Read Avenger of Blood Online

Authors: John Hagee

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Avenger of Blood (3 page)

Rebecca tiptoed into the bedroom and closed the door softly behind her, in case the baby was sleeping. She had taken only a few steps into the room when she stumbled and almost lost her balance. She looked down to see what had tripped her and found Agatha lying crumpled on the floor, bound and gagged, a deep gash on the back of her head. Blood had pooled and caked on her face and neck.

Rebecca knelt down beside the housekeeper. Agatha was alive but unconscious.

Instinctively, Rebecca loosened the gag and was starting to untie Agatha's hands when an icy fear gripped her heart.
Victor!

Stifling a sob, Rebecca stood and looked around frantically. Then she ran to the other end of the room, where Victor's crib stood next to her bed.

A long, gleaming sword lay across the empty crib.

2

“FOR ALL PRACTICAL PURPOSES, it's over.” Antony was delighted to deliver the good news to his clients. He sat across from them in their office at the harbor, the sounds of the cargo handlers drifting in from the dock outside as the three of them conferred over the case.

He marveled once again that the brothers were actually twins. Peter and Jacob were physical opposites—Peter, thin and frail; Jacob as muscular and sturdy as a plow ox. Antony had quickly learned they had opposite temperaments, as well. Peter was cautious and deliberate, while Jacob was impulsive, a man of constant action. He was pacing the floor, in fact, as Antony spoke.

“There will be an official ruling by the court,” he continued, “but I can assure you that it is just a legal formality.”

“You're positive?” Jacob asked. “I don't want to leave for Rome until I know everything's settled.”

“About as positive as I can be. Both the law and public sentiment are on your side. Your father was well respected in this community, while the late emperor was not only despised but has now been officially dishonored by the new government in Rome.”

The case was certainly unlike anything Antony had ever seen. He had handled fairly complicated wills and estates for a few prominent citizens, but nothing that could compare to this. To begin with, the size of the estate was enormous. Abraham had been one of the wealthiest men in Asia. But politics, not to mention treachery, had complicated the situation.

Abraham had been caught in the web of Domitian's religious persecution of Christians and executed in Rome. Abraham's oldest daughter, Naomi, the wife of a top-ranking senator, had betrayed her father, knowing it would lead to his death. And then, with the help of her powerful husband, no doubt, she had managed to get herself named as sole heir to her father's estate.

Antony had seen the decree presented to the court; it had been issued by Domitian shortly before his death. The document stated that because Abraham had died as a traitor to the Empire, all his possessions were to be confiscated by the state and then subsequently awarded to Naomi and her husband, Senator Mallus.

“The codicil to your father's will was properly executed, and it clearly disinherits Naomi. Naturally, it was dated prior to Domitian's decree, which the court will set aside
pro forma
. The Senate, working with Emperor Nerva, is trying to undo much of the damage Domitian did in the last few years, and the court has signaled it will take notice of that. Even if Naomi appealed to Caesar, he would not uphold Domitian's ruling; it's well known that the emperor is behind the move to publicly vilify his predecessor.

“So your legal worries with your sister are over. We should have a formal ruling in a few days, and then your lives can go back to normal.” “Our legal worries may be over,” Peter said, “but somehow I doubt Naomi will just pack up and leave.”

“What else can she possibly do?” Jacob asked. “Besides, she doesn't even need the money. Mallus is ridiculously wealthy in his own right. When Naomi finds out her little scheme has been defeated, she'll hurry to reclaim her place in Roman society.”

“You're probably right.” Peter's brow wrinkled in obvious concern. “I just can't shake the feeling I had the last time I saw her.”

Antony knew that Peter had stood up to her then, vowing to fight Naomi if she tried to claim the estate. She
had
tried, of course, which was when Antony had gotten involved in the case.

Now, thankfully, it would soon be over.

Helena wished her body would move as fast as her mind, but at forty-four her agility was not what it once was. When she heard Rebecca's bloodcurdling scream, she ignored her usual aches and pains and scrambled upstairs as rapidly as she could.

What she found astounded her. She didn't know whether to go to Rebecca, who was holding a heavy saber, a look of sheer terror on her face, or Agatha, who appeared to have been mortally wounded and lay bleeding on the rare Persian carpet.

“Victor's gone!” Rebecca trembled as she looked around frantically.

Helena stood paralyzed for a long moment, then she went in six different directions at once. “Go get help and search the house,” she said to Rebecca while stooping down beside Agatha's still form.

Rebecca dropped the sword on the bed and started to run out of the room as Helena cried, “No! Wait!” She left Agatha, retrieved the sword, and clumsily handed the heavy weapon to Rebecca. “Take it with you,” she ordered. “The attacker could still be in the house.”

Helena knelt beside Agatha again and untied her hands. The woman was breathing but didn't respond. Realizing there was little she could do for her, Helena ran to the hall.
Where was everyone? Why hadn't there been any servants around when this happened?

She ran back to Agatha, thought about trying to get her off the floor and onto the bed, but couldn't do it by herself, so she started downstairs. But when she got to the landing, she saw Rebecca charging upstairs with the chief steward close behind her, wielding the sword over his head.

After that, everything seemed to happen at once. Rebecca and the steward led a search of all the rooms upstairs while the cook and the kitchen crew searched through the many downstairs rooms. Helena sent one of the servants to the harbor to notify Jacob and Peter, and another one to John's house to fetch Marcellus. Perhaps there was something he could do for Agatha.

Helena went up and down the stairs several times to check on the progress of the search, then she finally collapsed in the bedroom where the pandemonium had started. Her legs, unaccustomed to that much exertion, shook with pain and exhaustion; her hands trembled as she placed them on the empty crib and began to pray.

Antony had never been on the upper floor of the villa, where the bedrooms were located. He ran upstairs behind Jacob, and Peter followed, climbing much more slowly and with great effort.

When a messenger had interrupted their meeting to deliver the news that Rebecca's baby was missing and a housekeeper had been attacked, Peter had told the others to leave the waterfront without him. But then Jacob had spied one of the company's delivery wagons that had just unloaded and was about to leave the pier. He commandeered the vehicle and Antony helped Peter climb in, then they drove the horses at breakneck speed through the city.

Now about a dozen people, most of them servants, were assembled in what appeared to be Rebecca's bedroom. Helena had her arm around an ashen-faced Rebecca, and a woman, who must have been the injured housekeeper, lay at an odd angle across the bed. One of the other maids was tending to the bloody wound on her head.

“What happened?” Jacob demanded.

“Any sign of Victor?” Peter asked simultaneously.

Helena shook her head. “No, we've searched the house thoroughly. Some of the servants are combing the grounds, but I don't think they'll find anything. Many of them were in the garden when it happened, and they didn't hear any unusual noises.”

“Why not?” Jacob shouted. “Why wasn't someone here with Victor? How could this have happened?” He kept firing questions and people kept trying to answer, but with everybody talking at once, nobody could be heard.

Finally, Antony stepped forward and raised his voice. When he had everyone's attention, he said, “It would help if we heard the story in an orderly fashion. Jacob, if you don't mind, I'd like to ask some questions. You're too upset—understandably—to think clearly at the moment.”

Jacob scowled, but he sat down and listened.

“Now,” Antony said, “who discovered that Victor was missing? Mother, you seem to have been here the whole time. What do you know?”

“As soon as we arrived, Rebecca came upstairs to get Victor. Almost immediately, I heard her scream, so I came up to see what was wrong.”

Antony walked over to Rebecca and knelt beside the large chest on which she was seated. “What did you find when you came upstairs?”

She looked at him with such obvious agony in her dark eyes, luminous with unshed tears, that it tugged at his heart. Rebecca didn't speak for a moment, and Antony realized he was staring at her. She was a very beautiful woman, no doubt about it. He looked away quickly and cleared his throat. “Can you tell me about it?”

Her voice was quiet but steady. “When I came into the room, I tripped over Agatha. She had been tied up and it looked like she'd been hit in the head with something heavy.” Rebecca paused to take a deep breath. “Then I looked over at the crib and saw that a sword had been placed across the top.”

“A sword?” Jacob asked, then he quickly muttered, “Sorry,” in Antony's direction.

“Yes, I picked it up. Victor wasn't in his crib, and we couldn't find him anywhere.”

One of the servants held out the sword. “Here it is.”

Antony exchanged a long look with Jacob; no doubt he also recognized the insignia on the hilt.

After a few more questions directed to the staff, they learned that the cook and a few workers had been preparing dinner in the kitchen, at the very back of the house, when the child disappeared. The housekeeping staff—except for Agatha, who was watching Victor—had been in the gardens adjoining the main part of the house. The steward said he often allowed them to take a break in the afternoon, after they had finished their cleaning chores and before the family arrived for dinner. An intruder had apparently entered the villa at the quietest time of the workday.

Once they'd learned the gist of the story, Peter dismissed the staff and they filed out, their heads down. Several of them looked chagrined because they had failed in their responsibilities and evil had managed to invade the home. As far as Antony knew, however, there was no reason for them to have suspected anything like this.

It must have been a simple abduction, Antony reasoned. There appeared to have been no robbery involved, and no one had known anyone who could possibly have wanted to hurt Agatha—and if someone did, why would they want to take Victor? No, someone must have been watching the villa and learned the family's routine. If Agatha survived, perhaps she could identify her attacker.

When everyone had left except Rebecca and Helena, who didn't want to leave Agatha, Jacob told the others, “Meet me in the library.” He headed downstairs, taking the sword with him.

Peter laboriously made his way downstairs with Antony following close behind, ready to offer a steadying hand if needed. Peter's was the only bedroom on the ground level, and he seldom visited the upper floor because it was so difficult for him to navigate the stairs.

When they entered the library, Jacob was still holding the sword. He set it on the desk, then turned to ask, “Do you know whose this is?” His voice was barely under control.

Peter winced in pain as he sat down behind the desk. “Of course not.”

“From the insignia I can tell it belongs to a Roman soldier,” Antony said. “It's odd, though. The only time troops were ever stationed here was last year, when you and the other Christians were arrested. But the troops left months ago.”

“I know whose it is,” Jacob announced.

That the sword belonged to a Roman soldier was an ominous sign, Peter thought, but he had no idea why Jacob would believe he knew the weapon's owner. “You recognize it?” Peter asked his brother.

“Look closely at the insignia.”

Antony moved the sword closer to Peter and stood behind him so they could both inspect it. The insignia was an eagle's head, the symbol of the Roman army; above it had been engraved a numeric inscription: X.

“The Tenth Legion?” Peter asked. It was a cohort of the Tenth Legion, he recalled, that had carried out the orders for a mandatory sacrifice to the emperor.

Jacob nodded. “And this sword belongs to the commander of the first cohort. A living devil named Damian,” he added for Antony's benefit, “who raped Rebecca and left her for dead.”

Antony grimaced at the disclosure, then asked, “How can you tell it's Damian's sword? Maybe one of the soldiers left it behind and some common criminal found it.”

“Some common criminal who hatched a plot to steal my nephew and then was stupid enough to leave his sword behind? I don't think so. It has to be Damian. No one else would want to hurt us like that.”

“But Damian is off serving with the army somewhere,” Peter objected. He thought Jacob was jumping to an unwarranted conclusion simply because he had wanted vengeance against Damian for so long. “As Antony said, no troops have been here in months.”

“Think about it. Whoever did this didn't just drop his sword in haste. You heard Rebecca. The sword was carefully balanced across the top of the crib—it was left intentionally, like someone wanted us to find it.”

“I agree,” Antony said. “It didn't appear to have been left behind accidentally.”

Jacob turned to Peter. “Earlier you said that you felt Naomi wouldn't just pack up and leave. I thought you were wrong, but maybe she's out to retaliate against us because she knows she's lost the battle over the estate.”

“Slow down, I'm lost.” Antony held up a hand toward Jacob. “You just said you thought this Damian character was the guilty party. Now you think your sister is behind this?”

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