The Christ Box
(Coming in early fall, 2020; Archangel Books)
© 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
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 each of the four walls.
A spike of late afternoon sunlight stabs through drifting sparkles of disturbed dust where threadbare curtains almost close together over a large window, scratching the face of a large black man sprawled on the floor.
His breathing is shallow and erratic, chest soaked in blood, eyes fading as he looks at two men standing over him.
The two men—white, early 30’s, 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 man has a police badge visible on his belt and an automatic pistol gripped loosely in one hand.
One of them, Aaron Hoffman, is big and sturdy, has gray eyes, and medium-length blond hair with black roots. The other, Daniel Stern, is shorter, powerfully built, bald, and has green eyes.
The black man is a few years younger than them, much bigger, and has American gang tattoos on his telephone pole arms.
At the sound of a car door slamming outside, Hoffman steps over the lifeless body of a fourth man—also 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 door.
The front door opens and a man, 40’s, also dressed in black—jacket down to loafers—treads cautiously into the room, holding a small 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 in Hebrew 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?”
“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 on the floor, and answers, “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.”
The black man, laboring for breath, looks at each of the three men in turn, then up at the ceiling.
Redhead steps to the black 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?”
Black man tries to speak but it comes out garbled as he coughs through the blood in his lungs.
Redhead’s eyes follow the black man’s line of sight to the ceiling.
He turns to Hoffman and Stern, says in Hebrew, “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 black 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. 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.
The black man laboriously raises his head a couple inches off the floor, looks defiantly into Hoffman’s eyes, mumbles, “He’s comin. You better run, cracker.”
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 Israel, few people notice elderly babushkas 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 early 60’s, average height, and a pretty face that tells a younger age. She’s wearing a long, floral print dress, and a colorful silk scarf on her shoulder-length white hair. Under her right arm is a white linen satchel containing something square and bulky.
Sister Martha is 70, a tad overweight, shorter than Marie Rose by a couple of inches. She’s wearing thick, round glasses and the full, black habit of a nun, from her head to her 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, 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 says, clutching the folds of her dress.
“We must summon the authorities, Marie.”
“They were the authorities, Martha—he summoned them. …Wait,” she says, patting the folds of her dress. “He pushed something at me when the door came down.”
She fishes in her pockets, pulls out a compact mobile phone and a key ring.
“What’s that?” Sister Martha asks.
“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 unison.
Marie Rose’s intelligent brown eyes study the ambulance as it rolls down the dusty road and disappears around a corner.
She looks at the phone in her hands, presses buttons. The phone remains dark.
“I think the battery’s 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.