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Authors: John Hagee

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BOOK: Avenger of Blood
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“Your sister's child is missing,” Antony continued diplomatically, “and we simply wanted to find out if you knew anything about it.”

“I didn't even know Rebecca was married.” Naomi's mouth curved in a slight smile.

“You cold-hearted—” Jacob had had enough. “Where is Victor?” he demanded. “Where is the baby?” He started to lunge toward the conniving woman—he no longer thought of her as his sister—but Marcellus held him back.

Jacob was angry enough to throttle her, and Naomi must have realized it. She blanched and took a step backward.

“Calm down,” she said, “and I'll tell you what you want to know.”

The slave who had let them in suddenly reappeared in the doorway. Naomi said, “It's all right, Lepidus. You may wait in the other room. If I need you, I'll call.” The tall, well-built man bowed almost imperceptibly toward his mistress, then backed out of the room.

“Start talking,” Jacob said. He shook off Marcellus's restraining hand, nodding to indicate he had himself under control.

Naomi sat down, carefully arranged the folds of her skirt, and took a deep breath. For the first time, Jacob realized that she was not quite as collected as she had first appeared. Beneath the cool surface, she was deeply troubled.

“You're right,” she said. “I do know what happened.” When Jacob gave her another murderous look, she quickly added, “The baby is not here. But I can assure you that he's safe and well cared for.”

The news that Victor was all right brought Jacob a bit of relief, but it raised as many questions as it answered. “Where is he? Who took him? Who has him now?”

Again, Marcellus put a friendly hand on Jacob's shoulder and squeezed, urging him to slow down. “You can imagine how worried Rebecca is,” Marcellus said to Naomi. “Please tell us where we can find the child, and we won't disturb you any longer.”

She did not look at Marcellus but continued staring at her brother. “That information will cost you.”

Cost me?
Jacob wondered. He should have known that whatever information Naomi had, it would come at a price. He started to verbally assault her, then held back, gritting his teeth in frustration. The important thing was getting Victor back; after that he would say whatever he wanted to Naomi.

Assuming a polite but official tone, Antony said, “I suggest you tell us where he is immediately. You have no legal right to the child.”

“But I do have a legal right to my share of our father's estate.”

Jacob was outraged. “Father disowned you.”

“Father was a traitor who forfeited his entire estate to Caesar.”

“You're the traitor!”

Jacob would gladly have continued the shouting match with his sister, but Antony again intervened. “The court will decide how to settle the estate,” he told Naomi, “but I think you know that you're on very shaky legal grounds. It's unlikely you will ever see a
denarius
of the family fortune.”

“Give up, Naomi.” Jacob managed to say the words without shouting, but bitterness kept a bite in his voice. “You have a piece of paper signed by a dead emperor—a dictator who was despised and has now been dishonored. A worthless piece of paper, that's all you have.”

“You're wrong. I have something else.” Naomi had regained her composure. Her smile was malicious, and it made him go cold inside. “I have Victor.”

She stood again and this time looked directly at Antony. “Tell the family you represent,” she said, heavily emphasizing the word
family
, “that I will drop my legal claim against the estate, and I will see that Victor is returned to his mother. But I want something in return.”

“And what is that?” Antony asked.

“I want the shipping business.”

Jacob exploded. “You want
what?”

“I want control of the shipping business. You and Peter and Rebecca can have all the rest. The villa here, the one in Rome. The vineyard in Gaul, the olive groves on the Mediterranean coast. You can have all the bank accounts. I'm sure there are substantial amounts stashed away—more than enough for all of you to live in luxury the rest of your lives. All I want is to run the shipping business.”

“You're out of your mind.” Jacob could not believe what he had just heard, even though he knew Naomi was right: even without the shipping income they would have no financial worries. But money was not the issue. The shipping empire had defined his father. It was quintessentially Abraham, and the thought of Naomi seizing it—by kidnapping Abraham's grandson, of all things—was beyond comprehension.

“And you're out of time.” Naomi turned and called for Lepidus. He returned, accompanied by another slave. “Please see these gentlemen out,” she instructed them.

“Go home,” she told Jacob. “Talk it over with the
family
. You can let me know tomorrow. Or the next day. Or whenever you finally decide you want Rebecca's baby back.”

Naomi turned and started to walk away. “You'll never get away with this,” Jacob said.

She left without responding.

He looked at the others, wondering what they should do next. He was so furious, he could barely resist shoving Lepidus and the other slave out of the way and charging after Naomi.
We outnumber them,
Jacob thought.
Three of us to two of them.
The second man was not as big and foreboding as Lepidus, but he looked plenty tough.

Jacob's fingers were itching for a fight; Marcellus and Antony, however, shepherded him toward the door, the two slaves following to make sure the trio left.

Once outside, Jacob started to say something but Antony shushed him. When they'd gone a distance from the house, they stopped.

“I know you wanted to tear into them,” Antony said, “but it wouldn't have accomplished anything.”

“I won't let her get away with this,” Jacob replied in an angry whisper.

“I'm not saying you have to. But there's no sense risking our lives without knowing where Victor is.”

Marcellus said, “I listened for any sounds that would indicate a baby was nearby, but I didn't hear anything. Do you think she was telling the truth about Victor not being there?”

“I don't know,” Jacob answered. “But I'm not taking any chances. I think we should stay and watch the house.”

For the next few minutes, the three men talked it over and made a plan to spy on Naomi, in the hope she would lead them to the kidnapper.

“I'll stay with Jacob for now,” Marcellus said to Antony. “You go back to the villa and get some rest. Let Rebecca know that Victor is safe—at least, we think he is.”

“All right. I'll meet you back here in the morning and we'll trade places.”

As Antony left, Marcellus and Jacob stepped off the road and into the shadows, trying to remain unseen as they walked back to Naomi's house. They had already agreed that the stand of juniper trees just a few yards from the front door would be their hiding place, and they crept toward it.

Jacob crouched behind one of the trees and stretched out on the ground, drawing his cloak around him. He lay on his stomach, watching the house and thinking back over the meeting. Even though she had obviously been expecting them, there had been something odd about Naomi's behavior.
Not that her behavior could ever be considered normal,
he reflected. Still, it puzzled him.

Gradually his thoughts drifted from Naomi to Damian. Jacob knew he had to be somewhere nearby. With every thought of Damian, Jacob seethed.

Over and over his mind returned to the biblical accounts of the cities of refuge. They had been part of the ancient Hebrew legal code. If a man committed manslaughter—that is, if he killed another person accidentally— then he could flee to one of six designated cities for protection from those who would otherwise seek vengeance and bring upon him a disproportionate punishment. But if he intended to kill someone—if he committed murder—then he would receive the death penalty. “The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death,” Scripture said.

Jacob's first goal was to find his nephew. But after that, when Victor was back in his mother's arms, Jacob had a score to settle with Damian. He knew John's feelings on the matter. He knew what Rebecca and Peter and Marcellus thought. He knew they no longer lived under the ancient Hebrew legal code but the vaunted Roman system of justice. And he knew, as John so often quoted, that vengeance belongs to the Lord.

Jacob knew all of that, but he still could not help thinking of himself as the avenger of blood. He vowed silently,
I will make sure there is no refuge for you, Damian.

“I can't believe you did this to me.” Naomi rubbed her temples. Her head was throbbing after the nerve-wracking meeting with her brother.

Damian strutted back and forth in front of the chair where she sat. “You certainly weren't getting anything done on your own,” he said.

“So without even consulting me, you kidnap my sister's baby. And then you just show up here this afternoon with him.” She didn't bother to disguise her disbelief or her profound irritation.

“As I told you earlier—you need leverage. Something to bargain with.”

Naomi silently acknowledged that her case needed bolstering; she hadn't needed Jacob's lawyer to tell her that. But she had certainly never imagined that a squalling infant would be the solution. She'd gone along with Damian's unannounced plan—what else could she do when Jacob had shown up before she'd had time to think things through?—but she wasn't happy about it.

She wasn't happy about much of anything these days. Naomi missed Rome, and she missed her elderly husband. Lucius was attentive and devoted, even though, as a prominent senator, the demands on his time were enormous.

“And it worked,” Damian continued. “Or it will. They'll do anything to get that baby back, you wait and see. Then you can have your little shipping business to run.”

“And you can go back to Rome, or wherever the emperor sends you.” That thought certainly appealed to her. Naomi could not abide the rude, conceited—not to mention cruel—soldier who had become her stepson. Before he arrived in Ephesus ten days ago, she had only met Damian once, and that was the day he'd forced her family to make the mandatory sacrifice to Caesar.

He was here now because Lucius had been unable to make the trip with her and had thought Damian would be helpful in pursuing her case. He might be useful, she admitted, but he was certainly distasteful, and she would be relieved when he was out of her life again.

“Perhaps I will leave then,” he said, “although I have no assignment. The new emperor is not much enamored with my unique abilities.” Damian's narrow eyes beaded in an amused yet ominous glare. “Or perhaps I'll stick around and make sure my son gets his share of your new business. I'll have to manage it for him, of course, until—”

“What?” Naomi could not have heard right. Surely that was not what he'd said. “Rebecca's baby is your son?”

“That's right. The boy is mine.” Damian smiled, but it was not the expression of a proud father that creased his face. It was the oily smile of a greed-obsessed man whose behavior knew no boundaries.

Naomi did not shock easily, and she certainly had no scruples about manipulating a situation to her advantage. But somehow this kidnapping had crossed the line. Damian was not just deceitful, he had a decidedly barbaric streak—and he was the baby's father? Impossible.

With a shudder, Naomi thought of her sister. Rebecca would never have let him touch her willingly—not simply because he was repulsive, which he was. But he was the man Rebecca would hold responsible for her mother's death and her own suffering. Which meant, Naomi realized, that Damian had forced himself on Rebecca. And as much as Naomi disliked her family, as much as she wanted to wrench part of her father's fortune from them, that thought turned her stomach.

Naomi stood and approached Damian. He was barely taller than she was, and she pinned him now with an angry stare. “You neglected to tell me that important little detail.”

“We didn't have time to get around to discussing fatherhood this afternoon,” Damian said. “You had me too busy hunting down a wet nurse for the lad. I suppose we do need to keep him fed until we get what we want.”

“I know what
I
want. I want that child, and you, out of my house.”

Damian did not back down from her threatening stance. “Naomi, where are your maternal instincts?” he asked with pretended dismay. “Victor is not just your nephew; he's your grandson.”

That thought sent him into peals of laughter. “You don't like the thought of being a grandmother, do you? You think you're much too young and beautiful.”

“I don't like the thought of you being under my roof.” She could dwell on the ironic fact that she was a grandmother at the age of twenty-five later. All she could think about now was getting rid of Damian. She should never have agreed to let Lucius send him to her.

“Besides, even if I go along with your scheme,” she told him, “we can't keep the baby here. Jacob and his friends will continue looking for him, and you can be sure they'll come back. I was petrified the entire time they were here that the baby would cry and give us away. Then there would have been some kind of fight, and no telling what would have happened.”

“I wouldn't have minded that. I owe your brother for a nasty knot on my head. He almost killed me once.”

“You would have minded if they had managed to get Victor back. Or if he'd gotten hurt or killed in the process. Then your extortion scheme would have been over immediately.”

They argued hotly for a while, then much to her relief, Damian finally agreed to leave. “I know somewhere I can take the child,” he said. “Some place away from Ephesus, where Jacob and the others will never find him.”

BOOK: Avenger of Blood
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