Rats are always bigger than you expect.
I heard him first: a sinister shuffle of some uninvited presence, too close for comfort in a cramped prison cell. I lifted my head.
My eyes had grown accustomed to near-darkness. As soon as he moved again I saw him: a dust-coloured, masculine specimen, his pink hands disturbingly like a human child’s. He was as big as a buck rabbit. I could think of several casual eating shops in Rome where the cooks would not be too fussy to drop this fat scavenger into their stockpots. Smother him with garlic and who would know? At a furnace stokers’ chophouse in some low quarter near the Circus Maximus, any bone with real meat on it would add welcome flavour to the broth …
Misery was making me ravenous; all I had to gnaw on was my anger at being here.
The rat was browsing nonchalantly in one corner amongst some rubbish, months’ old debris from previous prisoners, which I had avoided as too disgusting to explore. He seemed to notice me as I looked up, but his concentration was not really there. I felt that if I lay still he might decide I was a pile of old rags to investigate. But if I shifted my legs defensively the motion would startle him.
Either way, the rat would run over my feet.
* * *
I was in the Lautumiae Prison, along with various petty felons who could not afford a barrister, and all the Forum pickpockets who wanted a rest from their wives. Things could be worse. It might have been the Mamertine: the short-stay political holding cell with its twelve-foot-deep dungeon, whose only exit for a man without influence was straight down into Hades. Here at least we had continual entertainment: old lags swearing hot Subura oaths, and wild swoops of disconcerting mania from hopeless drunks. In the Mamertine nothing breaks the monotony until the public strangler comes in to measure your neck.
There would be no rats in the Mamertine. No jailor feeds a man condemned to death, so leftovers for the rodent population are scarce. Rats learn these things. Besides, everything there must be kept neat, in case any high-flown senators with foolish friends who have offended the Emperor want to drop in and relate the Forum news. Only here in the Lautumiae among the social dregs could a prisoner enjoy the keen excitement of waiting for his whiskery cellmate to turn round and sink its teeth into his shin …
The Lautumiae was a rambling affair, built to house squadrons of prisoners from provinces which were restive. Being foreign was the regular qualification. But any thorn who prickled the wrong bureaucrat could end up here as I had done, watching his toenails grow and thinking harsh thoughts about the establishment. The charge against me—in so far as the bastard who committed me to prison had a charge at all—was typical: I had made the fundamental error of showing up the Emperor’s Chief Spy. He was a vindictive manipulator called Anacrites. Earlier that summer he had been sent to Campania on a mission; when he bungled it the Emperor Vespasian despatched me to finish the job, which I smartly did. Anacrites reacted in the usual way of a mediocre official whose junior shows any tenacity: he wished me luck in public—then at the first opportunity rammed in the boot.
He had tripped me up over a minor accounting error: he claimed I stole some imperial lead—all I did was borrow the stuff to use in a disguise. I had been prepared to pay back the money I took in exchange for the metal, if anyone ever challenged me. Anacrites never gave me the chance; I was flung into the Lautumiae, and so far no one had bothered to book a magistrate to hear my defence. Soon it would be September, when most of the courts went into recess and all new cases were held over until the New Year …
It served me right. Once I had known better than to dabble in politics. I had been a private informer. For five years I did nothing more dangerous than seek out adultery and business fraud. A happy time: strolling about in the sunshine assisting tradesmen with their domestic tiffs. Some of my clients were women (and some of those were quite attractive). Also, private clients paid their bills. (Unlike the Palace, who quibbled over every innocent expense.) If I ever managed to regain my freedom, working for myself again was beckoning attractively.
Three days in jail had doused my happy-go-lucky nature. I was bored. I grew morose. I was suffering physically too: I had a sword-cut in my side—one of those slight flesh-wounds which chooses to fester. My mother was sending in hot dinners to comfort me, but the jailor picked out all the meat for himself. Two people had tried to extricate me; both without success. One was a friendly senator who tried to raise my plight with Vespasian; he had been denied an audience due to Anacrites’ baleful influence. The other was my friend Petronius Longus. Petro, who was Captain of the Aventine watch, had come to the prison with a winejar under his elbow and tried the old-pals act on the jailor—only to find himself pitched straight out in the street with his amphora: Anacrites had even poisoned our normal local loyalties. So thanks to the Chief Spy’s jealousy, it now looked as if I might never be a free citizen again …
The door swung open. A voice grated, “Didius Falco, somebody loves you after all! Get up off your backside and bring your boots out here—”
As I struggled to raise myself, the rat ran over my foot.
Copyright © 1991 by Lindsey Davis