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No Cause for Concern - Chapter 1

    So that was that. We’d got Clarus and Marilla firmly hitched with only a few minor glitches, such as the senile octogenarian priest who’d overseen the ceremony deciding half way through the wedding supper that the assembled guests would really, really appreciate a song about an Ostian bargee, and now it was back to Rome and the same heady round of fun and excitement. I’d just spent a very pleasant couple of hours propping up the bar of Renatius’s wineshop shooting the breeze with the punters over a jug of Spoletan and was heading along Iugarius towards a shave-and-haircut in Market Square when the heavies came up on me from behind.

You know that feeling when you seem to be in two times and two places at once. Add to it a moment of extreme agony as you find yourself suddenly sandwiched between a pair of overmuscled gorillas with biceps straight off a marble statue and you more or less have the picture. It was like being hugged by an alleyway.

I glanced left and right. And up.

‘Oh, shit,’ I said. ‘You’re Eutacticus’s boys, right?’

‘The gorilla squeezing me on the left - I’d only ever known him as Laughing George, but no doubt his white-haired old mother had another name for him, probably ‘You Bastard!’ - grinned at me.

‘ ‘Well remembered, Corvinus,’ he said. ‘Got it in one. The boss wants to see you.’

‘Again? Oh, joy in the morning; don’t four years just flash past when you’re having fun. And another chat with Sempronius Eutacticus, organised crime’s equivalent of a crocodile with attitude, wouldn’t even figure in a masochist’s definition of the phrase.

‘Care to tell me what about?’ My shoulders felt like they had parted company with my arms and moved up to the level of my ears. My rib-cage wasn’t too happy about things, either.

‘No.’

‘Ah, well, short and concise. Par for the course, where Laughing George was concerned, and I wasn’t going to argue. I wasn’t going to try running or screaming kidnap, either, because if I’d learned anything from my previous encounter with Eutacticus it was to go with the flow, because if you didn’t the flow was liable to wash you down a very deep hole and put the lid on.

‘ ‘So we’re going to the Pincian,’ I said.

‘ ‘Yeah.’

‘ ‘No transport this time?’

‘ ‘It’s a nice afternoon. We thought we’d walk.’ The grin broadened, showing teeth like the cheapest bricks in a third-rate tenement. ‘Besides, the boss told us you don’t like litters.’

‘ ‘Right. Right.’

‘Well, he was thorough, Eutacticus, I’d give him that. Still, I’d’ve liked to’ve been asked.

‘It wasn’t a chatty journey: Laughing George wasn’t to be drawn, and his pal had all the conversational pazzazz of a brick. We headed in close-knit silence up Broad Street past the Saepta and Agrippa Field into the rarefied atmosphere of the Pincian Hill, where money - mostly new money - doesn’t just talk, it struts its stuff with a megaphone. I remembered Eutacticus’s place as soon as I saw it: tritons on the gateposts, score high for flash and zilch for taste, the worst the Pincian could throw at you and then some more on top. The statues flanking the driveway that led up to the house alone would’ve kept the quarry-owners in Luna in sturgeon and bears’ paws for a year, and the greenery providing the backdrop had been topiaried to within an inch of its life.

‘Laughing George nodded to the guy on the gate, and we were in. Then it was past another half dozen of scowling prime-rate bought help, up the cedar staircase and the deferential tap on the ivory-inlaid study door.

‘ ‘Come in.’

‘We did. The lad himself was on the reading couch, doing his crocodile-in-the-swamp impression. That wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was sitting demurely on a chair next to him: a little mousey middle-aged woman like a dumpling wearing a hairdo and jewellery.

‘ ‘Valerius Corvinus. Good of you to come.’ The crocodile jaws spread in a smile as genuine as a tin denarius. ‘How nice to see you again.’

‘ ‘Yeah, well -’

‘ ‘Thank you, Satrius. That’s all.’ Laughing George exited. ‘Corvinus, this is my wife Occusia. She’ll be the one talking to you.’ He got up. ‘I thought, though, that I should be here when you arrived. Just so we’re absolutely clear where we stand.’

‘ ‘Namely?’ I massaged my shoulders.

‘ ‘I need a favour, and in the light of our last encounter I believe you’re the right man to ask. Do what Occusia asks, and I’ll be very grateful. Very grateful indeed. Turn her down, or fudge things, and - watch my lips here, please - you’ll wish you’d never been born. Your choice, absolutely no pressure. You understand?’

‘ ‘Ah -’

‘ ‘Good. I’m glad. Now if you’ll excuse me I have work to do.’

‘Scams to run, magistrates to square, bodies to hide. Busy, busy, busy. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Sure. Have a nice day.’

‘He left, closing the door behind him.

‘.

‘We stared at each other, the mousey woman and me, for a good half minute. Then she said: ‘He’s a lovely man, really, when you get to know him. Pour yourself a cup of wine, Valerius Corvinus, and sit down. Please.’

‘There was a tray with a silver wine jug and cups on the table in the corner. I went over and poured myself a badly-needed whopper. My hand hardly shook at all.

‘ ‘You mean he didn’t mean it?’ I said.

‘ ‘Oh, yes. Publius always says what he means. But there’s no real malice in him, that’s just his way.’

‘Oh, whoopee. I took a major swig of the wine - first-grade Falernian, as if I’d expected anything less -, gave myself a top-up and took the cup over to the reading couch. Well, if my balls were properly in the mangle here - which they undoubtedly were - I might as well grin and accept the situation. For the time being, anyway.

‘ ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘So what’s this favour?’

‘ ‘I want you to find my son. Titus.’

‘Oh, really? ‘Gods, lady, if Eutacticus wanted me to find his son for him then why not just -?’

‘ ‘No. Titus isn’t Publius’s, he’s mine. From a previous marriage. Publius is his stepfather.’

‘ ‘Same difference. Why couldn’t he have told me himself?’

‘ ‘It’s complicated. He can’t be involved.’ She fixed me with anxious, mousey eyes.

‘ ‘Okay.’ I set the cup down on the small table next to the couch. ‘So maybe it’ll save us a bit of time if you just start at the beginning and talk me through it.’

‘The mousey eyes blinked. ‘Publius and I were married two years ago. He’d been divorced for sixteen years, I’d been widowed for ten. He had a daughter - that’s Helena - and I had a son, Titus. He’s just turned twenty-two. Such a lovely boy, and we were so grateful to Publius for taking us in, but to tell you the truth, they’ve never got on. And recently it’s got worse. Much worse.’

‘Uh-huh. I was beginning to see the light here, and it wasn’t too difficult to guess what was coming next. ‘Your son’s done a runner?’ I said.

‘ ‘Yes. He left a note for Publius saying he was leaving, and if he found out that Publius was using his contacts to track him down he’d never see him again. He meant it, too. Titus can be quite stubborn, and he’s just as strong-willed in his own way as Publius is. Publius was very upset. He was planning to adopt him formally in spite of’ - she hesitated - ‘well, Titus wasn’t very keen to take his name, what with one thing and another. He never has been.’

‘Right. So what we’d got here was the old story of the domineering father - stepfather, in this case - straight-arming his son to do something he didn’t want to do, and the son taking the simplest way out. I could understand that: I’d been through it myself when I was a lot younger than this Titus. And I’d bet that when it came to straight-arming, Eutacticus wouldn’t exactly be subtlety personified. Still, the young guy sounded like he was no soft touch, either. The last couple of years must’ve been fun for all concerned.

‘ ‘You have any idea where he might’ve gone?’ I said.

‘ ‘Oh, yes. I’m fairly certain about that. His...my late husband was an actor.’ She blushed: in the social scheme of things, actors rank about as high as fluteplayers and jugglers, which means barely into the sentient bracket. ‘An actor-manager, actually. He had a company that worked the north as far as Perusia, playing the local theatres. Titus went with him, the last two years, and he loved it. He’s always wanted to be an actor too. Then when Marcus - that was my husband, Marcus Luscius - died his brother Sextus took over the troupe, and Titus went with him. Only when we married, Publius thought it wasn’t very...you know, not the proper thing, and he stopped him doing it.’

‘ ‘So you think Titus has gone off to join his uncle?’

‘ ‘I’m almost sure of it. I don’t know exactly where they’ll be at present - it’s quite late in the season now, so they’ll probably be working their way back - but you could ask Sextus’s wife. She should know.’

‘ ‘She’s here in Rome?’

‘ ‘Yes, on the Aventine. Her name’s Tullia. I’ve written down directions so you can find her.’ She took a rolled-up piece of paper from her mantle and handed it to me. ‘Valerius Corvinus, I know this is... Publius goes at things like a bull at a gate, it’s a great deal to ask, particularly as it’s really so trivial, but I honestly am grateful.’

‘Yeah, right. Mind you, I knew how young Titus Luscius - presumably that was still the kid’s name, if he hadn’t been adopted yet - felt; it would’ve taken real guts to go against a stepfather like Eutacticus. And the chances were several thousand to one that there was no real cause for concern: he had simply - sensibly - taken off for the tall timber and was doing something he enjoyed for a change. On the other hand, Eutacticus had made it very clear that a refusal on my part to look for him wasn’t an option, and messing with that bastard wasn’t a hassle I needed. Trivial or not, no cause for concern or not, I was stuck with the job.

‘ ‘That’s okay, lady,’ I said. ‘It’s not your fault. I’ll do what I can.’ I swallowed the last of my wine and stood up. ‘Was there anything else? I mean, did he take anything with him? Money, for example?’

‘ ‘I don’t know, but probably. Money wouldn’t’ve been a problem. Publius lets him have as much as he likes, when he likes. He’s very generous, to both of us.’ Occusia stood up too. ‘Oh, he did take his personal slave with him. Lynchus. That was no surprise. They’ve been together since they were children, and they’re more friends than slave and master.’

‘ ‘Right. Well, it’s a start, anyway. I’ll let you know how I get on. Goodbye, Occusia.’ I was on my way to the door, but then I stopped. ‘One thing. If I do find him, what do you want me to do?’

‘ ‘Persuade him to come back. If you can.’

‘ ‘And if he won’t come?’

‘The mousey eyes blinked at me again. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Great. There’s nothing like firm instructions from a client. But we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.

‘I left.

‘Laughing George - I supposed I’d better call him Satrius, now we’d been formally introduced - wasn’t in evidence: probably he’d had a hard day’s mugging and needed to curl up with a good book and a cup of warm milk. I was heading for the stairs, but I’d only got half way when a door further along the gallery opened and a girl came towards me. I stopped.

‘ ‘Valerius Corvinus?’

‘ ‘Yeah.’

‘ ‘I’m Sempronia Helena. I was wondering if I could have a word with you before you go.’

‘ ‘Sure.’

‘ ‘Come into my room, then.’

‘Helena. The real daughter. Forget mousey dumpling, this one was a stunner: mid to late teens, smallish but compact, midnight-dark hair and the poise of an Imperial. She couldn’t take after her father, then, and her mother must’ve been something. ‘Ah -’

‘ ‘Oh, it’s all right. My maid’s there already.’

‘ ‘Fine, then.’ I followed her into the room she’d come out of. Not a bedroom, a day-room with couches. The maid, a wispy little thing about the same age, was sitting on a stool in the far corner, hands clasped in her lap and eyes lowered. Puffy face: she looked like she’d been crying a lot recently. She didn’t look up as we came in, and Helena ignored her.

‘ ‘Have a seat, please.’

‘I sat down on one of the couches and she lay down opposite me.

‘ ‘You’ve talked to my stepmother. And my father.’

‘ ‘Yeah, well, not so much to the latter,’ I said. ‘It was mostly one way. Let’s just say we communicated.’

‘ ‘Yes.’ Voice as expressionless as her face. ‘He can be a bit like that. Or a lot like that, really. I’m sorry.’

‘ ‘That’s okay. I wasn’t expecting anything different.’

‘ ‘I thought someone had better tell you a bit more about Titus. And the situation here. More than my stepmother probably did, at any rate. If you’re going to look for him then you need to know the whole picture.’

‘ ‘Fair enough. Go ahead.’

‘ ‘Occusia told you about the quarrel?’

‘ ‘Not as such, no. But there’d have to have been one, so I sort of took it as read.’

‘ ‘Mm.’ She rested her chin on her hand. ‘It happened the evening before he left, but it’d been building for months. Years, really, ever since Father married again. He wanted Titus to be part of the firm. That’s what he calls it, by the way.’ Her voice was still neutral. ‘I did have a brother once, a real one, but he died of a fever a year before the wedding. Titus was the replacement.’

‘ ‘Only he doesn’t want to be?’

‘ ‘Titus hates everything about my father. He would’ve stopped Occusia marrying him at all if he could, but she talked him round. It was that or starve, or go crawling to Tullia and her husband. Did Occusia mention Tullia?’

‘ ‘Her sister-in-law. Yeah.’

‘ ‘Well, they’ve never got on, and she and Sextus Luscius are living on the breadline in any case. So Father it was. Not that it was much of a hardship. As long as he gets his way, Father’s a pussycat.’

‘ ‘And if he doesn’t?’

‘Her eyes rested on me for a moment, then shifted aside: okay, it had been a pretty stupid question at that. ‘Titus fought a running battle with my father for two years,’ she said. ‘He wouldn’t be adopted, he wouldn’t get involved with the firm. Oh, he never got into an argument. At a certain point he just said “No”, very politely, and Father didn’t press him any further. That was the situation until three days ago.’

‘ ‘The day of the quarrel?’

‘She nodded. ‘Father took him into the study and told him he’d had enough. He was going to make a formal application for adoption, and unless Titus gave him his full co-operation he was out completely. He also hinted that he’d start divorce proceedings against my stepmother.’

‘Shit! ‘He’d do that?’

‘ ‘Oh, yes.’

‘ ‘Couldn’t he just have adopted someone else? I mean, brought them into the family as an heir? It’s done all the time, and with his money he could pick and choose.’

‘ ‘You obviously don’t know my father as well as I thought you did, Valerius Corvinus. He’d decided on Titus, so Titus it would be. If anything, the fact that Titus was fighting him every step of the way only made him more determined.’

‘Well, I’d believe that. Eutacticus wasn’t the kind of bastard who’d take ‘no’ for an answer. ‘Did Occusia know? About the terms, I mean?’

‘She was quiet for a long time. Then she said: ‘Father told Titus in private, so it would depend if he’d passed it on. I don’t think he did, but I’m not absolutely sure. And of course Father could’ve told her himself. A bit of moral blackmail. He’s not above using any lever he can lay his hands on.’

‘Said without the barest smidgeon of expression. There ain’t nothing like being popular with your family, and I reckoned that, daughter or not, young Helena’s opinion of Eutacticus wasn’t a lot higher than her stepbrother’s. She was smart, too. ‘So if it was private between Titus and your father then how do you come to know?’

‘ ‘Ah.’ She ducked her head. ‘That’s another piece of the picture you have to have. Another reason why Titus doesn’t want Father to adopt him is that it’d make us legally brother and sister.’

‘ ‘Yeah, well, naturally, but -’

‘ ‘That would mean we couldn’t marry.’

‘I stared at her. Oh, bugger; this thing was getting more complicated by the minute. ‘You likely to?’

‘ ‘Of course. We liked each other from the start, and it’s sort of developed from there. It wouldn’t’ve been easy swinging it even so, but as long as Titus was legally another man’s son there was a reasonable chance. If the adoption had gone through there would’ve been no chance at all.’

‘ ‘Did your father know about this?’

‘ ‘What do you think? No-one knew, apart from us, because we couldn’t trust anyone.’

‘ ‘Then why tell me?’

‘ ‘Because when you find him you can tell him that I’m ready to go ahead with a marriage now, as soon as he can arrange it. I’ll meet him anywhere he likes.’

‘ ‘Isn’t that, uh, a bit drastic?’

‘ ‘Yes. But you see I’ve no choice either. Titus wasn’t the only one being pressured. Father’s engaged me to a certain Lucius Statius Liber. Not a great catch in society terms, but his family’s big in Beneventum and it’s as high up the social ladder as someone with our side’s background and commercial interests can expect to get. The wedding’s in six months’ time, after the Spring Festival.’

‘Right. Right. Mind you, for all the young lady’s manner of cool determination - and Sempronia Helena was no fluffy kitten, I could see that - I reckoned there was more than a bit of astigmatism here. The boyfriend’s choice of lifestyle might suit him and not be all that different from what he’d been used to before his mother married Eutacticus, but if she couldn’t somehow bring her father round to the idea then unless she had a private income of her own sweet Helena would have to make some pretty radical changes to her expectations. Still, that was no affair of mine, and to tell the truth my sympathies were with the kids.

‘ ‘So why didn’t he tell you where he was going before he went?’ I said. ‘Or even that he was going at all? Or did he?’

‘She frowned. ‘No, he didn’t. Not a word, not even a hint. That’s been worrying me. It isn’t like him just to take off, however angry he was with Father.’

‘Ah, well, there was probably a simple-enough explanation, and I didn’t know the exact circumstances. Maybe the guy had had to take his chance of escape when it was offered and hadn’t had the opportunity, or maybe he was waiting until he’d made definite arrangements and would get a message to her. Everything seemed pretty cut and dried, anyway. I stood up.

‘ ‘Right, then,’ I said. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

‘ ‘You’ll give him my message? When you see him?’

‘ ‘Yeah. But that’s it, lady. No arm-twisting, not on my part. I don’t play Cupid, and I don’t play piggy-in-the-middle, either. Certainly not where your father’s concerned. That suit you?’

‘ ‘Yes. You won’t have to. I promise.’

‘ ‘Fine.’ I glanced over at the maid in the corner. She hadn’t moved, hadn’t even, from the look of her, so much as raised her eyes from the floor right through the conversation. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

‘ ‘Thank you, Valerius Corvinus. And I’m sorry about my father forcing you into this. It’s just the way he does things.’

‘ ‘Yeah. So I’ve noticed.’

‘I left.