A young girl was standing at the doorframe of a closet and looking at him with an unmistakably mocking expression.
- If I were you, I would slow down, - She repeated and grinned meaningfully.
Cumulus blinked in surprise and mumbled, ‘Eh, why?’
- Why? Because nobody is going to arrest you people, if that what worries you, - The girl answered and beckoned him to step closer.
- Mama Proserpine is in Praetorian quarters now but I bet my old sandals she will be back before lunchtime, - She said.
- How do you know?
- Oh, I know. Do you imagine her cousin is going to harm his dear relative just like that?
- What are you talking about? What cousin?
- The General of Praetorian guards, Gallicus. He is her cousin. He came here this morning. The stupid maid didn’t recognize him. Now she is crying downstairs like a silly cow that she is. I didn’t bother to tell her that everything is OK. She is a coarse woman. Let her cry a bit. It’ll do her a lot of good. Emotional outlet and whatnot…
Cumulus took a better look at the girl. She seemed younger than he was, and a great deal prettier than Zenaya. In fact, she didn’t look like a Roman girl at all. Her skin was of a slightly olive color, her eyes were black and her hair was chestnut brown. She noticed Cumulus’ stare and frowned,
- What’s you’re looking at?
- I am…Sorry… Nothing.
Cumulus dropped his gaze and cleared his throat, thinking what to say next. He had a great deal to ask the girl but he seemed to be in a sudden difficulty of forming his next question.
- You are flapping your mouth like a fish, - The girl noted, - I bet you wanna ask me something, don’t you?
- Then ask.
- You’re not from here, are you?
- It wasn’t a right question, I think.
- Well, sorry…
- You positively love to apologize all the time, do you? Well, I am not from here, I mean, not really. I am Greek. Are you satisfied?
- Don’t you want to ask me my name? Since you are so polite and all that, it would be the next logical question.
- I am so… Eh… What’s your name?
- Pelagea. I am Mama Proserpine’s daughter, by the way.
- I’d never seen you around this house before.
- Of course, not. I had been staying with my relatives in Athens until a couple days ago. I had been attending a school there.
- What school?
- What do you care, what school? It was a good school, believe me, only I finally found it unsuitable for my educational purposes. First of all, it was a girls’ school. Does it explain anything to you?
- Huh! You’re definitely a man of few words. But are those words always that stupid?
- Good. Care to step inside and talk it over?
- I… Are you sure we won’t be arrested?
- Of course I cannot be a hundred percent sure but I can guarantee ninety-nine of them just fine. Are you coming or not?
- Yeah, sure.
Cumulus followed Pelagea into the closet with a trembling heart. He realized that he was blushing. Luckily, the closet was comfortably dark. Pelagea shut the door and said.
- Sit down, man, don’t be shy. There are woolsacks in the corner. Rather soft although a bit dusty. Well?
- Eh? Excuse me?
- I am waiting for your questions. I bet you must be dying from curiosity, as to how I managed to learn so much about you and your companions for instance. Am I correct or what?
- Yes… No… I am just wondering, like, how much do you know…
- How much? Maybe not much, but enough to make further guesses. You see, my mother always keep strange people in this house. I’ve no idea where she finds them but the fact is, these people are often around. They are all strangers, mostly foreigners, with little or no knowledge of Rome and…
- Yeah, I’ve got the picture.
- Not yet. A large chunk of my information comes from my mother herself, you see.
- Does she tell you about her business then?
- She? Not her! She’s as secretive as I don’t know who but the thing is I am a lot smarter. And I love to listen… Sometimes I listen by the door and sometimes…
- Yeah, I see. You love to snoop then.
- Hey, take it easy! Snoop, indeed. It’s surveillance! Well, to cut a long story short, I know that you are not from these parts, you have never been to Rome before, you came from a distant country and there was some sort of an accident, and…
- Listen, if I’d tell you where I came from, you wouldn’t believe it. So I am not going to tell…
- How do you know if I am going to believe you or not? I mean, what am I, stupid? What do you think?
Cumulus shook his head and sighed. He was sitting close to Pelagea and a smell of her hair was tickling his nostrils. Suddenly he caught himself picturing her lying in his arms and…
- Come on, tell me the truth! – Pelagea urged, - I know you people are not from here, not even close. Where are you from then? What are you doing here? What are you up to? Are you spies or something?
- Spies? No, definitely not spies! Do we look like spies?
- Not really. So? Where do you people come from, really?
- From the future, - blurted Cumulus.
- What? Yeah, is if! Hey, stop it, would you? Come on, tell me the truth now!
- I’ve told you already.
- Do you think I am nuts?
Cumulus shifted in his seat and began to rummage in the folds of his tunica.
- What are you looking for? – Pelagea asked.
- Wait. I want to show you…
- Some secret document?
- Almost a secret document.
Finally, he located what he had been looking for. He coughed nervously and handed her a crumbled piece of paper.
- You know, I was robbed just before I moved in here…
- I know. Mother told me. You were dead drunk and you dropped asleep right on our porch.
- Yeah, almost of your porch but anyway… This is the only thing from… Well, this is the only thing I have. A proof, you know.
- Crack the door open, will you? I cannot see anything, - Commanded Pelagea.
She unfolded a paper and stared at it with interest.
- It’s an interesting sort of parchment, you know, but I can’t understand a word. What does it say, this document?
- It’s not a document. Not as such.
- Then what is it?
- A school memo. It says here…
Cumulus took back the paper, cleared his throat and started to read.
‘Faculty of Antique History and Culture. Memorandum. Attention, all students! Department of practical research would like to announce that from the first day of the month all technical facilities connected with the time machine will be the subject to further regulations. The students who need to perform a time travel jump to finish their projects must apply to the Head of Research in person. Note that the actual number of time jumps will be limited to three jumps per week. Please remember that every jump must be performed under a close supervision of the designated instructor. Under no circumstances, students may enter the Time Travel lab unattended. All offenders will be punished in accordance with the rules of conduct, starting from a detention with a complete withdrawal of all the time traveling privileges, and up to the expulsion from the school. Sighed: Academic Vice President for Development.’ As I said, I had had amnesia, when I first arrived here and… I couldn’t even read this. Now I can.
- Wow! And so you are a student then, huh? And you broke these rules?
- Yeah. I did.
- I understood nearly everything except, what is this time traveling machine anyway?
- It’s a machine that allows you travel in time, that’s all. I mean, there is one machine in my school, see? I mean, it’s a history department and stuff. So when students have to write a paper, or to do a field research they go and apply for a time jump.
- A field research? Aren’t there enough fields where you live?
- No, you don’t get it. It means to do a research right there. I mean, for instance, you are studying Rome, right?
- So you go to Rome and do you research around here. Right?
- Then you go back.
- So you came here to do your field research? And you gonna go back? What can you research around here, anyway? Rome is a pretty boring place, you know. I mean, it’s huge and all that but it’s boring. And it always got political troubles. I mean, who wants to research anything like that?
- Well, I wanted to finish my final project paper but…
- But what?
- I couldn’t wait till I’d get a permission and…
- You wanted to do it on your own, right?
- It means, you wished to do some cheating as well, right? I bet it is not as easy as you say.
- You’re right. Hey, dammit! I sneaked into the lab and turned on that machine and … I guess, I did something wrong. Usually, a technician does it for you, like tuning up equipment, making the electronic calculations and stuff. Anyway, something happened, ‘cause even though I arrived here all right, I had lost my memory and, it was like, I had no idea what to do, and who I was and all that.
- But now you remember everything fine, aren’t you?
- Of course.
- And who are those two? I mean, your companions? One of them, the old guy, he looks like a Prof. to me.
- He is.
- Is he your supervisor?
- No, actually he is the Head of the department.
- And that girl, who likes to talk about human rights and animal rights?
- She is, she was my classmate. She works in the lab, actually.
- So they both came looking for you here then?
- That’s pretty crazy. This is a huge place, man. How did they hope to find you?
- They did.
- By sheer luck, I assure you. Wow! The stuff you are telling me… It’s fantastic! I always knew my mother was up to no good, meddling with all those weird characters. I wonder if all of them had been doing field research. Actually, they looked pretty dorky to me. But how can you travel in time, anyway? I mean, it’s just a conception, an abstraction…
- Not really. I don’t know much about it myself, but this I know. You see, time has a structure. It’s like a layer after layer of some invisible stuff and it flows through Cosmos like a river. You can swim in it, or it would be like a ship, or something. Sorry, I cannot explain it better.
- All right. Forget it. Listen! I broke school rules too. That makes two of us, does it?
- Why did you do it?
- I told you. It was a girls´ school. And the thing is that I wish to study law, you know.
- Yeah, law. Hey, don’t look at me like this. There is nothing wrong with a girl who wishes to study law. You don’t have to look like a fat beetle to be a lawyer. In fact, wouldn’t it be better if some lawyers were young, pretty women? Anyway… I’ve read plenty of books on Corpus Romanus, on my own of course, so I know plenty of law stuff by now. And these cretins at the school told me ‘Oh, you cannot study law, honey. It’s a men’s profession.’ Huh? How do you like that?
- It’s sexism.
- Exactly! So I broke their stupid rules and got myself expelled. And now I am free!
- What did you do exactly? I mean, how did you break the rules?
- Oh, I’ll tell you about it some other time, all right? Hey! Do girls study law in your school?
- Yes, but it is not strictly a school, you know. It’s a university.
- Hey, sounds even better! You know what?
- I’m going with you back to your time and I’m going to enroll into your university and study law!
- I don’t think you can…
- Do what? Travel with you back in time? Just you watch me!
- It’s actually forward in time and…
- Aha! So you’re from the future, are you? I figured as much.
- How did you figured it out then?
- You look older than your actual age must be. You talk like a kid but you look like a grown up man. But never you mind. So it is decided. I’m going with you.
- No, you cannot.
- Then you won’t go there too.
- What? Why?
- I’ll withdraw my help and without my help you and your supervisor, and this human rights girl would perish here in a month! You’ll see! Or I can do better still! I’ll go and talk to my mother’s cousin, Praetorian Gallicus. He will put you all behind the bars as spies from the future. Well?
- All right. Give me a break for a moment, would you? I’ll talk to the Professor and… maybe he’ll agree to take you. Even though it’s against the rules, I am sure.
- Of course, he will agree. It’s better to take me to your future than to rot in prison, right? I am sure he is a brainy guy. He’ll figure it in no time at all.
- We call it blackmail, you know.
- Accidentally, we call it the same name.
- And you wish to become a lawyer!
- Sometimes blackmail might be used as a powerful tool of persuasion, you know.
- Not in our times!
- I don’t believe it. Maybe you people do it more subtly than we do it here. Anyway, you’d better run along. I am sure your supervisor is looking for you everywhere.
- But what should I tell him then? I mean, you mother and this Praetorian guy…
- Tell him nothing. I am sure Mother is coming back home soon. She’ll talk to your professor herself. All right! Run along, Cumulus.
- Hey, Pelagea! When will I see you again?
- Eh… I could tell you more about the future and stuff…
- I am sure the ‘stuff’ would be the most exciting part of it. Well, I’ll see you soon. Now run!
- Bye, Pelagea.
Cumulus emerged from the closet and hurried back to his room.
* * * *
- Cumulus? And where the heck have you been? – The Professor snapped angrily.
- Sorry, I…
- Where’s your landlady? Have you seen her?
- No, she is eh…out shopping…
- Why didn´t you come back sooner?
- Sorry, but I… My stomach was upset.
- All right, all right… - The Professor rubbed his temples and nodded gravely.
- What we really need now is proper, strict discipline, - He said, reflectively.
- But pro…
-Cumulus! I told you already! Let’s not forget! Each one of us must use our assigned names, and proper titles, or we might get ourselves into further troubles. Your so-called name… wasn’t assigned to you, of course but still… People around here know you as Cumulus. Let’s not mix anything up. You’ve created a big enough mess already. Now, please tell me, what have you done back there, you know, where, and how did you end up eh… a working boy in Rome? I need to know every detail.
Cumulus began to spin his tale once more, while the Professor and Zenaya listened in a grave silence. Once Cumulus finished talking, the Professor glanced at him and said,
- I really cannot tell now what sort of a reaction you would get back home. I hope, they don´t expel you though. I think you’ve been punished enough. To end up in the ancient Rome with amnesia! Oh ye Gods!
- What if he is lying about his amnesia? – Zenaya asked sardonically.
- Hey, I am not! – Cried Cumulus.
- Let’s be quiet! – Interfered the Professor, - We must stop quarrelling at once, if we wish this story to come to a satisfactory conclusion. In addition, we must make a plan of our future actions. But before that, I need to speak to that landlady of yours. Do you know when she is going to be back?
- I don’t know.
- Hmm. We’ll wait then, I guess. I wonder if there are some opportunities for a breakfast in this boarding establishment. I am beginning to feel hungry.
- No. I normally go to a tavern, - Cumulus said.
- Yeah, and the stuff they serve there! – Interrupted Zenaya with a renewed anger, - It’s all junk! Oh! I miss the real stuff so much!
- Like what? – Cumulus asked.
- Like a proper cappuccino, for example!
- But the ancient Romans didn’t have coffee. Coffee, as you must know by now, young lady, was introduced in Europe after discovering the New World, - The Professor noted with a pedantic gusto.
- And beer, - Zenaya mumbled dreamily, - A glass of cold non-alcoholic beer…
- They’ve got beer here, - Said Cumulus.
- Nonsense! – Snapped the Professor, - I see you two are the excellent students of history indeed. Beer came to Europe much later. It was introduced by Germanic and Nordic tribes.
- Maybe they have already introduced it, then. You can buy beer around the corner, in that Gallic tavern, - Replied Cumulus, slightly offended.
- Aha! So your knowledge of Imperial Rome suddenly became so much deeper that even I cannot match you now, huh? – Asked the Professor testily.
- He must know everything about these things, - Added Zenaya, - He is always hanging out with this alcoholic, a buddy of his, Cletius.
- He’s not an alcoholic!
- Oh yeah! As if!
- Stop it, both of you! – Cried the Professor, - I hear steps approaching.
- I hope it’s Mama Pro and not… someone else, - Mumbled Cumulus, growing considerably paler. Luckily, no one noticed.
There came a knock on the door and the voice of Madam Proserpine sang out,
- Anybody there? Cumulus? Zenaya?
- Aha! Here we go then, – The Professor sprang onto his feet and opened the door.
* * * *
The General of Praetorian guards was standing outside of the Imperial study and counting silently to ten. When he reached the desired number, he stepped forward and knocked on the heavy door once. A brief silence ensued, then a slightly nasal voice of the Imperator yelled ‘Come in’. Gallicus turned the doorknob and stepped over the threshold, controlling his movements.
Caligula was sitting at an enormous desk and shuffling though a pile of papers. He raised his abnormally large head and gave the General a wide grin. ‘The ugly bastard,’ thought the General while approaching his Emperor and saluting smartly.
- Ah! My brave man! My eagle in a human form. So here you are, - Said Caligula, grinning, or rather baring his teeth.
‘Even his teeth are all rotten,’ Mused the General.
- You were asking for me, sire, - He said aloud, looking calm and inoffensive.
- Yes, I have. Yes, I have.
- What can I do for you, sire?
- Do you know this eh…Private Detective I hired for the Temple job?
- Yes, sire. Menelaus is the name, sire.
- Good. You have a better memory than I do. I would like to see him.
- When do you require him, sire?
- Well, let us say, tomorrow afternoon. Can you deliver the man right into my office? I would like to have a word with him.
- Yes, sire!
- Very good, General. You may go now.
Gallicus saluted once again, turned on his heels and began to retreat towards the door when Caligula cried after him,
- Yes, sire, - Gallicus halted his progress and turned around.
- I was meaning to ask you but keep forgetting… until now.
- Yes, sire?
- What is the watchword you use with your guards? There must be a watchword or two, isn’t it right?
- Yes, sire, - the General shrugged slightly and looked at the Emperor with surprise, - There is always a watchword, sire.
- And what is it, General? If it is not a top military secret, of course.
- This month it is Tarentum, sire.
- Yes, sire.
- Why? There’s nothing special about that city, I believe. Why Tarentum, of all places?
- It’s easy to remember, sire.
- I see. It is very sad, General. It is exceptionally sad.
- Why, sire?
- Don’t you see? You and your men use words that mean nothing. There’s nothing sacred in Tarentum, or Pompeii, or Brindisium. Even in Rome…Why not use the names of deities, for a change? I think it would be much more proper, much more spiritual, don’t you think so, General? After all, yours is a sacred and spiritual duty, is it not? To protect your Emperor- isn’t it a sacred duty of a good soldier?
- Certainly, sire. I’d never thought about using names of deities before. I am sorry, sire. Which name shall I order my men to use?
- Let me think. I believe, Priapus and Venus will be the most appropriate watchwords for you and your men. Let’s say: Monday and Tuesday you will use Priapus, and then, Wednesday and Thursday it’ll be Venus, and Friday and Saturday it will be Priapus again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? And these names are also easy to remember, easier than Tarentum, I think.
The General stared at Caligula, praying that no true feeling would show on his face, while replying in a carefully measured voice,
- What about Sunday then, sire?
- Oh, Sunday! I forgot about Sunday. Let’s say, it is up to you, General. You may use any words you wish on Sunday.
- Very well, sire.
- You may go, General.
‘I know what words I would love to use on Sunday’ thought the General darkly, emerging from Caligula’s office. -’Die, the motherfucker! You are history.’
‘What an insult!’ – continued he in an angry train of thoughts, marching along the corridor, ‘Priapus and Venus, huh? The only thing I pray for is that he would pay for all his dirty jokes soon enough, a dog!’
It was in a late evening when the General decided to return to the Praetorian Headquarters. He ran up the stairs and stormed into his office. One of his slaves was dozing in a corner.
- Wake up, you! – Roared Gallicus, throwing his sword on the desk, - Bring me undercover rugs, quickly.
Twenty minutes later the General, dressed in some nondescript, almost beggary clothes, with a false beard plastered to his chin, strolled out of the Praetorian headquarters and headed in the direction of a lower town.
He passed several blocks, made a turn and walked some more, until he spotted a familiar sign of a cheap tavern. Since the tavern was favored by gladiators, poor freemen and prostitutes, who loved freemen and gladiators, the name of the place was ‘Hot Arena.’
The General pushed the door open and walked inside. Nobody paid him the slightest attention, including even prostitutes, which was good. Gallicus hated to be distracted. He scanned the crowd carefully until he located the right guy, who was sitting at a solitary table and talking passionately to a bottle of wine in front of him. The General suspected that the bottle was nearly empty. He crossed the main room, approached the drunk and coughed politely. The latter looked up and eyed the General with distaste,
- Eh? Something the matter?
Gallicus produced a friendly smile, almost causing his false beard to fall off his face and croaked in a cheery, unmilitary voice,
- Hey, I think I know you, buddy. Care to join me for a drink?
* * * *
- And the damn beast kicks! – Roared Cletius, downing his glass and banging on the table with his huge fist, - This is insult for an ex-soldier, pal! To guard some crazy horse! And I must address it ‘Consul’ and ‘Sir’. Hah! ‘Consul this and consul that! Woulda yea mind steppin’ aside so I might clean shit under yer feet? Woulda yea this and woulda yea that!’ Fuck! It’s a dog’s life, mate!
- Yeah. And you’re a good fighter. I mean, I’ve seen you on the arena myself, - Chimed the General soothingly, - I mean, what a waste of talent!
- Talent! The hell with talent. It’s life that’s getting’ wasted, pal. My life! Oh!
- Mebbe, you should appeal to the Caesar, huh? Mebbe he’ll find you another job?
- What? Appeal to him? To that crazy…- Cletius checked himself in time and spitted on the floor, - Not in your life, pal.
- Yeah, people say he’s getting’ pretty bad, this Caesar of ours.
- Hey! – Cletius narrowed his eyes and brought his face closer to his drinking companion, - You ain´t police, are ye?
- Me? Heh! Do I look like one to you, mate?
- ‘Cause you wanna talk politics and we are basic…heck!... basically strangers.
- You’ve been talking politics for a solid half an hour.
- Have I? Shit! I’m a patriot, if you wanna know. The hell with politics, mate. Let’s order another bottle.
The General asked for another bottle, then whispered to Cletius,
- I hate that dog too, man! I really do!
- Who? – Blinked Cletius.
- Caligula, that’s who. Do you think I was always dressed like this, like a beggar an’ stuff? Hell no, pal. I’d been a well to do guy. And now look at me, huh? Even these sluts don’t wanna look at me twice. And why is it so? ‘Cause my dad died and left me everything and naturally, I had to name Caligula in the will and pay my percentage. But he stripped me clean, man, he did! I woulda kill the bastard myself if I could. You are a lucky one. You´re sitting on your ass the whole day in a close proximity to His place. Doesn’t he visit his damn horse once in a while? I bet he does. I woulda kill him during one of these visits. Just kill him, that’s all!
- And then get killed right after, - Added Cletius with a grim smirk, - It’s like, my pal, a young guy in fact, tells me ‘Hey, man! Things might change! Just hold on tight! Everything is gonng be all right, you’ll see.’
- What young pal? Heh!
- Hey, you dirty mouth! It’s nothing like that! Do you hear? Neither he not I into any politics, OK?
- Hah! Sorry is my ass! He is a good guy, even though a foreigner. Works for a Privvy Detective now but it’s not like dirty police, see. It’s all brain work and shit and he has plenny of that. Brains, I mean.
- Foreigner, you say? Where is he from?
- A good question, mate. I haven’t figured it out yet, myself. I don’ feel com…heck!…comfortable pestering him with all kinda questions so I’ve never really tried to find out. He says he is from the North. Go figure what that means. It might mean anything. But who cares? He is still a great guy. He lives in this boarding house, you see and his landlady is this really cute woman. I’ve seen her a coupla times, you see and oh! My heart is melting, and no mistake, every damn time I see her, man! I even love her name! Oh, Proserpine… Isn’t it a great name?
- You mean, Madam Proserpine?
- How the Hell do yea know her?
- She’s done a fortune telling for me once, when you know, my money all went up the chimney.
- Yeah. She does that. I was meaning to approach her and say like, ‘What’s my fortune might be like, dear lady?’ but I am too shy for that, you know.
- She’s struck me as a good woman.
- A hell of a good woman, pal! Such a bo…heck!...bosom and stuff… Like an armor, man!
- But what’s the use to talk about good women?
- Whadda you mean?
- Your life seems to be heading down the drain. So is mine.
- How the Hell do you know if my life is heading down the drain or not?
- You’ve just told me.
- I told you nothing. And speaking of politics, man, I don’t want to talk about it no longer, OK? I’m in plenty of troubles already as it is!
- You know, there are some big shots ready to pay good money to the right man.
- What are ya talking about?
- To kill the crazy bastard…
- Ah! So it is like this, right? I see! You! A fucking stooly, are ye? Buying honest people drinks then talk politics. Lemme tell you something. I am a fighter. I am a gladiator but not an assassin, all right? Maybe you can kill a guy, even such a guy as our Caesar for money or just like that, but not me. You’re knocking at a wrong door, pal.
- Hey, wait…
- Nah. You wait, you fucking snoop! Lemme give you an advise. See this hand? – Cletius waived his hand in front of the General’s face, then continued, - I can to crush a man’s head with this, pal. Been doing it for years. Now you listen here and listen well. Take you ass otta this place quick or you gonna end up a bit flattened on the top, all right?
The General did not reply and raised from his chair. ‘Damn! A wasted evening; another candidate has gone sour,’ He thought bitterly, backing onto the street, ‘I’ll need to talk to Proserpine again.’
* * * *
The Professor squeezed his temples and muttered with incredulity,
- She’s got the key but she refuses to give it to me! She simply refuses.
Cumulus and Zenaya exchanged worried glances.
- Who does, teacher? What keys? – Asked Zenaya.
- Proserpine! – The Professor coughed loudly and looked at his students - companions.
- She’s got the key? What does it mean?
- The key to our return! – Moaned the Professor.
- What?! – Cumulus and Zenaya jumped on their feet and stared at him, dumbfounded.
- She’s got the key, or whatever is supposed to return us home? – Gasped Zenaya.
- Yes, she does, - The Professor uttered with a sigh, - In fact, she is the keeper of the link between eh… our worlds. You might as well know it now.
- But is she… a time traveler herself or…? - Asked Cumulus.
- Oh. no! Of course, she is not. She is genuine Roman. Or Greek, I mean.
- But then how..?
- Well, she has been serving our side, so to speak, for years. She had never failed before. The whole department… anyway, people always regarded her as a reliable persona. I am simply at loss, whatever has possessed this woman. To refuse fulfill her end of a contract! It is unbelievable and yet that is precisely what she told me.
- What does she want? – Cried Zenaya in exasperation.
- I certainly do not know, although she let me to understand… she implied that she wants something from us in return for her help.
- But she didn’t tell you?
- No, she did not. I must confess, this situation is getting more and more ridiculous.
- Gosh! We will be stuck here forever! – Wailed Zenaya.
- Stop it, please, and get hold of yourself, - Rebuked the Professor, - I would imagine there’s a simple solution to this. What we need to do is simply to find out what the damn woman wants, that’s it! There’s no need to panic. At least, not yet.
- Maybe she wants more money? She had been paid for the job, hadn’t she?
- Of course, she had been paid. She is getting paid, as a matter of fact, and she receives money on a regular basis.
- Then she wants more money!
- It would have been too simple. She has always been paid well. She wants something else, I believe, - The Professor said.
- What could that be? – Muttered Zenaya and looked at Cumulus.
- Hey, why are you looking at me like that? – He exploded.
- Like what?
- I’m going to work. I have missed a half of a workday already.
- Do you still have your job? I thought you have been fired or something, - Zenaya sneered.
Cumulus shrugged angrily and darted out of the room. The next moment somebody seized him by his sleeve.
- In case you want to talk, - Hissed Pelagea in his ear and started dragging him along the corridor , - I’ll be hanging out by the Pantheon around seven o’clock this evening.
Cumulus shook himself free and hissed back,
- I don’t want to talk to you! And you’ve been listening by the door again, you snoop!
- Hey, I was not! And why you do not want to talk?
- ‘Cause you’ve been lying to me.
- About what?
- About your mother!
- Hey, wait, you bonehead! – Pelagea caught up with him at the end of the corridor and barred his way with her small but extremely mobile body.
- You found out something interesting about my mother? – She whispered excitedly.
- I think you know everything there is to know.
- No I don’t!
- You’re lying.
- No I don’t!
- I don’t believe you.
- Your loss.
- All right. I’ll be at Pantheon at seven.
- See you there then.
Cumulus watched as she galloped down the corridor and disappeared from the view, muttered a vague ‘Hmm’ and began to descend the creaky stairs.
* * * *
Menelaus was pacing the floor of his study, completely ignoring the recent arrival of his assistant and muttering to himself,
- It’s getting exceedingly complicated! All my logical constructions, all my deductions…It is either too simple or too complicated… However… Oh damn it all. You?
He spun around and peered at Cumulus.
- Eh, sir?
- I see you’ve managed to get you some sleep. You look refreshed.
- Yes, sir.
- How’s your old man? Suffering from a hangover? Ran away? What?
- No, sir, he’s…
- Al right, all right. I’ll question him tomorrow. Today… Today’s afternoon I’m going to see the Emperor. Was summoned by him, in fact. A honor for the likes of me, I am sure. Right now… OK, right now we are going to pop into the Temple of Castor and Pollux again. I wish to clear it once and for all.
- Yes, sir.
- Stop parroting’ yes sir’ and let’s go. We don’t have much time.
- Do you remember the name of the Head Priest of the temple? – Asked Menelaus, breaking into a brisk walk.
- Nnnn… No, sir.
- Too bad! I shall send you to do some boring research instead of working directly with me. You’ve never make a good Detective, if you can’t remember names. He never said his name, by the way. We called him ‘Your Reverence’.
It was a good half an hour later when they literary stormed into the Temple. Without wasting time on niceties, Menelaus demanded to see the Head Priest at once.
- Imperial business, - He barked at some lower cleric who tried to bar his way.
- Yes, sir. In a moment.
The words ‘Imperial business’ and the aggressive voice of Menelaus worked magic. They were escorted to the Head Priest’s office without further ado. The old man himself seemed asleep but raised his head as soon as two visitors walked into his office and blinked at them owlishly.
- Eh, gentlemen… My office hours…
- Imperial business, - Pronounced Menelaus.
- I see. Pray be seated then. Some wine?
- No thank you, your reverence. My name is Menelaus, Private Detective. I believe we have already met.
- Ah! I do remember you now, - The old man smiled weakly and nodded, - You and this young man came to this Temple not long ago. So, did you find the miscreant? No? A pity. As you probably know by now, a janitor you were so anxious to question, has disappeared as well.
- Yes, I know, Your Reverence.
- Do you think he knows something about this sacrilegious business then? Do you think he is the miscreant?
- It’s hard to say for sure now, - Replied Menelaus, - He is dead, I believe.
- Dead? – The Head Priest seemed unimpressed, - Then you found the scoundrel?
- No, I didn’t.
- Then how do you know he’s dead?
- A certain person of high standing reported to me that he found the body.
- You don’t say! A person of high standing, huh? Who that person might be?
- I cannot disclose his name. Pardon me but it’s confidential information.
- I see. But then, what brought you here again?
- I simply wanted to know, what happened to the body of the dead janitor, after he had been found on steps of the Temple yesterday, - Said Menelaus.
The Head Priest stared at him agog, then began to laugh,
- I must say, sir, - He said after his laughing fit subdued, - That you seem to be a person of an unusual sense of humor.
- Unfortunately, Your Reverence, it was not a joke, - Replied Menelaus coldly.
- What makes you think the beggar had been found on the steps of this Temple? – Thundered the Head Priest, rising from his chair, - Is it a coax of yours or what?
- I have witnesses who saw everything, - Parried Menelaus, unperturbed.
- I see, - The Head Priest collapsed on his chair and sighed.
- This is a crazy business, no doubt, - He said after a while in an almost normal tone.
- You seem to have good spies, Detective. Well, I must admit that the poor wretch had been found exactly where you said he had been. So? We let lictors know what happened. They came, completed all forms, threw the body on a cart and dragged him to the cemetery.
- What cemetery?
- I cannot say but I imagine it was the city cemetery. It seems that the deceased didn’t have any relatives or anyone else, for that matter, who wished to claim his body. So I imagine that the city authorities threw him into a common pit, like a beggar which he was and covered him with dirt. The end of a story, sir. Nothing else to add.
- Did you wonder why his body turned up on your steps, Your Reverence?
- No, I didn’t.
-Hmm. A one more question, if you allow me.
- Wait, man! Your questions make me exceedingly thirsty, you know. Are you sure you don’t want a drop of wine?
- No, thank you, Your Reverence.
- Then let me have some and then we will proceed.
The Head Priest grunted, opened a desk drawer and produced a dusty bottle.
- My job demands that I take a break once in a while. Dead bodies, sacrilegious crimes, spiritual guidance… Oh ye Gods, my nerves are all shot! – He poured himself a glass and emptied it in one go.
Menelaus was watching the old man intently.
- Your Reverence! Are you all right? – He asked suddenly then stood up slowly and peered at the old man.
- I… Eh…- The Head Priest waived his hand weakly and began to fell face down on his desk. His lips grew intensely blue. He croaked and shuddered then became still. Menelaus walked around the desk and examined a slumped bulk of the Head Priest then concluded darkly,
- I wasn’t aware of a poison that could do its job so quickly.
- Is he dead, sir? – Cumulus stared at the dead body with a morbid fascination, unable to take his eyes off it.
- Poisoned. A good timing, too. Somebody knew the old man’s habits only too well, I suppose. Let’s go.
They left the office and approached the nearest cleric.
- The Head Priest has been poisoned. He’s in his office, dead, - Said Menelaus.
- Oh? – The cleric stared back at the Detective in mute horror.
- What are you looking at, man? –Snapped Menelaus angrily, - Call the second in command and summon the police. The murder was committed here.
The cleric nodded stupidly and started to run.
- I hope they will not keep me from my appointment, - Muttered Menelaus between his teeth, - I knew it… I knew it would be another fine day!
* * * *
Cumulus was loitering under the great portico of the building known to the Romans as the Pantheon but his thoughts were removed from anything spiritual as far as the farness could go. He peered at the faces of every young female passing by, but none of them had the smallest resemblance to the small figure of Pelagea. He rightfully guessed that it was a very long way past six o’clock and began to wonder why he’d bothered. The girl was a cheating minx. That seemed clear enough. He sighed and began to unglue himself from the massive Pantheon’s column when a firm hand fell on his shoulder and a quiet voice said,
- I was watching you for a good ten minutes. Are you always that gloomy or are you having a toothache?
Cumulus turned around and came face to face with Pelagea, who stared back at him with a genuine concern.
- I know a good dentist, if you need one, - She added, - He does not charge much and he uses only the best silk rope, you know.
- A silk rope? – Cumulus repeated, a bit startled, – Why a silk rope?
- Haven’t you ever visited a dentist? – It was Pelagea’s turn now to show puzzlement.
- Yeah, but… In my time, eh… they do not really use a silk rope. I mean, why they would use it anyway? - Cumulus began to get a feeling that he was saying something exceedingly stupid.
- To extract your tooth, why else? But this dentist of mine is a real master. He ties a silk rope around your tooth and then pokes you in an eye with a burning stick. Naturally, you jump back and here we go! Your tooth is hanging from the rope, and you have not even noticed. Neat, isn’t it?
- Oh yeah. Very neat.
- Shall we go then?
- To see the dentist?
- Jeez, no. I was felling upset that was all. My teeth are OK, really.
- As you wish.
They left the portico and began to walk up a street. Cumulus broke the silence.
- Eh… Where are we going, actually? – He asked.
- It depends, - Pelagea relied.
- Depends on what?
- Listen, - Pelagea stopped and fixed Cumulus with a curious glance, - An idea just occurred to me. You’re basically a stranger here, aren’t you?
- So how much Rome have you seen so far?
- Not much.
- I thought as much. Let’s go places then. You’ve got to see some of it before you go back to your time. Or forward… Whatever… By the way, did you speak with you supervisor about me?
- Nnnnooo… Not yet…
- Make sure that you speak to him soon or all three of you will be rotting in prison in no time. So, what did you find out about my mother?
- Eh, well…
- Oh speak up for Gods’ sake! All your eh’s and well’s are really tiring, you know. It sounds like you’d never spoke with a well brought up girl before.
- And drop you ‘sorry’. It sounds silly. Well?
- I guess you know it better than me, though. This thing about your mother…
- Which one it might be? I know plenty of things about my mother but…
- That she has a key…
- A key? What key? Key to what? To the house? Or to her secret place?
- The key to… Oh well, she has been working for us, apparently, for a long time.
- Time travelers. She knows how to send them back.
- No! – Pelagea stopped again and stared at Cumulus.
- I certainly didn’t know that! – She exclaimed, excitedly, - Hey! What do you know, huh? Your own mother is able to send people back or forward in time! And to think that I’d never suspected it of her! Wow! I’ve got to find out more about it. Maybe you won’t have to to talk to your supervisor, after all. Maybe I’ll do it myself.
- Hey, I thought you knew.
- Me? Never! But hey! It’s so cool I’ve met you! I certainly didn’t know that about my mother.
- Listen, Pelagea!
- But… are we going in the right direction?
- Of course!
* * * *
Although Rome was clearly a huge city which, thanks to various planners of urban revival, had several well urbanized districts, all touristy guides of Rome referred to this particular part of it as ‘the village’. There was nothing rustic or remotely country-like about it though, except an unusual number of flowers, painted on pavements or on the building walls, which created a dazzling effect of the richly executed graffiti.
Cumulus had been so engrossed in the conversation that he had paid hardy any attention to his surroundings until he took his eyes off Pelagea’s face and… stifled a gasp.
They were strolling down something that looked like an alley and it was terribly crowded by… It was difficult to sort out what kind of people crowded it. Most of them appeared to be young although, because the inhabitants of this part of the city clearly favored heavy make-up over natural appearance, it could be a deceptive illusion. However, what struck one’s inexperienced eyes first were bizarre outfits, in all possible themes and varieties. Some guys and girls were clean-shaven; the other wore their hair in spikes or long braids. The predominant color of hair was pink. People sat on pavement or stood in groups and laughed loudly in harsh voices. Nobody paid Pelagea or Cumulus any attention. The sides of the alley were peppered with small establishments of unclear functions.
Meanwhile Pelagea was searchingly turning her head this way and that, sometimes nodding to passers-by, and sometimes simply yelling ‘Hey there!’ Finally, she pointed at a young man, whose appearance resembled a parody on a gladiator, and who stood, leaning against some closed door, and cried aloud,
- Here you are! Tootsie, how’s life, man?
The heavily painted face of the bogus gladiator broke into a happy grin and he croaked,
- Hallo, Pel! Back from your soddy school, are ya? And who’s this sad dude next to ya? Your former teacher? – He threw a lazy glance at Cumulus and spit.
- Nah, silly. He’s an absolutely cool guy and he’s my friend, you know. By the way, he is from the future. Been doing some field research around here, you know.
- Wow! Cool! – Tootsie seemed genuinely impressed. He gave Cumulus another, this time much friendlier glance, and said,
- But field research… What the Hell is that? I mean, it sounds like digging up shit or something.
- Oh, dummy! It’s science.
- Hey, I am looking for Cleopatra. Have you seen her lately?
- Nah… She dropped out of sight. The last I have seen her she was with some mental dude from Corinth or something, a drummer or a flutist, I can’t say for sure…Maybe you know him. He says ‘Peace’ and ‘All we need is love’ all the time and he wears his hair so long that plenty of people on the street mistake him for a slave woman.
- No, I never met him. Shit! I was meaning to talk to Cleo.
- Hey, wanna pop into ’Dervish Delight’?
- Why? What’s in there?
- New shipment of good pot. Blondie, you know… I’ve got no dough on me though.
- Some other time, all right? I’m in a hurry.
- What’s the hurry?
- Tell you later.
Pelagea grabbed Cumulus by a sleeve and propelled him down the street, but this time stopping for a quick chat with her friends. She seemed to know a great number of people with names sounded strange sounding names and even stranger appearances. After Pelagea has done a lengthy job of saying ‘hi’ to all Grumpies, Dodds, and Hags, the couple turned a corner and walked into what looked like a coffee shop of sorts. It was dark and relatively quiet inside. Pelagea nodded to the proprietor and sat at a small round table. Cumulus took place next to her and wiped sweat from his forehead. The girl seemed to possess a talent of moving through the streets with a speed and energy of a miniature tornado and it required much vigor to keep up with her. He was badly winded.
- Do you like my friends? – Pelagea placed her elbows on the table and looked at Cumulus with an interest.
- Yeah. In fact, we’ve got guys like them in our times too. We call them…
- No! Don’t tell me about your times.
- Why not?
- Because you’ll spoil all the fun. I want to see everything myself. When I go with you guys to the future, I mean. Other people’s opinions only make everything look dull and confusing. That’s why I hate it when somebody talks about travels. Hey, tell me about your girlfriend. You’ve got a girlfriend back home, don’t you?
- Eh, not really. I mean, I used to hang out with this girl but then we broke up and I have been with anybody else since.
- Really? How come? Do you hate girls? You do not look like a misogynist to me.
- Why, no… I mean, I like girls but I guess I was not lucky.
- I see. And what about this Zenaya? I thought she is your girlfriend.
- Oh no, she is not.
- Don’t you like her?
- I guess she is all right but frankly, she is not my type.
- And who is your type?
- Well… - Cumulus swallowed nervously and mumbled,
- A girl like you…
Pelagea threw her head backwards and laughed.
- What’s so funny? – Asked Cumulus, taken slightly aback.
- Because you know me so little and yet you think I am your type. That’s funny. What if I have a terribly bad character?
- No, you don’t. In fact, you’re very…
- Very what?
- You are fun to be with. And I think you are beautiful.
Pelagea blushed visibly and got up.
- Hey, thanks. Nobody called me beautiful before, - She said seriously.
- Where are you going? – Cumulus glanced at her in alarm.
- I will go and grab us a couple of coffees. Do you drink coffee?
- Sure but… I did not know you people have coffee. I thought …eh… never mind.
- Of course, we have coffee. It is Rome, remember? We’ve got everything. I’ll be right back.
Cumulus watched as she headed towards the counter and started to chat with a sales guy, who too seemed to know her. The guy was grinning hugely while brewingcoffee on a miniature stove. ‘She sure knows everyone around these parts and everyone knows her. She’s popular’, Cumulus thought bitterly, feeling a sudden surge of jealousy.
- So, you know this guy too? - He asked her, once she returned with two tiny cups and placed them on the table.
- Sure, - Replied Pelagea absent-mindedly, sitting down and licking foam on top of her coffee.
- I mean, you do know a lot of people.
- Not that many. But I know this guy all right ‘cause we slept together a few times. He’s just a friend.
- Oh? Do you have a boyfriend?
- I mean, you sleep with guys often then…
- Hey, why are you so inquisitive all of a sudden?
- Sorry. I am just… curious. I mean, we are in Rome and all that but… I don’t know a whole lot about love life around here, like in what age it is appropriate to have sex and all that. I mean, what is the age limit?
- What do you mean – the age limit? You mean, how long people live or what?
- No, no. I was… Well, OK. Like I said, I thought you’re underage or something, ‘cause you look pretty young, you know and…
- What do you mean – underage?
- I mean, before a certain age people are prohibited… no, discouraged… no, just told not to have sex… I mean, when was your first time?
- I don’t remember.
- What? You don’t remember when you were a virgin?
- But you’re so young…
- Hey, what are you talking about? I don’t follow you.
- I… No, never mind. I guess it is a culture shock or something…
- You mean, you are shocked by culture? What is so shocking about the culture?
- No, you don’t understand me.
- That’s what I said.
- Listen, it is just that you make it sound so casual, sex and everything. In my time we don’t treat it so casual, that’s the thing. It’s like, before sleeping with a girl we date her, you know.
- No, I don’t. And why did you say that I treat sex casually? Sex is sacred, you know.
- Sure, sure, but what I am trying to say is that before having sex we normally have a date, and we go out and hang out with each other, and we see if we like each other and stuff.
- Can’t you tell if you like me or not? Why would you deal with me if you do not like me, anyway? It doesn’t make sense.
- No, I like you. Of course, I like you but… It’s kinda hard for me to start talking about my feelings and…
* * * *
From the roomy recesses of his outfit the Professor fished out a bungle of parchment, unfolded it and began to reread what he had written.
‘Once again, I am surrounded by peace and quiet so I can continue with my notes, which, as I see them progressing with every page, grow into a full-blown research diary. Doubtlessly, I would need to clean them up later (some parts concerning my brief teaching career are badly in need of revising, if not outright censuring, so I mustn’t forget to clean them up before we arrive home) Oh! Speaking of those matters, I feel myself totally in dark, for this vicious woman (our landlady) still refuses to explain to me the reason for her erratic behavior, much less to follow the contract. In the meantime, I shall not waste a valuable opportunity to study this famous corner of the Antique World with a renewed precision, even though it is a difficult task to undertake. My young and troublesome companions hold a firm belief that I must not wander outside of this house. They keep telling me that I might be arrested again (God Forbid!). Speaking of young Cumulus (!), I am once again wondering how much education an average student can absorb. Just yesterday, he mentioned a ‘coffee house’! What silliness! If one is to listen to this young idealist, the Imperial Rome is chokingly full of such establishments as ‘pizza parlors’, ‘coffee houses’ and such… Clearly, there’s much material for a good psychologist. The fellow is clearly confused and transgresses into a wishful reality. Naturally, he has missed his home, on the other hand a lot can be said for scientific accuracy of plain observation. Personally, I am planning to undertake several excursions into the city. A few things interest me immensely, such as…’
The Professor barely finished ‘such as ‘when he heard hurrying steps approaching the room. He frowned, quickly folded his diary and returned it into the folds of his dress. The door flew open and Cumulus and Zenaya ran into the room.
- Professor, someone is looking for you, - Whispered Zenaya, shaking with fright, - It’s a Praetorian!
- What? – The Professor frowned and chewed his lips, - How do you know that?
- Well, he wears the uniform. He is sitting in the kitchen right now. We met him when we entered the house, - Reported Cumulus.
- And he said he wishes to talk to eh … all of us, - Finished Zenaya and nearly broke into tears, - We’ll be arrested again. I knew it! I knew it!
- Quiet, please! – Snapped the Professor, - We must keep calm! Let’s see what this man wants.
- Maybe we should run out of the back door, - Whimpered Zenaya.
- Nonsense, - Replied the Professor, - What if this is a trap? No, lets’ all go downstairs. The sooner we find out exactly what this man wants, the sooner we know our fate, so to speak. Let us move.
They walked out of the room and proceeded into the kitchen.
A stern looking man clad in the opulent uniform of Praetorian guards was sitting in the centre of the kitchen and staring grimly at his hands. Once the three time travelers appeared in the doorframe, he surveyed them coldly and said,
- Lucky you three decided not to run away. The house is surrounded. I am telling you simply because you should know. Well?
- You wished to see us? – Asked the Professor, with an attempt at dignified air and failing at it visibly.
-Yes. Grab yourself chairs and sit down. I need to talk to you, - Replied the Praetorian.
The Professor seated himself on an available chair and nodded. Cumulus and Zenaya remained standing.
- My name is Claudius Gallicus. I am the General of Praetorian guards, - Said Gallicus. When no audible reply came he continued,
- I am not asking you your names. I suppose you won’t tell me your real names, at least by your free will, but I don’t care. Let me keep it as short as possible for I don’t have much time. I know you three are strangers in Rome. I know that you came from afar. I cannot tell precisely how far you have come from, but it is also of no importance to me. In fact, I know enough about you three to conclude that you might serve my purpose just right.
- And what purpose that might be, sir? – Asked the Professor.
- Silence, old man! – Roared the General, - I haven’t finish yet. I can arrest all three of you and throw you in prison as spies. I can order to you to be put under torture so at the end you’ll agree to anything I might accuse you of. Therefore, I need another thing from you. If you agree, which I am sure you will, you will live. If not, you will die a terrible death. Well?
- Eh, please tell us then what is it you require from us, - Mumbled the Professor, palling considerably.
- It is simply this. Our Great Caesar composed a play. My job is to supply suitable performers for his play. Actors, in other words. I think you’ll be perfect actors for the play.
- But…but we are no actors, really, even though we gladly…
- Shut up! I know you are no actors. As a matter of fact, you are a bunch of scoundrels who should have been locked up long time ago but the thing is –I am giving you a chance. You perform the play – you’ll live. You refuse – you’ll die.
- Eh… we will play.
- I knew you would agree. And another thing. Under no circumstances will you tell about it to anyone, hear? You have one week to prepare. I believe it is called rehearsal. At the end of the week, you will be taken to the Caesarean residence where you will be present at the Imperial banquet. Your job at that stage is to impress the Emperor. He likes fools and you look like perfect fools. A few days after banquet, you will be delivered into the Imperial residence once more. There you will perform your final, dress rehearsal. Perhaps the Emperor himself would come to watch you. Your job would be to keep rehearsing. No matter what might happen during that period of time, you will keep on acting that play, do you understand? Once it is over you may go home freely. That is all.
The General stood up and tossed a thin parchment on the kitchen table.
- This is a copy of the play. Study it carefully. It is entirely up to you how you play it but play it you will. We meet on the seventh day.
He glared at the time travelers and marched out.
The Professor mopped his brow and sighed.
- This man looks like a perfect brute, - He said, picking up the parchment and studying it.
- What was this guy talking about? Is he nuts? – Whispered Zenaya.
- Well, well, well… Let’s see, - The Professor leafed through the play. A great astonishment began to crawl across his face. Finally, he threw the play down and cried in a strangled voice,
- But…This is ‘The Little Red Riding Hood’ tale!
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