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Authors: Marilyn Todd

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths

Second Act (9 page)

BOOK: Second Act
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‘My, my, you Security Police are a mine of information,’ she trilled. ‘But if you want my advice, Orbilio?’

‘Yes?’

‘Eat your lamb before it gets cold.’

‘The thing about non-Romans,’ he continued, ‘is that the same rules of interrogation don’t apply. Unlike citizens, they can be put to the torture to extract information.’

‘You have my undivided indifference.’

‘My grapevine informs me that Moschus has a very low threshold of pain.’

Claudia swallowed.
One day you’ll wake up to the fact that I’m the best friend you have.
Was he warning her, she wondered? Or was the spider more likely spinning a web for the fly…? About to toss out another flippant retort, she suddenly noticed something different about him this morning. Wrapped in a heavy woollen toga over a long patrician tunic and with the wind baffled by the high buildings all round the Forum, his face should not be white and pinched, his expression should not be frozen. His eyes should not be dead. Jupiter, Juno and Mars, I’m going to regret asking this, I know, but—

‘Marcus, is everything all right?’

He hadn’t so much as looked at the sacrificial roast. Just held it between his fingers, spots of grease congealing on his nails.

‘I suppose that largely depends on your definition of all right,’ he said, tossing the lamb to a shaggy wolfhound, whose beseeching eyes had been on him for several minutes. ‘The halcyon rapes have started again.’

Claudia shivered. ‘But the man confessed. H-he was executed in the arena.’

‘A man confessed,’ Orbilio corrected. ‘A man was executed, but—’

‘But nothing,’ Claudia said.

Marcus Cornelius Orbilio was renowned for his near-perfect record. Not because he was cleverer than the rest of the Security Police, although he was certainly better educated. But because his patrician training made him thorough to the point of pedantry. Even in those instances where he could not bring the perpetrator to book—itinerants, for instance, and those protected by High Society and the government—he nevertheless satisfied himself that he had done everything within his power and had at least some gratification in knowing that the case was closed. Dogged wasn’t the word, and that was why Claudia walked on eggshells around him. She hadn’t dragged herself out of the gutter to watch everything she’d worked for washed out to sea. Upright, conscientious and thorough, if Orbilio had nailed the Halcyon Rapist, then the Halcyon Rapist was nailed.

‘This has to be a copycat crime,’ she said.

‘That’s what my colleague, Dymas, thinks. That some arrogant bastard wants to prove himself smart enough to outwit the authorities.’ Orbilio tried for a smile and failed. ‘Well, my colleague is right on
that
score. I spoke to the girl who was attacked yesterday morning and I’ve just come from questioning the second victim now and it’s exactly the same as last year. Not similar,’ he said wearily. ‘Identical, Claudia, right down to the aniseed and the mask, and you know what that means.’

The lamb she’d eaten as part of the sacrifice threatened to regurgitate itself over the cobbles. No wonder he hadn’t been able to face it.

‘Yes,’ she said softly, and something tightened inside. ‘I know what it means.’

It meant Mr Conscientious-Upright-and-Thorough had made a mistake.

As a result of that error, an innocent man had been sent to his death.

Te
n

O
ut in the Alban Hills, a few miles from the bustling town of Frascati, a woodsman paused for lunch. The meal was humble—a hunk of cheese and a sweet chestnut scone—but he was glad to rest his weary bones, he’d been on the hoof since dawn. There was quite a nip in the air, but the woodsman was warm enough in his soft hide jerkin and leggings to brave untying the stout thongs of his leather cloak while he ate.

‘Xerxes!’ He whistled his dog. ‘Here, boy!’

Daft mutt. Gone lolloping off on a scent. The woodsman shrugged. All the more for him. He broke off a chunk of the cheese, hand-churned by the best cheese maker in the Alban Hills, his own wife. Aye, she knew how to make cheese, did his missus. One denarius of lamb’s rennet to every pail of milk, then she’d toss in a few wild thistle flowers and leave nature to take its course. Once it had thickened, she’d transfer the curds into a wicker basket to be moulded and pressed, salted then pressed again, before she added yet more salt and left it to mature under weights. This particular specimen had been hardened in brine and left smoking over the hearth through the summer until the rind had turned a rich, oaky brown, but his wife turned out everything from soft pungent goat’s cheese to fresh curds to ewe’s cheese which she made only in March when milk was at its most plentiful.

She sold many of her cheeses in the market in town and was a treasure house of gossip when she got back. Sited at the junction of no fewer than three main routes in and out of Rome, Frascati saw everyone from bone workers to horse breakers, soothsayers to purveyors of fine linen towels for the nobility. Musicians passed through, auctioneers, freaks, tax collectors, viper tamers, midwives, wagoners, you name it, and each with a tale to tell. The evenings were never dull when his wife had been into market.

There was that slave who had run away from Senator Cotta’s estate, what had been recaptured half a mile out of town. What a fight she put up, according to his missus. Kicking, biting, screaming as they carried her back to the house.

Then there was that kerfuffle with the strolling players last autumn, when half of them (no, more than half) stormed off, leaving the original troupe well and truly in the doodah and taking on anyone stupid enough to sign up and not being too fussed about who they hired, either, because Saturnalia was coming up fast.

The woodsman smiled as he chomped on his scone. All good fun, those stories, but none of them was a patch on the one where Senator Cotta’s old man blew himself up.

What a hoot that was! For more years than anyone could remember, the old boy had been babbling on about the Elixir of Immortality, bragging to anyone who’d listen that he’d toured the world to track down the ingredients, listing everything from iron pyrites to cinnabar to realgar. Lord alive, half the town was expecting him to die writhing in agony from his experiment, because realgar was a form of arsenic, but no. Give the old man his due, he mightn’t have gained everlasting life, but he certainly went out with a bang.

The whole of Senator Cotta’s west wing went up like a thunderbolt.

Laugh? The town of Frascati nearly wet itself. They were sorry about the old man, of course. Harmless old duffer, but at least he didn’t suffer. (Not like the wife’s mother, poor cow.) No, what was so funny was the Senator’s reaction. Talk about odd.

‘Xerxes!’ The woodsman called louder this time. ‘Come on, boy. Dinner.’

Still no response, so he polished off the piece of cheese that he had saved for the dog and sank his teeth into the last of the scone. Aye, and she baked a bloody fine loaf as well, his old lady. Chestnut bread was her speciality, and these scones fair melted in the mouth.

Maybe it was the suddenness of the old man’s death or just the stupid bloody manner of his dying, blowing the house up like that, that made the Senator react so oddly. But whatever the reason, he’d driven straight from the old man’s funeral to Cumae, outside of Naples. He had to consult with the Oracle, he had said. Urgent. And when he came back, someone up at the big house overheard him telling someone else that he’d visited Hades, ridden with the Ferryman across the River Styx, heard the bark of Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell, the whole lot. Apparently while he was down there, he’d also met with the ghost of his father, if you can believe that.

Which the woodsman could not.

‘Xerxes?’

Stupid mutt. He could hear him snaffling in the undergrowth over the way, too, his paws rootling through the cold, crisp leaves which lay scattered across the woodland floor.

‘Ah, there you are, boy. Wondered what you was up to, you daft bugger.’

The dog was thumping his tail so energetically that his whole body waggled. Amber eyes shone black with excitement.

‘Wrrrf.’

As the woodsman leaned down to pat his ears, a human hand plopped at his feet.

‘Wrf-wrf.’

Amiable as ever, Xerxes was more than willing to share his find. With a sour taste in the back of his throat, the woodsman followed the dog to where some creature, a fox in all probability, had already unearthed the remains. He could see gnaw marks on some of the bones. But one thing was clear.

‘This ain’t no barbarian burial.’

The grave was too shallow for one thing. Too far off the road for another. Also, he knew of no pagan ritual where loved ones were despatched to the afterlife naked. And another thing he couldn’t help noticing.

‘Death weren’t from natural causes, neither.’

The skull had been caved in at the temple, most likely by the spade whose wooden handle protruded from under a thin layer of litter.

‘Poor little bitch,’ he said over the grave, as he made the sign of the horns to avert the evil eye. ‘Didn’t deserve to end up like this, did she?’

He wondered what had lured her into the woods. Sex? Was she some prostitute who’d ended up taking her last walk with a pervert disguised as a punter? Or was he looking at the outcome of an execution, the body stripped to prevent identification? Had she suffered? Was she scared? Whatever the circumstances of her murder, she must have been a bonny lass, the woodsman thought. Her long black hair still streamed round her shoulders.

Eleven

Hearing that Moschus was in custody was a development Claudia hadn’t envisaged, and Orbilio’s announcement had caught her right off her guard. If the old sea dog talked… So far, his mouth seemed to have stayed shut tighter than a clam, but if Moschus was put to the torture…

Claudia shivered. There was only one option open to her now. Prevent the bastard from talking.

Two hours after the Festival of the Lambs had wound up, she returned home to find a problem in the boiler house filling the atrium with clouds of steam. Swirling in and out of the vapour, like ships in a fogbank, Caspar’s Spectaculars rehearsed with scripts that resembled limp lettuce and did not turn a hair. As Claudia tossed her cloak in the general direction of the porter, Drusilla, her blue-eyed, cross-eyed, dark Egyptian cat, jumped down from the roof of the aviary. ‘Mrrrow.’

‘Yes, I know, poppet. Not much fun for you, is it, all these strangers over the house?’

Not much fun for the birds in the aviary, either. Furious that her territory had been usurped, Drusilla had vented her spleen by taking up sentry duty on top of the bird house. There were several advantages here. First, she was out of range of cat-strokers, although in truth these were few and far between. (Those individuals who’d naively imagined that Drusilla would benefit from their endeavours reeked of the opobalsam with which their wounds had been dressed.) Secondly, from her lookout on the top of the aviary, Drusilla maintained the territorial advantage in that she could still follow everything that went on in her domain. And thirdly, and by far the most rewarding, was the effect her presence had on the aviary’s twittering inmates.

‘Prrrrrr.’

As Claudia’s nails raked Drusilla’s backbone, she glanced across to where Caspar was putting the cast through their paces. The squawking in the aviary had subsided as the birds regrouped and preened their ruffled feathers, so that the words of the castrato came as sweet and clear as a mountain stream. Accompanying him on the flute was Renata.

‘Prrrr,’ Drusilla repeated, rubbing her head under her mistress’s chin.

‘I know,’ Claudia replied. ‘Isn’t his the voice of an angel? And just look at Felix!’

The bleached blond had reached the point in his balletic mime where Paris was weighing in his hand the golden apple engraved ‘To the Fairest’. That one human body could express so many emotions without the aid of speech was utterly amazing. Fear: of snubbing at least one, possibly two goddesses at the risk of divine retribution. Pride: the privilege of being asked to judge the contest. Anxiety: that he might make the wrong decision. Nor was Claudia the only person mesmerized by Felix’s performance. No mosaic had been swept more meticulously, no bronze statuette ever polished harder, no niche and crevice dusted quite so often. Small wonder the boiler house had set off so much steam, with no one in there to attend the fire.

Claudia took a piece of bacon that Doris had left on his trencher and fed it to Drusilla, while she drank the libation from the household shrine (and now the slaves would have another excuse to pass through the atrium slower than a sleeping snail) and nibbled on Ion’s chive bread.

‘Mrrr.’

Stuffed with ham, plus a few prawns that her mistress had found underneath the chive bread, Drusilla rearranged herself round Claudia’s neck to wash her whiskers. Up on the gallery, Ugly Phil appeared to be chiselling lumps out of the support rails to secure the pulleys for the backdrops. Claudia tried not to think about the cost of repairs, and turned her attentions to her Saturnalia banquet.

The festival covered four full days from the seventeenth to the twentieth of December, with the morning of the seventeenth devoted to the Great Sacrifice outside the Temple of Saturn in the Forum. Schools, law courts, even shops closed on this day, and the whole of Rome gathered to propitiate the God of Agriculture in the hope that the seeds already in the ground plus those about to be sown would flourish into a bountiful harvest. Afterwards, many citizens would join in the famous public banquet, where they’d dress up in funny hats, gorge themselves stupid, drink until they were ill, play party games and generally have a bloody good time. The merchant and noble classes celebrated in pretty much the same style, only they had the good sense to do it in the warmth and comfort of a private home. Preferably not their own. Otherwise, how could they expect to collect five to six pounds of silver plate from every supplier?

BOOK: Second Act
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