The Case of the Strange Etruscan Vase
by Joy Ellen Parker (Joyspc at aol.com)
Caleb bar Simeon, who was once known as Metellus the retiarius, paced up and down on a sun-baked ridge on the road to Jerusalem and tried to control his temper. He had always had anger, but from the time he had first fought back as a zealot against the Romans who oppressed his people, his anger had found a focus. He had used it as a prod to push himself to find his mother and sisters in Rome when they had been sold into slavery, and he had used it as a weapon when he decided to join the gladiator school of Serpenius to earn the money to buy them back.
He hadn’t known then that he was too late to save his mother and Ruth from death, or that Sarah had already been freed by her Roman, Valerius—or for that matter, that he would fall in love with a Roman himself. A brief smile curled his lips up when he thought of Corinna. They hadn’t wanted her at the meeting. After all, they said, she was a woman and the revolt, the war, was a matter for men–never mind that Corinna had killed far more able men in the arena than any of them. Caleb kicked a pebble and listened to it scutter down the ridge.
He had known how it would be and had prepared Corinna. His people, after all, were much less permissive than the Romans, and she had accepted it. She had their son to see to, after all. “I have laid down my sword for now,” she had said. “The men of Judea have no need of lessons from me.” He knew she was just glad that he was finally doing what he had dreamed of, fighting to free his country. Still, he huffed a laugh, thinking that if only she had been in the meeting, she might have managed to keep him from calling Jubal a fool and practically throwing a plate of dates at his head.
It was difficult for him too, he admitted to himself. He had expected to be respected. Unlike most of the fighters here, he had fought against and with Romans on their own soil. He knew their tactics, and he knew them. He had expected to be valued accordingly and to be trusted. Instead, his expertise was viewed with unspoken suspicion and many of his suggestions rejected out of hand. Not that the leaders of the revolt had gone so far as to refuse his sword arm’s help. Still, in the three years since he had left Rome with Corinna and their adopted baby to join the fight, he had yet to penetrate to the inner circle, or—and this was worse from his point of view—to really strike a killing blow at the heart of Rome in Israel. The missions he’d been given were mostly successful, but he couldn’t help thinking the overall strategy was flawed, and it seemed, he couldn’t help saying so. He shook his head at his own folly.
“Stop sulking, Caleb.” He spun, sword in hand, to see a young man leaning on a rock nearby. Caleb thought at first that he must be one of the Zealots from the meeting, but there was something very off about the man. He was dressed all in white for one thing. The robe seemed to be made of linen as fine as a Roman senator might wear. It was nearly blinding even in the late afternoon light, making Caleb squint. The stranger’s head and feet were bare—which made no sense. He had a sword belt buckled around his waist, but no sword was in the sheath. He held a long staff.
“Do I know you?” Caleb didn’t lower his guard.
“I think you do. I am Michael.” The stranger’s voice rose like a trumpet blast. Light blared out all around him with the sound of it. Caleb could see every rock and grain of sand for ten feet around. His legs and arms began to tingle as if all the blood in him were rushing away. He fell to his knees. The memory of all his battles, all his kills, came at him at once. All that rage, spent—and for what?!
Caleb jerked as a hand landed on his shoulder. The noise and light were gone. He raised his face out of the dirt and looked into the eyes of God’s angel, who slid his hand under Caleb’s arm and raised him to his feet with a brisk and quite ordinary-sounding “Up now. You are not to kneel to me. You know that. We have the same Commander.”
Caleb found himself seated on a rock across from Michael. He licked his lips and managed to croak out, “Why have you come here?”
“I come with a message from the Lord Jesus Christ—and a question.” The angel’s lips curled up.
“The Lord Jesus—Saul. . .er. . .Paul was right? But. . .I don’t understand. . .” Everything he wanted to ask seemed to try to climb out of his throat at once. The angel merely looked at him until he wound down.
“My question is this: Do you want to fight a war?”
Caleb was about to shout an instant reply, but the memory of that moment of blinding insight stopped him. He scraped at his beard with his fingernails and thought.
“I thought I did. At first, I mainly wanted revenge, but I had my bellyful of that in the arena. I wanted. . .want my people to be free. I would spend my life for it, if I could see how to free us all.”
“Look here.” The angel raised the staff and pointed it at the ground. It seemed to peel back, and Caleb saw Jerusalem in flames. Smoke seemed to rise and obscure the city. The angel pulled the staff across the image and it wiped away as if it were a dirt smudge, leaving the plain ground behind again. “The revolt will fail,” he said.
“Why has God abandoned us?”
“I am not telling you anything you do not know, Caleb, and you have a strange notion of abandonment to complain of it to me.”
“But. . . .”
The angel held up a hand. “I can see now why I was sent and not some other, quieter messenger. You do remember your sister, Sarah, and her husband, Valerius?”
“Of course, I remember Sarah and Valerius. What has that got to do with. . .”
The hand went up again. “How about Nero--remember him?” Caleb wondered what would happen if he tried to hit the angel. Michael grinned.
“There is more than one way to fight.” The angel retrieved the sword that had fallen from Caleb’s grasp and held it out to him. “The Lord of Heaven and Earth has a task or two for you.”
* * *
The last time Lestrade had delivered a baby, it was an Academy simulation, and designed to be very chaotic, of course; but the calm voice of the cab’s emergency AI had talked her through, and she had managed to pass the test. She longed for that AI as she walked Sarah up and down with Holmes and Valerius, and composed a very stern mental letter to her Academy instructors.
“I want to lie down!” groaned Sarah, again.
“Well, you can’t right now. Walking is good for you,” Lestrade told her. Holmes had been the one to suggest this. He said it would align Sarah’s pelvis and help the whole process along. He had obviously known what Lestrade had suspected: stalling tactics were not going to work. It was late afternoon now, and hot in the apartment. Sweat was beginning to run into Lestrade’s eyes.
Sarah twitched her arm out of her husband’s grasp, listing against Lestrade in the process. Holmes steadied both of them from behind. “You all act as if I’ve never done this before—UHHhhhhhggggggggggg!”
“I think that it may be time for Sarah to lie down,” Lestrade said to Holmes.
“Indeed.” He was pale as milk, but she would have enjoyed his discomfort more if she were watching it on a vid from at least a hundred miles away.
Valerius half-lifted Sarah, aiming for a nearby low couch meant for reclining on during meals. Among the three of them, they managed to get her on to it. Anna came forward with some clean sheets to put underneath her. Lestrade tried for the twentieth time not to think about germs and diseases. Sarah was obviously a neat-freak—for an ancient Roman. That didn’t stop Lestrade from wishing that a gleaming New London Hospital operating theater, complete with surgeon, would materialize around them.
Sarah screamed, drawing her legs up, and latched on to Valerius’ hand. Lestrade added modern drugs to her wish list, as Sarah screamed again, and snatched up a wet cloth from a bowl on the table. As she wiped Sarah’s forehead with the cloth, Anna peered between Sarah’s knees for a moment and then laid her small hands on Sarah’s heaving stomach. Lestrade handed the rag to Holmes, walked over to where the little girl was standing, and laid her own hands next to Anna’s, trying to remember what she was supposed to be feeling for. She found herself praying for the first time in a very long time *O God, let the baby not be turned! O God, don’t let me screw this up!* “Everything feels okay,” she reported. Don’t worry, Sarah. We’re heading to the finish line. This kid wants out.”
“Arrrrrrrrre you sure?” groaned Sarah.
“It’s fine,” said Anna, “I can see the baby’s head coming, just like before.” She gripped one of Lestrade’s hands though, and Lestrade could feel her trembling.
“Go ahead and push, love,” Valerius added.
“What do you think I’ve been doing!” Sarah shrieked, as she bore down again—and again. For a while nothing much seemed to happen.
“It won’t be long now,” Valerius said, kissing his wife’s forehead.
“I love you, Valerius Licinius,” panted Sarah, “but if you open your month one more time, I’m going to rip your tongue out with my bare hands! Argggggggggggg!!”
Lestrade looked up and saw that Holmes had moved from where he’d been standing and taken Sarah’s other hand. Lestrade wasn’t sure if he was meaning to comfort her, or prevent a homicide, but either way, it seemed to calm Sarah. Between contractions, her face had an intent inward look.
Lestrade pulled her attention back to the task at hand and was relieved that things finally seemed to be progressing again. It was time to ease the baby’s shoulders out a bit.
Lestrade had seen a lot of wonderful and terrible things in her line of work, including a famous nineteenth century detective emerging from a cocoon of honey; but this experience was moving rapidly to the top of her list. She couldn’t believe women all over the world did this all of the time. As the baby slid into the world, she remembered how to clear his mouth and get his lungs going, and his howl of outrage finally broke her fascinated trance. She held him up so Sarah and Valerius could see him.
“It’s a boy!” said Anna. Together, they cut the cord, cleaned him off, and laid him in his mother’s arms.
“Ruth will be so happy!” said Sarah. Her eyes were shinning with unshed tears. Valerius kissed her again, and rubbed his finger down his new son’s cheek.
“Congratulations,“ Lestrade told them. Anna hugged her waist, and she found the energy somewhere to lift the little girl and swing her around. “You did a terrific job, Anna! I’m really proud of you. Now, I’ll take care of the rest of this. You go out and let everyone know the good news.”
Anna sighed. “Thanks so much for helping, Elizabeth. God must have sent you so that everything would be all right.” She whirled away then and galloped out of the house yelling, “Ruth has a new baby brother!” and leaving Lestrade to contemplate God’s sense of humor.
When the afterbirth had been taken care of and the rest of the mess cleaned up, Lestrade stepped away and found herself leaning against Holmes. He began to massage her shoulders. “Well done, Beth,” he murmured in her ear.
“Who are you, and what have you done with Sherlock Holmes?” she whispered. His laugh rumbled all through her, but his hands kept up their task. They both jumped when the door banged open again.
“Look who’s here,” called Anna. She was pulling Helena after her.
“I came to help,” Helena said, “but it looks like you all did fine without me.” She beamed at the room at large.
“I’m glad to see you well, Helena,” Valerius said. “Everyone was worried. Are Ben and Zak with you?”
Helena had been examining the baby. At this, she looked up and smiled at them all again. “Zak is outside. Ben stayed at the bakery to work on the bread for tonight’s meeting. We went out to meet our special guest—guests as it turned out—but we had a delay or two and—.
“Guess what??” Anna interrupted. It was clear she could barely contain herself. “Timothy, Paul’s student, has come all the way from Jerusalem to tell a story at the meeting. He’s the special guest, but that’s not all—”
“Shalom.” A man came in. He went right up to Sarah and laid his hand on her hair. “You are going to name him after me, I hope.”
“Caleb!” Sarah and Valerius exclaimed at once. He grinned down at them both. Lestrade noticed that was very tall and muscular. His curling dark hair was the same shade as Sarah’s. Unlike most of the men Lestrade had seen in her brief stay in Rome, he wore a beard. It was touched here and there with grey.
“God is good to us!” Sarah turned to Holmes and Lestrade, as Valerius rose and embraced the newcomer, pounding him exuberantly on the back. “This is my brother, Caleb. Caleb, these are our new friends, Linus and Elizabeth.
Caleb stared at them for a moment. “Linus, is it? You are the man I’ve come to see.”
“Caleb,” said Valerius. “I don’t understand. When you left, you swore you’d never come back. Now you tell us that you’ve come from Jerusalem to Rome to see Linus?”
“If you can’t credit that, would you believe I came to bring Timothy to you?” Caleb gripped his brother-in-law’s shoulder. “He baptized Corinna and I on the way here.”
“I don’t believe it—how. . .?”
“I’ll tell you all about it at the meeting tonight. Linus?”
Holmes released Lestrade’s shoulders, stepped forward and bowed. “Sir.”
“I’ve heard something about Emperor Nero and a vase that makes earthquakes. I don’t understand much of it, but I’ve been told you need to get into the Golden House.”
Lestrade felt her jaw drop. If Holmes was disconcerted, he didn’t show it. “We do.”
“My wife and I have been talking it over with Ben and Helena. We might have an idea.”
1. Sorry this took so long. Caleb kept arguing with me.
2. The writers of the A. D. mini-series sent him off to Jerusalem in A. D. 64, giving the impression that he was destined to fight in the doomed revolt against Rome that began in A. D. 66. Since Jerusalem was sacked in A. D. 70, this didn’t constitute a happy ending for him and his family as far as I was concerned. So, I meddled. It still took divine intervention to get him to lay aside his plan of dying heroically; and he still argued.
3. Our story is set in A. D. 67.
4. The Apostle Paul was beheaded in Rome around A. D. 65. In the mini-series, Timothy leaves Rome after Paul’s martyrdom to spread the gospel—and deliver Paul’s letters. I thought he’d make a good special guest for the Sunday night meeting. More on that soon, I hope.
5. I now have a three-show crossover. I’m not adding any more shows, I swear.
Ad partem V
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