Authors: Marilyn Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
‘Look at that!’ Orbilio’s voice was full of awe.
She looked to where he was pointing. In the water, a huge blue chasm gaped up at them, circular, like an eye. A bright, hideous, aquamarine eye. The eye of the river god. Claudia shuddered.
‘I’ll be damned, it’s a well in the lake. Watch this!’
He picked up a pebble and threw it at the hole. Claudia half expected it to squint, but the stone was caught in the surge. Instead of plopping straight to infinity, it slipped and swayed and took a lifetime before gravity finally triumphed and the little pebble was swallowed by the watery abyss.
She felt silly and foolish, and hated him for seeing her that way.
‘Have you ever seen such an astonishing colour,’ he was saying, and she hated him for showing her own vulnerability to her. Which is probably why she blurted out Sergius’ affair.
His breath came out in a whistle. ‘Euphemia, eh? I wondered why the little sexpot hadn’t married.’
‘I’ve no idea how long it’s been going on, but I’ll bet one gold piece to a golliwog Alis knows nothing about it.’ Like me, she’d have seen nothing wrong with Euphemia’s thighs clamped round her husband’s neck at the party. Keep it in the family, and all that. ‘I reckon Sergius plans to install Euphemia in Rome as his mistress and keep Alis at bay here in Umbria.’
Save your breath, Claudia, Orbilio’s on a different planet. He seemed to have something stuck on his teeth, the way he was twisting his mouth this way and that, sucking his lower lip, biting it, chewing his tongue. Probably the cold duck at lunchtime, she thought, stepping over a pile of deer droppings. Glad I went for the chicken.
‘It’s the same old problem,’ he said eventually, staring at the rippling reflections of the poplars and the willows, at the twinkling coins in the shallows. ‘Motive. Find a reason and we find our murderer.’
murderer? It’s me who was nearly pickled in crocodiles,’ Claudia pointed out, as bubbles of air shimmied their way to the surface.
‘Oh, you can’t fault the killer’s versatility,’ he agreed. ‘Fronto is knifed, Coronis has her neck broken, Corbulo has his neck stretched.’
Yes, and each of them cold, calculated acts… Claudia concentrated on the shouts of the rowers, the girls egging them on. It was safer. She watched a gang of children chase each other over the footbridge in a game of pirates, she felt the warmth of the sun through her dusky pink tunic.
‘Here.’ Orbilio delved into his purse, pulled out a silver denarius and flipped it towards her. ‘Make a wish.’ Claudia scooped the spinning coin in her fist and examined it. The Emperor on one side, Venus on the other. Venus. Goddess of love. Love and sensual pleasure. Venus, protector of the month of April, which is just around the corner. Well, bugger Venus. Claudia lobbed the denarius into the deepest water she could reach and heard a soft chuckle beside her. Well, bugger him, too.
Children’s footsteps reverberated on the little wooden bridge as they thundered off to kidnap the temple pigeons. With their squeals still ringing in his ears, Marcus said, ‘And let’s not forget what happened to Sergius.’
The Pictor party lay flat on their backs, sleeping off their lunch to the drone of the bees and the songs of the warblers. Even an attack by marauding buccaneers with sticks for swords hadn’t disturbed their gentle reveries.
‘That wasn’t poison—’ Claudia contradicted.
Suddenly the peace was shattered. From under the cypresses came a gurgling, retching sound. They ran forward. Sergius, rolled into a ball and clawing at his stomach, was spewing his guts up, his face convulsed in agony.
Frozen, Claudia and Orbilio stared at one another.
poison!’ they chorused in unison.
The torches guiding the party back to the Villa Pictor were as numerous as they were welcoming—not that Claudia was convinced this was the sole intention. A maniac was abroad, kindling a primordial instinct in the slaves at the house.
Light fires and banish the bogeyman.
They felt safe within their wall of flame, and quite right too, she thought. The bogeyman had travelled with them.
Jumping down from the wagon, she noticed a string of horses in the yard. Military horses, godsdammit. She pursed her lips. That Prefect was like the smell of cabbage cooking. You can never quite eradicate
She followed the stretcher carrying Sergius Pictor into the atrium. He looked a whole sight better now, thanks to Orbilio’s expert ministrations—although quite what procedures he followed Claudia had no idea. She’d legged it across that footbridge faster than a jackrabbit on ice. If he needed a nurse, someone else could volunteer.
‘I’m fine, now,’ Sergius croaked, more with optimism than conviction, she thought. ‘You can set me down here.’
Claudia looked at him. Weak was an understatement. His skin was waxy, his eyes still red from the vomiting.
‘Drink this, dear.’ Alis held a cup of water to his lips, but he shook his head so violently, beads of sweat sprayed through the air.
‘Something the matter?’ Macer swept into the atrium to the jangle of armour and the clipclop of hobnailed boots, neither of which, Claudia noticed with a thrill of delight, were his own.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Sergius said wearily, as the legionaries snapped to attention behind their leader. ‘Damned glad.’ He heaved himself up on one elbow. ‘I want you to arrest her.’
From the edge of his eye, Macer darted a glance towards Claudia, and she didn’t much care for what she read in it. Pointedly, she began to admire the tall marble columns, the white marble busts, the garlands of white scented daphne.
‘Arrest who, sir?’
Macer’s wasn’t the only stare to freeze on the sick man. ‘Your wife?’ he asked incredulously.
‘Oh, yes.’ Sergius wiped his mouth with the palm of his hand. ‘It’s not the first time, but now I think—no—I am certain.’
The tip of the Prefect’s nose glowed pink. ‘Certain of what, sir?’
‘That’s Alis is trying to kill me.’
Pandemonium broke out almost at once.
Alis, her pale face turning grey, swivelled her eyes towards Sergius, then sank to the floor before a word passed her lips, and Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, for the second time that day, put on his nursing cap and set to work while the rest of the room shouted each other down in an effort to make themselves heard. Claudia stood welded to the spot. Alis?
Orbilio had loosened the neck of her tunic and was gently slapping her face.
Then, above the commotion, one voice cut through. ‘Sergius is right. I suspected it myself ages ago.’
Euphemia shouldered her way to the front and stared unblinkingly at Macer. He stared unblinkingly back. ‘And why is that, might I enquire?’
Credit it where it’s due, thought Claudia. He is one cool customer, our Prefect. Perhaps it was he who got under Fronto’s skin, she mused, rather than the other way around. Fronto. The dung-beetle who got himself killed just over there, in my doorway. A man who nobody misses apart from Balbilla, and she’d bring out the mothering instinct in a rabid hyena.
‘Lots of things.’ Euphemia stood with one hand on her hip, and looked every inch the trollop she was. ‘For instance, every month he’d go down with food poisoning when none of the rest of us did.’
‘But he is still alive,’ the Prefect observed drily, investigating something wedged between his teeth.
‘He’s young and he’s strong,’ she said. ‘More than her first husband was.’
Macer’s dental practices were abandoned. ‘Isodorus?’ he asked sharply. ‘Are you suggesting—’
‘Why not?’ said Sergius. ‘Only this time, she won’t get away with it. By her own admission, Alis fed me mushrooms she’d gathered herself. Let her talk her way out of that!’
Had she been conscious, it was doubtful Alis would have been capable of talking her way out of a sack of black-eye beans, but Claudia’s skin had begun to prickle. He was lying. Sergius Pictor was lying through his perfectly formed teeth, and Euphemia was backing him up. Why?
Tulola and Pallas were lobbying Macer to move Sergius. He was too ill to be arguing in the middle of the atrium, they said, for gods’ sake, put him in his bedroom, at least. Timoleon and Barea, Corbulo and Taranis, vociferously denied any inkling of what was going on. They’d only seen Alis drooling over her husband, why should they be suspicious?
Why, indeed, thought Claudia. Yet all the while, Sergius had been having it away with that heavy-breasted siren, then slipping his arm round Alis’ shoulders as
Of course. Now she saw why Euphemia had said such spiteful things. She was jealous of her sister. Holy Croesus, she and Sergius were in it together. They’d planned this, the devious bastards, right from the very start! Alis had told her, hadn’t she? Sergius was on the scene long before Isodorus popped his sickly clogs. It was
he was in love with. It was Euphemia he wanted to marry. But it was Alis who had all the money.
He gave them a gift, the writhing chimera. The snake would have been placed in position, Isodorus encouraged (dared?) to put his hand in the lion’s mouth. Claudia was willing to bet that neither Sergius nor Euphemia would call that murder. Assisted accident at best, the same way they callously planned to dispose of the silly, conscientious creature Sergius couldn’t even bear to sleep with.
Attempted murder by his wife? Nothing can be proved, that was never the intention, but this was why he wanted the might of the militia. There would be more than sufficient evidence for Sergius Pictor to divorce
and guess where the money goes. Claudia thought of Sergius, putting himself through hell and back, and for what? The performing beasts would make him ten times as much money as Alis brought with her, but he got greedy. He wanted it all. The house, the farm, the circus, the girl.
Click! Claudia understood now how he’d made himself sick. Whose idea was the sulphur pools? It was the mud he was after. He’d caked himself, very thinly, in mud and sulphur, what else explained skin the colour of pussy willows? The combination clogged his pores and made him ill—Claudia had experienced much the same thing on the trip back from Tarsulae—and just like he’d poisoned himself today, the more people who witnessed his suffering, the better.
Bastard. He arranged for the yobs and for Fronto, and everything subsequent because he was getting desperate for an excuse to call in the army.
Staring up at the vaulted ceiling, she wondered whether Alis could prove any of this—or indeed whether Alis would want to. Claudia smiled to herself. This could backfire on you yet, my handsome, devious host. If Alis can question just half of your actions, bang goes your divorce, and even when the money comes rolling in, how will you get away? She’ll have you by the balls, old chap, you’ll be dancing to her tune like a puppet. And as for you—Claudia glanced across at Euphemia—Alis’ll have you married off within a month, and I’ll bet it won’t be in Umbria, either. Because if you can’t trust your own baby sister, who can you trust?
Orbilio was lifting the limp form of Mistress Pictor into his arms. Despite detailed investigative work by the army and the Security Police, it was unlikely even a slender case could be made against Sergius, and even if he and Euphemia fell out and accused one another, it was his word against hers. Nevertheless, Claudia felt a great weight lifted off her shoulders.
It was over.
Finally, the nightmare was over. She could return to Rome knowing she didn’t have to keep her back to the wall from now on.
As Orbilio carried Alis to her room, the clamour in the atrium became, if that was possible, even louder. Macer had to bellow to make himself heard, and was trying to verify the facts with his nephew. Claudia sidled over to Taranis.
‘You know she be murderess?’ he marvelled.
‘I know you be spy.’
His face went rigid. ‘You say again, please. I no understand.’
‘You understand perfectly, my primitive friend. You came to find out whether the Emperor planned to invade Britain, am I right?’
‘You know damn well.’ His hands dug into her upper arms as he spun her behind the pillar. ‘Is why you’re here, no? You and security man?’
To his amazement, she began to laugh. ‘Is that what you thought? That we’re here to keep an eye on you?’ He should consider himself so important. ‘Well, I regret to tell you this, Taranis, but my story was the gods-honest truth. I was run off the road.’
‘Tch!’ The Celt made a vulgar gesture with his hand, but it was aimed at himself, rather than Claudia. ‘Now you turn me in, heh?’
I ought to, if only for turning my room over. ‘The Divine Julius made one attempt on your barbaric coast. Augustus won’t fancy tangling with you lot again, take my word for it.’
‘Is good,’ Taranis said, nodding sagely. ‘Is good we no have war, is good you have problem in Pannonia, and is good—good for Atrebates—your general is dead. It take heat off Britain, no? We trade in peace.’
Claudia felt a faint ruffle of unease. ‘How could you possibly hear about invasion plans from this wretched little backwater?’
‘I try Rome, people notice me. So I take, what’s the word, accomplice, yes? I take accomplice. Freeborn man, poor. Need money. I pay him to stand outside Senate instead, he tell me what is said.’
The spy has a spy, whatever next?
‘I—’ he paused. ‘I sorry he try to kill you.’
Claudia goggled in indignation.
tried to feed me to the crocodiles?’