One Virgin Too Many (Marcus Didius Dalco Series #11)by Lindsey Davis
Marcus Didius Falco, the cynical, hard-boiled investigator from the rough end of Rome, is back from a difficult mission in North Africa. As a result of his hard work, Emperor Vespasian awards Falco with the title of Procurator of Poultry for the Senate and People of Rome, or keeper of the city's sacred geese. Not much of a salary, of course, but the title does give him a better standing with his in-laws. Now, all Falco wants is to spend time relaxing at home with his family. But there is no rest for Falco as he finds himself drawn into the world of the Roman religious cults...and the murder of a member of the Sacred Brotherhoods. And then there's the disappearance of the most likely new candidate for the Order of Vestal Virgins. Falco soon uncovers a sinister cover-up-and is too deeply involved to back away from the truth.
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I HAD JUST come home after telling my favorite sister that her husband had been eaten by a lion. I was in no mood for greeting a new client.
Some informers might welcome any chance to flourish their schedule of charges. I wanted silence, darkness, oblivion. Not much hope, since we were on the Aventine Hill, in the noisiest hour of a warm May evening, with all Rome opening up for commerce and connivance. Well, if I couldn't expect peace, at least I deserved a drink. But the child was waiting for me outside my apartment halfway down Fountain Court, and as soon as I spotted her on the balcony I guessed that refreshments would have to wait.
My girlfriend, Helena, was always suspicious of anything too pretty that arrived in a very short tunic. Had she made the would-be customer wait outside? Or had the smart little girl taken one look at our apartment and refused to venture indoors? She was probably linked to the luxurious carrying chair with a Medusa boss on its smoothly painted half door that was parked below the balcony. Our meager home might strike her as highly undesirable. I hated it myself..
On what passed for a portico, she had found herself the stool that I used for watching the world go by. As I came up the worn steps from the alley, my first acquaintance was with a pair of petite, well-manicured white feet in gold-strapped sandals, kicking disconsolately against the balcony rail. With the thought of Maia's four children, frightened and tearful, still burning my memory, that was all the acquaintance I wanted. I had too many problems of my own.
Even so, I noticed that the little person on my stool had qualities I would once have welcomed in a client. She was female. She looked attractive, confident, clean, and well dressed. She appeared to be good for a fat fee too. A profusion of bangles was clamped on her plump arms. Green glass beads with glinting spacers tangled in the four-color braid on the neck of her finely woven tunic. Adept boudoir maids must have helped to arrange the circle of dark curls around her face and to position the gold net that pegged them in place. If she was showing a lot of leg below the tunic, that was because it was such a short tunic. She handled her smooth emerald stole with unf lustered ease when it slid off her shoulders. She looked as if she assumed she could handle me as easily.
There was one problem. My ideal client, assuming Helena Justina permitted me to assist such a person nowadays, would be a pert widow aged somewhere between seventeen and twenty. I placed this little gem in a far less dangerous bracket. She was only five or six.
I leaned on the balcony newel post, a rotting timber the land-lord should have replaced years ago. When I spoke my voice sounded weary even to me. "Hello, princess. Can't you find the door porter to let you in?" She stared at me scornfully, aware that grimy plebeian apartments did not possess slaves to welcome visitors. "When your family tutor starts to teach you about rhetoric, you will discover that that was a feeble attempt at irony. Can I help you?"
"I was told an informer lives here." Her accent said she was upper class. I had worked that out. I tried not to let it prejudice me. Well, not too much. "If you are Falco, I want to consult you." It came out clear and surprisingly assured. Chin up and self-confident, the prospective client had the bright address of a star trapeze artiste. She knew what she wanted and expected to be listened to.
"Sorry, I am not available for hire." Still upset by my visit to Maia, I took a sterner line than I should have done.
The client tried to win me over. She hung her head and looked down at her toes pathetically. She was accustomed to wheedling sweetmeats out of somebody. Big brown eyes begged for favors, confident of receiving what she asked. I simply gave her the hard stare of a man who had returned from imparting tragic news to people who then decided to blame him for the tragedy.
Helena appeared. She cast a frowning gaze over the cutesy wearing the bangles, then she smiled ruefully at me from behind the slatted half door that Petronius and I had built to stop my one-year- old daughter crawling outside. Julia, my athletic heir, was now pressing her face through the slats at knee level, desperate to know what was going on even if it left her with grazed cheeks, a squashed mouth, and a distorted nose. She greeted me with a wordless gurgle. Nux, my dog, leaped over the half door, showing Julia how to escape. The client was knocked from her stool by the crazy bundle of rank fur, and she shrank back while Nux performed her routine exuberant dance to celebrate my homecoming and the chance that she might now be fed.
"This is Gaia Laelia." Helena gestured to the would-be client, like a seedy conjurer producing from a tarnished casket a rabbit who was known to kick. I could not quite tell whether the dis-approval in her tone related to me or to the child. "She has some troubles regarding her family."
I burst into bitter laughter. "Then don't look to me for comfort! I have those troubles myself. Listen, Gaia, my family view me as a murderer, a wastrel, and a general all-around unreliable bastard- added to which, when I can get into my apartment I have to bathe the baby, cook the dinner, and catch two baby birds who keep crapping everywhere, running under people's feet and pecking the dog."
On cue, a tiny bright yellow fledgling with webbed feet ran out through the gaps in the half door. I managed to field it, wondering where the other was, then I grabbed Nux by her collar before she could lunge at it, and pushed her down the steps; she scrabbled against the backs of my legs, hoping to eat the birdie.
Bangles clonked angrily like goatbells as Gaia Laelia stamped her little gold-clad foot. She lost some of her previous air of maturity. "You're horrid! I hope your duckling dies!"
"The duckling's a gosling," I informed her coolly. "When it grows up"-if ever I managed to nurse it from egg to adulthood with-out Nux or Julia frightening it to death-"it will be a guardian of Rome on the Capitol. Don't insult a creature with a lifelong sacred destiny."
"Oh, that's nothing," scoffed the angry little madam. "Lots of people have destinies-" She stopped.
"Well?" I enquired patiently.
"I am not allowed to say."
Sometimes a secret persuades you to take the job. Today mysteries held no charm for me. The terrible afternoon that I had just spent at my sister's had killed any curiosity.
"Why have you got it here, anyway?" demanded Gaia, nodding at the gosling.
Despite my depression, I tried to sound proud. "I am the Procurator of Poultry for the Senate and People of Rome."
My new job. I had only had it a day. It was still unfamiliar- but I already knew that it was not what I would have chosen for myself.
"Flunkey for Feathers." Helena giggled from inside the door. She thought it was hilarious.
Gaia was dismissive too: "That sounds like a title you made up."
"No, the Emperor invented it, the clever old boy."
Vespasian had wanted me in a position which would look like a reward but which would not cost him much in salary. He thought this up while I was in North Africa. At his summons I had sailed all the way home from Tripolitania, eagerly hoping for position and influence. Geese were what the imperial joker inflicted on me in-stead. And yes, I had been awarded the augurs' Sacred Chickens too. Life stinks.
Gaia, who knew how to be persistent, still wanted me to ex-plain why the yellow bird was living in my house. "Why have you got it here?"
"Upon receipt of my honored post, Gaia Laelia, I rushed to inspect my charges. Juno's geese are not supposed to hatch their own eggs on the Capitol-their offspring are normally fostered under some wormy hens on a farm. Two goslings who didn't know the system had hatched out-and on arrival at the Temple of Juno Moneta I found the duty priest about to wring their sacred little necks."
"Somebody complained. The sight of scampering goslings had annoyed some ancient retired old Flamen Dialis." The Flamen Dialis was the Chief Priest of Jupiter, top greaser to the top god in the great Olympian Triad. This menace who loathed fledglings must be a humorless traditionalist of the worst type.
Maybe he had slipped on their mess, which the goslings frequently deposited in large quantities. You can imagine the problems we now had at home.
Gaia blinked. "You must not upset the Flamen!" she commented, in a rather strange tone.
"I shall treat this Flamen as he deserves." I had managed not to meet him face-to-face; I just heard his moans from a harassed acolyte. I meant to avoid him. Otherwise, I would end up telling some powerful bastard where he could shove his wand of office. As a state procurator, I was no longer free to do that.
"He is very important," the girlie insisted. She seemed nervous of something. It was obvious the Flamen thought too much of him-self. I hate members of ancient priesthoods, with their snobbery and ridiculous taboos. Most of all I hate their undercover influence in Rome.
"You speak as if you know him, Gaia!" I was being satirical. That was when she floored me: "If his name is Laelius Numentinus, he's my grandfather."
My heart sank. This was serious. Tangling with some hidebound king of the cult priesthoods over a couple of ill-placed goslings was a bad enough start to my new post, without him finding out his darling grandchild had approached me, wanting me to act for her. I could see Helena raising her eyebrows and wincing with alarm. Time to get out of this.
"Right. How do you come to be here, Gaia? Who told you about me?"
"I met somebody yesterday who said that you help people."
"Olympus! Who made that wild claim?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Who knows you are here?" asked Helena in a concerned voice.
"Don't leave home without telling people where you are going," I rebuked the child. "Where do you live? Is it far?"
From indoors came a sudden loud cry from Julia. She had crawled away and disappeared, but was now in some urgent trouble. Helena hesitated, then went to her quickly in case the crisis involved hot water or sharp objects.
There was nothing that a child of six could need from an informer. I dealt with divorce and financial double-dealing; art theft; political scandal; lost heirs and missing lovers; unexplained deaths.
"Look, I work for grown-ups, Gaia-and you ought to go home before your mother misses you. Is that your transport in the street?"
The child looked less sure of herself and seemed willing to descend to the elaborate conveyance that I had seen waiting below. Automatically I started wondering. A rich and richly spoiled infant, borrowing Mama's fine litter and bearers. Did this happen often? And did Mama know that Gaia had pinched the litter today? Where was Mama? Where was the nursemaid Gaia ought to have attached to her even inside the family home, let alone when she left it? Where, thought the father in me without much hope of a serious answer, was Gaia's anxiety-burdened papa?
"Nobody listens to me," she commented. From most children of her age it would have been petulance; from this one it sounded simply resigned. She was too young to be so certain that she did not count.
I relented. "All right. Do you want to tell me quickly what you came for?"
She had lost faith. Assuming she ever had any in me. "No," said Gaia.
I was several steps down from her, but I could still look her in the eye. Her young age would have been a novelty if I had been prepared to take her commission- but my time for pointless risks was past. With my new post from Vespasian, ludicrous though it was, my social status had improved dramatically; I could no longer indulge in eccentric decisions.
I managed to find the patience you are supposed to lavish on a child. "We all have quarrels with our relatives, Gaia. Sometimes it matters, but mostly it comes to nothing. When you calm down, and when whoever offended you has had time to do the same, just apologize quietly."
"I haven't done anything to apologize for!"
"Neither have I, Gaia-but take my word, with your family, it's best just to give in."
She marched past me, head in the air. Encumbered by Nux and the gosling, I could only stand aside. But I leaned over the railing as she reached street level, and within hearing of the litter-bearers (who ought to have known better than to bring her) I ordered her in a fatherly manner to go straight home.
Helena Justina came out to me, as I was watching the litter move off. She regarded me with her fine brown eyes, eyes full of quiet intelligence and only half-hidden mockery. I straightened up, stroking the gosling. It let out a loud, appealing squeak, at which Helena humphed. I doubted that I impressed my beloved too much either.
"You let her go, Marcus?"
"She decided of her own accord." Helena obviously knew some-thing. She was looking concerned. Immediately I regretted my re-buff. "So what wonderful job from this Gaia have I just cruelly turned down?"
"Didn't she tell you? She thinks her family want to kill her," said Helena.
"Oh, that's all right then. I was worried it might have been a real emergency."
Helena raised an eyebrow. "You don't believe it?"
"Granddaughter of a chief priest of Jupiter? That would be a high-profile scandal, and no mistake." I sighed. The litter had already vanished, and there was nothing I could do now. "She'll get used to it. My family feel like that about me most of the time."
Copyright (c) 1999 by Lindsey Davis
Meet the Author
Lindsey Davis was born in Birmingham but now lives in Greenwich. After an English degree at Oxford she joined the Civil Service but now writes full time.
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In 74 AD Rome, private sleuth Marcus Didius Falco feels he finally can stop taking on sleazy, low paying cases since his return from census taking in North Africa. The Emperor rewarded Marcus for his fine work overseas by naming him the Procurator of Poultry. He might actually marry Helena Justina, his girl friend and mother of his daughter, who has moved into a new home on the other side of town. However, his investigative days are far from over. A beautiful girl wants to hire Marcus to protect her from her own family who rejects the notion that she might become the next Vestal Virgin. Helena's brother needs his help when he finds the corpse of one the Vestal Virgin selection committee members. Reluctantly Marcus begins to make inquiries even as he tries to perform his new government job of protecting the sacred geese that once saved Rome. The latest Falco Ancient Rome mystery is, like its predecessors, an excellent who-done-it amidst a fabulous look at the era. The often amusing story line is crisp, filled with action, and brings home to the audience the glory of first century Rome. Falco remains a great character while the support cast provides insight into his personality as well as vividly bringing the city-state to life. Lindsey Davis has written another winner that leaves the audience seeking the next novel in this powerful series. Harriet Klausner