Iwould not recommend traveling from almost the Arctic Circle to the Equatorial Middle East when planning one's world tour. The change in temperature alone will shock you. When we left Reykjavik, the temperature was around twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and here in Damascus, almost twenty-four hours later, it was nearly eighty degrees. Naturally, my body did not like this massive change, and she showed her displeasure by making me so tired I could barely walk.
I couldn’t blame the weather completely, though. We’d had a wild time in Iceland, and now we were in the cosmopolitan city of Damascus, half a world away, searching for a first-century codex that any collector of ancient manuscripts would want to find. Our new jobs had us spinning—around the world, it seemed.
Our boss Boone had given me a write-up on the scroll to read on the flight, and saying I was intrigued would be an understatement. But sometimes, even curiosity couldn’t trump exhaustion, and I’d drooled on his shoulder for most of the flight.
Once we landed, the combination of fatigue, the change in weather, and excitement made me anxious and edgy. What I really needed was a full day’s sleep in an air-conditioned room under a soft blanket. Instead, I got a dusty ride in a Jeep, with no doors or windows, to meet our client after just disembarking from the plane.
“Seriously, we can’t even shower and change,” said my best friend, Beattie, as she sat with her six-foot-five-inch frame scrunched into the Jeep beside me. “I’m absolutely certain I smell.”
I glanced over at my friend, who had never once had BO in her life, even during puberty, and smiled in a way I hoped she felt was comforting. I knew her request was more about changing clothes than about showers. As a very tall woman, her cropped pants and spaghetti-strap tank top showed a lot of skin. Damascus was a modern city, but even here, most women covered up more and were much shorter than Beattie.
“We don’t have time to go back. Our contact wants to meet immediately,” Boone said. “Here, use this,” he said, handing her his button-down shirt.
I winked at him, feeling a little brazen with this new man I was seeing and knowing he was smart enough to know Beattie’s real concern.
She slipped the men’s business shirt on and rolled the sleeves slightly. Boone was shorter but broader in the shoulders than she was, so it worked . . . if she didn’t button it. She’d just have to be okay with her ankles showing for a while longer.
I had managed to plan ahead a bit more because of a heads-up from Boone and was in a long-sleeved linen shirt and a long skirt that reached the top of my sandals. It was an outfit I would have worn in the su
mmer back home in Virginia, and while I wasn’t thrilled about it being almost eighty in November, I was glad to feel comfortable in my clothes.
“Tell us about the buyer,” Beattie shouted as our friend Frank dodged a pothole in the middle of the small road he was taking to our destination. “What do we need to know?”
Boone turned sideways to look back toward us from the front seat and said, “You two are buyers from the US. Your covers are intact from Reykjavik, so we’ll use those. The codex is, as you know, a very rare first-century text in Hebrew. It’s considered a mythic text though some might say Apocryphal since it’s reported to contain stories of Jesus as a boy.”
I shook my head. “This isn’t really our area of expertise, Boone. I’m a fairy-tale scholar, and Beattie specializes in Victorian literature.” He knew all of this, but my nerves and exhaustion were getting the better of me, and I really didn’t want to negotiate for a potentially stolen religious manuscript that was sure to upset many of the world’s Christians. “Surely someone else is better equipped.”
“Not for this kind of negotiation,” Boone said, holding my gaze. “You and Beattie have proven yourself to be wise and savvy negotiators when it comes to stolen books. There just aren’t any two people as prepared as you are.” He looked over to Beattie and then back to me. “Including me.”
I didn’t believe that
for a second. Boone was basically a non-governmental spy. He worked with governments to recover stolen manuscripts, and while he wasn’t trained about books beyond what he’d learned on his job, he knew more about most of the world’s rarest tomes than even my Uncle Fitz did, which was saying something because Fitz knew more than anyone else I’d ever met.
Still, I understood that Boone was also fairly recognizable in the book world these days, so he’d had to recruit new experts to his team. And sadly, despite the work of feminism, people the world over still seemed to underestimate two women. We’d capitalized on the patriarchy several times in our previous cases, and I wondered if we’d be called to do so again.
Now, though, I found myself distracted by our location. We’d left the city center of Damascus and were moving into what I thought of as the suburbs, where the buildings got smaller and the people more curious. I supposed it wasn’t typical to see a Jeep with five white people riding through a Syrian neighborhood, and when two of those people were huge, very muscular men, I imagined the scene was even more disconcerting.
Ivan was in the back of the Jeep, holding on to the roll bars as Frank swerved and bounced along the road.
“We’re almost there,” Frank said as he turned right onto an even smaller road.
“All right, you’re using your regular names, and our contact here goes by Ahmed. He’s a librarian and expert in ancient manuscripts. So don’t try to outsmart him about the scroll. Instead, just make your offer to buy it, say it’s for a private collector in the States, and don’t exceed our upper limit for payment, okay?”
It always sounded like these things were going to be straightforward—go in, offer money, and walk away with a new book. It never went that way.
“Do we get to know anything about who we’re actually acquiring it for? And do we know for sure that Ahmed is not the legitimate owner of the scroll?” Beattie asked.
“I’ll brief you further after the initial meeting, but for now, I think it’s best you go in without more information. You’ll see why I expect.” Boone smiled at me, but I noticed the expression didn’t reach his eyes. There was something, probably a lot of somethings, he was not telling us. But I knew better than to push. He knew what he was doing, and while I didn’t always like his methods, I’d come to trust him.
Frank pulled the Jeep to an abrupt stop. “This is as close as we can get,” he said.
Boone turned back to the front of the vehicle and said, “You’re going four blocks ahead to a two-story building on the right. It’s Ahmed’s place. Ask for him and then wait.”
Ivan hopped out of the back and waited for us to climb out. “I’ll be right behind you,”
he said, leaning very casually on the back side of the Jeep.
If the man hadn’t saved my life several times before, I might have been skeptical, but he and Frank were the best in the business, and as cliché as it sounded, I trusted them with my life.
Beattie and I headed up the road, trying to look casual. There weren’t many stores here, so our usual cover of window shopping wouldn’t work. So instead, we pretended to be engrossed in conversation, playing to what we hoped was the stereotype that women were flighty and always caught up in gossip. I even managed to giggle a couple of times.
Our conversation, though, was anything but light and frivolous. We were sharing what we observed as we walked. No one here was waving a gun around or staring at us from the top of a building with a machine gun, which was what the stereotypes of movies had me expecting, but still, these were people I didn’t know at all. All the traces of European culture were gone here, and I felt very uneasy.
Fortunately, Beattie and I were often of the same mind, so as we walked, we talked about how Euro-centric our worldview was, how limited our knowledge of other parts of the world was, and how afraid this made us. “I get how people who fear immigrants in the US feel now, at least a little bit,” I said.
“Me, too, but at least we recognize that what we feel is fear and that we’re responsible for tempering it instead of thinking the problem is that those people shouldn’t be here,” she said. I could hear the passion behind her words, a passion I shared, and I felt a little better. We were together, and together made a world of difference.
Soon enough, we reached our destination, and as instructed, we knocked and waited, pulling our scarves around our hair and lower faces as a show of respect. A stooped man with a cane opened the door and smiled, saying, “Poe, Beattie, please come in.”
I was immediately more at ease, and when we walked into a courtyard full of palm trees and other tropical plants, I let out a deep sigh. The air was cooler in here, and the space felt welcoming. “What a beautiful, er, space,” I said, realizing as I started my sentence that I didn’t know if this was Ahmed’s home, workspace, or something else entirel.
“Thank you,” he said. “My brothers and I work hard to keep our home gentle and sweet.” He chuckled. “Forgive me if my phrasing is odd. I know English mostly from books.”
Beattie smiled. “Well, I know most of my Arabic from movies, so you’re definitely ahead.”
“Oh, you speak Arabic?” A glint of mischief danced in his eyes as he rattled off a long string of words in the lovely language.
Beattie laughed. “As-salamu alaykum,” she said.
He roared with laughter before replying, “Wa ʿalaykumu s-salam.” He then patted her hand and said, “Ah yes, movies. We shall speak English.”
I loved this man already, and that made me very uncomfortable because, of course, he was a book thief. Maybe, I thought.
“If you are comfortable, we will sit in the kitchen and speak,” he said. “Perhaps Brother Jordan will have made some of his fig jam for us.”
I had never been the best at slowing my mouth down enough to catch up to my brain, and I proved I still had not conquered this foible by saying, “Oh, this is a monastery.”
Ahmed threw his head back and laughed again. “Oh yes, you just thought I had several dozen brothers?” He smiled.
I blushed and sighed. “This is my first time in a monastery,” I said.
“Ah, a virgin. Us, too,” he joked with another massive laugh.
This time, Beattie and I guffawed along with him. So far, this was the best book-buying mission yet.
As we sat at the long wooden table in the kitchen, where Brother Jordan had indeed put out fresh bread and fig jam for us, I tried to let myself settle into the pleasure of this place. It was quiet except for the sounds of people moving and light humming coming from the man tending the small herb garden outside the kitchen window. But more than just quiet in sound, it also felt quiet in energy, like the people here were at peace and not easily disturbed.
I decided that, whatever came next, I would appreciate this place's spirit and took a deep
“So, you’re here to buy the codex,” Ahmed said. “I must admit, you’re not what I expect in spies.”
That deep breath sputtered out of my mouth in a gasp. “What?” I didn’t want to lie to a monk, but we did have cover to keep. I looked over at Beattie, who seemed as flabbergasted as I was.
“But then, neither do I, I suppose,” Ahmed continued. “Perhaps that’s why we’re so good at our jobs?” His face was serious now as he held my gaze. “My job is to be your eyes and ears here in Syria. I blend in and speak the language—two things that will serve us well.”
I nodded. “So you know who we are?” I was trying to get my brain up to speed, but fatigue was making that hard.
“I do. I’ve been keeping up with your work through Boone, but I asked him not to tell you I knew since it helps me get a better sense of people when they come in, um, cold, I think you say,” Ahmed continued.
Beattie smiled. “That does make sense, but I hadn’t pictured a monk as a spy, I guess.”
“That’s why the ruse works. Plus, who better to know an ancient scroll than one of the orders who originally transcribed it.” He smiled again.
“Your order wrote out the scroll?” I took a deep breath. “Are you an order of illuminators? Scribes?”
“Both,” he said. “Welcome to the Order of Lucas. We follow in the tradition of the Apostle.”
“The one who recorded the stories of Jesus,” Beattie almost whispered.
“That very one,” he said. “It is our job to recover, receive, and record the ancient stories.”
“Still?” I said and then realized from the frown on Ahmed’s face that I wasn’t being clear. “I mean, you’re still recording ancient stories?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “You all hear about things like the Dead Sea Scrolls or this codex we are attempting to recover today. But we are receiving
long-ago started tales all the time, especially through the Internet. When our mission is complete, I will show your our library.”
I folded my hands tightly in my lap to resist the urge to request a tour now and nodded. “Thank you. Now, what do we need to know about this mission?”
Ahmed smiled. “This text is from the first century AD, or BCE if you prefer. It is a recording of a story that is, as best we can tell, not recorded anywhere else.”
“Boone mentioned that it might be a story of Jesus?” Beattie asked.
“That is what we have heard, and while we are often quite skeptical of such claims for obvious reasons, we have reason to believe this text may indeed contain such a story,” he said.
“Can you tell us those reasons?” I asked.
“Oh, I think I must because you will need to know them to acquire the scroll.” He reached into the pocket of his gray vest and took out a folded piece of paper that he handed to Beattie. ...