Venus in copper mdf-3, page 1part #3 of Marcus Didius Falco Series
Venus in copper
( Marcus Didius Falco - 3 )
Venus in copper
Rats are always bigger than you expect.
I heard him first: a sinister shuffle of some uninvited presence, too close for comfort in a cramped prison cell. I lifted my head.
My eyes had grown accustomed to near-darkness. As soon as he moved again I saw him: a dust-coloured, masculine specimen, his pink hands disturbingly like a human child's. He was as big as a buck rabbit. I could think of several casual eating shops in Rome where the cooks would not be too fussy to drop this fat scavenger into their stock-pots. Smother him with garlic and who would know? At a furnace stackers' chophouse in some low quarter near the Circus Maximus, any bone with real meat on it would add welcome flavour to the broth…
Misery was making me ravenous; all I had to gnaw on was my anger at being here.
The rat was browsing nonchalantly in one corner amongst some rubbish, months' old debris from previous prisoners, which had avoided as too disgusting to explore. He seemed to notice me as I looked up, but his concentration was not really there. I felt that if I lay still he might decide I was a pile of old rags to investigate. But if I shifted my legs defensively the motion would startle him. Either way, the rat would run over my feet.
I was in the Lautumiae Prison, along with various petty felons who could not afford a barrister, and all the Forum pickpockets who wanted a rest from their wives. Things could be worse. It might have been the Mamertine: the short-stay political holding cell with its twelve-foot-deep dungeon, whose only exit for a man without influence was straight down into Hades. Here at least we had continual entertainment: old lags swearing hot Subura oaths, and wild swoops of disconcerting mania from hopeless drunks. In the Mamertine nothing breaks the monotony until the public strangler comes in to measure your neck.
There would be no rats in the Mamertine. No jailor feeds a man condemned to death, so leftovers for the rodent population are scarce. Rats learn these things. Besides, everything there must be kept neat, in case any high-flown senators with foolish friends who have offended the Emperor want to drop in and relate the Forum news. Only here in the Lautumiae among the social dregs could a prisoner enjoy the keen excitement of waiting for his whiskery cellmate to turn round and sink its teeth into his shin…
The Lautumiae was a rambling affair, built to house squadrons of prisoners from provinces which were restive. Being foreign was the regular qualification. But any thorn who prickled the wrong bureaucrat could end up here as I had done, watching his toenails grow and thinking harsh thoughts about the establishment. The charge against me-in so far as the bastard who committed me to prison had a charge at all- was typical: I had made the fundamental error of showing up the Emperor's Chief Spy. He was a vindictive manipulator called Anacrites. Earlier that summer he had been sent to Campania on a mission; when he bungled it the Emperor Vespasian despatched me to finish the job, which I smartly did. Anacrites reacted in the usual way of a mediocre official whose junior shows any tenacity: he wished me luck in public-then at the first opportunity rammed in the boot.
He had tripped me up over a minor accounting error: he claimed I stole some imperial lead- all I did was borrow the stuff to use in a disguise. I had been prepared to pay back the money I took in exchange for the metal, if anyone ever challenged me. Anacrites never gave me the chance; I was flung into the Lautumiae, and so far no one had bothered to book a magistrate to hear my defence. Soon it would be September, when most of the courts went into recess and all new cases were held over until the New Year…
It served me right. Once I had known better than to dabble in politics. I had been a private informer. For five years I did nothing more dangerous than seek out adultery and business fraud. A happy time: strolling about in the sunshine assisting tradesmen with their domestic tiffs. Some of my clients were women (and some of those were quite attractive). Also, private clients paid their bills. (Unlike the Palace, who quibbled over every innocent expense.) If I ever managed to regain my freedom, working for myself again was beckoning attractively.
Three days in jail had doused my happy-go-lucky nature. I was bored. I grew morose. I was suffering physically too: I had a sword-cut in my side- one of those slight flesh-wounds which chooses to fester. My mother was sending in hot dinners to comfort me, but the jailor picked out all the meat for himself. Two people had tried to extricate me; both without success. One was a friendly senator who tried to raise my plight with Vespasian; he had been denied an audience due to Anacrites' baleful influence. The other was my friend Petronius Longus. Petro, who was Captain of the Aventine watch, had come to the prison with a winejar under his elbow and tried the old-pals act on the jailor-only to find himself pitched straight out in the street with his amphora: Anacrites had even poisoned our normal local loyalties. So thanks to the Chief Spy's jealousy, it now looked as if I might never be a free citizen again…
The door swung open. A voice grated, 'Didius Falco, somebody loves you after all! Get up off your backside and bring your boots out here-'
As I struggled to raise myself, the rat ran over my foot.
My troubles were over-partially.
When I stumbled out into what passed for a reception area, the jailor was closing a heavy drawstring bag, grinning as if it was his birthday. Even his grimy sidekicks seemed impressed by the size of the bribe. Blinking in the daylight, I made out a small, pinched, upright figure who greeted me with a sniff.
Rome is a fair society. There are plenty of provincial backwaters where prefects keep their felons in chains, ready to be tortured when other entertainment palls, but in Rome unless you commit a horrendous misdemeanour-or stupidly confess- every suspect has the right to find a sponsor to stand surety.
'Hello, Mother!' It would have been surly to wish myself back in the cell with the rat.
Her expression accused me of being as degenerate as my father- though even my father (who ran off with a redhead and left poor ma with seven children) never landed himself in jail… Luckily my mother was too loyal to our family to draw this comparison in front of strangers, so she thanked the jailor for looking after me instead.
'Anacrites seems to have forgotten you, Falco!' he jeered at me.
'That was his intention, presumably.'
'He said nothing about bail before trial-'
'He said nothing about a trial, either,' I snarled. 'Holding me without a court appearance is as illegal as denying bail!'
'Well if he decides to press charges-'
'Just whistle!' I assured him. 'I'll be back in my cell looking innocent in two shakes of a bacchante's tambourine.'
'Oh sure!' I lied pleasantly.
Outside I took a deep breath of freedom, which I instantly regretted. It was August. We were facing the Forum. Around the Rostrum the atmosphere was almost as stifling as the bowels of the Lautumiae. Most of the aristocracy had dodged off to their airy summer villas, but for those of us at the rough end of society, life in Rome had slowed to a sluggish pace. Any movement in this heat was unbearable.
My mother examined her jailbird, looking unimpressed.
'Just a misunderstanding, Ma…' I tried to prevent my face revealing that for an informer with a tough reputation, being rescued by his mother was an indignity to avoid. 'Who provided the handsome ransom? Was it Helena?' I asked, referring to the unusually superior girlfriend I had managed to acquire six months ago in place of my previous string of flea-bitten circus entertainers and flower girls.
'No, I paid the surety; Helena has been seeing to your rent-' My heart sank at this rush of su
She must be planning to keep me firmly in her custody; I planned on being my footloose self.
'I need to see Helena, Ma-'
Normally it would be unwise for a bachelor who had just been redeemed by his little old mother to suggest sloping off after women. But my mother nodded. In the first place, Helena Justina was a senator's daughter so visiting such a highly placed lady counted as a privilege for the likes of me, not the usual depravity mothers rant about. Also, due partly to an accident on a staircase, Helena had just miscarried our first child. All our female relations still regarded me as a reckless wastrel, but for Helena's sake most would agree that at present it was my duty to visit her at every opportunity.
'Come with me!' I urged.
'Don't be foolish!' scoffed my mother. 'It's you Helena wants to see!'
That news failed to fill me with confidence.
Ma lived near the river, behind the Emporium. We crossed the Forum slowly (to emphasise how Ma was bowed down by the troubles I caused her), then she set me loose at my favourite bathhouse, which lay behind the Temple of Castor. There I sluiced away the stench of prison, changed into a spare tunic which I had left at the gymnasium to cover emergencies, and found a barber who managed to make me look more respectable (under the blood he caused to flow).
I had come out, still feeling grey in the face after being locked up, yet much more relaxed. I was walking towards the Aventine, running my fingers through my damp curls in vain attempt to turn myself into the kind of debonair bachelor who might arouse a woman's ardour. Then disaster struck. Too late, I noticed a pair of disreputable bruisers posing against a portico so they could show off their muscles to anyone who had to pass on their side of the street. They wore loincloths, with leather strips tied round their knees and wrists and ankles to make them look tough. Their arrogance was horribly familiar.
'Oh look -it's Falco!'
'Oh cobnuts-Rodan and Asiacus!'
Next moment one of them was behind me with his elbows clenched round my upper arms, while the other shook me charmlessly by the hand- a process which involved pulling out my wrist until my arm joints strained in their sockets like bowlines fighting their couplings on a galley in a hurricane. The smell of old sweat and recent garlic was bringing tears to my eyes. 'Oh cut it, Rodan; my reach is already long enough…'
To call these two 'gladiators' insulted even the clapped-out hulks who usually feature in that trade. Rodan and Asiacus trained at a barracks which was run by my landlord Smaractus, and when they were not smacking themselves silly with practice swords he sent them out to make the streets even more dangerous than usual. They never did much work in the arena; their role in public life was to intimidate the unfortunate tenants who rented homes from him. For me, being in prison had had one great advantage: avoiding my landlord, and these pet thugs of his.
Asiacus lifted me off my feet and shook me about. I let him rearrange my guts temporarily. I waited until he grew bored with it and put me back on the paving slabs- then I carried on downwards, pulled him off balance, and threw him over my head at Rodan's feet.
'Olympus! Doesn't Smaractus teach you two anything?' I hopped back smartly out of their reach. 'You're out of date; my rent's been paid!'
'So the rumour's true!' leered Rodan. 'We heard you're a kept man now!'
'Jealousy gives you a nasty squint, Rodan! Your mother should have warned you, it will drive away the girls!' You may have heard that gladiators trail throngs of infatuated women; Rodan and Asiacus must have been the only two in Rome whose special seediness deprived them of any following. Asiacus got up, wiping his nose. I shook my head. 'Sorry; I was forgetting: neither of you could interest a fifty-year-old fishwife with two blind eyes and no sense of discretion-'
Then Asiacus jumped me. And they both set about reminding me why I hated Smaractus so bitterly.
'That's for the last time your rent was overdue!' grunted Rodan, who had a long memory.
'And that's for the next time!' added Asiacus- a realistic forecaster.
We had practised this painful dance so many times that I soon twisted out of their grip. Throwing back one or two more insults, I skipped away up the street. They were too lazy to follow me.
I had been free for an hour. I was already battered and despondent. In Rome, a landlord's city, freedom brings mixed joys.
Helena Justina's father, the Senator Camillus Verus, lived near the Capena Gate. A desirable spot, just off the Appian Way where it emerges from the republican city wall. On the way I managed to find another bathhouse to soothe my crop of new bruises. Luckily Rodan and Asiacus always punched a victim's ribcage, so my face was unmarked; if I remembered not to wince there was no need for Helena to know. A sickly Syrian apothecary sold me a salve for the sword-wound I had already been nursing in my side, though the ointment soon produced a greasy mark on my tunic, blueish, like mould on wall plaster, which was not designed to impress the fashionable residents of the Capena Gate.
The Camillus porter knew me but as usual refused me admittance. I did not allow this fleabag to delay my entry long. I walked round the corner, borrowed a hat from a roadmender, knocked again with my back turned, then when the porter foolishly opened up for what he thought was a travelling lupinseller, I rushed indoors making sure my boot stomped down hard on his ankle as our paths crossed.
'For a quadrans I'd lock you out on the step! I'm Falco, you muttonchop! Announce me to Helena Justina, or your heirs will be quarrelling over who gets your best sandals sooner than you expect!'
Once I got inside the house he treated me with sullen respect. That is, he went back into his cubicle to finish an apple, while I searched for my princess by myself.
Helena was in a reception room, looking pale and studious with a reed pen in her hand. She was twenty-three-or perhaps twenty-four now since I had no idea when her birthday was; even after I had been to bed with their treasure, I was not invited to share the family celebrations of a senator's house. They only let me see her at all because they cringed from Helena's own wilfulness. Even before she met me she had been married but had chosen to divorce herself (for the eccentric reason that her husband never talked to her), so her parents had already realised their eldest offspring was a trial.
Helena Justina was a tall, stately being whose straight dark hair had been tortured with hot curling rods, though it was fighting back well. She had handsome brown eyes which no cosmetics could improve, though her maids painted them up on principle. At home she wore very little jewellery, and looked none the worse for it. In company she was shy; even alone with a close friend like me she might pass for modest until she piped up with an opinion-at which point wild dogs broke pack and ran for cover all along the street. I reckoned I could handle her- but I never pushed my luck.
I posed in the doorway with my normal disrespectful grin. Helena's sweet, unforced smile of greeting was the best thing I had seen for a week. 'Why is a beautiful girl like you sitting on her own, scribbling recipes?'
'I am translating Greek History,' Helena stated pompously. I peered over her shoulder. It was a recipe for stuffed figs.
I bent and kissed her cheek. The loss of our baby, which we both still felt, had inflicted a painful formality on us. Then our two right hands found and gripped one another with a fervour that could have got us denounced by the pompous old barristers in the Basilica Julia.
'I'm so glad to see you!' murmured Helena fiercely.
'It takes more than prison bolts to keep me away.' I uncurled her hand and laid it against my cheek. Her ladylike fingers were perfumed with an eccentric combination of rare Indian unguents and oak-apple ink-quite unlike the stagnant whiffs that hung around the floosies I had previously known. 'Oh lady, I love you,' I admitted (still buo
She slipped from her seat to kneel by me with her head hidden. A senator's daughter would hardly risk letting a house-slave find her crying in a convict's lap- but I stroked her neck soothingly, just in case. Besides, the back of Helena's neck was an attractive proposition to an idle hand.
'I don't know why you bother with me,' I commented after a while. 'I'm a wreck. I live in a pit. I have no money. Even the rat in my cell had a sneer when he looked at me. Whenever you need me I leave you on your own- '
'Stop grumbling, Falco!' Helena snorted, looking up with a mark on her cheek from my belt buckle, but otherwise her old self.
'I do a job most people wouldn't touch,' I carried on gloomily. 'My own employer throws me into jail and forgets I exist- '
'You've been released- '
'Not exactly!' I confessed.
Helena never fussed over things she believed I ought to sort out for myself. 'What are you intending to do now?'
'Work on my own again.' She said nothing; no need to ask why I was unhappy. My bright plan posed one great problem: I would earn much less independently than my notional public salary, despite the fact that Vespasian's pay-clerks kept me months in arrears. 'Do you think this is stupid?'
'No; you're quite right!' Helena agreed without hesitation, though she must have realised going freelance destroyed any hope of me affording marriage into the patrician rank. 'You've risked your life for the state. Vespasian took you on because he knew just what you were worth to him. But Marcus, you're too good to suffer poor rewards form a stingy employer and petty Palace jealousies- '
'Sweetheart, you know what it means- '
'I said I would wait.'
'I said I wouldn't let you.'
'Didius Falco, I never take any notice of what you say.'
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