The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 11: Roma

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“I like the tunic.”

“I don’t ask if you like tunic. I don’t like. Take it off!”

“No.”

Zhang tried to rip the tunic off Malmquist, but he broke free and ran out of the house.

“Wo qu zhui ta,” said Giulia as she ran off after him.

He lodged himself at a table in the eatery near the old eunuch’s domus.

“Cosa avrai?” asked a waitress.

He gestured apologetically.

“Vuoi una ragazza?” she said, pointing upstairs and jiggling her breasts. “Belle tette.”

Giulia found him. “Ho pensato che avrei trovato al ristorante.”

He stared silently in the distance. That earned him a hard slap on the face.

“Idiota! Perché sei scappato? Lei ti punirà. Può fare qualsiasi cosa per voi, tra cui ucciderti!”

He stood up. “Why did you do that!”

She dropped her head in her hand. He took her cheeks in his. “Giulia, I need this tunic. Without it I’m lost. You see the words on it? I can talk to people back home who can help me.”

He looked down at a newly appeared message:

NEED MORE INFO
ABOUT THE YELLOW.
DIRT OR PAINT?
MELYNCHUK

“Look, see this? Somebody just wrote this to me. Now watch.” He traced his finger over the existing text, spelling out: “YELLOW? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?” They watched as each new word replaced the previous word beneath it. “Look: my message also fades moments after writing it. That’s because I’m sending it. So it’s gone. Now, wait.”

“E ‘solo un espediente. Un giocattolo!” she motioned impatiently.

“Then why is it in English and not Italian?”

“Non lo so. E ‘intelligente.”

“Look. A new message.”

YOU SAID TRAJAN’S
FORUM TURNED YELLOW
READING THE HISTORY

Malmquist responded: “NEVER SAID THAT. WHERE’S TRAJAN’S FORUM?”

They were distracted by the clamor of soldiers passing by the shop and heading up the street. At the same moment, a woman’s startled voice emerged from the second floor room. “Jeff, my god, it’s you!”

“Holy fuck, Delilah! What are you doing here?”

“I’m so glad to see you. Where the hell am I? We were in the restaurant and the next thing I know I was transported to this strange place. They won’t let me leave. No sooner had I arrived when a Chinese man came up and forced himself on me!”

Giulia spoke some words to the waitress and ushered Malmquist up to the second floor. “Non dovrebbe essere visto qui.”

It was dark in the room, with a small window facing the street. Giulia peeked outside. “Ah! I soldati sono a casa della Padrona!”

Malmquist and Delilah sat down on the only available space—a mattress on the floor. “Giulia, this is my friend from America!”

“Sai l’altro?”

“Who is she?”

“Wait. First things first. What restaurant? When?”

“What’s the matter with you? What’s that writing?” she said, looking at his tunic, which now read:

NEXT TO FORUMS
OF AUGUSTUS
AND NERVA

“It’s Inspector Melynchuk. We’re communicating. Anyway, what restaurant? I remember arriving at your place. Gunther was there. We were working out plans to sneak back into Chicago. Danny had a contract on my life. We had to get to him before he got to me.”

“No, we were spooning hash oil. Don’t you recall? I’m still really fucked. I think it was spiked with something more powerful. We’re tripping on something, Jeff. What’s going on? I’ve never been this messed up before. We were in the restaurant.”

“Oh, yeah, I think it’s coming back now.”

“We had just ordered food and I went to the restroom to try on this tunic.”

“Yes! And you didn’t return.”

“Where are we now?”

“We’re in a fake ancient Rome in China. This is Giulia. She’s Italian and doesn’t speak English. We’re slaves to a wealthy Chinese woman I’ve just escaped from.”

“This is so crazy. How do we get back to New Gary?”

“I don’t know. But it has something to do with these tunics. Yours can be used for teleportation, and mine for communication. Watch. I’m writing back to Melynchuk,” he said, fingering the words, “DELILAH IS WITH ME NOW IN CHINESE ROME. CHECK HER APARTMENT.”

“Come la conosci? È lei tua amica?” Giulia asked Malmquist.

“Amica, yeah, amica,” he said, while looking fraught at the new message on his tunic:

CHINESE ROME?
YOU LAST SAID
ANCIENT ROME

“I have an idea,” Malmquist told them. “Delilah, you go back with her to Zhang’s place. It’s luxurious. You’ll like it. And she’s friendly if you’re friendly—and sexually free, like you. See if you can persuade her to put your tunic on. I’ve got something to do now and will meet you guys back there later. Giulia, take her to Zhang’s place.”

Giulia poked her head back out the window. “Aspettare!” she said, holding up her hand. “I soldati stanno tornando. Ma perché visitano il Padrona?”

When the coast was clear, Malmquist left the restaurant and headed down the street to the Roman Forum. Cutting through the Forum of Nerva and out the back, he entered the market area and from there emerged through the bookstore into the huge forum where he had been accosted by the hostile Chinese man. A blast of hot dusty air hit him as he stepped into it and for a flash of a second everything grew darker. Panicky, he retreated into the store, and was greeted with a familiar voice.

“Hei!”

He saw him again. The man gesticulated to his coworkers or co-conspirators or whoever they were. Malmquist swung back into the forum’s crowd and out of their way—and time decelerated. The bustling crowd now moved in slow motion. Then sped up. As he waded further into the square, colors changed. The colonnades coursed around him from white to dark until the charging purple completed its circuit and turned the Corinthian columns crimson, a purple so deep they looked solid blood. The massive square’s marble surface had lost its blinding sheen and was a well-worn antique yellow. The sculpted soldiery atop the columns were lifelike, their hair black; flesh-toned naked goddesses were accented with nipples and black pubes. Caucasians, Africans and Middle-Easterners clad in elegant violet togas and filthy tunics swirled around him. Not a Chinese was in sight. The bookstore was gone.

“Movere!” shouted a teenager accompanying a toga-clad man as he jostled against Malmquist.

The man addressed Malmquist. “Quid tu, serve? Rogo ebrius es, an fugitivo, an utrumque? Loquare!”

“I don’t understand.”

“Germanicus? Gallus? Ex qua domo es?”

“What are you fucking speaking, Latin? Oh, Jesus, this can’t be happening. Sorry, I don’t speak Latin.”

“Quaenam est haec audacia?”

“Fac tibi intelligitur,” the boy warned Malmquist.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Facere ut quivis sentiat et videat,” rejoined the man, mocking Malmquist with exaggerated gestures. “Veni ad nos.”

“Veni ad nos!” yelled the boy, who grabbed him by the arm.

Malmquist made a break for it and dashed toward the market behind the forum. It was still there, but it sold obscure snacks and cakes instead of clothes. When it seemed he had lost them, he slowed his pace and tried to blend in. The foul smoke and squalor was suffocating and dizzying, and he tripped against a food stand with sausages and onions sizzling on a grill. A sausage fell off.

“Heus, modo cura!” shouted the toothless fellow manning the stand. He threw the sausage at Malmquist, before resuming his hawking. “Lucanica ventre cum bulbis in calidum craticulam!”

Malmquist worked his way out of the market and over to the Argiletum. The shops along the street were more numerous and decrepit than he remembered. About where the brothel that had sheltered him from his Chinese foe should have been, he found a shop crowded with men unfurling scrolls; pigeonholes stuffed with hundreds of scrolls lined the walls—a bookstore. A cobbler’s shop. Busy open-front eateries. The voluptuous odor wafting from a bakery’s golden-crusted loaves of bread mingling with the stench of street sewage.

“Heus, pulcher!” a female voice called out to him on the other side of the street, sitting on a high stool, in her forties. She had the large eyes and dark features of a Middle Easterner, hair dyed blue, a wrap-around skirt and a simple band around her bosom. A brothel.

“Non tereti strophio lactentis vincta papillas,” she declared with a smile as she released a nipple for his view. “Nuda placebo magis.”

Malmquist entered and kneeled down in front of her as in prayer. He pointed to his mouth and stomach. “Help me, please. I’m hungry.”

“Si vestri ‘a fugitivo exire elit! Quid dicis? Me derisisse, vos putabatis? Fatua es!” she admonished.

He wrapped his arms around her legs. “Please.”

“Quis est?” said a younger woman who had appeared from the back of the venue. Naturally blond, with fair skin and clear gray eyes, she was stark naked apart from a body necklace of gold-interlaced strips which crossed over her breasts to her belly button and hung between her majestic buttocks. “Quid agis?”

“Ille quaedam fuga. Germanicus, ego puto. Non loqueris. Vide si loquitur lingua.”

The blonde addressed Malmquist. “Hwar qiman izvar harjis?”

“What?

“Hwa ist izvara namo?”

“Namo? Name? Oh, my name?”

“Quid nomen tuum est?” said the other, nodding.

“My name is Jeff.”

“Yef?”

“Jeff. What’s your name?”

“Syria,” said the first, and indicating the blonde, “Attica. Ea Germanica est. Germanico es?”

“You’re German?” he asked Attica.

“Et ipse pulcher,” Attica said to Syria.

“Ite in popina cibum capiam eum,” Syria bid her.

Attica threw on a shawl and went out into the street.

“Where are you from? Germanica?” he asked Syria.

“Syria.”

“Well, that’s easy. Yeah, you look Arab enough.”

“Quod ex aliena gerens tunicam es? Quasi ante non vidit,” she said, pointing to the writing on his tunic and fingering the material.

He had forgotten about the tunic. He now saw the words:

YOU THERE MALMQUIST?
WHICH ROME ARE YOU IN?

He wrote back: “ANCIENT ROME. YOU WERE RIGHT. HOW DO I GET BACK?”

Attica returned and unwrapped for Malmquist a paper bundle of cheese, olives, anchovies and a roll of bread. Syria handed him a terracotta goblet and poured him some wine from an amphora.

“Hmm. Tastes a bit like port. Interesting. Thank you so much. I don’t understand why I’m so hungry. I just had dinner a while ago at Zhang’s place. But how could that be since it’s daytime now?”

“Unde venis?” asked Syria. “Gallia?”

“Britannia?” said Attica.

“America.”

“Ubi est?”

Malmquist glided his hand in the air and made a falling-off motion.

“Ah, de extremis finibus mundi?”

“Audivi ibi daemones et monstra,” said Attica.

Malmquist received a new message on his tunic:

FIND OUT THE YEAR
NARROW IT DOWN

“Can you tell me what year it is?” he asked them.

“Quid?”

“The year, you know, like 2015 or 50 AD or whatever.”

Their attention was distracted by commotion outside. The owner of the shop opposite pointed furtively down the street. The women looked out the entrance. “Melius relinquere tu mihi nunc,” Syria said to Malmquist.

“Ah? Ubi est is?” she then asked Attica.

He was already gone, hiding under a bed in one of the rooms, his feet wedged under the ropes supporting the mattress, as he had learned to do under similar circumstances in Chinese Rome.

A man in a toga with several others trailing after him entered the brothel. He shouted in a voice of authority, “Quis autem grabatum illum erexit, aut quid sibi vult tam furtiva molitio? Vos mehercules ne mercedem cellae daretis, fugere nocte in publicum voluistis. Sed non impune. Iam enim faxo sciatis non viduae hanc insulam esse sed Imperator!”

The men made a quick pass of the rooms and flushed Malmquist out from hiding. “Qui est hic? Vade!”

“Nos tractabimis,” said Syria.

The men left. As Syria pushed Malmquist out of the shop she warned him, “Relinquere nunc. Imperator autem potest velociter accurret nimis. Et cum venerit, oportet recedemus. Non revertar tecum attuleris nisi pecuniam.” And rubbing her fingers together in the universal hand sign for money she repeated, “Pecunia!”

Malmquist made his way through Subura along the same route he had first taken with Zhang. He wandered as far as the Via Nomentana, backtracked, headed off in another direction, and returned. He went even further down the Via Nomentana a second time until once again retracing his way back to the Vicus Patricius. Sitting down in confusion at the edge of the street, he wrote to Melynchuk: “WHY NO DIOCLETIAN BATHS? IT’S GONE.”

The reply came promptly:

NOT BUILT YET
GOOD WORK
YOU’RE BETWEEN
AD 112 AND 305

Another message from the inspector followed:

CARACALLA BATHS
1 KM FROM COLISEUM
SOUTH TO CIRCUS MAX
SOUTHEAST ON VIA APPIA

Thirty minutes later and he saw it. It was huge and of a similar layout to the Diocletian. He needed a way to get in for free. At the entrance, he played dumb and fluttered his hands to demonstrate his skill at massage. The ticket taker at first refused but Malmquist persisted. When he demonstrated on the man’s shoulder he relented and told Malmquist where to go. His tone of voice conveyed he did not want to see his face again. Malmquist found the room and repeated the ruse. Massage adepts have ever been in short supply, and to his surprise he was hired.

*

“Zhe shi shei a?” Zhang said to Giulia upon seeing Delilah with her.

“Nuzhuren, fashengle hen qiguai de shiqing. Zhe shi Jiefu de pengyou. Ta ye cong tade guojia laile, buhui shuo zhongwen.”

“Who are you?”

“Delilah.”

“Dilaila. You Jiefu’s friend?”

“Yeah.”

“Where he is now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ta shuo Jiefu yao huilai.”

“Okay. I keep you for him. He no come back, you my slave. You look nice. I make you my slave anyway.” To Giulia she snapped, “Jiefu daodi qu naerle?”

“Buhaoyisi, wo zhen buzhidao.”

“Bang ta andun hao. Rang ta shufu yixie,” she said, pointing to the slaves’ sleeping quarters. And she ordered the servants to prepare dinner.

“I want to go home,” said Delilah, wiping away a tear.

“Where you come from, baby?”

“New Gary.”

“How you get here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Your tunic is strange. Where you get that?”

“Jeff let me wear it.”

“Not same tunic I gave him. Give it to me. Let me see it. Show me your body.”

Delilah removed the tunic. Zhang caressed one of her breasts. “You lovely. You be nice to me, I give you 10,000 tunics better than this.”

“Try it on. Jeff said it has magical powers.”

“What power?”

“Magical powers.”

“Magic? You mean moshu? What kind of moshu? No, I’m a lady. You are slave. Only slaves wear tunic.”

“It will make your breasts bigger.”

“You joking. Okay let me try.”

“No, maybe you’d better not. It really does have magical powers. I’m afraid it will send you to New Gary, and then we’re really fucked. I’ll be accused of murdering you. Give it back to me.”

Zhang fingered the tunic. “I never see this kind before. You make me curious now. Let me try it on.”

“No! What happens if you get transported? Don’t do it.”

Before she could stop her, Zhang dropped her clothes and donned the tunic—and vanished.

“Shenme yisi?” said Giulia. “Quello che è successo? Dove è andata?”

“Wow. It really is magic.”

“Sei una strega?” Giulia asked her, stunned.

The servants too were dumbfounded. Gathering her wits, Giulia told them, “Non osare dire niente a nessuno! Padrona Zhang tornerà.”

She grabbed some items from Zhang’s vast jewelry collection and escorted Delilah out of the domus, dressed in a spare servant’s tunic. They headed for the restaurant. When they arrived, Giulia handed the owner a gold bracelet. “Mantenere il suo piano di sopra al sicuro e non parlare con nessuno di lei trattarla bene. Tornerò per lei più tardi,” she told him. He waved Delilah back up to her second-floor lodging.

*

Outside the bath block in a quiet corner of the complex’s gardens sat a newly hired public slave for a moment of leisure at dusk as the baths were emptied for the day. He proudly held his trophy between thumb and forefinger: a shiny silver coin his new boss had tossed him for his labor. He wrote to Melynchuk the good news. “FOUND JOB AS MASSEUR AT CARACALLA. PAID SILVER COIN.” Then a thought occurred to him and he added: “CAN THIS COIN IDENTIFY TIME PERIOD? FRONT: IMP ANTONINVS PIVS AVG. BACK: FORTVNAE AVG.”

After some delay Melynchuk answered back:

FACE ON FRONT
BEARDED OR NO?
IS COIN NEW?

Malmquist responded in the negative and the positive respectively, and the following answer came back:

BAD EMPEROR
ELAGABALUS
218-222

“WHAT DO I DO?”

COIN IS DENARIUS
ONE DAY’S WAGE
SPEND WISELY

*     *     *

Previous chapter: Ch. 10: New Gary, IN
Next chapter: Ch. 12: Gwongzau
Chapter 1: New Gary, IN

Forthcoming (summer 2017): The Kitchens of Canton

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