Authors: Merry Jones
‘Sundown tomorrow. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him. Pastor’s been sequestered with the church council. Their meeting lasted all night.’
Really? Is that what he’d told her? Had Lynne believed him?
‘A council meeting?’ Harper smirked. ‘That’s not what we call it back home.’
Lynne looked up. ‘Excuse me?’
‘I mean unless the council is a curvy redhead.’
‘That’s who he was with last night. I saw them.’
Lynne’s eyes narrowed. ‘Marlene must have needed spiritual counseling.’
Harper laughed. ‘Is that Bible code for getting it on?’
‘No way. He wouldn’t.’ Lynne’s grip tightened on the handle of her trowel.
‘Why? What’s the problem?’ Harper pretended to be clueless. ‘You said he wasn’t married.’
‘But Marlene is.’ Lynne shoved the trowel into the ground, cut a chunk of clay. ‘And Pastor’s been seeing someone – a woman in the church.’ Her chin wobbled ever so slightly. ‘Trust me, if she were to find out, he’d have a problem.’ She slapped the clump into a bucket.
Harper winced. ‘I guess it would be awkward.’
‘Are you kidding? He was with Marlene?’ Lynne stabbed the ground again. Were her eyes tearing? She sniffed. Wiped her nose with her sleeve.
‘Well, who knows?’ Harper kept at it. ‘Maybe his other thing ended. Maybe the other woman—’
‘Believe me, I’d know. It’s not ended.’
Harper stopped sifting and wiped her forehead with her glove, leaving a smudge. ‘Sounds to me like your pastor’s a womanizer—’
‘No, he’s not. You don’t even know him. Besides, how can you be sure he was even the guy you saw? It was dark, wasn’t it? It could have been anyone in the council . . .’
‘It was Travis.’ Harper kept calm. Added more dirt to her sieve.
‘Because,’ Lynne came closer, insisting, ‘see, I know him. We got close when he was counseling me. Counseling Peter and me about our marriage.’
Harper said nothing. She picked up a small clod of clay, examined it.
‘I know he wouldn’t cheat.’
Harper was about to reply, but the clay distracted her. Its shape and weight were wrong, didn’t feel like just earth. Had she found something? Another ring or maybe a shard of Roman glass? She brushed it, gently removing dirt.
‘Besides, Pastor would never be interested in Marlene. She’s a spiritual lightweight. And she didn’t fulfill her assignment—’
An ear-bending howl interrupted them. For a long moment, it hung in the air, suspended and palpable, and then people called out in Hebrew, scurrying from all directions toward the exposed wall.
Harper didn’t scurry. She didn’t move. She was stunned by the impact, the loud blast of an explosion. Soldiers ran past her, dodging sniper fire as they hurried to rescue survivors. She tried to move and help them, but couldn’t feel her legs. Couldn’t see her patrol. Could only watch from the top of the burnt-out car on which she’d landed. Oh God. Where was her patrol?
‘Harper.’ Someone grabbed her arm, pulling.
Harper reached for her weapon.
‘Come on. Something’s happened.’
It was a blonde woman, tugging at her. Jabbering. Grabbing her weapon.
‘Leave your trowel.’
Trowel? What? Oh God. Harper bit her lip until it bled, struggling to come back to the present. The dusty battle of her flashback faded, and she followed Lynne along the path to the crowd of volunteers. Hushed voices floated past.
‘. . . said it was a deathstalker . . .’
‘A scorpion . . . yellow . . . deadliest venom . . .’
‘Is he dead?’
And then the crowd opened, arms grabbing Lynne and pulling her forward, Harper holding onto her arm. Hands touched Lynne’s shoulders. ‘We’re praying for him,’ someone said. Whispers brushed Harper’s face, pieces of ideas. And then they came to an open space. A couple of soldiers crouched, working on a man who was writhing and moaning. Dr Hadar was beside them, urging the man to be still, to stop moving. Students gawked. Dr Ben Haim paced in a small circle, occasionally waving at the crowd to back away.
Lynne seemed confused. ‘What happened? Who’s hurt?’
Harper put an arm around Lynne’s waist, steadying her. On the ground beside the man were some work gloves. She recognized her spare pair.
The soldiers packed Peter’s hand and arm in ice and elevated it to slow the flow of venom. Lynne held his unbitten hand, praying until Travis came over and touched her shoulder. Their eyes locked and their gazes connected even as the medics rushed Peter to a nearby army base to receive anti-venom.
Dr Hadar offered Lynne a ride to the base, but she hesitated. Said she couldn’t bear to go there and see him in so much pain. Pastor Travis intervened, offering to pray with her and accompany her to the base.
Lynne gripped Harper’s arm, overwhelmed, unsure what to do.
Dr Hadar urged her to go. He spoke frankly. ‘It’s a bad creature, the yellow scorpion.’
Lynne sniffed, closed her eyes, indicating that she understood: Peter might die.
‘Your husband – he has no heart problems?’
Lynne shook her head no. ‘Why?’
‘I’ll be honest. If his heart is strong, the bite won’t kill him. But he will be so miserable, he’ll wish it would.’
Harper tightened her grip on Lynne.
Dr Hadar went on. ‘The yellow scorpion lives all over the Middle East. I’ve learned about the effects. At the very least, he’ll have a raging pulse, severe muscle cramps, intense pain. The venom is a cocktail of neurotoxins. And the biggest danger, as I said, will be to his heart. The anti-venom will help, but while he’s ill, his wife should be there. As soon as you are able, you should go.’
Lynne’s skin seemed translucent. The veins in her forehead pulsed. She said nothing.
‘For now, sit down,’ Dr Hadar told her. ‘Or lie down in the trailer. Drink some water. Go. You look pale.’
‘No. I’m okay. I just need to pray with Pastor.’
Dr Hadar nodded. ‘Of course.’ He waved a student over, asked him to set up some folding chairs for Lynne and Pastor Travis.
Harper watched them walk away, confused. She turned to Dr Hadar. ‘But how could it happen? He was covered in protective clothing.’
Hadar frowned, rubbed his face. ‘The clothing is not the problem. He was bitten on the hand.’
His hand? ‘But I lent him gloves. Wasn’t he wearing them?’
‘In this case, it would have been better if he hadn’t been.’
Harper didn’t understand. She tilted her head.
‘That’s how it happened. The scorpion was hiding there. Inside his glove.’
Oh God. In his glove? One that Harper had given him?
‘But how could it get in there?’
Hadar shrugged. ‘These creatures like cool dark places. My guess is that it crawled.’
Harper felt the blood drain from her head.
‘Are you all right?’ Dr Hadar put a hand on her shoulder.
Volunteers crowded around, asking questions. Dr Ben Haim stood on an overturned bucket, motioning for them to settle down.
‘The gloves . . .’ Harper began.
‘What?’ Dr Hadar couldn’t hear. People were shouting.
Dr Ben Haim waved to Dr Hadar to join him. Hadar excused himself, jumped up onto a bucket and let out a piercing whistle. ‘We’ll answer everyone’s questions, one at a time.’
And then, little by little, the crowd heard about the yellow scorpion, its nickname of deathstalker. Its intense complex venom. The likelihood that Peter would survive. Dr Ben Haim, frustrated and concerned, scolded everyone, reminded them that they’d been explicitly warned to check under stones and woodpiles, inside their clothing before putting it on. That an incident like this should never have happened. Someone in the crowd yelled, ‘You told us to check our shoes, clothes and hats, but you never mentioned work gloves.’
Ben Haim rolled his eyes and began to answer that he hadn’t told the heckler to wipe his ass, either, but Dr Hadar cut him off.
Harper couldn’t listen. She was focused on only one fact: the work glove containing the scorpion was hers. Peter Watts had been bitten because she’d lent him that glove. She thought back to the morning, to putting on her gloves. She’d checked hers before slipping her hands inside. Had looked in and shaken them out. She did it automatically; her stint in Iraq had taught her never to step or reach into anything – garments included – before checking. So if she’d kept the pair that she’d given to Peter instead of those now on her hands, she would have found the scorpion.
Unless it had crawled up inside a finger. In which case, she’d have been bitten. And she, not Peter would be writhing in pain.
Harper wandered away from the others. She should have checked the gloves before lending them. Should have reminded Peter to check them. She walked along the path toward the office trailer, noticed Lynne and Pastor Travis walking ahead of her. Travis had an arm around Lynne’s shoulder, and his head tilted toward hers, deep in conversation. Maybe the pastor wasn’t completely self-serving. Maybe he was actually comforting her.
Or maybe they were comforting each other. After all, they’d been having an affair, at least until last night. What if one or both of them had tried to get rid of Peter so they could be together, had planted the spider in the glove . . .
No. That was ridiculous. First of all, they both believed the world was going to end at sundown the next day; why kill one of their own now? Besides, neither of them could have foreseen that Peter would forget his kit, much less that he’d borrow a pair of Harper’s gloves.
Harper ran a hand through her hair, took a breath. And stopped walking. If someone had planted that scorpion in her glove, the intended target must not have been Peter.
Had someone tried to kill her? She looked around the site. No one was watching her. She had no enemies there. Nor did Peter. No one had tried to kill either of them. The creature had simply wandered into the glove, seeking a cozy spot. The bite was an accident, nobody’s fault.
On the other hand, what were the chances of a scorpion finding her glove on its own? And right after two murders and a stabbing, all in the space of a few days. Harper wasn’t sure how the scorpion was involved, but she was almost sure that it was connected to Travis and his group. Too many people had been hurt or killed, and no one was stopping them. She scanned the site, unwilling to be passive. Dr Hadar was talking with some students and volunteers. As soon as he was finished, Harper was going to take him aside.
After a while, the killer moved away, watching Pastor Travis move among the stunned volunteers, the shaken church members. They clustered together like a mindless herd. Never mind. The killer wanted a moment alone to evaluate this unexpected turn of events. What had gone wrong this time? Why was God constantly thwarting the killer’s efforts? Was it personal? Did God intend to make everything so difficult?
Wait. Maybe it wasn’t God who was ruining everything. Maybe it was Satan, interfering with God’s plan by preventing the killer’s work.
The killer contemplated that possibility. Couldn’t be sure, because the scorpion hadn’t actually been part of God’s coded plan. But, either way, whether due to God or Satan, once again, despite the killer’s detailed diligence and infinite care, events had unpredictably and uncontrollably gone wrong. Peter was at a military base, getting anti-venom, and Harper Jennings was still around, snooping and prying, talking to the authorities. Trying to interfere with the pastor’s church and God’s coded instructions.
The woman just plain knew too much. Asked too many questions, hung around council meetings, spied on Ramsey. The scorpion had been hiding under a rock. Had slipped easily out of the jar into a glove in Harper’s kit. Who could have guessed that Harper would give the glove to Peter? No one; it had to be the work of Satan.
But Peter was tall and big. Strong enough to survive the venom. Not like Harper. What was she – five foot three? Tiny. The deathstalker’s bite would have killed her and put an end to her prying. And no one would have suspected a thing; it would have been a terrible accident. Tragic. Perfect.
Except it hadn’t worked. What had been the chances that, on the very day that the scorpion had been securely deposited into Harper’s glove, Peter would forget his own? And even then, who could have imagined that, of all the people on the dig, he would borrow a pair from Harper? Why not from some student or a dig official? And even on the small chance that he borrowed spare gloves from her, who would guess that she’d give him the ones with the scorpion? And why did every single thing the killer tried to do go wrong?
The killer took a deep breath, needed to calm down. The others were all gathered around the excavated wall, uncertain what to do next. Well, they had no idea what uncertainty really felt like. What hell it was. To be uncertain about Ramsey, about how to win back his love and approval. To be uncertain about how to succeed in doing God’s work. And to be uncertain about why so many honest efforts ended up in failure and shame. The lambs in the shuk running away. The Hebrew lamb – they called him Yoshi – striking back?
Someone walked by, asked the killer a question. ‘You all right?’ Something like that.
The killer tried to stop panting. ‘Yes. I’m good,’ the killer answered and strolled down the path a little further.
But the killer wasn’t good at all. The killer was sulking. Ramsey had been cold and dismissive, had stripped away everything, had given the final sacrificial honor to Peter, who was laughably, pathetically inept.
Not to mention half dead from the scorpion bite, barely able to breathe, let alone perform a sacrifice.
Which meant – which had to mean – that Ramsey would reinstate the killer. No one else was even close to qualified. The killer had experience. And time was short: they had until sundown the next day.
A wave of elation, of perfect clarity washed over the killer. Everything made sense. It all fit together: The reason Peter had forgotten his kit and taken Harper’s gloves, the reason he’d been bitten and struck down – it hadn’t been chance at all. Every step. Each event had been ordained and orchestrated by God Himself.
God Himself had willed the killer to perform the final sacrifice.