The slave market was almost empty. Somehow, he’d expected more than this dismal, dirty, flea bitten courtyard. It looked like the arse end of somewhere civilization had not so much forgotten as had been glad to cast aside. Well, that was time travel for you. Set the dial to a period that sounds romantic, hit the big red button and look what you end up with! Typical really. After the week he’d had this just finished it off nicely. And if anyone spoke English here, he’d eat his library card.
Manly Norscott sighed heavily, "Right. Let's find this ruddy git then and get home before tea time, shall we?" He strode off, the goat trotting quietly beside him, his pocket watch dangling from its mouth.
The slave market was deceptive. It took the two of them a while to find their way out into the main thoroughfare. Once they did, Ancient Rome stood before them in all its glory and splendour. Yeah, right.
Firstly, it wasn’t ‘ancient’ then. Well, not as ancient as it is now, obviously. It was hot, crowded and smelly. Secondly, the mania for constructing monumental buildings the Bank of England would later copy was in full swing. And thirdly, modern history books completely failed to mention it was basically a police state. Except there were no police. There were red-skirted, hob-nailed sandaled, blue-chinned army types swaggering around.
Manly Norscott sighed. He’d had enough trouble with authorities back home in his own time. He didn’t need any more here.
How the hell was he going to find Lord Fotheringham in a city of probably half a million people?
The goat butted him gently. He looked at the watch. Ah. This was why the goat always carried the pocket watch. According to the rather complicated set of cogs and wheels that made up the timepiece it was the Ides of March.
Norscott wracked his brain. Something important happened on the Ides, he knew that much. And it had happened to some--
Bloody hell! Old Julius Caesar was getting the pointy end of some rather sharp daggers today. Twenty-three to be precise. It happened, it happened, where the blazes did it happen? The Curia of something.
The goat trotted off. Norscott wondered why he ever bothered trying to remember anything when old Tiberius, the goat, seemed to know it all. Best not to call him Tiberius here. Norscott knew some history, but he was sketchy on the details. He wasn’t sure when old Tiberius, the Roman Emperor, had been born.
One thing Tiberius, the goat, forgot was that it was a lot easier for him to make his way through crowds than Manly Norscott. Especially as Norscott tended to attract attention. Being six feet four in height, rather heavy in the shoulders and arms department – think silver back gorilla – and wearing Victorian dress of the butler variety, attention tended to happen when one was time travelling. It was Norscott’s sheer force of presence that kept Rome’s general population from pestering him. The look on his face – think silver back gorilla again, but this time with a hangover – encouraged most people, even sarcastic ten-year olds, to pretend they didn’t see him at all.
The butler eventually caught up with the goat.
He knew it! Lord Fotheringham was seated in the back of a large room with a sheet draped around him. A sheet might work wonders at a fancy-dress party in 1870 London, but in 44 B.C. Rome, not so much. Especially draped over a tweed walking suit. Good grief. The man was grinning like an ape! Anyone would think the soon-to-be assassination was a theatre spectacle enacted purely for his benefit! He may have invented time-travel, but the man was an idiot.
There was another door close to where Lord Smartypants was sitting. The goat cocked an eye at him. Manly nodded and they slipped out into the street again and found their way to the back entrance.
He could hear laughter. It was coming up the corridor. Oh, good grief! (Or something to that effect, but not suitable for people of a nervous disposition). It was Julius and the gang! Shoving his bowler hat firmly onto his head, Norscott ran.
Thankfully, the Lord was light as a feather. Manly barely paused for breath before scooping him up, tossing him over his shoulder and legging it for the slave market. The git they’d just rescued protested mightily, of course, but Manly and the goat kept running. They hit the dirt of the slave market just as a new batch of merchandise was being herded out of the cells. A small crowd had gathered.
The goat went berserk. Head butting and kicking everyone in sight. Bit of a risk in ancient Rome when all and sundry carried some form of weapon but, needs must. Having cleared a space on the sales platform the goat tossed the pocket watch to Norscott and scurried between his legs. Norscott pulled out the winder, reset the date and shoved the winder back in. “Hold on your Lordship. We’re going—”
—the hallway of Fotheringham House hit them like a ton of mackerel. Elephant seals trying to do a fandango had nothing on how their stomachs were lurching round. There was a knock at the door.
“Norscott,” groaned Lord Fotheringham. “The door.”
Norscott managed to get to his feet and stagger across. He pulled himself up to his full height and stuck out his stomach like all good butlers do. Which was a mistake, physiologically speaking. He leaned his head against the door. “The sheet,” he moaned.
Tiberius, blessed with a stronger constitution, well… being a goat he would be… leaped to his feet and dragged the sheet off Lord Fotheringham. He was last seen stuffing it behind the potted palm. The knock sounded again. A little firmer than before. The butler sighed. He knew that knock, and that knock was not going to see him looking like a sick octopus. Out the corner of his eye he could see Lord Fotheringham Indian crawling into the library. He straightened up and opened the door.
“Good morning, Inspector,” ex-breakerer-and-enterer, not to mention purloinerer-of-precious-items, now butler-to-a-peer-of-the-realm, Manly Norscott said. “How may I help you?”
The Inspector stared. “Norscott?” He grinned, “You’re nicked! I finally caught you. Red-handed. In the act.”
“Yes, sir. It is part of my duties.”
“It usually is for a thief. I know you, you’re robbing the place!”
“If I was, would I open the door to a policeman dressed like a penguin… sir?”
“Then what are you doing here? Tell me that!”
“I am Lord Fotheringham’s butler, Inspector,” said Norscott.
“What tosh! You expect me to believe that you, London’s most notorious cat-burglar, has turned respectable?”
Norscott smiled. “A case of mistaken identity, I believe. Will there be anything else, Inspector?”
There was a long pause. “I see. This is the new you, is it?”
“If you like, Inspector, you may certainly consider this, ‘the new me’.”
“People don’t change, Norscott. I’m watching you!” said the Inspector.
“Norscott,” called his Lordship. “Is there any tea?”
With a deeply amused smile, Norscott closed the door, politely, in the inspector’s face.
The goat was cooking breakfast, a neat pin-striped butcher’s apron tied around his neck and waist. Manly Norscott, butler and ex-pincherer-of-stuff was similarly attired, although wearing considerably more clothes, of the butler variety, underneath it. In the below-stairs kitchen in Lord Fotheringham’s London establishment, Norscott was polishing boots. It was Wednesday, so polishing was the order of the day, boots as previously mentioned, silverware, copper stuff and then brasses. Doorknobs in particular.
He always left the brasses, doorknobs in particular, to the end. That way he could linger over it while standing in the warm sun, watching passers-by. Old business acquaintances of the pinching industry would be about then. He could catch up on who was nicking what, when and where. Not to mention who’d been nicked, put away or gotten out.
Norscott was good at lifting information. His nemesis, Inspector Mandible, had taken to having a late afternoon pint and pie at the pub across the road every Wednesday. His mission – to try and catch Norscott consorting with known criminals. He’d never succeeded. The perfection of pie may have had something to do with it. Easy to be distracted by the perfect steak and kidney pastry. And if he did catch Norscott consorting, he’d have to arrest him and then there’d be no more justification for spending two hours every Wednesday in Mrs Poppin’s Pie Shop.
Today, however, he was destined not to see Norscott at all, which he would have thought odd, unless he’d been at breakfast that morning.
Tiberius, the goat, pulled the pan of sizzling bacon off the range and trotted into the hallway where he gave the Benares brass gong a gentle tap.
Nothing. Not a sound from upstairs.
Tiberius was hungry. He shuffled back a few steps and took a run at the gong. The clang was enough to crack the stained-glass window in the front door.
“Yes! Alright. I heard you the first time. I’ll be right there,” floated down in plummy accents rather thick with sleep.
A few moments later, Manly Norscott rose and pulled out a chair for his employer.
"Thank you, Norscott,” said Lord Fotheringham with a huge yawn. “What’s for breakfast?”
“Scrambled eggs and bacon. It’s always scrambled eggs and bacon.”
“So it is,” said Lord Fotheringham with a dozy grin. “As it should be.”
They all munched in silence, savouring the moment.
“I say, Tiberius,” said Lord Fotheringham through a mouthful of marmalade toast. “Have you seen my fountain pen? The one with the gold nib?” As if he had any other kind. “I’m sure I had it yesterday.” He patted his dressing gown as if it might be hiding in some unknown pocket. Norscott gave thanks that he hadn’t been on a bender the night before. A more garish dressing gown had yet to be invented. Luminous, that was the word. Violently blue and purple peacocks chased each other with what he could only assume was a desire to see the peacock population increase a hundred-fold, across an acid green sea thick with black turtles wearing red bow ties.
Actually, the word was hideous.
“Where do you last remember using it, sir?” asked Norscott.
Lord Fotheringham tapped his teeth with a perfectly manicured fingernail. “Hmmm. Hmmm. Well, that’s just it. I don’t remember at all! I wrote my name on the seat I was sitting on before you swooped in and… what do they say in the clubs… escorted me off the premises. Haha. And when we got back here, it seems to have just disappeared. Very odd.”
Tiberius and Norscott exchanged looks. The goat rolled his eyes and collected the plates.
Manly cleared his throat. “Are you saying, sir, correct me if I’m wrong, but are you saying you used your fountain pen to write your name on the marble seat of the Curia yesterday. In Rome. A.D. 44? And…” he took a deep breath, “You have left said fountain pen, of which particular make was only invented in 1870 by Messrs MacKinnon and Cross, there as well?”
“I suppose I must have. Drat. How annoying.”
“You could say that. Sir. Ruddy git.”
“I said we’d better go get it, sir” Norscott rose, as did the peer of the realm. “No, sir,” said Norscott as politely but firmly as he could. “Tiberius and I will go. You have an appointment with your hatter at ten.”
“Oh yes, so I do. Rightio then, Norscott. I’ll see you later. I’ll get some salmon for dinner. That’ll be nice. Have fun.”
Fun was not to be had in Rome the day after Julius Caesar had been assassinated. However, the chaos and mass confusion were good for one thing – no one paid the slightest bit of attention to a British Library card-carrying, gorilla-impersonating butler in formal attire and his pocket-watch carrying goat.
Among the unwashed masses this worked to their advantage. In the Curia of Pompey, not so much. It was a crime-scene after all, of the most powerful person in the world, at the time.
The usual practise was for Tiberius to saunter in and nose around. Being a goat, he could get away with a lot more than Norscott. He was also a consummate actor. A skill not many people knew was a part of goat make-up. Manly, however, had come to appreciate the goat’s dedication to his craft. Tiberius dropped the pocket-watch into Norscott’s hand. He dropped his head and shut his eyes.
A few moments later, a mangy, flea-bitten and insignificant, not to mention probably as tough as nails, goat ambled across the floor of the Curia. It stopped to scratch behind its ear. The blue-chinned red-skirt standing near the roped-off area barely glanced at it. So far, so good.
Norscott watched as Tiberius jumped up onto the seats and snuffled his way along them. His ears - the goat’s, not Norscott’s - perked up.
He’d found the pen! He had it in his mouth and had turned back toward Manly with a grin when the red-skirt’s boss spotted him.
“Stop that goat!” he roared.
“Damnation!” swore Norscott. He thumped his bowler hat firmly on his head and ran. Scooping up the goat under one arm, he legged it for the slave market. Although a rather dismal and unfriendly place, the slave market was their A.D. 44 Time Portal. ‘Go with what you know’ being the rule they travelled by. It was a race against time! Mind you, as time travellers it usually was.
Thankfully, the market had closed for the day. They raced for the podium. Tiberius took his position between Norscott’s legs. Manly set the pocket watch to the correct date, time and location and shoved the winder back in just as a gladius thudded into the wooden wall behind them.
There was a knock at the door. Victorian London. They were home in one piece. Not counting the return-entry elephant seals dancing on their stomachs.
“Norscott? Are you in there? I forgot my key.”
Taking a deep breath, Norscott rose and opened the door.
“Salmon!” cried Lord Fotheringham.
“Your pen, sir,” Norscott said, exchanging the fish for the writing implement.
“Thank you. I wondered where that had got to. Busy day?”
The goat snorted.
“Uneventful, my Lord.”