stage anyone else who upset me would have been sodomised with a very sharp spear.

I sensed further stress coming at me over the horizon on a fast Spanish pony.

`So why did you want to see me, Silius?,

'Obvious, surely?' It was, but I refused to help him. `You work in this field.' He tried to make it sound like a compliment. `You already have a connection with the case.'

My connection was remote. I should have kept it that way. Perhaps my next question was naive. `So what do you want me for?'

`I want you to prove that it was not suicide.'

`What am I going for? Accident or foul play?'

`Whatever you like,' said Silius. `I am not fussy, Falco. Just find me suitable evidence to take the remaining Metelli to court and wring them dry.'

I had been slumped on a stool at his table. He had not offered me refreshments (no doubt sensing I would refuse them lest we be trapped in a guest/host relationship). But on arrival, I had assumed equal terms, and seated myself. Now I sat up. `I never manufacture proofs!'

`I never asked you to.'

I stared at him.

'Rubirius Metellus did not take his own life, Falco,' Silius told me impatiently. `He enjoyed being a bastard – he enjoyed it far too much to give it up. He had been riding high, at the top of his talent, dubious though it was. And he was a coward, anyway. Proof of something that will suit me is there to be had, and I shall pay you well to look for it.'

I stood up and gave him a nod of acknowledgement. `This type of investigation has a special rate. I'll send along my scale of charges -'

He shrugged. He was not at all afraid of being stung. He had the confidence that only comes with the backing of huge collateral. `We use investigators all the time. Pass your fees to Honorius.'

`Very well.' There would be an on-cost for having the awful Honorius as our liaison point. `So let us start right here. What leads do you have? Why did you become suspicious?'

`I have a suspicious nature,' boasted Silius bluntly. He was not intending to tell me any more. `Finding the leads is your job.'

To look professional, I asked for the Metellus address and went to get on with it.

I knew then that I was being taken for a sucker. I decided I could outwit him. I forgot all the times that manipulating swine like Silius Italicus had outplayed me on the draughtboard of connivery.

I wondered why, if he used his own tame investigators normally, he selected me for this. I knew it was not because he thought I had a friendly, honest face.


RUBIRIUS METELLUS had lived in the style I expected. He owned a large home occupying its own block, on the Oppian Hill, just beyond Nero's Golden House, half a step from the Auditorium should he want to hear recitals, and an easy walk from the Forum when he conducted business. Booths for shops occupied street frontages on his home; some rich men leave them empty but Metellus preferred rents to privacy. His impressive main entrance was flanked by small obelisks of yellow Numidian marble. They looked ancient. I guessed war loot. Some military ancestor had grabbed them from a defeated people; perhaps he was in Egypt with Mark Antony or that prig Octavian. The former, most likely. Octavianus, with the nasty blood of Caesar in his veins and his eye to the main chance, would have been busy turning himself into Augustus and his personal fortune into the largest in the world. He would have tried to prevent his subordinates carrying off loot that could grace his own coffers or enhance his own prestige.

If a past Metellus had nonetheless snaffled some architectural salvage, maybe that was a clue to the whole family's attitude and skills.

I leaned on the counter of a bowl-and-beaker snackshop. I could see across the street to the Metellus spread. It had a weathered, selfconfident opulence. I had intended to ask questions of the food vendor but he looked at me as if he thought he had seen me before – and remembered we had had a row about his lentil pottage. Unlikely. I have style. I wouldn't order lentils any day.

`Phew! It's taken me hours to find this street.' It was a ten minute walk from the Sacred Way. Maybe if I looked fagged out he would pity me. Or maybe he would think I was an ignorant deadbeat, up to no good. `Is that the Metellus house?'

The man in the apron amended his glare to suggest I was a dead bluebottle, feet-up in his precious pottage. Forced to acknowledge my question, he produced a quarter of a nod.

`At last! I have business with the people there.' I felt like a clowning slave in a dire farce. `But I hear they had a tragedy. I don't want to upset them. Know anything about what happened?'

`No idea,' he said. Trust me to choose the outlet where Metellus deceased always bought his morning sesame cake. Loyalty makes me sick. Whatever happened to gossip?

`Well, thanks.' It was too early in the game to make myself unpleasant, so I refrained from accusing him of ruining my livelihood with his stingy responses. I might need him later.

I drained my cup, wincing at the sourness; some bitter herb had been added to much-watered-down wine. It was not a success.

The food vendor watched me all across the street. Being turned away by the door porter would be a deep humiliation, so I made sure it didn't happen. I said I was from the lawyer. The porter thought I meant their lawyer and I failed to put him straight. He let me in.

So far, so good. A small battered sphinx guarded the atrium pool. The wide-eyed wise one had stories to tell, but I could not dally. The decor was all polychrome floors and black frescos with gold leaf touch-ups. Perhaps an old house, revived by recent new money. Whose was that? Or was this an old grand mansion, now sinking into disarray? – I noticed an air of dusty neglect as I craned to look into the side rooms.

I did not make contact with any of the family. A steward saw me. He was an eastern-born slave or freedman, who seemed alert. Late forties, clearly with status in the household, efficient, well-spoken, probably cost a packet to purchase though that would have been some years back. I decided not to prevaricate; incurring a false-entry charge was a bad idea. `The name's Falco. Your porter may have misunderstood. I represent Silius Italicus. I am here to check a few details about your master's sad demise so he can write off his fees. First, allow me to express our most sincere condolences.'

`Everything is in order,' said the steward, almost as if they had expected this. It was not quite the correct response to my condolences and at once I mistrusted him. I wondered if Paccius Africanus had warned them here that we would try to investigate. 'Calpurnia Cara -'

I took out a note tablet and stylus. I kept my manner quiet. `Calpurnia Cara is?'

`My late master's wife.' He waited while I made notes. `My mistress arranged for seven senators to view the corpse and certify the suicide.'

I held my stylus still and gazed at him over the edge of my notebook. `That was very cool-headed.'

`She is a careful lady.'

Protecting a lot of money, I thought. Of course if it really was a suicide, the husband and wife may well have discussed what Metellus intended. Metellus may have instructed his wife to bring in the witnesses. Paccius Africanus would certainly have advised it, if he were involved. It was a chilling thought that counselling his client to die might be good legal advice.

`Do you know whether Calpurnia Cara tried to dissuade her husband from his planned course?'

`I imagine they talked about it,' the steward replied. `I don't know what was said.'

`Was the suicide announced to the household staff beforehand?'

He looked surprised. `No.'

`Any chance I might talk with your mistress?'

`That would not be appropriate.'

`She lives here?' He nodded. I made a small symbol on my tablet, without looking up. `And the son?' Another

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