Authors: Merry Jones
Only then would Hagit turn around and, refusing help, make her way back to bed.
Two soldiers stood guard outside the medical center. Across the road, Lowell sprawled on a bench. As Harper approached, he called to her.
‘Wait. Stop. They let you out?’
She glanced at him, said nothing. Pushed the stroller forward.
‘I heard about you. You’re a killer.’ He pointed at her. ‘And Pastor Travis – you tried to kill him, too.’ He started to get up, lost his balance. Sat again. ‘You belong in jail.’
Harper swallowed her temper. Lowell was an outcast, bitter and obviously drunk. She ignored him, continued on her way.
‘You’ll answer for your sins,’ Lowell called. ‘Sooner than later.’
She kept walking, her jaw tightening.
‘Thou shalt not kill, sinner! You’ll burn in hell.’
She pushed the baby across the street, wishing more people were around so she could get lost in a crowd.
‘Ignore me, but you’ll be judged.’ He was shouting now, and he’d made it to his feet. ‘That’s right – judged by the Lord Almighty, God Himself . . .’
Harper didn’t have to, but she turned up a side path to get out of Lowell’s line of sight. Why hadn’t he been sequestered like the other members of the church? Was he one of the few who hadn’t been accounted for? Hadn’t the soldiers on guard noticed him?
Never mind. She had more important problems. And Lowell had stopped hollering. In fact, the only sounds she heard were the stroller’s wheels rolling and creaking along the ground. Except for Lowell and the security guards on patrol, the streets were empty. The kibbutz was unnaturally quiet, like a lull before a storm.
The first thing she had to do was dump the stroller. It was so damned bulky and awkward. She’d resurrect the sling; whatever was coming, Harper would have Chloe wrapped against her body where she’d be able to protect her. She spread the cloth onto the bed. Changed Chloe’s diaper without waking her. Sat for a moment, planning what to do next.
With Hagit hurt and the kibbutz locked down tight, nobody was coming or going, complicating Harper’s plans for returning to Jerusalem. She peered out the window at Travis’s bungalow, at the valley beyond, wondering where he was. The sun hung low near the horizon. Sunset would bring the fast day of the ninth of Av – and he would try to make the third sacrifice by then. Another two hours, at most.
Unless Travis was following the Christian calendar. In that case, the holiday wouldn’t begin at sunset; it would wait until midnight, the start of July twenty-sixth.
Either way, there wasn’t much time.
Harper’s stomach rumbled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten all day, that she should have something. But she couldn’t stop to eat, not now. First, she had to get to a phone and call Hank, let him know what was happening. And then, even though it irked her to leave with Travis on the loose, she had to convince Gal or Ben Baruch to let her get the hell out of there. Except, wait. She couldn’t leave without Hagit. She’d go get her as soon as she’d talked to Hank.
Harper lifted Chloe, whose eyes fluttered open and closed again, and set her on the fabric between the half-packed duffle bags on the bed. As she’d done hundreds of times, she pulled the sling onto her back, holding Chloe by tugging on both ends of the cloth, crossing them over her breasts, tying them behind her under Chloe’s bottom, pulling them around her waist and tying them again, securing Chloe onto her back. Chloe’s head sagged against her; her legs dangled, relaxed.
Then, arming herself with a baby bottle full of juice and a spare diaper, Harper disobeyed both Gal and Inspector Ben Baruch by leaving her bungalow and set out to find a phone.
Schmuel was nervous. He talked too fast, too loud.
‘The phone?’ he repeated, bug-eyed, as if he didn’t know what the word meant.
‘I need to call Jerusalem.’
‘I’m not sure that it’s possible.’
‘I’ll pay if there are charges—’
‘I don’t know. I’ll have to ask. There are restrictions now.’
‘Fine. I understand,’ Harper smiled, made it open and warm. ‘Go ask. I’ll wait.’
Schmuel looked at the closed door behind him. Looked back at the phone on the desk, then at Harper. He didn’t trust her.
‘While you check, okay if I get something to eat?’ She wandered off toward the vending machines, eyed bags of chips, cookies, chunks of halvah. When he thought she was busy with food, Schmuel slipped into the back room.
And Harper darted back to the desk. Quickly, she picked up the phone, punched in the number to Hank’s cell. Waited. Watched the door. Why was she so nervous? If they found her on the phone, what would they do? Scold her? But the call took forever to go through. Finally, it began ringing. And each ring lasted an eternity. Finally, Hank answered: ‘Hi.’
Harper burst out, ‘Thank God, Hank. Listen, something’s—’
But Hank’s voice continued. ‘This is Hank Jennings. Leave a message at the tone . . .’
Harper’s mouth dropped. She froze for a moment, felt lost. Told herself to get a grip. Hank was simply attending a meeting, taking a nap, having a cocktail or a shower. It was no big deal. She ended the call, leaving no message. Schmuel would be back any second. She’d ask him about transportation to Jerusalem. If not tonight, then tomorrow. Maybe she could rent a car or could catch a bus.
Except that she was supposed to be staying in her bungalow. And no one was leaving the kibbutz. And even if they were, there would be no bus service or rental transactions on the ninth of Av. Damn. She looked at the phone, realized that, even if Hank were busy, she might still be able to reach him through Trent. The office door was still closed. No sign of Schmuel. Fingers jittery, she placed the call, waited for it to go through. But it didn’t; instead, she heard a series of electronic tones, followed by a computerized voice speaking Hebrew. Probably, she’d misdialed. She tried again, watching the door. Same thing. It made no sense. What was wrong with Trent’s phone?
She hung up just as the office door opened and Schmuel came out, eyeing her. Suspicious. ‘Sorry.’
‘I can’t let you use the phone. Only officials can use our phone to call outside the kibbutz right now. Security restrictions.’ He frowned. ‘Don’t you have a private phone? A cell?’
Harper’s face heated up. Did he know it had been confiscated? ‘Yeah, but I lost it, and I’m supposed to check in with my husband.’ She faked a ditsy smile.
He sat at his desk, crossed his arms. ‘I don’t know what to tell you. Borrow one? This one won’t be available for a while.’
Harper thanked him. Charged a granola bar and a lemon soda. Ate them as she walked to the medical center.
Stop it, she told herself. Trent might have dropped his phone in the swimming pool. It might have simply been a dud – after all, their phones were temporary, assigned by the symposium. Trent’s might have been defective, out of order. Not everything was a crisis.
Or maybe something was wrong. Hadn’t she seen Trent on television—on the news? And Hagit had suddenly changed the channel. Why? Had something happened to Trent? To the symposium?
Harper had a chill, saw him fall from the roof.
No. Nothing had happened; she’d talked to him after the television broadcast. He’d been fine.
She kept walking, Chloe’s legs dangling, bumping the backs of her thighs. It was getting late. Dinner was being served in the restaurant, and the sun was almost to the horizon.
Security officers stopped her, asked where she was headed. ‘It’s a situation,’ one explained. ‘I need to ask you.’
Harper’s stomach growled. ‘Dinner.’ It made sense.
‘Are you with the church?’
‘No. The dig.’
‘You’re a student or a volunteer?’
‘A volunteer.’ She told them her name.
They glanced at each other, then looked back at her. ‘You?’ one asked.
‘Really?’ the other seemed amazed.
The taller one shrugged. ‘So small? You must be stronger than you look.’
‘Anyway, you’re a celebrity,’ the other one grinned. ‘You rescued an Israeli.’
Harper smiled. At least somebody appreciated her.
They nodded her on, and Harper continued along the path, thinking about Hank and Trent, Hagit and Travis, and hoping that somehow she’d be able to get hold of a car to drive to Jerusalem. She went to the restaurant, intending to grab some food from the buffet and take it along, but the aroma of dinner awakened Chloe, who clearly wanted to eat.
Even with the clock ticking to Armageddon, Harper had to stop and get dinner for her daughter. She hurried into the dining hall, thinking that if all soldiers were mothers, wars would have to be fought between meals and after bedtime, with breaks for diaper changes. The room was full. Travis’s church members sat together, watched by armed soldiers. Harper found a table in the corner, untied her sling, sat Chloe in a high chair, fixed two plates. Pasta salad, fruit, cut-up chicken. Yogurt. Hummus. Pita. Tomato and cucumber salad. Chloe stuffed food into her mouth, jabbering.
Oh dear. Chloe wanted to know where Hagit was. ‘She’s taking a nap.’
‘Geet?’ Chloe repeated. Sensing Harper’s hesitation. ‘Geet.’ She stopped eating.
Harper held out a piece of chicken, but Chloe frowned. ‘Geet!’
‘We’ll see Hagit after dinner.’
Chloe seemed satisfied, stuffed the chicken into her mouth. Minutes passed while Harper wolfed down some food and, when Chloe was finished, she used the table to fasten her into the sling again, refilled the juice bottle and grabbed a banana and cookies for later. Then she hurried out, determined to find Travis before nightfall.
The security guards were like herding dogs, keeping everyone in a bunch like sheep. But the killer was no sheep. Couldn’t stand being around the others any more. Couldn’t stand the sound of Harold’s voice, or the smell of so many variations of toilet water. Couldn’t listen to their insipid whispered conversations. What should they wear when meeting the Lord? Was it better to bow or kneel in front of God? Would they still have their bodies or just be spirits? Would everyone be the same age?
Idiots. How would it be possible to spend eternity with them?
As if eternity were even possible any more. The ninth of Av was upon them.
And where was Travis? He hadn’t listened. Hadn’t hidden in the bungalow and waited. What could possibly have taken him away from his followers at this critical point? The only sensible answer was that he was off trying to make the final sacrifice on his own. That had to be it. Travis wouldn’t give up on fulfilling God’s requirements.
No, Travis wouldn’t give up. And neither would the killer. Guards watched everyone in the dining hall, but the killer kept a distance, sitting alone, invisibly edging to the hallway.
And now outside, the killer moved through shadows towards the medical center, becoming one with the dusk. It should be simple, really, to complete the sacrifice that Travis had bollixed up. To fix his mistakes. The only obstacle was that the lamb was heavily guarded, allowed no unapproved visitors. But the killer would slide by, get inside the medical center, grab a scalpel from the supply closet. And, while the staff was busy with an emergency elsewhere, complete the ritual.
Travis would be forever grateful.
Sundown was minutes away. The killer approached the medical center. The breeze had died down; the air was almost perfectly still. It was as if God Himself were watching, holding His breath.
‘Harper!’ Lynne ran up the path to catch her.
Harper slowed, waited for Lynne. What was Lynne doing out on the street alone? Wasn’t she supposed to stay with the other church members?
‘It’s so good to see someone other than church members. It’s been crazy.’ Lynne was breathless, dressed in black leggings, a black long-sleeved tee. She tickled Chloe’s dangling feet, got a smile. ‘First, they made us stay in our bungalows. But they couldn’t watch all the bungalows, and some of us were unaccounted for. So they gathered us all together in the restaurant and now, we have to stay there or in the meeting hall until further notice.’
‘So what are you doing out here?’ Harper stopped, looked at her.
‘I’ve got permission. To go see Peter.’
Oh. Of course. Harper stepped around a parked jeep. Nodded back when the security guards waved at her. ‘How’s he doing?’
‘Fine.’ She shook her head. ‘No. That’s what I tell people, but he’s not fine. His heart was stressed. He’s having a hard time getting his energy back. Stupid scorpion.’ She sounded hollow.
Harper remembered the weeks of Hank lying in the hospital. Her own voice must have sounded like Lynne’s: empty and far away.
‘Harper, listen. Everyone’s heard about what happened in that bunker. With your babysitter and Pastor Travis. I want you to know. Most of us were completely flabbergasted. We had no idea what was going on. And, Harper, I don’t blame you one bit for what you did. You were right when you tried to warn me about Pastor Travis. But even still, a human sacrifice? It’s hard to believe.’
Harper didn’t answer, just kept walking.
‘But if it’s true about the sacrifice – and everyone’s saying it is – then whatever you did, they had it coming. I heard you took down four of them, single-handed.’
Chloe began singing the
‘Actually, in a way, I’m glad something like this happened.’ Lynne was out of breath, walking fast to keep up. ‘It opened my eyes. It showed who Travis really is, how he’s led us astray, off the path to salvation. I still believe in God’s word, but we were supposed to sacrifice lambs, not people. That had to be Travis’s interpretation, don’t you think?’ She put a hand on her forehead as if it ached. ‘It’s like he had me – had all of us under a spell. He convinced me to commit adultery with him. And he lied to me about other women. But worst of all, he misled the church. He used his charisma to manipulate us. For all we know, everything he preached – everything – the codes, the prophecies – maybe it’s all hooey. Harper, I’m so angry . . .’
‘Do you have any idea where he is?’
‘Travis?’ Lynne’s eyebrows went up. ‘Me?’ She shook her head. ‘But I bet Marlene does. The redhead. Ask her, if you can find her. She’s his latest . . . disciple. Dumb as cauliflower. Even now, wherever she is, she hasn’t a clue that he’s using her.’