Caiaphas pulled out a chair and sat down heavily. He stared across at Judas Iscariot for a while, eyes unblinking, before leaning forward and placing his elbows on the table.
‘You are willing to go through with this?’ the fat high priest asked.
Judas nodded. The hour was late, the room lit by a solitary oil lamp which struggled to cast his shadow on the wall.
‘Good. We will only have one chance to arrest him. One chance. You must not fail the Sanhedrin. You understand this?’
Judas nodded again, his locks bobbing as he did so. His medium-length hair was the darkest of blacks, thick and tightly curled. It spilled out onto the side of his cheeks, where it tumbled down like an inky waterfall into an equally dense beard.
‘When the time comes, you will identify him to us with a single kiss.’
‘Is that not rather–’
‘Not rather what?’
Caiaphas sat back, the chair cracking under his bulk as he did so. The darkness seemed to eat at his face as he leaned away, leaving just the hooked nose and two beady, hawk-like eyes visible. Eyes which now burned with annoyance.
‘You will greet him as I have indicated,’ the priest said. ‘We need it to be a kiss.’ He leaned forward. ‘You understand?’
Judas didn’t understand. At all. He was fairly sure most members of the Sanhedrin council would recognise Jesus anyway. It’s not as if he wasn’t well known to them. The theatrics of the betrayal seemed designed just to make an unpleasant situation even more hurtful. But there was nothing to be gained from arguing. He needed the money desperately. So if the Sanhedrin wanted a kiss, then a kiss it would have to be.
‘Very well,’ he said, and waited for the high priest to continue.
The two men sat in silence for a while. Judas’s forefinger traced the outline of the crescent moon-shaped birthmark on his neck, around and around.
‘The money?’ he asked eventually.
‘You will get your twenty pieces of silver once the act is complete. Now if that is all?’
‘I think we agreed thirty?’ Judas said, his voice wavering a little.
‘We agreed twenty.’
‘I think thirty is fairer. You’re asking me to betray my teacher and friend. Thirty for a kiss. It’s fair.’
The priest shook his head slowly.
‘This man, this Nazarene, is dangerous, Judas. He has delusions. I hear he proclaims himself to be the son of God. The son of God! He must answer for this blasphemy and with your help, he will. Do this and you will forever be regarded as a hero. Knowing you have helped us to… deal with the problem should be reward enough, but yes, you shall have your thirty pieces of silver, Judas Iscariot. Just make sure you earn them.’
The fat priest leaned back, indicating the conversation was over. His wooden chair creaked and popped in the darkness. Judas prayed hard that one of the legs would snap and send the pompous fool crashing to the ground, but nothing happened. God, it seemed, was not listening to him.
She stumbled forward, her hand flailing out towards the chair she knew to be there. Grasping its arm, she collapsed into the seat, her head spinning.
Her world, normally one of darkness, had sprung alive with a giddying array of visions, knowings, voices.
Fierce orange flames burned against the black canvas.
A single word came from beyond the void, each syllable choked with rage.
A limb appeared in the blazing tendrils of flame. She could smell the air thick with the stench of burning flesh, hear the skin as it slowly split, the crackle of the fat underneath as it oozed forth and spat under the searing heat.
The vision faded, the fire dimmed, but the spitting and hissing of flesh remained, slowly morphing into a whistling noise which grew stronger, louder. It became a screaming which tore against her eardrums. The sobbing shrieks of a young woman violated in the most horrific manner.
An underlying sound was now audible. The rhythmical rasp of metal sawing through bone. Another image formed, a man being cleaved down his…
The old crone gasped in a breath as the brutal cacophony ceased, the visions of death finally relenting. There would be many of them. Each more terrible than the last.
So many victims. Such pain and torment. She could sense it was close at hand…