Authors: Lindsey Davis
Time to Depart
Marcus Didius Falco
'I still can't believe I've put the bastard away for good!' Petronius muttered.
'He's not on the boat yet,' Fusculus corrected him. Clearly the Watch's optimist.
There were five us waiting on a quayside. Mid-October. An hour before dawn. A wakening breeze chilled our tense faces as we huddled in cloaks. The day was making itself ready for action somewhere on the other side of Italy, but here in Portus, Rome's new harbour, it was still fully dark. We could see the huge beacon on the lighthouse flaunting itself, with glimpses of tiny figures tending the fire; pale sheets of flame sometimes lit the statue of Neptune presiding over the entrance. The sea god's illuminated torso stood out strangely in our surroundings. Only the scents of old, hardened rope and rotting fish scales told us we were standing on the grand harbour bowl.
We were five honest, respectable citizens who had been waiting all night for a sixth. He had never been honest, though like most criminals he had no difficulty passing himself off as respectable. Roman society had always been readily bamboozled by brazen acts. But now, thanks to Petronius Longus, the man and his crimes had been publicly exposed.
We had been waiting too long. Although nobody said it, we were starting to dread that the big rissole would not show.
The lowlife was called Balbinus.
I had been hearing his name as long as I could remember. It had certainly been notorious when Petronius and I had come home from the army six years before. At that time my old tentmate Petro, being a dutiful type who fancied a good salary, had put himself forward as a public officer; I set up in business alone. He was chasing cabbage thieves through the markets while I was picking through clerks' divorces and tracing stolen art. On the face of it we lived in different worlds, yet we stumbled across the same tragedies and heard the same worrying stories on the streets.
Balbinus was renowned throughout our district as one of the dirtiest underworld organisers ever to gild imperial Rome. The area he terrorised included brothels, wharfside warehouses, the back-doubles on the Aventine slopes, the dark colonnades around the Circus Maximus. He ran jostlers and confidence tricksters; prostitutes and cutpurses; cat burglars and marauding gangs of street beggars with fake blind eyes who could soon spot trouble coming. He kept a couple of safe houses for receiving, set up under the cover of straight businesses. Petronius reckoned that the flow of stolen goods into these dens of illicit commerce rivalled the international trade at the Emporium.
Petro had been trying to nail Balbinus for years. Now, somehow, he had managed to set up a capital charge - and go on to secure a conviction despite all Balbinus' efforts to escape using democratic channels (intimidation and bribes). I had yet to hear the full details. Barely back in Rome from what I liked to describe as a confidential diplomatic mission, I had been roped in tonight as a dependable extra and friend.
'He's not going to come now,' I suggested easily, since I knew how stubborn Petro was.
'I'll not risk losing him.'
'Don't niggle me, Falco.'
'You're so conscientious you're tying youtself up in knots. Listen to someone rational: he'll either have left Rome last evening, in which case we would have seen him by now, or he went to bed first. If that's it, he won't arrive for another hour or two. When's the ship due to leave?'
'The minute he gets here, if I have any control over it.'
'With the light,' clarified Fusculus in a quiet tone. I guessed my point about our quarry's arrival had already been made to Petro by his men. Since they knew him too, their reaction to my attempt was restrained. They were hoping he would either listen to a pal, or at least give them some entertainment by losing his temper and thumping me.
'I need a drink,' I commented.
'Stuff you, Falco. Don't try that one.' It was too dark to see his face. All the same, I chuckled; he was weakening.
The trick was not to make an issue of it. I said nothing, and about five minutes afterwards Petronius Longus burst out with an obscenity that I hadn't heard uttered in a public place since we left Britain. Then he growled that he was cold and past caring - and was off to the nearest wine bar for a beaker to console himself.
Nobody chortled. By then we were too relieved that he had given way to gloat over our victory, just as Petro had known we would be. He had a nice sense of timing. Martinus growled, 'Better take the bloody barnacle. It'll be his last chance for a long time.'
So we bawled out to Linus to stop pretending he was a sailor and to come off the ship and have a drink with us.
The atmosphere was thick with lamp smoke; hard to see why, as there was a mean supply of lamps. Something crunched under my boot - either an old oyster shell, or part of a whore's broken necklace. There seemed to be a lot of debris on the floor. Probably best not to investigate.
No one else was in the dump. No customers, anyway. A couple of grimy lasses roused themselves slightly when we tramped inside, but they soon got the message and slumped back into sleep. They looked too exhausted even to be curious. That didn't mean they wouldn't be listening in, but we were not intending any loud indiscretions. There was too much at stake.
We cramped ourselves on to benches, feeling stiff and oversized in our outdoor dress. We were all armed, to the point where it was impossible to be discreet when crowding around small tables. If we tried to pretend we were just carrying Lucanian sausage rolls, someone would have his privates shorn off by an awkwardly placed sword blade. We arranged ourselves with care.
The landlord was an unsmiling, unwelcoming coastal type who had summed us up as we crossed his threshold. 'We were just closing.' We must have brought in a suggestion of imminent violence.
'I apologise.' Petronius could have used his official status to insist we were served, but as usual he preferred to try his charm first. His brevity probably screamed 'law and order'. The landlord knew he had no choice. He served us, but made it plain that he hoped we would be leaving quickly. It was too late in the night for trouble.
Well, we agreed with that.
There was tension in all of us. I noticed Martinus, the cocky bantam who was Petro's second in command, took one deep swig of his drink, then kept going to the doorway and staring out. The others ignored him fidgeting. In the end he parked his rather jutting backside on a stool just beyond the threshold, occasionally calling in some remark to the rest, but watching the waterfront. In Petro's troop even the tame annoyance was a decent officer.
Petronius and I ended up at a table to ourselves.
He had strong bonds with his men. He always led from the front. He pulled his weight in routine enquiries and on a surveillance he mucked in as one of them. But he and I had been friends for a long time. Between us were even stronger links, forged from when we had met at eighteen and shared a legionary posting to one of the grimmest parts of the Empire while it was earning dismal fame - Britain, in Nero's time, with the Boudiccan Rebellion as our special treat. Now, although for long periods we often failed to meet, when we did we could pick up straight away, as if we had shared an amphora only last Saturday. And when we entered a wine bar with others it was understood that we two would sit together, very slightly separated from the rest.
Petro gulped his wine, then visibly regretted it 'Jupiter! You could paint that on warts and they'd fall off by dinner time... . So how was the East?'
'Wild women and wicked politics.'
'Didius Falco, the world travelled' He didn't believe a word of it. 'What really happened?'
I grinned, then gave him a neat summary of five months' travelling: 'I got my ear gnawed by a few camels. Helena was stung by a scorpion and spent a lot of money - much of it my father's, I'm delighted to say.' We had brought a quantity of stuff back with us; Petro had promised to help me unload in return for my assistance tonight. 'I ended up in a hack job scribbling Greek jokes for second-rate touring actors.'
His eyebrows shot up. 'I thought you went on a special task for the Palace?'
'The bureaucratic mission rapidly fell through - especially after I found out that Vespasian's Chief Spy had sent a message ahead of me encouraging my hosts to lock me up. Or worse,' I concluded gloomily.
'Anacrites? The bastard.' Petronius had no time for officials, whatever smooth title they dressed themselves up in. 'Did he land you in bad trouble?'
Petronius was frowning. He viewed my career like a kind of blocked gutter that needed a hefty poke with a stick to shift the sludge and get it running properly. He saw himself as the expert with the stick. 'What was the point, Falco? What's in it for Vespasian if he destroys a first-class agent?'
'Interesting question.' In fact there could be several reasons why the Emperor might feel a foreign jail was just the place for me. I was an upstart who wanted social promotion; since he disapproved of informers, the idea of letting me wear the gold ring and strut like a man of substance had always rankled. Most of the time he owed me money for my undercover services; he would love to renege. Then one ofhis sons had tender feelings towards a certain young lady who preferred to live with me, while I had a long-term feud with the other. Either Titus or Domitian might have asked their pa to dump me. Besides, who really likes a hireling who handles problems with dispatch, then comes back wearing a happy smile and expecting a huge cash reward?
'I don't know why you work for him,' Petronius grumbled angrily.
'I work for myself,' I said.
'That's the truth. Even if the damned secretariat offers me a straight task with a set fee and vast expenses, I won't consider it. From now on, I stick to private commissions - which was what I had to do after I got shoved in shit in Arabia by bloody Anacrites and his devious games.'
'You're a dope,' Petro answered disbelievingly. 'You can't resist the challenge. One nod from the man in purple and you'll scuttle back.'
I grabbed the flagon and helped us both to more wine. It still tasted like a cure for swine fever. 'Petro, the man in purple didn't try to sell me to a camel trader.'
Whatever I thought of the rank of emperor, Vespasian the man was completely straight. Even Petronius grudgingly allowed the point. 'So it was the spy, Falco. What's the difference?'
'Who knows? But Anacrites thinks I'm rotting in some desert citadel; this could be the lever I'm looking for to show him up. I'll give my travelogue to Vespasian before the spy finds out I'm alive and back in Rome.'
It was good to unload my anger, but there were better things to talk about. 'Come to dinner; when we get settled back in - bring Silvia and the girls. We'll have a gathering and tell our gripping travellers' tales.'
'How's Helena?' Petro remembered to ask when I mentioned his own wife and children.
'Fine. And no, we're not married, or planning it, nor quarrelling and planning to separate.'
'Any signs of impending fatherhood?'
'Certainly not!' I retorted, like a man who knew how to handle his private life. I hoped Petro would not notice I was bluffing. 'When I'm honoured, you'll be the first to know... Olympus! Talking to you is like fending off my mother.'
'Wonderful woman,' he commented in his aggravating way.
I carried on with a feeling of false confidence. 'Oh yes, Ma's a credit to the community. If everyone on the Aventine was as stiff-backed as my mother, you'd have no work to do. Unfortunately some of them are called Balbinus Pius - about whom you still owe me an expLaetation or two.'
This time the distraction worked. With a glow of satisfaction Petronius threw back his great head and stretched his long legs under the table. Beaming proudly, he settled down to bring me up to date.
'You realise,' Petro began, with mock-heroic grandeur, 'we're talking about the most vicious, seditious operator in organised crime who ever fixed his claws on the Aventine?'
'And now you've caught him!' I grinned admiringly.
He ignored the jesting undertone. 'Believe it, Falco!'
I was enjoying myself. Petronius Longus was a stolid, patient worker. I could not remember that I had ever heard him boasting; it was good to see him thrilled by his own success for once.
Inches taller than me to start with, he even seemed to have grown. His quiet manner tended to disguise how powerfully built he was. Slow of step and wry of speech, he could lean on wrongdoers before they even saw him coming, but once Petro applied weight, resistance caved in fast. He ran the watch enquiry team without seeming to exert himself, although as his best friend I happened to know that in private he worried deeply about standards. He achieved the highest. His was a lean, competent squad which gave the public what they paid for and kept the villains on the hop.
He had a calm grip on his domestic life as well. A good Roman: honorific father of three children. He had a small, scathing wife who knew how to make her presence felt, and a much-loved trio of lively little girls. At home he fielded Arria Silvia's sparky temper pretty easily. The children adored him. Even the wife modulated her complaints, knowing she had one piece of fortune that was missing from most marriages: Petro was there because he wanted to be. Both as a family man and as a public officer, he looked easy-going but was utterly reliable.
'Balbinus Pius . .' he said softly, savouring his triumph.
'Ludicrous name,' I commented. 'Balbinus the Dutiful! As far as I know his only duty is serving himself. Isn't he the mouldy cheese who owns that filthy brothel they call Plato's Academy? And the thieves' kitchens down on the waterside at the back of the Temple of Portunus?'
'Don't speak to me about Plato's. I get a pain in the bladder just thinking about the place. Jupiter knows whose name is scratched on the crumbling title deeds, but you're right, it was Balbinus who had it sewn up. He took a percentage of every transaction in bed, plus whatever the house made on robbing purses or selling "abandoned" boots and belts. Then, as well as his entertainment interests, he had a nice goldsmith's workshop where stolen goblets could be melted down in minutes; several sweatshops that specialised in putting new braid on tunics that "fell off" washing lines; numerous tat stalls in the markets, constantly shifting just when I placed a man in the portico watching them; and a couple of counterfeiting factories. If it stank, he owned it,' confirmed Petro. 'Past tense, though, Falco. One of the bleak facts he has to face today is that a capital conviction means losing all his property.'
'I'm sobbing into my napkin.'
'Don't upset yourself too much - I'm still not certain we'll net his whole empire. Some of it must be in hidden hoards.'
'I bet! Was he expecting to be put away?'
'He wasn't even expecting to be put on trial! This has taken me months of planning, Falco. There was only ever going to be one crack at him, or he'd be screaming "persecution of a citizen!" and I'd be out of a job. But he didn't believe I'd ever find anybody prepared to prosecute.'
'So, Lucius Petronius, how did you arrange it?'
'Marcus Didius, there was only one way possible. I found somebody even greedier, and even more of a bastard, than him!'