October 26, 10:33 A.M., Israel Standard Time Caesarea, Israel
Dr. Erin Granger stroked her softest brush across the ancient skull. As the dust cleared, she studied it with the eyes of a scientist, noting the tiny seams of bone, the open fontanel. Her gaze evaluated the amount of callusing, judging the skull to be that of a newborn, and from the angle of the pelvic bone, a boy.
Only days old when he died.
As she continued to draw the child out of the dirt and stone, she looked on also as a woman, picturing the infant boy lying on his side, knees drawn up against his chest, tiny hands still curled into fists. Had his parents counted his heartbeats, kissed his impossibly tender skin, watched as that tiny heartbeat stopped?
As she had once done with her baby sister.
She closed her eyes, brush poised.
Opening her eyes, she combed back an errant strand of blond hair that had escaped its efficient ponytail before turning her attention back to the bones. She would find out what happened here all those hundreds of years ago. Because, as with her sister, this child's death had been deliberate. Only this boy had succumbed to violence, not negligence.
She continued to work, seeing the tender position of the limbs. Someone had labored to restore the body to its proper order before burying it, but the efforts could not disguise the cracked and missing bones, hinting at a past atrocity. Even two thousand years could not erase the crime.
She put down the wooden brush and took yet another photo. Time had colored the bones the same bleached sepia as the unforgiving ground, but her careful excavation had revealed their shape. Still, it would take hours to work the rest of the bones free.
She shifted from one aching knee to the other. At thirty-two, she was hardly old, but right now she felt that way. She had been in the trench for barely an hour, and already her knees complained. As a child, she had knelt in prayer for much longer, poised on the hard dirt floor of the compound's church. Back then, she could kneel for half a day without complaint, if her father demanded - but after so many years trying to forget her past, perhaps she misremembered it. Wincing, she stood and stretched, lifting her head clear of the waist- high trench. A cooling sea breeze caressed her hot face, chasing away her memories. To the left, wind ruffled the flaps of the camp's tents and scattered sand across the excavation site.
Flying grit blinded her until she could blink it away. Sand invaded everything here. Each day her hair changed from blond to the grayish red of the Israeli desert. Her socks ground inside her Converse sneakers like sandpaper, her fingernails filled up with grit, even her mouth tasted of sand.
Still, when she looked across the plastic yellow tape that cordoned off her archaeological dig, she allowed a ghost of a smile to shine, happy to have her sneakers planted in ancient history. Her excavation occupied the center of an ancient hippodrome, a chariot course. It faced the ageless Mediterranean Sea. The water shone indigo, beaten by the sun into a surreal, metallic hue. Behind her, a long stretch of ancient stone seats, sectioned into tiers, stood as a two thousand year old testament to a long dead king, the architect of the city of Caesarea: the infamous King Herod, that monstrous slayer of innocents.
A horse's whinny floated across the track, echoing not from the past, but from a makeshift stable that had been thrown together on the far end of the hippodrome. A local group was preparing an invitational race. Soon this hippodrome would be resurrected, coming to life once again, if only for a few days.
She could hardly wait.
But she and her students had a lot of work to finish before then. With her hands on her hips, she stared down at the skull of the murdered baby. Perhaps later today she could jacket the tiny skeleton with plaster and begin the laborious process of excavating it from the ground. She longed to get it back to a lab, where it could be analyzed. The bones had more to tell her than she would ever discover in the field.
She dropped to her knees next to the infant. Something bothered her about the femur. It had unusual scallop shaped dents along its length. As she bent close to see, a chill chased back the heat.
Were those teeth marks?
"Professor?" Nate Highsmith's Texas twang broke the air and her concentration.
She jumped, cracking her elbow against the wooden slats bracing the walls from the relentless sand.
"Sorry." Her graduate student ducked his head.
She had given strict instructions that she was not to be disturbed this morning, and here he was bothering her already. To keep from snapping at him, she picked up her battered canteen and took a long sip of tepid water. It tasted like stainless steel.
"No harm done," she said stiffly.
She shielded her eyes with her free hand and squinted up at him. Standing on the edge of the trench, he was silhouetted against the scathing sun. He wore a straw Stetson pulled low, a pair of battered jeans, and a faded plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose well muscled arms. She suspected that he had rolled them up just to impress her. It wouldn't work, of course. For the past several years, fully focused on her work, she acknowledged that the only guys she found fascinating had been dead for several centuries.
She glanced meaningfully over to an unremarkable patch of sand and rock. The team's ground penetrating radar unit sat abandoned, looking more like a sandblasted lawn mower than a high tech tool for peering under dirt and rock.
"Why aren't you over there mapping that quadrant?"
"I was, Doc." His drawl got thicker, as it always did when he got excited. He hiked an eyebrow, too.
He's found something.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." Nate bounced on the balls of his feet, ready to dash off and show her.
She smiled, because he was right. Whatever it was, she wouldn't believe it until she saw it herself. That was the mantra she hammered into her students: It's not real until you can dig it out of the ground and hold it in your hands.
To protect her work site and out of respect for the child's bones, she gently pulled a tarp over the skeleton. Once she was done, Nate reached down and helped her out of the deep trench. As expected, his hand lingered on hers a second too long.
Trying not to scowl, she retrieved her hand and dusted off the knees of her jeans. Nate took a step back, glancing away, perhaps knowing he had overstepped a line. She didn't scold him. What would be the use? She wasn't oblivious to the advances of men, but she rarely encouraged them, and never out in the field. Here she wore dirt like other women wore makeup and avoided romantic involvement. Though of average height, she'd been told that she carried herself as if she were a foot taller. She had to in this profession, especially as a young woman.
Back home, she'd had her share of relationships, but none of them seemed to stick. In the end, most men found her intimidating - which was off putting to many, but oddly attractive to others.
Still, he was a good field man with great potential as a geophysicist. He would grow out of his interest in her, and things would uncomplicate themselves on their own.
"Show me." She turned toward the khaki colored equipment tent. If nothing else, it would be good to get out of the baking sun. "Amy's got the information up on the laptop." He headed across the site. "It's a jackpot, Professor. We hit a bona fide bone jackpot." She suppressed a grin at his enthusiasm and hurried to keep pace with his long legged stride. She admired his passion, but, like life, archeology didn't hand out jackpots after a single morning's work. Sometimes not even after decades.
She ducked past the tent flap and held it open for Nate, who took off his hat as he stepped inside. Out of the sun's glare, the tent's interior felt several degrees cooler than the site outside.
A humming electric generator serviced a laptop and a dilapidated metal fan. The fan blew straight at Amy, a twenty-three year old grad student from Columbia. The dark- haired young woman spent more time inside the tent than out. Drops of water had condensed on a can of Diet Coke on her desk. Slightly overweight and out of shape, Amy hadn't had the years under the harsh sun to harden her to the rigors of archaeological fieldwork, but she still had a keen technological nose. Amy typed on the keyboard with one hand and waved Erin over with the other.
"Professor Granger, you're not going to believe this."
"That's what I keep hearing."
Her third student was also in the tent. Apparently everyone had decided to stop working to study Nate's findings. Heinrich hovered over Amy's shoulder. A stolid twenty-four year old student from the Freie Universität in Berlin, he was normally hard to distract. For him to have stepped away from his own work meant that the find was big.
Amy's brown eyes did not leave the screen. "The software is still working at enhancing the image, but I thought you'd want to see this right away."
Erin unsnapped the rag clipped to her belt and wiped grit and sweat off her face. "Amy, before I forget, that child's skeleton I've been excavating ... I saw some unusual marks that I'd like you to photograph."
Amy nodded, but Erin suspected she hadn't heard a word she'd said.
Nate fidgeted with his Stetson.
What had they found?
Erin walked over and stood next to Heinrich. Amy leaned back in her metal folding chair so that Erin had a clear view of the screen. The laptop displayed time sliced images of the ground Nate had scanned that morning. Each showed a different layer of quadrant eight, sorted by depth. The pictures resembled square gray mud puddles marred by black lines that formed parabolas, like ripples in the puddle. The black lines represented solid material. Erin's heart pounded in her throat. She leaned closer in disbelief. This mud puddle had far too many waves. In ten years of field work she'd never seen anything like it. No one had.
This can't be right.
She traced a curve on the smooth screen, ignoring the way Amy tightened her lips. Amy hated it when someone smudged her laptop screen, but Erin had to prove that it was real - to touch it herself. She spoke through the strain, through the hope. "Nate, how big an area did you scan?"
No hesitation. "Ten square meters."
She glanced sidelong at his serious face. "Only ten meters? You're sure?"
"You trained me on the GPR, remember?" He cocked his head to the side. "Painstakingly."
Erin kept going. "And you added gain to these results?"
"Yes, Professor," he sighed. "It's fully gained."
She sensed that she'd bruised his ego by questioning his skills, but she had to be certain. She trusted equipment, but not always the people running it.
"I did everything." Nate leaned forward. "And, before you ask, the signature is exactly the same as the skeleton you were just excavating."
Exactly the same? That made this stratum two thousand years old. She looked back at the tantalizing images. If the data were correct, and she would have to check again, but if they were, each parabola marked a human skull.
"I did a rough count." Nate interrupted her thoughts. "More than five hundred. None larger than four inches in diameter."
Four inches ...
Not just skulls - skulls of babies.
Hundreds of babies.
She silently recited the relevant Bible passage: Matthew 2:16.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
The Massacre of the Innocents. Allegedly, Herod ordered it done to be certain, absolutely certain, that he had killed the child whom he feared would one day supplant him as the King of the Jews. But he had failed anyway. That baby had escaped to Egypt and grown into the man known as Jesus Christ.
Excerpted from Blood Gospel by James Rollins. Copyright © 2013 by James Rollins. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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