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The Valley of the Dry Bones
By Jerry B. Jenkins
Worthy Publishing GroupCopyright © 2016 Jerry B. Jenkins
All rights reserved.
The raggedy band had shrunk to sixteen. Late on Sunday mornings they would break into clusters of no more than six or no fewer than three and ride separately eight miles west from their underground desert compound. Today they left three dirt bikes, a four-door pickup, a Jeep, and an SUV a quarter to a half mile from each other and walked the rest of the way to the basement of what had once been a tattoo parlor just off what had once been Ocean Boulevard, the main drag of Long Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. It had become, for an hour each week, their makeshift church.
Worshiping at their own complex would have been safer, of course. But Zeke Thorppe liked the idea of a separate sanctuary, just the prescription for cabin fever.
As always, just before the pastor and his wife arrived, Zeke peeled two inches of tar paper from an east-facing window, allowing a beam of sunlight to pierce the room. It would have to do. Though nearby LA had actually become the last capital after Sacramento had been lost to an 8.9 quake and forest fires eight years before, the power grid — like the state — was but a memory now.
All the group needed was enough light to make out the passages in the Bibles Zeke's wife of twenty years had scavenged from their abandoned Torrance church. Their daughter, who had just turned thirteen, was handing them to the others as they arrived.
No one spoke above a whisper, and even their singing would rise to little more than humming. Young Sasha Thorppe would sound a plaintive note on an ancient chromatic pitch pipe, and the others would join her softly in a quiet worship song or an old hymn or two.
This morning, on the tenth anniversary of the ghastly tragedy that united roughly half their number, Zeke's wife had a macabre chore. As he set out the dusty metal folding chairs, he kept an eye on Alexis and noticed his daughter Sasha doing the same. How sad that a young teen had to grow up so fast.
Not wanting Alexis to see how concerned he was about her, he settled in his usual spot facing the door, trying to look nonchalant with his Glock 21 .45 automatic tucked under his shirt in a holster at the small of his back. He still found it hard, a trained hydrologist, packing anything but an iPad. But it had been how many years?
He stretched his long legs and crossed his boots at the ankles, mentally taking the roll as the rest arrived. How he had become the de facto leader he still wasn't sure. Being the one who knew the science behind the drought had somehow morphed into a sort of assumption of authority.
Zeke didn't really have to watch the door. Knowing who was there and who wasn't was intuitive. His attention was on Alexis, as it had been for two decades. He had never tired of looking at her. That she was only forty and looked perhaps fifty had not diminished her beauty in his eyes.
The hollowness in her cheeks was true of anyone who had — for whatever reason — stayed in California past when it had been declared uninhabitable. The vicious aridity robbed her skin and hair of luster, and bereavement had nearly suffocated her.
Yet resolve had carried her, infusing character and grace into every beautiful line in that face. Zeke believed those fathomless eyes glowed with a love for him and for Sasha that had never been snuffed out, regardless of the seemingly endless nights she endured.
Well-meaning friends repeated the old adage about how it wasn't right for a parent to outlive a child, and Zeke saw her nod and try to smile. Later, when he would enfold her, sleepless in the wee hours, she could only whimper, "My arms ache for him, Zeke! I can't breathe without him!" And all he could do was weep with her.
This morning she dug from her handmade burlap bag a framed picture of Junior, frozen in time at age seven, eyes afire, face aglow as if his whole being pulsed with "What's next?"
Alexis placed the photo on the table next to where Pastor Bob Gill spoke each week and gently draped a scarf over the top corners of the frame. When she headed back for the chair between Zeke and Sasha, he stood as she reached him and they sat together.
"Why do you always do that, Dad?" Sasha said. "Nobody else does that."
He shrugged. "You do the right thing because it's the right thing."
"It embarrasses me."
"That's my job, Sash."
"Can we just think about Junior this morning?" Alexis said.
"Sorry, Mom. I wish I remembered him."
"I love that picture," Zeke said.
Katashi was last to arrive, and he surveyed the room, clearly being sure all were accounted for before he set a heavy two-by-four plank into brackets to secure the door. He moved straight toward Zeke, but Alexis stopped him. "You'll still say a few words this morning?"
"Whatever you want, ma'am. It won't be easy, but —"
"But you will?"
He nodded and slipped past her, leaning to whisper to Zeke, "Mongers on the road."
"Two, one medium."
"They see you?"
Katashi shook his head.
"How far from here?"
"Less than a mile."
"You rode with —"
"Mrs. Meeks and the Gutierrezes."
"And they didn't see the Mongers?"
Katashi shook his head. "I hung back to avoid drawing attention."
"What're you carrying?"
Alexis touched Zeke's leg and he noticed Pastor Bob peering at him from the table in front. The older man spoke quietly. "Any reason we can't get started, gentlemen?"
"Give us a minute," Zeke whispered, feeling all eyes on him now. He did his best to sound casual, but the others had to know he wouldn't allow anything trivial to delay today's service. Neither was it like him to hide from them any threat, especially this far from the safety of their base.
But he didn't know yet how serious this might be. Katashi had never been an alarmist. He saw what he saw, that's all. But if those who traded in the most precious commodity since the Gold Rush of nearly two hundred years before — H2o — came upon Zeke and his people's vehicles, they'd stop at nothing. They'd done it before.
The Mongers had a way of knowing that people meant water. Nobody remained in this environment without it. If they found one trace of these holdouts, they would comb every inch of the area until they found them. Then whatever storehouses of water — or technology that produced water, or humans with the ability to fabricate or find water — would become the sole property of these roving bands of marauders.
That's why fourteen of the sixteen people in that tattoo parlor-cum-sanctuary were packing that morning — from the late-fifties pastor and his wife to Zeke's thirteen-year-old daughter. Only the two youngest among them were unarmed, and even they knew how to shoot if it came to that.
It had come to that for more than half the adults, Zeke included. He wasn't proud of it. He didn't dwell on it. The trauma had cost him more than three weeks of sleep. But it had been kill or be killed. A Monger had drawn down on him. Any other outcome would have meant his life and also the lives of his wife and daughter and the location of the compound.
Ironically, that shooting had earned him respect among the Mongers when he later found himself out of alternatives and forced to transact business with them. He could tell they believed he and his tiny group were part of a massive organization — as the Mongers were. They crisscrossed the state in tricked-out tanker trucks, some with capacities of more than ten thousand gallons, painted black from wheel rims to bumpers. They referred to themselves as liquid capitalists, claiming they bought and sold water, but no one anywhere reported ever having sold them any.
Their victims referred to them as Hydro Mongers.
"Should I tape the window back over?" Katashi said.
Zeke shook his head. "Just stand where you can see out there." He turned to the rest. "Mongers may be down the road. Nothing to be concerned about yet."
A tall, black man in his midthirties, sitting next to his wife and a young son and daughter, stood quickly. "Our vehicles, Zeke —"
"I know, Doc. But they don't know where we are, and they're not likely to want to track us this far in this heat. If they do, we'll see 'em coming."
The doctor's shaved head glistened. "And then what?"
"Are you armed?"
"Zeke! We planning a shoot-out with your daughter and my kids right here?"
"Let's not invent trouble. If they actually find us, who knows? It might be someone I've bought water from before."
The doctor sat back down, shaking his head. "Just like you to assume a best-case scenario. I'd feel better getting out of here right now."
"All due respect, Doc, but you pick the wrong time for that and you could lead 'em right to us."
Pastor Bob ran a hand through his thinning white hair. "Let's none of us do anything rash. While we're here for this purpose, this place is a sanctuary. I take seriously my role as your shepherd, but should any outside force try to invade, as always, elder Ezekiel Thorppe will take charge. And Sasha, in light of the potential danger, I think we'll dispense with the corporate singing this morning."
She already had the pitch pipe out, and Zeke noticed her shoulders slump.
The pastor must have noticed too. He added, "Perhaps you'd simply like to sing one of the selections for us after I pray?"
That seemed to please her.
"Father," Pastor Bob began, "we're scared. We're exhausted. We're hungry. And we're always thirsty. Whatever right we believed we had to pursue happiness has been sacrificed to Your cause and the mission You've assigned us in the devastation and chaos in which we find ourselves. We believe in You, in Your love and Your grace and Your faithfulness. Most of all, we trust in Your sovereignty.
"And so we thank You and praise You for our deep sense of joy in our future, for of that we are certain. We offer this thanks and praise in the matchless name of our Lord and Redeemer, Your Son and our Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen."
Pastor Bob nodded to Sasha, who began to sing barely above a whisper the old, familiar hymn "My Redeemer."
I will sing of my Redeemer,
And His wondrous love to me;
On the cruel cross He suffered,
From the curse to set me free.
Sasha sang with such passion that it took nearly a minute for her to get through the first verse. Zeke heard sniffles all over the room and chairs creaked as people dropped to their knees. Soon everyone followed suit, including he and Alexis and Pastor Bob and his wife, Jennie.
Sing, oh sing of my Redeemer,
With His blood He purchased me.
On the cross He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt and made me free.
Zeke could see in his peripheral vision that Katashi was still standing, but even he was wiping his eyes. If the Hydro Mongers chose that moment to burst in, his only defense would be surprising his attackers with a posture of humility. Even Dr. Adam Xavier, his wife, Gabrielle, and their kids, Caleb and Kayla, were on their knees, tears streaming.
Pastor Bob let the silence play out as everyone remained on their knees for several minutes. Finally, when they moved back into their seats, he said, "Thank you, Sasha. God is here." He moved in front of the table and sat atop it, next to the picture of Ezekiel Jr. He glanced at his watch. "Before we begin, you're free to take a swallow of water now, if you'd like."
Most everyone quickly sipped from their daily allotment, though Zeke did not. He'd been training himself to get by on less and less. He wasn't yet sure why. It just seemed prudent, and he enjoyed the discipline and what he was learning from it, both psychologically and scientifically.
Pastor Bob continued, "First, we will remember a precious life. Several will be sharing, some of how his death brought you to us and gave you life. Second, I have a brief message from Jeremiah chapter one. And third, Jennie and I have a bit of news. Alexis, if you're ready?"
Zeke froze at the press of a hand on his shoulder and a voice in his ear. "Listen to me."
He nodded. How was it possible a Monger had slipped in and gotten behind him? The one entrance was secure. They'd been on their knees, but still.
He wanted to reach for his Glock, but surely whoever was behind him had the advantage. Pastor Bob couldn't see this man? Nor Katashi? Was he crouched? Was Zeke hallucinating? Maybe he should have had some water.
Alexis put a fluttering hand on Zeke's thigh and rose. So she knew?
The man's hand still lay on Zeke's shoulder, and he had heard him plain as day. He casually turned his head to the right to get a glimpse of the hand. Nothing. He wrenched farther and finally spun around in his seat, yanking out the .45.
No one was there.CHAPTER 2
"LISTEN TO ME!"
"Ezekiel?" she said, just above a whisper, a hand flying to her throat.
"Sorry, love," he said, sitting with his gun out. "Nothing."
Zeke knew Alexis was nervous enough without this distraction. It wasn't that she had a problem speaking. Or with confidence. She was an artist, after all, had been an interior decorator before the kids came along. She had taught at both El Camino College and the University of Redlands. She had pitched ideas to high-level executive teams at some of the largest corporations in Los Angeles. But now, standing before her family and the tiny cadre of brothers and sisters in the faith she lived with, she struck her husband as fragile.
And before she could even open her mouth, he had startled her — and everyone else — by lurching at what, a phantom?
Alexis gathered herself and dug a tiny folded card from her palm. Fingers shaking, she unfolded it, though Zeke knew she wasn't likely to forget a single detail.
"I still find it hard to believe Junior has been in heaven longer than he was with us," she began. "You'd expect a mother to idealize a boy who didn't live past seven, and I'm guilty. It was a year before I allowed myself to remember that he was his father's son. He was all boy — stubborn, even ornery sometimes."
That made the others chuckle.
"But he was like his daddy, too, in how he loved me. Sweet and thoughtful. Like most of you, we went to Pastor Bob's Church in Torrance. Junior loved everything about Sunday school, all the stories and songs and fun. I prayed with him to receive Jesus when he was six. That didn't make him perfect. He could still disobey. In fact that's what he was doing the day he died."
She stopped to gather herself just when Zeke again sensed someone behind him. This time it was a hand on each shoulder, and this time he didn't hesitate. He leapt to his feet and whirled, causing everyone to jump. Again seeing nothing, he quickly covered and whispered, "Katashi, sit. I'll take the window for a while."
"I'm okay, Zeke."
Katashi looked embarrassed by the attention, but Sasha was squinting directly at Zeke, clearly puzzled. He forced a smile, but she didn't look away.
"We had a fenced-in backyard," Alexis continued, "and he'd been punished before for leaving it. That day I made him come inside while I put Sasha down for a late afternoon nap. She had just turned three that week. I heard Junior in the kitchen while I was reading to her. And then I didn't hear him. If you're a parent, you hate that sound ..."
Zeke was so rattled by the hallucinations — or whatever they were — that he worried they portended an attack by the Mongers. He peered out the slit in the window.
"Zeke?" Alexis said, startling him. "I'm up to where I called to tell you I couldn't find Junior."
"Right, sorry. So, Mahir here" — Zeke pointed at a French man with a dark-complexion about his age — "and I were working on a project at the California Department of Water Resources substation in Lakewood ..."
He told of how he and Mahir had raced home, only to learn the awful news, and how Mahir watched little Sasha while Zeke and Alexis went to the hospital to identify Junior's body. "But I had so many questions," Zeke said. "All we knew was what the officer had put in his report. I was desperate to know more. Was he killed instantly? Did he say anything? Was anyone with him? That's when we met our angel."
Excerpted from The Valley of the Dry Bones by Jerry B. Jenkins. Copyright © 2016 Jerry B. Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Worthy Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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