Tiberius Fusculus, the best of Petro's hand-picked, officers and now standing in for his chief, gazed at us warily. He was a round, cheerful fellow, thin on top, extremely healthy, and sharp as a tenting needle. He was keenly interested d in the theory of crime, but we could tell by the way he poked the swollen hand away from him he did not intend to pursue this if he could file it in the `No Action' pigeonhole.

`So what do you want me to do with it?'

`Find the rest?' I suggested. Fusculus scoffed.

Petronius surveyed the object. `It has obviously been in the water a long time.' His tone was apologetic. `We've been told it was found blocking a pipe in a castellum on the Aqua Appia, but it could have got there from somewhere else.'

`Most people are cremated,' Fusculus said. `You might get: some dog digging up a human hand at the crossroads in a village in the provinces, but bodies don't get buried raw in Rome.'

`It smacks of dirty business,' Petro agreed. `If someone, possibly a woman, has been done in, why hasn't there been an outcry?'

'Probably because women are always being done in,' Fusculus explained helpfully. 'It's their husbands or lovers who do it,, and when they wake up sober the men either collapse in remorse, and come straight here. to confess, or else they find the peace and quiet so welcome that raising an outcry is the last thing they consider.'

`All women have nosy friends,' Petro pointed out `A lot have interfering mothers; some are caring for aged aunts who if left on their own would wander out into the highway and frighten the donkeys. And what about the neighbours?'

`The neighbours report it,' said Fusculus. 'So we go to the house and ask the husband; he tells us that the neighbours are poisonous bastards making malicious accusations, then he claims his wife' has gone to visit relatives at Antium. We say, when she comes home will he ask her to drop in and confirm it; we file the details; she never comes, but we never have time to pursue it because by then twenty other things are happening. Anyway, the husband will have runoff' He did' not add `and good luck to him', but his tone was eloquent.

'Don't, give me the brush-off; I'm not some member of the public.' Petronius was discovering how the public felt when they ventured to his office. He sounded annoyed, probably at himself for not having been prepared for it.

Fusculus was faultlessly polite. He had been putting off the public for the past fifteen years. `If there has been a crime it could have happened anywhere, sir, and the chances of us picking up the rest of the body are nil.'

'You're not keen on this,' I divined.

`Clever man.'

`The evidence turned up on the Aventine.'

`A lot of filth turns up on the Aventine,' snorted Fusculus sourly, almost as if he included us in that category. `This isn't evidence, Falco. Evidence is a material object that casts useful light on a known incident, enabling a prosecution. We have no idea where this forlorn fist came from, and I bet we never will. If you ask me,' he went on, evidently thinking he, had found an inspired solution, `it must have been polluting the water supply, so tracing any other body parts is a problem for the water board. I'll report the find. It's up to the Curator of Aqueducts to take action.'

`Don't be stupid,' scoffed Petro. `When did anyone in the water board ever show any initiative? They're all too busy working fiddles.'

`I'll threaten to expose a few. Any sign of you coming back to work, chief?''

`Ask Rubella,' growled Petro, though I knew the tribune had said my foolish pal was to ditch the gangster's daughter before showing his face around the cohort again. Unless I had missed something, that still left Petro with a goodbye speech to make to Milvia.

`I heard you were in business with Falco nowadays?' For a pleasant man, Fusculus seemed to be in a starchy mood. I was not surprised. Informers have a black name amongst most Romans, but we are particularly reviled by the vigiles. The cohorts keep lists with our names on so they can knock on our doors halfway through dinner and drag us off for questioning about nothing in particular. State servants always hate people who are paid by results.

`I'm just helping him out informally. Why – do you miss me?' Petro asked.

`No, I'm just wondering when I can apply for your post.' It was said in jest, but the fact was, unless Petronius Longus sorted out his private life rather quickly the joke would become fact. Warning him, though, would only make it worse. Petronius had a stubborn side. He had always had a tendency to rebel against authority. It was why we were friends.

The Fourth kept a gruesome museum which they showed to the populace for half a denarius a throw, in order to raise cash for the widows of cohort members. We left the hand for the museum, and told ourselves it was no longer our problem.

Petronius and I then walked via the Circus Maximus to the Forum, where we had an appointment with a wall.


If I had had any sense, I would have ended the partnership while we were standing in front of the wall. I would have told Petro that although I was grateful for his offer; the best way for us to preserve our friendship would be if I just let him doss at my apartment, I would work with someone else. Even if that meant pairing up with Anacrites.

The omens were bad from the very start. My normal method of advertising my services was to march up to the foot of the Capitol, quickly clean off someone else's poster from the best position on the Tabularium, then scrawl up a few swift strokes of chalk, writing whatever jocular message came into my head. Petronius Longus approached life more seriously. He had written out a text. He had worked up several versions (I could see the evidence in his note tablets) and he intended to inscribe his favourite in meticulous lettering, surrounded by a Greek key border drawn in variously hatched patterns.

`No point making it pretty.'

`Don't be so casual, Falco.''

`The aediles will wash it off again.'

`We need to get it right.'

`No, we need to avoid getting spotted doing it.' Chalking graffiti on national monuments may not be a crime in the Twelve Tables, but it can lead to a right thrashing.

`I'll do this.'

`I can write my name and mention divorce and stolen art recovery.'

`We're not, dabbling with art.'

`It's my speciality.'

`That's why you never earn anything.

It could be true. People who had lost their treasures were slow to pay out more money.

Besides, the ones who lost art were often the mean sort. That was why it had' not been protected by decent locks and alert watchmen in the first place. `All right, Pythagoras, what's your philosophy? What stunning list of services will you claim we perform?'

`I'm not quoting examples. We need to tantalise. We should hint we cover everything. When the clients come we can weed out the duds and pass them on to some hack at the Saepta Julia. We're going to be Didius Falco amp; Partner-'

`Oh, you're staying anonymous?'

`I have to.'

`So you still want your job back?'

`There was never any suggestion of giving up my job.' `Just checking. Don't work with me if you despise my life.'

`Shut up a minute. Falco amp; Partner: a select service for discerning clients.'

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