Thurius incarcerated in the box.



Helena Justina had not heard me come in. When the baby started crying and the dog started whining, she tried to rouse herself, lifting her head from her arms where she sat dismally at – the table. I could tell her condition was desperate. She had been reading my poetry.

`Don't move,' I said. `I've got Julia and Nux has got me.' The dog had attached herself to my leg, gripping my knee with both paws even while I crossed the room. It was presumably affectionate, though a burglar might have checked in his stride.

`Giving you the hero's welcome!'

I winced, as Julia really put her heart into it. Nux began to bound up and down in crazy circles all around me. `This never happened to Odysseus.'

Then I was holding the pair of them, one arm round each, while they both cried all over my disgustingly filthy tunic. I should have washed first, but I had an urgent need to hold these two very tightly. `I ought to get clean – but I wanted to come home first.' Now I was here, it would be hard to get out again. I was too tired in any case.

Helena murmured something incoherent and clung to me for a considerable period given just how badly I stank; then she leaned back a little, courteously disguising her relief at putting a space between herself and the stubbly dark-eyed wreck she was in love with.

For a long time she simply gazed at me. I could endure that.

`Some women think heroes are wonderful,' 'Helena mused. `Rather a trial around the house, if you ask me. I find the worst thing is how often they go missing. You can never tell when you need to ask for their laundry back, or whether this would be the day to start buying their favourite fruit again.'

I smiled inanely at her, while peace crept over me like insidious wine. Nux, who had galloped from the room, now scrabbled back, tail end first, towing her much-chewed basket as a welcome home gift.

In fairness to Helena, I had to tell her what had happened, in a brief form at least. Helena Justina spared me the effort of finding the words and worked it out for herself. `You caught the killer. You had to fight; him -' She was fingering a bruise on my cheekbone. A nerve flinched under her touch, but despite the pain I leaned against her hand. `You're exhausted. Had he taken another woman?'


`It wasn't Claudia.'

`I know. So has Claudia turned up?'

`No, but someone, is here who knows what happened to her.

'Your brother?'

'No, Aulus went home in disgust. Gaius!'

Some moments after she called him, my rascallion nephew shuffled in looking strangely shy. For once he was cleaner, than me. In fact he looked as if Helena must have kept him here, feeding him up and encouraging unfamiliar habits of hygiene, for most of the time I had been away.

She spoke, to him quietly. 'Tell Uncle Marcus everything you said to me and my brother Aelianus about that night at the Circus Maximus.'

Gaius appeared to think he was in for a clouting. Helena had taken the baby, so I lolled limply, letting him see that nothing on earth would drag me from my stool. Nux was sprawled all over my feet, for one thing. `Helena's brother-'


`No, the other one.'

`Justinus? He's abroad.'

`He is now,' cried Helena, with unusual force.

Gaius braced himself and rushed through his tale

`Justinus drove up in a little cart when I was there helping you. I saw a girl run out from the Circus. He seemed to be expecting her. They had a chat, then he gave her a big kiss, lifted her into the cart, and whizzed off.'

`Was the girl -,

`Claudia Rufina,' confirmed Helena. 'The bad boy! Quintus has eloped with his brother's wealthy bride. And you know what, Marcus -'

I could guess: `Your noble family all blame me?'

I was too tired even to laugh.

Gaius complained that we were squashing the baby, so he carefully took charge and carried her off to play with her in another' room. Responding to his gruff authority, Julia stopped crying immediately.

I sat for a moment, staring round the simple apartment that I called home. It looked unusually clean and neat. On the table, as well as the battered scroll of my over-written odes which Helena had been reading to console herself, lay my favourite cup and bowl, set very precisely opposite my habitual stool as if their readiness would ensure my return. Near them was a document which I could see was the deed of sale for the farm at Tibur which I had promised to buy; she had been organising the purchaser Flipping off the top of the inkwell I seized the pen, dipped it quickly and scrawled my signature.

`You haven't read that,' Helena remonstrated quietly.

`No, but you have.'

`Falco, you trust people too easily.'

`Is that right?'

`I'll make you read it tomorrow.'

`That's why I trust you,' I smiled.

Another disaster was about to make itself manifest. Helena went across to the laundry for a pail of water so I could wash before I fell into bed. She must have spoken to Petronius. When he galloped across to see me he already knew I had solved the case, and had come home in glory with Thurius. This was going to be difficult.

`Well, where were you when you were needed?' I chaffed him, tackling the issue before he could take the initiative.

`Trailing through half the low winebars in the Suburra while a useless fool called Damon tried unsuccessfully to pull a sharp bird in a; red dress who ran bloody rings around him.' She kept him out drinking till all hours, then when Damon went for his tenth leak of the night, she skipped. Then I had to follow the besotted idiot while he went back to all the bars they had visited earlier, trying to find where he had dropped his purse – though of course, really the girl had made off with it -'

`Useless.' I was in no mood for elaborate inquests.

Petro gave me a long stare.

I knew what this was. I held up my hand wearily. `Lucius Petronius, you have something you are burning to tell me' `When you're fit.'

`I'm fit now. Your life needs a new turn. You are itching for your real job – lured no doubt by the thrill of dull routine and time-consuming reports for superiors, the complaining hatred of the public and the pitiful, though regular, salary -'

`Something like that.'

`There's more? Oh; I think I can guess. You are planning a joyful return to your wife.' If I had been less tired, I would have been more careful. `Now steady, old friend.'

`You've been nagging me to do it, so I'm telling you first;' `I deduce you haven't told Silvia?'

`Not yet, no.'

'So, I'm supposed: to be honoured, Have you even seen Silvia recently?'

A suspicious expression; appeared on his face, `You're telling me something.'

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