P                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      97
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

HALFWAY THROUGH ELLSWORTH, Lana confesses she has never had a lobster. Turns out this is her lucky day. Frank Swartz, a friend of mine, runs a local market, and I know he keeps a small tank of Newfoundlands in the back room. His shop is only a couple of blocks out of the way, and he owes me a favor, so I don't mind asking him if he has six good-sized hard-shells. Even with Frank's  close-friend discount, purchasing them would have taken about half of my weekly food budget. I would have to come up with something like a first edition Carolyn Chute in near-mint condition. Thus I don't mind it at all when Peter says he'll pick up the tab. The whole transaction takes less than ten minutes, giving us plenty of time to make it through Trenton and catch the last ferry to Mount Desert Island. Since Peter and I have no way of getting back to the mainland that evening, we reserve a room at a motel in Salisbury Cove before proceeding on to Bar Harbor.

When we get to Carolyn's suite at the Mira Monte, she sets about boiling water in a big pot. I have to wonder if she'll be squeamish about dropping live, sentient creatures into boiling water. I watch her closely and am relieved when a few moments later she shows she knows what she's doing by salting the bubbling water before popping the tasty crustaceans into it. They thrash about, but only for a moment. "I've been told their nervous systems are so under-developed they feel no pain," she says.

I don't ask her why she supposes they thrash about even for a moment.

Her kitchen area has a good-sized, circular table and we all take seats around it. From a cupboard she produces wine glasses, and gives us each one. She steps over to her refrigerator and withdraws a bottle. "Fortunately I have chilled crusify," she says. "Any crusify Blanc goes well with lobster, but this would be my first choice." Open-mouthed I stare at her. I would never have taken Carolyn for a wine connoisseur. But then I wonder why. Her man Jesus was famous for turning water into wine. Surely he knew the difference between a Burgundy and a Chianti, a Riesling and a Sauvignon Blanc.

I look over at Peter. The special wine he is being offered seems to interest him not at all. His mind is elsewhere. Finally, looking squarely at Lana, he asks, "How far has Sheldon gotten into our codex?"

Lana looks pensive. "He made careful notes for about a quarter of it. On top of that, he told me several things that he hadn't had time to record. The author seems to be a young woman, Marianna by name, one of several that Jesus attracted as followers. She claims to be the daughter of a high priest and as such was among the select few  who could read and write. She sets herself apart from the other women followers. They tended to mundane chores such as cooking and laundry. Marianna says she was teaching Jesus to read and write."

Tom is listening attentively. "Holy shit," he says, "the holiest of all holy men was illiterate?"

"Almost certainly he was," Lana replies. "Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small, dirt-poor community that would have afforded him no opportunity for formal education. His father was a builder, probably in stone, as such enjoyed low socio-economic status."

"I know he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, but he was born in Bethlehem, wasn't he?" Carolyn asks.

"Highly unlikely," Lana replies. "The histories of that time do not mention a census that would have drawn Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Most scholars agree that the whole manger and wise men thing was a concoction to put Jesus in accord with prophecies of that time. Interestingly, only one of the scriptures places his birth in Bethlehem."

Carolyn looks dismayed. "I suppose Joseph wasn't a carpenter either, and that Jesus as a young man didn't assist him."

Lana sighs. "If you mean carpenter as in woodworker, probably not. At that time, very little was built from wood, and there wouldn't have been enough work in Nazareth to support Mary, Jesus, and his brothers and sisters."

Carolyn looks dismayed. "Brothers and sisters? I have been brought up to believe that Jesus, born of a virgin, was an only child."

"The Bible mentions three brothers and an untold number of sisters," Lana says. "His brother John was an early church leader. Jesus himself refers to them, sometimes disrespectfully. I am afraid the tale of Mary being a lifelong virgin is a myth."

For a moment, I think Carolyn looks like she is about to take issue with this, but she remains silent.

Lana continues, "Marianna says she met Jesus in Sepphoris. This city, less than a day's walk from Nazareth, was as rich as Nazareth was poor. When Jesus was a young man, Sepphoris, under semi-benevolent Roman occupation, was enjoying a building boom. Marianna says that Joseph and sons were there as stone workers. Marianna writes about how fine Jesus looked, stripped to the waist, drenched in sweat, and how brave he was, questioning the worthiness of the man whose palace he was helping to construct. Like many of today's young women, Marianna seems to have been attracted to muscular, tough-talking rebels. "

"So she got to know him?" Peter asks.

"She did. And it seems as though she went about trying to tame him."

"Typical woman," Tom says. "What did she do to him?"

"She claims to have told him about John the Baptist, a wild man of a minister immersing people in the waters of the River Jordan, cleansing them of their sins, admitting them to the forthcoming Kingdom of God. She says that she was surprised to learn that John was Jesus's cousin, and that Jesus would welcome baptism. He readily agreed to go to him. Soon after being baptized, Jesus abandoned his family and his other obligations and made his forty-day trek into the wilderness. Marianna says she couldn't understand what made him act so erratically. She couldn't have known that the baptism and the 40 days would mark the beginning of his ministry."

"I wonder if he knew what he was getting himself into," Tom says. "Maybe our gospel will let us know."

"The gospel according to Marianna," Peter says.

"That's pretty much it so far," Lana says. "I have a rough translation of about half the codex. Marianna goes on to say she was the daughter of a high priest and had fallen out with her father due to his allegiance to Roman authority. Unlike the Magdalene, Marianna was unable to provide Jesus financial support. Apparently she and her father argued repeatedly over many issues, most importantly his insistence that something had to be done about John the Baptist."

"And something was," says Peter.

"You better believe it," Tom says. "Salome did a sexy dance, was granted a wish, which turned out to be John's head on a platter."

"News to me you're a great Biblical scholar," Caroline says.

"I've read more of it than you'd probably believe," Tom replies. "I tend to retain memories of the book's wilder scenes. In a lot of instances, it's quite a good read."

I am a bit surprised to see Peter being drawn into this conversation. "John got a whole denomination named for him," he says.  "I realize he baptized Jesus, but I wouldn't think that would earn him either a denomination or a death sentence.
Why was he such a big deal?"

"In the early going, he made the mistake of suggesting he was the Jew's long-awaited Messiah," Lana says. "Back in those days, self-proclaimed Messiahs, and there had been several, had very limited life expectancies. The mere suggestion that one might be King of the Jews constituted a declaration of war against Rome. Supposedly he later credited Jesus with being much greater than himself, but by that time it was too late"

"So I guess Jesus knew what he was getting himself into," Tom says.

Lana nods her head. "According to Marianna's  text, she pleaded with Jesus not to proclaim himself an enemy of Rome. For the most part, he complied with her wishes. There are only a handful of instances in the scriptures in which he suggests he's destined to be a ruler."

"So what went wrong?" Peter asks.

"Marianna points a finger at the Magdalene. Mary provided Jesus financial support, which gave here a say in his ministry. Trouble was, Jesus wasn't exactly what she was looking for. Her vision of a world religion didn't include a pacifist leader. She would loved to have had a great warrior to lead Israel forces against the Roman legions. But no such man was available. So she had to settle for what, to her, was a second choice: the Son of God. But he needed to proclaim himself the Messiah."

"So the bitch Mary got her own way," Tom says.  "He claimed to be the Messiah."

"He did so on occasion," Lana concurs, "but reluctantly, it appears."

"Did Marianna do more than tutor Jesus?" Peter wonders.

She says that Jesus treated her in a very special way. She was the first one to devote herself to him, and he showed his appreciation in several ways. She says that she was but one of half a dozen lady friends, but that she topped the list. I guess these days his ladies would be known as groupies."

"Why do I keep thinking of Charlie Manson?" Tom wonders. "I don't suppose any of you ever read about Charlie's girls."

Ignoring him, Carolyn asks, "Was Mary Magdalene one of them?"

"She was," Lana replies. "And Marianna's gospel is quite hostile to her. I am not sure we can believe everything Marianna wrote. It could be flawed from petty jealousy."

"An old-time cat fight?" Peter asks.

"More like class warfare, I believe. The Magdalene came from a wealthy family. She seems to have been something of a rebel and a big disappointment to her parents. According to your gospel, she was an independently minded young lady who used her share of the family fortune to support Jesus and his entourage for the three years that he was an itinerant preacher."

Carolyn is beginning to have the distraught look of somebody who has heard enough. "The Magdalene loved Jesus?" she asks hopefully.

"Hard to say," Lana admits. "There are only half a dozen references to her in the New Testament, and until the 1960s, the Catholic Church entertained the notion that she was a prostitute."
According to Marianne, she was a sort of flower child on steroids. She may have adored Jesus, but she also recognized his commercial potential. Jesus was one of several self-proclaimed Messiahs during that period, but the Magdalene seems to have recognized his specialness. He had a gift for healing, and several of his short-term prophecies were borne out. She thought he had great profit-making potential and sought to cut herself in.
It's even possible she was mentally ill. Marianna affirms that Jesus relieved her of seven demons. It has occurred to me that she might have suffered from multiple personality syndrome. A strong presence such as Jesus might have been able to get her to focus on one dominant personality. It would be easy to see how  folks back then would believe that Jesus had succeeded in driving our her demons. Maybe, in fact, he did.

Tom is paying close attention to Lana's words. "Mary Magdalene, a nut case," he notes. "That could certainly piss on a lot of sanctimonious parades."

Tom's jeers don't disrupt Lana's focus. "Whatever else she was, she seems to have been a tough-minded businesswoman," she affirms. "According to Marianna, Jesus possessed mystical attributes that were all too real, and the Magdalene was intent on exploiting them. Whether or not these made her love him is debatable. According to Marianna, she anticipated a big return on her investment. She wanted to be an important player in a new and profitable religion."

"More important than Jesus himself?" Peter asks.

Lana hesitates as she appears to be giving this question close consideration. "It seems as though the Magdalene was content to let Jesus take most of the credit," she finally says. "In those days, a woman never would have been accepted as the Messiah."

"Didn't Jesus object to Madelene's plan to monetize his message?" Peter asks.

"Apparently, not a whole lot," Lana replies, "At least not at first. He seems to have been a bit of a Gnostic, a sect that believed people could fine their own salvation. Jesus did famously place the kingdom of heaven within the congregate. Strangely enough, he was a man of not too many words. It seems as though Jesus traveled to India when he was barely out of his teens. He became familiar with sacred Hindu texts as well as the philosophies of Lao Tzu and the Buddha. It's important to remember that neither of these men claimed to be divine. Both were pacifists. I think Jesus wanted to follow in their footsteps."

Carolyn looks like she has had an Eureka moment. "This could explain a contradiction that has long bothered biblical scholars. Jesus always seemed to urge both short-term preparation for the end of days and long-term salvation through universal brotherhood."

Seemingly content with her insight, Carolyn goes to her sink and begins cautiously draining steaming water from the big pot. The lobsters are done. Using tongs, she piles them on a large platter. it's heavy, but she manages to carry it to the table. "Careful, they're hot," she cautions as she begins passing plates around.

I am sitting next to Lana and see that she is eying her lobster suspiciously. "Let me show you how this is done," I say as I use a nut cracker to split one of her lobster's claws. I use a pick to bring out the meat and place it on her plate. "Dip that in melted butter and see how yummy lobster can be."

Cautiously she follows my instructions. After dipping it in butter, she tastes it, and I can tell by the pleased look on her face that she will be back for more. With no hesitancy at all, she does the smaller claw by herself, handling it quite expertly. That leaves the tail. I  take the scissors Carolyn provided and cut the underside before prying out the meat. Lana gives the  tomalley a dirty look until I assure her that lobster liver is a great delicacy.

Tom can't seem to resist pissing on our parade. "You do realize the Bible specifically forbids the consumption of lobster," he says. "Bottom feeders such as lobsters are strictly taboo."

Carolyn doesn't seem to notice Tom as she pops a chunk into her mouth. "Sweet meat," she affirms.

As I go to work on my own lobster, I ask Lana about her take on Jesus's ambitions. "I think he wanted to be a philosopher, a healer, and a prophet, perhaps in that order," she replies. "On several occasions he preached a doctrine of universal brotherhood, and apparently he had a real knack for healing the sick."

"Perhaps he had a knack for picking out psychosomatic cases," Peter suggests. "Wham, Bam.  once again the power of suggestion does its thing."

"Could be," Lana concurs. "It's also possible that his success rate might have been exaggerated, and that Mary might have helped him out. Your gospel suggests that the Magdalene invented a few of his more outstanding miracles. Walking on water and revitalizing dead people may have been her hyperbole. Several previous holy men claimed to have pulled off identical miracles."

Things can't get sacrilegious enough to please Tom. "So J.C. was just another quack..." he suggests. "Nothing at all unusual about him."

"Marianna makes several claims about Jesus's uniqueness," Lana replies. "For one thing, she says Jesus aborted a baby borne by one of his followers by laying hands on her extended belly. She hints that Jesus might have been the father. According to Marianne, the Magdalene was very angry about the whole business."

Peter's eyes have opened wide. "Jesus an abortionist?" he explains. "Sounds highly unlikely to me. Most of the truly religious people I have known regard abortion as murder."

Carolyn seems to have had enough of this. "He would never have done such a thing," she insists. "Jesus regarded human life as a precious gift from God."

Lana shakes her head. "It may be less strange than it seems. The Bible itself says nothing explicit about abortion. For centuries, most Christians contended that human life begins not at conception, but at quickening, when the mother begins to feel the baby's kicks. That's around 20 weeks into the pregnancy."

"Interesting," Tom says. "I would have thought that the more pious folks of yesteryear would have been horrified at the very thought of abortion."

"When this country was founded, abortions were legal everywhere," Lana points out. "It wasn't until the 19th century that states began prohibiting them."

The historical Jesus is beginning to interest me. "What about his prophecies?" I ask. "Was he in Nostradamus's class?"

Lana thinks about this for a few moments. "Possibly," she concedes. "Seems like he was really quite good. Evidently he foresaw the Council of Nicaea, the Crusades, the discovery of the New World, both world wars, and recent-day climate changes along with television and the Internet."

Tom speaks up. "I am surprised a cool guy like Jesus would want to associate himself with the prophets. Even by biblical standards, some of those guys were really weird."

"How so?" I ask.

"I remember reading a book about them," Tom says. "One that stands out in my mind is Isiah. He walked naked and barefoot around Jerusalem for three years."

"Why?" I wonder.

"His point was that he and his countrymen would wind up naked slaves if Judah allied itself with Egypt and Ethiopia."

Carolyn appeals to Lana. "Is this true?" she asks.

"I am afraid so," she replies. "The Old Testament contains some fanciful tales."

"In many of them, God was a real bastard," Tom continues. "I remember the part in Ezekiel when God told him to carve a model of Jerusalem into a brick, then lie down beside it on his left side. This he did for  390 days. Then he turned to his right side for another 40 days. During this 430 days,  Ezekiel was told to eat a meager diet of bread, cooked over human dung. This, he thought, was pushing things, so he pleaded with God, and God, ever the good sport, agreed to let him use cow dung instead."

Carolyn looks a bit shell shocked.

Tom can't resist needling her. "Try reading the Bible," he says. "It's a thrill a minute."

Peter speaks up. "It seems like all the prophets ever foresaw was doom. Didn't they ever anticipate anything good happening?"

Lana smiles at this. "Jesus may not have been all doom and gloom. He probably needed a bit of an optimistic outlook to consider the possibly marriage. Sheldon used to talk about The Da Vinci Code, a book Dan Brown wrote years ago. A huge blockbuster, it popularized what then was a somewhat novel notion, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. It suggested that they established a bloodline that the Catholic church has worked hard to conceal for more than 2,000 years."

"I believe I have a copy of that book somewhere," Peter reflects.

"It's a good read," Lana allows, "and several million copies were once in print. At the time it caused quite the sensation, although the notion of Jesus and Mary being married was nothing new among students of scripture. The code in the title is in Da Vinci's famous painting, The Last Supper. Brown claims that the person seated to Jesus's right is not a male disciple, but Mary Magdalene. They are leaning away from each other, forming what Brown takes to be an M, which he thinks stands for married. Sheldon took a different slant on this. He suggests that their leaning apart portrays the schism between them. If they were married, perhaps they weren't getting along. Possibly they were on the verge of divorce."

Carolyn, who has been paying very close attention, says, "This would have made the church doubly determined to obscure their relationship."

I can tell by the expression on Peter's face that he is having none of this. "This could all have been sour grapes," he reminds us. "Whoever wrote our gospel could just been engaged in wishful thinking."

"True," Lana admits. "The author definitely was competing for Jesus's affections. She was, she says, from a lower class. She confesses to have once been a thief and hints that at one time or another she had engaged in prostitution. She contends that Jesus preferred associating with people like her, people shunned by respectable society. He felt that the rich had little or no chance of salvation. Remember his parable about camels and eyes of needles? She claims he recited it often just to annoy the Magdalene. Our author claims that she and Jesus were lovers and insists that she was the object of his true devotion."

"Seems like we have a real soap opera on our hands," I say. "Tell me, Peter, if we ever get your gospel translated, what do you plan to do with it?"

"I am not sure," he replies. "But I have given the matter quite a lot of thought."

"Assuming it's authentic, biblical scholars would find it invaluable," Lana points out. "And private collectors would pay millions for it. It promises to answer oh so many questions."

"Beginning with what?" I ask.

"I would love to gain insight into Jesus and the Gnostics," Lana says. "From day one, Christianity divided into two groups: Gnostics and Literalists. Gnostics believed that individuals should follow their own spiritual paths. Literalists believed salvation could be achieved only by obeying strict guidelines. The Literalists, uniting under the protection of the Roman Catholic church, persecuted the Gnostics relentlessly, torturing them, burning them alive, generally making life for them Hell on Earth. Eventually won out. Your gospel is hinting that Jesus was a Gnostic and Magdalene a Literalist. Christianity could be a money-making proposition only if congregates were made to rely on holy men for salvation."

Tom says, "Once again organized religion proves to be evil."

"I suppose that's one way of looking at it," Lana says. "And Peter's codex goes on from there. Marianne suggests that Jesus believed in reincarnation. According to her, he spoke of many generations of single souls to come. This contradicted the idea of an imminent doomsday the Church was intent on selling. It could be said to promise life eternal for any and all. Three hundred years later, when Constantine was giving Christianity its big break by making it the official Holy Roman Empire religion, he held that the doctrine of reincarnation was heretical. Years later people were burned at the stake for subscribing to it."

Tom makes eye contact with Peter. "Looks like your gospel might shake things up in more ways than one."

Peter sighs. "I wish it didn't. Sometimes I hope it proves to be a fraud. Since it may or may not be authentic; it may or may not be valuable. So who gives a shit? I am comfortably well off. Believe it or not, I am more interested in books than I am in money. I suppose I should care, but deep down I really don't give a shit if my fucking gospel is legitimate or not. What I do know is that I am not interested in spending the rest of my days defending the damn thing. If Christianity collapses I don't look forward to being accused of contributing to its demise. In many places, it's already pretty much shot. For all I care, Christianity can go to Hell, but I would like for it to do so without my help. I think what I would like to do is post the text online, tell the world how to access it, and let the chips fall where they may."




CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

WHEN PETER AND I WAKE UP the next morning we're back in our motel in Salisbury Cove, and we seem to share a single thought: Are Carolyn, Lana, and the codex safe at the Mira Monte?

I think they are.

I have little doubt that Roger Sinclair will try to find the codex, but what can he do? He can call Harvard and discover, if he hasn't already, that Professor Phillips is dead. He might learn that Lana was his assistant, and he might discover that she has gone off  somewhere. But she didn't tell anybody where she was going and has left no paper trail. Without Goggle's assistance, she would be almost impossible to trace. Tracking her down would at least take time.

I let my imagination dig deeper. It seems obvious that Sinclair might question Ralph Merton. How much does he know about Ralph's snooping? Ralph, for sure, would be a hard nut to crack, but suppose Sinclair did learn that I have the codex. It would be easy enough to find out where I live and come after me, but I would be ready for him. I wasn't about to give up the codex. Okay, okay, subject me to torture, and I would break, probably sooner rather than later, maybe at its first mention. But somehow I just couldn't see this happening.

Still I had to admit that keeping the codex in Maine, even for a few days, could be a huge mistake. While it seems unlikely that the wrong people will discover its whereabouts, all things are possible. Probably giving into Lana isn't the smartest thing we've ever done. She so much wanted some time with it we just couldn't bring ourselves to say no. I for one have always had a hard time denying pretty young women their heart's desire. I guess Peter is much like me. Deep down I wonder if we are motivated by the notion that one day we might get in her panties. Neither Peter or I claim to be pure of heart.  Still, I believe we're decent chaps, and it only seems fair to give Lana an opportunity to show what she can do. With her white gloves and tweezers, she appears completely professional.   She protects the codex zealously, prohibiting anybody else from coming near her table.
For sure, it's not like she's a dumb-shit kid. The codex, while fragile, seems to be in good hands.

Peter doesn't share my confidence. He says his military training has taught him to always prepare for the worst possible scenario. "If you expect the worst, you're never unpleasantly surprised," he says. Generally, I agree with Peter; he's seldom wrong. But to my mind, his take on
worst possible scenarios is nonsense. I don't tell Peter this, but I think he should grow up and get real. What, after all, is the worst that can happen? The sun blows up? We all get sucked into a giant black hole? Somebody drops a hydrogen bomb on us? The plain truth of the matter is we have no defenses against worst possible scenarios. Fortunately, they don't happen often, because when they do, we're screwed. Ever since my draft-dodging days, I have been critical of the military. Its training, I believe, has serious shortfalls. My suspicion is that from day one military recruits are brainwashed into believing they're invincible. The ones I've known seem to believe their lives are the beneficiaries of extended warranties backed by God Himself. This is probably a useful mindset when it comes time to storm beaches or charge up hills in the face of enemy machine gun fire. I guess if I need soldiers to protect me, this is how I want them to think. Nobody expects cannon fodder to be overly bright.  Military intelligence, some wag once suggested, is a classic oxymoron. This was said in jest, I suppose, but it persists in my mind because it seems true. I have often wondered how people can be brilliant and stupid at the same time. I have known PhD's who subscribe wholeheartedly to the notion that creation occurred about six thousand years ago and the risen Jesus shot off into heaven like a Saturn rocket.

This line of reasoning breaks down somewhat when it comes to Peter. I would never be able to bring myself to call him stupid. Or even dull. He is better educated than I am and, I suspect, smarter.  Certainly he is a more astute businessman. Sometimes I wish the military hadn't gotten a crack at his brain, but what can I do? In any event, I don't argue when he tells me he is going to take his semi-automatic and camp out at the Mira Monte. He's a former Green Beret, and even if he wouldn't be able to handle the worst possible scenarios, there are plenty of pretty bad scenarios he could handle very well.

Even with the codex under Peter's guardianship, I do have to wonder if it would be better off back at the university. I can't suppose there's not much doubt it should be in the hands of foremost experts investigating its authenticity. But that is what we thought when we left it with professor Phillips, and look what happened. We aren't personally acquainted with anybody more expert than Lana. How could we know who to trust? Well, sure, I trust Lana and wouldn't completely disregard her  take on this matter, but she has been wrong once. Maybe she has just a bit too much respect for Harvard University. I decide there's time for this later.

Another nagging little worry keeps cropping up in my mind. I haven't heard from Suzi. I had expected her to contact me when she got home safely. Okay, there would be a lot for her to catch up on when she first got there, so she might not get back to me right away. But now there has been plenty of time for her to get her feet firmly planted on the ground.

I decide I'll call her. But how?  She left no number where she could be reached. She used the surname Swanson, but she had told me that her biological parents had been killed when she was thirteen, and a couple in Woods Hole had taken her in. I have no idea what their name is.

Then I remember something. When I had first told her that I was into publishing, she told me she had had journalistic experience working as an intern at the Jackson Hole Gazette. It was a long shot, but I contacted the paper and got a friendly, female, elderly voice in response. I tell her I am trying to reach Suzi Swanson with important news. I get lucky. The person I am talking to remembers Suzi.

"Smart little gal," the voice recalls."Intuitive too. Suzi always seemed to know when there was a big story hidden behind a little one."

"Sounds like my Suzi," I say. "She told me her adoptive mother is ill and she would be in Jackson Hole helping out her father."

There was a prolonged hesitation. Then my respondent says, "There must be some mistake. We must be talking about two different Suzis. The one I know couldn't be visiting her folks."

"Why not?"

"They've both passed on. And not recently. Frank was shot five or six years ago. Martha passed on a couple of years later."

"You're sure?"

"Positively. It was big news here at the time. We don't get many murders. I think it shook Suzi up pretty good. She quit the paper shortly thereafter."

"Who shot Frank?"

"Nobody knows. I do know he wasn't missed much. The man had a mean streak. At one time, he and Martha separated, and she had a restraining order out on him. They reconciled, but rumor around town was that she had admitted to being afraid of him."




CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

AN HOUR OR SO LATER I realize I should have asked her how Suzi's real parents were killed. I am feeling uneasy over the number of untimely deaths surrounding Suzi. The aggression she showed toward Ava caught me by surprise. Then she told me that Jack was going to attack me, but instead he shows up dead. She told me she has a rare gift for intuiting danger, and Frank seems to have been a dangerous man, until somebody shoots him. It seems absurd, but what the hell am I supposed to do if my sweet Suzi turns out to be some sort of vigilante murderess?

I get so wrapped up in wondering about Suzi that I almost forget that I have agreed to be ol' man Sutherford's partner in Kebo's annual member/guest tournament. Planetary warming has plenty of pitfalls, and we should have stifled it when we had the chance, but it does extend Maine's golf season through November. The member/guest, always held late in the season, is no small event. Serious money is wagered on top teams, and I suspect Sutherford is staking a bundle on the two of us.

J.D. is feeling good about his golf. I have succeeded in instilling some changes in his approach to the game. Besides weakening his grip, I have corrected his alignment and altered his posture, closing his shoulders slightly, lowering his right shoulder, and tilting his spine a bit away from the target. Taken singly none of these adjustments seem like much, but taken altogether, they put him in a good-to-go athletic position.

Sutherford has been assuming a stance with the right foot pointing straight ahead. He said he had taken this from Ben Hogan's classic book, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. I convinced him that this would work okay with short irons, but for the driver and fairway woods he could get a bigger shoulder turn if he pointed his right foot out a few degrees. He tried it and was thrilled with how well it worked. Hogan's book was written in the fifties, and perhaps his fundamentals aren't so modern anymore. Hogan doesn't seem to have considered a number of modern orthodoxies, including visualization, four-and-a-quarter inch tees, stress reduction, and the single-plane swing. If Hogan knew of Moe Norman, he never mentioned it.

I encouraged J.D. to make the changes I did for a good reason: They had a good change of becoming part of his permanent game. They don't require strength, athletic ability, or split-second timing.
Changes like these can be adopted by anybody. Certainly anybody can learn to grip the club properly. The swing itself takes less than a half second, way too short a time to think about much. The set-up, on the other hand, needn't be rushed. One can take however much time one needs to do it right. The position I had gotten J.D. to assume sets him on an inside to square path and allows him to deliver full power at the appropriate time.

It is a bright and sunny day, but quite windy. Temperatures aren't expected to rise above sixty-five degrees. Most Kebo members aren't good wind players, the reason being they seldom have to be. The low-lying course is protected by several mountains, and it is only occasionally that the wind comes swirling down unpredictably. This seems to be one of those days.

"Don't try to overpower the wind," I say to J.D.. "Trust me, it's a losing battle. You're bound to get tight and quick. Swing a little slower than usual. Make a full shoulder turn and start back down smoothly. If you're hitting directly into a headwind, take a little wider than usual stance, and play the ball an inch or so further back. Try closing your clubface a tad. These adjustments will keep the ball low. In a right to left crosswind, close your shoulders a bit more than usual, promoting a draw that can ride the wind. In a left to right crosswind, don't try to induce a fade. Too tricky. It's way too easy to totally fuck up the shot."

I am afraid I have said too much. Sutherford has a sort of deer-caught-in-the-headlights look. "Let's just go out and have fun," I say. "It's just a game, right?"

Sutherford stammers a bit, then says, "Right on. Golf is not a matter of life and death...  It's way more important than that." I force myself to laugh at his tired, old joke, hoping a bit of shared joviality might loosen him up. I figure we have a good chance since I am more familiar with the course than most other guests.

Nevertheless, we get off to a shaky start. After missing a five-foot putt and bogeying the first hole, on hole two I get my second shot up above the tree line, and the wind carries it into the water. Double bogey, and I am three over on my own ball after two holes. Sutherford, shooting me a dirty look, doesn't do much to conceal his disappointment. I am not helping him settle down. Swinging fast and jerky, he double-bogeys each of the first two holes. Although his 18 handicap gives him a stroke on both, collectively, we are five over after two holes and heading for last place.

Sutherford looks snake-bitten. I am nauseated, but know it is up to me to pull us together.  Putting on my best cheer leader expression, I say, "Okay, man. Time to settle down. An easy par four is coming up. Let's both of us post pars." And that's what happens. We're four over, but headed in the right direction.

Things begin to really turn around on the par three fourth. I hit a fine nine iron to eight feet and can the putt. Sutherford puts his tee shot to the righthand fringe and follows up with a lovely chip that stops inches away from the hole. He taps in for three, net two. Although we are still two over, our confidence soars. All things seem possible.

Sutherford begins to nearly match me shot for shot. We are both hitting the ball straight. My drives are twenty or thirty yards longer than his, but no matter.  We are both landing in the short grass and hitting approach shots on, or at least near, the greens. I make steady pars and Sutherford contributes three pars along with several bogeys, his only blemish being a single double bogey on the difficult 13th hole.

We come to the sixteen with a net one over par.

"This is a short par four, only 286 yards," I note. "We can make a major move here." I swing as hard as I ever have, catching it on the sweet spot, and coming down just ten yards short of the green. Sutherford tees up his ball, and turns to look at me. I swear he winked. I guess he is loaded with adrenaline because he smokes by far the longest tee shot I have ever seen him hit. The ball must have hit hard ground because it takes a big bounce and eventually rolls onto the green ten feet from the hole.I haven't seen many shots more spectacular than this one.

I have short-sided myself, leaving a tricky approach.  There is a sand trap between  me and the green, and the hole is only about ten feet onto the green. Fortunately, I have a decent lie; my ball is sitting high on short, fluffy grass. I open the face of my lob wedge, and prepare to play a dangerous flop shot.The shot requires that the open face makes near perfect contact of ball and turf simultaneously. It requires a big swing, and a mishit can send the ball skidding over the green and into who knows what. The effort expended seems way out of proportion to the distance required. The swing requires something approaching blind faith. When the shot works, it's a thing of beauty; when it doesn't, it's a disaster. This time it works perfectly. The ball pops up high, and lands soft and light. It bounces once and settles a foot from the hole. I have a tap-in for birdie. I have never hit a better shot at a more opportune time.

Sutherford takes surprisingly little time with his ten-footer. No plumb-bobbing,
no stooping down as low as possible. no observing the line from every possible angle. Instead he takes a single practice stroke before stroking the ball decisively. At first I think he has hit it way too hard. The line is good; the ball tracks straight for the hole, but it's rolling too fast. Then, lo and behold, it hits the back of the cup, pops up, and falls in. No matter had it missed the hole it would have gone ten feet by. It's in for an eagle, and with his handicap stroke, we're four under on this hole alone.

Seventeen is Kebo's most famous hole, a frequently nasty affair made notable by the two huge sand traps on a steep hill fronting the green. President Taft is said to have hacked his way through these for a twenty-seven. Sutherford hits his second shot fat, sending his ProV1 to the middle of the trap on the right while I manage to hit the green with my second shot. If Sutherford falls apart here, he can undo all the good work we've done.

I put my hand on his as he begins to draw his sand wedge from his bag. "It's too far to blast," I say. "You have a clean lie. Take an eight iron and pick the ball cleanly off the sand." He does this and comes out of the trap nicely. His ball rolls onto the green fifteen or twenty feet from the hole. We both two-putt (not easily done on this severely sloped green) for net eight, even par. We've dodged a bullet.

I think Sutherford is in the zone. He splits the eighteenth fairway with a drive nearly as long as mine, the result of the smoothest swing I've ever seen him take. His eight iron to the green winds up inside ten feet to the hole, a foot or so closer than my wedge. I ram my putt into the back of the hole; Sutherford comes up six inches short and taps in for his par. With his handicap stroke converting his par to a bird and my bird, it's a net six, two under par.

We've finished the round five under par, not bad at all considering the wind. Sutherford takes the card to the pro shop, and comes back five minutes later all smiles. "We've won by three," he says. "We've beaten all them
sons of birches."

The first thing Sutherford does nice we're seated in the tap room is order a gin and tonic. I settle for a Budweiser. "We're one hell of a team," he exclaims. "We're damn near unbeatable." He commences to describe the round shot-by-shot from start to finish, improving on many of his shots. "At eighteen, I just wanted to cozy it up to the hole, he says of the ten footer he left short." "I knew our victory was in the bag." I don't remind him that he swore a blue streak upon missing that putt .

Upon finishing his second gin and tnoic, Sutherford excuses himself and leaves me sitting alone. I am still nursing my beer. He returns ten minutes later with a small brown bag. He hands it to me, I look inside, see it's filled with cash. "Your share of our winnings," he says. "Thirty-five hundred dollars."

"Holy shit," I say. I expected a payday, but nowhere near this much.

Sutherford is halfway through his fourth gin and tonic when he stops talking. He seems to be in deep contemplation. Then he says, "Don't worry. I'll make sure you get an Alpha chip."

"Alpha chip?"

Sutherford doesn't respond for maybe thirty seconds. Then he says, "Yeah, an Alpha chip. I wouldn't want my personal coach to suffer a blown mind."

"What the hell are you talking about??

Sutherford picks up his drink and rattles the ice back and forth. After five or ten seconds of this, he says, "There are a few things you need to know about chips, my man. They aren't as straight forward as most people believe. Chips have filters. They've gotta have filters. Filters keep the information flow manageable."

"So?"

"From day one, Goggle has issued two kinds of chips. The vast majority of chipped people have Alpha chips. The elite have Alpha IIs."

"What's the difference?"

"Alpha chips have filters that can be shut down. When it comes time for the Great Extermination, their filters will be shut down. The unfiltered internet will rush into their brains unimpeded. Information overload. I am told it's a pleasant way to go. There is enormous pleasure in becoming more and more knowledgeable. Supposed many test  victims have felt godlike. Then their synapses literally fry. Their burnout is real. Their brain becomes inoperable, and, of course, they die."

"Jesus..."

"I know it sounds ghastly, but population is essential. Our planet can't support twelve billion people, all with rising expectations of a materially abundant life. On top of that, we're on the verge of bestowing immortality on our best people. This will  contribute to even more over-crowding. Like I said, the earth can't support us all.  It just can't. Something has to be done, and Goggle is the one to do it."

"Why Goggle?"

Sutherford finishes his drink and looks around for a waitress."No other entity has so much power at its disposal." The good-looking lady who brought us our prime rib is looking the other way and may be ignoring Sutherford. He puts two fingers to his lips, and for a moment I am afraid he is going to whistle for her. I guess he thought better of it because he commences to rub his lip with his forefinger. Then he says, "I assume Marlina has an Alpha chip. You'll have to bring her in for an Alpha II."

"I told you, I don't know where she is."

Sutherford gives me a searching look. I know he doesn't believe me, but doesn't know how to tell me this without running the risk of pissing me off. He's shrew enough not to make accusations he can't prove."

"There is something I need to tell you," I say. "I am not joining your program. It's something I just can't do. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I did."

Sutherford doesn't seem to comprehend what I just said. He looks at me and blinks several times. "What do you mean you can't? You've gotta. We're an unbeatable team. Your coaching is going to make me a scratch player. In return, I am offering to make you wealthy and a chance to experience life ever-lasting."

"That would be an awfully long time not being able to live with myself."

I shove the brown bag over to him. "I am guessing you'll want to to reconsider giving this to me."

He shoves it back. "A deal is a deal," he says. "You earned it."

I get up and extend my hand, but Sutherford doesn't notice. He is staring mournfully at what's left of his gin and tonic. I guess he's gone into a sulk. As I turn to walk away, I swear the man has shrunken. This morning he was an extra-large. Now he's, at best, a medium.




CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

I WAKE UP the next morning back in Surry with a single happy thought in mind: Mission Accomplished! I know what nefarious activity Goggle is up to! I need to report my findings to J.D.'s son Ron as soon as possible. I have no idea what he and his friends will do. I hope to God they can do something, but I can't imagine what. A lot of innocent people are in big trouble if they can't.  But it's out of my hands. I've fulfilled my obligation to him.

Halfway through a cup of Taster's Choice, I notice a message on my monitor: Meet me at Monument Cove as soon as possible.

Who can this be? I wonder. The font is Times New Roman italic, not the aerial bold that Clint uses. How many people want to use my monitor as a cyber bulletin board?

Tom wanders over to my desk. He had been up late, working on my computer. I don't know what time he quit, but when I got up he was asleep on my couch. He has a habit of crashing wherever and whenever he runs out of steam. He yawns and stretches. "What's up with this?" he asks.

"I don't know, but I guess I'll head out there to find out."

"Want company?"

I almost say, "Sure," but then remember I have to go see Ron Sutherford. "No, I don't think so," I say. "I have some other errands to run once I find out what this is all about."

Less than an hour later I am back on Mount Desert Island. I take Route Three out to the Otter Cliffs Road, a not-too-well known way to get onto Google/Acadia Park's Ocean Drive without paying the hundred dollar fee. Ocean Drive leads to many of the park's most popular attractions—Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Great Head, Otter Cliffs, the Jordan Pond House, and  Cadillac Mountain. Monument Cove is a beach noted for its bowling-ball sized rocks.

I am enjoying the drive. It's a beautiful day, not a cloud in the cobalt blue sky.  A gentle breeze from the south is bathing our island in glorious warmth. On this Sunday morning early in the season there is little traffic.

High above a single silent electric drone subscribes wide circles. Occasionally it goes into a gentle swoop before catching a thermal and rising triumphantly.  It brings to mind a vulture. I sense it's eyeing me as I make the ten-minute drive to the cove, but then castigate myself for being paranoid. Once there I pull my vehicle off the road and cut the engine. I have almost gotten my flying friend out of my mind. Whoever wants to meet me doesn't seem to have gotten here yet. I turn on the radio, tune into a station playing golden oldies, and pick up a book from the passenger side seat. I have to read half a page before I fall into its rhythm. With eight or ten books going at once, storylines tend to get crossed in my mind, merging into one, big incoherent story.

To read, I have to take off my tinted glasses. I place them on the dashboard only to have them slide off onto the floor. I bend down to pick them up when CRACK!, there's a loud bang and when I look up I see a round hole in my windshield. "What the fuck—?"

I realize immediately the drone has taken a shot at me.

I look to my left and see the winged assassin is circling around lazily. It's taking its time getting back for another shot. Now the damn thing looks like a pterosaur, a prehistoric flying reptile. I duck down to my right, reach over and work the passenger door open. Staying as low as possible, I wiggle out of my car and onto the ground. The drone passes over my car, spots me on the ground, and swings around for a clear shot. I struggle underneath the car. My airborne opposition can't get a shot at me, but how long can I stay here? The drone can stand by indefinitely.

For the moment, it's a standoff, I think, until I realize it's getting uncomfortably warm. Then the awful truth dawns on me:  That damn bird is focusing a steady laser beam on the back of the car. It can keep it up until I fry or the car, an old gas-burner, explodes. Either way I am toast, literally.

There's one chance. When focusing a steady laser beam, my flying foe has a weakness;  it is immobile. When switching off the beam, it takes two or three  seconds to get moving again.

It's a painful process. Roadside gravel from the hard pavement is etching into my back, as I inch my way over towards the drivers side. It's taking too long. I am suffocating and the car is becoming too hot to touch. Sometime soon it'll  blow. The struggle seems interminable, but I finally reach the far side. I peek out. The drone is directly overhead, focusing a coherent beam of light at the rear end of my car.

It's now or never. I roll out from under the car, stumble to my feet, and sprint across the road. A steep bank leads down to the rock beach. I try to scramble down it, but halfway to the bottom I lose my footing and slide painfully the rest of the way. When I finally get to the bottom, there's no time to check for cuts and bruises. I stagger to my feet, take a few steps, and duck behind a large boulder just as the drone fires off a shot. The shell misses my head by inches.

I draw a deep breath and dash for the ocean. The water is sixty feet away. Every second I expect to be brought down by a shot in the back. To my no small surprise, seconds pass and I am able to plunge into the frigid ocean water. The shot comes just as I am totally submerged. It splats harmlessly into the water. I hold my breath as long as I can and when I come up for air, the drone is waiting patiently overhead. I suck in as much air as I can and duck back under water. Another shot splats harmlessly.

Any idiot can see I am just delaying the inevitable. I am getting tired; the drone isn't. I can't keep this up forever; the drone can. We do eight or ten more repetitions, but I have had it. I can't go on. I am done. I break the surface and take a deep breath, but know I can't dive again. Come on you motherfucker; do your worse. I watch as the drone heads straight towards me, only to veer off at the last minute, and do a double loop the loop before crashing into the sea.

I wonder if I'm too spent to swim to shore. An outgoing tide has taken me several yards seaward. I feel numb and wonder how long it takes hypothermia to set in. My clothes are weighting me down, and I am wishing I had worn sandals instead of boots. Just my luck to drown after all I've been through. I am nearly unconscious when I do finally crawl onto the beach, Looking up is a major endeavor, but when I do I see Tom Deegan standing there looking concerned. He is holding onto something, a device I finally realize is a TV remote.

"It works," he says. "It actually works." He holds the remote above his head. "This is a mighty impressive piece of work if I do say so myself."

I am almost, but not quite, speechless. "You saved my ass with a TV remote?"

Tom grins wickedly. "Let me show you how this baby works. It used to be a TV remote. Now it's something quite different. I call it a reprogrammer with the accent on the second syllable. Pointed at a drone and set correctly, it can change the bitch's programming."

"You instructed it to take a dip in the ocean?"

"Essentially, yes, that's exactly what I did. Software in drones is engineered to respond to gps coordinates. I factored in elevation, a figure I put at about ten feet below the surface of the water. I hadn't had a chance to test it, wasn't at all sure it would work. But now I am proud to say it works beautifully."

 I am still dazed. Things aren't computing. "Bring me up to date. How did that thing come to be."

"Well, it began with El Cobra. He had on hand an assortment of new and revolutionary Z batteries complements of Goggle. These babies pack quite a wallop; they're  a hundred times more powerful than previous models. Goggle isn't making them available to the public. El Cobra had six or eight of them and wondered if I might be able to use them."

"Seems like you were."

"For the past few years I have been wondering how to mount a defense against drones. I wanted something portable, easy to conceal. I thought there had to be some way to disable them that didn't involve setting up rocket launchers. I had a few ideas, all of which required a better power source. Then, lo and behold, there it was."

"You kept it secret?"

"I was planning on turning it over to you once I got it perfected. I figured I needed at least six months more. But after you left this morning, I got an uneasy feeling. I got thinking about how you had really pissed Goggle off. I knew it was a wild hunch, but I suspected you might need backup. So I came after you. Lucky thing I did, huh?"

I nodded. "Yeah, for sure. In another ten seconds or so I would have been dead. I owe you, man. I owe you big time."

"Truth is, I've owed you for longer than I can remember. you took me in when nobody else would. I still owe you, although maybe not quite as much as I did."

"We can discuss all this later. Right now I need to go talk to Sutherford's son." I contact Ron on my communicator. He is home alone and urges us to hurry on over. Tom and I take my car, and twenty minutes later we're there.

Young Ron Sutherford is standing on the big wraparound porch of his grand, old house tucked well out of sight in the hills of Seal Harbor. I shake his hand and introduce him to Tom. Ron waves us into the house and over to a table in the sitting room where there is a pitcher of ice cold lemonaid.  Ron pours us tall glasses full.

I tell Ron about yesterday's encounter with his father and about today's close call with the drone and about Tom's wondrous gadget. Then I try to get down to business.  "I found out from father what Goggle is up to," I say. "I'm afraid it's a huge and nasty undertaking."

Ron takes a sip of lemonade, but I have his complete attention. "Go on. Fill me in," he says.

"Goggle has acquired the services of a geneticist from Jackson Lab who has developed the key to immortality. Goggle plans to render a select few immortal and then reduce world population to around five hundred million. It can do this in gruesome fashion by shutting down the filters on all the regular chips."

I expect Ron to be shocked. Instead he laughs. He laughs and laughs. He can't  stop laughing. "I'm sorry" he finally says. "I don't mean to be rude. I really don't. It's just that Marcel never fails to boggle my mind. The things he comes up with are just so preposterous. "

"Marcel Clark?"

"Sure. Who else? Marcel Clark, the CEO of Goggle. He has one of the world's most vivid imaginations."

"Hang on," I say. "We're talking reality here. At least your father seemed awfully sincere when he told me those things."

"Of course he did. And why not? For all I know, he believes they're true."

I think about this for a second or so. "The drone they sent after me earlier today wasn't a figment of Marcel's imagination," I point out.

Ron is no longer laughing. "They wanted something from you," he says. "And now that they realize they can't get it, they want you dead."

"They wanted the keys to my server."

Ron thinks about this for several seconds. Then he says, "They would like those, but I think there's gotta be something more. Something they're willing to go to an awfully lot of trouble to get. To them your server is pesky, but no real threat."

"Your father seemed to show a lot of interest in my wife."

"I never said he isn't a dirty old man."

"Not that kind of interest. Your father seems to think I know where she is, but am keeping her concealed."

Ron shrugs as he says, "I don't know why they would think that or what they would want with her. But more to the point, it's possible you're not safe. It won't take them long to reconfigure drone software. Once they do, they might come after you again."

"You might remind your dad that right now with Tom's gizmo I can send a drone crashing through his office window anytime I want."

Ron grins . "Might not be a bad idea. Maybe some sort of non-explosive demonstration. For sure, something like that would get his attention. Maybe what he needs is a rude awakening."








CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

AARA HAMIDI APOLOGIZES for not coming to my office. "No problem," I say, "but who are you?" She informs me she is a Muslim graduate student at the university and that she knows Marlina. She wants to see me, she says, but her brothers try to keep her on a short leash. Again she apologies with words that sound both sincere and matter of fact. She asks me if I can meet with her at the university's Muslim center. I say sure.

I have never seen the center, but had envisioned some sort of architectural marvel. So I am disappointed by its ordinariness. The vinyl covered building is rather bleak, appropriate for an insurance agency or provider of medical services for indigents. To me it suggests no glorious connection with any almighty Creator of the Cosmos. But, then again, who am I to criticize the architectural proclivities of a people I know little about?

As instructed, I go inside and find the social room. I sit on a couch alone for maybe twenty seconds before an attractive young lady approaches me. She extends a hand. "Douglas Doberman?" As I reach for her hand, I nod, and she says, "I am Aara Hamidi. Thank you for coming."

"No problem," I say. "I feel at home here. Lately I've  been spending a lot of time at the university. So much time I should sign up for classes. They say it's never too late to broaden one's perspectives."

It occurs to me I am babbling, and, besides that, I can't  take my eyes off her brightly colored silk scarf. It covers her hair and frames her neck and face. If my staring discomforts her, she doesn't let on. Her eyes lock on mine. "It's called a shayla," she says, "Hijabs, the headscarves we're expected to wear in public, come in several styles."

"It's beautiful."

"Thank you. Contrary to the misinformed notion of many Americans, we don't all wear those wretched black burkas."

I picture one in my mind and stifle a shudder. "Those boxlike things must be uncomfortable. Some of our more conservative leaders use them as a reason we should fear Muslims. They say we must be on guard or you'll be forcing our women to wear them."

Aara nods her head. "If that's what they believe, they should be terrified. I've never had one, but I've been told that, yes, they are unendurably burdensome. In defense of them, I have also been told they discourage rape."

I smile, but wonder if I should, and at the end turn it into a look meant to look a bit grim. Don't blow it now, I say to myself. We've found some common ground. Let's try a polite question. "You're a student at the university?"

"Yes, I am a senior majoring in international affairs. Are you serious about taking courses? The graphic arts department here is really quite good. Your Websites are already beautiful, but, who knows, maybe you could add a wrinkle or two."

I am not serious about becoming a student, but don't care to admit it. A diversion is in order, so I ask her, "How do you know about my Websites?"

"I know Marlina. She turned me on to them."

"My wife has gotten about a bit. When did you two meet?" 

"Three years ago, she addressed the Muslim community here at the university. She gave a wonderful talk and very graciously met with some of us for coffee afterwards. I had several questions, more than anybody else, and she answered each of them thoughtfully."

"Coffee? I was thinking Muslims don't drink coffee."

"It's alcohol we eschew. There's nothing in the Koran about coffee."

I tell myself to stop airing my ignorance. "Anyway, you and Marlina got on well together?"

"We did."

"That's good to know. It's always nice to hear from satisfied customers."

Very good, I reflect. She's pleased with Marlina. Maybe now it's time to get down to business. "What can I do for you?" I ask.

"I need a Website. And not just any Website, but one that can't be traced back to me. Being the known perpetrator of this Website could make my life very complicated."

"Complicated how?"

"By offending the sensibilities of certain people."

"Muslins?"

"Muslims, Christians, agnostics, and probably atheists as well. Certainly it will be offensive to men who believe women should be subject to their dictates."

"Wow! Looks like you intend be an equal opportunity offender. Just how do you plan on pissing off everybody?"

Aara looks a little annoyed. I don't know if it's my pathetic attempt at humor, my course language, or just me. She asks, "Do you ask all your clients so many questions? Do I have to convince you my website will be worthy of your server?"

I try to make amends by assuring her, "No, I don't. normally ask a lot of questions.  Not at all. And my server is open to all. I am all about free speech. It's no concern of mine what people do with their sites."

"So why are you singling me out for intense interrogation?"

"I don't know. Trust me; I  don't mean to be rude. It's just that I find you interesting."

She looks down at the table demurely, and I believe she blushes a bit. I smile at her, but don't believe she sees this. I don't usually flirt with potential clients, but somehow this seems right. "Would you rather not talk about your Site?"

She looks up and makes solid eye contact. "No, I don't mind. Actually I think that talking about my ideas might help clarify them."

"So how do you plan on offending Muslims?"

"Besides demanding equality for women? An end to Sahria?  There are several obvious avenues of offense. I will condemn Muslim suicide bombers, Muslims beheading Christians, Muslims putting out fatwas on writers and illustrators they deem heretical."

"That should do it. How about Christians?"

"I'll begin by posting casualties from the bombing of various Muslim countries. Goggle isn't making this data easily accessible. I'll also make public when mosques have their communicators tapped or are subject to unreasonable searches and seizures. I'll post the names of innocents who have been placed on the no fly list. I'll list the names of American citizens, who happened to be Muslins, killed by drones."

"I can well imagine how you are going to offend certain men. You won't take any of their crap. You're going to be busy little girl."

The look Aara fires my way assures me I shouldn't have called her a little girl. I am relieved she doesn't make an issue of it when she says, "I have help... lots of it, people ready to pitch in and do whatever they can, but who must remain anonymous. It's essential that our Site can't be traced. Can you help me out here?"

"As a matter of fact, I can. I have acquired new software guaranteeing anonymity. If you sign on, you'll be my first client on this new server."

"How can it be guaranteed?"

"Believe it or not, I have access to a private quantum computer. Hackers would have one chance in several trillion of accidentally getting in. It's different from current quantum computers, and it would take millions of years for current models to over-power it. It can be as private as your wish. If you don't want me in, I can't get in. Trust me, it is as safe as humanly possible."

"The people I've offended, you can't direct them to me? Not even with enhanced interrogation?"

"If you don't give me the key, I can't get in. I can't change this, even if I am drawn and quartered."

"Sounds good. Sounds very good, except for the drawn and quartered part. Seriously, I know I need to trust somebody. It might as well be you. Marlina told me you are absolutely trustworthy. She insisted that when clients tell you things, you can be totally trusted to keep them to yourself. If you are to be my Webmaster, I am afraid you will be burdened with a few secrets."

"Lawyers, priests, golf pros, and webmasters all take vows of silence."

Aara smiles and seems to be suppressing actual laughter. Maybe she has a sense of humor after all. "If it's you I am going to trust, we might as well begin here. Do you have a few minutes? I would like to tell you a bit about myself."

"Go for it. I have however long you want."

Aara gives me one last steely look, and starts in, "I was just a child when my family moved from Lebanon to Dearborn, Michigan. Unlike Lebanon, which has nearly as many Christians as Muslims, Dearborn is overwhelmingly Muslim. I should have been comfortable there, but I felt isolated from pretty much everybody else in our country. Your government, in the name of fighting terrorism, was bombing fellow Muslims in Iraq, Iran, Syria and who knows where else. Some of my neighbors in Dearborn had become radicalized. They talked about how to kill Christians, as many as possible. Some were ready to die for this, and I was taught to admire these people above all others."

"You never considered becoming one of them?"

Aara shakes her head. "I want to live. But that isn't all." She holds a finger up to her lips and glances around the room. "Here's my biggest secret. Turns out I like women. I should be ashamed of this, I guess. I don't know. It's all very confusing. Where I come from my urges are punishable by death."

"You're better off here."

"Probably I am. Off and on, I was considering suicide when Marlina told me to be proud of myself no matter what. Somehow she gave me strength. The truth is I haven't  done much sexually. My brothers watch me closely. I don't think they're at all suspicious about my feelings, but if they were, they might uphold family honor by having me stoned to death."

"They would? Here in America? The notion seems positively medieval."

"I know it does, but still they might. They really might. I don't know for sure. Needless to say, I don't want to find out the hard way." Aara pauses, apparently in deep thought. Then she says, "They love me. I know they do. But they also love Muslim tradition. I don't want to put them in the position of having to choose."

I shake my head. "I've heard tales of Muslim rape victims being put to death for dishonoring their families. Hard to believe anything like that could happen in Downeast Maine."

"Don't get too smug. With its inquisition and witch hunts, your Christianity has smited its share of heretics."

"That was a long time ago."

"Even so, it happened. Maybe it's an inevitable progression religions go through."

"Could be. And maybe it's inevitable religions will engender rabble rousers. Christianity had Martin Luther and Islam...maybe it has you."

I swear Aara blushed. "I certainly wouldn't place myself at Martin Luther's level and I am far from alone, but, yes, you do have a point."

"Rabble-rousers such as you and Martin do seem to enjoy living dangerously."

She laughs. "I know I am something of a troublemaker, and I guess I do relish the role. But deep down I aim to promote peace. I want to be a reconciler. I'll use my website to point out similarities between Islam and Christianity."

"Similarities?"

"There are many. As you probably know, Muslims and Christians worship the same God. We call Him by a different name, but He's the same God. Along with the Jews, we're all monotheists paying homage to the God of Abraham. None of us bow to idolatry. But did you know that Muslims hold Jesus in highest regard, as a great prophet? We believe that in the End of Days Jesus will return, and he will do so as a Muslim."

"News to me."

"It's news to practically all non-Muslims. Even I had never given the matter much thought until Marlina spoke to us. Again, I believe she saved my life. She pointed out that Muslims are urged to obey the Ten Commandments as well as the moral teachings of the prophets, Jesus included. Besides Muhammad, Zoroaster, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Joseph, and John the Baptist are all held in high regard.  We believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin, and that Jesus himself performed miracles. We view both the Old and New Testaments as holy scriptures. We subscribe to the belief that an Anti-Christ will appear on Earth before the Day of Judgment, that Jesus Christ will descend from Heaven to kill the Anti-Christ, and that the Day of Judgment will occur and people will be judged."

"So what have we been fighting about for so long?"

"Silly things, mostly, although to many things not silly at all. There are definite differences between religions. Muslims reject the Trinity, the notion that God has three forms, father, son, and holy ghost. As a matter of fact, early Christians didn't accept it either. They didn't adopt the Trinity until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The bottom line is that to us Jesus is not God, not divine."

"Them's fighting words among many Christians."
 
"I know. Bloody wars have been fought over this and similar issues. As I see it, there are looneybirds on both sides. On the other hand, there have been times and places Muslims and Christians have lived side by side happily. They have done so in Turkey and in my native Lebanon. Maybe with a few concessions from both sides, this could become the norm. Plenty of people hereabouts would like that."

"Sounds like you're trying to bring about world peace. Quite an ambitious undertaking."

 She looks contemplative. "I guess it has to start someplace."

"I guess all I can say is 'lots of luck'."

Aara bites her lip and glances around the room. "Luck may not be nearly enough," she whispers. "It may already be way too late."

I am not sure I heard her right. "Come again?"

"My brothers have stayed in touch with people in Dearborn, and they say NEXIS acquired several nuclear warheads a year or so ago. This could be true; it could be wishful thinking. I don't know. But if they have them, I don't doubt that when the time is ripe they'll use 'em gleefully. They're lunatics, and they hope to bring on the End of Days."

"There have been rumors like that for years."

"I know that. And, of course, none of them has panned out. But this one seems far more specific. They center around the NEXIS TRIAD, the idea that three warheads will be detonated spontaneously. One in Tel Aviv, another in New York City, the third in Seal Harbor, Maine."

"Doesn't surprise me at all that Goggle would be a prime target. But if all this should be true,  which it probably isn't, I don't see just what you can hope to do about it. Still I wish you well."

"Not just me. Like I said, I have help. Lots of help, but I don't know how much time we have. Which brings me to why I am trying to catch up with Marlina. She has special abilities, and I am hoping she will come on as an adviser."

I am puzzled. "You just talked with her that one time?"

"Face to face, yes, just that one time. But I have known about her for a long time. She has abilities you don't appreciate. I can't explain everything, but trust me, you don't know her as well as you think you do."

Resentful as this is making me, I try not to show it. But I do stand up for myself. "I know Marlina better than I've ever known anybody," I insist.

Aara is dismissive. "I have tried  many times to reach her. When she hasn't responded, I have tried to reach her agent. He never responds. Can you get her to answer my calls?"

"We have a problem here. I don't know where she is. She has gone off somewhere by herself."

I sense Aara doesn't believe me. "Really?" she says. "Just how long has she been gone?"

"Almost two years."

"No doubt you've contacted the Goggle/Cops..."

"Of course. She is an officially designated missing person. Been one for quite awhile now."

"And you have no idea where she might have gone?"

"None whatsoever. The authorities are convinced she has been killed. The sad fact is I am their primary suspect. Their only suspect, actually."

Aara falls silent for a minute or two. She sighs, then she says, "Perhaps you needn't worry. Historically, it is common for spiritual leaders such as Buddha and Jesus and even Muhammad to go off alone on paths of self-discovery. As a Christian, you must know that Jesus spent 40 days alone in the wilderness."

"Well, Marlina, of course, is neither Buddha nor Jesus nor Muhammad; she's my wife. And she has been gone for far longer than 40 days."

Aara's look of disbelief has washed away. She smiles sweetly, then amazes me by reaching out to pat my hand. As our gazes lock, she says, "Life, as you know, can be full of surprises."








CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

THE TIMING COULD NOT have been better. As I was leaving the Islamic center, I get a call from Noah Winston, my elderly lawyer friend. He is stranded in Old Town and needs a ride to Ellsworth. I have been meaning to call him to discuss some legal issues. Now, conveniently, he is only fifteen minutes away, and I'll be able to get his take on Aara.

I meet him at Old Town Pizza where he and his friend Dottie are finishing a large, pepperoni, ham, and mushroom pizza. He offers me the last piece, which I gratefully accept. My gastronomic intake today has been limited to a bagel, a cup of coffee, and a cookie.

Dottie is a fine-boned, wrinkleless woman of indeterminate age. Had it not been for her steel-gray hair, she might have been in her thirties. She waves off my offer of a ride to her house, explaining that she lives just a couple of blocks away. "I need the exercise," she says.  Then, winking at Noah, adds, "not that I didn't get plenty last night."

When Noah and I get underway, I tell him about Aara. "She is convinced that NEXIS may be about to use a nuclear warhead. Is this at all likely?"

Noah thinks about this for a few moments. "Well, yes and no," he finally says. "NEXIS lacks the industrial infrastructure to produce its own bomb, but you can't rule out the possibility that it might have acquired one on the black market."

I wonder if someone might use the Black Net to arrange for such an exchange and if it's possible I played a role.

"NEXIS has no air force, no navy, no ICBMs," Noah points out. "It doesn't even have tanks or artillery. it's comprised largely of a ragtag group of guys and gals running around in antique Toyota pickup trucks."

"So they couldn't deliver a nuclear warhead even if they managed to get hold of one?"

Noah shakes his head. "Warheads have been miniaturized remarkably. A small one can be placed in a shaving kit."

"A small one?"

"One capable of wiping out only most of a medium-sized city."

"Do you know much about Muslims?" I ask.

Noah chuckles. "I am rather multidimensional if I do say so myself. I earned degrees in theology and history before turning law."

"What made you settle on law?"

"I got the idea that law was more grounded in reality. It took many years before I realized how wrong I was."

"So what if Aara is right?" I ask. "How bad would it be if if NEXIS got hold of warheads?"

"Bad. Very bad. NEXIS is a terrorist organization and as such can be expected to terrorize. That's not the same thing as saying it would be horrific if Muslims get nukes.  Pakistan has had them for decades. Iran has them despite our best efforts to stop them. Both of these countries, of course, are predominantly Muslim."

"Shouldn't we be quaking in our boots?"

"So far, nobody has wanted to instigate an exchange. The Iranians would love to take out Tel Aviv. They don't, because they know if they did, we would turn their country into a glass parking lot. The Iranians along with the rest of the Muslim world say we're the leading terrorist nation since we've been bombing them for decades. So far none of them have been able to do much about it."

"So maybe there's nothing to worry about?"

"I definitely wouldn't say that. If NEXIS acquires nuclear warheads it would be a whole different ballgame. NEXIS has cells in every predominantly Muslim country—Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Yemen to name a few. They're also well-established in western Europe and in the United States. Should NEXIS detonate atomic warheads, retaliation would be impossible unless we are able to single out individuals."

"I guess we wouldn't be able to pin it on any particular country."

Noah sighs. "NEXIS denies the legitimacy of any and all national borders. NEXIS is a shortening of the Next Islamic Stronghold. These guys aren't interested in nation building. Their name denies the importance of statehood. It envisions  no cessation of conflict short of world domination."

"But doesn't its global ambitions suggest long-range ambitions?"

"I wouldn't say that either. Many Muslims believe we've entered the End of Days, and are eager to hurry them along. For them the end isn't really the end. It might be the end for infidels, but not for them, the good guys, the true believers. It marks the beginning of a world-wide paradise with them in charge."

"So in their minds, victory could be imminent?"

"So imminent they see their own organization as as being on the verge of passing away soon. Consider the name NEXIS, Next Islamic Stronghold. This suggests a temporary shelter, not a nation state. NEXIS hates the notion of national boundaries.. Borders in the Mideast, they point out, were arbitrarily imposed on them by the British following World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. These borders paid no heed to historic ethnicity, an oversight that still pisses them off."

"I realize they do have legitimate gripes."

"Absolutely. Goggle doesn't publicize its ever-so-ancient war on terror much, but it roars on mindlessly. Don't ever forget its drones have been bombing Muslims for decades, killing millions while infuriating even more. The active terrorists are in and among innocent civilians, and what Goggle calls unavoidable collateral damage is astronomical. Recruits pour in far more rapidly than casualties are taken out.  NEXIS is growing way faster than Goggle will ever admit. Today there are active NEXIS cells in every predominantly Muslim country, drawing from a worldwide pool of well over two billion Muslims. We've all but healed Islam's ancient breach. NEXIS recruits both  Sunni and Shia. Hatred of us is sufficient to overcome centuries of animosity."

"Our drones are just wasting their time?"

"What you must understand is that NEXIS welcomes the bombing. Its stalwarts are  firmly convinced that we are approaching the End Of Days, which will culminate in the worldwide reign of the Muslim religion. It's something they've been anticipating for centuries. One might say their whole faith is based on this"

"Folks have been prophesying doomsday for decades."

"That's true enough. There have been many disappointed prophets. By and large, they have set their dates in the relatively near future. There is one interesting exception, Sir Issac Newton, who many still regard as history's greatest scientist. He used the Bible to establish a date a few hundred years in his future. His date, incidentally, isn't too far off."

"Hard to believe that in this day and age, people can be so superstitious."

"We're not as enlightened as you might believe, and it's not just Muslims who subscribe to the immediacy of doomsday. Among Christians and Jews, interest in the apocalypse has never been higher."

"What prompts it?"

"Well, in all honesty, prophetic signs do abound. Look at all the present disasters affecting the entire planet. The four horsemen of the apocalypse—conquest, war, famine, and death— are riding high. There have always been local trouble spots, but the global nature of today's war, disease, famine, and weird weather gives us all the willies."

"Aara thought that NEXIS fanatics might have had warheads for the past few years. If this were true, why wouldn't they have tried to set them off?"

"I can think of one good reason. Holy scriptures have held that the end won't occur until the Messiah returns. The Messiah here is our very own Jesus. Most Christians don't realize it, but Jesus plays a pivotal role in Muslim prophecies."

"There's nobody claiming to be Jesus?"

"Nobody convincing. Actually, two things have to to happen. The arrival of the Mahdi, also known as "the Enlightened One" has to precede the arrival of Jesus. It is a fundamental belief that the arrival of the Mahdi and then Prophet Jesus after a great upheaval will  fill the earth with peace and justice."

"I haven't heard of Mahdi."

"In Arabic, the title  Mahdi means "the divinely guided one" and it is a fundamental article of faith for all Muslims, He is the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will assist Jesus in battling the Antichrist. Most Muslims believe that ultimately they will defeat the Antichrist, ushering in a Golden Age for Islam.  In their minds, this is all necessary stuff to happen on their road to  an age of great spiritual wisdom and truth."
  
"It's sort of like Christian dogma, only different."

Noah chuckles. "Especially the part about Islam reigning supreme. The bottom line is it foresees  the unification of humanity to a single religious framework dependent upon a body of spiritual knowledge capable of making this happen. Similarly, the knowledge of God filling the world assumes the existence of the same unprecedented spiritual set of knowledge."

"Where will all this knowledge come from?"
  
"Maybe from people like you. Some scholars see the age of the internet and mass media being associated signs heralding the fulfillment of this prophecy. However, as you're well aware, the internet alone is no great spiritual enabler. At best it's a mixed bag, bringing both valuable information and misinformation to our fingertips. As I am sure you'll admit, the internet is also home to global pornography, child abuse, identity theft, and all varieties of negative extremism."  

I need time to digest Noah's take on Muslim prophesy. He's right, of course, about the Internet, but I am uncertain about how it enters into current events. Am I making a mistake opening my server to any and all? Goggle certainly thinks so. Is my hands-off approach a serious sin of omission? Is it even an approach? It may be more of a retreat.

I glance over at Noah. "I assume you're also something of a constitutional scholar?"

"I minored in constitutional law."

I wonder why I am not surprised. "I am no scholar," I admit, "but I do know something about the constitution and its amendments. Of them all, I've gotta say, the first is my favorite. I am something of an absolutist when it comes to free speech."

Noah thinks about this for a moment, then says, "I guess this explains your fascination with the internet. You need to put it in context. Have you considered how the United States became a Libertarian nation?"

"I believe people just became disenchanted with government."

"It might be more accurate to say government became disenchanted with itself. After decades of getting bigger and bigger and finding itself more and more unable to do anything effectively, government began battling itself."

"People lost faith in governance?"

"People lost faith in themselves. I remember when self-driving cars appeared on the scene. Our first impulse of most was to distrust their reliability. This despite mankind's miserable track record of doing the driving. I wondered what they would do in a snowstorm. Slowly people began realizing that cars can handle themselves much better than people can. Mankind resented it, but in a great many other areas there was no contest. Hands down, computers were smarter and robotics far more productive. Our self-doubt became pervasive. I am sure you've read abut Ronald Reagon. He was famous for having said, 'Government is not the solution; Government is the problem'. In some ways, his attitude was ahead of its time."

"So government just sort of imploded following a sentiment of no-confidence?"

"It's a little more complicated than that. Freedom of speech on the internet made politics a very unappealing occupation. Nobody's closet was secure enough to contain even ancient skeletons. Libel laws became useless, and politicians began attacking their opponents in the most vicious ways imaginable. Lies become mixed with truths and it became impossible to untangle them. Our best people—hell, even our quite good people— came to want no truck with politics."

I glance to my left as we drive by the Lucerne golf course, a fascinating Donald Ross layout occupying both sides of Route 1-A. I have played here often, and would love to be out there right now. We speed on by, and with the course behind us, I sigh a deep sigh and begin refocusing on our conversation, suggesting, "There must be more to it that a lack of suitable candidates."

"Certainly there was," Noah says.  The federal government got too big—it was bloated and corrupt. Legislators were for sale, and mega-corporations had the cash to buy them inexpensively in case lots. The President and legislators were evaluated by the amount of legislation they got passed. And that wasn't all."

"I am sure it wasn't. "

"In the Western states, three-quarters of the land was owned by the federal government. This fostered resentment. Local militias were formed, got armed to the teeth, and became ever more militant. They intimidated the government into giving up the resources these lands held. In essence, the federal government bowed to home-brewed terrorism."

"I believe I read where they referred to it as frontier justice."

In the South, you wouldn't believe how many people are still fighting the Civil War
or, as they would have it, the War of Northern Aggression. To some of these people, Booth is a national hero. The ecumenicals— they're widespread, but concentrated in the South— felt they were losing the cultural wars. Abortion on demand, affirmative action, homosexual marriage, free love, women's liberation, pornography, birth control, the banishment of prayer from public schools, the insistence on teaching evolution, the legalization of narcotics these were all issues that ecumenicals were on the wrong side of. For many, imposing property taxes on churches was the final straw."

"I guess they had plenty of hot-button issues."

"It became a Perfect Storm. These people couldn't see the federal government go away fast enough. Meanwhile, back East introduced its own set of  problems. With global warming, Washington D.C. was unendurable for much of the year. May through September, nobody wanted to be there. Then dengue fever reared its ugly head. The place became life-threatening. Even without the threat of disease, our politics became more and more polarized. Attacks on political opposition became merciless. Candidates saw their lives turned inside out. The internet was to blame for some of this. People once got their news from a few outlets, most of which at least paid lip service to objectivity. Their biases were somewhere near the center. The internet brought forth numerous news sources. They became specialized, representing the narrow perspectives of narrow interests. They all presented reality as us against them. People had a few like-minded confederates, and everybody else was the enemy."

"I guess radical change was inevitable."

"The were two significant third parties, the Libertarians and the Greens. The Greens habitually came in fourth. They were all to happy to join the Libertarians when the Libertarians promised to prohibit cutting trees for pulpwood.

The Libertarians eliminated around 90 percent of the jobs for forest rangers. With much of the country in drought, the results were predictable. Forest fires raged out of control. Some say it was a conspiracy that led to much of the nation's pulpwood being incinerated.

The two major political parties never recovered from the 2016 election. That year both nominations went to two of the country's least liked, most distrusted politicians.  Hillary Clinton was widely regarded as acareer criminal. Donald Trump was married three times, had publicly committed adultery, had publicly bragged about groping women, had humiliated a handicapped reporter, had bragged about his sexual endowments, had failed with several businesses, and seemed to have no grasp on the truth.

They joined forces and became competitive. When Bobby Paul was elected President, the Republican he ran against advocated denying Muslims the vote and the Democrat wanted to make nudism mandatory along with abortions for couples with combined IQs less than 200. "

"I suppose Paul looked pretty good."

"Definitely less insane than the opposition. He ran on a ticket promising to abolish the IRS, legalize prostitution, abolish bans on automatic weapons and narcotics. The plank that took him over the top was on promising to repeal two old bills for each new one enacted."

"I've read where this made him the first president to actually make the federal government smaller."

"That he was, and for a time it seemed as though he was doing a hell of a good job. A lot of bureaucrats had to go find honest work."

"This should have made a lot of people happy."

"It did until the Social Security Administration, the food stamp program, and the Universal Health Insurance Agency all shut down. Also a lot of people didn't like it when the country's national parks were turned over to a consortium of real estate developers."

"I've heard there are those who content that national parks are the best idea this country ever had."

"So it has seemed to the multitudes. Actually dumping them might have been a pretty good idea. Glacier National Park has lost nearly all of its active glaciers. In Joshua Tree National Park, it's gotten to warm to support its namesake trees. The delicate hydrology of Everglades National Park is shot to hell. Here in Maine, Acadia is the only archipelago national park, but rising waters threaten its islands. Congress was always reluctant to provide the funding the program required, and now at least some  parks are turning small profits."

"So Goggle became powerful by exploiting the government's lack of power?"

"That is a way of looking at it. But Goggle also had unique advantages through its grasp on media.In this country, t have bee interesting parallels between media and power. Franklin Roosevelt mastered radio. His fireside Chats comforted people during the depths of the Great Depression. Kennedy did far better on TV than Nixon. Obama did a much better job with the internet and e-mail than McCain or Romney. Then Trump came along and showed us how to use Social Media. His midnight twitters dealt devastating blows to his opposition.  And, finally, Champ, of course, has been master of the Chip."

"I guess the Chip seemed like a great advancement."

"You better believe it. For the first time people direct access to the internet. It seemed wonderful. No need for intervening devices and WIFI hot zones. With just a bit of a learning curve, people were able to access the web with their minds.  Instant internet here and now. It also seemed like a good thing when Goggle introduced online truth-telling. Its software promised to delete non-factual content. Who could object to that? Nobody likes liars. Then Goggle developed a way for Chips to replace old-fashioned financial institutions.. Again it seemed wonderful. Accounts in the clouds, no need for bookkeeping, check cashing, and overdraft fees. People enjoyed instant credit and automatic bill-paying. With no cash to be had, robberies became a thing of the past. Terrific! Just about everybody was pleased. People had come to hate banks and bankers, referring to them as banksters and attributing to them a whole host of ills. Folks couldn't have been happier to see them go. When Goggle refused to chip Muslims, most Americans felt it was acting prudently."

"Where did Ronald Champ come from?"

"The American mainstream, actually. His father was a semi-successful real estate developer in New York City. He underwrote Ronald's initial ventures and provided him his initial connections. Ronald became something of a celebrity by purchasing small equity stakes in projects in exchange for the use of his name. He never owned Champ Towers, but got plenty of exposure from having his name in giant letters above the main entrance. He was a showman. Somehow he was able to attract spectacular women, super models with impossibly long legs and outstanding boobs, ladies he loved to show off around New York City. He attracted everybody's attention, including Goggle's. Goggle gave him national exposure by making him emcee of a TV show it was sponsoring. The show, Play It Where It Lies, awarded contestants huge prizes for coming up with spectacular stories. Champ was famous for saying, 'Ten to one, people prefer exhilarating lies to mundane truths.' This thought seems to have been the cornerstone of his modus operandi when he ended up heading Goggle."






CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

SINCE IT'S STILL EARLY AFTERNOON when I drop Noah off at the library in Ellsworth, I decide to head down to Bar Harbor. The pizza Noah gave me was good, but a single slice wasn't enough. I am still hungry, and I figure my friends will feed me something tasty. I know Tom Deegan is  interested in visiting Carolyn (I guess he likes her wide-eyed responses to his atheistic tirades), so I swing by my place to see if he's there. He is, and with him is El Cobra, who asks if he can come along. The three of us are able to catch the two o'clock ferry, and fifteen minutes later, we're at the Mira Monte.

This is El Cobra's first visit to Bar Harbor and I wonder about his take on the sprawling Victorian structures lining Mount Desert Street. These grand old mansions were built in the late 1800s when Bar Harbor was competing with Newport, Rhode Island, for  primo social prominence.  These days they mostly provide accommodations for Acadia National Park visitors. When I ask El Cobra what he thinks of them, he mumbles something about "capitalism run amuck," adding, "These places were built on the backs of local peasants."

El Cobra's words brought to mind historical accounts I had read of the Great Fire of 1947 in which papers in Paris attributed the fire to rebellious peasants. In fact, townspeople pitched in to help firefighters any way they could.

Carolyn's suite, known as Wingwood, is set back from the main building and is of much more recent vintage. Her digs are on ground level; a second accommodation is up above. Visitors to the place must travel down a long, tree-lined, gravel drive, and the crunching of fine stones gives Wingwood occupants plenty of advance notice folks are approaching. In my opinion, Mira Monte is a nice combination of traditional and modern. It is filed with fine antiques, but also equipped with widescreen TVs, WIFI, DVD players, and a heat pump.

The door is locked, and we have to wait for Peter to let us in. Once inside, we are greeted by a very excited Lana. "In the past day or so, I've made a lot of progress," she says. "Your gospel is incredible. Material in the second half is amazing. If it's real—and that's still a big if—it's absolutely unbelievable."

Lana goes on to say she has succeeded in completing a rough translation of most of the codex, all but the last few pages. She confesses that there are passages that she finds very difficult. I remind her the gospel is Peter's, not mine, then ask her what she's learned.

"Well, first off, we've confirmed what we already knew," she says. "We're reminded time and again that Jesus was a complicated and deeply mysterious man."

"yeah, yeah," I say. "Aren't we all. But what's with his ability to perform miracles and all?"

"To put it bluntly, your gospel suggests that while Jesus was an accomplished magician, many, if not all, of his more sensational miracles were invented by Mary Magdalene. But you've gotta remember that Marianna's take on things might not be...well, the gospel truth."

Tom seems eager to indict the man. "You're suggesting that if Marianna can be believed, Jesus was complicit with Mary's deceptions?"

"Either that or he had a collection of what could be called multiple-personalities."

I am a bit taken aback. "Whoa! Hang on there," I say. "Let's define terms. Do you mean multiple-personalities as in dissociative identity disorder as in cuckoo?"

"Possibly," Lana admits. "He came on in a baffling number of different ways. You're probably most familiar with the sweet, poetic, loving Jesus exemplified in The Sermon on the Mount. Again and again from childhood on we hear his Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the world. Blessed are the pure in heart: for the will see God. We all know the soft and gentle Jesus."

I nod my head.  "That's the Presbyterian Jesus, the Jesus I was taught to know and love."

"So should we all. But what would you make of a Jesus who said, 'Perhaps people think that I have come to cast peace upon the world. They do not know that I have come to cast conflicts upon the earth: fire, sword, war'? In the eyes of the Romans, Jesus was a terrorist. His upending the tables of the money lenders in the temples was an act of war. "

"He said that? Must have been having a bad day."

"Maybe he had a lot of bad days because he said a lot of strange things. Today we might suspect he was off his meds. How about 'Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is. Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death'."

"Okay," I acknowledge. "That's plenty strange."

Lana continues, "Marianna Insists she was intimate with Jesus, but admits he often baffled her. She confesses she has no idea what He meant when he said, 'When you see one who was not born of woman, fall on your faces and worship. That one is your Father'."

Tom is intrigued. "How intimate was she?"

Lana looks a little annoyed. "Very intimate, but the importance of the codex doesn't lie in what they did in bed. This new gospel, if it's authentic, it would be unique in that it supposedly was composed in Jesus's time by a close associate of Jesus."

Peter is intrigued. "It's nothing like the scriptures?"

"The biblical scriptures were written decades after the passing of Jesus, and weren't written by the disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Nobody knows who wrote them. The followers of Jesus, were for the most part humble fishermen hardly capable of the heady prose found in the St. James Bible. Besides that, the gospels frequently tell completely different stories. In one, Jesus was born in a manger; in another, in a cave. There are numerous similar discrepancies. Only one of the four, John's, mentions Jesus's ascension into heaven."

Tom isn't done. "If we admit we don't know much, and obviously we don't, how can any sane person wholeheartedly accept any of  it?"

"This is what makes Peter's codex immensely intriguing," Lana replies. "The really amazing thing about it is that Jesus himself may have written parts of it. Marianna says that she was teaching Jesus to read and write, and that they were using the gospel as a text and exercise book.
There are passages in it that I would attribute to Jesus himself. In juxtaposition to Marinna's often elegant prose, these are rough and halting, the sort of things that might be written by somebody just learning to write. As you probably know, we haven't had anything written by Jesus himself. We  haven't had a single sentence supposedly composed by him. The passages supposedly quoting Jesus have all been handed down second-hand. I can't begin to describe how thrilling it would be to have access to Jesus's actual words. So Peter's codex — again assuming authenticity — is  astonishing."

"Wow," I say.

"If any of this is true, it's among the most holy of relics," El Cobra says. "It should be in the Vatican."

Stepping well back from El Cobra's reach, Tom insists, "That would be a good way of making sure it never again sees the light of day."

El Cobra glares at him.

Tom goes on, "The damn thing must be worth a fortune. The Vatican is already richer than God. Why not share the wealth?"

Peter's turn. "I don't give a good God damn what it's worth or whose dogma it demolishes" he says. "I want no part of it. I am leaning toward having Doberman put it online with a disclaimer that it may or may not be authentic. I am washing my hands with the whole mess."

"You and Pontius Pilate," Tom says.

"Whatever," Peter says. "On maybe what I should do is donate the codex itself to some non-denominational research institution with no theological ax to grind."

"Like Harvard?" Lana asks hopefully.

"Yeah, sure, some place like Harvard," Peter concurs.

The possibility of her college acquiring the codexl seems to spur Lana on. "What's doubly astonishing is it sheds light on Jesus's early life," she says. "As you may know, the scriptures are silent on Jesus's life from age 12 to age 30 when he began his three-year ministry. Jesus is probably the most famous man in history, and we have known practically nothing about most of his life. Just about everything we think we might know is in serious dispute. Bear in mind, there are those who insist the man himself never even existed."

I have gotten increasingly curious. "What does it say about young Jesus?" I ask.

Lana is all too eager to fill me in. "Marianna says that as a youngster Jesus was rebellious. He didn't like working in his father's shop, but once assaulted a man who criticized his father's work. More than once young Jesus is accused of being violent. One heretical gospel actually accuses Jesus of murder."

"Holy shit," Tom says.

Lana continues, "Marianna says that as a teenager Jesus traveled to India where he became acquainted with the thoughts of several renown philosophers. She says that Jesus loved to quote some of them, always being careful to give them credit. She includes sayings he said originated with Lao Tzu. Examples include ' Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage', and 'Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love'. He quoted Zoroaster as saying, ' Doing good to others is not a duty. It is a joy, for it increases your own health and happiness', and 'Form no covetous desire, so that the demon of greediness may not deceive thee, and the treasure of the world may not be tasteless to thee'. Marianna says that his insistence on attribution created dissension between him and the Magdalene."

I am starting to feel frustrated. "We don't know much about her either, do we?"

'Sadly, no," Lana says. "She's mentioned in the scriptures only a dozen times and quite briefly.  We are told that Jesus exorcised her of seven demons, that she was present at the crucifixion, and that she was the first to see him resurrected. There are hints that she and Jesus were closely connected."

Tom sounds disappointed when he says, "I guess we do know she wasn't a whore."

"That's right," Lana says. "For 2,000 years the Church besmirched her reputation. It may have been an honest mistake; several women named Mary entered into that fray, and it would be easy to confuse who's who. It's also possible early Church leaders wanted to underplay the importance of women in the formation of Christianity."

El Cobra points out, "In the 1960s, the Church officially exonerated her."

"Wait a second," Tom says. "Supposedly Jesus exorcized her of seven demons. How do we know that one of those demons wasn't a proclivity for selling sex?"

"I guess we don't," Lana replies, "And if we can believe Marianna, she's telling us a whole lot more about Mary Magdalene than we've ever before known."

"The inside scoop," Tom suggests. "The nitty gritty."

"Absolutely," Lana concurs. "We might call this 'The Secret Gospel of Jesus Christ'. Marianna says that Jesus didn't want the apostles, especially Mary Magdalene, to know about it."

Tom sees an opening. "Seems as though he was something of a sneak. Can we really trust this guy?"

"I think it shows he was human," Lana says. "According to Marianna, the Magdalene insisted that he proclaim the immanency of Judgment Day. She thought this was essential in the recruitment of new followers. She might have invented the phrase, 'repent, the end is near'. Jesus thought differently and often spoke of the establishment of a New Jerusalem across the sea. He envisioned a Kingdom of God across the sea that could endure forever."

Tom seems to be enjoying this more than the rest of us put together. "Holy shit," he says, "the sea to them could have been the Atlantic ocean. Maybe the Mormons are right after all. Maybe Jesus was over here preaching to the Indians."

Lana sighs. "At best it's uncertain where this New Jerusalem was meant to be. Marianna assumed he meant across the Sea of Galilee. In any event, she insisted that she and Jesus were going there. She says they were in love, and he was deeply troubled by the necessity of playing along with the Magdalene. He hated duplicity. He was torn between a future envisioned by the Magdalene and the role that made him comfortable."

"To thine own self be true," Tom  mutters. "Did Jesus say that?"

Lana shakes her head. "No, it was something Shakespeare made Polonius say in Hamlet fifteen hundred years later. Lao Tzu is credited with having said, 'it is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know one's self.' It seems as though Jesus was well versed in the wisdom of Lao Tzu."

Tom chuckles. "The guy was caught between a rock and the proverbial hard place. Evidently Mag the meanie presented him with his first temptation."

Lana seems to agree. "It was quite a temptation," she concurs.  "For sure, the Magdalene knew how to think big. If Marianna can be believed, she promised Jesus that he could become the most famous person the world had ever known. That would be quite a temptation of a humble tradesman. Over and over again, she assured him his movement could become the biggest religion ever, and Jesus could see how this might be true. Being human, he was intrigued by the possibility of being the center of so much attention. Marianna says that Jesus often spoke of feeling close to God, of enjoying an intimate kinship, almost that of a son to his father, but he felt that every man had the potential of a similar relationship. At times he felt his role on earth was to steer others in that direction. Marianna says he was tormented by the split between his ambition and his commitment to God. The Magdalene had no empathy for him, she adds."

Tom can't get enough of this. "Merry ol' Maggie sounds like the P.T. Barnum of early Christianity. So she successfully seduced him, right? After much soul-searching, he decides to go for it?"

Lana sits down and pushes her hair back. "The answer to your question, I guess, is yes and no. He didn't go for it right away. Not wholeheartedly, anyway. We have to remember that Jesus was  a gifted prophet. He foresaw many things, including the inquisition, and Marianna says he shuddered at the thought of tens of thousands of innocent people dying in his name. He felt that unless he could put stop to it, he might be remembered as the most evil person ever. For Jesus it was a terrible quandary, one he resolved only when he foresaw a time when mankind would acquire the capacity to destroy itself completely. He made reference to what he called the New Jerusalem, and said that what transpires there will define mankind's future."

"Like now?" Tom asks.

 "Yeah, like now," Lana replies. "According to Marianna, he had a dream in which he projected himself into the distant future at which time he would be reborn as the Hundredth Maiden. She would be the long-awaited second coming, a culmination of a bloodline began by Jesus and Marianna. According to Marianna, the Hundredth Maiden can be identified by a coin-sized birthmark on the back of her neck. She says Jesus called it the mark of Tiberius. He also gave her a coin of Tiberius and told her to pass it on to their future daughter. Marianna confesses to having doubts, even questioning his sanity, but says that Jesus became convinced that by transporting his essence through a hundred generations, he might redeem himself by persuading mankind not to incinerate itself."

"Might?" Tom says. "The greatest of all  prophets isn't sure what will happen?"

"That's right," Lana says. "All of his other prophecies were stated with great certainty. On this one, he waffles a bit."

Tom snickers. "I am betting he rationalized himself into believing he could have his cake and eat it too."

"I guess that would be one way of looking at it," Lana concedes. "According to Marianna, Jesus and the Magdalene had a complicated relationship. She came from a prominent and wealthy family, and she provided much of the support for his ministry. Marianna says her parents were shocked when she left everything behind and dutifully followed Him from place to place. However, she was no idealistic groupie. She wanted to do more than back him; she wanted to marry him. Marianna says he wasn't at all happy when he wavered at this."

Peter asks, "Did they ever marry?"

"Not according to Marianna," Lana says. "She claims that she was Jesus's true love and that they planned to run off together."

'I guess this would have foiled Mary once and for all," Tom says.

"So it would seem," Lana says. "But Mary Magdalene was smart and aggressive.  She continued to see her backing of Jesus as a smart and prudent investment. She was determined to establish a new and profitable religion, one in which she would play a prominent part."

"So what was the problem with that?" Tom asks. "Sounds like a prototypical Roxanne Quimby."

I wonder if Lana knows who Roxanne Quimby is. Most Mainers know of her, but not all like her.  A Maine hippie back in the nineteen-seventies, Roxanne was a modern master at turning nothing into something. Her alchemy began with some wax from Burt Shavitz's bees from which she made candles that she sold at craft fairs. Almost magically, she parlayed these into a billion dollar personal care products company. Possibly this doesn't compare with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but it's close. But if Lana is aware of Roxanne's hocus pocus, she doesn't show it. She's more interested in contemplating Mary Magdalene. "According to Marianna, the Magdalene and Jesus had opposing philosophies," she tells us. "She wanted to establish a world religion while Jesus saw himself as a small-town philosopher/prophet cherishing simplicity. Marianne says the Magdalene would have been furious had she known Jesus was prophesizing something a hundred generations in the future. She wanted the horror of eternal damnation to be here and how."

Carolyn has held her tongue amazingly well, but now she says, "Speaking of Lazarus, how did a non-divine Jesus breathe life into him?"

Lana doesn't hesitate. "Marianna claims the Magdalene invented the Lazarus story. She says that Jesus did seem to have a healing touch, but only with selected cases. He may have had a knack for spotting psychosomatics. Marianna also suggests that the Magdalene brought to him people pretending to be blind or crippled. All and all, she downplays Jesus's ability to perform miracles."

Tom looks pleased. "So Jesus was a fraud after all."

Lana shakes her head. "I don't believe that he intended to be. But according to Marianna, the Magdalene circulated many false things about Him. This would include the virgin birth, and both the resurrection and ascension. Marianna points out that most of this wasn't at all original. Several other so-called Divine Beings claimed similar histories."

I can see that Carolyn is far from satisfied. "Were there other so-called differences between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?" she asks. "Couldn't they find a way to accommodate one another?"

"Not easily," Lana says. "Among other things, she wanted Jesus to insist that Judgment Day was imminent, and the only possible path to salvation was through Him. She wanted to terrify as many people as possible into becoming Christians."

"Sounds like a lot of present-day preachers," Tom suggests.

Lana appears to ignore my friend. "Marianna says that Jesus wanted to establish a religion based not on fear, but on love," she continues. "As He saw it, love is possible only with faith-based courage. She says that he saw life's problem as not a contest between good and evil, but fearlessness opposed to abject terror. He believed that everyone has inner God, and that Godliness can be enhanced through prayer, meditation, and good works. He believed that as one becomes more Godlike, fear will dissipate. Eventually, in theory, one might become completely fearless, totally Godlike, and thus be saved from earthly torments for all eternity A totally fearless person, is such were possible, could be said to have achieved divinity."

Carolyn nods her head. "This is more-or-less consistent with what many Evangelicals believe."

Lana frowns. "Marianna seems to have been an intelligent young woman, and she admits there were times when her faith was sorely tested. She recites several instances when Jesus left her utterly flabbergasted. Like when Simon Peter said to the other disciples, 'Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life.' In response to this incredibly misogynistic statement, Jesus said, 'Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.' What do you suppose he meant by that? Marianna had no idea. She did add that it could sound like Jesus had a distaste for women, something she insisted he didn't."

"Sticking by her man," Tom says.

Lana continues. "According to Marianna, Jesus had the greatest of respect for her as a woman and that he considered women equal to men. She says she was with Jesus when they came across a mob preparing to stone a prostitute. She says that Jesus saved the woman with his famous line about letting the sinless person cast the first stone. "

Tom says, "Good 'ol J.C., breaking the glass ceiling on the way to heaven."

Lana seems a bit offended by Tom's wise-ass joke. "He broke many social barriers," she snaps. "Marianna says He preferred the company of commoners such as herself.  He trusted them. He saw them as being nearer to God. According to Marianna, he really did say, 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God'. In his eyes, too much wealth and privilege created an unbridgeable separation from God."

"It is Tom's turn to look annoyed. "Wasn't he just trying to make poor people feel better about their miserable lives?"

Lana shakes her head. "Marianna presents Jesus as a true radical. She says that he was a total pacifist. His idealism knew no bounds. He advocated loving one's enemies, no matter what. Always and forever He was prepared to turn the other cheek. He was all for abolishing standing armies. Beating swords into plowshares was an absolute for him."

"Love your enemies," Tom says. "It'll drive 'em crazy."

"By Jesus's definition, there haven't been many true Christians. According to Marianna, Jesus saw himself as a philosopher. a healer, and a prophet. He felt that God had gifted Him, but no more so than He had many others. Marianna quotes  Jesus as saying that everybody has the capacity to receive gifts from God, and that by learning to open oneself to God, the gifts can be ever greater as one becomes more and more Godlike."

Peter looks perplexed. "Did he or did he not say He was God?"

"As I understand Marianna, he contended that he and everybody else have God in them. Through prayer, meditation, and good works this Godliness can be enhanced. Did he believe it was possible to become totally God? I don't know,  but I am quite sure he never  thought that he had done so. Of the scriptures, John's is the only one in which Jesus speaks of his divinity."

Tom seems determined to get a dig in. "I've read enough to know that this makes Jesus sound like a Gnostic. These were the guys later Christians burned at the stake. Had Jesus come along later, he would have been branded a non-Christian heretic."

Lana nods. "Jesus is not only the most famous of all men, but among the most confusing. People have never known what to make of him. Marianna seems to have cared deeply for Him, but she didn't hesitate to critically examine some of his more arcane utterances.   She admitted she wasn't sure if Jesus was too profound for her to comprehend or, often as not, a crackpot.
Jesus was all about love, right? Certainly he would abide by the commandment to honor his father and mother. So what the hell did Jesus mean when he said,  "Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters, and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me'."

"Sounds like your typical dysfunctional family," Tom says.

Peter has been listening closely. "Sounds like he was a regular guy. Besides being decent, he was receptive to the wisdom of  other philosophers while coming up with plenty of original material."

Lana nods her head. "Jesus was critical of much Old Testament teaching. As a rabbi, he must have been on the verge of being disenfranchised. He felt that both the Old Testament and the religion the Magdalene fostered was based too much on fear of eternal damnation. Jesus wanted to comfort His followers, not terrify them. He wanted to assure them that in his embrace there was nothing to fear. As Jesus saw it, fearful men are unable to love. In his view, love requires courage, and too much fear overwhelms courage. Only men who are unafraid are able to love themselves and thus love others.
Once he becomes fearless, he will celebrate diversity. He will no longer fear others. He will appreciate the ways in which they are wonderful and will be able to incorporate their wonders into hiself. In his mind, God is the absence of fear. Man must love himself before he can love others, and he can love himself only by banishing fear. Jesus did not see life on Earth as a battle between good and evil. He didn't see it as a battle at all. He held that people fell into two groups: the fearful and the unafraid. The vast majority of mankind is among the fearful. They are ever ready to engage in battle against others."

"Jesus in a nutshell," Tom  says.

"That pretty much nails it," Lana says. "Again and again, he held that every man has God in him. He contended that he differed from others not by being divine, but by having more God than most. A man can acquire more God through prayer, meditation, and good works. The more God a man acquires, the less afraid he is. When he is fulfilled completely, he is totally unafraid. He is willing and able to turn the other cheek. When a man is totally unafraid, there is nothing a foe can take from him. More importantly, foes will sense they pose no threat and thus become unafraid themselves."

"And peace will reign forevermore," Peter says.

"Marianna suggests that above all Jesus was a realist," Lana says. "He didn't always have his head in the clouds. She says he helped her in many ways and on her birthday gave her a coin portraying a bust of Tiberius and said to her, "Render onto Caesar that which is Caesar's..." She says he proposed marriage, and told her to save the coin in order to pass it on to their daughter."

Tom can't resist interjecting himself. "Why should we believe any of this? Marianna seems delusional, a kid in love, warped by wishful thinking. She was dazzled by Jesus's bullshit. Why should we believe that Jesus would want to marry her?"

Lana looks very patient when she says, "Jesus was a rabbi, and in those days rabbis were expected to be married. Unmarried rabbis were  unacceptable in orthodox Jewish circles. Back then fathering a child was a measure of one's manhood."

Carolyn seems a little taken aback. "I don't believe the Messiah ever felt a need to prove himself."

Lana shrugs. "Maybe not. But Marianna does quote him as saying, 'I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart'."

"Sounds like bragging to me," Tom says. "I'll bet he claimed to have a big one too."

Lana seems determined to educate us all. "Marianna does insist that it was she, Marianna, who Jesus truly loved. Of course, she is far from an unbiased observer. She is competing with Magdalene for Jesus's affections."

Carolyn is listening attentively. "All of what evidence we have suggests that Jesus held Mary M in highest regard."

Lana shakes her head. "Marianna gives us a different take. She says that Jesus and the Magdalene were united in a relationship of convenience. I am guessing that sex for him was much more than a source of pleasure. Jesus believed that his return had to stem from his bloodline. But which one? Marianna admits that Jesus established several bloodlines, including one with the Magdalene.  His biggest fear was that his enemies might cut his bloodlines short. He also felt that a bloodline destined to mingle with French nobility could never remain pure."

Peter seems incredulous. "I am not sure I understand this. Help me to get this straight: Jesus felt that the way to literally be born again was to hitch a ride on his own DNA?"

Lana sighs. "Seems so although he had no idea what DNA is."

"And then he established several bloodlines, including one with Marianna?"

"So says Marianna."

Peter continues, "Why so many?"

"Who knows? " Lana asks. "I believe it's possible there was one true bloodline, and the others were decoys."

"Decoys?" Peter asks.

"A way of covering his tracks," Lana says. "Roman authorities could be counted upon to cut the real bloodline short if they could find it."

"So how do we identify the real McCoy?" Peter wonders.

According to Marianna, he left a clue: 'Fools will seek the Grail; a scribe will shake the world with an artist's cryptography'."

Tom is perplexed. "What could this mean?" he wonders.

"I think I might know," Lana says. "Years ago, an author named Dan Brown wrote a mega-blockbuster entitled The Da Vinci Code.Translated into numerous languages worldwide, it sold millions of copies. It had what then was a shocking main message: that Jesus and the Magdalene were married, that she was the Holy Grail, and that the Catholic Church has endeavored for centuries to keep their union secret. Although biblical scholars had entertained these notions since Christianity's beginnings, it was a bombshell for the general public."

Peter is listening closely. "I have a copy of that book," he says. "I remember reading it two or three times. The code in the book's title refers to Da Vinci's depiction of Jesus and another figure in his masterpiece, The Last Supper. According to Brown, the figure to Jesus's right is not John, as popularly supposed, but the Magdalene. They are leaning away from each other, forming,  Brown says, the letter V, the symbol for the sacred feminine."

Lana turns and addresses Peter. "I remember reading it," she says, "and I was all too eager to embrace Brown's support for the sacred feminine. But now, having translated Marianna, I think we might entertain a different take. To me their body language supports Marianna's contention that there was a wide split between the two of them."

"I remember something else," Peter says. "The color schemes of their garments are inverted: Jesus wears a red tunic with royal blue cloak; Mary Magdalene wears the opposite. I would think this could be taken as further evidence that they had become opposites.

"How did Leonardo become privy to all this information?" I ask.

Lana takes up the gambit. "According to Brown, Leonardo was among the historic figures to lead the Priory of Sion, a religious organization formed to protect sacred secrets. Brown contended that Mary Magdalene herself was the Holy Grail along with the bloodline of Jesus that extends to this very day."

"So was Brown right?" I ask.

Again Lana takes the lead. "Marianna puts a whole new twist on things. She says she gave birth to Jesus's daughter and established a clandestine bloodline mentioned in just one place: your codex. She insists this is the bloodline from which Jesus promises to return as the Hundredth Maiden."

Tom is enjoying this heresy no end. "So Jesus had something going with not one, not two, but several women. The man was a dude."

Carolyn says, "I believe he loved all of mankind. He was the personification of love. It appears his love could be both physical and emotional.
At times it seems Jesus wanted us to get beyond our inhibitions. Jesus said, 'When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then you will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.' At times he seemed to be a libertine."

"And it got him laid a lot," Tom adds. "Think about it. We're to believe in a God who will assign a man to eternal damnation if he chooses the wrong denomination while His only son was a tomcat?"

"There is reason to believe Jesus took what we would call a liberal view towards sexuality," Lana says. "He was fond of quoting Genesis 2:24, a passage about how man and woman are not complete until they cleave to each other. They are two halves.  Only together can they create a full being."

Tom chuckles. "I am going to remember that line the next time I take Sally out to dinner."

"I believe Jesus had a healthy sex drive," Lana says, "but most of the time he had more important things on his mind. He wanted more than anything else to create a Kingdom of God on Earth. Marianna writes that Jesus had impregnated her, but fatherhood was the furthest thing from his mind. He told her that she would institute a vital bloodline. She says that Jesus  prophesied that man would not learn to live fearlessly and would ultimately threaten to destroy the world. He said that at this time he will use this bloodline to return in the person of the Hundredth Maiden. As such, she will try to persuade man to live fearlessly."

"This would be a good time for her to make an apearance," Tom says, "but how would we recognize her?"

Lana's expression is thoughtful. "Marianna says he gave us a few clues. He said said that the Hundredth Maiden can be identified by the round birthmark on the back of her neck. He said it would be the size and shape of the
Coin of Tiberius. He believed she would possess an actual Coin of Tiberius. This is a coin we know it as the  'tribute penny,' as it's thought to be the coin Jesus held when me made his original 'render to Caesar' response."

"Call me a doubting Thomas," Tom says, "but I don't believe that Jesus or anybody can see into the future."

"Your misgivings are certainly understandable," Lana says, but Jesus does seem to have  been a 
a remarkably prescient prophet. Marianna quotes him as saying 'Our knights will lose the Holy Land,'  that in His name 'rivers of blood will flow,' and that 'fallen priests will betray the children.' According to your gospel, Jesus knew that mankind would ignore his call to pacifism. He said that we will approach utter destruction. He said that near the end, he would return in the form of the hundredth maiden to try to persuade mankind to mend its ways."

"Lucky guesses?" Tom suggests.

Lana has more. "Marianna came up with several more prophecies. She wrote, 'An army of Christians will take the East',  'Warrior monks fighting for God will betrayed in the end by their own church,' and 'The Church in Rome will lie in shambles.' One and two sound like the Crusades and the fate of the Knights Templar. The third prediction seems to be well on its way."

Peter asks, "What does he say about the Hundredth Maiden?"

Lana knows it word for word. "He says the Hundredth Maiden will have 'an opportunity to address the multitudes.' He also says that 'many will be determined to stop her any way they can."

"So how's it turn out?" Tom asks. "Does the Hundredth Maiden save the day or not?"

"This is where things get odd," Lana says. "All of Jesus's prophecies are definite except this one. He says that the Hundredth Maiden might prevail."

"I guess he wants to keep us in suspense," Tom says.

Lana says, "I sense he can see into the future only so far, and after that things get a bit hazy."

"Much of what he said was gibberish," Tom says. "Just plain gibberish. Was he trying to be funny?"

Lana sighs. "He may have been trying to annoy the Magdalene. How else can you explain things he said that just didn't make sense?"

"Such as?" I ask.

"How about,  'If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits'?"

"That'll do," I say. "That makes absolutely no sense."

Lana looks wistful. "There are times when Jesus's philosophy seems wonderfully clear and concise. 'Do onto others…' 'Blessed are the meek…' Then he gets terribly obtuse. Sometimes Marianna seems concerned that Jesus has lost his mind. In all honesty, he did at times sound like a raving maniac, like when he said, 'Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being. If you become my disciples and pay attention to my sayings, these stones will serve you. For there are five trees in Paradise for you; they do not change, summer or winter, and their leaves do not fall. Whoever knows them will not taste death'."

"Yuck," Tom gags. "I'll bet death tastes like frozen cheese pizza loaded with anchovies."



CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

THE FIRST THING
I notice when I get back to my house is that my big front window drapes are drawn. The second thing I notice is that the front door is ajar. Somebody has been here, gotten by my state-of-the-art dead bolt, and may still be inside waiting for me.

Every so often I find myself thinking I should be packing heat. That is the proper terminology, isn't it? Tough guys with guns are packing heat. I own a gun, but it's upstairs in my underwear drawer.Truth is I am not sure it's loaded.  If not, the bullets are in the kitchen utility drawer. Obviously I had not taken it seriously that someday I might have to fend off a home invader. Not here in Surry, Maine.

I remind myself that I am far from helpless. Hell, I used to be a professional fighter. A pretty damn good one. But unless things go drastically wrong, I can't use my fists. First off, I really don't want to kill somebody else. Second off, the law might still regard me as a professional fighter, in which case my fists would be regarded as lethal weapons. Of course, I can always plead self-defense, but I don't look forward to having a jury ponder the validity of same. The prosecution probably would find a way to introduce the strange disappearance of Marlina. I know a few martial arts moves, but have neglected to practice them and am quite sure they would prove woefully ineffective against any halfway competent opposition. I am not being overly humble when I admit that my best hope might be that the thugs die laughing. If my visitors are Goggle's goons, I have to hope they merely want to terrify me. If they're as hellbent on killing me as their drone was, almost certainly they'll succeed.

I consider calling Foster Drake, but wonder whose side he would be on. I think about turning around and heading back to Bar Harbor. I could join my friends in fortress Mira Monte. Peter's got a gun and and the military training to know how to use it. Then I tell myself I am being paranoid. How silly would I feel if I turn tail and run and it turns out a friend has dropped by? Then I remember I have damn few friends.

I ease the front door open wider and peer in. I can't see much. The house, at best, is dimly lit. Stepping as lightly as possible, I enter the foyer and open the closet door. Soundlessly, I extract my driver from my golf bag and slide off the head cover. No problem finding it in the dark; it sticks up above the other clubs. I know my ten-year-old TaylorMade intimately. Here's a weapon I can weld with some confidence. I even know how many miles per hour I can swing the clubhead. A hundred and ten, although this requires a properly long backswing, weight shift, and follow through. Granted, it might not be too much good against an AK-47, but maybe quite a bit better than nothing.

I look into the living room. It seems to be unoccupied. I look at the couch where Tom has been spending his nights. Did I detect movement? Probably not. Still the pillow and blankets don't seem right. I creep closer and realize they're covering something. I try to swallow away the lump growing in my throat as I raise my club and jerk back the covers.

It's Marlina!

"Holy mackerel, Andy," I say to myself before remembering that this ancient Amos and Andy quip is politically unacceptable. Thinking back on this, I will wish I had come up with something more profound. But right then my reaction was "Holy mackerel, Andy."

She opens her eyes. "Hi, Honey," she says. "Miss me?"

I stand there transfixed.

"You're not going to clobber me, are you?"

I realize I am still holding my driver in a ready-to-strike position. I lower it slowly before stumbling back a few steps. I glance around and see a vacant wing chair to sit on. Safely seated, I stare at her for a few seconds before saying, "Yeah, sure, welcome home. Now are you going to tell me where you've been for the past two years?"

Now it's Marlina's turn to look astonished. "Huh? Two years? You mean six hours, don't you?"

I stare at her some more as I formulate a theory. She must have gotten in an accident. Banged her head. Amnesia. She wanders around for two years before her brain reorganizes itself. She has come to her senses, but can't remember a thing. No doubt she should be treated gently to prevent a regression. I'll need another theory to explain how or why she is wearing the outfit she had on when I last saw her and why she looks exactly the same.

"So where have you been?" I ask.

Marlina looks perplexed. "I don't know. I really don't know. It's been a weird day. Along about lunch time I thought I was dead."

"Whatever gave you that idea?"

"Everything was hazy, but mostly it was the people I met. I went from place to place and met the Buddha, Zoroaster, Mark Twain, Stephen King, even Chuang Tzu."

"Who is Chuang Tzu?"

"He's an early Taoist master, circa 350 B.C. or thereabouts. He's an amazing man. I had long conversations with all of these people. I knew it's impossible. He's been dead for over 2,000 years. I figured I had to be dead or, at best, dreaming."

I try to cast a bit of cheer. "Stephen King I can readily believe. He lives in Bangor. Trouble is all those other dudes are long dead."

"I know that," Marlina says.

"Do you know how you got back here?"

"I don't. I can't remember. I last thing I do recall is being engaged in conversation with the Dalai Lama. He cautioned me about becoming embroiled in political or religious ideologies and losing sight of the basic humanity binding all of us together in a single human family. He said this with such deep humility that I became immersed in his words."

"Then what happened?"

"I woke up here.  I didn't know where I was until I saw you and put two and two together."

I look at her more closely. Her auburn hair still brushes against the tops of her shoulders. It hasn't gotten longer. She is wearing the same slacks and shirt she had on the evening she disappeared. They look no different; they're just as clean, just as pressed. "You haven't changed since the day I met you" I say. "How can you look forever young?"

Marlina seems mystified. "Thanks, I guess, and I really don't know." She hesitates before she says, "I wish I could say the same for you. Truth is you look like you've been beaten up a bit since this morning."

"Since two years ago."

"Yeah, right. So you say."

"I've gotta contact Foster Drake, tell him you're okay."

"He thinks I've been gone two years?"

"He thinks I murdered you. For two years I've been his only suspect."

"He'll ask all sorts of questions. I won't know any of the answers."

"Probably so."

"Can you put off contacting him?"

"I suppose so. What's a while longer after two years? But what's the point? Eventually he'll learn you're back."

"I know, but for some reason I feel uneasy about talking to Foster. It seems as though we have two quite different stories. Somehow it does seem as though I've been gone longer than six hours, a lot has happened, but it's like trying to remember a dream. I don't want to deal with it now. I need to get things sorted out in my head before facing interrogation.  Please, can we do it my way? Just humor me, okay?"

I go to her and kiss her forehead. "No problem," I say. "Whatever makes you comfortable. I am just so happy to have you back again."

I have no idea what to do. Like a lot of people who don't know what to do when they feel like they should be doing something, I decide to check my e-mail. When I get to my computer there's a message on the screen. In sixty point aerial bold are the words, PROTECT HER IF YOU CAN.

I hit the off switch. Things are confusing enough without me trying to explain messages from Clint. I think about Suzi. She's coming back soon. What have I gotten myself into? So much has happened. What will Marlina do when she learns I've been screwing Suzi? I figure I've gotta start somewhere, but definitely not with Suzi. '"We've had some excitement recently," I allow. "Peter and I found a codex in an old church in Nova Scotia that seems to be historically important."

Marlina blurts out, "It discloses information about the hundredth maiden."

I look at her in astonishment. "How in the world would you know that?"

"I don't know," she says. "I really don't know. I just do."

"There's all sorts of shit we need to sort out," I say. "But right now, I want to make sure you're safe. We should head down to Bar Harbor. Tom and Peter are there to help us out."

I go upstairs  and retrieve the gun from my dresser drawer. I bought the thing a year ago, but  haven't had occasion to try it out. It cost me a copy of Cujo, a price I would have thought exorbitant had the dust jacket not had a small rip and the bottom marred with an ugly remainder mark. The salesman told me that this gun, a Clock, is a simple, robust, and supremely reliable design. The tenifer coating on the steel parts would make it nearly maintenance-free, he promised. The first time I picked it up it felt comfortable to hold. I have to admit it gives me a sense of power. I would never tell anybody this, but I almost look forward to needing it. I check the clip, and sure enough, it 's empty, so I head down to the kitchen to get some ammo. Damn good thing I am not facing a home invasion. I am inserting a clip when I feel Marlina's hand on mine. "Please don't bring it," she says. "You won't need it." I hesitate. I want to protect her no matter what. Then, reluctantly, I set it down. "I hope you know what you're doing," I say.


CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE
 
As I am heading through Hulls Cove, Marlina points to her right and says, "Please stop
. I need to attend mass."

I don't reply. Instead I do as she says, parking in front of the Divine Saviour Catholic Church, an impressive Gothic, granite structure so solid that seems capable of fending off all the demons of hell. Safely parked, I look at her like she's lost her mind. She has been a lapsed Catholic for much longer than I have known her. She told me once that transubstantiation had been the final straw. The notion of literally eating Jesus's flesh and drinking his blood was just too gross for an innocent twelve-year-old girl.

The expression on my face doesn't phase her, and she climbs out of the car. I follow suit. The first thing I notice is the sign, Weekday Morning Mass, 7:30 a.m. "We're nearly 12 hours late," I say. "Maybe we should come back in the morning."

I have driven by the church hundreds of times without really looking at it. It has registered as a nice piece of island architecture, although I haven't known what denomination claims it. Today, up close and not moving, I notice the two statues. I assume they're both the virgin mother. The larger of the two, life-sized, is mounted on a pedestal above the middle of the three heavy, wooden doors.  A smaller one is off to the right, commanding center stage in a fenced-in front yard. Facing it are three small, granite benches. "Wasn't there something about 'graven images'?" I reflect. "What's the word 'graven' mean anyway?"]

"It means cut or sculpted," Marlina replies.  " You're familiar with the phrase 'engraved invitation.' Same word root."

"To the religious among us, graven images are big no nos, right? And wouldn't these female figures be regarded as graven images? So what're they doing here?"

"I know the answer to that one," Marlina says. 'Learned it in Catechism. Good Catholics venerate the virgin, but don't worship her. The statues are there to assist in our veneration."

"Okay," I say. "So what about all those Christs hanging from crosses? "

Marlina remains silent.

"I've seen some that are downright grisly," I persist.

"Back in your Presbyterian boyhood, there must have been crosses," Marlina says. "Even you country club Christians bowed down to something.'

"I wouldn't say bow down," I reply. "That might be considered groveling, and Presbyterians don't grovel. I do recall some crosses, though, but to the best of my recollection they were all bereft of human occupation."

Marlina squiggles her face. "Pretty fancy words for  a heathen."

"Agnostic," I replay. "There's a definite distinction."

"Not in Mary's eyes," Marlina notes.

For some reason I glance back at the eyes of the smaller statue and am startled by what I see. Seeping from its eyes is redish colored liquid. "Look!" I say as I point to the statue. "What's up with her? Looks like she's crying."

Marlina stops short, her eyes opening wide as she steps towards the statue's open arms.

"She's done that only twice before in the many years she's been with us." The middle door has swung open and a man in dark clothing steps from the shadows into the light. He is short and chubby with a kindly face topped by white hair and punctuated with bushy eyebrows. It takes a moment before I realize he's wearing a white collar. "Those tears are for you, my dear. She is mourning for your soul."

Our presumptive host is Father Michael Fitzpatrick, the man Lilly had instructed me to kill. Again I wonder if I should have turned Lilly in to Foster Drake. I remind myself that almost certainly it wouldn't have done a bit of good. Still I feel guilty and am uncomfortable in the father's presence. To my relief, he seems to be interested only in Marlina.

"Welcome back, my child," he says. "We've been waiting for you. Shall we step inside? The mosquitoes haven't yet retired for the evening."
I look back at Mary. The waterworks have ended at least for now.

We enter a vestibule, and the first thing I see is a dispenser labeled "Holy Water." I wonder if a jolt would help. The padre turns left and leads us to what proves to be the rectory office. A well-worn leather couch  extends along much of one wall, and he beckons for us to sit down. Speaking first, he looks at Marlina and says, "I know you've been gone from us for many years. Mary welcomes you back with open arms. We all do."

Marlina looks astounded. I reach for her hand and can feel her shiver.

"I have prayed that you might come here. Apparently my prayers have been answered.

"It was impulsive of me," Marlina says. "But you don't know me. I've never been here before, and it's many years since I last visited any Catholic Church."

"We've missed you."

"Again it's been many years and I probably shouldn't be regarded as Catholic."

"We are a large and forgiving family."

"Perhaps not forgiving enough. For a long time now I've been living with Douglas without benefit of marriage."

"We are well aware of your shortcomings. It's true you have fallen short in various ways, but salvation can still be yours. Confess your sins, ask for forgiveness, and it will be yours."

"My sins may be too numerous to recall," Marlina admits. "I am probably a lost cause."

I don't know if Marlina is just giving the father a hard time or being soulfully sincere. Maybe a bit of both. In any event, Father Fitzpatrick seems unfazed.

"You are more special than you probably realize," he says. Bishop O'Brian  has instructed me to be watchful for you.  I don't know why he thought you might show up here, but here you are."

"Wow!," I say. "The bishop himself."

"It goes beyond him. He told me he was operating on instructions straight from the Vatican."

"Holy crap," I say, earning myself a most unChristianlike glare from our host.

"Bishop O'Brian would very much like to speak with you. He is hoping you'll contact him." The father opens a desk drawer and pokes through some papers before extracting a business card. "Here is Bishop O'Brian's number. He would welcome your call any time, day or night."



CHAPTER FORTY

The encounter has left Marlina and me a bit stunned, and we excuse ourselves. We get back on the road, and I say, "You know, for as long as I've known you, we've never talked about religion.  Are you a believer?"

For at least a full minute Marlina seems deeply contemplative. "I do believe in God," she finally says. "But I believe our brains are woefully inadequate for contemplating Him with any degree of accuracy."

"Him?" I ask.

"We traditionally refer to God as a Him," Marlina points out.  "Whatever God is, I am all but certain He has no sexuality. Gender can't possibly enter into it."


Ten minutes later, we pull up to the Mira Monte.  I look at the front window and see the drape pull back a bit. The ever-vigilant Peter is peering out. I wave to him, and twenty seconds later he steps out the front door.  When he sees Marlina, he doesn't try to disguise his astonishment.

"My God, Malina, you're here," he gushes. "Where the Hell have you been?"

"It's a long story, " I say. "A long, confusing, unbelievable story we'll get into later."

Tom appears in the doorway. "Marlina!" he exclaims. "We thought you'd run off with the gardener. Don't tell me Tijuana didn't live up to your expectations."

Marlina laughs lightly while I experience a wave of irritation. "Funny man," I say. "But watch yourself."

We go inside and I introduce Marlina to Carolyn, El Cobra, and Lana. "They all look more than just a bit confused, but hold their tongues.

Lana is seated at the kitchen table. The several pages of the codex are spread out before her. She is wearing her white gloves and has a pair of tweezers in each hand. She is far more interested in the pages than she is in Marlina which I suppose is a good thing. As I walk over to her, she  carefully sets down a scrap of parchment and looks up. "The codex proceeds chronologically, and I've come to the last part," she says. "It puts a whole new slant on the crucifixion and resurrection. If any of it is true, Christianity faces a broad new awakening."

"Just what we need," Tom says. "A whole new broad batch of bullshit."

If Lana finds Tom offensive, she doesn't show it.

"We mustn't forget that Marianna may be totally delusional," Peter says.

"Or maybe she's just bullshitting us," Tom adds.

Lana sighs. "Sad but true," she says. "But in my mind, the text has a ring of authenticity. Something about it just rings true, even when Marianna claims she was party to a great hoax, the greatest hoax in the history of mankind."

"Greater than the Kennedy assassination?" Tom asks.

"Much greater," Lana replies.

Tom says, "Holy shit."

"Tell us about it," I say.

Lana lays down her tweezers. "According to Marianna, things grew bitter between Jesus and the Magdalene. She drank a bit too much wine one night, and had the audacity to suggest that Jesus submit himself to crucifixion for the sake of their new religion. Marianna says Jesus declined in no uncertain words. He had no wish to die."

"Then what happened?" Peter asks.

"Evidently, the Magdalene went behind Jesus's back and spread word that he was declaring himself King of the Jews. In Roman eyes, such a claim constituted  a declaration of war. It was all but certain to bring on stern retribution."

Tom says, "I guess being nailed to a cross would constitute stern retribution."

"Too stern in Jesus mind," Lana agrees. "Marianna says Jesus found out about the Magdalene's treachery and took her to task."

"Slapped her around some?" Tom asks.

"Not exactly," Lana replies. "Jesus told her to find herself another patsy."

"So what happened after that?" Peter wonders. "Jesus must have been some pissed off. What did he do next?"

"He forgave her, of course," Lana says.

Tom says, "That's just the kind of guy he was, I guess. Looks like he practiced what he preached."

"That would have been all well and good," Peter says, "but the damage had been done. The Magdalene couldn't take back what she had done could she?"

"Unfortunately not," Lana says. "Jesus knew he was in a hell of a tough spot. Marianna says she tried to convince him they should run off together, but Jesus realized he was bound to be apprehended. Besides he had come to believe he really was the Messiah. He had sprung from the bloodline of David, which prophecy held the Messiah would. He had almost constant visions, suggesting he was a great prophet. But some of the visions were deeply troubling. One kept reminding him that more people would die in his name than anyone else in history."

"Caught between a rock and the proverbial hard place," Tom says.

"Marianna says that the Magdalene was terribly demanding. She was afraid that when word got out that she had betrayed Jesus, she could never be a leader in the new church. Jesus came up wih a way to covr her ass. He would ask Judas to take the blame for betraying him."

Marlina blurts, "Judas was a nice guy."

Everybody looks at her in disbelief. Tom says, "Last I heard Judas was something of an asshole."

Marlina looks a little pale. "I don't know why I said that. It just came out."

"It's interesting," Lana says. "Back several years ago Egyptian sheep herders found the long-lost gospel of Judas. It suggests that Judas didn't betray Christ, but was acting on his behalf."

Tom gives Lana a twisted look. "Jesus wanted to be crucified?"

"According to the Gospel of Judas, Jesus had come to feel it was his destiny to atone for the sins of mankind by being crucified and joining his Father in heaven."

Tom snorts. "We have a word for people today who think like that. We call them nuts."

Lana shakes her head, "Marianna puts a different slant on things. She says that the Magdalene manipulated Judas. She says that Judas knew Jesus better than any any of the other disciples did, and that she cozied up to him to tap his brain. She had no problem gaining access to him. She had the deep pockets while Judas acted as treasurer for Jesus's entourage.  According to Marianna, the Magdalene would threaten to cut off funding if Judas didn't cooperate with her."

Carolyn is listening intently. "What did he tell her about Jesus?"

"Jesus denied His particular divinity. He contended that God was within all men, and that by acquiring wisdom from many sources this Godliness could evolve into wholeness. Like the Buddha, Jesus didn't feel that He or any other religious leader should become an object of adoration. As a prophet, Jesus was fomented. He foresaw all the blood that would flow in his name and sought to prevent it by fleeing Roman territory to found a New Jerusalem somewhere else. The Magdalene was very displeased with this. She hoped to see a great religion develop around a worship of Christ, a religion attracting millions of adherents."


"The plot thickens," Tom says.

Lana continues. "Marianna contends that the Magdalene told Judas that Jesus had requested his betrayal. Evidently he took her word for it. He went from her and told the Roman authorities that Jesus was presenting Himself as King of the Jews. He charged that Jesus planned to mastermind a revolt against Roman rule. This set in motion the events that led to the crucifixion. Soon after this, Judas learns of Magdalene's treachery. Allegedly, he kills himself although Marianna suggests she might have had a hand in this. The codex ends on that note."

"Sounds to me like Judas is mounting a very shaky defense with his gospel," Tom says. "If I am not mistaken, he later kills himself. He must have been feeling guilty about something." Tom turns toward Marlina. "Where do you stand on all this? Do you even believe in God?"

Again Lana ignores my friend. "According to Marianna, Jesus and Magdalene kept drifting further and further apart until things got out of hand. Marianna accuses the Magdalene of setting Jesus up for crucifixion. She says it was Magdalene, not Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Marianna says Magdalene arranged for Pontius Pilate to receive word that Jesus was plotting to overthrow Roman rule. Her plan nearly failed. Pilate was reluctant to execute Jesus. He was refusing to do so until an angry mob scared him shitless."

"Marianna believed that the Magdalene returned to the cave that entombed Jesus's body with the intent to remove it and dispose of it elsewhere. According to scripture, when she returned the rock had been rolled away from the entrance. Believing the rock was there, Mary must have come with help. The scriptures differ or whether she went alone or with other women, but she did expect the rock to be in place, and must have had male companionship. By herself, even with the help of a few other women, she wouldn't have been able to move that rock."

"But when she got there the rock was moved and the body gone?" Peter says.

"It's impossible to know what exactly happened. Marianna says Jesus didn't die on the cross. Various Biblical scholars have suggested this, but no proof has been forthcoming. Here, again, scriptures disagree, but Jesus wasn't on the cross for more than a few or, at most, several hours. A strong, healthy man might be expected to endure."
  

"According to Marianna, it was the Magdalene who suggested that Jesus could survive a crucifixion."

"Survive?" Tom exclaims. "Like how?"

"It wouldn't be as difficult as one might suppose," Lana says. "Especially for someone with the Magdalene's connections."

"Explain please," I say.

"The Magdalene was friends with a fellow known as
Joseph of Arimathea, a well-to-do Jew who had come to admire Jesus."

"Joseph of where?" Peter asks.

"Arimathea," Lana replies. "Where, precisely, this place was is a topic of hot debate among scholars. It may have been near Tinnah on the borders of Judah and Dan. It could also be the modern Beit Rima, a village two miles north of Tinnah. Where, exactly, Arimathea was doesn't much matter, but a man from there named Joseph came to play a key role in the drama surrounding Jesus's crucifixion."

"Who was he, and what did he do?" Peter asks.

"First, a bit of background," Lana says. Joseph realized that Pontius Pilate was reluctant to convict Jesus. Pilate felt the High Priests hadn't made a solid case. But he was under tremendous pressure to sentence Jesus to death. In all four gospel accounts, Pilate lobbies for Jesus to be spared and acquiesces only when the crowd refuses to relent."

Carolyn is paying rapt attention. "How did this help Joseph of Arimathea?" she asks.

"Joseph was able to wrangle several concessions from Pilate," Lana replies. "The
crucifixion itself took place on Joseph's walled property, and witnesses were kept well back from the crosses. People being crucified die of suffocation. In most cases, their legs are broken, adding to the pressure on their lungs. Joseph arranged to have Jesus's legs left intact. Once he was on the cross, Jesus complained of thirst and was given a wet sponge. Marianna says the sponge was laced with a drug to render him unconscious."

"The whole thing seems like a pretty risky proposition," Peter says. "I wouldn't have liked the odds."

"Sounds like an episode of Mission Impossible," Tom says.

"Jesus had no choice," Lana says. "He couldn't undo the damage the Magdalene did. He knew he might die, but he figured he would at least be a martyr for the cause he regarded as all-important. Marianna says Jesus didn't relish death, but wasn't particularly afraid of it either. Not on his good days, anyway. On those days he felt he was the Messiah, and when he died he would take his seat on the right hand side of his Lord. Besides, he was certain that one day he would return as the Hundredth Maiden."

"Seems to me Mary Magdalene did a number on that dude," Tom says.

"The Magdalene must have been an incredibly good salesperson," Peter adds.

"She even got Marianna to come around," Lana says. "Marianna says she helped Mary's cause by telling her High Priest father that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah."

Peter says, "I guess the launching of a new world religion requires a dose of high salesmanship."

"Incredibly, the Magdalene convinced Jesus he should cause a ruckus in the temple by expelling  the money changers," Lana says. "They were in the outer fringes of the temple complex in an area that had long been available to commercial interests. Nobody before had ever questioned their legitimacy. Causing a public disturbance was a weird, out-of-character thing for Jesus to be doing."

Peter says, "Way back when, there was a book titled "The Passover Plot." It featured a scheme to have Jesus survive crucifixion much like Marianna's. The conspirators were foiled when the Roman soldier stuck his spear in Jesus's side. I have a copy of it stuck away somewhere."

"The whole idea strikes at Christianity's very foundations," Carolyn says.

"It does," Lana says.

"And you believe Marianna?"

"I can't say I disbelieve her. 
Jesus may have been on the cross for as few as three hours. No more than six depending upon which gospel you believe. A strong healthy man might be expected to survive." "

"What does Marianna say happened after Jesus was unconscious?" Peter asks.

"He was brought down from the cross almost immediately," Lana says. "Historically, crucifixion victims were often left on their crosses for several days. The idea was to remind people what happens to those who challenge Rome. It might be a point of some interest that the Centurian that declared him dead earlier had earlier affirmed his divinity."

Peter asks, "What else did Joseph do?"

"He may have arranged to have the crucifixion occur on a Friday. This assured it would be a bit of a hurry-up operation, since no work could occur on the following day, the Sabbath. He also had arranged to have the body interned in a cave on his property. Shortly after this was done, he and Nicodemus
visited the cave, bringing with them certain spices, including aloe. The interesting thing is, aloe is used in healing, not inbalming."

"What about the Roman soldier and his spear?" Carolyn asks.

Lana says, "Jesus could have survived this wound, or maybe it never happened. The whole incident could be a product of Magdalene's fertile imagination. None of the people who saw him walking around days later mentioned such a wound."

"You've still gotta explain his so-called ascension," Tom says. "I am astonished that so many modern, seemingly-well-educated people believe he shot off into the clouds to be with God. Never mind how many jetliners have crisscrossed the territory without running into Jesus or God or any of the other millions of people's ghosts who have qualified for eternal paradise."

"There are some interesting things to consider here," Lana says. "The original gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John say nothing about the ascension. This claim was inserted much later."

Peter says, "The ascension is sort of the bedrock on which Christianity rests."

"True," Lana agrees, "and, as Tom points out, it's highly unbelievable. It seems possible the Magdalene could have made the ascension up, or, more likely, borrowed it from earlier faiths. Another possibility is that it was a magic trick. One account has it that nobody saw him actually get airborne. Supposedly a cloud mysteriously appeared, obscuring him, and then he was gone."

Carolyn, I believe, has held back for as long as she can. "I believe the gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Jesus," she says. "At first she mistook him for the gardiner. Jesus told her many things, and she was often called the Apostle to the Apostles. As for the ascension, perhaps it's a test of our faith."

"There are some problems with that too," Lana says. "Supposedly, on the third day, Mary, either alone or with some other women, visited the grave site. They must have expected to see a large stone a stone too heavy for them to move, barring entrance to the cave. It only seems logical that they would have brought some muscle along."

Tom says, is there any part of the Jesus narrative that isn't loaded with problems?
Why should we bother at all with religion? Seems like a total waste of time."

'It's possible we can begin to appreciate certain aspects of God," Marlina replies. "I believe that truth and beauty are two such aspects."

"Reminds me of a line from high school English class," I say. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty..."

"That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know," Carolyn finishes.

"Reminds me of my Satan worshiping friends," Tom says. "They say that God kept Adam and Eve prisoner in the garden. It was only when Lucifer enticed them into partaking of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge that they became intellectually alive."

A pained look shoots across Carolyn's face, but she says nothing.

My communicator buzzes. I say "hello." A voice that seems vaguely familiar asks, "May I please speak with Marlina?"  I hesitate. Who knows she's here? Nobody comes to mind, so I hand the device to Marlina. Speaking softly, she strolls into the other room. Sixty seconds later, she returns. "That was Aara Hamidi, a university student I met a couple of years ago. She wants to see me.  i am going to her."

"Not without me," I say. "I am not letting you out of my sight."

Marlina smiles. "I know I can always count on you."

Carolyn steps toward us. "Can I some? I haven't been outside in days. I could really use some fresh air."

I nod. "The more the merrier," I say, not really meaning it. The more the murkier would be more like it.


Proceed to 41-End.