The Curse-Makerby Kelli Stanley
The Curse-Maker is the sequel to he award-winning Nox Dormienda, the first book of the Roman noir series created by Kelli Stanley (City of Dragons). Wedding impeccably researched history to prose and themes reminiscent of classic hard-boiled writers, The Curse-Maker is a thrilling and suspenseful journey into a dark corner of Roman/i>/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
The Curse-Maker is the sequel to he award-winning Nox Dormienda, the first book of the Roman noir series created by Kelli Stanley (City of Dragons). Wedding impeccably researched history to prose and themes reminiscent of classic hard-boiled writers, The Curse-Maker is a thrilling and suspenseful journey into a dark corner of Roman Britain you've never seen before.
When Roman physician Arcturus and his stunning wife, Gwyna, arrive at Bath for a holiday, a dead body is floating in the sacred spring. It turns out that the murdered man is a curse-maker whose invocations actually come true, and as murder follows murder, it looks like there's now a curse on Arcturus.
This is an exciting and exotic story of a spa town where people go to heal...only to wind up dead. And it takes the doctor-investigator on a dark road -- into Roman cemeteries, silver mines, and underground water tunnels -- to comprehend the twisted mind of a killer bent on revenge.
RT Book Reviews
"Besides writing an engrossing mystery ... Stanley serves up fascinating and never heavy-handed information on Roman life."
Booklist (Starred Review)
"Well-plotted ... all will wish this historical series a long life."
"Captures the details and rhythms of daily life in the ancient empire."
In ancient Rome, a vacationing physician turns reluctant sleuth to save his family.
After a long journey, esteemed Londinium doctor Arcturus and his wife Gwyna arrive at their vacation destination of Bath to the unseemly sight of a corpse floating in the town reservoir. Amid the crowd's cries of pollution, Drusius, a burly stonecutter, hoists the body out and Arcturus examines it. The victim is Rufus Bibax, an infamous scribe knownlocally as "the curse-maker" for his public rants. Townspeople wish to blame the killing on the magic of the reservoir, but the practical Arcturus tries to throw cold water on this superstition with a finding of strangulation, and a note he's found on the body signed by "The Avenger." Hoping to salvage his getaway at the governor's estate, Arcturus leaves the body in the care of the governor'smedicus, Lucius Velrius Philo. It's a decision he comes to regret when, after he returns home, strange events continue in Bath and within the Arcturus household. The Avenger claims more victims, and Gwyna suffers an inexplicable illness that makes her physically frail and emotionally erratic, convincing her that the curse-maker Bibax is the root of her malady. Mostly for this latter reason, Arcturus undertakes the complex investigation of the murders, a highly informative path for himself and the reader.
Stanley's debut novel, supplemented by a glossary and a lengthy explanation of curse-making, captures the details and rhythms of daily life in the ancient empire. The whodunit often takes a backseat to the subtle and interesting interactions of his characters.
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By Kelli Stanley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Kelli Stanley
All rights reserved.
The man was floating, serene, tunic swirling in the undulating waves like clouds against a blue sky. His mouth was open. He was dead.
I looked back toward Gwyna. She was kneeling in the saddle like a circus acrobat, struggling to see what was going on. At least she seemed focused. Not the aimless woman, the lost wife I'd brought here, hoping to find the woman I loved.
Voices rose from the crowd, agitated.
"Pollution! In our town! The council must —"
"Why doesn't someone do something? Where's Papirius?"
"How dare he do this to the goddess? To us?"
They shoved forward, scrambling for a closer look, taking me with them. Another voice, calmer than the rest.
"Can someone help me pull him up?"
The crowd was stiff with excitement, and I pushed my way through. I was stiff, and not so excited, but I was there, even if it was early in the morning after a long trip, and I was just trying to get some goddamn directions.
* * *
The reservoir was seven, maybe eight feet deep, filled from the famous Sacred Spring of the famous goddess Sulis. From the look of the pipes, it dispersed the famous hot water to the famous baths, just to the south. Everything in Aquae Sulis was famous.
Female faces were lining the three windows of the main bath building, staring down with horrified pleasure. The corpse bobbed against the wall, mouth still open, looking just as shocked. He danced and waved, making a low, slushing thud, held upright by a hemp rope secured under his arms and tied to a balustrade. I could see what the heat and the water had already done to his skin.
A young man with arms like Hercules was trying to unwind the rope and haul up the body. I grabbed the end of the rope.
"Go ahead and try it. I'll anchor."
He eyed me up and down with doubt. I planted my feet, and maybe something about my jaw made him start to unwind the damn rope. The mob stepped back half a foot.
Every time he pulled, I took up the slack. The dead man himself couldn't weigh too much — he was on the small side — but the water made him heavy. The sun peeked over the golden limestone of the buildings, throwing a lurid yellow light on the water.
The corpse was near the top of the reservoir, and I grabbed enough rope to get it right on the balustrade.
"Move, damn you! Give him some room!"
The crowd inched backward while the body spread out, halfway on the pavement. Magic water dripped, making small magic rivers on the smooth pavement stone. I elbowed through a fat man with a wig and a slack-jawed servant girl, joining the young man with the big arms.
Now we had to touch him, and hope his skin wouldn't flake off like cooked fish. Together we dragged him fully on the pavement, nearly intact. The herd hushed for a moment, making the squelches and squeaks of the corpse all the more audible.
Three men pushed toward the front, gawkers parting with a rustle. They all looked the same: neat, tidy, proper provincial business- and councilmen, togas too big and minds too small. A fat one in the middle seemed to be the leader.
"Yes — thank you, Drusius, thank you. How — how unfortunate." One of the others cleared his throat, staring down with eyes as watery as the corpse.
The big one continued. "Don't, er, touch him here, please. Philo is coming. Philo will, er, take it — take him — away."
I stood up straighter, surreptitiously massaging my sore hip. "I don't know who or what Philo is, but this man needs to be looked at now. And here."
A titter or two. A couple of gasps. The three glanced at each other. The one with the fish eyes was older than the rest and looked to the fat one for guidance. The middle one blended in with the pale yellow rock.
Big Belly puffed like a peacock. "Lucius Valerius Philo is the most respected medicus in Aquae Sulis — and a member of the council. Who are you?"
I was tired. Saddle weary. Provincial towns always make me itch, even if everything is famous and the waters can raise the dead.
"I don't give a damn if he's the doctor for Domitian's prick. I'm a medicus, and I'm examining this man. Now."
A murmur ran through the crowd. The rope was too wet to lynch me with, and besides — no one ever wanted to touch a dead body. Hercules — or Drusius — took a step near me. There was support in the stance. And respect.
I knelt down. The dead man was about my age, maybe a little older, thirty-five to forty. Short, fairly muscular, but getting soft even before the water. Arms and face tan, but his legs never saw the light of day. They were dotted with freckles, like some kind of exotic mushroom.
The gown was cheap linen, white when Homer was young. Imitation Egyptian that might impress old ladies who liked exotic Eastern cults, if they were half-blind and wholly gullible. Bathing sandals were still on his feet. The crowd was getting closer again. I could almost feel Big Belly breathing on me.
"Give him some room!"
Drusius was answered with a low, throaty chuckle. Not from Big Belly. Feminine. Very feminine. The crowd made room for the woman who made it. I looked up.
Riding hard on forty, red-haired, and everything she shouldn't be, but what most men would want her to be. The kind of woman who always made her own way, in life or out of bed. She reminded me of Dionysia, my youthful indiscretion.
"Well, well, Drusius. It is Drusius, isn't it? I've seen you hauling stone for your father, I believe. For dedications." She peered down at the corpse and suddenly knelt next to me, a puff of sandalwood drifting up from underneath her dress.
"I promise I won't crowd the doctor," she whispered.
A loud squawk erupted from the back of the growing mob. Big Belly and Fish Eye were whispering to each other, and finally another voice — thin, whining, male — reached the front line, audible over the rustle of sweaty bodies and hushed conversation.
"Sulpicia? Sulpicia? Ah — there you are. What — what the hell is that?"
I didn't bother to answer or look up. I'd continued, letting Sulpicia and her pet idiot distract the onlookers for me. The man had been dead anywhere from eight to twelve hours. There wasn't much water in his mouth or lungs, and the red, engorged face and the two thumb-sized bruises by his windpipe confirmed he hadn't drowned in seven feet of water.
Something glinted from the open mouth, and I noticed his cheeks were bulging. I reached in and pinched with two fingers, drawing it out while everyone looked at Sulpicia and pictured her naked. Her boyfriend suddenly realized there was a corpse dripping water on his toga hem and yelped.
"That's — isn't that the curse-writer, the scribe —"
I looked at the corpse again and noticed a faint tinge of red in his hair. Not much of a rufus. I stood up. The voice that identified him expressed authority. I wanted to see who it belonged to.
Standing next to a coiffed Roman in a gaudy toga was a middle-aged bald man. His expensively plain tunic was made louder by a heavy gold necklace. Priest was written all over him. Big Belly and the other two crowded close, giving me baleful looks when they weren't staring at Sulpicia's nipples.
The priest plastered a tight smile on his face. "I am Sextus Papirius Super. Head priest of the Temple of Sulis Minerva. I understand you're a doctor."
I stared at him. "Julius Alpinius Classicianus Favonianus. I'm the governor's doctor, as a matter of fact."
The murmur spread, growing progressively louder, until it broke against the edges of the crowd like a ripple on the water. He raised an eyebrow. "It's very good of you to, er, help us with this unfortunate — incident. As this is holy ground —"
"Not any more, it ain't!" Rough voice, croaking from the back. Laughter. The priest continued, his color rising. "As this is holy ground, we will have to remove the body at once and clean the spring."
A tall man was making his way to the front. Almost exactly my height, handsome, distinguished. Maybe fifteen years older. The throng made way for him, some grabbing at him as though he were the featured gladiator. He exuded warmth and charisma. I didn't like him.
He stepped forward, glanced at the priest. Papirius nodded his head in my direction. "The governor's medicus, Philo. Julius Alpinius Classicianus Favonianus."
His strong, lean faced creased with what looked like a genuine smile of welcome. "Favonianus. Of course, I've heard of you. You're also known as Arcturus, I believe. We're very lucky you're here." He reached out and grasped my arm. "Philo — one of the many doctors in Aquae Sulis."
Modest, too. Big Belly grumbled, "We asked him to wait for you, Lucius."
Philo shook his head, the gray in his temples glistening in the sun. "You have a much better doctor here."
"Are you here on business, Favonianus?" The priest asked it as if there wasn't a corpse between us.
"Actually, no. A holiday for my wife and me."
I felt Sulpicia raise her eyebrows.
"Well, then perhaps you wouldn't mind if Philo ..."
I looked at the dapper doctor. He seemed competent enough, if a little disgusting in his perfection. I shrugged. "Be my guest."
The young stonecutter — Drusius — stared at me, his thick eyebrows furrowed. What the hell did he want me to do? Fight over the dead body of Rufus Bibax? I'd been asked very politely to mind my own goddamn business, and I intended to do just that.
Philo smiled apologetically. "Please come by and see me. We'll talk. Where are you staying?"
"The governor's villa."
The murmur went around again. I didn't want to spoil it by asking where the hell the villa might be.
Papirius crooked a finger at two slaves, who ran up with a litter chair for the corpse, then started making priestly noises. "Please disperse, good people. The spring shall be emptied. Sulis will renew life, just as she has seen fit to take this one. Sulis will —"
I was heading out of the mob, and eyes — some friendly, some not, all curious — were following me. I turned around. "Sulis had nothing to do with it."
Papirius and Philo looked at me, the priest irritated, the doctor curious.
"What did you say?" asked Papirius.
"I said Sulis had nothing to do with it. That man was strangled and thrown in your pool. Murdered — and the murderer left behind a little note."
I held out my hand. In the palm was a small piece of lead, very thinly hammered and square cut. On it was inscribed one word: Ultor. The Avenger.
* * *
Gwyna looked disappointed, which dumbfounded me. I'd done what I thought would please her — avoided getting involved. I'd even avoided Sulpicia, which was no easy task because she kept getting in my way. I climbed back on Nimbus, looking around at the small-pored golden limestone of the buildings. It reminded me of Gwyna's hair, and was safer to look at than she was.
The wealthy owned long, low villas close to the temple and baths, or in the hills above, to the northwest of the town nearer the small fort. Somewhere among them was Agricola's. Gwyna asked me: "Did you find out where the villa is?"
I turned red and she gave me a pitying look. Another market square up ahead. I nudged Nimbus, who obligingly trotted forward — the one female in the family who tolerated me — and dismounted at the nearest shop, a gemmarius around the corner from the oversized temple area.
A tattered sign boasted that Tiberius Natta offered an assortment of carved gemstones, set and unset. He was a swarthy man with gray hair, short and stocky. Used a cane, though he couldn't have been sixty yet. An assistant, another dark man in his late thirties, came forward to answer my question.
Seems Agricola's villa was right up the street, on a little hill overlooking the temple area. I thanked them, and told Gwyna while I climbed back on Nimbus.
She nodded, avoiding my eyes. Once we could see the villa from the road, I pointed it out, and we started the climb up the path to where it perched, low and inviting, with a superb view of the temple and the river. The silence was broken by the morning song of birds and the sound of the horses' hooves stepping on the fragile rock.
We rounded a corner, and the house was in front of us. Large, with a detached stable, private bath, and a small attempt at a vineyard. The terraced gardens were full of lavender, Gwyna's favorite scent.
Suddenly, she asked: "Why didn't you stay?"
I must have looked as stupid as I felt, because she said it again.
"Why didn't you stay?"
"I don't understand. Stay where?"
"At the pool. Why didn't you stay with the body? Why did you let those other men take it away?"
I dismounted and came around and offered a hand, which she ignored, springing lightly to the ground herself.
"Gwyna, we're here to relax. And to take care of you, and — and to fix things. Why the hell should I have insisted?"
She stared at me, holding Pluto's reins as he tried to get a bite of hollyhock while Nimbus gave him a withering look.
"Because it was the right thing to do. It happened for a reason, that we came into town and you were there when that poor man was discovered. Besides, I don't need anybody to 'take care of me.' "
She flounced ahead, jerking Pluto's nose away from the flowers.
* * *
The slaves were the best kind: invisible, accommodating, unquestioning. Everything was ready for an extended holiday for the newlyweds. Except the newlyweds themselves.
Gwyna busied herself with the servants, a vast improvement from the apathy of home. I watched her moving around in her riding breeches, until she got tired of me blocking the way and ordered me into the triclinium. The cook served a delicious lunch of sheep's milk cheese — much creamier than we get in Londinium — figs, olives, and snails cooked in garlic.
Gwyna didn't eat, though she came in to make sure the wine was poured correctly. She said: "Why don't you bathe, Arcturus? You touched a dead man, didn't you?"
Clipped and chilly. I headed for the villa's bath and the warmth of Agricola's caldarium.
After a good rubdown by a strapping Pannonian named Ligur, I started to relax in spite of myself. Ligur was shaving me when Gwyna walked in. She saw me, stopped, turned to leave.
"Wait — what — where are you going?"
The shrug was elaborate. "Your face needs a shave. I see you're already taken care of."
She was dressed in a modest bathing tunic, different from the more revealing breast band and short skirt she normally wore, and left before I could say anything else. I wondered again what happened to the woman I married less than a year before.
I dressed for dinner. I could hear her in the caldarium and imagined the slave girl massaging her with oil. That should be my job.
Thinking about it meant either another trip to the frigidarium or a brisk walk, so I left for the garden, where I could breathe again. A breeze from the hills carried the sweet scent of roses, mixed with lavender, and ruffled my hair.
The governor's villa in Aquae Sulis. A goddamn beautiful spot to be miserable in.CHAPTER 2
The roses and the hollyhocks laughed, their petals shaking in the wind. She was right, of course. Normally I would've stayed with the murdered man, drawn by that gnawing hunger to know, the same feeling that used to earn me a few sestertii before I became old and complacent and the governor's medicus.
Goddamn hands. They got me in the goddamn business. What happened to the other doctor, the younger man who fought his own goddamn fights, who made his own goddamn way, who could, on occasion, discover the goddamn truth.
I leaned against a pear tree, staring out over the hazy yellow town, the past nine months washing over me like that foul, churning water from the not-so-Sacred Spring.
My eyes closed. Goddamn it. Thirty-four years old. I was thirty-four years old. I wasn't going to give up yet.
* * *
Nones of September. Agricola's finest hour. Last hour for thousands of Caledonii.
He conquered the island. Slaughtered the last army. Had gone farther than anyone ever expected — far enough to secure his fame and yet not far enough, maybe, to push the emperor to outright assassination. A delicate dance, with all the precision of a sacrifice.
A light flickered by the governor's quarters, officers darting in and out. Agricola was moving the men out this morning, heading south to establish forts. He'd work his way slowly to Londinium, where he'd wait for the inevitable order from Domitian to return to Rome. Term complete.
I squinted at the small hill squatting peacefully on the plain. I thought of the men with families, the women and children, loaded into carts and crawling like ants on the surface. Three days ago.
Their horses got tangled up in the wagon leads, the cavalry hunting down the ones who fled. Painted warriors, scars and tattoos proud on their bodies, long swords and short shields useless and clumsy, running, shouting into the path of trained soldiers. All gone, dead. Last wild men of Britannia.
I closed my eyes. I could still hear the cries of the children when the survivors killed them afterward. Better dead than slaves, they thought. For the love of their children, they murdered them. For the love of his son, Agricola slaughtered the Caledonians.
Excerpted from The Curse-Maker by Kelli Stanley. Copyright © 2011 Kelli Stanley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
KELLI STANLEY's first novel in the 1940 San Francisco-set Miranda Corbie series, CITY OF DRAGONS, was met with overwhelming critical acclaim and was a finalist for the prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Stanley also writes a highly-praised series set in Roman Britain, the latest of which is THE CURSE-MAKER. Her debut novel, NOX DORMIENDA, won the Bruce Alexander Award for best historical mystery of 2008. She makes her home in Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco, earned a Master's Degree in Classics, and loves jazz, old movies, fedoras, Art Deco and speakeasies.
Kelli Stanley is an award-winning author of crime fiction (novels and short stories). She makes her home in Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco, a city she loves to write about. She is the author of two crime fiction series, one set in 1940 San Francisco, the other in the first century AD.
Kelli earned a Master's Degree in Classics, loves jazz, old movies, battered fedoras, Art Deco and speakeasies. She is walked daily by a Springer Spaniel named Bertie.
She credits Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett and Thomas Hardy as some of her major influences.
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In the latter half of the first century, the Roman Governor of Britannia Agricola's physician Arcturus goes on a needed vacation. However, the thirtyish Arcturus is called back to work rather quickly when a homicide occurs; as his other job is investigating crimes that might impact his employer. Someone strangled scribe Rufus Bibax, who mostly wrote down curses. His corpse was found floating in in a reservoir in Aquae Suli. Inside the victim's mouth is a piece of lead etched with the inscription Ultor (the Avenger). Arcturus quickly learns of other unsolved recent murders and soon more people die by what the physician begins to believe is a second killer. The cases seem to focus on a nearby mine, but who the Avenger or Avengers are remain unsolved. The second Ancient Britannia mystery (see Nox Dormeinda) is a superb whodunit that provides readers with insight into the use of curses, apparently a thriving business of the times. The engaging investigation is fast-paced once Arcturus is on the case or as he fears and curses cases; he understands two killers is not twice the fun. Armchair travelers will enjoy feeling a sense of being in first century Roman Britain with Arcturus as the tour guide. Harriet Klausner
The second in Stanley's Roman noir series finds Arcturus in Aquae Sulis (modern Bath, England). Arcturus, physician to the governor and crime solver, knows his wife, Gwyna, is suffering, but not exactly sure why. Ardur, as Gwyna calls him, makes a trip from Londinium to the baths and the temple of the goddess Sulis-a.k.a. Minerva-for her sake. When a body is encountered at the baths, Philo, an unmarried, local doctor who is attracted to Gwyna, asks Arcturus to help determine the cause of death. The dead man, whom no one seems to know much about, was Bibax, a local curse maker. There seem to be a lot of these curse makers, whom the citizens pay to inscribe curses on thin sheets of tin that get dropped into the water. People also drop expensive jewelry into the spring, seeking the goddess' favor. A disproportionate number of Bibax's curses have resulted in convenient deaths. Ardur has two problems: Gwyna's depression-is it partly his fault? And what is responsible for the atmosphere of fear and rot at Aquae Sulis? When he and his wife become targets, the urgency is ratcheted up. A possibly corrupt governing body, the managers and drain cleaners of the baths, that doctor that Ardur dislikes so much, a lazy but ambitious lawyer of the upper class, plus a necromancer all fall under suspicion, until some of them turn up murdered. As this quote states: "Wherever you turned in Aquae Sulis, whatever mean, crooked street you walked down, you always came back to the temple." If you liked the award-winning first of this series, "Nox Dorrnienda", you'll love this one. Reviewed by Kaye George, author of "A Patchwork of Stories" for Suspense Magazine