The First Apostle

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9780553819724: The First Apostle

An Englishwoman is found dead in a house near Rome, her neck broken. Her distraught husband enlists the help of his closest friend, policeman Chris Bronson, who discovers an ancient inscription on a slab of stone above their fireplace. It translates as ‘Here Lie the Liars.’ Pursued across Europe, Bronson and his ex-wife uncover a trail of clues that lead them back to the shadowy beginnings of Christianity; to an ancient code inscribed upon a stone; to a chalice decorated with mysterious symbols. And to a deadly conspiracy which will rock the foundations of our modern world if revealed.

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About the Author:

JAMES BECKER spent over twenty years in the Royal Navy's Fleet Air arm and served during Falklands War. Throughout his career he has been involved in covert operations in many of the world's hotspots; places like Yemen, Northern Ireland and Russia. He is an accomplished combat pistol shot and has an abiding interest in ancient and medieval history.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Acknowledgements

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

A DEADLY DISCOVERY

The man who’d pursued her walked down the stairs and stood over her. The second intruder appeared from the door to the living room and looked down at the silent and unmoving figure. He knelt beside her and pressed his fingertips to the side of her neck.

After a moment he looked up angrily. “You weren’t supposed to kill her,” he snapped.

Alberti looked down at his handiwork and shrugged. “She wasn’t supposed to be here. We were told the house would be empty. It was an accident,” he added, “but she’s dead and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Rogan straightened up. “You’re right about that. Let’s finish what we’ve got to do and get out of here.”

Without a backward glance, the two men returned to the living room. Rogan picked up the hammer and chisel and continued to chip away at the remaining sections of old plaster about the huge stone lintel that spanned the entire width of the fireplace.

The work took very little time, and in some twenty minutes the entire area was exposed. Both men stood in front of the fireplace, staring at the letters carved into one of the stones. . . .

SIGNET
Published by New American Library, a division of
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Published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin
Group (USA) Inc. Previously published in a Transworld Publishers edition. For
further information contact Transworld Publishers, a division of Random House
Ltd., 61-63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA, England.
First Signet Printing, March 2009

Copyright © James Becker, 2008

All rights reserved

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

 

 

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

eISBN : 978-1-101-01463-9

For Sally,
as ever.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I’d like to start by thanking Luigi Bonomi, the best literary agent in London and a man I’m pleased to call a good friend, for suggesting the idea for this book in the first place, and for his perseverance in shepherding it through a series of incarnations until it met his exacting standards.

At Transworld, I’d like to thank Selina Walker and Danielle Weekes, two of the most charming and talented ladies I have ever had the privilege of working with—and formidable editors as well—and Francesca Liversidge for her obvious enthusiasm for the book from the first. Publishing, of course, is a team effort, and I’m grateful to everyone involved at Transworld for their dedication and professionalism.

—James Becker
Principality of Andorra, 2008

PROLOGUE

SPRING, A.D. 67 Jotapata, Judea

In the center of the group of silent watching men, the naked Jew was struggling violently, but it was never going to make a difference. One burly Roman soldier knelt on each arm, pinning it to the rough wooden beam—the patibulum—and another was holding his legs firmly.

General Vespasian watched, as he watched all the crucifixions. As far as he knew, this Jew hadn’t committed any specific offense against the Roman Empire, but he had long ago lost patience with the defenders of Jotapata, and routinely executed any of them his army managed to capture.

The soldier holding the Jew’s left arm eased the pressure slightly, just enough to allow another man to bind the victim’s wrist with thick cloth. The Romans were experts at this method of execution—they’d had considerable practice—and knew that the fabric would help staunch the flow of blood from the wounds. Crucifixion was intended to be slow, painful and public, and the last thing they wanted was for the condemned man to bleed to death in a matter of hours.

Normally, victims of crucifixion were flogged first, but Vespasian’s men had neither the time nor the inclination to bother. In any case, they knew the Jews lasted longer on the cross if they weren’t flogged, and that helped reinforce the general’s uncompromising message to the besieged town, little more than an arrow-shot distant.

The binding complete, they forced the Jew’s arm back onto the patibulum, the wood rough and stained with old blood. A centurion approached with a hammer and nails. The nails were about eight inches long, thick, with large flat heads, and specially made for the purpose. Like the crosses, they had been reused many times.

“Hold him still,” he barked, and bent to the task.

The Jew went rigid when he felt the point of the nail touch his wrist, then screamed as the centurion smashed the hammer down. The blow was strong and sure, and the nail ripped straight through his arm and embedded itself deep in the wood. Compounding the agony of the injury, the nail severed the median nerve, causing continuous and intense pain along the man’s entire limb.

Blood spurted from the wound, splashing onto the ground around the patibulum. Some four inches of the nail still protruded above the now blood-sodden cloth wrapped around the Jew’s wrist, but two more blows from the hammer drove it home. Once the flat head of the nail was hard up against the cloth and compressing the limb against the wood, the blood flow diminished noticeably.

The Jew screamed his agony as each blow landed, then lost control of his bladder. The trickle of urine onto the dusty ground caused a couple of the watching soldiers to smile, but most ignored it. Like Vespasian, they were tired—the Romans had been fighting the inhabitants of Judea off and on for more than a hundred years—and in the last twelve months they’d all seen too much death and suffering to view another crucifixion as much more than a temporary diversion.

It had been hard fighting, and the battles far from one-sided. Just ten months earlier, the entire Roman garrison in Jerusalem had surrendered to the Jews and had immediately been lynched. From that moment on, full-scale war had been inevitable, and the fighting bitter. Now the Romans were in Judea in full force. Vespasian commanded the fifth legion—Fretensis—and the tenth—Macedonica—while his son Titus had recently arrived with the fifteenth—Apollinaris—and the army also included auxiliary troops and cavalry units.

The soldier released the victim’s arm and stood back as the centurion walked around and knelt beside the man’s right arm. The Jew was going nowhere now, though his screams were loud and his struggles even more violent. Once the right wrist had been properly bound with fabric, the centurion expertly drove home the second nail and stood back.

The vertical section of the T-shaped Tau cross—the stipes—was a permanent fixture in the Roman camp. Each of the legions—the three camps were side by side on a slight rise overlooking the town—had erected fifty of them in clear view of Jotapata. Most were already in use, almost equal numbers of living and dead bodies hanging from them.

Following the centurion’s orders, four Roman soldiers picked up the patibulum between them and carried the heavy wooden beam, dragging the condemned Jew, his screams louder still, over the rocky ground and across to the upright. Wide steps had already been placed at either side of the stipes and, with barely a pause in their stride, the four soldiers climbed up and hoisted the patibulum onto the top of the post, slotting it onto the prepared peg.

The moment the Jew’s feet left the ground and his nailed arms took the full weight of his body, both of his shoulder joints dislocated. His feet sought for a perch—something, anything—to relieve the incredible agony coursing through his arms. In seconds, his right heel landed on a block of wood attached to the stipes about five feet below the top, and he rested both feet on it and pushed upward to relieve the strain on his arms. Which was, of course, exactly why the Romans had placed it there. The moment he straightened his legs, the Jew felt rough hands adjusting the position of his feet, turning them sideways and holding his calves together. Seconds later another nail was driven through both heels with a single blow, pinning his legs to the cross.

Vespasian looked at the dying man, struggling pointlessly like a trapped insect, his cries already weakening. He turned away, shading his eyes against the setting sun. The Jew would be dead in two days, three at the most. The crucifixion over, the soldiers began dispersing, returning to the camp and their duties.

Every Roman military camp was identical in design: a square grid of open “roads,” their names the same in every camp, that divided the different sections, the whole surrounded by a ditch and palisade, and with separate tents inside for men and officers. The Fretensis legion’s camp was in the center of the three and Vespasian’s personal tent lay, as the commanding general’s always did, at the head of the Via Principalis—the main thoroughfare, directly in front of the camp headquarters.

The Tau crosses had been erected in a defiant line that stretched across the fronts of all three camps, a constant reminder to the defenders of Jotapata of the fate that awaited them if they were captured.

Vespasian acknowledged the salutes of the sentries as he walked back through the palisade. He was a soldier’s soldier. He led from the front, celebrating his army’s triumphs and mourning their retreats alongside his men. He’d started from nothing—his father had been a minor customs official and small-time moneylender—but he’d risen to command legions in Britain and Germany. Ignominiously retired by Nero after he fell asleep during one of the Emperor’s interminable musical performances, it was a measure of the seriousness of the situation in Judea that he’d been called back to active service to take personal charge of suppressing the revolt.

He was more worried than he liked to admit about the campaign. His first success—an easy victory at Gadara—might almost have been a fluke because, despite the best efforts of his soldiers, the small band of defenders of Jotapata showed no signs of surrendering, despite being hopelessly outnumbered. And the town was hardly strategically crucial. Once he’d captured it, he knew they’d have to move on to liberate the Mediterranean ports, all potentially much harder targets.

It was going to be a long and bitter struggle, and at fifty Vespasian was already an old man. He would rather have been almost anywhere else in the Empire, but Nero was holding his youngest son, Domitian, as a hostage, and had given him no choice but to command the campaign.

Just before he reached his tent, he saw a centurion approaching. The man’s red tunic, greaves or shin protectors, lorica hamata—chain-mail armor—and silvered helmet with its transverse crest made him easily identifiable among the regular soldiers, who wore white tunics and lorica segmenta—plate armor. He was leading a small group of legionaries and escorting another prisoner, his arms bound behind him.

The centurion stopped a respectful ten feet from Vespasian and saluted. “The Jew from Cilicia, sir, as you ordered.”

Vespasian nodded his approval and gestured toward his tent. “Bring him.” He stood to one side as the soldiers hustled the man inside and pushed him onto a wooden stool. The flickering light of the oil lamps showed him to be elderly, tall and thin, with a high forehead, receding hairline and a straggly beard.

The tent was large—almost as big as those normally occupied by eight legionaries—with separate sleeping quarters. Vespasian removed the brooch that secured his lacerna, the purple cloak that identified him as a general, tossed the garment aside and sat down wearily.

“Why am I here?” the prisoner demanded.

“You’re here,” Vespasian replied, dismissing the escort with a flick of his wrist, “because I so ordered it. Your instructions from Rome were perfectly clear. Why have you failed to obey them?”

The man shook his head. “I have done precisely what the Emperor demanded.”

“You have not,” Vespasian snapped, “otherwise I would not be stuck here in this miserable country trying to stamp out yet another rebellion.”

“I am not responsible for that. I have carried out my orders to the best of my ability. All this”—the prisoner gestured with his head to include Jotapata—“is not of my doing.”

“The Emperor does not agree, and neither do I. He believes you should have done more, far more. He has issued explicit orders to me, orders that include your execution.”

For the first time a look of fear passed across the old man’s face. “My execution? But I’ve done everything he asked. Nobody could have done more. I...

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