THERE was a certain amount of extraneous activity. The room was humming with noise like a banquet when they let in the naked dancers. As I walked back to the centre of the room, Euschemon scuttled past me. He ensconced himself alongside Philomelus and they started muttering in undertones. Then Helena gathered up part of her scroll collection and beetled down the row to return his lost manuscript to the excited young author. She sat down with him and Euschemon and I saw her shaking her finger. If I knew her, she was advising Philomelus to obtain a reliable business adviser before he signed away his contractual rights.

Fusculus appeared through the dividing door, looking pleased with himself. He gave me a vigiles nod. I interpreted as best I could. With the vigiles it might only mean a take-out lunch box had arrived. I mimed that he was to bring in the old lady who walked about the Clivus Publicius. Fusculus winced. She must have given him the hard basket treatment.

Lysa was head-to-head with Diomedes. Time to stop her little games.

`Attention, please – and quiet!' I shouted in a commanding tone.

Fusculus brought in the grandma, leading her gingerly by one arm. He walked her slowly around the room for me. I asked her to point out anyone she remembered seeing the day of the murder.

Enjoying her role at the centre of things, the aged dame fastidiously stared at everyone, while they looked back in a state of nervous tension – even those who I was certain had nothing to fear. My star witness then indicated all the authors except Urbanus (a good test of reliability), followed in turn by Philomelus, and even Fusculus, Passus, Petronius, and me. Really thorough – and useless for my purposes.

Taking her free arm, I made her stand in front of Diomedes. `Did you leave one out?'

`Oh, I have seen him such a lot of times… I'm sorry, Falco, I really can't say.'

Diomedes laughed; it was brittle and overconfident. Fusculus caught my eye above the old lady's head, and I could sense his hostility. All his antipathy to Greeks was now focussed on this one. He grinned nastily at Diomedes and Lysa, then guided the nosy old woman to a seat among the vigiles, so she could watch the fun.

`Worth a try,' I said ruefully. `You're a lucky fellow!' I told Diomedes. `I really was convinced you were lying. I thought you had been here. The way I saw it, you killed your father, Vibia discovered you at the scene covered in blood, then she helped you cover up your tracks – literally in the case of some bloody footprints. It might even have been the lady who thought of sending you on your way casually chewing nettle flan. Once you were cleaned up and had left the house, she rushed outside screaming as though she had only that moment found the body.

People heard me out in hushed silence. They could see how well the story fitted the facts. Vibia Merulla remained expressionless.

`In return for Vibia's silence about your guilt – I thought – your mother gave up this house to her. Vibia herself was so horrified by finding you at the crime scene, Diomedes, she started avoiding you… And that was why she disliked the thought of you marrying one of her relatives. Still!' I exclaimed brightly. `How wrong can I be?'

I spun round to the resolute widow.

`Nothing to say, Vibia? If you're hiding your husband's murderer to get it, you really do hunger for possession of this house! Still, a Corinthian Oecus is a rare feature. And of course, the property came fully furnished – the furnishings are beautiful, aren't they? So lush. Every cushion stuffed to bursting point.'

I faced Diomedes.

`I am not intending to call that priest of yours as a witness. I believe he lied about you making offerings all day. You do go to the Temple of Minerva, but you don't go there to pray. There are other reasons for hanging about there on a regular basis – the writers' group, primarily. Tell us: do you write, Diomedes?'

He looked shifty, but he sat tight and glared at, me. His mother's face was also blank.

'Blitis!' I called out. `Does Diomedes write?'

`Yes,' said Blitis. `He wrote Zisimilla and Magarone.'

`Truly! A secret scribbler?' I went on relentlessly. `Do you lurk in your room dreaming up and honing your creative masterpiece, young fellow? And, Diomedes, do you persist with it, even when all around you describe it as no good?'

I spun back towards the vigiles. I asked Petronius swiftly, `Did he have the flan?'

`Yes,' answered Petro immediately, not needing to consult his notes. `He grabbed the last piece when I was trying to get my hands on it.' I saw Helena resisting a giggle, while the vigiles grinned at one another.

I strode over and bent down to the old dame. `Can I make a suggestion? I think Diomedes came here around lunch time and then breezed back later, heading towards the Temple of Minerva, looking a little too innocent?'

`Oh, I remember now.' She too grinned through toothless gums. She was a game old duck, thoroughly enjoying this. `I did see him go in when I was fetching some lentils for my dinner. When I was getting a bit of onion later, I watched him come out again. I thought it was peculiar because he was wearing different clothes.'

'Aha! Why was that?' I demanded of Diomedes. `Was there blood on the first set?'

`She's got it wrong,' he scowled.

I signalled to Aelianus. He moved those who were seated on the furthermost bench; Fusculus went to help him kick the seating aside, fling the doors open, and wheel in the great trolley that bore Diomedes' property.

I crossed the room towards the heaped baggage. First, I pulled out a scroll from a chased silver container. `Helena, glance at this, please. Tell me if you recognise the handwriting from the tale you and Passus hated so much.' She nodded almost immediately. Fusculus came up behind me, probably intending to hint at where I ought to look in the cart, but I managed without any help from him. `Diomedes, you agree that all this is your personal property?'

Shoved roughly inside a knee-high boot I could see papyrus. `What have we here? An interesting boot-shaper. Two very crumpled sheets that purport to be – let's see: the title pages to Zisimilla and Magarone and also Gondomon, King of Traximene. What's that about, Diomedes?' I dragged him to his feet. `Looks like proof of who wrote Gondomon – this title page is written on the back of a used popina drinks bill.'

`Mine!' Diomedes blustered recklessly. `I often drink there -'

`Urbanus, it says.'

Urbanus looked unfazed then told me, `I leave the bills behind. Philomelus tucks them in his pouch. He has no money for equipment and I'm happy for him to reuse them for writing.'

Lysa, resplendent in maternal wrath, swept to her son's side. `Foolish boy,' she reproved her son. `Now tell the truth!' She turned to me. `These prove nothing!' she snorted at me. `Blame Chrysippus. He wanted to exchange the title page on the scrolls he stole from the shipper's son. He was planning to publish the story under our son's name. Diomedes was far too sensitive and honest to agree… In fact, Diomedes removed and kept the original, so he could prove what had happened if his father went ahead -'

Oh, she was good!

`Very generous!' Among the swathes of rich brocaded curtaining, pillows and floor rugs, lay one cushion that looked extremely lumpy, ill-stuffed and quite untypical of this house. It was nothing like the smooth, fat items I had thrown on the floor from Vibia's couch that time. I dragged it from the pile. `This is from your room too?' Deeply perturbed, Diomedes gave a brief nod.

Wrenching open some loose and amateur stitchery that cobbled one seam on the slipcase, I flung the innards across the floor at his feet. People gasped.

`One heavily bloodstained tunic. A pair of bloody shoes. A scroll rod finial, with a dolphin riding on a gilded plinth the exact match of the finial on the rod you forced so crudely up your father's nose.'

Diomedes leaned across me and grabbed a spear from his pile of belongings. Helena cried out.

`Jupiter!' I muttered, as I grabbed the shaft. I went hand-over-hand up it in a couple of swift moves, until I was leaning on Diomedes' chest. `Where exactly were you planning to shove that? I demanded sarcastically.

We were inches away from each other, but he hung on to the spear. Petronius had reached us. He and Fusculus grabbed Diomedes. I wrenched the spear from his grasp. They twisted his arms up his back.

I took hold of his fancy tunic, either side of his miserable neck. `I want to hear you confess.'

`All right,' he admitted coldly. Lysa burst into uncontrollable and hysterical wails.

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