Lindsey Davis

Three Hands In The Fountain

The fountain was not working. Nothing unusual in that. This was the Aventine.

It must have been off for some time. The water spout, a crudely moulded cockleshell dangled by a naked but rather uninteresting nymph, was thick with dry pigeon guano. The bowl was cleaner. Two men sharing the bottom of an amphora of badly travelled Spanish wine could lean there' without marking their tunics. When Petronius and I sloped back to the party at my apartment, there would be no clues to where we had been.

I had laid the amphora in the empty fountain bowl, point inwards, so we could tilt it on the edge when we wanted to refill the beakers we had sneaked out with us. We had been at it a while now. By the time we ambled home, we would have drunk too much to care what anybody said to us, unless the wigging was very succinctly phrased. As it might, be, if Helena Justina had noticed that I had vanished and left her to cope on her own.

We were in Tailors' Lane. We had deliberately turned round the corner from Fountain Court where I lived, so that if any of my brothers-in-law looked down into the street they would not spot us and inflict themselves upon us. None of them had been invited today, but once they heard I was providing a, party they had descended on the apartment like flies on fresh meat. Even Lollius the water boatman, who never turned up for anything, had shown his ugly face.,'

As well as being a discreet distance from home, the fountain in Tailors' Lane was a good place to lean for a heart-to-heart. Fountain Court did not possess its own water supply, any more than Tailors' Lane was home- to any garment-sewers. Well, that's the Aventine.

One or two passers-by, seeing us in the wrong street with our heads together, assumed we were conferring about work. They gave us looks that could have been reserved for a; pair of squashed rats on the highroad. We were both well known characters in the Thirteenth District. Few people approved of either of us. Sometimes we did. work together, though the pact between the public and private sector' was uneasy. I was an informer and imperial agent, just back from a trip to Boetican Spain for which I had been paid less than originally contracted, although I had made up the deficit with an artistic expenses claim. Petronius Longus lived on a strict salary, He was the enquiry chief of the local cohort of vigiles. Well, he was normally. He had just stunned me by revealing he had been suspended from his job.

Petronius took a hearty swig of wine, then balanced his beaker carefully on the head of the stone wench who was supposed to be delivering water to the neighbourhood. Petro had long arms and she was a small nymph, as well as one with an empty cockleshell. Petro himself was a big, solid, normally calm and competent citizen. Now he stared down the alley with a glum' frown.

I paused to slosh more liquor into my own cup. That gave me time to absorb' his news while I decided how to react. In the end I said nothing. Exclaiming `Oh my goodness, old pal!' or `By Jupiter, my dear Lucius, I cannot believe I heard that correctly' was too much of a cliche. If he wanted to tell' me the story he would. If not, he was my closest friend, so if he was playing at guarding his privacy I would appear to go along with it.

I could ask somebody else later. Whatever had happened, he couldn't keep it secret from me for long. Extracting the fine details of scandal was my livelihood.

Tailors' Lane was a typical Aventine scene. Faceless tenement blocks loomed above a filthy, one-cart lane that meandered up here from the Emporium down by the Tiber, trying to find the way' to the Temple of Ceres, only to lose itself somewhere on the steep heights above the Probus Bridge. Little near-naked children crouched playing with stones beside a dubious puddle, catching whatever fever was rampant this summer. Somewhere overhead a voice droned endlessly, telling some dreary, story to a silent listener who might be driven to run mad with a meat knife any minute now. We were in deep shade, though aware that wherever the sun could find access the August heat was shimmering; Even here our tunics stuck to our backs.

`Well, I got your letter at last.' Petronius liked to approach a difficult subject by the winding, scenic route.

`What letter?'

`The one telling me you were a father.'


`Three months to find me – not bad:'

When Helena and I and the new baby sailed back to Rome from Tarraconensis recently it only took eight days at sea and a couple more travelling gently from Ostia. `That's not possible.'

`You addressed it to me at the station house,' Petronius complained. `It was passed around the clerks for weeks, then when they decided to hand it over, naturally I,, wasn't there.' He was laying it on with a mortar trowel – a certain sign of stress.

`I thought it would be safer sent to the vigiles. I didn't know you would have got yourself suspended,' I reminded him. He was not in the mood for logic.

Nobody much was about. For most of the afternoon we had skulked here virtually in private. I was hoping that my sisters and their children, whom Helena and I had invited for lunch in order to introduce them all to our new daughter in one go, would go home. When Petro and I had sneaked out not one of the guests had been showing any sign of leaving. Helena had already looked tired. I should have stayed.

Her own family had had the tact not to come, but had invited us to dinner later in the week. One of her brothers, the one I could tolerate, had brought a message in which his noble parents politely declined our offer of sharing a cold collation with my swarming relatives in our tiny half furnished apartment. Some of my lot had already tried to sell the illustrious Camilli dud works of art that they couldn't afford and didn't want. Most of my family were offensive and all of them lacked tact. You couldn't hope to find a bigger crowd of loud, self- opinionated, squabbling idiots anywhere. Thanks to my sisters all marrying down I stood no chance of impressing Helena's socially superior crew. In any case, the Camilli didn't want to be impressed.

`You could have written earlier,' Petronius said morosely.

`Too busy. When I did write I'd just ridden eight hundred: miles across Spain like a madman, only to be told that Helena, was in desperate trouble with the birth. I thought I was going to lose her, and the baby too. The midwife had gone off halfway to Gaul, Helena was exhausted and the girls with us, were terrified. I delivered that child myself- and I'll, take a long time to get over it!

Petronius shuddered; Though a devoted father of three himself, his nature was conservative and fastidious. When Arria Silvia was having their daughters she had sent him off somewhere until the screaming was all over. That was his idea of family life. I would receive no credit for my feat.

`So you named her Julia Junilla. After both grandmothers? Falco, you really know how to arrange free nursemaids.'

`Julia Junilla Laeitana,' I corrected him.

`You named your daughter after a wine?' At last some admiration crept into his tone.'

`It's the district where she was born,' I declared proudly.

`You sly bastard.' Now he was envious. We both knew that Arria Silvia would never have let him get away with it.

`So where's Silvia?' I challenged.

Petronius took a long, slow breath and gazed upwards. While he was looking for swallows, I wondered whatever was wrong. The absence of his wife and children from our party was startling. Our families frequently dined together. We had even survived a joint holiday once, though that had been pushing it.

`Where's Silvia?' mused Petro, as if the question intrigued him too.

`This had better be good.' `Oh, it's hilarious.'

`You do know where she is, then?'

`At home, I believe.'

`She's gone off us?' That would be too much to hope for. Silvia had never liked me. She thought me a bad influence on Petronius. What libel. He had always been perfectly capable of getting into trouble by himself. Still, we all rubbed along, even though neither Helena nor I could stand too much of Silvia.

`She's gone off me,' he explained.

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