In the first century A.D., during Domitian's reign, Flavia Albia is ready for a short break from her family. So despite the oppressive July heat, she returns to Rome, leaving them at their place on the coast. Albia, daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, the famed private informer (now retired), has taken up her father's former profession, and it's time to get back to work. The first order of business, however, is the corpse that was found in a chest sent as part of a large lot to be sold by the Falco family auction house. As the senior family representative in Rome, it falls upon Albia to identify the corpse, find out why he was killed, who killed him, and, most important, how did it end up in the chest.
At the same time, her potential young man, Faustus, comes looking for help with his friend Sextus's political campaign. Between the auction business and Roman politics, it's not quite clear which one is the more underhanded and duplicitous. Both, however, are tied together by the mysterious body in the chest, and if Albia isn't able to solve that mystery, it won't be the only body to drop.
About the Author
Lindsey Davis was born and raised in Birmingham, England. After taking an English degree at Oxford and working for the civil service for thirteen years, she “ran away to be a writer.” Her internationally bestselling novels featuring ancient Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco include Venus in Copper, The Iron Hand of Mars, Nemesis and Alexandria. She is also the author of Rebels and Traitors, set during the English Civil War. Davis is the recipient of the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger Award, the highest accolade for crime writers, as well as the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award and the Authors' Club Best First Novel award.
Read an Excerpt
By Lindsey Davis
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Lindsey Davis
All rights reserved.
Never hold an auction in July. In Rome, who's around then? People who can escape will have fled to rural retreats in cooler parts of Italy. The rest are on their deathbeds or have stayed here to avoid relatives.
Hopeless. Everybody's tunic is sticking to them; sweat pours down their greasy necks. Porters drop things, then storm off in a huff. Sellers vacillate and buyers renege. Dockets go missing. Payments ditto. Wild dogs invade and scatter the punters. Afterward, somebody points out that no advertising notice was ever put up in the Forum. Rival auctioneers are not bothering to gloat at your poor takings: it's too damned hot.
My father owns an auction house and in high summer he hides away at his seaside villa. His staff keeps the family business chugging along. It's always a quiet period.
Nothing was different in the year of the consuls Titus Aurelius Fulvus and Marcus Asinius Atrantinus, except that before one sale in July our workers found a corpse.
* * *
I was in Rome. I had been at the coast, carried off there by my mother — "rescued," she said — during an illness that had nearly killed me. She plucked me from my apartment and took me off to the family spread, south of Ostia. After three weeks of people fussing, I was longing to come back. A friend had originally found me lying half dead and gallantly saved my life, so I wanted to thank him properly and believed I was now strong enough for city life.
You may be thinking this friend and I were lovers. How wrong you would be.
It was an all-day journey by rackety cart down the Ostia Road to Rome. That really drained me. As soon as I stepped into my stuffy and silent apartment on the Aventine, I knew I was too weak. I stayed in bed for two days, fortunately sustained by a hamper of dainties from my mother. Lonely and tearful, I propped myself on pillows and munched my way through everything. I thought I had no appetite, but I had been a starving street child once. I hate waste.
All too soon, I licked out the last little dish of aspic salad. I would now have to fend for myself — or crawl back to the parents ignominiously. No chance of that.
Still, I love them. They adopted me when I was lice-ridden and desperate, a difficult teenager to whom they were loyal and affectionate when others would quail. They had turned a lost soul from far-away Britain into a fairly normal Roman daughter. I was now twenty-nine and an independent widow, but I had whined and argued to come back from the coast, worming away at it like my two younger sisters when they wanted new sandals.
"Go, then. We'll keep your bed made up!" the parents scoffed. So now I had to live up to my claim of being fit.
I forced myself to drag on a tunic. Slowly, I descended a flight of outside stairs toward a balcony walkway. This half-rotten structure, a so-called fire escape, was inaccessible to most tenants. It ran around the bare interior courtyard, once a laundry but nowadays deserted. I lived in the Eagle Building, Fountain Court: one of many dark, creaking, stinking tenements in which miserable, poverty-stricken Romans — most of us — endure what passes for life. The edifice was full of inadequate apartments and prone to extremely odd smells. Father owned it, I regret to say. This did not add luster to his reputation, though since he was a private informer, it was low to start with. People were amazed he had the money to possess a building — though much less amazed once they heard he was also an auctioneer, a profession that is famous for wealth.
I was an informer myself. Public opinion was even harder on me, because a respectable woman ought to remain at home all day. I should be weaving at my loom in a gracious atrium, between beating my inoffensive slave-girl or screwing a litter-bearer rather than my husband. Stuff that for a game of knucklebones. "Loom" was a dirty word among my mother, sisters and me. I didn't own a slave-girl and my husband died ten years ago. I worked. Not that I felt like it at the moment.
* * *
I crept down the steep stairs a few at a time. It was always worth taking care in this building in case part of it fell down on you. Who wants a broken back and dry rot in their hair?
I was testing myself. If I felt faint, I had a one-room bolt-hole off the first-floor walkway, where I could fall onto an old couch and recover my strength. Otherwise, I could shout myself hoarse, which just might summon the building's porter, Rodan. Given clear instructions and some loose change, he would go for help.
Not needed. I made it down to the walkway. I felt better than expected. Aspic salad is full of goodness. Helena Justina might be annoyed with me for running off, but she knew how to impress on me that I still needed a mother. I was the craziest of her four stubborn children, but she would not let me fade away.
I leaned on what passed for a handrail, though I applied my weight with caution. Particularly unpleasant lichen gave clues to the rotten bits. Touch it, and your hand came up covered with gray-green slime. Something about its texture was even worse than the pigeon guano, although there was plenty of that too.
For once Rodan was in sight. An elderly ex-gladiator, scarred by rent-collecting among the violent poor rather than by fights in an arena, he was a heavy lump of lard who stood in the porch, arguing (his reaction to any request). He was with a runner I recognized from Father's auction house. I watched them.
Messengers in Rome are used to hassle. This man, Cyrus, stood in silence letting Rodan's pointless pushiness wash over him. If Cyrus had come from the Saepta Julia, where the office was, he would have had a good walk here, with a steep climb up the Aventine at the end of it. He was taking a breather in case he had to turn around and go straight back, mission unaccomplished. In contrast to Rodan's ugly shaved head and the huge sweat stains on his ragged tunic, Cyrus was neat. In his forties, he had trimmed hair, laced footwear, a white tunic that was limp in the heat though not grimy. He was slim, though not from going hungry. My father still remembered what poverty was like, so he was a decent employer. Nor were his employees crushed by constant beatings, unlike many in our supposedly civilized city.
Father employed Rodan too, but Rodan was beyond help.
I called out. Rodan immediately slunk back into his smelly cubicle. Cyrus came across the courtyard and gazed up at me, one level above. Still light-headed, I was trying not to sway.
"Flavia Albia! We heard you were home." He looked relieved to have found me. "I don't suppose your father will be city-bound himself any time soon?"
"Sorry, Cyrus, it's July. Falco is out in a small boat every day, with one hand glued to a fishing rod and the other clasping a wine gourd."
"Any fish biting?"
"No, he just likes wearing a silly hat and dreaming. But once in a while he lands a very beautiful statue that he claims he found floating on a current ... He's turning into his old man." My grandfather had often rowed home from a day on the water, towing a small skiff full of gorgeous Greek art that had "fallen off the deck of a ship." Such a good way for an auctioneer to avoid import tax. Wide-eyed and shameless, Geminus could make the story sound almost true.
The auction staff knew Father gave me authority to act for him, so I apologized briefly, "Cyrus, you're stuck with me. How can I help?"
The messenger shrugged. "Oh, it's nothing we can't handle, but the head porter thought we should tell someone. They are getting ready for the Callistus sale. One of the lads heaved up the lid of a big box — and next thing, he's gazing into the eyes of a dead body curled up inside."
That revived me. I said if Cyrus whistled for a hired carrying chair, I would come at once.CHAPTER 2
The best way to endure a journey by chair is to close your eyes, take a tight grip on any part that is not too splintered and ponder the meaning of life. I normally shun philosophy, but I needed to take my mind off the bearers flinging me around. As we jogged downhill on the craggy Aventine, which has bad roads and a slope like a hypotenuse, I was afraid of being tipped out.
What is this? — a woman who mentions hypotenuses? Well, when Falco and Helena adopted me, they gave me education as freely as if it were one more new kind of food and drink. I gobbled it up until I knew more than most women and many men too. I happily consult encyclopedias and I can write my own notes; if I want to show off, I can jot them in Greek. Sometimes even with the accents.
Another thing is that Apollonius, the head waiter at the Stargazer, our local poisonous eatery, once taught geometry. Since he was forced out of teaching years ago, he had served a large amount of fake Falernian in my aunt's bar, waiting for conditions to improve so he could open a new in-the-street primary school. Under our current emperor, Domitian, that was never going to happen. People do not waste education fees on their children when a tyrant might have them executed as soon as they grow up. Try discussing Euclid with the jailer in a death cell: the bonehead will thrash you until you can hardly totter to the lions.
So, thanks to parents and waiter, musing on triangles saw me down to the level and onto the Field of Mars. In between, I prayed that no feral dogs ran out and caused the bearers to drop me. Or to start running. That's worse than being dropped.
In fact I was safely carried right into the Saepta, an elegant galleried exchange on two levels, where my father, like his father before him, rented a fortified lock-up for their best antiques. Upstairs they also leased an office that filled up with trash they couldn't sell — a batch of terrible stuff they grew foolishly fond of.
I had been deposited in one of those grand monuments at which Rome excels. Still new, it combined flagrant expense with beauty and functionality — insofar as anyone could remember what this building's function was supposed to be. It had been a counting house for election votes but emperors can't risk democracy, so nowadays real elections were never held. In place of voting, men-about-town came here to be seen, and to buy jewelry for their mistresses to be seen in. Though no longer needed for political purposes, the Saepta Julia had been rebuilt lavishly by Domitian after a huge fire swept across this area in the reign of his brother Titus.
Titus had lasted barely two years. Some thought Domitian saw to that. In my family we kept quiet because insulting Domitian was suicide. He called himself a god, therefore we became deeply religious. With luck, either the real gods or some angry human agent would deal with our monstrous ruler. Quack fortune-tellers prophesying when Domitian would die were as common as garlic salesmen. Occasionally a prognosticator was good enough to see him coming, so hopped it. But mostly Domitian did put them to death — along with a lot of other people, one or two of whom were genuinely plotting to assassinate him.
Somebody would do the deed. You could smell plots in the air.
* * *
Cyrus led me up to the office, where I flopped on a stone throne that the auction house had owned for so many years nobody could bear to sell it, not even if some idiot with a monarchy complex offered cash and his own transport. The throne was one of many items saved from the city fire by my cousin Gaius who, when the inferno started, had carried out stock methodically then returned to the Saepta to help save lives, losing his own when the vast cedarwood roof collapsed. I had been fond of Gaius. After he perished so heroically, I never really liked coming here.
Today my unease was short-lived. As soon as I sat down, the head porter, Gornia, informed me that the corpse was in fact at Pompey's Porticus. That was where the Callistus auction would be held. I had passed it on my way here.
Another thing at which Romans excel is making you waste your time. It is not my style. I am crisp. I am organized. I save energy — dear gods, especially when I am still recovering from virulent dysentery. However, I know never to show impatience, because that only makes these maddening people worse.
My chair had left, so I said they would have to find me another. The porticus was only a short walk round the corner, which was why the Didii favored it for auctions, but I was feeling whacked. The staff knew I had been very ill; it had caused family turmoil. So Gornia, who these days himself had the papery aspect of an underworld ghost, said he would summon our driver, Felix, with his mule, Kicker; they would take me to Pompey's monument in the delivery cart. I agreed. Felix had never warmed to me, but he was a good driver. Kicker was sweet.
Most wheeled transport is banned in Rome during the day. Felix kept a plank and a pile of dirty buckets in the cart, to look like a builder; they have permits.
* * *
Felix knew I wanted to hurry, so he meandered about like a tourist guide. Instead of a quick run round the corner, he went in a big loop round the Pantheon and Agrippa's Baths. The usual crowds kept getting in his way, slowing us to a crawl. At last we arrived at the Theater of Pompey, which was entirely the wrong end of that large and busy complex, then trundled slowly down one side of it until I was finally dropped by an entrance, pretty well where I had started from in the Saepta. Thank you, Felix!
Pompey's monument had also been rebuilt by Domitian after the fire. Every new ruler should reconstruct the city in his own taste, putting up his name on big inscriptions. If he wants to look extra benevolent, he can spend his private money on projects, or claim he does so. I imagine there are Treasury officials who know the true version.
The Porticus had its gorgeous stone theater at one end, beneath a high-rise Temple of Venus Victrix; behind the theater lay an enormous arcaded garden where crowds strolled in the shade of plane trees and, famously, a very large public lavatory on the tainted spot where Julius Caesar was murdered while going to a Senate meeting. To the Roman mind (well, the pinched mind of the Emperor Augustus), the crime scene was too horrific ever to be used again as a curia. Brutus and Cassius were commemorated, so far as it was legal to remember them, in a really fine latrine.
My father, a republican to his marrow, sometimes muttered that people ought to remember it was not just Brutus and Cassius but sixty other forgotten anti-dictators who had bravely stabbed Caesar. We had to hush him. Any spy might report him to Domitian for discussing daggers.
Users of the lavatory could gaze out at the large garden square, which was surrounded by cool colonnades. On one side was a gallery of Greek statues, curtained off with famous gold brocade drapes. This was one of the few places where females could be out and about in public on their own. Men could therefore have a relaxing pee, then eye up women who were eyeing up nude Greek statues and getting ideas. No wonder Pompey's Porticus was popular.
Romans loved to come and walk in the arcades. As well as the art gallery, there were shops to browse. Open areas were used for public gatherings, including auctions. My grandfather had favored the Porticus for sales; according to him, it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a legendary womanizer. Father, a happily married man, continued the practice because the Porticus was so convenient for the Saepta Julia. As far as I knew, we had never before had a corpse turn up while a catalog was in preparation.
I was glad to see the container was standing well out in the open air. It was a huge rectangular armored chest, the kind rich people keep at home for their valuables. A show-off householder plonks his strongbox in the atrium, so as soon as they enter visitors will be wildly impressed.
Members of our staff were loafing in the shade among some topiary, several of them eating filled bread rolls. It takes a lot to put them off, but I noticed they were all well back from the chest. They had draped it with heavy cloth, which looked suspiciously like the famous gold curtains from the art gallery. This was to mitigate the heat of the sun on the decaying contents, but the minute I arrived they whipped off the cover to display the box.
Excerpted from Deadly Election by Lindsey Davis. Copyright © 2015 Lindsey Davis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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