Book: Out of Court Settlement
Out of Court Settlement
Snip. Snip-snip. Snip.
Partly overcast in hell, a few spots of rain – but the job had to be done, and when jobs of a less elevated nature had to be done in Augustus’ villa, there was a question of rank involved. Augustus wasn’t going to do it. Neither was Caesar or Cleopatra, nor Sargon of Akkad; nor was Hatshepsut. The villa had Roman rulers and Egyptian pharaohs, but no gardener, and that elected the two Renaissance refugees who’d found the villa a comfortable berth in hell.
Dante was dithering around in the basement about some research project.
That left one Niccolo Machiavelli to be dragooned into the job, when Augustus came out of his office in a dither – not about the flood downtown, not about the Audit of Injustice proceeding in the Law Court, but about two young fools, both Julius’ sons, who’d decided to burgle Tiberius’ villa, over across the greenspace and a good hike beyond.
The lecherous old goat, the Emperor Tiberius, had them dead to rights. And was suing Augustus for instigating the permanently young fools in the invasion of his premises.
It was not a good time to have a lawsuit questioning the peculiar status of any Roman in hell, not that one could explain that to the syphilitic old fool, Tiberius, who’d died insane and who’d not improved in the process.
That was why Machiavelli was out there trimming roses into shape … in a light rain. With an extensive flood spreading over the greenspace. Cardinal Richelieu’s place had half the lawn underwater. Tiberius had a regular canal behind his mansion. It was a lawn-rimmed grey sheet beyond the gate and the hedge, and it might get beyond the gate tomorrow, but for now, the garden had to look its best, old roses, Roman roses, cuttings from Paestum, Augustus swore, a little bit of earthly paradise, around the beautiful statue of weeping Niobe, mourning her lost children, symbolic of the rain, and more than appropriate today.
Bailing the boys out was the mission.
Getting that old sybarite, Tiberius to settle.
And with every high-level Roman being, in essence, a lawyer, representing his house, his clients, his sympathizers, voters, and connections, in whatever court – there was still a time to call in the experts.
Tiberius had, on his side, the law firm of Stalenus, Dolabella Crassus, the most unprincipled law firm in hell.
That was a bit of a problem.
So … up against scoundrels, potentially pleading in front of antiquity, go for the headliner. The Dershowitz of his day, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
And getting Cicero to come in, was a dicey sort of request to have to make. Julius and Cicero had history. Augustus and Cicero had history. Oh, did they have history.
Cicero had died rather messily, head and hands tacked up in the Forum (shocking beyond belief, and a clear indication of the barbarity of Antony’s revenge).
But then, Marcus Antonius had always lacked class. Even Cleo said so.
“What choice did I have?” was Cleo’s statement on the situation – quietly not mentioning the other choice, Augustus. But marrying your father’s wife was beyond déclassé … a little fact the historians since had neglected to add to their reasons why Cleo had taken the liaison she had.
“Good in bed,” she’d remarked of Antonius, “when he was sober.”
The drinking problem hadn’t improved, so the rumor was. Antonius hung out sometimes at Tiberius’ villa, sometimes at Claudius’, in close company with Caracalla and Caligula, and Antonius was one of their current most serious problems – a loud mouth, a loose habit, and a rarely sober judgment.
Bad judgment in the two teens, who’d ended up in Tiberius’ basement.
And the biggest inducement to Cicero to take their side might, amazingly enough, be the fact that Antonius was over on Tiberius’ side, currently resident with the old goat.
Which wasn’t thunder. Or hell’s occasional indigestion in the lower levels.
It was coming from the front of the villa, out on the street.
Or across the street, where Decentral Park’s graceful trees concealed a multitude of hell’s own problems.
It was worth wondering. Especially when it came again.
Damn it, it sounded for all the world…
Damn, damn, damn. He heard the yelling as a misshapen thing the size of a six-year-old child bounded over the yard’s back fence, from beside the driveway and raced past him to the sound of howling pursuit.
Imp. Niccolo had only seen a few in all his stint in hell, and this one was fast … encumbered as he was with a greasy paper bag from Hellzacre BarBQ.
A noisy black-pants mass was coming down the drive, across the gravel, and didn’t bother with the gate: they came over the fence, waving AK-47's and Tokarevs and screaming at the top of their lungs. Niccolo backed up, dropping the shears – and the basket of rose clippings, which rolled across the rose garden aisle, scattering thorny bits across the path of first the barefoot imp and then the barefoot Cong.
Coals of fire rained down, the imp’s doing, a veritable hail as the imp vaulted the back gate and splashed off across the flooded lawn. Howls of indignation went up from the Cong, and a volley of shots rang out and stitched across the grey flood – no damage to the imp.
The Cong went right over the fence and splashed after him, firing and howling, and leaving behind a confetti of rose debris and curls of white from the smoldering coals, where falling raindrops hissed and sent up steam, commingled with burning lawn.
The roses obliged with an instant spurt of green leaves and soft sprigs.
Hell’s roses were, if anything, tenacious, especially if abused. Sprigs grew from every angle, pale green and vigorous.
“Dannazione!” Niccolo cried. And it was a good bet when the Cong gave up tracking the imp they’d be back, right across the same route to Decentral Park. “Dannazione!” He snatched up the shears and the empty basket, and began gathering up the clippings that now were scattered all the way to the back gate.
It thundered overhead. A spate of rain followed. And a third “Dannazione!” from Niccolo, whose fingers were bleeding from the thorns, and whose shirt and doublet were getting damp. A particularly chill gust sent him back toward the portico, with the intention of heading for the basement and rousting Dante Alighieri out of his library hunt, with threats of murder.
A car pulled up in the drive. Caesar and Cleopatra were back from a very essential quest, and that, momentarily, outranked thoughts of revenge. Niccolo set the basket and shears on a plinth and wiped his bleeding hands, standing by for a courteous little bow as the two came hurrying in out of the rain – Cleo in a smart cloche hat with a feather that was showing drops of rain, a trim little black skirt and smartly-seamed black nylons, Julius in a MacArthur jacket and a Red Sox cap.
“Where’s Augustus?” Julius asked.
“In his office, I believe, signore – anxious for news. Which one hopes is good.”
“Moderately,” Julius said. A Viet Cong shell boomed out, flew overhead, and burst somewhere beyond the garden gate. “Is the Cardinal at odds with the Cong?”
“An imp came through, signore. One believes it came from the Park.”
“There’s some sort of a tower in the Park, that wasn’t there this morning. A metal tower, straight up, like an antenna.”
“One has no idea,” Niccolo said. He hadn’t. He’d been working in the garden since breakfast. “I have not seen it.”
“Taller than any obelisk!” Cleo said. “A metal eyesore! And an imp! In this neighborhood!”
“One has no idea, signora. One has been preparing the garden. Or one was –” Niccolo cast a reluctant eye to the roses, lush and undisciplined, and sprouting shoots from every knot and branch of the tree roses. “– until the imp.” Another shell went over. Another explosion. “May we hope for Cicero, signori?”
“Hope is the word for it,” Julius said and headed off, Cleo close beside, snugging her purse under her arm. “I have to talk to Augustus. The wretch is wanting an apology.”
“Pro di immortales!” was Augustus’ predictable reaction, on the other side of the desk. “I didn’t kill him!”
“He is what he is,” Julius said with a shrug. “He is what he always was. I got along with him. Mostly. He’s an old Republican, he’s a vain old man … death didn’t youthen him a bit. We want something from him. He’s named a price. He wants an apology in the Hell’s Tribune, and he’ll take it once the case is settled. You just have to put out a little press release, ‘Old Feud Settled, Augustus Denounces Former Ally,’ that sort of thing. He’s willing to wait.”
“Contingent,” Cleo said demurely, from the corner chair by the potted palm. “Contingent on settling.”
Augustus glowered. He’d died old, of a dish Livia had served him, but lately he’d gotten younger, lost the chins, and now his ears stuck out. Maybe, Julius reflected, it was the combination of young Marcus Brutus and Cleopatra’s boy Caesarion in the household, that had Augustus, First Citizen of Rome, suddenly looking thirtyish, with a prominent Adam’s apple: Augustus, his nephew, was a posthumous adoption of his – born simply Octavius, a two-name man, a commoner; adoption by a patrician Julian had made him Caius Iulius Caesar Octavianus, and the Senate, doing all it could to bolster the man who’d steadied the ship of state on course, had tacked on the Augustus bit.
Good administrator, his namesake. Good kid. Thank the gods he’d stuck that adoption in his will, even if it upset Cleopatra, whose Caesarion had not been Roman enough, and Marcus Brutus, who hadn’t been legitimate enough.
It had really disappointed Marcus Antonius, magister equitum, who in the way of Roman adoptions, had had every right to think his old mentor might have adopted him. Do Antonius credit – he had had his hands on the will, had gotten that nasty surprise, and still, in the haze of an honest grief and in fear for his own life, had added two and two and figured first, Octavius could cast legitimacy on the government and second, that a boy like Octavius could be handled.
Right, on the first count.
Wrong, on the second. Octavius, once turned Octavianus, couldn’t be handled.
Cleo had gotten clear of Rome before she caught hell. Antonius had stayed and tried to take Octavian’s share of power. Really wrong.
Antonius had had his enemies’ list. He’d had Cicero killed. And cousin Lucius. Among others. And he’d tried the old gambit of establishing an authority outside Rome, off in the east. That never had worked. Neither had alcohol.
In the end – he’d killed Brutus and he’d gotten on the bad side of Caesarion. Neither of the boys had liked him. And truth be known, he’d fallen on Julius’ bad side long before the Ides of March business … so much so Julius just wasn’t damned sure he hadn’t been involved.
He couldn’t ask Brutus. Who didn’t remember the event. And Caesarion hadn’t been there.
But, damn, he wondered. Ask him which he felt better about, Cicero or Antonius, and the unlikely answer was Cicero.
He’d said as much, talking the old warhorse into taking the boys’ part against Tiberius.
“I’ll give him his statement,” Augustus said, a muscle jumping in his jaw. And in English. “Damn him.”
“Damn Tiberius,” Julius muttered, “first.”
“When is he coming?” Augustus asked, and looked ceilingward as something screamed overhead. “What are they doing out there?”
“The Cong are out of the Park. On Richelieu’s lawn.”
“With the Audit going on,” Augustus muttered. “We do not need the attention, uncle. We do not need it.”
“He should be here within the hour. He refused the car. One believes, however, he is actually taking a taxi.”
“Marvelous,” Augustus said. “Talk sense to the boys. They’ll listen to you.”
That was an optimistic estimate.
“Let me talk to him,” Julius said, delivering a kiss to Cleopatra’s cheek.
“Don’t hit him,” Cleo said.
“I won’t hit him,” Julius said, took a deep breath, and resolved not to, no matter the provocation.
There was a science to handling the boys – it relied mostly on talking to Brutus and letting Brutus talk to Caesarion. Long hair, grease, and leather jackets had become the vogue … since Caesarion had turned up. Rabbit’s-foot key chains, and the plaint that they needed a car.
Not this decade, they didn’t.
Especially not with Erra and the Seven downtown.
Loud rock-and-roll resounded from the pool room – had been a part of the library. Had been. Now it housed two teen rebels who had a round-the-clock guard on their whereabouts – quietly, politely, but there.
Julius passed the legionary guard – on loan from a lower tier of hell – and quietly nudged the door open. Inside it sounded like the Gauls in head-on attack. The teens who lived in this lower hell called it music … and played it at full volume.
Julius walked past the infernal device and switched it off.
Stunning silence. And two teenagers going on twenty and too damned old for stunts like Caesarion had pulled.
“I’ve got you a lawyer,” he said. “We’re going to try to settle with the old goat.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” Caesarion said, pool cue in hand. He turned and made his shot. His half-brother just glowered.
“Nothing’s our fault,” Brutus said.
“I wouldn’t care if you drowned the old sod,” Julius said. “What I do care about – isn’t for you to know. Figure it out. Let me explain, however, that if you get sued, and if you have to testify downtown – they’ll slice off parts of you until they’re satisfied. Ask Niccolo how it is to wind up on Slab One. He’ll give you a description. But then – downtown – they might not kill you. They might just leave you in viable pieces. Will I be sorry? Probably. But you’ll be a lot sorrier.”
Caesarion had stopped the pool shots, and looked at him about as level-on as Caesarion ever had. Thinking. That was an improvement.
“Dying’s a bitch,” Julius said. “But there’s far worse. You don’t want to attract attention until these prehistoric types are out of town. So stay here – And,” he added, since he had the undivided attention of both of them, almost unprecedented, “Cicero was born a prig, he practiced at it, and he died one. But he is good with the establishment. And it’s my earnest hope he’ll come up with a way to avoid your going to court, which you really don’t need right now – because if the old goat doesn’t settle, you’ll be arrested, you’ll be presumed guilty until proven innocent, and we haven’t got a way to prove you’re innocent. So let us get you out of this, and then you can go back to being whatever you like.”
He flipped the switch on the music again, and walked out.
“He’s bluffing,” Caesarion said.
Brutus shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Come on. We’re supposed to shake in our boots. Big deal.”
“I don’t want to go downtown,” Brutus said. “I really don’t want that kind of trouble. They don’t care, brother. They beyond don’t care, downtown.”
Caesarion didn’t say anything for a few beats. Then he shrugged, parked the pool cue against his hip, flipped a comb out of his pocket and swiped it through his hair. “Let the old man sweat it,” Caesarion said. “Not our problem.”
Brutus cast a look at the door, thinking that it was their problem. Julius would bluff. Julius was good at it. But there was no percentage in thinking he was doing it right now. In point of fact, Julius had told him how it was – how soft it was being a Roman in hell, compared, for instance, to the types with more specific afterlives. And how they had all the freedom they wanted, so long as they didn’t rock the status quo … and get the whole lot of them assigned to one of the nether levels.
Hell did have other levels. Sargon swore to them. Hatshepsut said this was the best place, and told him about space and planets and how he could have tech if he could believe in it. Julius stopped with World War II, but he was working on Korea. Sargon was taking advice from Hatshepsut, who was the best of all of them at believing.
Himself, he believed in here, real hard. He had fallen off a horse on his way back from the south of Italy, and he was here, and Julius treated him like a son, which was what he had wanted.
Until Caesarion showed up, who was Cleopatra’s and Caesar’s son, and who blamed Augustus for his being dead, and his mother for just about everything. Augustus said he’d been a fool to come back to Egypt, that he’d listened to bad advice, and Caesarion had said that he had had a safe conduct, and there it went: Caesarion ended up stalking out and refusing to listen and now Caesarion was having a private war against the rest of the house, including Julius.
Which was how they’d ended up in Tiberius’ villa, and in trouble.
He didn’t want get into a lawsuit and go downtown. And he didn’t want to come near Tiberius’ villa again. ‘The old goat,’ Julius called him.
Old goat didn’t begin to cover what the old man was. Every inch of the place done up in erotica. Even the door handles. And at the heart of it, like a spider, a fat-bellied, spindly-limbed, decaying and syphilitic old man with designs on anything, male or female, that came within his reach.
Hell no, he wasn’t getting into a lawsuit with that old lecher.
Question was – how good was this lawyer Julius had gotten and what in hell could they buy the old lecher off with if they could get him to drop the lawsuit?
Caesarion nudged him with a pool cue.
Band-aids. Sticking plasters. Rose scratches. And this time a determination to get Dante out of the library, hand him a basket and a pair of shears and get the job done. Machiavelli was in no mood to temporize. If the roses didn’t get trimmed, Augustus was going to be upset, and an upset Augustus was not going to deal well with Cicero, who was already on the outs with practically everybody.
He headed down the stairs to the library – and met Dante coming up, with an armload of books of various ages.
“Dante, my friend. I need help.”
“No time, no time.”
“What, no time! You left me with the rose garden, we had a damned imp, and now the roses are twice the mess.”
“One regrets, Niccolo, one regrets it entirely, but I have a chance – I have a chance, my friend. You know it’s a mistake that I’m here, a complete confusion of records. I have my justification – I have to file a petition!”
“Downtown? A petition with the Injustice Department? Dante, Dante, you are mad! You will not be filing petitions!”
“I have to tell them! I have to make them understand!” Dante began to push past him. He caught Dante’s sleeve, and books fell, thumping down the stairs.
“You are not presenting any petition to the Audit! Not from this house!”
“You cannot stop me! No one has the right to stop me! I do not belong here! It’s a simple, stupid clerical error, and the Audit will fix it! Let go of me!”
They had acquired onlookers, at the top of the stairs. Hatshepsut, resplendent in a skin-tight catsuit, and stocky, bearded, barrel-chested Sargon, in a kilt.
“What’s the trouble?” Hatshepsut asked.
“This fool wants to file a petition with the Audit,” Niccolo shouted up, and took a firmer grip on Dante’s arm, propelling him up a step. “He wants a review of his case!”
“A review!” Hatshepsut said.
“These are heaven’s agents. They are my chance! It is all a mistake, a terrible mistake that assigned me here! You have no right to stop me!”
“They are not your heaven’s agents,” Sargon said. “They are from deep, deep places. They bring the Tiamat. They bring the Scorpions. You cannot deal with them, brother!”
“I have a right of appeal!”
Niccolo shoved him up the stairs and Dante fought him, batting at him and trying to set his feet: poor Dante, who had turned up in the villa with a computer and an obsessive belief that if he could reconstruct his great Commedia Divina from memory he could be forgiven, and reassigned to heaven, with his beloved Beatrice forever.
“If you appeal,” Hatshepsut said, “you can lose everything. Worse, you can draw attention to this entire household. Augustus will never permit you to go to the court.”
“He cannot stop me!” Dante cried, and shoved him, hard. Niccolo’s heel slipped off the step, backward. He fell against the wall and rail, and kept his grip on Dante, which brought Dante down, flailing and shouting, “No one can stop me! It’s my right, my right!”
Dante had led cavalry once. But muscle had gone, with age, with bookish pursuits, with obsession. There was nothing of that in the man, now, just a sense of injustice and betrayal.
“I can manage him,” Sargon declared, thumped downstairs with bandy-legged force, reached out and seized a fistful of Dante’s doublet, Dante flailing and cursing the while.
“He is hell’s iconic poet,” Hatshepsut said from above, “and if you are reassigned, son of the ibis, it will very likely be to the domicile of that Crowley person downtown, never to see your good friends again, let alone your Beatrice. If you go there, you will live in your hell, Dante Alighieri!”
“He should be so lucky,” Sargon said, as Niccolo unwound himself from Dante’s legs and hauled himself up against the banister. Sargon hauled Dante up, too, now that he was free of the tangle, seized him by the front of his collar and brought his own tanned, aquiline, curly-bearded face all but nose to nose with Dante’s pale, mince-mouthed, large-eyed countenance.
“Let me tell you, scribe, the thing you court. The Auditor is Plague. He is Injustice Incarnate. He kills the just and the unjust. He deals injustice. His helpers slay whoever they cast eyes on. He brings turmoil and pestilence. Go to him with your plaints about a lost love and he will track down that love and slay her before you. Where his eye falls, there follow boils and blindness. Where his breath goes, is fever. Where his steps fall, scorpions spring up. He brings the Tiamat, the great ocean dragon. He is here to audit hell, Dante Alighieri, to see if he can find fault in its misery! His handiwork is Overthrow, and if he can find the least chink in hell, he will rip its guts out and cast down every soul into older, deeper elements. The good Augustus, who is far too merciful, and a lover of the arts and of fine things, has given us place among the secrets under his roof, in a paradise which the Romans have made. The Romans have given you sacred hospitality, scribbler, have admitted you to their Elysian Fields, which they have managed to make exist – they have protected you, they have housed and fed you, and shielded you from such things as you have not imagined! This is a good place, Dante Alighieri, and you are a fool if you think we will allow your besotted dream of this chit in heaven to bring Overthrow into it!”
“You will not speak of Beatrice in such disrespect!”
“You will not deal with our eternity in such disrespect!” Hatshepsut said, descending a step also to lean very close to Dante. “The asp of the earth and the vulture of the sky are mine, the crook that rescues and the flail that beats out the grain in judgment! I am the Osiris and the Ra Ascended! I am Isis and Sekhmet, and I rule on the spiritual Nile. Yet I have preferred this house to the Fields of the Blessed – for its knowledge, its seeking after new things, its gathering of minds and its vantage on eternity. I have gained things here that I will not give up, not for all the honors that would be mine if I were willing to go to the Eternal Fields. Oh, you want hell, son of Thoth – try an afterlife of no change, never change, not a day different than any other, for all eternity! I refuse to go back to it – but that is what you threaten! If you bring the eyes of Erra on this place, he will know it is a hotbed of things out of place, and enjoyment, and anticipation, which are not a part of hell outside these walls! Appreciate what you have, scribe! And respect the house of our host! We have enough trouble with Tiberius, who is mad enough to think he can win in this court! But you, you, poet, I have thought you were wiser than that. What use is a poet if he is not wise?”
Dante had begun to wilt, in Sargon’s grip. And now he began to shake his head. “Beatrice,” he moaned. “Beatrice. Beatrice!”
“Hopeless,” Sargon said. “We cannot let the scribbler loose until this is resolved. We cannot have him wandering about with his ‘Beatrice’ and his petitions.”
“We have the basement,” Niccolo said. “He will be happy with the library and the books.”
“You cannot lock me up!” Dante cried. “I shall never forgive you! Never!”
“For his own good,” Hatshepsut said, and bent and picked up a book, as Sargon picked up Dante and marched him downstairs.
Niccolo arranged his cuffs and raked a hand through his hair and tried to compose himself, trying not to think what could happen if Sargon’s hell descended on the villa.
He picked up a couple of books himself, and heard Dante still shouting about Beatrice as a door shut, below.
Dante was going to be very upset with them, but not half as upset as he would be if he got what he wanted to petition for.
Boom! From outside.
The Cong might be coming back through. Or might take another route. He hoped so.
Dante was still screaming, distantly. A door thumped shut. Niccolo looked up, about to go back to the main floor.
And looked up at a scowling Augustus.
“Signore,” Niccolo said, dismayed.
“What is that?” Augustus asked.
“Dante, signore.” Deep breath. “He thinks to petition the court for a new hearing….”
“Di immortales,” Augustus breathed, gone a shade paler. “And the garden? The garden, Niccolo?”
The booming was still going on outside. The shouting from inside.
“I shall go see,” Niccolo said, and added: “If the German Guard could be set to guard the stairs, signore…”
“A good idea,” Augustus agreed.
“Auguste!” One of the servants came running up. “A car. A taxi in the driveway.”
“Damn!” Augustus said. “Damn!” And left.
It was by no means certain there would be any of the German Guard showing up. And it was too late for the rose garden. A car in the driveway?
It likely was the great man himself. And Niccolo was not about to leave the stairs unguarded, even with Hatshepsut and Sargon attending arrangements below. He liked his arrangement with the Romans. He liked being here and not in Cesare Borgia’s basement. He had come here after his initial trip back to Slab One, had reincarnated and gotten shipped here, and he existed in mortal terror on every trip back – every time he died in hell – that some clerk in Infernal Records would realize that someone had gotten Cesare crossed with Caesar and dropped him into the Roman paradise.
Oh, he did not want that mistake reviewed. And the Audit that might send the Roman paradise to a nether hell was terrifying. Personally terrifying.
Hell if he was going to let a love-besotted poet end his residency here.
There was nothing for it. Julius had that figured. The old man was Republican, give or take his penchant for honors, public acclaim, and being important, and staying decently in the house and letting servants bring the visitor to him and Augustus just wasn’t going to set the right tone.
The personal touch. There was a lot of water under the bridge with them – from pristine and sweet to not-so-good water under the bridge. But he’d done the man favors. He’d saved his damned life. Never mind the likelihood the conspirators that had assassinated him had probably approached Cicero and Cicero hadn’t warned him. He’d forgiven Brutus. For Brutus’ sake – and Caesarion’s – and the safety of the household, he could damned well forgive Cicero.
The old man, toga-clad, meticulously coiffed, in the spitting rain, was paying off the taxi – and arranging a stand-wait, apparently, since the cabby nodded several times.
Damn! There was that tower in Decentral Park, big metal thing, like a girder, straight up.
But it was closer now. Right across the street. Hell of an eyesore. And gods knew what it did.
Phone public works and ask? They weren’t phoning anybody official until the Audit was out of here.
“Cicero, my old friend,” he called across the drive, as Cicero still admonished the unfortunate cabbie. “I’m sure he understands.” Best classical form. “Please, come inside!”
“Here!” Cicero said, stabbing a finger at the driveway. “Do not budge! Intelligisne?”
“Si, signore,” the driver said, and Cicero edged away with a second stay gesture.
“Please,” Julius said with an inviting sweep of his arm.
“You seem well-adapted to this place,” Cicero said, casting a jaundiced look at Julius. “I suppose that Octavianus is the same.”
“Well, well,” Julius said, waving the old man inside the foyer. “We do get along, but mentally, sir, mentally, we keep the old ways. Please. Come out to the back. We have everything arranged.” The old man didn’t hold with electric lights, didn’t accept this or that invention, and the taxi was a major concession. The Republicans could be like that.
And if it was daylight, the place for reading and paperwork was, yes, the portico overlooking the rose garden – whence there was a fair view of the back gate, and Tiberius’ villa, or at least its back boundaries.
Augustus was on his way – note that Cicero used his adopted name, Octavianus, not the Senate-awarded title Augustus preferred.
And they had maybe a quarter of an hour to set the tone, deliver the old senatorial warhorse enough wine to mellow his mood, and talk him into handling the case.
Keep the boys out of sight.
And try not to talk about old times.
Augustus had arrived there, in toga. Cleopatra hadn’t. Cicero would not approve, and she had discreetly headed off to find Hatshepsut. Decius was standing by, looking Republican, likewise in toga, instead of the usual fatigues. And one of Augustus’ household was there to play servant, in simple tunic and sandals – jeans and a tee-shirt was Galba’s usual. They were so good.
“Delighted you came,” Augustus said. “So glad. Thank you.”
Augustus offered a handshake, perfect old-fashioned manners, and Cicero stood a moment and surveyed the grounds, the beautiful nude Niobe in the middle of the rose garden – which was shaggy as hell with new growth.
“Amazing vigor,” Cicero remarked. “Quite. No buds however. What are you feeding them?”
“It’s not the food,” Julius said, “it’s the variety. I’m sure we’d be happy to send you one – they’re rather crowding the bed. They’re red, mostly.”
“Very kind of you,” Cicero said, taking his seat. Galba hastened to pour wine all around.
“Your health,” Julius said.
“Indeed,” Augustus said.
They drank. They sipped for a moment in silence. “So,” Cicero said, with a gesture to the modest stack of paper. “I understand you’re in receipt of a letter from the man.”
This was the best part. Caesar quietly slipped the letter in question from the stack and handed the scroll over – parchment, with red wax, no simple tabula for this official creation. They were keeping records in Tiberius’ establishment.
Cicero read it. Or started to. “Stalenus!”
“Caius Stalenus,” Augustus said quietly. “Law firm of Stalenus, Dolabella, and Marcus Licinius Crassus – not to be confused with the esteemed jurist of that cognomen. You and I have had our difficulties. Fate assigned me an ally I repented at leisure, my dear sir – you know who I mean. An ally once dear to Julius, and estranged, even before the plot. When you opposed Julius, you had the grace to do so absolutely, publically and on the most honorable of terms; and would that I had had you at my side, sir, rather than Lepidus and Antonius – who hired that infamous law firm in Tiberius’ name. The flood yonder – as good as the Mediterranean, which once divided me from Antonius – separates us from that vile house, and would that it would wash out the corruption. Hell has spared your domicile, and spares this house, honorable gentleman, but hell has full sway across that flood, and if you are so brave as to take this commission, I do not envy you the task of negotiating with that collection of scoundrels. You see what we are up against!”
Cicero took in a breath. “Allow me to read this.”
Julius took a sip of wine. Augustus did. There was a moment of profound silence, just the crinkling of parchment, the unrolling of a fairly short scroll.
Then Cicero laid it down and brushed his hands off as if brushing off dirt. His chins, immaculately shaven, acquired more wrinkles, with an expression of distaste.
“These are venal men. You need no lawyer. You need a full purse!”
“One might conclude so,” Julius said, “but we need a release. A definitive statement. You know what’s going on downtown. The old lecher, Tiberius, wants to file a lawsuit. Look at it this way. First of all, the boys are innocent.”
“On my honor, Tullius Cicero! On clan Julia’s honor, which I take fully seriously. I’ve bent my own a few times. But not in this. Not in this, Tullius Cicero. These boys made a foolish, youthful mistake. They ended up in Tiberius’ villa, scared out of their minds, and were lucky to get out with their innocence intact, if you take my meaning. The man is notorious.”
“My wife’s son,” Augustus said glumly. “Livia. She spoiled those boys. But syphilis and an old age of debauchery hasn’t improved the old goat’s intellect. He’s a polluted, bloated thing with a taste for things one had rather not name. His house guests are no better – one of whom you well know. The other great orator of our age.”
“I do not admit he is great.”
“He certainly isn’t now,” Julius said, “which is why he’s hired Stalenus, Dolabella and Crassus to represent Tiberius. He’s rarely sober. You won’t have to deal with him, Marcus Tullius. But in his sober interludes he’ll know you won.”
“I haven’t agreed to this!”
“There’s no one better to deal with it. You’re more than a lawyer. You’re a legal scholar. Centuries have not dimmed your reputation.” Flattery, absolute, disgusting flattery. But the old man loved it. He always had.
“The question is a binding legal agreement. An agreement to hold these young men harmless. Are they?”
“One is Marcus Brutus. You know he’s honest.”
Cicero frowned. “And the other, the Egyptian woman’s boy.”
“Caesarion. Yes. Likely he got Brutus into it. But they’re both far out of their depth. And the household, Tullius. The household! A drunk and a syphilitic madman have decided now is the time to launch a lawsuit. Now, of all times! If we go to court, the inquiry may well ask – not why is Tiberius’ house a cesspool of iniquity and misery? But rather, why are Romans in hell enjoying their villas and their comforts, their rose gardens and their traditional ways? You are an astute man. You know exactly what will happen if an inquiry shines a light on this villa. The inquiry will leap from us to your tranquil establishment, to the Elysian meadows, to all the Roman souls that now have the reward of just lives and honorable dealing. You are more than a lawyer, Marcus Tullius. You are the exemplar of an honest lawyer – who fought corruption and challenged wrongdoing in high places. You do not deserve to spend eternity as a courtier in Tiberius’ villa – and that is what is at stake here.”
“That is entirely what is at stake,” Augustus said. “We cannot deal with Tiberius. But we must stop this lawsuit going forward.”
“An out of court settlement,” Cicero said.
“Yes,” Julius said. “They’re both my sons.”
“There are three positions, one to settle, one to defer – to countersue, which I gather is not desirable.”
“Not desirable,” Augustus said. “Even after the Audit departs, the court may be unsettled.”
“In the remaining options, cost may be an issue.”
“No,” Augustus said. “It is not. This is family.”
Well-played, Julius thought. Cicero, besides being an odd combination of puritan and peacock, was an honest man, and Roman to the core. Family. Clan loyalty.
And Cicero was thinking now, fingering the scroll. “And the payment?”
Trick question. A test. A traditionalist did not take pay for legal representation.
“You would never ask payment,” Augustus said.
Bright lad, Caesar thought, and eyes did not meet, while discussing that nasty word money between clans. Cicero was clan Tullia. They were Julia. And should represent themselves. Asking another clan to do it – was a little dicey.
“We want the best,” Julius said. “And you are the best. You are absolutely impossible for Tiberius to hire – but we hope, not out of reach for us to engage on honorable grounds.”
“There is the matter of Antonius.”
“Of whom clan Julia has washed our hands. Entirely. On many grounds. You opposed me openly, siding with Pompeius – but did I hold that against you, when that side went down? You used that eloquence against me. Yet I respected you. I did not heed the advisors who wanted you dead. I was handed a list of my political enemies. I burned it.”
“After reading it?” Cicero asked pointedly, and Julius laughed, honestly.
“I knew the source, the self-seeking bastards. But your name crossed my desk repeatedly, yes, from Antonius. And I trusted Antonius less and less.”
“Would that you had not listened to him,” Cicero said to Augustus.
“What can I say? I was in a situation. I didn’t have the power to stop him. Not on that. Power – came at Actium. After that – I could have. But it was much too late.”
Cicero arched an eyebrow. “You are glib, Octavianus.”
“I was twenty years old, Marcus Tullius. I was a boy allied to Marcus Antonius. I was a boy dragged into public life by Julius’ will, with a handful of advisors and a copy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. I did what I could on the side of justice – but I could not stop him, where his mind was made up. It gave me nightmares, what he did.”
“It gave you nightmares, First Citizen! It was more than a little inconvenient to me.”
“Yet – may we talk of favors, Marcus Tullius? Of clan Julia’s protecting you, as long as it could…”
“You did support the law,” Cicero said. “I give you that, Octavianus.”
“We are all in this together, now,” Julius said. “If that lawsuit goes forward, not only clan Julia will find the attention of the Audit directed on it – we may find those lunatics downtown assigning damages that will ruin us. That may set Tiberius in charge of the Roman establishment. And that brings Marcus Antonius, as his chief officer, and Stalenus, Dolabella and Crassus as his legal office. To an administration interested in increasing the misery of hell, that should do it.”
“Appalling,” Cicero said.
“And of course,” Augustus said, “there is no tit for tat, no recompense, and of course no shameful offer of money, but if the undying friendship of clan Julia weighs anything with clan Tullia, we shall be very glad to do this on a handshake.”
Cicero stood up and proffered his hand. Augustus stood up and took it. Julius extended a hand.
“I shall need,” Cicero said, “a letter of apology from the boys individually. And a letter from the head of clan Julia. Is that yourself, Julius, or has the burden passed –”
“– to my heir, indeed. Augustus will see to it and we shall courier all the letters to you.”
“Make it good,” Cicero said. And winced as, with a screaming passage overhead, a boom and a huge splash amid the flood – a horde of black-clad Viet Cong poured toward the garden gate, on their way back.
Galba moved fast, reached the driveway gate and opened it, allowing a yelling tide of Cong to go through and down the driveway, past the garage.
“Does this happen often?”
“Usually they keep to the other side of the park,” Julius said, and from the front of the house there was the sound of a motor revving and tires squealing. “One fears that will be your cab.”
“Damn the man,” Cicero said.
“By no means concern yourself,” Augustus said. “Shall we let a friend of the clan take a cab from our door? Perish the thought. Galba, tell Mus we shall need the limo. And we shall be couriering letters back and forth.”
Smoke was still going up, despite the rain. “They’ll do well not to make a habit of that,” Julius said. “But again – we’re being quiet for a little while. If the Cong want to get audited, let them. I believe that last one landed quite close to Tiberius’s villa.” He gestured toward the door. “Please. Let me walk you to the drive.”
Pool had proved boring. Television was a Mr. Ed marathon on the only steady channel. It was grim, and their lives were threatened if they tried to leave the house. Besides, the weather was still rotten.
So they played dice. While an English-speaking talking horse ruled the airwaves. Some miracles palled quickly.
But Julius came in – without knocking – and said, quietly, “Son. Brutus. Please come outside.”
Brutus cast a look at Caesarion, got up and left the table, out into the hall with Julius.
“We’ve met with Cicero,” Julius said. “He’s going to do it. An affair of honor, understand. To enable him to do it, and to deal with these people you’re involved with –”
“I’m not involved with that place!”
“Technically, involved, since you’re in danger of being sued by them. And bringing the whole house down, taking the Greeks and the Egyptians with us … we’re a major irregularity in hell’s accounting, and, yes, you are involved. So a dutiful and pious son will write an apology to the house of Tiberius, and I shall, and your cousin Augustus will – make it good. Anything to get us out of the likelihood of the Audit on our doorstep. Count this a defense of the house. In that light, anything is honorable. Understood. Make it short. But make it very sincere.”
It was hard to say I will. But he knew that look. He had no choice. Absolutely none, or he was going to be talked to by everybody in the house, in succession, until he said he would.
“I will, Father.”
“Good. Good lad. Send your brother out.”
“I’ll try,” he said, and went in and said, “Brother. Father asks for you.”
“So let him ask.”
He went over to the table, pulled back his chair and was quiet a moment. “I think Father is respecting your privacy. He’d like to talk to you. And it’s important. We’re in a lot of trouble, Caesarion.”
“Screw ’em. Screw ’em all.”
“Look. It’s not bad here.”
“What’s not bad? We’re stuck in a damned room with a talking horse.”
“Had you rather be hiding in an alley somewhere? We’re in a room with a roof and good food and there’s all sorts of reasons we could be in jail downtown. And you know that. So just go with it. Isn’t that what you say? Settle it so we don’t have to be stuck in a room anywhere. Father’s got a lawyer. A good one. He’s going to get us out of this.”
“Screw ’em, I say.”
“Well, I don’t! I don’t want to get locked up downtown, and you don’t either! So let’s talk sense!”
“Been there,” Caesarion said with a shrug, not looking at him.
“You want to go back?”
“Look, brother. I’m asking you. Me. I was with you. I’ve stood by you. I’m on your side. Just – just do it.”
“What’s he want?”
“Caesarion, I’ll write it. You don’t even have to look at it. Just sign it. And it’ll all be cool. Just go out there and tell him you’ll do it and you don’t even have to turn a hand. It’ll happen. It’ll get dealt with.”
“He hasn’t called my mother into this, has he?”
Brutus shook his head. “No. Just him.”
Caesarion set his jaw. “What kind of letter?”
“You don’t need to know. Just shut up, go out there, tell him you’ll do it, and I’ll write it. Go on. You don’t want him to call your mother in.”
Caesarion shoved back from the table and slouched his way to the door. Attitude. A lot of it. But he was fragile. Brutus had that pegged.
It didn’t take too long.
Caesarion came back in, scowling. “So,” he said, shoved his hands in his pockets and went over and stared out the window.
Brutus didn’t say a thing, just went over to the desk and got paper. Didn’t want to know what Julius had said, what Julius had offered, but he didn’t want to tip the balance, whatever it was. Julius could be damned scary. Usually he wasn’t.
But you didn’t want to be his son and tell him you weren’t going to do something.
The house sent papers to Cicero. Back came back more papers.
Decius Mus took more papers to Cicero. A considerable sum of money. A case of wine. And a potted rosebush. Mus was gone more than he was present that day, ferrying this and that here and there.
The very next day Cicero announced he was coming to the villa with papers to sign.
“He wants what?” Augustus cried, reading same.
They sat in the portico, overlooking the rose garden. Galba served, Mus stood by, his Republican-era armor all polished and oiled. Julius and Augustus were in togas, and everybody else – everybody else – was told to keep to the house.
On the other side of the garden gate, the flood had reached the very shadow of the gate. It stretched past the several estates, and glowed hellfire red as the sky in the distance, next to the skyscrapers of downtown hell.
“It could be further negotiated,” Cicero said. “But it is very likely the position will harden on some matters. Right now we have a settlement that costs nothing in personal favors, one statue, a dozen rosebushes, and one truckload of Chian wine.”
“A Praxiteles,” Augustus lamented, looking toward the Niobe, who stood amid the rose garden, appropriately spattered in rain and framed by floodwaters.
“I’ll scour up another one,” Julius said. “We’ll get something. That fool Memmius lost a raft of them into the bay. They come on the market.”
“It took a century to get her!” Augustus said.
“And our alternatives?” Julius said … and noticed, oddly enough, that Dante Alighieri had come out of the house, ahead of two Scorpion Guards in hot pursuit.
The scholarly little Italian was no athlete. They had him before he reached the gate. And Cicero didn’t even notice. The two Mesopotamian bruisers got to the gate first, snagged the little poet up, each by an arm, and carried him off, screaming … which did get Cicero’s attention. The genteel old man cast a look that way, raised an eyebrow, and looked at Julius.
“One of the houseguests,” Julius said. “Late. You wouldn’t know him. A poet. Quite fond of Vergilius. Based a lot on him.”
“Ah,” Cicero said. “Does he give recitals?”
“For a select few,” Julius said. “Of course – our friends are invited. We can ask Vergilius himself. If you’d be interested.”
“A traditional fellow? None of this Beat poetry.”
“Oh, absolutely traditional,” Julius said. “Best of the new Old School. Cheer up, nephew. We’ll find another Praxiteles. ‘Prometheus and his Vulture,’ maybe.”
“Not funny,” Augustus said. “I love that statue. The old goat is aiming this straight at me. And where did I deserve it?”
“Your adopted brothers owe you one,” Julius said. “Let’s get this thing signed, get ink dry on the line and get that statue moved, the roses dug, and the whole transaction done today, before something worse happens. Galba.”
“Tell Niccolo. The bushes could stand thinning as is. Tell him we can’t wait for the weather.”
The house door shut, on Dante and his problems.
“All right, all right,” Augustus said, downcast. “I’ll sign it. Damn him.”
It was a damned downpour. Niccolo was soaked to the skin and had no help. Dante, damn him to a nether circle of hell, was sitting warm and dry in the basement and they daren’t let him out until it all had blown over. So Niccolo Machiavelli got the job of pruning, wrapping, then digging up ten prickly, man-high rose trees, shaping and wrapping their rootballs – the damned roots moved when insulted, and stabbed you if you hung on. Then, solo, in the rain and cursing Dante all the way, he turned the ten thorny, muddy, burlapped bundles over to the armored, uniformed bevy of regulation legion engineers, who showed up with a noisy truck and a small flatbed load of timbers, regular legionaries, and chain.
Niccolo wrapped himself in spare burlap and slogged over to the shelter of the portico, ordering a passing servant to fetch him a mocha latte. “Grandissimo. And very hot.”
Then he tucked up in a chair, unwilling to hose off twice. He’d have work to do when the engineers had their go. If something was going to go wrong, if somehow they ended up missing a rosebush and in technical violation of the agreement, giving the old lecher a way to wiggle – well, Niccolo Machiavelli wasn’t going to let that happen. They didn’t have mocha lattes in the nether circles of hell. They didn’t have a lot of things, and Niccolo, who’d had his personal dose of dungeon life, didn’t intend to let anybody screw up.
Besides, they’d gotten a rumor of what one of Erra’s Seven had done to a complainant in court.
No. Niccolo wasn’t going to go there. Niccolo wasn’t going to make a mistake.
Boards thumped and boomed down off the truck. The legion engineers, likewise dripping wet, supervising a handful of legionaries, poor sods, who hammered down the disturbed earth and laid planks. Then while Machiavelli shivered under the portico, and huddled in dry burlap, being muddy from head to foot, the serious work started.
Up went beams in an A frame. Pulleys. The engineers set up a pentaspastos on the bed of planks and sent the soldiers swarming up to gird poor weeping, naked Niobe in belts and rope.
One so hoped they didn’t drop the old girl and doom them all. Niobe rose, rose, rose from her pedestal, and set down again beside the rear of the truck.
Then the pedestal moved, by the same expedient, while legionaries, with sly grins and roving hands, steadied la signora Niobe.
The engineers gave orders, and quite smartly those who weren’t mauling the statue disassembled the pentaspastos and reassembled it on the truck bed, fast as fast. It wasn’t as if the age of the truck didn’t manage hoists somewhat more complicated, Niccolo thought. His age had had them.
But the engineers, stubborn fellows, clearly didn’t believe in powered winches and hoists, and it was amazing how very fast that ancient machine reformed and got into operation. The legionaries on the ground attached the robes, the legionaries on the flatbed, three of them, hauled, and Niobe rose, rose, rose to the truck bed.
The legionaries scrambled up then to put the lady into her web of braces and ropes, which would hold her steady on the short drive down past the park. They’d turn at West 96th, round the corner and turn again – easy drive. They’d manage it.
The engineers gave orders. The pedestal joined the weeping lady.
Did a romantic imagine a look of panicked distress on the marble face? Rain glistened on her skin. Her outstretched hand, so delicate, appealed to brute men for salvation, to the thoughtless heavens for a rescue.
None such was coming. You play chess with gods, signora, you just do not expect to win. You were a vain bitch.
Now you get a new admirer. Doubtless you’ll grace his bedroom. Lucky signora. You’re marble. He’s – shall we say – less than pure.
“He-us!” the senior engineer shouted, and the legionaries scrambled to grab rose bushes and to get them aboard. And Julius had probably been watching the progress, since he came out, looked the situation over, counted rosebushes – little nods of his head – and walked grandly back indoors, into the dry.
Dannazione. Not a shred of notice, his direction. Julius was thinking about those two boys of his. He was thinking about Augustus, or Cleopatra, or any of a dozen others.
Who did he have? Dante Alighieri. Who believed heaven and Beatrice awaited him – if he could ever reconstitute his great epic.
Well, he had the garden to keep his mind off his problems. He had to move some rosebushes to cover the scars the trucks had made – and the missing ten bushes. Eleven, counting Cicero’s.
Couldn’t have made it an even, easy-to-apportion number, could they?
Maybe he should send a gift of his own to Cicero … just paving the way for future favors. One never had too many favors of the inbound sort.
He thought that, gathering up his garden spade from its place, leaning against a pillar of the portico.
And saw, through the gate, three things.
First, there was a great metal tower in the far distance – right next to the edge of the flood, right on the edge of Tiberius’ lawn.
Second, on Richelieu’s lawn, there was a small band of the Cardinal’s men, armed with swords, determinedly facing something, short and singular, splashing its way across the flood at an angle.
Thirdly, and equally determined, there was one of the Cardinal’s men in galoshes, headed for the villa’s back gate, sword in hand, and fire in his eye.
“Toi!” the man shouted at him.
That did it. “Don’t you toi me, vous!” He flung down the shovel. “You are addressing Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, Secretary to the Second Chancery de la Repubblica di Fierenze, lately Secretary to Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, master of this villa. Whom do you think you are addressing?”
“A most peculiar occupation for a gentleman, sir! You are head to foot in mud, and that –”
It was an imp, emanated from the tower on Tiberius’ green rolling lawn, and the Cardinal’s men were having at it, with poor effect.
“Don’t look at us! We had one cross our grounds with the Viet Cong in hot pursuit! If you let it get to the Park you’ll have that horde coming back after it! Tiberius is not under my lord’s jurisdiction! He’s your neighbor!” There was a horrendous scream. Niccolo winced. “My lord views this as his property line, and kindly respect it. I am sure my lord wishes your lord well, and hopes you will succeed in driving that creature back to Tiberius’ premises, where it will be aptly situated. I shall report it immediately, and you may rest assured we will not let it pass.”
“You may rest assured His Eminence will seek damages!” the Cardinal’s man cried.
“You may rest assured His Eminence understands exactly the situation downtown. If you cannot deal with this yourselves, then appeal to my lord, and we will take over your defense – in a neighborly way. But I think His Eminence has a very clear reason why we will not be seeking anything in the law courts at this precise moment!”
“Vous,” the Cardinal’s man said – the respectful pronoun, this time, then at a renewed scream from his men, spun around and started to run. “Idiotes! Chut! Tenez! Tenez-vous!”
Damn the roses. Niccolo turned and ran for the house, but Julius was already on his way out into a sudden spate of rain, armed with a pistol, with Mus, Scaevola and Sargon’s two Scorpion Guards – that was two M-16’s and a pair of tall spears; and behind them came Augustus’ German Guard, howling like wolves, invoking one-eyed Wotan and waving their Gewehr 98’s at the lightning above.
Niccolo simply wiped the mud off his hands and nicely opened the garden gate, as the French rallied and began to chase the imp back in Tiberius’ direction.
Rifle fire stitched the water. The Germans and Sargon’s Scorpion Guards waded out after the retreating imp.
Julius and his bodyguards stopped at water’s edge, watched for a moment, then walked back through the villa gate.
“I think that’s handled,” Julius said. “Was he appropriately polite, the Cardinal’s man, Niccolo? I noticed a little waving of hands.”
“He had to have things explained, m’lord.”
“You might write the incident up,” Julius said. “In case.”
Niccolo bowed. Smiled at Julius, despite a raindrop making a slow path down the side of his nose, and another down his opposite temple.
He so appreciated little chances like that, to advance himself in the household, to become – perhaps – essential. Essential was good.
Essential was always good, where it came to princes.