48 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? 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.”

Zak frowned. “Best not be talking too loud about that kind of thing, Ruthie.”

Oh, Zak.” Her eyes grew large, and her voice low. “It’s so scary. Reaches back under the mountain forever. Nobody goes there.”

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 her grasp. “Who’s going to suspect an eight-year-old girl, Mommy?”

Keep your voice down, Ruthie.” Obadiah stifled a grin and rested his hand on Yedidah’s arm. “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 minced up to 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. Instead of showing this child why she couldn’t be part of the action, he had reasoned with her as if they were planning together.

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.”i She stared up into Jessica’s face. “Remember, what Daddy told us? The Lord said, ‘I will send a man.’ So Samuel, instead of asking for help, 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 the opening. “Do you pray?”

i 1 Sam 9:16

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