Drums pounded their wicked message, bouncing off the rock faces and outcroppings of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. The valley mourned. Rocks in various shades of gray cast shadows of slightly darker colors of that washed-out hue. The sky hung heavy with the deep slate of thick smoke. The only variation came from the stirring of light on the walls of the ravine that ran south along the west wall of the Old City. As the rock-cut reached its southernmost limits, it veered east along the side of Mount Zion. And as it headed to its destination, the Kidron Valley, it became a most accurate depiction of hell on earth.
A line of figures crept along the edge of the valley like fleas along a cur's backbone. Many were drawn to the blessings promised by the gods of the place. Yet not all of those following the ridge path were there because of misplaced faith.
Areli smoothed his hand over his bearded face, wiping the sweat from his sun-bronzed skin. Sweat. The only moisture in this God-forsaken land. And God had forsaken it. That was evident by the length of the drought that fed the crops of dust which clung to clothing, hair, and skin. Plant life had long been dead. He sighed. Dead since the Tophet had been kindled. Now it was a refuse dump. A place to burn the corpses of criminals. A place that had returned to its original, wicked purpose. A place of worship to heathen gods.
Areli recalled more prosperous days. A time before Ahab, king of the Israelites, married Jezebel, the Sidonian princess. The new Queen Jezebel had introduced many idolatrous acts the people of Jehovah-including worshipping at the Tophet. Areli had been much younger then, yet he remembered it well.
A skittering of stone interrupted Areli's thoughts and announced the presence of his fellow rescuers. He turned back and batted his hand at the air, signaling his brother Huri to be quiet. Huri in turn, passed the signal to their friend Kenaniah who shrugged apologetically. Huri had already lost three grandchildren to the Tophet. It had been the goad that had driven the three men to their midnight pursuits. They had managed to rescue Kenaniah's son and had then gone on to do so for a number of others who still followed Jehovah. Even now, Uriah, the fourth of their group, was on his way to the temple mount with the child from their latest rescue.
The final rays of the piercing Israeli sun caught the gold of Solomon's temple and turned it to brilliant hues of rust, bronze, and copper. It twinkled just above the oily smoke that was ever present in the valley. Areli frowned. Only an hour of sunlight remained. An hour in which to save his grandson from a fate that no human should be forced to face. Squaring his shoulders, he motioned to his cohorts to move on and the three of them continued their secret journey from one rock shadow to another.
Kenaniah cocked his head up. "The drums have stopped." The words echoed in the sudden silence. A silence punctuated by the roar of the fire stove and distant weeping. "Another is lost." Kenaniah's whispered voice carried urgency, and Jabez nodded. He wiped at a tear of his own and held his finger to his lips. His heart pounded the rhythm abandoned by the drums. They didn't have much time. The silence and the heat bore down on them, screaming the truth of the scene they were approaching-one more child was dead. Burned to death in the great maw of the Tophet.
Rage seared through Jabez once more as he thought back on his daughter's foolish decision. Had he not taught her that Jehovah did not look favorably upon the cruelty of child sacrifice? Yet Shani had chosen to disobey him. Disobey her own father! A thing unheard of in Israel in his younger days.
Movement ahead caught his attention and he forced his boiling emotions into submission only to have them flare again. He wiped at his eyes with the back of a dust-caked hand. Shani. He could tell by the way she tipped her head slightly to the side. She was far enough away but he'd know that stance anywhere. So like his beautiful wife, Mahlah. And wasn't that Mahlah's shawl that Shani carried her infant son in? Silently he cursed the weakness of youth. His wife's stark beauty had ensnared him and he realized only too late that she was a follower of the hated gods Moloch and Baal. He had forbidden her to bring the foul idols into his home but she had easily outmaneuvered him. And passed her love of evil onto their daughter.
Jabez increased his speed. He must reach Shani before she passed the entrance to the Tophet area. He would have called out to her but he knew she would ignore him. In her defiant state, she might even speed her gait to escape him. No, he would have to overpower her. It was the only way. And together he and his two companions would take her and the child to his home where the infant would be safe. In the times of earlier kings, she would have been stoned for considering offering her child to Baal. May his name be cursed in all the heavens and earth!
The three men dropped to the path that led to the sacrificial area and tried hard to blend in with the milling masses going to watch the gruesome proceedings. The heat pushed at them as though a living thing. Reaching out to touch them with its cruel fingers. Shani had stepped to the end of a line of women, all holding children of various ages, and Jabez felt the urge to throw up. How could a woman love her child so little? He worked to fix his features. It wouldn't do to have someone see the rage on his face and try to stop him from interfering.
Only six stood ahead of her. Fire consumed with great speed and appetite. Their pace quickened and they elbowed past those who walked ahead of them. The drums began their chant again, drowning out the screams of the infant that had been placed into the metal idol, covering the wails of the mother who had changed her mind too late.
Jabez watched it all through the flickering light, smoke and waves of heat; he moved faster. The woman reached for the idol as it was lowered into the great pit of flames. Her mouth opened and her face contorted, and then she fainted. Searching back along the line, he caught his daughter's face. Her deep brown eyes glittered. Was that excitement? Her brown hair was plastered to her face with sweat and the heat blew the ends of the long strands away from her body. Evil was present. Jabez could see it clearly and he shuddered. The drums ceased again and the scuffle of rocks and pebbles shouted their approach.
The crowd had thickened and many shouted to the heavens; they called out the names of various gods as they begged for rain, prosperity, and fertility. Some laughed while others cheered for the mothers willing to give their children to the flames. If only Jabez were a warrior and not a simple farmer.
Movement to his left drew his attention and he stopped, the fear of being caught drawing a new batch of sweat on his brow. Three priests of Baal stood on top a small cluster of boulders away from the main path. The boulders were wet with blood and the men were crisscrossed with gaping wounds. They held ceremonial knives in their hands and with every request, every plea, every shout; they gashed yet another portion of their bodies. For a moment Jabez stood disbelieving. He had heard of the ritual cuttings before but never had they seen the gruesome act.
Huri turned to the side and emptied the contents of his stomach. Four women had come up behind to better view the sacrifice and they stepped out of the way, giving him a strange look. He wiped his mouth on his mantle and nodded apologetically to the women. "It must have been the lamb. It tasted off. My pardon."
The women tisked in sympathy and daintily bypassed the fouled area. When they were out of earshot, Huri growled his disgust. He was about the say something to his companions, but the drums filled the air with a crushing sound. Three children had yet to depart.
Elbowing their way into the crowd, they cut toward the line of women. A woman stood near the edge of the pit, her crimson gown stained darker red in splotches. The lengthy garment flapped against her body and billowed out behind her as the furnace's blast maintained a perpetual scorching wind. Her hair swirled about her head in black snaking ropes. If she wasn't truly a demon, she certainly looked the part. Jabez saw Kenaniah shudder and he nodded as though reading his friend's mind. A terrifying picture to be sure.
The priestess reached for another idol and held it open for the next blood offering. It was made of heavy bronze and Jabez was amazed at the woman's ability to hold it while the mother placed her infant into its hollow. He wanted to shout for them to stop. He wanted to grasp the child in his arms-all of the children-and run away. He continued to push against the flow of humanity as he edged closer to his goal. He could see the details of his daughter's profile. Praise Jehovah that she hadn't seen them yet. Shani watched the scene at the pit's edge, her face emotionless. But her eyes had widened. Jabez glared at her as she took in each detail of the idol.
The front was a man, fearless and awesome to behold. On its right was the form of a cat and on its left the form of a toad. The three figures were joined to make a three-sided idol to represent the three entities of Baal. The man-form opened on a hinge at the bottom of the body-large enough for a child-and the priestess braced herself as the mother placed the child into the warm metal. The door was closed and clamped shut. Solemnly, the priestess set the idol down and attached a heavy chain to it. And then the demon woman raised hands to the sky and began to scream incantations and chants in foul languages that could barely be heard over the drums. The hideous metal beast was cranked into the air with the aid of a metal beam and the muscles of a Canaanite slave. Hand over hand, the slave lowered the monster into the pit and the awaiting flames.
Jabez stopped in his tracks. Just when he thought he had seen the worst, these people showed him that they could go even further. The drums ceased again and he was prodded into action. One more baby and then his precious little Yeseph would be next. He could see tufts of black hair peeking out of the shawl and he ached to snatch that small bundle away from the careless arms of its mother. Soon! Very soon! He could almost smell the sweet fragrance of the child's skin-the warmth of his breath.
The drums. Again. Another hideous monster was fed. Jabez was amazed at how many idols sat behind the priestess waiting for their innocent meal. Another slave stood beyond waiting for the consumed sacrifice to be raised. The Canaanite pulled on the chain, drawing the bronzed creature from the depths. The metal glowed an unearthly hue and the second slave reached forward with a long pole. Snagging the chain, he guided the idol to a huge pot of water. Steam billowed up from the pot as the sacrifice was lowered and the chain unhooked. There would be nothing left inside. The child had been incinerated.
Twenty cubits. It was all the distance that remained. Jabez shoved harder against the crowd as his daughter stepped up to the priestess. Shani had chosen to honor Moloch. A different idol was brought forth. It had the head of a bull, its horns turned up and drawn together to meet the ring that would connect with the chain. He watched in horror as the priestess unhinged the door and his daughter set his beloved Yeseph inside. The drums! The hated drums! He lunged, breaking free of the ring of spectators, and Huri and Kenaniah stumbled into the clearing behind him.
Jabez felt his mouth move. He sensed the knotting of his vocal chords as he screamed his grandson's name. Charging across the clearing, he shouldered his daughter aside, not caring that she fell. Gripping the hated idol by the horns, he vented his rage on the demon woman. Shouting maniacally, he wrenched at the cage and was surprised by the priestess's strength. Her dark eyes flashed with power and lust for blood and a tug-of-war ensued. The drums stopped and Jabez could hear his brother and friend as they fought the guards and priests. The crowd began to mutter. They would have a time of it escaping with the child. They could dispose of the idol later. With a final heave, he pulled the idol free and turned to flee.
Leaping into the space between his daughter and the Canaanite slave, Jabez could taste victory as he ducked to the left, hoping to out-maneuver anyone who would follow. From out of the darkness, a clink of metal caught his foot and his ankle turned. The chain! He rolled onto his back, hoping to protect the child from the fall. Yeseph's cries echoed from inside the metal bull, and then Jabez hit the ground hard. His wind was gone and he threw his arms wide. The idol rolled away from him. Struggling to draw in breath, he made to lunge for it again. But it was too late!
Hands clamped upon his arms and the two slaves hauled Jabez upright. He watched helplessly as some of the crowd subdued Huri and Kenaniah. Shani rose and meticulously dusted off her homespun dress. She was furious. Clearly. Jabez lifted his head and glared at her. Perhaps she would listen to him now. Now that she saw how important it was to him.
"Stop this, Shani. Do not do this evil thing."
Gasps came from various spots in the crowd and a man shouted, "He has blasphemed the god! Moloch will punish us now! Don't we already feel his wrath? He is burning our lands!"
"Silence!" Jabez roared the word. "Are you so foolish as to believe that this piece
of metal-" He nodded to the abandoned idol "-can make any difference in the weather?
"You think he is the god of the sun! Bah! Foolishness! He can no more keep the sun from scorching the land then I can make the sun rise in the west! He cannot bring us rain!"
The child continued to wail, clearly upset with finding himself trapped in darkness. Jabez looked at his daughter again. "Open that foul cage and bring my grandson to me. I command it as your father!" He watched his daughter straighten her skirts. Standing then, she turned to face him. He gasped, suddenly frightened by the look in her eyes. The same look as the priestess's.
"No, Father. I will not. Your Jehovah is dead. I will not follow a weak God. I will follow a god of strength." Reaching down, Shani gripped the horns of the abandoned sun god. At the touch she closed her eyes and smiled, lifting her face to the heavens. With a heave, she dragged the idol across the ground to where the priestess stood. The metal scraped and grated on the loose stones, punctuated by the steady wails of its occupant. Singing softly through her thin lips, Shani cooed to her infant son who had worked himself into a frenzied state. Jabez shook his head, speechless.
The priestess nodded sharply and the drums began their final serenade for the day. Jabez screamed. He thrashed and flailed, but his captors held him firm. Step by step, Shani dragged the bronze bull to the pit's edge. The priestess made to fasten the chain, but Shani shook her head. Reaching out, she gripped the chain and worked the hook into the ring. Jabez knew she was still singing. He could see her lips moving. At that moment, the urge to kill made his body tremble. Was he so different than his daughter? Yes! As angry as he was he would never carry out the deed! He squeezed his eyes shut, praying it was all simply a bad dream-an evil vision of what might be. The drums continued their symphony, pounding out the child's death sentence. He opened his eyes again and bellowed his rage, straining against his bonds.
Shani stepped back then and smiled at the priestess. The witch woman stepped forward and cupped his daughter's face, her eyes tender. Leaning forward she kissed her. And then she turned to Jabez's captors. Another stepped in to take the Canaanite's place and Jabez wrenched free. Hope! One last hope! He flailed and stumbled his way to the edge, his eyes fixed firmly on the bull. And then Shani was there. With a mighty heave, she pushed the idol from the edge. The Canaanite saw Jabez lunge and he let go of the chain, allowing the bull to plunge to the depths.
Jabez landed on his belly, his arms reaching out over the edge. "No!" His words were lost in the roar of the flames, and the skin on his hands blistered with the intense heat. Someone tugged at his tunic and he turned to see his daughter working to pull him from the brink. His eyes narrowed into slits of hatred and he thrust her hands away. "Don't touch me! You are no longer my child!" He hissed the words and Shani sat back quickly. Shaking his head, he pulled himself to his feet, his great chest heaving like the billows that fanned the flames in the idol smithy. Tears ran freely down his weathered face, cutting tracks through the sweat and soot and dust. He turned his gaze on the crowd. They had released Huri and Kenaniah and those two stood aside, Jabez's sorrow mirrored on their faces. Then he bellowed to the crowd, "A day will come when you will pay for this!"
A rustle of heavy material drew his attention to the priestess. She stood there with a smug grin on her face. Jabez wanted to wrap his hands around that scrawny throat, lift her off her feet and pitch her into the pit after her beloved god. Instead, he spat on her. Brushing past his daughter he scooped his mantle and rope from the ground. Leaving his brother and friend behind, he shoved his great bulk through the crowd and away from the horror. Those gathered were all too eager to step aside.
The sun was down to a sliver on the horizon when Jabez left. The celebrating had begun. Celebrating. Bah! His daughter might just have well ripped his heart from his chest. His beloved Yeseph was gone. Jabez wound his way up toward the great city. He needed to pray. The grief tore at him and tears ran freely. He batted at his nose with the back of his hand and received strange looks from those who hadn't witnessed the scene at the pit. To his right the priests continued their ritual, the gore of their worship making the stones around them dark and slick. Off in a grove farther down the path an orgy took place-they offered themselves to the fertility god. He snorted. No doubt they would think the useless, lifeless gods had helped them conceive. An inevitable event in such circumstances. Farther west, the cacophony of a bigger, more boisterous gathering filled his ears and he shuddered to think what took place there.
He squinted through the dark, the burnished flames of the Tophet flickering in the background-his only light to see by. It was the grove of Asherah where the revelers cavorted. Tall poles stood out against the night sky like silent fingers clawing at the stars. Again he spat. Queen of the Heaven! More like Queen of the Heathen! Picking up a rock he roared out his anger and pitched the missile at one of the posts. The celebration continued on, oblivious to his pain-his torment.
At every turn of the path in the Valley of Hinnom, abominations were acted out,
and his rage swelled as he trudged toward the holy hill to the temple. He knew what he would find there too. Asherah poles. Idols. Temple prostitutes and blood everywhere. But it was Jehovah's house first. He would not enter. He would sit at the wall and pray. Beg Jehovah to pour His vengeance out on those who had dishonored His name. Pray for Him to hear an old man's cries.
An hour later, Huri and Kenaniah found Jabez sprawled face down weeping just outside the western wall. They watched in apprehension as the claws of night reached up to grab the last shades of orange, pink and crimson out of the sky.
* * *
Jezebel knew she should still be in mourning-had been in mourning-until she had heard of the arrival of Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat. The name was a curse running through her mind. The man would dare to declare himself king of Israel! She pushed away from the window she had gazing from and paced. Some fool of a prophet had called Jehu away from his military post, dumped oil on him, and told him he was now king. In spite of the fact that her son and Ahab's direct heir was already king-and had been for some time. And Joram was the right kind of king-one through which she could rule discretely. Like his father had been. Oh Ahab had his moments of fidelity to the Hebrew God, but Jezebel had quickly worked her charms to bring him back to the Baal. Back to child sacrifices.
She checked her image in the beaten bronze mirror. Flawless. Her gown of crimson shimmered in the reflection. Black paint framed her eyes and her thick hair coiled about her head in a sleek halo. She was aging but the mirror didn't show it.
Jezebel had seen the coming and of many prophets, including Elijah and Elisha. While those two pesky prophets had slipped through her hands, she had been present for the slaughter of the others. And this new upstart would be no different. After she saw to it that Jehu paid for his treason, she would personally sacrifice this new prophet to her god.
Returning to the window, Jezebel allowed her mind to replay all she had been told. The battle against Hazel of Aram over the city of Ramoth Gilead had failed. It turned out that Joram wasn't the military strategist he thought he was. And that idiot from Judah. Ahaziah, king of Judah, had had the audacity to come to Jezreel while Joram was convalescing from his war wounds. Jehu had followed, and Joram had sent out a messenger to ask the commander's intentions. The rider had simply joined the hoard of soldiers at Jehu's back. The second rider had done likewise. Joram, in his frustration, had ordered his chariot to be ready. And Ahaziah had done likewise.
Jezebel shook her head. She never would have thought it would have come to this. Joram dead. Ahaziah dead. Jehu hadn't even been respectful of the body. Picked up and tossed aside like a carcass of meat. Naboth's field. That was where her son's body lay. Just as the prophet had said. The thought came on its own and she pushed it away. As for Ahaziah, news had only just reached her that he was in Megiddo and likely wouldn't survive the night.
She looked down at her dress. It should be black and her hair should be filled with the dust of ashes. But there was no time for mourning. She was queen and absolute ruler now. Forcing her eyes back to the road that stretched away from the city, she waited for the man who wanted to call himself king.
Hooves clattering on cobblestone alerted Jezebel that Jehu and his men had arrived. But what could he do to her here? Jezreel was a fortress. She shuddered. The prophecy about Ahab and his line had another side to it. She leaned over the parapet and allowed her eyes to scan the streets for dogs. She hated dogs. They were part of the prophecy. A mangy mongrel skulked out of an alley and she pulled back into the room.
Her mind abandoned all thoughts of dogs as Jehu and his men came into sight. She allowed a leer to rest on her painted lips. For all his stature and pomp and ceremony he still couldn't touch her in her safe haven. And it wouldn't take her long to rally her supporters.
She leaned back out onto the sill again and called to the armored rider. "Have you come in peace, Zimri, you murderer of your master?"
A gasp reached her ears and she knew the insult had found its mark. Zimri had seized the throne of Elah not more than forty-five years back. He, too, had assassinated his master and then destroyed the whole house of Baasha. She smiled then. The jibe had more depth, for Elah had ruled a mere seven days before he was destroyed. She could wait a week for rescue and it didn't hurt to remind Jehu of that fact.
Jehu's face turned toward her and his voice echoed through the streets and into her chambers, "Who is on my side? Who?"
And then, to Jezebel's horror, three of her eunuchs were beside her.
Jehu didn't wait for an answer. "Throw her down!"
Jezebel struggled against the strong hands that clamped onto her. Screeching, she thrashed against the efforts of her servants. They would pay dearly! The stone ledge scraped down her back as she was hoisted into the air and stuffed out the window. And then Jezebel-queen of Israel, worshipper of the Baal and the dark arts, murderer of children and prophets-plunged to the stones below.
Her mind bellowed its anger and in its protest it slowed and drew all around it into deep focus. She could see every hair on each horse that pranced and milled around in the courtyard. She could see each expression on every face as she dropped. And her final awareness was of the gathering of dogs-the ones that the prophet said would lick up her blood and devour her broken flesh.
June 7, 1967
Nathan Levi watched the raucous celebration. Tears streamed down his face as young soldiers with old faces touched reverent fingers to 2000-year-old stone work. His black and white Admiral television set, nestled into the corner of the master bedroom, did nothing to enhance the images that flashed across its screen. Even still, Nathan had never thought he would see such pictures. The idea that Jews were praying at the Western Wall-a 1,600-foot exposed section of wall from the time of the Second Temple-was simply amazing to him. Wiping the tears away, he ruminated about the wall's history. That this wall-Herod's wall-could very well have been built on the foundations of the very wall built by King Solomon. Before him the TV continued to parade reel after reel of recent news from the war.
Reaching over to his night table, Nathan fumbled for the small, worn copy of the Torah-the ancient scrolls of Moses- and clasped it to his chest. He felt this moment with every fiber of his being. This event numbed the pain of recent weeks-the fire that had destroyed most of his apple orchard, the deterioration of his health, the alienation of his younger son. Yes. This made the grief bearable-almost unimportant. With the book gripped firmly, he reached for the arm of his elder son who sat in silence in the chair beside his bed. Nathan watched the display of jubilance before him as he directed his words to the young man.
"Stephen, can you believe this? This is a miracle, no?"
A small burst of laughter bubbled up the stairs and through Nathan's open bedroom door. He turned his head toward the sound and frowned. Stephen was here. Why wasn't James? He already knew the answer. His biological son cared less for family ties than his adoptive one. It was such a thorn in Nathan's side.
Bringing his attention back to Stephen, he caught the look of disapproval and he smiled. "Ah. I'll bring James up-to-date later. He's with his friends now and this is a time for celebration anyway. They're probably talking about this crazy pop festival. What's it called?" He looked to Stephen with a question.
"It's the Monterey Pop Festival, Father. I'm not sure James should be going anywhere-especially with you being so sick and the estate in the shape it's in."
Nathan waved at the air in a zigzag. "You remember what you were like at the end of your high school year-was that just last year?" He paused and cocked his head. "No. You weren't like that, were you?" A round of hideous coughs interrupted Nathan's speech before he continued. "You've always been such a blessing to me, Stephen. I don't know what I would have done had God not seen fit to add you to our family. And I still wish you would consider taking on the Levi name-in spite of your protests of being unworthy." He squeezed the dark brown arm. Adopting a black child hadn't been the most popular move in Texas but it'd been the right one. He smiled as he remembered the day the solemn boy had arrived at Perdita-the family estate.
A sudden pounding of foot on stair told the two men that the subject of their discussion was coming up for a visit. Nathan watched Stephen unfold his lanky, six-foot frame. A smile tugged at the corners of Nathan's mouth as the eighteen-year-old tipped his chin up a notch and crossed his arms. The handsome face tightened and became angular, and Nathan turned to the door just as James entered. He, too, was an attractive young man-in spite of the long hair, multicolored T-shirt and ratty denim jeans with flared out bottoms. It was a miracle that the young people didn't trip and fall in the crazy things.
"Come in, James! The greatest of news! Jews are praying at the wall!"
James's eyes began to roll as he strutted into the room. Nathan watched him catch himself and paste on a patronizing smile. He sighed at his son's poorly concealed disrespect.
"That's great, Dad. I'm glad Stephen was able to share the big moment with you." A stiff look flitted past Nathan to the giant behind him and then back to his face. "Since everything's copacetic now, do you think we could talk about the festival?"
Nathan clamped his mouth tight and nodded. His son's shrewdness sometimes caught him by surprise. The fact that the boy had come to him to talk about the festival only verified that James already knew that the insurance settlement check for the fire had arrived in the mail. Nathan could almost predict the request for money. He sighed. There was no point in expecting his son to be something he wasn't. The most he could do was hope for the boy to get the craziness out of his system. Perhaps someday he would come to his senses.
"Yeah. So Cameron, Tyler, Eugene and I were talking about funds and we all agreed that it would be groovy if I could get the money for the trip out of my inheritance." Nathan watched his son's face stiffen more and his eyes narrow as though anticipating a battle. But Nathan was too weak for a fight. James had made it quite plain in past confrontations exactly what he thought of staying on the estate and continuing in the family business. And now, with so much destroyed, he had even more reason to abandon the place. No. He wanted his inheritance. All of it. Immediately. In cash. Nathan sighed again. Looking into the uncaring eyes of his blood-kin and second son, he resigned himself to the folly that he knew would come. And yet he was helpless to know how to deal with it. His son would leave-with the money or without. He turned his face toward his older boy and spoke.
"Stephen, if you would please-the check is in the drawer there."
Stephen flinched and his bold jaw tightened. Stretching out his hand as though to calm the boy, Nathan offered a sad smile. "Please." Nathan waited until the piece of paper was in his hand and then he returned his attention to James. "It is a cashier's check for the total of your inheritance. I had the family attorney draw up the necessary documents to transfer all liquid assets of your inheritance into one account. You can obtain that money by presenting this at the bank."
James's incredulous expression almost brought Nathan a morsel of pleasure. Almost. While his son looked grateful, Nathan knew the boy was simply shocked that it had been so easy. Leaning forward, James took the paper and pulled it back, staring at the numbers printed on it. Then with no thought of consideration, he jumped into the air, spun, and let out a whoop. Excited whispers from the stair landing told Nathan that James's friends had been eavesdropping. Bouncing over, James planted a large kiss on Nathan's cheek-the first interest in contact he'd shown in years-and Nathan closed his eyes and treasured the moment. And then his son was gone, thundering back down the stairs.
Stephen's sudden movement caught Nathan by surprise and he watched the tall young man stride from the room. He called after him, his voice trailing to a whisper, "Be gentle on him, my son. Be gentle."
* * *
"What on earth do you think you're doing?" Stephen spit the words at James's retreating back and the younger man turned to him, a sneer planted on his face.
"What's the matter, Stephen? Jealous?"
Stephen shook his head and crossed his arms again, leaning against the hall wall. "You just don't get it, do you little brother? This has nothing whatsoever to do with jealousy."
"Oh that's right." James's tone became vicious, and his friends whispered and laughed in the foyer below them. "I forgot. You already are the favorite, aren't you? Sucked up to Dad the moment you arrived here with your yes sir, no sir attitude and your perfect little goodie-two-shoes act." A condescending smirk came over James's face.
"Look!" Stephen shouted. "This has nothing to do with you or me. It has to do with him." His long arm pointed up the stairs toward the master bedroom. "Have you forgotten that Father is ill?"
"Father?" James let out a deep throaty chuckle. "Why don't you get with the times? Dad didn't look too terribly sick to me. Besides, isn't it your job to take care of the old man? I'm tired of you looking at me with those condemning eyes of yours as though you have a right to say that I'm not being a good son. And I'm tired of that old man trying to guilt me into staying here and just so I can die of boredom." He filled his jean pockets with his hands smoothly. "I'm sure you both will do just fine without me."
James turned toward the door and his friends. The younger man continued to tromp down the stairs, moving his feet carefully to avoid stepping on the ridiculous amounts of denim swathed around his ankles. Stephen almost hoped James would trip on his stupid bellbottoms and make a fool of himself in front of his friends. Some friends. He thought about the word. They weren't friends. They were leeches. They were there to take advantage of the tidy sum of money that James had every intention of spending frivolously.
It was all Stephen could do not to go after the swaggering fool and wring his silly neck. His blood pounded in his temples and he flinched as the front door slammed. Tipping his head against the wall, he drew in a number of deep breaths.
"Stephen? Is everything all right?"
The soft voice of his father drifted down the stairwell to him, and Stephen worked to maintain an even tone. "Everything's fine. Would you like a cup of tea? I'll get you one since I'm down here anyway."
A pause told Stephen that his dad wasn't fooled for a moment. He could have simply rung down for a tray to be brought up. It was rare for him to do the actual serving-something his father frowned on.
"As you wish. Don't be long though. They're dancing in the streets of Jerusalem! You must see it."
Stephen left the stairwell and headed for the kitchen. He had every intention of setting the tray himself and would have in spite of the protests coming from Flora. Just as he plugged in the tea kettle the front door chimes echoed through the long halls and open doorways. "Okay, Flora. You win. I'll get the door. You get the tray ready and take it upstairs. If I'm not in his room when you get there, tell Father that I'll be with him as soon as I deal with whoever is at the front door."
Stephen abandoned the ancient kitchen with its assortment of updates and strode down the hall to the foyer. Peering through a side window, he tried to identify the figure standing on the porch. Stephen couldn't miss the unmistakable curves of a woman hunched over with her back turned. She had her arms wrapped about her as though cold-in spite of the warm evening. She reached out for the doorbell just as he pulled the door open, and Stephen expressed surprised recognition.
"Sharon, what are you doing here? James just left." Sharon was James's girlfriend-when it was convenient for James to have a girlfriend.
"I-I wanted to talk to-to James." Her pillow soft voice was shaky as she looked down at the weathered boards beneath her feet. "It's important."
"I'm not sure where he is right now. But I heard Luther Ravensbrook is throwing a party tomorrow, he'll probably be there." He gazed at her intently. "Is something wrong?" It was a stupid question. Clearly, Sharon was upset. The tear stains on her shirt and red rimmed hazel eyes indicated that she had been crying for quite some time.
Sharon shook her head and would have turned to go but Stephen restrained her with a gentle hand. "Would you like to come in? I could fix you something to eat." He hated seeing her hurting like this.
"Thanks, Stephen." The first hint of a smile touched her stiff face and Sharon shook her head. "But I can't. I was only going to stay long enough to tell James something. I've got to go." She turned quickly and headed for the steps. Stephen watched her go, a feeling of trepidation pulling at his heart. Something was definitely wrong.
Stopping for a brief moment, Sharon turned and looked at Stephen with a final stare and then offered a sad smile. "Thanks, you're a good friend." And then she was gone, slinking down the steps and slipping behind the steering wheel of her battered Volkswagen beetle. The steady vehicle chugged to life and sped off down the winding drive into the darkness, leaving Stephen wishing he had insisted she come in.
* * *
Nathan had dozed off as the excitement in Jerusalem played on across the muted TV screen. Stephen would have left him there for the night, but the shrill ring of the telephone destroyed the silence in the room and Nathan snorted and bolted upright. Swaying a bit, he reached for the telephone, but Stephen snatched it from its cradle.
"Levi residence. How may I help you?" Stephen listened for a few moments. "No sir, I don't think Father is in any shape to meet anyone anywhere and especially at this hour. He is quite ill. Perhaps you can call back tomorrow. He may be better by then."
"Hold on a moment!" Nathan's voice was surprisingly strong and he sat forward, gesturing for the phone.
Stephen hesitated, his eyes narrowing as he looked at his father. The older man continued to hold out his hand and wiggled his fingers, his look stern and serious. Stephen blew out a deep sigh and offered the instrument. "You are never going to get well if you don't take time away from work."
"Yes? Who is it?" His father ignored Stephen's reprimand. "Otecus? What are you doing calling? I didn't think you were permitted. Oh. I see." His vocal tones shifted and an edge entered his voice. "Yes, I can do that. Tonight? Now? If we must. I'll see you there." He handed the phone back to Stephen as he stared at the silent TV screen without seeing the images there. "We need to go for a drive."
"But Father-you can't go anywhere. You're sick. If you go out like this you'll get worse."
"That is why you will drive. We will take one of the produce trucks. It should be large enough without drawing attention. Here, help me out of bed. Get me some clothes!" Nathan threw the covers back and swung stiff legs off of the bed to dangle over the side. "Don't dawdle lad! We must move."
Stephen knew there was no point in arguing. The urgency in his father's voice had peaked his own curiosity and he scrambled to the closet for a warm sweater and pants. "You know this isn't a good idea. You've been in bed for over a week now. Do you really think it's wise to go out in the evening air before you've gotten better?"
"I'm afraid I don't have much choice. I have a very important engagement and I am not going to miss it. Now hurry!"
Stephen helped his father into the bundle of clothing and offered a strong arm as they headed down the stairs. Nathan was panting hard by the time they reached the bottom step and he pointed to the small Victorian couch that edged one wall. "Let me sit here while you go get the truck. You'll have to go back to the far storehouse for it." Nathan laid back onto the pillows of the couch and closed his eyes. "Bring it up front here. I know that's a bit unorthodox but, I believe, tonight is a night for unorthodox happenings. Hurry, Stephen."
Scrambling out into the darkness, Stephen made his way to a large shed. After fumbling with the latch, he opened the door into a spacious room that housed a number of different vehicles belonging to the estate. He flipped on a light switch and sifted through an assortment of keys until he found the one he needed and then shut the light off again. The last thing he needed was a curious groundskeeper.
The truck rumbled to life, and Stephen shifted it into gear and pulled up in front of the porch. Nathan had managed to drag himself out the door and onto the swing and he rose unsteadily in order to tackle the steps to the walk. Slapping the truck into park, Stephen took the steps three at a time and scooped up the man's arm.
"You should have waited for me. You won't do yourself any good if you're exhausted." Nathan nodded at the reprimand and concentrated on making it to the passenger seat.
Pulling himself in, he rested his head against the upholstery and drew in deep breaths. Stephen scooted around the front of the truck and slipped in beside him. "So where are we going?"
"There are a series of warehouses on the northwest corner of Plano. I need you to take me there. I'll give you directions as we go." Nathan wiped the small beads of sweat from his temple. "We will be meeting a friend of mine. His name is Otecus." He turned his eyes quickly onto Stephen. "Now go!"
Stephen pulled away from the house and pushed the accelerator pedal down as they hit the road beyond the estate's borders. The night swallowed them in darkness as they travelled southwest toward the Texas city. Stephen remained silent; his father would speak when he was ready.
"Turn here." They maneuvered the truck along a series of empty roads and cruised to a stop in front of a long line of dilapidated buildings.
Stephen couldn't hide his nervousness. "We shouldn't be here." He shook his head. "It doesn't look safe."
"It isn't really. But I have no choice." Nathan offered a tight smile. "You can be my bodyguard, okay?" Stephen tossed him a startled look and opened his mouth to protest. His father held up a hand. "I'm joking already." Nathan glanced out the window, searching. Then he came to pause. "Wait! There's Otecus. Let's go." He reached for the door handle, and Stephen turned to squint into the darkness. A man stood under the pale beams of a street light, his body hidden in a black robe. Stephen left the truck and headed to his father's side as the man pulled himself erect and approached.
"Nathan, my old friend." The voice was quiet and gentle as though the man had lived in a library. His thin pale skin emphasized the outline of his skull. Stephen eyed his face as the stranger enveloped his father in a bear hug. Then the robed man spoke again. "You haven't been well?"
Nathan waved his hand. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Just a flu bug." Nathan let out a shallow cough. "But what are you doing here-all the way from Bethlehem? I thought you were at Saint Theodosius monastery now."
"I still am. But more pressing things required that I come here. To you." Stephen stiffened as he endured a sudden thorough scrutiny from the man. "Is it safe to speak?"
Nathan looked at Stephen and chuckled. "He is my son Otecus. He is safe. Now come, tell me. What is this all about?"
Out of the shadows stepped a number of similarly robed figures. Stephen jumped, startled by their sudden appearance. They moved to form a circle around the three and then turned their backs as though keeping watch.
"I have special cargo-the articles that I was telling you about. It is no longer safe for them to remain with us. We must find a new home for them-somewhere where they won't be discovered. I thought of you Nathan. "
Nathan sucked in a breath, and Stephen narrowed his eyes to study the shocked face.
"They're here? You have brought them here?"
"They are in the van over there-beside the building. We should move quickly."
Nathan nodded and turned to study the nondescript van sitting with its engine running. Another van sat parked next to it, doors opened as though it had just emptied itself of the cluster of black-caped men. As though reading each other's thoughts the two older men turned, and Nathan leaned on Otecus as they began to walk toward the first van. He stopped and tossed a curt order over his shoulder. "Stephen, please bring the truck. Quickly."
Stephen hopped back into the vehicle and slowly maneuvered it into place behind the van. And then he was out and striding toward the opened rear doors. A variety of large wooden crates were jammed into the vehicle and the silent men began the task of moving them from one truck bed to the other. Throwing his bulk into the fray, Stephen grabbed hold of a corner and began to muscle a portion of the largest crate onto the bumper. Just as he and three others latched on and began to ease the cargo toward the truck, a shout echoed across the yard.
"We've been found! Hurry!" Otecus said fiercely.
Stephen grunted and almost tossed the crate into the back of the truck. He turned but not quite fast enough. A hard object caught the side of his ear and spun him around. His knees buckled and he found himself falling. The night sky swam around him and he hit the ground hard, knocking the wind out of him. Around him, voices shouted. Grunts and curses hit the air with force. And then there was silence.
"Father." The single word came in a hoarse whisper and Stephen pulled up onto his hands and knees. Shaking his head to clear it, he sat down hard and peered at the cluster of bodies around him. "Father!" It came louder and was answered.
"Silence lad. I'm fine. Just a bit tipsy is all. Are you all right?" Nathan crawled across the cracked pavement and latched on to Stephen with a weak grip. He nodded and then pulled his father into a tight embrace.
"I thought you were-I thought I had failed." Stephen whispered.
"I'm fine." Nathan turned his head, looking around. "More so than these young men."
Stephen followed his father in gazing at the assorted bodies. They lay in strange poses garbed in contrasting garments. Some were in the black draping garb of the monastery. Others were in white shirts and pants-non-descript other than their starkly blanched hue. Across the white material were crisscrosses of black-black that would be blood-red in daylight.
Stephen shuddered. "What did they want?"
"The cargo." Otecus limped up to the two invalids and offered a hand. "We have little time here. Tanis doesn't give up easily."
"Tanis?" Stephen grunted.
"Yes, she got away but I think I wounded her. I know her well though; she will be back-and with help." Otecus said menacingly.
"What happened? One minute I was loading the crate. The next I was seeing stars." Stephen rubbed a goose egg at the back of his head.
"They ambushed us." Otecus said with a frown. "Had I not had some of my brothers here-God rest their souls-we would all be dead."
Stephen turned and began to search one of the bodies. "This one is covered in tattoos." He moved to another. "And this one."
"They all are." Nathan had pushed up a sleeve on a limp arm next to him. "They're all the same markings. I should take notes and see if I can find something on them."
"We don't have time, Nathan." Otecus interrupted. "We have to get out of here."
Otecus helped Stephen get Nathan to his feet and the three of them piled into the truck. Turning to another of his followers, he pointed to the empty van. "Gather up the bodies of our brothers and then meet me at our host's home. We will deal with this there."
Stephen revved the truck's engine to remind Otecus of the urgency; the monk climb in beside Nathan. The drive back to Perdita was a silent one but questions buzzed and churned in Stephen's mind. Who are these people? And who were the attackers? He pulled into the drive and slowed as he approached the estate house.
"Go to the kitchen entrance, Stephen."
Raising an eyebrow, he tossed a silent question at his father but obeyed. The truck rumbled into the night as he nudged it close to the back porch. Silence enveloped them like a constricting snake as the engine cut and its deep growl faded. Then Stephen threw the door wide and scrambled to the back of the vehicle and began to shoulder the smallest crate.
"Take it into my study and wake up Baxter. We will need a couple of extra hands to lift the big one." It seemed that all semblance of Nathan's illness was gone as the man bustled to hoist one end of another crate while Otecus grabbed the other.
Over the next hour, the three men, with the help of two staff members, grunted and sweated until all the crates were settled on the carpeted floor of Nathan's office. Nathan dismissed the staff and closed the double doors behind them as they slipped off to continue their interrupted sleep.
Nathan turned his eyes onto his old friend. "Will you show us what you have smuggled into our home, Otecus?"
Sweat had broken out on Nathan's forehead and Stephen eyed his father with concern. "Can't it wait until morning, Father? You don't look well."
"Nonsense! I'm as well as can be expected. Now open the crates, Otecus." The look showed that Nathan would not take any argument.
"We'll need a pry bar." Otecus said as he tapped his fingers together.
"Stephen?" Nathan turned and Stephen nodded and trotted off to the shed for the long metal strip of steel. Upon his return, he was relieved to find his father settled into an armchair with a glass of wine in his hand. In silence, Stephen approached the smallest crate and pried the lid off, the nails squealing their protest in the wood. Beneath was layers of straw and Stephen pushed his hand down into the packing.
"Careful now!" Otecus normal gentle voice had become deep and forbidding.
He gave Otecus a curious look and then wrapped his fingers around cool metal. From the debris, he pulled out a small, silver trumpet. The silver was ancient-even the most uneducated eye could see that-and Stephen turned and placed it into Nathan's hands. Further search rewarded him with a second trumpet, identical to the first.
Another crate beckoned and Stephen attacked the lid. A scroll. Otecus stepped in beside Stephen and took hold with gloved and reverent hands. "This is a part of the Hebrew Bible lad. We need to be careful."
Stephen sucked in a breath of air. "The Hebrew . . . . What are we going to do with it? It can't just sit here."
"No. No, it can't." Nathan pulled himself to his feet. "There is a part of this house, Stephen, which no one knows about. Not even James." He staggered over to the wall where a small door was hidden between shelves of books. Why had Stephen not noticed it before? Nathan pushed on the door and it opened to reveal a landing and stairs which led deep into the foundations of the estate. "We will be storing all of this in here. And I need your help. And your silence." He stared at Stephen until he nodded his acquiescence. And then they returned to the remaining unopened crates and worked to reveal their contents. A table. And in the largest-a six-branched candlestick made of beaten gold.
Nathan gasped and reached out to touch the thing. And then he held back as though it was too holy for human fingers. "Where is the seventh branch? There should be seven branches."
"I don't know." Otecus shook his head. "It just wasn't there-as though it had been and then was removed and smoothed over." Suddenly the monk's weariness was gone and he looked at the closed office doors. "Nathan, we must get these hidden quickly. It isn't safe for them to be in the open. Stephen?"
Stephen felt Otecus's keen question and he shouldered the large candlestick and turned to the hidden door. It took some time to get all of the articles into the cavernous room at the bottom of the stairs, but when all was finished, the three men stared at the display one final time and then retreated back into the study now filled with empty wooden crates.
"So how long will they remain here, Otecus?" Nathan's question filled the silent room.
"For as long as necessary. It is no longer safe to keep them where we had thought they would be safe. And as you saw tonight, it has been quite a task to stay ahead of our pursuers. I would suggest we take the liberty of enjoying a bonfire tonight. These crates are marked and must be destroyed. All evidence of the presence of these holy articles must be gone from here." Otecus began collecting the discarded lids and headed for the door. "Where is a good spot?"
Nathan roused himself. "We will go to the walled-in garden. We can keep it small-burn pieces one at a time." He grabbed a small crate and led the way out of the office, down the hall, and through the sleeping kitchen.
They waited until all signs of the cargo were piled in a heap near a small metal rim where the Levi family sat on spring nights and enjoyed the stars, the cooler air, and the occasional campfire. Stephen started a small fire and fed the crates, piece by piece, into its consuming flames. Crimson tongues licked over the dried wood and straw packing and churned out heat as the wood became ash.
"I need not remind you of how important secrecy is." Otecus spoke more for Stephen's ears and the young man knew it. He shook his head. No reminder was needed. He could still see the bodies scattered around his feet from their small battle earlier. He understood completely the seriousness of this endeavor. He would stay silent.
Otecus chuckled and Stephen and Nathan threw odd glances at him. He caught the looks and shook his head. "In my mind-the Menorah, the trumpets-are back where they belong in a manner of speaking." Stephen frowned and Otecus nodded toward Nathan. "They are from the old temple-where the Levites guarded them. And now they are once more in the hands of a Levite family." Stephen's eyebrows shot toward his hairline and he looked at his father. That was true. His surprise was cut off as the monk spoke once more.
"These must never fall into the wrong hands. Stephen. Nathan. You must take what you know to the grave. As will I. As will my brothers. Never forget that."
The three men turned solemn faces toward the dying embers. Sleep would not find them this night.
... continued ...