nod. I ticked that off too. `Is he married?'

A minute pause. 'Metellus Negrinus is divorced.' I made a longer entry.

`So.' Now I raised my eyes to the steward again. `Calpurnia Cara ensured that her husband's death was formally witnessed by noble friends. I assume you can provide me with the seven names, incidentally.' He was already producing a tablet from a pouch. These people were expertly organised. Grief had not confused them at all. `Was the viewing conducted before or after your master actually -?’

'Afterwards. Straight afterwards.'

`Were the witnesses in the house while he -'

`No, they were sent for.'

`And do you mind – I am sorry if this is very painful – but how did he…?'

I was expecting the classic scenario: on the battlefield a defeated general falls on his sword, usually needing help from a weeping subordinate because finding the space between two ribs and then summoning the strength to pull in a weapon upwards is damned difficult to fix for yourself. Nero cut his throat with a razor, but he was supposedly hiding in a garden trench at the time, where there may have been no elegant options; to be skewered on a dibber would have lacked the artistry he coveted. The traditional method in private life is to enter a warm bath and open your veins. This death is contained, relaxing, and reckoned to be more or less painless. (Mind you, it presupposes you live in a grand home with a bath.) For a senator, such an exit from disaster is the only civilised way out.

But it had not happened here.

`My master took poison,' said the steward.


TO INTERVIEW seven senators, I needed help. I returned home and summoned the Camilli. They had to be found first. I sent out my nephew Gaius, a lad about town recently returned from having his habits reformed in the country. It had not worked. He was still a layabout, but agreed to be my runner for his usual exorbitant sweetener. Trotting off to the senator's house to ask where the lads were supposed to be, he soon rousted out Aelianus from a bath house then rounded up Justinus, who was out shopping with his wife.

While I was waiting I did some budgeting, wrote an ode in my head, and replanted some flower tubs little Julia had `weeded'. Helena pounced. `I'm glad you're here. A woman called for you.'

`Oh good!' I leered.

`One of your widows.'

`Sweetheart, I promise you: I gave up widows.'

`You may do this one,' Helena assured me cruelly. `Her name is Ursulina Prisca and she is about sixty- five.'

I knew Ursulina. She had been badgering me for a long time to take on an extremely complex wrangle involving her estranged brother's will. She was half crazy. I could have coped with that; most of my clients were. But she talked a torrent, she smelt of cats, and she drank. A friend of hers had recommended me. I had never worked out who the friend was, though I would like to have strong words with them.

`She's a menace.'

Helena grinned. `I said you would be delighted to take on her work.'

`I am not available to the widow Ursulina! She tried to grab me by the balls once.'

`Don't make excuses.'

Luckily the lads turned up and I forgot the harassing widow.

I divided up the suicide witnesses, two to each of the lads while I took three.

`What was the point of having all these witnesses, Falco?' Aelianus asked fretfully.

`It's like getting your will ratified, if you are an important bean. Looks good. Deters questions. In theory it stops Forum gossip. In this case it also raises expectations of a good scandal.'

`Nobody will query certification by seven senators,' mocked Helena. `As if senators would ever conspire to lie!'

We would be lucky if any of the seven agreed to see us. Having signed the certificate, they would hope to be left alone. Senators try to be unobtainable to the public. To be asked about their noble signatures by a pack of harrying informers would seem outrageous.

Sure enough, Aelianus failed to interview either of the men allocated to him. Justinus saw one of his.

`A strike! How come?,

'I pretended I had a good tip on a horse race.'

`Smart!' I must try that.

`I wish I hadn't bothered. He was rude, Falco.'

`You expected that, you're grown up. Tell.'

`He grudgingly said they were all called to the house by Calpurnia Cara. She announced calmly that since losing the court case, her husband had decided to seek an honourable exit from public life. She told them he had taken poison that afternoon; he wished them – as his circle of friends – to observe the scene and formally certify suicide. This, she said, would simplify matters for his family. They knew what she meant. They did not see Metellus die, but inspected the corpse. He was lying on his bed, dead. He wore a grimace, had a nasty pallor, and smelt of diarrhoea. A small sardonyx pillbox lay open on a side table. The seven men all signed the declaration, which the widow has.'

`Flaw,' I chipped in. 'Metellus did not himself tell them his intentions. Then they did not see him actually swallow any pills.'

`Quite. How can they say he did it willingly?' Justinus agreed.

`Still, well done; at least we know what song these warblers want us to listen to.'

`How did you get on, Falco?' Aelianus then asked, hoping my record with the witnesses was as bad as his. I had spoken to all three of my targets. Experience tells. Aelianus replied that it also causes pomposity.

`All my subjects told the same story,' I reported. `One did concede it was bad form that they had not been addressed by Metellus beforehand. That's the ideal procedure in a council of friends. But they trust his wife, apparently – or they are scared of her – and I was assured that availing himself of the suicide ploy was entirely in character. Metellus hated to lose. He would enjoy thwarting his accusers.

`He won't enjoy much from the Underworld,' Aelianus muttered.

`Right, I think we'll end up telling Silius it stinks. Before we do, we'll go one stage further.'

`You'll try to see the strangely calm widow!' Justinus thought he was ahead of me.

I grinned. `Helena hates me seeing widows.'

`I know -' Helena herself had it right: `He is sending me. And if I am successful in gaining entry, Falco will arrive halfway through, as if innocently collecting me to walk me home.' I had not thought of that. `Don't do it,' she said immediately. `Keep out of my way, Falco. Calpurnia and I may become great friends.'

`Of course. You'll go back there to swap bangles and gossip every afternoon.'

`No, darling. I just want to ask her advice on procedure, in case I ever decide things are so bad, you should poison yourself.'

`I'll take that as a threat! – Well if I do it, I don't want seven sleazebags invited to sit on the bed and watch.'

I waited around a corner, perching on a bollard. I might be banned from joining Helena in her visit to Calpurnia Cara, but I had brought her to the Metellus spread and I would walk her safely home. Rome is a city of dangers.

When she reappeared, looking thoughtful, I decided not to press her but to make the long hike home first. We had to traverse most of the length of the Forum, pass around the base of the Capitol and Palatine Hills, then skirt the end of the Circus Maximus. At least since moving to Pa's house, we no longer had the steep haul up the Aventine, but Helena looked tired when we finally staggered home. It was dinnertime, we had our children to attend to, and before we found a chance to talk the rest of the household was in bed. We went up to the roof terrace to watch the bright stars overhead and the dim lights down along the riverbank. A single oil lamp glimmered on a table among the trained rose trees. Insects plunged at it madly, so we sat a little apart in shadow.

`So,' I prompted. `You were welcomed in?'

`Well, I was allowed in,' Helena corrected me. `I pretended that my mother had sent commiserations.

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