Book Excerpt: The Expected One

"That's fine," said Mahmoud, pointedly refusing to take the ring from her. "Because it's not for sale anyway." "It's not?"

"No. Many people have offered to buy that ring. I refuse to sell it. So you may feel free to try it on. Just for fun."

Maybe it was because the playfulness had returned to his tone and she felt less pressured, or maybe it was the attraction of the unexplained, ancient pattern. But something caused Maureen to slip the copper disc onto her right ring finger. It fit perfectly.

Mahmoud nodded, serious again, almost whispering to himself, "As if it had been made for you."

Maureen held the ring up to the light, looking at it on her hand. "I can't take my eyes off of it."

"That's because you're supposed to have it."

Maureen looked up suspiciously, sensing the approaching sales pitch. Mahmoud was more elegant than the street vendors, but he was a merchant all the same. "I thought you said it wasn't for sale."

She began to take the ring off, to which the shopkeeper objected vehemently, holding up his hands in protest.

"No. Please."

"Okay, okay. This is where we haggle, right? How much is it?"

Mahmoud looked seriously offended for a moment before replying. "You misunderstand. That ring was entrusted to me, until I found the right hand for it. The hand it was made for. I see now that it was your hand. I cannot sell it to you because it is already yours."

Maureen looked down at the ring, and then back up at Mahmoud, puzzled. "I don't understand."

Mahmoud smiled sagely, and moved toward the front door of the shop. "No, you don't. But one day you will. For now, just keep the ring. A gift."

"I couldn't possibly ..."

"You can and you will. You must. If you do not, I will have failed. You would not want that on your conscience, of course."

Maureen shook her head in bewilderment as she followed him to the front door, pausing. "I really don't know what to say, or how to thank you."

"No need, no need. But now you must go. The mysteries of Jerusalem are waiting for you." Mahmoud held the door for her as Maureen stepped through it, thanking him again.

"Good-bye, Magdalena," he whispered as she walked out. Maureen stopped, turning quickly back to him. "I'm sorry?"

Mahmoud smiled his sage, enigmatic smile. "I said good-bye, my lady." And he waved at Maureen as she returned the gesture, stepping out again into the harsh Middle Eastern sun.

Maureen returned to the Via Dolorosa, where she found the Eighth Station just as Mahmoud had directed her. But she was disquieted and unable to concentrate, feeling strange after the encounter with the shopkeeper. Continuing on her path, the earlier sense of dizziness returned, stronger this time, to the point of disorientation. It was her first day in Jerusalem, and she was undoubtedly suffering jet lag. The flight from Los Angeles had been long and arduous, and she hadn't slept much the night before. Whether it was a combination of heat, exhaustion, and hunger, or something more unexplainable, what happened next was outside Maureen's realm of experience.

Finding a stone bench, Maureen eased herself down to rest. She swayed with another wave of unexpected vertigo as a blinding flash emanated from the relentless sun, transporting her thoughts.

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