The rain fell almost hard enough to wash the lice out of the beggars’ beards. Almost. These were Jerusalem lice. You didn’t survive in Jerusalem long without being tough and those critters hung on and dug in like relatives at a rich man’s funeral.
It had been six months since the case I’d labelled the Jerusalem Caper for my memoirs and things were back to normal for me. A few jobs here and there and those were lousy. My office had me for company and I think it was considering suicide. I couldn’t blame it.
The scholars, priests, guards, and vendors were all hurrying through the downpour to wherever it was they were going. It didn’t look like any of them were hurrying to my office. The early evening had all the hallmarks of looking like another quiet one with my feet on the desk sipping fermented prune juice.
"Sam, there’s a Mister Hired Goon to see you." That was Effie Perine of Judea, my loyal and long-suffering secretary. Maybe I’d drifted off for a few seconds because I hadn’t heard her come in. I was briefly annoyed. That’s the sort of thing that can get you killed in this line of business, not that I had much to fear lately. You don’t become the target of reprisals when you’re spending most of your time looking for missing cats.
There was a hulking great shadow in the doorway behind Effie. He pushed himself into the room.
"Let me guess," I ventured dismissively. "You’re a Goliath lookalike and some runt called David is muscling in on your territory."
Mister Hired Goon didn’t appreciate the humour and made for my desk brushing Effie out of the way. I didn’t appreciate the way he knocked her. We all have our limits. I reached for the Smith & Ishmael .22 Slingshot from the drawer but never had a chance.
Damn! He was fast.
"Damn! You’re fast!" I thought he deserved to hear what I was thinking. I thought the flattery might buy me some time too while I considered my position pushed up against the wall with my feet inches clear of the floor.
"Little Pee-Pee has a job you will be interested in." His breath stank of garlic. I let him have the full force of prunes in return.
"He didn’t want to come here personally?" I asked.
"That’s not Little Pee-Pee’s way." I was dropped to the ground. I made a mental note to buy sandals with more cushioning. A moment later and my offerer of employment had left. In my hand I held the small stone calling tablet he’d left. There was a name and address on it and, on the back, a date and time. Tomorrow night. I could have run. Effie too. Maybe set up in Bethlehem. I heard it rained there harder than here. That wasn’t my way though.
Tomorrow night rolled around right when I expected it to. It was raining all the way to the governor’s villa. I felt miserable but kept a professional sneer on my face. Nobody appreciated a professional sneer like a Roman.
Pontius Pilate. Little Pee-Pee. His dad was Big Pee-Pee. Peter Pilate. He’d set up most of the protection rackets in town when I was skipping school. Little Pee-Pee kept the family business ticking over these days. They said that Pilate Junior had been dropped on his head as a kid; that was why he didn’t object to his nickname. I didn’t know if he actually had a little pee-pee. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have taken a case to find out.
"The famous Samuel Spadius, here in my home!" Little Pee-Pee acted geuninely happy to see me. Or drunk as an Emperor. Seemed I wasn’t the only person buying fermented prune juice by the crate.
"I got your invitation governor. What’s the job?" It was the best growling I’d ever done. A good growl can make all the difference in negotiations. It helped that Goliath’s brother wasn’t around to make me feel insignificant.
"All business. I like that Mr Spadius. Very well, I’ll be all business too. I believe you’ve met the leader of this new group; Christians they call themselves."
I told him I knew of the gentleman. Our meeting hadn’t taken long or involved swapping stories about our childhood and I didn’t want Little Pee-Pee to think we were best buddies. I had a feeling that this new and improved Jesus and the old and traditional Pilate probably weren’t going to be joining up for fireside chats anytime soon and I needed to be as unattached to either group as possible for my own safety.
"It seems that the followers of this Christ fellow aren’t as keen on Roman governance as the Consuls would like and there are rumours of forming a breakaway religion. Needless to say, that’s the sort of thing that could upset Jupiter and if Jupiter gets upset then the Consuls get upset and I get upset and, well, I think you can see how this sort of thing can escalate."
I couldn’t. Jupiter had done very little in recent years as far as my sources knew and he sure as hell hadn’t intervened during the ongoing Praying Incessantly To Jupiter To Stop The Damn Rain Caper. If I was a god then I wouldn’t care about Jews and Romans starting a new religion. It would be premium prune juice all day and all night. Okay. Maybe Jupiter was different to me.
"I understand what you’re saying but where do I fit in?" I asked. I had a horrible feeling I knew anyway.
"You’re a resourceful man Mr Spadius. You’ve many contacts in the city and people who can help you achieve your aims quietly." I liked the flattery but I’m not one of those people who fall for it. I sneered a little more to let him know I wasn’t buying the act. He carried on: "Taxes are what keeps the empire from crumbling and religions are tax-free. If this Christian sect caught on in a big way it could ruin the world. And who would hire a detective in a ruined world?"
He smiled and cocked his head. I wished he would just cut to the chase. And hand out a glass or two of whatever he’d been downing. My throat felt rough from the earlier growling.
"We want Mr Jesus … gone. Again, if you will."
I knew it.
"I detect. It’s what I’m good at. I’m not a killer. And you must have people who can do the job anyway."
"Indeed we do. Fast, large people, as you’re already well aware." Goliath must produce detailed reports of his jobs. I liked that sort of dedication. There wasn’t enough of that sort of work ethic around in the world these days. "But this can’t come back to Rome in any way. The sestertius must stop with someone local. Someone resourceful yet also somewhat unpopular. In case of problems."
I objected to that characterisation of me. I enjoyed my solitude. It gave me time to contemplate where all the rain came from. Effie, I liked, but people in general couldn’t be trusted. But I had bigger problems now. I had a nose for set-ups and this one had the scent of Roman laurel leaves about it.
I told Pilate I’d see what I could arrange. I figured that wouldn’t be enough so I hoped it was a surprise when I didn’t react to the parting comment of "The killing of a miracle man could cause a riot, but secretaries are on every corner lifting their dresses and showing their ankles. Who’d miss such a thing, really? Happy hunting Samuel Spadius!"
I’d been in bad situations before. The Beard Arsonist Caper almost cost me my lips and The Plague Of Scientologists Caper still inflicted mental pain on my body thetans. But Effie was a whole new problem.
I knew that I’d be watched so escape was out of the question. If I hadn’t already met Jesus mark 2 then I might have considered finding a new God and seeing if a miracle could protect me. As it was it boiled down to me and my slingshot. Just like old times. How it should be. I’d have felt better if I wasn’t soaked through from the rain.
I debated about what to say to my secretary. In the end I decided I couldn’t let Effie in on her perilous situation. Dames don’t take that sort of news well and there’d be no chance of learning her filing system before she disappeared outside the city walls.
That left the case and the after-effects to sort out. I’d killed people before, people who deserved it. Often when they were trying to kill me. Cold-blooded murder wasn’t my thing though. My so-called resourcefulness wasn’t popping up any names of trustworthy stooges to fob this job off on either. And if I succeeded some way, what then? I had nothing but despair along that train of thought.
Days passed and I’d finally decided to fake my own death in a Sea of Galilee fishing accident when a crumb of luck landed on my plate. The city was buzzing with news of a new record-breaking miracle attempt to take place during the upcoming weekend. One loaf, one fish, nine thousand people. Perfect. I watched the rain wash away the rest of the week.
"Who are you?" The grunted question came from a familiar face; one of the brothers who’d stopped me from seeing Jesus 2 before. I hoped I looked different enough to not be recognised. I’d bought new sandals, a great-looking hat, and combed my beard just for the occasion. No lice. That was the first pleasant surprise I’d had since the Someone’s Dropped A Gourd Caper.
"Guinness," I replied. I told him I was at the record attempt to check everything was above board. You couldn’t get the record without independent adjudication. I thought the long words must have confused him because a few seconds later I’d been let through backstage at the event. Maybe the rain was getting through my skull and staring to dilute my brain. I should have known better than that.
For the second time in as many weeks I found myself up against a wall, feet dangling in the breeze.
"Samuel Spadius, we meet again."
I tried to nod but the hands pinning my throat made that difficult. I managed to force a smile.
"Hello Abe. Good crowd for such a wet day," I spluttered.
"I’d love to talk about it Sam but we’ve got a little problem to sort out first. The last time we met I warned you about causing trouble. And look what happens! You’re here. Causing trouble. What’s a religious icon like myself to do?"
The Apostle gang laughed. My instinct told me I was wasting my time but I tried the old innocent approach.
"What trouble Abe? I’m just trying to get the best view of the miracle."
"You’re here to kill me detective man. Little Pee-Pee’s not best pleased with the business he’s losing and you’re the little man’s solution. If my brother was alive he’d turn in his tomb at such goings-on."
I tried not to think about that last sentence too much. That’s the sort of thing that leads to headaches and I had enough problems. Somebody was feeding Jesus’ brother with a lot of good information. I had my suspicions who it was.
"Look, I came here to talk to you, that’s all," I tried. "Pilate wants to get together and work out a solution, beneficial to both of you. I’m just a messenger."
"You’re a liar Spadius and after I’ve transformed the food on stage into the food stolen from the warehouses in Nazareth I’m going to perform a very private transformation where you turn into a deceased detective. Slowly."
It wasn’t unusual for me to find myself trapped and awaiting certain death on a case. The last time had been the Let’s See How Crumbly The Cliff Edge Really Is Caper. I suspected a passing albatross wasn’t about to come to my aid this time. There was little I could do, surrounded by three of the bulkiest of Abe’s men while the miracle man himself was on the hillside enchanting donations from the crowd so I thought about rain some more.
I was distracted by a sudden commotion among the thousands of people present. The gang were intrigued enough to ignore me too. I had a chance to make a break for it but something stopped me. Something very large and very fast. In a flurry of fists and feet I found myself standing over three comatose bodies, sheltered by the hulking mass that was the Goliath-a-like.
"It would appear that Mr Christ could not survive the miracle of the exploding fish," I said, looking at the mushroom cloud rising into the air in the distance. "You tipped off Abe and his lot that I was coming so that you’d have a chance to switch fish. I was nothing more than bait."
"Little Pee-Pee says to tell you that you’ve been a great help and that he gave a lot of consideration to reducing your tax burden for the coming year but decided not to so as not to arouse suspicion."
Just great. I needed a drink. It’s not every day you get used as a pawn in some grand scheme despite what the peddlars of the various religions tell you. If you did you’d go stark-staring mad.
The rain couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds streaming away from the exciting human fireball ascension to heaven they’d just witnessed but it was soaking into the extra cushioning on my sandals and squelching between my toes. That’s the sort of thing that sums up a caper quite nicely.