With the Easter Season fast approaching I am reminded of The Case of the Empty Tomb, which was published a number of years ago. Just recently I saw a very nice review for the book on Amazon where the reviewer gave it 5 out of 5 stars.
This was written in 2004. Hasn't gotten any press or publicity. It's a well written hard boiled detective novel about the theft of Christ's body from the tomb. AltHist? or just a good plot twist, it grabs you in the first chapter and doesn't let go. The main cop/detective is Claudius Maximus. The streets are the mean streets of Jerusalem but it's as noir-ish as Ellroy or Chandler.
It is always encouraging to get positive reviews and it helps writers like myself to keep plugging away. I thought it would be timely to post a chapter or two of The Case of the Empty Tomb.
I hated the desert. I hated the heat, and the sand, and the dust. I hated everything about it. To me, the desert was nothing but a barren wasteland– lifeless, arid, and deadly. The desert held no hope, no life, no chance for life. It reminded me of man's soul, if one tended to believe in that sort of thing. All of Judea was nothing but a vast burned over desert, conducive to nothing, and supporting no life except for snakes, scorpions and Hebrews.
I missed Rome. I missed Rome so much I was beginning to dream about it in my sleep. I missed the festivals and the Forum, the tributes and the temples. I missed our family home in the city, and our home in the country, the one by the sea, where, as a boy I would sit and watch the waves for hours. I loved the sea. I loved the way it smelled, and how the spray felt on my face, and the sound of breakers crashing against the shore. I loved its blue-green colour, its pulsating tides, the waves and whitecaps.
Judea was desert country populated by desert people. Here the people raised sheep and goats, listened to desert prophets, and worshipped a mysterious god.
Jerusalem in the spring. The almond trees had lost their blooms, and the barley harvest had just begun. The rains were ending, and soon the dry season would begin. Just four days ago Jerusalem experienced harsh weather– the sky clouded over rather quickly, it rained for a time, and I thought I heard thunder. Now today was sunny and bright. Strange weather. Strange country. Strange days. I dearly missed Rome. Thinking of Rome made my heart ache. Here I was, banished to Judea, living on the edge of a desert in the middle of nowhere, with not a clue as to when I could return to– as the poet put it– my alma mater. I suppose things could have been worse, but at the time I could not see how.
By the way, my name is Maximus, Claudius Maximus. I'm a tribune.
It was a clear morning on dies Martis– Tuesday– after the ides of Aprilis when I received word to report to Praetor Lucius Servanus. I was not looking forward to seeing him. Servanus and I had a love/hate relationship– he did not love me, and I hated him. Servanus made me feel magni nominis umbra– as if I were living in the shadow of a great name. The trouble was, I knew it was only too true. The Praetor appeared to be his usual self today– a mean, angry man with a perpetual scowl whose manner made you imagine he was ready to cut off your ears.
"You look as if you’ve been dragged through Hades!" he greeted me– and I was wearing my best toga. “When I call to see someone, I expect them to come immediately. What kept you?”
“Traffic in the street was heavy,” I said.
“Wise-ass. I do not like you, Maximus.”
“Your secret is safe with me.”
His beady brown eyes narrowed and his pudgy face puckered. “That is the exact attitude that got you banished from Rome and sent here.”
“My attitude is not what got me here,” I told him with an edge like flint.
Lucius Servanus took one step back. He reconsidered his position and withdrew from his verbal assault. The Praetor walked slowly to his desk and shuffled some papers uneasily. After he allowed sufficient time to pass, he began the conversation again, in a more subdued, professional manner.
“A situation has come to our attention.” he said.
Translation: the powers that be had a problem.
“We want you to look into it.”
Translation: they wanted me to handle their problem.
“We trust you to deal with the situation to your utmost ability as a son of Rome.”
Translation: the problem was now totally my responsibility. I was to prevent any scandal that would reflect poorly on Rome and her officials. If anything went wrong, it would be my neck, and my neck alone left sticking out to be lopped off.
That was the way it always went. Whenever high officials stepped in a mess, they called Claudius Maximus to clean it up.
“What is the situation?” I asked, feigning interest.
Lucius Servanus let out a long breath and motioned to the only two chairs in the room. He adjusted his toga in a dignified manner and sat. We sat directly opposite of one another four paces apart. Any closer and it would have appeared that we were friends.
“Were you present at the last crucifixion?” he asked me.
I endeavoured to look thoughtful. “The last one was . . . when?”
“Four– no, five days ago, dies verneris– Friday last. Did you witness it?”
“I was otherwise occupied,” I remarked, and Servanus gave me a nasty sneer that revealed his displeasure.
“Three Hebrews were crucified that day,” the Praetor continued. “Two were common thieves. The third man was a Galilean.”
Servanus thrust his head forward as if prompting my recollection. I shrugged to show that I did not.
“The man was a political dissident, an enemy of Rome, and was duly executed.” The Praetor spoke as if trying to convince me, or himself. He paused a long moment, but somehow I knew there was more. “This Hebrew was no ordinary dissident. He made some fantastic claims while he lived. The man was obviously disturbed.”
“What did he say?”
“Nonsense mostly. He said he was the son of God. He actually proclaimed himself king of the Jews.”
I nodded, but did not respond. Jerusalem was not that large that I had not heard rumours about these claims. Of course, I had not put any stock in the stories I had heard regarding a Galilean I had never seen.
“It is also reported that he made an inane claim that he would rise from the dead.” The Praetor let this last statement dangle. I decided to let it hang there while Servanus took two deep breaths to compose himself.
“We have received reports that the Galilean’s body is missing from its tomb. Fama volat. This rumour has led people– Hebrews mostly– to claim they have actually seen the man post mortem. We want you to look into the matter. The man had followers– disciples. We do not wish to see the problem get out of hand. Cessante causa cessat et effectus– the cause ceasing, the effect also ceases. Recover the body so we can lay this matter to rest and expose it as some ridiculous hoax. Bring forward the ones responsible to answer for their actions.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“That is all,” Servanus said rising from his chair.
I remained sitting and asked: “Did this political dissident from Galilee have a name?”
Servanus shuffled through some papers on his desk, picked one out and studied it. “The man’s name was . . . Jesus,” he said, squinting at the report. “Jesus of Nazareth.”
I rose and turned to leave when Servanus added, “The Governor has taken a special interest in this case. He wishes to see it brought to its inevitable conclusion. He will not tolerate failure, and neither will I.”
I nodded my understanding, and took my leave. The Praetor’s last words were too apparent. If this did not go well, the chances of my ever returning to Rome were negligible.
Back in my quarters I removed my toga which I wore only on official meetings– the one with Servanus barely counted– and I went out in my tunic. I felt it made my appearance less conspicuous. I walked out of the Antonia Fortress that served as the barracks for the Roman troops in Jerusalem. The structure, built by Herod the Great, was named after his then-patron, Mark Antony. The name of the fortress no longer carried the respect it once did. Soon after his defeat by Octavian’s forces, Antony took his own life like any dishonoured Roman should. With its massive walls and four tall towers the fortress was a grand structure by Judean standards, and was situated in the northeast corner of Jerusalem.
Outside, the bright sun reflected off the white stone of the fortress. To keep from under the hot sun I stood in the shadow of the archway. From there, I looked south over the city. Jerusalem was a vast collection of sun-dried buildings housing some sixty thousand inhabitants. Out there, somewhere, I needed to find a least one person who knew where the body of the Galilean, Jesus was taken. Not a very appealing prospect, but I was not in a position to be particular. Considering how my life started out, things could not look more dismal. Sometimes life is funny, and sometimes it is so ridiculous you have to laugh or you'll cry. Right then, I did not know which I wanted to do more.