Her killer straddled her naked and abused body while he held her head below the water’s surface he hoped would silence her. Her features were distorted by the roiling water but she seemed to be staring back at him wide-eyed and terrified. Air bubbles escaped from her pursed lips in spite of her efforts to hold them in. Starved for air, she jerked her head wildly from side to side, desperate to breathe, to scream for help, to stay alive. But no one would hear her cry. Not that night, not ever again. The knife slashed through the leather thong and across her throat, as if writing that cry for her instead. The last air in her lungs burst from the deep wound in her neck to mingle with the blood that gushed out with it. Her killer rocked back from his kneeling position with a curse. Disgusted, he shoved her body the rest of the way into the bath and watched as it sank to the bottom and the blood that streamed from her wounded neck like bright red smoke as it carried her life away. He made a desperate grab for the pendant, the item he’d been sent to retrieve in the first place, but too late. It slipped from his grasp and disappeared in a fresh swirl of the girl’s blood.
Footsteps echoed against tiled walls weeping from condensation formed by the still heated water vapor against their cooling surface. It would be the only weeping done for her. The murderer crept back into the shadows, and thence the farther recesses of the palace, angry that the amulet, the pendant, his object in the whole adventure, had slipped out of his reach. Another mistake. He had to have it, to reclaim it. With the gods’ favor he reckoned it might be possible that whoever was headed this way would not see the girl or the blood and he could slip back and finish his business. A great deal depended on it. He must not fail.
# # #
It had fallen to old Barak to make his rounds at the night’s deepest hour when all of Jerusalem should be in bed and asleep. He shivered at the unseasonable chill and hugged himself in an effort to keep warm. This night, because he had done a favor for the king’s under-steward, he needed only to monitor the bath and its adjacent atrium instead of the whole east end of the palace, his usual round. This meant he was ahead of schedule and in a few moments would be back in his own warm bed with his wife of fifty years. Barak had served this king and his father before him. Now, in his sixty-seventh year he shuffled through the dimly lit hallways weary but comforted by the fact that he had a roof over his head and a sense of security at an age when many like him were cast out or dependent on children and grandchildren. The large vaulted room that featured the Roman inspired bath at its center, had only a few flickering torches lighted after the previous evening’s revels. “Roman orgy more like,” he muttered to himself. Barak had no use for the palace’s loose religious observance or this king who seemed determined to dishonor both the Law and the Nation. He’d heard the other servant’s whispers about what went on in this place at night. He assumed the worst about what must have taken place earlier. He closed his mind to these thoughts for fear they might lead him where he should not go. The neopagan mosaics of the bacchanal, scenes of half-naked nymphs and satyrs in shameless poses that decorated the ceiling, were in deep shadow. Barak would not have looked at them anyway. He tried, in spite of the lax form of Judaism practiced by the court, to remain obedient to the Law.
He imagined he heard footsteps as he entered, but in the uncertain light, he saw no one. Even if he had, it would not mean anything to him. Courtiers and servants wandered these halls constantly night and day. What they were up to he could only guess at. Undoubtedly up to no good. He accepted the fact that they lived in a different world than he. He did not envy them for that.
Thanks to the gloom, and because of his advanced years, and failing eyesight, he could be excused for missing the body at first. It was something about the water that caught his eye. No longer clear but dim and sullen somehow. Herodias the Queen, he knew, often requested perfume to be poured into the baths, particularly when it was the women’s time to use them, but adding coloring, well that would be something new. A second glance and he realized the water’s stains were uneven and darker at one end than the other. He wondered if by some accident of plumbing, muddy water had somehow found its way in. The bath, like so many of the city’s water sources owed some of its volume to Pilate’s aqueduct, a project he’d funded with Temple money much to the consternation of the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. When Barak leaned over and lowered his torch close to the surface, he realized the color was not brown, but red. Only then did he spot the naked woman in its murky depths and realize the coloration had most likely resulted from her slit throat, not the introduction of a vial of madder.
He whirled the klaxon he carried in the event he needed to raise an alarm. Within what he would later describe were no more than five heartbeats, the sound of running footsteps shattered the silence. Palace guards crashed into the room, their short Roman swords drawn, eyes alert and busy. The chief steward followed within the next five beats, and chaos followed him. Barak pointed toward the bloody pool and sat down heavily on a carved marble couch, one of which doubtless had supported a nobler backside hours earlier.
The steward rushed out. Guards were posted at all entrances with instructions to allow no one in or out. Barak sighed. There would be no sleeping this night. What would his Minna say when he did not return to their bed?