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Authors: Lindsey Davis

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BOOK: The Iron Hand of Mars
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“What are you going to do?”

“Paint my face for a couple of hours, in case my lover calls.”

“Oh, right! I'll go, and leave him a clear field…”

We were joking about the lover. Well, I hoped we were.

 

II

In the Forum, life was proceeding much as normal. It was panic season for lawyers. The last day of August is also the last day to bring new cases before the winter recess, so the Basilica Julia was humming. We had reached the Nones of September and most barristers—still rosy from their holidays at Baiae—were scurrying to settle a few hasty cases to justify their social standing before the courts closed. They had the usual noisy touts out all round the Rostrum, offering bribes for cheerleaders to rush into the Basilica and barrack the opposition. I shouldered them aside.

In the shadow of the Palatine, a sedate procession of functionaries from one of the priestly colleges was following an elderly white-robed Virgin into the Vestals' House. She glanced about with the truculence of a loopy old lady who has men who should know better being respectful to her all day. Meanwhile, on the steps of the Temples of Saturn and Castor lounged throngs of sex-crazed idlers, eyeing up anything (not only female) that looked worth whistling at. An extremely angry aedile was ordering his heavy mob to move on a drunk who had had the bad judgement to pass out on the pavement sundial at the base of the Golden Milestone. It was still summer weather. There was a strong smell of hot donkey droppings everywhere.

Just lately I had been sizing up a piece of wall on the Tabularium. Having come armed with a sponge, a few deft strokes soon washed off the electioneering puff that was besmirching the antique stonework, (
Supported by the Manicure Girls at the Agrippan Baths
 … the usual sophisticated candidate). Deleting his offensive rubbish from our architectural heritage left a good space, just at eye-level, for me to chalk up graffiti of my own:

Didius Falco

For All Discreet

Enquiries + Legal

Or Domestic

Good Refs + Cheap

Rates

At Eagle Laundry

Fountain Court

Seductive, eh?

I knew what it was likely to bring in: shifty import clerks who wanted financial health checks on rich widows they were cultivating, or corner-shop barmen who were worried about missing girls.

The clerks never pay up, but barmen can be useful. A private informer can spend weeks looking for lost women, then, when he gets tired of putting his feet in wineshops (if ever), he only has to point out to the client that missing waitresses are generally found with their heads bashed in, hidden under their boyfriends' floorboards at home. This generally gets the bills for surveillance paid ultra-promptly, and sometimes the barmen even leave town for a long period afterwards—a bonus for Rome. I like to feel my work has community value.

Of course a barman
can
be disastrous. The girlfriend may be genuinely missing, having run off with a gladiator, so you still spend weeks searching, only to end up feeling so sorry for the dumb cluck who has lost his tawdry turtledove that you can't bring yourself to ask him for your fee …

*   *   *

I went to the baths for a spot of exercise with my trainer, just in case I did manage to land myself a case which required putting myself out. Then I looked for my friend Petronius Longus. He was captain of the Aventine Watch, which involved dealing with all types, many of them the unscrupulous variety who might need my services. Petro often sent work my way, if only to avoid having to deal with tiresome characters himself.

He was not in any of his usual haunts, so I went to his house. All I found there was his wife—an unwelcome treat. Arria Silvia was a slightly built, pretty woman; she had small hands and a neat nose, with soft skin and fine eyebrows like a child's. But there was nothing soft about Silvia's character, one aspect of which was a searing opinion of me.

“How's Helena, Falco? Has she left you yet?”

“Not yet.”

“She will!” promised Silvia.

This was banter, though fairly caustic, and I treated it warily. I left a message to tell Petro I was light in the occupation stakes, then hotfooted out of it.

While I was in the area I dropped in at my mother's; Ma was out visiting. I was not in the mood for hearing my sisters bemoaning their husbands, so I gave up on my relations (not a hard decision) and went home.

A worrying scene greeted me. I had crossed the stinking alley towards Lenia's laundry, the cut-price, clothes-stealing wash-shop which occupied the ground floor of our building, when I noticed a set of tough tykes bristling with buckles who were standing about the stairwell trying to act inconspicuous. A hard task to set themselves: the battle scenes on their breastplates were polished to a dazzle that would stop a water-clock, let alone a passer-by, and ten determined children had stationed themselves in a circle to gape at their scarlet helmet plumes and dare one another to try and poke sticks between the mighty mens' bootstraps. It was the Praetorian Guard. The whole Aventine must know that they were here.

I could not remember having done anything lately that the military might object to, so I assumed an innocent saunter and kept going. These heroes were out of their own refined environment and looking pretty jumpy. I was not surprised to be stopped at the steps by two spears slamming together across my chest.

“Steady, lads, don't snag my outfit—this tunic still has a few decades of life in it…”

A laundry girl barged out of the steam with a sneer on her face and a basket of particularly disgusting unwashed goods. The sneer was for me.

“Friends of yours?” she scoffed.

“Don't insult me! They must have been going to arrest some troublemaker and lost their way…”

They were obviously not here to apprehend anybody. Some lucky citizen in this sordid part of society was no doubt being visited by a member of the imperial family, incognito apart from the vivid presence of his bodyguard.

“What's going on?” I asked the centurion in charge.

“Confidential—move along!”

By now I had guessed who the victim was (me) and the reason for the visitation (cajoling me into the mission in Germany Momus had warned me about). I felt full of foreboding. If the mission was so special or so urgent it demanded such personal treatment, it must involve the kind of effort I would really hate. I paused, wondering which of the Flavians was venturing his princely toes in our alley's pungent mud.

The Emperor himself, Vespasian, was too senior and too sensitive about status to make free with the populace. Besides, he was over sixty. At my house he would never manage the stairs.

I had crossed paths with his younger son, Domitian. I once exposed a piece of dirty work by the junior Caesar, which now meant that Domitian would like to see me wiped off the earth, and I felt the same about him. However, we ignored each other socially.

It must be Titus.

“Titus Caesar come to see Falco?” He was impetuous enough to do it. Letting the officer know that I despised official secrecy, I lifted apart the impressively polished spear tips with one delicate finger. “I'm Marcus Didius. Better pass me in so I can hear what joys the bureaucracy are planning for me now…”

They let me through, though with a sarcastic look. Perhaps they had been assuming their heroic commander had lowered himself for an off-colour intrigue with some Aventine wench.

Making no attempt to hurry, since I was a fervent republican, I took myself upstairs.

*   *   *

When I went in, Titus was talking to Helena. I stopped short abruptly. The look I had seen the Praetorians exchange began to make more sense. I began to think I had been a fool.

Helena was sitting out on the balcony, a small affair which clung perilously to the side of our building, its old stone supports held on mainly by twenty years of grime. Although there was room for an informal type like me to share the bench with her, Titus had remained politely standing beside the folding door. Ahead of him lay a spectacular view of the great city which his father ruled, but Titus was ignoring it. In my opinion, with Helena to look at, anybody would. Titus shared my opinion pretty openly.

He was the same age as me, a curly-haired optimistic type who would never be soured by life. In my unmajestic billet here, the crusted gold palm leaves embroidering his tunic made an incongruous show, yet Titus managed not to seem out of place. He had an attractive personality and was at home wherever he went. He was pleasant, and for a top-ranker, cultured to his sandalstraps. He was an all-round political achiever: a senator, a general, Commander of the Praetorians, a benefactor of civic buildings, a patron of the arts. On top of that, he was good-looking. I had the girl (though we did not declare it in public); Titus Caesar had everything else.

When I first saw him talking to Helena, his face had a pleased, boyish expression which made my teeth set. He was leaning on the door with his arms folded, unaware that the hinges were quite likely to give way. I hoped they would. I wished they would dump Titus in his splendid purple tunic flat on his back on my ramshackle floor. In fact the moment I saw him there, in deep conversation with my girlfriend, I sank into a mood where almost any sort of treason seemed a bright idea.

“Hello, Marcus,” said Helena—paying far too much attention to putting on a neutral face.

 

III

“Afternoon,” I forced out.

“Marcus Didius!” The young Caesar was effortlessly agreeable. Refusing to let it fluster me, I stayed glum. “I came to commiserate about the loss of your apartment!” Titus was referring to one I had been renting just recently which had had every advantage—except that where this repulsive den somehow stayed upright in defiance of all engineering principles, the other had collapsed in a cloud of dust.

“Nice shack. Built to last,” I said. “That is, to last about a week!”

Helena giggled. Which gave Titus an excuse to say, “I found Camillus Verus's daughter waiting here; I've been keeping her occupied…” He must have known I was trying to lay claim to Helena Justina, but it suited him to pretend she was a model of modest propriety just waiting for an idle prince to pass the time of day with.

“Oh thanks!” I retorted bitterly.

Titus glanced at Helena Justina in an appreciative way that left me feeling out of things. He had always admired her, and I had always hated it. I was relieved to see that despite what she had told me, she had
not
painted her eyes as if she was expecting a visitor. She did look delicious, in a red dress I liked, with agates on slim gold hoops swinging from her ears and her dark hair simply twisted up in combs. She had a strong, quick-witted face, rather too self-controlled in public, though in private she would melt like honey in the warm sun. I loved it, so long as I was the only one she melted for.

“I tend to forget you two know one another!” Titus commented.

Helena stayed silent, waiting for me to tell His Caesarship just how well. I held back stubbornly. Titus was my patron; if he gave me a commission, I would do it for him properly—but no Palace playboy would ever own my private life.

“What can I do for you, sir?” With anyone else my tone would have been dangerous, but no one who enjoys existence makes threats to the Emperor's son.

“My father would like a talk, Falco.”

“Are the Palace clowns on strike then? If Vespasian is short of laughs, I'll see what I can do.” Two yards away, Helena's brown eyes had assumed an unforgiving steadiness.

“Thanks,” Titus acknowledged easily. His suave manner always made me feel he had spotted yesterday's fish sauce spilt down my tunic. It was a feeling I deeply resented in my own house. “We have a proposition to put to you…”

“Oh good!” I answered darkly, with a moody scowl to let him know I had been warned the proposition was dire.

He eased himself off the folding door, which lurched sickeningly but stayed upright. He made Helena a slight gesture, implying that he thought she was here to discuss business so he would not intrude. She rose politely as he strode to the door, but she left me to see him out as if I were the sole proprietor.

*   *   *

I came in and started fiddling with the rickety door. “Someone should tell His Honour not to lean his august person against plebeians' furniture…” Helena remained silent. “You have on your pompous look, my darling. Was I rude?”

“I expect Titus is used to it,” Helena replied levelly. I had omitted to kiss her; I knew she had noticed. I wanted to, but it was too late now. “The fact Titus is so approachable must make people forget they are talking to the Emperor's partner, a future Emperor himself.”

“Titus Vespasianus never forgets exactly who he is!”

“Don't be unfair, Marcus.”

I ground my teeth. “What did he want?”

She looked surprised. “To ask you to see the Emperor—to talk about Germany, presumably.”

“He could have sent a messenger to ask me that.” Helena was starting to look annoyed with me, so naturally I became even more stubborn: “Alternatively, he could quite well have talked about Germany himself while he was here. And in greater privacy, if the mission is sensitive.”

Helena folded her hands at her waist and closed her eyes, refusing to quarrel. Since normally she fought me at the slightest opportunity, that was bad news in itself.

I left her out on the balcony and slouched indoors. There was a letter on the table, “Is this scroll for me?”

“Mine,” she called out. “It's from Aelianus in Spain.” She meant the elder of her two brothers. I had received the impression Camillus Aelianus was a prick-eared young bastard I wouldn't be seen drinking with; but since I had yet to encounter him in person, I kept quiet. “You can read it,” she offered.

“It's your letter!” I rejected her unbendingly.

BOOK: The Iron Hand of Mars
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