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The Cult of New Canaan

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A feisty private investigator, fresh out of college . . . Amari Johnston is the daughter of veteran homicide detective, Pete Johnston. After Amari makes the national news by debunking the carbon dating performed on the Shroud of Turin, philanthropist Ernesto Galliano hires her and her father to join his own personal A-team, to right the world’s wrongs, one mission at a time. A schizophrenic UFO cult leader . . . For Calvin Nettles, time is short. The money from his wealthy father’s trust fund is about to run out. Can he and his forty followers find a way to reach the planet of New Canaan before the Great Recycling? Can the Shroud of Turin open a portal to paradise? Or will they release their souls the traditional way? A conman who prefers heaven on earth . . . Adrian Agricola will stop at nothing to steal the remains of Calvin’s trust fund—even if it means every one of the cult members must die.

Will Amari stop the cult before they steal the Shroud of Turin? Or will she also fall victim to the cult leader’s suicidal vision?
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Sixty-five roses

An Amari Johnston Novel, Volume 3

R.A. Williams

Copyright© 2020 by R.A. Williams.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

All scripture quoted was taken from the following version of the Bible:

Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.

Cover designed by

Whereas Prochorus and Johannes ben Levi are actual historical figures placed in a fictional scenario, the rest of the characters and events in this novel are fictitious. Any other similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and unintentional.

To learn more about me and my future projects, visit my website at

To learn more about The Shroud of Turin and Sudarium of Oviedo, I encourage you to visit my other website at

This novel is dedicated to the memory of my father, Ted Williams. From childhood, he had encouraged me to write and continued to do so until our last conversation just before he passed away in July of 2019.

Thanks to Candace Sorondo for not only proofreading this novel for me, but for also being a source of encouragement over the last fifteen years. You have truly been a blessing.

Thanks to Candace’s sister, Marissa Ekback, who has also been very encouraging and helped proofread Sixty-Five Roses and offered valuable feedback.

Thanks to Joseph Marino, an author, Shroud of Turin scholar, and Shroud researcher who sits on the board of directors for The Shroud of Turin Education and Research Association, Inc. To learn more about Joe and his work to prove the authenticity of the Shroud, visit his Amazon page by clicking the link below. He is currently working on another book which should be available soon.; seph-G-Marino/e/B006SA273Y

Thanks to my editor, Rachel Skatvold, who is not only an outstanding editor but a talented author as well. Here’s a link to her Amazon page:

A special thanks to my wife, Nilda, and daughter, Libby, who remain a source of encouragement as I pursue what I feel called to do.

A portion of the proceeds from this novel benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. If you would like to learn more about cystic fibrosis or would like to help those who suffer from CF, please visit their website:


Eternally lovely, possesses great strength.

No sign of stopping at anything.

43And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. 44She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.

Luke 8:43-44

23When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. 24"Let's not tear it," they said to one another. "Let's decide by lot who will get it." This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said, "They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment." So this is what the soldiers did.

John 19:23-24

11God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured, and the evil spirits left them.

Acts 19:11-12

Chapter 1

Lower City, Jerusalem

A.D. 33

Prochorus staggered down the narrow tangle of filthy streets in Jerusalem’s lower city, grappling with the cruel, brutal images still fresh in his mind. He could still hear the clang of hammer against nail, the hysterical wail of an inconsolable mother. John would care for Mary now, but without a shepherd, the flock would surely scatter.

In the marketplace, spice grinders, oil pressers, tent makers, and perfume sellers haggled with customers as they fleeced whatever silver denarii crooked tax collectors hadn’t already stolen. Did these people not realize the Son of God had been murdered? Did they not feel the ground shake? Even the Galileans who had journeyed to Jerusalem to sell salted fish seemed oblivious that one of their own had been crucified at the hands of the Romans—at the insistence of an ignorant Jewish mob.

A crowd clamored in a circle, pointing and gasping at something lying on the cobblestone street. The excitement attracted so many people that the way to Prochorus’ home was blocked. He nudged and prodded into the pack of curious onlookers, not because he was also curious about the spectacle, but only because he had been awake since well before the first hour, since the moment he’d heard of Yeshua’s arrest. All he wanted was to lie in his bed and quietly grieve, alone in his own home. But there, blocking the path, a lightly armored Roman soldier lay on the pavement with his helmet and sword on the ground two cubits in front of him. A pool of blood spread outward from under his abdomen. Prochorus recognized the man. He’d been one of the soldiers who kept the crowd of Jews at bay at the Place of the Skull. Someone had taken their revenge on the soldier, no doubt a zealot who’d misunderstood the teachings of Yeshua. Many of the zealots believed Yeshua was the Messiah to overthrow Rome. But this was not the Messiah Prochorus knew.

Prochorus weaved through the crowd and started down the stairs toward his home. He needed to rest, to clear his thoughts, to pray for God’s wisdom as to how he and the other disciples would continue—if they continued the ministry at all.

He reached the foot of the stairs and found a man pounding frantically on his front door. It was Johannes ben Levi—a pesky young zealot who hated the Romans far more than he loved Yeshua.

“Prochorus!” Johannes yelled and pounded three more times. “Please, let me in!”

Startled by the sound of men shouting in Latin, Johannes pressed against the door in a feeble attempt to hide his body behind the door frame. And Johannes was hiding for a good reason. A dagger was tucked between his sash and outer cloak, stained red with wet blood. Johannes had killed the soldier. And because of that, more soldiers would come, perhaps an entire cohort if needed. And they would show no mercy to any who stood in their way. Could this day get any worse?

“Prochorus,” Johannes moaned and hammered his bloody fist into the wooden planks. “Please, open the door. It is your friend, Johannes.” He removed the dagger from his belt and used the handle as a hammer and pounded even harder. “Prochorus, I have been wounded. Please open the door!”

“What have you done now?” Prochorus said.

Startled, Johannes turned to face him, a strange mix of suffering, fear, and euphoria in his expression. He celebrated his victory over the soldier but now feared the consequences of his actions. “Please, brother, let me in. I have been wounded and need your help.” He winced and clutched the ribs underneath his blood-soaked cloak.

“You need a physician,” Prochorus sternly stated. “I am of no use to you. Your kind has brought nothing but trouble to Israel.” A piece of frayed cloth lying on the ground caught the attention of Prochorus, and he bent over to pick it up. It looked to be a piece of woolen fabric torn away from the end of a cloak. It was crimson colored, and the folded hem was double sewn with charcoal-colored yarn.

“That is part of Yeshua’s outer mantle,” Johannes said. “It is yours to keep if you will only help me. Please, brother, open the door before reinforcements arrive.”

“Johannes, why have you done this? Why would you attack that soldier in the clear light of day? Why would you be so reckless? Are you drunk from wine? Have we not seen enough bloodshed today?”

“Because he had Yeshua’s robe! Those swine cast lots for his garments. This soldier won his outer robe. Was it not enough to crucify him? His clothing should have been returned to his followers. I was so angry. When I saw him leave the other soldiers and turn down this street, I knew where he was headed. Everyone knows where this street leads. He intended to barter the very robe of Rabbi Yeshua. With prostitutes!”

Prochorus scowled in disgust. “Even still, Yeshua would not condone murder. All you have managed to do is tear his robe, just as zealots like you threaten to tear Israel apart. Have you not heard him say that if you live by the sword, you shall die by it?”

“And that soldier shall likely die by mine.”

Prochorus pointed to the bleeding hole in Johannes’s side. “And you will likely die by his.”

“Not if you help me. Not if you bind my wound. Please, let me in before they find me.”

“And die in the same way as our Lord? You know what they do to those who harbor Zealots.”

The strength in Johannes’s legs wavered. He started to fall, but Prochorus caught him before he hit the street.

“Please,” Johannes said, his frail voice hardly more than a whisper. “Do for me as you would have me do for you. It is what Yeshua taught. You know this.”

Prochorus pursed his lips and withdrew a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. He helped the young zealot inside and tossed the frayed robe hem onto a table. He then locked the door and secured the door with a heavy crossbeam. His humble, single room apartment was lit only by light streaming in through a lattice covered window built high on the wall for privacy.

“Thank you, brother,” Johannes said.

“You may only thank Yeshua. It was his words that saved you. But I won’t keep you here long. Only until I have tended to your wound. Then you must go. The Romans will search every home. If they find you here, they will take their revenge on my entire family. Quickly, lie down and pull back your robe. I will dress your wound, and then you must be on your way.”

“Thank you, Prochorus.” He offered a weak smile from lips that bore a scar from a previous encounter with the Romans. “That is all I ask of you.” Another dense scar caused a trench in his beard where hair refused to regrow.

“Tell me. Can the soldiers identify you?”

“There was only one. I came up behind him with my dagger. I suspect he will not live to recognize me.”

“No, but the other soldiers will see the blood on his sword. If they see that you are wounded, they will know it was you.” Prochorus helped Johannes onto a floor mat. He put a pillow behind his head and pulled back his outer garment. Prochorus winced at the bloody sight. “I might as well hand you over to the Romans. You’ll not survive this wound anyway.”

Johannes sighed and relaxed his body on the cushions, seemingly coming to terms with his fate. “If I die, then I die for a good purpose. I have no regret.”

“I will bandage you and provide you a clean tunic. Perhaps, if we apply enough pressure to your wound, you will survive long enough to leave the city.”

“Impossible,” Johannes said, his head falling against the pillow. “I cannot walk. I am too weak to stand, and the pain is unbearable.”

“We have to try. Even if we hide you in an ox cart, we must try. Lie here while I get a bed linen. I can use it for a bandage. Perhaps it will keep the blood from soaking through to your outer garment.” Then he noticed the frayed cloth lying on the table. He retrieved the cloth and pondered its usefulness for binding a wound.

“As I said before, that is from Yeshua’s robe,” Johannes said. “There was a struggle. The soldier would not let go. The robe tore as he fell backward. The rest remains with the soldier.”

“The hem of his robe?” Prochorus said, and his thoughts drifted to the past.

“Yes, that is what I said. Prochorus, please, why do you delay? Bandage my wound before my lifeblood has completely drained.”

“Perhaps....” Prochorus rubbed at his beard in awe-struck contemplation. “Perhaps no bandage will be needed after all.”

“Prochorus, please! I’m going to die if you don’t help me.”

“You’re going to die regardless of my help. Unless . . .”

“Unless what? Would you have Yeshua heal me? He couldn’t even save himself. You saw that with your own eyes.”

“Yes, but do you recall hearing stories about the woman in Galilee? She was healed by merely touching the hem of his robe. This very hem, the one I hold in my hand.”

“If that woman was healed, then it was done so by God’s power, not a mere garment.”

“Yes, but after the woman touched the hem and was healed, Yeshua told the woman it was her own faith that healed her. Perhaps with faith in combination with the garment, perhaps then healing will come. Tell me, Johannes, do you believe in Yeshua’s power to heal?”

Johannes hesitated. “I . . . I have seen it with my own eyes. Yes, there was a time when Yeshua could indeed heal and did so often. But that was by his own hands. What you hold is merely a scrap of cloth.”

“The spirit of Yeshua remains with us, even in death. Do you believe this?”

“No, he is gone. It is up to the zealots to defeat Rome now.”

“Then perhaps my faith will suffice.”

Johannes shut his eyes, and his head fell to the side, his breathing growing more shallow. Death was at hand. There was little time to waste. Prochorus folded the frayed fabric. He held the cloth firmly against the bloodied gash in Johannes’s side and prayed silently to himself.

In the name of Yeshua, be healed.

Chapter 2

Galliano Estate

Fresno, California

May 16, 1990

Retired homicide detective Pete Johnston watched his daughter with a sense of pride mixed with trepidation. She was riding that horse too hard. The determined expression on Amari’s sweat-glistened face seemed almost like a ghost from her ancestral past. The Spaniards had a name for this ghost. It was Manuelito. He had been an Indian war chief who’d fiercely fought the US Army in the Navajo Wars of 1863. Manuelito was Amari’s great, great grandfather on her mother’s side. The inquisitive investigator in Amari came from Pete’s genes, but she was quick-tempered and recklessly determined—a trait passed down her mother’s bloodline.

Amari dominated the muscular stallion, her black, braided ponytail bobbing against her spine. Her proficiency in riding horses was more a matter of will than learned skill, as she had been introduced to horses only a year before. Yet she rode like she’d done so all her life. But that was Pete’s daughter for you. She was a quick study, and when she put her mind to something, it was like pulling a rawhide chew from a Pitbull’s jaws to get her to let go.

Finally, Amari slowed it down a notch, and Pete’s apprehension gave way to fond remembrance. Amari reminded him so much of his late wife, Haseya, his young Navajo bride he’d met so many years ago out in Winslow, Arizona. He’d been a young deputy from New Hampshire who’d relocated to Winslow after one too many cold, wet winters. Haseya had been a Navajo daughter of a tribal leader from the neighboring reservation. She had been a master at weaving baskets, rugs, and chief’s blankets. Her beauty had been captivating. Men and women alike took notice when Pete’s wife walked into a room. But her outward beauty was just a pale reflection of the beauty within. Fortunately for Amari, she’d inherited her mother’s beauty, only with a tad more Caucasian complexion and a bit of Pete’s Scottish features. If it hadn’t been for Amari’s brash, often off-putting personality, she’d have had the boys standing in line for a chance for just one date. But they say there’s someone for everybody, and Amari had met that someone a couple of years back.

Dr. Kevin Brenner, a prodigy genius son of a nuclear scientist, was a bit dorky at times with a goofy, corny sense of humor. With his laid-back manner, shoulder-length hair, and thick Tennessee accent, he seemed an unlikely match for Amari. But there was a special chemistry between the two. Like adjoining pieces of a puzzle, their outward appearance seemed very different, yet they connected for a perfect fit.

Pete glanced at Ernesto Galliano, who leaned against the fence rail watching Amari ride, the muscles in her tan legs flexing in cadence with the horse’s trot. Ernesto was the sole heir to his late father’s vast fortune. Unlike his father, who was determined to amass as much wealth as possible during his lifetime, Ernesto was determined to give every dime of his father’s hard-earned money away, resolving to breathe his last in utter poverty.

“Careful, Amari,” Ernesto shouted. “Not so fast.”

Amari responded by snapping the reins even harder, kicking her heels hard into the horse. “Where is your faith?” she called back defiantly to her boss and laughed.

Ernesto looked to the heavens and appeared to utter a prayer. With that black beard of his and the scars on his head, he reminded people of Jesus Christ himself. Only with Ernesto, the beard covered the hideous scars underneath, scars that bore witness to the shameful, tragic moment in his past that had transformed him from a spoiled rich kid to a guilt-ridden, tortured soul, sentenced to the prison of penance for the rest of his days. Having once desired to become a Catholic priest, upon his father’s passing, Ernesto realized the world would be better served by his determined philanthropy, rather than by stowing himself away in some isolated monastery, kneading rosary beads in prayer.

This sprawling, Spanish-tiled ranch in the heart of California had once belonged to Ernesto’s father. Now, instead of serving as a host setting for wine tasting parties and socialite hobnobbing, the ranch served as an orphanage for disadvantaged, hard to place foster children.

After Ernesto’s chance introduction to Amari via the CBS Evening News, she would eventually become his employee. Upon Amari’s graduation with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Arizona, she’d joined Ernesto’s own personal A-Team, which at the time consisted of just two security consultants, Mitch Parker, and Jacob Bonelli, both former Army Special Forces. These two guys were tough and good with a gun, but they lacked investigative skill. What Ernesto had envisioned was a team that sought people in need, to right wrongs, one mission at a time. Why Ernesto chose Amari of all people to join his team still seemed to Pete to be an irrational decision. But, as Ernesto had explained, it was not a rational decision, but an emotional decision made after fervent prayer. Amari and he were kindred spirits, Ernesto had insisted. It was their shared passion for proving the Shroud of Turin to be the authentic burial cloth of the historical Jesus Christ that had drawn Ernesto to Amari, nothing more, no romantic designs of any kind, merely a shared, sometimes dangerous obsession with the Shroud.

But Ernesto was no fool. He knew that some kid fresh out of college didn’t have the investigative experience he needed to make his team a success. Pete had finally agreed to join Ernesto’s team, bringing with him over thirty years of investigative knowledge. The pay was great. Ernesto was even paying for a long-overdue hip replacement. It was a wound that never fully healed after taking a bullet in the hip during a shootout at a 7-Eleven. A bullet fragment had damaged the cartilage in his hip joint. Initially, the joint had somewhat healed, but wear and tear over the years had worn the remaining cartilage cushion away, and now his hip joint was mostly bone on bone.

But the money and health benefits had little to do with Pete’s retirement from law enforcement. He took the job to keep his daughter safe. Someone had to restrain her, so she didn’t get herself killed. One would think being stalked by a serial killer would make her a tad gun shy, but instead, the experience seemed to embolden her. Then when she made the world news after protecting the Shroud of Turin from incineration, she’d become an instant celebrity. Johnny Carson, Larry King, Phil Donahue, they all wanted interviews with her. But the attention backfired and went straight to her head. The martial arts personal trainer didn’t help. She thought she was Wonder Woman, invincible, certain that God had her back, that nothing bad would happen as long as she kept her faith in Christ. But Pete knew what happened to most of the apostles, and he wasn’t about to stand by and see his only daughter die a martyr at twenty-three years old. So, he took Mr. Moneybags’ offer and kept a watchful eye and applied his restraining influence on his daughter—before she did something stupid and got herself killed.

Suddenly, the horse reared back and let out a high-pitch whinny. Amari held tight, but the jolt from the hooves hitting ground bounced her off the saddle, and she hit the dusty ground with a violent thump.

Pete’s pulse ramped up as he watched for her next move. She was fine, tough as nails, he told himself. But she wasn’t moving. The ranch hands scrambled after the horse before it came back around and possibly trampled her.

“Amari, are you all right?” Ernesto called as he clamored over the rail fence.

Pete went through the gated entrance and limped into the horse corral, ignoring the pain felt in his hip with every hurried step. When he reached his daughter, she had already stood and was dusting dirt off her legs, apparently not even noticing the blood dripping down her arm.

Ernesto pointed at Amari’s elbow. “Are you hurt? Do I need to call an ambulance? You’re bleeding.”

Amari raised her elbow and inspected the damage. “It’s just a scratch. I’ll get a Band-Aid.”

“That’s a lot of blood for a scratch,” Pete said. “Your knee is bleeding too.”

She glanced down and noticed the knee abrasion but didn’t seem concerned. “So, I’ll get two Band-Aids. You don’t expect me to stop riding because of this? You know there’s a saying about falling off a horse. I have to get back on.”

“Not today, you don’t,” Pete said.

Amari’s fists went to her hips in defiance, blood dripping into the dirt from her elbow. “I’m not a kid anymore, remember? We’ve had this discussion.”

“Then you need to start acting like an adult. You’ve got that horse spooked. No way you’re getting back on, not today you’re not.”

Amari rolled her eyes and mumbled something under her breath.

Kevin ran into the corral in a panic. “What happened, babe?” He immediately spotted the blood. “You’re bleeding. I told you to take it easy with that horse. You want to walk down the aisle in crutches?”

“I’m fine, Kevin.” She softened her tone and leaned into her fiancé for a hug.

Dr. Kevin Brenner had been Amari’s boyfriend ever since the two of them got famous debunking the carbon date performed on the Shroud of Turin back in the fall of ’88. After nearly getting themselves killed with the UFO cult up near the Grand Canyon a few months ago, Kevin popped the question. They were supposed to get married by the end of summer. One of the reasons Pete and the two of them were at the ranch was so they could plan the wedding.

“Do you see why I need you on our team?” Ernesto said to Pete. “I have such a difficult time controlling her impulses.”

“You’re her boss. Just fire her if she gets out of line.”

“You know I can’t do that, Detective Johnston.”

Pete held up his hand to stop the conversation. “That’s right, I forgot. The whole kindred spirits thing. God brought you together.”

“You know I don’t believe in coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.”

“Blind faith, huh?”

“Faith can move mountains.”

“And blind men walk over cliffs,” Pete warned. “Don’t ever forget that.”

Chapter 3

Antioch, Syria

A.D. 59

Johannes ben Levi and two of his loyalists watched the activity around the tomb, concealing themselves from view within a dense patch of Juniper trees. It had been one year since Prochorus died a martyr’s death and had been entombed in the manmade cave carved into a limestone face of a small cliff. And as was the Jewish custom, on the anniversary of one’s burial, once the flesh had completely rotted away, the bones would be gathered into a small stone box called an ossuary, no wider than the length of a man’s thigh bone. Lucian, a loyal devotee of Prochorus, had undertaken the grisly task of separating the bones from the burial shroud and stacking them into the ossuary in order to make room for a fresh corpse.

Johannes was almost certain the hem of Yeshua’s robe had been buried with Prochorus himself as there were no reported miracles of healing since his death and repeated search efforts and interviews with the followers of Prochorus had come up empty. Had it not been for Johannes’ admiration for the man who saved his life some twenty-six years earlier in Jerusalem, he and his men would have opened the tomb months earlier in search of the healing hem of Yeshua. No, desecrating the tomb of Prochorus was not an option, but a respectful visit upon the anniversary of entombment seemed entirely appropriate.

Once Lucian had gone inside the tomb, Johannes waited with his men in the trees, giving a few minutes until fresh outside air replaced at least some of the tomb’s stale atmosphere, which surely reeked from the stench of death. The men who had helped roll back the stone covering the tomb door had retreated down a path back into the sprawling city in the valley below. As soon as they were well away, Johannes and his fellow Roman hating zealots approached the tomb.

“Stand guard here,” Johannes instructed his men.

Johannes ducked into the narrow opening of the tomb. The odor was tolerable thanks to an infusion of fresh air and an olive oil lamp that burned for additional lighting, as well as the bitter-sweet smell of burning incense. Lucian was a peace-loving follower of Yeshua who was known to practice one of Yeshua’s controversial teachings, that of not returning violence with violence. Several months prior to the burial anniversary, Johannes had questioned Lucian and even went so far as to strike the man on the cheek. What did Lucian do in response? He turned to him his fresh cheek—which was hit with twice the force. Yet Lucian still refused to reveal the location of the hem of Yeshua. It was by God’s grace that Lucian was spared a sword in his side.

Johannes stepped up behind the lanky man who hunched over and respectfully disassembled Prochorus’ skeleton and stacked the bones inside the ossuary.

“Have you found it yet?” Johannes asked.

Lucian gave a startled jolt and spun round to face Johannes, his hand clutched tightly around an upper arm bone.

“Did I frighten you?” Johannes said through grinning lips. “You look as though you’d seen your master’s ghost.”

“What is it you want, Johannes?” Lucian asked with a flair of uncharacteristic anger. “Will you not let me do this one last thing for Prochorus in peace?”

“Have you found it yet? Was it underneath the shroud? Perhaps he was clutching it in his hand.”

“The hem of Yeshua’s robe was not buried with Prochorus. I told you that before.”

“Perhaps you didn’t know it was buried with him. You were not his only disciple.”

“I know what you intend to do with the hem. It is no secret that you plan to cut it into pieces and sell the scraps to the highest bid. You care nothing for the man nor the message from whom the cloth draws its power. Your hatred for Rome is your only motivation.”

“Do you have any idea how much money could be raised from that woolen fabric? How many weapons I could purchase, how many mercenaries I could employ?”

“Have you not heard a word of Yeshua’s teaching?”

“If Yeshua was the messiah, then he would want this.”

“That’s not the kind of messiah Yeshua is. He cares not for this temporary world, but that of the eternal.”

Johannes unsheathed his sword and pointed the tip at Lucian. “I am the one who killed that soldier. I am the one who risked my life for it. I only allowed Prochorus to keep it because he had helped me. Now that he is gone, I am once again the rightful owner.”

“No man can claim the power of God for himself.”

“Then why was I allowed to take it from that soldier, if not by the will of God?”

“If you cut it into shreds, then you may well destroy any power it has to heal. Are we not made whole by the sum of our parts? Can any man survive without his head? Can we reap what we sow without arms and legs? Suppose this cloth is no different? Besides, the woolen fibers are powerless to heal of their own accord. It is the power of Yeshua that energizes it. Yeshua would never lend his powers to a ruthless murderer such as you.”

“If my words will not persuade you to reveal its location, then perhaps my sword will suffice.” Johannes tightened his fist around the sword’s handle and shoved the sharpened tip into Lucian’s abdomen, just deep enough to puncture his gut, but not deep enough to hasten death.

Lucian clutched his side and staggered backward into the rough-hewn rock wall. “Curse you, Johannes! Would you spill the blood of a fellow Jew?”

“I will spill the blood of any man who stands in our way. If your mouth will not reveal the location of the hem of Yeshua, then surely your agony will do so.”

“You’re a mad man!” Lucian cried and stumbled for the tomb’s entrance.

Johannes followed him outside and watched him collapse at the feet of his two loyalists. “One thing is for certain. You don’t have the hem in your possession. Otherwise you would have regained your strength.”

“Even if I did have it,” Lucian said, wincing from the pain. “I would never give it to you.”

“We shall see about that,” Johannes said. “The excrement from your punctured bowel flows into your blood as we speak. A slow, painful, feverish death awaits you. And you and I both know, only one thing can save you now. Pick him up,” Johannes said, motioning to his men. “Take him into town. I have a feeling he will lead you to the hem of Yeshua. If not now, then perhaps tomorrow when his agony intensifies.”

Johannes went back into the tomb and searched Prochorus’ remains. The only thing found were bones, a decomposition stained linen sheet, and dried out flowers that had been placed inside the shroud.

“I suppose Lucian was right,” Johannes said. “You most certainly don’t have it.”

Out of respect for Prochorus, he completed the task Lucian had started. One by one, bone by large and tiny bone, he gradually filled the ossuary. Politically and religiously, they hadn’t always seen eye to eye, but Johannes had still regarded Prochorus as a friend. When nearly all the bones were stacked neatly in place, Johannes lifted the skull and held it before him, gazing into the darkened, hollow eye sockets. “Tell me, old friend. Are the teachings of Yeshua true, or do the Sadducees have it right? Is there truly life after death or is this it for you?”

Johannes shuttered at the thought and placed the skull atop the other bones. He reached for the lid and dropped it into place, the stone on stone clap reverberating inside the tomb with finality. Then he placed his hand atop the ossuary and spoke his final words. “Where is the hem of Yeshua, Prochorus? Does Lucien know where it is? For his sake, I truly hope he does.”

Chapter 4

Galliano Estate

Fresno, California

May 18, 1990

The estate Ernesto had inherited from his father was a 14,000-square foot Mediterranean-style mansion with pale yellow stucco exterior and an orange Spanish tile roof. Behind the home, over to the left of the horse stables, was a small separate house for the head housekeeper. The main house had a total of fourteen bedrooms. Only six of those rooms were original to the house. Ernesto had added a new wing with eight bedrooms to house the foster children and two full-time nannies.

Douglas and Christopher were both seven years old. They shared a room next to Ms. Anderson, a nanny in her mid-fifties. Paula and Samantha, both eight years old, shared one of the rooms. Thirteen-year-olds, Stephanie and Susan, shared another room. Fifteen-year-old Jennifer was a sharp kid who wanted to be a doctor someday, so she got her own room so she could study without distraction. Scott was the oldest, a seventeen-year-old junior in high school who’d been held back a year, shared a room with fifteen-year-old Eric at the north end of the wing. Just recently, there was a new addition to the family who Amari hadn’t officially met—a little blond kid who bunked in the room next to a new nanny named Molly. A door adjoined the two rooms like a hotel suite. According to Ernesto, Molly was also a nurse and had been hired because the new kid staying in the adjoining room had health issues.

Amari sat on the raised stone fireplace hearth in Ernesto’s den as she worked her loom. The beautifully carved antique loom was constructed of parallel strings—referred to as a warp—pulled taut between two horizontal wooden dowels. Ernesto had purchased the handmade loom from an antique dealer in Carmel so she could teach the foster kids a thing or two about how the Navajo wove rugs and blankets. Typically, during this time of day she’d be right in the middle of her workouts or martial arts training, but she was still a little sore from falling off the horse. Instead she decided to take it easy and revisit her artistic side, practicing the skill that her mother had passed down to her.

Most of the foster kids were in school now, and her dad was down in Bakersfield. A church had fallen victim to thieves who frequently stole the offering money. The local police were unable to crack the case, so Ernesto had sent Amari’s dad down there to lend his expertise. Amari decided to use her quiet time to try and finish this blanket before she herself went back to Tucson. The plan was to hang the chief’s blanket over the fireplace.

She used her left fingers to lift the warp into a triangular shed, then her right fingers wove over and under in a simple tabby pattern, over the odd strings, under the even strings. When she’d finish one row, she’d start back down the opposite direction, this time over the evens and under the odds.

Weaving the blanket was a welcome escape from the stress of working for Ernesto’s team. Weaving was a repetitive motion that for some reason relaxed her, putting her in almost a meditative trance as her mind drifted back to fond memories of her mother and how they had spent hours in their den working on rugs and talking about the days on the reservation, a life Amari had never known because she had grown up in the suburbs with the other Tucson kids.

When she’d started working for Ernesto a year earlier, she’d initially been afraid it would be boring just waiting around for someone to reach out for help. But Ernesto had put her downtime between missions to good use. They had renovated a motel in Tucson and turned it into a homeless shelter that also doubled as a job training and rehab center. She oversaw the shelter in Tucson, and her dad was the regional manager for all the shelters Ernesto had set up in the region.

Dealing with those addicted to drugs could be stressful. And the lies. Why did they always have to lie? They soon found out the hard way that she was good at sniffing out deceit. Speaking of sniffing, the smells associated with homelessness were hard to stomach, and grossest of all was the head lice. Occasionally, she had to get rough if the tenant wouldn’t play by the rules. That’s when her martial arts training came in handy. But the shelter was nothing—not compared to capturing a serial rapist and taking down an entire UFO cult with a weird obsession with the Shroud of Turin. That’s where she really earned her generous pay. Of course, there was the getting stalked by a serial killer thing and nearly getting blown up in Turin the year before. But that didn’t count, really, because it was before she was on Ernesto’s payroll. A little less stressful was the crooked contractor in Florida, the elderly scammers, and the long-lost sister roundup.

Still, even those easy cases had been a lot of work, and Amari was ready for a break. She had driven to Fresno with her fiancé, Kevin, for a few days of riding horses and lounging by Ernesto’s fancy waterfall pool, but not until after they’d done some hiking up in Yosemite National Park, which was maybe an hour north of Fresno. They also needed to plan the wedding. And time was running out. They were supposed to get married in August, and here it was in May, and they still hadn’t made a single one of the arrangements, no photographer, no florist, nothing, not even the venue.

Amari was about to start a new section of the blanket. She was swapping out the white yarn for maroon when she heard the shuffle of footsteps come from the hall that led to the children’s quarters. She glanced up to see two freakishly blue eyes of a little girl peeping from around the corner. Her stringy hair was so blond it was almost white.

“Hi, there,” Amari said. “You must be the new kid. Wanna see what I’m doing?”

The child’s head nodded in agreement.

“Well, come over here then. I don’t bite.”

But the girl stood her ground, probing Amari with those big blue eyes. “Are you a real Indian? Mr. Nesto says you’re Navraho.”

Amari giggled. “Something like that. My mother was an Indian. Native American is the polite term. My dad’s from New Hampshire. That’s way over on the other side of the country. Come here. You want to see a real Native American loom? It’s for weaving rugs and blankets. It’s the way they used to do things in the old days. It takes a lot of time. Come over, and I’ll show you.”

Cautiously, the child revealed the rest of her small body but remained standing by the wall.

“Come sit next to me. Don’t be shy.”

The child shuffled over, her shoes scraping against the tile floor.

“That’s more like it,” Amari said. “You ever seen one of these before?”

The child shook her head no.

“You don’t say much, do you?”

“You got boo-boos on your arm and leg. Did you get in a fight? The other kids say you fight really good.”

“I just know how to defend myself. My dad was a policeman, so he made sure I could take care of myself.”

“You still got boo-boos. Did you lose the fight?”

Amari fingered the bruised abrasion on her elbow. She didn’t want to tell her about falling off the horse. The last thing she wanted to do was encourage fears in such a young and impressionable mind. “Actually, I just fell down, that’s all.”

“That happens to me too,” the girl said and pointed to her own skinned knee.

“You see? We have a lot in common, don’t we? So, what’s your name?”

“My name is Kathleen. With a K in the front.”

“Kathleen, huh? That’s a pretty name. My name’s Amari.”

“Is that name Indian?”

“Uh, sort of. But the wrong India. It’s a long story.”

“I like short stories better.”

Amari giggled again. She’d seldom conversed with a kid so young. It was a lot more fun than she thought it would be. It kind of made her feel funny inside. Weird. “Tell me how old you are, Kathleen.”

The child held up four fingers and pointed to them as she spoke, “One, two, three, four.”

“Four years old, huh?”

“Four and a half.”

“Wow, you’re really getting up there,” Amari teased.

As Amari watched the child grin back at her, she couldn’t help but notice Kathleen looked small for her age, not that she had much experience with four-year-old kids. She also had purple half-circles under her eyes, and mucus rattled in her lungs. Ernesto had said this kid had some health issues, and he wasn’t kidding.

“How old are you?” Kathleen asked.

“I’m twenty-three.”

Her blue eyes flashed wide with fascination. “That’s really old.”

“Really? You think so?”

“Uh, huh. My mommy is way younger.”

Amari started to speak but couldn’t think of any age-appropriate comments. Apparently, her mother was in her teens when Kathleen was born. Not exactly the best way to start a family. She decided to change the subject. “Okay, let me show you this thing. It’s called a loom. See that piece of wood up top? The one with yarn hanging down from it. It’s called a loom bar. This other stick in between the yarn strands is called a shed rod. This other stick is the heddle rod, and this wider stick is called the batten. It’s for tapping all the strings down once you finish a horizontal row.”

Kathleen just stared with a dumbfounded look on her face.

“Yeah, that’s a little technical,” Amari said. “Why don’t you let me show you? Can you say teec-nos-pos? That’s the name for this weave pattern. It’s very common.”

Suddenly, Kathleen coughed several times. It was an unproductive cough. Nothing came up, but from the sound of it, there was definitely something down there—and a lot of it.

Amari patted her gently on the back. “You okay?” It was strange patting such a little back. She was so small, so fragile, and a previously unexperienced emotion seemed to stir within Amari. She couldn’t explain it, really. It was a weird feeling of wanting to protect this helpless little kid—to look out for her.

Kathleen stopped coughing and nodded to show she was okay.

Amari watched for a moment just to make sure she wasn’t going to cough again. “Want to try this?”

The girl nodded again.

“See that string? It’s called yarn. My people used to use the wool of churro sheep. Now they pretty much just buy it in a store.”

“Chur. . .” Kathleen coughed two more times before she could complete the word.

“Churro. It’s a kind of sheep that only lives near the Navajo people. It’s out in the desert, maybe five hundred miles east of here. Give me your hand. I’ll let you do it.” Amari guided the child’s hand to the string. She showed her how to feed the yarn over and under the vertical strings. Before long, Kathleen was doing it all by herself—well, sort of. And then Amari noticed something odd. Her fingernails seemed to have an oddly curved shape to them. Her fingertips looked like little clubs.

Kathleen broke into another coughing spell.

Amari patted her on the back again and waited for her to stop. “You sure you’re okay?”

Kathleen nodded as she took several deep, noisy breaths. Finally, she spoke. “I have sixty-five roses.”

“Sixty-five roses? Wow, that’s a lot of roses. Your boyfriend give you all those? My boyfriend buys them for me too. Only, he stops at twelve.”

Kathleen broke into a grin. “No, silly. Sixty-five roses makes me cough.”

A woman walked over and picked Kathleen off the floor. “Did she tell you about her sixty-five roses?”

“Yes, she did,” Amari said. “That’s a ton of roses.”

The woman, who looked to be in her late-thirties, smiled knowingly. Her cheeks were dimpled, her eyes green, and her hair was tied into a tight bun. “My name’s Molly—Molly Corrigan. The kids call me nurse Molly.”

Amari looked to Kathleen, then back to Molly. “So, I guess you’re here to take care of her.”

“That’s right.”

“I have sixty-five roses,” Kathleen said again. “Nurse Molly helps me breathe.”

“She’s trying to say cystic fibrosis,” Molly clarified. “That’s why she keeps coughing. It’s time for her breathing treatment. Come on, Kathleen. Let’s go make you feel better.”

“That’s where she makes me breathe smoke and pats me on the back.”

“Now, Kathleen, I told you it’s not smoke.” Molly looked to Amari and explained. “It’s medicine she breathes in through steam. It helps clear her lungs.”

“Then she pats my back,” Kathleen added.

“To help break up the stuff you need to cough up,” Molly said.

“It takes four hours every day,” Kathleen said.

“Four hours?” Amari said in astonishment. “Every day?”

“Not all at once,” Molly said. “But a total of about four hours.”

Kathleen nodded. “They make me eat all the time too.”

“She doesn’t digest her food very well, so we need to feed her more to make up the difference. Come on, Miss Kathleen. Maybe the young lady will show you how to weave later.”

“Uh, sure,” Amari said. “Any time you want.”

Amari watched the nurse carry Kathleen down the hall, and the cruel reality settled. It didn’t take a doctor to know cystic fibrosis was a fatal disease. That poor child was going to die. It was only a matter of time.

Chapter 5

Amari went to Ernesto’s office and found Kevin sitting behind the antique mahogany pedestal desk that once belonged to Ernesto’s wealthy father. Pieces of a computer were scattered all over the desktop. He had a voltage meter and was checking one of the circuit boards. He’d told Ernesto he’d try to resurrect his computer, but from the look on Kevin’s face, he didn’t think all the faith in the world could resurrect the Apple Macintosh that lay scattered in pieces on the desk.

While Kevin was at work on the computer, Ernesto had gone to church. A devout Catholic, Ernesto had followed his daily routine by attending the morning daily mass at St. Helens. It was the church he had attended with his mother since childhood—that is, until his parents divorced, and his mother moved back to Italy. Even though Ernesto was practically a fanatic in his faith, he was very open to other forms of religious expression. In fact, because Amari had been raised in a Christian non-denominational church, Ernesto would occasionally attend services with her and Kevin. And he never forced Christianity on anyone, not even the foster kids that stayed with him. He’d once said that forced worship was done in spite and therefore no worship at all. He was big into free will, which was why he was so into the Shroud of Turin. Because for those who wanted to believe, the Shroud offered scientific evidence for the resurrection.

Kevin glanced up to see her in the doorway. “Hey, babe. Finish the chief’s blanket?”

“Not even close,” Amari said. “What about the computer? Think you can fix it?”

“Not even close.” Kevin pulled his orange University of Tennessee cap off his head and tossed it onto the desk. “It’s gonna need a new motherboard,” he said with his thick southern accent. “Not even my lucky hat can help it.”

Kevin was superstitious about that obnoxious orange cap with the big white letter T on the front. He claimed he’d bought it in 1982 on the day the University of Tennessee football team had defeated the University of Alabama, ending a twelve-year losing streak. He’d said he wore that hat for every exam he’d taken since—and made an A on every one of them. But Amari knew the cap had nothing to do with his grades. Kevin was a genius, the child prodigy son of a nuclear engineer who worked for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee, just west of Knoxville. His grandfather had been one of the scientists who’d developed the nuclear bomb for the Manhattan Project during World War II. But Kevin’s dad had several acres outside of Oak Ridge, and he had grown up chewing tobacco and riding all-terrain vehicles with his buddies in rural Tennessee.

But unlike his buddies, Kevin had the smart gene passed down from his grandfather, and he’d spent most of his time reading and studying while the other kids watched CHiPs and Charlie’s Angels. He’d graduated at the top of his class at the age of sixteen, then finished a double major in physics and mechanical engineering from the University of Tennessee at age twenty, got his master’s degree at twenty-one, and later graduated with a Ph. D from Boston’s MIT at twenty-three. He’d been doing his post-doctoral work as an experimental physicist at the Weiss Mass Spectrometry lab at the University of Arizona when Amari met him, thanks to an introduction from Kevin’s cousin Jenny, who was Amari’s roommate at the time. Jenny was also super-smart and was studying to be a psychiatrist at the University of Arizona.

Amari met Kevin behind the desk, biting her lower lip as she gazed at the computer components scattered on Ernesto’s desk, lost in thought.

“What’s wrong?” Kevin said. “You’ve got that look on your face again.”

Amari raked her fingers through his hair to fluff out the ringed dent caused by the baseball cap, but she didn’t say anything in reply.

Kevin pulled her onto his lap and looked up at her with concern. “Come on, babe. Spill it. Something’s bothering you, I can tell.”

“I need a hug.”

“Well, get off my lap and let me give you a proper one.”

They stood, and he held her firmly in his arms, cupping his hand lovingly around her head. “I’ll take any excuse to hug on you.”

Amari released her embrace and smiled at him, wondering what she’d ever done to deserve such a guy.

“So, what’s going on?” Kevin asked.

She pushed some computer components aside and sat on Ernesto’s desk.

“I’m listening.” He sat back down and took her by the hand. “Tell me about it.”

Amari tilted her head toward the living room. “Have you noticed the new kid? You know, the little blond one with blue eyes? She says she’s four.”

“The one with the oxygen tank? Kind of little for a four-year-old, don’t you think?”

“Her nurse said she has cystic fibrosis. I was showing her how to weave, and she starts coughing like crazy. She’s such a cute little kid. And so sweet. You know I haven’t been around a lot of kids her age. But we really hit it off. I really want to talk to her some more, but I don’t know if I should.”

“You’re not getting all maternal on me, are you? I didn’t think you liked kids.”

“I never said that. I’ve just never been around many kids, that’s all. Other than Ernesto’s foster kids. But most of them are older. How would I know what I was missing? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. It’s a girl thing, I guess.” Tears blurred her vision as she grappled with unfamiliar emotion. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Yep, you’re getting all maternal on me. Don’t worry, babe. We’ll have a whole mess of kids one day. You’ll see. Once we get hitched, we’ll get straight to work.” He hiked his eyebrows up and down flirtatiously.

She shook her head in disbelief, crimping her lips to restrain her smile, just as a hot tear streaked down her cheek. “You’re such a guy.”

“If we’re gonna have our own Brady Bunch, gotta get started early.”

She laughed and wiped the tear away with the back of her hand. “That’s okay, Kevin. I’m not in that big of a hurry. Sometimes girls just want to talk about things. You don’t have to offer a solution. Not that kind of solution. Not for at least five years.”

“Something to think about, I guess.”

“I guess,” she said, gazing at the crucifix hanging over Ernesto’s office door frame.

“What’s wrong now? I told you we’d have a whole mess of kids someday.”

“It’s not someday I’m worried about. I’m worried about that little girl, and I’m worried about her right now. You should see her. She’s got these purple rings under her eyes. She coughs, and you can hear that stuff in her lungs, but it won’t come out.”

“I can’t blame you for worrying,” Kevin said. “But I wouldn’t get too attached to her if I were you. I don’t want you getting hurt. I mean, I’m no doctor or anything, but from what I know about cystic fibrosis, there ain’t no cure.”

“I don’t believe that. Surely with all Ernesto’s money, we can find a specialist. There’s got to be something we can do for her.”

“We can pray for her, I guess.”

“Of course, we can. But that’s not enough. I can’t sit back and watch that kid die.”

“I’m not sure you have a choice. I knew a kid that had it back in Tennessee. Lived down the street from us. He made it to twelve but then passed away. I remember visiting him at Children’s Hospital out in Knoxville.”

“Kevin, you’re not helping.”

“Look, just focus on the wedding. We’ve got a lot of planning to do. We’ll go back to Tucson, you’ll get a new case, and you’ll start fighting battles you can win. But this one,” Kevin said, pointing down the hall. “This is in God’s hands. You can’t win this one.”

“Then maybe there’s someone out there who can. Maybe there’s some drug the FDA hasn’t approved yet. Maybe they can use Kathleen as a . . . I don’t know.”

“You mean use her as a guinea pig?”

“Maybe. What’s the worst that can happen? How can her prognosis get any worse than it is already?”

“You do have a point. Why don’t you talk to Jenny? If there’s any cure on the horizon, I bet she’d know about it.”

“That’s right. Your cousin’s in medical school. She studies all the latest treatments. If anyone would know, it would be her.”

“And talk to Ernesto about it too. But try not to get so emotionally involved. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Just then, Ernesto walked in the door. “So, Kevin, what’s the verdict? Can you fix it?”

“Sorry,” Kevin replied. “Did all I could for her. Motherboard is toast. I’ll see if I can find a used motherboard out there, but honestly, this thing’s a dinosaur. I say, buy a new one. Hard drive still works. I’ll hook it up as an external and transfer all your files.”

“Amari has my checkbook,” Ernesto said. “Do what you think is best.”

“I’ll do it now if you want,” Kevin said. “Radio Shack’s just down the street.”

“I’ll go with you,” Amari said. “We’ll make it a date.”

“Dinner’s on me, of course,” Ernesto said.

“Thanks,” Amari said. “But before we leave, I wanted to pick your brain.”

“You have my attention. What’s troubling you?”

“That little girl out there. Kathleen.”

“Yes, the sick one,” Ernesto said as he rubbed his beard in contemplation.

“So how sick is she?” Amari asked. “I know she has cystic fibrosis, but how bad is it?”

“From what I understand, she is gravely ill. Her mother is unable to care for herself, let alone a daughter with cystic fibrosis. For the last couple of years, Kathleen has spent most of her time in foster care. Unfortunately, as her disease progressed, she posed a difficult dilemma for social services. She was not ill enough to be hospitalized, yet too ill for any foster parents in the area. She needed professional care, and I was the only one in town with the resources to provide it. The only other alternative was a skilled nursing facility.”

Kevin winced. “You mean a nursing home? With all those old people?”

“Perhaps they could have found a place that specializes in children,” Ernesto said. “But nothing locally. So, I offered an alternative solution.”

“By hiring a full-time nurse for her nanny,” Amari said.

Ernesto shrugged. “I have the space. I have the resources. Why not?”

“Of course, you absolutely did the right thing,” Amari said. “But isn’t there anything else we can do? Can’t you find a specialist out there? Maybe there’s some cutting-edge treatment the local doctors don’t know about yet. An experimental drug or something.”

“Perhaps,” Ernesto said. “But from what I understand, cystic fibrosis has many genetic variants. Hers is of the worst kind. Even if they were developing new treatments now, I fear she would not survive long enough to receive them. The only thing we can do is make her comfortable. We’ll give her some great experiences along the way.”

“There’s got to be something else,” Amari declared. “I’ll find a cure. I’m an investigator. It’s what I do. I find things. So, can this be my next case?”

“You have my blessing to try. Only don’t get your hopes up too much. I know you’re young. I know you’re on fire for God and doing the right thing. But some things can’t be helped, and I fear you will only be hurt in the end.”

“Then I get hurt.” Amari folded her arms across her chest defiantly. “It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.”

Chapter 6

Royal Ontario Museum

Toronto, Canada

May 4, 1990

The upper levels of the Royal Ontario Museum thronged with tourists, both those eager for knowledge and those bored to tears. The finely detailed exhibits of natural and human history, all the fossils and dinosaur bones, geodes and gemstones, statues, portraits, and pottery didn’t just magically appear. They were painstakingly acquired and restored by curators and conservators and thoughtfully displayed in constantly evolving galleries.

Deep in the dank sublevel basement of the museum, Alexander Kovalenko adjusted the swingarm-mounted magnifying glass and flipped on the round fluorescent bulb, casting sterile white light onto the ancient sarcophagus. Part of a bronze age exhibit, this 12th century BC version of a rich man’s casket would join other artifacts of the past, such as an exquisitely decorated ceramic kylix that highlighted the mastery of Mycenaean craftsmanship. Diminutive bronze figurines left as votive offerings were next to be restored, all part of a future exhibit intended to highlight the bronze age of the Greek Islands and Aegean Sea. As one of the museum’s senior conservators, Alexander’s job was to restore these ancient relics to their former luster so that future generations could appreciate the splendid skill and dedication of humanity’s past.

Alexander leaned closer and adjusted the distance of the magnifying glass to sharpen the focus. He was appraising the feasibility of trying to repair a rather significant chip in the ancient carved stone. The tingling in his left foot felt like a swarm of bees, and the burning pain radiating down his leg intensified. He winced and rubbed at his lower back in a vain attempt to cool the stinging pain of a recently herniated disc. The doctor had told him surgery was the only cure. Unfortunately, surgery meant weeks of lying around on his couch as he recovered. And the operation was not scheduled for another three weeks. His country’s socialized medicine was a blessing for those without the means to afford health insurance, but it was a curse if you were in a hurry for relief because wait periods were very long for the overtaxed system, and life-threatening emergencies always took precedent over chronic pain caused by trivial matters such as a disc herniation.

Alexander had considered taking sick leave before the surgery but doing so would not leave enough in his sick bank to last through the long recovery. Not having a paycheck was no option either.

He reached into his breast pocket and removed a small sandwich bag filled with several hydrocodone tablets mixed with acetaminophen. Having pills rattle around in a bottle was a dead giveaway. He shook out two pills, placed them on his tongue, and washed them down with some cold coffee from a thermos he’d routinely filled every day before work. Dr. Le Borgne, the curator in charge of archaeology, had warned him about taking pain pills on the job. The drugs didn’t leave him impaired—well, not that much. Alexander had tried explaining that to Le Borgne. They merely took the edge off the pain so he could concentrate on his work. Le Borgne disagreed and threatened to fire him if he continued to take them while on the clock.

What Le Borgne doesn’t know won’t hurt him, Alexander thought.

Alexander arched his back in an attempt to relieve pressure on the disc, praying the dose of pain medication would soon provide a modicum of relief. Suddenly, the door to the lab opened, and Le Borgne’s smug voice rang in the room. Alexander quickly refocused on his work, trying to appear busy. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Dr. Le Borgne leading a white-haired gentleman down the aisle that was sandwiched in between artifact shelves and gray filing cabinets.

“This is Alexander Kovalenko,” Dr. Le Borgne said with his slight French accent, exposing his Quebec upbringing. “He’s one of our senior conservators.”

Alexander met eyes with his two guests and offered an insincere smile. Le Borgne was a chubby little man with a goatee beard. The top of his head was almost entirely bald except for an isolated tuft of hair that looked like Hitler’s mustache. The man with Le Borgne was a scholarly looking old man dressed in a white suit, using a cane to assist with walking. His wrinkled eyes made friendly downturned slits, and his full head of gray-white hair rounded his face and joined his beard in such a way that it resembled a lion’s mane.

“Kovalenko?” the old man asked. “Ukrainian?”

“That’s right,” Alexander said. “My family immigrated from Ukraine in 1902. We’ve been in Toronto ever since.”

“This is Dr. Schroeder,” Le Borgne offered. “He’s a scholar of ancient Aramaic from Jerusalem—from the Israeli Antiquities Authority. He’s here for a conference. I thought he might be interested in our newest acquisition.”

Alexander nodded toward a rectangular stone box covered with a sheet of protective plastic. “The ossuary?”

“Yes, the bone box,” Dr. Le Borgne said.

“I haven’t had a chance to look at it,” Alexander said. “I’ve been so busy with the Greek exhibit.”

“Then we’ll start our investigation now,” Dr. Le Borgne said. He walked to the shelf next to Alexander’s desk and removed the plastic sheeting.

Sitting on the table was a small limestone box with a removable lid. It was brown with age, and a series of tiny cavities pockmarked the surface, typical of lower quality limestone. Decorative grooves were cut into the outer edges of the box, but otherwise, it was a relatively unadorned ossuary with scant garnishing, indicating that the man had not been wealthy. Nor was he impoverished, because the bones of the poor were not considered worthy of preservation.

Dr. Schroeder moved in for a closer look. “You say this was discovered in Israel?”

“Yes, we acquired it from a . . . uh, let’s just say, a third-party dealer,” Dr. Le Borgne said in an apologetic tone.

“Black market?” Dr. Schroeder asked.

“Not according to the dealer,” Le Borgne replied. “He assures us it was acquired legally.”

“Yes, as all antiquities are,” Dr. Schroeder said with sarcasm. “At any rate, as you suggested to me earlier, it may well be a forgery.”

“Don’t tell that to the board of trustees,” Le Borgne said. “It cost us a small fortune.”

“Let us just hope it was indeed a small fortune,” Dr. Schroeder said. “Perhaps I can offer some insight.”

Alexander pulled a magnifying glass from a drawer and handed it to Dr. Schroeder.

Dr. Schroeder took the magnifying glass with a wry smile. “You read my mind. These old eyes aren’t what they used to be.”

“And neither are mine,” Alexander said.

“It happens to us all.” Dr. Schroeder brought the glass to his eye. “How long have you worked here?” he casually asked as he read an inscription carved into the bone box’s limestone face.

“Twenty-five years,” Alexander said. “I started here back in ’63, just after turning thirty.”

“And I’ve been with the IAA since it was founded. Actually, before this year, we called ourselves the Israel Department of Antiquities. I helped found the department, you know. Back in 1948, just after Israel once again became a nation. From my accent, you can probably tell I’m a New Yorker by birth, but I moved to Israel shortly after the war. Hmmm,” he said, ceasing his small talk and focusing on the inscription. “Interesting.” He straightened his posture and looked over at Le Borgne. “You say the dealer purchased this in Jerusalem?”

“In 1974,” Le Borgne replied.

“Yes,” Dr. Schroeder said. “There was a vibrant market for antique ossuaries in the seventies.”

“But it wasn’t discovered in Israel,” Le Borgne offered. “The dealer claimed its origin was a newly discovered tomb outside of Antakya. It’s on the southern tip of Turkey, just west of the Syrian border.”

“Makes sense, if it’s legitimate,” Dr. Schroeder said. “Look here at the inscription. It says ‘Prochorus, Bishop of Nicomedia.’ During the first century, that was an ancient city located just east of modern-day Istanbul. The man this box commemorates was also referred to as Prochorus the Hellenist since he was Greek. Just after the crucifixion, he remained in Jerusalem as a follower of Jesus. His duty was to care for the poor. Records suggest he was one of the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus. Later in life, he traveled north, and Peter himself ordained him Bishop of Nicomedia. He was also known to be a scribe of John the Evangelist. At any rate, that’s what the historical documents indicate. Other speculation remains in the realm of legend.”

“If he was the Bishop near Istanbul, then how was his tomb found in Antakya?” Le Borgne asked. “That’s hundreds of miles away.”

“Ah, yes,” Dr. Schroeder replied. “That’s a good question. According to tradition, Prochorus died a martyr’s death in Antioch, which is in modern times called Antakya. Naturally, his tomb would be found in Antakya. This only strengthens the case that the ossuary we have before us was indeed that of Prochorus.”

Alexander was impressed by the man’s knowledge of early Christian history. As a devout Catholic, Alexander wanted to know more and urged Dr. Schroder to continue. “Legends, you say? Please, tell me more. It might help in ruling out a forgery.”

“Well, it’s no secret that the apostles held power to heal illnesses of all sorts. Legend has it, Prochorus had the same gift. He healed thousands in the name of Christ.”

“You don’t say,” Alexander said. “Thousands?”

“He had a little help—according to legend, that is. The scuttlebutt passed down over the centuries is that he was in possession of the lower section of the cloak Jesus wore just before the crucifixion. Apparently, it was through this scrap of fabric that the people were healed, not of any doing by Prochorus himself, but from the power of the woolen hem of Christ’s robe.”

“Do you believe that?” Alexander asked.

“It’s nonsense, of course,” Dr. Schroeder said. “Purely conjecture. History is littered by unsubstantiated claims, and this is one of them. If it were not so, then the legends would continue well past the death of Prochorus. The scrap of robe would surely have been passed down over the centuries, but when Prochorus died, so too did the healings.”

“Fascinating,” Alexander said. “I made the assumption that you were Jewish, but you certainly know a lot about Christian history.”

“That’s because I’m a Messianic Jew. I, too, believe Jesus was the foretold Messiah.”

Le Borgne cleared his throat. “Alexander, Dr. Schroeder is only in town for a week. I’m sure he’d appreciate any additional evidence you might discover about this ossuary. Until he returns to Jerusalem, make this your top priority. I know you have a knack for spotting a forgery. Get to work and let us know your opinion.”

“But what about the Mycenaean exhibit?” Alexander asked.

“You have my permission to work this weekend,” Le Borgne replied.

“My weekend off? My doctor said I need to rest as much as possible.”

“Does your doctor pay your salary? If you want a job to come back to after your surgery, you’ll do as I say.”

“Please, Dr. Le Borgne,” Dr. Schroeder said, clearly made uncomfortable by the tension in the room. “That’s not necessary. There is no rush. You can send your findings by mail.”

“Actually,” Alexander said, “I’m eager to learn more about this thing—especially if it belonged to one of Jesus’ disciples. I suppose the Greek exhibits can wait a few more days.”

“Good, then,” Dr. Schroeder said. “Any preliminary thoughts?”

“I think the key is the inscription,” Alexander replied. “Even if the bone box could be traced back to the time of Christ, the inscription could have easily been carved into the side many years later. The patina is the key. Patina is that brownish grime you see coating the white limestone. It builds up on limestone’s surface over the years. One of the main ingredients in patina is calcium carbonate. And since it has carbon, then it can be carbon dated.”

“So, if the carbon date of the patina in the engraving shows it was, say, three hundred years old, then we would know it was a forgery,” Le Borgne said.

“Perhaps,” Alexander said, “But it’s not that simple. The patina builds over time, so carbon is deposited over time, with various amounts of carbon-14. The key here is to carbon date the outside patina and then also take a scraping of the patina that has built up in the grooves of the inscription. If the carbon date of the patina in the grooves is younger than that on the outside, then that proves the inscription was carved into the box at a later date.”

“Brilliant,” Dr. Schroeder said.

“It’s just a common tool of the trade,” Alexander humbly replied.

Le Borgne looked at his watch. “The conference starts in ten minutes, Dr. Schroeder. We had better head back upstairs. I’ll show you where to go. Alexander, I’ll be back in a few minutes and talk about how to proceed with the ossuary.”

When Alexander heard the door slam behind Le Borgne and his guest, he refocused on the ossuary, grateful to the drugs that had taken the edge off the pain so he could focus on his work. He laid his bare hand upon the cool limestone lid and was overcome by a sense of awe. To think, this tiny box once held an original disciple of Christ. As a Catholic, he’d always been fascinated by religious relics such as this. It was one of the reasons that he chose to enter the profession. Granted, had his life panned out the way he’d wanted it to, he would be a doctor now, researching a cure for cancer. But second to medicine, he’d always had a passion for archaeology, so he couldn’t complain. How else would he come face to face with such a potentially priceless relic? How else would he have the honor of restoring it to its former luster so the rest of the world could appreciate the past it represented?

He reached into a drawer and retrieved a measuring tape. He stretched it along the width of the ossuary and jotted down the measurement on a notepad: 50.5 centimeters. It was just under twenty inches using the American scale. He continued to measure. It was twenty-five centimeters deep, or slightly under ten inches. He stretched the tape out again, this time vertically. It was just short of thirty-six centimeters tall, or roughly fourteen inches—thirty-five point eight centimeters to be exact. He was surprised at how small it was. Then again, it was only designed to hold the disassembled bones of a corpse, not the intact body. Typically, when ossuaries such as this were discovered, the bones were discarded, and the boxes themselves became nothing more than a means of financial support for antiquities traders. Had the men who found this ossuary known the bones had once belonged to a true disciple of Christ, surely, they would have treated the bones with more reverence. That is, of course, assuming the ossuary was genuine and not a forgery.

He focused on the inscription, etched into the pockmarked limestone face, turned a shade of light brown with age. “Prochorus, Bishop of Nicomedia,” Alexander uttered in fascination.

He inserted his finger into a notch that had been intentionally cut into the left corner of the lid. Otherwise, the cover could not be removed without a special tool, which would risk damaging the stone. Carefully, he lifted the top and set it aside. He took a flashlight from the counter and shined the beam into the box for proper illumination. Not one trace of bone was left, not the tiniest of fragments. It had been thoroughly swept clean. Or perhaps, if indeed a forgery, it had never held any bones at all.

He’d restored several ossuaries during the span of his career, but something seemed odd about this one, a peculiarity he couldn’t quite place. And then he noticed it—the inner edges of the stone where the base joined to the sides. Typically, a solid piece of limestone would be hollowed out using chiseling tools. But this one looked pieced together. There was clearly an attempt to smooth the inner bottom edges with a sanding tool, but the separate bottom shelf was evident to a trained eye. But why? Perhaps there was a simple explanation. Maybe the base was damaged, and another slab was added on top for aesthetic purposes. After all, a stonemason could demand a higher price if the ossuary seemed flawless. Then again, there could be another reason. He’d dabbled in magic and the art of illusion ever since he was a kid. He knew the illusion of a false bottom—to allow something to be hidden beneath. Had the stonemason hollowed out the stone, placed something in the bottom, added a center block of limestone for support, and then placed another slab on top of the support?

And then another peculiarity struck him. The inside was too shallow. Why would the base be so thick? Was Prochorus a tiny man, requiring a smaller space? But most ossuaries were manufactured by professional stonemasons. Humble ossuaries such as this were likely generic, mass-produced rather than customized. Otherwise, there would be more decorative etchings on the outer surface. No, something was fishy about this. There was either a repair—or something else, perhaps a clever attempt to conceal something of great value.

He retrieved his tape measure and ran it along the inside surface, top to bottom. It was twenty-seven and a half centimeters in depth. He got his notepad and read the outer height: 35.8 cm. This confirmed his suspicions. The bottom was just over eight centimeters thick. Either there was a repair slab placed on top of the bottom surface or something was hidden beneath a decoy slab. Alexander carefully rocked the ossuary forward and tested it for weight. It tipped easily. If the base was indeed that thick, the center of gravity would be very low. The weight would not allow it to be tipped easily, but rather slide along the tabletop instead. Yet, this one easily tipped forward. That confirmed his hollow theory. Still, he needed a more scientific method if he was to prove his suspicions.

Alexander glanced at the scale at the end of the aisle. That scale offered scientific proof. He could take detailed measurements of the thickness of each wall, the lid, and the seemingly oversized base. Knowing the density of limestone, he could easily calculate how much the ossuary should weigh. If the actual weight was significantly lighter, then that would prove a hollow base. And if the base was hollow, then for what reason? What could possibly be held inside?

He pondered the wisdom of lifting the ossuary without help. After all, his doctor had warned him not to do any heavy lifting until the herniated disc was repaired. But what was considered heavy? It weighed no more than a few kilograms. Besides, any additional damage he would do to his herniated disc was going to be repaired anyway. What could be the harm in lifting such a light ossuary made of porous limestone? Still, he should use a cart to transport it to the other side of the room.

He went around the corner, retrieved a metal transport cart, and moved it up close to the ossuary. Carefully, he slid the ossuary to the edge of the table and placed a hand underneath for support. Using proper ergonomic technique, he aligned his feet with his hips, bent at the knees, and carefully lifted the ossuary. No, it was not heavy at all. He reached the cart and started to set it down, one corner first, then the other. Then, once the box was safely onto the cart, without explanation, a section of the box facing away from him broke apart and fell with a loud clang against metal.

He cringed and cursed his luck. There must have been a fracture on the backside. The damage could be repaired, but it wouldn’t be cheap. Le Borgne was going to be furious. He should have inspected the box more carefully before trying to move it. And why hadn’t he? Was it the excitement of his possible discovery? Or had the pain medication numbed his common sense? Perhaps the drug had given him more courage, and now look what happened. If he didn’t lose his job, then Le Borgne would likely subtract the cost of repairs from his paycheck. Still, it wasn’t the first artifact he’d damaged over his two and a half decades at the museum. And if it was a forgery, then no harm, no foul, right?

“Well, nothing I can do now,” he uttered to himself and surveyed the damage. There, laying on the cart, was a wedge-shaped slab of limestone, leaving another wedge-shaped opening in the side of the ossuary. And then he saw it—the hollow cavity he’d expected. He noticed something inside. He took his flashlight and shined it into the cavity. There was something there. A cloth of some sort? A piece of fabric?

Alexander gasped as he drew the obvious conclusion. Dr. Schroeder had spoken of this cloth, the supposed torn edge of Jesus’ robe, the hem of the very Son of God. But Schroeder had insisted the woolen hem was merely legend. Nonsense, he’d said. Purely speculation. Or was it? Was the hem for real? Had this been where it was hidden all these years?

The opening to the cavity was too small for his finger, so he retrieved a pair of tweezers from a drawer filled with restoration tools. Not wanting to cause further damage to the fragile ossuary, he carefully inserted the two teeth of the tweezers into the wedge-shaped fissure. He snagged the cloth and gently tugged it through the opening.

He took the fabric to his work desk and laid it down lengthwise. The cloth was about half his arm’s length. It appeared to have once been crimson in color, but time had faded its original, vibrant hue. Such fading was observed in other antique textiles manufactured during the time of Christ. This shade of red was commonly used by the Romans due to the abundance of a plant known as rubia tinctorum. A substance referred to as rose matter was extracted from the root to use as dye. It was a standard pigment used in ancient times, not only in Roman conquered territory but in India and Egypt as well.

The straight edge of the fabric had a folded hem double-sewn with charcoal woolen yarn. The jagged edge of the other side also had a makeshift hem running in a crooked line, an apparent attempt to prevent further unraveling. Could this indeed be a scrap of fabric from the outer woolen cloak of Christ himself? The crucifixion was in spring. Nights would be cold in ancient Israel. It made sense for him to have been wearing a cloak, but was this scrap authentic? Or was it merely a fraud, just as the ossuary may indeed have been a fake?

He swung the magnifying glass arm in front of him so he could examine the fabric more closely. He was familiar with woolen weave patterns of the period. If it was not a match, then it was obviously a forgery too. He gently lifted the fabric, pulled it loosely taut, and moved it into the fluorescent light of the magnifying glass. Suddenly, a strange, warming sensation tingled in his lower back. The tingling sensation grew more intense, and he instinctively arched his back in such a way as to reduce pressure on his disc. Was the medication wearing off so soon?

No, it wasn’t pain he felt. Instead, it was more of a tickling sensation. Suddenly, just as quickly and unexpectantly as the feeling occurred, it stopped altogether, and he felt nothing—nothing. There wasn’t the slightest bit of tingling, not the slightest twinge of pain.

The lab’s heavy metal door slammed shut, and the sound of hastened footsteps approached. Alexander nervously glanced down at the broken ossuary, then toward the sound of dress shoes clapping against concrete.

Chapter 7

Galliano Estate

Fresno, California

May 21, 1990

The black Doberman Pinschers named Cain and Able sat in Ernesto’s back yard with their stubby tails hidden from view by the lush green grass. The two guard dogs had joined the foster children as they watched Amari spar with Bonelli and Mitch, Ernesto’s two private security personnel, both fully protected with padded headgear, sparring boots, and chest guards. Amari’s style of self-defense wasn’t a product of any one tradition. She cared nothing about the belt color she wore around her waist and had little time or interest in traveling the country and competing with other opponents. Her approach was more pragmatic—defeating criminals and keeping herself alive. With the guidance of a personal coach, her style used a combination of Taekwondo, Krav Maga, and police department self-defense.

Kevin sat next to the pool, watching under the protection of a sunshade, sipping a diet soda. The older kids cheered for Amari as she connected powerful blows against a foam body shield bag. Mitch’s muscular arms flinched with each strike as he gripped the padding by two handles. Bonelli held a kicking target shaped like a ping pong paddle.

“Tornado kick!” Eric, the ten-year-old yelled.

Amari felt her lips stretch tight over the rubber mouthguard molded to protect her teeth as she smiled back at him and gave the thumbs up. Then she noticed Nurse Molly stroll over as she held Kathleen in her arms while tugging a small oxygen tank on wheels through the grass. Oxygen fed into Kathleen’s nostrils through a clear, plastic nasal cannula. She smiled and pumped her little fist as she rooted for Amari.

Amari removed the mouthguard so she could speak coherently. “This one’s for you, Kathleen.” She winked at the little girl, put the mouthguard back into place, and fell back in a Taekwondo ready stance, knees bent, one foot out front, hands balled into fists.

“Let ‘em have it!” Christopher yelled, and the other kids cheered with hoots and hollers.

Amari grabbed a breath, then spun on her right leg, her weight on the ball of her foot, looking back over her shoulder, eyes locked on her target. She jumped into the air and executed a spinning roundhouse kick, connecting hard against Bonelli’s paddle target with a loud clap. As soon as both feet connected to the ground, she spun around to Mitch, took one step forward, and brought her other leg up and landed a powerful push kick to the center of Mitch’s shield bag, knocking him off balance and toppling him backward onto the lawn. The kids called out with cheers, but Kathleen just gawked at her with wide eyes and an open mouth.

Ernesto walked onto the scene, clapping his hands in approval. “Well done, Amari. Well done.”

“Thanks.” Amari removed her padded glove and offered her hand to help Mitch off the ground. “Why don’t you gear up, Ernesto?” she said, her words slurred by the mouth guard. Her lips spread into a mischievous grin. “Mitch looks like he needs a break.”

Ernesto held his hands up defensively. “I fell for that already. Remember?”

The kids cheered Ernesto on.

“Perhaps another day,” Ernesto said. “But for now, we need to wrap this up. The seamstress who is making your wedding dress called. She’s on her way. Amari, you might want to shower before she gets here and takes measurements.”

Amari pulled her helmet off and removed her mouthguard. “I thought she was coming later this evening.”

“She had a cancellation and asked if she could come now. I didn’t think you would mind. Besides, the children need to do their homework.”

Amari removed her elbow pads and rubbed at her sore, scabbed elbow. “You’re probably right. I should take it easy for a couple more days. I think Mitch and Bonelli have had enough too.”

“Amen to that,” Bonelli said and removed his own padded helmet.

✽ ✽ ✽

The next day, Kevin had risen early and headed up to San Jose, where he met with some computer software gurus who were working on a program to help with an experiment. The plan was to stay for a couple of nights until they finished. With her fiancé out of the house, Amari had spent most of the day with Kathleen. She’d helped the little girl take her morning handful of pills with the help of a small bowl of chocolate pudding. One spoonful of pudding for each pill. Molly even showed Amari how to pat on Kathleen’s back with a rubber-plunger-looking-thing to help break the mucus up in her lungs. She made oohs and ah noises, tickled by the choppy sound the back-patting caused in her little voice. It was even funnier after Amari showed her how to talk through the rotating blades of an electric fan. Then, they played the game of Clue with some of the older kids. Since the game was too complex for the average four-year-old, Kathleen and Amari had played as a team.

After lunch, they found themselves at the horse stable. Amari held Kathleen in her arms so she could reach out her hand and pet Clarabelle, Ernesto’s nine-year-old American Saddlebred horse. Nurse Molly leaned against the fence rail, watching, oxygen tank at the ready in case Kathleen had one of her coughing spells.

The weight of a delicate, wiggly four-year-old girl in Amari’s arms sparked a small flutter of joy. Amari had always been so rough and aggressive when she saw injustice. Rarely had she ever just stood still, enjoying the innocence of a child, the sweet smell of freshly shampooed hair.

“You’re really good with her,” Molly said. “You’re going to make a great mom someday.”

Amari laughed at the notion. “You think so, huh?”

“I know so,” Molly said.

“You don’t know me very well.”

“You’re right. I don’t. But I know what I see now—and I see someone who would make a great mom.”

“I don’t know,” Amari said. “I guess it wouldn’t be so bad. When the time is right.”

Clarabelle snorted and huffed air from her nostrils. Kathleen giggled and said, “I think she needs a tissue.”

Amari laughed and smiled at Kathleen. “What a big box of Kleenex that would be, huh?”

“It would be this big,” Kathleen said, holding her hands apart.

Clarabelle shifted the weight on her legs, flexing massive muscles under her shiny brown coat. Molly started to pet the horse on the nose while Kathleen and Amari talked.

“Wow, her legs are really strong,” Kathleen said. “Just like your legs.”

“Thank you . . . I guess,” Amari replied. “Hope mine are a little prettier, but thanks.”

“My mommy’s not real strong. She sleeps too much.”

“Oh, really?” Amari said. “Is she sick too?”

“Mommy takes medicine with needles. It makes her sleepy. I can’t be with her when she’s sleepy.”

Amari was stunned, unsure of how to respond. Of course, Kathleen, in her own naïve way, was describing a heroin addict. No wonder they took her away and put her in foster care. Amari fumbled for an appropriate response, but none came.

“Sometimes, my mommy lives outside. I can’t stay outside, or it makes me sick. I stay with other grownups who aren’t so sleepy.”

Kathleen was clearly describing homelessness. There was no way the Department of Human Services would leave a child with a mother like that, let alone a child with cystic fibrosis. But surely Kathleen’s mother hadn’t always been that way. Perhaps the stress of having a sick child drove her to numb her senses with drugs. Maybe they could find her mother and put her in Ernesto’s rehab shelter in Tucson. She could clean her life up. According to Kathleen, her mother was very young. All she needed was a second chance. With proper guidance, she could easily turn herself around.

“Miss Mari?” Kathleen said with a wistful gaze in her stark blue eyes. She had called her ‘Miss Mari’ a couple days earlier. Nobody had corrected her, so the name stuck.

“Yes, Miss Kathleen. Did you have a question?”

“Miss Mari,” Kathleen said again.

“I’m listening, baby. What is it?”

“I wish you were my mommy.”

Amari caught her breath and she felt the tears burn in her eyes. She was speechless as she fought against emotion’s tug. She wanted to tell Kathleen that she would love to be her mommy but knew it was impossible. Not with her chosen line of work. She couldn’t travel the world, righting the world’s wrongs with a sick kid to care for. Could she? She could hire a nanny. Nurse Molly, maybe. Amari shook off the thought. No, her job was too dangerous. She couldn’t take her eye off the ball. She couldn’t be distracted by parental responsibility. And what about Kevin? Was such a notion fair to him? For newlyweds?

As Amari grappled for an age-appropriate reply, Kathleen let her off the hook by speaking again. “Someday, I want to ride horses just like you. It looks really fun.”

Amari knew the cruel reality. Without proper care, Kathleen would never grow big or strong enough to ride a horse. There had to be something more the doctors could do for her. She couldn’t just stand by and do nothing.

Kathleen broke into a brief coughing fit, but it only lasted a few seconds. Nurse Molly started to help but stayed put when she realized it was a false alarm.

“You know what?” Amari said. “I’m going to get you some help.”

“You’re going to make me breathe better?” Kathleen asked.

“I’m sure going to try. I promise I’ll do anything I can.”

Kathleen nodded her head as if to say okay.

“You know what else?”

“What else?”

“Maybe you can start riding horses right now.” Amari glanced over at Molly as if to ask for permission. “What do you think? I’ll hold her really tight.”

“I don’t see why not,” Molly said. “But not very fast.”

“What if I took you for a ride?” Amari asked Kathleen. “You can sit on the saddle right in front of me.”

Kathleen’s eyes flashed with anticipation.

“I take that as a yes.”

Kathleen nodded with excitement.

“Then what are we waiting for?”

Amari handed Kathleen over to Molly, then ducked under the fence rail. She grabbed onto Clarabelle’s saddle horn, put her foot in the stirrup, then hefted herself onto the horse’s back. Molly swung open the gate fence with her free hand, went inside the corral, and Amari coaxed Clarabelle over toward Kathleen, who was now giddy with excitement. Molly lifted Kathleen into the air. Amari pulled the child the rest of the way onto the saddle and sat her down just behind the saddle horn.

“Now hold on tight,” Amari said. “This might get a little bumpy.”

“Giddy up!” Kathleen cried out with glee. “Giddy up!”

✽ ✽ ✽

Later that evening, Kathleen had gone to bed early, exhausted after a fun day. Amari knocked gently on Molly’s adjoining bedroom.

“It’s open,” Molly said in a hushed tone.

Amari gently opened the door and stuck her head inside. Molly sat in a rocking chair, reading a novel in the low light.

“Can I talk to you for a sec?” Amari asked.

Molly sat her book down and met Amari in the hall.

“She had so much fun today,” Molly said. “She’s worn out.”

“I know,” Amari said with a smile. “I had fun too.”

“Is there something I can help you with?” Molly asked.

“I was wondering about Kathleen’s mother. You know I help run a shelter in Tucson. We help drug addicts and other homeless people turn their lives around. We teach classes and everything. I was thinking maybe Kathleen’s mother would consider coming back to Tucson with me. I think it might give her the help she needs.”

The suggestion caused a grief-stricken expression on Molly’s face. She went over to Kathleen’s cracked bedroom door and shut it completely. She considered her words for a moment and then finally spoke. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

“She’s in jail, isn’t she?” Amari said.

“I wish that were the case.”

The look on Molly’s expression said it all.

Amari leaned against the wall to steady herself. She shook her head in denial, then finally accepted a cruel, irreversible reality that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. “She’s dead, isn’t she? She overdosed.”

Molly placed a comforting hand on Amari’s shoulder. “I’m afraid so. It happened just last week. Kathleen doesn’t know, so please don’t mention it. The child psychologist thought we should wait till she’s older to tell her.”

For the second time in one day, Amari felt the tears welling in her eyes. What was wrong with her? She’d always been so tough. How does a four-year-old kid manage to tear down a wall she’d worked so hard to build around her emotions. Was Kevin right about her? And her dad? They’d both told her deep inside she was really a softy. Amari had denied it but apparently it was true.

“Amari,” Molly said. “Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”

Amari shrugged off the suggestion. “No, really. I’m fine. It’s just . . . earlier today. You may not have heard it, but Kathleen said she wished I was her mommy. Can you believe that? Me, of all people.”

“She said that to you?”

“Yes, while we were at the barn. You were petting the horse, so you didn’t hear.” Emotion choked her words as she said, “If her real mother is gone, then she really does need another mommy.”

Molly placed a comforting hand on Amari’s shoulder. “Don’t for a second think you’re obligated in any way to play the role of mother to Kathleen. We’re all her family now. You, me, Ernesto, Ms. Anderson, all of us in this house.”

“It’s not the same,” Amari said.

“Look, I know you have a good heart,” Molly said. “I know you mean well, but I don’t want to see you get hurt. Believe me, I know. I’ve been a nurse for twelve years. I’ve learned to keep an emotional distance. If you don’t, the job will destroy you.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Amari said. “Maybe you’re right,” she repeated and walked down the hall toward her own bedroom.

“Amari, you okay?” Molly called after her.

Amari stopped and looked back at Molly. “I’ll be fine, really.”

“If you want to talk some more, you know where to find me.”

“Thanks,” Amari replied. “I’ll remember that.”

“Why don’t you call Kevin? He’ll make you feel better.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking. Thanks,” she said and turned back down the hall. Kevin had his mobile phone with him in San Jose. Molly was right, she needed to call him. What she needed more than anything right now was to hear Kevin’s voice.

Chapter 8

Kevin sat at the dining room table, leaning on his elbows as he flipped through a photo album of popular flower arrangements. Rosa Blume was the florist’s name. She wore heavy perfume in a vain attempt to mask the odor of cigarette smoke clinging to her clothes. Her densely kinky black hair was splayed out to the sides, reminding Amari of Gilda Radner’s sassy Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Rosannadanna.

“Any thoughts, Dr. Brenner?” Rosa asked. “Do any of the arrangements stand out? White roses are always good.”

“Get more bang for the buck with peonies,” Kevin replied as he pointed at the picture of fat pink flowers packed tightly with fragrant petals.

“Never mind the price,” Ernesto said. “Which one is your favorite?”

“Tulips are popular this year,” Rosa said.

Kevin glanced at Amari and hiked his eyebrows seductively. “These are the only two lips I care about.”

Amari giggled and said, “Come on, Kevin. Take this seriously. What do you really think?”

“I’m thinking to myself, is Rosa Blume her real name or just a stage name she uses for selling flowers?”

Amari cupped her hands over her face, a two-fold attempt to mask not only her frustration with her wise-cracking fiancé but the redness of embarrassment burning hot on her cheeks. She dropped her hands and gave Rosa an apologetic smile. “I’m so sorry, Ms. Blume. Kevin is, well, special. He’s got this amazing brain for science, but it obviously comes at a cost.”

Kevin shrugged. “Can’t have it all.”

“No need to apologize,” Rosa said. “People ask me that all the time. And the answer is yes. Rosa Blume is my real name. I was born with my last name, but my grandmother came up with the first name. I think it must have inspired my love for flowers. And it certainly helps business if you have a name people don’t forget.”

“You have a point,” Ernesto said. “I once attended a wedding staged by you. I easily remembered your name and looked it up in the phone book. But are you sure having the wedding in Tucson won’t be a problem?”

“No problem at all,” Rosa said. “As you may know, my shop is part of a chain. We have a store in Tucson. I’ll simply coordinate with the manager of that store.”

“It’s better than Turin, Italy,” Kevin said. “That’s where Ernesto wanted to have the wedding. Right there next to the Shroud of Turin. You got a branch out there?”

“I was so excited when these two got engaged,” Ernesto said. “Perhaps, I was projecting my own wedding aspirations onto them. If I were to marry, it would most certainly be in Turin. At the Cathedral of St. John, The Baptist. The cardinal of that church is a dear friend.”

“Married?” Amari asked, her eyes flashing with surprise. “But I thought—,”

“That I wanted only to live the chaste life of a priest?”

“Well, kind of,” Amari said. “I remember you saying that’s what you wanted.”

“It was. But God had other plans for me. Becoming a priest was not practical, given my situation.”

“So why don’t you date?” Amari asked. “You’re just thirty-eight years old. It’s not too late. Don’t you ever think about having a family? Let me set you up. I know this girl that would be perfect for you. I think she just turned thirty. Or is that too young? If it makes any difference, she looks older than her age.”

This time, it was Kevin who cleared his throat. “And I thought I was the one with no tact.”

Amari winced apologetically. When Ernesto had shown a glimmer of interest in getting married, she let her words get away from her. After all, Ernesto would make such a wonderful husband and father—that is, if he could ever find someone who shared his devotion to God. How many women would stand by as Ernesto gave his entire fortune away? Having that kind of cash complicated romance. You almost had to marry someone of equal wealth. Otherwise, how could you know for sure they weren’t gold-diggers?

“Well,” Rosa said. “I’d love to make flower arrangements for Mr. Galliano’s wedding too, even if I do have to fly to Italy. But first thing’s first. For now, let’s work on your wedding. So, when was it? You said the eleventh of August?”

“Yeah,” Amari said. “I wanted to have it before school started in the fall. That way, Ernesto’s foster kids could come without causing any problems. Also, Jenny should be between semesters, so that’s a good time for her.”

“August 11 it is then,” Rosa said.

“And the reason I want it in Tucson is because that’s where all my friends and family live,” Amari continued. “We want it to be in our home church. It’s just a humble little non-denominational church. So, nothing too fancy. Just keep it simple.”

“I can certainly do that. What about what I’ve shown you in this book? Do any of those arrangements interest you? I’d be happy to customize an arrangement.”

“Spare no expense,” Ernesto said. “Anything she wants. The sky’s the limit.”

“No, don’t listen to him,” Amari said. She met Ernesto’s gaze. “I can’t let you spend a fortune on this wedding. Give that money to the poor. I’ll let you pay for it, but I don’t want you spending more than five thousand dollars. Maybe six thousand if you include the rehearsal dinner. It’s just for friends and family.”

“As you wish,” Ernesto said. “It’s your wedding.”

“Speaking of family,” Rosa said. “I think it’s lovely to have a flower girl scatter petals along the bridal path. Typically, the young lady would be between the ages of three and eight. Do you have any nieces?”

“My only sibling is a Catholic priest,” Amari said. “I do have a second cousin with a kid, but she can’t even walk yet.”

“She doesn’t have to be related. Any little girl will do. Perhaps someone from your church. Does anyone come to mind?”

“As a matter of fact,” Amari said. “I do have someone in mind.”

“Oh, really?” Kevin said. “I didn’t think you knew any kids that age.”

“Of course, I do,” Amari replied. “There’s one living in this house.”

“Are you talking about Kathleen?” Kevin said. “The one with cystic fibrosis?”

“Why not? She seems to like me,” Amari said. “I bet she’d love to do it. What do you think, Ernesto? You think Molly would come with her?”

“You mean fly them both to Tucson?” Ernesto said.

“Why not?” Amari said.

“I’m not sure she’s able,” Ernesto said. “We’ll have to talk it over with her doctor. My Learjet is far too small for all the foster children. We will have to fly commercial. Would it be wise to put her in an airplane with all those people?”

“Then fly her down there separately,” Amari replied. “In your plane. The other kids can fly commercial.”

“But what about the altitude?” Ernesto said. “Even in a pressurized cabin, the air is thinner. We should definitely clear this with her doctor first. What if she were to become ill at twenty-thousand feet? I honestly think you might be better off choosing someone else.”

Amari sank back in her seat and folded her arms across her chest, attempting to quell the anger rising in her. Why was everybody so down on the idea of using Kathleen? Instead of being so overprotective, maybe they should try making sure whatever time she had left was filled with great experiences. “Okay, fine. I’ll drive her out there then. I’ll do whatever I need to do.”

“What about the honeymoon?” Kevin replied. “We’re flying out that evening, remember? How you going to drive her back?”

“So, we’ll change the reservations,” Amari said sharply. “The cruise doesn’t leave for several days after we get to Fort Lauderdale. What’s the big deal? We’ll skip Disney World, and even Cape Canaveral if we have to. We’ll just fly out of Fresno instead.”

“But what if she’s not well enough to travel by car?” Kevin said.

“Then I’ll talk to her doctor,” Amari said. “If he says no, then I’ll get a second opinion. If they both say no, then I guess I won’t have a flower girl.”

“Relax, babe,” Kevin said. “I’m just trying to help. Weddings are stressful enough as it is. Can you imagine what it would be like if we had to rush Kathleen to the emergency room? We might have to cancel everything.”

“I agree with Kevin,” Ernesto said. “This is not a decision to be made lightly.”

Rosa took her pen and notepad and started to write. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll go ahead and put you down for the basket full of rose petals. If she can’t make the trip, we can use them to throw when you come out of the church. Rice and rose petals. It will be lovely.”

Amari glared at Rosa, indignant about the apathy in her tone. She was all business, not the slightest concern for the feelings of a sick little girl. “She’s going to make that trip. I’ll make sure she does.”

Rosa never looked up, keeping her eye on her notepad. “We also need to discuss the bridal bouquet. Flowers adorning the edge of the pews is always a nice touch. And we need to discuss flowers for the reception. Will there be an hors d'oeuvre table?”

Amari’s chair barked as she scooted it away from the table. “Just get whatever.” She got up and paced down the hall.

“Hey, where are you going?” Kevin called after her. “What about the flowers?”

“I said, get whatever you want. I really don’t care!”

Chapter 9

Amari went straight to her room and slammed the door shut. She collapsed onto the bed, the metal mattress springs squealing like a family of mice cornered by a hungry cat. She knew she’d been terribly rude just now, but she couldn’t help herself. This whole thing with Kathleen was ridiculous. How could a little trip to Tucson be such a big deal? It was 1990 for crying out loud—just ten years away from the twenty-first century. Surely there was someone out there with some kind of treatment that could help Kathleen. And if anyone knew where to find