Chapter Thirty-Four

Georgia

It was just after 1.30 p.m. when Ben left Cleaver’s house and slipped away through the crowd. A few minor competitions were still in progress, but with the main event over the throng was thinning out. He spotted Miss Vale near the marquee, talking to reporters.

She didn’t notice Ben as he made his way quietly back towards the parking field. He felt bad about slipping away without goodbyes or explanations, but he needed to be alone to think.

He got into the Chrysler and drove aimlessly, heading vaguely west and vaguely south. He crossed over the Altamaha river. Drove through farmland, past tumbledown shacks and corrugated barns, huge open fields where the earth was rich and red under the blazing sun. Past trailer camps where mean-looking white-trash inhabitants stood at the side of the road and gesticulated at his car as he drove by. After about an hour he was lost deep in country with no idea where he was.

He drove feeling numb and defeated. He’d made mistakes in his life before, but this time he’d been completely wrong; as mistaken and off the mark as he could have been, and then a bit more. He’d been so sure that he was on the right track with Clayton Cleaver. All he knew now was that the man was a rogue, a conman and an opportunist. But that didn’t make him a kidnapper or a murderer.

He tried to salvage what he could from the mess inside his head and make sense out of what was left. But he had only questions, lots of questions, swirling around in his mind without a hint of an answer. Was Zo? still alive? Maybe even still on Corfu? Had he come to the States for nothing? He’d taken the truth of Kaplan’s word for granted. Maybe that had been a mistake too.

He thought about the piece of pottery Zo? had discovered and used to blackmail Cleaver. She’d told Skid McClusky that the prophecy would make her rich. What had she discovered? If she really could prove her claim, its impact on Christian theology would be massive. Cleaver had been perfectly right: revisionist scholars had been waiting in the wings for years for the ammunition they needed to shoot the Book of Revelation down as an illegitimate Bible text. But the implications went well beyond simply ruining the career of one obscure Southern Bible-thumper. It could be the biggest event for years – as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Turin Shroud. Maybe even bigger, if it could force a major revision of the Bible itself.

He kept coming up with the same questions. Who else would be threatened by Zo?’s discovery, and so threatened that they would go to such lengths to suppress it? Or was suppression the aim? Perhaps her discovery of ancient pottery tablets had some other intrinsic value – a monetary value that someone was prepared to kill for?

Basically, he was guessing. He was adrift in a sea of possibilities. He needed to act, and act fast. But he didn’t know what to do, or where to go. Back to Greece, hoping to pick up the pieces and not be caught by Stephanides again? Or simply back to Oxford, admitting defeat and facing telling the Bradburys that he’d lost their daughter? It was a disaster.

The sudden sharp blast of a siren jerked him back to the present. A police cruiser filled his rear-view mirror, the light bar on its roof flashing red and blue through the dust on his back window. It gave another screeching burst, and he swore and flipped on the indicator to pull off the road. The car crunched to a halt in the dirt, and the police cruiser pulled in behind him. Dust floated in the air around the two vehicles. He watched in the mirror as the doors opened and two cops jumped out and walked towards him, one either side of the Chrysler.

It wasn’t a routine check or a speeding ticket. The cops had their weapons ready. The one on the left had pulled a revolver from his belt. The one on the right was clutching a short-barrelled pump shotgun. This was serious. The cops were acting on specific information, and whatever they’d been told about him, it was making them jumpy as hell.

Ben sat quietly with his hands on the wheel, watching them, thinking fast. Why was he being picked up? What did they know?

The cop with the revolver stalked round to his window and twirled a finger. Ben rolled the window down and looked at him. He was young, mid-twenties. His eyes were round and nervy.

‘Kill your engine,’ he yelled.

Ben reached out slowly and turned the key. Silence, apart from the chirping of the cicadas all around them.

‘Licence,’ the cop said. ‘Nice and easy.’

Ben moved his hand carefully to his pocket and slipped the licence out. The cop snatched it from him, glanced down it for a brief moment, and nodded to the one with the shotgun as if to say it’s him, all right. Now he looked even more scared.

‘Step out of the car,’ he yelled. ‘Hands where I can see them.’

Ben opened the door and stepped slowly out. He kept his hands raised and held the cop’s gaze, sizing him up. The young officer was jumping with adrenalin, his face tense and twitchy. The revolver muzzle was trembling slightly as he pointed it at Ben’s chest.

The gun was two feet away. It was a Smith & Wesson Model 19. There were two ways to fire it. With the action cocked, it took only a light flick of the finger to drop the hammer. The alternative was the double-action mode, simply pulling the trigger to rotate the cylinder and bring the hammer back to fire. But that required a heavy tug, and Ben knew that unless the cop’s pistol had been specially worked on by a gunsmith, the Model 19 had quite a tough action. More effort meant more time needed to shoot.

The gun wasn’t cocked. What that told Ben was that he had about half a second longer to step in, disable the cop and take his gun away. Then about another half a second to turn it on the one with the shotgun. He wouldn’t hurt them badly, just take them out of circulation for a while.

But that would lead to all kinds of trouble that he didn’t want. ‘What’s wrong?’ he said quietly instead.

The cop flicked his gun at the car. ‘Up against the vehicle. Hands on the hood.’

Ben sighed in exasperation and spread his hands on the warm metal of the Chrysler. The one with the shotgun covered him from three yards away. The other walked back to the police car and started talking into his radio, looking nervous and fidgety.

Ben heard the sound of tyres on the dirt and the low rumble of V8 engines. Keeping his hands planted on the car he craned his neck to look. Two big black muscular Chevrolet SUVs were pulling up behind the police cruiser. Clouds of dust rose and settled. Sunlight reflected off the tinted windows of the vehicles.

The doors opened. Ben counted five people, two men and a woman from one car and two more men from the other. They were all smartly dressed in dark suits. The oldest was the guy stepping forward with the craggy face, slicked-back hair and the dark glasses. He was about fifty, lean and rangy. He was smiling, showing uneven teeth. The youngest was the woman. She might have been about thirty-five, with sharp features and a scowl on her face. Her auburn hair was tied back, gently ruffled by the warm breeze.

The lead guy flashed a badge at the two cops. ‘Special Agent Jones. We can take it from here, Officers.’

The cops stared at the badge like they’d never seen one before. They lowered their weapons.

Jones motioned to one of the agents, who walked round to Ben’s passenger door, yanked it open and grabbed the canvas bag from the seat. Jones took a pair of surgical rubber gloves from his jacket pocket and slipped them on before taking the bag from the other agent and reaching inside.

‘Well, now, look what we found,’ Jones chuckled as he drew out the.475 Linebaugh. He dropped the bag on the ground at his feet and turned the big revolver over in his gloved hands, admiring it. Flipped open the loading port, spun the cylinder. Then he twirled it around his finger, cowboy-style, and one of the other agents laughed. Jones turned to Ben with a ragged smile. ‘Now that is a nice gun.’

Ben didn’t reply. He was thinking hard and fast.

The agents all stepped closer. The woman’s eyes were fixed on Ben, and as he watched her he thought for a second he could sense some kind of doubtful hesitation on her face. The scowl was gone.

Jones took out his phone and dialled. ‘It’s me. Good news. Got your Mr Hope right here. OK.’

Ben frowned. This was weird procedure.

Jones snapped the phone shut and turned to the two cops. ‘I don’t think we’ll be needing you any more, Officers,’ he said, dismissing them with a gesture.

The cops glanced at one another and started walking back to their cruiser. They had their hands on the door handles and were about to climb inside when Jones seemed to have an afterthought and called them. ‘Hold on a minute, Officers. Just one thing.’

The younger cop narrowed his eyes at him. ‘What?’

Jones smiled again, a knowing kind of smile that made his whole face crease up and his eyes become slits. He glanced at the.475 revolver in his hand.

Then he thumbed back the hammer, raised the revolver out to arm’s length and shot the younger guy right through the face from ten feet away.

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