes riveted to the eternal embodiment of unconditional love and sacrifice, she could assume only that everyone in the vast multitude somehow had the same supernaturally unobstructed view and that Jesus was interacting with them personally as He was with her.

Irene felt no farther from Jesus as she saw Him from what on Earth would have been hundreds of feet away than when He had pressed her against His chest. How was this possible? She would have to stop asking herself such questions. She was not aware of flying or walking or even moving, and yet she had traversed thousands of miles from her home in just moments. As she merely thought about things or conjured questions, her new body darted here and there, and everything was answered and understood.

The entire first floor of the colossal house of God had

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been fashioned into a great hall, a vast beautiful gathering place where the Spirit of God dwelt and the Son of God presided. Irene was not aware of turning her head or even her eyes, yet she was aware of everything around her. Inexpressible splendor filled her senses, and while she knew she was in a place that had foundations, whose builder and maker was God, she was unaware of a floor or ceiling, and the walls seemed transparent, though the open gates were made of precious stones and attended by angels.

She again tried to imagine this scene on Earth, as if she had gone to a great venue to see someone perform or speak. Monitors would have been set up to allow everyone to see what was really happening onstage. But here she sat, unaware of the weight of her body, in the middle of this enormous throng, yet she saw Jesus as clearly as if she were sitting at His feet. As He appeared to take in the crowd with His eyes, still it seemed His attention was solely and fully on her, and she could hear His thoughts.

"I am so glad you are here, Irene. I chose you before the foundation of the world. I came to Earth for you, lived and died for you, forgave your sins, and claimed you as My own. Welcome to the house of God."

Around His throne four creatures hovered, with eyes all around their heads. The first was like a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had a face like a man's, and the fourth was like an eagle. Each of the four had six wings and seemed to never alight. They called out, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!"

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As the creatures gave glory and honor and thanks to Jesus, twenty-four men in a semicircle before Him fell and worshiped Him and cast crowns before the throne, saying, "You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created."

Thousands upon thousands of angels appeared and surrounded the throne, joining the men and the living creatures in praising Jesus and saying with loud voices, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!"

Suddenly Jesus said, "Behold, I make all things new. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I give the fountain of the water of life freely to all who thirst."

Irene had no emotion from her past to compare with what she had felt from the time she heard her name and the sound of the trumpet of God and began to rise. It was as if every happy, fulfilling, thrilling moment of her life combined in one instant, never to abate, would only begin to hint at the feeling that permeated her entire being. She felt she would never again need sleep, would never be hungry or thirsty. All she wanted was to be in the presence of her Savior and to worship Him with her whole self.

But were the stories of delicious foods in heaven merely apocryphal? Because Irene didn't need food, did that mean she would not want it? With that mere thought came a cornucopia of delights that dwarfed

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anything she had ever hungered for--sizzling meats, fruit, vegetables, crystal glasses full of nectar.

Irene wondered if she had time to partake, not wanting to miss a thing while concentrating on her own satisfaction. She found herself able to consume more food in a split second than she had ever eaten in one sitting. Yet there was not an iota of discomfort. Every bite and sip brought bursts of flavor unlike anything Irene had ever imagined, and the taste stayed with her as the foodstuffs disappeared.

She wondered where Raymie was now, and instantly he was at her side, telling her of friends he had discovered whom he had not even known were believers.

"How wonderful," she said as he darted away, and immediately she had the same experience, recognizing people, some surely miles away, whom she had known on Earth but not really known. Had they had any more clue that she was a believer than she had that they were?

Nicolae Carpathia slid from under his blankets and sat on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands. Bucharest was normally quiet at dawn, but now he heard the dissonance of sirens and car horns and weather-warning alarms. He moved to the window and pulled back the drapes to reveal the mix of pastels emerging from the eastern horizon. Such a beautiful day for so much racket.

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But there was as much noise in Nicolae's mind as in his ears. It tormented him, this mix of terrible screams and maniacal laughter, driving him to his knees before the window. He hung his head and lifted his arms. "Speak to me, spirit," he pleaded. "Tell me!"

"Our enemies have been rescued," came the haunted, rasping, echoing voice. "Saved, snatched from our grasp! But all is not lost. Those who remain are ours. And we are in the vast majority!"

"I do not understand," Nicolae whined.

"Are you prepared to lead those who remain?"

"I am willing, but I do not know--"

"Your time has come. You must merely obey."

"I will do your bidding, master. But what has happened? Master? Spirit? Tell me more."

"Obey!"

"I am yours, but--"

"Obey!"

"I shall, but I--"

"Obey!"

"I am at your service." Nicolae struggled to his feet, his face wet with tears. Phones were ringing all over the house. He reached for the intercom. "Gabriella!" he barked. "Who is answering the phones?"

Another maid's voice came back, shaken. "I'm trying. Do you know what has happened?"

"No. Tell me."

"Turn on your TV."

"I will, but tell me first."

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"I'm sorry, sir, but I must get these phones, and Gabriella is missing."

"Missing?"

The woman had clicked off, so Nicolae grabbed the remote and flipped through a hundred channels, all reporting the same news. The greatest catastrophe in history had claimed hundreds of millions around the globe--billions when the dead were added. People had disappeared in an instant, leaving everything material behind.

Nicolae felt his lip curling into a snarl. Had he been duped? Was this, then, what he was to inherit, to rule? A world decimated by chaos and tragedy, reeling from the vanishing of more lives than had been claimed by all the wars and plagues and natural disasters of history combined?

All the kingdoms of the world were to be his, and this was the shape they were in?

Nicolae was again driven to the floor, this time from a blow to the back of his neck, just above his spine. As he teetered on all fours, trying to regain his equilibrium, the spirit again communicated to his soul. "Do you not see how we can use this to our advantage? Our soldiers do not need uniforms! Our enemies have retreated, separated themselves from the battleground. The earth and all that is in it is ours! We have won! We have driven our enemies from us and we are left with the spoils.

"Remain alert. Remain on the offensive. Fight to maintain every soul. We must not lose even one more to

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the other side. This tragic day can be laid at the feet of the Enemy. Those who believe this was an act of God will hate Him for it. The terrified, the suffering, the needy, the war-weary will look for a man of peace, of compassion, of understanding, of hope. You can be that man if you can comprehend the unlimited possibilities and seize the moment. Are you that man? Can you accomplish that task?"

"I am that man."

"Rise. And obey."

When Nicolae emerged from the shower and dressed in one of his finest suits--anticipating the crush of the press--phones were still ringing all over the estate, and Gabriella's assistant had called in even those who were supposed to be off today.

"TV, newspapers, magazines," she called out, covering the phone as he strode past. "What can I tell them?"

"I am unavailable until after lunch."

"Do I tell them about our own losses?"

"I am sorry?"

"Gabriella's uniform is on the floor where she stood. One of our drivers was checking an engine. His clothes are draped over the car under the open hood."

"Anyone else?"

"Not sure yet. Some of those I'm calling are not answering."

Enemies on my own staff. "Tell the press that I do not anticipate being up to speaking until after lunch as I am in seclusion, grieving the losses of several on my own

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staff. And get someone to show you how to program those phones so that they ring directly to Ms. Ivins and Mr. Fortunato in New York."

Leon had been dozing before the television in anticipation of going to bed when his room phone jangled.

Viv Ivins was on the other end. "Do you see what has happened?" she said.

Leon fought for clarity from the loginess of his nap. The TV news showed alarming images from all over the world.

"Millions have disappeared right out of their clothes." "What is it?" Leon managed. "Am I dreaming?" "No, you are not dreaming. And you know precisely what this is. It is the day of reckoning. The ultimate war has begun."

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CHAPTER NINETEEN

Irene Steele had long wondered what heaven would be like. She had heard there would be different priorities, that things on Earth that had seemed so important would become inconsequential. But what of her heartache over Rayford and Chloe? Somehow the pain was muted in the presence of God. She felt an optimism deep within, and her prayer life had already been radically altered.

Anytime Irene was moved to communicate with God through Christ, she merely thought what she wanted to say, and God was in her and she in Him, the conversation direct and instantaneous. And His message? It was always filled with encouragement and security. There was no earthly word for this heavenly feeling of welcome, of belonging, and--strangest of all--praise that went both ways.

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In her humanity on Earth she praised had Him and longed to do so in His presence for eternity. But she would not have been able to even comprehend God praising her. On Earth Irene had had the most difficult time accepting and feeling God's love for her, even though she knew it was true. It was what had drawn her to Him, and she could identify with the biblical truth that "we love Him because He first loved us."

That Jesus, the only perfect man who ever lived, would have gone to the cross and suffered and died for her had she been the only sinner in history, had often caused her to break emotionally. And yet Irene had to admit that she had never, ever understood God's love. She had always regretted that, because she sensed that God wanted her to not only accept His gift--which she had-- but to also understand that she was the object of His great love, the apple of His eye, the reason He did what He did.

Now, here, in His presence, she got it. She understood. In herself she found no more worthiness, yet she could not deny the look in Jesus' eyes and the thrill it seemed was His to see her. She only hoped her countenance showed the same, as being in the eternal presence of her Savior had been her loftiest hope and dream ever since she had received Him. How could He seem as overjoyed to see her--one of so many--as she was to be in His presence?

Irene had assumed all the attention would naturally and rightfully be on Jesus here, so it stunned her to feel His love and acceptance in a whole new way. Everyone

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here--she knew that each was feeling this as personally as she--was the object of Jesus' love.

On Earth she would not have been in a place even a tenth this massive without keeping an eye on Raymie every second. Now, though he may have been miles from her with the ability to move at the speed of thought, she was entirely aware of his presence and knew he was safe and, in essence, still with her. With his having been transformed into an instant adult--seemingly in mind as well as body--he exuded a wisdom far beyond his years. Irene knew he was experiencing every detail the way she was, and she couldn't wait to talk with him, though she resisted the urge to request his presence. When they needed to be together, both would come to that conclusion simultaneously, and it would happen.

For now, as the colossal hall hummed with excitement, Irene settled in for what was to come. She had an eternity to enjoy this, and her prayer became that her husband and her daughter would somehow see the truth and make their decisions to follow Christ before it was too late. The way she understood it, only one in four people alive at the time of the Rapture would survive the Tribulation. With odds like that against them, she prayed they would early turn to Christ. She wished them no danger or pain or death. She would gladly wait to reunite with them following Jesus' glorious appearing and the setting up of the millennial kingdom if it meant they didn't have to endure tragedy in the meantime.

The question looming in Irene's mind was whether it was possible to maintain this delicious, overwhelming

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feeling she could barely describe. She felt full of God, full of light, full of His righteousness and perfection. How she had felt when she made her husband or kids happy or when everything seemed to go right just began to hint at this sense of well-being. In her old life, Irene would have been able to maintain such an emotional high for only so long. Now it seemed it would never fade, and something told her that she had the capacity to more than endure it but to also luxuriate in it.

From what seemed miles behind the throne came a tiny beam of light that grew slowly as it drew nearer. Soon Irene could make out that this was another band of angels, thousands of them. And they were singing. Rich basses and clear tenors combined for the most magnificent sound she had ever heard.

How she had always loved music! And how bad she had always been at it. Though she was not tone-deaf-- she always knew when the right notes were being played and sung, and she could detect the clunkers--Irene had never been able to carry a tune. For years that had been her little secret. She enjoyed singing nonetheless, but she had learned to keep her voice down, because there was no hiding her monotone, and it had surprised even Rayford and the kids.

She had joked to Jackie that one thing she looked forward to in heaven was being able to sing. As the angel choir drew nearer and their magnificent voices filled the place, the redeemed saints began to join in singing praises to God.

Suddenly Jackie and Dooley appeared next to Irene,

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and Jackie said, "This is your moment. Let's hear it. Let it go!"

Irene did not even have to listen to learn the simple song. It was as if the words and the melody had been written on her heart. The great multitude, led by the angel choir, blended beautiful voices, drawing Irene to her feet and causing her to raise her chin. And with a dramatic, crystal-clear soprano she had never heard-- and certainly never produced--she raised her hands high and joined the triumphant, majestic multitude, singing, "Alleluia! Salvation and glory and honor and power belong to the Lord our God! For true and righteous are His judgments, because He has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication; and He has avenged on her the blood of His servants shed by her.

"Alleluia! Her smoke rises up forever and ever!"

And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell and worshiped God. "Amen! Alleluia!"

Then a voice came from the throne, saying, "Praise our God, all you His servants and those who fear Him, both small and great!"

In unison, the voices of the vast host, sounding like rushing water and mighty thunder, proclaimed, "Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father."

The music stopped as quickly as it had begun, and a holy hush fell over the place. Irene was feeling the

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crackle of anticipation but not knowing what they were waiting for.

With the four creatures hovering quietly behind Him; the countless angels, heads bowed, crowded around for what seemed like miles; and the twenty-four elders on their faces before Him, Jesus stood. Despite royal robes, the magnificent throne, the galactic beauty of the house of God, and the encompassing host of worshipers, there was not even a hint of pride in Jesus' bearing. He merely regarded the crowd.

And again, Irene felt as if His look was for her alone. How He could single out each of the hundreds and hundreds of millions, she would never know. She wanted to cheer, to clap, to shout, to sing, to fall prostrate, yet that thrum of expectancy, that heightened edge, had caused not only all sound but also any movement among the masses to cease.

When the great gathering place and all those souls were finally dead silent and motionless, the booming voice of God shook the place: "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Henceforth He shall be known to all as KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. I have highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

As Jesus again sat on the throne, Irene instinctively reached toward Him and saw that everyone else was

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doing the same. Then the chant started, picked up by all: "King of kings and Lord of lords. King of kings and Lord of lords. King of kings and Lord of lords..."

Again silence washed over the multitudes, and one of the twenty-four elders slowly rose and stood before the throne. Irene saw him as if standing next to him, a plain, earnest-looking man, quivering with emotion. She knew without being told that he was the apostle Peter.

He said, in a voice so soft that Irene knew only God could make it resonate so clearly in the ears of so many, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, bestowed here now for you, who were kept by the power of God through faith for salvation to be revealed in the last time.

"In this you greatly rejoice, for you were grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory in the presence of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you loved. Now you see Him, and you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith--the salvation of your souls.

"Everyone here shall receive praise for receiving the gift of salvation through God's Son, Jesus the Christ. Those who have served Christ will be honored, for as the Son Himself has proclaimed, "If anyone serves Me,

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let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor."

"And those who have suffered for the sake of Christ and the gospel will be glorified. So, beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which tried you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partook of Christ's sufferings, so that now that His glory has been revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you were reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you and through you He is glorified.

"The time has come for judgment to begin here at the house of God.Therefore let those who suffered according to the will of God and yet committed their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator, be commended by Him whom they served." Peter returned to his place and prostrated himself before the throne.

Next the voice of God began to praise all believers for their faith. Again, though Irene had been taught that this would take place and had felt this attention and honor since the moment of her arrival, it struck her as bizarre even as it warmed her beyond measure.

She knew that if God gave every redeemed saint even ten seconds of praise, it would take thousands of Earth years. So when Irene was addressed by Him personally, she knew that everyone else was getting their commendation at the same time.

"Irene," He spoke audibly to her heart, "I have loved

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you with an everlasting love. You believed in My Son and followed Him, despite opposition within your own family. Though you have belonged to Me only a short time, you have been faithful in studying My Word, in teaching it to children, in leading your in-laws and your own son to Christ. From the time of your salvation, your concern has been not for yourself, but for others. I love you and welcome you home. Well done, good and faithful servant."

The words of God from His own mouth humbled Irene so much that she could no longer stand. Enraptured as she was, all she could think of was her shortcomings, the times she had failed God and how puny her service had been in the short time she'd had to offer, especially compared to so many of those around her. Just this brief moment with her God gave Irene a whole new view of her temporal life and what a waste it now seemed in light of eternity. She had heard the quote "Only one life 'twill soon be past; only what's done for Christ will last," but how true and real it was to her now. What had all the rest of that busyness been about? It amounted to less than nothing in the cosmic scheme.

Irene had been praised for receiving Christ and honored for a bit of service: teaching Sunday school and leading three others to Him. But there was another category of blessing for which she knew she was not qualified. Yet it buoyed her to see others glorified for having suffered for the sake of Christ and the gospel.

Countless thousands were brought before Jesus and honored for years and years of service in various capacities,

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and this was when Irene realized the truth of the adage that "the last will be first and the first last" in heaven. Irene looked forward to seeing and hearing about the exploits of all the heroes of the Bible and leaders of the church throughout history, but clearly they were at the other end of the godly schedule. For as God praised the saints, He began with the behind-the-scenes people, the lesser knowns, those unrecognized outside their own small orbits.

There was the woman from Indiana who had raised four sons in spite of an alcoholic husband who abused her. She had continued to pray for him, protect her sons, and work to provide for them all. While she had refused to be walked on and injured by this man, she treated him as a lost soul and not as an enemy, and God honored her for that example to her sons. Under her tutelage and Bible teaching, all four became excellent students, graduated from seminaries, and went into full-time Christian work. The adult Sunday school class she taught grew to more than seven hundred members.

Another honoree was a prodigious pianist who had taken the gift God had given him and devoted himself to ministry rather than exalt himself by pursuing what was guaranteed to be a lucrative career in the great concert halls. He taught piano in remote areas of the world and used his giftedness to spread the Word of God, eschewing personal glory and wealth.

On and on they paraded by the throne, receiving honor from the Lamb who had been slain for the sins of the world. As Jesus embraced them and spoke to them,

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Irene could hear and see it all as if she were in the front row. And it was as if time stood still. She felt no passage of minutes or hours, experienced no fatigue or restlessness or impatience. If this went on for the rest of eternity, it would have been fine with her. She was exposed to heroes of the faith she had never even heard of, and they proved to be quiet, unassuming giants.

Through sheer force of his own will and personality, Abdullah Smith had wrestled his decimated life back to some semblance of normalcy. For many, many months he laid low at the Amman air base, not making it obvious that he still lived there, though he had been divorced for so long. His ex-wife, Yasmine, still lived in their modest home with their son and daughter, and Abdullah had cleaned himself up enough that she allowed brief visits every couple of weeks or so.

He had quit drinking, quit chasing women, quit being slothful, and returned to his old disciplined ways with the Royal Jordanian Air Force. Abdullah was always the first one up and on the job in a crisp, shining uniform. He regained his sense of class and purpose and style, but, sad to say, his old personality seemed lost forever.

He had always been a man of few words while bearing the ability to be quick-witted and pleasant. Now his professionalism and leadership in the cockpit had returned, but he was largely a sullen, silent man. Wounded was

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how he would have put it. With the loss of his wife and children, he was devastated.

And it was obvious that this was not going to change. He and Yasmine still traded letters occasionally, but it was nearly impossible for him to remain civil in his, always moving from desperate lovelorn pleas to get back together to rants and raves about her infidelity to Islam and her treachery in "stealing" his own children. Yet it was Abdullah who was not devout in his faith, and it had been he who initiated the divorce. That made everything worse; he had no one to blame but himself. Yes, she had turned her back on her religion, but he had intended to make her pay. He was the one, however, who was now suffering.

Abdullah had, as usual, been up since the crack of dawn on the fateful day that changed the world. He had already eaten and begun his round of preflight training chores when the warning sirens sounded and military personnel were rallied from all over the base. He'd seen enough similar drills, so he never even asked what was going on. He just assumed it was a routine test and that he would be expected to muster next to his fighter plane until the thing was called off.

Instead, he and several colleagues were marshaled to take off and defend the skies of Jordan. Against who or what, no one could or would say. But as Abdullah's fighter screamed into the air over Amman, his view of the carnage on the ground horrified him. What could have caused this on such a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day?

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He stared at hopeless rush-hour traffic jams--nothing new except for the number of smoking and burning accidents and the fact that nothing was moving. Helicopters were the only craft able to get on and off the main roads, carting the most seriously injured to overtaxed hospitals.

"What in the world has happened?" Abdullah cried into his radio.

But his dispatcher was so harried that he merely responded, "Find the news on the radio. Everyone's carrying it."

Abdullah had always been one who knew the difference between his dreams and reality. He had never had to pinch himself to determine whether he was awake. For the first time ever, he was not so sure. To hear the frantic reports of the disappearances of people in Jordan, the rest of the Middle East, Europe, Asia, even his beloved America, was almost too much to take in. People had disappeared, disintegrated, dematerialized-- whatever one could call it--right out of their clothes, regardless of where they were or what they were doing.

Pots boiled over and started fires that were burning homes and apartment buildings. Driverless cars careened into trucks, buses, other cars, bridges, and abutments, resulting in the mess Abdullah saw below. Doctors had disappeared during operations, instruments falling into body cavities, colleagues collapsing in horror.

A baby had disappeared while being born. A nurse's uniform had floated to the floor. An entire soccer team, save for one hysterical teammate, left their uniforms, shoes, and socks on the field as the ball trickled out-of-

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bounds. Stories like this poured in from all around the world.

Something niggled at the back of Abdullah's brain, but it didn't hit him full force until panicky commentators-- usually so all knowing and aloof--began speculating on the various theories. Radiation. Spontaneous combustion that somehow eluded clothing and jewelry. An entirely new form of weaponry. Or the old religious saws: the end of the world. The Rapture.

Not many seriously considered that one, but it had to be raised because nobody had a better idea. And as it gathered steam, supporters and detractors called in with what they had heard and learned over the years from the few kooks who believed such things.

Abdullah shuddered. Yasmine had warned him of this. She had spelled it out plainly in one of the letters that had so enraged him. And he was certain it was one he had not destroyed.

He had wanted to shred and burn it, had meant to. He had balled it up and thrown it across the room because it also contained the step-by-step instructions for becoming a follower of Christ. But if memory served, this was one of the letters he had smoothed back out and put in his metal lockbox. Now he was desperate to check it again, because if she had been right and this was what he feared, she and the children were gone.

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CHAPTER TWENTY

Had Irene Steele been forced from her reverie--impossible, of course, in the very presence of God--and asked her most stark impression of heaven so far, she would have had to admit that most jarring was her new concept of time. On Earth she had been in an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly cycle sometimes carved into semesters or trimesters or even gestation periods. She was aware of interminable dark winter months, the elusive spring, and flashbulb summers she couldn't make linger.

But here... here it was so different. She simply could not put a clock on how long it had been since she had been awakened from a deep sleep and delivered to the portals of heaven. So much had happened that she could have been here an hour or a week or--who knew?-- longer.

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Yet it seemed like an instant. She had been told that time would have no meaning in the light of eternity, and she had to chuckle to recall what she once thought that meant. Perhaps she would set up whatever kind of housekeeping one set up in glory, visit Jesus, talk to God, meet friends and biblical saints, see the sights, and then settle in, realizing she had a long, long time ahead of her.

She had not, however, expected time to simply have no bearing. Irene had zero sense of the passage of time, and only in those fleeting moments when she wondered what was going on on Earth did she think about what might have happened between the shout, the trumpet sound, and right now.

She could only imagine the chaos below. What Rayford and Chloe were thinking. Whether they were reunited. Were communication and travel impossible? How long would it take them to remember what she and Raymie had talked of, warned them about? In one sense, she thought, this should be easy for them. They had not believed, but now what could they think? Would it be obvious to anyone who had had exposure to believers that, as crazy as it had all sounded, clearly what their friends, loved ones, and acquaintances had predicted had come true?

Everything about this place, needless to say, constituted sensory overload, and Irene realized that her mind had to be as new as her glorified body. Otherwise, how could she manage to take it all in? Things like this happening on Earth would have either driven her mad or made her pass out from their sheer implausibility.

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This ability to move about at the speed of thought, to understand what was going on without being told, to communicate with people and, best of all, with God instantaneously, almost without a back and forth. She wondered and knew at the same time.

The "leaders" of this massive meeting did not step to a microphone and announce the program or introduce the participants. They spoke to the hearts and ears and minds of everyone all at once, and you simply knew. God had honored His Son, of course, and His voice was unmistakable, but it wasn't as if anyone assembled in the house of God wondered who sat on the throne.

Irene sat enthralled, unaware of the weight of her body on a chair, with no feeling of fatigue or ache or pain or that charming memory: time. Impatience was not an issue. Boredom she could never imagine again. Heartache and loss were strange, muted, overwhelmed in the presence of her Savior. She was still concerned about her family, but something--actually Someone-- had embedded into her new mind and body a deep sense of contentment and peace that told her she had no part in that which was to come as it related to Rayford and Chloe. Still she prayed for them and somehow believed without question that God knew best and that His will would be done.

Seemingly from nowhere, a translucent podium appeared some thirty feet to the left of the throne, emitting from its center a piercing flame so white and bright that all Irene could compare it to was the flash of burning magnesium from a high school experiment. That had

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required that students wear welding masks to protect their eyes, but she was able to gaze at this great light without danger and sense its powerful, incomparable heat. Something told her that in her mortal body she would not have been able to stand within twenty feet of it.

The apostle Paul left his place before the throne and humbly addressed the masses: "We were God's fellow workers; we were God's field, we were God's building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But each was to take heed how he built on it. For no other foundation could anyone lay than that which was laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone built on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, now one's work will become clear; now it shall be declared, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If your work built on the sure foundation endures, you will receive a reward. If your work is burned, you will suffer loss; but you yourself will be saved, yet so as through fire."

So this was what Pastor Billings had been teaching about recently. While salvation was free and granted by grace through faith, still the works of the righteous would be tested. God looked at sinful people through His perfect Son and saw only His perfection, so their salvation was secure, regardless of how their individual works were judged. But their rewards, their various crowns for service to Christ, would be determined by

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whether the fire exposed precious gems and metals or resulted in ash from the wood, hay, or stubble of bad works or even good deeds done with bad motives.

Irene knew she had precious little that could even be tested and only wished she had had more time, more knowledge, less selfishness, so that she could present many good deeds for the test. She was grateful that the destiny of her eternal soul did not rest on the work she had or hadn't done, but in her gratitude for that gift, she wished she could somehow have done more to make obvious her devotion and thanks to God.

Would she be embarrassed? She couldn't imagine that, not here, not in the presence of God. Certainly she would bear shame and regret for wasted time, and she would have to rest and glory in the fact that her soul was saved no matter what. But surely the God who loved her would not expose her to ridicule in front of all the believers from time immemorial.

Irene could only hope that she would be dealt with with some dispatch so that regardless of how she fared she would be able to enjoy seeing crowns bestowed upon the heroes of the faith she had known and read about.

As soon as Abdullah had completed his first run and reported what he could, he took advantage of a break and landed back at the base. He hurried to his quarters, unlocked his metal box, and tore through the letters

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from Yasmine, finally finding the wrinkled, faded one that spoke of this very eventuality.

Abdullah, I believe--and I am certain you agree--that God hates divorce. It was not my intention that my new faith would result in the end of our marriage. This was your choice, but I concede that staying with you and allowing you influence over our children would have also been untenable as long as you feel the way you do about me now.

I know this letter will anger you, and neither is that my intention. We have talked and talked about the differences between Islam and Christianity, but please indulge me and allow me to get my thoughts down in order. Hopefully God will help me make them clear.

I do not expect that you will suddenly see the truth because of my words, but I pray that God will open your heart and will one day reveal Himself to you. As I have said over and over, the difference between what you call "our religions" is that mine is not religion. I have come to believe that religion is man's effort to please God. I had always been bound by rules, acts of service, good deeds. I was trying as hard as I could to win the favor of Allah so that in the end I would find heaven on Earth.

But I could never be good enough, Abdullah, and as wonderful as you were for many years,

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you couldn't either. That became clear with your unreasonable reaction to my coming to faith in the one true God and Father of Jesus Christ. To you it was anathema, despite the fact that, like me, you had drifted even from the tenets of Islam.

I believe that to you, my converting was a public humiliation. I regret that, but I could no more hide my true feelings and beliefs than I could ask you to give up flying.

Just once more, let me clarify: Christians believe the Bible teaches that everyone is born in sin and that the penalty for sin is death. But Jesus paid the price by living a sinless life and dying as a sacrifice for all who believe. Abdullah, you must admit that you have never met a perfect person, and we each know the other is not perfect. We are sinners in need of salvation. We can't save ourselves, can't change ourselves. I am most encouraged by your discipline and your efforts. You are now more like the man I married, but don't you see? You will never be good enough to qualify for heaven, because you would have to be entirely perfect.

Someday, when you are ready--and I hope it will not be too late--just pray and tell God that you know that you are a sinner, that you are sorry and want to repent and be forgiven. Ask Him to take over your life. The day is coming, prophesied in Scripture, when Jesus will return

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in the clouds and snatch away all true believers in an instant. No one will see this happen except for those to whom it happens. Those left behind will simply realize that it is all true. Christians from all over the world will disappear. I hope it does not take a tragedy like that--though it will be anything but tragic for those of us who go--to get you to swallow your pride, examine yourself, and humble yourself before God. Of course, if this does happen before you come to true faith, you will know what has occurred. And you will be without excuse. I just pray that you do not lose your life in the resulting chaos before you can become a believer, not in a religion but in a person. Jesus the Christ.

With fond memories and deep affection, praying for you,

Yasmine

Was it possible? Could she and the children be gone? If they were, she had been right. Abdullah could not control his shuddering body. He had to know. He had to get there.

He dashed outside and found a lone helicopter sitting on the tarmac. It's pilot, Khalid, stood next to it. "Ya Sidi," Abdullah said, "Might you have time to run me to my home? I must check on my family."

"Of course, Ya Bek. I have just refueled."

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On the way, Abdullah asked Khalid what he had heard from his own family.

"They are safe, praise Allah. But of course they are terrified, as we all are. No one can imagine what has happened."

Twenty minutes later the chopper kicked up a cloud of sand as Khalid put down in the narrow, steeply inclined space between Abdullah's former home and the house behind it. Abdullah was immediately struck by the absence of children. His was a neighborhood full of families mostly larger than his, and by this time of the morning it was usually teeming with activity, children of all ages running around. Now all he saw were wailing adults and a few teenagers, wandering, horror etched on their faces.

"Would you like me to go in with you, Ya BekV

"No, thank you, friend. I'll be right back."

As soon as Abdullah entered the back door, he was overcome by the odor of burned food. He rushed to the tiny kitchen to find a pan over an open flame, the residue of falafel and hummus blackened and smoking. Abdullah grabbed a towel and slung the red-hot pan into the sink, quickly turning off the gas. Only then did he realize he was standing on something.

Yasmine's thiyab was underfoot, and as Abdullah stepped back, he realized her undergarments and slippers were there too. In all their years together he had never known her to leave her clothes on the floor, even in the bedroom. Clearly she had been standing here. Yasmine had long made a practice of rising before the

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family and waking them with the smell of breakfast cooking.

He moved to the tiny bedroom the children shared. There, on their mats, lay their nightclothes. Abdullah's mind tried to play tricks on him, to tell him this was a mistake, that his family was elsewhere, that there was some explanation for the appearance that they had disappeared right out of their clothes.

But he knew the truth. In a stupor, his hands shaking, Abdullah grabbed the children's clothes, picked up Yasmine's outer garments, and walked stiff legged back to the copter.

As he climbed in, Khalid said, "What, Ya Bek} Are they all right?"

Abdullah could not speak. He shook his head.

"Gone?"

Abdullah nodded, lips quivering.

"You want to go back to the base?"

He nodded again, and yielding to emotion so overpowering that he was incapable of keeping himself from doing something he had never before done in front of another man, Abdullah buried his face in the clothes of his beloved family and wept.

Again Irene was fascinated that she merely knew what was going on without anyone saying so. Somehow God revealed to her--and, of course, to everyone else at the same time--that it was time for the next phase of the

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bema or the judgment seat of Christ. Works were to be tested by fire to see what remained and what ignited like kindling, and then the judged would receive from Jesus at least praise for trusting Him for salvation but ideally one or more of four separate crowns.

The Crown of Life would be awarded to those who had remained faithful through trials, some even to the point of martyrdom. Irene was reminded of the admonition in the book of James: "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.... Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him."

Pastor Billings had recently taught on the statement of Jesus Himself from John's Revelation: "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.... Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name."

The Crown of Righteousness was reserved for those who had eagerly awaited the Lord's return. Irene had

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long admired this in the apostle Paul, who, when standing in the courts of Rome, had been more concerned about the court of heaven.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

The Crown of Glory was promised to those who had shepherded God's flock with pure motives. Irene enjoyed hearing Pastor Billings talk about the heavy weight of stewardship and accountability he felt to serve willingly rather than out of some compulsion. He often cited 1 Peter in relation to his calling:

Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.

The Crown of Rejoicing would go to the soul winner. Paul had written to the Thessalonians:

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For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy.

To the Philippians he had written:

Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved.

In John 4, Jesus taught that those who shared His passion for the lost and were active in evangelism were gathering fruit for eternal life. "Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: "One sows and another reaps.""

Khalid carefully set the chopper down on the tarmac at the Amman air base and asked Abdullah if there was anything he could do for him.

Abdullah shook his head, his jaw set and his lips pressed together. Still tears escaped him. "Thank you, my friend," he managed hoarsely.

The walk to his quarters, fewer than a hundred steps, seemed the longest of his life. He dropped his family's clothes onto his cot and knelt next to them. "Dear God," he sobbed, "does it matter that I am coming to You out

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of fear and remorse? I believe You exist because of what has happened. I don't know about this matter of being a sinner, but I know I am not perfect, not even close. Please, if I am to believe in Jesus, make it plain to me. I know I do not measure up to You, a God so mighty and powerful that He can make people disappear. It seems to me I have no choice, and so I need to know whether my motive is pure enough."

Suddenly Abdullah realized that he was not facing east, not praying toward Mecca, not addressing Allah but rather the God of his wife, the God who had clearly made hundreds of millions vanish from around the globe. And yet the Jordanian man somehow knew, was touched deep within his heart and soul, that this God was hearing him. With everything else that had to be on His mind, with the unnumbered prayers that must be rising to Him right now, He was listening; He was communicating.

Abdullah felt loved. Now here was a God worthy of fear, worthy of praise, worthy of devotion. No longer was he undecided about his status as a sinner. He slid from the pile of his family's clothes on his cot until he was prostrate on the floor. Somehow the weight of his imperfection bore down on him in the presence of the one true God.

Abdullah began to weep anew. "I am unworthy, God. I see myself for who I am. Selfish. Prideful. Lustful. Angry. Unloving. Mean-spirited. Can You forgive me?"

It was as if God was speaking directly to his heart. Abdullah was reminded of everything Yasmine had said

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and written. Everyone was born in sin. There was "none righteous, no, not one." And even though some people seemed better and nicer and less selfish than others, all were hopelessly lost in their sin. They fell short of God's perfection and needed Christ's sacrificial death on the cross as payment for their sins. And how was it that one appropriated that for his own life? He was merely to believe and receive it?

"I believe and receive!" Abdullah cried out. "Forgive me and save me from my sins. Make me one of Your own children!"

As he lay there sobbing, Abdullah was overwhelmed by a sense of peace. The loss of his family was biting and bitter and deep, and he knew on some level that he could lay such a tragedy on the very One to whom he was now pledging himself. But Abdullah also understood that this act of God had a purpose. It had been prophesied. Yasmine had told him that God might someday intrude so dramatically into human affairs that no one would be able to doubt His existence.

Abdullah stood shakily and sat on the cot, running his fingers over the clothes of his loved ones. Tears dropped from his chin to his lap. He had no idea where to go or what to do next, but he felt like a different man. What would his new God want of him? He was desperate to find someone who understood, but would they not all be gone?

In the meantime, he would serve God the only way he knew how. Abdullah would be the best servant, the best military man, the best pilot, the most giving person he

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could be. He would find a Bible; Yasmine had one at home. He would study it, look for books that might help explain it. And he would pray that perhaps God would bring into his life others who were only now realizing that they had missed the truth. Surely there would be others on this vast planet who found themselves in the same spiritual place as he.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Everything in God's house stopped. Irene had not even considered that billions of people, all in one place, were capable of producing no sound. But the stillness pervaded, and she could imagine no greater feeling of anticipation. Anytime anything here changed, something important was about to happen. She scanned the great hall, watching to see if Jesus would stand, listening for God to speak, looking to see if one of the twenty-four elders would step forward.

But no, just several seconds of silence. And then, suddenly, a crashing burst of music from the thousands upon thousands of angels behind the throne and attending the gates. In a sustained, harmonic eruption, on perfect cue they sang just one word:

"HALLELUJAH!"

Slowly, throughout the house of God, people began

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applauding, cheering, and murmuring. This was how the angels rejoiced when someone on Earth received Christ. Such outbursts began to come more and more frequently as the fire and Bema judgments continued. Sometimes three or four hallelujahs would be sung at once, then, after a moment, ten or twelve more.

The longer Irene was there, the more celebrations of conversions surged from the angels, and the saints applauded and cheered. Would this ever get old? Irene could not imagine.

Every so often, newcomers would join the throng, clearly those who had just died, some having been believers for only hours. Irene prayed that some of the rejoicing was for Rayford and Chloe and that they would reunite with her seven Earth years later at the establishment of the millennial kingdom.

Irene's new heart was warmed by insight. As she sat thrilling to the fire test and the awarding of crowns to believers from every tongue and tribe and nation, she realized that she had lost her fear of shame. Irene was no longer worried about being humiliated in front of others because of her sin. What God seemed to be implanting in her mind and, she knew, in the minds of everyone else too, was that this was not a sin judgment.

Her sins, as well as the sins of all the other saints, had been dealt with long ago on the cross. They had already been removed as far as the east is from the west, so there were no sins to be tested in the fire. What, then, would be considered dross and burn away to leave only the precious metals and stones? Irene

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knew, as if Pastor Billings or even God had been sitting next to her, advising her.

Her work for the Kingdom would go into the fire along with everything else she had done--apart from her sin--and the wasted time, the frivolous things, the activities not devoted to eternity, would be burned away. The time she spent nurturing and serving her family would surely survive. Her church attendance and Bible reading, personal devotions, acts of service, recreation to refresh herself for more of the same, exercise to keep herself fit for service--all those would survive the fire and be burnished to a beautiful glow.

But what of the times she had not been educating or inspiring herself? What of the time she simply wasted on trivial matters, on things of interest but not of value? Irene was reminded of time frittered away on things that had little meaning beyond diversion. There were movies and TV shows that quickly proved other than educational or even uplifting, which she could have turned off in order to make better use of her time. Books that proved titillating but pointless. Shopping sprees merely to make herself feel better, short of anything she really needed.

Irene did not get the impression that she had been expected to fill every waking moment with acts of service. But clearly it was true that only what was done for Christ would last. Much of her life had been filled with stuff... not wrong, not sin, just waste.

One of the most delightful parts of the Bema Judgment, to Irene, was how Jesus handled the people who

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had been nearly anonymous on Earth. People who worked with their hands were lauded if they had performed their tasks as unto the Lord, rather than unto men. They may have been engaged in work as routine as auto mechanics or carpentry or shipping. But if they had dedicated themselves to Christ and worked to honor Him--especially when coworkers slacked or management was dishonest or others cut corners--Jesus had high praise for them. They were rewarded on par with those who had dedicated themselves to full-time Christian work in which their income was garnered from ministry. In fact, some of the latter found that more of their works were burned to waste than survived, due to poor motives or laziness.

Musicians--singers, composers, and instrumentalists-- were surprised to hear the heavenly choir break into their songs. But Irene's favorite musical moment was when the famed blind gospel hymn writer Fanny Crosby, who had penned some nine thousand songs before her death in 1915, came leaping with joy at her ability to see.

Her works were tested in the fire, and all that was left were precious metals and gemstones. From the silver and gold Jesus fashioned a beautiful, simple crown, embedded with the gems that had been forged in the fire, and presented to her the Crown of Life for living through her trial of blindness and glorifying Him nonetheless. He also gave her the Crown of Righteousness for clearly loving the hope of His appearing, as well as the Crown of Rejoicing for the fact that her work brought so many souls into the Kingdom.

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Jesus said, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Would you sing for me?"

Mrs. Crosby knelt and covered her mouth with both hands, but the heavenly host cheered and she began, backed by an eternal chorus nonpareil. From "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior" she sang lyrics she adapted on the spot:

Finally at Thy throne of mercy I find sweet relief, Kneeling here in deep contrition; No more unbelief.

Jesus stood and stepped from the throne, standing beside Mrs. Crosby as she continued to sing from another of her most famous hymns:

When my life work is ended, and I cross the swelling tide,

When the bright and glorious morning I shall see; I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side, And His smile will be the first to welcome me.

Oh, the dear ones in glory, how they beckon me to come,

And our parting at the river I recall; To the sweet vales of Eden they will sing my

welcome home; But I long to meet my Savior first of all.

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Through the gates to the city in a robe of spotless

white,

He will lead me where no tears will ever fall; In the glad song of ages I shall mingle with delight; But I long to meet my Savior first of all.

And with that, the entire heavenly host, including Irene and all the redeemed saints, stood to sing:

I shall know Him, I shall know Him, And redeemed by His side I shall stand, I shall know Him, I shall know Him, By the print of the nails in His hand.

Rayford Steele's mind was on a woman he had never touched. With his fully loaded 747 on autopilot above the Atlantic en route to a landing at Heathrow, Rayford had pushed from his mind thoughts of his family. Over spring break he would spend time with Irene and Raymie. Chloe would be home from Stanford too. But for now, with First Officer Chris Smith breaking the rules by dozing, Rayford imagined Hattie's smile and looked forward to their next meeting. He hadn't seen her in more than an hour.

Rayford used to look forward to getting home to Irene. She was attractive and vivacious enough, even at forty. But lately he had been repelled by her obsession with religion. It was all she could talk about. Rayford

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tried to tell himself it was her devotion to a divine suitor that caused his mind to wander. But he knew the real reason was his own libido.

Besides, Hattie Durham was drop-dead gorgeous. No one could argue that.

Maybe today. Maybe this morning, if her coded tap on the cockpit door didn't rouse Chris, he would reach and cover the hand on his shoulder--in a friendly way he knew she would recognize as a step, the first from his side, toward a relationship.

In a couple of hours Rayford would be the first to see hints of the sun, a teasing palette of pastels that would signal the reluctant dawn over the continent. Until then, the stars this far above the clouds shone brightly through the window. His groggy or sleeping passengers had window shades down, pillows and blankets in place. For now the plane was a dark, humming sleep chamber for all but a few wanderers--the attendants and one or two responders to nature's call.

The question of the darkest hour before dawn, then, was whether Rayford Steele should risk a new, exciting relationship with Hattie Durham. He suppressed a smile. Was he kidding himself? Would someone with his reputation ever do anything but dream about a beautiful woman fifteen years his junior? He wasn't so sure anymore. If only Irene hadn't gone off on this new kick.

Would it fade, her preoccupation with the end of the world, with the love of Jesus, with the salvation of souls? Irene had become a full-fledged religious fanatic, and that somehow freed Rayford to daydream without guilt

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about Hattie. Maybe he would say something, suggest something, hint at something as he and Hattie strode through Heathrow toward the cab line. Maybe earlier. Dare he assert himself even now, hours before touchdown?

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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Rayford Steele Jr. sat in the house of God with a friend, Jeremy Phillips, he had known from his sixth-grade class in Mt. Prospect, Illinois.

"Calling you Raymie seems strange now," Jeremy said, his shock of dark hair reminding Raymie of the boy he had known.

"I know. And you look so much like your dad. Is he here?"

"Of course!" Jeremy said. "Dad?"

Instantly Jeremy's parents were at his side, smiling. "Raymie!" Mr. Phillips said, and his wife embraced Raymie.

"You look younger!" Raymie said.

"You look older," Mr. Phillips said.

"The strangest thing is that I feel older."

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"Me too," Jeremy said. "It's as if I understand stuff now I never even thought about before."

"So did you even know Raymie was a believer?" Mrs. Phillips said.

Jeremy shook his head. "We've been talking about that. I guess neither of us was too bold in our faith. I mean, I knew Raymie was a good kid, never got into trouble, didn't swear--that kind of thing. But I never put two and two together."

Raymie was laughing.

"What's funny?" Jeremy said.

"Just that I never knew you were a Christian either, but you weren't always such a good kid."

"Yeah, I got in my share of trouble. And I didn't always use the best language, did I?"

"That was my fault," his father said. "I didn't become a Christian until Jane here did, so there was a lot of garbage in my life that it took the Lord a few years to clean out. How about your folks, Raymie? They here?"

"Mom is. Pray for my dad, will you?"

"We'll put him on our list," Jane Phillips said. "There are a lot of people on it, but I have a hunch they will figure this out pretty quickly. They can't say we didn't warn them. In fact, I fear we turned a few people off, always talking about this very day."

"Has it only been a day?" Jeremy said. "It seems like we've been here A month already."

"I have a feeling," his dad said, "that it hasn't been more than a few minutes."

The angel host burst forth with more hallelujahs.

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"Maybe one of those was for your dad, Raymie," Mr. Phillips said.

"I can only hope. Put my sister on your list too, please."

Irene felt she had almost gotten used to her glorified body. To not worry about aches and pains and strain and fatigue was too good to be true. But she decided it was unlikely she would never take her new mind for granted. As any mortal, she had often wondered what it must be like to have the mind of God. To be able to know all and remember all and know the future. That last didn't happen to come with her new equipment, but the idea of knowing and understanding everything all at once--now there was a novelty.

Irene couldn't see Raymie, but she knew instinctively that he was within a quarter mile of her, and she even knew he was talking about her and Rayford and Chloe. The Phillipses, she thought. How wonderful. Who knew? Irene could transport herself directly into their presence, but that could wait. They had to be enjoying these festivities as much as she was.

What a parade of saints had already passed by the throne, their works tested by the fire, their crowns produced from the treasured residue. Irene thrilled to every story of a behind-the-scenes saint, unknown outside their tiny church or town, who had represented Christ every day for decades. From every city and

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village on every inhabited continent they came, people of all colors and tongues. From a woman in the bowels of India who had spent her own meager income on materials to teach the Bible in her squalid neighborhood, despite opposition from her government and people of other religions--to the man who had sold his lucrative businesses in Australia to move into the outback and spend his life reaching Aborigines for Christ.

Irene couldn't get enough of this. She had expected, of course, to see preachers and pastors and evangelists getting their rewards, but she had not considered that most of these would be men and women from places she had never heard of. Many had lived on pennies, wearing at most two sets of clothes, opposed by the enemies of God, often persecuted by the state, and yet persevering in spite of it all.

An invalid woman was praised by Jesus for making her sickbed an altar of prayer for more than fifty years, daily petitioning God for countless ministries and missionaries. Now she jumped and ran and skipped before the throne, whole, young, vibrant, and the recipient of the crowns of Righteousness, Life, and Rejoicing.

Next to a window in first class on a 747 bound for London, Buck Williams sat hunched over his laptop, executing the slow blink of the sleep deprived. He had intended

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to do so much, to get himself newly organized, but he felt unconsciousness invading. And it was such a warm, inviting wave that he knew he would be unable to resist it for long.

The elderly couple in front of him--he could see only the woman's head now--and the overweight, heavily lubricated businessman next to him were already sound asleep. Buck would be next, but he wanted to keep the computer screen from swimming before his eyes for another minute or so.

No luck. He roused with a start to realize he had keyed gibberish onto his calendar. And then he was out again.

Irene estimated that she had witnessed the judgment of more than two thousand saints so far. Only about 19,999,998,000 to go. Still getting used to her new abilities, she debated whether to bother God with her question, but as soon as she allowed the thought, He spoke to her heart.

"Just ask."

"Well," she said, "You see, I know time is different here, and--"

"In fact, nonexistent," He said.

"Yes, right. But just out of curiosity, how long have we been here?"

"In earth time?" A heavenly chuckle. "Approximately four minutes."

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"See, now, Amy, this is our problem. Here it is, nine o'clock on a weeknight, and here we sit."

"We've been through this," Amy said as Chloe closed her books. "You're going for best student in history, and that doesn't allow for much of a social life."

"But how about you? Do something! Go somewhere!"

"Yeah, I should call one of my dozen boyfriends, all of whom own Porsches, of course, and see which wants to take me on a pizza run."

"Pizza!" Chloe said. "That sounds fantastic. Who has a car?"

"You done studying?"

"I'm out of gas," Chloe said. "I could read some more, but I need fuel. Pizza would be just the thing."

"Let's order delivery."

"Nah. I need to get out of here awhile. Don't you?"

Amy nodded. "But we still need wheels. You want to borrow someone's car?"

"Whose?"

"Well, Phoebe's, but you don't like her."

"It isn't that I don't like her, Amy. I hardly know her. She just reminds me too much of my mother; that's all."

"She is a little old for her age, isn't she? But on the other hand, she does have a car. And what are you saying about your mom? She's so sweet."

"I know, but she and Phoebe only want to talk about God. God this and God that and "you should really come with me to Campus Crusade sometime.""

"I know," Amy said. "And don't you think it's a little

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disingenuous that they never use the full name of that club?"

"Campus Crusade for Christ?" Chloe said. "Sometimes they do."

"Yeah, but too often they don't. It's like getting invited to a party and finding out it's one of those multilevel marketing things."

"Ah, I guess they mean well. So, call Phoebe."

"You know her better, Chloe."

"I do not! She just thinks I'm a better candidate for Campus Crusade than you are. How does that make you feel?"

"Hopeless... or maybe she thinks I'm already in."

They both laughed. Chloe said, "You know she's going to want to go. She'll offer to drive."

"Don't tell her where we're going. Just tell her it's an errand. C'mon. Call her."

Chloe grabbed the phone and called the floor below them.

Phoebe's roommate answered. "Just missed her, Chlo'. She was running out to get us something to eat."

"That's what we wanted. How long ago did she leave?"

"I don't know. Five minutes maybe? Call her cell."

Chloe tried but got Phoebe's voice mail. She moved to the window and saw Phoebe's car still in the lot. "Maybe she's got her phone off, Amy. Let's see if we can catch her."

The girls pulled on jackets and headed for the elevator. "This'll take too long," Amy said. "The stairs!"

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They raced down the steps and burst out the door, and in the dim light from the lampposts in the parking lot they saw shoes, socks, jeans, a sweater, and undergarments between them and the car. Also in the grass, next to the concrete walkway, lay a purse and a cell phone.

"What is this?" Amy said, kneeling and reaching for the phone.

"Wait!" Chloe said. "Don't touch it! Maybe she was attacked. I'm calling the police."

"I'll call her roommate."

Chloe got a busy signal, even from 911. She dialed campus security. Same thing.

Soon Phoebe's roommate appeared in pajamas and slippers. "This is her stuff," she said, ashen faced. "Call somebody."

Chloe told her she had tried, and the girl, shaking, whispered, "I don't want to scare you any more, but on my way down here, I heard screaming on every floor."

"Stay here, Amy," Chloe said, dashing back inside. She found students everywhere, shaking, crying, running, trying to call for help. In her building alone, more than ten students had disappeared right out of their clothes, most in front of their friends or roommates.

Chloe, a knot forming deep within, dialed her father's cell phone, wondering what time it would be where he was. She got the message that the system was overloaded and that she should try later.

A girl grabbed Chloe from behind, hanging on as if she were drowning. "What's going on?" she wailed.

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"I don't know!" Chloe said.

"Have you heard? Lots of students' kids are gone. Some say all of them. And a couple of professors." The girl ran off.

Chloe tried her home number. "Mom? Dad? Are you there? Have you seen what's going on? Call me as soon as you can. We've lost at least ten students and two profs, and all the married students' kids disappeared. Is Raymie all right? Call me!"

Chloe ran to her room and began packing, hardly thinking about where she was going. Kids had TVs and radios blaring the news that this was a worldwide phenomenon. She had to get home. Why, she didn't know. She just had to. She threw anything and everything she needed into one suitcase and dragged it downstairs.

Amy was still standing guard over Phoebe's clothes.

"You might as well take that stuff up to her room," Chloe said, and she told Amy what she had heard. "I'm going to keep trying to reach my family, but if you hear from them, tell them I'm trying to find a way back there. I'll try to call them tomorrow if I can get a flight. Can you do that?"

"Sure. And, Chloe... be careful."

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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

On Earth Irene would have called it telepathy; she had never had the gift and doubted anyone else ever really did either. She had heard stories and pseudomagicians make claims and demonstrate what seemed like impressive feats of clairvoyance, but she was a skeptic. No one had ever proved to her that the gift was real, except perhaps in rare cases of demonic activity. In fact, she had enjoyed reading books by debunkers or those who explained the secrets behind the tricks.

But here in God's house, she was able to communicate with Raymie without opening her mouth or even being in his presence. It was as if they were together, regardless of how far apart they were. Irene knew she could merely desire his company and he would be there. But she wanted to be sure he was free and wouldn't feel as if he were abandoning Jeremy or his parents.

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In an instant, Raymie was at her side. "I suppose you've noticed that things are different here," he said, smiling.

Irene still found it disconcerting that he had recently looked and acted and thought and spoken like a boy twenty years younger. She laughed. "Yes. I've noticed."

"I mean, there is no offense. If I leave Jeremy and Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, it's not as if I have snubbed them. We're all still here, we can still talk, and I can be back with them immediately. I could bounce back and forth between here and there every nanosecond, and you would all feel as if I were with you alone."

"Interesting," she said, "but please don't. It's just that I'm finding this judgment so fascinating that I wanted you next to me as I watched. Needless to say, I'm anxious about my own appearance before that flame."

"Me too," Raymie said. "I was so young, and I'm satisfied that I was earnest and devout enough. But even you were young in your faith, and we really didn't know what to do, did we?"

"I do now. From a whole new perspective. I'd like to have another chance at living the Christian life."

Raymie cocked his head at her. "No, you wouldn't. You have no more interest in leaving this place than I or anyone else here does."

"That's for sure," she said, interrupted by hallelujahs from the angels. She joined in the cheering and applause, then said, "I only wish I'd known then what I know now."

"I especially wouldn't want to be on Earth now,"

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Raymie said, "with what has to be happening. I mean, I would be a better witness. I'd be more overt about my faith, more enthusiastic, more bold, more insistent. I wouldn't be afraid or embarrassed. I might even be able to endure all the hardships. But I can't imagine ever again being out of the physical presence of Jesus."

Irene stared at the line that seemed to stretch for miles as saint after unknown saint was called to face the flame of judgment for their works on Earth. "I just want everyone I knew and loved to be here."

Over what seemed like the next week--but what Irene knew was more likely just a matter of minutes--she and Raymie watched and listened as the white-hot finger of fire rose and fell with the tempering of the gold and silver and precious stones of some works and the gush of flame at eternally valueless wastes of earthly time. Irene felt electrified to realize how many believers there had been in the world during her time on Earth. Names of every length and form represented millions of unknown Christians who had served Christ in unseen places and in unknown ways. Here the last were first and the first would be last. Irene looked forward to witnessing the judgment of the works of the heroes of the faith, contemporary and from the past, but she found the rewarding of these otherwise unknowns just as fascinating.

It had been during the middle of the morning rush hour in Bucharest--and for many the workday had just

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begun--when the Rapture occurred. Minutes later television news helicopters began landing on the lawn at the estate of the new Romanian president, Nicolae Carpathia. He immediately took Gabriella's assistant maid off phone duty, had her dressed in a business suit, and coached her on what to say:

"President Carpathia will address the nation in a few minutes. He is currently in seclusion, mourning the loss of some key members of his staff."

In truth, of course, Nicolae was on the phone to New York, being debriefed by Leon Fortunato, who agreed that he should not face the cameras until the international media arrived. "You are no longer the man of the Romanians," Leon said. "You are the man of the hour for the world. Do you know yet what you will say?"

"Of course. Words of peace and comfort."

"Excellent. Scripted?"

"Of course not. The spirit will give me utterance."

"Amen."

"Leon, some of the press are peeking in the windows even now as we speak. I must appear to be about earnest, important business."

"Well, you are."

"Tell me, what do you make of the fact that some on my staff here have vanished? How could I not know of their true allegiances?"

"Perhaps they were loyal to you as well, Nicolae. Unless they were God, they would not have detected where your loyalties lay or who you are."

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"Could they be that naive? Would not our adversary have informed them, the way our spirit guide informs us?" "Apparently not."

It was not unusual for Bruce Barnes--visitation pastor of New Hope Village Church in Mt. Prospect, Illinois-- to read in bed as his wife slept. Too often his reading and turning pages kept her awake, and after wrestling with three kids, five and under, all day, she frequently asked how long he would be reading.

That night he was enjoying his favorite sports-weekly magazine, and, as usual, his wife gently murmured, asking how long the light would be on. Not long, he told her, hoping she would soon fall asleep and not hear the pages turning or be bothered by the light.

She sighed a few times as the pages crinkled, but soon he heard her breathing slowly and steadily and knew she was out. He resituated himself with his back to her and kept reading, planning to finish the entire magazine.

Soon Bruce felt the bed move and sensed that his wife had gotten up. He assumed she was going to the bathroom and hoped she wouldn't rouse so much that she would complain about his still having the light on when she got back. It didn't strike him until later that he had not heard her walk to the bathroom or heard any water running. She was a tiny little thing, so the lack of her weight on the bed was pretty much all he noticed.

Engrossed in his reading, Bruce suddenly became

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aware that his wife had not returned. He called over his shoulder, "Hon, you okay?"

No response. Maybe she was checking on the kids. Or maybe it had been his imagination that she had left the bed. He read for a few more minutes, then reached behind him to be sure she wasn't still there. She was gone. He turned over and noticed that she had also pulled the covers back up to the pillow.

Great. She was angry with him for still being up and having the light on, so she had likely retired to the couch. Bruce felt terrible. He went to apologize and coax her back to bed, resigned to quit reading and turn out the light.

But his wife was not on the couch. Not in the kitchen. Not in the bathroom. Not in the kids' rooms. He didn't want to call out for her and wake the children. The lights were off all over the house, so he turned on the one in the hall to check their rooms again. Perhaps she was in a corner, rocking one of the younger ones.

From the dim shaft of light in the hall, Bruce thought the baby's crib looked empty. He turned on the room light, stuck his head out the door, and called down the hall for his wife. When he got no response, he turned back to the crib, saw the empty footie pajamas, and knew.

Bruce ran to each of the other two rooms, yanking back the covers and finding the kids' pajamas. Hurrying back to the master bedroom, he pulled back the covers on his wife's side to find her nightgown and her rings.

Bruce grabbed the phone and called Pastor Billings.

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He got the answering machine. He called other staff members. Same problem. He dug through the church directory, looking for older people who might not like answering machines. No answers.

As alone as he had ever been, Bruce jumped in his car and drove to the church. There he found one of the older New Hope secretaries sitting in her car, sobbing. They both knew what had happened. They had been left behind, and they knew why.

Chloe was horrified at what she saw as she dragged her suitcase through the campus and out onto the streets of Palo Alto. Bedlam everywhere. People cried and screamed, some ran, some collapsed into the fetal position. Others held each other. Many cried out to God. Some yelled for help, but there was nothing she could do for them. She just wanted to get home.

But there were no cabs, no buses, no trucks moving. A few small cars and motorcycles picked their way around the mayhem, but no one was stopping for hitchhikers. Chloe resolutely soldiered on with a vague notion that she was heading toward the San Jose airport. If she could just find a ride to the 101...

Raymie Steele sat next to his mother, mesmerized by the myriad stories that flashed across his mind's eye as

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thousands upon thousands of people faced the fire judgment of their works and then the Bema Seat for their rewards. As a couple and a woman--all appearing about the same age now, of course--approached the altar, the crowd, Raymie and Irene included, rose with applause.

Without announcement or fanfare, God somehow impressed on the hearts and minds and souls of the spectator saints the entire story of each supplicant. Raymie received the entire fascinating story of this couple and their daughter all in one piece and ruminated upon it as their works were burned to precious metals and gems and they were awarded crowns by Jesus.

John and Betty Stam of America had been missionaries to China. In 1934, John and Betty and their three-month-old daughter, Helen, were taken as hostages by the advancing Communists. When their attackers demanded a $20,000 ransom, John wrote in a note to mission authorities: "The Lord bless and guide you. As for us, may God be glorified, whether by life or by death."

During the night John was tied to a post out in the cold while Betty tended the baby. Before dawn she hid the sleeping Helen in a sleeping bag, praying she would be found by someone who would take care of her. In the morning John and Betty were stripped and led through town like common criminals, their hands bound behind them.

Along the way a man stepped from the crowd and pleaded for their lives. The guards ordered him to be silent, and when he would not desist, they dragged him

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away to be killed. John begged the guards to spare the man's life, but they ordered him to kneel. John was still speaking when one of the guards decapitated him with one ferocious swing of his sword.

Betty, kneeling beside her fallen husband, was murdered by the sword.

A local pastor was told that a baby had been left in the house where John and Betty had been chained. He hurried to find Helen in the little sleeping bag, hungry but alive. He bravely spirited her away, and a week later she was delivered to another missionary in a nearby city. Eventually she was returned to the States, where she lived until her death.

Raymie felt as if he had known the Stams and their daughter, even though all of them died long before he was born. He found it thrilling to see John and Betty receive their martyrs' crowns and be reunited with the pastor who had saved their daughter and with those who had raised her.

Stories like this were repeated hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of times as Raymie sat there with his mother. He tried to compare it to the best entertainment he had ever enjoyed on Earth, but nothing matched this. He had loved a great ball game on TV, a last-minute victory. He had enjoyed mystery stories and heroic tales that kept him turning the pages until long after his bedtime. He had been to movies that amazed and delighted him and made him remember them for days.

But this made those seem like nothing. As each person approached the flame and the throne, his or her history

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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