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Authors: Lindsey Davis

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Table of Contents

Also by Lindsey Davis

Title Page

Copyright

Rome, the Aventine Hill

The Cast

Rome, the Aventine Hill: March–April AD 89

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Historical Note

Also by Lindsey Davis

The Course of Honour

Rebels and Traitors

Master and God

THE FALCO SERIES

Silver Pigs

Shadows in Bronze

Venus in Copper

The Iron Hand of Mars

Poseidon’s Gold

Last Act in Palmyra

Time to Depart

A Dying Light in Corduba

Three Hands in the Fountain

Two for the Lions

One Virgin too Many

Ode to a Banker

A Body in the Bath House

The Jupiter Myth

The Accusers

Scandal Takes a Holiday

See Delphi and Die

Saturnalia

Alexandria

Nemesis

Falco: The Official Companion

THE IDES OF APRIL
Lindsey Davis

www.hodder.co.uk

First published in Great Britain in 2013 by
Hodder & Stoughton

An Hachette UK company

Copyright © Lindsey Davis 2013

The right of Lindsey Davis to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 444 75583 1

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

338 Euston Road

London NW1 3BH

www.hodder.co.uk

THE CAST

Neighbours and Family

Flavia Albia
ready for anything, expecting
nothing good
Marcus Didius Falco &
     Helena Justina
her mother and father, typical
   parents
Julia and Favonia
her younger sisters, normal girls
Postumus
their little brother, a very strange
boy
Ferret
looking for trouble
Junillus
a cousin, deaf but far from dumb
The late Lentullus
a good man who died young
Rodan
a bad gladiator who won’t die
Prisca
a bathhouse proprietor
Serena
her small strong masseuse
Chloe and Zoe
big strong gladiating girls
The Mythembal family
local cover for Albia
Robigo
an urban fox
Titus Morellus
a vigiles investigator, useless but
useful
Cassius Scaurus
his superior, an inferior tribune
Felix
Falco’s driver, a decoy
Kicker
his mule, a good mover
Piddle, Diddle and Willikins
three hens involved in law evasion

 

The Dead and their Mourners

Lucius Bassus
deceased aged three, a tragedy
Salvidia
deceased, the client who never
pays
Metellus Nepos
a misguided client, who does pay
Celendina
an elderly victim who said too
much
Kylo
her son, who remembers nothing
Lupus
deceased, aged 15, another
tragedy
Lupus’ father and brothers
who saw nothing fishy
Julius Viator
aged 23, fit, boring and deceased
Cassiana Clara
his forlorn widow, hiding
something
Laia Gratiana
in the Ceres cult, a woman with a
past
Venusia
her maid, saying nothing
Marcia Balbilla
a rival cult initiate, a woman of
surprises
Ino
her maid, deceased, a touching
memory
A funeral director
doing well out of all this

 

Other Interested Parties

The Goddess Ceres
bringer of plenty (of trouble)
Andronicus
an archivist, a curiously attractive
prospect
Tiberius
an undercover agent, with
questions to answer
Manlius Faustus
a plebeian aedile, an unknown
quantity
ROME, the Aventine Hill:
March–April
AD
89
1

L
ucius Bassus was three years old when his mother took her eyes off him and he ran out of the house to play. They lived on the Clivus Publicius, a steep road on the Aventine Hill, where he was knocked down by a builder’s cart. The cart, which escaped its driver’s control as it sped down the slope, was owned by Metellus and Nepos, an outfit that worked from a yard on the hill. Nobody talked about Nepos; at first I thought he might be an invention for some tax fiddle.

This business was no more shady than most in Imperial Rome. It carried out refurbishments for bar owners who wanted to move up from blatantly sleazy to a pretence of hygiene. The custom was that the Metellus crew would tender for a full deep-clean and fancy renovation, promising to complete in eight weeks max. In practice, every project took two years and they skimped on the fittings. They would re-grout the marble counters, put in a new doorstep, provide a mis-spelt signboard and charge the earth for it. By then their clients, unable to operate in the permanent dustcloud, had lost their custom and were going under. It amazed me that other bar owners saw what happened yet still used the firm, but they did. Over the years Metellus and Nepos had done very nicely out of Roman rotgut-sellers innocently trusting them. But killing a child, in the close-knit Aventine community where we had
some
standards, just might be commercially stupid.

Lucius died at once from his injuries. He never stood a chance. He expired on the kerb. Inevitably, at that very moment his distraught mother came out of the house. It helped fuel local outrage.

The ramshackle cart had been overloaded. The draught oxen were both past their best. Their driver was blind drunk, no question. He denied that on principle, the principle being that Salvidia, the vinegary widow who had inherited the shopfitting business from the husband she had driven to his grave, would not pay his wages if he told the truth. There were witnesses, a large group of whom gathered in the Clivus and took an interest, but they all disappeared when a busybody produced a note tablet and started collecting names.

Once the funeral with its pathetic tiny coffin had been held, well-meaning neighbours started to suggest that the family were entitled to payment for their terrible loss. Everyone agreed they should immediately hire an informer to look into the legal aspects. If being hit on the head by a falling flower tub could be worth cash to the victim, what price a child’s life under civil law? Someone (it was rumoured to be the note tablet busybody I mentioned) even wrote up on a wall a plea for concerned citizens who had been present at the accident to come forward. It must have appeared before the first of April, because I saw it that day, the Kalends. The poster sounded official. While not actually offering payment, it implied possible advantage. As a professional, I read it with interest. I found it subtly done.

By then, I had become involved. Any investigator who was favoured by Fortune would be taken on by the heartbroken mother to negotiate compensation. This was a public-spirited task, where a reputable person could maintain a clear conscience: you look into the facts, you put those facts to the guilty party succinctly, you say, ‘I am a top informer, this is meat and drink to me; a toddler is dead and a jury will be weeping into their togas, but nobody wants this to go to court, do we?’ The guilty cough up, and you cream off your percentage.

Not me. Fortune never favoured me and the problem with being a woman was that sometimes I could only obtain business that all the male informers had sniffed and refused. This was one of those months.
I
was hired by Salvidia. The owner of Metellus and Nepos wanted me to help her beat off the mother’s claim. Typical.

From what I have already said about this construction group, you will guess my employment was on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. Indeed, I was starting to feel its basis might amount to ‘win, but even then the bastards never pay up’ – like so much of my work, unfortunately. After a week, I was ready to abandon the miserable project, but I had already put in quite a few hours and, besides, I never like to be defeated. The poster asking for witnesses suggested someone else felt the same way.

The wall graffiti included an address where people could make statements, so as my enquiries were stuck, I went along to see if any had done so. My line would be that as I was assisting a party in the dispute, I had the right to ask. As a female I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me? Either way, I was hoping to plea-bargain. Anything to have this finished fast, so I could drop the case.

The address was the Temple of Ceres. It was close to my home and office, though on a far grander street than the blind alley I lived in. Anywhere would be finer than that. Fountain Court holds no attractions for the founders of fine religious buildings.

Arranging assignations at temples is common in Rome. For strangers it is neutral ground. For instance, married men find the steps of temples convenient for picking up prostitutes. The grander the temple, the lousier its hangers-on. Inured to the seamy side of our city, the public pass by without noticing. Suggesting a meet at a temple was, I presumed, simply for convenience. Thinking little of it, I went along on spec.

Only when I asked for the contact on the wall notice did I learn he was a big prawn in a purple-edged toga who belonged to an ancient order of magistrates. The Temple of Ceres was their headquarters and archive depository.

I reconsidered. Then I went home and made alterations to my appearance. I was visiting the office of men of great consequence in Rome: men of wealth and power. I did not suppose ‘Manlius Faustus’ had chalked up graffiti on the Clivus Publicius in person, but some minion certainly did it in his name. That minion must have felt confident Faustus would enjoy throwing his weight about. By definition this magistrate was one of those menaces who drive traders wild checking market weights. I had been trained by my father to avoid such types, though in fact those over-promoted snoots don’t tangle with me. I have contacts, but no one that important.

Still, it always pays to respect the opposition. So I changed into a full-length tunic in a neutral shade, not white, not quite unbleached linen, but neat, tidy and unthreatening. It did have an embroidered neckline that suggested money, which in turn hints at a woman with influential men behind her, one who should not be too quickly or too rudely dismissed.

My earrings were plain gold rosettes. I added a row of bangles, to give me confidence. Hair pinned up. Three dabs of a discreet perfume. A large stole: the demure, respectable widow look. I really am a widow, so that part was right.

Mother had taught me how to pose as a meek matron. It was ridiculous and hypocritical, but the act now came as second nature and I could manage it without laughing.

So, feeling convinced that I was as good as them and could handle these bastards, I set off for my first encounter with the plebeian aediles.

2

T
he Temple of Ceres was so local to me that I normally ignored it. It sat on the northern slope of the Aventine, a short walk halfway uphill from the starting-gates end of the Circus Maximus. A chunky edifice, it was designed in the remote past and looked more Greek than Roman in an archaic way; the heavy grey columns surrounding it had thick bases and curious capitols that, if you care to know such stuff, were neither Ionic nor Doric. I believe the word is ‘transitional’. I don’t suppose the distinction bothered many people; most probably never looked up high enough to notice. But I had spent my childhood a thousand miles from Rome, in a backwoods town that had been laid waste in a revolt and still lacked interesting architecture; when an effort has been made to build something unusual, I pay polite attention.

The truth is, after I was brought to Rome by the family who adopted me, I had to learn fast about the people and the place; as a result I often know more about the myths and monuments than most of the city’s natives. I was about fifteen then, and curious about the world. Education was made available. While being taught to read and write, I devoured facts. Sometimes now it helped in my work. More often, it just made me marvel at the weird history and attitudes of these Romans, who believed themselves masters of the civilised world.

At least they had a history. They knew their origins, which was more than I could say.

The temple was home to a Triad: three gods, bunking up together, all holy and cosy amid the incense and deposited must cakes. In addition to Ceres the Earth Mother, a well-built dame bearing sheaves of corn who was one of the twelve grand Olympian deities, it also housed Liber and Libera, two lesser gods that I bet you’ve never heard of, Ceres’ children, I think. This triple cult was rooted in fertility rites − well may you groan!

Needless to say, an organised body of religious-minded women fussed about the temple. No serious shrine can fail to have such busybodies importantly organising themselves into a sniffy coven; it’s one way local matrons can get out of the house once a week. My grandmother loved it – a bunch of upper-crust women dabbling in neighbourhood benevolence, heads down over gossip, then having wine together afterwards without their husbands daring to disapprove. My senatorial grandmama was a wonderful woman, only surpassed by her plebeian counterpart, whose domestic rule was legendary all over the Aventine. If I mentioned
her
at the stall where she used to buy roots for her broth cauldron, the greengrocer still mimed running for the hills.

A temple cult can be a good argument against letting women control things. Although Ceres was bringer of plenty, especially favouring commoners, I found that her devotees included a scrawny bird who had been spoiled from birth and thought herself
very
superior. Forget liberality. The public slaves who swept the steps and acted as security directed me to her because I was a woman, for which I would not thank them. Possibly they could see I was a different type entirely and they were hoping for a laugh.

Sisterhood did not feature at our meeting.

The supercilious sanctum queen was called Laia Gratiana. The public slave had told me that; she would not introduce herself, in case I dirtied her name by using it. She was fair and I am dark; that was only the start of the distance between us. I told myself she was older than me, though in fact she may not have been. She behaved like a domineering old matriarch with five generations of cowed family who all feared she might alter her will if they as much as sneezed. Her garments were rich cloth, elegantly draped with many folds, though in a revolting puce colour that some sly dyer must have been delighted to offload on an idiot. When she swept up, intent on facing me down, I felt my hackles rise by instinct. I saw she felt the same − in my view, with much less reason.

‘What do you want?’

‘I am looking for Manlius Faustus.’

‘He won’t see you.’

‘Suppose I ask him that myself. I am responding to a public notice he put up.’

When I stood my ground, it unsettled her. Grudgingly, she deigned to mention that the aediles worked from an office in a side street alongside the temple. I guess she only told me because I could have found out easily from anyone.

We parted on poor terms. If I had known then that Gratiana and I were to have history, I would have felt even more sour.

My two romantic little sisters believed that being so carefully dressed up as I was that afternoon guaranteed that you would meet the love of your life. Not today, apparently. My first encounter was certainly dire; while I sized up a nondescript building that must be the aediles’ headquarters, a male menace barged out into the street and crashed into me. He snorted with irritation. It was his fault, absolutely. He was too busy hunching up to make himself look like a nobody, an effect he achieved without trying. The shifty blaggard was all hemp tunics and chin stubble. Absolutely not my type. Sorry, hopeful sisters!

‘Oh, don’t bother to apologise! − Is this the aediles’ office?’ He refused to answer, skulking off head down. Rubbing my bruised arm, I sent a soldier’s gesture after him, though I fear it was wasted.

As I tripped inside the building, I replaced a scowl with my bright-eyed charming face, to impress any occupants. There was no one in sight.

Small rooms led off a dark little entrance hall. Beyond it was a meagre courtyard with a miniature fountain in the form of a shell. It produced a trickle of water that glugged in pathetic hiccups, then leaked into a trail of green slime down the outside of the collection bowl. Mosquitoes clustered hopefully.

I stood still for a moment, listening. I didn’t knock or clear my throat. My father was a private informer too, and according to some (him, for example), he was the best in Rome. I was trained to take my chance, to open doors, to look around.

You always dream of finding an unattended diary that reveals an eye-watering love affair – not that I ever had. Everyone was too careful now. Under our latest emperor, when people committed adultery – as they did like rabbits, because he was a despot and they needed cheering up – they did not write down details. Domitian saw it as his sacred role to punish scandalous behaviour. His agents were always looking for evidence.

Repression had spread to the aediles. Encouraged by our austere and humourless ruler, the market monitors were extra conscientious these days. They were cracking down on docket-diddling, fraudulent weights and pavement-encroachment, though their most lucrative target was prostitution. Here in their lair, I saw massive armoured chests, where all the fines from miserable bar girls could be stored. Bar girls were fair game for the purity police. Traditionally, whenever a waitress served a customer a drink, he could order a bunk-up as a chaser. That’s if he wanted to catch the crabs or risk having to slip an officer a backhander if the authorities paid that bar a surprise visit, looking for unregistered whores – and inevitably finding them.

Bribes, I presumed, would go straight into the aediles’ belt pouches. Could Manlius Faustus be paid off with a bung, I wondered? How much of his income came from sweeteners?

The building smelled of dust. It was a place of unused reference scrolls and faded wall maps. Old wooden benches inhabited uncomfortable interview rooms in which members of the public, hauled in for questioning, could be made to feel guilty about the kind of rule infringement everyone expects to get away with. One thing startled me: a cage containing leg irons, though currently no prisoners.

Someone had turned up behind me.

‘I see you are admiring our facilities!’ I spun around. The charmer, who was neat and suave, purred appreciation of my physical appearance. He pretended to assume I had come for a guided tour. ‘His eminence has already cleared out the captives today, so I can’t show you any, I’m afraid.’

Some days the sun just comes out and lightens your world. We understood one another immediately. That magic spark.

I gazed at him, a pleasant experience. He was roughly my age, not a real redhead but he had gingery-brown eyes, hair, eyebrows, beard and moustache, even the fine hairs on the backs of his hands and his arms – the complete matching set. Background? – hard to say, though his accent was cultured. If he worked in a public office he was almost certainly a freedman, probably first-generation. I don’t despise ex-slaves. I could be one myself; I shall never even know.

‘The used gruel bowl looks recent.’ I nudged it with my toe. The toe had been pedicured; my sandal was new. I often wore shoes more suitable for a lame old lady, laced from front to ankle, in case I had to do a route march; on this visit I had treated myself to more feminine footwear. The soles would make a mark if I kicked someone, but the uppers consisted of just two thin gold straps on a toe-post. If this clerk was anything of a foot fetishist, my high instep would set his pulse racing. ‘I’m glad I am not compelled to steal the keys and set someone free behind your back.’

‘You sound as if you would really do it!’ he murmured admiringly.

‘That’s me.’

The tips of his ears had a little turn forward that gave him character, which I could tell involved personality, humour and intelligence. His slim build suggested a plain life; like me, he had probably known struggle. What I liked most was that he looked as if the sun came out for him too, when he found me in their anteroom. I fell for it happily.

‘Andronicus,’ he introduced himself. ‘I work here as an archivist.’

‘Hundreds of records of market fines?’

‘That would be tedious!’ Andronicus said, although I myself had been neutral. Scrupulously-kept public records can be a windfall in my line of work. I never despise bureaucracy. ‘The plebeian aediles receive decrees from the Senate, which they must deposit for safekeeping next door in the Temple of Ceres. All those records become my responsibility.’ He was exaggerating his own importance, though I did not blame him. ‘I tend them devotedly, even though no one ever asks to consult anything.’

‘But of course if you ever did misfile a scroll or let a mouse nibble one, that would be the only occasion ever that some pompous piece in purple would requisition it.’

‘You know the world!’ Andronicus’ grin was rueful and charming; he was very aware of that. ‘Life has its high spots. Sometimes, the aediles hold a meeting, all four of them – we have two plebeians and two patricians, as I am sure you know. To save them getting ink on themselves, I then have the privilege of being their minutes secretary. I bet you guess that means compiling action notes that none of the spoiled boys will carry out.’

I knew he was playing me, or he thought he was. Even though I was enjoying the moment, I never forgot that men were sneaky. ‘Do you always flirt with visitors?’ I asked him.

‘Only the attractive ones.’ He was respectably dressed; his tunic was clean, not even splattered with ink – yet he managed to give the impression his thoughts were dirty. I liked him enough to share them, though I didn’t show it.

‘Ah don’t expect me to fall for blather, Andronicus. I spend a lot of my time explaining to inane women that plain male treachery is the reason their husbands have vanished. Even though my clients’ husbands are always supposed to be the loveliest of men, none of whom would harm flies, nevertheless, my enquiries tend to show they have uncharacteristically run away with a bar girl. A piece with an ankle-chain, invariably. And by then, five months pregnant.’

‘Ooh,’ the archivist crooned. ‘Are you part of the emperor’s morality campaign? Do you take these absconders to court?’

‘No, I track down loose husbands for abandoned wives who can’t afford to go to law. My clients have to settle for battering the bastards with heavy iron frying pans.’

‘I get the impression you hold the men down while it happens?’

Andronicus was smiling broadly. Why spoil his party? I smiled back. ‘That’s my de luxe service . . . You mentioned your superior,’ I hinted broadly, dragging us back to the point of my visit. ‘I think it’s him I need to see. Is the notable who calls himself Manlius Faustus available? Or are you going to spin me the old line – “sorry, you just missed him”?’

He gave me a wry gleam. ‘Faustus is, genuinely, out. I hardly dare say this, but he did leave the building just before you came.’

‘Not that lout who nearly knocked me over on the step?’

I thought something flickered in the archivist’s gaze but he answered calmly, ‘Oh that would have been our runner.’ He paused, then added, ‘Tiberius. Did you speak to him?’

‘No.’ Why would I? ‘He was a grim bastard. And what’s Faustus like?’

‘Couldn’t possibly comment. He is much too aware that I owe him this job.’

‘Not on good terms?’ I guessed.

‘Let’s say, if you think our runner is dour, you will not like Faustus.’

Andronicus seemed keen to move on the conversation. He asked what brought me, so I explained about the accident in the Clivus Publicius and that notice calling for witnesses with Faustus’ name on it.

‘Sounds like him,’ Andronicus commented. ‘He’s quite a meddler.’

‘Well, I suppose it is his job . . . Have any witnesses shown up in response?’

‘Only you.’

I smiled with the complicity we had developed between us so nicely. ‘I wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t been stuck . . . Are you going to mention me to Faustus?’

‘Why? You haven’t told me anything.’ Andronicus gave me his own conspiratorial grin. I did like dealing with this man. He came so much cheaper than the clerks I usually had to badger or bribe.

‘I want to ask a cheeky favour. If anyone does bring in a story, could you possibly let me know?’

‘Love to.’ Showing how keen he was, Andronicus then asked, ‘So where do I contact you?’

I always considered this carefully. People can find my office; I could not work otherwise. But there was a difference between clients who were too preoccupied with whatever trouble they were already in to cause any other trouble, and chancers who might have tricky personal motives in coming after me.

Andronicus worked for a magistrate. That guaranteed he was reliable, surely? I told him where I lived.

Anyway, I had Rodan. ‘It’s a climb and not easy to find. But my doorman brings up visitors. Rodan will show you.’

‘Sounds exclusive!’

I snorted. ‘That’s right. Fountain Court is the most exclusive slum on the Aventine.’ And he had not yet seen Rodan. I wouldn’t spoil the surprise.

‘Best you can do?’

‘I am only a poor widow.’ Never imply you have money.

‘Oh is that so?’ scoffed Andronicus. He sized up my outfit pointedly. I like a man who sees through banter. Indeed, I like a man who notices that you have dressed nicely to meet him. Still, he had not gained the full measure of me. Not yet. ‘And what is your name when I ask for you?’

‘Flavia Albia. Just ask for Albia. Everyone knows me.’ A lot of people did, though ‘everyone’ was pushing it. This was another ploy for protection that I had learned; it gave the impression there might be many people looking out for me.

I said I had to be going. He said he had enjoyed meeting me. More people were now arriving for official reasons, so I saw myself out, which seemed to be procedure in that office. In mine, I like to be quite sure visitors have left, but Andronicus did not need such precautions.

So, no aedile. That had been a wasted trip, like so many others. I was used to it. In the street I paused, turning up my face to the Roman sky. Heard the hubbub surrounding me on the Aventine and also coming from far away all over the city. Smelt hot oil on lunchtime griddles. Felt the oppression of the Temple of Ceres, gloomily shadowing the street.

Mentally I apologised to my romantic little sisters. Despite my smart get-up I would not be meeting the love of my life this afternoon. Nevertheless I had just had an extremely pleasant experience. That was an improvement on normal.

In any case, I had met the love of my life already, met him long, long ago. You will not be surprised, any more than I was at the wise age of seventeen, that the man toyed with me, then dropped me when he feared it might be serious. The pain had not lasted; I soon met and married Farm Boy, and if people thought that was love on the rebound, they understood nothing about me. There was nothing fake in my affection for him.

He was still around. Not Farm Boy; Farm Boy died. The other one. For family reasons I saw him at social gatherings and sometimes I even worked with him. These days, our past seemed to bother him far more than me.

There had been one result from visiting the aediles’ office. If the rapport I had built with the archivist today ever came to anything, that would be fun.

Something would happen with Andronicus. Hades, I was an informer. I could tell that.

3

T
he surly man they called Tiberius was standing at a bar counter further up the main street. Most people would have passed without remembering the aediles’ runner, but my job needs good observation. I walked by quietly on the other side of the street, making no eye-contact. I bet
he
did not notice
me
.

Whatever kind of running the aediles employed him to do must make few demands. He had a beaker and the bar’s draughtboard in front of him; he looked set there for the afternoon. I was tempted to march up and exclaim, ‘Three radishes says I can thrash you!’ I knew I could. Farm Boy, my late husband, had taught me draughts, sweetly allowing me to beat
him
on a regular basis. He never cared who won; he just liked us to play. He liked most things we did together and, as the uncle of mine he worked for used to say, he had a heart as big as Parthia.

I was at a loose end myself now, but a presentable woman of twenty-eight may not take herself to bars alone, apart from the speedy-breakfast kind where you can have a pastry and a hot drink before most members of the public are up. Even then, you have to look as if you keep a salad stall; riding in on a donkey at dawn from a market garden way out on the Campagna gives even a woman a legitimate cause for sustenance. Otherwise, it is obvious to everyone you must be touting for paid sex. The men with randy propositions are bad enough; the furious grannies hurling curses at you soon become unbearable. Roman grannies really know how to hustle a flighty bit off their street by giving her the evil eye. The worst of them do it to everyone, just in case they miss one.

Considering unpleasant old dames led naturally to thoughts of my client.

I had to grit my teeth to make me visit her, but in my career of nearly twelve years as a solo informer, that had been my feeling about many people who employed me. It’s not a job where you meet the cream of society. Indeed, if you want to see the worst manners, filthiest motives and saddest ethics, this is the profession. Informers deal in hopelessness at every level.

Salvidia, as I mentioned before, had inherited the construction firm when her husband died. Nobody had much to say about him, but I sensed that originally he had been typical of a builder with his own business: sometimes hard-working but more often lazy, and always a poor manager with money troubles. Salvidia soon toughened him up. She stormed in and buffed the firm into an extortion machine until Metellus and Nepos became the high-quality renovation shysters they were now. Nepos vanished, probably squeezed out deliberately, while her husband Metellus expired after a few years in the face of Salvidia’s driving efficiency.

Salvidia was running the firm at a huge profit, but you would not know it from the untidy builder’s yard they still used and the cramped living quarters she maintained alongside. They had always operated out of premises on the Vicus Loreti Minoris, Lesser Laurel Street. Like most of the roads that passed among the great cluster of temples on the Aventine, it thought itself superior yet had its bad smells and seedy side. It ran from near the Temple of Ceres, so was in the north-west corner of the hill above the barbers’ quarter and the corn dole building; it climbed slightly towards the once open area where Remus took the auguries in the contest to see who would found a new city, Rome. You know the story. He lost out to his twin brother Romulus, who had all a great leader’s ideal qualities − by which I mean he cheated. Nowadays, the Aventine high tops were completely built up. From most vantage points you could barely see the sky, let alone count enough birds to foretell the rise of a great nation.

Lesser Laurel Street ran into Greater Laurel Street at the crossroads with Box Hill and the Street of the Armilustrium, a long byway that passed close to where I lived. These were some of the earliest roads I learned when I first moved up to live in Fountain Court. They all occupied the part of the hill right above where my parents had their town house on the river embankment. That was downstream of the salt warehouses and the Trigeminal Porticus. When life was hard, I could head for the steps, scamper down the steep escarpment and hide away at home. Often I went just to see them. They were good people.

No need of a refuge today, however: I was fired up, in full professional mode. I had decided it was time to tell Salvidia she could keep her commission. ‘Keep’ was a more polite word than the one in my prepared speech.

I was all the more impolite when my plan was thwarted.

I had gone to the yard first because my client was usually there, making miseries of her workmen’s lives. It was a jumble of planks, sheets of marble (mostly broken), handcarts and old buckets full of set concrete. A pall of dust over everything made it an asthmatic’s graveyard. Two labourers in ripped tunics were squatting on a horizontal column; a chained, skinny guard dog pretended he would bite my leg off if I came within reach. The men seemed too depressed to speak and the hound shrank against a piece of dismantled partition when I glared his way. I refused to give the men the time of day, but I spoke to the dog, who then remembered me and whined hopefully. Last time I had given him the end of a rather poor meatball I
regretted buying, but today I had nothing for him. At least it would save him a bellyache.

I picked my way to the office, trying unsuccessfully to keep my sandals clean. A runt who called himself a clerk-of-works was hiding in a cubbyhole amongst mounds of filthy dustsheets. He told me the bad news. There was no chance of me being paid, even for the work I had already done. Salvidia was dead.

Now I was glum. I said, ‘I’ve had clients who go to abnormal lengths to avoid paying, but expiring on me is extreme.’

‘She just came home from market, took to her bed and stopped breathing.’

‘Whatever caused that? She wasn’t old.’

‘Forty-six,’ he groaned. The workman, gnarled by disappointment and a poor diet, was probably forty-five; today he had suddenly become nervous that life might be transient. He probably hadn’t bet on as many dud horses and screwed as many altar boys as he was hoping for.

I cursed in a genteel fashion (‘Oh what a nuisance!’ – approximately), then since he had no more to tell me, I went to the house. Pretending I wanted to pay my respects, I meant to double check. The thought did strike me that Salvidia might not be dead at all, but had arranged for me to be told a yarn in order to get rid of me. I even wondered if she was avoiding all her creditors, intending to shimmy off to a secret retirement villa. Anyone else in Rome who had money passing through their hands would have acquired a second property by a lake, at the coast, or on an island.

Anyone else in Rome who had money and their own building firm would have lived somewhere better than a run-down hovel on Lesser Laurel Street, with its porch propped up on a scaffold pole and broken roof tiles in teetering piles either side of the doorstep. A neglected oleander in a tub would have convinced a more excitable informer than me that Salvidia died of botanical poisoning, but I stayed calm.

Inside the house there was slightly less dust but it was crammed with almost as many building materials as at the yard next door. In what passed for an atrium, which had no tasteful pool or mosaic, stood quite a lot of garden statues that had clearly been removed from other people’s houses. A maid confirmed her mistress was indeed dead. She had passed away that afternoon. If I wanted, I could see the body.

You might have sidestepped that invitation; not me. It’s true Salvidia was almost a stranger. I had only met her twice and I hadn’t liked her either time. As far as I was concerned, I owed this woman no respect and I might as well cut my losses.

Yet my papa really was the excitable kind of informer I alluded to above; he saw mischief in everything and had a lifelong habit of stumbling into situations where persons died suspiciously. It was one way to earn a few sesterces, by exposing what had happened. There was no reason for me to suppose anything unusual had happened to Salvidia; she was an unfriendly woman who probably expired from her own bile. Even so, I had been taught always to invent an excuse to inspect a corpse. To be
invited
to view one was a welcome privilege: I was in there like a louse up a tramp’s tunic.

4

A
s I had been told, the woman lay in her bedroom, one of the few places in her house that was furnished normally. Years before, she and Metellus must have invested in a pretty solid marriage bed, though the webbing under the mattress was now sagging too much for my taste. I guessed she had never taken a lover, or they would have constantly rolled into each other awkwardly during moments of rest. Why do people who are surrounded by their own workmen never get them to do repairs?

The room had the usual cupboards and chests. There were no windows, so although it did not smell particularly sour, the lack of fresh air was oppressive.

‘She was just like that when I found her,’ the maid quavered from the doorway. I saw no reason to comment. I was wondering how long I had to stand looking solemn at the bedside before I could leave politely.

Salvidia lay on her back. Her arms were straight by her sides, she looked relaxed; either she died in her sleep or someone had closed her eyelids. With all the life gone, she was a shell, middle-aged in actual years but now sunken like an old woman; certainly a woman who would have claimed she led a hard life.

Salvidia had had a heavy build, the kind of weight that arrives with the menopause. Her hair was wound up in a simple bun, which she probably did herself. She had flabby arms and a lined, sunken face. She wore day clothes, the same kind of bunched tunic I had seen her in, with a girdle cinched tightly as if to hold in her constant anger at everything. Her wedding ring and one other plain ring gripped her fingers; her earrings were dull gold drops which somehow gave the impression she just put the same pair on daily and had done so for the past twenty years. There was no other jewellery on her, and no gem boxes in the room that I could see; no cream or cosmetic pots either. She wasted no cash on self-adornment.