2057 years ago…
Rufus hated crowds; the heat and noise of them, the slimy feel of sweaty bodies, choking pressure of body stench and putrid breaths…he hated it all. Rufus, son of Gozan, grandson of Elah of the house of Mikah the Nazarene, hated crowds – it was a farcical irony. His father and his ancestors before him had all made names for themselves as ‘crowd-lovers’. ‘Pocket-pinchers’, ‘pick-pockets’, they had been known by a variety of names; his ancestors had brought a style to the trade that immortalized them. In the circle of thieves, everyone knew the story of Elah and the lucky coin of Herod the Third. A master-heist, the nimble-fingered Elah had picked the favored coin right out of the king’s pocket in the middle of a feast. And for a long time, he held the record only to be bettered years later by his own son, Gozan who hijacked Pharaoh’s signet ring off of the monarch’s finger during a festival in Egypt. It was a family trade, a tradition among the sons of Mikah; every street-wise Galilean knew that the sons of Mikah were the best ‘crowd-lovers’ in the whole of Israel.
So it was indeed laughable that Rufus hated crowds. But at that moment, the man himself was not laughing. Standing a few inches below the nose of the tallest man in the crowd with ‘dead’ brown eyes, a button nose and equally peony mouth, Rufus was a blender. Only his hands gave away the potency of his ancestral blood – long, nimble fingers as straight and thin as the needly pines of the river Coza – but they were tucked away beneath the midnight-black cloak he had on. The cloak also covered two score years of sinews and muscles, and most of his ten-year old son. The boy moved again and Rufus unable to take his squirming anymore, let him out. He never should have brought him along on this job.
Eleazer stepped out of the gloomy cover of his father’s cloak, shook the sweat out of his black curls and proceeded to stretch and strain for a view of the Gabbatha. As Rufus stared at his offspring, a liquid feeling of warmth welled up in him and he cursed. It had taken only a glimpse, one look at those black curls a decade ago and he had known he was in for a lifetime of sacrifice. His taste for women of loose virtue, his drinking spars, even the trade of his fathers had all been sacrificed. The latter was a necessary change, Rufus admitted, because as regaled as their tales were, Rufus and his father had been avoided like the plague wherever they went. It was the curse of ‘crowd-lovers’, for nobody wanted to be around a purse-pincher. Among the circles of embezzlers, looters, reapers and criminals, they were the vermin of the lot, relegated to the bottom of the ladder. Because he wanted a better life for Eleazer than the outcast one he had been raised in, Rufus had upped his ante a little bit. Now he was a bounty-hunter; and when he wasn’t hunting down some wanted dead or alive criminal, he did a few jewelry heists. He was on one of those at the moment, an easy pickup-and-deliver which was safe enough for him to handle as a side-attraction on this trip to Bethany with Eleazer. His instructions were simple –
stand at the rear in the company of the pricks
covered in a cloak as dark as burnt out wicks;
your task will come borne by a troll,
penned in ink on a temple scroll.
So he was in his black cloak, positioned just at the rear of the throng of chief priests and Levites – ‘pricks’ in the underground world of crime – awaiting his task. These occasional heists served more for fun and to sate his raging ancestral blood than anything else. He only hoped earnestly, that the troll in his instructions was a figure of speech.
When he could stand the boy’s stretching and straining no longer, Rufus picked him up and plopped him on a shoulder so he could get a better view. Eleazer smiled his elation down at his father’s face; Rufus only grunted and turned his eyes to the Gabbatha where a chubby girl was doing a dance. The feast of unleavened bread had commenced the day before and it was the Preparation day – a day before the Sabbath – so the people were in a festive mood. She finished the dance and was rewarded with a few gold coins by the governor who sat atop a stone throne on the Gabbatha. Rufus cracked a wry smile at the gesture; the rulers had learnt a hard lesson from the case of Herod who had promised a dancing girl whatever she requested and had had to behead a favored prisoner in honor of that promise.
The applause soon died down and two soldiers dragged a prisoner up on stage. Suddenly, something small and lithe slammed into Rufus from behind. The word ‘troll’ flashed in his head and he whirled around with his heart in mouth. The little head of red curls turned up in his direction with a wide grin showing off rows of missing teeth and Rufus just stood bewildered.
“Futuo!” Rufus cursed. He instantly spun around to again face the Gabbatha, making sure his cloak hid his face completely. What kind of idiot yelled the name of a contact in a crowd? Already he was scanning the grounds for the closest exit route.
“Rufus!!!” he heard again, closer this time. Rufus pulled his bronze-handled dagger from below his belt and held it at the ready beneath his cloak. Clutching the oblivious Eleazer tighter with his other hand, he waited. He would teach the fool a little lesson before hauling the hell out of there, his eye having zeroed in on the perfect escape route – the east entrance streaming with people.
Even closer. He clutched his dagger tighter…