Read Avenger of Blood Online

Authors: John Hagee

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Avenger of Blood (8 page)

“Good. You can leave first thing in the morning.”

“And you can continue negotiating with your family. They'll come around. But keep one thing in mind, Naomi.” He reached out with an index finger and lifted her chin. “I'll be back to check on you. Don't disappoint me.”

Naomi recoiled, slapping his hand away from her face. “Don't ever touch me again.”

“And don't think of cutting me out. Like it or not, Naomi, we're partners now.”

6

PETER STIFLED A YAWN. Antony had roused him and Rebecca from bed well before daylight to report what had happened at Naomi's. The three of them had gathered in the dining room, and like Rebecca, Peter was both relieved and dismayed to hear the lawyer's news.

“At least we know who took him,” Antony said, “and that he's all right. She won't let anything happen to Victor—not if she's going to use him for negotiation.”

“Thank God for that,” Rebecca said, her relief expressed in a long exhalation that made her shoulders drop noticeably. “But I won't be able to rest until he's home with me.”

“What do you think we should do next?” Peter asked.

Antony relayed their intent to watch the house and follow Naomi. “She could lead us to wherever Victor is. Or . . . ” He hesitated, looking at Peter to gauge his reaction. “Or we could make some kind of offer, find a way to meet her demand—if that's what you want to do.”

Lost in thought, Peter did not answer. He recalled the last time he had seen Naomi, the day she had arrived in Ephesus to try to claim the estate entirely for herself. When she had discovered that, for the very first time, she was unable to intimidate him, she had offered to share the estate with Peter, casually saying that since Jacob and Rebecca would never return from Devil's Island, the two of them could divide the assets. Infuriated at her callous dismissal of their brother and sister, not to mention her betrayal of their father, Peter had spurned Naomi's offer and ordered her off the premises. Just thinking about it now tied his stomach in knots.

“Absolutely not,” Rebecca said quickly. “We can't cater to Naomi. She has gone against everything our family stands for.” Then she sighed, and her voice lost its adamant tone as she asked, “But what will happen to Victor if we don't . . .”

“We could go to the authorities,” Antony suggested, “although I'm not sure how much good it would do. Even though the persecution has ended, there are lingering hostilities toward Christians from some quarters. So I don't know if official help would be forthcoming, or how effective it would be. They're likely to view it as a mere family dispute and not want to get involved.”

“I vowed I would not let Naomi so much as set foot in Father's office ever again,” Peter said. “But if it means getting Victor back, well . . .”

Rebecca shook her head. “No, Peter. As much as I want my baby, you can't just hand over the business to Naomi. It wouldn't be right.”

“I would never hand over the business completely,” Peter said thoughtfully. “But we could offer her a compromise.”

“What do you have in mind?” Antony asked.

“It's not really the money she wants,” Peter said.

“She isn't after one of the largest businesses in the Empire?” Antony asked. “I find that hard to believe.”

“That's not the ultimate issue with Naomi.” Peter noticed Rebecca's raised eyebrows and explained, “Oh, she loves all the privileges of wealth, and she spends money as if every grain of sand on the seashore was a gold coin. But that's not why she wants the shipping business.”

“Then what does she want?” Rebecca asked. “Is it just to torment us?”

“No. She wants control. Recognition. And she wants to prove Father was wrong.”

“Wrong about what?” Rebecca frowned, obviously not following Peter's point.

“Naomi is bitter,” he said, “because Father refused to consider her as his successor. She learned the business before Jacob and I were old enough to read and write, and she was inherently smarter at it than I'll ever hope to be. But she's a woman, and therefore Father never appreciated her business acumen. ‘Women run households,' he once told her, ‘not worldwide enterprises.'”

“I imagine that didn't set well with her,” Rebecca acknowledged. “Naomi could never abide being told no.”

“I almost—
almost
—felt sorry for her when she came back to Ephesus. She proposed splitting the business with me. ‘We could work together,' she said. ‘You could run the office here in Ephesus, and I'll run the office in Rome.'

“Of course, I figured she would try to make the Rome office the main headquarters for the business and turn Ephesus into just another branch office. And eventually she would try to cut me out altogether. So I wouldn't have any part of it.” He turned to Antony. “I still don't like the idea one bit,” Peter said, “but you asked if I would be willing to make an offer to Naomi. I guess that would be it. Perhaps she would settle for running the Rome office.”

Antony contemplated the suggestion for a moment. “Jacob would have to agree to it. And Rebecca, of course.”

Peter noted the way Antony's voice seemed to soften when he said Rebecca's name, yet he couldn't help wondering why Antony never looked directly at her when he spoke. Did he have some kind of problem with Rebecca?

“I'll do whatever you think is best,” Rebecca said. “But I doubt Jacob will ever agree.”

Peter turned his attention back to his sister. “He might if you asked him.”

“I'll mention it to Jacob,” Antony said, “and you can talk to him when he gets home.” He stood and reached for his cloak, preparing to leave. “I should go now, in fact. I promised to spell Jacob and Marcellus first thing this morning; they've been watching Naomi's house all night.”

“I'll recruit some others to help, as you requested—” Peter broke off as Marcellus entered, his cloak thrown back and his face red from exertion.

“I ran all the way here,” he said, then stopped to catch his breath.

“What happened?” Peter was instantly worried.

“Where's Jacob?” Antony asked.

“Following Damian,” Marcellus announced, still gulping for air.

“Damian?” Rebecca jumped to her feet. “What's going on?” she demanded. “I didn't know Damian was here.”

“At daybreak,” Marcellus said, “a carriage pulled up to the house.” He unfastened his cloak and tossed it on one of the
triclinia
. “Shortly after that, Damian came out, followed by a woman. She was—”

“Was it Naomi?”

Just like a lawyer,
Peter thought wryly as Antony spoke. Always interrupting with a question. Always probing the facts.

“No, she looked like a servant,” Marcellus said. “Probably a wet nurse. She was carrying a baby.”

“So Victor was there, after all.” Antony blew out a long breath.

Rebecca gasped. “Damian has my baby?” She looked suddenly ill, and Peter moved to put an arm around her.

“They got into the carriage and drove off. Jacob and I followed, running as fast as we could. Naturally, we couldn't catch them, but we managed to run far enough to tell which road they were taking. They were headed north, out of the city.”

Antony filled a goblet with water and handed it to Marcellus, who drained the goblet, then said, “Jacob left to find transportation, and I came here to tell you that he's going after Damian.”

“Do you have any idea where they were going?” Peter asked. He tried to summon a mental picture of the road they would have taken, but since he seldom ventured farther than the office at the harbor, he wasn't familiar with the outlying areas.

“It was the highway that goes to Smyrna and on to Pergamum, although we don't know their destination. Jacob has probably gotten a horse by now, but I don't know if there's any way he can catch up with them.”

“He will eventually. And I think you and I should follow him,” Antony said to Marcellus. “I'll go into town and find a couple of horses for hire.”

“I'll take care of that,” Peter said. “My litter should be ready by now.” When he had started working at the shipping office, Quintus had arranged for eight of the company's cargo handlers to arrive at the villa early each morning. They hoisted the canopied sedan's long poles and transported Peter through the hills to the harbor, then repeated the process at the end of the workday. With his lame ankle, Peter would never have been able to manage the long walk there and back each day. “When I get to the office,” he said, “I'll send a couple of our delivery horses to you.”

“No!” Everyone turned as Rebecca raised her voice. “Send a carriage instead,” she instructed Peter. “I'm going with them.”

After a startled moment when no one spoke, Antony asked, “Are you sure that's what you want to do? It's a long journey, and we may not even . . .” He paused briefly to rephrase his thought. “And we may have trouble finding the baby.”

“My son needs his mother,” Rebecca said, her shoulders squared in a determined stance, “and I intend to be there when you find him.”

It was past noon when Jacob reined in his horse and dismounted. He had reached the first of two halts between Ephesus and Smyrna. They were small outposts, located every dozen or so miles, where military couriers carrying official dispatches could change mounts. Over the centuries, the conquering legions of Rome had been supported by a vast corps of civil engineers. The partnership had resulted in a system of well-traveled roads that not only allowed for the movement of large numbers of troops but also linked the far reaches of the Empire commercially. At every mile along the fifty thousand miles of highway and two hundred thousand miles of lesser paved and gravel roads, a round stone pillar marked the distance to the capital. Indeed, all roads eventually led to Rome.

Knowing he was at least an hour behind the kidnappers, Jacob had not intended to stop until his horse could go no farther. He had stopped now, however, because it had occurred to him that if Damian had wanted to stop for some reason, he would likely have done so at one of these army halts. Although, Jacob had noticed, Damian had not been wearing a uniform when he'd left Naomi's that morning. Had he quit the army? Perhaps he was simply on leave; tribunes often wore their own clothing when they were not serving a commission.

The soldiers told Jacob they had seen quite a few carriages on the road, but none of them had stopped at the outpost.

Jacob mounted again and continued riding toward Smyrna. He could not imagine where Damian would be taking Victor. Why was he leaving Ephesus in the first place? If Naomi wanted to trade Victor for the shipping business, why would she send him away? It didn't make sense. But then, very little in life made sense anymore, and hadn't since the day he had dusted the ground with the imperial incense and refused to say two little words:
Lord Caesar.

He pushed the animal as fast as he dared, trying to make up the lost time as he continually searched the wide road ahead. A cool front began blowing in, and the wind whipped around him, chapping his face.

Two hours later Jacob stopped at the second halt, again inquiring about a carriage that was carrying a man and a woman with a baby. He began to describe Damian in some detail when the soldier stopped him.

“What makes you think they would stop here?” the soldier asked. “This is an army outpost, not an inn for travelers.”

“I know that,” Jacob replied, “but the man is a military officer. I need to get a message to him, and I'm not sure what his next stop was supposed to be.” It wasn't a lie, Jacob thought. He intended to deliver a message to Damian in no uncertain terms.

Unsuccessful again, Jacob pushed on. It was almost nightfall by the time he reached Smyrna. The wind had died down, but the overcast sky had turned into a fine fall mist. Like it or not, he would have to stop.

Even if Damian were traveling past Smyrna, he would also have to break for the night, especially traveling with an infant. He hadn't been that far ahead of Jacob, so Damian was probably somewhere in the same city right now.
But where?
Jacob wondered. How was he supposed to find Damian? How was he supposed to rescue Victor?

Exhausted, chilled, and famished—he had not eaten anything since dinner the previous evening—Jacob stopped at a rundown inn at the edge of town. He turned his weary mount over to an unreliable-looking stable boy and went inside. Perhaps things would look better after he had a warm meal and a few hours' sleep.

The absurdity of the situation struck Antony as he looked at his traveling companions: a white-haired preacher, without doubt the oldest man Antony had ever seen; a middle-aged, recently retired medical officer whose stern demeanor and ramrod bearing gave away his previous occupation as a soldier; and a beautiful young mother who managed to maintain a quiet dignity in the midst of turmoil. The diverse group was headed to an unknown destination, without any notion of a plan to execute upon their arrival.
Absurd
.

“Ouch!” The Apostle rubbed his head where it had struck the side of the coach as the vehicle hit another uneven patch of pavement. “My innards haven't been jostled this much since I rode out storms on the Sea of Galilee in a small fishing boat.”

“I'll tell the driver to slow down.” Antony started to rap on the wall of the enclosed vehicle to get the driver's attention, but hesitated when the old man grunted again. He quickly looked over at John, who was grinning.

“Tell him to go faster,” the Apostle said.

Antony returned the smile and settled back, leaving it up to the driver to determine the speed. It was the first time he had met the elderly preacher. He had heard about the legendary leader of the Christians in Ephesus from his mother, who had often talked about John, but Antony had to admit he hadn't paid much attention. Helena tended to ramble, and he frequently found himself nodding at his mother without really hearing what she was saying. He did recall, however, a striking description: she had referred to John as “an ageless treasure in an ancient container.”

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