Authors: Marilyn Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
‘Now I suppose you expect me to come down there and rescue you?’
Claudia gulped back her tears. ‘On one condition, Orbilio.’
‘That after this, you leave me alone and I never have to set eyes on you again.’
Carefully he looped the rest of the reins round his shoulders. ‘You’ve got yourself a deal,’ he shouted, testing the knot.
Claudia pinched her lips together. That was the thing about Marcus, she thought, dangling in mid-air above a 500-foot drop while thousands of gallons of water thundered past.
He was such a godawful liar.
About the Author
Marilyn Todd was born in Harrow, England, but now lives with her husband on a French hilltop, surrounded by châteaux, woodlands and vines. As well as sixteen historical thrillers, Marilyn also writes short stories, which are mostly crime-based. When she isn't killing people, Marilyn enjoys cooking. Which is pretty much the same thing. Look for her next novel,
, coming in ebook form soon.
The mean backstreets of Rome are no place for a wealthy young widow to find herself lost in. Especially after dark, with a small child in tow.
Five young women have already been butchered, each with a tattoo marking them out as the Children of Arbil.
Except Arbil is no loving father.
As Claudia is about to find out…
* * *
Rarely do moneylenders, when faced with non-payment of debt, veer towards benevolence. But this one was in a good mood. In fact, so keen was he today to demonstrate his generosity, that he offered Claudia a head start before unleashing his dogs.
That was the last time she’d do business with
At the first turn, she slewed the honey-seller’s table across the lane behind her. Dozens of small red pots oozed their nectar on to the pavement, although Claudia was running too fast to catch the shopkeeper’s exact words. He called her a something-something-little-some-thing, she believed, and threatened that if she ever came back he’d something-something her, which seemed none too polite, but then gentlemanly conduct tended to be thin on the ground around here.
‘Stop her,’ cried one of the dog handlers. ‘Stop that woman!’ But the crowd had no intention of being deprived of their free entertainment. They cleaved a path.
Croesus, thought Claudia, haring down the street, it was a hard-boiled pack that bloodsucker had put on her tail and no mistake. Baying and slavering,you’d think they hadn’t eaten for days. She skidded into a charcoal dealer, sending his coals tumbling over the cobbles. Hell, maybe they hadn’t, but no way did Claudia Seferius intend to be on their menu tonight. Skirting a pile of slippery fish guts which the fishmonger had jettisoned into the gutter, she paused at the tallow man’s.
‘I turned left, understood?’ She threw the candle maker sufficient bronze to keep him in food (or more probably drink) for a week.
His appreciative grin showed a row of blackened teeth. ‘Left, yer said.’
Good. If duff directions don’t put the dogs off the scent, the stench from his rotting teeth would. Before ducking to the right, Claudia stopped to check her pursuers. The tallow man was pointing directly her way…
She ran and she ran, darting left, hooking right, constantly cursing the strong Judaean perfume which blazed a trail for zealous snouts. What was wrong with that moneylender? For heaven’s sake, we’re only talking a few hundred gold pieces (all right, a thousand…who’s counting?), but it’s not as though she intended to decamp with his money. It was merely that, at present, the repayment date required a modicum of flexibility. Surely he could trust her on that? Fine cottons, gold rings and ivory combs in her curls had been reassurance enough when he was dishing out the loan, and look how his eyes popped when she wrote down the address. Quite right, too. It was a bloody good address. Up on the Esquiline, where the patricians hang out. A rather modest house, perhaps, by Esquiline standards, with a courtyard of shade and gentle fountains and sweet singing birds. You can’t miss it, she told the moneylender. It’s right opposite the goldbeater’s.
Which it was. It just happened not to be Claudia’s address.
Jupiter, Juno and Mars—whichever way she turned, the lanes twisted, narrowed, doubled back, and led relentlessly downhill. Damn! The dogs were not giving up, either. One had a distinctive howl—not dissimilar, she mused, to the sound her cat, Drusilla, made this morning, when her tail got caught in the door.
Kneading the stitch in her side, Claudia paused and looked around and felt a sudden chill of terror. She could not say when or where it had changed, but twisting wynds had turned into stinking runnels, sedate apartment blocks were now crumbling tenements. A standpipe dripped at the end of the street and a young mother with a child at her hip blew her nose with her fingers. Daylight was beginning to fade, too, exacerbated by the heavy grey clouds which had been building up during the course of the afternoon. Doors were being slammed, latches fastened, shutters drawn. With panic rising in her breast, Claudia knew she was well and truly lost. While the dogs still bayed close by.
‘Hello?’ Someone help me. Please. But only shadows and vermin roamed the alleys amid the raw sewage, the vegetation rotting on the middens and the bloated corpse of a puppy being picked over by rats. A three-legged truckle-bed sat upended where it had been dumped, broken pots crunched underfoot, and from open windows came the sounds of drunken bullies beating their wives and their children in the name of obedience. Spooked by the rankness that defines sheer and utter hopelessness, Claudia went spinning down the lanes.
Stumbling. Tripping. Oblivious to the cess trenches, the dogs, the thugs who ran with them, she had to get out… ‘Shit!’
Swallowing hard, she blinked back the tears as she came face to face with the truckle-bed and the rats and the dead puppydog.
‘Shit, shit, shit!’
Perhaps, then, it was time to use brains and not footwear? A raw-boned mongrel, grey around the face, wandered up to the broken bed, cocked its leg then lolloped off. Dear Diana! Impossible to imagine that all roads lead from Rome, reaching even the darkest outpost of our mighty Empire, while these alleys criss-cross like the minotaur’s labyrinth.
‘There! There she is!’
Dammit, they’d caught up. Claudia shot down the nearest passageway, then skidded to a halt. The mongrel was examining something dark and sticky on a rusty skillet. The inspection appeared to be in its early stages. Plenty of time for a girl to unclip her blue cotton wrap, rip it with the brooch pin and ram the poor mutt’s head through the hole before it even had a chance to snarl its disapproval. Stung in the rump by a shard of pottery, it shot off down the street, flapping oceans of blue cotton in its wake. Blue cotton heavily scented with Judaean perfume, no less.
As she flung open the nearest tenement door, Claudia realised her ploy had failed. The dogs wanted to follow the scent, but the handlers had sharp eyes. The gap was
Claudia flew up the dimly lit stairs two at a time. While they searched the lower floors, she could hide. She ran along the corridor, testing door after door, until finally one surrendered.
A toothless crone sat on a stool supping porridge straight from the crock.
‘Can you hide me?’ Claudia panted. ‘I can pay.’ She pulled off a ring set with emeralds.
Watery gruel dribbled down the old woman’s chin. Sweet Janus, was she blind?
‘Please!’ A cupboard. Under the bed. There must be some way out of this mess. ‘Will you help me?’
‘Oi!’ Fists pounded the door. ‘Open up!’ The hinges were weak. They would not stand much more rough treatment.
Rheumy eyes watched disinterestedly as the crone continued to slurp from the bowl. Bugger! Claudia ran to the window and looked down. The front door was bulging more and more with each shove from the moneylender’s thug.
‘No way out, luv,’ he crowed. ‘You’re trapped.’
Really? Ignoring the dizziness, Claudia climbed on to the sill. What about that balcony over the way? She took a deep breath.
Now eight feet is not very far. Measure it out and you’d be hard pressed to fit in, say, a decent bout of shadow-boxing, half a game of hopscotch, you couldn’t even rig up a funeral pyre. So, no, it’s not very far. On the ground… Heart pounding, mouth dry, Claudia launched herself into space.
YES! As her hands connected with the balustrade, she felt a rush of such elation that she actually laughed aloud.
Until she heard the crack.
This isn’t a rail. This is woodworm holding hands. Her knuckles were white as she glanced down. Janus, it must be seventy feet at least. Waves of nausea washed over her as she struggled to swing her body on to the balcony before the rail gave way.
Too late. With a splintering sound, the balustrade began to bow inexorably downwards. Claudia closed her eyes. And wondered which Olympian divinity owed her a favour.