THE DEADLIEST FEVER
“All virtue is summed up in dealing justly.” Aristotle
The Sixth Year of the Reign of
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus [Nero]
May, 60 CE
Alexandria ad Aegyptum
May 1, Thursday, Almost Midnight
He waits, listening to the darkness flow into the sanctuary. With the thick drapes blocking the flare of torches lining the Canopic Way, the only light scratching the air is the meager glow of the eternal flame, the ner tamid of Alexandria’s Great Synagogue.
The coolness of the night has already begun to assert itself. Just a little longer, he tells himself as his fist closes around the open edges of his long black robe. A few minutes later, as his other hand pulls back the hood over his head, he emerges from his hiding place, his body taut, his legs tingling from having stood in place for so long.
Stretching his cramped muscles, he approaches the front of the Torah Ark. His fingers tremble with excitement, his eyes shine with greed as he draws open the parokhet, the curtain that screens the Ark.
Like a bride’s veil, he says to himself, amused by the analogy.
With a self-congratulatory nod and a tight satisfied smile, he pulls open the ornate bronze doors and carries the Torah to the Reader’s Table. For a few moments, he gazes at the coveted prize adorning the Torah mantle, three peerless jewels, each set into the bowl of one of the three vessels embroidered in gold on the mantle.
He doesn’t need much light. His eyes are already accustomed to the darkness, and his hands have performed this procedure many times before. Taking a few deep breaths to calm the twitch at the corner of his mouth, he removes a slim wooden box from the goatskin pouch attached to his belt, takes out his tools, and lines them up on the table: his silver pick, plyers, tweezers, snips, and a double-handled vial of olive oil. Then he undresses the Torah and positions the mantle so the jewels catch the narrow strip of light from the ner tamid.
Oh, Lord! Even in the thinnest light, they spew out their fire!
Half-frightened, worried that he’s uttered the words aloud, he releases only a feather of breath.
But hearing no echo, his jaw softens.
Then, hunching over the table, balancing his forearms against the edge, he takes hold of the pick and lays his hands on the mantle.
He tries to loosen the center stone, the emerald. The setting is tight. Very tight. He tries again, this time after placing a droplet of oil on each prong.
This is going to take a while.
He shifts his weight and continues.
The silence is absolute save for the occasional sputter of the ner tamid and the distant rumble of hooves on the Canopic Way’s granite pavement.
Until he hears loudening footfalls ringing out against the tessellated floor, waking the echoes in the corridor’s coffered ceiling.
A crease of light sweeps under the sanctuary’s ceiling-high, bejeweled double doors.
He freezes and holds his breath as fear prickles down his spine.
Until the clicking heels recede into the silence.
He blinks slowly and releases an unbidden sigh.
Just the watchman on his rounds. He won’t come in here. He locked the doors to the sanctuary and all the outside doors to the Synagogue hours ago and won’t open them again until dawn.
* * *
His fingers work through the night. Despite the chill, rivulets of sweat trickle down his back and collect under his belt. He straightens up now and then, rolls his shoulders back, and cocks his head as he admires his work.
His mouth curves into a triumphant smile.
Beads of saliva cling to his lips.
By now a pearly grayness is seeping under the doors. He can see the darkness dissolving. Objects in the sanctuary are reclaiming their color and shape.
He mentally ticks off the remaining tasks: Dress the Torah. Put it back in the Ark. Tuck my prize and the tools into the box. Slide it back into my pouch. Slip out as soon as the watchman unlocks the doors but before what’s-his-name, Gershon, that’s it, Gershon ben Israel, comes in to check the sacred—
Oh, my G-d, what on Earth is that squeaking sound? Surely not a bird.
A sharp-toothed, leathery-winged bat shoots out of nowhere, swoops across the sanctuary and wheeling around the bemah, takes a dive and nips the crown of his head before disappearing with a shrill screech behind the Ark.
His thin howl—part gasp, scream, and strangled sob—tears through the sanctuary.
Then he hears a pair of boots smacking the tiles.
I gotta get out of here! Where’s the—
Dressing it quickly, he shoves the Torah into the Ark, throwing everything else into his pouch.
Except the vial.
The vial. Oops!
Oh, G-d! Not now.
A hasty wipe with the sleeve of his robe.
The rising volume of hammering footsteps.
Now two sets; one close, the other farther away but catching up.
Their volume swelling as they turn a corner.
Must be Gershon trailing the watchman.
The jangle of keys.
The ping of the latch as the watchman unlocks the doors.
No place to hide. And my G-d, all this blood gushing from my head.
Gershon shouts, “No, Daniel, no! The other way. Hurry! The scream came from the library.”