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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
A DYING MAN.
A DESPERATE SON.
ONLY A MIRACLE CAN SAVE THEM BOTH.
As Jesus Christ suffers an agonizing death, a blind Roman soldier named Longinus is miraculously healed after lancing the crucified body, yet though the miracle restores his eyesight, it marks a new beginning to his troubles as he and his friends flee the authorities determined to suppress any word of what truly happened during those fateful events.
Two thousand years later Professor Laura Palmer is shot and kidnapped in front of her husband, archeology Professor James Acton, as they try to prevent the theft of the world’s Blood Relics, ancient artifacts thought to contain the blood of Christ, a madman determined to possess them all at any cost.
Acton’s desperate pleas for help spur his friends to action, Interpol Agent Hugh Reading, the CIA’s Dylan Kane and Chris Leroux, and the Delta Force’s Bravo Team, all answering the call to help save the woman he loves and the most precious relics the world has ever known.
From USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy comes his twenty-first novel, Blood Relics, a heart pounding thrill ride filled with non-stop action, humor, heartache and intrigue where he once again takes a well-known event in history and expertly weaves it into today’s headlines.
"James Acton: A little bit of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones!"
Though this book is part of the James Acton Thrillers series, it is written as a standalone novel and can be enjoyed without having read any of the previous installments.
With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 five-star reviews, USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over thirty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers. He lives with his wife and daughter and writes full-time.
"A master storyteller." — Betty Richard
"A writer who tells what we are thinking but sometimes afraid to say." — Bruce Ford
"Kennedy kicks ass in this genre." — David Mavity
"One of the best writers today." — Johnny Olsen
"If you want fast and furious, if you can cope with a high body count, most of all if you like to be hugely entertained, then you can't do much better than J Robert Kennedy." — Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer
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“But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.”
John 19:34, King James Bible
“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”
The pace of scientific progress is breathtaking at times, the gap between discovery and market incredibly tight now. What is discovered today can be in consumer hands within twenty-four months, if not sooner. In the past, scientific discoveries often took many years, sometimes decades to make it into the public’s hands. This gave scientists, politicians, ethicists and the general public time to evaluate whether some of those advancements should actually be permitted to happen.
Today that buffer once provided by time is gone.
Now the question is whether or not that is a good thing.
Scientists are now considering trying to bring back the wooly mammoth, confident they have the technology to actually accomplish this. But should this be allowed? If we can bring back extinct species, should we? If we can bring back the wooly mammoth, what about others more recent like the dodo? And if we bring back the mammoth, then decide it was wrong, do we have the right to then kill it?
And what if the technology is taken to the next step? With a single blood cell we can create a clone of an animal and in theory, a person. With the pace of progress racing forward at breakneck speed, some of these experiments are discovered by the public after the successful results are already completed, meaning Pandora’s Box could be unleashed on humanity before it even knows it exists.
And what if we take it beyond animals and to human beings?
Or one human being.
Born two thousand years ago.
A portion of this book deals with the crucifixion of Christ, the rest dealing with the characters’ beliefs around this event. Whether you believe or not is immaterial to the enjoyment of the book as it serves as a backdrop to other events. Though loosely based on the Gospels, artistic license has of course been taken for these scenes and no offence is meant.
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France Present Day
“Oh my God, Laura!”
Professor James Acton dove across the room, sliding on the marble floor as bullets flew overhead, glass and shards of ancient stone raining down upon him as he desperately tried to reach his wife. Screams of agony from one of the cathedral’s defenders momentarily drowned out his wife’s own cries as he scurried on his stomach trying to cover the few short feet to her prone form, his hands, cut and bleeding from the shattered display cases, leaving a crimson trail.
He winced as something sharp sliced into his knee.
He could see the agony on the face of his wife, Professor Laura Palmer, as she gripped her stomach, a rapidly expanding red stain oozing out from between her fingers, her blouse already soaked with blood.
Bullets tore open the floor in front of him causing him to scamper backward, taking cover behind a large display case. He looked for his friend, Interpol Agent Hugh Reading and spotted him behind a pillar on the opposite side of the room from him.
And closer to Laura.
“Can you reach her?”
Reading poked his head out and immediately a bullet ricocheted off the stone pillar. He jumped back, shaking his head. “I’m pinned down.”
Acton tried once again to reach his wife, and again was sent diving for cover. He looked behind him at the French police, their gunfire dwindling, their numbers severely thinned by the explosion, caused he guessed by a grenade of some type. Their attackers, so effective over the past few days, had always arrived well equipped and well organized.
And always unexpectedly.
But today they had been expected.
Or at least anticipated.
The gunfire from the defenders diminished yet again as someone cried out. He watched as one lone man, covered by a pillar, returned fire, followed by the distinctive click of an empty magazine.
The gun clattered to the ground and the opposing fire immediately stopped.
Boots pounding on the marble were ignored as he finally reached his wife, cradling her in his arms as he moved her hands to see the wound. “It’s okay, I’m here,” he said, his beloved looking up at him, her intense pain overwhelming, her face weary.
She’s lost so much blood.
Suddenly Reading was at his side, his cellphone pressed to his ear. Acton lifted his wife’s blouse, blood oozing from the wound, unsure of what to do other than press on it.
Then an idea struck him.
A final, desperate, crazed idea that he couldn’t believe he was even contemplating.
He jumped up as their attackers rushed past, ignoring the unarmed trio. Reaching into a shattered display case, he grabbed a clay jar and returning to his wife, reached inside, scooping its dried contents with his fingers. As he began to remove his hand he felt something press against the back of his head.
“I’ll kindly ask that you not do that.”
He opened his hand, its contents falling back into the jar, then slowly placed the ancient piece of pottery on the floor beside him, raising his hands, Reading already doing the same.
“You have to let me save my wife.”
Another man rushed up beside them, decked out in gear any Special Forces soldier would feel at home in. “All clear, sir.”
The gun was removed from the back of Acton’s head. “Secure these two.”
Acton was hauled to his feet, his hands quickly zip-tied behind his back. He watched as the same was done to Reading while another man began to examine Laura.
“We need to get her to a hospital, now!” cried Acton. A gag was shoved in his mouth then one end of a roll of duct tape slapped against his chest. Within moments he found himself taped tightly to a pillar, Reading struggling nearby in the same predicament.
“Status?” asked the man apparently in charge, his accent distinctly German. Decked out head to toe in black, his only discernable features a tanned, chiseled chin with a thick moustache above his grimacing mouth.
“She’ll die without immediate help.”
A whip of the leader’s hand had his men jumping to action. “Take her with us.”
“No!” screamed Acton against his gag as he wriggled his shoulders and waist in a futile attempt to get loose. Laura cried out weakly as she was lifted by two of the men and carried from the room.
“Status on the relics?”
“All have been retrieved,” said another man as he held up the jar.
“Then we’re done here.”
The room quickly emptied of their attackers as sirens sounded in the distance. Acton slumped against his bindings as he gave up his struggle to free himself, all hope lost.
His wife was gone, taken from him with a stomach wound that looked fatal, and he was powerless to help her, to stop these men who hadn’t yet hesitated to kill in their mad quest.
He sobbed into his gag as he realized he would probably never see her alive again, never hold her in his arms, feel her breath on his face, caress her cheek as they made love, or start the family they had been talking about having.
She would die alone.
And he swore he’d kill every last one of those responsible.
Jerusalem, Judea April 7th, 30 AD The Third Hour
Longinus cocked an ear, trying to pick out from the amassed crowd any tidbit that might reveal what the commotion he was hearing was all about. His eyes, failing him for years now, revealed only dark shadows in front of him, details of his surroundings long since lost to the ravages of what the garrison doctor had called cataracts.
“You’ll never see properly again, and in time, you won’t be able to see at all. At least anything we would call seeing.”
The doctor had shrugged. “A year. Years. There’s no way of knowing, it’s different for everyone. If you’re lucky you’ll finish your term of service and get your pension before it gets too bad.”
Well, he hadn’t. With only a few months left before he was due to return home, he was now pretty much useless as a soldier. But his friends were helping him as best they could, he well liked in his contubernium.
And his best friend, Albus, was almost never far from his side.
“Looks like another crucifixion.”
“Again?” Longinus frowned, shaking his head. One of the few blessings of being blind was not having to see another person nailed to a cross, left out in the sun to die for all to see, their crime sometimes written on a piece of paper, sometimes wood, tacked to the cross as a warning to anyone else who might dare to break the law. “I wonder what this one has done.”
“Who knows nowadays? The Prefect might just have been in a bad mood.” There was a grunt of surprise from his friend. “There’s two others with this one.” Albus gasped. “By the gods! You should see the first one, he’s in rough shape. His back is so bloodied it’s soaked completely through his robe. And”—there was a pause, Albus’ gentle hold on his arm slipping for a moment—“there’s something on his head. It looks like thorns! A circle of thorns!”
“What? Like a crown?” Longinus had never heard of anything like that being done before, and he had seen countless crucifixions in his time, and now, with his poor eyesight, it was one of his more common duties to join the guard at the crucifixion site and wait for the death of the convicted.
“They can’t run away from you up there!” his commander had cried, roaring with laughter. Longinus had laughed with him, used to the constant jabs at his expense, those low in the ranks, condemned to the menial tasks of a soldier, always on the lookout for an opportunity to revel in the misery of their peers.
But he was thankful. His commander could have dismissed him, but instead had found a purpose for him.
Just three more months!
Then he’d be heading home to his family.
It had been so long since he had heard from them, and even longer since he’d seen them. The pessimist in him wondered if they were even alive, and on the bad nights, when doubt and loneliness welled up with the self-pity he sometimes gave into over his condition, he couldn’t seem to bring up an image of them, a frustratingly crushing experience that would send him rushing into the darkness that was his existence, to drown his sorrows in drink until he forgot why he had been sad in the first place.
It’s been so long!
He felt tears flood his eyes as a pang of sorrow stabbed at his chest.
Longinus immediately recognized the voice of their commander. He was close. He felt Albus’ grip tighten slightly, gently guiding him so that he’d be facing the man, then they both snapped to attention. Decanus Vitus knew full-well of his condition, but those more senior didn’t. If it became too obvious to those around them that one of Rome’s finest wasn’t up to par—such as by standing at attention facing the wrong direction—Vitus would be forced to do his duty and dismiss him.
Thus violating his contract, thus forfeiting his pension.
If only I had lost my sight in battle!
But no, he was cursed to have lost it naturally, from old age and weak stock apparently.
“I want you two to accompany this procession to Golgatha, help with the crucifixions, then stand guard until the last of them passes.”
“Yes, sir!” they both replied.
Vitus lowered his voice and Longinus could see his shadow lean in closer. “You should hear this one’s story. Ridiculous! Clearly mad.” The hot morning sun quickly returned to its assault on his face as Vitus stepped back. “I’ll see you back at the barracks. Report to me as soon as they’re all dead.”
Longinus heard the commander walk away, Albus taking him by the arm and leading them toward the ruckus. “Stand aside!” shouted Albus, the crowd of the subjugated immediately parting to let them pass, and once they had done so, returning to their shouts. Most were hurling insults or taunting the condemned men, something he had heard every single time he had drawn this duty over the years.
In his experience most of those lining the streets never knew the convicted, never knew their crimes, instead merely thrilled in taking a break from their daily struggles to enjoy seeing someone whose day was guaranteed to end worse than their own.
The distinctive sound of the wooden crosses, dragging on the hard packed dirt and stone filled his ears, the jerking motions as they advanced with each halting step bringing their bearers inexorably closer to their own doom, seemed particularly slow today.
“The first one, he’s weak,” explained Albus, answering his unspoken query. “There’s so much blood, they must have really beaten him.”
“Please, my Lord, let me help you!”
“Stand back,” shouted Albus at the woman who had spoken. “Do not interfere with the procession!”
“But let me at least wipe his brow, he’s so exhausted!”
There was a pause then acquiescence from his friend. “Very well.”
The dragging of the cross stopped for a brief moment and he could hear the woman whispering words of comfort to the man, words he couldn’t hear above the shouts of the crowd, a crowd he noticed seemed to have a larger number of people than usual unhappy with what was happening. Women were wailing in sorrow, men were shouting in anger not at the men bearing their crosses, but at the soldiers enforcing Prefect Pilate’s orders.
The splintering of wood dragging on the unforgiving ground resumed, a hint of renewed energy then a gasp from the crowd. A loud crash and a man’s weakened grunt of shock suggested to him that the man had fallen, his heavy load tumbling to the ground.
“You there, come here!”
Longinus turned toward Albus’ voice as a shadow approached.
“What is your name?”
“You look like a traveler.”
“I’ve just arrived from Cyrene.”
“You look strong. Take his cross or we’ll be here all day.”
“But I have business to attend to!”
Longinus heard a hand-width of sword drawn from its scabbard. “Your business can wait.”
“Very well,” replied the man, no fear in his voice.
Longinus listened as the man lifted the cross from the ground, the scrape strong, swift, but instead of it continuing up the road, it stopped.
“What’s happening?” he whispered to Albus, not wanting anyone to know he couldn’t see.
“He’s helping the man to his feet. A few women are cleaning him up. I think they’re friends, perhaps family.”
Longinus nodded as the scraping continued, still a staccato rhythm as the cross dragged with each of the man’s steps.
A woman wailed, joined by several others.
Suddenly the procession stopped again.
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, weep for yourselves and for your children…”
“Who’s speaking?” asked Longinus.
“The condemned man,” hissed Albus in his ear. The crowd immediately fell silent, as if this man’s words meant something more than the usual pleas of innocence so often cried by the condemned.
His voice was weak but confident, as if the man had not yet lost his will to live, his mind and soul still resilient, merely his body failing him.
“…for the time will come when you will say, blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed! Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ for if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
“Move along!” shouted Albus, ending the man’s speech, the sound of Simon carrying the cross resuming, the crowds swarming along with the condemned men surging forward, faster than before as the strong, fresh traveler seemed intent on making quick work of his task so he could return to his original plans.
The sun was hot and unforgiving already though it was still morning. The uphill climb out of the city, to the hillside known as Golgatha, was grueling even for Simon, a man whose voice had suggested he was large. Albus’ gentle grip on Longinus’ arm never wavered, and neither did the wails of the women following the procession, the bulk of the crowds abandoning their pursuit once the city gates were cleared, though a strong contingent of those delighting in the misery of these three men followed, their hatred seemingly focused solely on this poor soul who had been severely beaten.
“We’re here,” whispered Albus. “You stand guard here,” he said in a louder voice, pushing on Longinus’ arm, spinning him to face the crowds. Longinus could see the mix of dark and light in front of him. He jabbed the base of his spear into the dirt, taking a wide stance and extending his right arm with the spear to his side, his other arm held out to block the crowd.
“No one passes,” he said in a commanding voice, immediately halting the advance of the shadows cast before him. The crowd stopped and he put his hand on his hip, listening, even the coldest of those gathered shunned into silence at the gruesome task now being carried out.
The distinct sound of the three crosses tossed off the shoulders of their bearers, the wood clattering on the solid rock, was followed by pleas from two voices he didn’t recognize, clearly the men that had accompanied the other weakened man, the man whose words still confused Longinus.
“If people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
What did it mean? What tree?
“What is it?” asked the weakened voice.
“Wine with gall. It will help with the pain,” replied Albus, his voice beseeching the man to take the liquid offered to all the condemned.
Longinus’ eyebrows rose slightly. He couldn’t recall the last time, if ever, one of the condemned had refused the acidic wine mixed with wormwood, the combination dulling the senses for what was to come.
Who is this man?
A hammer hit an iron spike, someone cried out in agony, the gasp of the crowd suggesting the man who had shown so much courage and strength up to this point.
But he can’t escape the pain.
He tried to tune out the taps of the hammer, instead returning to his thoughts on the man’s words. Perhaps the tree was a metaphor? That made sense, but Longinus wasn’t much for metaphors, in fact he wasn’t much for any of the flowery language those who would call themselves philosophers and scholars espoused whenever he heard them. Speak plain, speak straight, then there’s no misunderstandings.
Perhaps the green tree means when times are good?
That made sense. Perhaps he meant if things like this were done in good times, then what horrors might be seen when times were bad?
Another spike, another cry. He forced himself to not wince with each tap of the hammer, each one eliciting a shriek from one of the gathered women. He wondered who they were, what connection they had to this man, for it was sympathy that he was hearing for this one man, not the other two. In fact, all the support, and all the hatred, seemed exclusive to this one soul, and he again wondered what he must have done to elicit such diametrically opposed reactions from those gathered.
The tapping of the hammer echoed across the rocky hilltop, different this time, and he recognized the sound made when something was tacked onto the cross.
Probably his sentence.
The sound of the first cross being lifted, its base slipping into the hole dug long ago, the thud followed by a cry from the poor soul condemned to die in such a horrendous fashion, signaling at least the beginning of the end of these doomed men’s time on Earth.
The other two men were next, the impact of their crosses slamming into their holes reverberating through the stone Longinus stood on.
It was a feeling he had never noticed before, he never before particularly caring about any of those who had been condemned.
But something was different here today.
Something felt different.
As if some great injustice were being committed, something that they would later come to regret if they continued.
Feet scraping on the rock behind him had him turning slightly.
“How are you, my friend?”
It was Albus. He nodded. “Fine. Who is he? The one they’re all crying over?”
“I’ve never heard of him, but according to the sign Pilate wanted nailed to his cross, he certainly thought a lot of himself. No wonder they sentenced him to death, and no wonder so many of these people are pissed off.”
“Why, what does it say?”
“It says ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews’.”
Cathedral of San Salvador, Oviedo, Spain Present Day, Two days before the Paris assault
Father Rodriquez leaned over and poked the fire, getting a little more life out of it before stoking it one final time, his eyes heavy. It had been a long day, the world inside the walls surrounding him not immune to the struggles of these times his beloved country found itself in. An economy nearly bankrupted by the Great Recession and a foolish dalliance in expensive green energy had resulted in a youth unemployment rate of nearly fifty percent.
Which meant a restless youth.
His days were filled with endless parades of mothers leading young sons—literally by the ear sometimes—to see him, to give them a talking to in a too often futile effort to keep these bored and frustrated young men on the straight and narrow.
And too often his nights were filled chasing away those same men looking to blow off steam with a little vandalism.
He hooked the poker on its stand then picked up the book he had been reading from his lap, one of his perennial favorites, Robinson Crusoe. Reaching over to the small side table without looking, his hand instinctively found the glass of red wine he had been nursing. He began to read one of his favorite parts of the book then closed his eyes, taking a sip of the wine as he savored the effect the tannins had on his tongue. His mind wandered, picturing himself on some deserted island in the middle of nowhere, building a home to not only protect himself from the elements, but from cannibals as well, disguising his new home from outside eyes.
He opened his own, looking about the sparse rectory. The life of a priest was a lonely one. Gone were the days where parishes were so well attended that several priests were sometimes required. There was no more camaraderie among those of the cloth. It was a lonely existence, but it was the one he had chosen so long ago.
Fifty years next month.
He looked at the crucifix his proud mother had given him the day he had graduated from the seminary.
Oh Mama, I look forward to seeing you and Papa again.
They had both died in the past few years, his mother’s a difficult death, Alzheimer’s taking her mind long before her body. But they were at peace now, together he knew in the Kingdom of God.
He winced, a stabbing pain in his knee reminding him of just how many years he had put onto his own bones. He would be retiring soon, something he felt would probably kill him long before any disease might. He couldn’t imagine the boredom. Though he complained silently of the stream of people entering the church day after day looking for him to solve their problems rather than they themselves doing the obvious, he would miss them.
The people of this community were his friends.
Though it wouldn’t hurt some of them to invite me to dinner from time to time.
Too often he spent his evenings alone, heating a can of soup on his small stove, his old radio providing his only company.
No one wants to dine with an old man who reminds them of their sins.
He laughed, shaking his head and taking another sip of wine, its numbing qualities slowly taking hold, the pain in his knee subsiding if only slightly.
Looking back at the page, he began to read about the elaborate fence Crusoe was building when he heard a loud bang from outside.
Those cursed teenagers!
He placed his glass of wine and book on the table, struggling to his feet. Slipping into his slippers and tightening the belt on his robe, he grabbed a flashlight and opened the door, walking down the short hallway to the church itself. This was the second time this week, fifth time this month, that someone had attempted to get in. He knew it was teenagers tormenting him, their laughter and snickers from the alleyways echoing across the cobblestone streets when he’d poke his head out the door.
But he had to investigate. He couldn’t ignore the possibility that there might be an actual thief.
For he had been entrusted with one of Christianity’s most precious relics.
A Blood Relic.
The very cloth used to wrap the head of Jesus Christ when he was lowered from the cross.
The Shroud of Oviedo.
It was priceless, irreplaceable.
Stored in the original part of the church since the ninth century, it now stood behind the mighty stone walls of the now much larger cathedral, and iron bars that were rarely opened to the public.
But walls could be breached, locks picked, and display cases opened.
“Who goes there?” he cried into the dark, his flashlight playing across the darkened pews, the only light from prayer candles still flickering nearby and the occasional shaft of moonlight from overhead.
There was no reply of course, but he heard the creaking of the gate as it swung open, sending his heart racing as he rushed forward, faith and duty rather than intelligent forethought sending him hobbling toward the danger, his only weapons God and a flashlight.
“This is a house of God!” he cried into the darkness as he rounded the corner that led to the original structure, the Chapel of St. Michael.
The beam of a flashlight suddenly blinded him. He raised his hand to shield his eyes as he heard glass smashing inside the now unlocked chamber.
“No! Please! You can’t do this! These relics are precious, priceless!” He raised his flashlight, shining it not at the man now trying to blind him, but inside the chamber.
And to his dismay he saw someone lifting the Shroud from its protective case.
“That contains the blood of Christ himself! You cannot take it, you mustn’t take it!”
“Don’t worry, Father. We’ll take good care of it.”
The man spoke passable Spanish but with a slight accent that made him think he might be German.
These weren’t teenagers out to have some fun at his expense.
“Who are you?”
“Nobody you need concern yourself with.”
Fear and rage gripped him and he charged toward the man, a foolish act he knew, but the only one he could think to do.
A muzzle flashed in front of him and he felt a searing pain in his chest as he dropped to his knees, his advance stopped. Tipping over to his side, his flashlight rolled away from his outstretched hand, its beam revealing two men gently placing the shroud in some sort of case, a curious fog or haze roiling from the top of it. One of the men closed it, the case snapping shut with a hiss, giving him some small comfort that their intentions appeared not to be vandalism, but theft.
And as he felt the life blood flow from him, he began to pray to his Lord and Savior for forgiveness in failing to protect the holy relic that contained His healing blood.
Footsteps approached him, somebody kneeling at his side, shining a flashlight in his face then down at his chest where he had been shot. He could see the man’s silhouette as he rose, a cellphone to his ear.
“Yes, we’ve retrieved the relic. Unfortunately the priest interfered.” There was a pause, the sound of someone yelling on the other end. “I’m sorry, but he charged me…no, I don’t think he can be saved…very well, father.”
The phone snapped shut and the man placed a hand on Father Rodriguez’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Father. You were never meant to be harmed.”
“Why are we taking the Shroud? Because some men are not so prepared to die as you are, Father.”
He felt a pat on his shoulder then the fading sounds of boots on the stone floor, a floor that felt colder by the second as he grew weaker and weaker.
Then a smile spread across his face as he closed his eyes.
I’ll see you soon, Mama and Papa.
Golgatha, Judea April 7th, 30 AD The sixth hour
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Longinus’ jaw almost dropped as he realized who this man was, this man whose voice resonated with a timbre that at once suggested wisdom and love with inner strength and courage despite the surety he was soon to die.
This was the man he had heard about, the rabbi who claimed to be the son of the Jewish God. He himself didn’t believe in their god, the entire notion of only a single deity ridiculous. Any reasonably educated person knew there were gods for every aspect of human life, from war to love, that could be called upon in time of need, each focused on their one duty to the exclusion of all others.
How could a single God have the time to deal with all of man’s problems?
But this man here, this man who made the ridiculous claim he was the son of a god, was clearly mad. To not only claim he was the son of a god, and therefore by extension a god himself, was insane. But to do so here of all places, on this day of all days had to be the very definition of lunacy. Today was Passover, from his limited understanding of Judaism the biggest religious holiday of the year. To come to Jerusalem during the Passover with apparently hundreds if not thousands of followers was insane, especially allowing himself to be greeted like a king upon arrival with people throwing their garments on the ground for him to walk on.
It was suicide!
And he had arrived on a donkey.
The very idea of a king riding a donkey!
He chuckled as behind him he heard the guards arguing over the garments the prisoners had worn, all divvied up in short order, the final item, the “king’s” undergarment, drawing particular interest.
“Let’s not tear it,” he heard one say.
“Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” It was Albus who suggested this, the sounds of the impartial method of decision making soon heard, Albus crying out with joy, apparently the winner.
A shadow approached and he held out his arm. It stopped, but what sounded like an elderly man began yelling. “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”
There was laughter among the crowd, another joining in on the taunting. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”
“He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
The taunts continued, the hatred in the voices unsettling. Longinus had heard taunts before, usually from the victims, usually from a murder victim’s family, taunting the condemned, taking pleasure in reminding them of the exquisite hell that awaited them.
But this man had harmed no one.
Though according to what he had overheard, he might have caused great harm. Apparently Prefect Pilate was prepared to shutdown Passover for fears of an uprising, a Jewish rebellion. Hundreds if not thousands could have died had it been allowed to happen. Pilate had told the Jewish leaders to handle it themselves.
Apparently this was how they had chosen to do that.
Kill a single man, an insane, blasphemous man, to save thousands of others.
He had to admit it had a perverse logic to it.
“He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One!”
He had heard enough.
A hush descended upon the crowd, only to be replaced by his own fellow soldiers behind him. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
This seemed to embolden one of the others crucified along with the so-called king. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
His counterpart replied with equal vigor. “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence?”
Longinus turned slightly, listening to the second prisoner with curiosity. It wouldn’t be the first time that a criminal had begged forgiveness once facing imminent death, but they rarely defended each other.
“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” There was a pause, the voice changing slightly as the man seemed to turn his head. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The raspy, weak voice replied, and Longinus’ felt a shiver travel his entire body. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The surety with which the man said these words was inspiring, as if he actually believed the madness he was preaching. Cries from several women in the crowd was proof that many here believed his words too.
And he could understand that.
In the few hours he had been exposed to the man he hadn’t said a negative word, hadn’t begged for his life, instead having begged for forgiveness for those who were doing him ill, and delivering words of comfort to others.
He was truly an inspiring man.
I can see why people would follow him, despite his madness.
“I’m his mother, may we pass?”
Longinus nearly jumped, not having seen even the shadow of the woman who now stood before him. The pain in her voice was clear, the anguish palpable, and he felt his own chest tighten as he imagined how his mother would feel should it be he nailed to a cross, waiting to die.
Several sets of footsteps trudged on the arid ground, those who passed whimpering or sobbing, clearly believers in this man’s message. He looked up at the sky and could spot the bright orb of the sun overhead, and judging by the growl in his stomach, he suspected it was around noon.
He won’t last much longer, not if he was beaten as badly as Albus said.
“Woman, here is your son,” said the voice, weaker still. “Here is your mother.”
It was times like these he wished he could see for he had no idea what the words meant. Who was he talking to? Was it his mother? Was it his brother? It couldn’t be, for surely a mother would know her own son.
This man speaks in riddles!
Maybe he’s going mad with the heat?
The sun was beating down on them now, Golgatha outside the city on a hilltop, there no chance of shade here, the stone and dried dirt they stood upon getting so hot it almost baked the sandal clad feet of those who felt compelled to accompany the condemned.
Which meant the crowds had thinned even more, and he suspected by the time the end arrived, it would be thinner still.
The insults were few now, those whose hearts were filled with hatred seemingly not willing to endure the heat in the name of their convictions.
Footsteps approached from behind, a hand gently gripping his shoulder. “There’s no need to stand guard anymore, come sit with us.” Longinus nodded, turning and walking forward, his steps slow, deliberate, as he followed the shadow of Albus, nervous he might trip on the uneven ground. The shadow stopped and Albus grabbed his hand. “Let me help you, old man!” he said with a laugh, a good cover as Longinus sat where he stood, Albus guiding him to the ground before sitting beside him.
Something was placed in his hand.
Longinus took a long drag of the harsh liquid, the wine having long turned to vinegar, losing any of its pleasurable qualities once intended by the vintner.
A gust of wind swept over them providing a welcome respite from the heat if but for a moment.
“Look!” cried someone to his left. A shadow crossed his path, a large shadow, and it took him a moment to realize it wasn’t a shadow at all. He looked up and felt his heart slam in his chest.
The sun was gone.
Corpo della Gendarmeria Office Palazzo del Governatorato, Vatican City Present Day, Two days before the Paris assault
Vatican Inspector General Mario Giasson hung up the phone, shaking his head. Someone had stolen a priceless Blood Relic in Spain, murdering a priest in the process. He had always wanted more security put in place for these relics, in fact, he had always been a proponent of bringing all these relics, so important to Christian belief, behind the massive walls surrounding them.
But his concerns had always been dismissed, and he understood the reasoning. These relics were sometimes critical draws to the churches that held them, precious to their parishioners, usually safely held for centuries. Over the decades security measures had been put in place from locks, gates and protective cases, sometimes even alarm systems, but rarely were guards present.
It was simply too expensive.
We rely too heavily on the goodness of man.
It was an evil world, something that seemed reinforced with his daily reading of the news, and this phone call had merely cemented his view a little more. An aged priest, near retirement, killed protecting a relic he had no business protecting, a relic only precious to those who believed, and should they truly be believers, a relic they wouldn’t dream of stealing.
He knew that thinking was naïve. All believers aren’t good people, of that there was no doubt. The classic example were the deeply religious Mafioso that so populated the country surrounding this tiny city state. How men could commit murder with one hand and hold rosary beads with the other, was beyond him.
I hope there’s a special corner of hell reserved for them.
An alarm sounded and he jumped to his feet, rushing out into the security office, those manning the computers and security monitors shouting out questions and answers, the main feeds on the wall of monitors beginning to switch to the area in question.
The nightshift supervisor, Alfredo Ianuzzi, turned in his desk. “Silent alarm from Saint Peter’s Basilica, Saint Longinus display, sir.”
“Saint Longinus? What’s kept there?”
“There they are!” shouted one of his men, Francesco Greco, pointing at the screen. Giasson watched as three men, all in black, submachine guns in hand, raced through the deserted nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, it having been closed for the night hours ago.
“Notify the Swiss Guard. I want this place locked down!”
More alarms sounded, a coded alert sent out over the PA system. On the screens guards raced toward the Basilica and St. Peter’s Square. Giasson grabbed a radio from the charging station and rushed out the door. Sprinting toward the square, he held the radio up to his mouth, pressing the Talk button. “Report!”
“They’ve just cleared the Portico,” replied Ianuzzi. “Our guards are moving to intercept.”
“Do we know what they stole?”
Giasson burst through a set of doors, startling several priests deep in conversation. He tried to remember what relics might be worth stealing in the Saint Longinus display, but was drawing a blank.
Then a thought hit him, almost bringing him to a halt.
He forced himself forward, despite his lungs burning from his unusually long sprint. He raised the radio again, gasping out his question. “Are there any Blood Relics stored there?”
He surged through the outer doors and into St. Peter’s Square, dozens of the Swiss Guard racing toward the obelisk that towered over the center of the massive gathering place.
“Sir, the Holy Lance is kept there!”
Two Blood Relics stolen within hours of each other was too much of a coincidence. Which meant these people were either the thieves and murderers from Spain, or were connected with them somehow.
But they wouldn’t be getting away today.
Gunfire sprayed the ground in front of him and he skid to a halt, ducking.
He heard someone shouting closer to the main gates, their voice carrying over the cobblestone. Looking, he gasped. A set of intensely bright lights were rapidly approaching the gates, a thumping sound getting louder and louder as what could only be a helicopter raced toward the tiny nation, it surrounded on all sides by a densely packed Rome.
The helicopter cleared the gates with what looked like only feet to spare, the guards all turning their attention to the new arrival as its nose pulled up, killing its forward momentum. As it slowly turned the lights blinding him changed direction and he was able to see the side doors were open, people inside throwing down ropes.
“Stop them!” he shouted as he resumed his charge. But it was too late. The three men hooked onto the ropes and the chopper rose, banking back toward the main gates as the thieves were pulled from the ground, slowly reeled in as his men were left staring at the rapidly receding helicopter, unable to open fire lest their bullets find innocent flesh on their descent.
Giasson shook his head in awe as he watched the helicopter bank around the corner, still barely above street height, the three men swinging wide, almost hitting the buildings as they continued to be pulled inside.
He raised his radio. “Get me the Roma Polizia.” He paused for a moment, then nodded, a decision made.
“And put in a call to Agent Hugh Reading of Interpol.”
Golgatha, Judea April 7th, 30 AD The Ninth Hour
It was dark now, almost as dark as night, at least it might as well have been for Longinus. Everything was a dark, gray mass to his failing eyes. Nighttime had once been his enemy, he making it a point to try and be inside by nightfall, in his bed laughing with his comrades, or sleeping. But as he adapted, he realized that nighttime provided him the cover he needed at times for his ailment. Walking with a hand held out tentatively, running along the wall as a guide was the norm, everyone doing it, nobody judging you or asking you questions, and he had found when it was dark, when the noise of the day had given way to slumber, his other senses were heightened.
It was as if he could sense where things were.
And with the wind whipping around them, almost unabated for the past three hours since the darkness had fallen upon the land, Albus describing thick, black, billowing clouds overhead, he had found himself simply closing his eyes, listening to the sounds around him. Albus was at his right, the other soldiers, four in number, farther still to his right.
All were scared.
Mourners were gathered at the foot of the cross occupied by the man named Jesus, their whimpering and sobbing still heard, as if carried by the wind directly to his ears. The pleas and whining of the two criminals had given way to silence, though they were still alive.
And Jesus had said almost nothing since the sky had darkened.