The young woman glanced at the smoke but thought nothing of it—except as a sight vaguely, unsettlingly, out of place.
She was too far away to identify the acrid smell.
Or hear the screaming.
The bliss of her pilgrimage glowed brightly upon her face. Like hundreds around her, she was merely basking in the glory of the previous few hours, wandering about the vastness of the Eternal City, gazing at the beauty on every side, raising a hand into the golden light, and humming praises under her voice.
Then she strolled across the terrace of the Temple Mount and glanced over. For the first time since her arrival, her smile fled her countenance.
The smoke's appearance seemed dramatically, even violently out of place. The thick column etched a darkly knotted cord against the cobalt blue sky, the streaks of crimson and ochre vividly contrasting with the city's warm, welcoming palette.
Finally the odor reached her. In an instant she felt herself transported back to a far earlier time, that childhood summer at the Orphans Farm when the caretaker had slaughtered a deformed calf and burned it whole, out against the far tree line.
The sweetish, slightly nauseating fumes finally registered in her memory. She frowned and walked over for a closer look.
The other pilgrims around her glanced solemnly her way as she moved toward the edge of the railing, the overlook above the Valley of Gehenna.
Had she been more careful, more observant, perhaps less transported by the splendor of her previous few hours, she might have followed the flow of walkers, quickly crossed to the other side, and averted her face like everyone else. Had she remembered her Israelite history a bit more thoroughly, she might have recalled the ancient lore of the chasm approaching her—Gehenna, a cursed pit, a valley of hideous child sacrifices, of burning corpses, of hellish rumors and terrifying legends.
Instead, she made her way to the edge, consumed with curiosity.
She peered over.
And then she heard the wail of torment, as dreadful and bloodcurdling as any sound ever created.
For a few seconds, she did not move a muscle. Then, after a moment, her left hand flew to her mouth. Her knees gave way, legs nearly betraying her. She stumbled away, her face turned white, her eyelids quivering with horror. The stream of worshipers paused, one older female pilgrim close to her wincing in sympathy.
The young woman stared at the sympathetic faces, silently begging them to explain how they could walk calmly around what she had just witnessed. Feeling driven to verify what she had seen, she moved forward again and looked more closely.
"O Lord," she whispered, still staring down. "This can't be ... Don't let this be ..."
Now her knees failed her completely, and she grasped the stone railing for support. She was utterly torn between, on one hand, a desperate wish to retreat as far away from the horror as she could and, on the other, a compulsion urging her to return and look down yet again, as if one last glimpse would somehow prove it was only an illusion.
She did not wish to attract attention, and she was dismayed at the thought of somehow diminishing someone else's joy. Yet she could not help herself.
She grasped at the wall, panting heavily, and sagged down against it.
Why this? Why here, and now... ?
She could not understand. Her bliss had billowed away alongside the smoke. Her cause for joy, the entire ecstasy of her pilgrimage, was now tarnished in light of the images still swimming before her eyes.
A strong hand touched her arm and gently pulled her upward. She lurched to her feet, stood, and swayed until she could look into what proved to be the warm gaze of a young man.
"May I be of some help to you?" he asked in a comforting tone.
"I just—did you see that, down there? Do you know how horrible... ?"
"The sight is always terrifying for those who glance down," the man explained. "Particularly for the pilgrims who come here and see it for the first time. But I assure you that what you have just seen is not intended to undermine all that you've experienced here. In fact, it's meant to reinforce it. I've been sent here to find you and to help you comprehend it. Perhaps, if you could walk with me awhile, I will tell you a story, a rather long one. The hearing will help you to understand what you have seen."
S.S. Aqua Libre—105 Miles East of St. Lucia, Windward Islands, Lesser Antilles—Years Earlier
For most of his last hours on earth, Marshall Rhodes just knew he was already in heaven.
After all, the bare-chested thirty-year-old had tropical sunshine lighting up his face, sea breeze ruffling his hair, a brand-new, luxurious sixty-five-foot motor yacht purring beneath his feet, a hundred miles of achingly blue Caribbean waters before him, and the warmth of three—no, four, maybe five—tumblers of Mount Gay Rum pickling his frontal lobes.
Oh man ... He chuckled to himself, shaking his head with a grin. Doesn't get any better than this!
He laughed as he held up the rum bottle and shook out the last drop. To think he was getting paid for this. And good money, too.
He set the boat on autopilot and turned for a fresh bottle in the galley. He reviewed his good fortune. After all, he was solely responsible for the safe delivery of a twelve-million-dollar vessel from the Newport, Rhode Island, docks to the Port of Spain pier in Trinidad. The yacht was now owned by one of the world's wealthiest sportsmen, an impatient man who had waited on this marvel of marine technology for two years now and who would brook no delay. A man who would make Marshall's life a living nightmare if he failed in his appointed mission.
Still, Rhodes reminded himself, uncorking the next bottle and swallowing a gulp straight from its mouth, some men don coat and tie and stew in hours of traffic just to fawn before their bosses all day long. How lucky can a dude be?
The one thing more he could have asked for was a girl. The teak deck below him cried out for a companion in a bikini. Rhodes was no Adonis, yet he knew that with this kind of cruiser at his disposal, he could have surely snagged one, if only he'd had the time. But no ports of call were in the offing, not on this trip. The world's loveliest seashores had glided past him during the last three days, often out of sight, sometimes beckoning their distant palm fronds and white surf ribbons from just beyond his horizon.
Oh well. Can't have it all ... He let out a long sigh and reminded himself that the end of his journey lay just hours ahead. The bittersweet realization enticed him into throwing his last ounce of caution to the wind. Go for it. The ship's innovative autopilot had proven rock solid since leaving Newport. Almost too perfect. Marshall knew its half a terabyte of onboard memory would compensate seamlessly for a few more hours of alcohol-induced haze. He had run all the necessary tests, finished the dozen or so pages of notes his employer expected of him. Everything checked out. He had only one broad turn to make on the open sea, a single adjustment which would change his course from one flanking the bow-shaped layout of the Windwards to another, sharply angled toward the southwest and Trinidad. But that correction wouldn't be needed for an hour or two.
He took his longest gulp yet of Mount Gay and creased a heavy-lidded smile. The rum hadn't taken long.
His eyes flew open. An icy hand seized the center of his chest. A viselike grip clamped down on his heart like it was no more solid than a damp washcloth.
Marshall let out a strangled gasp, but there was no one to hear it.
He clutched at his thorax and stumbled. He opened his mouth to scream, but it remained buried inside him. Grimacing tightly against a red-hot agony that pierced his torso, he felt his balance shear away from him and collapsed.
He hardly felt his fall, at least until the hard deck slammed against the back of his head.
An incredible stillness enveloped him, a peace far greater than silence or darkness or even sleep. It was a calm that immediately, overpoweringly, signaled this existence just ended.
Then he was looking down at a bare-chested man, lying on the deck of a yacht. From far above, the image was growing smaller, as was the Aqua Libre—swallowed up in an eternity of ocean blue.
He felt no fear or regret. Only a vague, almost mischievous curiosity about what was happening. He was flying.
Cool. He'd always wanted to fly.
And then he wasn't. Suddenly he felt himself falling. Only, he wasn't above his world anymore. He was over ... nothing.
A void. Nothingness. Blackness.
A crushing sense of malice, of evil, filled every inch of him. His self, his being—whatever this was now—was being jerked downward by a merciless, proprietary tug.
For the first time ever, Marshall Rhodes learned the meaning, the devastation, of absolute fear.
The S.S. Aqua Libre now sailed unguided, a fifty-seven-thousand-pound, sixty-five-foot long torpedo with a trajectory relentlessly maintained by the world's most advanced autopilot system. Without Marshall Rhodes there to correct its course, however, the sleek new yacht now plowed unswervingly toward the easternmost of all the West Indies, the lush island from which his rum had originated—the former British protectorate of Barbados.
Coast Of Barbados—2 Hours Later
Just four hundred yards from the Barbados coastline, and only thirty-eight nautical miles ahead of the Aqua Libre's errant trajectory, floated the towering hundred thousand-ton S.S. Pearl of the Seas.
At anchor in Barbados's Deep Water Harbour, just outside its capital city of Bridgetown, the floating resort was in the process of disgorging groups of its 1,400 passengers onto the dock. Some were merely out for a day's port of call, while others had been transferred to smaller tender boats which would speed them to a variety of pleasurable activities at sea.
The last small-craft captain's voice rang out against the vast, imposing hull.
Standing on the boat's deck, Pastor Alan Rockaway looked anxiously over the waves slapping the Pearl's black waterline. Forty-seven years old, handsome and lean, with light brown hair riffling in the breeze and a winsome gleam shining in his clear blue eyes, Alan lacked only one aspect of his usual demeanor: a calm state of mind.
"Please, sir," he called, leaning over the railing toward the captain, "my son is on his way down and it's very important he make the launch. Very important."
The man glanced at his watch. "He's got about fourteen seconds. That's all I can manage. The sub schedule is tight. The boarding pier is two miles out, and we have only a three-minute window to make our rendezvous."
Rockaway turned to his wife, Jenny, and sighed heavily. In years past, he would have indulged his frustration and yelled up to the perpetually late boy. But this trip was special, and for many reasons. He would not embarrass his eldest son like that. He would hold his tongue and send up a frantic prayer instead.
A high-pitched shout echoed from the deck above. "Coming! Hold on—I'm coming!"
Jeff Rockaway, a lanky, good-looking seventeen-year-old, scrambled down the stairway and onto the ramp leading down to the dock. In one fist he gripped a black briefcase, in the other a video camera which bounced against his knees from the flimsiest of leather straps.
"Come on, guys! The boat's waiting!"
The elder Rockaway turned to the group of thirty adults clustered around him and smiled wryly.
Chuckling, the group followed the boy down the gangplank. After they had all arrived and begun climbing into the boat, the youth loped across the dock to his father's side, ending his run with an abrupt stomp and a contented exhale of breath.
"Is everything okay, son?" Alan asked in a voice somewhere between exasperation and admiration.
"It wasn't my fault, Dad. I'm coordinating with the ship's bridge to tap their satellite portal, and they had some kind of crisis. Trouble with their docking. Something with the current."
Jenny Rockaway locked eyes with her husband. "They did seem to struggle with their positioning this morning," she said.
Laying his hand gently upon the young man's shoulder, Alan smiled. "I believe you, son. It's just a little nerve-racking, that's all. Not only do we have to meet the sub on time, but we've got about fifteen hundred folks back home waiting for this whole link to come off smoothly."
"They won't be disappointed," Jeff replied. "I've got it all worked out."
"With that?" Alan shot back, pointing down at the single case with mock amazement. "Is that all the equipment it takes?"
"What do you mean all?" the young man huffed. "There's a laptop in here, plus all the accessories. Try and lift this thing. It must weigh ten pounds."
Alan turned to Hal Newman, his closest confidant and anchor of Denver's six-thousand-member Summit Chapel, where Alan was pastor. He raised his eyebrows and gave a good-natured shrug. "Wow. Ten pounds. All for a mere transcontinental live video satellite relay hookup. Something that five years ago would have required a truck weighing three tons and costing three million dollars."
"Five years is an eternity in techno-time, Dad."
"So I've heard, Jeff. I told you I'd trust you to pull this thing off, and I do. So I'm not going to question you anymore. I'll just give you one last opportunity to reassure me. What you're holding is so ... compact, it doesn't seem enough to link us live with no hassles all the way back to the sanctuary in Denver."
Jeff broke into laughter, an unforced guffaw that creased his tanned face. "Trust me, Dad. Things have advanced. This is the latest ultra-compact, Internet-linked array."
"All right, then." Alan gave the bemused shrug and rueful grin of the technologically outmatched. "At least we can agree on that, Jeff."
They sat down onto benches as the launch's outboard roared to life and surged away from the mother ship. Alan looked about him, exhilarated to be out on open water, a sailing wind gusting in his face.
"Things have advanced," Alan said as he nodded to Hal and Jeff sitting to one side of him. "Remember when you were a little boy and I'd just started my first church?"
"I do," interjected Newman with a smile.
"Of course you would!" Alan exclaimed. "Our first retreat we drove up to your weekend house out near Buena Vista. Rafting and fajitas."
"That's right. One near-drowning and charred skirt steak, if I remember right."
"I haven't forgotten," Alan laughed. "And how about when I wanted to call back to the rest of the congregation during Sunday worship back home? Help them feel not so forgotten and left behind? Of course, there were only about fifteen people left, but I was so insecure, I just had to touch base. So I drove down to the little country store, dropped twelve quarters into their pay phone, and old Mike Barfield managed to feed my phone call through his stereo speakers. Not a church P.A. system, mind you, but his own living room Radio Shack specials. And yet I felt like Alexander Graham Bell, phoning that assistant for the first time."
"Boy, do I feel old just remembering that," Newman said with a chuckle.
"And boy, does it make me feel young," Jeff quipped. They all laughed.
"Know what's strange?" Alan said. "I haven't felt that kind of thrill in a long time." He stared out over the swiftly passing waters. "Everything. The faith. The church. The pastorate. Seems like just last week I was baptized in good old-fashioned ocean surf, Seal Beach at sunset, high tide—by a hippie pastor who still thought Woodstock was the greatest church service ever held."
"Really. I'm sure Jeff never heard that story before, Alan," Jenny interjected with a smile and touch of irony in her voice.
"I know. I've told it a thousand times. It's just that we didn't have all these—all these bells and whistles back then. Things seemed more real, more passionate. If the guitar didn't resonate enough, and the song leader's voice wasn't strong enough, then whatever—people didn't notice. Perfect sound wasn't the point. We were there to worship with all the breath in our lungs. We were lucky to have microphones, let alone live, global hookups. And if we wanted to have a couples' retreat, we'd borrow somebody's cabin, not fly a thousand miles to board a Caribbean cruise ship." Alan's voice had dropped low enough that his companions almost didn't hear his last statement.
"I'd say things have improved," Jeff said with youthful vigor.
"I'm not complaining. I'm just saying that I remember being more in awe, more in touch with a sense of wonder, with fifty people in my church than today with six thousand. Things seemed more authentic. Even dangerous, in a way. We were driven to find God—even if it killed us."
"Well, I'm sure there's still plenty of ways for this hookup to fail, Dad," Jeff said. "We're out in the open, on the water, with a real-life submarine picking us up. I'm sure we'll run into a little excitement before it's all over."
Rescued by John Bevere and Mark Andrew Olson
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764202006
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.