In the next few days, we’ll be putting the finishing touches on the cover of Soul Survivor, my latest Christian suspense novel. I’m really excited about it, especially since it combines characters from two of my favorite series, The Champion Series, and The Foundation Series. Here’s another look at it and some of the people you will meet when it comes out:
Chapter 3: Meeting at Rorikstead
The text had said simply, Inn at Rorikstead, tonight. It hadn’t needed to say any more. Josh knew the situation. He knew that, despite apparent victories against the Universal Corporation four years ago, the Heretics still had enemies everywhere. And while he and Taupe were trying to do God’s bidding in Texas of all places, his sister and brother-in-law still remained in Washington, D.C.
He logged into Elder Scrolls Online at the usual time and quickly made his way across the digital landscape to the small inn in the village of Rorikstead. He and Ruth had come upon this way of communicating soon after the Heretics had broken up.
The small village consisted of three stone buildings with thatched roofs and wooden decks. A rough stone pathway led up to the inn, the only public building in the village. Josh’s avatar was the tall, blonde-haired Nord warrior Habermas, complete with full, ebony armor. He entered the front door of the inn and found a cat-like Khajit archer sitting at the table, waiting for him. It was Ruth, here going by the name Katara. The only other character in the room was the NPC innkeeper on the far end of the large room, run by the game itself.
“Hey,” Josh said via direct message.
“Hey yourself,” Ruth responded, not getting up. “How are you doing?”
“Oh, you know,” he said. “Getting by.”
“How’s the bookstore?”
“Mine for at least another week or two,” he said. “I’m two months behind on the rent, and they’ve been pretty lenient. But I know that the clock is ticking. I’m hoping that with school starting up again I can get more business.”
Ruth’s avatar nodded. “Well, just remember that you’re not there to sell books. God sent you there for other reasons.”
Josh texted a sigh.
“What?” Ruth asked. “Are you losing faith?”
Josh’s avatar shrugged. “Sometimes, I guess. I mean, it was a lot easier when we had Harris Borden as a leader, and we had the Universal Corporation as a known enemy. Now we’re out there supposedly fighting, but fighting who exactly? You say God brought me to Austin? I guess I’m just looking for something to tell me that’s really the case. So far, all I’ve done is sell books. And really very few of those.”
“Look,” Ruth said. “You’ve been there six months so far. God has His own timetable. Something will happen soon. I know it. I’m just sorry we have to meet this way. I wish….”
Ruth hesitated. “More than anything, I wish I could give you a hug.” Ruth/Katara shook her head. “But Douglas is right. We have to keep away from each other—no contact—until after the confirmation hearings.”
“How’s that going?”
“You haven’t been watching?”
“Do you realize how boring C-Span is? I tried when it first started, but I fell asleep.”
“Well, I suspect it won’t be boring tomorrow morning. I’m in front of the Senate panel. Douglas thinks they’ll be asking me about my relationship to those terrorists called the Heretics.”
“Oh, those guys,” Josh said. He laughed. “Funny how they still call us terrorists when it suits them.” He paused. “Okay, sis, I’ll watch tomorrow. Better yet, I’ll be sending my prayers up for you.”
“I’d appreciate that,” she said. “I feel like Senator Bemis has a personal vendetta against me.”
“And the Foundation?” Josh asked.
“Shut down for now,” Ruth said. “We can’t afford to have any money flowing anywhere suspicious.”
Josh nodded. “Gotcha. Well, we’ll hold down the fort until the hearing is over with.” He paused and added ruefully. “One way or another.”
“How is Taupe doing?” Ruth asked.
“Deep undercover,” Josh answered. “I haven’t talked to her in two weeks. She contacts me when she has something to report. Which, these days, is pretty much nothing.”
“Well, let me know if anything pans out,” Ruth said. “The usual way, of course.”
“I’ll kill you.”
The big man got up from the barroom floor and ripped a leg from one of the broken chairs beside him to use as a club. At six foot eight and over three hundred pounds, for him, just the act of standing up was enough to clear most of the bar. The exception was a young, slender black woman dressed in leather with a mohawk haircut. She stood facing the big man.
“Now Alek, let’s talk this through,” Taupe said, turning her arms out, palms up. “You and I know that you’ve had too much to drink. And we also know what that leads to. You’re a mean drunk. You’re ordinarily a nice guy, a pussycat. Remember all the good times we’ve had?” Her voice came out less confident than she intended as he strode across the floor toward her.
He swung the chair leg at the small woman, who ducked and leaped out of the way just as the leg came down. It smacked a table top, and the glasses and dishes went flying.
“You’re gonna die!” Alek said, his words slurred as he spoke. He turned to swing again at Taupe, but she slid around his leg and back behind him, climbing up his back like a monkey. She planted her foot in the small of his back and reached around his throat with one arm, but he smacked the side of her face with an elbow. It stunned her for a moment.
“Ow,” she said. “That’s going to leave a mark.”
She ignored it and leaned forward to wrap the big man’s neck in a chokehold. He stood in the middle of the bar, teetering like a giant sequoia in the process of being cut down, with a woman wrapped around his neck, frantically trying to make that happen. And suddenly it did.
Taupe hung on for dear life as Alek collapsed to the floor, with her arm still wrapped around his neck in a chokehold. They crashed into a table, which broke into pieces.
A moment later, the big man was asleep on the floor, and Taupe was unwinding herself from him. The people began to filter back into the barroom slowly.
“Not sure this job is worth what I’m getting paid,” Taupe said, wiping the blood from her nose.
Josh logged out of Elder Scrolls Online and looked around the empty bookstore. It was old and rustic, like most mom and pop bookstores. He had to admit that the idea of a brick-and-mortar bookstore was antiquated in this day and age, and his lack of customers confirmed that in his mind. But he had a strong attraction to the feel of a physical bookstore, a place where you could go and hold actual books, smell the ink and paper, and sit and browse if you were so inclined.
He’d been called to Austin, and so he’d come. What he did here was up to him. From the cash left over after the Heretics evacuated their compound in Los Angeles four years ago, he had invested in what seemed like his only choice. And the location seemed logical as well. His bookstore, not-so-cleverly named Josh’s Books, faced Guadalupe Street, the main street on the western border of the university. With more than 50,000 students on campus, Josh believed he had struck on a reliable source of income. In addition, books gave him an avenue to talk to students who might be looking for God.
What he found was that most students were more interested in their smartphones than books; those who were interested in books were focused on topics like the occult, entertainment, making money, or sex, and that most students didn’t seem to have any money for books. The experiment wasn’t a total failure, however. At least once a day he had stimulating conversations with students, faculty, or staff on philosophy, although any effort by him to use scripture as evidence was quickly shot down.
Since he didn’t really have a life beyond the bookstore, he kept it open long hours and even slept in his office in the back. In the past six months, he had made friends with many homeless people in the area, as well as a dozen local merchants. Wednesday night was the one night when he closed shop early so that he and a few friends could study the Bible together, although he left the front door unlocked in hopes that others would join them.
Most of the books he offered had come with the space that he had taken over, which had actually been a bookstore before him. It had been run by an old woman who decided to sell when her husband, the original owner, had died. Josh had gone through his collection and taken out books that he didn’t feel comfortable selling, such as a section on erotica and another on the occult. He later discovered that those two sections were the most popular, and when he told customers that he no longer had those kinds of books, many buyers faded away.
He was just about ready to close up his shop for the evening when he saw a familiar face coming down the sidewalk toward the front door. It was Edward Brooks, the owner of the building, and Josh knew what he wanted. He stood and watched as the older man pushed through the glass door and into the bookstore.
“Evening, Edward,” Josh said. “Care for some coffee?”
“No thanks, Josh,” Edward said. “No offense, but your coffee stinks.”
Josh shrugged. “No harm in offering.”
Edward sighed. “Sorry to have to do this, but you have ’til the end of the month to get up-to-date on your rent. If not, you’ll be out.”
Josh nodded. “I understand. It’s been rough around here, but I understand.”
Edward held up his hands. “Wish it were different. I like you, Josh. I really do. You just need some business.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Two weeks, Josh.” Edward looked squarely into Josh’s eyes.
“I’ll do my best.”
Josh watched him walk back out the doorway and down the street.
Fifteen minutes later, Josh was dumping the trash—what little there was—in the dumpster in the alley behind the bookstore. It was late, and the alley was lit by a single light bulb above the doorway that Josh came out of. He dropped the last bag of trash into the dumpster, closed the side lid, and turned to go back inside.
The silhouette of a woman standing in the darkness caught him off guard.
“Taupe,” he gasped. “Do you really have to do that? It creeps the heck out of me!”
Taupe stepped forward. The young black woman with the mohawk haircut and the multiple face piercings was dressed in leather. Josh saw that she had a dark bruise on the side of her face and her lower lip was puffy.
“Been having fun again, I see,” Josh said.
Taupe nodded. “Been doing my job. The people I hang out with won’t respect you unless you mix it up once in a while.”
“Are you all right?”
Taupe raised a hand to her mouth. “I think I may have broken a tooth. Might have to make a trip to the dentist. But I’m a lot better than the other guy. Anyway, I apologize for not being around for the past two weeks.”
“That’s all right,” Josh said. “I figured you were busy.”
“I was,” Taupe said. “Josh, something’s happening.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” Taupe said. “Just a feeling more than anything. There’s a buzz at the bar that I haven’t heard before. I get the feeling that there’s new money in town, and that they are recruiting some bad people. I’ve seen more hundred-dollar bills than usual. Like I said, it’s more a feeling than anything else.”
“Do you think your cover is intact?” Josh asked. “Are you safe?”
Taupe nodded. “Pretty sure. Guys still hit on me at the usual rate. I still get in a fight a couple of times a week.”
Josh raised an eyebrow. “Boy, if Ruth could hear how her protégé is spending her time.”
“It needed to be done,” Taupe said.
Josh nodded. “You’re right, of course.” He sighed. “Okay, well, the usual rules apply. Keep me informed. Maintain your cover. And don’t take risks. We need you to be safe more than anything. Understand?”
Taupe nodded. “Gotcha. Look, Josh. I don’t know where all this is headed. But I really think it’ll happen soon. Whatever it is.”
Josh exhaled. “Well, maybe that’s good. We’ll get it over with. I’ll get a message off to Ruth and see if we can get some support. Although she hasn’t been able to help much so far.”
“If this thing goes south fast, we’ll need all the help we can get,” Taupe said.
Whatever this thing is, Josh thought.
As was his custom, Josh opened the bookstore at exactly 9:00 the next morning. There were two customers waiting. One was Stevie, a homeless vet who regularly asked to use the restroom to wash up in the morning, and Josh let him. Stevie was good about not leaving a mess. The other was a middle-aged woman Josh recognized who had been browsing a few days before. He welcomed them both in the same way.
While he was getting set up, he went ahead and switched on the small TV that stood near the cash register. He switched it over to C-Span and saw that the hearing was getting ready to start.
The screen identified Senator Albert Bemis of New York as being the chair of the panel that was sitting on one side. The camera then switched to show someone who looked very familiar to him: his sister, Ruth, married to Douglas Washington, former U.S. representative from Nevada.
“Mrs. Washington, thank you for joining us today,” Senator Bemis said. “It’s not completely unusual for a candidate’s wife to be called into a Senate hearing, especially if she has herself been under public scrutiny. We’d like to talk about that today, especially since your husband is under consideration as the next Attorney General of the United States.”
“I understand,” Ruth said.
“Now, I’d like to remind you that you are under oath, and everything you say can be held against you in a court of law, under penalty of perjury. Let’s start out with just some clarification. First, what was the name you were born with?”
Ruth hesitated. “The person I was as a child and the person I am now are not the same,” she said. “I had my name legally changed.”
“Wasn’t your name Melanie Berkowitz?” Senator Bemis asked. “And isn’t that the same Melanie Berkowitz who was arrested several times for drug infractions, as well as multiple counts of prostitution before you were eighteen?”
Josh bit his lip as he watched. “That wasn’t totally unexpected.”
“I don’t know how you got access to those records, sir,” Ruth said. “Those records were expunged.”
“Answer the question, Mrs. Washington.”
She hesitated, and Josh could see that she was having a hard time keeping her temper under control as she was being interrogated. He began to whisper a prayer.
“Come on, Ruth,” Josh said to the TV. “Keep it together. It’s going to be a long afternoon.”
“My name was, indeed, Melanie Berkowitz,” Ruth said. “If I broke any laws under that name, they would be public record. I don’t know where you got the information that you have, but according to the State of Washington, what you’re talking about never happened.”
“And yet I have these records in front of me, don’t I?” Senator Bemis said. “Tell me, what did your husband do for the past four years?”
“He was appointed by the president as director of a special taskforce on corruption in government.”
“In fact, he was assistant attorney general,” Senator Bemis said. “But somehow the president was able to circumvent the confirmation process by appointing him to this special taskforce rather than going through proper channels.” He frowned at Ruth. “Do you approve of your husband’s job of hunting down the president’s political enemies in Washington?”
“I love my husband,” Ruth said.
“I’m sure you do, Mrs. Washington,” Senator Bemis said. “But there are many, many senators, representatives, governors, and cabinet members who do not. How does it make you feel to be the wife of the president’s hatchet man?”
“Is that your question, sir?” Ruth asked, her voice rising. “I mean, are you trying to find out information, or are you just trying to get me frustrated? Because I’ve been frustrated before, and I’ve learned to deal with a lot more than some senator asking if my husband embarrasses me. And for the record, the answer is no.”
“No?” Senator Bemis asked. “No to what?”
“No, I’m not embarrassed by what my husband does. And no, he’s not the president’s hatchet man.”
Josh looked on and nodded in agreement. “Good job, Ruth.”
“Isn’t it true that your husband is obsessed with a secret society called The Brotherhood of the Altar? Something about them worshipping Satan and putting money into corporations like the now-insolvent Universal Corporation?”
“I’m sure that his job with the taskforce made him look at many organizations. The Brotherhood might have been one of them.”
“Might have been? Might have been?” Senator Bemis reached up and put two fingers under the collar of his white shirt. Josh could see that his face was turning red.
“Mrs. Washington, what is your connection to the Hollis Foundation?”
“I’m chair of their operating committee,” Ruth said.
“And what is the net worth of the Hollis Foundation?”
“As of the beginning of this year, we were just at $851 million.”
“Mrs. Washington, did you approve the transfer of funds to The Children of God Church,” he looked down at papers in front of him, “in excess of $13.7 million over several years?”
Ruth paused, then nodded. “Most likely. They do a lot of good work throughout the country. They help a lot of people.”
“Did you also purchase a Lear jet for thirty million dollars and a telecommunications satellite for ninety-three million? And did you know that all of these were used in terrorist activities?”
Ruth twisted her face, trying hard not to laugh. Josh went ahead and laughed. There was that word again. Terrorist.
“I don’t know where you get your information, sir,” Ruth said. “The jet was a purchase that we turned around and sold for a profit in six months. The telecommunications satellite was intended to be the same kind of situation, but something went wrong with the electronics right after we purchased it and we lost contact with it.”
“It was shot down by the NSA,” Bemis said. “Because it was being used for terrorist purposes.”
“That’s news to me,” Ruth said. “As far as I know, it just stopped working. We wrote it off as bad electronics.”
“Mrs. Washington, I will get down to brass tacks,” Senator Bemis said, leaning over his microphone. “What is your relationship—what is you and your husband’s relationship—to the terrorist group known as the Heretics?”
Josh held his breath and watched for Ruth’s response. As he stood there, the woman who had come in walked up to the cash register with a stack of books. Josh ignored her, staring at the screen.
“I’m ready,” the customer said.
“Just a second,” Josh hissed back at her, still staring at his sister.
Ruth blinked and kept a deadpan face in front of the senator. Finally, she spoke.
“Senator, on my honor as a Christian, I am unaware of any terrorist organization known as the Heretics.”
“You know exactly what I mean!” the senator screamed at her.
Senator Josephine Harrington, the woman sitting next to him, leaned into her microphone and motioned for Senator Bemis’ mic to be turned off.
“I think we should take a thirty-minute break,” she said.
Josh stared at Ruth, who sat at her table without moving. It was going to be a long afternoon.
“About these books?” the woman in the bookstore finally said.
“Yes, of course.” He turned to help her.