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An Age Old Mystery Unfolds


Alfred B. Davis

Copyright 2014 Alfred B. Davis
ISBN: 9781310654985

Missionary Paul Brown returns back to his hometown of Wildwood, Ohio, only to be plunged headlong into battle with an ancient evil that threatens to destroy him and the Wildwood Baptist Church. Armed with his faith in God, the support of his family, and the help of his friends and fellow church members, Paul races to uncover the mystery before it is too late. From the sudden death of his pastor to the final confrontation with evil itself, this fast-paced thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Meet the Author

Alfred B. Davis has a B.S in Wildlife Biology, with a minor in Botany, from Colorado State University and a B.A. in Bible from Heritage Baptist University.

Davis is the pastor of the Bible Baptist Church, located in his hometown of Richfield, Ohio. He also hosts Live with Pastor Al, a live, call-in radio program dealing with Bible questions and current events in light of God's Word. Live with Pastor Al is heard every Sunday night from 11:00 PM to 12:00 AM and every Friday afternoon from 1:30 PM to 2:00 PM on AM 1220 WHKW.

His other ebooks include: The Birth of Christ As Recorded In the Scriptures, The Coming Arab-Israeli Nuclear War, and Who Is This Jesus?

From a background in biology and natural resource management, a stint in the United States Air Force, church planting in the Samoan Islands of the South Pacific, and pastoring in Northeast Ohio, Davis brings an uncommon outlook and unique insights to his comments, discussions, and writings.

Read Chapters One and Two:

Chapter One

Pastor John Williams glanced around anxiously. It had been nearly two and a half years since he had last been at the airport and even longer since he had actually been airborne. It was not exactly that he was afraid of flying. After all, he had flown a Vought F4U Corsair off the USS Princeton often enough during the Korean War. He just was not comfortable with the thought of hurtling through the air in a narrow metal tube thousands of feet above the earth with limited visibility with someone he did not know at the controls. Besides, the whine of the jet engines set his teeth on edge, unlike the rumble of his old prop driven Corsair with its Pratt & Whitney R2800-18W engine and Hamilton Standard four-blade hydromatic propeller that merely rattled them. Still, that is not what bothered him this morning.

His friend and deacon, Brandon Hayes, had dropped him off at the main concourse before going to park the van. The ticket counters, nearly deserted at this early hour, would begin filling up soon. Only a handful of people congregated around the Intercontinental counter at the far end of the concourse, queuing for an early morning departure to Philadelphia. Closer to Pastor Williams a custodian paused while emptying trashcans to chat with a security guard who was nursing a steaming cup of coffee at the door. A couple more custodians pushing brooms slowly worked their way toward each other from opposite ends of the long concourse. Few people were moving about the airport but that would change in a few hours.

Williams slid up his sleeve and carefully checked his watch, comparing it with the large digital clock display overhead. Dropping his arm back down to his side, he pulled a worn handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the perspiration beading up on his brow. It was 5:21 AM, three minutes later than when he last looked.

Pastor Williams ran his fingers through his thin, gray hair. They trembled slightly." Brandon ought to be able to get a good parking space," he thought, studying the arrivals board in the main concourse.

He started at the sudden crackling of the loudspeaker behind him. "Attention, attention!" commanded an unseen announcer in a static-laced voice. "There has been a gate change. Inter-Continental Flight 256 from Honolulu is now arriving at Gate 7. Inter-Continental Flight 256 from Honolulu is now arriving at Gate 7. Passengers connecting with Inter-Continental Flight 256 to Philadelphia, please proceed to Gate 7 immediately."

"Twenty minutes early," breathed Rev. Williams quietly as he headed off in the direction of Gate 7, "Thank God for small miracles!"

Paul Brown waited somewhat impatiently for the seatbelt light to click off as the big Boeing 747-400ER taxied slowly off the runway. He stretched his cramped legs and slowly rolled his shoulders as much as the narrow seat would allow to loosen them up. After a number of years in the United States Air Force and then several more as a missionary in the South Pacific, Paul Brown, though not a pilot himself, had logged more hours in a variety of aircraft over the last 20 plus years than he cared to think of. "These airline seats get smaller by the hour!" he complained to his wife, Karen, who sat next to him.

"Just be thankful we're arriving early!" laughed Karen. "How would we ever get you out of the seat if we were running late?" Karen Brown, just a couple years younger than her husband, was a registered nurse with extensive emergency medical training. Equally at home in a modern trauma unit or a primitive jungle clinic, Karen had first met Paul on a medical missions trip to Columbia, shortly after graduating from college. He was still in the Air Force at the time and had unexpectedly visited the mission clinic she volunteered at while participating in a "training" exercise that he still could not tell her about seventeen years later.

"Well, Pastor Williams and Uncle Brandon will be glad we're early," chuckled Paul. "I can't wait to see them. It's been a year since Uncle Brandon visited us in Samoa and nearly two and a half years since we last saw Pastor Williams." He paused, looking pensive for a moment, and then added somberly, "Unfortunately, a lot has happened since then."

"Please remain seated until the plane comes to a complete stop and the pilot turns off the fasten seatbelt signs." intoned the flight attendant as the plane rolled along the taxiway, headed for Gate 7. "Local time is 5:22 AM. The outside temperature is a cool 46 degrees. Please enjoy your stay in Cleveland, Ohio. For passengers continuing with Inter-Continental to Philadelphia, please remain on board the aircraft. Thank you for flying Inter-Continental Flight 256 from Hawaii and have a nice day. Mahalo."

As the giant aircraft lumbered along the taxiway Paul looked over to check on his daughter, nine-year old Alexandria Brown and her older brother, Ben. Ben was excited but in his typically reserved manner. Karen said he took after his dad. Alex, on the other hand, was more like her mother. Squirming in her seat and looking intently out the window, she could barely contain her excitement. She was only six the last time they were on furlough and had spent most of her young life on the mission field. Their overnight stay in Hawaii had been too brief to get a real taste of the States, long enough to get a taste of fresh milk, real doughnuts, and fast food though.

"Alex! Sit down," cautioned Paul, "Wait until the seatbelt light goes off." Looking at her brother he added, "Keep and eye on your sister, please. And help her with her seat belt!"

Ben laughed as he pushed his sister back down in her seat and tightened her fasten her seatbelt. Three years older than his sister, Ben was nearly twice her size, not that she was all that small for her age.

"That boy is going to be taller than you yet, Paul," laughed Karen.

Paul and Karen settled back in their seats as the airplane rolled up to the gate, their minds racing. It was hard to believe that they had left Tunoa only a few days ago. It seemed like weeks. Nearly the whole church was there to see them off at Qehu Qehu International Airport, along with many dear friends. They were only halfway into their second term when Pastor Williams asked them to pray about returning early. The sudden, tragic loss of his wife, Joyce, a few months earlier had devastated Pastor Williams and the church. Though officially listed as accidental, Brandon Hayes had misgivings about the cause of death. He had been quietly digging into the matter with the help of his close friend and fellow deacon, Attorney Chuck Krankovich.

The Browns, along with fellow missionaries Bob and Roberta Fleisher had discussed the matter extensively and prayed for guidance. After a few weeks, they had peace about leaving Samoa early and began making plans for the Browns early departure. Bob moved into Paul's role of Senior Pastor and Feleki Palau, who believed that God was moving him into full time Christian ministry, moved into Bob's role as Assistant Pastor. Paul was confident that the church was in good hands. However, although the Browns were supposed to return to Samoa in a year or so, both Paul and Karen had the strange feeling that they would not be returning to the South Pacific anytime soon. Pastor Williams' last letter only fueled those feelings.

Flight 256 came to an abrupt stop at Gate 7. The seatbelt lights clicked off and passengers began spilling out of their seats, grabbing carry on bags and filling the aisles. Paul stood up and began pulling bags out of the overhead compartment, handing them down to Ben. Karen and Alex retrieved more from under the seats. Paul and Ben noticed an elderly couple struggling to get their bags out of the overhead compartment. Paul nodded at his son who quickly went over to them. "Excuse me, Sir, Ma'am," said Ben, "Can I get those for you?"

Pastor Williams hurried to the baggage terminal. He had mistakenly headed for Gate 7 first, forgetting that he could not proceed to the gate without a valid airline ticket. "I really miss greeting people at the gate," he thought to himself as he headed for the escalator.

Arriving at the lower level Pastor Williams scanned the area looking for the Inter-Continental baggage area. He spotted the tall, lanky frame of Brandon Hayes standing just outside the Inter-Continental baggage area about halfway down the concourse with two luggage carts at the ready. Brandon saw him at about the same time and waved in his direction.

"I was hoping you'd remember that you can't meet them at the gate," said Hayes. "I'm parked right outside. Willy Sykes called just as I was heading to the parking garage. Said he was tracking Paul's flight online and it was early. So, I came around and asked if I could park long enough to run in and let you know where the van is. Got some carts on the way in for the Browns' luggage. The plane is unloading now so they should be here shortly. I'll meet you folks outside in a few minutes. Will you be okay Pastor?"

"Don't worry Brandon; I'll be fine," assured Pastor Williams, "Thanks for the carts."

Brandon Hayes relinquished the carts to Pastor Williams and hurried back outside to the van. It was nearly 5:30 AM. Several cars and buses were just now arriving to pick up passengers from two Inter-Continental red-eyes and a charter flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, due in that morning. A newer dark gray Jaguar angled into the passenger loading area a little too quickly, almost hitting Brandon. Hayes avoided it with surprising agility. Though in his late sixties he looked much younger and had never fully lost the reflexes developed as a foreign correspondent in some of the most remote and dangerous hot spots on earth. Now, semi-retired as a free-lance investigative reporter, he had time to devote himself to his greatest passion, serving the Lord as a Sunday school teacher and deacon.

Hayes unlocked the door of an older 12 passenger red Chevy van with "Wildwood Baptist Church, Wildwood, Ohio" emblazoned on the sides. As he did so, a small, slightly built man carrying an umbrella leaped out of the Jaguar, grinning oddly. The strange little man told the driver to wait and walked briskly into the terminal, pausing only to ask a skycap where the Inter-Continental baggage carousels were located.

Paul Brown followed closely behind as his family made their way off the airplane and into the terminal. Little Alex was chattering excitedly while her mom kept a firm grip on her hand so she could not get to far ahead. Ben was walking just in front of dad. A handful of Bible tracts stuck out of his knapsack, a little less than half of what he had started out with in Tunoa. The rest were scattered along their route, stuck in magazines and seat backs on several airplanes and buses, as well as left in restrooms, waiting areas, and restaurants. He had handed others directly to people, such as the older couple he had helped on the airplane.

"Thank you, God, for a safe journey and a wonderful family," Paul prayed silently as he watched his family head for the escalators to the baggage claim area. "And please continue to watch over us and use us for You're glory and purpose," he added.

Pastor Williams waited anxiously near the Inter-Continental baggage carousels. There were several things he wanted to discuss with Paul and Brandon, however, that could wait until they got back to Wildwood and rested up a bit. Shifting nervously from side to side, he watched anxiously as passengers from the two Inter-Continental flights and the Puerto Rico charter spilled out of the escalators into the lower concourse, converging on their respective baggage areas. He scanned the crowd intently until finally he spotted the Browns moving down the far escalator. He stepped forward excitedly, waving at them, forgetting his unease for the moment.

"I see him! I see Pastor Williams!" squealed Alex, pointing and waving back. She had memorized his picture on the way from Hawaii, determined to be the first to spot him.

"Yes, Alex," said Karen, "I see him too. But, you have to stick with me. I don't want you running off in this crowd!"

The Browns made their way through the growing crowd around the Inter-Continental baggage carousels to Pastor Williams as quickly as they could. It was a warm reunion and they paused for a brief prayer, thanking God for a safe trip. Paul and Ben stacked their carry on bags onto one of the luggage carts while Karen and Alex filled Pastor Williams in on the details of their trip. Several bags were beginning to arrive from Flight 256 and Paul's old Air Force duffel bag was among them. Ben swung it off the carousel and onto the floor by his dad. Paul loaded the duffel bag onto the cart as his son scanned the arriving bags for more.

Meanwhile, the strange, grinning little man with the umbrella stood at the outskirts of the Inter-Continental baggage area. He scrutinized the faces of the jostling group intently. His grin broadened in a malevolent sort of way as he spotted Pastor Williams and the Browns.

He watched patiently as they loaded several more bags, waiting for them to move out of the crowded baggage area. "Patience is a virtue," he whispered to nobody in particular, his voice betraying a vaguely French accent.

Finally, the last of the Brown's nine bags had arrived and were balanced precariously on the two luggage carts along with several of their carry on bags. The ninth bag, filled with tie'emuge, gifts from well-wishers at the airport in Samoa, had exceeded the limit of two checked bags per person. Fortunately, Pastor Palau had had the foresight to bring an empty suitcase to the airport. A friend of his with the airline had checked it to Hawaii at no extra cost, though Inter-Continental had charged them from Honolulu on.

The little man's ice-blue eyes narrowed as he watched Pastor Williams and the Brown's leave the Inter-Continental baggage area. One cart wobbled noticeably.

His grin faded into a tight smile as he turned over his umbrella and gave the tip a slight twist, exposing a small hypodermic needle. "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose," he whispered to himself, striding quickly in their direction, "A time to die, a time to kill, a time to weep, a time to mourn. Paul Brown, it is your time!"

"Ben!" Paul called out sharply, "Watch that cart!" Ben's luggage cart lurched abruptly as one of the wheels suddenly turned the wrong way. The bags shifted, toppling to one side as Paul and Pastor Williams grabbed for them.

Simultaneously, the man with the umbrella came up behind Paul and pretended to stumble. His right arm flailed out in front and to the right, thrusting his umbrella sword-like toward the middle of Paul Brown's back. He did not count on Paul leaning to the side at the last minute, however, and narrowly missed Paul as he lunged for the falling bags. Instead, the man's momentum carried him forward as Pastor Williams reached out for the bags as well and the tip of the umbrella caught Pastor Williams in his right shoulder. In a flash, the hidden needle flicked out a fraction of an inch and pumped a minute amount of clear, yellowish liquid into Pastor William's shoulder before snapping back into place.

"Oh! I-I am dreadfully sorry!" apologized the man, "I was in a hurry and my bad knee gave way. I must have been walking too fast. I-I hope I did not hurt you!"

Startled, Pastor Williams rubbed his shoulder, unaware that something had been injected. "I'm alright," he said, "The end of your umbrella caught me but no harm done. Just smarts a little. How about you?"

"Fine, fine!" answered the man brusquely, as he turned to leave.

Karen had seen the man stumble. "Are you sure?" she asked with a note of concern in her voice, "Are you able to walk?"

"Sure, sure," said the man, "It happens every once in awhile." He quickly strode off before she could ask anything more.

"That's odd," mused Karen aloud, watching as he quickly headed for the exit.

"What's that?" asked Paul, looking in the direction of her gaze.

"Well, for a man who just stumbled as bad as he did on a trick knee, he doesn't seem to be limping or anything." With that, Karen turned her concern to Pastor Williams as Ben and Alex finished helping restack the bags. "How's your shoulder, Pastor? That was quite a blow."

Pastor Williams continued to rub his shoulder. "It tingles a little but I'll be okay. Let's get you folks out to the van and back to Wildwood. There is a lot I want to talk with Paul and Brandon about."

Brandon Hayes waited patiently outside, leaning against the van. He watched as the stream of people leaving the airport quickly swelled and then slowly began to trickle off. He could hardly wait to see his nephew, Paul, and his family again, especially the kids. He was thinking about how much Ben and Alex must have grown since he last saw them when a A sudden movement caught his attention. A small man with an umbrella rushed out of the airport and jumped into a car parked two spaces ahead of Brandon. It was the same man who had jumped out of the Jaguar that had nearly hit him a few minutes ago. He was no longer grinning, though. Obviously angry, the little man said something to the driver as he was getting into the car. Brandon only caught a few of the man's words, something about "missed him!" and "wrong one!" before the door slammed shut and the car roared off.

"Seemed a little upset. Must have been here to pick up someone who was on another flight," surmised Brandon.

A few moments later Pastor Williams and the Browns came out of the airport. Brandon forgot all about the angry little man in the Jaguar as he ran up to the Browns. He scooped up Alex in one hand while wrapping an arm around Ben, giving both of them a big hug. Letting Alex down and Ben go, he turned to give Karen and Paul a welcoming hug as well.

Pastor Williams stood quietly off to the side, watching the family reunion. He knew that Brandon Hayes was more a father than an uncle to Paul. Ever since Paul's parents died with Brandon's wife in a tragic car accident shortly before Paul graduated from high school, Brandon, who had no children of his own, had taken Paul under his wing. In spite of his own loss, he had helped Paul, an only child, with the funeral arrangements, taking care of nearly all the expenses himself.

Paul went through a rough time after the death of his parents but Pastor Williams credited the quiet support and steadfast love that Brandon, though grieving deeply over his own loss, had shown him with keeping him on the right track. Paul had gone on to college at Ohio State University, enrolling in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and earning his Bachelor of Science in Forest Biology with a minor in Military Science. Following graduation Paul fulfilled his ROTC obligations by going into active duty barely a month later as a second lieutenant with the United States Air Force. For a time Pastor Williams, and even Brandon Hayes, had lost contact with Paul. He surfaced again, though, a couple of years later in Columbia.

Brandon was running down a story concerning American drug interdiction efforts in Columbia when he chanced upon a group of American missionaries operating a medical mission in a remote jungle area. He was interviewing the missionaries, including a group of medical volunteers from Kentucky, for a sidebar story when several American military personnel stumbled into the clinic, surprising everyone. They were all in rough shape, bruised, scratched, and suffering from varying degrees of exhaustion and dehydration. Several had severe cuts and lacerations and at least one had a badly infected gunshot wound.

Brandon pitched in to help a young RN, Karen Florenson, now his nephew's wife, sit one of the men down long enough to make a brief examination of his wounds. Much to Brandon's surprise the man turned out to be his nephew, Captain Paul Brown, USAF. He barely recognized Paul due to the dirt, camouflage paint, and dried blood caked on his face. Besides, it had been nearly two years since they had last seen each other.

As Karen began cleaning out a particularly nasty gash on his leg, Paul filled his uncle in on what had been happening. He had been, as his uncle had last heard, originally trained as an Intelligence Officer and stationed at an airbase in central England. Eight months ago, due to his background in forest biology, he was assigned to a special joint Air Force-Army task force based at Howard Air Force Base in Panama. Actually, his particular unit operated out of the American embassy in Bogota, Columbia.

The unit parachuted into a jungle clearing east of Bucaramanga, near the Venezuela border 10 days previously. Their mission was to identify and obtain a rare variety of wild coca, rumored to be growing in the region, which did not produce the chemical compounds that the Colombian drug cartels refined into cocaine and smuggled to America. Officials at the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Washington, D.C., hoped that the rare variety could be cultivated and the seeds spread by air over known cocaine producing areas throughout Central and South America. Plant biologists at the Department of Agriculture theorized that it would hybridize with the cultivated coca, drastically reducing the amount of cocaine produced per pound of leaves and drying up the profits.

Unfortunately, things had gone wrong, badly wrong, six days into the mission. Paul and his men had identified several possible plants and were collecting them when an intense thunderstorm forced them to take shelter in a large cave-like opening. In doing so they surprised either a rouge Colombian military patrol or a band of rebels, they were not sure which, who were also seeking shelter. In the ensuing firefight, the Americans managed to escape and elude the Colombians by sliding down a steep hillside into a rain-swollen creek below. They splashed hurriedly along the creek while the Colombians, reluctant to slide down themselves, raced along the ridge above firing down on them. As the Americans ran along the creek they suddenly hit a slippery steep area where they lost their footing and slid into a larger stream that took them nearly three-quarters of the way down the mountain before they realized what was happening.

By the time they regained their footing, the Colombians had given up the chase. Paul and his men took stock of their situation and realized that they were all accounted for. Fortunately, only one man had been shot and their medic quickly bandaged up his wound before checking over the others. Everyone was soaked, banged, dinged, and cut up to some degree but able to walk. Unfortunately, the radio and most of their supplies had been lost or ruined.

Paul headed them downstream figuring that eventually they would reach the Magdalena River and find some way to get in touch with the embassy. Two days later, they spotted the mission clinic near the tributary that they had been following. They watched carefully that night and well into the next day, not sure if they should risk approaching it. However, what little food they had was gone and their comrade's gunshot wound desperately needed treatment.

Paul, a born again Christian, prayed fervently about what to do as he watched the clinic from the dense undergrowth. Just then, he noticed a tall, man arrive and enter the clinic. There was something familiar about the man. "Why, that looks just like Uncle Brandon!" he told himself, "But it couldn't be. Not out here in the middle of the jungle! But then again, maybe God is trying to tell us it's safe to go in."

Cautiously the Americans got to their feet and made their way out of the jungle and into the clearing surrounding the clinic. Paul was the first to enter the building, which was little more than a sheet metal roofed shack, and was surprised to find a number of Americans and several Colombians who were just as surprised to see him. The American missionaries and medical team, after getting over the shock of having a bedraggled band of American military personnel unexpectedly walk in quickly began taking care of them. Paul did not see the man that looked like his uncle at first, at least not until after a pretty, dark-haired nurse named Karen made him sit down so she could look at his wounds.

The man Paul had seen outside came over to help Karen. Paul managed a wry smile, "Uncle Brandon, I presume?"

After a brief reunion, Paul filled his uncle in on what he had been doing, or at least what he could say about what he had been doing. He convinced his uncle not to include him or his men in his story and used the mission's radio to call for a med-evac flight to come and pick them up. Amazingly, they had managed to retain a few of the plants that they had collected. Unfortunately, the DEA and the Air Force disbanded the project two months later and dissolved Paul's team. He wound up stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, after a brief furlough back home in Wildwood. While he was recuperating, his uncle surprised him with Karen's address and telephone number. A few months later Paul asked Karen to marry him and, one year from the day that Paul had stumbled out of the Colombian jungle and into her life, life Paul and Karen were married.

Brandon and the Browns' joined Pastor Williams beside the van, interrupting his thoughts. "How's your shoulder, Pastor?" inquired Brandon while opening the side door of the van. "Karen told me some guy hit you with an umbrella."

"I'm fine," answered Pastor Williams, "Though it still hurts a bit; sort of tingles. Actually, it is starting to throb a little. Burns somewhat, too. That umbrella must have jabbed me harder than I thought."

"You should let me take a look at it, Pastor," said Karen motioning to Pastor Williams. She patted the van seat and continued, "Maybe it broke the skin. Let the boys load the luggage and you have a seat here while I take a look."

Pastor Williams grudgingly complied with Karen's request. He might have argued with her but how do you argue with a nurse? Besides, his shoulder was beginning to hurt more by the moment. The throbbing was turning into a fiery sensation that was spreading across his shoulders and down his back and arm as he removed his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt.

"Paul! Uncle Brandon!" cried Karen, "Come take a look at this!"

Paul and Brandon hurried from behind the van, leaving Ben and Alex to finish loading the bags. They gasped at the angry looking bluish-white spot with bright red lines radiating out from the center that was spreading across Pastor Williams shoulder.

"What is that!" began Paul.

"I think we should head to the hospital," interrupted Karen, "I don't like the look of this at all. Something must have been on the tip of that umbrella and it got into his shoulder. He needs to have this checked out by a doctor right away."

"Southwest is not too far away," said Brandon, "Paul, you get the rest of the stuff and the kids loaded and I'll start the van!"

Paul and the kids hurried to get the remaining bags into the van. Karen got Pastor Williams settled in the van and climbed in next to him with a serious look on her face. Paul could tell she did not like the look of the spot on his shoulder and was more worried than she let on.

Paul slammed the van's rear door shut as Alex jumped into the van. Ben climbed in after his sister, pulling the side door shut behind him. Paul hopped into the front passenger seat and turned to make sure everyone had buckled up as he fastened his own seat belt. Turning to his uncle he said, "Let's have a quick word of prayer. Heavenly Father, we want to thank you for a safe journey home. Now, Lord, we ask that you would be with Pastor Williams. We do not know what's happened to his shoulder but we know that he is in Your hands. Give us safety and clear roads as we head to the hospital. Amen."

No sooner had the others said "amen" as well, Brandon Hayes had the van in gear and was pulling away from the curb. He glanced down at the clock on the dash, noting that it was only 6:14. "Rush hour should be starting soon but Eastland Road should be fairly clear still," he told the others.

They made good time getting out of the airport. Heading southwest on the State Route 237, Brandon, muscled his way through the early morning traffic into the left hand lane. Turning south on Eastland, he silently thanked God that there were no trains coming as he pushed the van along as fast as the traffic would allow, all the while scanning the road ahead and behind. He was a good driver, probably the best in the van, or in the whole church for that matter. Some thirty years ago, he had done an investigative piece on a defensive driving school in Arizona that specialized in training drivers for various firms operating in third world hot spots. His employer at the time, World News Digest, had enrolled him in the school's six-week program where he did well enough to attract several offers from firms who were impressed with his abilities. Nevertheless, distracted by his concern for Pastor Williams he did not notice the dark gray Jaguar that sped though the light two cars behind him and matched his speed, following at a discreet distance.

Chapter Two

Pastor Williams tried to make himself as comfortable as possible despite the pain. The pain in his shoulder was not spreading anymore but it throbbed like an abscessed tooth. More troubling was the tingling sensation that was starting in his tongue and the tightness that was beginning to spread across his chest. He knew the others were worried about him but he also knew that he was in good hands. He also remembered that he needed to talk to Paul and Brandon; a need which felt more urgent by the minute.

"Brandon, Paul," he began, "I need to talk with the two of you. I wanted to wait until after we got back to Wildwood and everyone had a chance to rest up a bit. However, the way I'm feeling now, I don't think I should wait. Brandon, I know you and Brother Krankovich have been investigating my wife, Joyce's, death. I appreciate that. I no longer believe her death was an accident either. In fact, I believe that it was part of an overall scheme to destroy our church."

"Destroy the church!" interrupted Paul, "What do you mean?"

"I received a letter about two and a half months ago," said Pastor Williams, "from someone working at the Narsch Foundation. I don't know who sent it. It was simply signed, 'A Friend'."

Pastor Williams paused. His tongue was starting to feel thick and the pressure around his chest was making it harder to catch his breath.

"Karen," Pastor Williams continued, "There is an envelope in my coat pocket. Can you get that and hand it to your husband, please." Karen retrieved the envelope and passed it forward.

Paul took the envelope and opened it as Williams continued. "There's not much in the letter itself. It was actually the other papers in the envelope that concerned me the most." He paused and rubbed his hand along the bottom of his jaw. The tingling sensation was spreading. "Paul, please read the letter out loud so your Uncle and Karen can hear it as well."

Paul Brown shook out the contents of the envelope. The letter, along with three other papers, fell into his lap. The letter was fairly brief. He quickly scanned it before beginning to read it aloud. It was undated and looked as if it had been typed on an old manual typewriter rather than coming from a computer printer.

"Mr. Williams," the letter began, "You do not know me, but you and another gentleman knocked on my door one time about ten years ago. You invited me to visit your church, tried to share your antiquated view of 'god' with me, and told me that I needed to be 'saved'. We had an interesting debate and obviously had some profound philosophical differences. We also differed greatly on our view of who and what 'god' is and what that 'god' expects of us. Nevertheless, I appreciated your sincerity and the obvious concern, however naive and misplaced it might have been, for the welfare of my soul.

"Well, maybe now I can return the favor. I recently had opportunity to view several documents, which may interest you. I have nothing to gain by sending this information to you. In fact, it would endanger my position here at the Narsch Foundation if Simon were to find out that I sent it. Still, murder is not what I signed up for.


"A Friend"

Laying aside the letter, Paul picked up the other papers. The first was a slightly fuzzy copy of an aerial photograph. Squinting at the picture Paul saw that it centered on the buildings and property of the Wildwood Baptist Church. Two small equilateral triangles, connected by a smaller rectangle, were drawn over the woods immediately behind the church's back parking lot. The strange symbol, circled with a heavy black line, had the words "SHAMBALLAH OPENING," scrawled alongside. The second document was actually a series of narrow strips, each about 2 inches wide, glued on to a piece of paper from a yellow legal pad.

"Look at this," said Paul as he held up the second paper. "It looks like someone used one of those small, hand-held copiers to put this together. I remember getting a National Security Agency warning about those things back when stationed in England with the Air Force. They were concerned that it could be easily smuggled into a secure building since it was only about the size of a pack of cigarettes or a deck of cards. You used it to scan documents in strips just like this. Of course, that was long before the days of the flash drives and cell phones. They must really drive the NSA security folks crazy these days."

The document was headed "Gaia Society: Properties of Interest & Investigation, Wildwood, OH" and listed a dozen or so properties in and around the town of Wildwood. Some of the properties were check-marked with various dates going back over 30 years written alongside them. The church property was also listed but unchecked. It was, however, underlined with a note, "GLF-Ops," and today's date written along side.

"Now that is certainly interesting," observed Paul dryly, "I've heard of the Gaia Society. That's one of those environmental-wacko groups that want to save the world from the internal combustion engine and global warming. Why would they be interested in our property? And, more importantly, what is this "GLF-Ops" stuff supposed to mean?"

Brandon Hayes eyebrows scrunched together as he thought for a moment. "GLF-Ops...GLF-Ops? Why does that sound familiar?" Suddenly it dawned on him. "GLF-Ops!" he said while slowing for a traffic light, "The Gaia Society has an unofficial activist arm known as the Gaia Liberation Front. Many believe that the Gaia Society secretly funds the GLF, but that's never been proven. It's believed they use it to take direct, destructive, and frequently illegal actions to further their goals while the Gaia Society appears to keep its hands clean. The GLF started out breaking into labs and releasing animals, spiking trees in logging areas, and pouring sugar into the fuel tanks of heavy equipment at mining sites and developments out West. They have since gone nationwide, graduating to threats, intimidation, bombings, and arson. They are even suspected in several deaths and assassination attempts."

Brandon paused before turning left onto Bagley Road and continued, "The FBI has the GLF on their list of domestic terrorist groups. They've been tracking their activities for nearly a decade. So far, no one has been able to tie them into the Gaia Society directly. 'Ops' could refer to a possible operation planned for today. I would say that it's quite a coincidence that it's the same day Paul and Karen were due back from Samoa. No wonder you were concerned this morning, Pastor!"

Pastor Williams lifted a hand stiffly. The tightness around his chest now felt like a steel band constricting his breathing. He tried to talk but his tongue felt thick and swollen. His words began slurring together, making him harder to understand. "Paul, Brrra-Braan-don," he began, "The date... Not coincidence... Not me... N-not me... P-P-Paul..." His words cut off into a moan as he shuddered and then stiffened in the seat.

"Pastor Williams! Pastor Williams!" shouted Karen worriedly.

Williams sat rigidly in the seat, his breath coming in short, labored gasps. His eyes were glazing over as Karen grabbed his wrist, desperately feeling for a pulse. It was there, weak, sluggish, and erratic.

Brandon glanced over his shoulder at Karen and Pastor Williams. Quickly assessing the situation, he hollered, "Hang on!" as he pushed the accelerator to the floor and flipped on the van's emergency flashers. "We're only a couple of blocks from the hospital!" He laid on the horn and whipped the old van expertly around a couple of slower cars, ignoring the angry shouts and gestures of the other motorists.

Paul gripped the dashboard tightly with one hand while turning in his seat to look behind him. His wife braced herself against the back of his seat and was doing her best to steady Pastor Williams. Ben and Alex were hanging tightly onto the seat in front of them. Alexandria's eyes were wide with fear and concern while Ben's lips moved silently in prayer. A sudden movement on the road behind them caught his attention as Brandon suddenly cut the van over in a tight right turn into Southwest General Health Center's main entrance. A dark gray car made an abrupt turn into the hospital behind them as well, skidding slightly and nearly sideswiping a delivery van.

Screeching to a halt outside the emergency entrance, Brandon slammed the van into park and jumped out without bothering to shut off the engine. "Stay with Pastor Williams!" he called over his shoulder as he ran for the entrance, "I'll get some help!". Paul vaulted out and yanked open the side door of the van, while Karen hurried to unbuckle the pastor's seat belt.

Meanwhile, unnoticed, a dark gray Jaguar circled around and pulled into a parking space within sight of the church van. The occupants, the small thin man from the airport and his driver, a larger, stockier man, watched the occupants of the church van intently. The little man held a cell phone tightly as he described what was happening to the unseen listener. He paused for a moment, watching as Brandon Hayes and two ER residents in scrubs rushed out to the van. One turned and shouted back toward the hospital and two aids rushed up with a gurney. They pulled Pastor Williams out of the van and rushed him into the ER, followed closely by Karen Brown.

The thin man spoke briefly into the phone and then folded it up with a quick snap as Paul and Brandon got back into the van. He watched the van move to an adjacent parking lot with a cool clinical gaze before addressing the driver.

"We wait," he said through tight lips.


"And see what happens."

"I know what's gonna happen!" the driver interrupted, "That old guys gonna croak! That's what's gonna happen, even if he is the wrong guy! There was enough of that concentrated salamander juice in your umbrella tip to kill the lot of 'em. He ain't gonna last the hour.

"Newt," said the smaller man, shaking his head pensively. "Newt, not salamander. It came from the rough skinned newt, which, as you should know, is found only in the Pacific Northwest. It is one of the most poisonous amphibians in the world. The only one in North America I might add. Its skin glands produce a powerful neurotoxin that affects the heart and lungs by slowly paralyzing them."

The driver shrugged, "Whatever! All I knows is it works. Remember that Forest Service survey crew a few years back? They was camped out near Mt. Rainier markin' trees for a selective loggin' cut. A couple of GLF buddies of mine snuck in late one night and dropped one a them salamanders they'd found in their coffee pot. They just wanted to gross 'em out. They didn't know nothin' about them poison glands all over it. Next mornin' them Forest Service guys get up, pour some water in the pot and don't see the salamander. An hour or so later they start having trouble breathin' and keel over. Only one guy survived. He had tea 'stead of coffee. Got wrote up in the local papers but the GLF never got the credit."

"Good thing!" snorted the other man, "Because if they had we would not have been able to use the poison as successfully in other cases since then."

"Yeah, I suppose your right. Still, I hate havin' one of those little guys die, even if it is to take out some planet killer."

"Small price to pay to save Mother Earth! Besides, that newt is bound to come back in a higher form after sacrificing itself for such a noble purpose. Gaia rewards those who help her."

Twenty-some miles away in Wildwood an angry Simon Narsch let out a stream of profanity and slammed his silver-tipped walking stick down hard. The slim hickory shaft splintered on impact, leaving yet another dent in the hard walnut surface of the massive desk. Cursing yet again, the old man flung the ruined stick at his son, Arnold, seated uncomfortably in an oversized leather armchair across the room.

At 92, Simon Narsch, III, founder and director of the prestigious Narsch Foundation, was still an imposing figure. Tall and slender, with an aristocratic presence befitting his Prussian ancestry, he exercised religiously and jogged daily, no matter what the weather, every morning around the perimeter of the Narsch family estate in Wildwood. He looked a mere ten years older than his son who, at 62, was grossly overweight and terribly out of shape, a constant source of friction between the two.

As the past President and CEO of Narsch Industries, Simon enjoyed a spacious corner office on the sixth floor of the Narsch headquarters building. It overlooked a vast expanse of immaculately maintained grounds leading down to a large lake, bordered by a carefully preserved and tended stand of some of the last remaining virgin timber in Northeast Ohio. From his chestnut paneled chambers he oversaw the Narsch Foundation while still wielding a great deal more influence than anyone suspected over the company that his immigrant grandfather, had founded in the mid 1800's, especially the research and development division. His son, Arnold, had taken over the family business upon the unexpected death of his older brother, Simon Narsch the Fourth, twenty-five years ago in a diving accident off the coast of Haiti. Arnold had been there as well and had never quite shaken the feeling that his father would rather that Arnold had died instead.

"Bah! Idiots! The wrong one indeed! How could they miss?" demanded Simon, stalking back and forth behind his imposing desk like a caged lion, "Now we have to alter some of our most important plans! You know as well as I do that young Paul Brown is the real threat. All our forecasts and readings pointed to him! That old man was nothing. Nothing! We would have had no trouble with him, not when the time came. Everything was set. How could that idiot miss?"

"It was an accident, Father," soothed Arnold. "These things happen. Best laid plans of mice and men, and all that, you know. We will compensate. I have already instructed our agents to watch and wait outside of the hospital. I--"

"Instruct them to stay out of sight and follow them home from the hospital!" interrupted his father.

Arnold sighed, "I have already done so, as I started to say before you interrupted."

"Well then at least you did something right," sneered Simon, "I suspect Brown will be staying with his dear uncle, Brandon Hayes. Nevertheless, I would like to be sure before we decide what to do next."

"Maybe this will work to our advantage and we can deal with that old thorn-in-the-flesh, Hayes, once and for all as well," soothed his son.

"Indeed!" snorted the senior Narsch.

Placated for the moment, Simon Narsch sat down behind his desk, motioning for his son to leave. Arnold struggled to his feet and lumbered out of his father's office. When the heavy oak door closed, Simon slid open a desk drawer beside him and removed an intricately inlaid wooden box. Placing the box on the desk in front of him, Simon ran his hand briefly over its ornate surface. Composed entirely of apple, cherry, and other fruit woods, a series of inlaid occult symbols and runic letters decorated its exterior.

Depressing a hidden catch on the side of the box, Simon carefully slide open the top and withdrew a bright red silk bag and a round copper stand. Reaching into the bag, he took out a large dark blue sapphire and laid it reverently in the stand. Reaching around to the wall behind him, Simon pressed several buttons, which closed the heavy wool drapes and dimmed the lights. Another button and a solitary spotlight stabbed down from above spearing the crystal with a narrow beam of light.

The sapphire glowed in the intense beam. Blinking several times, Simon's old eyes focused on the gem as an incredibly beautiful five-pointed star began to burn deep within the stone. He placed his hands so that the thumb and index fingers of his right and left hands formed a triangle around the base of the crystal's copper stand. Slowly he bowed his head and began chanting softly...

Meanwhile, back at Southwest General, the Brown's were waiting anxiously in the ER waiting room. Brandon Hayes stood just outside using his cell phone. He was calling Pastor Williams' family and several key members of the Wildwood Baptist Church to let them know what had happened. Ben Brown came running out as he was hanging up.

"Uncle Brandon," he called slightly out of breath, "Dad sent me to get you. The doctor is on his way to talk with us and wants you to be there."

Brandon turned off his cell phone and headed back into the hospital with his great nephew, pausing briefly to let a police officer enter ahead of them.

Two sets of eyes watched the main entrance to the emergency room intently from across the parking lot as Brandon and his nephew headed back inside.

"I'd sure like to know what's goin' on in there," muttered the driver.

"I thought you said that you knew what was going to happen," replied his partner peevishly.

"You know what I mean! I just hate sittin' around like this."

"You know our orders..."

"Yeah, sit and wait."

Brandon and Ben followed the police officer into the waiting room and joined the others seated on the far side, near the check-in counter. Alexandria was perched nervously on the edge of her chair while Paul and Karen sat quietly nearby.

Before they could say much, a young Asian man who looked to be in his early thirties, appeared and asked for, "Mr. Hayes." He spoke with a slight Chinese accent, looking back and forth at the two men.

Brandon raised his hand in a sort of half wave. "That would be me."

"I am Doctor Pol. Li Pol. I understand that you are the one who brought Mr. Williams in."

"Well, I was the driver." Brandon gestured toward the others. "This is my nephew, Paul Brown, and his wife, Karen. They were with me as well.

"But you are the one who came first into the ER to request assistance, yes?" asked Dr. Pol.

"Uh, that's right."

"Please," continued Dr. Pol, indicating a small room nearby, "Would you and Mr. and Mrs. Brown accompany me. It would be better if we talk in private."

Karen glanced at her husband. She knew the look, and knew what they often used that type of room for. It did not bode well. She turned away and called quickly to Ben and Alexandria. She instructed them to behave themselves and said they would be out in just a few minutes.

After mentioning to the woman at the nearby check-in counter where she would be, Karen turned and followed the others into the room. As she started to close the door behind her a hand reached out and stopped the door suddenly, startling her. She looked around quickly and was surprised to see a police officer behind her.

Dr. Pol held up his hand in protest, "A moment alone please, officer."

The officer obliged and stepped quietly back out into the waiting area while Karen closed the door.

"I am very sorry," began Dr. Pol, "We did all we could. Unfortunately, Mr. Williams was unresponsive by the time you brought him here. We tried everything we could but we were unable to resuscitate him. I am...truly...sorry."

Paul wrapped his arms around his wife who began to cry quietly, blinking back tears of his own. Brandon sat down heavily. "What was the cause of death?" he asked.

"Unfortunately, privacy laws prevent me from discussing the cause of death with you. Mr. Williams did not...was not fill out a privacy release form when he came in, authorizing me, or anyone at this hospital, to release personal information concerning his case. I can only discuss his case with his next of kin. All I can legally tell you is that he has died."

Karen dabbed her eyes with a tissue. "Dr. Pol, I'm a registered nurse. I've had a lot of experience in the tropics with various types of bites and stings. A man at the airport stumbled and accidently jabbed Pastor Williams with his umbrella. However, when I first examined his shoulder it looked more as if something stung him rather than simply being poked with a blunt umbrella tip. Instead of a contusion, there was a bluish-white spot with bright red lines radiating out from the center. Could there have been something contaminating the end of the umbrella that caused that?

Dr. Pol lowered his voice and leaned forward, "I know I'm not supposed to say anything, but I will tell you this. From what I have observed, Mrs. Brown, I believe you may be correct. It appears that something was injected into Mr. Williams' shoulder, causing a detrimental neurological effect. What, I do not know. Neurology is not my specialty. I do know, however, that it was too fast acting for a typical infectious pathogen. It was much more along the lines of a neurotoxin from a venomous bite or sting. It is...highly irregular."

"Hence the police officer outside," said Brandon, "You had to report it to the local police to be investigated."

Dr. Pol nodded, "Yes, I hope you understand. Again, I am very, very sorry for your loss. Now, I must let the officer in so he can take your statements. Someone from the hospital will be along shortly to ask about next of kin contacts for Mr. Williams. Please, if there is anything further I can do for you, you can contact me through the hospital later."

Dr. Pol opened the door and stepped out into the waiting area, holding the door for the police officer to enter the room. Paul Brown called Ben and Alex in through the open door as well. Li Pol smiled sadly at the Brown's children as they passed by. "This part never gets any easier," he said sadly to himself.

About forty-five minutes later, the officer left with a stack of statements and a hospital representative stepped into the room with some more papers. "Hello. My name is Ms. Hamblyn. Please accept my condolences," she said, "Just a few more forms. I need to find out who the next of kin is and how to get in touch with whomever will be in handling Mr. Williams' affairs."

"Most of his family lives out of town," answered Brandon Hayes, "All but his daughter, Janet. She lives in Wildwood. I think his oldest son, John, Jr., is the executor though. He lives in Colorado. His attorney, Chuck Krankovich, can tell you for sure. I believe he has a copy of Pastor Williams' will on file in his office. He can probably fax you whatever information you need and make any necessary arrangements. I...I've got his number right here."

Brandon wrote down Chuck Krankovich's name and number and filled out a few of the forms to the best of his ability. When he finished Mrs. Hamblyn, thanked him for his help and said that the hospital would contact Mr. Krankovich and the next of kin.

Brandon and the Brown's gathered their things together and slowly walked out of the hospital. Heavy dark clouds had moved in, threatening rain. Wearily they climbed inside the van. Brandon put his key in the ignition and started the motor but did not put the van in gear right away.

The clock on the dash glowed 9:16 AM. Pastor Williams was gone.

"We should call people," began Brandon.

"Yes, we should," agreed Paul, "But we need to call Someone else first." With that, Paul bowed his head silently. The others in the van followed his example. Paul began to pray quietly as tears began to flow in the van. "Oh, Lord," he began, "You have said in Your Word, 'Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints'..."

"Well, that's that!" said the driver of the Jaguar, as he watched the Browns and Brandon climb into their van. "That old guy must be dead for sure."

Suddenly he nudged his partner in the ribs, "Hey, what'er they doin' now?"

"Praying, I suppose, you imbecile," replied the thin man. "You know how these 'Born-again' types are. They are locked into that unenlightened, backward Judeo-Christian spiritual concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful god who exists outside of, and apart from, the universe but never seems to do anything for them. Still, it often gives them great comfort to pretend to talk with their god at times like this. I often wonder--"

The chirping of the thin man's cell phone interrupted his thoughts.

"Yes," he answered, "I see... Yes... Understood."

He clicked his phone shut and turned to his partner, "They have confirmed that the man who died is the Reverend John Williams. He is, or rather was, the pastor of the Wildwood Baptist Church that occupies the property in question. We are to follow the van discreetly and determine where Mr. Paul Brown will be staying. Having done so we are to return to the hotel and await directions for when and where the next attempt on Mr. Brown will be made."

Inside the van, Paul Brown had finished praying. Karen had sat in the back with Alexandria who asked if she could pray too so they prayed together. When they finished Ben asked to pray as well. Brandon closed their impromptu prayer meeting a few minutes later and then, after making sure that everyone was seated and buckled in, he put the van in gear and pulled out of the parking space, heading for the exit.

The driver of the dark gray Jaguar started his car up at the same time and pulled out smoothly a few car lengths behind them. He carefully maintained his distance as the red van ahead of him turned right onto Bagley road and headed for the highway. The van's right turn signal began flashing as it approached the entrance ramp for I-71 south but it abruptly turned off into a fast food place just before the highway. Cursing, the driver of the Jaguar had to drive by rather than risk following them into the restaurant. He stepped on the gas and accelerated, looking for a place to turn around. "Have to go 'round," he said, "Keep an eye on 'em, will ya?"

The Jaguar headed under the highway and made a U-turn at the next intersection. He circled around while the church van slowly worked it way up to the drive-through menu board. Doubling back, he pulled into a gas station across the street and waited.

"That's interesting," remarked Brandon Hayes, as they waited in line at the drive-through.

"What's that?" asked Paul.

"That car," said his uncle pointing across the road at a dark gray Jaguar pulling into a gas station. "That car just passed us as we pulled in here. Just a few moments later it came back down on the other side of the road, turned around, and pulled into that gas station."

"Maybe they need gas?"

"Why did they park away from the pumps, then? Besides, the car looks awfully familiar. I think I saw it at the airport, too. It looks just like the Jag that almost hit me when I headed back out to the van after letting Pastor Williams know where I was parked."

"Well, now that you mention it, it does seem a bit familiar. Looks sort of like the car that pulled abruptly into the hospital behind us. I though he must have been in a hurry, just like us, because he narrowly missed a truck. I only got a glimpse of it, though, as I was somewhat preoccupied at the time."

Ben spoke up from behind, "I saw that car at the hospital too, Dad! I saw it parked there when we left. There were two men sitting in it and it pulled out behind us as we left."

"If I were of a suspicious nature," observed Brandon, "I would say it almost looks like they were following us."

"Oh, Uncle Brandon," objected Karen, "Why would someone be following us! I think you're just a bit jumpy after what's happened. Pastor Williams' death was so sudden and unexpected that I think we are all a little on edge. Let's just get some food and head back to Wildwood where we can all get some rest and decide what to do next."

Brandon Hayes pulled the van up to the menu board. Alexandria watched wide-eyed from the back seat as they placed their orders. The Browns had not gone through a drive-through in Hawaii and she was too young to remember them from the last time she had been in the States. There were no drive-throughs in Tunoa and fast food was virtually nonexistent.

"But...but, where's the food come from?" she stammered.

A light sprinkle began as they pulled up to pay at the first window. By the time they collected their food and drove away from the window, the rain picked up in intensity. Brandon flipped on the lights and the wipers as he pulled to one side of the parking lot and parked for a moment while Paul and Karen passed around the food and drinks. After Paul asked Ben to give thanks for their food, he carefully took a sip of his coffee while the others began to eat. Making sure the lid was secure and the cup was securely ensconced in the cup holder, Brandon pulled out onto the road and made an immediate right onto the highway entrance ramp. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the gray Jaguar pull out of the gas station and turn onto the ramp as well.

The old van accelerated smoothly up the ramp and merged with the traffic. The southbound traffic was not much lighter than the northbound, though the morning rush was nearly over. They reminisced about Pastor Williams and shed a few more tears as they headed down the road. Ben, in the back seat, became engrossed in the passing scenery as his sister nodded off with her head on her mother's lap. He eventually fell asleep as well. The others gradually lapsed into silence, grieving for their beloved pastor.

Meanwhile, Brandon watched the traffic carefully in his rear view mirror and noticed the mysterious gray car that had followed them onto the highway and was maintaining a discreet distance behind them.

As they headed down the interstate, Paul borrowed Brandon's cell phone and called his old friend Kevin Farnham. Paul and Kevin had practically grown up together and had been friends since kindergarten. Both boys trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior while still in the sixth grade at Wildwood Baptist Church under Pastor Williams' ministry. They had graduated from Wildwood High School together but Kevin had gone into his father's contracting business while Paul had gone off to college and the Air Force. Kevin had been very active at church until his wife, Rebecca, had lost a child that they were expecting a couple years earlier.

"Kevin," said Paul into the phone, "Hi, how's Becca and the kids? Yeah, we're fine. A little tired but fine... Yeah, it was a long flight; good, but long... Karen sends her love... Yes we're headed to Uncle Brandon's house now. Listen, I wanted to tell you that something has happened to Pastor Williams. I didn't know if you would have heard by now but he's gone. Gone to be with the Lord... Well, we don't know exactly. All we know is that he got poked with an umbrella at the airport and there must have been something on it. By the time we got him to Southwest General, he was completely non-responsive. Karen couldn't believe how fast it affected him... Yes, it was all very sudden. A few minutes later and he was gone. Just that fast... Yeah, Uncle Brandon called Bill and Janet Bartlett earlier. He also got a hold of Chuck Krankovich as well. Brother Krankovich said he was going to call some of the church members. Janet was going to call her brother, John, Jr., out in Colorado and her sister Julie in Maryland... Yeah, I'm sure that they will be coming in to help make their dad's funeral arrangements... No, I'm not sure about the others. George and his family might be able to make it from England but I doubt Jackie and her family can get back from Mongolia in time. It'll take them a couple days just to get to the nearest airport. They have to fly into to the capital before they can in order to find a flight back to the States. They're even further away than we were in Tunoa." They chatted for a few more minutes, arranged to meet later, and said goodbye.

Paul folded the phone shut and handed it back to his uncle. Both men sat lost in their own for a few minutes. Brandon finally broke the silence. "Paul," he began, "Tell me again what happened at the airport."

Paul paused for a moment, so much had happened that it seemed days ago. Doing his best he recounted the events inside the airport while his uncle listened closely.

"What did the guy with umbrella look like again?" Brandon asked.

"He was small, thin. Said he had a bad knee. That it gave out on him. That's why he stumbled. But, now that I think about it, Karen's right, he didn't limp on his way out. I didn't pay much attention to it at the time because I was more concerned with Pastor Williams and the bags. Why do you ask?"

"Well," said Brandon, "I have been trying to figure out what's bothering me. Shortly before you came out of the terminal, a small thin man carrying an umbrella came hurrying out and jumped into a dark gray Jaguar parked just ahead of me. He seemed upset. I heard him griping to the driver about missing someone at the airport. I remember the car because it almost hit me when they pulled in, that and the fact that it seems to have been following us ever since we left the hospital."

"You mean that car that you pointed out when we stopped for breakfast?"

"Uh-huh. If you look behind us, you'll see it about five cars back. I've sped up and slowed down several times yet it always maintains about the same distance."

"Why would somebody be following us?" interrupted Karen from the back, "Maybe it's just a coincidence."

"There's an easy way to find out. We're coming up on our exit. Let's see what they do."

Brandon put his turn signal on and drifted to the right as he approached the exit ramp. The rain was falling a little harder now as he slowed the van to a stop at the bottom of the ramp. "Here they come," he said.

The traffic light at the bottom of the ramp changed to green and Brandon made a left onto Center Road. Paul and Karen both looked over their shoulders and, sure enough, the suspicious car followed right behind. "What now?" asked Karen, starting to feel concerned for the first time.

"Let me try something," said Brandon, "I'll head along Center and then turn off on Ridge Road. If they are still following us, I'll head down Bellus toward Hinckley Lake. If need be I'll take a spin around the lake and we'll see just how determined they are."

They headed down the road with Brandon keeping a close eye on the car behind them. He had training in evasive driving maneuvers and was confident that they would have no trouble getting away if necessary. The Jaguar maintained its distance as they approached the light at the center of Hinckley and followed them south onto Ridge Road. They breathed a collective sigh of relief, however, when the car did not follow them as they turned left onto Bellus Road.

"See, you guys were just imagining things!" said Karen.

Paul and Brandon looked at each other. They did not share her confidence. Yet, as they headed down the road, the car did not reappear right away and they began to think that maybe she was right after all.

Alex stirred next to her mother. "Where are we?" she asked.

"On our way to Uncle Brandon's house," answered her mother.

Ben began to stir in the back seat as well. He yawned and sat up, stretching his arms lazily over his head while looking around and the countryside streaming by outside of the windows. "Dad," he said as they headed down a hill and slowed for a stop sign, "There's that same car I saw at the hospital."

Brandon glanced up at the rear view mirror. "Ben's right," he said, "They must have passed Bellus, then doubled back thinking it would throw us off if we were getting suspicious. Well, I've got a few tricks of my own."

e accelerated through the intersection, heading towards Hinckley Lake. Just before the lake, Brandon abruptly turned right on West Drive and headed up the hill, careful not to exceed the speed limit yet not using his turn signal. A few hardy walkers and joggers were milling about the picnic area getting ready for a brisk jaunt around the lake. Two dedicated anglers headed toward a favorite fishing spot near the top of the dam as the van reached the crest of the hill. Hayes slowed and put his turn signal on as if he were going to pull over in the parking area where the two fishermen had parked their truck and asked Paul to watch for the Jaguar.

"There they are!" said Paul, "They are turning slowly onto the road right now."

Brandon had angled the van into the parking area taking advantage of the crest of the hill and the curve in the road to hide them temporarily from the pursuing car. "Good! Now, tell me when you can't see them."

"Can't see them!"

Brandon gunned the van and pulled quickly back out onto the road. "Keep watching!" he called out.

"Still don't see them," said Paul as he braced himself in his seat. Karen and the kids were hanging on tight as well, wide-eyed. The old van accelerated around several curves and through several dips and rises as Brandon concentrated on the road ahead through the steady swish-swish of the wiper blades.

"What's your plan?" asked Karen worriedly.

"Well," answered Brandon, "I'm counting on them coming up the hill very slowly, waiting to see if we had indeed pulled over and if we were getting out of the van. At least that's what I would do if I was them. Anyway, when they get up to the parking area and find out we're not there I expect that they'll think we're on to them and will speed up to try and catch up with us. Either that or they'll break off and we may never know who they are or why they are following us. I'm betting that they'll follow us."

"What then?" asked Paul.

"There is a spot coming up on the left where I can pull over and back the van up into the bushes. It's not a regular parking area but I've parked there before."

"What if somebody is already parked there?" interrupted Karen.

"I'm trusting the Lord to have it reserved for us," smiled Brandon, looking up at Karen briefly in the mirror. "Hang on, we're almost there!"

The van came around a sharp curve at the top of a small hill and Brandon pulled abruptly off the road and then hurriedly reversed the van behind some bushes and small trees. The new growth hid the van completely from anyone who may have been following them and the curve in the road nearly obscured the view of any oncoming traffic as well. They waited anxiously for a few moments when suddenly the dark gray Jaguar raced by.

Brandon paused until the car had gone around the bend and was out of sight. "Tally-ho!" he chuckled as he pulled back out onto the road, "Now. let's see how they like being followed!"

"You dolt!" bellowed the thin man to his partner, " You lost them!".

"Hey! I thought they was gonna pull over back there! I didn't wanna spook 'em. I already thought we spooked 'em once earlier. They can't be very far ahead though. Not unless they pulled off into that boathouse area back there, that is. We haven't seen 'em in any of the other picnic areas that we've passed. Can't see 'em stopping off for a picnic in this weather. 'Sides, you're the one that stuck the wrong guy with the salamander juice."

"Never mind about that! You just concentrate on finding that van!"

The car headed rapidly down the road when the red van suddenly appeared, as if out of nowhere, following behind them. The driver looked in his mirror, shocked that he had so badly misjudged his quarry. Momentarily distracted, he did not see two deer that bounded out of the woods just in front of him.

"Watch out!" yelled the thin man, grabbing for the wheel.

They skidded sideways, missing the deer by mere inches. The driver of the Jaguar fought to regain control when he hit a muddy patch on the road and the car went into a tight spin. Careening out of control the car left the road, bouncing through the parking area of a popular scenic overlook near the southern end of the lake as two startled joggers desperately dove out of the way.

"Oh no!" cried Karen as the Jaguar smashed through the wooden railing and plunged over the steep hillside.

Brandon pulled the van quickly into the parking lot. "I didn't mean for that to happen!" he said, "I only wanted to startle them. Please, God, let them be all right!"

Paul jumped out of the van as it skidded to a stop. Karen was already opening the side door as he reached for the latch. "Uncle Brandon! Call 911! I'll take Karen down and see what we can do! Ben, throw me that first-aid kit from

under your seat!"

Ben grabbed the kit and tossed it to his dad. Paul caught it and ran with Karen to the side of the hill. The rain was thankfully letting up a little as they carefully made their way down, half sliding, half crawling, through the brush to the overturned car nearly 100 feet below. They were soaked and mud covered by the time they reached it. It was strangely silent as they paused at the bottom of the hill to take stock of the situation.

"There's the driver!" said Paul, pointing to the driver's side of the wrecked car, toward the front.

Karen came around the car from the back and looked at him. He was half out of the car but the lower part of his body was pinned under the wreckage. His head was at an unnatural angle. Karen shook her head but felt for a pulse anyway. "Looks like he died instantly. Do you see the other guy anywhere?"

"No, he must have been thrown clear on the way down. He could be anywhere in this brush. We'll have to fan out and look for him."

They separated and began searching in a circular pattern out from the car. Paul went to the right and Karen went to the left. Karen was about 20 feet up the hill from the car when she heard someone moaning. "Paul! Over here! He's alive!"

Paul made his way as fast as he could over to where Karen had found the other man, barely conscious, wedged up against the base of a small cottonwood tree. Brandon was making his way down the hill by this time as well. Breathing heavily Paul asked, "How is he?"

"He's in bad shape. He's bleeding internally. Sounds like his lungs are filling with blood. Look at this."

Karen pointing to a stick protruding from his side, "He must have hit a branch or one of those stubs when he was thrown out of the car and it broke off in him. I don't think he's going to make it."

Paul leaned over for a closer look when the man's eyes fluttered open. "You!" rasped the dying man, "You were supposed to die today, not me. This…this is most distressing..."

"Don't try to talk," said Paul as Karen did the best she could for the man, "We'll get you out of here. Help's on the way."

"N-no," the thin man panted, "I-I am not going to survive. I am dying. I welcome death. It-it will be a great release. We shall contend again in-in another life. Perhaps the next time you will not be so fortunate."

"Next time?" Paul shook his head. "I'm sorry, there will be no next time. According to the Bible, 'it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.'"

D-don't give me that superstitious drivel!" spat the man angrily, "The Bible is nothing but myth! are a fool to believe such fairy tales!"

No," countered Paul, "The Bible is not a fairy tale. It is the Word of God. It is Truth; God's divinely inspired revelation to man. It tells us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going."

"I-I know who I am. I know wh-where I came from, and where I am going! I am an en-enlightened human being, unlike you. I c-came from Mother Earth through a multitude of lifetimes and eventually, af-after a few more cycles of reincarnation, I will achieve a perfect state of union with the universe."

"I'm afraid your wrong, my friend. You came from the creative hand of God, the Creator of heaven and earth. He gave you life. He wants to give you eternal life. The Bible tells us that we are 'fearfully and wonderfully made'. However, it also warns us that we have 'all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."

"Bah! Don't talk...don't talk to me about sin! It-it is you and your kind who have sinned, if there is such a thing! You, with your backward concepts of a false creator god who-who arbitrarily grants a heavenly paradise to those who placate him and capriciously condemns those w-willing to think for themselves to a burning hell. I-I find the whole concept repugnant and backward. I want no part of some old...some old man sitting up on a cloud waiting to cast a lightning bolt at me if-if I don't kowtow sufficiently.

"Besides, I am not your friend. You-you represent those responsible for raping and pillaging this planet. I have s-sacrificed my life to nurture and protect my Mother. You are the one who will suffer when you die. N-not me!"

The man paused to cough. Red foam flecked at his lips.

"Listen," said Paul earnestly, "You know that's not true. The Bible says in John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' The world was created perfect and the man, Adam, was created perfect as well.

"Unfortunately, sin entered into the world. Romans 5:12 tells us that, 'Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned'. Now we are warned that '...the wages of sin is death', in Romans 6:23, 'but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.' That's why the Bible says that God sent His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is literally 'God...manifest in the flesh', as Paul told Timothy, to pay for our sin by shedding His precious blood when He died in our place on the cross."

The man coughed up some more blood. He was fading fast, yet clenched his teeth and spat, "Jesus was-was not a god! He was just a man. A m-man with great spiritual insight. An ava-avatar, maybe. But he died and went back to Mother Earth, just as...just as I am about to do. If you possessed any-any spiritual discernment you would recognize that he-he was reincarnated as other great spiritual leaders such as...such as the Buddha, Mohammed, and possibly the-the Dali Lama..." His voice grew weaker and trailed off as his eyes began to glaze over.

"Please," begged Paul, "You need to trust Christ as your Savior before it's too late! You know that you are dying. Right now, you can admit that you are a sinner and confess the Lord Jesus Christ. You can believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead and be saved. It's with your heart that you believe unto righteousness; and it's with your mouth that confession is made unto salvation. Romans 10:13 says, 'For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.' Trust Christ as your Savior now! 'Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation...'"

"Sal-salvation! That is nothing more...nothing more than a-a pipe dream! You have nothing I...I... Wha-what's happening? N-no! No! It's not supposed to be this way! This...this can't be real! Aaargh! Help! Help me! The fire...burning...burning! N-no! Nooo!" The man grimaced and arched his back. His body went rigid and then fell back limp.

Karen felt quickly for a pulse but there was none. He was gone, gone into a Christ-less eternity.

Brandon, who had arrived while Paul was talking with the man, shook his head slowly back and forth. "I'm so sorry," he apologized to the dead man, "I didn't mean for this to happen."

Paul stood up and wrapped his arms around his uncle. Sirens blared in the distance, coming closer every second. The rain had subsided but his shoulder was still getting wet from his uncle's tears.

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