Chapter 3: Vengeance Is Mine
The full moon glowered over the towers and spires of the sleeping City of David. Blood-red and low in the Judean sky, it cast apocalyptic gloom over the silent watch I kept in the small garden on the western edge of the long ridge of limestone hills known collectively as the Mount of Olives. Even the nightingales were quiet tonight. Nothing broke the heavy silence except the snoring of Peter and John, cutting through the darkness like the grinding of millstones separating the wheat from the chaff on Judgment Day.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem," I muttered under my breath, "You who murder the wise guys and stone the dames." How many times had I wanted to gather all of her children together and kick their sackclothed ashes from here to Golgotha?
I gazed out over the moonlit bulk of Herod's Temple straight in front of me, and the Fortress of Antonia, packed with Roman centurions, to its right. Someone down there had sent half a cohort of those centurions to take me out and kidnap the doll who'd been with me, the one who had come coyly knocking at the door of my synagogue a week ago in Nazareth looking for Iscariot. They'd left me in a battered heap on the floor and dragged the girl away. Dead or alive, I was going to find her and, in the process, find Iscariot, if he had truly faked his own suicide. This was going to be dirty work, and someone was going to get hurt. Probably that someone was me.
"Father, let this cup pass from me," I whispered.
As usual, the Old Man said nothing.
I walked back into the trees and shook the Rock and the Disciple I Loved awake.
"Enough shut-eye, you mugs. Time to enter into temptation."
We left Gethsemane and wound our way down the hillside toward the Beautiful Gate - the rocky footpath lit by sanguine moonshadows. After answering the challenge of the city guards with a little silver, we passed through the gate and walked out onto the broad courtyard that led up to the Temple. I paused and turned to my two sleepyheaded disciples.
"Last time I was here, I rode in on an ass. Ten thousand people waving palm fronds and chanting my name like I was the Messiah or something."
Pete's big fisherman face cracked into a lopsided grin and his thick forehead crinkled with deep furrows of laughter.
"But Rebbe, you are the Messiah. If you need an ass to ride on, just climb on John's back!"
John shot Peter a dirty glance, then he gave me one of those cloying doe-eyed looks of his and made like he was going to lay his head on my shoulder again, like he had during the Passover Seder - right before Pilate had me crucified.
Something in my bruised and twisted guts told me that he held a big jagged piece of this cracked mosaic. I made up my mind to pay the governor a visit and find out what he knew. "What is truth?", he'd once asked me. This time, I was going to make him tell me.
"Lord," John suddenly hissed, "We're being tailed!"
I spun on one sandal and scanned the broad terrace of Solomon's Portico to our left, just in time to see several figures duck behind the shadowy shelter of the colonnade.
"Quick," I whispered, "Let's make like shepherds and get the flock out of here!"
The last time I'd run across this plaza, I'd been swinging a whip of cords in my zeal to drive out the thieves and moneychangers from my Father's house. This time, my zeal was telling me to beat it post haste.
We pulled up the hoods of our robes to cover our faces and sprinted off across the Temple courtyard. Behind us echoed the hard slap of leather against flagstone as our mysterious pursuers threw stealth aside and launched themselves after us in furious chase.
For a while, we seemed to stay ahead of the gang. We drew quickly towards the gate of the fortress. But soon, the sounds of the chase grew louder and louder until the heavy panting of the running men seemed to be on top of us.
I ran right into one; a tall Ethiopian built like a stone cistern. He grabbed my arm and swung me around into his buddy, another tall and beefy Ethiopian. I could see by their tunics that they were from Herod's private guard. How was that fey bastard tied up in this? They held me roughly but didn't slap me around any - lucky for me, since I was in no shape for another scrap like the one that had laid me low in Nazareth.
I heard a sharp yell as three of them tackled John. He went down hard on the pavement and the three big guards pinned him tight to the stone. A smaller figure in a black, hooded robe approached and knelt down beside him. I saw the glint of an upraised sacrificial knife glowing red in the moonlight.
John tried to cover his face and body with his hands, but it was no good. When the long blade came up again, painted in crimson, it wasn't from the moonlight. John writhed for a moment in agony, struggling to hold his guts in, and then relaxed in death. Whoever the rat was who had killed him had obviously done this sort of thing before. John had been slaughtered like a lamb for a burnt offering. John's killer slipped off like a thief in the night as John's blood ran red in the holy courts of Zion.
At that moment, so much anger welled up inside of me I was ready to drive all of these swine off a cliff like Legion. I strained against my captors, and turned to look down at what was once John. I was too mad to say a prayer for him. Instead, through gritted teeth I spat, "John, you're dead now and in my Father's house. I want you to hear what I'm about to say. I'm going to get the louse who killed you. He won't be stoned. He won't be crucified. He's going to die exactly as you died, with a knife in his belly. No matter who it is, John, I'll get the one. Remember, no matter who it is, I promise."
The two guards gripped me tighter and hauled me towards the fortress gate, now open. I could see Roman soldiers approaching with torches. I was going to keep my date with Pilate after all. I looked around for Pete, but he'd flown the coop like he always did. He'd head back to James' house and alert my remaining disciples, but there was nothing they could do for me against the entire Roman garrison stationed inside Antonia.
I was going to have to face them all alone, as I always did. Strike the shepherd and the sheep always scatter. Next time, I'd have to pick a crew that wasn't so damned yellow.
I was marched along dank stone corridors until we came to a heavy door banded with iron and set with a huge ring to pull it open. The Ethiopian on my right grabbed it and yanked it open, while the other one planted his big hand in the small of my back and shoved me into the room. The door slammed behind me as I stumbled on the rough cobbled floor, going down on my hands and knees. My head swam but I pulled my wits together, and looked up.
What I saw next froze me in my tracks: at the other end of the room four men lay on Roman couches up on a raised platform behind a table laden with a feast. Four men whose faces I knew from nightmares carried with me into the very pits of Hell and back looked up from their imperial delicacies and fixed me with cold and heartless stares:
Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas...and Judas.
The betrayer himself arose from his couch and stepped down from the platform. He swaggered when he walked like some sort of cheap temple whore. When he reached me, he bent down and looked me in the eye. His ratlike face split into an evil grin, revealing his black and rotten teeth. When he spoke, his foul breath washed over me like sulfur and brimstone.
"Well, well, well," he sneered. "If it isn't the Second Coming!"
Next - Chapter 4: I, the Judge