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EXACTLY THIRTY-THREE HOURS and forty-seven minutes after he had last been in church, Michael Murphy was hurtling through a terrible dark abyss. Prayer had never seemed more necessary to him than at that moment. In pitch blackness, with the only sound the whoosh of his body falling through the air, Murphy had no idea where he was heading.
Except down. Quickly. All six feet three inches of him.
Just a moment ago, Murphy had been standing on the rooftop of what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse on a desolate street in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was an unusual place for him to be on a Monday night during the university semester, when he normally would be preparing for his next day’s lecture.
Yet it took only one word to make him drop all normal activities and race to this dank and deserted height. Granted, that word was in Aramaic, one of the many ancient languages Michael Murphy could read with some fluency.
The Aramaic letters had been penned with elaborate style in a bright blue ink that had seeped deeply into a thick, expensive ivory-tinted paper stock that had been wrapped with great care and tied up by a translucent ribbon around a heavy stone.
A stone that came crashing through the lower window of Murphy’s campus office late that afternoon.
Whoever threw the stone into his office had disappeared by the time Murphy got to the window. As he unwrapped the paper and translated the single word that appeared there, he first stared, then began to count.
Thirty seconds until his office phone rang. He knew what voice he would hear at the other end of the line, although he had never seen the face to go with that voice.
“Hello, Methuselah, you old scoundrel.”
There was a high cackling laugh in answer, a sound Murphy would recognize anywhere. “Oh, Murphy, you never disappoint me. I take it I’ve piqued your interest.”
“And cost me a replacement window.” He looked down again at the single word on the paper. “Is this for real?”
“Murphy, have I ever let you down?”
“Nope. You’ve tried your weird best to kill me several times, but let me down, never. When and where?”
The cackling now was replaced by a tongue-clucking. “Now, don’t rush me, Murphy. My rules. My time. My game. But trust me, this will be the best ever. For me, anyway.”
“Then, I assume that, as before, no sane man would take you up on this challenge?”
“Only an eager lad like yourself. But as always, you have my word. You survive, you get what you came for. And trust me, you’ll want to survive for this prize.”
“I always want to survive, Methuselah. Unlike yourself, to me life is a precious thing.”
The old man snorted. “Not so precious that you won’t come sniffing like an eager dog after this bone I’ve just tossed you. But enough chatter. Tonight. Nine-seventeen. Be on the roof of the warehouse at Eighty-three Cutter Place in Raleigh. And take my advice, Murphy boy. If you do come, and I know you will, make the most of these last few hours.”
With another cackle, the line went dead.
Murphy shook his head, put down the receiver, and picked up the paper. He double-checked his translation. This time, the name he read set his mind racing even faster than before.
For Michael Murphy, a scholar who could not confine himself to library stacks of dusty, ancient tomes, an archaeologist dedicated to hunting and rescuing artifacts that could authenticate events from the pages of the Bible, this was the name of the prophet who was guaranteed to intrigue him more than any other:
D A N I E L
For the rest of the day, Murphy could think of little else besides speculating about his nighttime rendezvous with Methuselah. It had been approximately two years since Murphy had first been contacted by this eccentric figure. Each time, without warning, and without ever showing his face, Methuselah would get a message to Murphy, always a single word in an ancient language that would turn out to be the name of one of the books of the Bible.
This would be followed within a minute by cryptic directions, always to some deserted location, where Methuselah would watch from a secure hiding place and taunt him while Murphy would try to survive some very real, very deadly physical challenge.
The risk of death was very high and very real each time. Methuselah was seemingly as serious about his sadistic games as he was about the scholarship behind his finds. And apparently he had enough money not only to sponsor the acquiring of the artifacts but to indulge his wildest ideas to lure Murphy into the most elaborate death traps. Would he actually allow Murphy to die if it ever came to that? So far, each time Murphy had come extremely close to losing his life, and each time he had no doubt that Methuselah would have let him die.
Yet, despite two broken ribs, a fractured wrist, and too many scars to recall, Murphy had so far somehow managed to muster all of his considerable abilities to stay alive long enough to claim his prize.
And what prizes they had been. Three artifacts Murphy never would have seen in any other way. Each proven with laboratory tests to be genuine, yet Methuselah never uttered a word about his sources. There were lots of issues that plagued Murphy about these mad, whirlwind chases, but each time Murphy went public with the artifacts, no organization, government, or individual collector had come forward to claim they had been stolen.
So, however and from where Methuselah was getting his occasional treasures, they had proven to be just that.
Methuselah remained a complete mystery to Murphy. To say he was eccentric would not begin to explain his actions. The man was clearly a scholar of ancient artifacts, yet Murphy could find no trace of where he came from or how he found these artifacts that any archaeologist would drool for. It was especially mystifying why Methuselah did not keep these treasures for himself, or for a museum, or why he chose his really strange games to give Murphy a chance to claim them.
As a man of high integrity, Murphy believed he could overlook some potential gray areas regarding the source of these artifacts. Some wealthy, connected, but truly mad collector was as close as Murphy could come to an explanation of who Methuselah was. However, there was the troubling religious aspect.
Methuselah was clearly not a religious man. Quite the opposite. A good deal of the pleasure Methuselah seemed to get from these challenges was to taunt Murphy about his faith. So far, Murphy had been up to every challenge, and he had to admit that in addition to getting the artifacts, part of what drove him was the chance to defy Methuselah’s nasty verbal insults about Murphy’s faith.
Which was hardly a justification for his risking his life, Murphy realized. However, pride, temper, stubbornness were all high on the list of Michael Murphy’s imperfections. Probably Murphy’s greatest reservations about his Methuselah adventures were a result of his deep religious faith, which made it far more difficult to justify the extreme risk to his life and limb.
Justify the risk not merely to himself, but to his wife, Laura.
So far, his passion for the quest for artifacts had been a real test of Laura’s passion for Murphy. It certainly helped his cause that she held a degree in ancient studies herself. However, there were many arguments after the fact, many pledges that he would try to resist the next Methuselah temptation, but Laura knew there would always be another insanely dangerous Methuselah trap. All he had to do was to dangle another artifact before her husband.
It was that understanding that caused Murphy to dash off a quick note to Laura before he left for Raleigh that evening. She was at a conference in Atlanta and would not be home for another night, and Murphy wrote down what little he knew about where he was going. He left the note on the mantel in their living room. Just in case.
Murphy kept a touch light on the accelerator all the way from Preston to Raleigh to make sure he did not get a speeding ticket. That was one risk he could definitely avoid for the night. The address Methuselah had barked at him was for an eight-story building on an empty street in a deserted neighborhood. When he got to the rooftop, Murphy looked for some sign for a next move.
Without warning, the very roof beneath his feet opened, and that was when he found himself dropping through the building.
In the fleeting seconds after he started his descent, his multitasking mind flashed on how beautiful Laura had looked yesterday afternoon before she left for her plane, he offered up a quick prayer, and he forced himself to focus on his years of martial arts training, specifically on the best position for his body to be in when he finally landed.
Assuming he had to land eventually, it would not be pretty.
He settled on the combination he had come to call Cat’s Last Gasp, his own poor interpretation of a Tibetan landing maneuver. He thought of it as the moves a cat in its ninth life would make to land safely. Murphy loosened every muscle, fighting the natural instinct to tense up in anticipation of what was bound to be one fearsome impact.
Instead, he bounced. In the pitch-black space his body hit what felt like a huge net, and Murphy bounced up and down, rapidly making him more disoriented than the falling had.
Feelings that were intensified by a blast of bright light that completely blinded Murphy.
“So good of you to drop in, Murphy.”
Methuselah. Though Murphy still could not see, there was no mistaking the cackling laugh that filled the space. Murphy also knew that even if he could see clearly, Methuselah would be well hidden, as he always was.
“You’re probably still getting your bearings, eh, Murphy, so you can’t appreciate what a great old building this is. They built that chute to go through all the floors so they could drop things from the roof down to the main work floor here. I had my people set this up especially for you, but I took pity on you at the last minute and provided the net. I’m getting soft. Let’s hope you’re not.”
Murphy finally stopped bouncing and rolled himself to the edge of the net. His sight was beginning to normalize, but there did not seem to be much to see inside this building. There were white walls enclosing one giant floor space. The ceiling, if there was one, must have been several stories high, but the combination of gloomy darkness and now the piercing glow from spotlights mounted on the walls made it impossible to be certain.
The netting was strung up at one end of the floor space. It was made of thick rope in a crosshatched pattern. The net had been stretched between four heavy wooden poles that were bolted to the floor and stabilized by heavy bags of what Murphy guessed was sand. At the opposite end of the vast room, what looked like a sliding door of shiny silver corrugated metal stood closed.
Surrounding the floor was a raised work area that was protected by heavy glass. That was where Methuselah must be, Murphy thought, but he could not make out any specific figure up there. His head was clearing and his breathing was starting to normalize.
“That was certainly worth the trip from home, Methuselah. Now, may I claim my prize and get back there?”
“You call that earning your keep, Murphy? That was just my special way to get you inside the tent. Get ready for the real show. Right now.”
For the first time, Murphy heard an ominous sound, a low rumble that filled the empty space, but he was not sure what he was hearing. “Aaah, I see, Professor Murphy, by your perked-up ears, that you are ready to meet your match.”
Murphy sighed. So, now it really begins, he thought. Then came a second, much more ominous sound. Something crashed against the metal door from the other side. Something that Murphy suddenly realized was about to come shooting out that metal door, heading directly for him. “Say, um, Methuselah, aren’t you going to tease me first with a look at your latest artifact? So I at least know what it is that will make you try so hard to kill me.”
“Yes, you do know I love to have my sport with you, Murphy. I actually wish you could live to get this one. It’s hot stuff. Tell me, what made you so excited about seeing the word ‘Daniel’ from me today?”
Before Murphy could answer, there was another, even louder banging against the door. Murphy could not help but flinch where he stood and looked anxiously at the rattling metal.
“Up to now you’ve put into play some amazing artifacts from Biblical times, Methuselah. I don’t know how you got them, but I never would have found them on my own. And Daniel, well, you know he was the most important prophet of all. I have studied him for years. Let me at least get a good close look at whatever Daniel artifact you’ve gotten your hands on.”
“No. Enough talk, Murphy. You’re about to get a closer look than you’ll want. Because tonight you’re not going to study Daniel, you are going to be Daniel.”
With a metallic clang, the sliding door at the other end of the room was raised.
From the Hardcover edition.