Bethlehem

Joseph had hoped this night would be quiet. It seemed to him that shifts like those were becoming pleasant surprises when they happened.

“Zimmerman!”

The sound of his captain’s voice shook him.

“You’ll be on your own for a while. I’ve got orders to head back to the barracks. Stay alert.” With that, Joseph’s captain had turned and faded off toward where the jeep was parked.

“Stay alert?” he thought, “there isn’t a Jew in this half of the world who isn’t always alert.”

A small car approached with an old man and his grandson. Joseph had seen the car approaching for some time; their check station was placed at the top of a long road. Normally it could take up to five minutes between the first sighting of a car and it’s arrival. Joseph liked it that way–no surprises. All of their papers were in order, and after cautioning them against being out so late, he opened the gate for them.

Joseph turned to fetch his cigarettes when a large truck, the largest he’d ever seen on these roads, pulled up to his stop. Joseph had not seen it coming.

“Get out of the truck!” he yelled, straining to have his voice heard over the sound of the engine.

A thin man in a black suit stepped out of the cabin with his driver and approached.

“Good evening officer. How do you do?” asked the man politely, with a slight bow of his head.

“Well, thank you. Have you your papers?” asked Joseph. It was a line he’d repeated hundreds of times over, yet still his voice sounded awkward pronouncing the words.

The man, who identified himself as Mr. Franklin K, handed over a handful of various papers, which appeared to be in order. The truck was transporting some sort of private cargo to an address in Bethlehem.

“I will need to inspect whatever it is you have in the back,” continued Joseph. He hated checking trucks. The last time he’d been forced to conduct an inspection he’d found several grenades, and when he questioned the driver, he had the unfortunate luck of having uncovered a bomber who was on the verge of fulfilling his martyrdom.

His captain had shot that man through the head before he’d managed to switch the explosives. The memory of the martyr’s blood in his eyes was enough. Confrontation, Joseph decided, was not in his nature.

Mr. K proceeded to guide Joseph around to the back of the truck before pausing to lean against the back hatch and slowly light the end of a thin looking cigar.

“What is your freight?” asked Joseph, trying to keep this meeting as standard as possible.

“Art, for a private collector in the city. It is from Egypt.”

Egypt? Joseph again examined the papers before him, and indeed Egypt was the country of origin.

Mr. K did not look Egyptian. His driver on the other hand did, and that made him nervous. Egyptians had killed his father, along with one of his uncles. It became hard to trust any foreigner in this region, as nearly any Jew could name a relative that had died at the hands of any one of the neighbouring nations.

Joseph remembered the explosions he’d seen over the past several weeks of terrorist attacks; red dots littering the skyline of this city or that. Red dots, much like the one he was staring at now, at the end of Mr. K’s fingers.

“Officer?” the lips that were feeding on that dot had started speaking.

“Open the doors. I should like to see your Egyptian art.” He had no interest in seeing any art. It was important to seem in control and sure of oneself, and this is the way his captain spoke to do so. His tone of voice failed to have the desired effect on Mr. K.

“Certainly, officer,” and with that the doors creaked open and a growing sliver of electric light from a near-by lamp post sliced down the front of a giant face, staring out of the truck and into the night.

Joseph had not expected such an imposing figure to confront him, and his posturing deflated immediately. He felt as he had as a young boy, when his older brother had jumped out of the shadows to frighten him. A moment of pure terror, the likes of which he’d only imagined before, from hearing tales of the Holocaust.

“What is that!?” he demanded, hoping to regain some measure of authority after he’d let fall his mask of confidence.

“It is a sphinx. Though it is significantly smaller than the great sphinx, it is an authentic piece nonetheless.”

Mr. K’s voice was not comforting, nor was the look of the sphinx. Joseph had noticed that the driver seemed to be hiding from the face in the door, but could not find it in himself to be suspicious. He himself would have liked to have done the same.

The face of the statue seemed particularly vivid, almost as though he was staring at the face of a giant, sleeping with his eyes open. Those same eyes were the hardest part to look at. They seemed as though they could blink at any moment.

“Would you care to inspect the rest of the statue?”

Mr. K was looking at Joseph as one looks at a child convinced that there are ghosts in his closet. However, Joseph noticed that even Mr. K seemed to watch himself more carefully in front of the face.

“That won’t be necessary. Where exactly are you taking this?”

“To a private collector in Bethlehem, as I have already explained.”

“Yes, well I will need to have that confirmed. Until then, would you and your driver wait with by the booth over there please?”

“How easy it would be to just let them through,” thought Joseph. He could not, however. Protocol was very clear on what had to happen.

The voice on the other end of the radio was unsure as to what to do, and passed it on up the chain of command. Soon enough, Joseph was talking to a colonel.

“A sphinx you say? Have you inspected the statue?”

He would have to say yes, that was what he should have done. But how could he convey the face to the colonel? They wouldn’t understand the terror he’d felt in that face.

“Yes sir.”

“Then let them through. There are more dangerous things for you to be watching out for than Egyptian statues.” There was the sound of a receiver hanging up on the other end. Joseph would have to continue this alone.

As he walked out to Mr. K and his driver, a low grinding sound came out from behind the truck. All three heads turned immediately, but could see only the front cabin of the truck facing them, the reflection of lights in its windshield vibrating from the tremor. The driver screamed in terror and ran off into the night. K didn’t seem to notice or care the abandonment of his driver. Joseph saw a look of fear in his eyes, though he never guessed it was something else, a gleam of excitement and anxiousness.

“What was that?” There was no hiding the fear in his voice now. Joseph could feel his entire body go cold and start shaking.

Just then a large and deep sound cried out, like a whale song, but far more threatening and predatory. The voice was coming from somewhere off the road, veiled by the night.

The voice sounded again, behind them. This time it was followed by a crash of metal and screams.

Joseph and K ran back to the other side of the booth only to see the captain’s jeep in a smoldering heap on the road, with blood painted across the cement.

“What’s going on?” The sound of fear now gave way to anger, and Joseph grabbed K by the shoulders and threw him against the booth.

K was silent.

Joseph’s world was starting to whirl. Thoughts were firing off, half finished in his head. He wasn’t sure what to do, but that did not stop his body from reacting. His hand grabbed his gun and jammed the barrel under K’s throat.

“Tell me what’s going on!”

K remained silent.

“Tell me! Talk! Damn you!” Thoughts were becoming confused, and Joseph’s mind was racing with snips of training and memories, desperately trying to find some sort of instruction to deal with this situation.

“Talk!”

K’s silence was screaming out at Joseph. Never had Joseph felt so weak and helpless as now.

The sound of the shot never truly registered with his mind. He felt only the forceful recoil of the gun, and the familiar warmth of blood on his face. The shaking hadn’t stopped yet, but the confusion in his head had settled.

Joseph fell to the ground and rested his back against the wall.

In the distance he could see balls of fire rising out of the city, he could hear screams and gunshots.

The sky was beginning to brighten as the sun was rising to end the night.

No one was sent to relieve him, though it made little difference. No one was leaving Bethlehem.

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