Read an Excerpt
Eric Katz poked the ground with his trowel. A clod the size of his fist came away. He tapped it with the side of the trowel. It broke into several chunks. He tapped each of them in turn. They were all just . . . dirt. At a dig, you went through lots of dirt.
Doing it almost in the Temple Mount’s shadow, though, added a kick you couldn’t get anywhere else.
Almost in the shadow . . . Not many shadows here. He was glad for his broad-brimmed floppy hat. Without it, his bald head would have cooked. There were things worse than a sunburned, peeling scalp, but not many.
He swigged from a water bottle. It had been ice-cold when he took it out of the refrigerator this morning. It was still cool—and wet. You had to stay hydrated.
“Heavens to Betsy, Eric, how do you go on like that in this heat?” Barb Taylor asked. She really said things like Heavens to Betsy! She was an evangelical Protestant from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and would no more have taken the Lord’s name in vain than she would have danced naked halfway up the Mount of Olives.
Dancing naked wouldn’t have been a good idea for her here. She could burn under a fluorescent lamp, let alone the Holy Land’s ferocious sun. She slathered herself with sunscreen, but she really needed something industrial-strength.
But she had the money to come to Israel, and she wanted to work at a dig, so here she was. The heat and sun took it out of her, but she was a trouper. She did everything she could.
Eric grinned crookedly. “I live in the Valley in L.A. As far as the weather goes, I hardly left home.”
“And you tan, too,” Barb said mournfully.
He nodded. “Guilty.” He turned very dark after a few weeks in the sun. Barb burned and peeled and burned and peeled. If she wasn’t white, she was red.
“As far as the weather goes.” Orly Binur’s accent turned English into music. “I’ve been to Los Angeles.” The grad student’s shudder said what she thought of it. “It isn’t like this.”
Eric couldn’t deny it. A glance west showed him the glorious gilded Dome of the Rock: a Muslim shrine built to rival the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and placed over the stone from which Muhammad was said to have ascended to heaven—and on which, if archaeological speculation was right, the Ark of the Covenant had rested in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple.
A little bit going on there, Eric thought. The Angelus Temple doesn’t measure up. He laughed at himself. Next to this lineup of holy heavy hitters, the Vatican didn’t measure up.
“I didn’t know you were ever in L.A.,” he said to Orly. “What for?”
“That conference three years ago.” She wore a floppy hat, too—with more style than Eric did. When those big brown eyes looked at him from under the brim, his heart turned to Silly Putty. “We might have met then.”
He grimaced. “Good thing we didn’t. You wouldn’t’ve wanted anything to do with me.” His divorce was laceratingly new in those days. Archaeologists, he’d discovered the hard way, shouldn’t marry marketing consultants. For a long time afterwards, he’d thought one particular archaeologist shouldn’t marry anybody. Now he’d started wondering.
He wondered harder when Orly sent him another smoky look. “It might have worked out,” she said, which proved she’d never dated anybody just coming off a divorce.
Barb Taylor sipped from a bottle of water like Eric’s and smiled. Eric wasn’t sure whether she thought they were cute or that they were fornicating sinners who’d sizzle side by side on a giant George Foreman Grill forevermore.
He switched to Hebrew to say, “Not a chance.” He’d lost most of what he’d learned for his bar mitzvah, but working in Israel revived it. He was fluent these days. And Barb spoke and understood next to none. He knew she knew he’d changed languages so she couldn’t follow, but he didn’t care. He didn’t like putting himself on display.
Later, he had occasion to remember that. Sometimes it made him want to laugh. More often, he felt like screaming. Much good either one did him.
“So should I run now, while I still can?” Orly asked. “What do you think?”
“Your call, babe.” That came out in English. Eric returned to Hebrew: “I can’t make you stay.”
“You can make me want to. Or you can worry about everything till you drive me crazy.”
“C’mon. If I didn’t worry, I never would’ve got into this racket.” Eric dug out another trowelful of earth. He sifted through it. And earth was what it was . . . except for a blackened something half the size of his little fingernail. He pounced.
“What is it?” For business, Orly came back to English.
“Coin,” he answered. He took a hand lens from the breast pocket of his shirt to get a better look. It looked like a magnified blackened something. “Have to clean it up.”
“A widow’s mite?” Barb asked. “That’d be exciting.”
“It’d be weird,” Eric said. This was a Persian level, from centuries before the time of Christ. Hasmonean and Herodian coins didn’t belong here.
Besides, to him they were dull. You could get them in carload lots. Dealers and shopkeepers sold them at ridiculous markups to people like Barb who wanted a connection to Jesus. Maybe He handled this coin, they’d think. Maybe it belonged to a money changer He chased from the Temple. Maybe, but you’d never prove it. Even if you did, so what?
Coins from Persian-ruled Judaea were more interesting—to Eric, anyway. The local issues imitated Athenian money, down to the owl on the reverse. Would the Jews have done that if they knew Pallas Athena was a goddess and the owl her symbol? Not likely. But they didn’t. They just knew the originals were good silver, so they made knockoffs.
Only the inscription on the reverse—yhd in Aramaic or Hebrew letters—admitted where the coin came from. Sometimes it would be yhdh. The difference helped show when the coin was struck. He put the close-up lens on his iPhone to immortalize it in digits.
“Anything good?” Munir al-Nuwayhi asked around one of his endless stream of Marlboros. The Israeli Arab archaeologist’s English held only a light accent. He smoked like a steel mill. At that academic conference in Los Angeles, he’d ducked outside after every panel to grab a coffin nail before the next one started. Rules were looser here.
Rules about smoking were, anyhow. Munir was a highly capable man, but had only an interim appointment at the Israeli equivalent of a junior college in Nitzana, a small desert town right on the Egyptian border. He was probably lucky to have that. Like blacks in the USA, Arabs in Israel had to be twice as good to get half as far.
“Little coin,” Eric said. “Persian period.”
“I still think it’s a widow’s mite,” Barb said. “Plenty of signs of the Last Days lately.”
Munir puffed on his cigarette. He was Muslim but secular; he’d done his share of drinking and maybe a little more at that conference in California. He didn’t tell Barb she was nuts, even if he thought so.
Eric held his tongue, too. Whatever he might’ve said wasn’t worth the squabble. You couldn’t convince people like Barb. They had their faith, period. Where faith didn’t impinge, lots of them—Barb included—were surprisingly nice.
Orly snorted. Israelis wasted less time on politeness than Americans—or, Eric often thought, anyone else. And she wasn’t used to, or was less resigned to, literal-minded Protestants than Eric. “Like what?” she said, plainly not expecting an answer.
But Barb had one: “Like the red heifer. I saw in the Chronicle how they’re looking for it.”
“Oy,” Eric muttered. The Jerusalem Chronicle was the city’s biggest English-language paper. Its politics lay well to the right. Compared to the the people who sought the red heifer, though, the Chronicle fell somewhere between Nancy Pelosi and Leon Trotsky.
“There won’t be any Third Temple.” Orly pointed at the Dome of the Rock. “That’s been there longer than the First and Second Temples put together. It isn’t going anywhere, no matter what some zealots say.”
Eric wished she hadn’t used that word. Zealots was what Josephus called the Jews who touched off the rebellion against Rome that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Maybe Barb didn’t know about Josephus. “God will find a way,” she said serenely.
“What can you do with people like that?” Orly snarled—but in Hebrew.
“Not much,” Eric answered in the same language. “But every faith has fanatics . . . or nobody would look for a red heifer.”
She winced. That hit home. She said, “People wouldn’t blow themselves up in God’s name, either”—which made Eric scowl. Things had been quiet the past few months. But he looked around warily whenever he went into a crowded restaurant or boarded a bus. A murderous maniac sure a vest full of explosives and nails bought him a one-way ticket to eternity full of wine and houris could ruin your whole life, not just your day.