17. Secret shoppers

Megiddo, Israel, 871 BC
1 Kings 18:4-5

Obadiah stopped his chariot in the middle of the street and leaned forward over the rail. He reached for his wife’s hand. “You’re sure Jessica will help us? We’ve got to have someone we can trust.”

“Jessie will help.” Yedidah shielded her eyes from the early morning sun and scanned the market for her sister.

Vendors called, “Fresh cantaloupe! Roasted sweet potatoes!” Shoppers fanned themselves against waves of heat as they picked over piles of pomegranates and peaches. The aroma of baking flatbreads drifted through. Crows squawked from the trees and watched for an opening to steal a piece.

“She sees us. Little Ruthie is with her. By the cantaloupes.” Yedidah waved furiously and hopped down from the chariot. With two bodyguards following, she ran and hugged Jessica and held her lips to her ear. Jessica nodded several times, smiled at Yedidah’s guards, and pulled Ruthie to her side.

A boy approached the chariot and hoisted meat on a stick. “Mutton. Roasted with garlic and peppers. My mother’s recipe.” A second boy lifted a steaming bowl. “Best eggplant in Megiddo. Hot from the fire.”

Zak, the chief bodyguard, smiled. “Later, boys.”

Obadiah held his breath and checked the crowd. No Moloch insignia. No black robes. “We’ll be here a while.” He tapped the driver’s arm. “Take care of my horses.” He descended to the pavement with his three guards, and the driver wheeled the chariot around to the gate.

The sisters returned to him arm-in-arm, followed by their guards.

Ruthie broke free and ran ahead, her tight black curls bouncing with her steps. She swung on Zak’s arm and held her fingers so only Obadiah could see her lips. “It’s the Misliya cave, isn’t it, Uncle Biah.” Her eyes grew large, and her voice low. “It’s so scary. Reaches back under the mountain forever. Nobody goes there.”

Zak’s eyes widened, and Obadiah scratched his whiskers.

When the sisters arrived, Ruthie moved her hand to let her mother see her talk. “I can buy the food for those men that Uncle Bi—”

Jessica’s face went ashen. “No, baby. Jezebel’s men kill anyone they think is helping bubblers.” She reached for her, but Ruthie let loose of Zak’s arm and bounced just out of reach. “Who’s going to suspect an eight-year-old girl, Mommy?”

Obadiah stifled a grin and rested his hand on Yedidah’s arm. “Keep your voice down, honey. People would wonder why one little girl buys so much food. You’d have the queen’s goons on you before the week was out.” He edged away, tapping his temple and pacing in a circle. What was he thinking, discussing food for fugitives with Yedidah’s tiny niece?

Jessica winced and squeezed her eyes shut.

Ruthie tugged on his robe. “So, we get helpers. Everybody buys a little bit, and nobody notices.”

“Ha! Who can you trust?” He clapped a hand over his mouth, but the words had rushed out on their own.

Jessica stared at him slack-mouthed.

“Friends, Uncle Biah. I’ve got friends who’d love to help feed those guys.” She swung around to Jessica. “Don’t I, Mommy. Loads of friends.”

Jessica shook her head. “I’m not letting you get involved, Ruthie.” She gave a nervous giggle. “She does have several friends, Biah. The way this little dictator of mine runs her gang makes Hammurabi look like a kitten. I fear for our freedoms if she ever came to power. But—”

Yedidah snickered. “You mean she’s her mother? Dishes it out with a straight face and takes it from nobody?”

Jessica crossed her arms over her chest and wrinkled her nose at Yedidah. “Look which sister’s talking.” She turned her frown on Obadiah. “It’s too dangerous. I know people need to eat, but I can’t even think about what those monsters would do to my baby.”

A teenage girl stepped in front of the guards and held the two halves of a prickly pear skinned and speared on twigs. “I cleaned this prize for you handsome men.”

Jessica’s neck flushed pink. She kept her back to the girl and whispered to Obadiah’s chest, “A spy.”

The girl thrust the fruit in the guards’ faces. “Don’t be bashful. Big strong men like the deep flavor we get only here in the Jezreel Valley.”

Zak bought two for each person in Obadiah’s circle, and the girl took her samples to the next knot of shoppers.

Jessica followed with her eyes. “That girl carries everything she hears straight to Jezebel.”

Obadiah rolled his eyes at Zak, took a bite, and whispered to Ruthie. “Sorry, dear, but friends can’t do this job. If the Asherah officials catch one, they’ll go from friend to friend and kill every one of you. A buyer must never know who else is buying.”

Jessica spit her bite on the ground. “Biah!”

He rubbed his neck and dropped his jaw toward Yedidah. Instead of showing this child why she could not be part of the action, he was including her in the planning

Ruthie took her mother’s arm and placed her pear stick in Jessica’s fingers. “Right. We don’t know who to trust. So, we shouldn’t ask anyone to help. We should do like Samuel.”1 She stared up into Jessica’s face. “Remember, what Daddy told us? The Lord said, ‘I will send a man.’ So Samuel didn’t ask anybody to help. He pulled a pomegranate off the tree. Then while he’s getting juice in his beard, up walks Saul and saves the people from the Philistines.” She shifted her gaze to Obadiah and then to Zak. “If the Lord can send someone to save the whole nation, can’t he find helpers to feed men in a cave?”

Obadiah let the prickly pear dangle in his fingers as he looked open-mouthed from Ruthie to Jessica.

Ruthie stepped into her opening. “Do you pray?”

“Um, well.” Obadiah smiled. “My conversations with the Lord lack the poetry of David or Solomon. Sometimes I ask him to listen in on my thoughts.”

Ruth hunched her shoulders. “Was that a Yes or a No, Uncle Biah?”

He let out a long breath. “Yes, Ruthie. I pray.”

“Then don’t look for helpers.” She swept her arm toward the King David Inn. “Go sip wine with Mommy and your muscle men, and ask the Lord to send shoppers to me.” Ruthie took her mother by one hand and Yedidah by the other. She beamed into Obadiah’s speechless face. “Come on Zak. Bring your guys in close, so the whole market doesn’t hear Uncle Biah’s prayer.”

As the guards circled them, Jessica draped an arm around Ruthie’s shoulders and let a tear roll down her cheek.

Obadiah paused. Was Jessica mourning her daughter or proud of her courage? He gripped Yedidah and Zak by the hand and looked up. “Lord, please send Ruthie the right helpers.”

Zak said, “Amen,” and then everyone else did, too.

Ruthie jumped into the middle of the circle and whispered. “So, does everybody understand what’s happening? Uncle Biah prayed, and we agreed with him. I’ll wait by the onions for helpers. If someone asks how to help me, I tell them. But only if they ask. I tell them I need secret help buying food. If they want to buy, I give them a handful of your silver and tell them I need food for three men for three days.”

###

Obadiah sat at a patio table in front of the inn with Yedidah and Jessica. His guards and driver sat at two tables on either side.

He held his breath as a little girl of eight adjusted the scarf over her curls and followed a line of women into the market. Her arm hooked through the handles of a huge woven-reed bag of the same pattern as those dangling from the arms of the women. She stopped at a pile of yellow onions, picked one up, and turned it over in her fingers.

Jessica whispered. “When I first heard of secret shoppers, I pictured little old ladies in the dark of night, not my little girl.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Okay, Lord.” Obadiah murmured. “Ruthie’s in place. Where are her shoppers?”

The second woman in line came back, chose an even larger onion with a thicker husk, and looked at Ruthie as if she were speaking to her.

Jessica whispered. “The blacksmith’s wife. Good people.”

Ruthie glanced up from her onion and smiled. The blacksmith’s wife held Ruthie’s chin in her hand.

Obadiah clutched Yedidah’s arm and leaned forward. “The silver, Ruthie. Show her the silver.”

Ruthie dug her fingers deep in her bag and stepped in so their garments shielded the movement of their hands.

The woman looked down between them and then squinted at Ruthie.

Ruthie gazed at her and bobbed her head up and down.

The blacksmith’s wife opened her mouth, glanced around the market in a hurry, and closed her robe. She backed a step away and tipped her head. Then she marched straight to the baker and loaded three tall stacks of flatbreads into the bag on her arm.

Jessica breathed out. “Nice job, Lord. Men eat lots of bread.”

The blacksmith’s wife stopped next at a pile of sweet potatoes.

Obadiah turned to Yedidah. “Did I tell Ruthie sweet potato and eggplant need to be roasted?”

“Yes, dear. Twice.”

A girl about Ruthie’s age emerged from a knot of shoppers and made a path to her onion pile. She gripped her by both arms and spoke while laughing into her face.

Ruthie tossed her head back and responded with a smile, her lips moving too fast for Obadiah to follow.

The new girl shot quick looks in several directions as Ruthie opened her bag. She sheltered their hands from view and then thrust deep into her cloak.

Jessica raised her fingers to her lower lip. “Is it okay if one shopper is a friend?”

Obadiah let out a sigh. “If the Lord sends a friend, we can’t say no. But how to get the food to Ruthie?” He turned to Zak. “Poke it into a hollow tree? Drop it by a boulder and lay a small rock on top for a signal?”

Zak shook his head. “Ants.”

Yedidah pursed her lips. “And Ruthie’s helpers are bound to meet each other when they drop off the food.”

Zak asked, “What if Ruthie picked up the food from each buyer’s house?”

Jessica leaned into the table. “And it piles up on my porch?”

Obadiah raised his hands. “We thank you for shoppers, Lord, and we still need help getting the food to the cave, okay?”

1 1 Sam 9:16

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