Authors: Frederick Ramsay
Tags: #Mystery & Detective
“What do you want me to do with this thing?”
“I want to know everything about it that can be discerned from it. What do you see?”
“The area where the glazing, if that is truly what this is…I doubt that, by the way…seems to have been engraved with some characters, possibly an inscription. I will venture a guess. It is only a guess, Rabban, be sure of that. This piece has been deliberately covered to disguise it from what it really is. Why, I cannot say. If I could read, I might be more specific. But it begs the question, does it not?”
“Why would someone cover a golden pendant with this imitation glazing?”
“Why indeed, unless, for some reason, he wished no one read what it says. If we uncover it, we may discover why.”
“You wish me to remove this paste covering?”
“Paste? Is that what it is? Maybe, a question first. Are you in possession of the skills necessary to replace it, exactly replace it, if I need to have it done?”
Agon pulled the pendant closer, almost so that it touched his nose, and squinted at the break in the covering once more. “Near enough.”
“Then let us peel it away and see what we have stumbled upon.”
Herod Antipas had, by all accounts, his father’s imposing stature. His personality, however, could not match the genius of his mad parent. Where the elder was decisive, if emotionally erratic, Antipas waffled and wavered. He shared his parent’s lust for women, but had not the will or strength to cast the objects of his desire aside when they no longer pleased or were necessary. Thus, he now lived unknown and unloved in shadows created by the sheer magnitude of his late parent and exacerbated by the vaulting ambition of his new queen, his late brother’s wife, and mother of the now infamous Princess Salome.
Gamaliel had returned to the room set aside for his interviews only moments before the king arrived. Unlike the queen and princess, his demeanor was surprisingly open and forthcoming. Because it was so, Gamaliel assumed the king knew absolutely nothing about either the murder or the circumstances surrounding it. It would be a safe wager that he would not be able to distinguish one servant girl from another as well. That observation alone convinced him that if he were to be told anything useful, it would be from one or another of the women. He doubted either would volunteer anything. There was one point, however, which he needed clarification on and that must come from the king. Who was the missing Graecus? Surely he would know.
Herod entered with a necessary but modest show of pomp, not the sort one would expect in more public settings, but enough to remind the Rabban, if reminding were needed, with whom he was dealing. Gamaliel noted he seemed considerably older than his queen, perhaps by as much as a decade or more. Gamaliel reckoned it was an age when a man’s eye tended to wander and that would explain his ridiculous behavior with the princess and the aftermath of her performance. Lust outside his marriage was not something Gamaliel had experienced personally, or guessed ever would, but he knew from the confessions of others how the phenomenon made fools of men and harridans of their wives. Old men with failing…who were no longer…well, it was not a mystery why they behaved foolishly at a certain time in life. Gamaliel’s opinion of the king softened marginally.
He struggled with how he should frame the question that had agitated him since his time with Agon, the jeweler. How to state it without revealing what he’d discovered and further tipping his hand as to the direction he planned to proceed in his inquiries. Before he could speak the king made the decision for him. He had a question of his own.
“Honored Rabban, you are in possession of an amulet, I believe. It is of unusual design and construction I am told. May I see it?”
Gamaliel had not expected the question, but years engaged in disputation on the more difficult interpretations of the Law had trained him to never let his expression reveal his thoughts, much less any surprise at being caught out.
“You are correct, Highness, I am. Unfortunately, I cannot share it with you at this moment as it may be an important, nay a vital bit of evidence in our inquiries. I have secured it in a safe place until such time as I can make a determination as to whom it belonged and whence it came. Your wife the queen has seen it and disclaims any knowledge of its ownership among other things. Perhaps I can show it to you later.”
“I see,” the King replied, decidedly uncomfortable.
“Is there something I should know about the pendant?”
“About it? Umm, well I was thinking perhaps someone had mislaid it. If I could see it I might be able to describe it and see it restored to its rightful owner.”
Gamaliel smiled. I bet you would you old fox, he thought. Apparently the queen had talked to the king and Chuza had filled in details to them during the hour break between interviews, where it had been found, and with what other items. But as much as he might wish to, the king would not see it this day, perhaps never. Whether he or any of the royal family ever saw it again would depend on the skill of Agon the jeweler in restoring the false glazing on the one hand, and their lack of familiarity with the pendant’s details on the other.
The king lowered his eyes and inspected the tiles on the floor as if they held the key to the mystery of life, or in this case, how best to couch an answer. He had a decision to make. Should he tacitly admit to having colluded with his queen and his steward about the pendant and admit to having a genuine interest in and knowledge about it, or should he let the matter drop? What was it about that pendant that bothered him so? Gamaliel waited. He did not believe the king knew what lay beneath the false ceramic on the bauble. If he did, there might have been no murder in the bath two nights ago.
He glanced at the wall, the perfidious wall, and toyed with the idea that Barak, with his scruples about the royals’ level of piety, might be persuaded to assemble a corps of spies from one or more of his wife’s acquaintances. He needed to know what these people knew and were not telling him. When he was done with this king he would make a proposition to Barak. He desperately needed to overcome the disadvantage the wall provided those who wished the investigation to sink into the quicksand of lies they’d spread in his path.
In the previous hour, Agon had hastily removed the paste from the underlying gold. Gamaliel had a quick glance at the inscriptions on its gold rim. It was only a hurried look as he had to rush back to the palace to keep this appointment with the king. But given what little he did manage to decipher, he surmised that if the king knew, odds were the girl would have been elevated into the family circle, not left to defend herself from a deadly, and brutal, attack.
A murder, any murder, he guessed, would not rest easily on the king’s conscience. There were rumors that he regretted the beheading of the Baptizer. So, in this latest, could the king have been implicated in some way? Gamaliel could think of reasons why he might have condoned or turned a blind eye to it. If it involved a guest of high station, for example, or someone in the royal family, he might take the position that a servant girl’s death did not warrant exposing “one of his own” to scandal. Gamaliel studied his man and waited. Too often powerful men assume as an inherent right of their birth, that they may take advantage of the low born and servants in particular.
“It seems,” the king murmured, “that we might have known something of the pendant.”
“In spite of what the queen has told us? Are you suggesting she might have had a momentary lapse of memory? It happens frequently. She has so many things on her mind…”
One must provide royalty with a degree of latitude if one wished to move forward with any undertaking which impinges their prerogatives. A lie exposed or a lie excused? Gamaliel did not serve at court but he did possess a glancing familiarity with protocol and precedence. He knew men and knew where power in their hands could sometimes lead them. A necessary excuse for the queen’s misspeaking was required.
“Yes, yes, that is the position exactly.” The king knew Gamaliel had let him off the hook and he knew Gamaliel knew it. He didn’t care. After all, he was the king. “I believe it was worn by the poor servant girl who was killed in the bath. Is that so? Why would anyone want to do that? Such a tragedy.”
Foolish man. Why not stop when you have been given an out? Why not quit while you are ahead?
“I do not know, Excellency. It may well have been. I found it in the bath after I had it drained. I also found some coins, a bit of feminine apparel which I also suspect belonged to the dead girl, and a knife.”
“A knife? You found the weapon used to kill her? Well, that is a stroke of luck, don’t you think? Find the owner and you have the killer.”
“I hope so, Majesty. I await a report from the physician who is studying all the evidence and will tell me whether it is or is not the weapon. If so, finding its owner may not prove so easy.”
“But it must be. How else would a knife end up in the bath? We do not bathe armed, do we? Of course it is the knife that killed her.”
“Point taken. Yes, it is likely, but not yet certain. So, then, I will put to you the questions I posed to your wife, the queen, and your stepdaughter, the princess.”
“All of them? That does not seem a very intelligent use of your time, Rabban.”
“Perhaps not, but as you have just seen, memories sometime need prodding, do they not? Perhaps your Highness will recall some detail they overlooked or forgot—as just now recalling the owner of the pendant.”
“I see. Well, ask your questions, but as you do so I must tell you Rabban that we are not pleased that the royal family has been subjected to this abuse.”
“Of course. My apologies. I only do this because the Prefect says I must. I would like to return to the pendant one last time. You say the dead girl wore it. Always or only occasionally?”
“I can’t recall ever seeing her without it. I may be wrong in this. I do not, as a rule, pay close attention to servants. The queen, of course might know better.”
“Yes, thank you. Another question, please, how did she come into your service? I am led to believe she was not an Israelite. Is that true?”
“That is only partially correct. She is a foreigner, yes, but Hebrew at least in practice. The captivity left many of us in foreign lands never to return, as you know. Some come to the city for the High Holy days as they are doing even now. Most of the Diaspora do not make the effort, alas, and the practice of religion has become, shall we say, varied in extent and commitment.” This last observation from one of the least observant Jews in the land, Gamaliel thought. Royalty lived in a world of its own making, clearly.
“Yes, yes, of course, and she came to this court how?”
The king cocked an eye toward the patterned wall and cleared his throat as if waiting for inspiration or perhaps some telepathic signal from across the room and behind it.
“Let me think a moment. Ah yes, she was in my wife’s household when she lived with my brother in Caesarea Philippi. When the queen came to me in Tiberias, the girl came as well.”
“Yes, I see, but how did she come to the queen in the first place? We have established she is a foreigner. Is it usual for such a person to find a place in a king’s or queen’s household?”
“Usual? No, I suppose not. If I recall correctly—mind you I am repeating something I only heard but did not personally witness—she was brought into Philip’s palace as a favor to a friend. Perhaps an ally in a dispute, perhaps as bond for a debt, I do not know. Then he placed her in the queen’s service. I am told he needed someone to keep an eye on her. I don’t know why or even why he selected the queen for the duty, but so it was. I never found out and now that both my brother and the girl are dead I rather doubt I’ll ever know. Is there anything else?”
Gamaliel mulled over this last speech. He was sure this once, the king spoke the truth. That would be important later, he felt. He sighed and returned his gaze on the king.
“Who is the man Graecus, your Majesty?”
“I am told there is some sort of emissary in the household who calls himself Graecus. As he is a guest in your palace, I would like to know who he is. He is missing, you see.”
“I cannot say.”
“Cannot, or will not?”
“For your purposes, Rabban, they are the same. Again, is there anything else?”
Gamaliel paused and gathered his courage. What he would say next would not sit well with his king. “Highness, I now speak to you as the Rabban of the Sanhedrin, not the Prefect’s agent. I must call you into account. Your actions within this palace, as they have been reported to me, quite candidly I must say, by the servants and staff, are outside the Law. You know the practice of bathing in the pagan style is strictly forbidden. The frescos on the ceiling and walls border on the blasphemous and the practice of men and women sharing the water is also forbidden.”
The king’s face began to redden and he clutched at the dagger at his side.
“You know all this, yet you continue in this sinful way. Majesty, it is not for your soul only I fear, but as you are our king, your defiance of the Law could bring down the Lord’s wrath upon us all. You know our history, you are aware of the things the Lord called down on the Nation in the past when its king proved unfaithful or unworthy.”