The Saint of El Camino Real is the third novel in Harry Steven Ackley’s series about angels. The story focuses on the character of Heather Campbell as she begins the fall semester of her third year of college. Moving from Poughkeepsie, New York and transferring to Santa Clara University in California was supposed to mark a new start for Heather, away from her mother and the strange religious experiences of her past. However, as Heather quickly discovers, the things of the spiritual realm have little regard for time or geography.
The Saint of El Camino Real is now available at amazon.com. Below are some excepts from the beginning of the book.
THE NOOSE OF JUDAS – PART I
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.
– The Gospel of Saint Matthew, Chapter 27
Jerusalem, 33 AD
The stench was so awful it almost made the young Vespasian vomit. He ordered Laelius, his slave, to grab the rope. No one was else near. The Jews would not approach the rotting flesh for fear of contamination. Roman slaves would later remove the corpse as a random punishment for some invented offense. But only after the Jewish Sabbath had passed, of course … everything had to be done in accordance with the Jewish schedule.
Vespasian’s cohort had been dispatched to Judea a month ago because of the Jewish holiday. Pilate, the Prefect of region, had requested that the Emperor send extra troops to quell the expected crowds.
Vespasian hated Judea. He’d been there once before, en route to Egypt. He hated the Jews and their strange religion. And the tolerances of Pax Romana — he hated that too. Why didn’t Rome just wipe them out and have it done with? Or leave the place altogether? For Vespasian, he couldn’t get back to Rome soon enough.
He wasn’t sure why wanted the noose. It was a quirk of his. He enjoyed collecting instruments of death. He believed they held power, the power of the victim. And this victim was quite unique. He’d been duped by the Jewish leaders into betraying one of his own kind — a man who had gained the reputation of a prophet. A man who the Jews saw as a threat. And after the weak Pilate acquiesced to the Jews’ demand for an execution, the betrayer felt remorse and hung himself.
As Vespasian and Laelius made their way back to their encampment, they saw a group of Jews coming towards them. A member of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, was leading an ox cart. Vespasian recognized him by his long beard and elaborate robe. Behind the cart were three women and a young man, all walking slowly. As the group came closer, he could see that they were in tears and that the cart was carrying a bloodied corpse wrapped in a large sheet. Over the side of the makeshift bier, an arm was hanging out from under the sheet. Blood trickled from a large deep gash just above the wrist bone. The unmistakable wound of crucifixion.
The prophet, thought Vespasian.
And no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he became gripped by panic. Vespasian, a man who had survived terrible battles against ruthless enemies, found himself feeling like a scared child.
Though it was a warm spring day, his hands suddenly grew cold. The rope he held felt heavy, even burdensome. He dropped it to the ground and immediately the sensation left him.
The small entourage came to where Vespasian and Laelius stood. The old Jew stopped, looked at Vespasian, and waited.
Vespasian eyed the body of the dead prophet in the cart. The sheet was dark brown where the blood had dried and crimson where still wet. Only small patches of the original white remained.
Vespasian nodded to the Jew and stepped back to let the group proceed.
After they had passed, Vespasian reached down and picked up the rope.
… Yes, there is power here. Dark power, true, but power none-the-less.
THE NOOSE OF JUDAS – PART II
The dungeon of Loarre Castle, Aragon, Spain, 1747 AD
Standing in the dim torchlight, Father Joaquín Hernandez, Maestro de la inquisición, appeared even more sinister than usual. His deep-set eyes were in shadow. His thin lips were perfectly horizontal … inscrutable. Along the walls, were instruments of torture. Unused for years, they had fallen into eerie silence.
In his hands was a wooden box, about one-foot square and two inches deep. It was solid on four sides and on the back, but the front was wire mesh. In the box was a coil of blackened rope.
Father Joaquín looked down at the box and then at his colleague, a young Franciscan named Junípero. As his face turned upward, the light caught his eyes, the icy stare of a torturer.
“This, Father Junípero, is the noose of Judas Iscariot. Or rather, it is the rope used for the noose. The knot was taken out long ago. I don’t know why.
“It has been the source of our power for centuries. Do know its story?”
“Other than what is in the gospels, no,” said the young priest.
“I will tell you then,” said Father Joaquín.
“The tradition is that it was taken from the body of Judas, by the Roman Emperor Vespasian, long before he became emperor. When he was a young centurion stationed in Palestine.
“The noose was the source for his rise to power and that of his sons, Titus and Domitian. It was the power behind the siege of Jerusalem and the persecution of the early church.
“After the death of Domitian, Emperor Nerva ordered the noose to be destroyed, claiming that it had made Domitian mad with rage. He tried to burn it, but it would not burn, hence its blackened color. He then ordered it be hidden.
“From time to time it would surface, used by the darkest of the emperors: Commodus, Severus, Diocletian, and the like. Some emperors used it; some abhorred it. However, it always had to be passed on. The legend is that, until it comes into the hand of a new owner, either by bequeathing or thievery, its current owner will not die.”
“And how did it come into the hands of the inquisition?”
asked Father Junípero.
“When the empire turned Christian and its capital changed from Rome to Constantinople, the noose was moved to avoid capture by the Visigoths. It ended up here, in Spain. Later it briefly fell into the hands of the Moors but was recovered by Sancho Garcés, the king of Pamplona. It eventually was given to us as an aide in our efforts to purify the church. Much like the instruments you see in this dungeon, we used it to help us when necessary.”
The old priest ended his sentence and, for the first time, his dry little mouth curled into a fiendish smile. The smile quickly disappeared and he added, “But now those days have come to an end. The inquisition is all but over. The enlightenment has made its way to our beloved España. I have even heard that the Jews are beginning to return.”
“And that is why you wish me to have it, Father. To take it to the new world?”
“Yes,” answered Father Joaquín. “Where you are going is land to be won, full of pagans and wild beasts. The noose will aid you.”
“But is it a dark thing. You said yourself it drove the emperors mad … mad with power.”
“You are naïve. Father Junípero. You will soon discover the necessity for power, the employment of which is neither dark nor light. It is those who wield such power that determine the outcome of its use. Yet, as with the ancient judges of Israel, sometimes blood is spilt. It is simply a consequence. You will see.”
“And what about the curse? By accepting this, am I doomed to possess it until I die?”
“Hardly,” snapped the old priest. “It’s simply a myth.”
Father Joaquín held the box out to Father Junípero who took it and looked through the crude wire screen at its contents, the darkened spiral tightly enclosed on four sides. It seemed an ordinary object. But as he continued to hold it, it grew heavy.
Father Junípero’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud gasp. Father Joaquín crumpled to the floor. The young priest dropped the box. He went to his knees, next to Father Joaquín.
Father Joaquín continued gasping, clutching his chest. A look of horror as his glazed eyes were fixed on the instruments of torture lining the walls.
“I see them,” croaked the old priest. “They have come for me.”
“What do you see, Father?” asked Junípero.
“Them,” said Father Joaquín pointing a trembling finger. “The heretics … the Jews.”
Father Junípero looked at the wall where Father Joaquín was pointing. All he saw was a rusted cage with spikes and a rack whose wood and straps had decayed in the wetness of the dungeon.
“There’s no one there, Father,” said Junípero.
But Father Joaquín was dead.