The Case of the Strange Etruscan Vase

Part V

by Joy Ellen Parker (Joyspc at aol.com)
5/8/04

General Disclaimer

The witness Valerius spoke of turned out to be easier to track down than Lestrade would have thought possible. As they were heading back towards the scene of the building collapse in hopes of finding her and especially any traces of Ben and Helena, they crossed a bridge over the Tiber and Lestrade got her first sight of Neroís Golden House, an enormous palace with a gold roof rearing up some distance away.

"And how much did that thing cost?" she asked as she watched the sun shimmer off the roof.

"Too much," Valerius answered, "and not just in coin." She was about to ask him if the roof was real gold when a little brown-haired girl ran up to him and careened into his knees at almost the speed of light.

"Papa," cried the girl. "Where did you get to? Mamma sent me to find you and bring you home right away!" Valerius didnít ask questions. He hoisted her onto his shoulders and ran -- and if that was a soldierís pace, Lestrade thought, it was no wonder Rome had conquered the known world.

"Valeriusí wife Ruth is gonna have a baby," Marcus explained. "I didnít know he could run that fast. Could you carry me like that, Linus?"

"Only in extreme emergencies," answered Holmes with a grin. "I collect that young person is Valeriusí daughter, Ruth."

"Sheís one of my best friends even though she is littler than me," said Anna. "She is really excited about the baby. She wants a baby brother especially. Sheís got no idea what kind of trouble brothers can get you into." Here she cast a speaking glance at her own adopted siblings and back at Lestrade, who might have been inclined to agree. However, Cyrus stuck his tongue out at Anna and Lestrade had no chance to reflect on the universal capacity of boys -- and men -- throughout the ages to find trouble, because she had to get between them in a hurry.

Anna broke off her retaliation and looked up at Lestrade worriedly. "If the baby is coming shouldnít we go help?"

"Help? Oh, honey, I donít think. . ."

"Helenaís usually the one who helps. I wish she were here. Iíve been to lots of births with her, but I donít know what to do if the baby is turned or something like that."

"Close your mouth, Elizabeth," said Holmes with a grin that made Lestrade long to hit him.

As it turned out no one was in labor when their version of *help*, such as it was, arrived in force. Which was a very good thing since to Lestradeís eye, Valeriusí apartment was smoky, cramped, not very appealing and absolutely no place to have a baby. They found him soon enough after Ruth let them in, sitting on a low bench with one hand on his wifeís swelling abdomen and the other on her forehead as if testing for fever. Sarah had long dark brown hair, narrow features and was obviously in the bloom of health, unless one considered annoyance to be a medical problem. "Are you sure you are all right, love?" her husband asked for what looked to be the twelfth time, judging by Sarahís expression.

Sarah batted his hand away. "Iím fine. How often must I reassure you, o brave one? I was having some pain earlier, but itís gone now. I called you home because I have a question to put to you, Julius Valerius Licinius."

Apparently alerted by her tone and the use of his whole name, Valerius intercepted Ruthís attempt to slide onto his lap and chivvied her toward the door. "Children, go play outside for a little while." Marcus was willing but Justin practically had to drag Anna and Cyrus out the door.

When they were gone, Sarah called, "Come out now!" A pile of blankets lay in an alcove. It humped and shuddered and out of it struggled a form that turned out to be a tall blonde woman. As she stepped into the light, Lestrade noticed that her forearms were each tattooed with a coiling green and blue snake. Their colors matched the patterned stola she wore. Holmes grunted next to her. Just how long had he known that the woman was there? *Iím not going to ask.*

"Just when and how did you meet Mercia in the palace, Valerius?" Sarah was asking in a rather dangerous tone.

The fine blush this question produced was likely to be trouble, but Valerius was quick with his answer, "Sheís a dancer. Her troupe was. . .um. . .popular with the Emperor."

*Uh huh -- not going to ask this time, either.*

"Claudius and Caligula were fans too," put in the blonde -- Mercia -- with a curious mix of pride and annoyance. Lestrade saw that there were snake tattoos on both of her legs too, a pair climbing up her calves toward her thighs. As she moved, the sheer fabric she wore revealed more than it hid. Her thighs were circled with more snake tattoos that seemed to do their own dance. "Nero always wanted to play his own music, and if you think it's easy keeping to his insane idea of rhythm while--"

"Madam, " Holmes cut across this, "You must have some reason for searching out Valerius and being so careful to stay hidden. May we hear what it is?"

"Well, I saw the git with the vase again today. Only this time he was driving a wagon up to the palace. It had something big on it. It was covered; I couldnít see what it was -- the thing is--" she shot Valerius an uneasy look, "That wagon was surrounded by enough Praetorians for an assault on Gaul."

Holmes traded a frown with Lestrade. * I guess that solves the problem of how to find the time machine, but talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire, huh....* At the thought of fire, Lestrade winced. Holmes hauled his tray out of the bag in which heíd carefully carried it from the bakery. The hasty drawing was smudged, but Mercia confirmed what both Yardies had been certain of -- Neroís new friend was Professor Cromatty.

"Can you tell me any more about that vase you saw?" Holmes was asking. "Any details could be vitally important."

Mercia gave him an appraising look that made Lestradeís teeth grind and sat down on Valeriusí vacated stool. Even as worried as she was, everything she did seemed to have a sensual grace that suggested power contained.

"Well, it was dark...."

"I realize that it may have been difficult to pick out details...."

She shot him another look, this one impatient. "No, I mean the vase was dark-colored. I could see that well enough by lantern light. It had dancing figures on it, or so it seemed to me, and it was round, not tall, ya know? Might have been a bowl."

"How far away were you?"

"Close enough to see a woman, that man, and two soldiers, but too far away to hear what they were saying. I think they were whispering, anyway. I was coming home when I saw them and I hid." She flashed Holmes a grin. "Soldiers make me nervous, ya know. Ex-soldiers, thoí, those Iím inclined to trust. Especially this one. He got me out of a scrape or two at the palace. You wouldnít think it, but heís a fast talker and a good tale spinner. And people believe him every time. Must be that honest face." She laid a hand on Valeriusí cheek and then pinched it suddenly as if he were a naughty little boy. Sarah laughed. Mercia turned her attention back to Holmes, serious again: "Might have seen more, but the ground started shaking and the building started coming down, and I ran."

"In all the time you knew the Emperor at the palace, Ms. Mercia," Holmes asked, "had you ever known him to have any interest in Etruscan artifacts?"

"In what?" She wasnít the only one who was confused by the apparent non sequitur. Everyone stared at Holmes.

"Rome conquered the civilization of the Etruria region some centuries ago. The Etruscans were great rivals of Rome. Their civilization was of longer standing and they had produced many great artists. Their polished black bucchero ware is much prized by collectors. The man I have come to Rome to find is a devotee of Etruscan art. He is also a liar, a thief and singularly dangerous."

"Linus, you canít repossess stolen goods from the Emperor, if thatís what you are about," said Valerius.

"Everything belongs to Rome. Thatís how they see it," Sarah put in bitterly. "Even people. Iíve been free for eight years now, but I havenít forgotten."

Holmes bowed in her direction in acknowledgement of this. "Our quarry has a larger plan than is yet apparent, my friends. In order to thwart him we are going to require more information and more help. Mercia, you know that Valerius is a Christian, donít you?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Do you still worship Cybele?" At Lestradeís confused look he added, "A snake is one of her symbols. Here sheís considered a mother goddess and honored as a patroness, as it were, of fertility."

"Not by me any more," Mercia grimaced. "I havenít been to the temple since I saw the Valerius the last time." Mercia threw a quick look at Sarah. "People teased him for talking to me at the palace, but thatís all we did is talk. He helped me see it wasnít really worship they do there, just a lot of fooling around with the goddess as an excuse. I get tired of people seeing me just as someone to drag around if they want to have a little fun."

Valerius grinned at her and Sarah gave her a one-armed hug. "Good for you."

"I hope you donít think I am presuming on our very brief acquaintance to ask you such questions, Ms. Mercia," said Holmes, "but it is vitally important for us to know where your allegiance lies. I would like you to come to the meeting tonight, so that you can tell your story."

"Can I see you outside for a second, Linus?" Lestrade tried to keep her voice even.

"Certainly," He followed willingly enough so she restrained herself from grabbing him -- just.

"What are you trying to do?" she hissed at him as soon as they were safely out of earshot of both the adults in the house and the children careening around in the alleyway. "Are you going to go to that meeting tonight and tell a whole parcel of ancient Christians that we need their help to recover a time machine?"

"Oh, I doubt very much that it looks like a time machine currently. And it is not our only worry in any case. We must recover that vase."

"What are you talking about, Holmes? I think youíve gone completely round the bend. Here we are stranded in ancient Rome, chasing a felon that apparently has the ear of a lame-brained, cross- dressing, homicidal Imperial twit and all you can think of is a vase ?!"

He offered her a long-suffering sigh. "It isnít a vase, my dear-- Inspector. It merely looks like one. Cromatty is a collector. The holographic disguise is most probably patterned after a vase he owns in our own time."

"Disguise for what? What is it?"

"Eyes and brains. Think, please. Itís round like a dish and buildings tumble down in its vicinity. Not to mention that every animal with sensitive hearing in its radius is driven insane." Holmes crossed his arms and waited. It didnít take long.

"A sonic megadisruptor? Thatís impossible. They canít be built that small."

"And time machines do not exist."

Lestrade felt her whole body grow cold. "Last night, that was a demonstration for Nero."

"A very successful one."

Lestrade said a very rude word.

"Your Latin has been improving by leaps and bounds, but you certainly didnít learn that word from me, nor the children, I hope."

Any reply that she could have made to this was interrupted by Valerius and the children shouting for them.

She and Holmes rushed back inside the tenement to find Sarah curling inward over her belly like a human pretzel.

"The babyís coming," said Anna.

Authorís Notes:

1. Tuscany was named after the Etruscans.

2. Merciaís name comes from a virtuous Christian woman who is the main character of Cecil B. DeMilleís 1932 biblical epic The Sign of the Cross. Her character is inspired by a dancer in the same movie, whose name I forgot. That dancer was a seriously bad girl, however, and wouldnít have been caught dead associating with people like Sarah and Valerius. I took the name and I took the profession, but the character seen here is all mine.


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