The Emperor scowled. 'He's a good man. And he's known to you.'

'I think highly of Frontinus.'

Vespasian ignored the chance to flatter me with the provincial governor's opinion of me. 'There's nothing wrong with Britain.'

'Well, you know I know that, sir.' Like all subordinates, I hoped my commander-in-chief remembered my entire personal history. Like most generals, Vespasian forgot even episodes he had been involved with- but given time, he would recall that he himself had sent me to Britain four years ago. 'That is,' I said dryly, 'if you leave out the weather, the total lack of infrastructure, the women, the men, the food, the drink and the mammoth travelling distance from one's dear Roman heritage!'

'Can't lure you with some boar hunting?'

'Not my style.' Even if it had been, the Empire was packed with more thrilling places to chase wildlife across ghastly terrain. Most of the other places were sunny and had cities. 'Nor do I cherish a visionary wish to implant civilisation among the awe-struck British tribes.'

Vespasian grinned. 'Oh I've despatched a bunch of lawyers and philosophers to do that.'

'I know, sir. They hadn't achieved much the last time you sent me north.' I had plenty more to say about Britain. 'As I recall, the pasty faced tribes had still not learned what to do with the sponge on the stick at public latrines. Where anybody had yet built any latrines.' Goose-pimples ran across my arm. Without intending it, I added, 'I was there during the Rebellion. That should be enough for anyone.'

Vespasian shifted slightly on the bench. The Rebellion was down to Nero, but it still made all Romans shudder. 'Well, somebody has to go, Falco.'

I said nothing.

He tried frankness. 'There is a monumental cock-up on a rather public project.'

'Yes, sir. Frontinus let me into his confidence.'

'Can't be worse than the troubles you sorted in the silver mines.' So he did remember sending me to Britain previously. 'A quick dash over there; audit the slapdash buggers; nail any frauds; then straight home. For you, it's a snip, Falco.'

'Should be a snip for anyone then, Caesar; I'm no demigod. Why don't you send Anacrites?' I suggested nastily. I always liked to think Vespasian reined in the Chief Spy because he distrusted the man's abilities. 'I am desolate to disappoint you, Caesar, though honoured by your faith in me-'


n'Don't blather. So you won't go?' sneered Vespasian.

'New baby,' I offered as a let-out for both of us.

'Just the time to nip off.'

'Regrettably, Helena Justina has a pact with me that if ever I travel, she comes too.'

'Doesn't trust you?' he scoffed, clearly thinking that was probable.

'She trusts me absolutely, sir. Our pact is, that she is always present to supervise!'

Vespasian, who had met Helena in one of her fighting moods, decided to back off. He asked me at least to think about the job. I said I would. We both knew that was a lie.


jupiter, juno and Mars- I had enough to do that spring. The house move was complicated enough- even before the day when Pa and I smashed up the bath house floor. Having Mico under my feet at the new riverbank place constantly reminded me how much I hated my relatives. There was only one I would have liked to see here, my favourite nephew Larius. Larius was a fresco painter's apprentice in Campania. He could well have repaid all my kind treatment as his uncle by creating a few frescos in my house, but when I wrote to him there was no reply. Perhaps he was remembering that the main thrust of my wise advice had been telling him that painting walls was a dead-end job…

As for that feeble streak of wind Mico, it was not just that he left plaster floats in doorways and tramped fine dust everywhere; he made me feel I owed him something, because he was poor and his children were motherless. Really, Mico was only poor because his bad work was notorious. No one but me would employ him. But I was Uncle Marcus the sucker. Uncle Marcus who knew the Emperor, flash Uncle Marcus who had a new rank and a position at the Temple of Juno. In fact I bought the rank with hard-earned fees, the position was literally chicken-shit and Vespasian only asked me over to the Gardens of Sallust when he wanted a favour. He saw me as a sucker too.

At least, unlike Mico, Vespasian Augustus did not expect me to buy riss oles all round as an end-of-week treat for his horrible family. With gherkins. Then I had to keep a pot handy, because gobbling the gherkins made Mice's awful toddler Valentinianus sick in my newly painted dining room. All Mico's children owned top-heavy names, and they were all villains. Valentinianus loved to humiliate me. His chief ambition currently was to vomit over Nux, my dog.

I now owned a dining room. The same week it was redecorated, I lost my best friend.

Petronius Longus and I had known each other since we were eighteen. We served together in the army- in Britain. We were naive lads when we joined up for the legions. We had no idea what we were taking on. They ted us, taught us useful skills and trained us to be well up in connivery. They also subjected us to four years in a faraway, undeveloped province that offered nothing but cold feet and misery. The Great Rebellion of the Iceni came on top of that. We crept home no longer lads but men, and bonded like a laminated shield. Cynical, grimmer than the Forum gutter tykes and with a friendship that should have been unshakeable.

Petro had now spoiled everything. He fell for my sister, after her husband died.

'Petronius hankered for Maia a long time before this,' Helena disagreed. 'He was married, so was she. He played around but she never did. There was no point in him admitting how he felt, even to himself.' Then Helena paused, her dark eyes sombre. 'Petronius may have married Arria Silvia in the first place because Maia was unobtainable.'

'Cobnuts. He hardly knew my sister then.'

But he had met her and seen what she was like: attractive, independent and subtly dangerous. Such a good homemaker and mother (everyone said) and what a bright girl! That double-edged remark always implies a woman may be on the lookout. I myself liked a hint of restlessness in a woman; Petronius was no different.

Around the Aventine he was held up as a model of steady fatherhood and virtuous hard work; no one spotted that he liked to flirt with risk. There were girlfriends in passing, even after he married Silvia. He settled down to look like a good boy, but how real was that? I was supposed to be the feckless bachelor, an endless worry to my mother- so like my father! So unlike my brother, the dead hero (though our Festus had been a wreck, with a chaotic life). Meanwhile, Petronius Longus, diligent enquiry chief of the Fourth Cohort of the Vigiles, flitted quietly among the pretty flowers on the Aventine, leaving them happy and his reputation un besmirched until he tangled with a serious gangster's daughter. His wife found out. It all became too public; Silvia felt this disgrace was too much. She had seemed utterly dependent but once she threw Petro out, she was off. She now lived with a potted-salad seller, in Ostia.

Petronius might have accepted this, had not Silvia taken their three daughters. He had no wish to enforce his custody rights as a Roman father. But he was genuinely fond of the girls, and they adored him.

'Silvia knows that. The damned woman flounced off to Ostia out of spite!' I had never liked Arria Silvia. It was not simply because she loathed me. Mind you, that was relevant. She was a prissy little piece; Petro could have done better with his eyes closed. 'Her loathsome boyfriend was quite happy selling his cucumber moulds in the Forum; she put him up to moving, to make the situation impossible for Petro.'

He was in a rotten position, though for once he refused to talk to me about it. We had never discussed Silvia anyway; it saved trouble. Then things grew worse. He started to face up to his attraction to my sister; she even began to notice him. Just when Petro thought they might make something of it, Maia suddenly stopped seeing him.

Вы читаете A Body In The Bath House
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату