'And you're just a big joke!' she sneered. I bent and retrieved her cloak for her, which allowed me to peruse a shapely pair of legs. 'You're in the right place to get kicked somewhere painful!' she added pointedly; I straightened up fast.

There was still plenty to look at. She would have come up to my shoulder but was wearing cork heels on her natty hide hunting boots. Even her toenails were polished like alabaster. Her

smooth, extremely dark skin was a marvel of depilatory care; she must have been plucked and pumiced all over-just thinking about it made me wince. Equal attention had been lavished on her paintwork: cheeks heightened with the purple bloom of powdered wine lees; eyebrows given super-definition as perfect semicircles half a digit thick; lids glowing with saffron; lashes smothered in lampblack. She wore an ivory bangle on one forearm and a silver snake on the other. The effect was purely professional. She was nobody's expensive mistress (no gemstones or filigree) and since women were not invited tonight, she was nobody's guest.

She had to be a dancer. Her physique looked well fleshed but muscular. A shining swatch of hair, so black it had a deep blue sheen, was being held back from her brow in a simple twist which could be rapidly loosened for dramatic effect. She had both hands posed with a delicacy that spoke of practice with castanets.

'My mistake,' I pretended to apologize. 'I had been promised a Spanish dancer. I was hoping you were a bad girl from Gades.'

'Well I'm a good girl from Hispalis,' she countered, trying to sweep past me. Her accent was crisp and her Latin abrasive. But for the Baetican theme of the evening it might have been hard to place her origins.

Thanks to my trusty amphora I was keeping the doorway well blocked. If she squeezed through, we were going to be pleasantly intimate. I noted the look in her eye, suggesting that one wrong move in confined conditions and she was liable to bite my nose off.

'I'm Falco.'

'Well get out of my way, Falco.'

Either I had lost my charm, or she had sworn a vow to avoid handsome men with winsome smiles. Or could it be she was worried by my big jar of fermented fish entrails?

An oldish man with a cithara stepped from a room across the corridor. His hair was grizzled and his handsome features had dark, Mauretanian coloring. He took no interest in me. The woman acknowledged his nod and turned after him. I decided to stop and watch their performance.

'Sorry; private room!' she smirked, and closed the door smack in my face.

'Absolute nonsense! The Baetican Society has never encouraged plotting in smoky corners. We don't allow private parties here-'

It was Laeta. I had dallied too long and he had followed me. Overhearing the girl turned him into the worst kind of clerk who knows it all. I had stepped back to avoid getting my elegant Etruscan nose broken, but he pushed right past me intent on barging after her. His overbearing attitude almost made me decide against going in, but he had drawn me back into his orbit once more. The patient slaves wedged my amphora on its point against the doorframe and we sailed into the salon where the rude girl was to do her dance.

As soon as my eyes wandered over the couches I realized that Laeta had lied to me. Instead of the high-class world governors he had led me to expect, this so-called select dining club admitted people I already knew- including two I would have crossed Rome on foot to avoid.

They were reclining on adjacent couches-which was worrying in itself. The first was my girlfriend's brother Camillus Aelianus, a bad-mannered, bad-tempered youth who hated me. The other was Anacrites, the Chief Spy. Anacrites loathed me too-mainly because he knew I was better than him at the work we both did. His jealousy had nearly had lethal results, and now if I ever had the chance I would take great delight in tying him to a spit on the top of a lighthouse, then building a very large signal fire under him and setting light to it.

Maybe I should have left. Out of sheer stubbornness I marched straight in after Laeta.

Anacrites looked sick. Since we were supposed to be colleagues in state service he must have felt obliged to appear polite, so beckoned me to an empty place beside him. Instead of reclining myself I signaled the slaves to put my amphora to bed there with its neck on the elbow-bolster. Anacrites hated eccentricity. So did Helena's brother. On the next couch, the illustrious Camillus Aelianus was now simmering with fury.

This was more like it. I grabbed a cup of wine from a helpful server, and cheered up dramatically. Then ignoring them both I crossed the room after Laeta who was calling me to be introduced to someone else.


As I caught up with Laeta, I had to make my way through an odd roomful. I had hoped I would have no reason to take a professional interest tonight, but my suspicions of the Chief Secretary's motives in inviting me had kept me on the alert. Besides, it was automatic to size up the company. Whereas Laeta had first led me among a hardcore group of regular eaters and drinkers, these men seemed almost like strangers who had reclined together just because they spotted empty couches and were now stuck with making a night of it. I sensed some awkwardness.

I could be wrong. Mistakes, in the world of informing, are a daily hazard.

This salon had always been designed as a dining room-the black and white mosaic was plain beneath nine formal, matching, heavyweight couches, but boasted a more complex geometric design in the center of the floor. Laeta and I were now crossing that square, where the low serving tables were currently set but the dancer would be performing in due course. We were approaching a man who occupied the pivotal position like some grand host. He looked as if he thought he was in charge of the whole room.

'Falco, meet one of our keenest members-Quinctius Attractus!'

I remembered the name. This was the man the others had complained about for bringing in a troupe of real Baeticans.

He grunted, looking annoyed with Laeta for bothering him. He was a solid senator in his sixties, with heavy arms and fat fingers-just the right side of debauchery, but he obviously lived well. What was left of his hair was black and curly and his skin was weathered, as if he clung to old-fashioned habits: prowling his thousand-acre vineyards in person when he wanted to convince himself he stayed close to the land.

Maybe his collateral lay in olive groves.

I was clearly not obliged to make conversation, for the senator showed no interest in who I was; Laeta himself took the lead: 'Brought another of your little groups tonight?'

'Seems an appropriate venue for entertaining my visitors!' sneered Quinctius. I agreed with the man in principle, but his manner was off-putting.

'Let's hope they will benefit!' Laeta smiled, with the serene insolence of a bureaucrat making a nasty point.

Not understanding the sniping, I managed to find amusement of my own. When I first came in Anacrites had been enjoying himself. Now when I looked back in his direction I could see he was lying straight and very still on his couch. His strange light gray eyes were veiled; his expression unreadable. From being a cheerful party guest with slicked-back hair and a meticulous tunic, he had become as tense as a virgin sneaking out to meet her first shepherd in a grove. My presence had really tightened his screw. And from the way he was staring-while pretending not to notice-I didn't think he liked Laeta talking to Quinctius Attractus like this.

I quickly glanced around the three-sided group of couches. It was easy to spot the Baetican interlopers whose invasion had annoyed Laeta's colleagues. Several men here had a distinct Hispanic build, wide in the body and short in the leg. There were two each side of Quinctius, forming the central row in the most honored position, and two more on the side row to his right. They all wore similar braid on their tunics, and dinner sandals with tough esparto rope soles. It was unclear how well they knew one another. They were speaking in Latin, which fitted the prosperous weave of their garments, but if they had come to Rome to sell oil they seemed rather restrained, not displaying the relaxed confidence that might charm retailers.

'Why don't you introduce us to your Baetican friends?' Laeta was asking Quinctius. He looked as if he wanted to tell Laeta to take a one-way trip to the Underworld, but we were all supposed to be blood-brothers at this dinner, so he had to comply.

The two visitors on the right-hand row, introduced rapidly and rather dismissively as Cyzacus and Norbanus, had had their heads together in close conversation. Although they nodded to us, they were too far from us to start

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