By the end of the alley the fine hairs in my nostrils were starting to twitch. It was late May, and the weather in Rome had been warm for a week. Energetic spring sunlight had been beating on the warehouse roof, fermenting a generous must inside. All the eastern spices would be humming like magic, and the corpse we had come to bury would be lively with human gases and decay.
I brought four volunteers from the Praetorian Guard plus a captain called Julius Frontinus who used to know my brother. He and I prised off the chains from the backstreet gates, then sauntered around the loading yard while the troopers rattled at the lock on the huge inner door.
While we were waiting Frontinus grumbled, ‘Falco, after today, just reckon I never met your brother in my life! This is the last disgusting errand you can expect to drag me on—’
‘Private favour for the Emperor…Festus would have had a word for it!’
Frontinus described the Emperor with my brother’s word, which was not genteel.
‘Easy work, Caesaring!’ I commented light-heartedly. ‘Smart uniform, free living quarters, the best seat at the Circus – and all the honeyed almonds you can eat!’
‘So what made Vespasian select you to deal with this?’
‘I’m easy to bully and I needed the money.’
‘Oh, a logical choice!’
My name is Didius Falco, Marcus to special friends. At the time I was thirty years old, a free citizen of Rome. All that meant was that I had been born in a slum, I still lived in one, and except in irrational moments I expected to die in one too.
I was a private informer the Palace occasionally used. Shedding a putrid body from the Censor’s list of citizens was up to standard for my work. It was unhygienic, irreligious, and put me off my food.
In my time I had operated for perjurers, petty bankrupts and frauds. I swore court affidavits to denounce high-born senators for debauchery so gross that even under Nero it could not be covered up. I found missing children for rich parents who would better abandon them, and pleaded lost causes for widows without legacies who married their spineless lovers the very next week – just when I had got them some money of their own. Most of the men tried to dodge off without paying, while most of the women wanted to pay me in kind. You can guess which kind; never a sweet capon or a fine fish.
After the army I did five years of that, freelancing. Then the Emperor made an offer that if I worked for him he might raise my social rank. Earning the cash to qualify would be next to impossible, but promotion would make my family proud and my friends envious, while seriously annoying all the rest of the middle class, so everybody told me this mad gamble was worth a minor insult to my republican deals. Now I was an Imperial agent – and not enjoying it. I was the new boy; so they saddled me with the worst jobs. This corpse, for instance.
The spiceyard where I had brought Frontinus lay in the commercial quarter, near enough to the Forum for us to be aware of the piazza’s busy hum. The sun was still shining; scores of swallows swooped against the blue sky. A skinny cat with no sense of occasion looked in through the open gate. From nearby premises came the scream of a pulley and a workman whistling, though mostly they seemed deserted the way warehouses and timberyards so often are, especially when I want someone to sell me a cheap plank of wood.
The Guards had succeeded in breaking open the lock. Frontinus and I tied scarves round our mouths, then hauled at the high door. A warm stench bellied out in our faces and we recoiled; its gust seemed to push our clothes clammily against our skin. We let the air settle then marched inside. We both stopped. A wave of primitive terror knocked us back.
A dreadful quiet hung everywhere – except where a horde of flies had been zooming for days in obsessive parabolas. The upper air, lit by small opaque windows, seemed thick with scented, sunfilled dust. The light below was dimmer. In the middle of the floor we made out a shape: the body of a man.
The smell of decomposition is milder than you expect, but quite distinct.
I exchanged a glance with Frontinus as we approached. We stood, uncertain what to do. Lifting the cloth gingerly, I started to peel off the toga that had been flung over the remains. Then I dropped it and backed away.
The man had been dead in the pepper warehouse for eleven days before some bright spark at the Palace remembered they ought to bury him. After lying so long unembalmed in a warm fug, the dead flesh was flaking like well-cooked fish.
We retreated for a moment while we braced ourselves. Frontinus gagged hoarsely. ‘Did you finish him yourself?’
I shook my head. ‘Not my privilege.’
‘Discreet execution – avoids an inconvenient trial.’
‘What had he done?’
‘Treason. Why do you think I’m involving the Praetorians?’ The Praetorians were the élite Palace Guard.
‘Why the secrecy? Why not make him an example?’
‘Because officially our new Emperor was greeted with universal acclaim. So plots against Vespasian Caesar don’t occur!’
Frontinus scoffed caustically.
Rome was full of men plotting, though most of them failed. The stand against fate which this one had taken had been cleverer than most, but he now lay stretched out on a dusty floor beside a blackened patch of his own dried blood. Several fellow conspirators had fled from Rome without stopping to pack spare tunics or a wine flask for the journey. At least one was dead – found strangled in a cell at the grim Mamertine prison. Meanwhile Vespasian and his two sons had been received in Rome with an unconditional welcome, and were settling down to reconstruct the Empire after two years of horrendous civil war. Everything, apparently, was under control.
The plot had been extinguished; all that remained was the disposal of its festering evidence. Allowing this man’s family to hold the normal public funeral with a procession through the streets, flute music, and hired mourners prancing around dressed as his famous ancestors had struck the suave Palace secretaries as a poor way to keep a failed conspiracy quiet. So they ordered a minor functionary to arrange a tactful errand boy; this clerk sent for me. I had a large family who relied on me and a violent landlord whose rent stood several weeks in arrears; for flunkeys with unorthodox burials to arrange I was easy prey.
‘Well, standing here won’t shift him—’
I hauled away the covering, exposing the body full length.
The corpse lay just as it had fallen, yet hideously different. We could sense how its innards were collapsing while maggots seethed within. I dared not look at the face.
‘Jupiter, Falco; this bastard was middle-class!’ Frontinus looked troubled. ‘You ought to know, no middle-ranker passes on without an announcement in the Daily Gazette to warn the gods in Hades that the shade of an eminent person is expecting the best seat in Charon’s ferryboat—’
He was right. If a body came to light wearing clothing with the narrow purple bands of a Roman knight, busy officials would insist on knowing whose son or father this worthy specimen had been.
‘Let’s hope he’s not modest,’ I agreed quietly. ‘He’ll have to be undressed…’
Julius Frontinus muttered my brother’s rude word again.
SHADOWS IN BRONZE Copyright © 1990 by Lindsey Davis