Shadows in Bronze (Marcus Didius Falco Series #2)by Lindsey Davis
Rome. AD 71. Marcus Didius Falco, now Imperial Agent to Emperor Vespasian, is keeping busy tidying up corpses, kicking over the traces of a failed coup, making a bit on the side in stolen lead ingots. But a new plot to usurp the purple robes of power puts Falco on the back of a mule with a one-way ticket down the Appian Way - bumping into trouble, treason and Helena… See more details below
Rome. AD 71. Marcus Didius Falco, now Imperial Agent to Emperor Vespasian, is keeping busy tidying up corpses, kicking over the traces of a failed coup, making a bit on the side in stolen lead ingots. But a new plot to usurp the purple robes of power puts Falco on the back of a mule with a one-way ticket down the Appian Way - bumping into trouble, treason and Helena Justina, a senator's daughter he's trying hard to forget.
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Shadows in Bronze
By Lindsey Davis
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1990 Lindsey Davis
All rights reserved.
By the end of the alley the fine hairs in my nostrils were starting to twitch. It was late May, and the weather in Rome had been warm for a week. Energetic spring sunlight had been beating on the warehouse roof, fermenting a generous must inside. All the eastern spices would be humming like magic, and the corpse we had come to bury would be lively with human gases and decay.
I brought four volunteers from the Praetorian Guard plus a captain called Julius Frontinus who used to know my brother. He and I prised off the chains from the backstreet gates, then sauntered around the loading yard while the troopers rattled at the lock on the huge inner door.
While we were waiting Frontinus grumbled, 'Falco, after today, just reckon I never met your brother in my life! This is the last disgusting errand you can expect to drag me on —'
'Private favour for the Emperor ... Festus would have had a word for it!'
Frontinus described the Emperor with my brother's word, which was not genteel.
'Easy work, Caesaring!' I commented light-heartedly. 'Smart uniform, free living quarters, the best seat at the Circus – and all the honeyed almonds you can eat!'
'So what made Vespasian select you to deal with this?'
'I'm easy to bully and I needed the money.'
'Oh, a logical choice!'
My name is Didius Falco, Marcus to special friends. At the time I was thirty years old, a free citizen of Rome. All that meant was that I had been born in a slum, I still lived in one, and except in irrational moments I expected to die in one too.
I was a private informer the Palace occasionally used. Shedding a putrid body from the Censor's list of citizens was up to standard for my work. It was unhygienic, irreligious, and put me off my food.
In my time I had operated for perjurers, petty bankrupts and frauds. I swore court affidavits to denounce high-born senators for debauchery so gross that even under Nero it could not be covered up. I found missing children for rich parents who would better abandon them, and pleaded lost causes for widows without legacies who married their spineless lovers the very next week – just when I had got them some money of their own. Most of the men tried to dodge off without paying, while most of the women wanted to pay me in kind. You can guess which kind; never a sweet capon or a fine fish.
After the army I did five years of that, freelancing. Then the Emperor made an offer that if I worked for him he might raise my social rank. Earning the cash to qualify would be next to impossible, but promotion would make my family proud and my friends envious, while seriously annoying all the rest of the middle class, so everybody told me this mad gamble was worth a minor insult to my republican deals. Now I was an Imperial agent – and not enjoying it. I was the new boy; so they saddled me with the worst jobs. This corpse, for instance.
The spiceyard where I had brought Frontinus lay in the commercial quarter, near enough to the Forum for us to be aware of the piazza's busy hum. The sun was still shining; scores of swallows swooped against the blue sky. A skinny cat with no sense of occasion looked in through the open gate. From nearby premises came the scream of a pulley and a workman whistling, though mostly they seemed deserted the way warehouses and timberyards so often are, especially when I want someone to sell me a cheap plank of wood.
The Guards had succeeded in breaking open the lock. Frontinus and I tied scarves round our mouths, then hauled at the high door. A warm stench bellied out in our faces and we recoiled; its gust seemed to push our clothes clammily against our skin. We let the air settle then marched inside. We both stopped. A wave of primitive terror knocked us back.
A dreadful quiet hung everywhere – except where a horde of flies had been zooming for days in obsessive parabolas. The upper air, lit by small opaque windows, seemed thick with scented, sunfilled dust. The light below was dimmer. In the middle of the floor we made out a shape: the body of a man.
The smell of decomposition is milder than you expect, but quite distinct.
I exchanged a glance with Frontinus as we approached. We stood, uncertain what to do. Lifting the cloth gingerly, I started to peel off the toga that had been flung over the remains. Then I dropped it and backed away.
The man had been dead in the pepper warehouse for eleven days before some bright spark at the Palace remembered they ought to bury him. After lying so long unembalmed in a warm fug, the dead flesh was flaking like well-cooked fish.
We retreated for a moment while we braced ourselves. Frontinus gagged hoarsely. 'Did you finish him yourself?'
I shook my head. 'Not my privilege.'
'Discreet execution – avoids an inconvenient trial.'
'What had he done?'
'Treason. Why do you think I'm involving the Praetorians?' The Praetorians were the élite Palace Guard.
'Why the secrecy? Why not make him an example?'
'Because officially our new Emperor was greeted with universal acclaim. So plots against Vespasian Caesar don't occur!'
Frontinus scoffed caustically.
Rome was full of men plotting, though most of them failed. The stand against fate which this one had taken had been cleverer than most, but he now lay stretched out on a dusty floor beside a blackened patch of his own dried blood. Several fellow conspirators had fled from Rome without stopping to pack spare tunics or a wine flask for the journey. At least one was dead – found strangled in a cell at the grim Mamertine prison. Meanwhile Vespasian and his two sons had been received in Rome with an unconditional welcome, and were settling down to reconstruct the Empire after two years of horrendous civil war. Everything, apparently, was under control.
The plot had been extinguished; all that remained was the disposal of its festering evidence. Allowing this man's family to hold the normal public funeral with a procession through the streets, flute music, and hired mourners prancing around dressed as his famous ancestors had struck the suave Palace secretaries as a poor way to keep a failed conspiracy quiet. So they ordered a minor functionary to arrange a tactful errand boy; this clerk sent for me. I had a large family who relied on me and a violent landlord whose rent stood several weeks in arrears; for flunkeys with unorthodox burials to arrange I was easy prey.
'Well, standing here won't shift him —'
I hauled away the covering, exposing the body full length.
The corpse lay just as it had fallen, yet hideously different. We could sense how its innards were collapsing while maggots seethed within. I dared not look at the face.
'Jupiter, Falco; this bastard was middle-class!' Frontinus looked troubled. 'You ought to know, no middle-ranker passes on without an announcement in the Daily Gazette to warn the gods in Hades that the shade of an eminent person is expecting the best seat in Charon's ferryboat —'
He was right. If a body came to light wearing clothing with the narrow purple bands of a Roman knight, busy officials would insist on knowing whose son or father this worthy specimen had been.
'Let's hope he's not modest,' I agreed quietly. 'He'll have to be undressed ...'
Julius Frontinus muttered my brother's rude word again.CHAPTER 2
We worked fast, fighting down our physical disgust.
We had to hack away two tunics stinking with body waste. Only the roughest wash-and-wear old clothes dealer would pick over these rags far enough to find the embroidered namebands sewn inside the neck. Yet we had to be sure.
Back in the yard, squeezing in gulps of fresh air, we burned all we could; we even charred his shoes and belt. He wore finger rings. Frontinus screwed those off somehow; the gold band indicating middle rank, a giant emerald cameo, a signet ring, and two more, one with a woman's name. They could not be sold in case they reappeared; I would drop them into the Tiber later that day.
At last, looping a rope around the nearly naked corpse, we tugged it across a stretcher we had brought. I went to push him on with my toe, then had second thoughts.
The silent Praetorians kept the alley clear while Frontinus and I staggered along it to pitch our burden down a manhole into the Great Sewer. We listened; there was a splash at the bottom near the stone access steps. The rats would come across him soon enough. When the next summer storm was draining from the Forum, anything that was left of him would be rolled into the river through the massive arch below the Aemilian Bridge, then either lodged up against the piles to frighten passing boatmen or carried on, to be nibbled clean by undiscerning fish in an unmarked, unknown resting place at sea.
The problem was disposed of; Rome would not give its missing citizen another thought.
We strode back; burned the stretcher; sluiced the warehouse floor; swabbed our hands, arms, legs and feet. I fetched a clean bucket of water, then we both washed again. I went out to empty the slops in the street.
Someone in a green cloak with the hood pulled up paused as he saw me alone by the gate. I nodded, avoiding his eyes. He went on up the alley. A respectable citizen walking cheerfully, he continued about his business unaware of the grisly scene he had just missed.
In view of the weather, I did wonder why he was so heavily muffled; sometimes it seems as if everyone in Rome is sneaking up back alleys on some business that is best done in disguise.
I said I would lock up.
'We'll be off then!' Frontinus was taking his lads for a well-earned drink. He did not invite me to join them – and I was not surprised.
'Thanks for your help. I'll be seeing you, Julius —'
'Not if I see you first!'
Once they had gone I stood for a moment with a heavy heart. Now I was alone I had more time to notice things. In the yard my eye fell on an interesting stack which was buttressing the outer wall beneath a discreet covering of old hides. As an auctioneer's son I could never ignore any abandoned commodity which might be saleable; I strolled across.
Under the hides were a couple of sprightly spiders and numerous ingots of lead. The spiders were strangers but the ingots were old friends; the conspirators had intended using stolen silver to bribe their way into power. All the bars containing precious metal had been recovered by the Praetorians and carried off to the Temple of Saturn, but the thieves who smuggled the bullion out of the British mines had cheerfully cheated by sending the plotters large quantities of lead – useless for bribery. Evidently the lead had been left here for collection by an Imperial wagon train, all neatly stacked with military precision, each row at a perfect right angle to the one beneath. Lead lingots had some value to a man with the right contacts ... I covered them up again, as an honest state servant should.
* * *
I left the gates open while I returned on my own to the manhole over the Great Sewer. Of all the foul corpses of failed entrepreneurs that must be littering Rome, this was the last I would have chosen to treat with such disrespect. Every traitor has a family, and I knew his. His nearest male relation, who should have conducted this funeral, was a senator whose daughter meant a very great deal to me. A typical Falco predicament: faced with a highly important family I was trying to impress, I had to demonstrate my good character by tipping their dead relative without ceremony down a public sewer ...
Grumbling under my breath, I levered up the cover again, cast in a hasty handful of earth, then muttered the basic requiem: 'To the gods of the shades I send this soul ...'
I flung down a copper for him to pay the ferryman, then hoped if Fortuna smiled on me that was the last I would hear of him.
No chance of that. The goddess of fortune only ever grimaces at me as if she had just shut her sacred finger in a door.
Back at the warehouse I kicked at our fire ashes, spreading them about the yard. I coiled the chains over one shoulder, ready to secure the gate. Just before leaving I strolled back inside one last time, my muscles braced under those heavy links.
Everywhere remained bathed in a murky miasma of cinnamon bark. Restless flies were continuing to wheel above the stain on the floor as if still in the presence of an undeparted soul. Motionless sacks of priceless oriental produce sagged in the shadows, filling the air with a dry sweet perfume that seemed to alter the very texture of my skin.
I turned to go. My eye caught a movement. A spasm of terror convulsed me, like a man who has seen a ghost. But I did not believe in ghosts. Out of the moted dimness a muffled figure tumbled straight at me.
He was real enough. He snatched up a barrel stave and swung at my head. He had his back to the light but I vaguely felt I knew him. There was no time to ask what his grievance was. I whirled round, slung the chains viciously against his ribs, then lost my footing and crashed to the floor on my right elbow and knee, dragged down by the weight I was carrying.
With luck I might have grabbed him. Luck has rarely been my ally. While I was flailing in armfuls of ironwork, the villain fled.CHAPTER 3
I had only been away at the manhole for a moment, but I should have been prepared. This was Rome; leave a treasure house unguarded for three seconds and some sneak thief was bound to clamber in.
I had not seen the man's face, though that sense of having recognized him clung persistently. The green hood pulled so securely round his head was unmistakable: the man I had seen while I was emptying the wash bucket. Cursing him, then myself, I limped out to the alley with blood trickling down my leg.
Scattered patches of sunlight threw up a piercing dazzle, while the dense shade was unnervingly cold. The passage at the back of the warehouse was barely three feet wide, with one entrance onto a filthy cut throat lane. The other way, a crook-shouldered curve hid its exit from view. Lining both sides were dank yards crammed with world-weary trolleys and piles of teetering kegs. Dirty ropes snaked into gaping doorways. Ferocious notices hung by a nail warned visitors away from gates that looked as if no one had opened them for ten years. Surveying this sour commercial hole it seemed impossible that a two-minute walk would bring you to the bright bustle of the Forum – this was Rome. As I said.
No one in sight. A pigeon fluttered on a roof then slipped in through a broken pantile. A gantry creaked once. Nothing else moved. Except my heart.
He could be anywhere. As I looked for him in one place, he would slip off another way. While I busied myself searching, he or some quite unconnected evildoer could jump out unexpectedly and bash in my curly head. If so, or if I fell through a rotting floor in one of these deserted stores, I might lie there undetected for days.
I hopped back. I used an old nail to spring back the teeth of the lock on the warehouse door. I checked the sun-baked yard. Using the military pincers Frontinus had brought, I reapplied the gate chains like a responsible person. Then I left.
The smell of the corpse had infiltrated my clothes. Unable to bear it any longer, I went home to change.
I lived in the Thirteenth Sector. In empty streets it took ten minutes, though at this time of day forcing myself through the crowds occupied three times that. The hubbub seemed worse than usual. I reached home feeling deafened and desperate.
The Falco apartment was the best I could afford, so it was grim. I rented a filthy garret above the Eagle Laundry in a street called Fountain Court (which had never possessed a fountain, and wasn't a court). To reach this impressive location I had to turn off the comparative luxury of the paved Ostia Road, then squeeze down a series of twisting entries that grew narrower and more threatening at every step. The point where they diminished into nothing was Fountain Court. I flailed through several lines of damp togas that were blocking the laundry's frontage, then attacked the long haul up six flights of stairs to the sky-high hovel that served as my office and home.
Once aloft I knocked, for the hell of it and to warn off any wildlife frolicking in my absence, then I told myself to come in and unlatched the door.
I had two rooms, each a bare eight foot square. I paid extra for a rocky balcony but my landlord Smaractus allowed me a discount in the form of natural daylight through a hole in the roof (plus free access to water, whenever it rained). There were multimillionaires in Rome who housed their horses better, though thousands of anonymous individuals fared even worse.
My penthouse was for tenants who went out a lot. Yet for five years this squalid hole had seemed gracious enough, especially since when I was running around for clients I was rarely there. It had never been cheap; nowhere in Rome was. Some of my human neighbours were objectionable types, but an amiable gecko had recently taken up residence. I could entertain four people if I opened the door to the balcony, or five when one was a girl who would sit on my lap. I lived alone; financially i had no choice.
Excerpted from Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis. Copyright © 1990 Lindsey Davis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's 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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