Daylight was already falling through the window when I woke up. I leaned on my elbow and looked around. Alexios was no longer to be seen, but Gregory was still lying on his bed snoring. Thalis was also still lying next to me in bed.
All of a sudden, the intense and anything but G-rated dream came back to me. I carefully lifted my waistband. Judging by the sticky nature of the fabric, the dream had led to a real outcome.
Had it been just a dream though? I looked over to Thalis, who still had his eyes closed, and tried to recall the events. That damn wine! I simply couldn’t tell whether the escapade with the naked Greek had been real or not.
A moment later I found the solution. I just had to ask Elisa. Although I knew she was only a computer, the question cost me quite an effort to ask. "Elisa, did any sexual activity occur between my bedmate and me tonight?"
"No, Dr. Marten, I have not recorded such actions."
I exhaled with relief. Although – it actually was a pity, I thought, glancing at the still peacefully slumbering Thalis. He was cute.
I winced because at that moment the door was ripped open. Helena was standing on the threshold. "Let's go, doctors!" she proclaimed in a cheerful tone, "A practice does not run itself!"
Sighing, I let myself sink back onto the bed. Since I wasn't a doctor, I didn't feel I was being addressed. Wait a minute - that wasn't true at all. I was a doctor! A doctor of physics. I couldn't help laughing out loud. The thoughts you have when you're not quite awake yet.
"That goes for you too!" Helena was pointing in my direction. "He who sleeps late shall soon be put to sleep." After proclaiming this questionable piece of wisdom, she went off again, leaving the door open. Well, it was to no avail. Time to get up.
A while later we found ourselves in the dining room where a small breakfast had been prepared. There was some kind of porridge, as well as bread and honey. The brothers had a lively discussion as they were planning the next steps.
"We need a new door sign with our names on it," Gregory said.
Alexios nodded thoughtfully. "Sure, but more importantly, we must do house calls. We have to split up and go to all our uncle's wealthier customers. If no one knows the practice is open again, no one will come."
"Right," Thalis agreed, "we need to revive our uncle’s contacts. Didn’t he offer treatments at the Trajan Baths as well? We should drop in there, perhaps we can resume those."
"Yes, he did. Every Tuesday and Saturday," Helena replied.
Alexios turned to me. "So, let's get to your part. Thalis already said that you would like to work with us.”
I nodded. I didn't know anyone else here. And I certainly didn't want to be on my own in this city.
"You wouldn't happen to have any medical experience by chance?" Alexios asked.
I thought about it for a moment. Actually, it was absurd. My medical knowledge, or more precisely the knowledge contained in Elisa's database, was much more extensive than the brothers'. But I really didn’t want to go down that route. It was not my place to interfere with this world in such a way.
I shook my head. "No, I'm afraid I don’t." And that wasn't even a lie, because I had no actual medical experience.
"I thought so," Alexios replied, "It doesn't matter though. You can come and learn with us. We'll teach you everything you need to know for an assistant position."
I nodded in agreement. Although I wasn't too happy about the thought of spending the rest of my years as an assistant quack, it was the only option for the time being. Apart from sleeping under the bridge.
The conversation continued and after a while, we made our way downstairs to the actual practice rooms. It still looked desolate here, since all the boxes we had dragged in yesterday were still unopened. Helena accompanied us downstairs and then said goodbye for now.
Alexios closed the door behind her. He turned around, addressing us in a low voice. "There is something else we should take care of."
The other two gave him a questioning look. Involuntarily I took a step closer to understand him better.
"That story stinks to high heaven," he continued. "The one about our uncle's death. Stumbled and fell out of the window? Who'd believe that?"
"I've seen white mothers giving birth to black children!" Gregory threw in.
Thalis giggled, but immediately straightened up again. "Alex is right, it's not a very common cause of death."
Alexios nodded. "It's possible there's more to this than Helena knows or tells us."
"You mean she's hiding something from us?", Thalis asked.
I thought about it. Helena was very happy that the three brothers were here. If they hadn't come, I'm sure she'd have had to give up the apartment. It was possible she held something back.
Alexios shrugged. "Perhaps. But I don't want to jump to conclusions. What I'm saying is that we should do our own research on the matter."
The discussion went on for a while until a concrete plan was eventually agreed upon. Thalis and Alexios would spend the day visiting their uncles’ old customers and introduce themselves. If there were any rumors, they would surely hear about themsoon. Gregory would stay in the office and unpack the inventory. He was not so happy about that, but he still seemed to prefer it to doing visits.
So, what about me? Well, I would go to the apartment building on Via Commodus, from whose fifth floor Pericles stumbled to his death. I was to get an idea of the premises and talk to the former patient.
"Phillip is perfectly suited for this. He has a feel for this sort of thing. His premonitions have always come true," Alexios had argued. "And how could he alone unpack the boxes and sort out the tinctures he doesn't know how to use?"
Had that been the real reason why Alexios nominated me for this task? Maybe he also considered that if something went wrong I would be the most dispensable member of the group… Anyway, I owed the brothers a lot. So I agreed to take care of it.
The Via Commodus was only about ten minutes' walk from the practice. It was late in the morning when I arrived. The sun had already risen high enough to illuminate the upper floors of all the apartment buildings. The street itself was in shadow.
I walked along the buildings, keeping to the left. It should be the fifth house in the row. At least that's what Pericles' diary entry for the day of his death said. And he scribbled "fifth floor, left". The patient's name was also noted as "Iulia".
I reached the aforementioned building and let my gaze wander upwards, counting the floors. The fifth floor was the top floor in this house. I could not see a window, but there was a small balcony. A clothesline was stretched from it to the balcony opposite. The houses stood close together, as often the case in these Roman alleys. One thing was certain. A fall from this height was most likely fatal. Involuntarily I looked down, scanning the ground for traces of blood. That was nonsense, of course, as the incident happened months ago.
Sighing, I pushed the creaking front door open and made my way up to the fifth floor. When I arrived I turned left. I looked at the apartment door. It had a door knocker and a latch that you could slide open to look out. However, there was no nameplate.
I took a deep breath and pulled the door knocker. Nothing happened at first. I listened intently, but could not hear any noise coming from the apartment. Nobody there, I guessed. Relieved, I turned around and started to make my way downstairs.
"Sounds are coming from the apartment. Someone seems to be present."
I stopped on the stairs and sighed. Should I take Elisa's info and knock again? Or should I just leave it be?
The decision was taken out of my hands, because suddenly the latch on the apartment door slid to the side. I heard a croaking female voice.
I jumped up the last few steps again.
"Well hello, Iulia! I'm Phillip from Pericles’ medical practice. I've come to..."
The female voice interrupted me.
"There's no Iulia here! Not for a long time. Cornelia lives here."
I paused. "What happened to Iulia?" I asked, trying to peek through the slit.
"Well, what could have happened to her, you dim-witted bird! She moved out. Two months or so ago."
The latch was pushed closed. Before I could sort out my thoughts, I heard another latch move. The door opened, revealing a slightly frail middle-aged woman. She looked me up and down.
"Pericles, you say? Isn't that the guy who used to visit Iulia?"
I nodded. "That's right, her doctor. And what is your relationship with Iulia?"
The woman laughed. "In what respect? Why do you talk so funny? And anyway, what is that impossible accent?"
She examined me again. Then she laughed. “Come on in. I have nothing to offer you, though. I'm just a poor widow with few possessions, but I have other qualities." She winked at me and made an inviting gesture.
I felt uneasy about the whole thing. I couldn’t miss the chance though to see the alleged crime scene from the inside. So I accepted her invitation and entered the apartment. The first thing I noticed was that it was much smaller than the only other Roman apartment I had seen so far. There was only one long corridor that branched off to the left into a small room and ended at a larger room. This was where the lady was leading me to. The room featured simple seating and a table. In addition, there was the balcony I had already seen from the street. There were no windows though, not even on the other side.
"I used to live one floor down, you know. But I like it better up here. More air. So I moved up after Iulia left."
"Is the air really better up here?" I set off for the balcony as if to check her claim. I looked around. There was no threshold between the apartment and the balcony. Nor could I see anything else that one could trip over. However, I did not know what the apartment had looked like in the days of the previous occupant.
The railing of the balcony was a little higher than my hips. Assuming I would stumble a few steps in front of the railing, I would definitely have hit the railing, but not fallen over it. I didn't know how big Pericles had been, but probably shorter. And if you were standing right next to the railing, you couldn't have stumbled. You could have been pushed, of course. Although, maybe it could happen if you stumbled towards it whilst moving quickly?
At that moment I was poked from behind. I grabbed the railing with one hand and jerked around. Cornelia had stepped on the balcony beside me.
"And it's true, isn't it? More air and also more sun!"
I exhaled with relief. For a moment, I had the feeling I was about to be the next victim of this balcony. I gave her a nod. "Yeah, you're right. But tell me, is it true what you hear? Did Pericles really die here?”
"Yes, it is." She nodded gravely. "I was unfortunately at the market. When I came back there was only a big red spot left. But my neighbor told me everything afterward. The doc stumbled up here and then hit the ground. His head properly exploded. All the sauce ran down the street."
She seemed to sincerely regret not having experienced the macabre spectacle with her own eyes.
Cornelia shook. "And poor Iulia witnessed it all, the young thing. No wonder she moved out. Anyway, it's a shame what happened to the doc. And to Iulia. I could always hear her the screams through the ceiling when he was visiting her."
"What did she suffer from that made her treatment so painful?" I asked.
Cornelia looked at me for a moment with an indistinct expression on her face, then she burst out into resounding laughter.
"Treatment?! Kid, you don't know anything about it! He fucked her good, that was the treatment!"
With continued laughter, she pulled me by the arm back into the apartment.
Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed. Could it be true though? Had Pericles been unfaithful to his wife, amusing himself here with young Iulia?
"Elisa, do you think she's lying?"
"The probability that the last statement of your conversation partner was true is fifty-seven percent."
"Fifty-seven percent? That's not very helpful, Elisa. I could have flipped a coin!“
"Not all parameters needed for the probability model could be captured because the visual input of the visor lenses is missing."
I sighed. Could I believe Cornelia? Meanwhile, the lady of the house stared at me intensely. I did not feel comfortable. But I had one more important question for her.
"Do you know where Iulia moved to?"
"No. How could I? We weren't even friends. But enough with this Iulia! I have my qualities, too.“
With these words, sporting a mischievous smile, Cornelia began to loosen the top buttons of her blouse.
It was high time to end this house call! "Dear Cornelia, thank you so much for your hospitality, but I have many clients to visit today, and I can't stay."
The last words I called out to her from the doorway. Before she could answer, I closed the door and hurried down the stairs.
One floor below, I paused. This is where Cornelia had lived before moving. In the opposite flat lived her neighbor, the one who had told Cornelia about Pericles' death. Should I knock there too? Perhaps this lady knew Iulia's new address?
I listened carefully for any noise from upstairs. Cornelia had not opened the door again and seemed not to make any effort to follow me. All right, I'll give it a try. I knocked on the door. Shortly afterward a slit opened and a gruff voice greeted me. "Yes?”
"Sorry to disturb you. I'm looking for Iulia, she used to live upstairs. Do you happen to know where she moved to?"
The eyes behind the slit stared at me. "Who wants to know?"
"I'm Phillip from the Pericles’ medical practice."
"Pericles?" The voice uttered the name with disdain. "That guy has already caused enough trouble for poor Iulia. Get out!"
The latch was pushed closed again. Pity, that could have gone better. I was about to turn away when I remembered something Frugi had said last night.
I shouted through the closed door. "It's about Pericles’ legacy. He has included Iulia in his estate."
The hinge of the door creaked when it was opened from inside.
"By the grace of Juno, did he?"
Frugi had been right. Money did rule in ancient Rome.
It was shortly after noon when I made my way back to the practice. The information I had gathered in Via Commodus went through my mind. The pieces did not form a clear picture yet. Cornelia's neighbor wasn’t able to tell me where Iulia had moved to, but she knew where Iulia was working. So if I wanted, I could ask for her there.
Apart from that, she confirmed the events surrounding Pericles’ death. No wonder, since Cornelia had heard it from her. So at least I knew Cornelia was telling the truth about that,but was she honest about Pericles’ secret affair? The neighbor hadn't directly heard about it, Iulia had apparently been very discreet. However, Cornelia had told her and she believed her. “Why else would Iulia have moved?” she rightly asked.
Busy with these thoughts I paid little attention to the street, which now became my downfall.
"Out of the way!"
A firm hand thrust me aside. I lost my balance and ended up in a ditch.
"Make way! Here comes the noble Clodia Magni."
From my position in the ditch, I saw two men in light armor. One of them had pushed me aside. Behind them walked four other men, apparently slaves, carrying a litter on their shoulders. In it sat a woman, perhaps in her early thirties, with shoulder-length, well-groomed hair, wearing elegant clothing. Her expression was cold and her gaze directed into the distance. I wouldn't have called her pretty, but I wasn't an expert in this field either.
The procession was gone as quickly as it had arrived. I picked myself up, brushed the dust from my clothes and continued on my way. So that was how the richest citizens of Rome got around. Well, the stories of ‘Roman decadence’ had to come from somewhere.
After a while I reached the practice. I entered. Gregory was busy unpacking and putting things away. Thalis and Alexios were not back yet. My eyes wandered over the boxes. He didn't seem to have made much progress, a good two-thirds of the crates were still standing unopened in the middle of the room where we had dropped them off yesterday. I wondered if he had perhaps gone extra slow, speculating on my return in time, in the hopes I would relieve him of some of the work? Who knew.
He snorted and put down the box he had just lifted from the pile. "Good, you’re here, Phillip. I could use your help."
I should have guessed,I would have done better to have gone for another walk around town.
He went on. "I'm just putting away the herbs. But there's one collection missing. It must be in some box, but I'm afraid we'll have to search them all."
"Wouldn't it be more logical," I explained, "if we opened one box at a time and unpacked the contents to their proper place?"
Gregory thought for a while. "No, it wouldn't. We’re doing the medicinal herbs first."
I sighed. Logic would not help here. "All right, let's check the boxes."
I hoisted the next box from the pile, inspecting the contents. Books and manuscripts, but no herbs. I pushed the box aside. When I looked up again, Gregory had laid down on the treatment table, which was still placed along the wall. He crossed his arms behind his head.
"What’s that supposed to mean?" I asked, slightly annoyed. "Should I look for your herbs alone or what?"
Gregory glanced in my direction. "I've already emptied all these boxes here. He pointed to a pair of empty boxes he had stacked against the other wall. I deserve a break. You go ahead."
I snorted. What an idiot. Should I put up with that?
Not usually, but I was clearly in a weaker position. My survival in this town was currently dependent on the brothers. Conversely, they didn't really need me. Ironically, I had felt freer in Egypt as Manu’s slave than I did here. And more loved.
I sighed quietly and swallowed my anger. All right, so I had to give in. But I would cheat a little, though.
"Determine the box containing the herbs," I instructed my electronic companion silently.
"To perform the analysis, please hover your right arm over the crates."
No sooner said than done. I slowly walked in circles around the stack of boxes, letting my stretched out hand hover over it.
Gregory looked at me from the table. "What are you doing now?"
"I’m performing an Arabian tap dance for sensing medicinal herbs," I answered, giving my voice all the seriousness I could muster.
Gregory laughed. "You're crazy."
"Analysis complete. Go back two steps in a circle and turn towards the stack. Then three crates horizontally and two vertically."
I cleared the boxes in the way and dead on target lifted the right one out of the stack. I carried it to the treatment table, setting it down at Gregory's feet.
"There you go, the box of herbs."
Gregory made a mocking sound.
"What are we betting?" I added.
Gregory checked his pockets and brought three coins into the light. "I have three denari with me. If you win, they’re yours. But... you don't have three denari of your own to bet with, do you?"
I shook my head.
"I thought so. So what do I get if you lose?“ Gregory swayed his head back and forth. He stared at me with his grey-blue eyes. "I got it," he started. "If you lose, you suck my dick."
My eyes widened. Did I get that right? And if so, how did he mean it? Was something like that common here? I found that hard to imagine. Was it a cheap pickup line? Or was he just pulling my leg?
My heart was suddenly pounding in my chest. Assuming he was serious, how should I react? I opened my mouth to answer. But I couldn't think of anything. He did.
"Open your mouth a little wider. Or it won't fit."
That's the last straw!
"Idiot!" I shouted at him. Virtually without my intervention, my hand moved, slapping Gregory's face. I turned around and left the room at a quick pace. I slammed the door behind me. Even before it clunked shut I heard Gregory yelling after me.
"Don't act so innocent! I was watching you last night!"
I sat down on a stone on the porch of the house, hoping he wouldn’t follow me.
Take a deep breath, Phillip! My hands were still shaking. I had to think. And make sense out of this mess.
Why had I reacted so violently in the first place? With a bet that you were sure to win, your own stake didn't matter - did it?
"I watched you last night" – his final words only now came to me. What did he mean by that? The fling with Thalis had only been a dream, Elisa had confirmed that quite clearly.
Oh fuck! - I hit my forehead with the flat of my hand. There it was, my fallacy. Of course Elisa had no 'memory' of the events in question. I had instructed her in Egypt to leave out my sexual experiences from the records!