It was a dark and stormy night...
Or, at least, that’s what the radio forecast called for later. But at the moment, it was somewhat pleasant and cool as Chris Samson drove home from work. His mind was fuzzy and his body felt drained after seven days sequestered at the office. All he wanted was to be home in his comfy little apartment for a few days.
“Damned idiots at the agency,” he grumbled aloud. “I told ‘em from the start this project was more than they expected, but it’s not like anybody ever listens to me around here!”
Most days, Chris worked a standard nine-to-five job for an unspecified government agency. He used his extensive computer skills to hack various programs and security protocols they had designed to find the flaws before building solutions for those flaws. But this particular project was one with more problems than the agency had expected. When combined with the sensitive nature of the program, Chris’ss bosses had decided that his entire team would have to be sequestered onsite until the security issues had been dealt with. Thus, he only now got to go home after seven days solid.
As he pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex, Chris made sure to drive with care. It was Halloween, after all, and the kids were still out for their annual Trunk-or-Treat near the front office. But as he passed by, they looked to be closing down early for the evening, not that he could blame them. Dark storm clouds were rolling in, so Chris hightailed it back to his apartment before the weather turned. He soon arrived at his building near the rear of the complex and trotted up the stairs to his door just as it started to rain.
On his way up, Chris paused to glace at the door across from his. That apartment had remained empty for a couple of months now, and he wondered if anyone was ever going to rent it. Not that he was complaining; if nobody lived there, nobody could bug him with loud music or screaming kids. Then again, there was always the minute chance that a gorgeous single girl could move in and fall head-over-heels for him.
“What I wouldn’t give for a steady relationship with an actual human being...”
Shaking his head a few times, Chris opened the door to his apartment and latched the deadbolt behind him. After dropping off his briefcase in his office, he headed to his bedroom to change into something more comfortable. Unloading his overnight bag, the smell of dirty clothes was immediately apparent; having to pack light for seven straight days at an undisclosed location for government work tended to do that. He deposited all his clothes in the hamper to be dealt with at a later time and stripped nude.
As he made his way to his closet to grab some gym shorts and a T-shirt, Chris paused for a moment to check himself out in his floor-length mirror. He was of average height, maybe 5’10”, had short black hair, and stubble over his face and neck. This made it easier on him with the unpredictable nature of his work, requiring only a beard trimmer once a week. His white skin was rather pale and lacking tan, pairing stereotypically with the rest of his thirty-year-old “dad-bod.” In spite of not having kids, or a wife or girlfriend, for that matter, the look seemed to fit him perfectly.
Once changed, Chris adjourned to the living room for his much-anticipated evening of gaming. Just before his seven-day stint had begun, Chris’s new PlayStation VR had been delivered, rendering him unable to try out his new toy until now. He had several games that were compatible with the new technology, but the one he was most excited about was his favorite action-adventure game, Evie Granger: Survivor. The series starred the best treasure hunter and explorer in the history of video gaming and had been around since Chris’s childhood. But while the early games had been successful based largely on the oversexualized portrayal of the heroine, the most recent entries had rebooted the series with a more natural-looking Evie Granger, which Chris appreciated. This allowed the designers to focus more on gameplay and story, the strongest points of the series.
Normally, the player would spend the entire game in the role of Evie, but the addition of the VR prompted the designers to release a bit of DLC, or downloadable content, in which the player took control of her partner, Jeremiah. As the game was set in Israel’s Negev Desert, the visuals were nothing short of stunning, and Chris hoped they would be even more so in first-person virtual reality. After firing up the game, he placed the VR helmet on his head and began the chapter.
At first, Chris was dumbfounded at how beautiful it all was. The graphics were stunning, and seeing Evie Granger standing in front of him was nothing short of surreal. She seemed so lifelike that he had to remind himself not to try to reach out and touch her, much as he might enjoy that possibility. Even though she was just a digital rendering, Evie was the embodiment of Chris’s dream woman; she was smart, beautiful, and had incredible athleticism, not to mention her jet-black hair, Chris’s favorite. Her 5’6” body was lean and all muscle, but her soft face, brown eyes, and trademark chin-length bob gave her all the femininity a guy could ask for. True to form, she wore her red spaghetti strap tank top and khaki shorts, complete with her dual Colt Python revolvers holstered at her hips. With all this, plus her sultry Australian accent, it was a wonder Chris wasn’t drooling all over his controller.
Chris, as Jeremiah, followed Evie through a desert canyon on a mission to rescue a group of hostages from the villainous Keystone organization. The game’s story was set in a fictional version of the modern world in which the warring in the Middle East had reached a fever pitch. Israel was being attacked from all sides and on the verge of collapse. With the fighting as a cover, Evie and Jeremiah had snuck into Israel to track down a legendary treasure said to be worth more than even the Dead Sea Scrolls. But along the way, they crossed paths with Keystone, a paramilitary group bent on wiping Israel off the map. Worse, their leader was a man who genuinely believed this treasure to possess mystical power enough to accomplish his goals.
For Chris, the best part of the game was the large open world it took place in; he was looking forward to exploring that world in virtual reality once the mission was complete. But as soon as the hostages were rescued, the screen faded to black and a message popped up in his VR headset.
Thank you for purchasing the PlayStation VR.
“What the hell? That’s it?!” Chris snorted. “I bought this expensive headset and the DLC, and all I get is this crappy little mission? I can’t even explore the full game?”
In cases like this, the average gamer might have just packed up the PlayStation VR and attempted to return it or, at worst, kept it and ate the loss, but Chris was far from the average gamer. Besides being an accomplished hacker for the U.S. Government, Chris was also stubborn as a mule; he would never quietly accept the limitations Sony had placed on its system’s VR capabilities. After removing the VR helmet, he exited to the main menu.
“Try to limit me, will ya?” Chris muttered with a grin.
Being the curious techie that he was, Chris had hacked into his PS4 many times in the past, so this presented no issues for him. It took him a few minutes more to hack into the game itself, but he soon found what he was looking for. In most video games, there existed a part of the program called the debug menu, designed to allow the game testers to access and modify all parts of the game for debugging purposes. Though hidden and inaccessible to most gamers, the debug menu was a crucial tool for anyone attempting to hack a game’s program. The menu itself was not user-friendly by any stretch of the imagination, being written only in code, but it was a relatively simple task for Chris to turn off the map limitation for the VR segment of the game.
“There you are. You were hiding from me, weren’t you, ya bastard?” Chris chuckled as he input the necessary commands into the menu.
By the time Chris had finished his task, the rain outside had worsened into a tropical thunderstorm. Chris wasn’t worried, though; he had powerful surge protection for all his electronics plus a backup generator in the event things got rough. He smiled in anticipation as he restarted the game and slipped on the VR helmet. After a moment, he had to turn up the volume to hear the game over the wind and rain pounding his apartment building. With everything set the way he wanted it, he took his controller in hand and selected the DLC mission he had played earlier.
“Hopefully I can explore more of the game this time...”
While the mission was loading, the storm outside reached a crescendo, unleashing several terrifying cracks of thunder. This was followed by an eerie silence, which led to one last bolt of lightning that struck the roof of Chris’s building. Electricity surged through the walls and into his PS4, eventually traveling into the VR helmet itself. He could feel the heat from the electrical surge and tried to remove the helmet, but it was too late. As his game was about to begin, the screen flashed a blinding white and Chris blacked out in a fuzzy haze.
When Chris next opened his eyes, he saw exactly what he expected to see. A vast expanse of rocky desert stretched out in all directions, its beauty only matched by the clear blue skies above. Best of all was the gorgeous Evie Granger standing a few paces in front of him with her back turned.
“Damn ... these graphics are amazing,” Chris marveled. “Beautiful.”
“You can say that again, Jer-”
Evie had started turning to face Chris, but stopped all of a sudden when she looked at him. Chris was beyond confused; nothing Evie was saying or doing was different from his first playthrough. He wondered if he had screwed something up during his hack.
“What the hell? Who the fuck are you?!” Evie growled.
“Huh ... that’s odd,” Chris muttered.
In a flash, Evie lunged forward and kicked Chris square in the chest, pinning him on the ground under her boot. At the same time, she reached behind her back with such fluidity that Chris didn’t even realize she had a Bowie knife until it was pressed against his throat. Chris struggled to breathe as a million different thoughts ran through his head.
What the hell is happening here?! This ... this isn’t a simulation! I can feel the heat of the sun, the rocks on the ground ... not to mention the knife at my throat. Where the hell am I?
“Talk!” Evie demanded. “Where’s Jeremiah? What have you done with him?!”
“Nothing! I swear!” Chris replied in desperation.
“You’re lying,” Evie sneered lowering her face closer his. “He was here just a moment before. What have you done with him? Tell me.”
“I don’t know where he is! I don’t even know how I got here, Evie!”
“So ... you know my name? I’ll bet you’re with Keystone.”
Keystone? Wait ... isn’t Keystone the villainous organization in the game? Holy shit! I’m actually in the game!
“Last chance! TALK!” Evie seethed, gripping her knife tightly.
“I’m not with Keystone!” Chris replied.
“Then how do you know my name?”
Chris gulped. “I know almost everything there is to know about Evie Granger because ... where I come from, you’re a fictional character in a video game.”
The knife relaxed a centimeter as Evie’s expression changed to one of bewilderment and confusion. “You’d better start making sense.”
“Put the knife away and I’ll tell you everything I know.” When she hesitated, Chris continued, “C’mon, look at me. I’m not exactly a prime physical specimen. Tell ya what, if I misbehave, you can totally kick my ass. Deal?”
Evie gave a wry smile at this and replied, “Deal.” After sheathing her knife, she helped Chris sit up. “So, what’s your story? How the hell did you get here?”
“No idea. Name’s Chris, by the way. Chris Samson.”
“Evie Granger,” she responded, shaking his hand. “Though it sounds like you already know that somehow.”
“Yeah. Like I said, you’re a fictional character where I come from.”
She studied his face for several seconds. “I can tell you believe that, Chris, but I’m pretty sure I don’t believe you. You take a hit to the head?”
“Nope. If you’ll hear me out, I can prove I’m telling the truth.”
“Ok, fair enough,” Evie conceded.
Chris cleared his throat and began, “Your name is Evie Granger. You are a globe-trotting adventurer, treasure hunter, and archeologist.”
“Not hard to know that, but go on.”
“You’re the only daughter of Wally Granger, not only a successful archeologist, but also the best explorer and guide in the Australian Outback. He was respected for his knowledge and skills by both Anglo-Celtic Australians and Aborigines alike.”
Evie cocked an eyebrow at this. “Someone knows my old man, I see.”
Chris nodded and continued, “He was the man who taught you everything you know about adventuring ... at least, until his untimely death.” Softening his voice, he added, “You were only sixteen at the time.”
Evie’s face turned dead serious and she drew her revolvers. “How do you fucking know about that?” she whispered with a fearful voice.
“Your father was climbing up the Olgas in the Outback ten years ago when an accident occurred,” Chris said without flinching. “He fell to his death. And even though it was ruled an accident, you’ve always suspected that foul play was involved somehow.”
“SHUT UP! I’ve never told ANYONE that! How could you possibly know that?!” Evie shouted, her hands now shaking.
“And to keep your father’s memory alive, you have his picture in the grips of each of your Colt Python revolvers,” Chris finished, remembering the opening cutscene from the game.
This revelation struck Evie like a bolt of lightning. She had only just put her father’s picture in her gun grips last week, right before setting out on this adventure. Nobody knew about it, not even Jeremiah. How could this stranger know? There was only one explanation she could think of.
“You ... you’re telling the truth?” she asked, falling down to her knees. “I’m ... I’m really just ... a character? How can that be? I’m real in every way I can think of...”
“I’m sorry, Evie,” Chris sighed. “None of this makes any sense to me, either, but I can’t deny the reality staring me in the face. Somehow, I’ve been sucked into a video game.”
“How did you manage to do that?” she wondered.
Chris grimaced at remembering what he had been doing. “I, uh, was kind of ... hacking your game when my apartment was hit by lightning.”
“Huh? That doesn’t seem like something that would cause this to happen.”
“Well ... it also happened to be Halloween night,” Chris admitted.
Evie started laughing at this and fell backwards on her ass. “You were hacking on Halloween?! You bloody idiot! I don’t know a damn thing about hacking, but even I could’ve told you that wouldn’t end well!”
“Come on! It was a freak thing, million-to-one shot!” Chris protested.
“Yeah, right,” Evie replied, managing to sit up from her giggle-fit. “So, a hacker, eh? You one of those lonely losers that lives in his mum’s basement?”
“I may be lonely, but I’m no loser. And I certainly don’t live with my mom!” Chris fired back with a grin. “As it so happens, I use my skills in the employ of the United States Federal Government. I tell you anything more than that, and I’d have to kill you.”
“You? Kill me? That’s hilarious,” Evie smirked. “So, if this is a video game, does that mean you’re now in Jeremiah’s place?”
“Maybe so. Not sure what happened to him, but it looks like I’m wearing the same outfit he does in the game,” Chris replied, looking down at his dusty T-shirt and cargo pants. “But for some reason, I can’t seem to remember where in the game we are or what’s supposed to happen next.”
“Hmm ... I wonder if that’s part of being in Jeremiah’s role?” Evie speculated. “It would make sense if he isn’t supposed to know what happens next.”
“Makes as much sense as anything else,” Chris shrugged. “What were you two doing before I showed up?”
Evie’s eyes lit up at his question and she pulled her backpack form her shoulders to get something out of it. “We were following a lead from this,” she said.
Chris’s eyes went wide as she pulled a statuette of a cherub from the bag. The angelic child stood with folded hands and bowed head as if he were praying, yet his wings extended and seemed to reach up to the sky at the same time. Chris could tell the carving was quite old, yet was well-preserved to the point that the carvings around the circular base were still visible.
“Incredible ... what material is it made from?”
“Halite,” said Evie.
“Salt rock? Are you serious?”
“Huh. Odd material to use to make something like this.” Inspecting it closer, he continued, “These marks at the bottom ... looks like they’re talking about a ‘Treasure of the Dead Sea’ or something.”
“Wait, you can read that thing?!” Evie exclaimed.
“Yeah, I can,” Chris replied, dumbfounded as she was. “It was as easy as English.”
“Chris ... Jeremiah could read it, too. He’s fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Latin. I’ll bet that’s why you can read it; it’s written in Hebrew. You’ve taken his role in the game, meaning you’ve also gained his skills and abilities.”
“Woah ... cool,” Chris said with a grin. “Wait, now I recognize this! Your father dug it up on one of his last expeditions!”
“That’s right,” Evie replied, a sad smile on her lips. “Dad’s last discovery...”
“Oh, uh, s-sorry-”
“It’s fine,” she waved him off. “The way I see it, this was Dad’s last gift to me. I just want to make the most of it.”
“Well, a lost treasure of the Dead Sea would qualify in my mind,” Chris agreed. “I know, or at least Jeremiah knows, that several of the Dead Sea Scrolls detailed the locations of various treasure caches scattered across Israel.”
“Yeah, but I doubt that’s what we’re looking for,” said Evie. “Besides, I’d think the Romans would have eventually found and cleaned most of them out with as long as they occupied these lands.”
“True. Wait, what’s this?” Chris wondered, inspecting the statuette closer. “These two symbols, they look like ... no. No, that can’t be...”
“What are you talking about?”
“It looks like they say ... Sodom and Gomorrah,” Chris replied. “But that can’t be right, can it?”
As Evie’s brain went into overdrive, she said, “Actually, it might be. There would seem to be no logical connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the legendary cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but there is a hill in the southwest part of the Dead Sea area known as Mount Sodom.”
“And if these carvings are leading us to an undiscovered treasure of the Dead Sea, Mount Sodom could be where it’s located! But wouldn’t it have already been found by tourists or previous archeologists?”
“Not likely,” Evie shook her head. “For one, anything of that magnitude would have made the news by now. But more importantly, nobody is doing anything in the realm of archeological work in Israel right now, not with the country under attack from all sides at the same time. Hell, even tourism has ground to a halt.”
“Which is how you and Jeremiah managed to sneak into this area: you used the wars as a cover!” Chris said.
“Exactly. Wait, how did you piece all that together?”
“Huh ... I’m not sure. It just appeared in my mind all of a sudden, like I had remembered something long forgotten.”
“Could it be a piece of Jeremiah’s knowledge?” Evie speculated, placing the statuette back in her backpack.
“Maybe. Could also be his knowledge combined with my experience with the game. It might have been time for Jeremiah to know something about the game that he didn’t know before. Let’s see ... you mentioned Keystone earlier, right?”
“Yeah. They’re a paramilitary group originating from Jordan,” said Evie. “A dangerous lot, they are, but none more so than their leader, Yosef Ahmad. I’ve had a run-in or two with him in the past. The man is psychotic, a vicious despot hellbent on wiping Israel off the map and more than willing to slaughter anyone who gets in his way. Worse, he has this crazy idea that his ancestors hid some powerful weapon in the area of the Dead Sea that will allow him to achieve his dream.”
“Sounds like wild goose to me. If he’s chasing after a myth, how much harm can he cause?” Chris replied.
“More than you’d think. He has no comprehension of subtlety; he’d knock an ancient ruin to the ground if he thought it’d bring him what he wanted. For him, there are only two answers to an obstacle in his path: compliance from said obstacle or violence.”
As Evie explained all this, Chris still looked around in wonder at the vast expanse of desert around them. The sun was bright, but high enough in the sky that it did little to hamper visibility. But as he looked toward a nearby cliff, he caught sight of something shiny. He only saw it for the briefest of moments, but it caused his instincts and government training to immediately kick in.
In a flash, Chris dove forward and threw Evie to the ground, pinning her underneath his body. A fraction of a second later, a bullet whizzed over their heads and they heard the distinct crack of a sniper rifle split the sky.
“Crikey! What the bloody hell?!” Evie panted.
“Stay down a minute,” Chris whispered, not daring even a glance toward the shooter.
“Yeah ... sure,” she replied, feeing strangely at ease with Chris’s body on top of hers, their faces mere inches apart. “How’d you know?”
“Like I said, I work for the U.S. Government. Even if I’m not a field agent, basic threat assessment and firearms training is mandatory for all of us. Seeing something shiny up on a hill means only one thing: sniper.”
“Nice,” Evie said with a tiny grin. “Shit! Do you hear that?”
“Sounds like a truck headed our way,” Chris agreed. “Look, there’s a hiding spot. Might be able to slip away, or at least get the jump on them.”
They rolled into a nearby ditch with a large slab of rock covering most of it. This gave them some shelter and protection for the moment while they figured out the best way to approach the coming conflict. About fifty feet away, a pair of jeeps pulled to a stop, giving way to eight men appearing to be of Arab descent, all armed with automatic weapons. Their apparent leader spoke into a radio while the rest spread out.
“Repeat,” the man said in clear but broken English. “You say target was not hit?”
“Affirmative. Her companion spotted me, I think. They dove to the ground and out of sight before I could down them. No sign since then.”
“Understood. Stay on guard, men! She is somewhere around here, and General Ahmad wants her, be it dead or alive. Find her!”
“I will keep you covered from up top.”
“Negative. General Ahmad is approaching from the south; shift positions to cover his route from any potential problems. We shall handle things down here.”
“Understood. Moving out.”
When most individuals hear of a desert, their thoughts immediately go to a vast expanse of sandy dunes, like in Lawrence of Arabia. And while some of the largest deserts, such as the Sahara or the Rub’ al Khali, do fit this description, many others are quite different. Israel’s Negev Desert, where Chris and Evie now found themselves, is a rocky desert filled with gorges, hills, and outcroppings. This gave Evie and Chris ample cover to plan their counterattack.
As Chris was unarmed, Evie instructed him to remain hidden in the ditch while she poked her head out. After a minute or two, one of the Keystone mercenaries strayed close enough to the ditch that she could slip out and kill him quietly. She first made sure he was far enough away from the others that he would not be missed, then crept toward him with her knife in hand. Once she was upon him, Evie reached around with her left hand to cover his mouth and nose tightly before plunging her knife into the man’s throat. He struggled for a moment as his heart beat its last, splattering his clothes with blood, but he made no sound at all. Once he fell limp, Evie dragged his body back to their hiding spot undetected.
“Impressive,” Chris whispered.
“When it’s life-or-death, do what you have to do,” Evie sighed. “Still, I really hate doing that. So messy...”
“We’ve just gotta survive,” Chris nodded.
“Yeah.” As Evie began to check the dead thug’s body for anything useful, she took the shotgun strapped over his shoulder and tossed it to Chris. “You know how to use this?”
“Remington ... nice,” Chris said, inspecting the weapon. “Model 887. I have the same one in my apartment back home. Not surprised they’d use this one out in the desert; it can survive and function in almost any climate. Not as popular as the 870 model, but just as good.”
“Well, well, not just a lonely hacker after all, eh?” Evie grinned, finding Chris’s confidence around firearms comforting, as well as a bit of a turn-on. “Here, he’s got a pouch full of ammo, too. Might as well take it; won’t do him any good, will it?”
“Agreed,” Chris replied, strapping the pouch to his belt. “I’ll take his canteen, too. Might need it.”
With their guns at the ready, the pair slipped out of the ditch and peered over a boulder to take stock of their situation. Evie’s first thought was to avoid further violence and sneak over to the jeeps, but that was dismissed quickly; the men were spread out in such a way that taking a jeep would be impossible. They’d be cut down by a hailstorm of bullets before they could even get it in gear. That left only the direct approach.
Though Evie had already taken one of their men out, the odds were still stacked against her and Chris at seven to two. But Chris pointed out that some of them had bunched up without realizing it, making them easy targets. Evie nodded in silent understanding and motioned for Chris to circle around them in one direction while she went the other. A few moments later, they were both in position.
Evie’s palms were sweating with anticipation; she knew this could very well end badly for them, but there was little other choice. They had to take these men out and escape before Yosef got there. Still, she felt good about their odds. She was an excellent shot with her Colt Pythons, and Chris seemed confident as well. Little did she know that he was also freaking out on the inside, although the fact that he now held his favorite shotgun in his hands helped calm him quite a bit. After blowing a kiss to the picture of her dad, Evie cocked both of her revolvers and readied herself.
Popping out from behind a rock, Evie took dead aim at the pair of thugs nearest her, unwisely chatting with each other. Before anyone knew what had happened, each of them had a .357 magnum round in their heads. At the same time, Chris opened fire from the other side of the group and took out two more thugs in quick succession with his shotgun. Just like that, the odds were only three against two. The final three thugs turned and opened fire on the pair with their automatic rifles, but Evie and Chris were already safely behind cover. Even with their greater numbers, the Keystone thugs were not the brightest individuals out there. All three fired until their magazines were empty, resulting in them all having to reload at the same time.
“Eat this, you bastards!”
In a flash, Evie once again popped up from her hiding spot and unloaded her remaining ten rounds on the three men. One of them had the good sense to get behind cover to reload, but the other two were not so lucky. The first thug went down with a bullet in his throat and the other screamed in pain as he took a round to the knee, soon to be dispatched by Chris’s shotgun. By then, Evie had to reload, but Chris kept her safe with suppressing fire all the while. With her speed loaders to quickly resupply both her revolvers, it was only a few seconds before Evie was ready to attack again. Just as Chris had to reload, the final thug tried to take aim at him, only to be silenced by Evie’s pinpoint shooting. When the smoke cleared, only Evie and Chris remained.
“Nice shooting,” Chris grinned as he pushed the last shell into his Remington.
“You’re pretty good, too, mate. Thanks for having my back,” Evie replied, walking over to him. In a swift motion that surprised Chris, she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Glad you’re ok.”
“Thanks. Me too,” he said, smiling at the touch of her lips. “Uh, should we get going?”
“Right! This way!”
The pair sprinted toward the two jeeps the men had arrived in, intending to take one for themselves. But as they neared the vehicles, two more jeeps arrived with more armed Keystone thugs.
“Shit! What now?!” Chris exclaimed.
“You two! Do not move!” a man shouted from one of the jeeps. “Keep your hands where I can see them or you are both dead!”
With reluctance, Evie holstered her pistols and Chris slung the shotgun shoulder strap over his back. Both placed their hands on their heads as the men surrounded them. After a few tense moments, the men parted to reveal their leader, Yosef Ahmad. He was a tall drink of water by any measure, standing almost 6’6” in height. Though the rest of his men wore standard desert fatigues, Yosef dressed in brown khaki pants and a dark blue dress shirt, complete with a pistol holstered at his hip. His skin was a dark olive shade, and he had a full head of thick black hair, plus a beard and moustache with a few gray hairs in them. Completing his look was a pair of octagonal wire-rimmed glasses that almost appeared delicate. He seemed as unassuming and mild-mannered as could be, were it not for the look of depravity in his eyes. He studied the pair for a second before giving a warm smile and stepping forward.
“Evie Granger ... what a pleasant surprise to see you here!” Yosef said, his voice far more high-pitched than Chris had expected.
“Wish I could say the same,” Evie grumbled.
“My, my, I did hear quite a lot of shooting a moment ago. I do hope you weren’t hurt,” Yosef continued, pacing around them in a slow circle.
“No, but more than a few of your men were,” Chris smirked.
Without warning, Yosef swung a fierce backhand into Chris’s face. “You will speak only when spoken to, occupier!” he growled. Turning back to Evie, he continued, “My deep apologies. I am normally a patient man, but learning that you are traveling with an Israelite has made me ... a trifle upset.”
At hearing this, Chris realized that Yosef didn’t see him as Chris; he saw him as Jeremiah. For some reason, only Evie could tell that something was off.
“All things considered, I like my company a bit better than yours,” Evie replied.
“Hmph. So, what brings you to so dangerous a part of the world, Young Miss Granger?”
Bristling a bit at his condescension, she replied, “Just a bit of sightseeing. Nothing to concern yourself with. I’m a big girl, after all.”
“Ah, and this explains your weapons, yes?” Yosef said with a cruel grin.
Evie shrugged. “It’s an active war zone. One can’t be too careful.”
“Of course, of course,” Yosef nodded, continuing to pace.
“General, shall I relieve them of their weapons?” his lieutenant asked.
“No, that will not be necessary,” Yosef waved him off. “Remember that a seasoned adventurer such as Evie Granger travels with weapons to ensure you are focused on them, rather than on what else she may have. Her bag. Search it.”
The lieutenant yanked Evie’s bag from her shoulder and began to rummage through it, soon finding the cherub statuette.
“General, what do you make of this?”
“Oh, most interesting,” Yosef replied, examining the statuette closely. “So ... it seems Wallace found it, after all.”
“What did you say?” Evie demanded. “You knew my father?!”
Yosef chuckled. “Indeed. I was the financier for his expedition that unearthed this relic, but he lied to me and said he had found nothing. Foolish man ... he should have realized what happens when my partners double-cross me.”
Evie blinked twice as the truth of his words sunk in. “No ... you did it. You murdered my father, DIDN’T YOU?!”
“Silence,” Yosef said calmly, drawing his pistol and pointing it at Evie. “Everything that happened between your father and me was strictly business, never personal. You of all people should understand this.”
“You’re a fucking monster,” Evie seethed, barely managing to restrain herself from strangling Yosef.
“Sticks and stones, Miss Granger,” Yosef replied, holstering his gun and turning his attention back to the statuette. “Such intricate markings, yes?”
“Good luck translating it. We won’t help you,” said Evie.
“And who said I would need any help?” Yosef grinned. “You see, I have taken painstaking efforts to learn as much about the occupiers as I can. My own foolish government has acquiesced to them for too long, but I know that it is my destiny to at last defeat them and drive them from our rightful lands. But to defeat one’s enemy, one must know that enemy; Sun Tzu taught the world this. So, under the guise of this ‘peace’ that has been negotiated, I studied every aspect of Israel I could. Their history, their mythology, even their disgusting language, I learned it all. And with this knowledge, I shall unlock the secret my ancestors left behind in these lands, waiting for a man of destiny to find it and restore my kingdom to its proper place. By my hand, the imbalance created in this world by the scourge Jewish occupation will be righted at last. Ah, but I digress...
“This statuette is quite fascinating, I must say,” he continued. “It appears to be an image of a cherub, quite an important symbol in Jewish teachings. And these markings mention ... a treasure of the Dead Sea, yes? Oh, how fascinating, indeed. What could this mean? The Dead Sea Scrolls? No, no, that would be too obvious. Hmm ... these two symbols seem to be kept apart from the rest. Perhaps they have some great significance?”
While Yosef was babbling on, Chris noticed that the rest of the men seemed far more relaxed than when they first arrived. They still had their weapons at the ready, of course, but didn’t have them pointed directly at him or Evie. It was as if they were mesmerized by every word Yosef spoke. A moment later, something flashed into his mind, perhaps a piece of his memory for how the game was supposed to play out, he reasoned. Knowing he had not a moment to lose, Chris reached a hand over to the thug standing next to him, his back turned to the prisoners for the moment. After securing one of the thug’s grenades, Chris slipped his hands behind his back and winked at Evie. The message was clear to her: get ready to run.
A moment later, Chris pulled the pin on the grenade and, with precision and accuracy he had never displayed in his life, tossed the grenade from behind his back and over the heads of the entire group. As before, the men were too distracted by Yosef to notice his subtle actions, let alone that the grenade had landed underneath one of Yosef’s jeeps. Specifically, it landed under the jeep that contained a cache of weapons and explosives. A few seconds later, the resulting explosion was so big that it engulfed every vehicle Keystone had with them.
“Take this, Old Man Yosef!” Evie growled, lunging forward and punching Yosef in the jaw; she felt good, especially after his earlier insult.
The combination of Chris’s distraction and Evie’s sucker punch gave them exactly the opening they needed. Evie scooped up the statuette and her bag and took off towards a nearby chute of sand and gravel, which she and Chris used to put some distance between them and the Keystone thugs. Two of the men soon appeared behind them to give chase, but the rest remained behind with Yosef. The men fired off their assault rifles to try and end the fleeing pair, but Chris and Evie were too far ahead of them. By the time the men had reached the bottom of the chute, they were met with a barrage of bullets and shotgun shells that left them deader than the Dead Sea itself.
“Come on! This way!” Evie shouted, taking off into the desert.
“Right behind you!” said Chris.
The smell of burned car parts singed Yosef’s nostrils as he paced across the area. He had been so close to discovering exactly what he was looking for, but had foolishly underestimated Evie Granger. Now, they were in the wind, having destroyed some of Keystone’s supplies in the process.
Seeing a scout running up, Yosef turned to meet him. “Did you catch them?”
“No, they escaped. All who gave chase are dead.”
With a stoic expression on his face, Yosef drew his pistol and pointed it at the man’s head. “Not all ... at least, not yet.”
The shot from Yosef’s pistol echoed across the rocky terrain, yet the rest of his men dared not move, even as their fellow fell to the ground. Only when Yosef gave them an order did they relax.
“Clean him up,” Yosef said. “Burn his body with the rest. Let me know when the second convoy is close.”
As the men worked, Yosef’s lieutenant inquired, “What shall be our next move, General? The prisoners have escaped into the desert.”
“Then I suppose it is well that I know where she is going...”
Meanwhile, Chris and Evie continued their trek through the Negev, heading northeast towards the Dead Sea. Though they were only a few hours from Mount Sodom, their progress was slow in the harsh conditions of the desert. After a while, a sandstorm began to brew, forcing them to take shelter in a nearby cave.