Two American students, hiking in Turkey, stimble on the hiding place of the true cross of the crucifixion, triggering a race to unlock its secrets.
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MONDAY, JUNE 20, PRESENT DAY
STUART WATCHED HIS FRIEND push a large pile of Turkish lire across the ticket counter at the Ankara bus station. "You said we were going to find Noah's Ark."
"I know I did, but check out the map," Roger said as he handed Stuart his ticket. "We can't just pass by the town of Batman without doing some exploring." He drew out the word "by" and traced a semicircle in the air with his finger, as if it were taking a detour around something.
"Look." Roger's finger landed on the map of Turkey, audibly crinkling the paper. "Here's Mount Ararat, and here's Batman." He jabbed his thumb down, then lifted his hand while maintaining the distance between his thumb and index finger. "We're this close! And I have a feeling about it."
Stuart shook his head at Roger's latest crazy plan. He drew in an exaggerated sniff. "Why do I suddenly smell bulls?"
Last summer, after their freshman year at college, Stuart and Roger had traveled throughout Spain and Portugal, the first trip to Europe for both of them. They began in Barcelona at Christopher Columbus' ship, and then explored a good deal of art nouveau architecture by Antonio Gaudi. Roger discovered the local bull-fighting stadium. After a few days watching bullfights--rooting for the bull--Roger said, "You know, Stuart, every day so far we've only been looking at things; as if we're tourists or something."
"We are tourists," Stuart had replied warily.
"I want to do things... You know, immersive reality."
The next day they heard about the annual bull run in Pamplona. They traveled there immediately; Roger had insisted. And he made sure that they did it, instead of just watching it.
After donning red scarves and nearly being trampled by stampeding bulls, Roger had taken out his withered map of the world. That's when they had decided to spend this summer searching for Noah's Ark. Stuart was all for it. An archeology student, the quest for ancient relics was in his blood; however, this expedition could quench a vital thirst for something else he'd been seeking his whole life: faith.
"But," Roger had announced with great confidence, "we're not just going to look for Noah's Ark. We're going to find it! I have a feeling about it."
Later, on the flight home from Europe, Stuart had met Meredith Montgomery. The chance encounter seemed so long ago; hard to believe it was a mere ten months. Ever the tease, her first words were, "Sorry, I tried to get two seats, but they wouldn't let me make a reservation for hair." He did a double take. Had she said "hair" or "her"? She'd deliberately mispronounced the word. Stuart laughed when he saw her expression. He was already tangled up in it: the longest, most voluminous, and most beautiful hair he had ever seen. Yes, Meredith's hair could have filled a separate seat.
As they chatted through the flight, they discovered they were the same age and attending the same university. By October, they were a "couple"--his first real girlfriend--and by the end of the academic year, the only times they weren't together were when they were in class or sleeping. Even then, he dreamt of her at night, and daydreamed of her during class. Meredith had bid them bon voyage at the airport less than a week ago. He already missed her.
STUART FOCUSED on the map of Turkey. Sure enough, there was a town called Batman on the way to Mount Ararat. He remembered how he and Roger had played super-heroes as children. Roger was always Batman; he was always Batman's sidekick, Robin. In grade school, their nicknames were Batman and Robin. At college, they had new nicknames: "War and Peace," from Roger Warren and Stuart Pierce. It suited their personalities much better.
"See these rivers?" Roger pointed at the map again. "The Tigris and the Euphrates--these are the rivers that watered the Garden of Eden."
"But what about Mount Ararat?" Stuart had spent the past few weeks reading everything he could find about the ancient Ark's purported landing place, their destination.
"We have plenty of time for this side trip," Roger said. "Tomorrow is the longest day of the year."
"I know. It's the summer solstice. I'm the one who got an 'A' in astronomy, don't forget." Stuart studied the map, adding the kilometers and converting them to miles. "OK. Let's check out Batman, but don't call me Robin--that's ancient history."
ON THE BUS RIDE to Batman, Stuart and Roger joked in Turkish accents. The ticket agent had pronounced the name of the city "Baht-mahn." Now, Roger was "Baht-mahn"; Stuart, of course, was "Raw-bean." They reminisced while they gazed out the windows, trying to incorporate the passing scenes into their fantasy.
Stuart saw dismal poverty alternating with shiny, ultra-modern developments, and then, vast expanses of uninhabited plateau reaching toward stunning mountains in the distance. After this pattern repeated several times, he realized that the poverty wasn't so dismal, nor the developments so ultra-modern; they appeared that way only because they were displayed in stark contrast to each other, as if the new and modern had been purposely placed next to the old and ancient with the intention of emphasizing their disparity. He recalled Ankara, where he had been fascinated by farmers on donkeys obliviously stopping beside shining, late-model automobiles, both waiting for the traffic signals to turn green.
Outside the window, the heat waves distorted the distant mountains and reminded Stuart that he was hot--hotter than he could remember ever having been in Southern California.
"Hey. These windows don't open."
"Because of the air conditioner... Duh!"
"But it's not on." Stuart felt a drop of sweat roll down his forehead. He smelled the perspiration glistening on the neck of the bus-driver; they were seated directly behind him.
"Did you get a whiff of this?" Roger held up the bowl of lemon toilet water the attendant had passed to them.
"Not as much as the tobacco. Haven't they heard of secondhand smoke?"
The two nauseating smells competed for Stuart's air space. Then he smelled the people--women who probably couldn't remember the last time they had bathed and men wearing sweaters in the summer for some unfathomable reason, sweaters drenched in sweat. In a moment of panic, he couldn't breathe.
He snapped back to reality at the slight movement of air produced when his companion opened the map of Turkey again with a flourish. Roger took out the tiny pocket Bible he always carried. For luck, he said.
Stuart knew that under Roger's shirt hung a gold crucifix. He had asked him about it once.
"It's to be sure I'll receive the last rites if I'm in an accident and don't regain consciousness."
"Well, you know, the cross is still working in the world."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"No idea. Father Romero used to say that."
THE LAST TIME STUART had accompanied Roger to Mass, Father Romero's sermon had focused on Golgotha, the Hebrew name for the hill where Jesus had been crucified between two criminals. Right before they died, one of the criminals made it clear that he believed Jesus to be the Son of God, even as the other continued to mock him. Jesus promised that the believer would be together with him in Heaven that very day. Father Romero had tied the story into choices people make in life--right versus wrong. The part that stuck in Stuart's mind was the priest pointing out the window, directing the congregation's attention to the three antennae towers atop a small hill known affectionately around campus as "Marconi Mountain." Although the satellite dish on the right was huge, the central microwave tower dwarfed both it and the aging A.M. radio mast. The bald-pated priest compared the technological tableau to the three crosses, noting that the antiquated radio tower was like the criminal who refused to change, refused to make the right choice; the satellite dish represented the one who decided to repent. Stuart suspected that the good father was unaware that the satellite dish was part of Professor Bryce Brinkman's non-optical imaging project, and that, although better known for being a "hottie," she was an outspoken agnostic. Nor would Father Romero have been aware that the elderly caretaker of the ancient A.M. radio antenna sat several pews away in the chapel, not looking very happy with the analogy.
Come to think of it, he recalled another occasion when Father Romero had projected a photograph and used a similar analogy. The photo had been of three single-crossbar telephone poles stark against the setting sun, and yes, the image had been striking.
Both times, Father Romero had led the parishioners in prayer following the homily, and both times, he'd closed the prayer with a moment of "personal reflection." The first time, Stuart hadn't realized protocol insisted he keep his head bowed and eyes closed during that part too; the second time he'd sneaked a peek out of curiosity; both times he'd glimpsed the Reverend taking a moistened towelette from behind the pulpit and furiously washing his hands while mumbling what appeared to be another prayer.
ROGER FOUND the page he had been searching for and started reading.
"A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold... The name of the second river is the Gihon... the third river is the Tigris... And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:10-14)
"According to this, four warrior angels are bound in the Euphrates River. They will be released at the end of time to kill one third of the people on the planet," Roger added matter-of-factly, then grinned.
Stuart envied Roger's religious upbringing. His own parents were confirmed agnostics. Thus, church and Sunday school hadn't been part of his life. His father was firm in his beliefs. "Religion is a crutch for weak people," Brad Pierce bellowed whenever the topic arose. He intended that to end any discussion on the matter. As far as Stuart could remember, it had.
Until his parents separated, that is.
Stuart's parents had been fighting more and more each week. He would lie in bed at night, listening to the escalating "discussions" they'd postponed until after he was asleep in a vain attempt to spare him. Then, there had been that time he was caught shoplifting with some kids from shantytown; to confound things, it was during school hours and they were playing hooky. That night, he overheard his mother accuse his father of not having raised him with proper morals. The next day, his father went away on a "business trip." He was gone five months. Even as a boy of twelve, Stuart suspected all was not as he was being led to believe--his father showed up regularly for a change of clothes and more fighting. His parents no longer saved their battles for "after the children were asleep." Stuart heard the word "divorce," and realized they were separated; the so-called "business trip" was a cover story.
With the horror of his parent's impending divorce pounding in his brain, Stuart imagined the whole separation was his fault--that his brush with the law had somehow caused it. He prayed a child's prayer to God, begging that the Lord would bring his parents back together; that somehow they would reconcile. Shortly thereafter, they did, and things appeared to be growing better between them. Nevertheless, Stuart was left with questions about God: Had God done that in answer to his prayer? Was he under an obligation to God now? Should he go to church? Why would God patch up his parents marriage when his father continued to proclaim that religion was a crutch for weak people? Was the shoplifting incident going to count against him in Heaven...if there was a Heaven? Was God going to do anything else in his life? Of course, none of this mattered if there were no God.
Yet, when these questions arose, Stuart often heard a rustling, sometimes in the wind, sometimes in the waves at the beach. It seemed to answer Yes, and urge Come to me, or Come and see. He couldn't make it out. At other times: Some to be...Someone he...From one three...From one tree...? No way to make sense of it. Often, he thought the voice was saying many things at once; the exact words were just below the threshold of audibility.
He'd even asked Roger whether it was possible that God would have deemed to answer his prayer, "being as I'm not properly church-going and all."
Roger replied, "Father Romero says God hears all prayers. I guess he hears those from heathens like you, too. Of course, you should learn the Rosary, and it helps to be named after one of the Apostles, which you aren't!"
Stuart knew how Roger's mother had planned for a large family, but her plans had been blotted out permanently that year she'd been so sick.
"Matthew and John: those would have been the names of my brothers," Roger often explained, "and Mary, Esther, and Ruth would have been the names of my sisters." He would then put on a solemn countenance and intone, "Now I'm the last of the line...Or the first of the new line, depending on how you choose to look at it."
WHILE THEY WERE growing up, Stuart attended Mass with Roger more than once, but the ritual had done nothing for him. He even checked out the CYO--the Catholic Youth Organization--at Roger's church, but there he discovered that Catholic teens were just like all the other kids from school. When he got to college, everyone in the dorm professed to have been "through that church thing." They immersed themselves in contemplating Buddhism, or meditating on their inner oneness, or communing with the "Goddess," whoever that was.
Stuart believed in God--at least he thought he did--but he didn't know what he should do about it. What was the next step?
Some Sunday mornings, he sneaked into the back of the university chapel and observed. It seemed like a club, and he wasn't a member. The songs were usually about Jesus.
Stuart knew he was seeking something, and that it had to do with God. Deep down, he also knew that Roger wasn't very pious, but liked being around someone who was a paid up member of the club.
Richard Roebuck funded researchers throughout the world. His projects included scientists on the Gansu Kansu mountains in central China, others in the heart of Africa--on the Kotto River in the Central African Republic, more in the ice caves of Antarctica, and an outpost on the smallest of the Tarawa Islands in the southern Pacific--so small it didn't have a name. His project in the South American rainforest gave him the most reason for optimism.
The group he had sent to the Amazon basin consisted of eight promising biotechnologists; among them several biochemists, a microbiologist, a cytologist, a geneticist, an immunologist, and two general botanists. There had been reports of seemingly miraculous cures by a certain shaman whose magic reportedly healed everything from the common cold to cancer. Further testing raised hopes that the people of the village in question might be immune to cancer--none of them ever "got skinny and died" like the natives of surrounding villages. This fact made that village very important to Richard.
Creativity, subterfuge, and an overwhelming desire to possess a pocket laser-pointer induced the village shaman to disclose his secret: one merely had to dig underneath a certain tree and gently coerce the presumed miracle elixir from the tips of its living roots without disturbing or severing the root system--a very delicate process. The shaman used eucalyptus oil to separate the organic compounds; hence, the strong smell of breath-mints. This, coupled with the tree's striking resemblance to a Boab, had prompted Richard to name it a Boalyptus tree.
His research team believed they had isolated the compound responsible for the "miraculous cures." Soaking root-drippings in aromatic oils like the Shaman did was far too unpredictable to produce consistent results. After HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) and molecular modeling, they detected a substance with a chemical structure similar to Quinolone class antibiotics. Unfortunately, the medicine had a little "something extra" that the FDA would surely balk at. There was a side-effect with the mu-opiate receptor--something that passed readily across the blood-brain barrier--a powerful heroin-like substance that could be used orally: no IVs, no skin-popping, smoking, or snorting required, and it was very stable.
At first, his team-leader had recommended cutting their losses and getting out of the rainforest. Richard expected no less from his scientists; they were good, ethical people. However, he also knew there were other people who needed the healing properties of this drug--people who didn't care whether the FDA had approved it or not, and who didn't care whether the side effects included euphoria. Richard had no need for the Boalyptus tree; what he needed was the chemical formula he'd paid his researchers to discover. Eventually, it might figure into his "retirement plan."
AS HE DID WITH ALL his researchers, Richard kept a constant satellite link to the young scientists in South America. Further, the Global Positioning System they used in the field accessed his personal satellite network while transmitting real-time coordinates. The GPS technology allowed Richard to pinpoint their location with a precision measured in inches.
During one of their weekly reports the team leader signed off saying, "I'm expecting that we'll have even better news next week." As the link was shutting down, Richard thought he overheard one of the women say, "Do you think he believed you?"
Richard replayed the recording a dozen times until he was sure he had heard the words correctly. He remembered interviewing all eight researchers; he'd already spent millions on this project. They were more than a year into their research--nine months stateside and now four months in the field.
He replayed the past fifteen communications...in his mind. Richard had what scientists call an eidetic memory, and others, a photographic memory. At the age of twelve, he had memorized one hundred verses of the Bible to win two tickets to a baseball game. He heard some church-going kids discussing the contest and rightly deduced that his memory abilities would make the task a piece of cake. He rushed to his grandmother's house and, opening her old Bible approximately to the center, read a hundred verses. As quickly as he read them, he committed them to memory. The day he retrieved his baseball tickets was the first day he had set foot in church.
Justin Robinson, who had placed second in the contest, happily accepted Richard's invitation to attend the game, but when Richard told him how he'd won the tickets, Justin said, "You can't do that sort of thing with a church; you're going to end up in Hell. You're a cheater!"
Richard noticed Justin move several inches down the bench, so their coats wouldn't touch, as if such contact might condemn the boy to a similar fate. However, he knew that Justin had extraordinary peripheral vision; the boy regularly copied from Richard during examinations. In an instant, he understood the definition of a word they'd learned in school the previous week: hypocrisy. He vowed revenge.
Richard was patient. He stopped clipping the nail on his left index finger. Then, on the day of their final science exam, he carefully fashioned it into a sharp point. Fully aware that Justin was copying his answers, Richard answered everything incorrectly. Three minutes before the end of the exam, he picked his nose with the sharpened fingernail to provoke a nosebleed, the drippings of which rendered his answer sheet unreadable. With two minutes left to go, he approached the proctor, and displayed his blood-soaked page. He received a blank answer form, and made certain Justin was watching while he crumbled the original and dropped it in the circular file. He pointed to the clock, whispered something to the proctor, and was allowed to sit in the chair beside the teacher's desk. In less than 90 seconds Richard entered an 'X' in all the correct squares, duplicating the ones he'd written on the eidetic page inside his head--not the ones he'd allowed Justin to copy.
Justin's grades never recovered; his personality took a turn for the worse, and the episode marked the day his life began sliding downhill: he didn't get into college. While the outcome turned out to be much greater than Richard expected--merely an annoying blot on Justin's "permanent record"--Richard had no remorse regarding the event. He had manipulated the boy's beliefs to such a degree of blind faith that Justin hadn't even bothered to apply the "test of reasonableness" on a single one of the answers.
Richard's mantra had long been, you get what you deserve. And usually, the sword of retribution cut with a blade that could have more than two sharp edges. Gullible people deserved the consequences of their own stupidity.
THE PROGRESS of the South American research team seemed to be escalating; he had doubled their budget three weeks ago. Even so, the whispered, "Do you think he believed you?" echoed in his mind.
The thought made him very uncomfortable. "Do you think he believed you?"
Could they be milking him?
The thought became a taunt. "Do you think he believed you?"
He sighed the sigh his underlings hated, the one guaranteed to make them feel brainless, guaranteed to make them believe that their stupidity was the sole source of Richard's frustration, and that the "great man" had every right to laud over their sniveling insignificance--the sigh that sounded as though he were planning to spit.
After a sleepless night, Richard decided to fly to Brazil and check out the situation.
STUART DREAMED OF MEREDITH as he often did. They were walking by the sea in Santa Monica. They stopped to embrace, Meredith with her back to the setting sun. Her hair smelled of jasmine... and the sun shining through it made little rainbows. The effect was enchanting.
Maybe it was because Meredith’s hair was different. It was special. She had more than her share of hair. Cascading down below the middle of her back, it swelled out with gentle waves until it was bigger than any other part of her body. They often joked that because of Meredith's mass of hair, forty men had to go prematurely bald, to maintain the balance of nature. Its thickness gave it a soft resilience that allowed it to move in opposition to the laws of gravity when she walked. When they embraced, he could feel hair cascade like silk over his arms; it was like a down comforter folding and molding around him.
He awoke thinking of her.