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Solid Citizens - Chapter 1

I like the Winter Festival.

Oh, yeah, sure, it can be a complete pain in the rectum, and it’s really a time for the bought help. Still, there isn’t much to beat the simple pleasure of coming downstairs on that first Winter Festival morning, particularly if it’s cold and crisp and early, and seeing them all lined up waiting for their candles and dolls and little packets of holiday money, their innocent faces brightwith the prospect of a whole five days’ skiving off work, rubbishing the master, stuffing themselves until they’re sick with rich food in the best dining-room and generally behaving like a pig’s backside with total impunity. Technically, at least, that last bit: any slave stupid enough to go over the top by, say, pissing in the ornamental pool or trying it on with the mistress in the linen cupboard deserves all he gets, even if he can’t be given it untilafter the party’s over for another year. Rome might let her hair down on occasion, but you don’t mess with her.

So there we were, in the lead-up to the Winter Festival, tucked away in the Alban Hills, visiting our adopted daughter Marilla and her new husband Clarus at what had been, the year before, Perilla’s Aunt Marcia’s villa outside Castrimoenium. Me, I’m a city boy, myself, but Castrimoenium – or the villa, rather – is special. Courtesy aunt or not – she and Perilla weren’t directly related – Marcia and her husband Fabius Maximus had been practically the only family she’d had, and when Maximus died just before the Ovid business that first brought me and the lady together Marcia had sold up and moved out of Rome, to what up until now had been a holiday property. Since we’d been married Perilla and I hadbeen coming through to stay pretty regularly, at least once or twice a year;for all she was a damn-your-eyes straight-down-the-line old-style blue-blooded aristocrat I’d had a lot of respect for old Marcia. Then Marilla had appeared and almost immediately moved in for keeps. It’d suited them both: Marcia had no family herself, at least none living, while Marilla with her penchant for collecting lame-duck animals – particularly the bloody-minded, eccentric or just plain weird ones – had never been happy in Rome. Besides, the city had painful memories. Then there was Clarus, the local doctor’s son, and that was that. When Marcia had died she’d left them the villa, lock, stock and menagerie.

Mind you, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. We were expecting Mother and her older-than-Time-itself husband Priscus, the antiquarian’s antiquarian, in a few days. Fortunately, she’d be leaving her serial-poisoner chef Phormio behind in Rome, as we’d left Meton. Not Bathyllus, though: he’d always had a soft spot for Marilla, and I couldn’t do that to the little guy, not at Winter Festival time. Meton, now, well, Meton was different; being in Castrimoenium did something to his already-warped brain. After the business with Dassa the Oenophilic Sheep and his more recent celebrity chef scam, I wasn’t risking letting that scheming bastard anywhere near the place.

It’d been a quiet morning, for me, at least, which suited me fine. Perilla and Marilla were out with the hellhound Placida, terrorising the local wild boar population plus any stray wolf silly enough to get in the way – at least, Placida was – while Clarus had had his round to make: his father’s eyesight had deteriorated badly these past few months, and Clarus was gradually taking over the practice. I was stretched out on one of the atrium couches, with a half jug of more-than-decent Alban on the side table, and was just giving myself a top-up when Lupercus came in. Lupercus was Clarus and Marilla’s major-domo, the replacement for old Laertes who’d been given his freedom in Marcia’s will and had gone off to the fleshpots of Baiae to live with his sister. Not a bad lad, Lupercus, albeit – in the arch-conservative Bathyllus’s view, anyway – on the far-too-young and over-sassy side for the job. Still, he and the little guy seemed to be getting along okay. Just. If you could call pointedly ignoring each other’s existence getting along. Still, there’d been no blood spilled so far, which by my reckoning was a definite plus.

Taking Bathyllus aside just before we’d left home and warning him that I’d shove his feather duster where the sun didn’t shine if there were might have helped, mind. Never discount the power of intimidation.

‘Publius Silius Nerva to see you, sir,’ Lupercus said.

I sat up. ‘Who?’

‘The senator, sir. From Bovillae. He said to mention a connection with Quintus Libanius?’

Oh. Right. Fuzz-face Libanius I knew, the only non-Greek I’d ever met with a beard you could hide a badger in, and First Speaker of the Castrimoenian senate. The last time I’d seen him he’d been trying not to throw up over a corpse.

‘So what’s it about, pal?’ I said.

He shrugged; something that, if Bathyllus had seen it, would’ve had the little guy tearing his hair. If he had any, that is, which he doesn’t. ‘I don’t know, sir. But he says it’s important.’

I sighed; there went the quiet morning. And I didn’t like the mention of Libanius more than half, either.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Wheel him in.’

Lupercus did. Nerva was a little tubby guy impeccably dressed in a broad-striper mantle that looked like it’d come from one of the best shops in Rome. Which made sense, because the Silii are one of the top Roman families. Bovillan senator he might be, but I’d guess he was one of the honorary appointees, a local only by residence who’d been drafted in because he’d held office in Rome itself.

‘Ah, Corvinus, glad you could see me,’ he said. ‘Enjoying your holiday?’

‘Yeah.’ Up to now I had been, anyway. ‘Take a couch. You like a cup of wine?’

‘It’s a little early for me, thank you.’ He lay down. ‘Do carry on yourself, though. Quintus Libanius sends his regards.’

I took a sip of the Alban. I was sorely puzzled: something was definitely not right here. Oh, sure, Bovillae’s only four or five miles away, the other side of the Appian Road, but you didn’t get one of their senators dropping in on an out-of-the-way villa just to pass the time with a visiting stranger, particularly a top-notcher from the very crest of the social tree like Silius Nerva. ‘So,’ I said. ‘What can I do for you?’

He cleared his throat. ‘It’s, ah, a little embarrassing.’

‘Yeah? In what way?’

‘There is…’ He hesitated and began again. ‘Not to beat about the bush, my dear fellow, we in the Bovillan senate are faced with what amounts to a rather unfortunate and sensitive problem at present. I happened to be, ah, discussing this over dinner with Libanius yesterday evening and he mentioned your name, plus the fact that you were currently visiting. He suggested that since you have a certain amount of experience in these matters it might be worth the senate’s while to contact you.’

Uh-oh; I was getting a very bad feeling about this. Men like Silius Nerva are used to fixing you with their eye, taking a deep breath and telling you in no uncertain terms just exactly what they want you to do for them. They don’t expect any arguments, either. What they don’t do – and what Nerva was doing here – is hum and haw and go round as many houses in the process as would make up a pretty substantial city block. Evidently a small nudge was called for or we wouldn’t cut to the chase this side of the Festival.

‘Uh…I don’t want to hurry you, pal,’ I said. ‘But do you think you could be, you know, just a touch more explicit?’ Before we all died of old age and boredom, that was.

He fizzed for a bit and finally cleared his throat again. ‘I’m sorry, Corvinus. Quite right, quite right. To be brief, Libanius told me about that dreadful business involving Lucius Hostilius last year here in Castrimoenium and how good you’d been in, ah, bringing things on behalf of the Castrimoenian senate to a satisfactory conclusion. He thought you might be able to help us in a similar way.’

Gods! Well, one of us had to spell it out, and from the looks of things it wasn’t going to be mealy-mouthed Nerva here. ‘You mean there’s been another murder.’

He winced like a dowager confronted by a dirty picture. ‘Ah…not to put too fine a point on it,yes, there has. That is indeed the case.’

Hell. Oh, it’d had to be something like that, sure – Libanius wouldn’t’ve sent the guy to me if he’d only wanted a recommendation for a good wine to serve with duck –but just before the Winter Festival, for the gods’ sake! Like he’d said, I was on holiday here!

Perilla would definitely be unchuffed, for a start. The lady gets really, really serious about murders at holiday times.

Still –

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Who was it?’

‘Our censor-elect. Quintus Caesius.’

Yeah, well, that explained the high-powered emissary, anyway, if not the embarrassment. A single provincial censor’s appointed every five years in place of the town’s normal two chief magistrates, taking up office on the first of January. Like his Roman equivalent, his prime job is to revise the list of senators and citizens, cutting out the dead wood; but it doesn’t stop there: he’s also responsible for the settlement of the community’s finances for the next five-year period, which means he has the power to choose new contractors to handle the sources of that finance such as publicly-owned land, commercial businesses and the like, and to terminate any existing contracts, as he sees fit. The operative phrase being that last one. Oh, sure, technically any decisions he makes are only recommendations and so subject to full senatorial approval, but human nature being what it isthey usually go through on the nod. Plus, because for that particular year he’s on his own at the top, with no equally-empowered colleague to queer his pitch if he has a mind to, given that said senate has a hundred members who are generally more interested in getting through the day’s agenda and home for a cup of wine and an early dinner than actually thinking of the implications of what they’re voting for, so long as he’s careful and a good talker he can do whatever he likes.

All of which means that a censor is a pretty big cheese.Ipso facto, he also has to be a pillar of honesty, morality, sobriety and rectitude, the best exponent the community can show of traditional family values. At least, that’s the theory. Don’t laugh; it could, technically, happen, although the chances of these qualities coinciding with an interest in politics is well within the flying pigs category.

‘So how did he die?’ I said.

Nerva swallowed. ‘He was, ah, found with his head beaten in at the back entrance to the local brothel.’

I stared at him. The silence lengthened. Finally, I said:

‘Ah.’

I could see now why he’d had difficulty getting down to the nitty-gritty: the guy was literally glowing with embarrassment, so brightly you could’ve used his face to roast Winter Festival chestnuts. ‘“Ah” is right!’ he said.‘It’s appalling!’

It had its funny side, too, mind, but Nerva wouldn’t’ve seen that, so I kept my face straight.

‘So was he, uh, actually on his way in or out when it happened?’ I said.

He pursed his lips, primly. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Oh, come on, pal! You must know that, at least!’

He gave me a look that would’ve curdled milk. ‘I don’t know, Corvinus,’ he said slowly,‘because I haven’t asked. Nor do I intend to. My task – with the full approval of the Bovillan senate, naturally – is simply to put the matter completely into your capable hands, if you’ll accept the charge. As an outsider –’ He stopped.

Yeah, well, I could see where he was heading. If there was dirt to be dug – and there undoubtedly was, here – then the solid citizens of Bovillae would rather not know the details; while if a visitor from Rome were to do the digging none of them need be personally, embarrassingly involved in the investigation. Still, the guy wasn’t getting off that easily.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Let’s get some facts at least, things that you do know. First of all: when did this happen?’

‘Two nights ago. At least, the body was found yesterday morning, as I said in the alleyway behind the brothel.’

‘He couldn’t’ve just been passing the door?’

‘No. The alley is a dead end. And all the other buildings are shops and storehouses. They would have been – in fact, were – locked and shuttered for the night.’

‘The brothel owner tell you anything useful? About exact timing, for example?’ He just looked at me. Yeah. Right. Got it. ‘Okay, forget that. I can find it out for myself. Next.

Who do you think might’ve done it?’

‘How should I know?’ he snapped.‘That’s your job to find out, surely.’

I sighed. ‘Come on, pal! I’m not asking you to make an accusation, but I need somewhere to start. What about a straightforward mugging? That’s the most likely solution.’

Nerva shook his head. ‘Unfortunately, it isn’t, in fact it’s most improbable. A mugging might well happen in Rome, yes, but not in Bovillae. We have our share of crime, certainly, but not that sort. Besides, his purse was still on his belt.’

‘So it was deliberate. He was targeted.’ No answer, but the guy was looking more and more uncomfortable. ‘Fine. So what about enemies? Who did he knowlocally who might want him dead?’

Nerva bridled. ‘Really, Corvinus! I said: Bovillae isn’t Rome.Quintus Caesius was a highly-respected and respectable member of the community, and a major public figure. He didn’t mix with people of that stamp. And our prominent citizens do not go around committing murder!’

Jupiter. Not a flicker to show he was aware of acontradiction here. Still, that was par for the course where good old-fashioned Romans like Silius Nerva were concerned. I closed my eyes briefly. ‘Okay,’ I said carefully. ‘No problem. I’ll put it another way. Had he had any recent quarrels that you know about? Any violent disagreements?’ He hesitated. ‘Come on, Nerva! You’re not helping here!’

‘There was the incident with Quintus Roscius, naturally. It was a disagreement, yes, if you care to use that word. But it wasn’t violent.’

‘Suppose you tell me about it.’

‘Very well. It happened two days before the murder, in the main street. Roscius came up to Caesius and…had words.’

‘About what? And who’s Roscius?’

‘One of the local small-farmers.’ Nerva was looking embarrassed again. ‘Caesius is – was – in property. Buying and selling. As I understand it he and Caesius had a business arrangement and there had been some disagreement lately over the terms.’

‘Namely?’

‘I’m sorry, Corvinus, I can’t help you there. You’d have to ask the fellow yourself. He’s quite easy to find, in fact you’d pass his farm on the way into Bovillae from here, just outside the town limits.’

Can’t help or won’t help? Me, I was inclined to the latter. I’d the distinct feeling that this case was showing all the preliminary signs of closing ranks and dragging feet: Caesius had been very much one of the local Great and Good, and these guys don’t peach on their own, particularly where a bit of sharp practice or a slightly-dubious business deal is concerned. You never knew when it might get reciprocated. I gave a mental sigh.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So tell me more about Caesius himself. Married? Family man?’

‘He was married, until a few months ago when his wife died. There were no children.’

‘So who inherits?’

Another hesitation, this time with a pursing of the lips. ‘His younger brother, I suppose. Lucius Caesius. But you’d have to ask Publius Novius about that. Novius is –’

‘The family lawyer.’ Yeah; small world. I’d run into Novius a year or so back, in connection with the Lucius Hostilius business, and I hadn’t been impressed.

‘You know him?’

‘We’ve met.’ Novius might not be an actual crook – the jury was still out on that one – but he certainly wasn’t above a bit of legal skulduggery when he thought he could get away with it.

‘Oh, excellent!’ Nerva had brightened; this was the way things should go, with the Old Pals’ network swinging into smooth operation. ‘Then there should be no problem. He’s a splendid fellow, old Publius, one of the best. Marvellous for his age, and very helpful.’

‘Yeah. So I found.’ I kept the dryness out of my voice.‘Anything else you can tell me?’ In addition to the miserable pittance I’ve finally managed to screw out of you, you close-mouthed bastard. Gods!

‘No. No, I don’t think so. Or not anything of much importance, anyway. You’ll take the case for us?’

‘Yeah. I’ll come over to Bovillae and ask a few questions, if you like. Starting tomorrow.’

‘Fine.’ He got to his feet, looking relieved. I half-expected him to wash his hands in the ornamental pool. ‘Anything more I can do to help, just ask. I’m an easy man to find.’

Right. Which reminded me. ‘Incidentally, I’ll need Caesius’s address.’

‘Why should you want to know that? I told you, he was a widower. He lived alone.’

‘Yeah, but I thought I might just have a word with his major-domo.’ A good rule, when you’re digging the dirt, is to talk early on to the bought help. Caesius’s major-domo might not be too forthcoming in the event – there was such a thing as loyalty – but he would sure as hell know about his master’s private concerns, if anyone did.

Nerva frowned. ‘Very well. It’s in town, the big old house near the Arician Gate. Easy to find. The major-domo’s name is Anthus. Not that he’ll be able to tell you much.’

Par for the course, so far. Ah, well.

‘Thanks, pal,’ I said. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

We shook, and he left quickly, oozing relief from every pore in his not-inconsiderable body.

Now I had to break the news to Perilla. The hard ones first. * * *

She breezed in about an hour later, with Marilla and – unfortunately – Placida. The hellhound did her usual haven’t-seen-you-for-years dash at me and I fended her off.

‘Don’t encourage her, Corvinus,’ Marilla said. ‘She’s not really supposed to be in here before she’s had a bath. She found something dead up by the Maecilius place and rolled in it before we could stop her.’

Yeah, I’d sort of realised that already. Plus from the smell of her breath in my face she’d gone on to eat most of it after she’d finished. Ah, the joys of pets. If, indeed, Placida qualified as such. Me, I’d put her in a category along with the Lernaean Hydra and the Calydonian Boar, myself.

Perilla grabbed the brute’s collar and pulled her off me before she stank me to death, then handed her over to

Lupercus, who’d edged in behind them. Placida was removed and fresh air returned slowly to the world.

‘So how was your morning, dear?’ Perilla said.

‘Did you have a nice time?’

‘Uh, it was okay. Quiet.’

‘But Lupercus said that you had a visitor.’

Bugger! How had the blabbermouth managed to squeeze that one in between opening the door and hauling off our ballistic boarhound? ‘Ah… Yeah. Yeah, come to mention it, I did at that.’

‘A senator from Bovillae, no less. What did he want?’

There was no escape. I took a deep breath and a large swallow of wine, not in that order, then told her the basics.

She sat down on the other couch. Hard.

‘Oh, Marcus!’ she said. ‘Not just before the Winter Festival! We’re on holiday! And you said you’d do it, I suppose? Look into things for them.’

‘More or less. It was sort of difficult to refuse.’

‘Why would you want to do that?’ Marilla was grinning. ‘I think it’s fantastic, Corvinus. Clarus will, too. And of course if you need any help –’

‘No,’ I said firmly. ‘I will not need any help. Besides, it happened over in Bovillae.’

‘That’s only four miles away. And Clarus knows people there. We could –’

‘No. That’s final.’ Jupiter! Marriage hadn’t cured the ghoulish streak in her, anyway. ‘I can handle this perfectly well on my own, Princess. Just forget it, right?’

‘We’ve got your mother and Priscus coming down in seven days’ time, too,’ Perilla said. ‘Marcus, I do wish you’d think before you agree to things and upset all the arrangements. I mean, it’s only a murder after all.’

Said without a blink. Sometimes I wonder about the lady’s sense of priorities. ‘Look, Perilla –’

Bathyllus shimmered in. This business of having two major-domos in the house simultaneously was going to be confusing, particularly since each of them ignored the other’s existence. Still, I supposed Lupercus had his hands full at present with fumigating the hellhound, and we’d brought it on ourselves.

‘Lunch is served,’ he said.

‘Good. I’m starving,’ Marilla said. ‘Any sign of Clarus, Bathyllus? He said he might be back.’

‘No, madam. He sent word to say he’d be delayed and you were to start without him.’

Madam. We were getting the perfect butler act here. I suspected the little guy was making a point: some major-domos had what it tookin spades where savoir-faire and a general awareness of what was Done and Not Done went,while others were only fit to sluice down the dog.

I grinned at him and got a poached-egg-eyed stare back.

‘Yes, sir?’ he said. ‘Did you wish to comment?’

‘No, Bathyllus, that’s okay. Forget it, pal.’

When push came to shove, I wasn’t particularly worried. The lady would come round, Festival or no: Perilla couldn’t resist a murder, any more than I could. The difference was that she would never admit it.

It was only a matter of time, really.