watched him sign it then replace the wet pen rather daintily in its inkwell; with this small fancy gesture he seemed to be half-mocking himself for enjoying such work. It suggested Vinius was eccentric; most investigators complained about time-consuming bureaucracy.

‘Here, Scorpus. Three to kick upstairs.’ His voice was lower and stronger than Lucilla expected. She guessed ‘kicking upstairs’ was not a literal command but shorthand for despatching wrongdoers to the Vigiles Prefect. Routine crimes would be dealt with by a thrashing or a local fine. Recalcitrant offenders would be passed to the Prefect of the City, who could send them for a full trial.

Scorpus skimmed the short scroll and, as he went out with it, commented, ‘Morena won’t be happy!’

Vinius shrugged. Then he waited, idly flipping through the waxed tablets. Lucilla noticed his wedding ring. His hands were clean and neatly manicured. He was blessed with thick, dark hair which he had had extremely well cut, so the young girl was startled by the erotic attraction of expert layering into the nape of his strong male neck.

He continued to ignore her. Increasingly nervous, she tried not to attract his attention. She gazed around but apart from the table and bench there was nothing in the room except a large map on the wall. It showed the Seventh and Eighth Regions, which the First Cohort covered, a segment of the city which ran from the city boundary above the Pincian Hill, down past the Gardens of Sallust and the Quirinal, right into the Forum. It was where she had been brought up so she recognised the main features, even though the street names had faded badly. Occasional newer marks in different inks had been added, as if to pinpoint local incidents.

She should not have come. She should either have left it alone, or made her mother come with her. That had proved impossible; she should have accepted that her mother did not want the vigiles involved.

After various shouts and banging of doors outside, a man burst into the room, grumbling loudly. Some sort of prisoner-escort could be heard in the portico, while Scorpus reappeared and leaned on the doorframe, watching with a smirk.

‘Morena!’ Vinius greeted the new arrival calmly. The protester was scrawny and seedy-looking, with disastrous combed-over straggles of hair. Lucilla saw he was the kind of man who wasted all day at a street bar counter, making obscene jokes to offend passers-by. From the officer’s expression, Vinius would second her: and then he expects the waitress to fuck him for nothing. Perhaps adding, if he was particularly depressed, and the sad little cow probably does it…

‘Is it about Isis Street again? You can’t do this to me!’

‘No option,’ Vinius disagreed. ‘Morena, I have warned you twice about keeping fire buckets. My duty is to check up on you like a bastard, then your duty is to carry out my orders. But you have persistently done nothing.’

‘The tenants keep pinching the water for their balcony flowerpots!’

‘Refill the cistern. Evict your tenants for breach of their lease — I presume even speculators like you give the poor sods a lease? We can’t do our job without water. Jupiter, man, one dropped lamp in your lousy building and you could burn the city down!’

‘Give me another chance.’

‘You said that the other times.’

‘I just ordered the improvements-’

‘My tribune wants arrests.’

‘How much?’

In the doorway, Scorpus grinned. Vinius sighed stagily. ‘I hope you are not trying to bribe me, Morena?’

‘Stuff you then, Vinius, you ugly two-faced skank!’

‘Cut it.’ Vinius rose to his feet. Ugly was no word for him, though Lucilla would never have admired him openly; he was too sure of himself already. He was tall and well-muscled, entirely self-composed. He barely raised his voice: ‘Morena, you are the landlord of a five-storey, ramshackle, multiple-occupancy dump in Isis Street which fails its fire inspection every time we visit. You are a whining, flea-bitten, fine-dodging, mortgage-shovelling, widow-cheating, orphan-starving, small-minded slave-shagger — is that right?’

Morena wilted. ‘Fair enough.’

‘So bugger off to the Prefect and stop wasting my time.’

Morena was dragged out backwards, with harsh shouts from the vigiles. Gaius Vinius sank back to his seated position, barely winded. Still not turning his head, he looked sideways at Lucilla. ‘Right, young lady; what brings you to this fine haven of public order?’

Vinius had already assessed her unobtrusively. He was surprised she arrived alone; young girls usually tripped about in pairs. She would be safe, at least on his watch, but he suspected she had some mischievous purpose in coming. At the first sign of playing up or cheek, she was for it.

She was average height, skinny and flat-chested, though not badly nourished. She, or her parents, had grown up in a household where if they ate scraps the scraps were remains of good meals: leftovers from a well-to-do but wasteful family, typical of the slave-serviced classes. Vinius correctly classified her as a daughter of freed slaves.

Nobody’s little princess, she wore a narrow tunic in a cheap natural colour; she had grown out of the garment, so it showed her ankles. Nice ankles, but she wasn’t a child now and ought to keep them covered up. Her chestnut hair was twisted and speared with one long pin that surprisingly looked like ivory — a gift? If not a gift, probably filched from a much richer woman’s ornament box.

When Gaius Vinius interviewed the public he was businesslike, not one of those enquirers who would banter with women then botch their reports. However, had it been relevant, his assessment was that his visitor would be good-looking when she grew up. Which he prophesied would happen in about a month’s time.

He shuffled the wax tablets in front of him, selected one, and smoothed it over with the flat of his stylus. ‘Name?’

‘Flavia Lucilla.’ Her voice came out as a scared little squeak, causing Vinius to check the spelling. ‘Flavia’ confirmed that her family had obtained citizenship under the current emperors, so in the last generation.


‘Seventeen.’ Take away two years, calculated Vinius.

‘Father?’ Lucilla stayed silent; Vinius moved on. Many people he interviewed had no idea who their fathers were. ‘Mother?’

‘Flavia Lachne, imperial freedwoman.’

Vinius felt sceptical of ‘imperial’. There were plenty of ex-slaves from the palace, but after three years of dealing with the public he took nothing on trust; he suspected this was merely the child of a fishmonger’s filleter, enhancing her status. ‘And you live?’

‘Opposite the Porticus Vipsania, by the conch fountain.’ Vinius could not place it. He had tried to become familiar with all the narrow alleys of the Seventh Region since he was posted in, but he was still learning. The wall map was no help; you could pick out temples and theatres, but finding tenements where the poor lived had never been a vigiles priority. ‘An apartment on the fourth floor.’ The middle classes lived at ground level; the destitute toiled up six flights of stairs; the fourth floor was close to poverty, yet not absolutely there.

‘So what’s your problem, darling?’

Lucilla bridled. ‘Officer, I am not your darling!’

‘You’ll never be anybody’s, with that temper.’ Vinius saw the girl take a furious breath so, dropping his stylus onto the table, he made a swift appeasing gesture, open-palmed. Then he linked his hands behind his head and produced a rueful half smile. This generally had a good effect with women. Lucilla glared as if she had paid to see a celebrity gladiator but got stuck with a creaking understudy. ‘So, have you come to report a crime or to make a complaint?’

Sensibly, she stifled her indignation. ‘We have been burgled.’


‘Me and my mother.’

‘Any slaves?’ The slaves would be his first suspects.

‘Oh our extensive staff!’ Lucilla snapped, firing up again. ‘A battalion of pastry cooks, three wardrobe women — and we just wouldn’t be anybody without an unpublished poet who works as our door-porter.’

Vinius looked sour, to stop himself smiling. ‘What size apartment?’

‘Two rooms; we live in one and my mother works with her clients in the other.’

‘Works as…?’

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