Several seriously looking men were lying on couches on a spacious balcony of a senatorial villa, sipping wine and conversing in careful voices.
- Say, General, how do you like my new place? – asked one of the men, addressing another one across the low table.
- I like it, - Claudius Gaulicus answered simply, - I would not be able to afford such a place on my salary. Not that I am jealous of your position in this city, my dear Asinius, -He added with a thin smile.
- Hah! The General of Praetorian Guards can afford not to be jealous of anyone’s position. Speaking of who can afford what, why, with these new economic policies our Great Caesar implements nearly every month, we all can hardly afford living like this, you know.
- Now he taxies every will, can you imagine? And every man who receives an inheritance must pay him a percentage from that inheritance. It is unimaginable, - A jolly looking man with an immaculately trimmed beard burst into the conversation.
- Ah, Aemilius! What is it you are talking about? I have heard that your illustrious relative is thinking of outlawing the whole works of Homer, - The first man replied.
- Oh please, don’t call him my relative, for Gods sake, man!
- But you’re still his brother–in-law…
- I perceive it as a joke of Fate, you know. Why don’t you tease Marcus Silanus instead? He is his relative as well.
Everybody turned to the Caligula’s father-in-law Marcus Silanus. The man gave a bitter laugh, bowed and said,
- Thank you, gentlemen.
- And how’s your daughter is faring, Marcus? I trust she is well, - Asinius asked him.
- Caesonia? Oh, she is bitter as Hell, - Replied Silanus, - No woman in her right mind would wish for a husband like that.
- Certainly, certainly. Besides, the beast is simply jealous of everyone and everything. For instance, only a week ago I purchased a few slaves, you know, and he quickly learned about it, I don’t know how, and he started pestering me with all these question, such as ‘How can you afford to spend so much and hardly fill any state tax forms?’ I mean slaves! Doesn’t he have enough of them himself? – Said Aemilius Lepidos.
- Oh! Do not talk to me about slaves, - sighed a sad looking guest with the airs of a scholar, who had until now remained silent.
- Well, why not? Gentlemen! Personally, I can tell you that, be it in my power, I would have ridden our system of all that stupidity once and for all.
The remark produced explosions of laughter.
- You may laugh as much as you want, gentlemen, - The speaker resumed angrily, - But as far as I can see, our precious slaves are only a liability and not a necessity of life. I mean, only yesterday my kitchen boy went out and got himself intoxicated silly. I understand he started some argument with a drunken freed slave in some vile tavern. Naturally, soon enough their argument developed into a fight. Well, to cut a long story short, a pair of lictors brought him back to my home. Of course, the boy was wasted senseless and couldn’t stand on his two legs, so it was useless even to slap his stupid face or to demand an explanation. Anyway, I had to pay a fine for the damage he did in that tavern. And it was not the first case. I guess all my slaves steal behind my back and it is virtually impossible to force them to do any productive work. All they do is gossip, eat and shirk their duties. I mean, I’d rather hire outsiders for any sort of work my household might require, pay them and kick them out afterwards. No liabilities, nothing. It is too much troubles and responsibilities!
- Why, I always thought we possess responsibilities for our slaves’ welfare, - Aemilius replied, - This is only moral and natural. How would the society function otherwise? Plebiscite and slaves are unable to take care of themselves. They possess no sense of law and order. If you abolish the present system, you’d end up with the thousands and thousands of bums, poor unemployable scoundrels. I do not mean prisoners of war, mind you. That’s another story. But speaking of slaves, I am merely talking of those who were born that way. And don’t tell me about economics. Other things must be considered as well, not only pure profit and efficiency. I do not think the present system would change any time soon.
- So we’re stuck with our slaves for good, - said someone with a snigger.
- But we did not gather here to discuss the future of slavery, I hope, - mumbled Gaulicus grimly.
- Oh, no! Certainly, not! – Senator Aemilius Lepidos, the man with a jolly appearance, made a face and cackled, - We wouldn’t dream of wasting your valuable time, General, on the trifles like this.
- Gentlemen! I personally hope that it is time we all reach a certain level of understanding, - Senator Asinius said, - Therefore let us begin a serious discussion.
- Good. Agreed, - chorused the other men.
- We gathered here, under this roof, to discuss the future of our Government. As you know, at present the political system of Rome, based on the idea of Republic, is under an attack from the dangerous maniac, the self-proclaimed deity. We, an enlightened state that values freedom and civilization, stand on a brick of total disintegration, gentlemen. It is only too clear that the present rule creates nothing but anarchy and more anarchy. We must act and act quickly, - said Asinius.
- Not to mention the fact that the beast might kill any of us at any moment, - added Aemilius Lepidos darkly, - Same goes for you, General, I understand.
The General nodded.
- Therefore, I can think of only one solution, which is to eliminate the monster as soon as possible. We can discuss the future candidate for the Caesarean position later, - said Asinius.
- I agree with you, gentlemen, - uttered Gaulicus, - None of us is safe and the present situation is getting out of hand.
- That’s why it is for you, General, to perform the final move, - several men said at once.
- Why is it so?
- As the Praetorian General, you’re the closest person to him; besides, you possess the means.
- I should kill him myself, is that what you say? – The General grinned mirthlessly.
- Frankly, yes.
- It is not as easily done as said.
- Of course not, but you are a military man, after all. You alone know all the ins and outs.
- Of course. It seems that I do. Therefore, it is easier for me to jeopardize my situation than for any of you. Caligula is suspicious. Well, if we are talking about a proper assassination, I cannot perform it myself. There are several reasons that I will not go into right now.
- Then find someone else.
- I need to think about it. I need time.
The men nodded silently and stared at the General.
- The best I can promise you gentlemen is this: I will think about it and I will try to find the right man for the job.
- Excellent, only do not take too long, General, - urged Asinius.
- Do not worry. I won’t.
* * * *
- So it seems that our only witness has disappeared, - Menelaus was pacing his study and shaking his fists in an impotent rage. Cumulus, who turned out for the evening part of the work, was sitting on a low stool and watching his employer in silence.
- At least, it’s saved us another trip into the Temple, - Menelaus continued, - I knew it! I knew there was something fishy in the old man’s attitude and all that. Not to know the address of your own employee? Ridiculous!
- But how did you learn about it, sir? – Asked Cumulus carefully, - You haven’t been into that Temple this evening.
- Hah! A one million sestertii question, -Cried Menelaus.
- I stationed my faithful slave in that vile place to keep an eye on the things, -He continued, - Cannot afford professional spies, but my old Thracian is always useful. In any case, we are not going down there. I dare say we are stuck with this investigation!
- Are we really stuck, sir?
- Of course we are, my eager youngster! The only witness seems to disappear. Perhaps he is even dead, lying in a gutter.
Cumulus cleared his throat and said carefully,
- I know who might help us out, sir. I know just a man…
- What? – Menelaus spun on his heels and glared at Cumulus, - I presume you are joking, right?
- No, sir. I know a person, an old man, in fact, who can help you - I mean, us - out.
- Oh really? And who he might be, your preciously clever man?
- Hmm… He is a teacher…
- Now wait a minute here, would you? A teacher, you say? Is he a Roman citizen or…
- No, sir. He’s not from around here, sir, but he is a learned man and… he might give you A CLUE.
- A CLUE? – Menelaus yelled, - But you haven’t answered the other part of my question yet.
- Yeah. Well, it’s like, he is actually a foreigner, not a citizen of Rome. The problem is, he has been accused of… You know… The lictors mistook him for someone else…
- For someone else?
- Yeah, for a runaway pedagogue and stuff, so they arrested him and…
- Placed him where he had originally belonged, isn’t it right?
- So he is in fact a runaway slave…
- Oh no sir, he is not. He is a free person. It was a mistake.
- And you know this guy and you claim that he can help us with this investigation. Is that what you are telling me?
- Roughly, yes, sir.
- I see. Strange acquaintances you are keeping then, young man, but who am I to talk?
- Sir, he is not a runaway slave, I assure you. Honestly.
- Oh, don’t talk to me about honesty and other silly stuff. Just explain.
- Eh, what?
- How this honest old man of yours can give us any clue? Is he involved into this or what?
- No, but you see, it’s like, he has huge knowledge of history and stuff and … eh…
- Well, go on.
- I mean to say that he knows pretty well all kinds of methods, like the one you use yourself, sir. I mean, he can find a clue without even leaving his house, you know what I mean, and…
- Hey, wait a moment here! Do you mean to say to me that your learned patriarch uses the same methods as I do?
- Nah, not exactly but…
- Are you aware of the fact, an arrogant young man, that I have a reputation in this city – a reputation of the best investigator and accidentally, also the best specialist in deductive reasoning? Do you mean to say that he is better at it than I am?
- Oh no, sir. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. I mean, I personally don’t know much about his methods, you know. I’m sure they are different somehow, but I know that he’s pretty cool at finding clues. I mean, it is as far as it goes, but still, finding a clue, that is something he is real good at.
- You know, Cumulus, - Menelaus stopped his frantic pacing and stared hard at his employee, - I could not fail to notice that you seem a little bit different this evening.
- Umgh… Excuse me?
- Yes, that is precisely what I mean! You seem to be gotten rid of your usual lethargy, if you excuse me putting it this way. You speak and, frankly, look, like a new person. What’s happened to you during these few hours? Have you cleared your problems with your… eh, whoever it is, your fiancée, lover, or…
- Eh, yes, sir!
- What does it mean, ‘eh, yes, sir’?
- Eh, I did.
- Hmm. Well… What can I say? Congratulations. Young blood and all that stuff… Glad that I am no longer young myself…Hmm… Well, I don’t know what to say to your proposition. Frankly, we are indeed stuck in this Temple business. I guess, I can use some help although I very much doubt it would do any good.
- But we can try, sir! I mean, the guy is cool.
- Hmm. Cool, huh? You put it in a funny way… Cool, hmm… I am always cool, come to think of it, yet id has never occurred to me to put it like that. But never mind! I understand what you mean. Let’s try this ancient well of knowledge then. Where can we find him?
* * * *
Senior Lictor Cicero Galbus secretly despised all those obnoxious amateurs at the law enforcement who called themselves ‘Private Eye’, ‘Private Investigator’, or ‘Private Detective’. In his opinion, the only part of a criminal investigation that required any privacy occurred in a dungeon, when an accused refused to cooperate with the law and needed a gentle encouragement. But if you were inclined to listen to all these nosy intellectuals with they silly ways and their psychology where could it get you? What could they possibly know about honest fieldwork? Hah! It was simply laughable. Cicero Galbus disliked them all - with the only exception. The man’s name was Menelaus. He also called himself ‘Private Detective’ but it didn’t bother the good lictor in the slightest. Menelaus was Galbus’ drinking buddy of a very long standing, besides he couldn’t mess up any investigation even when he tried, and he had tried to do so countless times. All law enforcement officers of Rome held Menelaus in esteem as decidedly the worst city’s investigator, although the man himself believed himself to be otherwise. Therefore, among the lictors it was regarded a bad sport to contradict the man. They even gave him tips, or occasional credits.
It was a nice, slow morning, full of the hopelessly overdue paperwork, but no pressure, when Cicero Galbus, who was dozing off at his desk, heard the sound of the opening door. He yawned, looked up and produced a wide smile.
- Ehe! My good friend. What brought you here in this unholy hour?
- Hello, Galbus, old man! I need your help, and I need it badly, - said Menelaus, grabbing a chair and seating himself down.
Cicero Galbus nodded amiably and shifted his reddish eyes from the face of the Famous Bad Private Detective to another, less interesting one. It belonged to a tall youth of an unremarkable appearance who was standing behind Menelaus.
- And who is this guy? – The lictor nodded towards Menelaus’ companion.
- Ah! It is young Cumulus, my current assistant, - Menelaus replied and leaned conspiratorially across the desk,
- Galbus, my friend, I need to find a certain man. I believe he had been hold in this station.
- You don’t say. Many men passed through this station. Which one do you want?
- Eh, I think my assistant can describe him to you better. I have never seen the man myself, - Menelaus made a sign to Cumulus to step closer and to describe his old man.
Once Cumulus finished, Cicero Galbus nodded his burly head slowly and said,
- I think I remember that old guy all right. He was a runaway pedagogue, wasn’t he?
- Um, actually sir, it was a mistake. He wasn’t a slave at all … - began Cumulus but Menelaus waived him into silence and said hotly:
- Do not listen to him, buddy. This incarnation of the naiveté believes that this old man is innocent but naturally, nothing has been proven. Therefore, I need to talk to this old man myself.
- Really? – Cicero Galbus squinted one eye and peered at his friend, - What kind of business do you have in mind? I mean, the old goat’s master came here himself, made the necessary check and took him away. Everything went strictly according to the regulations. I guess, this teacher is in his master’s house now, unless the master sold the old stinker.
- What was the name of his master then?
- Oh! He’s a big shot, man, believe me. Does the name Gallus Asinius says anything to you?
- Oh my! A senator, huh?
- Precisely. A bit disagreeable man, but… You know these politicians.
- Of course.
- You know, my friend, by telling you the name I am sort of went against the regulations…
- I understand.
- But for a friend…
- Naturally. I am obliged.
- Nah! It is OK, you can stand me a drink this Friday, how ‘bout that? And don’t mention to anyone that you’ve learned the name from me, OK? Is it a deal?
- Of course, it’s a deal! Thanks, old man! I’ll see you in our tavern this very Friday then.
- Hey, Menelaus! Wait, man.
- Listen, I am just curious. Why do you want to speak to this old duck so badly?
- It’s my current investigation. I believe he might give me some valuable insight. Well, at least I hope he will be able to do so. It won’t hurt to try, you know.
- Yeah, I sure know. And what do you work on now?
- Ah! It’s politically sensitive stuff, my friend. Government and such. Sorry, I can’t tell you more.
- I understand. Well, I wish you all the luck. Do not forget about this Friday.
- Don’t you worry, old chap, I won’t.
Once Menelaus and his assistant stepped back on the street, the Great Detective muttered grimly:
- I do not really like any of it.
- Excuse me?
- Listen, young man! I know this senator Asinius. Or at least, I’ve heard of him a great deal. He is a big figure on the Forum indeed and not a man to be messed with. You know what I mean?
- Yes, sir.
- So, if your talks about your precious old man are nothing but your own stupid fantasies, we might find ourselves in trouble. You understand that, I hope?
- But I am pretty sure he will be helpful.
- Hah! You sound so convinced, it’s simply astounding! Let me tell you something. I would not have listened to you, no matter what, except there is one interesting aspect that makes me curious.
- What aspect is that, sir?
- Well, let me put it this way: Gallus Asinius has a certain reputation that does not make him especially popular among the highest authorities. Personally, I find it curious that the man’s name has been sprung on me when I am trying to sort out these recent happenings. Alright, I am not going into lengthy explanations of my thinking process, but for you it simply means that I am willing to try your old man, that is all.
- Great, sir!
- He’d better turn out to be useful.
- He will be, don’t worry, sir.
* * * *
A young couple sat at a greasy tavern table and munched at a colorful variety of what looked like a creative approach to the conception of a vegetarian pizza. The place was quiet and nearly empty, which, considering this late hour of Friday evening, meant only that the abovementioned establishment strived on ‘family atmosphere’, nonexistent on this particular street.
- It’s not a pizza! Honestly! I do not know what it is! Yuk, - Zenaya eyed her slice angrily and bit at one corner.
- Hey, we can go someplace else. You told me that you cannot stand dirty boozers, - Cumulus protested.
- Oh, yeah! But this place is even worse. Hey, I was meaning to ask you: why didn’t you tell me this landlady of yours is a mean bitch?
- What do you mean? I thought she was OK.
- Yeah, right. Only this morning she warned me to stop talking to her lady-slave. You know? The one who is doing all the housework and stuff?
- The fat one?
- Hey! Do not use such words, OK? She is a little bit overweight, that is all. It does not give you a right to call her ‘fat’, you know.
- All right, all right. I’m sorry! But what’s the deal with her anyway?
- I dunno, but I figured the landlady is kinda mad at me now because I was talking to this poor slave woman.
- Did you talk to her? What about?
- Listen! Don’t you understand? We’re in stinking Rome! The center of slavery! Does it tell you anything?
- Eh, well, I kinda noticed here are plenty of slaves, all right. So what? It is Roman Empire.
- Are you really that dumb, or you just pretend? Listen! I have been talking to this poor woman several times, trying to explain to her how wrong the slavery is and how bad it is to exploit people, you know.
- You mean, you were talking to her about, like, the evils of slavery and stuff?
- Of course! What else did you expect me to do - just sit around and watch this unfortunate woman suffer all day long in her captivity? I mean, it is amazing! I have been having these conversations with her, you know, like every time I have a chance and do you know what this woman told me?
- She told me I am crazy! Can you imagine how much she is brainwashed? I mean, she doesn’t even understand what I am talking about! Isn’t it awful?
- Well, they kinda don’t know the difference.
- So what? I know the difference! So, it’s like my duty to open her eyes, tell her how the things really are.
- Listen, Jo…
- Yean, listen, Zenaya. You are not going to start a slave uprising or something? We have got to free the Professor and get the Hell out of here.
- Hey, it’s like, you’re accusing me of making troubles, right? When you are the one who started them in the first place!
- I am not accusing you!
-No, you are too! Well, I suppose this bloodsucking landlady of yours has heard me talking to her slave and she’s gone all mad at me!
- We have to be careful, you know. Hey, tomorrow my boss and I are going over to that senator’s place to free the Professor!
- You did not tell me! Are you guys going to talk to this fat slave driver of the senator or what? You think he is gonna listen to you guys? I bet he’ll kick you out of his house the minute he sees you.
- No! We’re not going to talk to him. I mean, we discussed it with my boss and he went like 'let’s break into the house and let the Professor out.’ It is easier this way.
- Is your boss crazy? How are you guys planning to break into a house? I mean, this is nuts.
- No, listen! I guess it’s OK ‘cause my boss is sorta famous detective and stuff! He knows all about house breakings and he’s got tools! It’s gonna be a piece of cake!
- Yeah, right! I only hope that your boss is smarter than you are. Oh, my! This place sucks. The whole city sucks! I am getting depressed out of my wits!
- Hey, what’s wrong? I told you we could go to another place. I’ve got money.
-Money, huh! I simply don’t know, what the people around here can be possibly doing for fun! And shopping is lousy. I mean, everything is hugely overpriced and of such poor quality! Do people around here ever go out or something?
- Of course they do.
- I know what you mean! It’s like you and your gladiator pal, huh? I know what kind of fun all these people have in mind. Sexual exploitation! And you! You pretend to be such a goody boy and all you dream of is to go to one of these…
- Hey, but you worked there yourself!
- I was doing my scientific investigation, besides I was looking for you!
- All right, all right. Let’s drop the subject!
- How come I have not seen your pal lately?
- Who? Cletius?
-Yeah, that one. Is he sick or something?
-Nah, but he’s got a job of guarding a horse. I mean, Caligula made his horse a consul, you know, to piss off the Senate, and assigned Cletius to be the horse’s guard. Cletius is pissed off too. I saw him briefly the other day and he is like totally depressed. He says that all he does all day long is sitting around that horse and shoveling the horseshit occasionally. I mean, it sounds bad, huh?
- Maybe we should free him too!
- Tsh! Stop shouting!
- I am not shouting. But I guess we should free the Professor first or we’ll be stuck around here forever. By the way, do you know any decent places around, like a dancing place or something?
- I dunno… We can check.
They froze, startled by a rumbling of a male voice, looked up and saw a middle-aged man in a dark business toga, who standing by their table. The man was looking at Zenaya with a slightly sheepish expression.
- Yeah, can I help you? – Zenaya eyed him with a distaste.
- May I sit down? – asked the man and took hold of a free chair.
- Yes, of course.
- Thank you, - The man lowered himself in the chair and smiled.
- I recognized you right away, - He said after a brief pause.
- Oh, really? - Zenaya continued to eye him guardedly.
- Of course! But let me introduce myself. I am… My name is… Well, I’d prefer not to say my name now. It is a privacy issue, you understand.
- I understand.
- You’ve got quite a reputation in this city, young woman. I mean, your famous counseling sessions.
- I would be greatly obliged if you could spare me a few minutes.
- I’m sorry, but I’m not practicing the counseling any more, so…
- Oh, come on! Just a few minutes. Would you mind?
- Eh… Maybe just a few minutes, then.
- Well, good, - The man shot Cumulus a dirty glance and cleared his throat, - I would like to ask you a favor, really.
- Do you give hmm… private sessions?
- I’ll pay well.
Zenaya blushed violently, opened her mouth but no words came out. Cumulus, who had been watching the man intently, lowered his gaze and looked at the man’s fat, hairy fingers, adorned with a number of golden rings.
- Are you a lawyer? – He asked suddenly.
- Eh…Yeees, - The man glared at Cumulus rather heavily and asked, - How the Hell do you know? You don’t look like one of my clients.
- And you’re an art collector too, - Cumulus continued, ignoring the question.
- But how the hell did you… Hey, who are you anyway? – The man roared and began to raise his lower part from the chair.
- It doesn’t matter. Sorry, we’ve got to go, - Cumulus rose on his feet and tugged Zenaya by a sleeve.
- Hey, wait a minute here, you two! – yelled the art collector but Cumulus and Zenaya already slipped into the street.
- Did you pay for that pizza anyway? – Zenaya asked breathlessly.
- Yeah, don’t you remember? They charge upfront.
- Good. Who was that guy?
- Just a guy I saw in an art gallery.
- A pig!
In a meantime, the unfortunate lawyer and art collector was heading towards the pizzeria exit at a much slower pace, colliding with chairs and tables and muttering angrily under his breath. He almost reached the finishing point of his short but laborious journey when a nondescript man touched him on a shoulder and said in a quiet but firm tone of voice:
- A moment of your time, sir.
- What is that now? – The lawyer turned around and bored at the obnoxious stranger with all the anger he’d managed to produce in the last few minutes.
- I am…- The nondescript stranger leaned towards and whispered something in the lawyer’s ear, - I would like to ask you a few questions.
- But do you have a proper order or...? – The lawyer sounded suddenly much less angry than before but still kept an unyielding businesslike manner.
- It will not be necessary. Your name will not be mentioned. Let’s sit down.
* * * *
Typical senatorial villas never varied greatly either in architecture or in the arrangements of the outer grounds. In fact, they had only two functions – to provide comfort and to show off wealth. The houses’ interiors could look more or less weird, depending on their occupant’s tastes, but the whole complexes always contained the usual adjoining buildings, such as slave quarters, kitchens, stables, and baths. However, according to Menelaus, the property of Senator Gaulus Asinius was quite an irregular creation. First, it was surrounded by a strangely functional high wall. Secondly, the wall itself seemed to be well guarded.
- Does he expect a siege or what? I’d never seen the wall like that in a summer villa, - Menelaus grumbled irritably, trying to shift into more comfortable position and shooting a warning glance towards his assistant, - Keep your head low, for Gods’ sake, lad!
- Just watch out, all right?
They were lying in a ditch close to the road that led to the main gate. Although the ditch was relatively dry, it lacked any smooth grass and was carpeted with small rocks and debris of dead shrubbery.
- How late do you imagine it is? – Inquired Menelaus in a rustling whisper.
- Close to the midnight, I think, - Replied Cumulus, spitting fragments of dust.
- What makes you think so?
- I dunno…
- You dunno! Oh well, let’s wait a little bit longer and then we’ll spring into action.
- What are we going to do, sir?
- What do you think we can do? We’ll scale the wall.
- Oh… Alright.
- I hope you are not afraid of heights.
- I dunno… I’d never tried ‘em.
- Today is your lucky day then.
They fell into a nervous silence. The inner courtyard of the residence was illuminated by torchlights but the place seemed peaceful.
Cumulus began to doze off when Menelaus slapped him lightly on a wrist and hissed,
- Let’s go, lad.
They rose from their hideout and started trotting across the field in a zigzagging fashion.
- Keep your head low! Keep your head low! – Menelaus himself was bending nearly double under the weight of the leather bag he was carrying. Cumulus brought up the rear, trying to breathe quietly and stumbling on the uneven ground. Soon, they reached the wall and stopped. Menelaus looked up and frowned.
- A bit higher than I expected but it should do, - He said and opened his bag.
- Do you know what that is? – He asked after a moment, producing something that looked like a bungle of rope, - It’s a rope ladder. It has a hook. Now I’m throwing it over the wall and then… I hope I can manage…
He planted his legs wide apart like a circus artist and sent the end of the rope flying. Cumulus listened as the silence was broken by a swishing noise, followed by a clang above and then a heavy hook, attached to the end of the rope, fell down, missing Menelaus’ head by inches.
- Damn! See what happens when you get out of practice! – Menelaus picked the hook and inspected it with a disgust, - Cumulus? Can you do it?
- I can try, sir!
- Nah, better not! We are making too much noise already. Let’s move along the wall a bit.
They walked for a few minutes, then Menelaus stopped and hissed into Cumulus’ ear:
- Did you see it?
- The door!
- Ah! Let’s step closer.
It was indeed a door. Menelaus tried the handle and whistled appreciatively,
- It’s open!
He turned the handle all the way and slowly rotated the door open. There seemed to be no one on the other side. Menelaus thrust his head through the doorframe, peered into the sparsely illuminated space beyond and grinned with satisfaction:
- So much for the security! Let’s go!
They found themselves in a spacious courtyard. The place looked satisfactory empty of unsuspecting humanity that was probably guarding the main gate. They crossed the courtyard and approached something that looked like a conservatory.
- A glass door! What a waste of money, - groaned Menelaus and tried the conservatory door. It was closed securely.
- I believe it would be easier than the damn wall, - He said, opening his bag once more and producing a small instrument.
- This is a glass cutting devise. Made by an excellent Greek craftsman. Now watch, young man, and learn.
Menelaus attached the instrument to the surface of the glass and began turning the small handle. After a long scratching noise, there came a tiny pop. Menelaus waived in front of Cumulus a perfectly round piece of glass and grinned triumphantly.
- Now all I have to do is to insert my hand into the opening and turn the handle, - He began to perform the described movement, then hissed ‘Ouch!’ and quickly withdrew his hand.
- What’s happened? – whispered Cumulus, feeling helplessly blind in the darkness.
- Damn it! I cut my finger! Do you have a handkerchief or something?
Cumulus handed his boss a dirty handkerchief. Menelaus bandaged his finger, then inserted the hand into the hole again and seized the hook that kept the door locked. After a few attempts, he worked the door open and they slid inside. It wasn’t as dark there as Cumulus had expected.
- Why are we going into the conservatory, sir? - He inquired of his boss in a careful whisper.
- Because my professional instinct tells me that the slave quarters might be found beyond this absurd creation. Quiet.
They had been walking for some length down a narrow path between huge plants when Menelaus halted and said:
- There’s someone lying on a bench a few paces ahead.
- What are we gonna do, sir?
- Move closer. I think this man is asleep.
- Why do you think so?
- Because he is snoring.
They approached the bench and leaned forward to have a better look.
- Sir! Sir! – whispered Cumulus excitedly.
- This is him.
- Yeah. This is the Pro… The teacher.
- Is this your old man?
- Yes, sir.
Menelaus bent over and looked into the old man’s face, then sniffed the air.
- He is dead drunk.
- Let’s try to wake him up though. You do it, young man. It was your idea to get this wreck out of here, after all.
Cumulus stepped forward and shook Proculus.
* * * *
Three men were walking shoulder to shoulder, or rather moving in slow jerks, down the moon lit road. The tall man in the middle, seemed to play a role of a sea anchor, drawn down by the firm ground under his feet. He could barely keep upright and stammered incessantly. The other two had to hold him firmly and sometimes, when the road became a bit rough, almost carry him
- I don’t care! I don’t…- The man in the middle slurred.
- Of course you don’t, - Snapped Menelaus angrily, - But we do. Try to keep your balance, man. I have to carry my bag as well, you know. It’s not light.
- Yes, sir. Just try to walk straight, - Cumulus intoned.
- Hah! Straight! What do you two know about walking straight! - Answered the middle man enigmatically.
- Yeah. You can always tell a learned man from an ignorant clod, - Menelaus muttered.
They reached a bend of the road and stopped.
- The cart should be here any minute. Let’s seat this drunk down on this rock, - Menelaus wiped his forehead.
- The cart, sir?
- Of course, Cumulus. I hired a cart to take us back to the city. Did you expect us to travel on foot, all three of us, the runaway slave included?
- Whom do you call a runaway slave, sir? – The drunken man asked angrily.
- You, of course.
- You are gravely mistaken, my man! I am not what you think I am.
Menelaus snorted and walked a few steps away on a middle of the road.
- I’ll watch for the cart, and you, Cumulus, watch this old crazy.
Cumulus squatted in front of the old man and whispered,
The old man gasped and stared at Cumulus with astonishment. The sight of the young man’s face seemed to sober him up considerably.
- Yes, sir! I was looking for you.
- And I had been looking for you! We had been looking for you! Where’s eh… Zenaya?
- She is at my place. I mean, we stay in the same house. Don’t worry. Everything is fine now.
- No, young man, nothing is fine, and you know why.
- I’m sorry, sir!
- Stop calling me that at once. Here I am a teacher. My name is Proculus. Please try to remember that. And what do they call you here?
- I am sorry.
- You should be. But we’ll talk later. Who is this arrogant man, who came tugging with you like a… Oh, never mind. Who is he?
- He’s my employer.
- Do you mean to say that you work?
- For now, yes.
- What is your occupation, may I inquire?
- I am an assistant of a Private Detective.
- What a pack of nonsense! There is no such profession in the Imperial Rome.
- No, there are plenty of those around Rome. Here is one.
- OK, OK. And what does he investigate, so to speak?
- Of course. Ah! My head hurts so badly. What are we waiting for?
- The cart to come and fetch us.
- I see.
The old man closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep. Cumulus kept looking worriedly over his shoulder at a solitary figure of Menelaus, standing in the middle of the road and at the road itself. Finally, he heard a rumble and creaks of something, speeding towards them.
- Wake the old goat up! The cart is here! – Menelaus called.
- This Private Detective seems to be an extremely rude man, - Uttered the Professor without lifting his head.
- Oh no, he is OK, sir. – Replied Cumulus.
- Stop calling me that, for Gods’ sake!
* * * *
- I am a bit surprised we hadn’t been followed, - Said Menelaus, glancing around Cumulus’ room. The gaunt figure of the Professor was lying on Cumulus’ bed. The old man was snoring loudly.
- Maybe they don’t watch their people, - Replied Cumulus.
- I don’t know. Well, I guess I’ll leave you to your business for now. Let this wreck sleep. I hope he’s more functional tomorrow. In any case, I’ll be around here in the afternoon. I hope he doesn’t run away.
- Oh no, he won’t. sir.
- Alright then. I am afraid you’ll have to sleep on the floor tonight.
- It’s OK, sir. I’ll be OK.
- Good. See you both tomorrow.
Once Menelaus left the premises, Zenaya stormed into the room and fell on her knees in front of the bed with the sleeping form of the Professor sprawled on it.
- So you freed him! Oh, gosh! I can’t believe it, - She cried.
- Why not? It was not a big deal, - replied Cumulus.
- Is he ill or something? I thought he wouldn’t be asleep.
- He is drunk, that’s all. I recon he’ll be OK tomorrow.
- How can you say that? The Pro… The teacher never drinks.
- Apparently, he does now.
Zenaya gave him an angry shrug and said,
- I am going to bed.
- Good night, then.
Cumulus watched her back as she left the room, then sighed and began to make a bed on the floor.
* * * *
Menelaus was strolling at leisure past huge tenement buildings and nightclubs, musing about the strange events of the day. Naturally, there was something positively unsettling in the janitor’s disappearance. The new assistant began to worry him too. A guy was getting weirder and weirder every day. Menelaus also wondered why he had agreed to go to Asinius’ villa. It was a dangerous undertaking. The easiness with which it went was highly suspicious: Menelaus knew perfectly well that things never went so easily. Even if the Senator didn’t care about the pedagogue … And why was that door open? And another was closed?
He approached the Coliseum, or the Flavian Amphitheater, as was its official name, and made a sharp turn.
He was heading in a general direction of his quarters, but first he wished to accomplish some minor business around here. The area he entered had the reputation of a ‘rough’ district but he hardly cared, being, by the sheer grace of his profession, a part of the criminal world, although on its punitive side. He knew quite a number of legal and illegal establishments alike, scattered around these parts, some of them disguised as innocent restaurants, or simply holes in the wall, and some openly obvious, big and flashy. He knew that he was well known to the local troublemakers, none of which were particularly eager to bother him; besides, his aura of authority clearly indicated that he knew what he was doing.
He crossed a wide thoroughfare with countless drunks and rugged teenagers, sitting on the sidewalk, porn theaters with bizarrely dressed slaves, standing at the entrances and luring passers by with promises of phony ‘reduced’ price for the evening show, dirty pizza joints and liquor stores, and plunged into a particularly dirty and dark side alley. He glanced over a shoulder, spotted a couple of thugs who started to follow him as soon as he left the big street, and smiled with satisfaction. It was nice to know that certain things stayed the same. It gave one a sense of solid grounding. Detective slowed his pace and pretended to be looking for something, perhaps an entrance to an illegal lupanarium or a hashish parlor. A few moments later, a harsh voice directly behind him asked where the hell he thought he was going. Menelaus spun around and wiped an unusually long stiletto that he usually hid in cleverly constructed folds of his tunic and sliced at the garb of the thug who was standing closer to him. The man yelled and backed off, holding his left breast. Menelaus, who knew a move or two, delivered a kick with his foot right into another guy’s face and stepped back, regaining his balance with a surprising ease.
- Does One Leg know what are you two up to down this alley? – He asked pleasantly, as the thug with the stiletto wound lowered his head, clearly preparing for a final attack, and not bothering about a gross amount of blood that poured down his left side, while the other one scrambled himself from the ground.
- Eh… One Leg, huh? – The two men stopped and peered at Menelaus with a sullen curiosity.
- Yes, One Leg, my best and the oldest friend. Does he employ you guys or are you free lancers?
- Eh… No… Yes… We kinda stick around, that’s all…, - Said one of the men.
- Well then, you’d better stick round someplace else.
- Yeah. No call for violence, man. We meant to ask you the time, that’s all.
- So I figured. Now run along.
Menelaus turned on his heels and resumed his walk. Soon he reached a tiny wine shop with a narrow entrance barred with metal bars. In this part of the city, merchants, even if they were bandits themselves, seldom allowed strangers inside their establishments. All transactions were performed through the safety of metal bars. It was simply a good neighborly tradition. Menelaus approached the shop and banged on metal with his house keys. The shop seemed to be totally empty of any presence, although it was illuminated by an oil pot, which stench was detectable from afar. Its extremely dirty and grim interior, crammed with unidentifiable sacks, dusty bottles and Gods only knew what else, was divided by a gray curtain. Menelaus leaned closer and shouted,
- Hey, One Leg! Wake up, man. Your friend Menelaus is here!
- In a moment! – Came an instant reply and in the next moment the curtain drew open and a rugged invalid hobbled into the front part of the store.
- Sorry, sir. I was snoozing, indeed. Didn’t hear you knocking.
- How do you know I knocking then? – Smiled the Detective.
- ‘Cause all polite gentlemen, like yourself, knock first, - Answered the invalid, unlocking the bars that also served as a door, and letting Menelaus in.
- Something to drink? – One Leg produced a crooked resemblance of a smile, exposing surprisingly good teeth.
- A drop of wine would be nice although what kind of stuff can you expect in a place like this? Moonshine, most likely?
- Ah! You are a great joker, same as always, - Cackled One Leg, - You know better than I do that I am a respectable person.
- Of course, of course! What have you got? Something good for a thirsty stranger?
- The best Falernian.
- Hah! I always knew you have tastes appropriate for a senator or a consul. How come you are still stewing in this hole? You should buy yourself a villa and enjoy your retirement. I know you’ve got the means.
- Of course, I’ve got the means, no offence to you, sir. But how can a man like me, who built his business over so many years, suddenly drop everything and retire to the country? I’ve got my boys and girls to think of.
- Sure you do.
They proceed behind the curtain and into the back of the store. It looked somewhat cleaner and roomier, with a big, low table and even a several couches, covered with piled up pillows.
- Lie down, sir and rest a bit. I’ll call my slave to fetch us some wine, - One Leg said and shouted into a partition in a wall that led to the truly inner parts of the house, - Hannibal! Bring us wine! Quickly!
Once the wine was brought in and a grim Negro slave, who looked like a mountain of muscles, filled two glasses, Menelaus took a sip and nodded approvingly,
- I was meaning to ask you for a favor, my friend, only I am not sure I came in the right time, - He said.
- Why’s that? – One Leg raised his brows.
- Isn’t it late? I mean, it seems a trifle bit impolite to bulge into your good friends’ house in the middle of the night and start talking business.
- Hah! You know I never sleep. Doze, mostly. It makes no difference to me if you wish to come at night or during the day. Business is always business. It never waits until you have a convenient moment, you know.
- I know. It is true.
- But what are you doing in an hour like this, walking around? You must have been on to something urgent.
- You’re right again. I am on to something urgent, and the further it goes, the more urgent it becomes.
- So, what can I do for you? – Asked One Leg.
- I need some information.
- Regarding whom?
- A few people.
- One of them is, or maybe was, a janitor at the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
- Ohoho! Bad business. Isn’t it the very Temple that our Caesar favors?
- Well, I can do that. What do you want to know about the guy?
- Why and where he disappeared. I mean, you probably will not find out ‘why’, but ‘where’ would be easier.
- The second person is in fact my assistant.
- Oh yeah? Hmm… Cannot you find out all you want to know about him yourself? I mean, it is no problem for me, you know, but it seems a roundabout way of doing things, isn’t it? What precisely do you want to know?
- I want to learn more about his friends, a certain old teacher in particular. Also, it seems to me that our mutual acquaintance, Mama Proserpine, hides something from me, something regarding these people. I want to find out who they really are and what’s going on.
- I’ll do what I can. Anyone else?
- Not for now. Later, maybe. By the way, what do you know of Senator Galls Asinius?
- Hmm. I do not know what you mean…
- Well, just anything… Gossip, rumors, stuff like that…
- You know, sir, gossip is not really my business. Never been able to make money on that.
- I know, but still…
- Hah! Funny that you mentioned him, sir.
- Really? What is so funny, then?
- Well, treat it as a rumor then, but I’ve heard recently that this particular gentleman is in a big trouble.
- You mean, with the Caesar?
- Precisely, sir. For example, the word ‘conspiracy’ was mentioned.
- But people always talk about conspiracy! Caesar is crazy about it. It is his favorite topic.
- Yeah, but this time it seems like something serious is cooking, if you know what I mean. I might mention to you the other name as well, if we are talking about these matters.
- Go on.
- Aemilius Lepidos.
- Another senator? What about him? How are these two connected?
- I don’t know how they are connected but I know that they are connected in some way. As you probably know, sir, this Lepidos has an affair with both older sisters of the Caesar himself.
- I’ve heard something about that, yes.
- And you probably know as well how much these two sisters hate their brother.
- Even though he sleeps with them both?
- Well, but he also sleeps with Drusilla…
- His youngest sister, you mean?
- Sure. But the difference is that he seems to be really crazy about her, whereas these other two…
- He just fucks them, right?
- Yeah… Well, there are other details as well but I am not going into those, ‘cause it is all rumors, you understand.
- You know, my friend, you never cease to astonish me, - Laughed Menelaus.
- Why’s that?
- But look here! You are a one legged invalid who runs a shady business, or businesses, you are certainly no senator or even close, and yet you know more about Roman politics than many guys in the Senate. I hope I did not offend you. You are a mystery.
- No offence taken, sir. But if you’re musing about it, just think about this: you know how often our Caesar prowls dirty parts of this city at nights, dressed either as a whore, or not dressed at all, how often he gets wasted in some dirty den and so on. He is not particularly secretive about his business, you know, especially with us low folks. And speaking of mystery, why, you are a clever man yourself. Don’t they treat you as the worst Private Detective in the whole Rome? I mean lictors and all this bunch? And yet, I know for a fact that you are the best of them all. But you don’t advertise it, do you? They think they give you tips and help you out, but I know that it is you who really helps them out.
- Hah! You’ve got me there, One Leg. But it is a part of the game.
- Of course. So it is with my game.
- Well, I think I’d better be going. Thanks for your excellent wine.
- Are you sure, you don’t want a dozen or so bottles? As a gift, of course. They would be delivered to your place right the next morning.
- Thanks, my friend, but no. I am not that important character to keep such wine in my house. It would have been something ‘above my station.’
- Well, good luck to you then, sir. It was nice to see you. I’ll do what I can about those people you’ve mentioned.
- Thanks, One Leg. Good bye.
Menelaus walked back into the street and smiled. It certainly paid to keep friendly ties with one of the biggest and probably the most dangerous crook in the city. Many Private Investigators disapproved of such methods, regarding them as corruption but then they could never get proper results. ‘It’s curious, at what exact point the smarts end and the true corruption begins,’ Menelaus mused, walking briskly towards his home.
A half an hour later, he ascended the steps leading to his house and banged on the door. His faithful old slave, who let him in, shot him a worried look and muttered,
- Someone is to see you, master.
- What? At this hour of night? Who is it, Odion?
- A senator, master.
- Did he tell you his name?
- I believe it’s Gaulus Asinius, sir.
- Really? Interesting… Interesting indeed. Did he look angry, or maybe upset?
- Not that I’ve noticed, master. I asked him to wait in your study.
- Thanks, Odion.
Menelaus brushed dust from his tunica and proceeded into the study. His late night visitor was sitting in an armchair placed next to the Menelaus’ desk. He raised his head and nodded to the Private Detective curtly.
- I thought you’d never return, - He said in a humorless, level voice.
- Excuse me, sir, but I wasn’t aware of your plans to visit me tonight, or I’d be returning faster.
- No, it’s fine, Detective. I rather enjoyed myself while sitting in your study. You’ve got quite a collection of book, I see.
- Mere trash. Some of these books are hopelessly outdated.
- Are these law books?
- Mostly, yes. But how can I help you, sir? By the way, would you like some wine?
- No, thanks. Wine this late at night gives me a headache.
- Then would you be so kind as to explain the reason for your visit?
- Surely. You see, a few hours ago, upon returning to my villa, I made a couple of astounding discoveries. I thought you might be interested to learn about them, Detective.
- If they are connected with me and my work in some way, then certainly I would. But what was it that you have discovered? – Menelaus did not twitch a brow and continued to speak in a polite and friendly tone.
- I admire your self-control, sir, - Answered the senator gloomily, -However, I felt it’s necessary to see you at once, for your own good and mine as well.
- I am all ears, sir.
- All right then. The first discovery I, or rather my slaves, made on the villa grounds was rather disturbing. It was a body of a man, who was stabbed with something sharp, presumably a poisoned knife.
- Do you know the man?
- Personally, no. But I was able to establish his identity very quickly. Excuse me, Detective, but as a prominent politician in this city, I have my resources.
- Of course. Who was the man?
- It was a janitor from the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
- I understand you were looking for this man the previous day, weren’t you?
- Yes, I was. I wished to ask him a few questions.
- Unfortunately, he is unable to answer them now.
- That’s true. And another discovery?
- You have mentioned two discoveries, sir.
- Oh, yes. Of course. The second discovery was this: I learned that two men entered my villa this very evening. They broke into my conservatory.
- Did they steal anything?
- Only a drunken teacher, whom I had been meaning to kick out of the house anyway.
- So it wasn’t a great loss.
- No, it wasn’t. However, the main problem is this – I am simply wondering, Detective, what made you decide to break into my place and how did you manage to overcome such an obstacle as the wall, which, as you know, surrounds my estate?
- I used the door.
- What door?
- A small door in the wall.
- But how? Did you pick the lock or something? I must say I am simply surprised at your ingenuity and technical knowledge.
- You give me too much credit, sir. The door was unlocked.
- It’s impossible!
- I am telling you the truth.
- Well, so it wasn’t you, along with your dull-witted assistant who dragged the body of a dead man into my estate with an intention to plant it in my house.
- Precisely. We didn’t do it. I was not even aware that the janitor was dead
Senator fell into silence and bored at Menelaus for some time, then spoke again:
- I have many enemies in this city, Detective. Some of them are quite powerful, and some are simply penniless scoundrels who would gladly blackmail me given the chance. In which category do you place yourself, Detective?
- Since I am not rich and powerful man, I therefore fall into the category of scoundrels, don’t I?
- I think as much.
- Listen, sir. I…
- No, you listen to me, man! I don’t know what game are you playing but I know for sure that I can easily end up your glorious career if I choose to do so. You broke into my property and you stole my slave…
- He claims to be a freeman who was arrested by mistake.
- It doesn’t matter. The old hulk was useless, as I said. Surely, you are not going to tell me now that you came over to my house for this sole purpose – to steal an old teacher right under my nose.
- It was my intention, yes.
- You are joking. But never mind. I know a bit more than you think, Detective. I know that a sacrilege was committed in the Temple of Castor and Pollux and I also know that the Caesar himself ordered you to investigate the matter. I know that that scoundrel of the janitor was the only valuable witness and now he is dead. Does it mean that you were paid a good price to find a criminal, and I mean any criminal, or someone who might be proclaimed to be the criminal quickly by, say, someone with a great power, using this simple trick? All you had to do was to plant the dead body in someone’s house and later on say ‘Hah! Here’s the bastard!’ Are you trying to compromise me, Detective? Speak straight now.
- No, sir. I am not. I must also add that I certainly wasn’t paid by anyone to find a criminal, any criminal, as you put it. My sole intention was to get that old man. I wasn’t aware of any dead body and I didn’t unlock that door.
- Well, I think I’ll wait. And you, Detective, please be aware. I am still a powerful man in this city, you know, and I can pay you back for your machinations pretty quickly. I will not do it right away, however. As I said, I will wait and see… for now. Well, I shall not keep you any longer, Detective. It’s getting late, or rather, it’s getting early. I must be on my way.
- Excuse me, sir.
- I haven’t noticed your slaves or litter bearers, or the litter itself, for that matter, when I was entering the house. Are you going to travel on foot?
- My people are waiting for me around the corner, if you need to know. And now, good-bye.
- Good-bye, senator. I hope to talk to you again, but under happier circumstances.
- I hope not to see you again, Detective.
Gallus Asinius rose from his chair and walked out of the study.
- Let me walk you to the door, Senator, - Menelaus cried after him, also rising from his seat.
- No thanks, I know the way out, - Sneered Asinius over his shoulder.
- As you wish, - Mumbled Menelaus.
‘I didn’t ask him what he did with the body,’ He thought but it was too late to run after the senator.
‘I wonder… I just wonder…’- Menelaus mumbled, looking at the dying embers in the fireplace.
It turned out to be a very long day indeed.
* * * *
The next morning the Professor opened his eyes and looked around himself wildly. He quickly shifted his gaze at a sleeping form on the floor and exclaimed:
- My dear boy, what are you doing here on the floor? Where are we?
- Ah? – Cumulus moaned and raised his head.
For a whole minute, they stared at each other without saying anything. The Professor broke the silence first.
- Ah! Cumulus! – He made a meaningful pause before uttering Cumulus’ name and pronounced it rather testily.
- Pro… Teacher! Are you OK? –Cumulus sat on the floor and rubbed his eyes.
- Apparently. And you? Sorry, I seem to have robbed you of your sleeping place, - replied the Professor.
- It’s OK.
- Is Zenaya somewhere around? I gather you told me yesterday but I was exhausted.
- Yes, sir. I’ll go and fetch her.
- I’d rather you show me the whereabouts of the house conveniences first.
It was a good hour later when all three gathered in Cumulus’ room, sat on the bed and started talking.
- What a happy reunion, indeed, - said the Professor, looking at Zenaya and switching his gaze at Cumulus.
- I hope you realize fully, young man, what you’ve done, - He continued.
- Yes, sir.
- Well, we’ll talk about it later.
- Will I be expelled, sir?
- It’s not up to me to decide, you understand.
- Please, teacher! Can you tell us, how soon we’d be able to get otta here? – Cried Zenaya, - I am dying in this horrid place.
- I can’t say for sure but it will be arranged soon, - answered the Professor.
- Who’s your landlady, by the way? – The Professor turned to Cumulus.
- Eh… She calls herself Madam Proserpine and…
- Madam Proserpine? – The Professor seemed greatly surprised.
- Yeah. Why?
- I’ll explain later. Listen, eh…Cumulus. I’d be greatly obliged if you fetch this good woman as soon as possible. I need to talk to her.
- You need to talk to Madam Pro? Why?
- I said I‘d explain later. Now out you go, young man! Do not linger!
- As you say, sir.
Cumulus had already learned nearly all the nooks and crannies of the house rather well so without wasting any time he headed straight to the kitchen.
The kitchen maid was sitting by the cold stove and crying. She looked up, saw Cumulus and wailed:
- They took her away! They did!
- Who? Whom?
- Domina Proserpine! They took her!
- But who?
- The Praetorians. They came an hour ago and told her she’s under arrest.
Cumulus spun on his heels and ran back to his room. He was half way up there when a girl’s voice behind his back stopped him dead.
- If I were you, I wouldn’t be running so fast, you know.
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