coming. He kept a couple of safe houses for receiving, set up under the cover of straight businesses. Petronius reckoned that the flow of stolen goods into these dens of illicit commerce rivalled the international trade at the Emporium.

Petro had been trying to nail Balbinus for years. Now, somehow, he had managed to set up a capital charge – and go on to secure a conviction despite all Balbinus' efforts to escape using democratic channels (intimidation and bribes). I had yet to hear the full details. Barely back in Rome from what I liked to describe as a confidential diplomatic mission, I had been roped in tonight as a dependable extra and friend.

`He's not going to come now,' I suggested easily, since I knew how stubborn Petro was.

`I'll not risk losing him.'


`Don't niggle me, Falco.'

`You're so conscientious you're tying yourself up in knots. Listen to someone rational: he'll either have left Rome last evening, in which case we would have seen him by now, or he went to bed first. If that's it, he won't arrive for another hour or two. When's the ship due to leave?'

`The minute he gets here, if I have any control over it.'

`With the light,' clarified Fusculus in a quiet tone. I guessed my point about our quarry's arrival had already been made to Petro by his men. Since they knew him too, their reaction to my attempt was restrained. They were hoping he would either listen to a pal, or at least give them some entertainment by losing his temper and thumping me.

`I need a drink,' I commented.

`Stuff you, Falco. Don't try that one.' It was too dark to see his face. All the same, I chuckled; he was weakening.

The trick was not to make an issue of it. I said nothing, and about five minutes afterwards Petronius Longus burst out with an obscenity that I hadn't heard uttered in a public place since we left Britain. Then he growled that he was cold and past caring – and was off to the nearest wine bar for a beaker to console himself.

Nobody chortled. By then we were too relieved that he had given way to gloat over our victory, just as Petro had known we would be. He had a nice sense of timing. Martinus growled, `Better take the bloody barnacle. It'll be his last chance for a long time.'

So we bawled out to Linus to stop pretending he was a sailor and to come off the ship and have a drink with us.


THE ATMOSPHERE WAS thick with lamp smoke; hard to see why, as there was a mean supply of lamps. Something crunched under my boot either an old oyster shell, or part of a whore's broken necklace. There seemed to be a lot of debris on the floor. Probably best not to investigate.

No one else was in the dump. No customers, anyway. A couple of grimy lasses roused themselves slightly when we tramped inside, but they soon got the message and slumped back into sleep. They looked too exhausted even to be curious. That didn't mean they wouldn't be listening in, but we were not intending any loud indiscretions. There was too much at stake.

We cramped ourselves on to benches, feeling stiff and oversized in our outdoor dress. We were all armed, to the point where it was impossible to be discreet when crowding around small tables. If we tried to pretend we were just carrying Lucanian sausage rolls, someone would have his privates shorn off by an awkwardly placed sword blade. We arranged ourselves with care.

The landlord was an unsmiling, unwelcoming coastal type who had summed us up as we crossed his threshold. `We were just closing.' We must have brought in a suggestion of imminent violence.

`I apologise.' Petronius could have used his official status to insist we were served, but as usual he preferred to try his charm first. His brevity probably screamed `law and order'. The landlord knew he had no choice. He served us, but made it plain that he hoped we would be leaving quickly,. It was too late in the night for trouble.

Well, we agreed with that.

There was tension in all of us. I noticed Martinus, the cocky bantam who was Petro's second in command, took one deep swig of his drink, then kept going to the doorway and staring out. The others ignored him fidgeting. In the end he parked his rather jutting backside on a stool just beyond the threshold, occasionally calling in some remark to the rest, but watching the waterfront. In Petro's troop even the tame annoyance was a decent officer.

Petronius and I ended up at a table to ourselves.

He had strong bonds with his men. He always led from the front. He pulled his weight in routine enquiries and on a surveillance he mucked in as one of them. But he and I had been friends for a long time. Between us were even stronger links, forged from when we had met at eighteen and shared a legionary posting to one of the grimmest parts of the Empire while it was earning dismal fame – Britain, in Nero's time, with the Boudiccan Rebellion as our special treat. Now, although for long periods we often failed to meet, when we did we could pick up straight away, as if we had shared an amphora only last Saturday. And when we entered a wine bar with others it was understood that we two would sit together, very slightly separate from the rest.

Petro gulped his wine, then visible regretted it. `Jupiter! You could paint that on warts and they'd fall off by dinner time… So how was the East?'

`Wild women and wicked politics.'

'Didius Falco, the world traveller!' He didn't believe a word of it. `What really happened?'

I grinned, then gave him a neat summary of five months' travelling: `I got my ear gnawed by a few camels. Helena was stung by a scorpion and spent a lot of money – much of it my father's, I'm delighted to say.' We had brought a quantity of stuff back with us; Petro had promised to help me unload in return for my assistance tonight. `I ended up in a hack job scribbling Greek jokes for second-rate touring actors.'

His eyebrows shot up. `I thought you went on a special task for the Palace?'

`The bureaucratic mission rapidly fell through – especially after I found out that Vespasian's Chief Spy had sent a message ahead of me encouraging my hosts to lock me up. Or worse,' I concluded gloomily.

`Anacrites? The bastard.' Petronius had no time for officials, whatever smooth title they dressed themselves up in. `Did he land you in bad trouble?'

`I survived.'

Petronius was frowning. He viewed my career like a kind of blocked gutter that needed a hefty poke with a stick to shift the sludge and get it running properly. He saw himself as the expert with the stick. `What was the point, Falco? What's in it for Vespasian if he destroys a first-class agent?'

`Interesting question.' In fact there could be several reasons why the Emperor might feel a foreign jail was just the place for me. I was an upstart who wanted social promotion; since he disapproved of informers, the idea of letting me wear the gold ring and strut like a man of substance had always rankled. Most of the time he owned me money for my undercover services; he would love to renege. Then one of his sons had tender feelings towards a certain young lady who preferred to live with me, while I had a long-term feud with the other. Either Titus or Domitian might have asked their pa to dump me. Besides, who really likes a hireling who handles problems with dispatch, then comes back wearing a happy smile and expecting a huge cash reward?

`I don't know why you work for him,' Petronius grumbled angrily.

`I work for myself,' I said.

`That's news!'

`That's the truth. Even if the damned secretariat offers me a straight task with a set fee and vast expenses, I won't consider it. From now on, I stick to private commissions – which was what I had to do after I got shoved in shit in Arabia by bloody Anacrites and his devious games.'

`You're a dope,' Petro answered disbelievingly. `You can't resist the challenge. One nod from the man in purple and you'll scuttle back.'

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