The Case of the Strange Etruscan Vase

Part II

by Joy Ellen Parker (Joyspc at

They were two streets down when Lestrade's outrage was submerged under the realization that she ought to keep track of which way they went, in case she and Holmes needed to return to the alley again. After the maze that was New London, ancient Rome was relatively easy to navigate. However, she kept getting distracted by unexpectedly garishly painted monuments, columns of marching soldiers, litters with bearers, and other sights that screamed, Yes, you are a time-traveler. No, this isn't a dream.

Holmes appeared to be asking Cyrus careful questions about their surroundings. Occasionally, the boy let go of one of their hands to gesture this way and that, or to point out some building or statue. He was obviously enjoying the role of tour guide and he seemed to have quite a theatrical streak. I wonder what kind of place this kid calls home. In Lestrade's experience, kids who got routinely chased by Yardies -- and she had no doubt Cyrus was an expert at eluding soldiers -- tended to live in squatters' quarters in some old building or in the hangout of some career crook. Well, we're in the wrong era for Fagin at any rate.

Given her expectations, she was quite surprised when 'home' turned out to be a bakery. The warm smell of bread suffused half the street in front of it and made her stomach growl. Cyrus knocked and the door was opened by a little brown-haired girl about ten years old, who grabbed their grinning guide around the middle in an obvious hug of relief which almost squeezed the stuffing out of him. Lestrade caught her name, Anna, as Cyrus tried to get a word in edgewise. A gaggle of other children appeared in the doorway, and she was trying to sort out who was who when she felt the pressure of Holmes' foot on hers. She glanced down and saw that the outline of a fish had been carved into the stone in front of the threshold. She only had time to exchange one lifted eyebrow for another before they were dragged inside.

Ben the baker was one of the jolliest people Lestrade had ever seen outside a Christmas pageant. He was as rotund around the middle as a good baker should be with a large round nose and wide, innocent-seeming eyes. His hair was almost as curly as Cyrus' but they were obviously not related -- not that Lestrade could prove that by how enthusiastically Ben greeted his stray. When Cyrus finally pulled away from another enveloping hug his face was dusted with flour from the baker's apron. Ben brushed it away with a chuckle and bussed him on the cheek for good measure. When he turned to Holmes, Lestrade braced herself to look calm when she was introduced. She promised herself to flay New Scotland Yard's most arrogant consultant later, when there was time to do a thorough job of it.

The introduction actually did cause an awkward moment when Ben greeted her with "Shalom" and tried to talk to her in Hebrew or Aramaic or whatever language was current in Jerusalem.

"Tell him I was kidnapped by pirates when I was very small and so I don't know his language or customs," she hissed to Holmes. Two can play this game. He's not the only one who's done undercover work. "Pirates, Lestrade? How melodramatic."

"Just tell him, husband." Ben looked very sympathetic after Holmes rattled off this explanation.

A tall, elegant-looking woman with her hair in a simple bun had been speaking to Cyrus in a corner by the shop's large brick stoves during this exchange. Now she came forward to greet them, smiled, touched her chest and said "Helena."

Lestrade smiled back and said "Elizabeth," trying not to show how strange the name felt on her tongue. Holmes bowed in his usual fashion and said something to Helena which sounded quite different than the Latin he had been using. "Greek? You know Greek, too?"

"Twenty-second century education is quite deficient, Elizabeth."

"Stick it in your pipe, Linus." Ben's wife was leading them to a table on which a simple meal was already set and introducing the other children as they bustled about getting extra place-settings and pulling out extra stools. Besides Cyrus and Anna, there was a boy of about ten or eleven called Justin, a small boy of seven or so called Marcus and a tall kid of about fourteen or fifteen whose name was Zak or maybe Yak -- he had muttered it under his breath wearing a mutinous teenaged expression that reminded her of Deirdre or Wiggins on their bad days. As they sat down he said something fierce sounding to Ben in what might have been Hebrew.

Lestrade glared at him across the table. "It's very rude to speak about your guests in a language they don't understand, kid." He stared right back and raised his voice. Ben looked stern and put a quelling hand on his arm.

"The young man thinks we are spies," said Holmes as he handed her a small loaf of bread just from the oven.

"Is that just a guess or do you know his language too?"

"I know enough to get the gist of his remarks, but even if I did not it is obvious that the climate in which these people must live would tend to make them suspicious. On the way here, Cyrus told me that Ben and Helena took him in after the Great Fire separated him from his parents. All these children are refugees -- and I noticed that Cyrus slipped Helena a small scroll earlier."

"Right." Lestrade broke her bread in two, dipped a finger in the sauce bowl at her elbow and drew what would be known in her time as a Jesus- fish on the inner side. She passed it to Holmes who repeated her gesture with his own sauce on the other end of the bread and passed it to Ben. He grinned, offered both of them a wink, and ate the bread in two bites.

Dinner was an even more relaxed affair after this. The smaller children pointed out things on the table and offered her their Latin names. Lestrade surreptitiously switched on her translator and gave back the English word for each item. If they kept up like this she might actually be able to improve the thing's database. Zak was still inclined to be mistrustful, but he was overruled by the two adults. Ben and Helena invited Lestrade and Holmes to a secret meeting being held by some of Rome's Christians the next night -- Sunday, naturally.

"Ben is a leader among the local Christians," Holmes translated. "He calls himself a Story Keeper because he sees it as his duty to guard and pass on stories about the Christ...he actually met Jesus when he was no bigger than Marcus. It was his lunch loaves that were involved in the miracle of the loaves and the fishes."

Lestrade choked on Helena's homemade stew, nearly spewing it onto Justin's tunic. "Are you telling me that I'm sitting here having dinner with someone who actually met Jesus Christ?!" She reached for her wine with a trembling hand and took a large gulp. Luckily it was mixed with water or she would have choked again. Holmes pounded her on the back and muttered to Helena, who looked concerned.

"I told her you were awed to be in the presence of someone who had met the Savior."

"Shocked is more like it. I thought-"

"Where is your faith, Elizabeth?" He smiled.

"Things are more complicated where we come from and you know it."

"More complicated than Rome? I've said it often: When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

"Yeah," Lestrade wiped her mouth with her napkin very slowly and tried not to stare at the man in the blue tunic and white apron who sat across from her.

She recovered her self-possession eventually and was able to help clean up. Helena chivvied the children to the beds they shared in the bakery's cramped second room. Lestrade was surprised at first to see Zak put on a cloak, call out his goodbyes and head out the door. Then she reminded herself that he would actually be considered an adult in this time and probably had a home of his own nearby. He had managed to eat two plates of food while darting suspicious glances at her and she washed them carefully and put them away with the others.

She wondered what Holmes was doing. He had asked for a wooden tray earlier and had begun drawing on it with a charred stick. Now he and Ben were in a corner of the shop bent over the artwork. She wiped her hands on a rough piece of burlap Helena used as a towel and wandered over to look.

Holmes had drawn a darn good portrait of Professor Cromatty, replacing the New London suit they had last seen him in with a toga. "I thought," he said, "that Ben's quite extensive network of contacts might be able to locate our fugitive. I've told him the man is a dangerous swindler with whom we have had dealings, to our sorrow -- a true account when it comes to it."

"Let's hope he hasn't finished whatever he's here to do yet. I would have voted for chasing him first thing, if I'd have had any idea where to look. How do you know Ben has a network that could find him?"

"Elementary, my dear -- ah, Elizabeth. Eyes and brains. Ben is the leader of a Christian underground which holds secret meetings and trafficks in the writings of the Church Fathers. That takes some organization. There are doubtless Christians in every walk of life in Rome, therefore...."

"Okay, okay, but you better hope this works, Linus, or we could end up trapped here while Moriarty's little errand boy does irreparable damage to the timeline." Ben had been glancing back and forth at them like a spectator at a football match, but now he rose and kissed Helena, who had finally settled the children. The two of them led Holmes and Lestrade to a curtained-off area in a corner of the next room and revealed....

"A bed," Lestrade groaned, "their bed. They expect us to sleep here -- together!"

Editor's Note: Characters and situations that aren't from SH22 are from an animated show called Storykeepers , which is property of Shepherd Films in Dublin. As you can tell, it's a religious cartoon about the early Christians evading persecution. Sorta Hogan's Heroes, except with a family and Gospel stories. ;)

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