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In first century Rome, Flavia Albia, the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, has taken up her father's former profession as an informer. On a typical day, it's small cases---cheating spouses, employees dipping into the till---but this isn't a typical day. Her beloved, the plebeian Manlius Faustus, has recently moved in and decided that they should get married in a big, showy ceremony as part of beginning a proper domestic life together. Also, his contracting firm has been renovating a rundown dive bar called The Garden of the Hesperides, only to uncover human remains buried in the backyard. There have been rumors for years that the previous owner of the bar, now deceased, killed a bar maid and these are presumably her remains. In the choice between planning a wedding and looking into a crime from long ago, Albia would much rather investigate a possible murder. Or murders, as more and more remains are uncovered, revealing that something truly horrible has been going on at the Hesperides.
As she gets closer to the truth behind the bodies in the backyard, Albia's investigation has put her in the cross-hairs---which might be the only way she'll get out of the wedding and away from all her relatives who are desperate to 'help.'
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The Graveyard of the Hesperides
By Lindsey Davis
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Lindsey Davis
All rights reserved.
Everyone knew a dead barmaid was buried in the courtyard.
The Garden of the Hesperides was a large but otherwise typical eating house on a busy street corner, with two marble counters, five pot-holes for containers of food, three shelves of cracked beakers, an unreadable price list on a flaking wall and a faded picture of nude women. The daub seemed to have been painted by a shy artist who had never seen anyone naked. In a nervous line of three, his nudes huddled beneath gnarled boughs from which dangled dingy fruit. Hercules set about his scrumping task, watched by a bored snake instead of by Ladon, who ought to be a fearsome, hundred-headed, never-sleeping dragon. A snake was easier to draw, no doubt. The legendary Golden Apples were so pockmarked I personally would not have sent Hercules to climb the tree for them. Hard to tell with all the dirt whether it was just poor art or the paint was now peeling off the wall.
No doubt when the bar was open for business it had waiters who were very slow to serve anyone and pretty girls who did all the work. A room upstairs was used for assignations; you could bring your own or hire the staff.
Its landlord, a famous local character — that horrible type — was believed to have murdered the missing woman years before, then hidden her body in the courtyard, where customers could sit outside under a pergola. Regulars referred to the tragedy matter-of-factly, only adding lurid details when they wanted to get into conversation with newcomers who might buy them drinks. Anybody sensible thought it was a myth — yet it was odd how the myth did specify that the barmaid's name was Rufia.
* * *
About six months before I first went to this bar, the old landlord died. The new one decided to make improvements. He had been waiting for years for his predecessor to pass on, so he was full of ideas. Most were terrible. Instead, a firm of renovation contractors convinced him he needed to pretty up the courtyard; his bar was, after all, named for the most famous garden in the world. What he should do, they assured him earnestly, was to improve the dank, uninviting area by creating a delightful water feature that would tempt drinkers to linger. They said it could easily be done. If he really wanted to be authentic he could plant an apple tree ...
He fell for it. People do.
They promised to give him a good price for a timely job. In the way of their trade, that meant they would overcharge, delay forever and mess up the works until, after weeks of not being open to customers, the despairing owner would be left with a leaking canal in a garden that now had no room for tables. The tree, if one was ever supplied, would die the first summer.
All normal so far.
Not long after the old landlord had his last drink on earth, the owner of the building company died too. I am a private informer and she had been a client of mine. About five months later, the man I had just set up house with decided that at close to forty years of age it was time he found his first job. Perhaps he feared that keeping me in Lucanian sausage might not come cheap. He may even have noticed that I, who did have work as an informer, was just as wary of him possibly sponging off me. Whichever it was, since he knew my ex-client's heir, he bought her empty house, together with her decrepit builders' yard and failing construction firm. It appeared to be a mad idea, though in fact he had his reasons because he was that kind of man. Also, as my family pointed out, if he took up with me, he must be brave.
When Manlius Faustus first acquired the business, he found the Hesperides job still on the books. At that point, it was the only order his workforce had. They would toddle along to the bar every couple of weeks with a handcart of inferior materials, stay for half a day, then disappear again. The client was disgusted, as people who try to renovate property so often are. He had not realized the company had almost been wound up due to a death and the heir was a cheesemaker who took no interest in it; he was extremely lucky my loved one was the new proprietor. Faustus may never have held a job before, but he was currently a magistrate. He could organize. For starters, he let the workmen know they were about to be supervised, by him in person.
Faustus then walked down to see the bar owner, who was amazed to be visited by a quiet man in a clean tunic who handed him revised drawings, plus up-to-date costings and a new timetable. What's more, completion was to be the end of August, which was this month.
He may have been less thrilled to receive an invoice for work done so far. I had helped work that out; it was not perfect, because nobody had been keeping records. But it showed how things would be from now on. The barkeeper agreed he had been warned. He wouldn't argue over payment. He just wanted to be able to reopen and sell drinks.
Faustus was proving himself. Privately, I was reassured too. I would never knowingly have lived with a sponger — but it's an easy mistake. I had had several clients who needed me to extricate them from layabouts' clutches. Layabouts can make themselves look attractive and they know how to cling.
But as I had hoped, my new man was applying himself. A month after we started living together, Faustus was extremely busy. As a magistrate, a plebeian aedile, he worked hard; that would continue until his year in office ended in December. He distinguished himself, turning up at the aediles' building by the Temple of Ceres almost every day. It was unheard of. When I first met him he was having a fine time adopting scruffy disguises and going out onto the streets to catch wrongdoers in person. At the moment he was also preparing for the Roman Games, a great festival in September that the aediles organized. Patrolling markets, baths, bars and brothels himself might be optional (they had a permanent staff to do this) but running the Games was not.
Faustus had also chosen to renovate the house that came with his building firm, where we intended to live. So he had three jobs. Some days I hardly saw him.
We were in love. I wanted to see him all the time. So, one particular morning when he was over at the Garden of the Hesperides, I packed up a little basket of dainties and took him lunch. Yes, he was working at a bar, but it was closed due to the works. Besides, I had convinced myself that only I could make my man a proper picnic, assembled the way he liked it; Faustus went along with that, all soft eyes and tender murmurs. We had not been together long. We would settle down. Probably by next week we'd be ignoring each other.
While the drooling still occurred, however, he and I were sitting side by side at one of the bar tables, with hard-boiled eggs and olives set out on a napkin. In between drinking from the same beaker, I was wiping olive oil off his firm chin and he was accepting my solicitousness. He liked it. He didn't care who knew that, even if his workmen snorted.
We were devoting almost all our attention to each other, yet we were observant people. We both did work that relied on sharp eyes. It was stupid of two builders to hope they could sidle out of the courtyard without us noticing that among the dug-up rubble they were carrying away in a basket slung on a pole, interesting items stuck out. They had found some bones.CHAPTER 2
"Stop right there!" instructed Faustus in a quiet voice, but meaning to be obeyed. He had the knack. He had tried it on me a few times, though had now given up. Nobody gave me orders.
His workmen shambled to a halt. They stayed there, still holding the pole on their shoulders. One was a young man called Sparsus, to whom the others always assigned the worst work. He put up with it, accepting this as his role in life. The other was Serenus, a bandy-legged lag with a squint. Though short, he had managed to adjust the pole so all the weight fell on Sparsus.
Faustus finished the hard-boiled egg he was eating. I licked salad dressing off my lips. In our own time, we both stood up and walked over. Faustus signaled for them to put down the rubble basket and pull out the carrying pole. He took the container's double handles with a strong grip, then emptied everything out onto the courtyard, shaking hard so the rubble scattered as it fell. He began picking through the stones, old tiles and brick ends that had been left behind, buried under the courtyard surface when previous builders had finished some job. Patiently, he sorted out the bones, setting them on one side. I had seen him do an evidence search before. He was thorough.
The foreman wandered up, looking innocent. He had probably been watching Sparsus and Serenus trying to take the spoil away surreptitiously. They all knew full well what was there. They knew they ought to have mentioned it and not tried to secrete the bones in a skip. They liked a pretext to stand around gabbing, but if the job was now suspended they might not be paid.
Faustus straightened up. He gave me a sardonic glance. "These look human. Seems we have found the famous Rufia."
"Well you're far too busy to investigate. I'd better take this on," I answered, with both resignation and curiosity. That's a dangerous mix, well-known to people in my trade.
My treasure grinned. "Don't expect me to pay fees!"
"Oh, is your wife keeping you short of pocket money?"
"She's a tyrant. Gives me nothing."
"Get a new one," I advised him.
We were both smiling now. The matter of us being married was taking up yet more of this busy man's time and effort. He wanted us to have a formal wedding. I had told him to forget that. I was rude, though it achieved nothing; famously stubborn myself, I knew how he could be when he was determined. He was organizing a wedding anyway. No wonder the idiot was so often exhausted.
Now he had this to deal with.CHAPTER 3
Tiberius Manlius Faustus, my gutsy new lover, was thirty-seven, broad-shouldered though not too heavy, gray-eyed, astute and quiet. He strigilled up well, when he wasn't in a tunic covered with building dust. A plebeian, but from forebears who had made their pile, he never had to sell fish or hammer copper. Until recently he had lived at leisure with an uncle in the warehouse trade, from whose complex affairs Faustus was now trying to extract his own money. We needed cash to set up our new business. I had yet to find out why he wanted to be a building contractor — a decision he seemed to have taken entirely alone — or what had convinced him he could do it. But he was an interesting man. I suspected he could learn anything and be a success at whatever he chose.
I was a tricky, more complicated mix. I grew up in Britannia, an orphan of unknown parentage. Under Roman law, as I have been assured by lawyers, foundlings always rank as citizens. Rome won't risk even one little free person being denied their rights, just because their parents lost or dumped them. Mine probably died in the Boudiccan Rebellion. Nobody knew who they were.
Freedom belonged to me, which was crucial in the Roman Empire. As I scavenged for food and dodged cruel blows as a child, it ought to have been comforting. Sadly, at the time I didn't know. In my experience, a foundling feels like a slave.
Originally fostered by rough cabbage-sellers in downtown Londinium (a town where "rough" means grim and "down" is rock bottom, though the cabbages are robust), I sensed problems coming so I ran away. Of course I was picked up by a brothel owner. In the nick of time, I was spotted and pulled off the streets by Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina, he a crusty middle-rank informer and she a lovely woman of senatorial birth. They brought me to Rome, city of wonders.
So I had seen some of the best and all the very worst of life. I now occupied an awkward position where my acceptance by other people could not be relied upon. Yes, I was freeborn, adopted into the middle rank and brought up by a senator's daughter — but I had a scavenger's eyes and temper, and was even whispered to be a druid. The fact that, like Father, I worked as a private informer made me even more frightening to snobs. Rome was packed with snobs. For the past twelve years, since making my own way in the world, I had tried to keep my head down and avoid their notice. As an informer, I was probably on a vigiles watch list, which never helps.
Faustus had enjoyed a different life as a big-city rich boy. He had been married briefly years ago. His ex-wife, Laia Gratiana, despised me. I loathed her. Our opposing views on what Faustus deserved would never be reconciled. She could not understand my kind feelings for him; she was jealous of his open attraction to me. In whimsical moments I suggested to him that since she remained on the edge of his social circle, he ought to invite the aloof Laia to our wedding, if we had one. This almost convinced him to drop the idea.
I too had married when much younger, but was widowed when my husband died in an accident. I had never expected to find anybody else. Then Faustus swanned into my life.
Another fine concept in Roman law is that it simply defines marriage as an agreement by two people to live together. So, once Faustus brought his luggage to my apartment and stayed with me, I was a wife again. His wife. It felt right, he seemed calm, but I was still a little nervous.
My mother, Helena, had never felt the need for a wedding ceremony. I had expected to follow her example. Who needs a show? According to Mother it saved money that would be better spent on good food and books. In their early days, just like Faustus and me, Helena and Falco could barely afford either.
Also, Mother told me, you want to avoid ghastly wedding presents. She had had a doomed first marriage where the awfulness of the gifts was prophetic. According to her, she sent out the notice of divorce with the same messenger who was still taking round her thank-yous for the hideous vases.
A woman with a conscience, Helena Justina always writes polite thank-you notes, even when she hates a gift, or if she already owns three manicure sets. Of course she does have three, because she has three daughters; from time to time she must have owned at least six sets because Julia, Favonia and I often forgot what we had given her at a previous birthday or Saturnalia. She would just say, "Oh it doesn't matter; this is a much nicer one!" — as if she meant it. As a mother she was a fine example, as our father often pointed out. That was his idea of imposing discipline. "Be like your mother, you rascals, or you can leave home."
I counted myself lucky to have been adopted by Falco and Helena. They gave me security, education, comfort and independence. Humor. Rebellion. Loyalty, too. Falco had taught me the craft by which I earned my living. Both my parents encouraged my rampant curiosity.
Being a well-trained informer would enable me to find out what had happened to Rufia, the missing barmaid. It may not be what you want for your daughter, yet ask yourself: why not? As I set up with Faustus, I would think about this. Does the ability to tackle a mystery about a bunch of bones from under a courtyard mean an informer cannot be a trusty friend? An elegant companion? A useful contributor to the domestic purse? A sweet daughter? A loyal wife? Even a good mother? Although that was certainly not on my horizon, if the apothecaries' products did their duty.
Above all, an informer's task is good; we enable justice. If anyone had ever cared about Rufia, I now hoped to find them, to provide explanations and perhaps consolation. If anyone had done her fatal harm, I would make them pay.
* * *
When we first saw what we presumed were the barmaid's remains, Faustus and I closed our lunch basket and discussed how to proceed. We were now alone. He had told the workmen to stop what they were doing; he sent them back to the Aventine to their normal evening job, refurbishing the house at Lesser Laurel Street. I hadn't been much involved with that, so I still found it hard to accept it as "our" house. Faustus had said I could decide whether to live there once I saw it renovated. But I knew I would agree. Meanwhile we lived in my apartment — and, like most people in Rome, spent as much time as possible outside the home.
Here, we were sitting on one of the bar's crude wooden benches, which we had pulled out of a stored pile so we could snuggle up to share our lunch. Our seat was an old, worn, splintery contraption. Perhaps the landlord would purchase a handsome new set of garden furniture when his project was finished, though I doubted it. The Hesperides had never been that sort of place.
It was a workaday bar. Most customers stood in the street, probably at the main counter, which was longer than the return around the corner. They had the usual food vats, never washed out. For a sit-down drink, you came in through a purpose-built gap in the crazy-paved marble worktop, squeezed by the inner tables and service area, maybe glanced at the unreadable drinks list painted on a wall by the beaker shelf, exchanged a word with whoever was serving, walked down a very short corridor with a dark staircase, then emerged into this not very airy, so-called garden.
It was larger than you might expect. Rustic trellis used to divide up semi-private table positions. I saw no trace of climbing greenery, though two empty birdcages hung on the rough-hewn trellis posts. A canopy shaded one part. There was a half-dead bay tree in a large pot with a rim piece missing. I had yet to work out what kind of customers would ever have used this interior. In Rome, we tend to socialize on the streets.
The bar owner had never mentioned the mystery, but our foreman, Larcius, had told us the public rumors with a grin: "The site is supposed to be haunted. They say some murdered waitress was buried out here years ago."
Faustus had given him a cool look. He and the workforce would have to feel their way together, though it seemed to be working out. They had realized he was no soft touch. He would turn up on-site, where the conversation soon showed them he fully understood what they were doing and anyone who failed to get on with him might lose his job.
"Not afraid of ghosts, are you, Larcius?" I asked dryly. Larcius did not bother to answer.
"I find it hard to believe," said Faustus, playing the serious-minded aedile who discouraged gossip, "that drinkers have downed their tots here for decades, knowing a corpse was right beneath their sandals."
"No one remembers much about her." Larcius seemed to think that justified it. "She's just always been 'that missing barmaid.'"
Not any longer. Now we had found her.
It would be to her advantage that she had been found by us.
Excerpted from The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis. Copyright © 2016 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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Table of Contents
Rome, 25 August AD 89,
Also by Lindsey Davis,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Humorous and loving look at complicated relationships
This is the fourth Flavia Albia story, but only the second I have read. Flavia is one of the growing number of male and female Roman gumshoes; they must have been tripping over each other on those first century mean streets. She is a spunky, smart herione and she and her fiance Manlius make an attractive Nick and Nora team. Lindsey Davis was one of the pioneers of this sub-genre, so she can't be accused of plagiarism, but I found this to be an interesting but flawed novel. Ms. Davis suddenly seemed to realize it was time to finish the book and crammed the resolution into the final pages. Unfortunately it seems melodramatic and improbable. On the plus side, we are forced to ask ourselves what it was like to live in an era and society so alien to our own.