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.


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.

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