Friday, January 01, 2016

The Dead Sea Codex

By Sarah Wisseman
Suspense, 255 pages
Cover art by: Richard Stroud


Archaeologist Lisa Donahue travels to Israel to arrange a loan of artifacts for her Philadelphia museum. Even before she finds a scrap of ancient manuscript in a ceramic jar, she is the subject of intense interest from strangers. A Lebanese computer salesman follows her to her Jerusalem hotel where someone has delivered a mysterious message for her. Then she runs into an old boyfriend who hints at an extraordinary archaeological  find being sold in pieces on the black market.

Instead of spending her visit in a dusty storeroom documenting old pottery, Lisa finds herself hanging off a cliff and exploring caves near the Dead Sea, racing to find a lost codex before Christian fanatics destroy it.


All eyes focused on her long blond braid and American blue jeans. Not for the first time, Lisa Donahue wished she had better protective coloring for traveling in the Middle East. Any moment now, someone would holler the remembered tag, “Hey, blondini!”

She inhaled the mixed aromas of deep-fried chickpea balls, roasted spiced lamb, and corn sold by the aggressive street vendors around her. Fragments of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and English assaulted her ears as native Israelis and visitors from many nations milled around the Tel Aviv plaza.

It was wonderful to be back. She’d been afraid the reality wouldn’t live up to her rose-colored memories of seven years earlier, when she’d been a wide-eyed archaeology student. She needn’t have worried—Israel was still noisy, vibrant, smelly, and altogether enchanting.

A live chicken, destined for dinner, squatted and clucked in a string shopping bag near Lisa’s feet. Above the bag stood a plump housewife, obviously daydreaming about chicken stew with dumplings. A few feet away, several Orthodox Jewish men wearing black hats and long curls muttered and gesticulated. Two female soldiers wearing dark green uniforms gossiped and smoked French cigarettes, and a Bedouin in flowing robes talked loudly on his cell phone.

When the Egged bus showed up, the crowd surged towards the door. As Lisa struggled to stay in front, she remembered that Israelis didn’t like the idea of “lining up.” The best way of getting on a bus—or through any kind of door—was to pretend you were an Israelite crossing the Red Sea, vigorously parting the crowd with your elbows.

Lisa bagged a prime window seat and pushed her purse under the seat in front of her. A thirty-something businessman with sleepy brown eyes and a five-o’clock shadow took the seat next to her. She dozed as they left Tel Aviv, opening her eyes occasionally to see palm trees swaying against a metallic blue sky and tall tan buildings.

As they traveled out of the city, cement high-rises and modest houses gave way to scruffy bushes and reddish-brown soil—soil that blanketed thousands of years of history.

No one could sink a spade anywhere in Israel without turning up potsherds or scrolls or ancient fortifications. When Lisa was an undergraduate here, a friend suggested the easiest way to become an archaeologist was to convert to Judaism, marry an Israeli, and dig up her new backyard.

The Hebrew chatter from the driver’s radio kept Lisa from really sleeping. As she felt the bus begin to climb, she forced her eyes open so she wouldn’t miss her favorite scenery—the passage through the Judean Hills. The flatness of the land around Tel Aviv gave way to rounded, undulating hills, girdled with stone walls. The brown earth looked thirsty, as it did everywhere except in the cool green uplands in Galilee to the north.

She glanced sideways to see the businessman watching her. Normally, Lisa liked talking to people when she was traveling. It was part of the adventure and she could try out her half-forgotten Hebrew or bits of French or Italian.

But this man’s gaze reminded her of the Chevrolet salesman with slicked-back hair who put a hand on her knee when she was sixteen on her way to visit colleges by Greyhound bus. She moved the hand. He put it back. She moved it again, sliding as far away from him as she could. Now, ten years later, she wished she’d stood and yelled, “Get your hand off my knee, you pervert!”

Lisa caught herself before she smiled. Glancing sideways, she noticed the businessman’s thick eyebrows and coffee-colored skin and wondered uneasily how long he’d been observing her reclining form. His gaze, no longer sleepy, made her feel undressed. She sat up straighter.

“You are from America, yes?” he asked with an oily little smile.

“Yes,” Lisa replied curtly, sick of being hit upon because she was young, blonde, and foreign. She began a mental catalogue of tips for young women traveling in the Middle East: Do dye your hair brown or black; Don’t wear jeans; Don’t fall asleep on public transportation…

“On holiday, perhaps. You visit our museums and archaeological sites?”
Did she look like a museum curator? She met his brown eyes briefly. “Business trip. I work for a museum at home.”

“How very interesting. Then surely you visit the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book—the home of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls?”

Lisa was startled. He seemed to know about her, which was impossible. “Yes, actually. I’m an archaeologist, here to look at some ancient ceramics.”

“Perhaps you plan an exhibit for your own museum?”

Several alarm bells went off in her mind. Was he an Israeli Customs officer trying to prevent the export of illegally acquired antiquities? But he was wearing a well-tailored gray suit and polished black shoes, not a uniform.

“Are you in the museum business, too?” she asked.

The man laughed gently. “No, no, I am archaeology enthusiast only. I sell computer parts—for the Beirut branch of Microsoft.”

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