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THE JULIUS CAESAR MURDER CASE
by Wallace Irwin
EARLY in the afternoon of March 12th, in the year 44 B.C., Publius Manlius Scribo, star reporter and sports columnist on the Evening Tiber, came down from the local room and started out to solve a murder.
In Rome, where homicide could reach magnificent proportions, the taking off of J. Romulus Comma didn’t, in the young journalist’s opinion, amount to a hill of beans. Q. Bulbus Apex, city editor and owner of the world’s first experiment in daily journalism, had about agreed with him when he gave out the assignment; but the sour little man, whom the reporters called Boss to his face and Old Calamity to his back, believed in dishing up the lesser crimes as tiny hors d’oeuvres before the big, hot news.
Just now Mannie Scribo had found Old Calamity in his usual place, dictating to about twenty-five slaves, who copied his words, with more or less accuracy, on small tablets of wax-covered wood; the men-about-Rome were already calling his daily a tabloidium, abbreviated to “tab.” Old Calamity was stripped to his undershirt, the sleeves rolled up to his scrawny shoulders; he wore a green shade to save his weak eyes and chewed at some sweet root the doctors had given him to cure his asthma. Creak-creak- creak went his stingy little voice, giving forth an editorial:
“. . . trouble with us Romans is, we never learn anything. We’ve gone pie-eyed over Democracy, and here we are again, tied up in a knot and yelling, ‘Give us a Dictator!’ What’s happened to the Roman memory? We’ve forgotten Dictator Sulla and how, the day after he faded out, a yellow dog wouldn’t lift a hind leg to salute his statue. . . .”
The practical-minded Mannie Scribo, listening, said to himself, I wonder if Old Calamity’s trying to get himself crucified? The editor looked up, dropped the stylus he wore habitually over his left ear and snarled biliously, “Well?” Then, after an acid pause, “Bring anything down from the Capitol Building?”
“Yeah.” Almost blithely the reporter flipped out some closely written tablets. “And I’ve got a lead on a little murder story—”
“Don’t want it,” snapped his superior.
“This one seems sort of screwy. It’s just an item, but—”
“Oh, come here.” Q. Bulbus got up and beckoned toward an inner sanctum in the rear; testily he let his scribe into the shabby cubicle of chipped marble, cluttered with broken tablets and scraps of papyrus; a wine jug and cups sat on a table.
“I hate to bawl you out,” he moaned, pouring himself a slug of cheap stuff, “but we’re working high pressure— circulation went up to two hundred and twelve this week. I’m most dead. Listen—confidential. I’m after a shipload of Grade A Egyptian papyrus. Get that? When a big enough story breaks, we’ll knock their eyes out with the first paper edition ever published. . . . Got to keep up with the times, boy . . . be modern, see modern. . . .” He waited for his asthma to subside, then asked sharply, “Well, what’s the murder? What about it?”
The young reporter was very handsome and collegiate in his new tunic; had they worn collars in those days, Manlius Scribe’s virile beauty would have favored the Arrow type. Now he smiled confidently and said:
“That’s what I want to find out. The dead man’s P. Romulus Comma.”
“Oh, that little theatrical squirt?” obviously disappointed.
“Yeah,” agreed Manlius. “General producer of Pompey’s Theater. Lived in a small bungalorium, ’way out on Hesperides Avenue. Found this morning on front porch—throat cut—amateur job. No attempt at robbery.”
“Why bother me?” asked Q. Bulbus, unimpressed.
“But listen, O Boss. Pompey’s Theater is Cæsar’s own property, and Comma was one of the Big Fella’s pet poodles.”
“Then it’s Cæsar’s funeral, not ours.”
“All right. Suppose the Daily Astra takes a notion to play it up,” said Mannie, mentioning a weak rival which had suddenly appeared in imitation of the Tiber.
“Pons asinorum!” snifted Q. Bulbus contemptuously and held a crabbed forefinger an inch above a crabbed thumb. “Give the story that much.”
“Then here’s something else again,” drawled Mannie Scribo. “I got my tip at Police Headquarters, off the desk sergeant, who was plastered to the hair. Believe it or not, they’re all celebrating down there because ex-Sergeant Kellius of the Homicide Squad is now Chief of Police!”
“Who? Kellius? That fallen arch?”
“Fact. Caesar called him in at midnight and promoted him. Don’t ask me why. And is Kellius a changed man? Baby! When I was getting the Comma story from the pie-eyed sarj, in struts Kellius, swole like a poison pup. ‘From now on,’ he roars, ‘no more Tiber reporters. Show this person out!’ Meaning me, O Boss. Tie that in a Gordian knot.”
“The Dictator’s started muzzling the press,” mused the editor.
“Somebody’s being protected in this case,” said Mannie. “How come Kellius snubbing me all of a sudden? After what I’ve done to help the Department solve a lot of crimes, like the H. P. Hippolitus poisoning case and—”
“Go on hating yourself,” said the Boss sadly. “But this Comma killing isn’t news exactly; it isn’t big or queer enough.”
“If a man bites a dog it’s news, you mean?” asked Mannie, for the first time in newspaper history.
“Pretty good! I’ll remember that.” Old Calamity’s chuckle sounded like a bad cold. “The story’s too late for today, anyhow. Now, get out. And bring me that much.” Again the inch-mark between thumb and finger.
And so it was that, with a careless flourish of the hand, P. Manlius Scribo went out for the needle that grew into a bloody sword.
At the street entrance a weedy giant with a weeping moustache above a servile tunic stepped out and helped Mannie on with his stylish winter toga, pipeclayed to a dazzling white. This attention gave our young man a tremendous thrill in the seat of vanity. It was great to have a slave, even if he couldn’t afford one—what reporter can? The fellow was a Briton whom Mannie had bought this morning at an auction of slightly damaged gladiators. He had cost the equivalent of forty American dollars. He wore his nose at least one degree higher than the average Roman nose; he had knotty hands and feet, and an Adam’s apple which, for some odd reason, seemed to match them. He’d be useful as a valet, maybe; and in the newspaper game you never can tell when a gladiator will come in handy.
“Hully up, boy, go-fetchum litter,” said Mannie in his best pidgin.
“If you don’t mind, sir, I speak Latin,” said the British slave sadly. “And I have taken the liberty of engaging you a rather fast litter. The charge will be two denarii to the Wall and back.”
“Wonderful! Do you read minds in Briton?”
“No, sir. We are not interested in other people’s minds.”
The master, having thus been put in his place, decided that the man would turn out fine, if anybody could ever pronounce his barbarous name.
“Say, what’s your name again?” asked Mannie confidentially.
The slave said it twice, repeated it four times.
“Awfully sorry,” said Mannie, “but that isn’t a name. It’s just a voice exercise. Know what it sounds like? Ha-ha. Excuse my laughing. But, the way you say it, it sounds like Smith!”
“Exactly, sir! You have it!” said the slave, brightening.
“If you don’t mind, sir.”
“Actually? But Smith doesn’t make sense. I might fix it around, though—I might even call you Smithicus. . . .”
A short parade was coming down the narrow street and stopping at the Evening Tiber’s door. Lictors with fasces, centurions with swords, a rabble of “clients” (Roman bums who followed great men about, bawling their praises) gathered around a splendid litter, graven with the insignia of the Republic. The consular litter! This, then, must be Mark Anthony in person.
Mark Anthony it was, tall, curly-haired, rubicund, professional good fellow, who swung himself out as one dismounting from an awfully sporting war chariot. Julius Cæsar’s dummy Consul, the Administration’s handshaker, was in the uniform of a general of the Legion, one of his affectations that didn’t impress Mannie a bit. Mark was getting rather fat.
At once the Consul’s quick eye spotted the reporter, and he came forward with the smile that made him the most popular figure in Rome.
“Hail, Manlius Scribo!” he sang out, laying a jolly hand on the young fellow’s shoulder. “Hail yourself,” Mannie wanted to say. This was Anthony, who prided himself on knowing everybody. But it wasn’t like him to be visiting the office of a humble editor on this busy day in Roman politics. Anthony was still patting Mannie on the back. “Apex is making a great thing of the Tiber, isn’t he? Fine. Rome needs pepping up. And I’m bringing him a little news of my own. I’ve just fetched a boatload of papyrus over from Egypt. Came as ballast.”
“Break it to him gently,” sighed Mannie, “or he’ll die of joy.”
This wasn’t a joke, either. But Mannie Scribo, being a born detective, smelled a bribe. Anthony kept on laughing, showing his fine, fierce teeth. “Ho-ho. I want to see the Tiber get ahead.” Queer, considering that the Tiber hadn’t let the Administration alone since the sunny morning when Caesar had appointed himself Dictator for life.
“Maybe the papyrus’ll do some good,” went on Anthony, his pop-eyes trying to look thoughtful. “Keep ’em amused. That’s my slogan. Scribo, I’m crazy about your sports column. Not letting up on that, I hope?”
“I’m on a murder case today,” said Mannie experimentally.
“Really?” The quiet way he said it was worth twenty pages of testimony. “Not that Comma murder, by any chance?” When Mannie nodded Mark Anthony plunged in a bit too eagerly, “My boy, if I were a journalist I wouldn’t clutter up my pages with such sensational rot. Who’s interested in retail killings? The average gladiatorial show is twice as dramatic. And you ought to stick to sports. You do it so well.”
“I cover the waterfront,” grinned Manlius.
“That what I’m sent out to get I get.”
“I admire your spirit.” Anthony fumbled with his sword hilt. Had he been born two thousand years later he would have brought out his cigarette lighter. “Look here, Scribo. With your training and natural gifts, why waste your time with a little squirt of a tabloidium? You belong in politics. There’s a vacancy in my office; in six months I’ll make you an ædile. Suppose you forget this what-you-call-it murder case and hop into my litter. I’ll put you to work, right away, for three times what you’ll ever get here—”
“Thanks awfully,” said Manlius, “but I cover the waterfront.”
“I like your nerve,” smiled Anthony.
“And I like yours, sir,” smiled Manlius.
So Cæsar’s popular yes-man, jaunty and unruffled, mounted the stairs. He was intending, no doubt, to bribe Q. Bulbus Apex with a shipload of papyrus. Why? For the same reason that he had offered a large public career to Mannie Scribo. To keep the Evening Tiber from probing too deeply into the death of J. Romulus Comma.
Mannie Scribo, bobbing along in his hired litter, his British slave at his side, had time to reflect on several things. Papyrus. A shipload of papyrus. From Egypt. How did Anthony get papyrus from Egypt? Through Cleopatra, as sure as archery.
There was a funny triangle up there on Janiculum Hill where Cæsar, Rome’s all-powerful Big Fella, had brought the trouble-making little Queen of Egypt and established her in a love-nest worth a Persian king’s ransom. Cæsar, once the small end of the Big Three, had managed the untimely death of his fellow tyrants, first Crassus, then Pompey. This had given the Big Fella a chance to elect himself Dictator by acclamation—his own. With the Republic in his lap, as it were, he found time to start a really first-class scandal.
The work of mopping up that part of the world which Rome hadn’t already laid flat, called Cæsar to Egypt. The boy Pharaoh had escaped from his throne and was returned to Cæsar in the form of a mummy. When Cæsar asked for Pharaoh’s widow, the priests of Isis had said, “We guess you mean his sister,” in their artless Egyptian way. Her name was Cleopatra, they said, and she had her points. But one day, so ran the tale, the Conqueror of the World sat alone and bored in his apartment at Alexandria. Two slaves entered with a long roll of carpet; swiftly they unrolled it, and out jumped a sprightly little lady who might have entered the beauty contest as Miss Nudist. She wore nothing but her hair, like smouldering fire, and a remarkable blue amethyst ring on her thumb. “I have come to make peace,” she said, and that was Cleopatra’s little joke.
For two years now Cæsar had been keeping his legal wife on a dole, in some obscure boarding house at Pompeii or Baiæ. Meanwhile, Cleopatra reigned in her palace on the Janiculum Hill. She entertained quietly—men mostly. The old fashioned Roman matrons called her “the Levantine Squaw,” and sniffed their haughty noses. And if Cæsar noticed the too frequent appearance of Mark Anthony around the lady’s establishment, he made no sign. Queer cuss, Cæsar. Strangely tolerant about some things, and generous with his friends.
Thus reflecting, Mannie Scribo looked out of his litter and studied the damaged British gladiator, walking at his side.
“Now listen, por,” he said, “are you dumb as you look?”
“I dare say, sir.”
“Smithicus, if you follow me round and make good, some day I’ll turn you loose. But take my tip. Get rid of that London brogue. Nobody but hicks talk that way. When you’re in Rome—”
“One should do as the Romans do, sir.”
“Sacred Vulcan! How long did it take you to think that up?”
The Briton hid behind his walrus moustache and seemed unable to reply; Mannie’s mind reverted, for an instant, from crime to love. Love, he reflected, was worse than liquor, the way it got some men. Look at Cæsar; the Egyptian wren had wrapped him around her finger. Yeah. And as for Mannie Scribo, no puella in the world could do that thing to him. Almost regretfully he remembered the girl with the silver wig. The look she gave him the other day when he tried to pick her up, coming out of Cato’s Sandal Shoppe. Blue eyes that could freeze to ice. But not naturally cold. G. Lucifer, but Mannie had gotten even with her last night, when he saw her stepping into a litter with a Greek dude—one of those Athenian male violets. She’d looked straight at Mannie and pulled a funny little smile. He had pretended to be looking at a statue on the top of the Temple of Jupiter. That’s the way to treat ’em. Rough. But with a face like that, and those eyes. . . .
Mannie shook off these weak thoughts and saw that his litter had reached the Forum. The law courts were going rather languidly, for it was now the hour when Rome took its midday snooze; but around a few second-grade lawyers, belching orations on the Rostra, a small mob of unemployed applauded, hoping for a free lunch. With the cynic keenness of the newsman, Mannie noticed a lot of things. The Capitol Building was closed for repairs. Another Lucullus Bros, botch job; Uncle Lucius Lucullus ate himself to death three years ago, but his racket went right on. That was the golden rule of Rome; get the job and get the coin. Why not? Manlius was born nearly two thousand years too early to think of Tammany Hall, but his soul felt out into the future and made him smile. And there was Cæsar too, if Mannie had but known it, who had reached into unborn time and stolen a page from Hitler’s book. Almost the first thing the Big Fella did, after he took Rome with a handful of centurions, was to break open the State Treasury, under the Temple of Saturn, and cart away a few tons of gold bullion. . . .
Hello! Look at that. Fatty Cassius and Mealymouth Brutus, arm in arm, were passing up toward the Senate office buildings. What did these two see in each other? Brutus, a weak-chin, but not a bad sort, in spite of the way he was always harping on My Noble Grandfather, had picked a funny chum in Fatty Cassius. Nobody really liked Fatty, social climber and wire-puller. And what was Fatty trying to put over now? What was he getting a poor simp like Brutus into? Rumors about Cassius and his ambitions were as common talk in Rome as the buzz about Cæsar’s wanting to be king. Cæsar. The gods love a bright target. And what a newspaper story it would make if Brutus and Cassius really steamed up enough courage to get rough with the Big Fella and grab the works. . . .
His eyes on the two white togas, Manlius was surprised by another figure in white. A vestal virgin glided out from behind a pillar. It might have been an accident, but their meeting had the neatness of design. She came in the way of Brutus and Cassius. One of her hands, the right one, stole out of her pure robes; it moved twice, up and down. Twice up and down moved the hands of Brutus and Cassius.
Mannie’s brain, sensitized to Rome’s every gesture, read meaning into the sly play of hands. Vestals, by all their vows, never signal to men. Brutus and Cassius . . . what was she trying to tell them? Rome was full of echoing shadows, disconnected danger signs. The queer friendship of these two pretors; the vestal’s warning; Anthony and Cleopatra; the lone corpse of Comma. Yes, and Cæsar alone, too, as genius must always be. The Big Fella was certainly getting touchy about public opinion, or he wouldn’t have sent Anthony around to bribe Old Calamity with a shipload of papyrus. Whose papyrus? Cleopatra’s? Whew! The mean look Anthony gave Manlius when he suggested that Cæsar’s assassination might be big news. And Anthony’s funny little blink at the mention of Comma’s murder. Trying to hush it up. Yes, and Kellius, suddenly promoted to be Chief Husher. Why?
Curiouser and curiouser.
“Say, can’t you boys speed up a little?” asked the journalist-detective, leaning out of his litter. It might be better to get out to the bungalorium before Kellius took a notion to move the body. Even in politics-ridden Rome bodies did get moved, after a while.
At a street corner stood one of Cæsar’s new policemen with a scarlet tunic and gilded scales on his kilt-straps. He was regulating traffic—another of Cæsar’s pet ideas. But even though the policeman retained his Roman calm, West-going and South-going litters were in a shaft-locked huddle. Wherefore Smithicus spoke up in his quaint London brogue:
“It might be a good idea, sir, for the policeman to have two torches, a red one and a green one, by way of signaling.”
“When you give a Roman two torches,” said Manlius, “he usually starts burning down the town. Where’d you get the bright idea?”
“A clerical gentleman, a Druid priest, sir, mentioned it to me.”
Traffic was moving again, and Manlius, who just now had been so feverish for speed, shouted, “Hey, stop!” and reached out to seize the front pole of another litter, passing in the opposite direction. What a stroke of luck! For behind the elaborately golden curtains he recognized the face that all Rome knew. Hesiod, the comic actor. Hesiod, Cæsar’s favorite and the late Romulus Comma’s most intimate friend. Golden curtains parted, and Hesiod’s Grecian profile snowed, wrinkled with annoyance.
“Oh, hello!” he said, smiling, because actors mustn’t be unfriendly with the press. “I took you for a Neapolitan bandit. Just got back from there two hours ago. Anything I can do for you, old man? I’ve been away so long I’m rushed to death. Drop in pretty soon and I’ll give you a good story about the Theater of Dionysius at Naples. I opened it officially, you know, on the Nones of March. My boy, I panicked ’em. Must tell you about it. Well, I’ll be seeing you. Must rush over to the theater. Papa Comma’s calling a rehearsal.”
All in one breath, the way Hesiod was when he talked about himself. But Mannie still clung to the comedian’s litter.
“Hesiod,” he said, “you won’t find Comma there, I’m afraid.”
“No? Why not? But I had a special message from him. That’s why I hurried back to—”
“Dead?” Hesiod’s handsome face turned to a mask of horror. “Dead? Oh, my poor friend. I was afraid of that.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Some terrible worry. He told me everything—but that.” Hesiod’s jeweled hands went over his eyes. “He drank too much. He worked too hard. His heart. He had fainting fits—”
“This wasn’t a fainting fit. I hate to tell you, Hesiod. It’s pretty tough. But he was murdered last night.”
“Eheu!” The funeral cry. Tears were running down the actor’s sensitive, emotional face. “Ah, that good man! Ah, my only real friend! Who could have hated him so?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” said Manlius.
“I’ll give my private fortune—I’ll take this to Cæsar himself. The shade of my friend shall be avenged—”
Then the harsh voice of Cæsar’s policeman, breaking through and waving his short sword. “Wadda ya think y’are? Good morning, Hesiod.” With the deference all Rome showed its favorite actor—“Afraid you’ll have to move the boat, sir.”
Hesiod drew the curtains. Two litters took their separate ways. In cadence with the joggling of the poles Mannie Scribo was reflecting. Comma was a worried man. Worry drove him to drink, possibly to fainting fits. Hesiod personally would put the case before Cæsar. All right so far. But why was Cæsar’s precious Kellius doing all he could to block investigation?
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