The Blood Plague Chapter 1

Natasha Kelly sat on the early Friday morning flight out of Tel Aviv, fidgeting with her seat buckle. It wasn’t returning to the States that twisted her stomach in knots, but the layover in London. How had she gotten into such a predicament? One moment she’d been a simple courier on a job, the next, her face jumped off the cover of nearly every tabloid magazine in the world.

She blamed Dirk Sloan for the whole fiasco. Kissing her before his fans. Of course, they sold the pictures to the tabloids. Who wouldn’t? Hollywood’s most elusive bachelor declares himself engaged to a complete unknown. What a coup!

If only his announcement affected the world in general, not people who knew them personally, more specifically, Dirk’s parents. After seeing the tabloid photo, his family assumed Natasha and Dirk were getting married. He did nothing to dissuade them. Now she had to act the part of the loving fiancée to maintain his cover.

She stared out the window at the white clouds blanketing the horizon. Had they reached the British Isles yet?

The note in her pocket said his parents looked forward to her visit and would be waiting at the airport. Meeting them was daunting enough, but what if they brought other relatives? She could just see herself surrounded by a slew of Sloans.

She longed to make a good impression. Someday, she and Dirk might get married. They grew closer each time they worked together on a mission. After their last dive into danger, Dirk had sent her roses with a card saying he wanted to ask her something. Perhaps when he returned from his current mission, whereabouts unknown, they really would become engaged.

She checked her watch for the fourth time. If she hurried, she could visit the Ladies’ room and inspect her appearance before the captain turned on the seat belt sign.

Natasha rose and walked down the aisle, scanning for hostile persons. Getting kidnapped by a terrorist had left her with a distaste of strangers. Something else with which she needed to trust the Lord.

With a flick of the wrist, she locked herself in the bathroom. What she saw in the mirror reassured her. No trace of her recent injuries marred her smooth complexion. She tilted her head and smiled. She resembled any small town girl. Not that you could ever call Houston, Texas, small. Still, no one looking at her would suspect she traveled the world as a spy for Israel’s Mossad. Her long, wavy blond hair, blue eyes, and wide smile made her come across more like a dumb blond than a lethal weapon.

She smoothed her pale pink pantsuit, Dirk’s favorite color, bought just for this occasion. This suit made her feel like she was meeting his family with him. If they expected one of the starlets Dirk usually dated, they’d be disappointed. She turned away from the mirror. Dirk’s family would either like her as she was, or they wouldn’t. She’d done her best.

After returning to her seat, Natasha inspected her ticket to verify the length of her layover in London. She’d managed to stretch it to eighteen hours. She could spend the night with Dirk’s parents and catch an early morning flight the next day.

The seat belt sign flashed, and Natasha straightened her seat back and grabbed the bag at her feet. It held everything she might need for one night. Her remaining luggage would wait at the airport for transfer to her next flight.

In approximately fifteen minutes she would meet Dirk’s family. She tensed. As the minutes ticked down, the butterflies in her stomach took a kamikaze dive.

Lord, help me.

Instantly, the serenity of God’s presence settled on her. Forgive me, Father.

Relying on God instead of herself still required practice. During the past months in her struggle to stay alive, she’d discovered that too much of her life had been dependent on her own abilities. But now she had a burning desire to walk by God’s direction every minute of the day.

The plane touched down for a landing, and Natasha flinched. The moment had come. Most of the passengers reached for their carry-ons and parcels. As soon as they moved, she’d make a dash for the door.

In no time, she stood in the lobby, hoping someone would notice her. Dirk’s parents seemed assured they’d recognize her from the newspaper pictures.

When a mature couple and an extremely pretty, young blond made a beeline for Natasha, she took a deep breath and held out her hand. The young woman hauled Natasha into a full body embrace.

“Oh, Natasha, it is you, isn’t it? I can just see me grabbing the wrong woman and makin’ a fool of myself. I’m Dirk’s sister, Renee, and this is Mum and Dad.”

When Renee released her, Natasha turned to face Dirk’s parents. A diminutive blond woman in a demure gray pantsuit clasped Natasha’s hand in both of hers.

“We’re delighted you could stop off with us, Natasha. Did you have a nice flight? Please call me Ann, and this is Joseph.”

Joseph Sloan peered down from a height of well over six feet. Bushy gray brows rose over eyes equally gray. He took Natasha’s hand in a firm grip. “How do you do? Please, call me Joe. Are there any trunks we need to retrieve?”

“Uh, no, thank you.” At last, someone who actually expected an answer to their question. “I appreciate you picking me up. Dirk’s told me wonderful things about you. I’m happy to meet you.”

Renee tittered behind her hand. “I love that American drawl. Dirk said you were from Texas. Can you teach me to do that? My friends will adore you.”

Ann Sloan took Natasha by the arm as they walked outside toward the underground parking garage. “Slow down, Renee. You’re not allowing Natasha time to adjust. She’ll think you haven’t a brain in your head.”

“Here, here,” said Mr. Sloan, though Natasha caught the trace of a smile under his finely trimmed moustache.

They meandered through the garage until they came to a dark blue sedan.

“Here we are,” said Mrs. Sloan. “Natasha, would you care to place your bag in the boot?”

Natasha blinked several times, her mind racing. “I’m sorry?”

“In here.” Mr. Sloan pointed in the empty trunk.

“Oh, thanks.”

Renee reached out and motioned Natasha toward the back seat. “I can’t wait until you meet Joan. You’re ever so lovely. But then, Dirk said you were gorgeous. I thought you’d be another of his stuck-up actresses, but you’re nothing like that.”

“Thank you.”

Dirk said she was gorgeous? Nice to hear, even if it was an exaggeration.

She gave Renee’s hand a squeeze. “You’re just as pretty as Dirk said and…’loads of fun.'” She mimicked Dirk’s voice and manner.

His family laughed, and everyone seemed to relax.

Mrs. Sloan cleared her throat. “Natasha, we’d like you to join us later at a restaurant for High Tea. Joan and the children will meet us…if you’re up to it.”

“That would be lovely. I’ve never had high tea…or any other tea.”

“Oh. Then you’ve never been here before? Dirk didn’t mention.”

“Once. When my parents were on the mission field, we came through London to meet someone. But I’ve never seen any of the sights.”

The two women brightened, talking at once.

“Oh, I’d forgotten your parents were missionaries.”

“We’ve got to take her to the palace.”

“And the changing of the guard and-”

Mr. Sloan broke into their excited chatter. “Why don’t you ask Natasha what she’d like to see?”

Renee giggled, and Dirk’s mother covered her mouth with her hand. “Of course.”

“Where would you like to go?” asked Renee with a hopeful expression on her face.

“Actually, I’m having so much fun listening to all of you, we don’t have to go anywhere. I want to talk.”

“We can talk while we look. I haven’t spent the day like a grockle in a long time.”

With a satisfied smile, Mrs. Sloan had settled the matter and faced the front again.

Natasha leaned toward Renee and whispered. “A grockle?”

“A tourist.”

Traffic was crazy in London. How did one master the art of the roundabout? The circling maneuver might forego the need for traffic signals, but Natasha wasn’t sure a few lights might not be helpful, especially in a London drizzle.

By the time they arrived at their first destination, the rain had stopped. They toured the Tower of London, and Natasha gaped at the diamonds and stones in the Crown Jewels. Under the watchful eyes of the Jewel House Wardens, she read the brochure.

The Imperial State Crown held the world’s second largest cut diamond, the Cullinan II, a cushion-shaped stone weighing over three hundred and seventeen carats. Not to mention the two thousand, eight hundred and sixty-eight other diamonds, two hundred seventy-three pearls, seventeen sapphires, eleven emeralds, and five rubies.

“That crown sparkles like a lighted Christmas tree,” she whispered to Renee.

“Yeah, and look at the sceptre. You could crack someone’s skull with that thing.”

“Whew! The brochure says that’s the largest cut diamond in the world, the Cullinan I. A pear-shaped stone of a mere five hundred and thirty carats. It makes the small diamonds I carried a couple of months ago look like beads for decorations.”

Mrs. Sloan pointed at a display case. “Like those salt shakers.”

Natasha laughed. Foot-high salt shakers covered in diamonds. “Imagine that at your next dinner party.”

Renee chuckled, laying a hand on Natasha’s arm. “I didn’t know you transported diamonds. How glamorous!”

“Not at all. You pick up the package. You fly to the next stop. You hand them over. Being here is a lot more fun.”

Particularly since someone wasn’t trying to shoot her.

“Speaking of here…Did you know the Tower of London is the oldest building in London?” Natasha shook her head, and Renee nodded. “Supposedly there are ghosts. But the main occupants of the tower are the ravens. They feed them bloodied meat every day to keep them ’round. It’s said if the ravens ever left the Tower, the monarchy would fall.”

“No wonder they feed them.” Natasha peered up at the raucous birds.

Creepy-looking creatures.

St. James Palace and then Buckingham Palace were almost a blur as they rushed from one to the other to get a view of the mounted guard. But it was worth it to peruse the Royal Treasure, where Natasha got to see her first Faberge egg. From there, they drove to Windsor.

As the castle came into view, Renee nudged Natasha in the ribs. “Look at the turrets.”

Natasha obediently leaned to gaze out her window.

“See that flag?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“That means the Queen is in residence.”

“So, if the flag isn’t there, she’s not home.”

“Exactly. And there’s a chap who’s only job is the flags. Can you imagine?”

Natasha laughed. “Not really. But I wouldn’t want to climb all those stairs to the turret just to hang a flag on a pole.”

“Everyone there is just barmy for the queen. They say she’s quite grand to work for. Demanding, though.”

“I can imagine.”

As Natasha snapped picture after picture, her head began to reel with all the history and grandeur. Mr. Sloan pulled her aside as they strolled out of the souvenir shop. “Ann and Renee will be in there yet a while. Why don’t we sit?”

Though he acted more reserved than his women folk, he’d treated Natasha as part of the family all day. She never paid for a thing, from entrance fees to postcards.

They settled on a bench, and Natasha stretched out her long legs.

“I’m not surprised Dirk…noticed you. You have a presence about you.”

“Thank you.” Natasha gave him a lop-sided grin. “I’m not sure what you mean, though.”

“Confidence. No…more than that. Serenity. As if you know where you’re going.”

Ah…the Lord. And at the perfect time, she’d tell him so.

“I’m surprised. If you knew how nervous I was about meeting you…”

“Renee is a bit of a whirl, but you’ve nothing to worry about from Ann…or me.”

The door flew wide and Renee bounded out, followed by Dirk’s mother at a more sedate pace.

“Come along, Dad. Westminster awaits.”

At long last, they arrived at Westminster Abbey, and Natasha walked through the hushed halls in a daze.

Renee blinked owlish eyes at Natasha. “Guess who’s buried here?”

“I haven’t a clue.”

“Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, George Frederic Handel, and even…Laurence Olivier.”

“Amazing. So, it’s just a big burial vault?”

Mr. Sloan shook his head. “Not at all. After tours, the Abbey still functions as a house of worship for the Church of England…with services every Sunday. Each monarch, save two, has been anointed and crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, here, in the Abbey.”

Natasha gaped at the high ceilings. These halls echoed with the feel of something…regal, even holy. She’d never experienced anything like it.

As the time approached for the meeting with Joan and her two “perfectly boring twees,” as Dirk referred to them, Natasha’s stomach churned.

When they reached the Dorchester, she asked to be excused and went to the Ladies’ Room to freshen her make-up.

After a few moments, Renee joined her. “Don’t be nervous. Dirk always teases Joan about being stroppy, but she’s not really. It just takes her a while to unwind compared with the rest of us. Besides, I think you’re absolutely cracking!” Renee gave Natasha a quick hug and walked out.

Natasha faced the mirror for a minute. This day had been so perfect. Only having Dirk beside her could improve it. She closed her eyes. Thank you, Lord, for such a blessing.

She wandered into the lobby.

At once, two perfectly attired children and their equally perfect mother moved to confront her.

“Natasha, this is Joan,” said Mrs. Sloan. “And this is Bert, aged eight, and Samantha, aged six.” They nodded politely at her one by one.

“How do you do? Dirk has spoken of you often.” Natasha gave them a beaming smile, which was best answered by Samantha, though she hid behind her brother and peaked out with a grin.

“Our table is reserved in the Promenade.” Mr. Sloan led the way. “Why don’t we get acquainted there?”

Natasha followed the family. Just ahead, walked the perfectly slim Joan in a beige silk jacket and skirt, her light brown hair perfectly coiffed in a sleek bob. The perfect Bert wore a dark blue suit and tie and looked absolutely darling, though he might not appreciate the thought. Natasha’s nephews never did. The perfect little Samantha sashayed past in a yellow a-line dress, her face as heavenly as an angel. Dirk was right. Joan and her offspring were…perfect.

Once seated in the opulent dining area, Dirk’s mother smiled at Natasha. “Since this is your first time, we’ve ordered the traditional Afternoon Tea.”

“How exciting. Everything is lovely. Thank you for bringing me.”

“You’re most welcome, young lady.” Mr. Sloan inclined his head.

Though he didn’t say much, Natasha felt he’d enjoyed sharing British history with her.

She placed her hands in her lap and studied her surroundings. A polished silver service and sparkling crystal adorned the white linen of the table. Pure white linen napkins, folded to represent a fan, sat before each setting. The wait staff, in their starched black tuxedos, stood at attention. Everything in the airy room reflected elegance, down to the gleaming Wedgwood china.

“May I call you Tasha?” The children had remained so quiet, Natasha was astonished when Bert blurted out the question.

“Don’t be impertinent, Bert,” Joan said, frowning. “I’m so sorry, Natasha.”

“It’s quite all right.” Natasha smiled then directed her attention to Bert. “I wouldn’t mind, if it’s all right with your mother.”

Two sets of pleading eyes turned on Joan.

“That will be fine.”

Such an advancement in etiquette emboldened Samantha. “What does Uncle Dirk call you? Has he ever called you Tasha before?”

Joan winced. “Samantha, that is none of your business. Do not speak unless you are spoken to. Really, Natasha, I’m very sorry.”

“Oh, it’s not a problem. I understand curiosity. My sister’s children ask me anything they want. And yes, Dirk has called me that. But, most of the time he calls me Natasha.”

The first time Dirk had called her Tasha, he’d been lying on the floor of John’s abbey, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He could barely speak after a severe beating, which broke a rib and punctured a lung. He’d called her Tasha because he couldn’t get anything else out. But the family knew nothing of his spy activities.

She raised her head to find the entire family staring at her expectantly. She must have missed something.

“I’m sorry. Did you say something?” A blush crept up her neck at their continued speculation.

“We were wondering when you and Dirk were going to tie the knot?” Renee’s infectious smile was irresistible. Natasha wished very much she could give them all an honest answer.

“Don’t pay her any heed, Natasha. That’s rude, Renee. They’ll tell us when they’re ready.”

Joan wasn’t perfectly boring. Just incredibly shy and sensitive to other people’s discomfort.

Natasha flashed her a grateful smile. “Please feel at ease to ask anything.” She looked from one to the other. “Dirk hasn’t discussed any dates with me. Each time we try to have a serious conversation, either my job or his job interferes. But I promise you won’t be caught unawares. As soon as we decide anything, we’ll let you know.”

Her solemn promise appeased them for a few seconds, but she recognized the look on the faces of the children.

Bert popped up. “I want to know if your brother is really black as the ace of spades.”

Joan choked on her tea, and Natasha did her best to hide a smile.

“Yes, he really is. I know that must seem strange, Bert. But if you knew my family, it would seem perfectly natural. We traveled all over the world, telling people about Jesus.

“While we were in Africa, Katir’s parents died. He was very tiny…about four years old. He came to stay with us, and we loved him very much. When our family moved away, my parents adopted him. We could never have left him behind. So you see…almost all my life, he’s been my baby brother, and when I look at him…I don’t see black. I just see Katir. Do you understand?”

Both children nodded, then little Samantha gazed up at Natasha with solemn eyes. “I think it’s sweet. I want a baby sister, but Mommy says-”

“That’s quite enough, Samantha. We don’t need to reveal all the family secrets today.” Joan took her daughter’s hand and smiled. “Wait until tomorrow at least.”

Several adults hid a smile behind linen napkins, but they were rescued by a waiter.

Natasha tasted everything set in front of her: Hot tea with cold cream and sugar, sandwiches with paper-thin sliced cucumbers, pastel petit fours, raisin clones with clotted cream, and Madeleine cookies.

The entire family seemed immensely pleased with her enthusiasm towards the Tea, as if they’d been watching to see how well she fit in. Natasha felt like she’d passed a test.

“Try this biscuit.” Renee held up yet another cookie.

“I can’t. I’m stuffed.” Natasha leaned back.

She heard the clank of a fork as it hit a china plate. She glanced around the table. All eyes bored into her, except the children, who looked as baffled as she felt.

Renee dropped her napkin and shook with gales of laughter. “Natasha, I think it’s time to visit the Necessary Room.”

Mrs. Sloan managed a shaky smile. “Yes. Now that we’re all finished, perhaps you girls would like to freshen up while Dad settles things here.”

Mr. Sloan and Bert stood as all the ladies followed Mrs. Sloan. Once they reached the hall, Renee held Natasha back.

“I suppose you’d like to know why everyone is so tongue-tied.”

“Yes, what in the world happened?”

Renee glanced around. “You dropped a real clanger. Priceless, really, but not on. I thought Mother would faint…and Joan…did you see her face?”

“What’s not on? Tell me.”

“A bit of slang. You couldn’t have known. But when referring to…umm…stuffed. It isn’t an acceptable term for a posh gathering and doesn’t refer to a meal.”

Natasha’s mouth gaped open. “I’d like to crawl under a rock and never come out.”

Renee broke into renewed laughter as she ambled toward the Ladies’ room. Natasha followed her down the passageway, oblivious to anything but the blunder she’d made.

Father, why do these things happen to me? His parents must think I’m disgusting. Or worse, having sex with Dirk like some Hollywood bimbo. They probably can’t wait to get rid of me. What am I going to do? How can I…

Natasha recognized the trap. Letting her mind rabbit trail through a maze of disasters gave Satan power in her life. Thank you, Lord.

Her lips barely moved. “Satan, you’re a liar, and I speak God’s blessing and truth over my relationship with Dirk and his family. Now be gone in the name of Jesus.”

In the bathroom, Dirk’s mother waited before a sink of clear blue glass, swishing her hands under the lion’s mouth where water streamed out.

“Natasha, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Would you like to shop at Harrods? We’d have about an hour. Not really long enough to get the whole experience, but long enough to enjoy yourself.”

“I’d love to go shopping…any time.”

Joan and Renee shared an amused glance.

“Let’s go!”

“Not so loud, Renee,” said Joan with a pained look.

“Let’s go,” whispered Renee.

Joan rolled her eyes and smiled at Natasha.

Thank you again, Lord.

When they announced their intentions to shop for the rest of the afternoon, Mr. Sloan raised an eyebrow. Just like Dirk. Natasha smothered a grin.

Joan stopped before Mr. Sloan. “Dad, if you’ll go round to the house with Bert and Samantha, I’ll join the women for shopping and bring them home.”

Mr. Sloan gave Bert’s shoulder a squeeze. “I think we’d enjoy that a whole lot more.”

The four women swept through the doors of Harrods to the accompaniment of Renee’s usual banter. “Established in 1849, boasting 5000 employees from 50 different countries with merchandise even more varied. There are 330 departments on seven floors. Where do you want to start?”

Natasha stared dumbfounded at the directory.

“Lost? If you want to experience the real Harrods, the Egyptian Hall and the Pet Department are considered a must-see.”

“Is it true at Harrods you can find anything for anyone?”

Renee hooked her arm through Natasha’s. “Let’s find out. Come on, Mum…Joan…to the lift.”

Natasha used her camera to record each new site, enthralled with the unique displays, especially the Egyptian escalators. Surrounded by marble floors, with details of sculpted bronze, the escalator rose past gilded sconces and lamps made of papyrus plants up to balconies lined with hieroglyphs.

She peered overhead as they glided upward. The writing above them looked familiar. She blinked. “Are those quotes from Ozzymandias?”

Joan rolled her eyes. “Yes. Al Fayed has an ironic sense of humor.”

“Worse than that.” Renee smirked. “When he inspects the store, he’s preceded by bagpipers.”

“Never heard that one.”

“Probably a lot you haven’t heard. Al Fayed claimed Prince Philip arranged the death of his son, Dodi Fayed, and Diana, Princess of Wales. So Harrods lost their royal warrants. Did you see that memorial near the escalator? There’s a statue, too.”

“Enough gossip, Renee. You’ll ruin the experience for Natasha.” Joan looked down from the step above as she tapped manicured nails on the side rail.

“It’s all right.” Natasha smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know what a royal warrant is, anyway.”

Conversation ceased as a tall man in a black tuxedo stepped to the alcove over the escalator and belted out an opera.

Natasha bent over, laughing. “Only at Harrods. He does sing well.”

Guarding the outside of the Egyptian temple stood a six-foot statue of a sleek black cat. The gold eyes stared out with a haughty expression, daring one to trespass its domain or the glittering gold necklace with turquoise, rubies and sapphires that encircled its neck.

Natasha reached for the tag, discreetly tucked underneath. Her mouth gaped. “Three thousand dollars! Is it even real? It’s not locked up.”

Joan lifted an elegant shoulder. “It’s a copy of some bauble found at an Egyptian site.”

“What a bauble! I need to find something a little less…conspicuous to take home for the folks.”

Renee laughed. “Your parents?”

“And my brother.”

Mrs. Sloan patted her hand. “I’m going to the Cosmetics counter. Take as long as you need.”

Natasha raised her camera to snap a shot of the shiny black cat with the expensive collar. When she lowered it, a tall dark man of probable Arabic descent blocked their path.

She felt Renee and Joan move closer so Natasha stepped forward and took a deep breath. This was not the time for Yaakov to send more kidnappers. What would Dirk’s family think?

He dipped his head before addressing her in a thick accent. “I’m sorry, madam. Harrods does not allow pictures inside the store…for security reasons.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. Do you need the memory card?”

“Not necessary, if madam will refrain from any further picture-taking.”

“Of course.”

He turned and strode away.

Renee put her hands on her hips. “What utter rot. One would think you were a spy or something.”

“Imagine that. I think I’m more insulted that he called me madam…instead of miss.”

Joan and Renee exchanged a glance then laughed. “I see your point.”

“I think it’s time to visit the ladies’ room.”

Renee snorted. “It costs the bomb here.”

“The what?”

Joan leaned over. “She means it’s rather dear…a pound, at least.”

“To visit the loo?”

Renee howled with laughter. “That sounds hysterical with your Texas drawl.”

Eventually, Natasha purchased a token gift for everyone at home, each tucked inside Harrods’ green and gold signature bag. And she’d thought of the ideal thank-you gift for Dirk’s parents. Ann Sloan expressed a desire to see the actual photo taken of Dirk and Natasha in front of the Ein Avdat waterfall in Israel. Natasha chose a sparkling crystal frame to house an 8×10 photo.

The hour expired before she knew it, and she stood outside, waiting with Mrs. Sloan and Renee for Joan to bring the car round. Overhead, over 11,500 lights advertised Harrods’ presence for the evening commuter.

“What did you think, Natasha?” asked Dirk’s mother.

“Amazing…and outrageously expensive, but definitely worth a visit. Thanks for bringing me.”

“Our pleasure. We have another surprise for you when we get home.”

Natasha wanted nothing more than sleep for a week, but she pasted a smile on her face. When would she see Dirk’s family again? And they were going out of their way for her.

“We’ll put on our posh frocks and visit Millenium Mayfair for dinner. Joe made reservations at Brian Turner’s. You know, from Ready, Steady, Cook. On the way, we’ll go by Big Ben. It’s a wonderful sight in the moonlight. You must have a picture.”

“That would be marvelous, thank you.”

Now she knew where Dirk got all his energy…from his mother.

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