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Authors: Frederick Ramsay

Tags: #Mystery & Detective

The Eighth Veil (4 page)

BOOK: The Eighth Veil
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“We are playing the King’s Game, you think? That is interesting, surely. But would not Philip have known and would he have welcomed him into his house?”

“I have no idea, but I assume if he felt any threat, he would have acted as his father and ridded himself of the unwanted interloper with dispatch.”

“Yes that makes sense, if any of this makes sense. Of course, there is the princess, who by all accounts lacks something in judgment.”

“An understatement at best.”

“One wonders what John’s fate might have been if the Princess Salome had possessed the foresight to equip herself with eight veils instead of the alleged seven, and enough discretion to retain the last.”

“Pah! Once again you are interrupting, Rabbi. Do not do so. To continue, as I said, this Archelaus had been exiled. My informants tell me of rumors that suggest he committed acts that could be neither tolerated nor condoned and would have been put to the cord like his father, were it not for the fact he was of Herod’s line, had allies in the courts in this land, and as such retained some measure of immunity, Cappadocia being, as it stands now, a rich country but still a Province of the Empire, not an independent nation.”

“What sort of crimes would that be, I wonder? Ones similar to the one perpetrated here, perhaps?”

“You are astute Rabbi. It was so intimated to me and that is why I have summoned you.”

“Of course any negative rumor attached to a royal on the run must be taken with a grain of salt.”

“Of course, you would know that, I assume. To the point, then, Antipas will not trust my people in his court or in his presence to sort out this crime. I do not trust his people to do anything more than cover up this mess. We, the king and I that is, have settled on you as a neutral, objective, third party.”

“Me? I am a scholar and teacher of the Law, not a magistrate, and certainly not an investigator of crimes.”

“Precisely. Any judgments you may make will be treated with the greatest respect because, as you are well aware, your voice carries the authority of your law. A caution, however, all the information I have just supplied cannot be verified and may not bear in any way on the circumstances of the girl’s death. My spies in this matter are less than trustworthy and their reports often contradictory. It is the nature of the politically motivated to spread misinformation more readily than the truth. So, everything I have just said may be completely false and misleading and deliberately so.” Gamaliel opened his mouth to speak. Pilate stopped him with a gesture. “Before you ask me why I gave it to you, I will say it sets the tone for your task. At the risk of being redundant I must warn you again that anything a palace luminary says to you during the course of your probing must be weighed against what I have told you and must never be taken at face value. You see?”

“I see, yes. I am not happy about it, but I see. I was just about to ask you why climbing the branches of the late king’s family tree is relevant?”

“Sorting out this tangled family will be difficult if not impossible. Yet it may have to be done to get at the murder, I think. Perhaps not to the extent I have laid out for you. Beyond that, I have no idea, but my sense of the thing is this, if you can pry out a motive for the murderer, you will be that much closer to knowing who he is, and it is in this conspiratorial milieu that you will find it.”

“Again, with respect, I am singularly unqualified to carry out this task. Do I have a say in any of this?”

“None. I have already sent a message to your High Priest, foolish man, and requested that he so inform the Sanhedrin of this commission. The king has kindly provided this man here…What is your name?”

“Barak, Excellency.”

“Barak, will serve you in whatever capacity you may require.” Pilate slipped a ring from his finger. “This you will show to anyone who questions your authority to act in this matter.” He handed the ring to Gamaliel. “Wear it until you have completed your commission. I will expect to hear from you daily.”

“But this Archelaus. Is he or is he not in the palace?”

“Have you been listening, Rabbi? I have no idea. He may not even exist. I have only rumors and hearsay, the veracity of which, as I have just explained, is less than reliable. You people have a talent for obfuscation and complex thinking that quite dismays me. You should be able to sort through this tangle as well as anyone. Do that and who knows, you may have your killer.”

“But—”

“There is no
but
, Rabban. Your Holy Days will last seven days and have just begun. You have Shabbat coming and I understand nothing will be accomplished on that day. A foolish rule in my view. What do you do if you are under siege? At any rate, because of your Sabbath, I will give you an octave. Eight days, Rabban, and then I expect a solution.”

With those words, the great Pilate stood and stalked away, leaving Gamaliel to ponder what he should do and, more importantly, what he should not do. His issue with Caiaphas faded away with the morning mist.

Chapter IV

Gamaliel stood immobile in the center of the atrium and watched Pilate disappear into the clamorous streets of Jerusalem. Somewhere nearby a late blooming tree dropped its petals and they, borne on a soft breeze, fell like early snow. A string of servants passed him on their way to the kitchens carrying bundles of foodstuffs. The king did not stint on comfort, not even in a palace he rarely used and irrespective of the occasion. Gamaliel wondered what would have been in the bundles the previous week during the Day of Atonement. Judging from this king’s demonstrated spiritual inertia, probably pretty much the same.

He had stood at the Prefect’s departure. Now he sat again. What an odd assignment to task a Talmudic scholar. What should he do next? His expertise was in divining the mind of the Lord from dry and dusty ancient scrolls. He had little or no experience in sorting through the cluttered minds of humans. The old man assigned to him waited anxiously in the shade of a small date palm shifting his weight from foot to foot like a child who needed to excuse himself. A pair of beaded women’s-sized sandals, evidently hastily abandoned by their wearer, lay beneath the same palm. If he were truly a solver of human mysteries rather than the witness to spiritual ones, he might have thought they were a clue. Since he wasn’t, he didn’t, and they weren’t.

“Barak, you are a servant in the king’s palace, I presume. Tell me what you understand of this business.”

“Yes, sir. I am. I can tell you all there is to know. You see it was I who found the unfortunate woman there in the bath.” He shivered at the memory and pointed to his right at an archway set in the palace’s wall. Gamaliel assumed it must lead to the previously mentioned bath.

“Through there? Suppose you show me this place and tell me what happened, how you came upon the murdered woman and what happened next.” For better or for worse, his inquiries into the death of the servant girl had begun. Where they would ultimately lead, he could only guess but he wasn’t optimistic about their eventual outcome.

The old man led him through the archway into the bath. It bore no resemblance at all to the
mikvah
Gamaliel expected, or rather hoped to see. Instead it more closely mimicked the baths common to Romans and pagans he had heard about, but had never visited. The air, heavy with water vapor, still bore the pungent scents of olive oil, cinnamon, and exotic perfumes from the east, the residue of the previous evening’s bathers. His experience with scents of any sort was extremely limited, the product of a self-imposed ascetic life. He cast his gaze upwards and took in the mosaics on the ceiling. A cascade of nymphs and satyrs cavorted across the heights, their intentions clearly not a thing the Rabban wished to plumb. Greek pantheism and its complex, erratic, not to mention erotic relationships stubbornly refused to make sense to him. Joining them in their antics were men and women all of whom, judging by their attire or lack thereof, were fully prepared to join in the same behavior. His direct knowledge of activities at places like this was limited to what he’d read and heard and he shuddered at the thought that the King of the Jews, even this attenuated branch, would condone it, much less support it in his palace. Gamaliel did not consider himself a prude or squeamish about most things, yet for this display of crass nudity and sensuality, an obvious pagan scene, to be included in a Jewish residence, palace or not, bordered on the blasphemous. What sort of king had we here?

He knew, of course. Everyone knew that this Herod Antipas had no more faith than his father, which is to say his religious practice was strictly a political and public undertaking. He was, after all, only one generation from the pagan practices of an Edomite. Gamaliel sighed in the sure knowledge that the king was not alone in that paltry level of belief. Many of the Sanhedrin, though they would deny it vehemently, shared it with him. He blamed it on Alexander the Macedonian who had Hellenized the country centuries before and even now there seemed no way to eradicate his continuing influence.

“I came here in the sixth hour of the night,” Barak was saying, “And I noticed the water in the bath is not quite right.”

“How, ‘not quite right,’ Barak?”

“Well, sir you can see for yourself. It’s all discolored. Red it was. That’s why I didn’t see the girl at first. Because of the water being red-like.”

Gamaliel pivoted and took in the scene. The bath water steamed as the cool morning air wafted through the arch from outside. He stepped to the edge of the bath to look at it. It was discolored certainly. Across from him on the pool’s lip the body of the girl lay under a sheet of some sort.

“Where was this dead woman, when you found her?”

“Why, in the bath, of course. How else could blood have filled the water?”

“I can think of several ways Barak, but that is not important just now. So, you came in at the sixth hour, midnight, you say. Was that your duty, or were you simply wandering about in the middle of the night?”

“Oh no, sir. I had the watch last night. I was to check this room and the adjoining atrium. Check the lamps for oil, pick up any debris from the evening’s revelries, and so on.”

“Revelries? A Holy Feast is upon us and Shabbat just over and the king is not fasting and preparing to celebrate Tabernacles?”

Barak barely suppressed a smile. “No, Rabban, he is not. Not in this house. Most nights there was feasting and music and later many of the court would repair to this place and—”

“Men and women together?” Gamaliel had heard of the license taken by the occupants of the king’s court but he’d always supposed it was mere gossip, the product of envious men. It appeared to be true. He shook his head. “Continue with your narrative, Barak. You said it was about the sixth hour. Measured how?”

“The guard makes a circuit of the palace. Three circuits take an hour, he says. When he said he’d done eighteen of them, I was sent on my rounds. Well, there is not much more to tell. I came in here, saw the water, saw the girl, and raised the alarm.”

“And then?”

“Then the guards came and so did Chuzas, the king’s steward. They sealed off the bath, set the palace guards to seal off the bath, and pulled the body out and laid her over there,” he pointed to the shrouded form, “and went away leaving me to watch over her until morning.” Barak shuddered at the memory and tilted his head toward the three men standing at the three entrances to the room, one to the atrium from which they had just come, and two at the arched doorways leading to various parts of the palace. “The guards are still here as you can see.”

“No one has entered since?”

“Only yourself and the Prefect, of course. It is as it was when I found her.”

“Nothing removed, no one tried to come in?”

“Not that I am aware of, no sir. Wait, I forgot—the man Graecus looked in, I think, but did not enter. The steward’s orders, you see.”

Gamaliel stared at the murky water. Aside from the fact it impeded his ability to investigate the bath further, blood in the water raised some serious questions about purity. It could not remain this way, obviously. “Can this pool be drained?”

“Indeed, yes. There is a clever hole in the bottom that can be unplugged and the water will flow away into the valley. It is drained when the king is not in residence.”

“I want the plug pulled. Can you do it?”

Barak frowned uncertainly. “There is a device, I believe, that allows it to be pulled somewhere about, but I do not know where it is kept. Otherwise, I will have to climb in the bath and pull it by hand,”

“It is unclean. I do not want you to do that. Send for someone to find the device and empty this pool. Let us hope that a spate of bloody water appearing in the valley does not start a panic and a call for Father Moses to appear and strike it with his staff. Now, let us have a quick look at the corpse.”

“Sir, must I?’

“I need you to witness everything I do, Barak, so that later, if there are questions, you can verify my account of things. Yes, please pull that sheeting back so that I may see for myself.”

Barak did as he was asked but Gamaliel noticed he averted his eyes from the woman’s nakedness. Gamaliel had no such scruples. The woman was dead. Were she still alive, it would have been different, of course. He bent closer and inspected the body. Her throat had been slashed, he could see that. There did not seem to be any other obvious marks on her.

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