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FIELD OF BLOOD
By ERIC WILSON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Eric Wilson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSummer 1989&Mdash;Cuvin, Romania
Gina's dog gave a sharp yip, rose from the front step of the whitewashed cottage, and hobbled forward on the three legs with which he'd been born. He sniffed the hot afternoon air and growled, his copper-colored fur rising like bristles on his back.
"Hush, Treia," Gina said. "It's only me."
He met her at the step and set about investigating her shoes, her shins.
"It's okay. That smell, it's just Teodor." She set down a sack of red potatoes and patted her dog's head. "Look what he got me."
Treia's attention turned to her hand, where the juice of fresh blackberries stained a brown paper bundle. He caught the first offering from her fingertips and chased the second across the stone pathway.
"And all it cost me was a kiss," Gina whispered.
A kiss that had tasted like goat's milk on Teo's lips, like cut grass. Not unpleasant. Not at all. The flutters in her tummy had told her she was becoming an adult, and it was true that she would be turning twelve in a matter of hours. A woman, by Jewish standards.
"Gina," her mother called from inside. "Bring the sack here. How am I to make ciorba without potatoes?"
"Why the delay? I hope you weren't talking to that boy again."
Gina pushed the bundle into the pocket of her handmade dress, then carried her burden into the kitchen area where Nicoleta was bent over the oven. Scents of parsley and celery root laced the air. Lunch would be stuffed cabbage and vegetable soup.
"Set it down."
She obeyed. Took a moment to scratch at a bite below her ear.
"I can't do it all," her mother said. "You must shoulder your responsibilities, you know this?"
"You'd think you were from Bucharest or Timisoara, a regular city girl, spoiled and soft." Her mother dumped potatoes beside a mound of sliced carrots. "Take a look at me. I travel once a week to study at the university, but you certainly don't see me neglecting my duties. Time to grow up, you hear?"
The words stung. Though she admired her mother's commitment to education, that grasping for knowledge seemed to have weakened her hold on tenderness.
Locked in this young girl's body, Gina was ready to break free, to pursue her own dreams. She loved the village children, adored their innocent, grubby faces, and her heart yearned to be of some use in an orphange.
Not that she had much to offer.
But weren't there constant cries for workers at the centers—in nearby Arad, in Cluj, even as far away as Constanta on the Black sea? stories circulated about urine-soaked mattresses in steel cribs, babies with bedsores, and abuses best left unnamed.
Gina scratched again at her neck.
"What is that?"
Nicoleta yanked her hand away. "A mosquito bite? I told you to use the ointment before going out."
When her mother pulled at her dress collar to sniff her skin, Gina giggled at the touch. She pulled away, and her mother's palm came flying across her cheek.
"It's no laughing matter, Regina. We're susceptible. Do you wish to die, babbling incoherently while some blood disorder turns your brains to mush? As God's servants we must be ever vigilant, or we'll be overtaken by evil."
"It was a mistake. I'm sorry."
"Sometimes I wonder. You're my angel, yes, but a silly girl."
"You know tomorrow I'll be turning—"
"It means nothing. Who has time for such frivolity? Making yourself useful will take you much further in life. Are you listening? There. If it's a gift you're after, I've just given you one."
Gina thought of goat's milk and kisses and said nothing.
"Now tell me," Nicoleta pressed. "Did you kill the creature? That's the only way to avoid the disorder. It robs the beast of its power over you."
"Stop your quivering. The mosquito, of course."
"Didn't you tell me those were only wives' tales? The talk of gypsies and—"
"Honesty, child. Shush your mouth."
Gina had witnessed this cycle before, from religious hysteria to cold logic to hysteria again. There were so many taboos in this home, things that went unsaid. Perhaps university was her mother's way of fighting off years of misplaced guilt and superstition.
"Quick now," Nicoleta said. "Get me the knife. You know which one."
Gina moved from the kitchen to a small sweltering alcove, where tight window mesh kept out the bugs. Though most Cuvin residents went without such screens and looked upon this household with distrust, she didn't question her mother's eccentricities. She could only hope one day to acquire some of her intelligence and good looks.
Her fingers pushed beneath Nicoleta's bed mat and found the black walnut box with the bronze clasp. The hinged box gave a melodic chime, spreading into a chessboard of blonde and ebony squares. On the underside, glistening chess pieces—piese de sah—waited in red-felt niches for their deployment.
The set's simple elegance sparked her creativity. Honor and warfare. The royal game. Even her name ...
In Romanian, Regina meant "queen."
"Child, I told you to be quick."
Gina peeled back the felt and took hold of a concealed dagger, a crude and ancient-looking weapon. This wasn't the first time she would go under its blade to be cleansed of infection. Tonight, as on previous occasions, she would find a way to hide the scar.
She hurried into the kitchen.
"Whatever took you so long? Did you find it?"
"Right here." She surrendered the knife, then squatted on the floor and tilted her head. "I'm ready, Mamica. I promise not to flinch."
He was a Collector of souls. An inky smear in the ether. Borne along by shadows, he and the others had waited on this field's fringes, longing to access the caverns hidden beneath the hard soil, hoping to inhabit the dead.
Millennia had passed. For centuries, this slope had been silent.
Would today be their day?
The Akeldama, as it was called in Aramaic, was no ordinary place. here, blood had been spilled. Here, on the south edge of Mount zion, the Man from Kerioth had taken his own life.
Judas. That was his name in the Christian Bible.
He alone, in all of history, had played host to the Master Collector, and it was this potent infusion, this bitter life force, which had seeped down into tombs full of age-old bones.
The Collector trained his attention again on the work crew now populating the Valley of Hinnom. He wondered if these humans, with their modern machines, might crack open the earth for him and provide entry to the necropolis.
As a cluster leader, he thought of summoning the others, but he'd done that too many times before. Premature hope led to stillborn desire, and it only poisoned them against him.
First, he would take a closer look. Perhaps, cause a distraction.
Mortal minds were so easily turned.
The Collector released his fragile hold on a pitted tree trunk and slipped toward the workers and their heavy machinery.
* * *
Lars Marka brought down the bulldozer's jaws and watched them chew into stubborn Jerusalemite rock. He enjoyed this job. With a foreign work permit, he was making his own money for once, saving for the next leg of his travels while trying to stay one step ahead of his father.
Today was hotter than usual. The operator's cabin had become a sauna, wringing sweat from his pores, and he was about to request a break, when echoes of the past filled his head: You're lazy, son. What else do you want me to say? I offer you a secure job, and you refuse me. he decided to push through the discomfort.
To prove his father wrong.
Earlier in the year, he had fled the man's domineering presence and, in the grand tradition of his Norwegian forebears, crisscrossed Europe on his way to warmer climates. No doubt his father had already sent out a search team formed from his own security personnel. A prodigal son was an embarrassment not to be tolerated, and—
Shuddering metal shook Lars from his thoughts. The black control knob vibrated from his grip, and the bulldozer screeched forward so abruptly that chips of stone exploded against the Plexiglass, followed by billows of dust. The machine plowed ahead another meter before he could bring it to a grinding halt.
He peered through the cabin's scratched panels. Had anyone seen his mistake? he needed this job if he was going to keep hiding out in Israel.
A voice, from his right.
"What's wrong with you?" The foreman hopped onto the bulldozer and yanked open the door. "Another late night at the bar? Or were you chatting up that French clerk at the youth hostel?"
"No. No, sir. There's this one girl, back in Oslo."
"Kid, you listen to me. Women'll steal your heart and then your soul. Trouble, every last one. Now, pull your head together or I'll relieve you of your duties."
"Sorry," Lars said. "The machine just got away from me for a second."
"Let's hope you haven't destroyed anything."
Lars's gaze followed the man's outstretched finger. Where the bulldozer had bitten into the slope, the detritus of the years had fallen away to reveal a square opening hewn by human hands. Though such findings were not uncommon on the Old City's outskirts, this gave coworkers in dusty hard hats an excuse to gather and gawk, poking at the rubble with shovels.
"Leave it alone," the foreman barked at them. "Step back."
"Just an accident," Lars said.
"Stop your mumbling."
The foreman snatched the flashlight from behind the cabin seat and dropped to the ground. Lars climbed down to join the others. Together, they watched their boss stretch out in the dirt and stab a light into the unknown.
* * *
The Akeldama was open for the first time in eons.
The Collector breezed unseen past the work crew, relishing this momentous event as he slid through the opening. To think that mankind— at long last—had come up with an apparatus capable of peeling away layers of rock.
And the one at the controls had been so susceptible. Weren't they all?
Most Collectors had learned through the ages to manipulate human emotion and will. A whisper of insecurity or temptation. A tender spot in the memory. Yes, preying on weakness was as easy as sifting larvae from sacks of rice.
A shape solidified before him. He floated toward it, tried to identify it, but this was no easy task.
Minus tangible form, he had only the crudest use of the five senses. To him, the cave's coolness was imperceptible. The object-strewn floor was a monochromatic landscape at best. He could detect only the barest whiffs of jasmine and diesel fumes from outside, mixed with these stale odors of death, and the workers' voices were little more than atmospheric vibrations that buffeted his shimmery frame.
This, he admitted, was his curse.
As a result of the Master Collector's defiance, Collectors everywhere had been stripped of the ability to indulge their physical faculties. They'd been left to wander, subjected to this planet's wretchedness. Hollow and lifeless, yet alive, they were parasites. Always on the prowl. Seeking habitations through which they might find perverse and vicarious pleasure.
Man. Woman. Beast ... Any host with a beating heart would do. Or, in the case of the Akeldama, any skeleton sprinkled in blood.
The Collector brushed over the shape and recognized it now as an ossuary, a repository for the dead. Ages ago, through previous hosts, he had explored Gentile and Egyptian tombs where organs and fluids had been removed from the deceased. Here, he sensed an ambient clarity instead. The Jewish practice of leaving the blood in the corpse meant he would soon be able to smell—almost taste—the wispy afterglow of life and human recollections.
He counted three burial caves, each with adjoining chambers, and a total of forty stone boxes. Would there ever be more powerful revenants than those buried in this unholy ground? Fused with the Man from Kerioth, the Master Collector had allowed a portion of himself to stain this soil deep red; and all around, these bones were waiting to be knit back together by his dark ambition.
The hovering Collector decided it was time to summon his cluster.
* * *
A worker knelt beside the hole. "Anything in there?"
"Hard to tell." The foreman grunted and slithered further into the recess, leaving only feet visible. "Some old cooking pots and vases. I see containers that could be coffins."
"Big enough to hold an adult?"
"A child, maybe." The man scooted back and sat up. "They might be ossuaries, which would mean they're very old."
"Great." The worker rolled granite-colored eyes. "Another history lesson."
"You're a foreigner, Thiago. I don't expect you to appreciate this."
"I'm a Brazilian, sir, but a Jew. I respect my roots."
"In that case, you'll find it interesting to know that it was our ancestors' custom to dig up bodies after they'd been a year in the grave, then to rebury the remains in sealed containers. Usually an ossuary was no bigger than the dead person's longest bone ... the femur."
Thiago muttered an off-color remark, which earned a censoring look from his boss and a round of raucous laughter from the crew.
"Lars, come here." The foreman offered the flashlight from his sitting position. "you found it, so why don't you have yourself a look?"
Accepting this token of forgiveness, Lars lowered himself to the ground. He ignored his coworkers' gibes and ducked his head into the opening. Beyond the cone of white light, he saw only blackness.
He worked himself forward and felt the entryway dip, feeding into a square chamber cut from granite. He noted arched niches built into the walls, limestone boxes, relics, and skeletal remains. On the ceiling, redblack stains gave the impression that blood had seeped down through the ages from above—a possibility, considering the generations that had built here upon previous ones.
Hairs lifted along Lars's arms. This place was creepy, murmuring to him in sybaritic tones. His thoughts jumped to the mythological sirens who'd beckoned men toward their dooms, and he felt both fear and desire tingle through his loins.
He popped back into daylight. Took a large gulp of air. "What do you think?"
"It's amazing," he told his boss. "Mind if I go in all the way?"
"Not gonna happen, kid. First, we notify the IAA."
Based near herod's Gate, the Israel Antiquities Authority was zealous about preserving the land's history, and Lars knew construction would be postponed until archaeologists could study and catalog the cavern's contents.
Thiago spoke up. "so, boss, does this mean our workday's over?"
"Looks that way."
The crew roared their approval.
"Go home," the foreman said to the group. "Go on, get out of here, and for your families' sakes take good, long showers. You stink, every last one of you."
"You." Thiago pulled Lars aside. "you earned us some time off. Come along, and I'll buy you all the Maccabee beer you can drink."
Lars Marka was hero for a day. If only his father could see him now.
Grinning, he said, "sounds good."
"Of course it does, of course." his coworker gave a nod and a wink. "And while we're at it, maybe you and me, we can talk."
"A friend of mine, he owns a bar just a few blocks away. We'll talk there."
* * *
In the moonlight, the lead Collector watched his cluster gather round. He counted eighteen, including himself. Ephemeral wisps. Mere hints of the magnificent creatures they had once been.
"How was it opened?" one wanted to know, her words feathery reverberations in the night. "Are we certain the pact was upheld?"
"Rest assured, a human was responsible. A kid named Lars Marka."
"And his Power of Choice was never violated?"
"Free will, ever at his disposal," the leader said. "Oh, I'll take credit for distracting the young man—fatherly accusations and a measure of self-pity—but the results lie squarely on his shoulders. For us, this means the effects of the separation end tonight."
The boisterous cheers of those present did little more than stir a breeze in the olive branches.
Excerpted from FIELD OF BLOOD by ERIC WILSON Copyright © 2008 by Eric Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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