The Christ Box
An international mystery thriller set in the Middle East…
© by M. Rutledge McCall
“Intriguing, provocative, unpredictable. …‘Da Vinci Code’-meets-‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ … unique layering of richly-conceived characters … unforeseeable plot twists and turns, this riveting journey progresses from mystery and drama to thriller and adventure. …a tough, iconic protagonist … a world filled with dark and powerful, deadly and even fun antagonists. McCall has written one big, surprising splash of a debut novel…”
– Kenneth Ulmer, Ph.D.; past-President, King’s University, Los Angeles; Adjunct, Magdalene College, Oxford University, UK
“What a great work McCall has done here. …gripping and fast paced … rich and complex …could easily be a movie.”
– Author Phil Pringle, Ph.D., Chancellor, C3 College; Sydney, Australia
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The tiny living room is trashed. Sofa facedown. One arm of an overstuffed chair torn off. Wooden floor lamp broken in half. Fist, foot, and head size dents in three of the four walls. Bottom hinge of the front door ripped out of the wood, door hanging precariously from the top hinge, door jamb splintered at the latch.
An orange spike of late afternoon sunlight stabs through sparkles of disturbed dust where faded curtains come together over a large window, scratching the face of a big, muscular Black man sprawled on the floor. He’s late twenties, has American gang tattoos on his telephone pole arms, breathing shallow and erratic, chest soaked in blood, eyes fading as he looks at two white men standing over him.
The two men, dressed in black, head to toe—disheveled sports jackets, t-shirts, loafers, slacks—are leaning against a wall, breathing heavily, favoring ribs, pained looks on cut and bruised faces. Each has a police badge visible on his belt and an automatic pistol gripped loosely in one hand. One of them, Aaron Hoffman, is early forties, large and sturdy, has gray eyes, and blond hair with black roots. The other, Daniel Stern, is mid-thirties, shorter, powerfully built, bald, and has green eyes.
At the sound of a car door slamming outside, Hoffman pushes off the wall and steps over the lifeless body of a fourth man, also white, dressed in black, badge clipped to his belt, left side of his head caved in, blood flowing down his neck, chest, and onto his lap. Which holds a large tin of fruitcake with a cranium-shaped dent in it.
Hoffman slides the curtain aside with one finger and looks out the window.
“Him?” Stern asks in Hebrew, shoving his pistol into a hip holster as the sound of footsteps approach the house.
A white man, early fifties, also dressed in black—jacket down to shoes—ducks cautiously under the broken door and enters the room, holding an automatic pistol against his thigh. Average height, compact, has short red hair, a broad nose, and piercing light-blue eyes.
The redhead taps the pistol against his leg as he scans the fresh carnage. After briefly studying the dead cop’s body on the floor, his eyes fall on the Black man.
He juts his chin toward the Black man, says in Hebrew, “He do this?”
Stern nods and responds with a pained lisp, “Tough bastard.”
Redhead pulls back the left side of his jacket, revealing a pit holster and a badge clipped to his inside breast pocket.
He shoves his pistol into the holster, says to Stern, “Why are you lisping?”
Stern opens his mouth, shows his cut and bleeding tongue, and replies, “Bit my tongue when he hit me.”
“Was he armed?”
Hoffman nods in the direction of the dead man, says, “Yeah. With that fruitcake on Stein’s lap there.”
“Where’s the box?” the redhead says.
“The old woman probably took it with her,” Hoffman says.
“Where did she go?”
“She ran out the back door with a nun,” Stern lisps.
“She had a gun?”
“No, a nun,” Hoffman says. “You know, black shroud, grandma shoes.”
“Why didn’t you stop them?”
Hoffman uses his pistol like a pointer, indicating the Black man, and answers, “Because this guy here was keeping us pretty busy before he killed—” he swings his gun over to the dead cop’s body, “Sergeant Stein there. So I had to shoot him, and they got away in the meantime.”
The Black man, laboring for breath, looks at each of the three men in turn, then up at the ceiling.
Redhead steps to the man, stands over him, demands in Israeli accented English, “Where is it?”
A faint smile appears at the corners of the Black man’s mouth.
“I said, where is it?” Redhead repeats.
Black man tries to speak but it comes out garbled as he coughs through the blood in his lungs.
Redhead’s eyes follow the man’s line of sight to the ceiling.
He turns to Hoffman and Stern, says in Hebrew, “You check the attic?”
“There is no attic,” Stern says.
“Storage space? Anything?”
Hoffman shakes his head, says, “Empty crawl space and the roof.”
Redhead squats down, leans in close to the man’s face, says, “What is it? What should I see up there?”
“Home,” the Black man wheezes as bright pink blood bubbles from his mouth. His smile widens a little. Eyelids drift.
Redhead looks at him a moment. Then retrieves a mobile phone from his jacket pocket and punches a number.
He speaks calmly into the mouthpiece in Hebrew, “Officer down. Send an ambulance immediately. There are two bodies.”
He gives an address in the Old City in Jerusalem, clicks off the call, pockets the phone. He stands, brushes off his pants with his palms, looks at Hoffman and nods.
Hoffman aims his pistol at the Black man.
Black man laboriously raises his head a couple inches off the floor, looks defiantly into Hoffman’s eyes, mumbles, “He’s comin’, cracker. You better run.”
Black man’s head snaps hard to the wooden floor as the bullet cracks into his skull, just above the bridge of his nose.
Redhead looks around the small room, taking in the details.
He bends down, searches through the Black man’s pockets and discovers a small scrap of paper with handwriting scrawled on it.
* * *
In Jerusalem, few people notice older women trundling over ancient roads, carrying bundles, purses and packages. Marie Rose Cayihsam and Sister Martha Louise aren’t much different. Except that they steal fearful glances behind them every few moments as they stride quickly down the stone path.
Marie Rose is slender, average height, appears to be late fifties to early sixties, has a pretty face, warm amber eyes, and smooth-toned skin with a Mediterranean hue. She’s wearing a long, floral print dress, and a colorful silk scarf on her shoulder-length light brown hair. Under her right arm is a white linen satchel containing something square and bulky.
Sister Martha looks nearly a decade older than Marie Rose, is shorter by a couple of inches, a tad overweight, and has earnest brown eyes and white skin. She’s wearing thick, round glasses, the calf-length black habit of a nun, and black gum-soled lace-ups.
At the faint sound of a gunshot a few blocks behind them, the women jump with a start, stop walking, and look back in the direction from which they came, panting heavily, eyes wide.
“Dear God in heaven,” Sister Martha exclaims in Hebrew, touching the fingertips of her right hand to her forehead, down her torso, up to her left shoulder and across to her right, in the sign of a cross. “That’s the second one.”
“Third, I believe,” Marie Rose responds, clutching the folds of her dress.
“We must summon the authorities, Marie.”
“They were the authorities, Martha—that awful man summoned them. …Wait,” she says, patting the folds of her dress. “The big one pushed something at me when the door came down.”
She fishes in her pockets, pulls out a compact mobile phone and a key ring.
“A telephone and a motel key,” Marie Rose says, opening the phone. “We must get hold of Case before they find us.”
As she’s about to dial, a wailing ambulance turns onto the road ahead of them.
“Holy Mother of God,” Sister Martha exclaims and crosses herself again.
The ambulance reaches them and its siren burps. The women crowd to the side of the narrow road to allow the vehicle to maneuver around them. As it speeds past, they read the Hebrew words emblazoned around an official seal on its side.
“Coroner!” they say in unison.
Marie Rose’s eyes study the ambulance as it rolls down the road and disappears around a corner.
She looks at the phone in her hands, presses buttons. The phone remains dark.
“The battery appears to be dead,” she says.
“The key,” Sister Martha says. “What motel is it?”
Marie Rose looks at the key ring, reads the name on the plastic tag, says, “It’s here in the Old City. Not far. Less than a mile.”
They flee down the cobblestone lane as fast as their legs can carry them.