A British detective faces down the combined forces of the Mafia and the Vatican in Becker's jaw-dropping thriller. Tunbridge Wells Det. Sgt. Chris Bronson is helping his best friend, Mark Hampton, deal with the sudden death of Mark's wife, Jackie. Her supposedly accidental fatal fall at their house in Ponticelli, Italy, was caused by intruders seeking an ancient Latin inscription revealed during remodeling, the first clue to locating a scroll and diptychs that describe the crucifixion and beheading of two unnamed Jews in A.D. 67. Mafioso Gregori Mandino wants to find and destroy the relics, and he pressures Joseph Cardinal Vertutti to help. After Mafia hit men target Mark, Chris seeks vengeance and answers with the help of his ex-wife, a British Museum conservator. Fast-paced action propels the imaginative and controversial plot. (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The First Apostle (Chris Bronson Series #1)by James Becker
An Englishwoman is found dead in a house near Rome, her neck broken. Her distraught husband enlists the help of his closest friend, policeman Chris Bronson, who discovers an ancient inscription on a slab of stone above their fireplace. It translates as ‘Here Lie the Liars.’ Pursued across Europe, Bronson and his ex-wife uncover a trail of clues that lead them back to the shadowy beginnings of Christianity; to an ancient code inscribed upon a stone; to a chalice decorated with mysterious symbols. And to a deadly conspiracy which will rock the foundations of our modern world if revealed.
"Exciting... fast paced and filled with non-stop action."
—Genre Go Round Reviews
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
A DEADLY DISCOVERY
The man who’d pursued her walked down the stairs and stood over her. The second intruder appeared from the door to the living room and looked down at the silent and unmoving figure. He knelt beside her and pressed his fingertips to the side of her neck.
After a moment he looked up angrily. “You weren’t supposed to kill her,” he snapped.
Alberti looked down at his handiwork and shrugged. “She wasn’t supposed to be here. We were told the house would be empty. It was an accident,” he added, “but she’s dead and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Rogan straightened up. “You’re right about that. Let’s finish what we’ve got to do and get out of here.”
Without a backward glance, the two men returned to the living room. Rogan picked up the hammer and chisel and continued to chip away at the remaining sections of old plaster about the huge stone lintel that spanned the entire width of the fireplace.
The work took very little time, and in some twenty minutes the entire area was exposed. Both men stood in front of the fireplace, staring at the letters carved into one of the stones. . . .
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Copyright © James Becker, 2008
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eISBN : 978-1-101-01463-9
I’d like to start by thanking Luigi Bonomi, the best literary agent in London and a man I’m pleased to call a good friend, for suggesting the idea for this book in the first place, and for his perseverance in shepherding it through a series of incarnations until it met his exacting standards.
At Transworld, I’d like to thank Selina Walker and Danielle Weekes, two of the most charming and talented ladies I have ever had the privilege of working with—and formidable editors as well—and Francesca Liversidge for her obvious enthusiasm for the book from the first. Publishing, of course, is a team effort, and I’m grateful to everyone involved at Transworld for their dedication and professionalism.
Principality of Andorra, 2008
SPRING, A.D. 67 Jotapata, Judea
In the center of the group of silent watching men, the naked Jew was struggling violently, but it was never going to make a difference. One burly Roman soldier knelt on each arm, pinning it to the rough wooden beam—the patibulum—and another was holding his legs firmly.
General Vespasian watched, as he watched all the crucifixions. As far as he knew, this Jew hadn’t committed any specific offense against the Roman Empire, but he had long ago lost patience with the defenders of Jotapata, and routinely executed any of them his army managed to capture.
The soldier holding the Jew’s left arm eased the pressure slightly, just enough to allow another man to bind the victim’s wrist with thick cloth. The Romans were experts at this method of execution—they’d had considerable practice—and knew that the fabric would help staunch the flow of blood from the wounds. Crucifixion was intended to be slow, painful and public, and the last thing they wanted was for the condemned man to bleed to death in a matter of hours.
Normally, victims of crucifixion were flogged first, but Vespasian’s men had neither the time nor the inclination to bother. In any case, they knew the Jews lasted longer on the cross if they weren’t flogged, and that helped reinforce the general’s uncompromising message to the besieged town, little more than an arrow-shot distant.
The binding complete, they forced the Jew’s arm back onto the patibulum, the wood rough and stained with old blood. A centurion approached with a hammer and nails. The nails were about eight inches long, thick, with large flat heads, and specially made for the purpose. Like the crosses, they had been reused many times.
“Hold him still,” he barked, and bent to the task.
The Jew went rigid when he felt the point of the nail touch his wrist, then screamed as the centurion smashed the hammer down. The blow was strong and sure, and the nail ripped straight through his arm and embedded itself deep in the wood. Compounding the agony of the injury, the nail severed the median nerve, causing continuous and intense pain along the man’s entire limb.
Blood spurted from the wound, splashing onto the ground around the patibulum. Some four inches of the nail still protruded above the now blood-sodden cloth wrapped around the Jew’s wrist, but two more blows from the hammer drove it home. Once the flat head of the nail was hard up against the cloth and compressing the limb against the wood, the blood flow diminished noticeably.
The Jew screamed his agony as each blow landed, then lost control of his bladder. The trickle of urine onto the dusty ground caused a couple of the watching soldiers to smile, but most ignored it. Like Vespasian, they were tired—the Romans had been fighting the inhabitants of Judea off and on for more than a hundred years—and in the last twelve months they’d all seen too much death and suffering to view another crucifixion as much more than a temporary diversion.
It had been hard fighting, and the battles far from one-sided. Just ten months earlier, the entire Roman garrison in Jerusalem had surrendered to the Jews and had immediately been lynched. From that moment on, full-scale war had been inevitable, and the fighting bitter. Now the Romans were in Judea in full force. Vespasian commanded the fifth legion—Fretensis—and the tenth—Macedonica—while his son Titus had recently arrived with the fifteenth—Apollinaris—and the army also included auxiliary troops and cavalry units.
The soldier released the victim’s arm and stood back as the centurion walked around and knelt beside the man’s right arm. The Jew was going nowhere now, though his screams were loud and his struggles even more violent. Once the right wrist had been properly bound with fabric, the centurion expertly drove home the second nail and stood back.
The vertical section of the T-shaped Tau cross—the stipes—was a permanent fixture in the Roman camp. Each of the legions—the three camps were side by side on a slight rise overlooking the town—had erected fifty of them in clear view of Jotapata. Most were already in use, almost equal numbers of living and dead bodies hanging from them.
Following the centurion’s orders, four Roman soldiers picked up the patibulum between them and carried the heavy wooden beam, dragging the condemned Jew, his screams louder still, over the rocky ground and across to the upright. Wide steps had already been placed at either side of the stipes and, with barely a pause in their stride, the four soldiers climbed up and hoisted the patibulum onto the top of the post, slotting it onto the prepared peg.
The moment the Jew’s feet left the ground and his nailed arms took the full weight of his body, both of his shoulder joints dislocated. His feet sought for a perch—something, anything—to relieve the incredible agony coursing through his arms. In seconds, his right heel landed on a block of wood attached to the stipes about five feet below the top, and he rested both feet on it and pushed upward to relieve the strain on his arms. Which was, of course, exactly why the Romans had placed it there. The moment he straightened his legs, the Jew felt rough hands adjusting the position of his feet, turning them sideways and holding his calves together. Seconds later another nail was driven through both heels with a single blow, pinning his legs to the cross.
Vespasian looked at the dying man, struggling pointlessly like a trapped insect, his cries already weakening. He turned away, shading his eyes against the setting sun. The Jew would be dead in two days, three at the most. The crucifixion over, the soldiers began dispersing, returning to the camp and their duties.
Every Roman military camp was identical in design: a square grid of open “roads,” their names the same in every camp, that divided the different sections, the whole surrounded by a ditch and palisade, and with separate tents inside for men and officers. The Fretensis legion’s camp was in the center of the three and Vespasian’s personal tent lay, as the commanding general’s always did, at the head of the Via Principalis—the main thoroughfare, directly in front of the camp headquarters.
The Tau crosses had been erected in a defiant line that stretched across the fronts of all three camps, a constant reminder to the defenders of Jotapata of the fate that awaited them if they were captured.
Vespasian acknowledged the salutes of the sentries as he walked back through the palisade. He was a soldier’s soldier. He led from the front, celebrating his army’s triumphs and mourning their retreats alongside his men. He’d started from nothing—his father had been a minor customs official and small-time moneylender—but he’d risen to command legions in Britain and Germany. Ignominiously retired by Nero after he fell asleep during one of the Emperor’s interminable musical performances, it was a measure of the seriousness of the situation in Judea that he’d been called back to active service to take personal charge of suppressing the revolt.
He was more worried than he liked to admit about the campaign. His first success—an easy victory at Gadara—might almost have been a fluke because, despite the best efforts of his soldiers, the small band of defenders of Jotapata showed no signs of surrendering, despite being hopelessly outnumbered. And the town was hardly strategically crucial. Once he’d captured it, he knew they’d have to move on to liberate the Mediterranean ports, all potentially much harder targets.
It was going to be a long and bitter struggle, and at fifty Vespasian was already an old man. He would rather have been almost anywhere else in the Empire, but Nero was holding his youngest son, Domitian, as a hostage, and had given him no choice but to command the campaign.
Just before he reached his tent, he saw a centurion approaching. The man’s red tunic, greaves or shin protectors, lorica hamata—chain-mail armor—and silvered helmet with its transverse crest made him easily identifiable among the regular soldiers, who wore white tunics and lorica segmenta—plate armor. He was leading a small group of legionaries and escorting another prisoner, his arms bound behind him.
The centurion stopped a respectful ten feet from Vespasian and saluted. “The Jew from Cilicia, sir, as you ordered.”
Vespasian nodded his approval and gestured toward his tent. “Bring him.” He stood to one side as the soldiers hustled the man inside and pushed him onto a wooden stool. The flickering light of the oil lamps showed him to be elderly, tall and thin, with a high forehead, receding hairline and a straggly beard.
The tent was large—almost as big as those normally occupied by eight legionaries—with separate sleeping quarters. Vespasian removed the brooch that secured his lacerna, the purple cloak that identified him as a general, tossed the garment aside and sat down wearily.
“Why am I here?” the prisoner demanded.
“You’re here,” Vespasian replied, dismissing the escort with a flick of his wrist, “because I so ordered it. Your instructions from Rome were perfectly clear. Why have you failed to obey them?”
The man shook his head. “I have done precisely what the Emperor demanded.”
“You have not,” Vespasian snapped, “otherwise I would not be stuck here in this miserable country trying to stamp out yet another rebellion.”
“I am not responsible for that. I have carried out my orders to the best of my ability. All this”—the prisoner gestured with his head to include Jotapata—“is not of my doing.”
“The Emperor does not agree, and neither do I. He believes you should have done more, far more. He has issued explicit orders to me, orders that include your execution.”
For the first time a look of fear passed across the old man’s face. “My execution? But I’ve done everything he asked. Nobody could have done more. I’ve traveled this world and established communities wherever I could. The fools believed me—they still believe me. Everywhere you look the myth is taking hold.”
Vespasian shook his head. “It’s not enough. This rebellion is sapping Rome’s strength and the Emperor blames you. For that you are to die.”
“By crucifixion? Like the fisherman?” the prisoner asked, suddenly conscious of the moans of the dying men nailed to the Tau crosses beyond the encampment.
“No. As a Roman citizen you will at least be spared that. You will be taken back to Rome under escort—by men I can ill afford to lose—and there you will be put to the sword.”
“You leave at dawn. But before you die, the Emperor has one final order for you.”
Vespasian moved to the table and picked up two diptychs—wooden tablets with the inside surfaces covered in wax and joined with wire along one side as a rudimentary hinge. Both had numerous holes—foramina—pierced around the outer edges through which triple-thickness linum had been passed, thread that was then secured with a seal bearing the likeness of Nero. This prevented the tablets being opened without breaking the seal, and was common practice with legal documents to guard against forgeries. Each had a short note in ink on the front to indicate what the text comprised, and both had been personally entrusted to Vespasian by Nero before the general left Rome. The old man had seen them many times before.
Vespasian pointed to a small scroll on the table and told the prisoner what Nero expected him to write.
“And if I refuse?” the prisoner asked.
“Then I have instructions that you are not to be sent to Rome,” Vespasian said, with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m sure we can find a vacant stipes you can occupy here for a few days.”
A.D. 67-69 Rome, Italy
The Neronian Gardens, situated at the foot of what are now known as the Vatican Hills, were one of Nero’s favored locations for exacting savage revenge on the group of people he saw as the principal enemies of Rome—the early Christians. He blamed them for starting the Great Fire that almost destroyed the city in A.D. 64, and since then he’d done his best to rid Rome and the Empire of what he called the Jewish “vermin.”
His methods were excessive. The lucky ones were crucified or torn to pieces by dogs or wild animals in the Circus Maximus. Those he wanted really to suffer were coated in wax, impaled on stakes placed around his palace and later set on fire. This was Nero’s idea of a joke. The Christians claimed to be the “light of the world,” so he used them to light his way.
But Roman law forbade the crucifixion or torture of Roman citizens, and that rule, at least, the Emperor was forced to obey. And so, on a sunny morning at the end of June, Nero and his entourage watched as a swordsman worked his way steadily down a line of bound and kneeling men and women, beheading each one with a single stroke of his blade. The elderly man was the second to last and, as specifically instructed by Nero, the executioner slashed at his neck three times before his head finally tumbled free.
Nero’s fury at the failure of his agent extended even beyond the man’s painful death, and his body was unceremoniously tossed into a cart and driven miles out of Rome, to be dumped in a small cave, the entrance then sealed by rocks. The cave was already occupied by the remains of another man, another thorn in the Emperor’s side, who had suffered crucifixion of an unusual sort three years earlier, at the very start of the Neronian Persecution.
The two diptychs and the small scroll had been handed to Nero as soon as the centurion and his Jewish prisoner arrived in Rome, but for some months the Emperor couldn’t decide what to do with them. Rome was struggling to contain the Jewish revolt and Nero was afraid that if he made their contents public he would make the situation even worse.
But the documents—the scroll essentially a confession by the Jew of something infinitely worse than treason, and the contents of the diptychs providing unarguable supporting evidence—were clearly valuable, even explosive, and he took immense care to keep them safe. He had an exact copy made of the scroll: on the original, he personally inscribed an explanation of its contents and purpose, authenticated by his imperial seal. The two diptychs were secreted with the bodies in the hidden cave, and the original scroll in a secure chest in a locked chamber in one of his palaces, but the copy he kept close to him, secured in an earthenware pot just in case he had to reveal its contents urgently.
Then events overtook him. In A.D. 68, chaos and civil war came to Rome. Nero was declared a traitor by the Senate, fled the city and committed suicide. He was succeeded by Galba, who was swiftly murdered by Otho. Vitellius emerged to challenge him, and defeated the new Emperor in battle: Otho, like Nero before him, fell upon his sword.
But Otho’s supporters hadn’t given up. They looked around for another candidate and settled on Vespasian. When word of events in Rome eventually reached him, the elderly general left the war in Judea in the more than capable hands of his son Titus and traveled to Italy, defeating Vitellius’s army on the way. Vitellius was killed as Vespasian’s troops secured the city. On 21 December A.D. 69, Vespasian was formally recognized by the Senate as the new Emperor, and peace was finally restored.
And in the confusion and chaos of the short but bitter Roman civil war, a locked wooden chest and an unremarkable earthenware pot, each containing a small papyrus scroll, simply disappeared.
For a few moments Jackie Hampton had no idea what had awoken her. The digital display on the radio alarm clock showed 3:18, and the master bedroom was entirely dark. But something had penetrated her slumber—a sound from somewhere in the old house.
Noises weren’t unusual—the Villa Rosa had stood on the side of the hill between Ponticelli and the larger town of Scandriglia for well more than six hundred years—the old wood creaked and groaned, and sometimes cracked like a rifle shot, in response to changing temperatures. But this sound must have been something different, something unfamiliar.
Automatically she stretched out her hand to the other side of the bed, but her probing fingers met nothing but the duvet. Mark was still in London and wouldn’t be flying back to Italy until Friday evening or Saturday morning. She should have been with him, but a last-minute change in their builders’ schedule had forced her to stay behind.
And then she heard it again—a metallic pinging sound. One of the shutters on the ground-floor windows must have become unlatched and was banging in the wind. Jackie knew she wouldn’t get back to sleep until it was secured. She snapped on the light and slipped out of bed, slid her feet into her slippers and reached for the gown draped over the chair in front of the dressing table.
She switched on the landing light and walked briskly down the wide oak staircase to the central hall. At the foot of the stairs, she heard a noise again—slightly different from the previous sound, but still unmistakably metal on stone—and it was obviously coming from the huge living room that occupied most of the ground floor on the east side of the house.
Almost without thinking, Jackie pushed open the door. She stepped inside the room, turning on the main lights as she did so. The moment the two chandeliers flared into life, the source of the metallic knocking sound became obvious. She raised her hands to her face with a gasp of fear, then turned to run.
A black-clad figure was standing on a dining chair and chipping away with a hammer and chisel at a section of the plaster over the massive inglenook fireplace, his work illuminated by the beam of a flashlight held by another man. Even as Jackie backed away, both men turned to look at her with startled expressions on their faces. The man with the flashlight muttered a muffled curse and began running toward her.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God.” Jackie sprinted across the wide hall, heading for the staircase and the safety of the master bedroom. The wood on the door was more than an inch thick and there was a solid steel bolt on the inside. Beside the bed was an extension phone, and her cell phone was in her handbag on the dressing table. If she could just get inside the room, she knew she’d be safe and could call for help.
But she wasn’t dressed for running, and the man behind her was. The slipper fell off her right foot as she reached the third stair, and she could hear the pounding of her pursuer’s trainers on the stone-flagged floor of the hall, just yards behind her. Her feet scrabbled for grip on the polished wooden treads, then she stumbled, missed a step and fell to her knees.
In an instant the man was on her, grabbing at her arm and shoulder.
Jackie screamed and twisted sideways, kicking out with her right leg. Her bare foot smashed into the man’s groin. He moaned in pain, and in a reflex action swung his flashlight at her. The heavy-duty aluminum tube crashed into the side of Jackie’s head as she tried to stand. Dazed, she lurched sideways and grabbed at the banister, but her grasping fingers missed it. She fell heavily, her head smashing into the rail, instantly breaking her neck. Her body tumbled limply down the staircase and came to rest on the hall floor, her limbs spread out, blood pouring from the wound on her temple.
Her pursuer walked down the stairs and stood over her. The second intruder appeared from the door to the living room and looked down at the silent and unmoving figure. He knelt beside her and pressed his fingertips to the side of her neck.
After a moment he looked up angrily. “You weren’t supposed to kill her,” he snapped.
Alberti looked down at his handiwork and shrugged. “She wasn’t supposed to be here. We were told the house would be empty. It was an accident,” he added, “but she’s dead and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Rogan straightened up. “You’re right about that. Come on. Let’s finish what we’ve got to do and get out of here.”
Without a backward glance, the two men returned to the living room. Rogan picked up the hammer and chisel and continued to chip away at the remaining sections of old plaster above the huge stone lintel that spanned the entire width of the fireplace.
The work took very little time, and in some twenty minutes the entire area was exposed. Both men stood in front of the fireplace, staring at the letters carved into one of the stones.
“Is that it?” Alberti asked.
Rogan nodded uncertainly. “It looks like it, yes. Get the plaster ready.”
As Alberti left the room carrying a bucket to collect some water, Rogan removed a high-resolution digital camera from his pocket and took half a dozen shots of the stone. He used the screen to check that they all clearly showed the inscription carved on it. Then, for good measure, he wrote down the words in a small notebook.
Alberti reappeared with the water. From the detritus left by the builders, he picked a wooden mixing board and trowel, then selected a bag of plaster from the pile stacked against one wall. A few minutes later, once he had a firm mix, he carried the board over to the fireplace.
The lintel rested on a steel plate, obviously a fairly recent repair to compensate for an unsightly crack that ran diagonally through the stone about two feet from the left-hand edge. The steel projected about half an inch in front of the lintel, and provided a firm base for the plaster.
Alberti clearly had some experience of the technique, and in about half an hour had produced a smooth and professional finish that neatly matched the new plaster on the right-hand side of the fireplace. The other side still had old plaster on it—the builders hadn’t got that far yet—but there was nothing they could do about that.
Fifty minutes after Jackie Hampton died, and almost ninety minutes after the two Italians had forced the rear door of the house, they walked away from the property, heading for the nearby lane where they’d left their car.
Chris Bronson swung his silver Mini Cooper into a space on the second floor of the Crescent Road multistory parking garage, which was directly opposite the police headquarters in Tunbridge Wells. For a few moments he sat in the driver’s seat, lost in thought. This morning, he anticipated, was going to be difficult, very difficult.
It wasn’t the first time he’d had problems with Harrison, though the way he was feeling it might well be the last. Detective Inspector Thomas Harrison—“Tom” to his few friends, and “the fat bastard” to almost everyone else—was Bronson’s immediate superior, and they hadn’t got on from day one.
Harrison considered himself to be an old-school policeman, who’d come up through the ranks, as he never tired of telling anyone who asked and most people who didn’t, and he resented Bronson for a number of reasons. The D.I. was particularly scathing about “smart-arse coppers”: officers who joined the force after university and enjoyed certain privileges as a result. He’d lumped Bronson in with this group, though he didn’t have a degree and had joined the army on a short-service commission straight from school. In short, Harrison believed that Bronson—whom he normally referred to as “Death Wish”—was just “playing” at being a policeman: the fact that he was clearly a highly competent officer cut no ice with him.
In the six months that Bronson had been stationed at Tunbridge Wells he’d been reprimanded virtually on a weekly basis by Harrison for something or other but, because he really did want a career in the police force, he’d tried his best to ignore the man’s obvious dislike. Now he’d had enough.
Meet the Author
JAMES BECKER spent over twenty years in the Royal Navy's Fleet Air arm and served during Falklands War. Throughout his career he has been involved in covert operations in many of the world's hotspots; places like Yemen, Northern Ireland and Russia. He is an accomplished combat pistol shot and has an abiding interest in ancient and medieval history.
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I thought this book would be similar to Dan Brown. A historical fiction/mystery. In reality its 300 pages of the authors opinion that Jesus and his apostles did not exist through the voice of his characters. Then he goes on in his own voice in the authors note at the end of book continuing to share why Jesus didnt exist. Its fine not to believe in christianity, but you shouldnt be worthy of having a fiction "novel" published just to share your views. There are seperate non-fiction book sections that you could do this in. Shame on Signet for allowing this garbage novel. wont be reading any more James Becker books.
At first I thought this book was just another 'Da Vinci Code' type thriller. It's very similar in some ways, but the final outcome is much different. I couldn't bare to put the book down, and found myself reaching the last page in about 4 hours. It's very action packed, and for being fictional, it contains a lot of accurate historical information.
This book works for a train or plan trip. It reads like a book in search of an ending.
Poorly written and somewhat juvenile.
Fast action and moves along. Great plot. Lots of interesting history.
This book really had a lot of potential. I typically lose myself in books with the religious fiction flavor. This book took a decent start and ruined it with lazy writing toward the middle and end. To me, it felt almost as if the author ran out of ideas for the characters and took the easy way out by finishing the story with a supernatural solution that didn't fit the ideas I had developed for the characters earlier on.
Very well written. Keeps you guessing until the very end. If you liked "The DaVinci Code" you'll like this.
The book is a quick read, I could have done without the authors notes. I will read the authors second book out of curiousity.
It is awesome....I want a sequel!
Fast pace. It could have more back ground on Chris Bronson and his wife.