Chapter 1—Mixed Feelings

A petite woman with long, flowing black hair removed a blue-on-purple friendship bracelet from her wrist.  Trying to calm her racing heart, she stepped into the next room, where a tall, brown-haired man waited for her.  She swallowed her anxious uncertainty and walked over to him, her head bent so that she watched the floor instead of his questioning face.

"Here," she said softly, holding the bracelet out to him.  Then, without waiting for him to speak, she continued. "It's your only hope for accomplishing your mission.  Since you were a prisoner when we made them, you didn't get one.  Take mine.  The fish are usually red or green on tan, but a friend made mine different.  If anyone asks you where you got it, tell them—tell them your wife made it for you.  And if anyone asks your name, it's—"

"Alex McCawley," the man finished. "I know.  Don't worry, I remember.  What I don't know is how to get there."

The woman drew a deep breath and let it out. "Let me think.  The Christian hideout is near Englewood.  You know the forest a couple of miles away?" He nodded. "In the middle of the forest there's a little cabin, with the cutest curtains hanging in the windows.  It's by a big hill, and the door is behind some hanging vines on the hillside.  If you can't find it, knock on the door to the cabin.  But don't do that except as an absolute last resort.  They'll be a lot more suspicious if you don't come in by the secret entrance."

Having finished her directions, she fell silent, staring at the floor.  Suddenly, her eyes filled with tears, and she wilted, falling into a nearby chair.  Her friend knelt beside her and put a comforting arm around her quivering shoulders.  Calming herself, the woman raised her head and turned her watery brown eyes to look into her friend's face. "Oh, Ad—I mean, Alex—what if it doesn't work?  What if they don't believe you, or you're captured?"

"It's okay," Alex assured, pushing a stray lock of hair away from his confidante's wet face. "If it is the Lord's will, I'll succeed.  If not—well, then we'll meet in heaven.  I do believe that our paths will cross again, Maria, and we shall walk humbly with our Savior.  But until then—there's work to do."  He rose to leave. "Goodbye, Maria.  I'll see you later—after the battle."

Maria smiled weakly. "After the battle, then.  I'll be praying for you.  May God bless your journey." Alex turned, but Maria grabbed his hand.  "One more thing." She tied her bracelet around his wrist.  Gazing into his eyes, she whispered, "Goodbye, brother.  Go with God's blessing."

Alex smiled, hugged her, and then moved to the door and put his hand on the doorknob.  "Goodbye, sister."  He opened the door and then stopped, as if he planned to say something else; but he slipped through the opening and shut the door softly behind him without speaking another word.

Eyes filling with tears again, Maria knelt on the floor and covered her face.  "Lord, keep him safe…"

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The drive to Englewood was surprisingly uneventful.  He only saw four police cars during the hour-long drive, and praise the Lord! none of them thought it worth their time to question a rather nervous-looking man in a red truck that, had they looked, carried a camouflage cover and netting in its covered bed.  Had he been stopped, he would have been arrested; the camouflage netting on its own was definitely grounds to take him prisoner for "suspicion of working with subversive religious organizations," namely the Christians in hiding.

Driving through Englewood was a little more interesting.  Even though it was a small town, Englewood's police force held duty in highest honor and often stopped every vehicle for questioning.  Twice, a policeman almost stopped Alex, but both times, a more "dangerous" looking car appeared, and it was pulled over instead of him.

Alex was on the edge of town when he saw flashing lights behind him.  Uh, oh, he thought, his heart jumping into his throat.  Glancing quickly at his speedometer, he grimaced when he saw that he was driving a measly 3 mph over the speed limit.  But maybe that was all—maybe they would give him a ticket and let him go without any questions.  Fat chance, he thought.  These policemen thrive on questions.  Even so, he prayed fervently that they wouldn't hassle him.  His life wasn't the only one that depended on the success of his mission.

He slowed down and brought his truck to rest on the side of the road.  Putting the truck into park, he rolled down the window as the policeman came striding up.

"May I see your driver's license, please?" the police officer asked politely.  Alex hesitated.  Which license should he use—the real one, or the fake one that identified him as Alex McCawley?  Seeing his hesitation, the police officer became suspicious. "Please step out of your vehicle, sir."

Alex could have kicked himself for showing his uncertainty.  However, he gritted his teeth and opened the door, trying not to let the officer see his frustration.

"What is your name, sir?"

Alex looked into the steely eyes of the officer.  There was no avoiding the question. "Alex McCawley."

"May I see some identification, Mr. McCawley?" Alex pulled out his false ID and handed it to the officer.  After looking it over carefully, he grunted and handed the license back to Alex. "Where are you heading?"

There was no lenience in those cold gray eyes.  Alex sighed and responded with the first thing that popped into his head. "I'm just passing through.  I'm going to Cedarville to visit my new niece."

The officer raised a skeptical eyebrow. "May I search your truck?"

It was a question that needed no answer.  The officer stepped past Alex and peered into the cab of his truck.  Finding nothing but a book and a few scattered CD's, he walked around to the back of the truck and raised the fiberglass cover.  Inside, a few bags of luggage seemed to back up Alex's story, but the officer looked farther than that.  Several lumps, he discovered, were rolls of camouflage netting; and in one of the bags, he uncovered the most incriminating piece of evidence, something that was even worse than the camouflage—a Bible.

The police officer turned and hissed, "Hands in the air!  Now!" Alex considered for a moment how likely it was that he could knock out his adversary and take off.  There were many problems this would raise, but the reason that best convinced him his plan was impossible had something to do with the fact that the officer had his hand resting on his pistol. "I said put your hands up!"

Alex stretched his arms above his head.  Suddenly, the officer's eyes widened and he backed up, staring open-mouthed at Alex.  "Adam!  What—I'm sorry; I saw your Bible with the name on it, and I thought either you were an imposter, since you gave me a different name and all, or you had changed and you were working against us—"

"What are you talking about?" Alex broke in.

The officer pulled back the right sleeve of his coat.  "This, Adam.  Your sleeve fell when you put up your hands, and I saw the sign on your wrist."  The officer wore a knotted friendship bracelet—green fish on a tan background.

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A few minutes later, Alex turned onto a low maintenance dirt road.  It was a bouncy ride, since the road was filled with ruts and overgrown by weeds.  The dark shadow of the forest loomed ahead.

The road continued into the woods; but after a few minutes, the undergrowth was so thick his truck could go no farther.  Alex backed up a little bit, then turned and drove carefully through the trees.  When he had gone as far away from the road as he could, he turned off the engine, grabbed his keys, slid out of the cab, and locked the door behind him.  He walked around to the back of the truck and removed everything from the bed.  To hide his bright red truck in the dark trees, Alex took the rolls of camouflage netting and spread them over it.  The truck just wasn't easy to hide; he would have to rely on the darkness to dim the wits of anyone who happened to pass by.

Shouldering his pack and grabbing his bag, he started hiking through the trees.  As he went farther in and drew nearer to the heart of the forest, the tall oaks and elms closed in around him.  The sunlight was blocked by the thick branches filled with leaves that crowded the sky over his head.  Small animals rushed around gathering food for the fast-approaching winter.  Occasional leaves floated down from the treetops and settled softly on the ground.

A light wind whispered through the tops of the trees.  Leaves rustled and branches swayed back and forth, but the air lower down, where Alex walked, remained still, unmoved by the refreshing breeze.  The birds that sang from their lofty perches twittered sadly, "Winter is coming, winter is coming.  Soon we shall fly away to someplace warmer, and we will not see these woods again until next spring.  Winter is coming!"  Indeed, winter was coming, and Alex could feel it as he wrapped his jacket tighter around his body.  Without the warm, cheery rays of sunlight, the forest was a cold place in winter.

He had been walking for what seemed like hours, and there was no sign of a cabin or a big hill.  Why did I ever come here in the first place?  Alex thought.  How did I get myself mixed up in this?   Why didn't I let someone else do it?  He spoke out loud, to no one.  "Why did I choose to be a traitor and a two-faced double-crosser?  That's all I'm doing on this mission; betraying those who thought I was their friend.  Lord, how is this going to help anyone?"  Then, sitting on the ground and putting his head in his hands, he prayed.

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"Now, I want you to understand, we can't have just anybody go," the short man said, pacing the floor. "We must send someone quick on his—or her—feet, someone reliable, someone believable, someone with a sharp mind and eye that will pick up on every detail.  He—or she, if we so choose—must be willing to sacrifice everything that is held dear, if necessary.  I won't deceive you; this is not a safe, easy task.  I'm giving you fair warning—whoever we send may be killed if discovered.  Infiltrating the enemy's hideout and spying, er, gathering information, is never risk-free.  Are any of you interested in being examined and possibly being chosen as our—uh—'messenger'?"

The man peered over his glasses at the small crowd of able-bodied men and women before him.  His brown eyes scanned the faces of those who timidly held their hands in the air and those who boldly and bravely raised their hands; those who had no intention of volunteering and those who looked as if they'd like to. Nodding his head, he spoke again.  "Those of you who do not wish to interview for the assignment may go." Many hurriedly stood and rushed out the door, anxious not to be mistaken for a volunteer.  Others rose slowly and sauntered over to the door as if they hadn't a care in the world, and didn't wish to have one.  The rest remained where they were, watching the man up front. "As for the rest of you—any specific questions before you commit yourselves to the possibility of undertaking this dangerous venture?"

A brown-haired man in the back raised his hand. "Mr. Danielson?"

"Yes? What is it?"

"Is there any chance that you might send a man and a woman, as a team?  To maybe calm their fears by pretending to be a married couple looking for refuge?"

Mr. Danielson could tell the man had a hidden reason for asking that question.  However, he also thought the question a good one; he hadn't considered the possibility of sending two agents. "Perhaps, but remember, Adam—two may be more easily caught than one.  If we decide to send a team—and this is to all of you—be careful who your choice for a partner is.  We'll make the final decision, of course, but we may make it based upon how well you think you'll work together."

The room was silent as Mr. Danielson waited to see if there were any more questions. "Okay, if there are no more questions, then we'll get started.  Miss Woodcock, if you'll come this way, please?"

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"Next!" Mr. Danielson called out as another person exited his office.  A handsome young man stepped forward and went in.  Only a few people were left; most had already been interviewed and left with the promise, "We'll notify you within a few days if we decide you are the best choice."  Of the people remaining, most paced the floor nervously.  Two, however, stood together in a corner talking, looking as though they did not want to be overheard, but trying to look casual.

"Do you think it will work, Adam?" the woman asked her brown-haired companion.  Her brown eyes, one darker than the other, searched his face for assurance.  He had none to give.

"I don't know, Maria.  But I think this is the best chance we're going to get. If we leave for no reason, they'll get suspicious. This might at least give us some time before they catch on.  We've got to try." He put one hand on her shoulder. "It's our only hope.  We've got to give them the news soon, or it will be too late."

Maria looked down at the floor and said nothing. After a few minutes, she turned to stare at the wall and whispered, "I wish Andrea was here.  She would know what to do.  She always knew what to do and encouraged us to do it."

"Yes," Adam agreed, "she was a great encouragement. But she's gone, probably for good.  We have got to figure things out and rely upon the Lor—"

"Shh!" Maria put a finger to his lips. "Remember where we are.  We can't help anyone if we're heard talking about Him." She motioned for him to come closer, then stood on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear, "But I pray that when the time is right, we'll both have the courage and the strength to acknowledge Jesus as Lord before every one of them, even if they kill us for it."

Adam smiled broadly when he heard her words, then whispered in her ear, "I do believe the Lord will keep us safe until then, and if it is His will to save His people from their enemies, He will provide for them the information they need, whether through us or through others.  Jehovah Jireh is our provider!"  Maria gave him one of her beautiful smiles and opened her mouth to reply.  But suddenly a voice called out—

"Next!" Looking around, they realized that all the others had gone; they were the only two left.  They glanced at each other, as if to question which should go first. "Miss Pillock, you may come in now." Maria smiled once more at Adam, then turned and walked over to Mr. Danielson's office, stepped in, and closed the door behind her.  Adam, now alone in the room, began to pray silently as he listened to the muffled voices in the office, praying that he and Maria would be chosen to go, if it was the Lord's will that they warn His people.

Suddenly, the voices rose, and Adam could hear Maria clearly. "Okay, you guys, this isn't funny.  Let go.  Hey!  What are you—ouch!  You're hurting my arm!"  Adam ran across the room, but the door opened before he got there.  Two guards walked out, half-dragging, half-leading Maria between them.  Her long black hair hung in her face, and a seldom-aroused fight glimmered in her brown eyes.  She struggled to free herself from their grasp, but they only tightened their hold on her.  Looking up, Maria saw Adam and cried out to him. "Adam, help me!"

Angered, he stepped in front of the guards.  "What are you doing?  Let her go!"

The only response he got was a punch.  One of the guards planted his knuckles in Adam's nose, then shoved him hard while he was recovering from the blow and sent him sprawling to the floor.  Leaping to his feet, Adam pulled back his left arm, intending to introduce his fist to the guard's stomach, but suddenly he heard a voice speaking to his heart. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  He hesitated for a moment.

That moment was all that was needed by a third guard emerging from the office.  He grabbed Adam's arm and twirled him around, delivering a kick to his shins at the same time.  Distracted, Adam swung at the new guard, but his well-aimed punch was deflected by the guard's quick reflexes, shielding his face with one elbow and slapping at Adam's arm with the other hand.  On the offensive, the guard brought his elbows up and delivered two sharp blows to Adam's chin.  Then, anticipating a punch, the guard ducked; but Adam, who had been bluffing, attacked with his foot instead, connecting his toes with a pressure point on the man's thigh.  He crumpled to the ground in pain.  Adam spun around to pursue the guards with Maria, who were practically out the door by now, but he felt two hands grip his arms like a vice.  He lunged forward and twisted violently, trying to free himself, but someone grabbed his feet from behind and pulled them out from under him.  He landed flat on his stomach, knocking the wind out of himself, and he felt a knee plant itself on his back.  Painfully, he raised his head and watched while his friend, who by now had given up her fight as hopeless, was carried out of the room like a criminal.