Authors: Steven Saylor
Tags: #Historical Fiction
A Novel of Ancient Rome
Table of Contents
For my brother, Ronny,
"Pompey will be mightily pissed," said Davus.
"Son-in-law, you have a penchant for stating the obvious." I sighed and knelt and steeled myself to take a closer look. The lifeless body lay face-down in the middle of my garden directly before the bronze statue of Minerva, like a prostrate worshiper at the goddess's feet.
Davus turned in a circle, shielding his eyes from the morning sunlight and peering warily at the four corners of the peristyle roof surrounding us. "What I can't see is how the assassin got in and out without any of us in the house hearing." He wrinkled his brow, which made him look like a perplexed and much overgrown boy.
Built like a Greek statue, and just as thick;
that was Bethesda's joke. My wife had not taken kindly to the notion of our only daughter marrying a slave, especially a slave who had been brash enough, or stupid enough, to get her pregnant. But if Davus had a penchant for the obvious, Diana had a penchant for Davus. And there was no denying that they had produced a beautiful son, whom I could hear even now screaming at his mother and grandmother to be let out into the garden, crying as only a two-year-old can. But Aulus could not be let out to play on this bright, mild Januarius afternoon, for there was a corpse in the garden.
And not just any corpse. The dead man was Numerius Pompeius, who was somehow related to Pompey— one of the Great One's cousins, though a couple of generations younger. He had arrived at my house, alone, half an hour earlier. Now he lay dead at my feet.
"I can't understand it." Davus scratched his head. "Before I let Numerius in the door, I took a good look up and down the street, like I always do. I didn't notice anybody following him." When Davus had been a slave, it was Pompey who had owned him, and Davus had been a bodyguard— an obvious choice, given his hulking physique. He had been trained not just to fight but to keep a lookout for danger. As my son-in-law, Davus was the physical protector of the household, and in these perilous times it was his job to greet visitors at the door. Now that a murder had occurred within the house, practically under his nose, he took it as a personal failure. In Pompey's service, such a lapse would have called for a harsh interrogation, at the least. In the face of my silence, Davus seemed determined to interrogate himself. He paced back and forth, using his fingers to tick off each question.
"Why did I let him in? Well, because I knew him by sight, back from my days with Pompey. He was no stranger; he was Numerius, my former master's favorite young cousin, who always had a good word for everyone. And he came alone— not even a bodyguard to worry about— so I didn't see any need to make him wait outside. I let him into the foyer. Did I ask if he had any weapons? It's against the law to carry weapons inside the city walls, of course, but nobody pays attention to that these days, so yes, I did ask, and he didn't make any fuss at all and handed over his dagger right away. Did I search him for more weapons, as you've told me to do, even with citizens? Yes, I did, and he didn't even protest. Did I leave him alone, even for a moment? No, I did not. I stayed with him there in the foyer, sent little Mopsus to tell you there was a visitor, then waited until you sent back word that you'd see him. I escorted him through the house, back here to the garden. Diana and Aulus were out here with you, playing in the sunny spot at Minerva's feet ... right where Numerius is lying now ... but you sent them inside. Did I stay with you? No, because you sent me inside, too. But I knew better! I should have stayed."
"Numerius said he had a message for my ears alone," I said. "If a man can't safely have a private talk in his own home ..." I looked about the garden, at the carefully pruned shrubbery and the brightly colored columns that lined the surrounding walkway. I gazed up at the bronze statue of Minerva; after all these years, the face that peered down from her great war helmet remained inscrutable to me. The garden was at the center of the house, its heart— the heart of my world— and if I was not safe here, then I was safe nowhere.
"Don't chastise yourself, Davus. You did your job. You knew that Numerius was whom he claimed to be, and you took his weapon."
"But Pompey would never be left unguarded, even for—"
"Have we reached a point where a common citizen needs to mimic Pompey or Caesar, and have a bodyguard standing over him every moment of every hour, even when he's wiping his ass?"
Davus frowned. I knew what he was thinking— that it was unlike me to talk so crudely, that I must be badly shaken and trying not to show it, that his father-in-law was getting too old to deal with ugly shocks like a corpse in the garden before the midday meal. He stared up at the rooftop again. "But Numerius wasn't the danger, was he? It was whoever followed him here. The fellow must be half lizard, to scurry up and down the walls without making a sound! Did you hear nothing, father-in-law?"
"I told you, Numerius and I talked for a while, then I left him for a moment and stepped into my study."
"But that's only a few feet away. Still, I suppose the statue of Minerva might have blocked the view. And your hearing—"
"My ears are as sharp as those of any man of sixty-one!"
Davus nodded respectfully. "However it happened, it's a good thing you weren't out here when the assassin came, or else ..."
"Or else I might have been strangled, too?" I touched my fingers to the rope that still circled Numerius's neck, cutting into the livid flesh. He had been killed with a simple garrote, a short loop of rope attached to each end of a short, stout twisting stick.
Davus knelt beside me. "The killer must have come up behind him, dropped the garrote over his head, then used the stick to twist it tighter and tighter around his throat. A gruesome way to die."
I turned away, feeling queasy.
"But a quiet way," Davus went on. "Numerius couldn't even cry out! Maybe he managed a gurgle or a grunt at the start, but then, with his air cut off, the only way to make a sound would be to bang against something. See there, father-in-law, how Numerius gouged his heels into the gravel? But that wouldn't make much noise. If only he could have banged a fist against the bronze Minerva ... but both hands are clutched to his throat. That's a man's instinct, to try to tear the rope from his neck. I wonder ..." Davus peered up at the roof again. "The killer needn't have been a big fellow. It doesn't take a great deal of strength to garrote a man, even a big man, so long as you take him unaware."
"Do you speak from experience, son-in-law?"
"Oh, I learned lots of things like that, training to be Pompey's bodyguard." Davus smiled at me crookedly, then saw the look on my face. His smile vanished. "You don't think that
"Of course not. But I wonder— might such an idea occur to Pompey? Is there any reason for you to bear a grudge against Pompey? Something I don't know about? When you were his slave, did he ever mistreat you?"
"No, father-in-law. Have I ever complained about him? He was a good master." Davus managed another crooked smile. "Besides, wasn't it Pompey who lent me to you, back during the Clodian riots, to guard the house— and wasn't that how I came to know Diana, and ..." He flushed.
Pompey lent you to me, you became my daughter's secret lover, the two of you made a baby— and then it was up to me either to sue Pompey for damages and see you flogged to death, or else acquire you from Pompey, set you free, and make you my son-in-law. It's
who should bear a grudge against Pompey!
I thought this, but did not say it.
"I only mean to say," Davus stumbled on, "that I harbor only good will toward Pompey, as he must know, if he ever gives me any thought at all."
"What about Numerius? You say he was Pompey's favorite young cousin. Did he take liberties with the slaves when he was in the Great One's house? Did Numerius ever mistreat you— make fun of you— abuse you in some other way?" Some men might have taken certain advantage of a slave who was thick as a Greek statue, and built like one.
"Never! I told you, Numerius had a good word for everyone. I liked him."
"Then there's no reason, no reason at all, why
might loom up as a suspect in Pompey's mind when he learns that Numerius was murdered under my roof?"
"None at all!"
"Because, son-in-law, if I thought Pompey might suspect you, I'd be tempted to drag Numerius into the street and pretend he never set foot in this house. These days it profits a man to go to whatever lengths he can to avoid trouble, especially trouble with the Great One." I studied Davus's face, which was incapable of deceit. I nodded. "Well, then, Pompey will have to be told. I suppose I must do it myself— make the trip outside the city walls to Pompey's villa, wait for an interview, give him the bad news, then let him deal with the matter as he chooses. Here, help me roll the body face-up."
From inside the house, I heard my little grandson shouting again to be let into the garden. I looked toward the doorway. Bethesda and Diana peered out anxiously. It was something of a miracle that they had so far obeyed me and stayed out of the garden. Bethesda started to speak, but I held up my hand and shook my head. I was rather surprised when she nodded and withdrew, taking Diana with her.
I forced myself to look at Numerius's strangled face. It was a sight to give anyone nightmares.
He had been young, in his twenties, probably a bit older than Davus. His broad, blandly handsome features were now discolored and distorted and almost unrecognizable in a rictus of agony. I swallowed hard. As I used two fingers to shut his lids, I saw my reflection in the black pool of his staring eyes. No wonder my wife and daughter had obeyed me without question. The look on my face was alarming even to me.
I stood, my knees crackling like the gravel beneath my feet. Davus sprang up beside me, as supple as a cat despite his size.
"Pompey will be mightily pissed," I said gravely.
"I said that already!"
"So you did, Davus. But bad news keeps, as the poet says. The day is young, and I see no need to rush across Rome to bring Pompey the news. What do you say we have a closer look, and see what Numerius may be carrying?"
"But I told you, I searched him when I took his dagger. There was only a small moneybag around his waist, with a clip for his scabbard. Nothing else."
"I wouldn't be sure of that. Help me take off his clothes. Be careful; we shall have to put everything back exactly as it was, before Pompey's men come to claim the body."
Beneath his well-cut woolen tunic, Numerius wore a linen loincloth. It was wet with urine, but he had not soiled himself. He wore no jewelry except for his citizen's ring. I took off the ring and examined it; it appeared to be solid iron, with no secret compartments or hidden devices. There were only a few coins inside his moneybag; considering the chaotic state of the city, it would not have been prudent for a man without bodyguards to carry more. I turned the bag inside out. There were no secret pockets.
"Perhaps you're right, Davus. Perhaps he was carrying nothing of interest, after all. Unless ... Take off his shoes, would you? My back aches from bending over."
The uppers were made of finely tanned black leather stamped with an intricate design of interconnected triangles, closed and fastened by thongs that wound around the ankle and calf. The soles were quite thick, made of several layers of hardened leather attached to the uppers by hobnails. There was nothing inside them. They were warm and carried the scent of Numerius's feet; handling them was more intimate than handling his clothing or even his ring. I was about to hand them back to Davus when I noticed an irregularity in the layered sole, at the heel. The same irregularity appeared at the same spot in both shoes. There were two breaks in the middle layer of the sole, about a thumb's length apart. Near one of the breaks was a small hole.
"Do you have the dagger you took from Numerius?"
Davus wrinkled his brow. "Yes. Ah, I see! But if you mean to cut into his shoes, I can fetch a better knife from the kitchen."
"No, let me see Numerius's dagger."