“Stop shooting!” yelled Malmquist.
“Get out of the cage.”
“It’s not a cage. We’re stuck under a board. I can’t move my arm.”
Malmquist crawled out from under the board. It was a toppled litter. He extracted Danny’s arm and dragged the rest of him free. There had been screams. A pair of Roman ladies lay flung on the ground next to them. Several slaves bent over another person who was prostrate. A growing pool of blood and commotion. Voices exclaiming, “Quid accidit?”
“Let’s get out of here, now! Follow me.”
“Where’s my gun?”
“We have no time to talk.”
Confusion and the crush of the crowd enabled them to escape. Malmquist’s tunics were both torn open and he grasped them to hide his nakedness as they dashed out of Trajan’s Forum and through the marketplace in back.
“Don’t you tell me what to do, bandage head. You were trying to assault me just now! Where the fuck are we?”
“Listen, you brat. This is Ancient Rome. One of your gunshots caused that pool of blood just now. You’d better pray it was only a slave or we’re going to be executed on the spot. I’m taking us somewhere safe.”
Danny looked around him at the dizzying squalor of the Argiletum. “Where are we? What’s with the scag clothes? Who are all these filthy people in sheets and rags?”
Malmquist made a beeline toward Syria’s brothel, dragging Danny by the arm. “I told you, Ancient Rome.”
“Give me a break. And what’s all this scuz and sewage on the street? Is it jism?”
“It’s jism, all right. I know the smell of jism, turd face. That’s pedo waste flowing along the street and you’ve ambushed me in a street full of pedos.”
Danny broke free of Malmquist’s grasp. He produced his Magpul FMG9 folding machinegun from his back pocket and pointed it at him, voice quivering. “Now I know what’s going on. You kidnapped me. You knocked me unconscious in that cage and smuggled me into New Gary. If you don’t get me back to Chicago immediately, I’ll blow you away along with everyone else on this street!”
“You brought that gun as well?”
“I should have blown you away that day in Munchees. I could have in self-defense and gotten off scot-free, and that’s what I’m going to do now. You have ten seconds to get me out of here.”
“We are not in New Gary, Danny. I’m the only person who can get you out of here and if you kill me you’re stuck here for good. And that gun won’t do you much good against Roman sharpshooters with bows and arrows.”
“To hell with you, pedo! The Chicago police will rescue me and they’re on the way.”
“Put your gun down, Danny.”
“Quid agis?” said Syria, who had stepped out, along with a naked Giulia in gold filaments and a tall lad dressed as a female, who had apparently been in the midst of someone’s intimate ministrations, for poking out of his robes was a semi-tumescent bejeweled penis.
“Ah, Jeff, sei tornato,” said Giulia. “Chi è il ragazzo?”
“You’re bringing me to these perverts?” said Danny, now in tears. “Fuck you, asshole! You’re dead — ”
As Danny pulled the trigger the gun was snatched away by a burly man dressed in an immaculate toga, and the bullets missed their target. The recoil of the discharge sent the gun flying. Smacking Danny away with his hand, the man picked up the gun and looked at it with curiosity.
The tall lad approached. “Qui est puer?”
The burly man picked Danny up by the hair and brandished a knife. “Imperator, interficiam eum?”
The lad caressed Danny’s face. “Numquid times ne tibi non placeam, bellus puer?” Pulling him into Syria’s brothel by the edge of his pants, he added, “Quid dicis, muliebris patientiae scortum, cuius ne spiritus purus est?”
“Who the fuck are you? Oh, no, your dick is sticking out,” said Danny.
“Quod vestimenta sua novis?” wondered the lad, tugging at Danny’s jeans.
“Giulia, the kid doesn’t know where he is. Don’t let them hurt him,” said Malmquist.
“Cosa vuole fare?” she asked.
“Vere, quia a pulcher puer,” said the crossdressing lad, stroking Danny’s blond locks as the man in the toga held him aloft. “Mi carissime.”
Danny squirmed under the man’s grip. “Keep off me, you fucking pedo!”
“Digli di comportarsi bene. È l’imperatore,” Giulia cautioned Malmquist.
“Inimica est,” said the lad, pouting. “Comprehende eum.”
The man in the toga whisked Danny back to the street and instructed Malmquist to follow. Just then another toga-clad man approached in urgency, exclaiming, “Imperator, dux occisus est.”
Syria held Giulia back as the others rushed up the street. “Mane.”
“Cosa sta succedento?” asked Giulia.
“Age tuum negotium.”
A crowd was gathered across from Nerva’s Forum. A toga-clad man lay on the ground in a pool of blood next to a horse. More muscular types materialized out of nowhere and cleared a path for the tall lad, trailed by Malmquist and Danny. The crowd spoke in hushed voices, “Praetorianus occisus est.”
“Quis occidit eum?” asked the lad.
“He did it!” yelled Danny, pointing to the burly fellow holding his FMG9.
The man glanced at the machinegun and back at the body in confusion.
“Quis est puer?” the crowd asked. “Quomodo audeat accusare eum.”
“Quod telum est?” said the lad, pointing to Danny’s gun.
“Non certus,” said the burly man, who was examining the gun. “Iacit sagittas invisibiles?”
“Look at the mess you got us into, bright boy,” said Malmquist. “They don’t get it. But we will finally be held responsible.”
“Look what he’s doing. He’s pointing the gun at himself. Don’t look into the barrel, you moron!” yelled Danny.
A moment later there was a loud crack and a spray of blood. The man had shot himself in the face. The ladyboy fainted and was caught in the arms of a toga-clad bodyguard. Seconds later he revived and issued a command. They all now headed in the direction of the Roman Forum, whisking Malmquist and Danny along.
“Where are we going?”
“To the palace, I assume. Either that or a dungeon,” said Malmquist.
“Who are these men?”
“The Praetorian Guard. That teenager dressed as a lady is the emperor. I suggest you be on your best behavior.”
“I want my gun back.”
“Fat chance of that. Start getting used to being unarmed.”
“They will give it back when they’re out of ammo and need my help to get more.”
They passed through the Forum and headed up the Via Nova.
“I recognize this street,” said Malmquist. “We’re going up the Palatine Hill. Who knows, if we survive this ordeal, you might eventually get to see the Circus Maximus on the other side. They have wholesome activities there like chariot racing, more suitable for someone your age than collecting guns.”
“I know what chariot racing is, ass wipe. Guns would make it a lot more fun, like cowboys and Indians. Blow the drivers right out of their chariots.”
“At least you’re getting the greatest history lesson ever. Do you even attend school?”
“Estis fugitivi?” one of the bodyguards asked Malmquist.
“No, we’re not fugitives.”
“Quid agitis? Germanici?”
“No, we’re not Germans.”
Malmquist and Danny were sent into the palace and dumped on silver-framed sofas in a large gold-lined hall porticoed with crystal columns. Rose petals wafted down from a ceiling of finely sculpted ivory; a dome made of sapphire suffused the hall in a dusky blue glow. Tigers and leopards ambled about, caressing the new guests with their tails. The guards laughed as Danny hyperventilated in a panic.
“They must be tame,” said Malmquist.
The emperor made his appearance minutes later in a chariot drawn by four naked women. He was dressed in a toga woven of fine gold thread and wore a jewel-encrusted diadem on his crown. He held Danny’s machinegun upright like a sceptre. As soon as he sat down across from the two guests, their cushions deflated and they dropped through the sofa frame onto the floor. The emperor and everyone else present laughed hysterically.
“Ubi hoc telus adeptus est?” the emperor asked them.
“Non linguam latinam loquuntur,” one of the toga-clad men responded on their behalf.
“Quam linguam loquuntur?”
“Convocate interpretes,” said the emperor.
“I think they’re trying to figure out what language we speak,” said Malmquist.
The two were served a platter with several steaming cone-shaped objects. They were instructed to slice them open with knives and partake.
“What are these?” Malmquist asked.
A grinning servant mimed a woman’s breasts.
“Are these tits? No fucking way am I going to eat this,” snapped Danny.
“I think they’re sow’s teats, in fact,” said Malmquist. “I hope.”
He cut into one and something shiny spilled out — gemstones. Another general burst of laughter. A servant spiced up the dish by flinging a fistful of gold dust on it. More laughter.
“You need to play along and not get angry,” Malmquist nudged Danny.
The emperor was distracted and fiddling with the gun. A round shot off and the strange black object that was lighter than iron flew out of his grasp from the recoil. They all looked around and nobody seemed to be hurt.
“They have no fucking idea how to fire a gun.”
“Of course, they don’t.”
“I need to teach you idiots. Here, give me the gun.”
“Noli dare ei telum, imperator. Etiam periculosum,” warned one of the bodyguards.
“Utique,” said the emperor. “Tenete eum dum docet me quomodo uti.”
“Don’t make any sudden moves, Danny, or we’re both dead.”
A knife at his throat and his arms grasped by the guards, Danny instructed the emperor on how to brace the rifle against the shoulder. He also learned how to lock and unlock the safety, and how to fold up and unfold the gun into its little self-contained box, all of which mesmerized the men in togas. A guard grabbing Danny’s shoulder noticed something under his shirt and pulled it off.
“Give me my shirt back, asshole!”
His torsos and legs were crisscrossed with belts of magazine clips — enough ammunition to keep the gun in operation for some time. This was quickly figured out and Danny was stripped down to his underpants. “No!” he yelled, crying. “Give me back my ammo.”
The interpreters were brought in, but the emperor had gone off somewhere with his new toy.
Soon a dreamy, high-pitched voice could be heard from another hall, calling out, “Puer carissime!”
The faces of the guards and attendants were strained with suppressed laughter.
“Veni, puer carissime. Veni,” the voice echoed.
“What’s that?” asked Danny. “Someone singing?”
“I think someone’s being summoned.”
The naked sylphs then rolled the chariot up to Danny. “Escende,” the guards urged him.
“Veni, puer carissime,” the voice repeated from afar.
“What’s going on?”
“You’re being ordered to ride the chariot.”
“It doesn’t matter why. You don’t have much choice.”
“I can’t ride this fucking thing. Won’t you come with me? I’m scared.”
Danny in his underwear and Malmquist in his torn rags ascended the carriage. The jiggling slaves swept them into another chamber considerably bigger than the former, resembling the frigidarium of the Caracalla baths but vaster still. The airy space contained a lake surrounded by woods. An oculus in the glass roof ushered in a beam of moonlight which fell on a shabby little structure on an island in the lake, a hovel with telltale lanterns hung over the entrance — and the illumined face of the emperor poking out of the curtained doorway.
“I recognize those lanterns,” said Malmquist. “It’s a brothel. He built a brothel in the palace!”
The chariot rolled over a bridge and pulled up to the hovel’s entrance. The emperor was back in female apparel. “Ah, venisti, mi carissime,” he said, reaching out to the boy.
“Help!” screamed Danny, as he was pushed into the hovel’s entrance by the giggling girls. A leopard slipped in after him.
“As for myself, I’m getting the hell out of here,” said Malmquist, while writing the word “ROMA” on his tunic. A moment later he was in Trajan’s Forum. “Great, it worked.”
Syria and Giulia were shocked to see him back at the brothel, having assumed he and the boy might never be heard from again.
“Quello che è successo?”
“Ubi est puer?”
“I may not have much time,” said Malmquist, catching his breath. “Can you fix these tunics? You can just sew them together as one for now.” Syria went to get a needle and thread. “No, wait. Syria, can you watch the street?” He pointed toward the Forum. “Giulia can sew this up.”
“I don’t know, but I can’t take any chances. Giulia, do you like it here? Do you want to come back with me or stay here for good?”
“Mi piace essere quì. Non sono ancora pronto per tornare indietro.”
“Quando Attica remeabit?” asked Syria.
“She’s not ready to come back yet.”
Giulia particularly seemed to miss Attica. “Che cosa intende?”
“Actually she hasn’t seen New Rome yet.”
“I can’t explain now. I have to go back first.” He held her face between his hands. “Giulia, I don’t know if I’ll be coming back here. But Delilah can come and get you if you want.”
“Yeah. We’ll have her sent here to check up on you, and she’ll have a new tunic with her in case you can’t get your tunic back from Attica.”
“Attica ha preso la mia tunica?”
“If she doesn’t come back, that is.”
“I don’t know.”
“Someone will be back for you, trust me.”
Giulia finished sewing up the tunics and then exclaimed, “Cosa significa?”
A message on Malmquist’s tunic read:
YOU THERE JEFF?
FOR YOUR SAFETY
DO NOT RETURN
TO NEW GARY
When he inquired back as to why, he received the following response:
IN BOTH CITIES
ALL OVER THE NEWS
“Oh, shit. What do I do?” He considered for a moment before writing back, “WHAT’S THE CHINESE FOR CHICAGO? ASK THE ANDROID. NO. NOT CHICAGO. NEW GARY. GIVE ME THE SAME CHARACTERS AS LAST TIME.”
When Melynchuk responded, Malmquist traced over the characters with his finger and found himself deposited in a vaguely familiar location: the New Gary cafeteria, year 2115.
He quickly abandoned the restaurant before attracting any unwanted attention and made his way over to Delilah’s place. The tenements had undergone extensive gentrification over the preceding half century. At least that’s what the dazzling painted colors causing each building to shine like a peacock and the rich flora and vegetation sprouting from the windows as organically as hair from a girl’s armpit suggested. He went over to peer through the window of the flat she had occupied and saw a group of young people sitting in a circle and fondling one another’s genitals. Neither Delilah the younger nor the elder was among them, and her apartment’s décor was missing as well.
He made his way over to Broadway. There was no bar where the bar had been. He followed the flow of people toward the lake and figured out the means of getting to Chicago by ferry, and eventually, the Heartland Café Museum.
“They just left,” said Cornelius. “A couple hours ago.”
“Where did they go?”
“To that fake Ancient Rome you told me about in China. They’re trying to find Ray.”
“And Wingyee is looking for you as well.”
“I want to go to Ray’s place. You can tell Wingyee that I’m here, and will cooperate fully with the investigation.”
“Do you have any idea where Ray might be?”
“Chinese Rome, 2115. And I have no idea how to get there.”
“Is this the right tunic, Jeff?”
“I got it from the restaurant gift shop.”
“You’re back! Where’s Wingyee?” asked Cornelius.
“She’s still in Chinese Rome.”
“How did you get back here?”
“Wingyee wrote the right characters on my tunic.”
“I mean where exactly did you arrive?”
“In the restroom in this place — if that’s what you call those mortifying exposed toilets.”
“What is she still doing there?”
“She said there’s some kind of a problem. Regarding you, Jeff.”
“I don’t know. They wouldn’t say.”
“Zhang wouldn’t tell you?”
“She didn’t seem to know what was going on either. All I know is that Wingyee was discussing something with the cops there and they went off somewhere together.”
“They arrested her?”
“No. They seemed to be cooperating.”
“Anyway, we’ve got a problem back in New Gary. I did something I probably shouldn’t have done and created a mess. I can’t go back there. I’ll explain later. But Attica is stuck in Chicago and may have been arrested. You need to go back there and try to find her and then take her to Chinese Rome with this new tunic.”
“How can I find her?”
“I don’t know. Try the last address where I was with her. The house across the street from 666 West 26th in Chicago.”
* * *
Forthcoming January 2018:
The Kitchens of Canton, a novel