‘Such as?'

It was obvious, and quite simple: `He thought he had the court in his pocket – he despised them and he let it show. The jury felt the same as you, love. They hated him.'


THE FORUM ROMANORUM. September. Not as hot as it could be in midsummer. The shade was cooler than the open sunlight, but compared with northern Europe still intensely warm. I had thought of bringing my toga, unsure of protocol, but could not face even carrying the heavy woollen folds over an arm. There was no way I would have worn the garment. Even without, patches of sweat made my tunic feel damp across my shoulders. Brilliant light pounded on the ancient cobbles of the Sacred Way, throbbed off the marble statues and cladding, heated the slow fountains and the shrinking pools in the shrines. On temples and plinths that lined the roadways, motionless pigeons lurked with their heads pulled in, trying not to faint. Old ladies, made of sterner stuff, battled across the space in front of the Rostra, cursing the trains of effete slaves, uniformed retinues of fat old men in litters who thought too much of themselves.

A mile of stately buildings lined the Forum valley. The Golden City's marble monuments towered above me. Arms folded, I took in the spectacle. I was home. Intimidation and awe are how our rulers keep us respectful. In my case the grandiose effects failed. I grinned at the glorious vista defiantly.

This was the business end of the historic area. I was standing on the steps of the Temple of Castor, with the Temple of the Divine Julius to the right – both places of nostalgia for me. To my far left, the hundred-foot-high Tabularium blocked off the foot of the Capitol. The Basilica Julia was next door, my current destination; opposite and across the worn stone piazza lay the Senate House – the Curia – and the Basilica built by Aemilius Paullus, with its grand two-storeyed galleries of shops and commercial premises. I could see the prison in a far corner; immediately below me, the office of weights and measures lurked under the podium of the Temple of Castor; near the Rostra was the building that housed the secretaries of the curule aediles, where the corrupt young Metellus had worked. The piazza was awash with priests; crammed with bankers and commodity brokers; flush with would-be pickpockets and the loitering sidekicks to whom they would swiftly pass whatever they stole. I looked in vain for the vigiles. (I was not intending to point out the pickpockets, only to demand loudly that the officers of the law should arrest the brokers for usury and the priests for telling lies. I felt satirical; setting the vigiles a task even they would shrink from would be an amusing way to rejoin public life.)

The messenger had left no directions. Silius Italicus was a grand type who expected everyone to know where he lived and what his daily habits were. He was not in court. Hardly surprising. He had had one case this year. If the convicted Metellus had paid up, Silius could have avoided work for another decade. I frustrated myself for a long time at the Basilica Julia, discovering that he was also the type whose home address was closely guarded, to stop lowly bastards from bothering the great bird in his own nest. Unlike me, he did not allow clients to call around at his apartment while he was dining with his friends, screwing his wife, or sleeping off either of those activities. Eventually I was informed that in daylight hours Silius could generally be found taking refreshments in one of the porticoes of the Basilica Paulli.

Cursing, I barged through the crowds, hopped down the steps and marched across the roasting travertine. At the twelve-sided well called the Pool of Curtius, I deliberately refrained from chucking in a copper for good luck. Amid the multicoloured marbles of the Porticus of Gaius and Lucius on the opposite basilica I expected a long search, but I soon spotted Silius, a lump who looked as if he made greedy use of the money he earned from his high-profile cases. As I approached, he was talking to another man whose identity I also knew: about the same age but neater build and more diffident in manner (I knew from recent experience how that was deceptive!) When they noticed me, the second man stood up from the wine-shop table. He may have been leaving anyway, though my arrival seemed to cause it. I felt they should have kept their distance, yet they had been chatting like any old friends who worked in the same district, meeting regularly for a mid-morning roll and spiced Campanian wine at this streetside eatery. The crony was Paccius Africanus, last seen as opposition counsel in the Metellus case.


Silius Italicus made no reference to Africanus. I preferred not to show I had recognised my interrogator.

Silius himself had ignored me on the day I attended court but I had seen him at a distance, pretending he was too lofty to take notice of mere witnesses. He had a heavy build, not grossly fat but fleshy all over as a result of rich living. It had left him dangerously red in the face too. His eyes were sunk in folds of skin as if he constantly lacked sleep, though his clean-shaven chin and neck looked youthful. I put him in his forties but he had the constitution of a man a decade older. His expression was that of someone who had just dropped a massive stone plinth on his foot. As he talked to me, he looked as if it was still there, trapping him painfully.

'Didius Falco.' I kept it formal. He did not bother to return the courtesies.

'Ah yes, I sent for you.' His voice was assertive, loud and arrogant. Taken with his morose demeanour, it seemed as if he hated life, work, flavoured wine, and me.

`No one sends for me.' I was not his slave, nor did I have a commission. It was my free choice whether to accept, even if he offered one. `You sent word that you would appreciate a discussion, and I have agreed to come. A home or office address would have helped, if I may say so. You're none too easy to find.'

He modified his confident manner. `Still, you managed to root me out!' he replied, full of fake friendliness. Even when he was making an effort, he remained dour.

`Finding people is my job.'

'Ah yes.'

I sensed that internally he sneered at the type of trade I carried out. I didn't waste a truculent reaction on him. I wanted to get this over with. `Down at the rough end of informing we have skills you never require at the Basilica. So,' I pressed him, `which of my skills do you want to use?'

The big man answered, still with his offhand manner and loud voice: `You heard what happened to Metellus?'

`He died. I heard it was suicide.'

`Did you believe it?'

'No reason to doubt,' I said – at once starting to do so. `It makes sense as an inheritance device. He freed his heirs from the burden of the compensation he owed you.'

`Apparently! And what's your view?'

I formed one quickly: `You want to challenge the cause of death?'

`Being paid would be more convenient than letting them off.' Silius leaned back, his hands folded. I noticed a cabochon beryllium seal ring on one hand, a cameo on a thumb, a thick gold band marked like a belt buckle on the other hand. His actual belt was four inches wide, heavy leather, wrapped around a very clean fine wool tunic in plain white with the senatorial trim. The tunic had been carefully laundered; the purple dye had not yet leached into the white. `I won the case, so I don't personally lose -' he began.

`Except in time and expenses.' At the rough end, we were rarely paid time and expenses, and never at the glorious rates this man must command.

Silius snorted. `Oh I can wave goodbye to the time charges. It's the million and a quarter winnings I prefer not to lose!'

A million and a quarter? I managed to keep my expression blank. `I was unaware of the compensation limit.' He had paid us four hundred, which included a mule allowance for the ride Justinus took; we had bumped up the travel costs in accordance with the customs of our trade, but compared with his great windfall, our return wouldn't buy us a piss in a public lavatory.

`Of course I share it with my junior,' Silius grumbled.

`Quite.' I hid my bad feeling. His junior was a snivelling scrivener called Honorius. It was Honorius who had dealt with me. He looked about eighteen and gave the impression he had never seen a woman naked. How much of the million and a quarter sesterces would Honorius take home to his mother? Too much. The dozy incompetent had been convinced that our witness lived in Lavinium, not Lanuvium; he tried to avoid paying us; and when he did write out a docket for their banker, he misspelled my name three times.

The banker, by contrast, had coughed up quickly, and was polite. Bankers stay alert. He could tell that by that

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