- A letter for you, sir.
- What? – Menelaus raised his head and peered at his servant with tired, bloodshot eyes.
Odion placed a piece of parchment on his master’s work desk and took a step backward.
- Who delivered it? – Asked Menelaus, studying the letter with interest.
- I don’t know, master.
- What do you mean?
- Somebody slipped it under the front door. It had been lying on the floor mat.
- Yes, master.
- Well, well, well… I guess I’ll have a look at it. You may go now, Odion.
Odion bowed himself out of the study. Menelaus sighed, unfolded the parchment and began to read.
I feel it is my duty to inform you that a certain high placed individual, whom I cannot name in writing, is seeking to kill you. I believe it would be in your best interest to meet me in person this evening, at seven o’clock sharp, inside of the Coelius Public baths. Since you have no idea who I am you won’t be able to approach me first, but I know you and I will approach you myself. Once again, if you value your life, be there.
P.S. Please be assured that I am not trying to lure you into a trap, although you may have only my word for it. Hope we can talk.’
‘Hmm… Anonymous letters are always fun,’ mumbled Menelaus and yelled ‘Odion!’ The servant popped into the study once more.
- ‘Yes, master?’
- What time is it now, do you know?
- A half past five, master.
- Good. I will go and take a bath.
- Shall I heat some water then?
- No, thanks, Odion. I am going to the Coelius Baths.
- Very good, master.
It was less than a quarter to seven when Menelaus, draped in a white towel, paddled into the Coelius’ central steam hall, leaned against the wall and began to wait. The place, being a popular spot among well-to-do city dwellers, was crowded. Despite clouds of steam that turned the whole picture into a parody of heavens, he could easily observe everyone in sight. There were the usual groups of young wastrels, some of them pretty drunk, guffawing and horse playing, in the middle of a hot water pool. There were low rank bureaucrats or maybe lawyers, resting on marble benches, as well as a few officers. None of them struck Menelaus as a possible author of the letter. He was about to take a quick dip in the pool when somebody called his name. Menelaus glanced on his right and saw a grim looking man with a stature of a soldier, who was standing close to him. Number of images flashed in Menelaus’ head with a tremendous speed then a certain recollection downed on him. He smiled and replied in a quiet, friendly voice,
- So, General, how are you?
- Do you know me? – Frowned Gallicus, glancing at Menelaus with a suspicion.
- Yes. Why? Do you find it surprising?
- No, actually not. I should have known… - Replied the General thoughtfully.
- I gather it was you then who…
- Yes! – Interrupted him Gallucis with a note of impatience, - It was my letter.
- Care to tell me what it is all about?
- Of course. That’s why we are here.
- Your life is in grave danger, Detective.
- My life is always in some danger, General. It is a part of my job.
- I am not talking about ‘some danger’, Detective. I am talking about the real danger. In fact, your time is running out fast, Detective. I wonder if you care to know how you may save your hide.
- Why should I believe you?
- Because… Oh, damn! Don’t you realize I am compromising myself by simply talking to you about all this?
- And yet you are talking…
- Well, yes. I need your help, Detective, and I need it fast. It is also in your best interests. This is as much information as I can give you, take it or leave it.
- What can I do for you, General?
- Look to your left, - Ordered General, - Do you see them, these four men? One is fat, with hairy fingers, another is young, balding guy and the other two…
- Marcus Lepidus and Valerius Catullus, are they not?
- Damn you, Detective! Do you know everybody in this city?
- Everybody who is anybody. But pray continue.
- So you see ‘em. They must be arrested tonight.
- Excuse me, General, but you must be mistaken. I am a Private Detective and not a policeman. How can I arrest them?
- You know plenty of lictors, man! Think of something! I need them to be arrested or otherwise detained for a couple of days. This is all.
- Interesting. By ‘them’ you surely mean Lepidus and Catullus.
- Yes. I do not care what will happen to the other two! Can you do it or not?
- How it is supposed to save me?
- Never mind how, but it will. Believe me. Just do it.
- I do not know what to say, General. Are you preparing some kind of a prank?
- Stop talking nonsense man. Will you do it or not?
- But why me?
- Because I know that you can do it. Besides, it is your life that is at stake.
- Oh ye Gods! It sounds rather serious, doesn’t it? Alright. Suppose I can give it a try…
- Two days, have you said?
- Two days would be ideal.
- OK, General. I will see what I can do.
- Good. I must leave you now. I do not care how you would do it. Just do it.
Menelaus did not reply. The General turned around and marched towards the exit. Menelaus waited for a few minutes, and then followed the suite.
Once he stepped outside of the Bathhouse, he wrote something on a piece of parchment, that he fished out of his pocket, then seized the first beggar kid who happened to be loitering in the vicinity and hissed in his ear,
- Here’s a half dinaria for you, runny nose. Now run as fast as you can to… - He spelled the address of a certain wine shop and gave the kid a note and a coin.
- What if I’ll spit on what you’ve asked me to do, governor, pocket the money and walk away? – Inquired the kid, grinning maliciously.
- I don’t think One Leg would like that, - Replied Menelaus.
- Shit, governor. I was just joking. I am on my way, alright?
* * * *
Four drunken men stumbled out of the Coelius public bath and stopped on a street corner, hugging each other in a futile attempt to keep decent upright positions.
- So, where shall we go? - Cried Valerius Catullus, shaking one of his companions with a crazy laughter.
- The damn Greek told us something about his art collection, - Yelled another member of the drunken party and turned to the man, who was still in the clutches of Catullus,
- Say, Nikodimos, is it a good collection? Otherwise we’ll kick your ass, you know…
Nikodimos broke into a cackle and winked, pointing towards the fourth and the oldest member of the crew, who didn’t utter a word so far but kept blinking stupidly.
- Our lawyer is an art collector, you know. I cannot deny him some pleasure tonight.
- Let’s go to your place then, - Roared Marcus Lepidus.
- Let’s go!
They shouted and laughed some more then began to walk down the street. A half an hour later they entered Nikodimos’ place.
- Sit down, friends, while I grab the wine, - yelled Nikodimos.
- You’ve got good wine? – Smirked Valerius Catullus, - Since I started fucking the Emperor himself my taste for wine improved enormously.
- I didn’t know you’ve been fucking the Emperor, - Replied Marcus Lepidus somewhat reproachfully.
- Hah! That’s because he was busily fucking you! You’re behind all news, man.
- No, I think it is you who are behind the news, my friend, - Snapped Lepidus.
- Two loves of the Emperor. What a great company I’ve got tonight, - Laughed Nikodimos, trying to divert the attention of his guests from the angry exchange.
- Shut up, you Greek bastard! What do you know? A lover, indeed…It’s better than to be a general!
- And what do you think, mister law? – Asked Catullus, nudging their fourth companion, who seemed to be falling asleep.
- Ah? – The lawyer shook his head and grumbled,
- Let’s not talk about damn politics, huh? – He glared at the host and said
- Where’s your precious collection, man? I wanna see it. You promised to show me your collection.
- Sure, - Nikodimos grinned soothingly, - Care to step into the adjoining room?
- What about us? – Cried Catullus, - We wanna see your stuff too.
- Why don’t you step into the adjoining room too, gentlemen.
- You promised to show us a genuine Greek dance! – Yelled Lepidus.
- Of course I will.
- Let’s go guys and see what he’s got in there.
They raised on their feet and marched unsteadily into Nikodimos’ collection room. A few moments later an explosion of laughter shook the walls of the whole apartment. It went on for a while then the merry party returned to the sitting room and began to ravish bottles of wine.
- I say, this is the best collection I have ever seen, - Squeaked Catullus, slapping his thighs and spilling the wine on the couch.
- Aha ha!
- Wow! All I can say is ‘wow’!
Nikodimos, slightly red in the face, nodded, while cackling and shaking his balding head.
- Are they ori… originals? – Blurted the lawyer who, unlike the rest of the company, remained serious.
- Of course they are! – Cried Nikodimos.
- How d..d..do you know?
- I have receipts and all documentation, certificates and stuff, all properly notarized.
- Bu…bu… bullhist. How d…do you know your certificates are not fakes?
- Hey, friend! Whassa matter with you anyway? – Snarled Lepidus, - Our Greek friend just said all his stuff is genuine. Don’t you believe him?
- I don… don’t believe anyone until I s..s..see the proof. I am a lawyer and not a fool. I’ve been co…collecting art since… never mind since when…but I know the business inside and out.
- What is your name, buddy? – Squinted at him Catullus, - We have been drinking together for the whole damn evening and you’ve never told us your name. How come?
- Never mind my mane, - Growled the Lawyer, getting angrier by the minute, - Call me Marcus, Proctus…any way you want.
- I see, - Catullus nodded slowly and emptied his wine glass, - Big shot, are you?
- What the hell is it to you, punk? – The secretive art collector barred his yellow teeth and started to lean forward.
- Guys, guys! – Cried Nikodimos in desperation, - Let’s not fight, shall we? If this guy wanna keep his identity secret, let him. I want to show you a real hot dance. I’ve learned it in Alexandria.
- Dance! Dance! Dance! – Clapped Catullus and Lepidus. The lawyer mumbled something disagreeable under his breath and stared at the corner of the room with cloudy, unfocused eyes of a marginalized drunk.
Nikodimos flew into his bedroom, while Catullus and Lepidus finished the bottle, throwing dirty glances at the art collector, and then uncorked another. They barely finished the first glass when Nikodimos rushed back into the sitting room and made a clumsy bow.
- Here I am! – He cried, readjusting his wig and flapping a hem of his skirt, like a dying crow.
- Huh? – The lawyer bored at the host for a few seconds then suddenly bellowed,
- Why the hell did you put a drag on yourself? A bugger! What kind of place is this? Notarized certificates, my ass! I know what I am talking about. No one ever coned me into buying fake shit!
He tried to get up but fell back on his couch with a low groan and squeezed his sweaty temples.
- I hope the guy won’t puke on your floor next, - Grinned Lepidus, eyeing the art collector evilly.
- Maybe we should…- Began Nikodimos when there came a loud crush from the direction of the front door.
- What? – Yelped the host, jumping high into the air. His wig, precariously placed on top of his head, slid off and fell on a floor with a wet ‘plop’, - My front door! Somebody broke my front door.
He opened his mouth wide but no sound came out for the room was filling up fast with armed lictors.
- Don’t anybody move! – Yelled the fattest of them, clearly the officer, - Keep your hands where I can see ‘em!
- What? What?
The drunken party froze on their prospective spots and started at the lictors aghast.
- I am Cicero Galbus! What the hell is going on in here? – Roared the lictor Cicero Galbus.
- Wha…wha… Nothing, - Mumbled Nikodimos, shaking visibly.
- And why you are dressed like this then? What are you people up to?
- I just… I was demonstrating to my guests a special dance….
- Shut up! We received a call that here an illegal party is conducted.
- No! No!
- Huh! Dressed as a prostitute and denies everything. I see, - Said Galbus acidly and barked, - What is in the other room?
- His art collection! – Said the lawyer suddenly, coming from a slumber, - Only it is all bullshit. I know what I am talking about… Seen fakes by the load, me.
- Art collection? What kind of art collection? – The lictor bored at Nikodimos, who began to shake like a twig.
- Eh… Just an art collection. Statues, you know… Depictions…
- I wanna see it. Show me! – Ordered Galbus, crossing the room and barging into the adjoining quarters.
- Aha! – Came from it a moment later.
- So you are also peddling pornography, are you? – Growled the good lector, returning to the sitting room and striding up to Nikodimos, - An unlicensed male prostitute and a porn pusher.
- Excuse me? – Began Lepidus but Galbus barked ‘shut up!’ without turning around and pronounced, - You all are under arrest.
- For what? – Moaned Nikodimos.
- For desecrating the spirit of Priapus, for selling pornography, for prostitution and for running underground whorehouse in your apartment! Guys!
Galbus turned to his men and snapped his fingers:
- Drag this cozy company to the lictorat and lock them up in cell number four. I’ll interrogate them in the morning.
- Hey, what’s the hell? – Bawled the nameless art collector, finally managing to push himself into an upright position and even stepping towards the law with a grim determination of the one, who knew what he was doing, - I am a lawyer, man! This is illegal. I…
He didn’t had a chance to finish what else he had wanted to enlighten Galbus with, for the good officer, with a face, distorted by fury, seized the man by the collar and started to shake him, as if the offender was just a sack of potatoes.
- Shut up, you! Didn’t I tell you to shut up? Didn’t I?
The unfortunate lawyer, positively unaccustomed to such treatment, started to sag and droop like a punctured balloon, and only goggled at his tormentor.
- Men! What the hell are you waiting for? Drag these scoundrels downstairs now! – Roared Galbus, letting go of the lawyer and stumping his feet.
Soon the four evildoers were half dragged, half carried down the stairs and into the darkness of a gloomy Roman street.
Menelaus, who had been hiding behind a pillar close to the building’s exit, watching the finale of the police drama, nodded, smiled with a professional approval and began to walk towards his home.
* * * *
It is a well-known fact that all people, except perhaps hard-core professionals, are prone to experience a stage fright. It is especially true if, for example the prospective audience includes a bloodthirsty tyrant and his professional killers, otherwise known as the personal bodyguards, and such.
It was precisely the feeling of acute fright, and not a professional pride, or vanity that pervaded the bodies and souls of a small troupe that was approaching the Caesarean Residence now. The General of Praetorian Guards, who was walking at the head of the small procession, kept a grim countenance and glanced from time to time over his shoulder at the convoy that guarded the performers from any ills of the fate and accidentally precluded them from runaway options.
Soon they marched through the heavily guarded main entrance and began to ascend the magnificent marble stairs that led to the second floor of the palace.
- Turn to your left, - grunted Gallicus as they reached the second floor landing, - Down that passage.
Cumulus knew how ridiculous he, Proculus and Zenaya looked in their hastily made theatrical outfits but all passers by - and there were many - failed to grant them even a tiny smile. Everybody inside the palace, either on purpose or naturally, seemed to be wearing only preoccupied looks. Perhaps it was a customary manner for the Imperial court.
The performers and their guards walked for some time past countless statues, columns and frescoes, until they reached what looked like an open space.
- All right. You’ll be rehearsing here, - Said the General with a frown.
Artists uttered their humble ‘yes’ and began to unroll a carpet, which they carried all the way from Mama Pro’s house and which was supposed to serve them as a make believe grassy clearance in dark woods. The General turned to the guards and commanded,
- Off you go!
The guards saluted smartly, formed a single file and marched off, leaving their charges alone with their superior.
- I hope you remember well, what I have told you, - Growled Gaulicus in a low voice, - Keep rehearsing the play the best you can and don’t look around. Whatever happens, you do what you do and DO NOT LOOK.
The three performers swallowed noisily in unison and nodded.
- Good, - Concluded the General and walked away.
Once the sound of his heavy steps died in the distance, the Professor hissed to other two in a nervous whisper,
- Well, folks! What are you waiting for? Let’s do it then! I believe we are out of options.
- Seems like they are planning something horrid, - Whispered Zenaya.
- They very well might, as I recon, - Glared at her the Professor, - Do you think history is a …a… a picnic? I personally wish I knew what period of Caligula’s rule we happened to step into. Frankly, nothing in here looks or feels like proper history! It’s a farce! I feel like a hero of some trashy novel!
- Eh, Professor!
- What, Cumulus?
- I think we’d better start rehearsing now! Somebody is coming.
- Alright. Everybody please take his or her place! Let me see… Ah! We are in the grandma’s house.
The Professor tied a headscarf around his dome, then, grunting with the effort, stretched on the floor, placed his hands crosswise on his chest and whined in what he assumed was a voice of an old, ailing woman,
- Oh, my poor legs! They are hurting again. I know it’s the weather! Oh, my poor back! It’s killing me. Oh damn. Oh! Oh! Oh! My gout is acting up again. Where’s my granddaughter? I wish she were here, right beside her poor grandmomma…
- Pro…Proculus, you are not following the script.
- Ah! You’re right, Zenaya. What was it?
- You were to say… eh… Cumulus, you’ve got the script on you?
* * * *
Caligula was walking down the passage at the head of three men, when a thought occurred to him. He looked over his shoulder and asked the closest man,
- Say, Chaerea, where’s my brother? I haven’t seen him since yesterday.
The man coughed nervously and retorted,
- Sire, you mean…
- Valerius Catullus, who else? Where’s that bugger now? Drunk again?
- Oh no, sire. He was arrested last evening.
- And so he is stewing in some dirty lictorat? Hah!
- I suppose so, sire.
- What did he do?
- I believe he was arrested during some illegal party, along with Marcus Lepidus and a few others. The illegal party was…
- Hah! Now it is really funny. What was the official version then?
- It was said that they offended Priapus.
- No, you don’t say. I always believed those two were living incarnations of Priapus himself. Poor Marcus! I bet he is especially unhappy now. I’ll have to send a word to that lictorat so they would let him be, otherwise he’d loose the remnants of that holy fire he still possesses.
- Yes, sire.
- Did it ever strike you as funny that his last name, Lepidus is almost the same as Lepidos, our poor deceases senator? Do you think they two might be relatives?
- I cannot say, sire.
- Fine. Hey, what’s that?
By that time they had reached the open space where three scared performers gyrated clumsily on the carpet. Caligula stopped, opened his mouth and started to laugh hysterically.
- Who are these clowns, Chaerea? Is it General’s surprise for me, or what?
- They are rehearsing your play, sire.
- Oh no! My play? Did I write something like this? Surely I was drunk. Hey, look at this… who is it? An old man or an old woman? Can you tell?
- I believe this is an old man, sire.
- Wow! He seem to play his part so well, so natural that I cannot help myself but think that he should be granted a gift! Shall I order to turn him into a woman sometime after the show, what do you think? I believe he will not regard a loss of his balls as something serious, in his age. What do you think, Chaerea?
Caligula uttered the last remark without looking at his bodyguard, encompassed with the play, therefore he never saw that Chaerea began to move back, his face deathly pale and his sword released from the scabbard.
- Chaerea, what do you think?
- I think, sire, you are history, - Growled Chaerea, delivering a blow to the Emperor’s neck. A praetorian’s plan had been to severe the tyrant’s head from his shoulders but he failed to take the correct aim. The sword went lower than Chaerea had intended and buried itself in Caligula’s shoulder. Caligula screamed and spun around. At that moment two other men, both with drawn swords sprung into action as well. No one paid any attention to the pitiful troupe who, once the scream exploded through the passage, stopped their act and froze on the spot, paralyzed by horror.
Caligula was balancing on his knees. Spitting the blood, he croaked:
- I am not dead yet.
- You soon will be, - Hissed Chaerea, stubbing him again, again and again. The Emperor fell on the floor. Fighting the mist in his dying brains, he began to count blows but died before reaching thirty.
* * * *
The three actors remained motionless, petrified by the sign of the dead body, spread on the floor in a puddle of its own blood within a few feet from their shabby theatrical carpet. The Professor regained his senses first and uttered the first sentence that accidentally lacked the pedantic tinge.
- Now I know into what part of Caligula’s rule we arrived.
- They killed him, they killed him - Moaned Zenaya, shaking all over.
- We must run, - Croaked the Professor, - It is dangerous to remain here. As soon as Caligula’s Germanic guards would find out about the assassination, this place would be plunged in a deadly turmoil. We must clear out at once. Let’s go.
- What about the carpet? – Asked Cumulus.
- Are you mad? Forget the carpet! Run! – Roared the Professor, springing into movement.
All three darted past the dead Emperor back into the gallery and sprinted, keeping close to a wall for some reason. Luckily, they didn’t meet anyone so their progress remained undisturbed for a while. Suddenly Cumulus stopped and said:
- I hear somebody’s coming.
He was absolutely correct for, as a small party halted the progress, they caught the sound of many feet and something that sounded as a war cry, coming in their direction.
- It has begun! – Cried out the Professor, trying to steady his breath, - We must hide for now!
- But where? – Yelped Zenaya, - This damn corridor stretches indefinitely.
- There must be some adjoining room or a closet. Let’s move on, - Urged the Professor. They ran several more feet until they spotted a door that definitely led somewhere. Without wasting any time, they crossed the threshold and looked around themselves. The place looked like a study of sorts: there stood a huge desk, covered with heavy drapery.
- Under the desk, - Cried the Professor and dived under the drapery first. The other two flowed on his hills. In the meantime, the cries in the corridor grew considerably louder, accompanied by clanking of metal.
- Germanic guards, - Whispered the Professor.
- What are they gonna do now? – Asked Zenaya.
- They are going to kill a few people, - Answered the Professor.
- I hope it would not be us.
- Who knows? It is a living history. I can see it now.
- The heck of a history!
- Hmm. Don’t you know? ‘The history is not made in white gloves.’ Who said that?
- Someone who hated military parades? – Guessed Cumulus, crouching under the desk.
- Oh my, and to think that you two are history majors, - Moaned the Professor in exasperation.
- Sorry, sir.
- Consider yourself falling a midterm, - Replied the Professor.
- All right.
- No, it is not.
- Tsh! – Hissed Zenaya.
They held their breath and listened. It sounded like a few people popped into the room but no one possessed enough wits or imagination to check underneath the desk.
It was sometime later when Cumulus, who was getting tired of lying on the hard floor, whispered to the other two,
- I wonder how long we have been under this desk. Feels like hours…
- Yeah… And it is dusty in here, - Complained Zenaya, - My allergies are starting to act up.
- Shall we try and venture outside? – Mumbled the Professor, - It’s getting quiet now, I think.
- Do you think they’ve killed enough people by now? – Asked him Zenaya.
The Professor didn’t reply but got from under the desk and nodded with satisfaction.
- I think we may try to get out of here, - He said.
They slithered from their temporary shelter, got up and checked the corridor.
- Empty, - Hissed Zenaya.
- Does anyone remember how to get out of this building anyway? – Asked Cumulus.
- Do not fret, young man. We’ll find the way, - Replied the Professor, leading them past countless statues and a couple of dead bodies that lay on the floor.
- - Ugh! – Gasped Zenaya, as they walked past the unfortunates, - I guess this is living history too, huh?
- Of course. Keep going, keep going, - Cried the Professor.
Soon they found what they had been looking for – a staircase that led to the outer ground. They ran down a few flights and finally emerged into a wide courtyard.
- I see a gate! I see a gate! And it is open! – Yelled Cumulus, pointing to the furthest corner. They ran towards the gate when a group of heavily armed men tricked from the building.
- Halt, you dogs! – Yelled someone.
- They probably mean us, - Gasped Zenaya, looking over her shoulder.
- Run! Run! – Cried The Professor.
- Halt, I said!
A couple of arrows whizzed past they heads. Zenaya squeaked and nearly fell down. Cumulus grabbed her by a sleeve and pulled her up.
- Come on, it is not far, - He croaked.
- We will not make it! – Yelled Zenaya, turning around and breaking into tears. The several men were quite close to them now. They looked like a brutish lot who could not be bothered with explanations. Their swords were drawn and their faces flushed with cold anger. Cumulus stumbled on some rock and fell down, hitting the ground as a sack of old shoes.
- Hey! You stop right there! – Roared someone.
Cumulus looked up and saw an apparition. At least it looked like one, because its sudden reappearance at this place at this time seemed to be almost a mystical coincidence. A man with a drawn sword was galloping on a white stallion across the courtyard towards the angry Germanic guards, while yelling on the top of his voice as a wild barbarian. Cumulus recognized the man at once. It was no one other than Cletius.
* * * *
They sat around the enormous wooden table that constituted one of the bigger items of Mama Pro’s kitchen and zipped mulled wine from the kind landlady’s slightly chipped wine cups. The ex senator, and now a plain white stallion Incitatus was safely parked in the backyard of Mama Proserpine’s house where he too enjoyed his late snack. Mama Pro and Pelagea were fussing over their guests among which Cletius appeared to be the most prominent figure of the moment. The troupe of the artists ended up with nothing more serious than several bruises. He, on the other hand, felt himself a true hero. He nodded his heavily bandaged head and boomed, smiling at the fireplace with the face of a man well contented with his upcoming future,
- So it was juss’ like I said. I got on that dam’ beast and give ‘im a good run for all he was worth, a lazy bastard.
- But why? What made you to come to our rescue all of a sudden? – Cried Zenaya.
- Ah, it was the General, to tell you the truth, - Replied Cletius, emptying his cup and smacking his lips appreciatively.
- Oh, yeah? We had thought he was just a mean bastard who framed us then took to his heels.
- Well, no… Actually, I hadn’t been aware of all these going-ons until he stumbled in and told me what was happening, - Said Cletius.
- So he kept his side of the bargain, - Noted Cumulus.
- Sort of, - Corrected Zenaya, - We could have been killed.
- Luckily for you, you weren’t, dear, - Said Mama Pro, refilling the cups, - When all these political things start rolling in this city, you just got to watch out if you wanna stay alive.
Pelagea sniggered and glanced at Cumulus.
- I am sure he behaved like a true hero too, - She said with a tiny smile.
- Oh come on, you leave a young man alone, - Snapped Mama Pro, - He looks sick enough. Poor boy has been through too much.
- ‘Poor boy’ indeed, - Chuckled Pelagea.
- It is truly funny that I personally failed to recognize the significance of the moment, - Said the Professor darkly, - It was all too obvious and yet…
- How could you say anything for sure, - Cried Mama Pro, - This Palace life is such a mess.
- Luckily it is all over, - Concluded Cletius.
- I hope it is over for you, dear man! – Replied Mama Pro with feelings, causing a fresh fit of giggles from Pelagea.
- What I did say? – Cried Mama Pro angrily, turning to her daughter, - What are you sniggering about?
- Nothing, mom. It is just that you seem a trifle bit too old for a sentimental romance. I don’t remember the last time I have seen you fussing so much.
- Oh shut up, you!
- She is a good girl, - Said Cletius, attempting to pacify the atmosphere, - She’ll make a nice stepdaughter.
- Oh, no! Dream on! – Snapped Pelagea, - If you think I am going to stay put and play a role of a good girl you are mistaken. I am going to study law.
- Oh, my! – Mama Pro sighed.
- A good profession, or so I’ve heard, - Answered Cletius.
- Hey, - Zenaya cried out, - I think someone is banging at your door.
- Oh yeah? – Mama Pro became serious and shrugged, - I wonder who that might be.
- Juss’ don’t you worry, honey, - Growled Cletius, putting his cup on the table and rummaging under the table.
- Wait. I’ll go look, - Said Mama Pro and left the kitchen.
- Do you think it might be… Praetorians? – Asked Zenaya worriedly.
- I recon not, - Retorted Pelagea.
Everybody turned towards the door.
- Good evening, - Said Menelaus, walking into the kitchen and giving everyone his warmest, reassuring smile. Mama Pro, who was trailing after him, grinned with a relief.
- So? A change of government, I hear. – Said Menelaus, looking at Cletius then shifting his eyes towards Cumulus, Zenaya and then the Professor.
- Well, sir, it seems like… - Answered the Professor.
- Well, we certainly can do with some change, - Replied Menelaus, rubbing his hands as if he was feeling a bit cold.
- A cup of mulled wine? – Asked him Mama Proserpine, - How about it?
- Would love to, - Answered Menelaus, sitting down and continuing to smile.
‘Looks like he is preparing something…’ – Flashed through Cumulus’ head.
It was an hour or so later when Menelaus, who finished several cups and thanked the hostess, announced:
- And now, unless any one of you has any objections, I would like us to step into Mama Proserpine’s drawing room.
* * * *
Neither Zenaya nor Cumulus had been inside of Mama Pro’s drawing room before. Therefore, they were greatly surprised at a certain air of a middle class respectability that this particular room bore. Perhaps it was the biggest room in the house, for it had two big windows instead of a customary one and its walls were painted with a jolly flower motive. The furniture consisted of several couches, completely buried under the weight of plush pillows, a few armchairs and small tables, most of which carried collections of knick-knacks and what seemed to be Mama’s sentimental mementos. One of the room’s corners was adored with a small bust, depicting a scrawny old man with a drooping lower lip and a sad, sheepish expression (‘My poor late husband, long deceased,’ – explained Mama Pro). One of the walls was almost completely taken up by a huge fireplace, the mantelpiece of which was tastefully decorated with a cute collection of porcelain elephants, holding in their trunks either a flower, or a pot, or playing ball, or nothing.
- Please, take your seats, take your seats, - Prodded Menelaus encouragingly. He himself chose to remain standing. Once everybody found somewhere to sit down, he scanned the room, leaned on a mantelpiece and flashed one of his winning smiles,
- So now, when we all gathered in this wonderful room, - He said, nodding to Zenaya, Cumulus, Proculus, Cletius, Pelagea and Mama Pro, respectively, - Let me begin.
- I was waiting for a long time for a chance to tell you what I am going to tell you now. However, if you bear with me an extra time, I will gladly explain to you everything from the very beginning without loosing valuable details. As you all know, in my present capacity of a Private Detective I deal with puzzles of all kinds. Naturally, when I undertook this last assignment, I had expected something of a puzzle as well. Imagine my utter surprise, when the whole story turned out to be almost a fantastic one. But let me begin from the beginning.
When the Now Deceased Caesar summoned me to his Residence and gave me that story with desecrated image of his to ponder on, I had not even guessed, what could happen later. However, I am repeating myself. Hmm… When Mama Proserpine, my esteemed friend of a long standing (here he made a pause and bowed to Mama) asked me to help one of her new lodgers, a young man of nice manners and a sharp mind, I hadn’t paid the proper attention to the fact. You see, I was long time aware of her particular habit, so to speak, to place in her house all kind of strange, if not outright bizarre, people so when I met with our young man, who sits here, I was not greatly surprised. All I mean to say is that he did not strike me as a particularly bizarre character. I had not been sure of the qualities of his mind, but at least he quickly proved to be an intelligent and literate fellow, so I gladly took him on. And so my Temple Investigation began.
From the very first moment, when Cumulus and I crossed the threshold of the abovementioned religious establishment, I started to suspect that things weren’t as plain as they seemed, or tried to seem to be at first glance. I was well aware of the fact that The Late Caesar, due to his many questionable qualities, had many enemies. But what struck me as strange was precisely this: as you all know, everyone in Rome had been making fun, secretly of course, of Caligula’s tendency to elevate himself to one of the members of Olympus. In other words, his claims to be a God have always been met with nothing but a patient ridicule. Now tell me, why anyone in his or her right mind would go into pains of entering that Temple, to paint a mustache on the upper lip of the statue and to write some stupid graffiti below. It simply wasn’t worth the risk. The only person who could do it must have had at least two aspects to his thinking. First – he had felt safe to do it. Second – he took the business seriously. I asked myself this question back then – Who could take this desecration business so seriously? Or treat it as a joke?
When I learned of the disappearance of the Temple janitor, I began to see the light at the end of a tunnel. It seemed only too clear that this mysterious janitor was an accomplice.
In the meantime, I began to feel slightly mystified by my new assistant. I knew very well that he was a foreigner but then he didn’t act as a true foreigner at all. In fact, he appeared to be a person who sprung from nowhere, if you see my point. It seemed as if he had been under an influence of some strange affliction, say, amnesia, perhaps. Then, step by step, he started to exhibit his true self. It became apparent when one day he asked me for assistance. I am referring to his desire to free a certain teacher, who was enslaved by a sheer mistake and who supposedly could provide me with a valuable clue to my investigation. (Here Menelaus gave a quick bow to Proculus, who frowned slightly and bowed back). The explanation my young man gave me couldn’t stand even the lightest critique but by that time I fully realized that he, or his unfortunate teacher, knew something that nobody else knew. And so I agreed to try to free our esteemed The Professor from the unjust bonds.
Cumulus and I headed to the villa of Gallus Asinius. A great surprise awaited me there. Even though the place seemed to be heavily guarded, a small door, built into the villa’s outer wall, was unlocked. Frankly, it looked either as a trap or… But to continue. As we all know by now, Cumulus and I entered the villa’s grounds, found our teacher and took to the hills. It happened that later on, when the aforementioned senator stumbled into my house, demanding explanations for the intrusion, and when he also told me that the dead body of disappeared janitor was found on his premises, I realized why the door was unlocked. Somebody had been to the villa’s grounds shortly before us. It was this mysterious somebody, or rather homebodies who picked the lock, carried the dead body inside of the wall and left, leaving the door open. I also started to realize something else as well, namely, who could stand behind all this and why. When Cumulus and I returned to the Temple of Castor and Pollux the second time and witnessed the sudden death of the Head Priest, who had a bad fortune of swallowing poisoned wine in front of us, I knew who was standing behind these grim doings. When the late Caesar summoned me to his residence once more and ordered me to drop the investigation, I had the proof. Now I knew where the poisoned wine had come from, and who was trying to frame the senator. It was Caligula himself. It was he, who enlisted the so-called ‘janitor’ to assist him in desecrating of his own image. It was he, who killed him afterwards. It was by his orders that somebody carried the dead body into the senator’s villa, to form some sort of accusation against Asinius. However, Asinius, who luckily for himself discovered the body right away, ordered it to be deposited at the Temple’s steps.
- Excuse me, sir, - Interrupted the speech Cumulus, - It’s just... Eh…You’ve mentioned a proof. What kind of proof was it?
- Ah! An interesting question. It was a bottle of wine that convinced me.
- A bottle of wine?
- Oh, yes. Good old Falernian. You see, when I entered Caligula’s study he was enjoying his glass of wine. I noticed the bottle that stood nearby. It was the same vintage, the same type of the bottle, as in the Head Priest’s office. As you know, anybody, who’s somebody, never buys good wine by merely a bottle or two. Caligula must have had crates of this wine, purchased especially for him. So, knowing the passion of the old man towards good wines he had presented the Head Priest with the bottle of a rare vintage. Of course, a drop of poison had been added as well. You may ask – how come? Surely, the bottle was corked at the moment of presentation. I see several possibilities in mind, although I am sure that the Head Priest’s assistant was the culprit. The man could be enlisted by Caligula as the next assistant in crimes.
- But isn’t it a trifle too silly to desecrate your own image in hope that such an act would help you to incriminate your enemy? – Asked the Professor, - You have said that nobody had taken this imagery business seriously. Surely Caligula was aware of it.
- Certainly he was, - Replied Menelaus, - But consider this from a psychological point of view. As a man, Caligula was what we might call a split personality. On one hand, he possessed a sense of a deeply wounded pride and of his own inferiority; on the other hand, he was a ruler with an absolute power. He believed in his high destiny and he possibly regarded himself as a demigod of sorts. But then his feeling of his own worthlessness kicked in and he began to mock himself as much as possible. He prided himself on his wicked sense of humor, which he used as a weapon against his enemies as well as against himself. His act of painting a mustache on his own image was exactly that – an act of self-mockery and a joke. The sillier the joke is, the better it is.
- But the Head Priest… Why had he killed the Head Priest? – Asked Zenaya.
- Because the Head Priest knew who had done it from the very beginning.
- I see.
- I can tell you more, - Continued Menelaus, - Speaking of that janitor and the open door... I happened to find out that this janitor, Hector the Broom, being a secret agent of Caligula, was a secret agent of Asinius as well! I guess this Hector had been a frequent visitor to the senatorial villa and he had a key to that secret backdoor. Therefore, the door’s lock wasn’t picked. It was opened by a key. Well, in any case, I realized that something serious, say, an assassination for instance, was cooking. Caligula was suspecting it and was trying to dispose of his enemies. It is no wonder, that he prostituted two of his sisters to Aemilius Lepidos. Perhaps Caligula hoped that these sisters would act as informers for his, on the other hand, since Lepidos was meddling with Caesar’s close relatives, Caligula could incriminate Lepidos easily. As it turned out, these two sisters, Agrippina and Julia, didn’t really care to play this role. They hated with passion their third sister, Drusilla – the real favorite of the Emperor, – besides; they harbored plans of disposing Caligula as well. So they had tried to play conspiracy games with the senator at first, then, to prove their sincerity and loyalty to him, they poisoned Drusilla with the help of Caligula’s disreputable lover – Caesonia.
- How do you know all that? – Asked Zenaya with a trace of annoyance, - Surely, you couldn’t have access to either of Caligula’s sisters.
- He found out about it through me, - Said Mama Proserpine, who decided to open her mouth for the first time, - Caesonia had been my client. She used to come here often for fortune telling.
- Precisely, - Smiled Menelaus, - You, my friend, helped me on many occasions.
- Glad to hear it, - Replied Mama Pro somewhat ironically.
- I wonder why Caligula had hired you and then decided to let you go, - Said Cumulus.
Menelaus laughed and shook his head,
- Well, my friends, I am going to reveal to you the biggest secret of mine, if you can believe it, - He said, still shaking with laughter, - You see, for Caligula it was merely a gesture, aimed at the public. On the other hand, he knew that I would never find out anything. It was perfectly safe to hire me, you see.
- But why?
- Because I have a reputation of the worst Private Detective in this illustrious city. I must admit that it cost me many years to build this particular reputation among my colleagues. Luckily, no one ever wondered how, despite my reputation, I managed to unravel so many crimes. You see, it is much more convenient to hold the reputation of a notoriously stupid clod. People are less afraid to talk to you, or to let you into their lives. They consider it safe to deal with you because they regard you as a stupid and therefore harmless amateur.
- But how do you manage to get new contracts then? – Smirked the Professor.
- Because of my fee. It is considerably lower than say, the fees of many less known, but more reputable Private Detectives.
- Ah! I see…
- But to continue… The death of the beloved sister threw Caligula into much rage that he decided to deal with his enemies, at least those he suspected, at once. He decided to throw a lavish banquet and he envisioned it as the final act of mockery. Remember, that he had been a great aficionado of theatrical plays…
- Oh yeah, - Sighed the Professor.
- Yes, yes, but I am sure you, The Professor, played your role of a bedridden grandma wonderfully, - Smiled Menelaus.
- However, - He went on, - This banquet was planned not only as the final, but also as the most dramatic act of political drama. And it ended tragically for many. Of course, neither of you, - He stopped and looked at Cumulus, The Professor and Zenaya, - Knew what role the General of the Praetorian Guards was planning for you. For me these new developments inspired a new wave of curiosity towards your small company. I realized that the General had been looking for complete outsiders, so there’d be no real witnesses during the assassination. Of course, he could kill you after…
- Oh no! – Cried Mama Pro, - He wouldn’t. After all, he is my relative…
- So he promised you not to harm them, huh? – Picked up Menelaus.
- Since I promised him that they won’t be around here for much longer. Which reminds me… - Finished Mama Pro.
- Of course, of course. Soon I’ll reach the conclusion of my prolonged speech, - Replied Menelaus and continued,
- I remembered that when Cumulus had asked me to help him to free his teacher, he mentioned the Clue. So it happened that I took my time to approach our The Professor and to take an interview. In fact, I didn’t need that Clue anymore. Still, I was curious. So, I finally approached you, my dear The Professor, and we had a talk.
- Yes, we certainly did, - Nodded Proculus.
- Yes, yes, - Muttered Menelaus dreamily, - And I have learned the strangest things.
- What things? – Asked the Professor, suspiciously, - I assure you, sir that…
- No, no! You do not have to worry, my friend. Neither of you have to worry anymore. This is a private matter. It is simply my curiosity… Hmm… Our late Emperor certainly knew how to make enemies… - Menelaus stopped talking and looked at his listeners.
- He sure did, - Growled Cletius, who until now had been listening to Menelaus’ speech with a dumbfounded expression.
- Well, - Menelaus smiled and gave a deep sigh, - I won’t waste much more of your valuable time on various explanations. I’ll say it straight, shall I?
- Eh…- The Professor coughed and shifted in his seat.
- You are time travelers, my friends! – Exclaimed Menelaus.
- What? Whadda you mean? – Cletius blinked in astonishment and started to guffaw.
- Oh yeah! Right you are, sir. You’ve seen through me right enough. I’m a time traveler and no mistake! – He cried between the fits of merriment.
- No, I was not talking about you. Or Mama Proserpine either. I mean you – Cumulus, Zenaya and The Professor. You are time travelers.
- They are? – Cletius stopped laughing and stared at the abovementioned group aghast.
- Oh yes. Although, until recently I hadn’t believed anything like this could be possible, - Said Menelaus.
- Well, sir… Since you know and… What… How did you learn that? Did she...? – The voice of The Professor began to ring with panic. Cumulus and Zenaya froze on the spot and listened.
- No, Mama Proserpine didn’t tell me anything. She is good at keeping secrets, you know, - Menelaus said.
- Well, many compliments to you and your intelligence then, - Muttered Mama Pro angrily – I wonder what else you know. About me, I mean…
- That you have been connected with this time traveling business for long? – Smiled Menelaus, - Now I know who all these bizarre lodgers of yours were.
- They weren’t bizarre in the slightest, - Snapped Mama Pro, - They were brave men and scientists!
- Of course, of course, - Replied Menelaus soothingly, -As I said, none of you should worry. I am not going to expose you, for Gods’ sake! I was merely curious!
- Some curiosity! – Grumbled Mama Pro, - In any case, I am dropping out of this business. I hope you let the people, who are in charge of this, know my decision, - She added, turning to the Professor.
- But why? – The Professor stared back at her with a sheer surprise.
- Because our esteemed Mama Proserpine is getting married? – Winked Menelaus.
- She didn’t say the final word! – Grumbled Cletius, reddening slightly, - How the hell did you know, anyway?
- Eh! It is my business to know everything, - Replied Menelaus with a huge grin.
- But, how did you find out about us? – Cried out The Professor.
- Because of the eruption of Vesuvius.
- Elementary, my dear Cumulus.
* * * *
- As I said, I am not going to bother you with all my deductive reasoning, - Said Menelaus, - The only thing I shall mention is this. You, dear The Professor, mentioned the eruption of Vesuvius! I always knew these ridiculously overpriced estates at Pompeii would be obliterated one day! – He added, growing thoughtful, - I guess, I’ll be terribly busy with those guys…
- What guys?
-Realtors, who else?
- But what if I am wrong? – Mumbled the Professor, looking at Menelaus helplessly, - I mean, I might be wrong…
- I don’t think you are wrong, - Replied Menelaus, not unkindly, - By the way, you gave me plenty of other clues as to the origin of your point of departure. I only should say that I really hope you fix a few prepositions of yours regarding the Roman history. Some of them, if you excuse me, struck me as a slightly biased.
- Why! We do have coffee. And we do have pizza. And…
- All right, all right, - Exclaimed the Professor, - I must admit that some of my previous views had been biased. In fact, I am going to write a book on these matters. Not only about coffee, I mean, but… Anyway… - He waived his hand and fell into silence.
-So is it really true that you guys are getting well…eh... married? – Asked Zenaya, addressing Mama Pro.
The landlady looked at Cletius lovingly.
- I think he is a good man, - She said in a tiny voice, - He is a hero.
- If you mean that horse… Why, it was nothing, - Replied Cletius, visibly bubbling with happiness.
Zenaya giggled and clapped her hands. Suddenly she grew serious.
- And what about us then? – She turned to Mama Pro, - I mean, since you are dropping out of business and all that…
- Don’t you fret, child, - Said Mama Pro, - I’ll send you back home save and sound.
- I think the day after tomorrow. I’ll have to check my schedule.
- I see… - Zenaya nodded and added grimly, - So soon…
- Why! I thought you hated it here, - Laughed Mama Pro.
- Well… I didn’t have a chance to… to look around. Scientifically, I mean.
- Well then, there’s no time to lose! – Cried Menelaus, ungluing himself from the mantelpiece.
- Um… Wait, sir, - The Professor sprang onto his feet and stepped up to the Detective, - I am still curious, how you have found out about…um… us. Was it something else I have said or…
- Well, yes, of course. But this helped me also, - Menelaus rummaged in his pocket then produce a piece of paper and handed it to Cumulus, - I think you recognize this.
Cumulus took the paper, unfolded it and cried in surprise.
- I believe it is your school memo, - Said Menelaus, - Am I not correct?
- But how? I thought I’d lost it, - Mumbled Cumulus in complete astonishment.
- No, you haven’t but my Thracian, besides being an excellent servant, has many other talents as well, you know. He is extremely skilful with his hands, to name one.
- But how…how did you learn it is a memo? It is not written in Latin!
- A simple art of deciphering, my young friend, is also a handy skill!
- The Professor! – Menelaus turned to Proculus and patted him on the shoulder, - Shall we proceed to the kitchen for a nice cup of coffee and an additional interview?
- Gladly! – Beamed The Professor.
Once they left the room, Zenaya leaned close to Cumulus, who had been staring at the memo in a stupefaction and whispered, - This employer of your, he’s a tough clever devil, huh?
- You bet, - Mumbled Cumulus and looked at Zenaya, - The day after tomorrow, huh?
- Yeah, I know… Too little time… for everything.
* * * *
The next day, Pelagea and Cumulus were sitting on a low hill outside the city wall, holding hands and gazing at muddy waters of the Tiber River.
- What do you recon is going to happen now? – Asked Cumulus.
- With whom? – Pelagea stared at him questioningly.
- With the government… With Rome…
- I guess they’ll find another Emperor pretty quickly, that’s all. They always do.
- Hey, what’s the matter with you?
- I am still thinking about it, I mean how they killed Caligula and stuff…
-Just don’t tell me you feel sorry for Caligula, - Sniffed Pelagea.
- No, I am not, but… I’d never seen a real murder before. It was … spooky.
- It wasn’t a murder. Not technically, anyway. It was an assassination. There’s never a murder in politics. There’s an assassination. What did you study at your school, anyway?
- I am surprised Zenaya’s fell in love with this dude, you know. It’s weird, - Said Cumulus after a brief silence.
- Why? What’s so weird about it? – Shrugged Pelagea, - You said you are in love with me. Why she cannot fell in love with someone as well?
- She seemed to hate Rome so much.
- She’s changed her mind when I took her shopping.
-Sounds a bit shallow to me. I mean, it takes a bit more than that, - Replied Cumulus.
- Of course it does. But the shopping was a good beginning. Besides he’s a nice guy, you know.
- Isn’t he a little bit dull or something?
- I guess he is that all right. But he’s into the animal rights issue now, thanks to her. Well, since he’s going to be a lawyer he might use that in future.
- We’re going back tomorrow. The Professor, Zenaya, me…
- I know.
- I love you.
- Do you?
- How am I gonna leave you? The Prof is dead set against taking you into our time, you know. Or there’s kinda of technical impossibility, I do not understand it myself. I mean, he tried to explain but…
- Oh, relax. I’ll find the way.
- No, you won’t. It’s not as easy as all that, believe me.
- Listen, Cumulus, the one thing I really, really hate about guys is when they try to get soppy, you know? I hate soppy guys and that is precisely what are you doing right now.
- I am sorry. I don’t want to leave you.
- I know you don’t give a damn about how I feel about you.
-You know… It was so strange, all this experience… I’d never thought something like that could ever happen to me. I mean, Rome and all…
- I thought it was not your first field trip.
- Nah, but this time it’s different. I’ve got so involved and stuff…
-You mean, your supervisor didn’t have a chance to preclude you from falling in love, huh?
- No, it’s not that…
- I think your pal Cletius was real cool, trying to protect you and all that.
-I can’t believe he’s gonna marry Mama Proserpine.
- Hey, why not? She can use a man around the house, you know. By the way, what are they gonna do when you return to your time? Would they kick you out of that school of yours of what?
Cumulus gave Pelagea a thoughtful look and began to laugh.
- Hey, what’s the matter now? – Frowned Pelagea.
- Sorry but it has just occurred to me…
- Occurred what?
- I never wrote that final paper I intended to write. That was why I came over here in the first place.
- You can write it now. You’ve still got time.
- But I need materials. I need a library and stuff, you know.
- Let’s go to a library then. Why didn’t you tell me about it before?
- Wait a minute. Is there a library in the city?
- Are you crazy or what? Of course, there is a library in Rome. There are many libraries in Rome. What do you think we are - barbarians?
- No, but it didn’t occur to me that…
- Oh come on, Cumulus. Let’s move then. I’ll show you a library and you’ll write your paper.
- Is it a public one?
- Gosh! Let’s go.
They sprang up and sprinted towards the city gates.
- I’ve been there for so many times, studying law books, you know, - Cried Pelagea, while they neared the gates, - Can you slow down a bit?
- No time to loose, - Cried back Cumulus.
- All right.
An hour later they were entering the city library. Pelagea approached a librarian, sitting at a huge desk and explained,
- My friend here is doing a field research.
The librarian eyed her warily and nodded.
- Can you help him find all the right books? – Asked Pelagea, - He is new to town. I do not think he has dealt with a proper library before.
- Of course I’ll help, - Replied the librarian, - Does your friend know what kind of materials he needs?
- I’ll ask him.
Pelagea tugged Cumulus by a sleeve and whispered,
- Tell him what kinds of materials you need.
- Eh, historical records?
- Sounds like you don’t really know.
- Hey, lemme think.
Some time later Cumulus was sitting at a desk and trying to choose from a huge pile of books that lay in front of him. It was a tough decision. Finally, he picked up an uppermost one, opened it and stared at the yellowish page. The book seemed to stare back at him. It seemed to be a clever book. Cumulus moved closer and began to read. The first paragraph ran as follow ‘My son! Travel as much as you want! Travel widens your horizon but please, man! Travel light.’ Cumulus smiled and read on. Pelagea watched him with a tiny smile.
* * * *
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