Authors: Jerry B. Jenkins
The burial was restricted to family. Walking to the parking lot with his buddies, Paul declined their invitation to lunch because of his flight. Their departure left Paul once again isolated in his anger. Unready to head back to the car, he veered off the pavement into the snow-covered cemetery. Tromping past the rows of headstones and the Robert E. Lee and John F. Kennedy memorials, Paul moved into a section where all the headstones were crossshaped.
A plaque read:
Religious symbols were common before World
War III, when it was the custom for every enlisting soldier to declare
his denominational preference.
Paul spat in disgust.
As he walked on amid the tombstones, his outrage mounted. Life had been torn from all these young men and women—so many barely out of their teens—and for what? Because fanatical Muslims waged holy war on the West? Because religious groups in Bosnia jockeyed for primacy? On and on it went, back to the dawn of history, people persecuting each other over abstract ideas. That their tombstones symbolized the ideas they died for seemed the cruelest of ironies.
And what were these ideas about? Outlandish notions of an afterlife. Sure, it was hard to imagine that this life was all there was. Paul could identify with the need to believe there was some form of nirvana in the end. He’d like to have known his father, and, short of that, to think he might still meet him one day. But were such wishes worth killing for? dying for? His mother was right. That these religious fanatics all thought they knew the truth—with many convinced that theirs was the only truth—proved they all were deluded.
Even worse than delusion was the compulsion to inflict delusion on others—to corrupt even strong-minded men like Andy Pass.
Paul’s stomach was empty and his feet were cold. He had worn nothing over his shoes, not planning this foray into the dead zone. He headed back for his car, turning to look at the crosses that seemed to line up all the way to the horizon.
I hope it
gave them some comfort. And yet here they lie.
By the time Paul got back, Jae had everything packed and the kids ready to go. Once the pile had been transferred to the car, the good-byes began. Ranold held Paul’s arm to slow him as he approached the car. While Jae was getting the kids buckled in, the old man spoke quietly. “You may not have done the best for yourself, attending that funeral.”
“Paul, the agency is focusing more and more on homegrown subversives. If it comes out—the truth about Pass, I mean—and it’s known that you went to his funeral, that you were old friends—”
“I didn’t go as an old friend.”
“Whatever made you go, it was imprudent.”
“You’re saying it could hurt me inside the agency?”
“That would require my knowing the truth before I went, now wouldn’t it?”
Ranold pressed his lips together. “You did know. I told you.”
“Then I would be in trouble only if anyone in the agency knew that you had told me. Am I right? Surely I can count on you to sit on that . . . Dad.”
PAUL WAS RELIEVED
to wake up in his own bed in Chicago Sunday morning. The winter sun flooded through the windows and glinted off the clean, crisp snow. Jae was already downstairs with the kids, and he could hear them clamoring to go ice-skating.
“I guess they felt cooped up at my parents’ house,” Jae said when he joined them at the breakfast table. “It might do us all good to get some exercise and fresh air.”
“Could you take them?” Paul said. “I don’t feel like skating, and I want to make more headway at my mother’s house. I want to clear everything out over the holidays and get the house ready to put on the market.”
“We could all come and help you.”
“No, thanks. You’ve done plenty. Most of what’s left is that stuff she saved, which no one can really go through but me.”
“That seems depressing after a funeral.”
“It’s what a funeral puts me in the frame of mind to do. ”
The truth was that Paul had felt cooped up too. He craved an afternoon alone. After letting himself into his mother’s house, he stood in the front hall and relished the quiet. His mother had spent her whole adult life in the neat suburban home where Paul grew up, with a live-in caretaker after she’d begun to lose her faculties. During her last few years, she was increasingly gripped by dementia, unable even to recognize her son and grandchildren. Last Wintermas, Paul had set up a tree for her, though he could tell she had no idea it was there.
Though most cancer was now curable, certain strains defied the best efforts of modern science. A century of study had yet to unravel the intricate mechanisms of the brain. For Paul’s mother, cutting-edge treatments had served only to slow the virulent disease. All the doctors could do, Paul had been told, was keep her comfortable until the end. His mother’s death, when it came, was anticlimactic, for Paul had said good-bye years before.
The upstairs rooms were now empty, but Paul had not yet tackled the basement, jammed with a lifetime of mementos. A trash can by his side, he began sorting through the dusty boxes. Financial transactions had been electronic for decades, so Paul was surprised to find a cache of checks used before the war—carefully filed and made out in dollars, United States currency when each country had its own. For all her tidiness, his mother was a pack rat. He plucked out a few checks to show the kids and jettisoned the rest.
By early afternoon he had cleared out half of the storage space. Now he started unearthing artifacts of his parents’ marriage. His mother had given him many of his father’s papers, photos, and possessions long ago, and he remembered seeing some of these, the ones she kept, when he was young. He came upon his parents’ marriage license, their wedding invitation— the celebration had been held in a hall on an army base—and a ribbon-tied stack of old-fashioned greeting cards, with graphics on the front and preprinted messages inside, congratulating his parents on his birth. Beneath these was a heavy, cream-colored vellum envelope with the remains of a flattened blob of a dark red wax on its flap—a broken seal, Paul supposed.
Clapping the dust from his hands, he picked it up and turned it over. On the front was the inscription, in strong black letters: “For My Son on His Twelfth Birthday.” Paul remembered that one of his schoolmates had gotten such a letter, written by his parents on the day of his birth and expressing their hopes for his future. He had asked his mother about it, but she professed ignorance of the tradition. So where did she get this one? He slid out the letter inside and was surprised to see the date of his own birth at the top of the page.
My beloved son,
Your birth today was a miracle, filling me with a joy greater
than I have ever known or thought possible. Holding you for
the first time, I felt blessed . . .
Paul paused at the peculiar, antiquated word.
. . . with the ultimate earthly gift. One day you will hold your
own child and understand the profound depth and breadth of
a father’s love.
The day you read this letter you will turn twelve. On the
threshold of manhood, you will be old enough to understand
another kind of love—the love of God. It is a much maligned
love at the time I write. There have been persecutions and
terrorist acts around the globe—supposedly undertaken in
the name of God, as different groups construe Him—which
have drawn us into world war. Many, your mother among
them, have turned away from a God they see as the root of
the world’s misery. But you must not turn away, Son. First,
God’s love transcends all earthly gifts, even the gift of your
birth for me. God so loved the world that He sacrificed His
perfect, only Son, who died on the cross to save us. Accepting
that love has been the most important and fulfilling decision
of my own life.
The second reason is that God’s Son has promised to return
in glory to gather up those who believe in Him. The Bible
tells us “He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water.
And God will wipe away all their tears.”
But those who have rejected God will face a very different
fate: punishment and suffering beyond anything we can
imagine or have ever managed to inflict upon each other.
The end of the Bible, the book of Revelation, describes in
vivid and terrifying detail what will befall those who incur
This may happen in your lifetime, Son. Many scholars see
our current world conflicts as the fulfillment of the Bible’s ancient
prophecies. The Gospels tell us that we must be ready at
all times, “for the Son of Man will come when least expected.”
And in Revelation, the Lord Himself reminds us several times,
“I am coming soon.”
I hope to be at your side when you read this letter. But if I
am not, I hope I will at least have had time to educate you in
these things as soon as you were old enough. Otherwise, you
must seek the truth for yourself. I urge you to open your heart
to the truth—to become not just a man but also a man of God.
Your loving father,
Paul Stepola Sr.
Paul stared, aghast. His father had died when he was too young even to have a memory of him. He had formed an image of the man from his mother’s photographs and stories, as well as those of his fellow soldiers, who invariably depicted him as noble and brave, honest and warm—a hero and a trusted friend. Until last week, ironically, those were the same terms he would have used to describe Andy Pass. How could it be that neither of the men after whom he had modeled himself—the ones he had believed defined what it meant to be a man—was what he seemed?
This was the only direct communication he had ever seen from his father. And clearly his mother had kept it from him. She had to have been the one who broke the seal—she hadn’t trusted her husband.
Was she afraid that at twelve Paul would be too susceptible to his father’s words? Did she want to preserve Paul’s illusions—and her own—rather than acknowledge that his father was so gullible and cowardly? Was she shocked—as Paul was—that instead of wisdom or inspiration, all her husband had offered his son was a myth about a man who died on a cross and was coming to punish those who didn’t buy it?
I needed more from you at twelve, Dad. I deserved better. Thanks,
Mom, for sparing me this till now.
And the idea that the Bible’s prophecies were being fulfilled, that God’s Son was coming soon—well, urgency was part of the comeon in virtually every fraud. “A onetime offer,” “Get in on the ground floor,” “Fire sale—prices will never go lower,” “Something for nothing”—how could his father fall for that? Paul knew of the book of Revelation from his studies but had never read it, though he’d heard it was powerful and richly symbolic. The florid what-if pitch was another typical huckster tactic—fire-and-brimstone razzle-dazzle to throw in a scare and close the deal. Didn’t all religions threaten colorful punishments to keep the faithful in line? Was his father really that naive? After a lifetime of admiration, Paul was flooded with contempt for the pathetic dupe his father had turned out to be.
What kind of man fell prey to such lunacy—calling it “the most important and fulfilling decision of my own life”—and even tried to inflict it on a child? Maybe his mother, with all her rationality and abhorrence of religion, couldn’t justify ever showing it to him—or was too ashamed to. He could only imagine what Ranold would say. He couldn’t have had this planted, could he? Some coincidence, this and finding out about Andy Pass the same week.
The envelope looked rather pristine, considering it had been in a box for thirty-odd years. The sealing wax seemed darkened and brittle, but it would take an expert to tell for sure whether it was new or old. The same was true of the ink, which looked like the kind that had to be drawn out of a bottle into an old-fashioned pen. He could compare the handwriting by eye but computer analysis would be necessary to test it definitively against other letters from his father that his mother had saved.
We were in Washington long enough for someone to plant a letter,
of course—but did I tell anyone I’d be clearing out my mother’s basement
Paul examined the box of mementos, which looked no less dusty than the others. It had been in the middle of a stack of boxes, so its lid was clean and offered no clue. But maybe the timing wasn’t the issue. Surely Andy had been under investigation for months. During that time, people in his life would have come under scrutiny—including Paul, if Ranold, who knew he once viewed Andy as a father, was in charge.
Ranold would know better than to suspect Paul was a Christian, but the letter could be some kind of loyalty test—to see if Paul knew the truth about Andy and looked the other way. If Paul suddenly discovered that his own father had been a Christian, it would be natural for him to turn to the one religious person he knew and trusted. So anytime during the three months Paul’s mother’s house had been standing empty, the letter could have been planted to flush him out.
Spinning the plot, Paul had to acknowledge it seemed like a stretch. Maybe he was grasping at straws to escape the reality that his father had been a crackpot, not the shining example of a man he had idolized for thirty years. But “a stretch” didn’t mean impossible or even far-fetched. Paul knew well that fabricating and planting a letter was child’s play for the NPO; and if the operation was one of Ranold’s first special projects, his father-in-law would have pulled out all the stops.
The letter itself was probably the only key to the truth. Paul tore off part of the envelope flap, then folded the letter back into it and replaced the envelope in the box, beneath the stack of congratulatory cards.
He had hit the trifecta, Paul thought bitterly. Andy and his father and now even Ranold were tainted by the Christian threat
Tomorrow he would sound out his boss about the extent of the Christian problem—whether the activity was nationwide or localized in Washington—and try to detect any hint that he was under suspicion himself.
And if this infestation is swarming beyond Ranold’s backyard,
I want to be an exterminator. And not just for national security.