Latter-Day Cipher: A Novel

Latter-Day Cipher: A Novel

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by Latayne Scott

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When rebellious Utah socialite Kirsten Young is found murdered in Provo Canyon with strange markings carved into her flesh and a note written in a 19th Century code, questions arise about the old laws of the Mormon Church. Journalist Selonnah Zee is assigned the story, which quickly takes on a life of its own. Even before the first murder is solved, several

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When rebellious Utah socialite Kirsten Young is found murdered in Provo Canyon with strange markings carved into her flesh and a note written in a 19th Century code, questions arise about the old laws of the Mormon Church. Journalist Selonnah Zee is assigned the story, which quickly takes on a life of its own. Even before the first murder is solved, several more victims appear, each one more mysterious than the last. Meanwhile, Sedonnah is distracted by her mother's onset of Alzheimer's and her sudden attraction to the mysterious Salt Lake City police chief who is investigating the murder.

Adding to a slew of other distractions, Selonnah’s cousin, Roger, has recently converted and is now a public spokesperson for the Mormon faith. But paradoxically, Roger's wife, Eliza, is struggling to hold onto the Mormon beliefs of her childhood. If something is really from God, she wonders, why does it need to be constantly revised? Could the murderer be asking the same questions? And most importantly, will they be able to stop him before he commits his biggest crime, taking out a Mormon landmark and dozens of sightseers?

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Moody Publishers
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Latter-Day Cipher

By Latayne C. Scott, Diane Eble

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2009 Latayne C. Scott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57567-330-1


THERE ON THE DAMP pine needles, Kirsten Young lay on her back, a serene Ophelia in her dusky pond of blood. The dark irises of her bloodshot eyes stared unseeing into the branches above her. The sun had burst through the clouds after the sudden downpour and now blazed above the canopy of conifers and aspens in Provo Canyon. Deep in its recesses, the light filtered down in vertical sheets of champagne dust that played across the body.

Her skin, once the faintest of olive, now was pale as churned cream, mottled in the dark pooling of what everyone called her hot Italian blood. An angry oval bruise, dark as a plum, marked the side of her forehead.

The slit in her throat cut deep. Her left arm lay loosely at her side, still bearing at the wrist the friction marks from the plastic rope that had bound her. Her right arm crossed her chest, with the elbow supported by a rock underneath the triceps so the arm stayed in place. Her fingers curled slightly around her own shoulder, as if she gave herself a final hug in death. The tip of her thumb touched, delicately, the edge of the open wound under her left ear.

The scene on the forest floor was meant to set things aright.

No, no, she wasn't Ophelia at all, he thought. She was Eve, temptress and sinner cast from the garden of Utah, wearing a hasty apron of cottonwood leaves heaped around and across her plump belly, from just below the navel to mid-thigh. Tiny rivulets of blood snaked down through the leaves.

The other four wounds, the little ones, were postmortem, made after she'd already bled out.

On the right side of her chest, incised with surgical precision, the first cut penetrated deep, a backward L. It depicted a carpenter's square: the straightedge, true-maker, indispensable for right angles. The desired angularity could not, alas, be achieved on the soft roundness of this still-warm flesh.

Nor could the second, the compass. On the left side, a chevron gaped open with edges that wanted to lose their definition, a tiny V on this day of defeats and victories.

A third inch-long slit carefully cut into the muscle just above the knee that would never again bow.

A final slit traversed her stomach just above the navel, a sign of nourishment for a body that would never again eat; of health for one who would only decay.

They were all symbols only the initiated would understand.

But below her navel mark, Kirsten harbored her own tiny secret, one that held the seed of her killer's downfall, her own unwitting fleshly vengeance.

In the sheeting light, her murderer stood above her like the angel guarding Eden, the knife-sword flashing this way and that in his gloved hand. He had brought along a plain white sheet he'd bought at a garage sale and kept stored in a plastic bag. But he changed his mind about putting it over her. She was beyond the veil now.

His shoulders sagged beneath the once-white jumpsuit. The leaves embroidered on the green cloth apron he wore were speckled as a measles plant. The X-Acto knife lay at his feet and he picked it up and threw it and the sheet into the stream. Then he laid the note carefully on the ground, its edge secured by a rock.

The white cap still contained his close-cropped hair but it had lost its starched definition. It, too, sagged as he backed away from Kirsten, brushing over with a fallen pine branch the near-invisible footprints they both had made when they came to this, his sacred grove.

His breathing was heavy as he recited. They'd said it was "the pure Adamic language" he'd learned that first time, at age nineteen, scared half to death by all the temple vows and disembodied voices behind the veils:

"Pay lay ale. Pay lay ale. Pay lay ale."

He swallowed hard.

"Oh Lord, hear the words of my mouth."


THE MAN WHO discovered Kirsten Young, the one everyone thought was the first murder victim, found her quite by chance: He nearly tripped over the body after stumbling through the underbrush seeking a secluded place to relieve himself.

Terrance Jensen, Dr. Jensen to his students but Terry to his family, jogged every day now, after his doctor told him that the stress of holding too much inside was going to kill him. Jensen had squelched a retort—how would you like the faith of 12.8 million followers on your shoulders, he'd wanted to ask—and thanked the doctor meekly for the free pedometer.

Always one to take such a warning from an authority figure most literally, Jensen dutifully took up running to reduce his thickening waist and his stress level, and found that as his stamina increased, so did his enjoyment. But reticent by nature, he would drive miles from his off-campus home to the new trails in the mountains northeast of Provo to run in solitude, this place where he could jog and talk to himself without anyone commenting.

Later, he wondered if his secret sin of drinking a cola drink—forbidden on the Brigham Young University campus— had been what had made his bladder so urgent that he'd had to veer off the rain-slicked path. On other runs he'd occasionally encountered other hikers and runners, so he had to be careful. When he caught sight of what could have been a police car on the distant winding road, he hid even from that.

His mind tangled into the greatest dilemma of his life. With what elegance of speech and imagination, he wondered, can you extract fifteen words out of one Egyptian hieroglyphic, fifteen words that have nothing to do with the hieroglyphic itself. Mnemonics? He snorted. Even he couldn't believe that. And how do you sell such a translation technique for scripture to an increasingly literate group, with access to the Internet? Everyone was depending on him, the Church's foremost Egyptologist, to hold the line, to keep saying that these ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics could be finessed into saying what they did not say.

He was still panting as he found a good spot, his sinuses aching and his blood chanting in his ears.

Then he saw her.

He didn't dare come near—the woman was obviously dead. But the folded piece of paper under the rock—surely, he thought, he could look at that and put it back before anyone could get here. No harm would be done. He hesitated and dialed 911, only mildly surprised when the dispatcher recognized his name and took down the facts as he dispassionately related them: female, certainly dead, trail location; and yes, he'd wait.

Jensen looked around for a stick but thought better of leaving fingerprints, so he took his water bottle out of his fanny pack and used it to push the rock off the piece of paper. On the outside was written in a small, neat hand the words "THE SECOND PROOF." Using his car keys, he coaxed the edges apart and unfolded it. It was written in a code that any student of Mormon history would have recognized at once, but few could read immediately.

But Jensen could grasp it. He read it over twice, the color draining from his pinched face. Then he stepped closer and looked at the dead woman. Anyone who lived in Salt Lake City and watched the news or read a local paper knew Kirsten Young. Any one of the millions of Mormons who wore temple garments under their clothes would know what the cuts on her meant.

And anyone who could read the Deseret Alphabet, taught to schoolchildren in Utah during the 1860s when Brigham Young's word was law, would know the connection between Kirsten Young's pitiful body and the note he held in his hand.

One thing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn't need right now was bad publicity, and Jensen knew that the media would alight soon after the police. Whom to tell about the note? He first resolved to look for the raised ridges of the peculiar neckline of temple garments beneath the uniforms of policemen identifying which were brother Mormons.

But he changed his mind. No. He wouldn't tell anyone. He'd keep the note, at least for a while. He'd be protecting it. He'd be protecting everyone. He put the note into his fanny pack, having squeezed it into the little wallet full of gas receipts and gum wrappers, and walked back to the trail to meet them all.


TOO EARLY FOR lightning bugs but not yet cooled down, the west Tennessee evening held in its breath a promise of more moist, stifling air. A sullen breeze pestered the drooping tomato vines, bringing with it the green smell of their leaves, but no relief to the shaded porch on the east side of the old house with the white siding.

Brushing her dark blonde hair back from her damp forehead, Selonnah Zee stared into her lap at the blue-granite dishpan whose chipped interior held the purple-hull peas that had so stained her fingers. It would be days until she could get the stain out; and no use trying to explain the subtle (and defended-to-the-death) differences between them and field peas and black-eyed peas and such to city folks—why one would stain and another would not when they all looked pretty much the same once cooked. She would scrub and scrub and still need to invent a story about an accident with a printer ink cartridge. Anyone could relate to that.

"Enough snap beans here for a mess too." Her mother's voice startled Selonnah. The bent woman carried another old pan on her hip, this one grey granite, full of green beans. She sat down into the old metal chair with a sudden dismissal of her muscles and began snapping the beans. Each rubbery green tube made soft sounds like young boys popping their knuckles before a brawl.

Selonnah stood and stretched. "I need to go." She'd told her mother, Mary, the same thing several times in the last hour, and she'd said she understood. May-ree. That's how her mother said her first name. She'd told May-ree she had to go. But here they were, beginning the same farewell conversation again as if she'd never spoken the first one.

Selonnah looked at her mother's weathered mudslide of a face, with its rising pout of protest, and wondered if her mother really was so lonely she would so shamelessly, repeatedly ask Selonnah to stay longer. Then Selonnah's best friend, Guilt Everpresent, like a shawl of weight on her shoulders, stopped her.

Her mother murmured. "Darlin', I know, but you fixin' to leave ... don't hardly never see you no more ... just let me get a bag, put these beans and peas in, just hold your horses and I'll be right back...."

Selonnah's cell phone buzzed her side like a wasp in her waistband. "Selonnah here."

It was Selonnah's boss and editor, Deborah Wiley, on the phone, her voice another insistent buzzing. Deborah had little patience with Selonnah, and it showed each time they talked. Selonnah knew she wondered why her reporter had gone all the way through a criminal justice degree—and then just walked away from it to get another degree in journalism so as to then start at the bottom at a struggling metropolitan newspaper. A girl cop who became a reporter didn't make sense to anyone, even to Selonnah.

"Hey, Selonnah. When do you actually fly out to Utah?"

Deborah's voice and words revealed her resentment of the fact that Selonnah was taking the two-week vacation she'd earned after working more than a year at the newspaper, the Memphis Telegraph. No doubt she'd earned her stripes, and Selonnah could dress well and knew which fork was for salad. Yet despite her background in law enforcement, she was assigned pretty-girl stories. Writing for the lifestyles section of a Southern newspaper could mean covering anything from the Junior League to women farmers, now that they'd gotten rid of anything that smelled like a society column. Today it meant architecture.

"Look, they're building a new Mormon temple out in Germantown," Deborah began, referring to the east Memphis area exploding with growth.

"I'm on vacation. Can we talk about this when I get back—what am I saying? I haven't even left. I'm here in Alamo checking on my mom before I fly out tomorrow."

Deborah upped her curtness. "We'll pay you extra. For a big feature you can research while you're in Utah. This new temple is raising a lot of hackles. Very futuristic...."

Nearby, her mother's murmuring became part of the conversation, no matter how hard Selonnah tried to exclude its familiar rhythms. "Inside out and ringside rumpus and holes in the bottom to boot. Plastic bags worthless in the grocery store, worthless here at home, worthless as a paper shirt in a fight. Hellacious."

"... and we want you to do a big piece on the history and architecture of these temples. Kind of give people some background. And people are curious after all the fallout about Mitt Romney and the raid on the polygamists' compound in Texas. Let readers see that the temples in places like D.C. are modernistic too, but see what they all have in common. And why they're so secretive."

Selonnah hesitated.

"We'll reimburse your airfare."

Selonnah stayed silent.

"And any meals when interviewing."

That settled it. Deborah got the details out of the way— word count, areas of emphasis for the features. Selonnah hung up and returned her attention to her mother.

"Mom, anything you want me to tell Roger?"

Roger Zee was Selonnah's cousin, the white sheep of a black sheep family, small-town boy unfleeced by the big city. With good looks and lucky breaks, he had smiled his way from weekend weatherman in Jackson, Tennessee, to high-profile features reporter for CBS, shedding everything extraneous from his drawl to his wife as he went along. When he'd been assigned to cover the Salt Lake City Olympics, all of Crockett County, Tennessee—and especially his hometown, Alamo—claimed him as native son and scion of success. But he'd inexplicably given up his national television career to stay in Utah after the Olympics, marrying a standoffish Native American woman whom nobody in Tennessee could see much in. Then he started teaching at a university.

"Roger." Her mother sighed. "Some folks ain't likely to forget that stunt he pulled last time he come home, going back to the Primitive Baptist Church and offerin' to preach when Brother Hensley was sick."

"Stunt? How was that a stunt?"

"He got up there big as daylight with what ever'body thought was a Bible and said, 'The scriptures say this,' and 'the good book says that,' and 'it reads right here,' and folks sayin' to him, 'ain't nobody could ever preach like you did, wisht you was comin' back here all the time,' and pleased as punch till they found out he's turned Mormon and was teachin' out of that Mormon bible the whole time and ain't nobody knowin' diddlysquat difference, a-tall." Her mother smoothed her hands over her apron and continued on. "Served 'em all right anyways. Footwashers."

"I don't know about all that. That must have happened when I was away at school. And why would it matter anyway, what book he preached out of?" Selonnah lost touch with the Tennessee mind-set when she attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, living there with her father before he had died. Besides, her branch of the family had been more religious observers than practitioners, and theological niceties were a foreign language to her.

"I'm just looking forward to seeing Roger and Eliza and little Maria, and having some downtime," Selonnah said, returning to the subject at hand. "That phone call I just got—" Selonnah stopped at the same puzzled look from her mother she'd seen so often lately. Could Mary have missed what just happened?

Taking a deep breath, Selonnah repeated, "That phone call means that I'll actually get paid for doing a little extra research on the Mormons while I'm at Roger's. He can help me out with things."

Her brother, Frank, lived close by and hovered over their mom. Selonnah knew he would check in daily. Nothing more she could volunteer, really. "And if you need me, you can get me on my cell."

Resigned, her mother handed her a brown market sack filled with triple-tied plastic bags of green beans, greens, butterbeans, and the purple-hulls. Selonnah knew better than to remind her mother she was leaving in the morning. She'd eat all she could before she left for the airport at noon and freeze the rest.


Excerpted from Latter-Day Cipher by Latayne C. Scott, Diane Eble. Copyright © 2009 Latayne C. Scott. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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