by Joan Leotta
This story was originally published in overmydeadbody.com in July 2012.
“O Great Caesar, take pity on me! Forgive me O Mighty One, I beg you! You were never in danger from me. Your august life is more precious to me than my own. My hand was raised against your faithless food taster, Gaius Martius; he was the target of my rage…”
Normally, a find of this importance would be translated at Harvard or Chicago or Stanford or Oxford in England—not at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW). Although she, Leah Fields, had been a student of the “great” at Harvard, and of Professor Harold Funder at Cambridge who had sent her the scroll, she doubted that she would have been anyone’s first choice to translate it.
She muttered to herself. “I was the best in my class. But of course all the jobs at the bigger name universities go the men. But even from this small school, I’ll make a name for myself in the field of Latin translation. I’ll show them!”
The bronze ceremonial fasces that held the scroll had been recently discovered by her Cambridge mentor. The fasces was reputed to have been given to Caesar himself after a triumphant return from Gaul. Sending it to her for exhibition in Wilmington to highlight the opening of the UNCW Latin Scholar Center had been a favor from the professor.
Thanks to the accident that occurred while she was examining the fasces, it was going to do more than publicize her specialty in North Carolina. She was going to make a national reputation on this.
While placing this fasces, a bronze replica of the wooden branch fasces (with ax!) carried by ancient Roman leaders, in the exhibit case the item slipped from her hands—yes, her own gloved hands. The ensuing contest between the treasured item, the law of gravity, and the hard tile floor resulted in a victory for the floor and its ally, gravity.
The sacred symbol of Roman authority hit the floor, and when she picked it up she could see a crack at the place where the sculptor had reproduced in metal, the traditional red leather ties. At first all she could think of was the horror of it all. The item was priceless. She imagined her career going up in flames. Then she noticed that the crack was at a seam in the piece. Perhaps it was actually meant to come off? She boldly gave the top of the piece a twist and for her boldness was rewarded with the sight of an ancient parchment rolled tightly inside. The fasces had carried a message!
Right after her call to Professor Funder, who had trouble arguing for a different person to do the translation since Leah had possession of the object, she immediately called the paper conservators at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. for advice on how to keep the document from disintegrating. Of course, her story to Funder was that the crack must have occurred in the shipping, and that she had noticed it immediately upon removing the item from its crate. The only other person in the room when the accident occurred had been Tom Lentus, the oldest security guard on the campus police force. He was partly deaf and had been looking out the window of the receiving room when the fasces slipped from her hands. So, there was no one to contradict her story. Leah felt safe to go on national TV with her tale. Not even her husband, Blake, knew the truth about the great find. All that was last week.
Leah was now the darling of Cissy Wilkens, director of the UNCW public relations office. Cissy had soon lined up a bevy of interviews for newspapers and magazines, and was working on a Today Show appearance for Leah, whose fame was spilling over onto the institution itself.
The career impact would be great. First, tenure at UNCW—that would now be automatic—and she could foresee leaving Wilmington in the not–too-distant future to lead excursions to Roman excavations all over the Mediterranean, perhaps through the Smithsonian. And maybe her own “triumph,” marching through the gates of Harvard in her own victory parade as a full professor!
Leah took a deep breath. It was time to unroll the scroll a bit more. She smiled as she delicately moved the paper using her gloved hands and a long tweezers. She caught her own reflection in the glass of her husband’s photo on her desk. She appraised the reflection critically.
“Perhaps I should whiten my teeth before my appearance on the Today Show. My hair could use a bit more body. Not a permanent, but maybe some curls or maybe bangs to accentuate my green eyes…”
Leah sighed and then turned her attention again to the prize that her butterfingers moment had yielded. Yes, that simple bronze fasces, a symbol of power in its era, was going to be the key to her power in academia.
She unrolled the scroll a bit more; its Latin (obviously the work of a paid scribe) appeared in neat rows before her. The tale continued: Marcus of Amiternum was a soldier who had become a camp cook. “You yourself have said, O Caesar that my skills raised your field-grilled meats to the sublime subtlety of flavors of the most opulent Roman banquet.”
Leah stopped her work for a minute to imagine the life of a man in ancient times in what was the Italian province of Abruzzo today. Closing her eyes, she could see him as a child, roaming the forest in the mountains west of Rome, learning about the roots and mushrooms that later enabled him to impart the best flavors to Caesar’s camp meals. In the scroll, he reminded Caesar of a few special meals prepared for the General.
She unrolled a bit more. Marcus told of a wife, a raven-haired beauty, called Adele, who often languished at home while he, Marcus, served (willingly!) in mighty Caesar’s campaigns. That is, willingly until he received a missive from a neighbor in Rome congratulating him (Marcus) on the birth of a blue-eyed son.
Marcus was now revealing the heart of his tale:
“O Great Caesar, I have not been home to my Adele in Rome for two years—how could I now have a son? And with blue eyes and blonde hair? My comrades sought to solace me but then I saw HIM—Gaius Martius, the new taster—he had blonde hair and blue eyes and had just arrived from Rome, from the very neighborhood where Adele lives. Then, in a card game, O Caesar, I saw him bet the pearl and chain that I had given to the faithless Adele on our wedding night!”
Leah looked at her watch. It was getting late, seven o’clock already. But this was so good! She punched in her husband’s cell number to tell him she would be late. He did not answer. She left a message. Then she unrolled another section of the scroll.
“After the crossing of the Rubicon, on the way to Rome, you requested, O Great One, a special meal. My anger had boiled up inside me. Indeed, I craved the bitter herb of revenge, O Caesar, to calm my soul as a bitter herb calms an upset stomach.
“I could not challenge Gaius Martius to a fight. My strength is not with the sword. Instead I used my knowledge of herbs to bring him down. I knew that he would taste your dish first and die quickly from what I had used. I covered the tender rabbit in a sauce made with steeped hemlock. His hands went to his throat. I laughed and cried out, “Sic simper infideli,” as always with the unfaithful. But I had prepared two dishes, one to be given to you after he died, O Great Caesar. In their anger, your guards never let me explain!”
Marcus then thanked Caesar for delaying his execution for the murder of Gaius and attempted murder of Caesar, until after Caesar’s Triumph celebration in Rome and allowing him to live a few days longer, time enough to plead his case. Marcus told of being visited in Rome’s military prison, not by his wife, but by the bronze artisan who had had the commission of the fasces, an old friend from Amiternum. The bronze maker had agreed to allow Marcus the favor of inserting the message. Marcus thanked Caesar for reading the message and begged him to reconsider the order to have him killed. Surely Caesar could understand that he, Marcus just wanted the death of the faithless Gaius? Marcus then wrote out (or the scribe did) two of what he said were Caesar’s favorite recipes.
Leah sat back. She wondered if Caesar ever read the message. Perhaps the presentation of the fasces was made by a third party who forgot to mention that there was a message inside? Perhaps Caesar read the message and pardoned poor Marcus. Such a move toward a simple soldier would not have rated a note in his Commentaries.
Or, perhaps, she shuddered at this thought, on a clear and lovely day, on the banks of the Tiber, Marcus was beheaded and his faithless wife was left to raise the blue-eyed son as best she could.
Leah laughed at her romantic musings. The Romans were not sentimental about relatives of criminals. If Marcus was beheaded, it was far more likely that the faithless wife and bastard son would be sold into slavery as relatives of a convicted attempted assassin.
She found herself suddenly hungry. She looked at her watch again. It was almost nine in the evening. She had missed her dinner for sure. Marcus had written with such love about food, that his scroll had made her hungry.
“Maybe tomorrow I’ll translate those recipes. It would be nice to bring at least one of his dishes on to the Today Show with me.”
As she replaced the scroll inside the fasces, she thought about the poisons that were probably in the dish meant for Gaius Martius. The herbal knowledge that made Marcus a good cook, probably also served him well as a poisoner.
As she put the fasces back into the vault that the university had provided in her office, she mused that if the faithless taster had time to complain about something being a bit off in the fatal dish, Marcus might have told him that he had laced it with a venenum, a love potion for Caesar’s future pleasure that evening. How ironic that our word for venom, or poison, comes from the Latin word that originally signified love potions!
As she left the building for her car, she waved to Tom who was door guard that night. Driving down the road from the faculty parking lot to College Road, she looked at the panoply of lovely greenery that lined the way: yew, oleander, hemlock. She wondered how many of her colleagues realized that their decorative hedge was a deadly pharmacopoeia.
As she drove, she decided to call home again. She spoke into her Bluetooth: “Home.”
The phone rang and Blake picked up. “Hello, hello? Is that you, dear?”
“Blake, I’m so sorry. The parchment—I just finished it. I had no idea it was so late.”
“Oh, that’s all right dear. I guess I fell asleep in front of the TV while waiting for you. Have you eaten? I’ll fix a little something for you. I ate but…”
“No need. I’ll just have a salad when I get home.” She disconnected and so did he.
“How sweet of him to want to fix me dinner,” she thought, “and so unlike him to be so very thoughtful. Lately, he barely notices my existence.”
Then she laughed out loud. “Of course! He is basking in my glory. This find of mine will boost his career, too. He can tag along when I am feted and lauded all over America and Italy for my discovery and translation of this scroll.”
She parked in the driveway and walked to the house, brushing past Blake’s car as she stepped onto the porch. The engine was still warm! Blake had just come in! Where could he have been?
Quickly Leah ran through her mental catalogue of the best looking of the young women who hung out by her husband’s office. Then Leah remembered. Madison Trill had arrived yesterday from the Smithsonian. Blake had picked her up and even stopped by Leah’s office on his way to drop off Madison at her hotel.
Leah had met the drop-dead-gorgeous blonde before. She had been a grad student of Blake’s during the period when she, Leah, had been finishing up her PhD. in Cambridge, England, three thousand miles away from Boston College and the fun depicted in the photos Blake sent her.
She turned the key and went into the house. Blake had prepared a salad for her. They talked about his students and classes while she ate. Her husband was watching the late news when she decided to go to bed. As she reached for a fresh night gown in the closet, Leah noticed that Blake’s suit jacket had fallen off of the hanger. She picked it up. A long blonde hair glistened on the shoulder area.
“Madison!” Leah did not sleep well that night.
The next day, Madison came to Leah’s office. She oohed and aahed over the manuscript and the translation work Leah had done. Leah noted her shining blonde hair, bright blue eyes and killer figure.
“Leah, I met with Cissy in PR before coming down to see you. We decided that it would be good for me to attend all future news conferences with you, and go on the Today Show with you to bolster the credibility of your find and lend the prestige of the Smithsonian to the whole affair.”
Madison looked at her watch. “I have other plans for this afternoon, so how about tomorrow morning, first thing? Where can I work?”
“You can work right here in my office. I have a glass surface on the desk, and the scroll and fasces are in the safe in here. I have gloves, and you can order in anything else you need.”
Madison patted her briefcase. “I will need to take a small slice. But I have a portable microscope and all necessary chemicals in my briefcase.” She turned to leave but before she could get out of the door, Leah spoke again.
“Are you up for trying some ancient Roman dinner dishes tomorrow night?”
Madison laughed. “What can I bring?”
“Just yourself. Blake will pick you up around 6:30.”
The next night, at dinner, Madison brought a bouquet of flowers to the house and a bottle of wine, a rich Italian Barolo. “Don’t know how Roman this is, but I was hoping it would at least complement the meal.” Madison swung her long blonde hair over her shoulder, giving Blake a big smile as Leah took the flowers and headed into the kitchen. They followed her in.
Blake held up a glass. “While the steaks are resting, let’s toast ancient Rome!” He handed out the aperitifs.
“To ancient Rome,” added Madison.
“To revealing what is hidden,” said Leah as they clinked glasses and each took a sip.
Well, that is, Leah took a sip. The almond flavor of the amaretto and club soda successfully disguised the bitter almond of the cyanide. She gasped, sputtered, and fell to the floor.
Blake laughed, “No. Once the people see you on television, you will get all the attention as the one who authenticated the scroll and we will say that we both worked on the translation. I do have some credentials in Latin myself.”
“Now, let’s get our alibi ready,” said Madison, stepping over the inert Leah. Madison took a vial from her bag and sprinkled cyanide and a bit of amaretto on the mushrooms and forced a spoonful of the stuff into Leah’s mouth and down her throat. She reached for the phone. Blake stopped her: “Let’s review our story again before you call 911.”
Madison began to recite their tale: “We’ll tell the people that she prepared this dish for us. Our story will be she was just unlucky in that while she was making the dish, she fell into the old cook’s habit of tasting before serving and so fell into the trap she had planned for us!”
“Great, my dear. Now be careful that we do not tell the story the exact same way. I’ll dial 911 since you are too broken up to talk. It’s only been five minutes. Undo her collar and press on her a bit so it will look like we tried to do CPR first.”
In a few minutes screeching sirens brought the local paramedics who declared Leah dead on the scene. They whisked her into an ambulance and on to the morgue. They noticed the blue on her lips and smell of bitter almond, so the police arrived soon after. They took samples of everything, noting the odor of cyanide in the mushrooms. Blake and Madison carefully refrained from putting forth their theory at this early stage of the investigation. They merely expressed shock and horror. The police took Madison home. Blake expressed gratitude so that he could try to rest and begin to grieve.
“We’ll get your statement tomorrow morning, Professor Fields,” Sgt. Thompkins told him.
Blake turned to look at the table. Everything was congealing. The police had taken photos of the meal and samples from each dish. The Sergeant told him he could clean up, but Blake did not feel like it. He took a look at the peas. Even cold, they looked good.
“Caesar’s favorite, eh? I wonder if they are good cold?”
Blake put the serving spoon into the dish and scooped some up. Mmm, bay leaves, a bit of rosemary, salt, pepper and—what was that other taste?—maybe agrum, the famous Roman fish paste? He took a second spoonful. Pretty good. He’d have to get the recipe from Leah’s notes. He felt thirsty and remembered that Leah had made iced tea. He poured himself a tall glass and drank it down. He put the glass and tasting spoon on the kitchen counter.
On his way upstairs, back through the dining room, he looked over at the mushrooms, now full of cyanide. Looked good. Maybe he’d try that recipe too, someday, without the deadly additive.
In the middle of the night, Blake began to feel sharp abdominal pains. His throat began to tighten. He grabbed for the phone but before he could punch in 9-1-1 his throat constricted, cutting off his air.
The next morning the police came to take his statement. Instead, they took Blake to join Leah in the morgue and after a search of the kitchen and dining room, went to arrest Madison Trill.
Madison claimed no knowledge of any of the poisons, but she had documented her role in going over to Leah’s office, the house, and the time spent with Blake beforehand, all too well. She had done it in order to provide a dual alibi for herself and Blake for Leah’s death. Now it was being use to blame her for both deaths. She had access to the hemlock and oleander that had flavored the peas along with the bay and rosemary look-alikes. And these poisons were easily found on the grounds of the University. Madison became the talk of the paper conservatory and Roman scholarship worlds, but not as she had originally intended.
In the course of tying up all loose ends, the police questioned Tom Lentus, the guard. He told them about how the great discovery had really taken place.
“I kept quiet because I felt bad for that nice professor, Miss Leah. Her husband, he was always chumming up with the young pretty ones on campus. I seen him head into the woods or off campus in his car at odd times with one of them, more than once. Ya know?”
Harold Funder arranged to have the fasces and scroll sent back to Cambridge where he took credit for Leah’s translation work and had the scroll authenticated by the British museum. But to the everlasting credit of Cissy, UNCW’s PR person, the American public remained fascinated by the American connection. So about a week after the translation was published, the Today Show arranged a two-continent interview.
Security Guard Tom Lentus was in the Today Show studio with Chef Mario Batali. They linked up with Harold Funder and Chef Jamie Oliver in a Cambridge garden. The two chefs had recreated the recipes which were tried by all and sundry in the two respective studios. Everyone loved the peas.
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One of Joan’s other mystery short stories was featured on an episode of Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast: