Authors: Merry Jones
‘Are you okay, Harper?’
Was she? ‘I’m fine.’
‘Then why did you . . .?’
‘Lynne, did the police come to your bungalow last night?’
‘Oh, that?’ Lynne seemed unconcerned. ‘Yeah, they sure did. They kept us up half the night.’
‘Aren’t you worried?’
Lynne frowned, confused. ‘Should I be?’
Harper stopped walking. ‘Lynne. A man was stabbed last night. The police thought Peter might have done it . . .’
‘I know. Isn’t that crazy?’ Lynne’s eyes widened. She smirked, shaking her head. ‘Peter? Stabbing someone? Peter couldn’t stab a watermelon. He faints when he gets a blood test—’
‘But the police must have had reason to talk to him.’ She didn’t mention that she’d given them the reason.
Lynne looked around, lowered her voice. ‘Look. Apparently, somebody told the cops to look at Peter because Pastor Travis had asked Peter to make a sacrifice for the church.’ She emphasized ‘somebody’ as if she knew it was Harper. Did she?
‘And?’ Harper kept her face blank, gave away nothing. ‘Is that true? I mean about the sacrifice?’
‘Yes, it’s true. Pastor asked Peter to make an offering, and Peter was honored to accept the responsibility.’
‘What kind of offering?’
Lynne rolled her eyes. ‘Do we really have to go into all this?’
‘I’m trying to understand . . .’
‘Look. I told you about the Bible code. Pastor says the code tells us to make three sacrifices by the ninth of Av. He put a couple of people in charge of them, and they did two of them, but there were complications. Nobody’s fault, but still. Anyway, last night, pastor assigned the last sacrifice to somebody else. And that was Peter.’
‘What kind of sacrifices?’
‘What? Oh, just the usual. Throwing a couple of virgins into boiling oil.’ Lynne smiled.
‘Come on. Why are you so serious?’
Harper watched her for a moment, deciding how much to tell her.
‘Harper? You’re looking pretty scary.’
‘It’s time we talk.’ Harper found two buckets, turned them over. Sat on one, motioned for Lynne to sit on the other.
Lynne seemed baffled, a little alarmed. ‘What’s going on?’
Harper leaned forward, looked Lynne in the eye. ‘Your pastor?’ She didn’t know exactly how to put it. ‘He might not be who he says he is. I think he’s got a criminal past.’
‘No way.’ Lynne started to stand, but Harper put a hand on her arm.
‘Hear me out. I think his real name isn’t Ramsey Travis; I think it’s Travis Ramsey. Travis Ramsey is an ex-con who murdered his own father.’
Lynne shook her head.
‘And that’s not all, Lynne. I think he’s planning to kill again. In fact, I think he’s planning to kill you.’
‘Me?’ Lynne gasped.
‘Not just you. All of you. Your whole church group.’
Lynne crossed her arms and stood. ‘Harper. I don’t know where you’re getting this. But you are way out there. I mean, way, way—’
‘I hope you’re right.’ Harper looked up at her. ‘But honestly, I don’t think so. Look, Lynne. Travis has been telling you that the ninth of Av will start the battle, bring on the Rapture or whatever—’
‘He only tells us what God has written.’
Harper stood and faced her. ‘Lynne, Travis isn’t the first preacher to lead his followers to destruction. Don’t you see? What’s he going to do when his big battle doesn’t start?’
‘But it will.’
‘Haven’t you ever heard of Jim Jones? The guy who poisoned all his followers with Kool-Aid? Or the Heaven’s Gate sect? Their leader was a guy named Applewhite, and Applewhite convinced his followers to kill themselves in order to achieve salvation—’
‘Harper, stop.’ Lynne put her hands up. ‘That’s got nothing to do with us. You probably mean well, but you’re completely off base. Ramsey Travis isn’t like that. Believe me, I know him.’
Harper pictured the couple groping on the porch.
‘He would never hurt me or any of us. He loves us.’ Lynne smiled warmly. ‘I get it, Harper. Your issues with Travis. Your suspicions. They all come back to the same thing. Faith. You don’t believe.’
Harper opened her mouth to answer, but Lynne stopped her.
‘No. I understand. I told you, at first, I didn’t believe either. I had to be shown. Travis had to translate codes written three thousand years ago, codes that specifically identify events that have taken place now, in our lifetimes. I’ve told you about some. But there are many others, with dates, places – I began to understand that the codes are accurate. They’re for real. And guess what? World War Three is in there, too. It begins here, in Megiddo, on the ninth of Av.’ In the bright sun, Lynne’s blonde hair glowed, looked like a halo.
Harper didn’t know what to say. Lynne had just said that a worldwide disaster was coming in a couple of days, and she seemed pleased by it.
‘Harper, I never knew anything before I met Ramsey Travis. I was all caught up in petty stuff. Problems with Peter. Problems with getting pregnant. Problems with money or gossip or jealousy or ego. Pastor showed me to see beyond all that. He read me God’s word. And he taught me real love.’
Real love? Again, Harper saw Travis and Lynne on the porch. Obviously, Lynne was infatuated, brainwashed. Still, Harper had to try.
‘Lynne. Please. Try to think objectively—’
‘Harper. Don’t criticize. You just don’t get it.’
Harper had encountered true believers before. People completely committed, blindly devoted to a cause or a leader, even willing to kill or die for them. An Iraqi woman popped to mind, smiling at her before detonating the bomb inside her robe. Harper saw a flash of white, felt the blast, but made a fist, digging her fingernails into her palm, refusing the flashback.
‘Please, Lynne. You’re an intelligent person. Can’t you see that you’re being manipulated?’
Again, Lynne smiled. ‘Peter, chapter three, verses one to eighteen, warns that in the last days, “scoffers will come”. You’re a scoffer, Harper. But the ninth of Av is just a couple of days away. You’ll see . . .’
‘What will I see? The Apocalypse? The end of the world? Because, really, if you’re so sure it’s coming, why are you here at the dig? Why bother? Why not eat gobs of fattening food, get drunk, have sex and party for a couple of days?’
Lynne reached out, put her hand on Harper’s. Her voice was slow and patient, as if talking to a child. ‘I’ve been chosen, Harper. I’m one of the few who’s been blessed enough to do God’s work until the final day.’
Harper sat watching as Lynne stood. Saying nothing as she began to walk away. How had Lynne fallen under Travis’s control? Was it just sex? Had he drugged or hypnotized her? And what about the others? Peter, for example. Did he know about his wife’s affair? Did he care? Had Travis hypnotized all of them?
Lynne stopped walking and wheeled around, beaming. ‘Harper, I have an idea. I know you don’t understand, but I can see that you’re trying. It’s not too late.’
Lynne ran back to her, grabbed her hands. ‘You can still find out the truth. Will you? Meet with Pastor Travis. Listen to him read the Bible and translate the code. There’s still time. Once you understand, you can join us. You and your baby – you can both be saved.’
Harper saw the light in Lynne’s eyes, her sincerity. Her pure, unbreakable belief. What would happen to her when the ninth of Av came and went without incident?
Harper thought for only a moment. ‘Okay.’
‘Okay? Really? You’ll do it?’ Lynne jumped up, grinning, laughing. Clapping her hands like a cheerleader. Talking about setting up a meeting with Ramsey Travis.
On the way back to the dig, Harper felt like an undercover investigator. Lynne had given her a chance to infiltrate the church, find out more about their sacrifices. She’d have to move quickly, though. She had just two days to meet with Ramsey Travis, to find out what he envisioned for the ninth of Av.
And, somehow, before he could do any harm, to stop it.
A section of wall about six meters long and a meter deep had been cleared. Harper sifted excavated dirt, thinking about Travis, not paying much attention to the chatter of the volunteers. Gradually, though, she realized that they were talking about Yoshi, the stabbing at the kibbutz.
‘I think it was personal,’ a church member commented. ‘Somebody with a grudge against him.’
‘Maybe he was messing around,’ the redhead said. ‘You know, doing the wrong man’s wife—’
‘Come on, Marlene. Why do you assume it was a jealous husband?’ This came from Peter. ‘It could have been a woman. Maybe he dumped her and she got mad.’
Someone said she’d heard the attacker might be a terrorist. Someone else said that, no, they’d overheard a policeman say it was someone on the kibbutz.
None of them mentioned sacrifice or Bible codes.
Harper didn’t enter the conversation. She sifted dirt, recalled Yoshi running into the office, the gushing of his wound, the smell of blood. But then the blood wasn’t Yoshi’s any more; it was a soldier’s. A mere boy with gray eyes and a missing right arm. She pressed and pressed, climbed onto his shoulder to use her body weight, but the blood kept coming, a torrent from too many wounds that she didn’t have enough hands for and she told him to be calm, that he’d make it and yelled, ‘Medic,’ but his eyes glazed and he was gone.
Harper blinked, looked around. Saw no blood on her clothing or her hands. No dead boy. No war. She took a deep breath. She was at the dig, not in Iraq. And she was strangling her straining tray. Collecting herself, she casually took stock of the people nearby. Lowell and Peter worked near her and Lynne. Frank, Harold, Travis and the redheaded Marlene were working with the students, digging out the wall. Dr Hadar was supervising them. No one was staring at her. Thank God. Apparently, she hadn’t acted out the flashback. She tightened her jaw, relieved, and focused on the dirt. A stubborn clod in the middle of the screen wouldn’t break down.
Harper pressed on it gently with her glove, felt a crusty layer crumble and give way. But the clump underneath resisted. It was firm, three or four centimeters in diameter. Maybe a stone? Or a shard of Roman glass? She got a brush out of her kit, gently scraped away dust. Held the lump in her glove. Rolled it. Brushed it again, felt dirt give way in the middle. Odd. She worked her finger gently around the center, and more bits fell away. Then more, until the core was hollow.
Harper’s mouth was dry. Her breath quick. This wasn’t, couldn’t be a rock. Probably wasn’t glass, either. She should bring it to Dr Hadar. But she didn’t, not yet. She took a tiny pick from her kit. Poked the thing gently, afraid to think that it could be anything significant. Unable to consider that it wasn’t. And finally, when the dirt was off, before she shared it with anyone, she examined it from all angles, turning it, marveling at its greenish pocked texture, its underlying metallic sheen, blunt squared top, simple structure. She guessed it was Roman. Maybe a soldier’s? She pictured it on his finger as he marched through ancient Megiddo. Didn’t hear Lynne talking to her.
‘. . . what are you doing? What have you got?’
And was a little annoyed when, before she was ready and without her permission, Lynne started shouting, telling everyone to come look: Harper had found a ring.
It was a small find, but Dr Hadar reveled in it. He agreed that the ring had probably belonged to a regular soldier in the Roman army, circa AD 300. Not an uncommon relic. But, since it was nearly time to wrap up for the day, he celebrated the progress on the wall and the new find by bringing out sparkling wine and paper cups. Something was said in Hebrew, probably a blessing, and everyone toasted the ring, the wall, the volunteer team, and their work at the site.
Harper smiled and quietly sipped her wine, but inside, she was somersaulting on top of the supply trailer. Doing the chachacha around the perimeter of the dig. She was sizzling, too hot to touch, an actual archeologist. She’d moved from books, papers, assistantships and internships and finally made her own find – her first ever. She wanted to giggle. She wanted to call Hank. She’d unearthed the ring of a Roman soldier, and she felt personally connected to him, as if she’d rescued a remnant of his life, restoring it to light and air and the world of the living.
Harper was energized. She took a seat by herself on the bus, and during the drive back to the kibbutz, kept reliving the process of uncovering the ring. The gradual revealing of texture and shape. She wondered if it had been by itself. Maybe it hadn’t been – maybe it was just the first part of a bigger find. A trove of jewelry, maybe. Or military artifacts. Lord. Was it possible that the site would turn into a major excavation? She rested her head back, closed her eyes, spent the ride savoring her excitement. This was why she’d come. This was what she’d been hoping to experience.
Her mood stayed with her for the entire ride. It probably would have lasted longer, but as they pulled into the parking area, she spotted Inspector Ben Baruch. He was waiting to greet the bus, wearing a dark frown.
The killer watched Travis, waiting to catch him alone. Surely, if he heard a rational argument, he would reconsider. Would see that Peter was a dismal choice and reverse his decision.
‘Ramsey,’ the killer whispered. ‘Got a minute?’
Travis looked toward the voice, tilted his head. Peered through the bushes. ‘What are you doing in there?’
Was he serious? They needed to talk privately. The bunker entrance was perfect. ‘Come here. I need to talk where no one can hear us.’
‘Why?’ Travis looked around to see if anyone was watching, finally ducked through the bushes to the camouflaged doorway. ‘Look, if this is about the other night – my decision is final.’
‘Ramsey, please. Just hear what I have to say. I’ve been completely devoted, done everything you’ve asked. Including the first two offerings—’
‘I wouldn’t brag about those. They were an abomination.’
The killer grimaced. Took a breath. ‘I explained what happened. None of that was my fault—’
‘Oh, cut the crap.’ Travis put a hand up for silence. Lowered his voice. ‘Tell me, was that you, last night? The stabbing? It was, wasn’t it?’
The killer fidgeted. Damn. The conversation wasn’t going as planned. ‘I thought I could complete—’