children were bored, but doing their best to entertain themselves by kicking dirty boots against my newly painted walls. All present cheered up as they watched me brace myself.,

`Hello, Ma. Brought a footman, I see?' If I had been warned in advance I would have hired heavies just to eject this man. A couple of moonlighting gladiators with instructions to turn him away at the door, and break both his arms as an extra hint.

My mother scowled. She was a tiny, black-eyed old bundle who could rampage through a market like a barbarian army. She was holding my new baby daughter, who had begun to bawl her eyes out the moment I appeared. Julia's grief at beholding her father was not why Ma was scowling; I had insulted her favourite.

It was her lodger Anacrites. He looked smooth, but his habits were as savoury as a pigsty after months of neglect. He worked for the Emperor. He was the Chief Spy. He was also pale, silent, and reduced to a wraith after a serious head wound which unfortunately failed to finish him. Mymother had saved his life. That meant she now felt obliged to treat him as some special demigod who was worth saving. He accepted the fuss smugly. I ground my teeth.

`Find a friendly greeting for Anacrites, Marcus.

' Greet him? He was no friend' of mine. He had once arranged to have me killed, though of course that had nothing to do with my loathing him. I could simply find no vacancy in my personal clique for a devious, dangerous manipulator, with the morals of a slug.

I grabbed, the screaming baby. She stopped crying. No one looked impressed. Against my car she gurgled in a way I' had learned meant she was soon going to be sick down the inside of my tunic. I laid her down in the fine cradle Petronius had made for her, hoping I could pretend any ensuing mess was a surprise to me. Ma began rocking the cradle, and the crisis seemed to pass.

`Hello, Falco.'

`Anacrites! You look terrible,' I told him cheerily. `Turned back from the Underworld because you'd dirty Charon's punt?' I was determined to floor him before he had a chance to get at me. `How's espionage these days? All the swallows over the Palatine are cheeping that Claudius Laeta has put a bid in for your job.'

`Oh no; Laeta's skulking in ditches.'

I grinned knowingly. Claudius Laeta was an ambitious administrator at the palace who hoped to incorporate Anacrites and the existing intelligence network in his own section; the two were locked in a struggle for power which I found highly amusing so long as I could keep myself out of it.

`Poor, Laeta!' I sneered. `He should never have tangled with that Spanish business. I had to make a report to the Emperor which showed him in rather a bad light.'

Anacrites gave me a narrow look. He too had tangled with the Spanish business. He was wondering what I might have reported to Vespasian about him. Still convalescent, a film of sweat suddenly shone on his brow. He was worried. I liked that.

`Anacrites isn't fit to return to work yet.' Ma told us some details that had him crawling with embarrassment. I tutted with fake sympathy, letting him know that I was delighted he had terrible headaches and trouble with his bowels. I tried asking for further details, but my mother soon twigged what I was playing at. `He has taken indefinite sick leave, approved by the Emperor.'

`Oho!' I scoffed,, as if I thought that was the first step to enforced retirement. 'Some people who get hit very hard on the head have a personality change afterwards.' He seemed to have avoided that; it was a pity, because any change in Anacrites' personality would have been an improvement.

'I brought Anacrites so you and he can have a little chat.' I went cold. `You'll have to sort out a decent business for yourself now you're a father,' my mother instructed me. `You need a partner – someone to give you a few tips. Anacrites can help get you on your feet – on days when he feels fit enough.'

Now it was me who felt sick.

Lucius Petronius, my loyal friend, had been surreptitiously showing the dismembered hand from the water tower to my brothers-in-law in a corner. Those ghouls were always eager for anything sensational.

`Pooh!' I heard Lollius boasting. `That's nothing. We fish worse out of the Tiber every week -'

Some of my sisters' children spotted the grisly item and crowded round to see it. Petro hastily wrapped up the hand in a piece of rag; I hoped it was not one of our new Spanish dinner napkins. It made an intriguing parcel, which caught the eye of Nux, a determined street mongrel who had adopted me. The dog leapt at the parcel. Everyone snatched to save it. The hand fell out of the rag. It landed on the floor, and was captured by Marius, the extremely serious elder son of my sister Maia who just happened to come into the room at that point. When she saw her normally wholesome eight year-old sniffing at a badly decayed relic, apparently supervised approvingly by Lucius Petronius, my favourite sister used some language I never thought she knew. Much of it

described Petronius, and the rest' appertained to me.

Maia made sure she snatched up; the flagon of fine olive oil which was her present from me from Baetica and then she, Famia, Marius, Ancus, Cloelia and little Rhea all went home.

Well, that cleared some space.

While everyone, else was sniggering and looking shifty, Petro threw a heavy arm round my shoulders and greeted my mother with affection. `Junilla Tacita! How right you are about Falco needing to buckle down. As a matter of fact, he and I have just been outside having a long discussion about that. You know, he seems feckless, but he does recognise his position. He needs to establish his office, take on some lucrative cases and build up a reputation so the work continues to flow in.' That sounded good. I wondered why I' had never thought of it. Petronius had not finished his oration. `We found the ideal solution. While I'm taking a break from the vigiles I'm going to move into his old apartment and give him a hand as a partner myself.'

I beamed at Anacrites in a charitable way. `You're just a fraction too late for the festival. Afraid the job is taken, old fellow. Bad luck!'


When we slapped the parcel on to the clerk's table, Fusculus reached for it eagerly. He had always had a hearty appetite and thought we had brought him in a snack. We let him open it,

For a second he did think it was an interesting new kind of cold sausage, then he recoiled with a yell.:

`Urgh! Where have you two infantile; beggars been playing? Who does this belong to?'

`Who knows?' Petronius had had time to get used to the dismembered hand. While jolly Fusculus still looked pale, Petro could appear blase. `No seal ring with a lover's name, no handy Celtic woad tattoo it's so swollen and misshapen you can't even tell whether it came from a woman or a man.'

`Woman,' guessed Fusculus. He prided himself on his professional expertise. The hand, which had four fingers missing, was so badly swollen from being in water that there were no real grounds for his guess.

`How's' work?' Petronius asked him yearningly. I could tell that as a partner in my own business his commitment would be meagre.

`It was all right until you two came in.'

We were at the Fourth Cohort's guard house. Most of it was storage for fire-fighting equipment, reflecting the vigiles' main task. Ropes, ladders, buckets,, huge grass' mats, mattocks and axes, and the pumping engine were all ready for action. There was a small bare cell into which cat burglars and arsonists could be flung, and a utilitarian room where those on duty could either play dice or beat all Hades out of the burglars and fire-raisers if that seemed more fun. Both rooms were normally empty at this hour, The holding cell was used at night; in the morning its miserable contents were either released with a caution or marched off to the tribune's office for a formal interrogation. Since most offences occur under cover of darkness only a skeleton staff was on duty by day. They were out searching for suspects or sitting on a bench in the sun.

Do not be fooled. The vigiles' life was harsh and dangerous. Most of them had been public slaves. They had signed up because eventually, if they survived, they earned honourable discharge as citizens. Their official term of duty was just six years. Soldiers in the legions serve at least twenty. There was a good reason for the short enlistment, and not many vigiles lasted the full term.

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