Pliny and Vesuvius: A Farewell to Arms – Andrew D Hwang

It was a fine Neapolitan morning in the Year of our Lord LXXVIII. Pliny the Younger strolled down the main boulevard, lost in thought. His pet volcano, Vesuvius, chuffed along at his feet.

Some fiend is stealing arms off statues. Why? There was a bounty for the ringleader. When Pliny wrapped up this case he’d be able to afford that mansion across the bay. The one Calpurnia had her eye on.

“Vexing, eh ‘Suv?” Pliny kicked an elbow-shaped chunk of stone into the gutter. “I bet they’re being smuggled out. We’ll go have a look-see down at the port. That’s gotta be where the action is. But first, a cuppa. I can’t think like this.”

A wisp of steam rose from Vesuvius.

“No. This time we’re going to Starbucks. Oh look, here we are.”

The earth jolted, the booming drum of a subterranean giant. A nearby statue teetered and fell with a crash.

Pliny sighed. “All right. After this we’ll swing by McDonald’s for yours.”

*      *      *

Pliny slurped his caramel latte. “Jove Almighty, that’s good stuff. Really turns the brain wheels.” He slapped his thigh and whooped. “Hey ‘Suv! It’s a gang of arms dealers. Get it?”

There was no sound, but the air grew tense, as before a thunderstorm.

They crossed the piazza near the First Bank of Naples. Two familiar faces approached. Pliny tipped his garland. “Good morning, Mrs. Proculus. Hello, Cally.”

His fianceé blushed. “Hello, Pliny. We’re just going to pick up the wedding toga.” She stooped low. “How are you, Vesuvius?”

The ground gave a happy rumble. Loose masonry clattered.

Mrs. Proculus beamed. “Mr. Proculus and I are so looking forward to meeting your esteemed uncle at the rehearsal dinner—”

Shouts from the bank cut her off. A gunshot, the sound of marble shattering.

Pliny pulled the women behind a fountain depicting Caesar’s micturition. “You’ll be safe here, Mrs. Proculus. Cally, fetch the legion!” He placed his latte in the statue’s outstretched hand for safe keeping.

Calpurnia clutched Pliny’s toga. “Don’t! It’s too dangerous.”

“No time to argue.” He extracted himself. “Cover the front, ‘Suv!”

The bank’s side door was unguarded. Pliny slipped in. Three men in togas and fake glasses were dividing up heavy bags. A fourth guarded the front.

That statue of Marcus Antonius could lend him its shield for a minute.

Pliny stepped forward, brandishing his automatic. “Freeze!” The robbers whirled. Pliny addressed the leader. “Hello, Junius. I should have guessed. Looks like you’ll be heading back to another five years’ exile on Elba.”

Junius feigned boredom. “Well, if it isn’t Pliny, private dick.”

A shot rang out to Pliny’s left. The bullet struck his shield and ricocheted, blasting off one of Marcus Antonius’ arms.

A large, dim-looking thug stepped out of hiding. “Drop it, Twinkle Toes, or youse’ll be eatin’ lead, not just drinkin’ from it.”

“Nice work, Eunuchius.” Junius gloated. “Sorry, Pliny, no heroics today.”

Pliny dropped his gun. “You’ll never get away with this, friends.”

“Shut your trap, Aqua Duck” bellowed Eunuchius. The robbers staggered backward toward the entrance, loaded with sacks of denarii.

Behind them, a diminutive cone steamed into position. Pliny edged after the robbers, holding their attention. “Don’t you boys know crime doesn’t pay?”

“I never could stomach your playground sanctimony.” Junius gave a dismissive wave. “Let him have it.”

Pliny dove. Eunuchius’ gunshot took the statue’s other arm. The robbers lumbered out the door. With a cry of surprise, Junius stumbled over Vesuvius and sprawled flat. The others fell over him in a heap. A flood of Denarii tinkled down the bank’s front steps.

“Get off me, you idiots,” came Junius’ muffled voice. “My sole is on fire!”

“Hotfoot!” brayed Eunuchius. He hip-hopped his way to the fountain, sandals trailing parabolas of smoke.

Mrs. Proculus stepped out. “Maybe this will show you the error of your ways, young man.” She downed him with her handbag.

Pliny stood, brushed himself off. “Shame about Marcus Antonius.” He hung the shield on the statue’s obliging member.

A legion stormed up. “Lucius Junius Brutus,” crowed the centurion, “I arrest you in the name of the Law.”

One of the soldiers stifled a guffaw. “Lucius Ridiculous!” Another whispered, “That’s nuthin’. Last week we nabbed Maximus Pendulus Crapulus Jr.”

Calpurnia flung herself into Pliny’s arms. “Thank Juno you’re safe!”

“I should think Vesta would be more appropriate.” Pliny turned to Junius. “Lucky for you Vesuvius isn’t angry.”

Junius glared. The centurion led him away.

Mrs. Proculus slipped a stray denarius into her bag. “Naples owes you a debt of gratitude, Pliny.” She winked. “My husband may be able to arrange something. We shall see you at the rehearsal. Come along, Calpurnia.” The women departed.

“Geez, ‘Suv!” Pliny prodded Vesuvius with his toe, immediately regretted it. “What took you so long?”

Soundless, Vesuvius turned and oozed down the wheelchair ramp.

“Suffering satyrs, why can’t you use the stairs like everyone else?”

With a sharp report, Vesuvius spat a thick cloud of ash, almost as high as Pliny. Sounds of brittle statuary came from several directions.

Pliny retrieved his latte and waited at the bottom of the ramp, absently adjusting his garland as Vesuvius dawdled down. He took a sip. “Ugh, it’s cold.” Congealed strings of caramel hung from his beard. “Venti! What kind of sadist sells a coffee that large?”

Vesuvius let out a steamy sigh. A pall dimmed the sun.

“Look, ‘Suv, I’m sorry I was cross. It’s the morning blahs. You’ll feel better when we pour some scalding coffee in you.”

The sky brightened.

They’d mosey down to the port, suss out the leader of this gang of reprobates, blow the whole racket wide open. The bounty was practically his.

Cally would be thrilled.


Image via Pixabay


cabinet of heed contents issue 16

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