A workman was approaching. Typical. He wore a one-sleeved tunic hitched over his belt and was carrying an old bucket. He was coming to clean the fountain, which looked a long job. Naturally he turned up at the end of the working day. He would leave the job unfinished and never come back.

`Lucius, my boy,' I tackled Petro sternly, since we might soon have to abandon our roost if this fellow did persuade the fountain to fill up, `I can think of various reasons – most of them female why Silvia would fall out with you. Who is it?'


I had been joking. Besides, I thought he had stopped flirting with Balbina Milvia months ago. If he had had any sense he would never have started – though when did that ever stop a man chasing a girl?

'Milvia's very bad news, Petro.'

`So Silvia informs me.'

Balbina Milvia was about twenty. She was astoundingly pretty, dainty as a rosebud with the dew in it, a dark, sweet little piece of trouble whom Petro and I had met in the course, of our work. She had an innocence that was begging to be enlightened, and was married to a man who neglected her. She was also the daughter of a vicious gangster a mobster whom Petronius had convicted and I had helped finally to put away. Her husband Florius was now developing half-hearted, plans to move in on the family rackets. Her mother Flaccida was scheming to beat him to the profits, a hard-faced bitch whose idea of a quiet hobby was arranging the deaths of men who crossed her. Sooner or later that was bound to include her son-in-law Florius.

In these circumstances Milvia could be seen as in need of consolation. As an officer of the vigiles Petronius Longus was taking a risk it he provided it. As the husband of Arria Silvia, a violent force to be reckoned with at any time, he was crazy, He should have left the delicious Milvia to struggle with life on her own.

Until today I had been pretending I knew nothing about it, He would never have listened to me anyway. He had never listened when we were in the army and his eye fell on lush Celtic beauties who had large, red-haired, bad- tempered British fathers, and he had never listened since we came home to Rome either.

'You're not in love with Milvia?'

He looked amazed at the question. I had known I was on safe ground suggesting that his fling might not be serious. What was serious to Petronius Longus was being the husband of a girl who had brought him a very handsome dowry (which he would have to repay if she divorced him) and being the father of Petronilla, Silvana and Tadia, who adored him and whom he doted on. We all knew that, though convincing Silvia might be tricky if she had heard about sweet little Milvia. And Silvia had always known how to speak up for herself.

'So what's the situation?'

'Silvia threw me out.'

'What's new?'

'It was a good two months ago.'

I whistled. `Where are you living, then?' Not with Milvia. Milvia was married to Florius. Florius was so weak even, his womenfolk didn't bother to henpeck him, but he was clinging fast to Milvia because her dowry – created with the proceeds of organised crime – was enormous.

'I'm at the patrol house.'

`Unless I'm drunker than I think, didn't this whole conversation begin with you being suspended from the vigiles?'

'That,' Petro conceded, 'does make it rather complicated when I want to crawl in for a few hours' kip.'

`Martinus would have loved to take a' stand on it.'

Martinus, had been Petro's deputy. A stickler for the rules especially; when they helped him offend someone else. 'He went on promotion to the Sixth, didn't he?'

Petro grinned a little. 'I put him forward myself.'

'Poor Sixth! So who moved up in the Fourth? Fusculus?'

'Fusculus is a gem.'

`He ignores you curled up in a corner?'

`No. He orders me to leave. Fusculus thinks that taking over Martinus' job means he inherited the attitude as well.'

`Jupiter! So you're stuck for a bed?'

`I wanted to lodge with your mother.' Petronius and Ma had always got on well. They liked to conspire, criticising me.

`Ma would take you in.'

'I can't ask her. She's still putting up Anacrites.'

`Don't mention that bastard!' My mother's lodger was anathema to me. 'My old apartment's empty,' I suggested.

'I was hoping you'd say that.'

`It's yours. Provided,' I put in slyly, `you explain to me how, if we're talking about a quarrel with your wife, you also end up being suspended by the. Fourth. When did Rubella ever have a reason to accuse you of disloyalty?' Rubella was the tribune in charge of the Fourth Cohort, and Petro's immediate superior. He was a pain in the posterior, but otherwise fair.

`Silvia took it upon herself to inform Rubella that I was tangled up with a racketeer's relative.'

Well, he had asked for it, but that was hard. Petronius Longus could not have picked a mistress who compromised him more thoroughly. Once Rubella knew of the affair, he would have had no choice about suspending, Petro from duty. Petro would be lucky even to keep his job. Arria Silvia must have understood that. To risk their livelihood she must be very angry indeed. It sounded as if my old friend was losing his wife too.

We were too disheartened even to drink. The amphora was down to the grit in the point anyway. But we were not ready to return home, in this glum mood. The water board

employee had not actually asked us to move out of his way, so we stayed where we were while he leaned around us cleaning the cockleshell spout with a disgusting sponge on a stick. When the plunger failed to work he burrowed in his tool satchel for a piece of wire. He poked and scraped. The fountain made a rude noise. Some sludge plopped out. Slowly water began to trickle through, encouraged by more waggling of the wire.

Petronius and I straightened up reluctantly. In Rome the water pressure is low, but eventually the bowl would fill and then overflow, providing the neighbourhood with not only its domestic supply but an endless trickle down the gutters to carry, away muck from the streets. Tailors' Lane badly needed that but, drunk though we were, we didn't want to end up sitting in it.

Petronius applauded the workman sardonically. `That all the problem was?'

`Seized up while it was off, legate.'

`Why; was it off?'

`Empty delivery pipe. Blockage in the outlet at the castellum.'

The: man dug his fist into the bucket he had brought with him, like a fisherman pulling out a crab. He came up with a blackened object which he held up by its single clawlike appendage so we could briefly inspect it: something old, and hard to identify, yet disturbingly familiar. He tossed it back in the bucket where it splash-landed surprisingly heavily. We both nearly ignored it. We would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble. Then Petro looked at me askance.

`Wait a moment!' I exclaimed.

The workman tried to reassure us. `No panic, legate. Happens all the time.'

Petronius and I stepped closer and peered down into the filthy depths of the wooden pail. A nauseous smell rose to greet us. The cause of the blockage at the water tower now reposed in a bed of rubbish and mud.

It was a human hand.

None of my relatives had had the courtesy to leave. More had arrived, in fact. The only good news was, the newcomers did not include my father.

My sisters Allia and Galla made their excuses sniffily the moment I reappeared, though Verontius and bloody Lollius their husbands sat tight. Junia was squeezed into a corner with Gaius Baebius and their deaf son, as usual busy posing as a classic family group so they could avoid talking to anybody else. Mico, Victorina's widower, was grinning inanely and waiting in vain for somebody to tell him how well turned out his horrible offspring were. Famia, the drunk, was drunk. His wife Maia was somewhere in a back room helping Helena clear up. Various

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