'Why suddenly come out with that?'

'You look as if you might have forgotten it,' Helena said.

Even if she left me tomorrow, I would never forget. But that did not mean I could view our future together with any confidence.


The next week was a strange one. I felt oppressed by the thought of the ghastly trip to Germany that was being held over me. It was work-something I could not afford to refuse-but touring the wild tribal frontiers of Europe was high on my list of entertainments to avoid.

Then I found myself checking the apartment for signs that Titus had been hanging around. There were none; but Helena noticed me looking, so that caused more strain.

My advertisement in the Forum first produced a slave who would obviously never be able to pay me. Besides, he was searching for his long-lost twin brother, which a second-rate playwright might view as good research but it looked dreary work to me. Next I was approached by two clerks, fortune-hunting; a mad woman who had convinced herself that Nero was her father (the fact that she wanted me to prove it was what warned me she was barmy); and a rat-catcher. The rat-catcher was the most interesting character, but he needed a diploma of citizenship. It would be an easy day's work at the Censor's office, but even for intriguing personalities I don't involve myself in forgery.

Petronius Longus sent me a woman who wanted to know if her husband, who had been married before, had any children he was keeping quiet about. I was able to tell her there were none registered. While I was at it I turned up an extra wife, never formally divorced. This woman was now happily married to a poultry chef (I use 'happily' in the conventional sense; I expect she was as angry with life as everyone else). I decided not to advise my client. A good informer answers what he has been asked-then retreats from the scene.

Petro's case brought in enough silver to have red mullet for dinner. I spent the change on roses for Helena, hoping to look like a man with prospects. It would have been a happy evening, only that was when she informed me she seemed to have prospects of her own: Titus had invited her to the Palace with her parents, but without me.

'Let me guess-a discreet dinner that will not appear on the public fixtures list? When is it?'

I noticed her hesitate. 'Thursday.'

'Are you planning to go?'

'I really don't want to.'

Her face was strained. If her respectable upper-crust family ever got wind of a possible liaison with the star of the imperial court, the pressure on Helena would become unbearable. It was one thing for her to leave home while her parents had no other plans. Given one unhappy marriage, her papa had told me frankly he felt diffident about ushering her into another. Camillus Verus was unusual: a conscientious father. Still, there must have been trouble after she ran off. Helena had shielded me from most of the barrage, but I can count the knots in a plank of wood. They wanted her back, before all Rome heard she was playing around with a hangdog informer, and satirical poets started putting the scandal into salacious odes.

'Marcus, oh Marcus, I particularly want to spend that evening with you-' Helena seemed upset. She was thinking I ought to intervene, but there was nothing I could do about this ominous venture; rebuffing Titus could only come from her.

'Don't look at me, sweetheart. I never go where I am not invited.'

'That's news!' I hate ironic women. 'Marcus, I'm going to tell Papa I have a prior engagement which I cannot break, with you-'

She was avoiding the issue, it seemed to me. 'Sorry,' I said tersely. 'I have a trip to Veii on Thursday. I need to check out a widow for one of my fortune-hunting clients.'

'Can't you travel another day?'

'We need the fee. You take your chance!' I sneered. 'Go to the Palace and enjoy yourself. Titus Caesar is a soft piece of lard from a dull country family; you can handle him, my darling-assuming, of course, that you're wanting to!'

Helena went even whiter. 'Marcus, I am asking you to stay here with me!' Something in her tone disturbed me. But by then I was feeling so sorry for myself I refused to alter my arrangements. 'This means a lot to me,' Helena warned in a dangerous tone. 'I'll never forgive you:'

That settled it. Threats from women bring out the worst in me. I went to Veii.

Veii was a dead end. Somehow I expected it.

I found the widow easily enough; everyone in Veii had heard of her. She may or may not have possessed a fortune, but she was a pert brunette with sparkling eyes who freely admitted to me that she was stringing along four or five abject suitors-gents who had called themselves friends of her late husband and now thought they could be even better friends to her. One of them was a wine exporter, selling multiple consignments of foul Etruscan rot-gut to the Gauls-an obvious front runner if the wench remarried anyone. I doubted if she would bother; she was enjoying herself too much.

I myself received certain hints from the widow that I might have profited from a stay in Veii, but on the journey there I had been plagued by the memory of Helena's pleading expression. So, cursing, and by now fairly penitent, I rushed back to Rome.

Helena was not at the apartment. She must have already left for the Palace. I went out and got drunk with Petronius. He was a family man, so had strains of his own, and was always glad to make himself available for a night out cheering me up.

I came home late, deliberately. It failed to annoy Helena because she never came home at all.

I assumed she had stayed the night with her parents. That was bad enough. When she failed to show up at Fountain Court the next morning, I was horrified.


Now I was a real sprat drowning in fish pickle.

I ruled out any thought that Titus had abducted her. He was too straight. Besides, Helena was a strong- minded girl; she would never stand for it.

There was no way I could bring myself to turn up at the Senator's house, begging to be informed what was going on. For one thing, whatever it was, her high and mighty family would blame me.

Finding missing women was my trade. Finding my own should be as easy as picking peas. At least I knew that if she had been murdered and nailed under the floorboards, the floorboards were not mine. It was not particularly comforting.

I started where you always start: searching the apartment to see what she had left behind. Once I had tidied away my own detritus, the answer was not much. She hadn't brought many clothes or pieces of jewellery; most had now disappeared. I came across one of her tunics, mixed up with a rag-bag of mine; a jet hairpin under the pillow on my side of the bed; a soapstone pot of her favourite face-cream which had tumbled behind the storage chest: Nothing else. Reluctantly I came to the conclusion that Helena Justina had stripped my apartment of her own possessions and left in a huff.

It seemed drastic-until I noticed a clue. The letter from her brother Aelianus still lay on the table where it had been when she said I could see it. I read it now. At first I wished I hadn't. Then I was glad I knew.

Aelianus was the casual, idle one who usually never bothered to correspond with his family, though Helena regularly wrote to him. She was the eldest of the three Camillus children, and treated her younger brothers to the kind of old-fashioned affection that in other families had gone out of the window at the end of the Republic. I had already gathered that Justinus was her favourite; her letters to Spain were more of a duty. It seemed typical that when Camillus Aelianus heard that she had attached herself to a plebeian in a grubby profession, he did write-and a letter filled with such vitriolic ranting that I dropped it in disgust. Aelianus was livid at the damage Helena had done to their noble family name. He said so with all the crass insensitivity of a youth in his twenties.

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