The Case of the Strange Etruscan Vase

Part IV

by Joy Ellen Parker (Joyspc at

General Disclaimer

In defiance once again of the notion that the whole thing had been a dream, the smell of baking woke Lestrade the next morning. She fuzzily wondered what Ben was making now. It wasn't just bread -- cookies, maybe? Did they have cookies in ancient Rome? She sniffed and discovered her nose was itching, but when she tried to lift a hand to scratch it, there was a moment of resistance. Lestrade opened her eyes, trying to gauge how tightly she was tangled in the bedclothes, and discovered that her nose was pressed against Holmes' throat. His arms were wrapped around her and one of her legs was thrown over his hip.

Oh, great. She could feel his deep and even breathing. He's asleep, Lestrade. He must be. But when she tried to free her hand -- very carefully so as not to wake him -- and raised it slowly to rub her nose, he opened his eyes. Lestrade froze, feeling like a suspect caught in a Yardie net. Holmes tilted his chin a bit so that he could look down at her. His mouth curled up in a very familiar expression. Was it the whole predicament that brought that look to his face or just the sight of his partner's bed head? She decided she didn't care. What the heck- She curled her arm around his neck and kissed him, doing a thorough job of it.

"Good morning," she said after a moment or two. The legendary unflappable detective finally looked every bit as flustered as she might have wished.


She put her hand over his mouth. "Shut up," she whispered. "You deserved it. You were laughing at me."

He pulled her hand away with his own and brushed the other against her cheek. "I wasn't." he said softly. He was twisting a lock of her hair.

"Yes, you were," she insisted, and he kissed her.

The sound of dogs barking and shattering crockery followed by a strange high-pitched noise jerked them apart. The children were suddenly yelling and thumping about in the main room like a herd of elephants.

"What was that?" Lestrade managed to ask.

"A goat -- probably Marcus' pet goat," said Holmes with a little less of his usual assurance.

"Uh oh, we'd better get up." She grinned at him. "We'll have to continue this debate later."

This earned her a raised eyebrow as he disentangled himself, got to his feet and stretched his lanky frame. "Elizabeth, you are a dangerous and unscrupulous opponent."

"Don't you forget it, buster."

When Lestrade got to the kitchen the sight that greeted her was enough to make the heart of Moriarty quail. The goat was bounding around the room emitting bahs of dismay while Marcus clung to his horns yelling "Thastus! Thastus!"

The room was a disaster. Trays of cakes were upturned on the floor with the broken remains of mixing bowls; and pools of thick goop -- batter, and she supposed, honey -- were coating the floor, the table, the overturned benches and stools, and the children. Justin and Cyrus were trying to herd out the back door three large slavering mutts with broken ropes around their necks, but the dogs were busy lapping whatever they could reach off the floor while Anna tried to scoop the remains out of the line of fire with a broom. She was whacking at the dogs with it, too, but this was having little effect other than to add to the general chaos. As Lestrade watched, she missed a swooping swing and took down a shelf instead.

Grabbing the broom seemed to be a good idea at this point. When Anna glanced up in surprise, Lestrade indicated the dogs with her chin. "I'll help Cyrus and Justin. Why don't you see what you can do with the goat?" She wasn't sure how much of that her translator had managed, but Anna shot her a relieved look and hurried over to help Marcus. Holmes was there, suddenly, and had one dog by its rope collar at the scruff of the neck. She copied his firm -- and loud -- command to "Get down!" and "Heel!" and added a broom to the butt for good measure. The boys had managed to drag one dog out the door by its rope and between the two of them, she and Holmes dealt with the others. They slammed the door shut. Justin and Cyrus leaned against it, panting.

The goat was calmed eventually by the quiet and the extreme lack of dogs, and Anna and Marcus walked him carefully back to the small barn in the alley where he belonged. After that, everyone was busy cleaning up the mess. Not to mention removing cakes from the oven before they burned. As they worked, Holmes got the whole story. Apparently, Zak had come before dawn and taken Ben and Helena on some kind of errand. Justin would not be more specific. "They left me in charge," he added. "And we started the honey cakes just like Ben asked and everything was fine for a while, but then the animals went crazy."

Something had set every dog in the neighborhood barking at once. Just as Anna had been taking honey cakes from the oven, Thastus had burst through the back door with the three dogs chasing him.

"What in the world could have freaked them out like that?" Lestrade asked Holmes.

He had been busy setting shelves to rights, but at her question he turned around to regard her and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "It could have been an earth tremor. Animals are known to be more sensitive to such things than humans are."

"We sure didn't notice," said Lestrade without thinking.

"Um. Indeed." Was he blushing? She turned away and concentrated on picking trampled pottery shards off the floor.

* * *

By late afternoon, they had managed to return the shop to normal and under the children's direction they also produced part of the day's allotment of honey cakes, raisin cakes and bread loaves. Lestrade hadn't realized the great detective could bake and she found she had to tear her eyes away from the sight of his careful hands with their long precise fingers kneading dough. What is wrong with you, Inspector?! Get a grip! Professional distance, remember? Her distraction, added to her general cluelessness in a kitchen, never mind an ancient one, made it a long afternoon for her.

Nor was she the only one. The children were worried about Ben and Helena, that was obvious. They dealt with customers cheerily enough, but Anna kept glancing out the window and the boys would drop what they were doing and rush out into the lane if they heard anything that sounded like their guardians returning.

Eventually, Lestrade had had enough. She clapped her hands sharply and put as much Mary Poppins as she could into her voice. "Okay, kids, it's lunchtime. I think we've been in this kitchen too long. Who's going to show me the best restaurant around here for hard workers like us?"

This suggestion was greeted with some enthusiasm, although the children insisted on leaving a message for Ben, Helena and Zak just in case. Before they had actually left however, Marcus balked.

"He wants to wait," Holmes explained, "He's worried that Ben and Helena will come back while we are gone." He laid a comforting hand on the small boy's head as he spoke. "Our young friend also wants a story. Apparently one of his guardians always tells a story when he is worried or afraid."

"Don't look at me, bucko! How about you tell him about the Ryan affair? You won't even tell me how that turned out."

The transplanted detective in the toga shot her an extremely annoyed look. "It's a story of Jesus, he wants, Lestrade, and I can oblige -- this time -- but I have told him that you will tell one at the next opportunity."

While she was still chewing on that, he picked up an overturned stool, sat on it and gathered the children around him. When he began to speak, whether it was that her translator was beginning to get the hang of it, or that her own knowledge of Latin was improving by leaps and bounds, Lestrade found she could understand him quite well.

"You are doubtless aware that after Christ's crucifixion many of his disciples lost heart. On the third day after the terrible event, two of them decided to head out of Jerusalem to their little hometown of Emmaus.

"While they were walking home, they talked of what had happened and mourned together. Suddenly, He was with them on the road, but they were prevented from recognizing him.

"'What are you so upset about?' He asked them.

"One of the men -- Cleopas was his name -- was astounded. 'Do you mean,' said he, 'that you don't know the things that have been going on in Jerusalem lately?'

"'What things?'

"'Why, about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, powerful in word and in deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.'

"The two men also added that just that morning some of the women who were also followers of Jesus had gone to His tomb and found it empty. The women had claimed that angels told them Jesus had risen. 'Some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said,' the two travelers explained, 'but him they did not see.' They were amazed and at a loss to understand what it all meant.

"Then Jesus said to them, 'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer all of these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said about Him in the scriptures.

"By now the travelers had arrived close to home. Jesus acted as if he would go on further, but the two men insisted that He stay with them since evening was approaching. As they sat at dinner together He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then the eyes of the two men were opened and they recognized Jesus was with them -- and He vanished! How excited they were then! They rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles and the other disciples what had happened. While they were still in the middle of their report of these events, Jesus was among them again, saying 'Shalom,' and then they could all touch him and see that his resurrection was a fact."

At that point Lestrade's stomach growled loudly and everyone looked around at her and laughed. She joined in, glad to see the children's spirits had revived. "I think we had better get our Elizabeth some lunch," said Holmes, "but I hope you now understand that we must keep our eyes open and our minds focused and refuse to give into despair even in the worst of circumstances. If we do that, some good will surely come to us."

"Bread!" said Anna. "I forgot. We have to make the unleavened bread for tonight. Ben usually does it but...."

"Ben will do it," said Lestrade briskly, "when he comes home. Let's go out for a bit, huh, kiddo." She laid her arm across the little girl's shoulders and led her out the door. You better be here when we get back, Ben.

* * *

Cyrus was their guide again. The restaurant that he found was more along the lines of what Lestrade would consider a greasy spoon. Three men grilled meat on large griddles surrounded on all four sides by a stone counter and covered with an awning. Patrons sat on stools at the counter and were handed spicy meat on flat bread and bowls of watered wine. Just as Lestrade was lifting her meatroll to her mouth she remembered that they had no money. Before she could panic, Holmes blithely paid one of the sweating cooks some coins from a small bag.

"Where did you get that?" she hissed at him out of the corner of her mouth.

"I appropriated it from that fellow with the cast in his eye we passed at the last block."

"You what?!"

"Since he is a pickpocket himself and had three more like it, I doubt he will complain. Now, hush, I am trying to listen."

"Listen? To what?" Lestrade whispered.

"Do you see those two men eating at the opposite corner there?"

Lestrade peeked carefully past Justin's shoulder. A handsome young man with brown hair and a dust smeared red tunic was gesturing emphatically with his sandwich as he talked to an older, broader man sitting next to him. Thanks to the babble of the lunch crowd around her and the noise from the street nearby, she only could pick out about one word in four.

"What are they talking about?"

"They are masons. They have been busy. Early this morning several tenements in a poor quarter of Rome toppled into each other."

"Do you think that's what-" Justin had followed the direction of Lestrade's gaze and now he began to wave and call out.

"Hey, Valerius!" The young man smiled when he saw them, took his leave of his companion and walked around the counter to where they sat.

He hugged Anna, Justin and Cyrus and mussed Marcus' hair affectionately. "Good afternoon, you all. Who are your new friends?"

"These are Linus and Elizabeth," said Anna, "They're staying with us while they visit Rome. How is Ruth? She hasn't come to play all week."

"She's excited about the new brother or sister she is going to have soon. But where is Ben?" Valerius suddenly looked more serious. "I think I should talk to him right away."

"Ben is unavailable just now," said Holmes, "but if this concerns what happened this morning, I think you had better tell us. Lives could depend upon it."

"How do you--?" Valerius began, but Lestrade put her hand on his arm.

"Is there somewhere more private we could talk?"

In the end, they took Valerius back to the bakery. It was still and empty, which only added to Lestrade's agitation as the young man paced up and down.

"I'm a mason now, but I used to be a Centurion of the Third Legion on detached service to the Palace Guard. I knew all the recent emperors: Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero. I knew the Apostle Paul too, God rest his soul, and he was the one who convinced me to become a Christian. My wife Sarah is Jewish and she always wanted me to stop soldiering, but somehow I always hoped to honor my ancestors. Once I realized I couldn't serve God and the evil rulers of our state, I resigned and have been happy ever since, but today...." He rubbed a hand wearily over his face. No one spoke, afraid to interrupt the flow of his story. "When I got there this morning it was like a view of hell. Most of the casualties had been attended to, so we got right to work cleaning up. It's not like we're not used to it after the Great Fire, eh? And this isn't the first time some poor tenement has fallen because the landlord couldn't be bothered to use safe building materials." He shared a rueful grimace with the children.

"While I was working at rebuilding a wall, a woman came up to me. She remembered me from when I worked at the palace and she wanted to know if she should report what she had seen that morning. She swore she saw a strange group lurking about in an alley right before it happened."

"Describe them," Holmes snapped. Valerius pierced him with a look.

"That's just it. Two of them were soldiers. They were cloaked but they had a lantern and she saw their armor glimmer. There was a man, just an ordinary freedman seemingly, and a woman."

"But it wasn't a woman, was it." Holmes was not asking a question.

"The witness thought it was, but it wasn't," answered Valerius bleakly. "I knew the description she gave. Our Emperor Nero used to love to careen from wine bar to wine bar late at night. He and some courtier friends of his would carouse until the sun came up. Sometimes they would beat those unlucky enough to be walking along as they passed by. I used to have to trail them to make sure no one took violent exception to their fun. Anyone who did would have had a nasty shock. They were all disguised. The emperor especially liked to dress up as a woman."

Lestrade felt her stomach sink. She fetched the tray Holmes had drawn on the night before. "Could this be the other man?" she asked Valerius as she handed it to him.

"It could be," he said. "I suppose we need to find the witness again to be sure. Where is Ben?"

"We don't know," said Justin. "He, Helena, and Zak left this morning and haven't been back. Could they. . .could they have been caught in one of the buildings when it fell?"

Holmes laid a hand on his shoulder. "Don't reason in advance of evidence, dear boy. Remember the story. More is surely going on here than meets the eye. They went out to meet someone this morning, did they not? A special guest for the meeting tonight?" Justin nodded. "Well they wouldn't have traveled by the usual roads now, would they?"

Lestrade suddenly thought of stories that she had heard of the Christians in ancient Rome; they had used-"Catacombs!" she burst out before she could stop herself.

"I had deduced as much," said Holmes. "Don't worry," he added to the children, "Your secret is quite safe with Elizabeth and me, but if they did travel underground, our friends might have been delayed by this morning's events.

"Or been caught if they had to come up too soon!" wailed Marcus.

"Are there any more details you can remember," Lestrade asked Valerius, "Anything at all, no matter how trivial it seems?"

He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. "Hmm. There was one other thing, this woman said that the man she saw was holding something odd -- a bowl or maybe a vase."

"What the heck could a vase have to do with this?" Lestrade felt the whole thing was getting beyond her.

"What, indeed?" said Holmes, but he didn't look confused in the least. "The sooner we find this female witness of yours, Valerius, the better."

"Well, children," said Lestrade, "My official story will have to wait, but for now I'd like to tell you the one about the needle and the haystack."

1. Gee, Lestrade's knowledge of Latin certainly got a jump- start, didn't it? See Acts , Chapter 2.

2. Holmes' story is based a bit loosely on Luke 24:13-53 (NIV).

3. My description of the ancient fast food joint is based on one I remember from one of the Marcus Didius Falco mystery novels by Lindsey Davis. I'm not sure which one. Please don't sue me Ms. Davis! I love your books! Everyone should read them!

4. I borrowed Valerius, his wife Sarah and their little girl Ruth from the 1985 TV miniseries A. D.: Anno Domini. According to the novelization by Kirk Mitchell, Valerius found work as a mason with his uncle, Celsus Victorinus, who also got a cameo in my story. My events take place about two years after the miniseries, however, and Ruth's little brother or sister (You'll find out.) is mine all mine. Nobody connected with A.D. would ever be so mean as to sue me (please?) because I seem to be the only one on earth who remembers or cares what a good job they did. The thing isn't even out on video, for goodness' sake!

5. According to Venus in Copper by Lindsey Davis, Roman tenements had an unfortunate tendency to fall down -- even without help.

6. If you think I made up that stuff about cross-dressing Nero and his gang of carousing thugs, think again kiddies. It's in the historical accounts of the time. Poor Valerius did get stuck trailing them in the miniseries, and you can bet his real-life counterparts didn't like it much, either.

Ad partem V

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