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CORPSES, LIVING AND DEAD
For all his fine qualities—his honesty and devotion, his cleverness, his uncanny agility—Eco was not well suited for answering the door. Eco was mute.
But he was not and has never been deaf. He has, in fact, the sharpest ears of anyone I’ve ever known. He is also a light sleeper, a habit held over from the wretched, watchful days of his childhood, before his mother abandoned him and I took him in from the street and finally adopted him. Not surprisingly, it was Eco who heard the knock at the door in the second hour after nightfall, when everyone in the household had gone to bed. It was Eco who greeted my nocturnal visitor, but was unable to send him away, short of shooing at him the way a farmer shoos an errant goose from his doorway.
Therefore, what else could Eco have done? He might have roused Belbo, my strongarmer. Hulking and reeking of garlic and stupidly rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Belbo might have intimidated my visitor, but I doubt that he could have gotten rid of him; the stranger was persistent and twice as clever as Belbo is strong. So Eco did what he had to do; he made a sign for my visitor to wait in the doorway and came rapping gently at my door. Rapping having failed to rouse me—generous helpings of Bethesda’s fish and barley soup washed down with white wine had sent me fast asleep—Eco gingerly opened the door, tiptoed into the room, and shook my shoulder.
Beside me Bethesda stirred and sighed. A mass of black hair had somehow settled across my face and neck. The shifting strands tickled my nose and lips. The odor of her perfumed henna sent a quiver of erotic tingling below my waist. I reached for her, making my lips into a kiss, running my hands over her body. How was it possible, I wondered, that she could reach all the way over and around me to tug at my shoulder from behind?
Eco never liked to make those grunting, half-animal noises eked out by the speechless, finding such measures degrading and embarrassing. He preferred to remain austerely silent, like the Sphinx, and to let his hands speak for him. He gripped my shoulder harder and shook it just a bit more firmly. I recognized his touch then, as surely as one knows a familiar voice. I could even understand what he was saying.
“Someone at the door?” I mumbled, clearing my throat and keeping my eyes shut for a moment longer.
Eco gave my shoulder a little slap of assent, his way of saying “yes” in the dark.
I snuggled against Bethesda, who had turned her back on the disturbance. I touched my lips to her shoulder. She let out a breath, something between a coo and a sigh. In all my travels from the Pillars of Hercules to Babylon, I have never met a more responsive woman. Like an exquisitely crafted lyre, I thought to myself, perfectly tuned and polished, growing finer with the years; what a lucky man you are, Gordianus the Finder, what a find you made in that slave market in Alexandria fifteen years ago.
Somewhere under the sheets the kitten was stirring. Egyptian to her core, Bethesda has always kept cats and even invites them into our bed. This one was traversing the valley between our bodies, picking a path from thigh to thigh. So far it had kept its claws hidden; a good thing, since in the last few moments my most vulnerable part had grown conspicuously more vulnerable and the kitten seemed to be heading straight for it, perhaps thinking it was a serpent to play with. I snuggled against Bethesda for protection. She sighed. I remembered a rainy night at least ten years ago, before Eco joined us—a different cat, a different bed, but the very same house, the house that my father left me, and the two of us, Bethesda and myself, younger but not so very different from today. I dozed, nearly dreaming.
Two sharp slaps landed on my shoulder.
Two slaps was Eco’s way of saying “no,” like shaking his head. No, he would not or could not send my visitor away.
He tapped me again, twice sharply on the shoulder. “All right, all right!” I muttered. Bethesda rolled aggressively away, dragging the sheet with her and exposing me to the dank September air. The kitten tumbled toward me, sticking out its claws as it flailed for balance.
“Numa’s balls!” I snapped, though it wasn’t fabled King Numa who found himself wounded by a single tiny claw. Eco discreetly ignored my yelp of pain. Bethesda laughed sleepily in the darkness.
I snapped out of bed and fumbled for my tunic. Eco was already holding it ready for me to crawl into.
“This had better be important!” I said.
It was important, just how important I had no way of knowing that night, and not for some time after. If the emissary waiting in my vestibule had made himself clear, if he had been frank about why and from whom he had come, I would have bent to his wishes without the least hesitation. Such a case and such a client as fell into my lap that night are few and far between; I would have fought for the chance to take on the job. Instead, the man, who curtly introduced himself as Marcus Mummius, affected an air of portentous secrecy and treated me with a suspicion that bordered on contempt.
He told me that my services were needed, without delay, for a job that would take me away from Rome for several days. “Are you in some sort of trouble?” I asked.
“Not me!” he bellowed. He seemed incapable of talking in a tone of voice reasonable for a sleeping household. His words came out in a series of grunts and barks, the way that one speaks to an unruly slave or a bad dog. There is no language as ugly as Latin when it is spoken in such a fashion-barracks-fashion, I mean, for as sleepy as I was and as numbed with the evening’s wine, I was beginning to make certain deductions about my uninvited guest. Disguised behind his well-trimmed beard, his austere but expensive-looking black tunic, his finely made boots and plush woolen cloak, I saw a soldier, a man used to giving orders and being instantly obeyed.
“Well,” he said, looking me up and down as if I were a lazy recruit fresh out of bed and dragging my feet before the day’s march. “Are you coming or not?”
Eco, offended at such rudeness, put his hands on his hips and glowered. Mummius threw back his head and snorted in a fit of impatience.
I cleared my throat. “Eco,” I said, “fetch me a cup of wine, please. Warmed, if you can; see if the embers are still glowing in the kitchen. And a cup for you as well, Marcus Mummius?” My guest scowled and shook his head sharply, like a good legionnaire on guard duty.
“Some warm cider, perhaps? No, I insist, Marcus Mummius. The night is cool. Come, follow me into my study. Look, Eco has already lit the lamps for us; he anticipates all my needs. Here, sit—no, I insist. Now, Marcus Mummius, I take it you’ve come here offering me work.”
In the brighter light of the study I could see that Mummius looked worn and tired, as if he had not slept properly for some time. He fidgeted in his chair and held his eyes open with an unnatural alertness. After a moment he sprang up and began pacing, and when Eco came with his warm cider he refused to take it. Thus does a soldier on a long watch refuse to make himself comfortable for fear that sleep will come against his will.
“Yes,” he finally said. “I have come to summon you—”
“Summon me? No one summons Gordianus the Finder. I am a citizen, no man’s slave or freedman, and at last report Rome was still a Republic, amazingly enough, and not a dictatorship. Other citizens come to consult me, to ask for my services, to hire me. And they usually come during daylight. At least the honest ones do.”
Mummius appeared to be working hard to contain his exasperation. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “You’ll be paid, of course, if that’s what you’re worried about. In fact, I’m authorized to offer you five times your regular daily pay, considering the inconvenience and the … travel,” he said cautiously. “Five days of guaranteed pay, plus all your lodging and expenses.”
He had my full attention. From the corner of my eye I saw Eco raise an eyebrow, counseling me to be shrewd; children of the streets grow up to be hard bargainers. “Very generous, Marcus Mummius, very generous,” I said. “Of course you may not realize that I had to raise my rates only last month. Prices in Rome keep shooting up, what with this slave revolt and the invincible Spartacus rampaging through the countryside, spreading chaos—”
“Invincible?” Mummius seemed personally offended. “Spartacus invincible? We’ll soon see about that.”
“Invincible when confronted by a Roman army, I mean. The Spartacans have beaten every contingent sent against them; they’ve even sent two Roman consuls running home in disgrace. I suppose that when Pompey—”
“Pompey!” Mummius spat the name.
“Yes, I suppose that when Pompey finally manages to bring back his troops from Spain, the revolt will be quickly disposed of … .” I rambled on only because the topic seemed to irritate my guest, and I wanted to keep him distracted while I drove up my price.
Mummius cooperated gloriously, pacing, gnashing his teeth, glowering. But it seemed he would not descend to gossiping about a subject as important as the slave revolt. “We’ll see about that,” was all he would mutter, trying feebly to interrupt me. Finally he raised his voice to command level and effectively cut me off. “We’ll soon see about Spartacus! Now, then, you were saying something about your rates.”
I cleared my throat and took a sip of warm wine. “Yes. Well, as I was saying, with prices wildly out of control—”
“Well, I don’t know what you or your employer may have heard about my rates. I don’t know how you obtained my name or who recommended me.”
“Never mind that.”
“All right. Though you did say five times …”
“Yes, five times your daily pay!”
“It might be rather steep, considering that my normal price …” Eco had moved behind the man and was gesturing up, up, up with his thumb. “Eighty sesterces a day,” I said, wildly choosing a number from nowhere—about twice the monthly pay of a regular legionnaire.
Mummius looked at me oddly, and for a moment I thought I had gone too far. Ah, well, if he turned and stamped out of the house without another word, at least I could return to my warm bed and Bethesda. He was probably luring me on a fool’s errand, anyway.
Then he burst out laughing.
Even Eco was taken aback. I watched him over Mummius’s shoulder, wrinkling his eyebrows. “Eighty sesterces a day,” I said, as serenely as I could, trying not to mirror Eco’s confusion. “You do understand?”
“Oh, yes,” Mummius said, his barking barracks laughter reduced to a smirk.
“And five times that—”
“Four hundred a day!” he snapped. “I know my figures.” Then he snorted, with such sincere contempt that I knew I could have demanded much more.
My work frequently brings me into contact with the wealthy classes of Rome. The rich need lawyers in their battles against each other; lawyers need information; obtaining information is my specialty. I have accepted fees from advocates like Hortensius and Cicero, and sometimes directly from clients as distinguished as the great Metelli and Messallae families. But even they might balk at the idea of paying Gordianus the Finder a daily fee of four hundred sesterces. Just how wealthy was the client whom Marcus Mummius represented?
There was no question now that I would take the job. The money assured it—Bethesda would coo with delight to see so much silver pour into the household coffers, and certain creditors might start greeting me with smiles again instead of unleashed dogs. But curiosity was the real trap. I wanted to know who had sent Marcus Mummius to my door. Still, I didn’t want him to see that he had won me over quite yet.
“This investigation must be rather important,” I said blandly, trying to sound professionally cool while fountains of silver coins splashed in my head. Four hundred sesterces a day, multiplied by five guaranteed days of work, equaled two thousand sesterces. At last I could have the back wall of the house repaired, have new tiles laid to replace the cracked ones in the atrium, perhaps even afford a new slave girl to help Bethesda with her duties … .
Mummius nodded gravely. “It’s as important a case as you’re ever likely to be called for.”
“And sensitive, I take it.”
“Great discretion,” he agreed.
“I assume that more than mere property is at stake. Honor, then?”
“More than honor,” said Mummius gravely, with a haunted look in his eyes.
“A life, then? A life at stake?” From the look on his face I knew that we were talking about a case of murder. A fat fee, a mysterious client, a murder—I had no resistance left. I did my best to make my face a blank.
Mummius looked very grave—the way that men look on a battlefield, not in the rush of excitement before the killing, but afterward, amid the carnage and despair. “Not a life,” he said slowly, “not merely a single life at stake, but many lives. Scores of lives—men, women, children—all hang in the balance. Unless something is done to stop it, blood will flow like water, and the wailing of babies will be heard in the very Jaws of Hades.”
I finished my wine and set it aside. “Marcus Mummius, will you not tell me outright who sent you, and what it is you want me to do?”
He shook his head. “I’ve said too much as it is. Perhaps, by the time we arrive, the crisis will be over, the problem solved, and there’ll be no need for you after all. In that case, it’s best that you know nothing, now or ever.”
“None. But you’ll be paid, no matter what.”
I nodded. “How long will we be away from Rome?”
“Five days, as I said before.”
“You seem very sure.”
“Five days,” he assured me, “and then you can return to Rome. Unless it’s sooner. But no longer than that. In five days all will be finished, one way or another, for better … or for worse.”
“I see,” I said, not seeing at all. “And where exactly are we going?”
Mummius pressed his lips tightly shut.
“Because,” I said, “I’m not at all sure that I care to be traipsing about the countryside just now, without even an idea of where I’m headed. There’s a little slave revolt going on; I believe we were discussing it only a moment ago. My sources in the countryside tell me that unnecessary travel is highly inadvisable.”
“You’ll be safe,” Mummius snapped with authority.
“Then I have your word as a soldier—or is it ex-soldier?—that I won’t be placed in tactical jeopardy?”
Mummius narrowed his eyes. “I said you’ll be safe.”
“Very well. Then I think I shall leave Belbo here, for Bethesda’s protection; I’m sure your employer can supply me with a bodyguard if I require it. But I shall want to bring Eco with me. I take it your employer’s generosity will extend to feeding him and giving him a place to sleep?”
He looked over his shoulder at Eco with a skeptical gleam in his eye. “He’s only a boy.”
“Eco is eighteen; he put on his first manly toga over two years ago.”
“Mute, isn’t he?”
“Yes. Ideal for a soldier, I should think.”
Mummius grunted. “I suppose you can take him.”
“When do we leave?” I asked.
“As soon as you’re ready.”
“In the morning, then?”
He looked at me as if I were a lazy legionnaire asking for a nap before a battle. The commander’s edge returned to his voice. “No, as soon as you’re ready! We’ve wasted enough time as it is!”
“Very well,” I yawned. “I’ll just tell Bethesda to gather up a few of my things—”
“That won’t be necessary.” Mummius pulled himself up to his full height, still weary-looking but happy to be in charge at last. “Anything you need will be supplied to you.”
Of course; a client willing to pay four hundred sesterces a day could certainly supply mere necessities like a change of clothing or a comb or a slave to carry my things. “Then I’ll take only a moment to say good-bye to Bethesda.”
I was stepping out of the room when Mummius cleared his throat. “Just to be sure,” he said, looking at me and Eco in turn, “I don’t suppose either one of you has a problem with seasickness?”
ARMS OF NEMESIS. Copyright © 1992 by Steven Saylor. Map copyright © 1992 by Steven Saylor. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.