Here’s another instalment in the series of short monthly extracts from The Judas Case. New readers may wish to begin with the one revealed in The Literary Consultancy’s Showcase in March.
In this April extract, veteran spymaster Solomon Eliades is reviewing some case notes:
I sat down beneath the awning and opened the satchel of documents from Yeshua’s file. At the head of each bundle of encrypted messages was the seal of the High Priest and a note in Hebrew explaining that the encryptions were not sorcery, nor did they contain spells for conjuring up the dead, but they were a dialect of koine Greek, known to the Temple Guard, and its use was acceptable in the sight of the Lord. We had found that civilian eyes trying to read a coded despatch would often conclude that it was a necromancer’s spell-book and that the act of touching it would defile his hands. Someone passionate for the Law might risk bringing such a thing to the attention of his local synagogue. Once someone did just that, with catastrophic results. A boy from the village where one of our officers worked saw him hiding a message, removed it from its place of concealment and showed it to his father, who could read a little… Witchcraft, he decided, and brought it to the village elders. They dragged our man to their synagogue, where he was condemned and stoned to death. That’s Galilee: a place where ignorance and stupidity walk alongside righteousness and observance.
First, I took the crumpled sheet that was all that remained of the Baptiser’s file. It began mid-sentence.
ftsman, one of his chief organisers and errand boys. No mistaking him, in any crowd or company. He’s compelling, more so even than the Baptiser. Tall, powerful build. Hair never cut. Forehead like a cliff. Enormous hands. Bad teeth. Not that you’d need a description to identify. He can draw attention to himself by silence and stillness. Three days down in the dust at Machaerus before I came to his attention. Instantly, he’s utterly absorbed in me, as if no-one could be more important. He’s noticed that I keep away from synagogue.
“You hang back. Why? Don’t you want to learn?”
To my astonishment, I find myself telling him. About the synagogue at Kerioth and the day that the soldiers came.
“Three days before they pulled me out, from beneath my parents’ bodies. My mother and my father were butchered for trying to protect me.”
He stood up and he embraced me. A huge, engulfing hug of power and strength.
“I’m sorry for you. And this was when Old Herod, the monster, died?”
“The monster. Yes.”
“Let me tell you what happened to my family when the soldiers came to our Nazareth.” Silence, for a long time. Then he spoke.
“When I was a child in Byblos, I would dream every night – every night, without change – about my parents leaving Nazareth. Which is odd, because I could have no memory of such a thing, I was not even born then. I may have been conceived, but I was not born, so how could I remember it?”
“Perhaps your parents told you stories?”
He didn’t like this. No. The dreams were always the same. “I saw it every time. The soldiers. Their officer taking the women and the young girls aside to the walls by the goat-bield. He had the pelt of a big cat across his shoulders. He took every one of them. Now why should I dream that? Me, a boy?”
I was about to tell him that at least his parents had lived to look after him, but this was not one of his riddles about prophecy. He was weeping. I opened my arms and embraced him.
Later, he told me about his childhood.
“When we were growing up in Byblos, my brother Yehuda and I, the Greek children would mock us for being Galilean. Even our fellow Jews mocked us. And I wondered what sort of wonderful place our Galilee and our Nazareth must be. And I wondered about the welcome we would get when we went back to our own people.”
This was the time, he explained, when the magic started. He found that simple tricks would distract and enthral. Making an egg disappear, swallowing flatbread from the bakery next door, then pulling it out of the ear of the owner’s daughter were ways of turning hostile bullies into a fascinated gang of followers. Soon he had a little band, the children of local craftsmen, who followed him around, agog for the next trick, none of them aware that they were being deceived by someone too smart to let them know the truth.
“Then it all ended the year before I became a man. They allowed us to go back to Nazareth. And I wondered what a welcome we would get when we came back to our own people. We came back to hatred and mistrust. My fellow Galileans mocked my accent – my words were all wrong. The children called me a sorcerer who could bring back the dead to life when I did tricks for them, because everyone knows the best sorcerers come from Egypt. That was when the trouble started; they’d bring dead animals to me. Bring it back, they said. Make it live.”
He’s a child of war, as am I. A child of civil violence, like all of us. But I look at us both and realise that I am the lucky one.
I turned the papyrus. On its back, two scribbled decrypts in another hand.
The followers are still waiting. The group has been paralysed since the Baptiser was arrested. Nobody knows what to do. They’ve established a line of communication into the fortress at Machaerus by which the Baptiser issues orders to his followers. But they’re showing more enthusiasm for arguing about his instructions than for following them. No leader has yet emerged from among the followers, which suggests they are either expecting Young Herod to release him – or else they are waiting for the intervention of God.
They had been disappointed, on both counts.
A group of the Baptiser’s followers has split off, left the area around Machaerus and vanished into the desert. Their leader is one of the Baptiser’s lieutenants – a craftsman called Yeshua. Deductions from the messages carried out of the fortress indicate he was not one of those expecting Young Herod to release their leader. He argued that intervention would come, but not yet, and not in time to save the Baptiser.
A note beneath – Have him watched. The scroll went on to describe arrangements for Yehuda to begin his new mission. This involved getting back his old job as clerk-of-works at a boatyard in Magdala. Apparently he had been a very good clerk-of-works and they were delighted when he returned. I knew Magdala. It reeked of fish. You could smell the place half a day’s journey off.
Then the first of Yehuda’s reports from Galilee.
There’ll be more to come each month until publication in August!