Five for Silver
By Mary Reed Eric Mayer
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2004 Mary Reed & Eric Mayer
All right reserved.
John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, followed the physician Gaius through the crowded corridors of Samsun's Hospice.
John was there because his elderly servant Peter had experienced a vision.
Gaius, a stout, balding man, plowed ahead, more than once treading on outstretched limbs and sprawled bodies. John picked his way more carefully, but could not prevent the gold-embroidered hem of his heavy blue robe from brushing against the sick who overflowed from crowded rooms into the hallways.
It made him uneasy because it seemed disrespectful. Many of Gaius' patients were in their final hours; their surroundings were insult enough. For lack of sufficient pallets, the hospice corridors had simply been strewn with straw. The sooty plastered walls displayed crosses at frequent intervals.
John remarked on this to Gaius.
"Many take comfort from them," he replied. "Why anyone should find comfort in a depiction of suffering is beyond my learning. Perhaps it reminds them their ills could be even worse? Then too, some rely on charms and amulets for protection against the plague."
Such beliefs puzzled John as well. Like Gaius, he was a Mithran, among the few who clung to an ancient, pagan religion. It was an allegiance which could never be spoken aloud in the court of the Christian emperor.
"Tell me about this vision, John," Gaius continued. "Why did Peter suppose it was anything more than a dream?"
"Because he was wide awake when the angel appeared."
"But an angel? Surely that proves it was a dream? And how did he know it was an angel? What does an angel look like?"
"A man, apparently, with a glowing visage and surrounded by radiance. Peter said he had already put out the lamp and shuttered the window, and yet, when the angel appeared at the foot of his bed, he could clearly see the night soil pot in the far corner."
"I'd be interested in a close look at an angel, but then I doubt a specimen will ever turn up in our mortuary." Gaius sounded wistful.
They turned down another corridor more congested with patients than the last. Most of the sufferers displayed the grotesque swellings and black, gangrenous carbuncles characteristic of plague.
John avoided staring at the sick, but he could not shut out the sounds of suffering that came from every direction. Soft whimpers and moans, wracking sobs and screams filled the air. Occasionally he could make out muttered prayers, hoarse curses. If one did not listen too attentively, the cacophony merged into an almost soothing susurration akin to waves breaking against a rocky shore.
"In what language do angels converse, John? Greek? Or are they Latin speakers like the emperor? Not to say that an angel might speak any language we would know. How many is it you command? Four? Or perhaps is it more a matter of which tongue they choose to use?"
"You'd be an excellent theologian, Gaius. However, according to Peter the angel did not use any particular language. Peter was so amazed, he mentioned that specifically more than once. As he described it, the words formed in his head without his strange visitor making a sound."
"And what words are sufficient to bring the Lord Chamberlain into a place full of the pestilence?"
"'Gregory. Murder. Justice.'"
"It sounds as if you believe this strange tale."
"What matters is that Peter believes it. I've rarely seen him so agitated."
Gaius' broad forehead wrinkled. He began to speak, then paused. "Do you know this Gregory?"
"Only by sight. Occasionally he came to meet Peter at my house, but he's never entered it so far as I know. They've been meeting every week since Peter's been in my employ and perhaps before then too. A few days ago, Gregory failed to appear at the Forum Constantine as they'd arranged."
"So he is an old friend of Peter's. Do you know anything else about the man?"
"I gather he and Peter served in the army together years ago. It's my belief that Gregory hasn't fared well since those days. I've noticed the evening before these visits, Peter always seems to find stale honey cakes or moldy bread unfit for a Lord Chamberlain to consume, as he puts it." A brief smile illuminated John's lean face. "He asks my permission to take these scraps with him to give to Gregory, rather than just throw them away. Naturally I always say yes."
Gaius laughed. "I wouldn't want your job, John, serving both an emperor and an elderly cook." He stopped at an half-open door at the end of the hallway. "We've turned the old cistern beneath the hospice into a mortuary."
John found himself studying his friend closer. When had Gaius gained so much in girth? The physician had always been stout. Now he looked obese, his stride laborious. He had obviously resumed his worship of Bacchus. Yet could anyone blame him, given the terrible scenes the man witnessed every hour spent at the hospice, ministering to patients who persisted in dying in horrible agonies, no matter how much Gaius and his colleagues labored to save them?
"You've been examining me ever since you arrived, John," Gaius said in an irritated tone. "Do you think I haven't noticed? Don't worry, I haven't caught the plague. There's no danger from working with my patients so far as I can tell. In fact, we don't even known how the illness is contracted. It seems entirely capricious. We see carters bringing the sick here day after day and they stay perfectly healthy, even though the rest of the time they're hauling the remains of cautious folks found rotting away behind locked doors and boarded windows. Mind the stairs, John. They're slippery."
Before they could step through the doorway, a dark-haired young man with a face the color of bread dough came running down the hall toward them, stepping at a dangerous speed in and out among the haphazardly arranged patients blocking his course. He came to an awkward, stumbling halt.
"Are you one of the new volunteers come to help us?" The young man waved frantically at nothing in particular and thrust his pasty face as close to John's as he could contrive, considering he was a head shorter. His hot breath smelled of wine. It was obvious he had over-indulged. John drew back slightly.
"Take care, Farvus!" Gaius said. "This man isn't here to help you burst pustules. This is John, Lord Chamberlain to Justinian."
"John! Of course! The friend you've spoken about. The one the gossips call John the Eunuch." The young man leaned toward John again. "Well, John, at least you don't have to worry about bringing children into this terrible world."
"You're impertinent! As a matter of fact, the Lord Chamberlain has a daughter. Go about your business immediately," Gaius barked at the young man, before turning toward John.
"Now you're examining me," John observed.
"Do you mind if I don't discipline the fellow? We need all the help we can get. Death tends to make people forget who holds authority or the proper manner in which to address them. I've even seen aristocrats begging slaves for a last cup of water."
John shrugged. "Shall we attend to our own business?"
They descended the steep, stone stairway into a cool atmosphere redolent of corruption underlain by a rich, unmentionable sweetness. John would have choked, had the smell of death not become so familiar in the past weeks. Resinous torch smoke massed beneath the vaulted roof.
"You could preserve fish down here with all this smoke," Gaius remarked. "It does mask the smell a little. They say Hippocrates drove the plague out of Athens with fire. Perhaps what we need is a riot. If the Blues and Greens put the torch to the city again, it might do some good for a change."
John did not reply, but glanced at the large club leaning against the wall at the foot of the stairway.
"Rats," Gaius explained.
His companion looked around the dimly lit vault. The dead, laid out in tidy rows between the columns holding up the roof of the disused cistern, were as silent as they were still.
The air, however, was murmurous.
John thought of the spring meadows alive with bees behind Plato's Academy, where he had studied as a young man. It reminded him of the ancient belief equating bees with souls. However, in the cistern of the dead it would not be bees which buzzed, John reminded himself as he slapped at a fly that hit his cheek like a fat raindrop. Perhaps flies were more likely vessels for souls than bees. They seemed to emerge from death as if from thin air.
Gaius led the way through flickering shadows. The recumbent forms they passed might have been statues, their eyes as blank as those of the marble philosophers and mythological figures decorating the city's public baths.
"These patients all died from the plague," Gaius noted. "However, there are still a few ingenious souls in Constantinople who manage to find other ways to depart. We've placed them together at the back in case the City Prefect's men show any interest. Which they haven't so far."
An archway, low enough to force John to bend his head, opened into a small chamber housing perhaps a score of bodies.
Gaius scanned them as if he were a shopkeeper surveying the stock on his shelves. "Here's someone who drowned. Probably not of interest? And this man died in a fall, although—"
"Never mind. Gaius. I've found Gregory."
John gazed down at an aged man with a sharp, beaked nose. Not hawk-like. More like a fallen sparrow, dusty, gray, and still. "How did he die?"
Gaius lumbered over to John's side. "Ah yes. This one was, in fact, murdered. A knife blade expertly inserted between the ribs and straight into the heart. I couldn't have done it more accurately. It was an easier death than the plague."
"Do you recall where he was found?"
"Not exactly. It was in one of those streets running off the Mese, I believe. I'll look it up in the records. But this isn't the man you're seeking, John. And just as well, if you ask me, because otherwise we would have to start believing in supernatural visitations."
"It's definitely Gregory."
Gaius shook his head. "From what you told me, that can't be. Let me show you something."
A long wooden table against the far wall held a number of baskets. Gaius rummaged in one and then another.
"It's astonishing," he remarked as he searched. "The dead are piling up so fast in the streets thieves don't have time to rob them all. I've been storing such items as came in with or on the departed although no one's claimed anything yet. There are even a couple of full coin pouches, if you can believe such a thing. Ah, here it is."
He flourished the scroll he had retrieved from the last basket investigated.
"I'm absolutely certain that is the man I saw come to my door to visit Peter from time to time," John said.
"Impossible." Gaius handed the scroll to John. It bore an official seal. "This was found on the murdered man. Your impression is that Peter's friend has endured hard times, but that can't be said of this fellow, judging from the documents he carried. Strangely enough, though, his name is also Gregory. However, I can guarantee he certainly wasn't the sort to make a habit of visiting servants, old friends or not, let alone taking charitable gifts of food from them. This particular Gregory was a high-ranking customs official and therefore a man of considerable means."
"And you're certain he didn't suffer, master? That was surely heaven's mercy." Peter made the sign of his religion.
John paused, anticipating further questions about Gregory's death, but Peter said nothing. The only sound in the garden was the chuckling gurgle of water spilling into the pool from the mouth of an eroded and unidentifiable stone creature set in its center.
"You should rest, Peter," John continued. "Hypatia can prepare the evening meal."
"If you please, master, I would prefer to continue with my duties. Hypatia sometimes over-spices the food. Besides, she has enough to do here."
It was true. Since the young Egyptian woman had come to work for him a few years earlier, John had noticed many more herbs and flowers stealing in amidst bushes and shrubbery. Most of the new plantings were a mystery to the Lord Chamberlain, who could identify the workshop that created a silver chalice by its imperial stamp, but knew nothing of horticulture.
"Sit down, Peter."
John spoke quietly, but it was clearly an order rather than an invitation. Peter took a hobbling step over to the marble bench facing the pool and lowered himself stiffly. John sat down next to him. The clusters of white blossoms adorning the garden's single olive tree had begun to open, yet seemed to emit none of their familiar fragrance. The air held the only too familiar charnel smell, but faintly, as if it had drifted over the roof into this inner space or still clung to John's garments.
"The loss of an old friend is always deeply upsetting," John said. "I'm sorry I had to be the one to confirm your suspicions."
His elderly servant shook his head. "I've known Gregory was dead ever since the Lord's messenger told me so. I've already prayed for my friend's soul." Peter's army boot face, brown, mottled, and cracked, appeared calm although his eyes were glassy in a hint of tears not quite controlled.
John averted his gaze and instead stared at the cascading water sending ripples across the pool. "Are you certain Gregory didn't give you some indication he was in danger? Perhaps not in so many words? Some strange business he'd mentioned to you? Something that could pose a risk to him? Try to remember."
"It is merely as I explained, master. The angel appeared and—"
"Peter, consider how this must appear. You announce a man has been murdered, but have no idea who committed the deed or why. I look for this man and find someone has in fact thrust a blade into his heart. What am I to think? More importantly, what might others, who do not know you as well as I do, think?"
Peter sighed, but remained silent.
"Tell me about this angel again," John continued patiently. "You say he looked like a man?"
"Yes, but uncommonly tall and fair of face, and clothed in shining robes. There was a glow about him as bright as the setting sun and his eyes burned like the sacred lamps in the Great Church."
Grasping at wisps of straws, John asked if Peter had recognized the strange visitor.
"Only what he was, master."
John had questioned Hypatia, who had neither seen nor heard anything unusual the evening before. He had inspected the heavy, nail-studded main door for signs of forcible entry, checked all the windows overlooking the cobbled square the building faced, had even made a circuit around the inner garden, examining its soft earth to ascertain if someone might have entered by crossing the roof and dropping down into the shrubbery. Nothing untoward could be found.
It was obvious the heavenly intruder had got into the house by way of Peter's imagination.
Peter looked placid enough now, but he had been distraught and inconsolable when he related his tale that morning. John had gone out immediately to investigate the matter and thereby calm his servant's fears.
Instead he had confirmed them.
Further, Peter had made it clear he expected John to find the culprit. A nearly impossible task. Crimes committed in the street were typically solved when the perpetrator happened to be caught in the act by the City Prefect's men. However, John thought, Peter's peculiar foreknowledge of the murder indicated it could be more than a commonplace crime.
"I don't know much about this friend of yours, except that you've been meeting him now and again for years. Tell me about his history, Peter. There may be something in it that will help me find his murderer. For a start, what did Gregory do for a living?"
Peter looked away from John, toward the dark glass of the pool. "I can't say."
"He never told you in all the years you knew him?"
Peter confirmed it was the case. "We never spoke much about what we were doing now. As old friends do, we talked about past times. Our days in the army, mostly. Also the writings of the great church men. He had a wide knowledge of John Chrysostom. We've had some very lively discussions about his homilies."
John noted the catch in Peter's voice, caught the quick blink of his glistening eyes. Those theological discussions would be no more and the thought hung in the air as clearly as if it had been spoken aloud. "You never visited Gregory's house?"
Excerpted from Five for Silver by Mary Reed Eric Mayer Copyright © 2004 by Mary Reed & Eric Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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