Authors: Marilyn Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
By Marilyn Todd
Copyright 2013 by Marilyn Todd
Cover Copyright 2013 by Ginny Glass and Untreed Reads Publishing
Cover image courtesy of: Marcus Ranum - mjranum (deviantart)
Cover Model: Amber G
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
Previously published in print, 1997.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher or author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages embodied in critical articles or in a review. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, dialogue and events in this book are wholly fictional, and any resemblance to companies and actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental
Also by Marilyn Todd and Untreed Reads Publishing
Critical Acclaim for Marilyn Todd
‘Claudia—a super-bitch who keeps us all on the edge where she loves to live… The Roman detail is deft, the pace as fast as a champion gladiator.’
‘A timeless heroine for today—you’ll be hooked.’
‘An endearing adventuress who regards mortal danger as just another bawdy challenge.’
‘Terrific read…thoroughly entertaining.’
‘Marilyn Todd’s wonderful fictional creation—a bawdy superbitch with a talent for sleuthing—[is] an enormous triumph.’
‘A daring debut from a promising writer.’
‘The first in a very entertaining series of mysteries.’
Lancashire Evening Telegraph
‘Feisty and fun.’
was one of the best and most amusing historical detective narratives of the last year; and
is a fine follow-up.’
‘Thoroughly entertaining mystery. This heroine will run and run.’
Richmond and Twickenham Informer
‘A murder mystery with a difference, which gives a vivid view of life in Roman times.’
‘If you’re looking for a romp through the streets of Rome in 13bc then this is the book to buy!’
without whom I’d still be on the starting blocks
Would you believe it? You start off doing someone a favour, not so much as a thought for your own interests, then, before you know it, the whole thing backfires and you end up in this mess. Typical!
Claudia’s mouth turned down at the corners. All right, all right, maybe the word ‘favour’ was not strictly accurate. A letter had arrived from her bailiff, urging her to visit the estate immediately and without delay, so theoretically, if you wanted to be pedantic, you could argue that this was in her own interests. They were her vineyards, her problems, if you like—but a bailiff’s job is to run the estate, smoothly and without fuss, isn’t it? Therefore it was a measure of how seriously Claudia Seferius took her new obligations that she actually
set off at once. Heaven knows it was one hell of a sacrifice. She’d have given her right earring to stay in Rome for the processions and the dances and the gladiatorial games, but, alas, with wealth comes responsibility—and was she a girl to shirk hers? She was not.
On the other hand, a voice inside her had argued, there was no reason why you can’t cut a few corners. And Claudia was all for listening to a balanced argument…
Necessary as it might be to visit Etruria, equally she could see no reason why she should not be home again before the spring equinox and the subsequent rush of wall-to-wall festivals. Grabbing her cat, her bodyguard and the merest essentials, that same afternoon she rented a driver and gig from the nearest stand and set a cracking pace along the Via Flaminia. Since this was the main road linking Rome with the Adriatic, progress had been swift and she had not so much as hesitated when, at Narni, the road swept east. Claudia simply swept north. And that was when the trouble began.
Because, instead of being ensconced in her villa by now, albeit digesting some dreary report on what damage winter had inflicted on the poor vines or sidestepping her late husband’s odious tribe of relatives, she was stuck in this godforsaken backwater.
‘Drusilla?’ She twizzled her neck to crane out of the window. ‘Is that you?’
It was not. The rustle that she’d heard was a hedgehog, stretching its stubby post-hibernatory legs, and Claudia chafed her upper arms. They say spring comes early to Umbria, and she’d seen for herself how the almond blossom was almost past and the corn was standing tall, but all the same it was really too cold to stay at this window much longer, and yet—
The new moon, so thin it had to lie on its back to support itself, was rising between two dark wooded hummocks but, below the skyline, fog rose steadily and when you held the lamp to the window, a fleecy wall glowered back at you.
Dear Diana, it’s like staring into Hades. Only noisier! Good grief, you come to the country expecting peace and tranquillity and what do you get? Billeted next to a bloody great zoo, that’s what. And they have the cheek to say Rome’s noisy! Well, it might get rowdy in the streets from time to time and the pavements might turn mucky in the rain, but at least you don’t find yourself sleeping alongside half the African jungle. Brawlers, beggars and bawds you get used to. The stonemasons’ hammers, the creaks of the cranes, the cobblers’ lasts—that’s civilization with a capital C. But out in the country one expects no more than leaves tousled in the wind, perhaps the odd bark of a fox, not this constant succession of bloodcurdling howls and menacing growls, and
none of these formidable pongs.
Claudia’s heart flipped a backward somersault and landed awkwardly as two security guards emerged from the gloom.
‘Goodnight.’ Her reply was a trifle croaky, but the fog, which plays tricks anyway, had gobbled them up again.
She counted to twenty then whistled two or three piping notes repeatedly. A horse doctor from Tolosa once told her that a cat had over thirty muscles in its ear, enabling it to detect the highest squeak of a dormouse, the shrillest trill of a warbler. Surely Drusilla could hear this? Claudia waited, gooseflesh creeping over her shivering frame. Nothing. Not a sign. Only when her teeth began to chatter did she drape her tunic over the sill and close the shutters, one reluctant leaf after the other, her cheek pressed against the polished beech long after the two big bruisers had finished their rounds.
Come on, kid. I know you can find your way—
Hitching the hem of her borrowed nightshift, Claudia hunkered over the little round brazier, warming her hands as light from the flickering lantern danced off the bronze. On paper, there should have been no problem with the road north of Narni, since it used to be the original Via Flaminia. However, in an effort to speed up travel and facilitate commerce within and beyond the boundaries of the Empire, Augustus had diverted this vital artery eastwards, round the other side of the mountains. So what if fifteen years had passed since then? Give us credit—we Romans build roads to last. Sure, the waysides are a little overgrown, but we’re making progress, aren’t we?
Then it happened. The…accident.
Picking up the looking-glass, a patchwork of cuts and bruises stared back at her, legacies of that…accident. Hmm. Claudia scanned aquatic friezes on unfamiliar walls, the garish oriental bedspread over a bed cast in silver. She smelled the heavy clover-like scent of the night-shift which hung stiff and strange from her shoulders—and vowed never to cut corners again. Never, ever, ever.
Taking one last peek out of the window, Claudia sighed. If there was ever light at the end of this particular tunnel, some smart-arse must have blown it out.
Jabbing back the bedclothes, she kicked off her sandals. This wasn’t the first time Drusilla had stayed out all night, but it was the first time in their seven years of sharing secrets and sustenance and shelter that she’d physically gone missing. Claudia snatched at the cat’s blanket and pressed it to her cheek, lingering over the matted fur and snagged fabric until her eyelids finally grew heavy. With one puff, the flame from the lamp flickered and died and she felt herself being sucked into sleep.
Down, and down, and down.
After a while, after a very long while, Claudia Seferius stopped fighting, and the thin crescent of the moon rose even higher in the heavens.
Thick mist, white like smoke, obliterated all vision and muffled every sound, even the hoofs clip-clopping in unison along grooves worn by countless wheels before them. The road, peeling itself back to admit them, revealed itself as little more than a ghost road. No brightly garbed Syrian merchants. No rumble of wagons. No loud-mouthed students travelling to university in Athens or Massilia or Alexandria. Gone were the actors, the athletes, the dispatch-carriers who once tramped these stones. Gone, too, the constant straggle of labourers, beggars, immigrants, in search of a better life. But in her dream, their shades lingered silently, leaving just the faintest whiff of commerce and philosophy, soldiering and whoring.
Hemmed in by the green-grey hazy hills for which Umbria was famous, home to boar and badger, wolf and porcupine, the sounds you would normally expect to hear—the rushing snowmelts, the territorial birdsong, the scrape of dead antler against bark—these sounds were deadened by the mist’s embrace. Tiny pearls of moisture embroidered her cloak.
It was like a dream within a dream.
Oblivion in a white cocoon. Then—
Trumpets. Shouts. Drums. Riders, six maybe seven of them, charging in and out, in and out of the fog. She saw the mares’ eyes rolling in fear, smelled the acid steam from their nostrils. They began to rear. The driver (she could see him now) was wrestling with the reins.
Abruptly the dream changed again. The riders had gone, but so also had the gig and the driver and the horses, and she was spinning through space. Thick, white, silent space. She saw the ground hurtling towards her, heard a scream…
The screech wasn’t part of the dream. Shrill and penetrating, it shattered the night and Claudia shot bolt upright in bed. A second scream rang out, and Claudia Seferius was out of bed and kicking over the brazier before she remembered.
‘Mingy, mangy, flea-bitten mishmash.’
Her voice echoed in the dark as she pushed away the curls that had tumbled into her eyes. This zoo is beginning to get on my whiskers! A big cat snarled, silencing the monkey. Well, that was something, she thought. At least it put paid to the shrieks.