The man would have been judged a coarse disappointment by his descendants. He looked to be in his mid-fifties: an old man by the standards of his time. He stood with all his weight on his right leg, implying that his left wasn't as sturdy as it might once have been, perhaps the result of an old wound. In life, he had been warlike enough to earn a hundred such. His strong chin was stubbled, his face tanned and deeply lined, wrinkles scored across with scars. His Greek-style bronze cuirass shone over a dull red roughly-woven linen tunic. Its lack of sleeves revealed large, hairy shoulders still quite capable of wielding shield and sword. The Transition had neglected to bring the man's weapons and helmet with him, but the Concierge still found himself a little wary of this latest guest. He was the sort to take on his enemies with his fists and teeth if nothing else was available.
'Good evening, sir, and welcome to the Transition Amelioration Facility.'
'Where am I?' That was usually their first question, although quite often it came after rage or weeping or begging for their lives, which they very often were unaware they had already laid aside. If they came through in one piece, that was. Sometimes, when the subject had died a violent death, they were a bit of a mess when the transition pulled them over and needed to be put back together before they could speak at all. This one was whole enough: the Transition must have taken a shine to him and reassembled him herself.
'You aren't where you were before.' The Concierge grew a little excited at his daring; he could never resist teasing the subjects, even if they were as physically formidable as this aged warrior. It was always so interesting to see how they would respond. The warrior frowned, but didn't lunge at the Concierge or spit out an insult, as he had expected.
'Am I dead?' Another one from the top ten frequently asked questions. The Concierge smiled indulgently. A bit of a chat made it easier for them sometimes. It was no skin off his nose, since he didn't really exist in real time, and so had none to waste.
'What do you remember, your majesty?'
'The army had been mustered at the Goat Swamp. I was inspecting them. It was bloody hot. Oppressive. We were all sweating to death. I had one unit to go when the storm hit. Strangest thing I ever saw. It rolled across the sky like the tide coming in and the rain hammered down on the men's helmets like a shower of arrows. There was a great flash of lightning and thunder straight after so loud I shut my eyes and covered my ears like a babe. Then I was here…' He waved a hand at the room. 'Are you a god?' It was like this chap had a list of the FAQs memorised, thought the Concierge, not without sympathy. They were all understandable questions, after all.
'No. I'm more like Charon the boatman in your very interesting mythology.'
'So, I am dead, then? Lightning must've got me. It's not how I was expecting to go. This isn't how I imagined the Underworld, either.' No, thought the Concierge, it probably isn't. The room – if one could call it that – had been decorated by someone with minimal creativity. The walls were a neutral cream, the nicely dense carpet a caramel brown. There was a nondescript brown leather sofa - in case the subjects needed a little sit down before being taken on - and a modernist wood and aluminium desk. The only items of interest were the various colourful cushions on the sofa, which looked like they'd been bought from a suburban DIY superstore, and a large ficus in one corner, hung with a string of fairy lights. These stayed permanently on, despite the lack of a power socket.
The Concierge realised the man was staring at him grimly. 'Well, shall we get on with moving you on, then?'
To the Concierge's perturbation, the man gave no sign that he was ready to go anywhere. His glower remained steady. 'What happens next? I've had enough surprises today. I want an answer before I agree to leave this place.' He threw himself down onto the sofa, a look of wonder brightening his battered face as his buttocks made contact with the most comfortable piece of furniture they had ever encountered. He ran his hands through his shock of greying curls. 'So?'
The Concierge sighed and settled himself into the Eames lounge chair that had manifested just behind him. He flicked a stray thread off his sleeve. It immediately vanished. 'Can I get you a drink?' He waved his hand and a small table appeared laden with two glasses of malt whiskey and a small bowl of salted pistachios. 'It often seems to make the process of moving on more… palatable for the person undergoing it.'
The man accepted the glass, looked closely at the flickers of coloured light through the patterned crystal and gave it a wary sniff. He wrinkled his nostrils. 'If I weren't already dead, I'd be worried this would kill me.' He took a bold sip and was immediately seized by a violent coughing fit which set the glass in his hand shaking so badly that spatters of whiskey began to stain the leather of the sofa on either side of his knees. The Concierge, after knocking back his own drink in one, waved his hand lazily and the whiskey glass in the man's hand became a clay beaker of wine, only barely watered. The old warrior gratefully swallowed a couple of gulps, coughed once more to clear the embers of fire from his throat and looked at the Concierge again through watery eyes.
'Sorry. Should have warned you it was stronger than the stuff you're used to,' said the Concierge, 'Alright, then. So, you need to get used to the idea that you're not going back to your old life. That's done and dusted. Your people are going to choose a new king once they've got over your disappearance and he'll be a good one, too. No need to worry. You're going to have much more important things to keep you busy from now on.'
'Such as what?'
'I can't actually tell you. Sorry.' The Concierge stood, his chair vanishing immediately, and pointed towards a sturdy oak door that had materialised in the bland wall behind them. 'No, wait,' he said, seeing the colour rise in the man's cheeks and his eyebrows meet in a furious V, 'Before you get angry and decide to do something awfully aggressive, let me assure you that I don't know. I'm just the welcoming committee. Now, will you step through here, please?'
'I'm not going anywhere,' the man growled, rising to his feet. 'Either send me back or tell me why I've been brought here.'
Stubborn, this one. Normally, their curiosity got the better of them, and they stepped through the door just to see what was there. That was more typical human behaviour. Luckily, there was a clear protocol to follow in cases such as this. 'I really am very sorry, your majesty, I can't do either of those things. Please come this way and I'm sure everything will be made clear to you at the appropriate time.' He smiled reassuringly and gestured towards the door once more, hoping the man would concede. The alternative would only cause him further distress.
'No.' Of course he wouldn't make it easy on himself.
'Very well. I'm afraid I have no choice but to send you on rather more directly.'
'What -?' The old warrior spat out, but whatever else he said was lost as he fell through the precisely square space that had opened up in the plush carpet.
The Concierge snapped his fingers sharply to reset the room for the next guest. So that had been Romulus, then. He supposed the old king's attitude hadn't been surprising for the first ruler of a people known for their doggedness and relentless pursuit of control over everyone and every place known to them, but it had been unpleasant nonetheless.
There was a violet flash to warn him that the next guest was about to transition. The Concierge turned towards the faintly visible scorch mark on the carpet and fixed his most professional smile in place.
'Good evening, madam, and welcome to the Transition Amelioration Facility.'
The tall, coal-haired woman threw herself violently against the wall behind her. She was sweating and her skin was the colour of old cream, suggesting the fever that had carried her off hadn't yet completely left her system. Nonetheless, even the Concierge, who usually found himself immune to the charms of his guests, was struck by how beautiful she was.
'Get away from me!' The woman snarled, 'Where am I? Who are you?'
The Concierge retreated, set down his clipboard on the desk and raised both hands. 'Please try to calm down, kyria. Your fever will pass shortly and you'll feel ever so much better.'
'Fever? I don't believe that for a moment.' She began edging to her right towards the sofa, staying close to the wall. 'The old hag poisoned me! I know it. I told him she had to go and she found out somehow and put something in my food.'
'Who is "the hag"?'
'My husband's mother, of course. It's the usual story – her old man died and my Anaxagoras insisted she live with us. The old harpy stinks of wine and weaves no better than a Scythian.' The woman suspended her rant to look the Concierge up and down. Her expression became hopeful. 'You're dressed more like a Persian than a Greek… is that what you are?'
'No, kyria. I'm not from anywhere you would recognise.'
Her frown returned. 'Where am I, then? Am I a prisoner? Do you even know who I am?'
'Not exactly a prisoner, madam, although there's no going back from here to where you were. And yes, I believe I am correct in saying that you are the lady Thargelia, currently married to a nobleman of Larissa in Thessaly.' She stared at him, eyes widening, and he marked the exact moment the penny dropped.
'Oh gods, I'm dead. The old witch killed me.'
'I'm afraid you are correct, although you might blame the summer fever brought into your house by the new slave girl your husband bought last market day.'
Thargelia spat out a string of words that were even more unpleasant in the language spoken by all the transitioned than they would have been in the original Greek. Eventually, she groaned and flung herself uninvited onto the leather sofa and hugged an amber cushion to her chest. She stayed that way for ten minutes, her dark unbound hair hiding her face.
'This isn't what I was expecting.'
'It rarely seems to be, madam. I find it ironic that some of my guests would probably prefer it if they were dropped into a murky cave and I were dressed in a hooded robe of some sort.' He waved his hand to summon the full drinks trolley, which appeared with a clank and tinkle of glass. 'Isn't this all rather more pleasant than the entrance to the underworld in one of your stories? Or do you prefer Persian beliefs? My notes suggest they would be more to your taste.'
Thargelia didn't answer. The Concierge supposed that she was reflecting on the truth that dead was dead no matter what the window dressing. He hoped that she would be pleasantly surprised when she discovered what her future held. He took his time mixing her a cocktail; vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice and cranberry juice. She took the glass and sipped it cautiously, her other hand fiddling with her hair. He noted that her skin had regained its natural colour.
'This is delicious, whatever it is. Did you steal the gods' nectar, mystery man?'
'Good ingredients to work with and a practised hand, madam. That's all.'
She smirked. 'Ha! You don't say? That's exactly what got me all my husbands!' Her smile collapsed. 'So, is this it? Sitting around drinking like I'm a whore at a symposium again for the rest of eternity? You going to try talking philosophy at me? It never got me in the mood back then and it's unlikely to work now. Not much point talking about the meaning of life when you're already dead.'
The Concierge took a moment to consider his next words carefully. 'This is just the beginning of what comes next. You have been chosen for an important task, Thargelia. Your skills make you uniquely suited to the mission we have in mind for you. As I said before, there's no going back from here. There is only the path onwards.'
'And what if I prefer not to go onwards? What if I choose to stay here and knock back the nice red drinks you make with those practised hands for the rest of time? I'd love to find out what else you can do with those hands…' She set down her empty glass on the carpet and elegantly crossed one leg over the other in a move the Concierge had rarely seen pre-20th century transients perform. All she needed was a cigarette holder and a pair of high heels and she'd be fit to meet Al Capone in a Manhattan cocktail bar. It wasn't the first time a subject had tried to seduce him – some stuck stubbornly to the notion that he could send them back if they made enough of a nuisance of themselves, no matter what he said to the contrary.
'I cannot return you to the life you were living before, madam. Do you understand?' He wondered if producing an information booklet or putting up clear signs in Comic Sans would reduce the number of times he had to say something along these lines every time a new guest arrived.
'Yes, you've mentioned that a couple of times, darling. I just thought you might appreciate some company for a while. It must get terribly dull sitting in this room all the time. There doesn't seem to be a door – did you come in the same way I did?'
He smiled. 'A door appears when needed, Thargelia, but only you can use it. I assure you that I am entertained by a constant stream of visitors and have no need of a companion. This room would be too small for you.'
'But you haven't told me what I will find on the other side of the door. Surely you don't expect me just to walk through obediently without knowing, mystery man? Everything I thought I knew about the afterlife has been proved false, so far. How can I possibly know what to expect?'
'Madam, I have met many thousands of people in this room, and I have every confidence that you are one of the most able to cope with the unexpected. I'm not allowed to tell you any more than that. The mystery must remain unsolved until you step through the door.' He indicated the portal, which had appeared on cue. It had manifested as a fluorescent arch, which pulsated and shimmered through all the colours of the rainbow.
His guest rose to her feet smoothly, walked straight up to him and planted a kiss precisely on the corner of his mouth.
'You'll regret turning me down one day. Thanks for looking after me, darling. And if my mother-in-law ever comes by here, kick her in the shins for me, would you?' She grinned and sauntered through the archway.
The Concierge shook himself and snapped his fingers. The light flashed violet again rather brightly and he found himself momentarily dazzled. When he could see again, the space where the newcomer's head should have been was empty. He blinked, looked down and sighed. What a mess. He glanced at his clipboard and raised a thin eyebrow. That would explain it.
The smell of fresh blood from the bedraggled heap of wool crumpled on the carpet was intense. The Transition had pulled this subject out at the point of death and apparently hadn't seen fit to tidy him up at all. The Concierge tutted. There had been more traffic than usual today and she was getting careless. The man's head and legs were mostly covered by his toga, which was now almost entirely red, but an elbow stuck out here, an ear there, a foot there. It was untidy. Darker patches, so saturated they were shiny in the harsh light, marked where the knives had gone in.
The Concierge snapped his fingers and the subject was instantly cleansed, repaired and removed neatly to the sofa dressed just in his tunic with its broad purple stripe running down the front and maroon senatorial shoes, his head resting on a small red cushion pattered with tiny flowers. He was tall and spare, with good musculature for a man in his mid-fifties. The Concierge paused and peered more closely at the subject. So, the Transition hadn't been entirely indifferent, then – she had wiped a good ten or fifteen years off the man's age, smoothing out at least some of the stress lines from his face and firming up that long neck. She had even given him back a decent amount of hair. The Concierge plucked a silver mirror out of thin air and set it on the floor next to the sofa for the subject's convenience. He prided himself on such thoughtful touches.
The guest's eyes flickered jerkily – one had had to be regrown – and slid open. His gaze shot rapidly from left to right, then up, then found the Concierge and stayed there. He hauled himself laboriously up onto his elbows and from there into a sitting position on the edge of the seat.
'Good ev-' The Concierge found his customary greeting cut off by the man's sharply raised hand. Oh. One of those. It seemed to be that kind of day. He folded his hands in front of him meekly and waited, lips only slightly pursed. The poor chap had just been brutally murdered, after all; one could temporarily excuse a lack of manners. He watched the man gingerly feel his face, his neck, then his chest. Satisfied that he was whole, he rested his hands on his knees.
'What place is this?' He spoke quietly and slowly. There was a rough edge to his deep voice: one of the blades had nicked his throat.
The Concierge breathed more easily at the familiar question. This was better. 'For you, sir, this is a waiting room of sorts – until you feel more yourself and you're ready to move on.'
'I thought for a moment that I'd dreamed it all. A particularly vivid nightmare, perhaps.'
'That's not an uncommon reaction, sir.'
'Caesar will do. But I have a feeling you know who I am already… which leaves me at a disadvantage. Your strange attire tells me you're not Roman, but nothing more.'
The Concierge smiled ruefully. 'I gave up my name a long time ago. I am simply a doorkeeper. I usher those who transition through these challenging first moments of their new existence. If I may say so, Caesar, you seem refreshingly calm.'
Caesar flashed a smile. 'I feel infinitely better physically than I have in years, my friend. I assume I didn't survive the attack?'
'No, sir, unfortunately not. The second blow was fatal.'
'Ah ha. I wonder which one of those ungrateful bastards it was. I got one of them in the arm with my stylus, but I didn't see who. Well, while the experience was certainly unpleasant, at least it wasn't drawn out. I've always dreaded a lingering end.' He spied the mirror and his smile spread wider as he inspected his hair. 'Funny. I didn't realise dying would be a cure for baldness! How marvellous. I would recommend it to all my friends, if I could.'
'You do understand that there's no going back to your old life, sir? That's over. Done and dusted.'
Caesar nodded impatiently. 'Yes, yes. I seem to have no wish to return, strangely. I'm just sorry I never had the chance to take on the Parthians. Months and months of preparation and planning, all wasted. Antonius has no hope of succeeding in my place. So, then. What happens next, doorkeeper? Am I going to fade into nothingness? Mope around in the Underworld for eternity? I can't say that thought thrills me.'
'Indeed not, Caesar.'
'Then? Getting an answer out of you is harder than getting Helen out of Troy.'
'I am permitted to tell you a little more than most of our other passers-through. May I offer you a drink before I begin?'
'I'm not a big drinker under usual circumstances, my friend, but I might make an exception. I imagine what you're about to tell me will be quite interesting. Have you any of that stuff they make down around Vesuvius? I remember it fondly from my summers at Baiae as a young man.'
The Concierge, who was delighting in this civilised interlude in what could be a very trying existence, snapped his fingers again and a small refrigerator popped into existence in the corner of the room next to the ficus. He heard a quiet half exclamation of surprise from his guest and grinned in satisfaction. Opening the door, he drew out a chilled bottle of red Lachryma Christi and two glasses. He set them down on the low table that had appeared in front of the sofa and took a seat next to Caesar. His guest ignored the wine initially, focusing his attention on the empty glass nearest to him.
'Wonderful work, this. Remarkably thin and entirely clear. How is glass such as this made? I never saw anything this good even in Alexandria, where the craftsmen are the best in the world.'
'As I understand it, you just missed the invention of the process whereby glass is blown into a mould. That process will then be refined over some two thousand years until an item such as this is commonplace.'
Caesar raised an eyebrow. 'So… are you saying that this room exists outside of normal time? You can pluck any item you please from the future?'
'It's only the future as far as you're concerned, sir.' The Concierge gently took the glass from the Roman's long fingers and filled it along with his own.
'The wine, at least, is almost as I remember it,' said Caesar, 'if, perhaps, a little smoother.' He propped his cushion behind him and leaned back, angling his body towards the Concierge. He ran his free hand through his hair with obvious enjoyment. 'And how is it that you can simply command objects to appear? And heal my wounds, too, I suppose? I had thought the gods a convenient fiction, but I wonder if I have not been mistaken all these years after all. You say you are a simple doorkeeper… but Mercury might say in the same way that he is only a messenger! Who are you? What is this place really?'
'I'm not a god, Caesar. Now you're more comfortable, will you permit me to explain why you have been transported here?'
'I am all ears.'
When the Concierge finished speaking, his guest drained his wine. Without breaking eye contact, he set his glass down on the inlaid surface of the table with barely a clink. Then, all of a sudden, the Roman's stony expression cracked and first a snort and then a full-on guffaw burst out of him like lightning followed by thunder. The Concierge watched him, puzzled once again by the man's reaction to his carefully-structured, meticulously detailed explanation. He had worked on it for months.
Caesar wiped the tears from his angular face with the heels of his hands. 'Oh, this is quite brilliant. Quite, quite brilliant. I couldn't have hoped for a better afterlife. I do apologise, my friend. I hope you don't think me rude. It's just so different from what I was expecting you to say. So… when do I meet my team? Have you told them all of this as well?'
The Concierge did his best to smooth out his disgruntlement before he replied. 'All you have to do is step through that door, sir.' He waved at the far wall, where the door in question – plain wood this time - had just appeared, 'And no, they know nothing. As the mission leader, you have the privilege of telling them as much or as little as you please before you begin your task - or at any time you choose.'
Caesar rose to his feet and stepped around the table. 'Very well. Will I have the pleasure of meeting you again, doorkeeper?'
'It's unlikely, sir. I serve my purpose here as the guardian of the gate. You will serve yours beyond.'
'Then farewell, my friend. Thanks for the drink.' The Concierge returned his nod and watched as the tall former dictator of the Roman Republic marched up to the door, turned the knob sharply and stepped through.
The Concierge took up his clipboard again and marked a gratuitously large tick on the top sheet of paper. He was always permitted a break after a team had been fully manned, so he kicked off his shoes, set his feet on the table and sat back to finish the wine.
I'm not sure how well this will eventually qualify as 'historical' fiction, but it *does* have historical figures in it! Keep reading to find out what lies behind the door... Please review!