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From Chapter 1
She was running late for her meeting with Amman Lal Ded. She had made an appointment to see the controversial archeologist from Pakistan because she owed him a favor, and also because the letter he'd sent her piqued her curiosity.
She was about to dash to the subway entrance when a taxi pulled up to the curb. Natalie shouted. "I need to get to the Smithsonian in a hurry."
The taxi driver's face lit up when Natalie flashed a bill. "There's a ten-dollar tip in it for you. What do you say?" Not waiting for a response, she opened the passenger door, barely avoiding a collision with its departing occupant. She tapped the driver's shoulder. "Please hurry. I am late for an important meeting."
Natalie settled back and fished Dr. Lal Ded's letter from her purse. She read it again, hoping it would offer some additional clues:
I have recently unearthed a document,
which will shed some light on a major
Christian premise. I need your help to
validate what I have uncovered. In the
interest of science, it is imperative we
meet. I will call you as soon as I arrive
in Washington. Please do not tell anyone
I am coming. I will explain everything
when we meet.
Natalie stuffed the letter back into her purse and looked at her watch. She leaned forward. "Can't you go a little faster?"
----- [Snip] -----
As the cab pulled to the curb, it was still moving when Natalie shoved a twenty at the driver. "Keep the change." Rushing to the museum's front entrance, she flashed her identification at the security guard. A push of a button automatically triggered the latch, and she entered the area available only to authorized personnel.
Natalie walked briskly along the corridor that led through the museum's main vestibule. She could hear the staccato tap of her high heels on the polished marble floor. She hated to be late for anything. She felt it was the ultimate mark of rudeness.
Natalie instantly recognized the fragile looking man waiting to see her. Lal Ded had stark white hair and thick bushy eyebrows that appeared disproportionate to his forehead. His face was riddled with creases. He sat in the small reception area she shared with another curator. He had a worried expression on his face as he stood to shake her hand. "It's so good to see you, Dr. Rowe. I'm Amman Lal Ded. Do you remember our meeting two years ago?" The professor looked pale and nervous, extremely ill at ease.
"Of course. If it had not been for you, I probably would never have received my doctorate." Natalie still recalled how Professor Lal Ded, who at that time had been teaching at the University of New York, had supported her work. He was one of four professors assigned to review her dissertation on carbon dating, and the only one who saw the merit in her research. She was very much aware that he was instrumental in her obtaining her degree. He'd convinced the other three advisors to approve her thesis, arguing she had backed up her hypothesis with thorough research.
Lal Ded smiled. "You were always on the forefront of controversy as I remember."
"That's true. Unfortunately, I still am. But I'm really sorry to have kept you waiting."
Natalie closed the door to her small office and waved Lal Ded to a seat. She was anxious to learn what the eminent scholar had to say. "Please call me Natalie. We don't stand on formalities around here."
For a brief moment the worry left his face. "Thank you, Natalie. You can call me Amman. Are you sure there is privacy in your office?"
"My office is not bugged, if that's what you mean."
Although the professor appeared to relax, his breath came in short gasps as if it pained him to talk. Natalie leaned towards him so she could make out his words more easily. Although he spoke English well, his heavy accent made it difficult to understand what he said.
"I'm in need of your expertise, Natalie, but unfortunately, I don't have time today to go into all the specifics." Taking a handkerchief out of his pocket, he wiped the beads of perspiration off his brow. He kept looking at the office door as if he expected it to burst open at any moment. In a near whisper, he asked, "Would you be willing to examine an ancient document I've recovered? I'd really like you to give me an opinion about its authenticity."
"Of course. What kind of a document is it?"
Amman leaned closer toward Natalie. "I know I can trust you to keep what I will share with you in the strictest of confidence. No one, and I mean no one with the exception of my son, knows about my current research."
Unlatching his leather briefcase, Lal Ded extracted a file folder. After glancing at his watch, he handed it to Natalie. "Would you mind holding on to this for a while? Please make sure you keep it in a safe place." The scholar stood to leave. "I was hoping I would have more time to explain things, but I must get back."
Natalie opened her mouth to respond, but Amman interrupted. "If I don't get back to the convention, I'll be missed. I have to make a presentation on the ninth book of the Puranas. My speaking engagements will be over tomorrow afternoon. If it's all right with you, I'll come back then to reclaim the material."
"But why all the secrecy?"
"When you live in the Middle East, you learn to become cautious. I think I've stumbled onto something of enormous significance. If what I found is genuine, not only will it shed light on the crucifixion of Jesus, but it will also substantiate a hoax that I've recently discovered." Amman reached for the doorknob. "I can't afford to let this folder get into the wrong hands. That's why I brought it here in the hope you will keep it for me. If you can spare me an hour tomorrow, I will explain everything."
"Of course. I'll give you all the time you need. And again, I apologize for having kept you waiting." Curious, she added, "What made you come to me?"
"You are the only person I know in Washington who has the expertise to validate my claim." His voice quavered. "I know this is a lot to ask, but you would be doing me a great favor. I promise that tomorrow I'll make everything clear. I'm confident once you become familiar with what I'm trying to accomplish that you will want to help me." Amman paused. "If something happens to me, I want you to contact my son in Kashmir." He scribbled a name, address, and telephone number on the back of one of his cards and gave it to her.
Natalie stood up. "But what if..."
"Please, Natalie. I must go. Would four o'clock tomorrow be satisfactory? I'll come here to your office."
"I suppose so." Natalie walked to her wall safe. "In the meantime, I'll put your folder in here for safekeeping."
"Thank you." Amman started to open the door, then turned back. "Remember this. Although you are a Christian and I am a Muslim, we are both scientists. It is our job to seek out the facts, regardless of where the truth might lead us."
He abruptly left as her phone rang. The authoritative voice was, as always, terse. "I need that report for the board meeting tonight, Dr. Rowe. You will have it ready for me by five o'clock, won't you?"
"Yes," she said, then hung up. She called out to Amman, wanting to get the name of his hotel in case she needed to reach him, but he was already gone. She placed his folder in the wall safe, closed it, and spun the combination. She had trouble concentrating on the report. She could still hear the urgency and desperation in Amman's voice. Feeling a sense of foreboding, she wondered what the document could possibly contain that had made Amman so nervous and ill at ease.
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----- [Snip] -----
When her alarm went off at six the next morning, Natalie pressed the snooze button. She always allowed herself that extra fifteen minutes under the covers, a temporary respite from the demands she knew the day would bring. When the alarm sounded again, she reluctantly crawled out of bed, pulled on her sweats, and plugged in the coffee pot. When she left the apartment she could see snow, like small pieces of confetti, melt as it made contact with the street. She hesitated for a second or two, turned up her collar, and started her run. Even when it wasn't snowing, it was always cold at this time of the morning, but the jog would quickly warm her.
It was the time of day she enjoyed most. When the city itself was awakening. She relished this time alone when she could mentally organize her day and set up her priorities. Having a game plan always gave her a head start. Her thoughts drifted to Professor Lal Ded. Hopefully, he would contact her today. The urgency and mystery of his visit had certainly piqued her interest.
On her way back to her brownstone, she stopped by the newsstand. "Hi, Joe. What's in the news today?"
"A bomb went off at the Beverly Manor Hotel."
"Oh my God. That's close. I hope we're not in for another 9/11."
She tucked the newspaper under her arm and ran home. After pouring herself coffee, she sat at the kitchen table and scanned the front page. The headline screamed at her. TERROR STRIKES AGAIN! Her hands shook as she read.
At 8:00 p.m. yesterday evening, a blast from
a bomb incinerated a room on the sixteenth floor
of the Beverly Manor Hotel. One man was killed.
He was identified as Amman Lal Ded, an
archeologist from Pakistan. Police wouldn't
comment as to whether or not terrorists were
involved. Lal Ded was attending an Islamic
convention in Washington.
Without finishing the article, Natalie put the paper down, tears streaming down her face. That poor old man. Why would anyone want to hurt him? Still shaken, she tried to recall every word of their conversation as she hurried to the Smithsonian. He seemed so nervous when we met. He must have known he was in danger. Why else would he ask me to contact his son if something were to happen to him?
Once she closed the door to her office, she immediately opened the wall safe, removed the professor's folder and began skimming through the material. Most of Lal Ded's notes appeared to be nothing more than names of chapters and verses from the Old and New Testament. Half of what he had written was in Arabic, and the other half in English. Also, he had scribbled a few German words.
There were fifteen pages in all. On the last page a small key had been taped over a portion of the writing. She removed the tape, careful not to damage the paper. The key looked similar to one she had to a safe-deposit box. She turned her attention back to Lal Ded's notes.
She could barely read one of the words in the upper right corner of the last page, but finally, she managed to decipher it. "Quelle." She thought it was German, but couldn't be sure. Going back through the professor's notes, she examined each page carefully. Nothing unusual here, she decided. Then she pulled out the letter he had written and reread the first sentence:
I have recently unearthed a document,
which will shed some light on a major
Natalie knew she should call the police and turn the folder over to them. But before she did that, a voice deep within her told her she should make several copies of the material. Before she could change her mind, she walked down the hall to the copier and quickly reproduced the contents of the folder. She then placed the copies in an envelope and put them in the safe. She kept the original in her briefcase, knowing the police would want to see them after she told them about the professor's strange request.
While waiting to speak to the authorities, she quickly rehearsed what she would say. Although she knew she would have to provide the police with Lal Ded's original folder, she wondered about the key. Should she give it to them or hold it for the professor's son? She finally decided it would have more meaning to Amman Lal Ded's son than to the authorities. If it was important, he could turn it over to the police. She assumed the authorities would inform him of his father's death since she planned on giving them his address and telephone number. However, she thought it would be more personal if he heard about his father's death from her first, rather than from the police. It was the least she could do for the man who had been so helpful to her. Natalie tried to put a call through to Kashmir, but she couldn't get an outside line. Frustrated, she decided to send a wire instead.
After the police left, Natalie sat alone in her office mulling over what had just transpired. She kept going over and over their conversation, trying to piece together any possible clues. He had said he had to make a presentation on the ninth book of the Puranas, whatever the hell that is. That's as good a place as any to start, she decided.
With her door still closed, Natalie called Perri Cartoom, a colleague at the Smithsonian who dealt with Far Eastern artifacts. "Perri, what do you know about the ninth book of the Puranas?"
"Absolutely nothing. Why do you ask? Aren't they keeping you busy at the microscope anymore?"
Natalie liked Perri. She had a good sense of humor. "Seriously. I need some help. Hopefully, you can steer me in the right direction."
"Give me a few minutes. I'll call you back."
Moments later the phone rang. "It's me. Perri. The ninth book of the Puranas is an old Muslim text. It's really referred to as the Bhavishya Mahapurana. About the only thing I can tell you is that it's written in Aramaic. Also, Washington is fresh out of English translations. Apparently, the book was never a best seller."
"That's okay. I'm fluent in Aramaic."
Natalie heard Perri gasp. "Are you serious?"
"Of course not, but I can speak a little Spanish."
Perri laughed. "I know who might be able to help you. A relative of mine. His name is Abbas Shah. He owns a bookstore on Forty-Second Street that specializes in rare and out of print books. You better hurry though."
"Because he's ninety-six years old. Whenever he gets tired, he closes his shop early."
"Thanks, Perri. I owe you." Her cautious side told her it would be best to leave matters to the authorities, but her intellectual curiosity wouldn't let her drop this matter. Besides, what would be the harm of talking to Abbas Shah?
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It was after one in the afternoon when she finally found the bookshop. The door was locked, but a sign above a buzzer said to ring the bell. She did so and moments later saw an old man's face peering at her through the wooden blinds. Perri had been right about his age. He looked fragile and withered. Finally, she heard the latch give, and the door opened. An inquisitive pair of eyes stared up at her. "What can I help you with, young lady?" His voice sounded as if it came from the far recesses of a cave.
"My name is Natalie Rowe. I work at the Smithsonian. A colleague of mine, Perri Cartoom, thought you might be able to help me."
----- [Snip] -----
"Mr. Shah, are you familiar with a book called Bhavishya Mahapurana?"
"Please call me Abbas, Dr. Rowe. There are eighteen books of the Hindus called the Puranas. The ninth book, the Bhavishya Mahapurana, records an encounter of King Shalivahana with Jesus near Srinagar."
"What's so special about that?"
Abbas took another sip of his tea. "Well, it's considered to be an extremely reliable text. This written account is perhaps the most important of any document recording the presence of Jesus long after his crucifixion."
Natalie leaned forward. "Did I hear you correctly?"
Abbas smiled. "I take it you aren't familiar with the post-crucifixion theory?"
Natalie tried to hide her surprise, not sure if the old man was pulling her leg. "I thought Jesus died on the cross."
Abbas took another sip of his tea. "The author of the Bhavishya Mahapurana was not a Christian, Dr. Rowe. It was written in the year 3191 of the Kaukikia Era. That roughly corresponds to the year 115 AD. His account was compiled five years before Jesus' death." He stressed the "before."
"Holy..." Natalie stopped herself from cursing, a habit she'd picked up from her father. And it would have been in bad taste. "But... But that would have made Jesus well over one hundred years old!"
Abbas nodded his head. "That's true. I'm almost ninety-seven, and I think that's old, but nothing compared to Jesus' age when he died."
Natalie looked into the wise old eyes. "You are serious about all of this, aren't you?"
"My dear lady. Of course, I'm serious. I'm not one to dissuade you from your beliefs, but there is one thing you must understand. Most everything Christians believe, and I'm assuming you are a Christian, stems from the Gospels. I'm not going to sit here and argue about their validity, but one thing I will tell you. Unlike the Gospels, the Bhavishya Mahapurana is considered by many scholars to be a more reliable text. And, among other things, it reveals explicit information about Jesus' life during his post-crucifixion period."
Not deeply religious, Natalie was confused by his comments. "What do you mean the Gospels are not as reliable?"
Abbas looked at her as a teacher would a pupil. "It's well known that the accounts of Jesus and his disciples were carried by word of mouth from one generation to the next. It was at least eighty to a hundred years before anyone actually bothered to record the life of Jesus in the Gospels. I think you will agree that information passed on verbally has a way of becoming exaggerated and distorted."
Natalie realized she was definitely treading on unfamiliar ground. "Have there been more books written by religious scholars in this area?"
"You mean about Jesus not dying on the Cross?" Abbas chuckled, "My dear Dr. Rowe. There are probably more prolific scholarly works written about Jesus surviving the crucifixion than there are books written about him dying on the cross and being resurrected."
She sensed the old man was telling her the truth. "Forgive me for sounding ignorant, but if what you say is true, why am I only hearing about this now? I'm educated and well read. You'd think there would have been some class or lecture I would have attended that would have touched upon such a controversial subject."
Abbas patted Natalie's hand. "Because most European scholars find it distasteful to admit Christian religion owes a debt to non-Christian sources. Your Kipling said it well. 'For East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.'" He paused. "No disrespect, but Western scholars, although fascinated by our Eastern wisdom, have always found it hard to admit that the West could have ever borrowed anything of worth from the East. You see, Doctor, in the eyes of your peers, the East will never be equal to the West in cultural accomplishments."
This was a lot to absorb, but there was wisdom in the old man's words. "I thank you for spending this much time with me. If anyone I know is in need of a rare book, I'll certainly pass your name along."
Abbas faintly bowed his head. "Perri tells me you have a medical degree."
"If you can wait a minute, there is something I'd like you to read." Abbas shuffled to the back of the store. After countless minutes, he returned with a book. He picked up a rag and wiped the dust off its cover. "You may enjoy this. It was written by a physician in nineteen twenty-eight." As an afterthought, he added, "It's in English."
"Thank you. Rest assured I'll return it in good condition."
That evening Natalie took a copy of Professor Lal Ded's file home with her. Her interest in it had definitely escalated after her meeting with Abbas Shah. She was now convinced the professor hadn't exaggerated when he told her that he had stumbled on to an astounding discovery.
It must have had something to do with DNA. Why else would he contact her? She had so much on her plate at the Smithsonian, she argued with herself, that she should put this whole matter behind her--the police would solve the murder. But it wasn't who committed the murder that intrigued her. It was why he had been murdered.
On Monday at work she would again try to reach Amman's son, Mushtaq, in Kashmir. Maybe he could shed some light on his late father's notes, those she now so carefully guarded. Fleetingly, she wondered if her own life could be in danger. No, I won't go there, she told herself, dismissing the notion as she opened the book Abbas had loaned her.
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Natalie and Mushtaq soon find themselves on a dangerous quest to unravel the mystery of the ancient document. The twists and turns will lead them to a sacred Muslim shrine in Kashmir where a secret lies deep within. --- ForemostPress.com