Tamara Schnurr, teaching assistant and laboratory technician at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, died that evening during a botched robbery—or ritual slaughter, one of the two.
The crime scene looked more like a butcher’s shambles. In hell. The deceased was 28 years of age, an assistant professor of forensic archeology, at the Mt. Scopus Campus. It was she who’d run the carbon-14 tests on the bronze filings from the first two Eilat Hilton victims. She’d been scheduled to run the same tests on the purported Ten Commandments later that week. Which was no longer possible, now.
Because now Tamara Schnurr was missing most of her neck, the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, and a four-inch segment of her spinal cord. Autopsy would later reveal that she was also missing all of her cerebrospinal fluid—not just a little or even a lot, but all of it. It had apparently been drained from her by syringe or . . . something else.
The dead woman was also the only person outside the Oded Expedition to have actually handled the Ten Commandments tablets—which were now missing from the lab. Her death left only three other people who’d actually set eyes on the ancient engravings: 1) the magazine editor Durant; 2) the aging Dr. Oded and 3) the luckless Dave Connors, of Alexandria, VA.
Who, the Kabbalist mused, would never have to worry about aging.
But at that moment, 6,200 miles away in Alexandria, VA, Dave Connors didn’t see himself as luckless at all. How could he, when he was going to dinner with the sexiest star-jockey on earth?
Cyndi was beyond beautiful tonight: she looked like a dream, or a wish from Aladdin’s lantern. Not a genie, exactly—those were fictional characters based on the Djinn, terrible and hideous creatures; he’d seen enough “Wishmaster” films to know. And who was their god? Ahura-Mazda? Sounded like a sports car, or an exotic skin disease. He would look into it another time.
For now, all he could look into was Cyndi’s smoky, mysterious eyes . . . the eyes of an Arabian princess; an enchantress; a genie.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, breaking the spell.
“Hmph? Oh, nothing.” When Dave looked away from her, he spotted the black sports car with government plates, still parked in front of the observatory.
“Bastards,” he said, nodding. “Don’t look, but I think they’re watching us.”
“See?” she whispered. “I told you.”
“Oh, please,” he said, fully expecting her to crack a smile, or wink or do any of a million other things than what she actually did.
“Quick!” she yelled. “Get in my car. Don’t look back.”
He didn’t need to be asked twice.
He sprinted for the Mazda but she beat him to it, unlocked the driver’s side door, then his. Even before they got into the car and started it, they could hear the black rice-burner’s engine kick over and wind out like a four-cylinder demon. Then its lights came on like Klieg lights, or police spotlights, blinding them.
Cyndi mashed the accelerator to the floor, backed out over the embankment onto the grass median and fishtailed out of the parking lot, away down Mt. Nebo Road, lights off and flying.
The rice-burner stayed right behind them.
At first, David thought they’d lost them. He glanced out the rear window, but saw nothing. Pure country blackness.
Then the spotlights exploded over the hill behind them, blinding him again.
“Who,” he asked, rubbing an eye, “are those guys?”
“Government,” was all she said.
“D.O.D.? Come on, Cyn . . .”
“I don’t know,” she returned. “All I know is we must lose them.”
“Then . . . lose ‘em.”
She kicked the RX9 into overdrive and spun around a tree-lined lane that branched in two directions: the larger road on the left went downhill through woods and into town, while the smaller lane to the right meandered into even deeper woods. Cyndi hit the brakes, made a quick right-left feint with her turn signal, then released the brakes—shutting off her tail lights and allowing her to jerk the wheel to the right at the last possible second. The rice-burner whizzed by on the left, into the forest. A moment later, they heard the crash of a tiny, foreign sports car meeting an American tree.
“Nice move,” Dave said, keeping his voice steady.
“Oh, I have plenty of those,” she said, patting his knee, her fingers lingering there.And drove on.
They disappeared deep into the countryside west and south of town. Since the rice-burner had been heading due south, the gap between the two cars widened with every mile. Better still, the goons in the sports car had just become intimately acquainted with a sizable oak, from the sound of it. By the time they crawled from the wreckage and called for help, David and Cyndi would be long gone.
Until they returned to work in the morning.
Dave mentioned this as Cyndi turned south and headed back toward town. She’d driven in a wide arc around the ruined rice-burner, leaving it and its occupants several miles behind them.
“Don’t worry about them,” she said. She pulled into traffic, and in seconds they were in Old Town, Dave’s neighborhood. She headed east, toward the waterfront, away from his apartment. Apparently, she wasn’t taking him home. “By the time they get bandaged up and find a new car,” she continued, “we’ll be long gone.”
When they reached the Alexandria Museum, on Union Street, she pulled into the parking lot, shut off the Mazda’s engine and lights, and climbed out of the car. Her skirt accidentally rode up her right thigh, which Dave tried to ignore. Then she closed the door and locked it by remote, eliciting a double-chirp.
Puzzled, David came around the back of the car to join her. “But . . . won’t they simply go back to the observatory and wait for us? I mean, we have to go there eventually; it’s where we work.”
“Worked,” she corrected him. “You are now officially on vacation. As am I,” she added, taking his arm in hers and leading him up the walkway to the museum’s front doors. Dave walked beside her, feeling confused and disoriented, as if caught in a dream.
This feeling intensified when he saw a newspaper rack with the Washington Post’s headline: THREE DEAD AFTER COMMANDMENTS DISCOVERY.
“What the . . .” He stopped cold. Like a sleepwalker, he dropped coins into the news rack, took the first copy and, with an expression of mounting horror, read the piece. After all the usual hysteria revolving around the “Great Alignment” with the “Dark Rift” on the 21st , was the story from Eilat. The Massacre there.
This was what he’d left behind him in Israel: the savage deaths of Dr. Sarah Mills and her assistant, Amir el-Bara, along with the disappearance and murder of Dr. Globus. Dave’s name was not mentioned, though the article claimed Israeli Police were pursuing a “subject of interest” who’d left the morning after the slaughter. He stood rooted to the spot until he’d finished the entire piece.
This thing was not over—not by a long shot. Missing photos were one thing . . . but dead professors? Slaughtered archaeologists? He shook his head, relieved he’d at least mailed three copies of the Commandments photos to his editor, Will Durant, in New York. Otherwise, there would be no proof of what he’d seen—and discovered.
But if Dave Connors was feeling off-balance and slightly surreal, his editor was feeling as if he’d just stepped into a horror film . . . or had one step into him.
Will Durant had been lounging on his living room divan, dressed in his new, fuchsia lounging suit (which matched the divan’s trim perfectly), smoking a Doral and reading a second article from another freelancer on the Oded Find. It was a solid piece of journalism, if a bit dry. It lacked flavor—despite the ashes he kept sprinkling on it.
He loved flavor, did Will Durant. Above all, he prized description—vivid, florid adjectives in abundance, adverbs tripping over each other, all painting a perfect portrait for the reader. He puffed away contentedly, thinking how he might run the piece as a sidebar to Dave Connors’s priceless Commandments photos, when he heard it:
A noise in the kitchen, just down the hall.
The backdoor? Was someone? . . . no, all quiet again. Just the house settling.
Then he heard it again: a furtive thumping, bumping sound. Definitely from the kitchen’s backdoor. He butted his cigarette and sat up on the divan.
From the sound, it was someone big. And clumsy. He was banging into everything, making a hell of a racket. It couldn’t be a burglar, then . . . could it?
He set down the Commandments photos and stood up from the divan. Paused. Listened. And heard something he didn’t like at all, something horrible beyond words. He couldn’t describe what it sounded like precisely; there simply were no adjectives for this. It was so foul, so . . . repulsive. Wet, sick, sticky and thick.
And the stench—like rotting meat and feces, mixed with urine, sperm, dirt and —and was that gasoline? In his house? The combined odors were growing stronger by the moment, wafting up the hall as if in search of him.
Will Durant, who’d once dated a policeman named Marc, grabbed his Glock Model 17 from under the divan. It was birthday present from Marc, before the boy had met a rich sugar daddy from L.A. and gone to California with him. It was all Will had left of the affair, and he kept it loaded and oiled at all times. Not because he lived in a bad neighborhood, but when one was a closet queen, one could never be too careful. Now, he cocked the slide, chambered a .45 round and stepped to the edge of the hallway.
And listened again.
It was coming. Whoever or whatever it was, it was coming. It sounded big, dumb and clumsy, and smelled like rotting garbage in a seafood dumpster, or a plugged septic tank. It had to be a homeless person or a wino, no one dangerous.
Then the intruder stepped partially into the hallway.
Will looked and saw that it was . . .
(oh dear God, what the h—?)
. . . just a deformity, he realized. A deformed man. He could just make out a misshapen silhouette at the end of the hall. That’s all: a poor cripple seeking help—a street person. Will tried to smile as it . . .
(sweet Jesus what the hell is that?)
. . . stepped into view.
“God in heaven . . .” he whimpered, his voice high and whiney in his throat. In that moment of insane terror, he knew somehow that the Oded piece was connected to this, and that he, William Durant, would not be coming out of this alive. “No, not that please dear God not that . . . ”
But it was that.
And it was hungry.
The creature allowed the human to empty the gun into its chest and “face,” then set to work on the man’s neck, where the life-giving fluid awaited.
And Will Durant, editor of World News Weekly—who simply could not abide stories without flavor, teeming with juicy adjectives and adverbs—was getting the full flavor of his own death just then, in pitiless, juicy detail.
The thing reached out a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt, and grabbed Durant’s throat, lifting him off the floor as if he were a paper sack. Eyeless, it pushed its blind, idiot “face” into Will’s and lapped at his mouth with a sandpaper tongue as it squeezed harder and tighter, crushing and crunching the glottis. Durant was fully aware of every snap and crackle, able to see his own blood spurt from his mouth like black ink in the shadowy darkness. It spattered over his new fuchsia lounge suit, followed by a trail of slimy blue tendrils, some smaller gray cords and other stringy stuff that shimmered in the light as they plopped onto his collar. Still conscious, he watched as the creature emitted a sloppy, blue tendril of its own—but far larger and more solid than anything spilling from his own throat, like a section of intestine or bowel. The tubular obscenity slipped slick and dripping from the thing’s mouth and began winding itself around Durant’s neck, the dark blue, bowel-like tube emitting a noxious odor like human feces and death. At last, overcome with horror, Will heard his own death rattle gurgling from his throat, felt the back of his neck being ripped open—even heard the horrible !pop! as the thing poked its blade and proboscis inside Will’s neck, probing and digging about until it sucked the spinal cord out of the vertebrae and began draining it before all feeling ceased and everything went gray, then black, then to merciful, if somewhat flavorless, nothingness.
The Kabbalist followed his assassin into the house, ignoring the feast at hand, and scooped up the Commandments photos. He glanced at them briefly, then tore them to pieces and poured gasoline on them. Then he poured more on the floor, the divan, the computer, telephone and filing cabinet. He splashed five gallons of gasoline all over the ground floor, then struck a match and held it.
“Working with you is such a gas,” he said. And held the match overhead.
The thing beside him squealed with delight—a curiously high, chirring, insectile sound. It began bobbing up and down on its pseudo-feet, like some giant, grotesque child. The Kabbalist beamed upon his creation with pride.
“Come.” He flipped the match onto Durant’s corpse and it burst into flame.
The fire consumed William Durant’s house and all his belongings—including his body. Warped and charred from the inferno, it would betray no trace of the cause of death. Since he smoked, it would be put down to that:
Falling asleep with a cigarette.