I. On Clerical Duty
The assistant softly shook Valerius’ shoulder a second time. The old man yawned and lifted his head.
«Overseer, I’m sorry to disturb you. I’ve brought the forms.»
Valerius took the stack of papyrus sheets and the wax tablet from his assistant and nodded for him to leave.
«I’ll come back later for the finished ones.»
Valerius grunted and placed the tablet in front of him. It had a list of the day’s changes that needed to be made to outgoing church funds. He took the first form off the top of the stack and set it next to the list, then removed a small sponge out of a glass bowl and squeezed the excess water out. Daubing gently, Valerius rubbed «OUTGOING RUTILIA P» off the top of the form. He scanned the rest of the document and blotted «CASH 27 RAD» away from the bottom. He wrote a little tick next to Rutilia’s name in the list and put the form off to the side to dry and worked on the next in the stack. «OUTGOING CAIUS C ORPHANED» – «CASH 36 RAD». Form off to the side to dry, tick on the list, next in the stack. «OUTGOING MART FULC» – «1 LOAF, 2 CHLD TUNIC, CASH 50 RAD» Off to the side, tick on the list, next in the stack. Daub, side, tick, next. Daub, side, tick, next.
When all of the forms had been sponged clean or crossed through because the ink couldn’t be sufficiently removed, Valerius formed them into a new stack, pressed his initials into the bottom of the list, and placed it on top. Then the assistant would enter with another stack and take the old one with him. This was what Valerius, Overseer of all the churches of Caesaraugusta, did all morning, every morning, after returning from Mass. Sometimes, if he was unlucky, his recycling efforts would be interrupted by visitors. They were mostly merchants the churches had quiet arrangements with, but once in a while a member of the congregation would come in and ask to speak to him or his deacon about matters that the church elders were unable or unwilling to discuss. Unfortunately for Valerius, his deacon was late this morning.
There was a gentle knock at the door. The old man sighed. He reflexively motioned towards the door with a trembling hand and said, «C-come…» A young man entered and nodded to Valerius in deference. He was wearing a thin moustache in the Egyptian style and had the poor posture and wrung hands of someone used to saying “Sir.” Valerius gestured for him to sit across the table and smiled weakly. «G-good morning, Brother–?»
«What can I do for you, Brother Marius?» he stuttered.
The young man sat down and stared at the tabletop. «I’ve actually been here before. Was maybe…six months ago?»
«I’m sorry, I–»
«It’s OK. You’re an old man, I know. Well, there’s this villa over on the west side. I mean outside ‘Saragusta, but on the west side. Anyway, this guy there hired me to install some drainpipes from the house down to the sewer.»
«But this guy’s never home some I’m always dealing with his wife. And six months ago I started fixing some of the pipes from the baths and the latrines and she’s hitting on me because he’s not there, you know?»
«Did you r–»
«Yeah, I said no. And she laughed it off and said she was joking. But then a couple days ago I get sent back over there because the pipes were clogged and my boss was saying it was my fault because there’s no way they got clogged that fast if I did a good job–which is bullsh–nonsense, because it could be full of hair or…all kinds of other stuff. So I go back up there and check and it’s full of coins. Like just a shi–a bunch–of gold and silver coins stuffed in this pipe. And I take them out and she’s standing behind me smiling and asking, ‘Well? What did you find, Marius?’ and I’m thinking it’s a setup, you know? Like she or her weird husband were trying to get me to steal money from them so they could complain and get out of having to pay for the work or something. So, I show her the coins and say, ‘Here you go, lady. They’re all there. Count them if you want.'»
«Yeah, but she goes, ‘You can have them. Would you like that?’ And I’m stupid, but I’m not stupid, you know what I’m saying?»
«So’s I figure she either wants to f–have relations with me…or she wants me to kill her husband. It’s got to be one of those two, right? And I ask her point blank if she wants to f–have relations. She goes, ‘Sure, we can do that too. But you’re someone who knows how to get things out of tight spots, so what I really want you to do is go down to where the furnace is for the hypocaust and get a little wooden box for me. It fell over the side. I don’t think you can get in there with your whole body, but you’re a plumber, so I guess you know how to fish something out. I’d send one of the servants, but I don’t trust them not to look inside.'»
«Why can’t her husband–»
«That’s exactly what I asked her. ‘Why can’t your husband go down there and get it?’ And she goes, ‘It’s a surprise for his birthday. I hid it in the furnace since we don’t use it anyway, but when I went to retrieve it, it fell out the other end.’ So now it kind of makes sense, I guess. It’s either something extremely valuable or something embarrassing she doesn’t want to have to explain if a slave finds it. Like a giant joke dildo or something. Sorry, Overseer. Anyway, so like I said it starts to make sense now.»
«If she–if she’s telling the truth.»
«Yeah, she wasn’t.»
«You we-we-went dddown–» Valerius took a breath. “You went down there?”
«Yeah, I went down there. Of course, I did. For that amount of money? I know I’m not supposed to care about things like that and all, but–»
«So, I went down there and found the furnace right where she said it was. I opened the door but it was dark inside and too small to climb through so I tried to feel around with my hand thinking maybe I could get the box that way, but I couldn’t reach the floor because of the dropoff, you know? Then I heard something on the other side and jumped back. And that box she wanted appears out of nowhere and comes through the hole towards me like something is pushing it.»
The door opened and a young man appeared. He greeted Valerius and Marius and sat down.
«Sorry, I overslept a little.»
«A little.» Valerius caught the young man up on what Marius had already said and turned back to the plumber. «Go on.»
«Anyways, I took the box and was ready to go, but I was kind of curious…»
Vincentius leaned forward. «About what was in the box?»
«No, Deacon. About who pushed it up through that hole.»
He leaned back. «Ah.» Vincentius leaned over the table and took the stack of forms from Valerius and began sponging and ticking.
«Well, I look real hard through the hole even though there’s no light and see this face. And then a bunch of faces. They were kids. Some of them maybe 10, most about 15 or so, I guess. And real pale like they’d been bleached, but also dark from all the soot.»
«Sure. That. Anyway, I guess they thought I was the lady or her husband at first because they were all real scared, but when they see it’s me they start smiling–but all their teeth are rotted out and black. Or missing. And I’m fixing to run like he-heck out of there and this one in the front goes, ‘Wait, Marius.’ And I stop dead, because how the f-heck does this girl know my name? Maybe she heard it through the floor, I don’t know. But I stopped and turned around. And she goes, ‘Do you believe there is only one true God and that he made his only Son die so that we might live?’ And I leaned in just in case the lady could hear me down there and whispered, ‘Yeah, do you?’ And all them kids start hugging each other and crying like I’d come to rescue them or something. How am I going to get them out of that little hole? And the girl says, ‘Do you want to meet him?’ So, I go, ‘…Who? God?’ And she goes, ‘His Son. He lives in here with us.'»
«Sorry, Overseer. I’m almost done. So, I’m wondering what I should do and then this real tall kid steps in front of all the others and blocks the hole with his tunic. Like real tall. I don’t know how he was walking around like that, because the floor above us isn’t much higher, you know? What was he doing, like…bending his whole head backwards or something? Anyway, this tall kid reaches his white hand out through the hole and I get a good look at it. It’s all marbled like you said–»
Vincentius yawned and apologized.
«But the fingernails are all wrong. They’re bent upwards like someone had tried to rip them out and stopped, or maybe it was from trying to scratch through the walls or something. I don’t know. And the skin on the fingertips is all rusty. Anyway, he’s blocking the hole and I can’t see her anymore, but I hear her still. And she goes, ‘Lean forward so He might bless your brow.’ And that’s when I said, ‘Fuck this!’ and ran. I dropped the box and just ran all the way back to the workshop.»
Vincentius handed Valerius the stack of recycled papyri and the list. Valerius scanned the list and checked every document. When he was satisfied, he signed his name at the bottom. Without looking up he asked, «Did you?»
«Yeah, sure. Course, I did.»
Vincentius crossed his arms and stared at Marius. «You didn’t let him touch your forehead?»
«…no. Of course not.»
«OK, maybe a little. Just the fingertips though.»
Vincentius sighed. «Brother Marius, the Son of God is not living with a bunch of albino heretics beneath a floor in ‘Saragusta.»
«Yeah, I know that. Course, I know that. But…better safe than sorry, right?»
Valerius raised an eyebrow. “Did you keep the money?”
“Oh, jeez. I forgot. Yeah, of course I’m going to give it to the church. Only seems right, considering…”
Vincentius shook his head. “Take it back. Today, if possible.”
“Take it back? Why? I don’t want to go back there!”
“You made a promise to the Lady of the Villa to bring her her box in exchange for that money. You did not bring her her box, ergo you have broken your promise. You’ve stolen from her, Brother.”
“But that place scares me…”
“That may be, but Hell is a scary place too. Either take the money back or get her box for her.”
“Oh, come on…” Marius turned to Valerius. “Overseer, what do you think? I don’t have to go back there, do I?”
“Vincentius speaks for me in all matters. He knows what I’m going to say before I say it–when he’s here on time.”
Marius stood and threw up his hands. “All right, Overseer. If you say I have to, I have to. But if I don’t come back it’s because of them monsters in the floor or one of them weirdos above it.”