Here’s a sneak peek at Salome’s Charger, the Christian suspense novel that Celeste Perrino-Walker and I are currently working on. It is based on the discovery of the platter that held the head of John the Baptist, and the rumors that it possesses mystical properties. The scene here is a confrontation between the two major characters.
Stevie hated hospitals. Her Nana had spent her final days in one, and the smell still brought her painfully back. She asked a grumpy woman at the front desk where she could find Ezra Huddleston and was directed to the med/surg floor . She located his room without any difficulty, but hesitated before going in, dithering. What was she going to say to him? She shuddered. More importantly, what would he say to her? The memory of her foot connecting with his head was shamefully fresh in her mind.
Squaring her shoulders and praying for strength, she knocked politely on the door and entered when she heard a gruff voice call, “Yeah, what?”
“It’s just me,” she said lamely, as she entered the room. He was sitting up in the bed, his hands swathed in bandages. A generic, hospital-issue Gideon Bible was propped up in his lap, but he didn’t seem to be reading it. Instead, he was staring out the window. His ankle, on the side of the bed closest to her, was shackled to the bedrail. She swallowed hard and approached the bed, just as he turned and looked at her. Realization flooded his eyes slowly.
“You,” he croaked.
“Hello again, Mr. Huddleston,” she said tentatively.
His tone softened, and he responded. “Hello.” But then just as quickly the hard edge returned to his voice. “I didn’t expect to see you here. Especially since you were kind enough to leave me strapped to a chair when we parted company.”
“But I came back for you,” Stevie said defensively. “If it wasn’t for me you’d be…” she gulped guiltily, “toast.”
He hesitated, as if considering how to respond. “OK, I’ll concede you that. And for that I owe you thanks. I didn’t ask you to save my life. You had no reason to put your life in danger. But you did.” He paused again. “Why?”
Stevie edged closer to the bed. “Well, it was my fault you were there in the first place,” she pointed out. “I’m really sorry about that, by the way. So I couldn’t just leave you there with no way to defend yourself. I’m not in law enforcement anymore, but ‘to protect and serve’ isn’t something you just take off with the uniform.” She grinned ruefully at him. “We sure did get off on the wrong foot, didn’t we?”
“You could say that.” He forced a smile, and Stevie thought it looked like he was willing himself to be nice to her. He didn’t look like he was having much luck. “So where do we go from here?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Stevie said, pulling a chair up to the side of his bed. She looked dubiously down the length. “If you don’t mind my asking, what’s with the cuffs?”
He chuckled. “I guess some people in power see me as a public nuisance.” He paused to watch for her reaction. “Well, you might be one of those people too, who knows. But really, I’m just trying to do my job. The cops don’t have any other options at this point. The guy they should really be after, this Alain Brassard, is nowhere to be found. So I guess I was the next best thing.” He held up his hands, then rattled his shackle. “I’m not sure which is worse, the bandages or the leg chain.”
Stevie frowned. “I’ll see what I can do about getting you cleared. I still know some of the guys down there. I was hoping to stay out of the whole thing, but if that’s what it takes…” She shrugged. “What I wanted to talk to you about was helping find Maddie Simms. I think that killer from yesterday scared her. He may even have killed her assistant. Maybe she was a witness and that’s why she’s in hiding.” She hesitated. “That, or I guess she could be dead,” she added softly.
Ezra shook his head. “Thanks for helping out with the cops, but I don’t want to think about dead. Maddie’s not dead. She can’t be. I’m in this for Maddie, too. Really.” He started to add something, but he bit his tongue.
“This woman I met at Raymond’s office—Raymond’s my brother-in-law. The charger was his find,” she clarified for Ezra. “I don’t really know why she was there, actually, but she said something about having been a bounty hunter. She seemed to think that someone would pay handsomely for Alain Brassard…if we could find him, that is.”
“He doesn’t seem to have any trouble finding us,” Ezra pointed out wryly.
“True,” Stevie agreed.
He glared at her suspiciously. “Do you ever think about anything but money?”
Stevie bristled. “That’s not fair!” she objected. “I’m trying to help here! For one thing, Brassard might know where Maddie is, or where she might have gone. And for another, do you really want him surprising you again?”
Ezra shook his head. “He doesn’t know. I learned that when I was taped to that chair and he was pouring lye over me.” He glowered at her again. “And as for him surprising me…it’s not going to happen. I know he’ll be back, but he won’t surprise me. That’s for sure.” He bit his lip, as if lost in a thought, then looked at Stevie. “Look, thanks for what you did. Seriously, I’d be dead if you hadn’t returned. But that’s it. I work alone. Good luck on your adventures.” He turned away.
Stevie paused, ready to throw back a quick retort, but then realized that it would get them nowhere. “So I suppose you have the message with Ezra 7:21 all figured out?”
His head snapped around, his eyes wide. “You saw that on my desk.” She could see a flash of anger, but then it passed. “Pretty good. I would have done the same myself.” He paused. “I do have the first of it figured out, but am at a loss after that. Tell you what,” and Stevie could see he was struggling at this point, “I tell you what that means, and you can share what you know. Then we go our separate ways. OK?”
Stevie paused the length of a heartbeat. She knew perfectly well she didn’t have much he could use. She didn’t know anything…yet. But he might very well be able to help her. “Deal,” she said before he could retract the offer. “So what’s this Ezra 7:21 business? I thought maybe it was the Bible verse, you know, in Ezra, so I looked it up, and it didn’t mean anything to me.”
“And I, even I Artaxerxes the king, do make a decree to all the treasurers which are beyond the river, that whatsoever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, shall require of you, it be done speedily,” Ezra quoted.
Stevie gaped at him. “Wow, I’m impressed. Or are you reading that?” She peered discreetly at the Bible on his lap. It was open to Romans. Nope. Pretty impressive.
Ezra shook his head. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the verse itself really.”
“Then why leave it as part of the message? Is it a time? Were you supposed to meet her at whatever Almaga is? I considered that, too, but thought it was too obvious.”
“No, that’s not it,” Ezra said, clearly wishing she’d shut up so he could explain. He seemed mighty anxious to get her out of his hair. “It just so happens that Ezra 7:21 has all the letters of the alphabet in it except for the letter ‘J’.”
Stevie blinked at him. “How do you know that.”
Ezra waved her question aside impatiently. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is, what the letter ‘J’ means.”
“I don’t know?” Stevie said, hoping that if she made it sound like a question he’d tell her.
He stared at her, a look of agitation coming over his face.
His words came out slowly. “The deal was, I tell you what I know and you tell me the rest. Or at least as much as you have so far. So what is it?” He stared at her, waiting for an answer.
Stevie’s face grew red. “I…I really don’t know.” She ducked her head, embarrassed to look him in the face. This wasn’t going so well.
Ezra sighed, bit his lip, and spoke in measured tones that were an obvious attempt to keep from shouting.
“Look, I see this happen with witnesses on occasion. You know more than you think you do. You’re just nervous. Close your eyes. Concentrate. Think about the words. Try to tie the letter J with Almaga. You can do it.”
Stevie looked up and glared at him. Did he have to be such a bully? She felt stupid. What was she doing here anyway? What did she know about all this stuff? “Look, I don’t know, okay? In fact, I haven’t got the vaguest idea. But here,” she swung her purse around and began rummaging in the depths for a piece of paper and a pen. She partially drew out a folded sheet of paper that didn’t look at all familiar. She frowned at it and suddenly remembered. She’d picked it up at Maddie’s apartment and in the craziness that followed, she’d completely forgotten about it.
She hesitated. She should show it to him. Shouldn’t she? If they were trading information, this was her chance. She could produce it with a flourish. But what if it was nothing? What if it was Maddie’s grocery list? Or what if it was the key to everything? She shoved it back into her purse and found a small notebook. Ripping out a sheet of paper, she wrote down her name and cell number.
“Here,” she slapped it down on the blanket covering him and rose to her feet. “That’s how to reach me if you want to, I don’t know, bounce possibilities off someone or something. I have your number. If I come up with anything I’ll call you.”
“Okay,” he said, apparently just moments from losing his cool. “You don’t know anything, or at least you’re not willing to share. Go and think about it if you want. Or not. But before you go, do one thing—one little thing for me. Please.” He paused and then held his bandaged hands up in front of her.
“Cut these things off of me.”