When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.
It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the streets unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist—and in the backstreets of the Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women.
I was standing in the Forum. She was running. She looked overdressed and dangerously hot, but sunstroke or suffocation had not yet finished her off. She was shining and sticky as a glazed pastry plait, and when she hurtled up the steps of the Temple of Saturn straight towards me, I made no attempt to move aside. She missed me, just. Some men are born lucky; others are called Didius Falco.
Close at hand, I still thought she would be better off without so many tunics. Though don’t misunderstand me. I like my women in a few wisps of drapery: then I can hope for a chance to remove the wisps. If they start out with nothing I tend to get depressed because either they have just stripped off for someone else or, in my line of work, they are usually dead. This one was vibrantly alive.
Perhaps in a fine mansion with marble veneers, fountains, garden courtyards deep in shade, a leisured young lady might keep cool, even swaddled in embroidered finery with jet and amber bangles from her elbow to her wrist. If she ran out in a hurry she would instantly regret it. The heat haze would melt her. Those light robes would stick to all the lines of her slim figure. That clean hair would cling in tantalizing tendrils against her neck. Her feet would slip against the wet soles of her sandals, runnels of sweat dash her warm throat into interesting crevices under all that fancy bodicework . . .
“Excuse me—” she gasped.
She veered around me; I sidestepped politely. She dodged; I dodged. I had come to the Forum to visit my banker; I felt glum. I greeted this smouldering apparition with the keenness of a man who needs troubles taken off his mind.
She was a slight thing. I liked them tall, but I was prepared to compromise. She was wickedly young. At the time I lusted after older women—but this one would grow up, and I could certainly wait. While we sashayed on the steps, she glanced back, panic-struck. I admired her shapely shoulder, then squinted over it myself. Then I had a shock.
There were two of them. Two ugly lumps of jail-fodder, jellybrained and broad as they were high, were pushing through the crowds towards her, just ten paces off. The little lass was obviously terrified.
“Get out of my way!” she pleaded.
I wondered what to do. “Manners!” I chided thoughtfully, as the jellybrains came within five paces.
“Get out of my way sir!” she roared. She was perfect.
It was the usual scene in the Forum. We had the Record Office and Capitol Hill hard above us on the left; to the right the Courts, and the Temple of Castor further down the Sacred Way. Opposite, beyond the white marble rostrum, stood the Senate House. All the porticos were crammed with butchers and bankers, all the open spaces filled with sweaty crowds, mainly men. The piazza rang with the curses of strings of slaves crisscrossing like a badly organized military display. The air simmered with the reek of garlic and hair pomade.
The girl pranced to one side; I slid the same way.
“Need directions, young lady?” I asked helpfully.
She was too desperate to pretend. “I need a district magistrate.” Three paces: options fast running out . . . Her face changed. “Oh help me!”
I took charge. I hooked her away by one arm as the first of the jellybrains lunged. Close to they looked even larger, and the Forum was not an area where I could count on any support. I planted the sole of my boot on the first thug’s breastbone, then vigorously straightened my knee. I felt my leg crunch, but the draught-ox staggered into his evil friend so they teetered backwards like faltering acrobats. I looked around frantically for a diversion to cause.
The steps were crowded with the usual illegal touts and overpriced market stalls. I considered upending some melons but smashed fruit meant a diminished livelihood for their market gardener. I had a diminished livelihood myself so I settled on the tasteful copperware. Tilting it with my shoulder, I keeled over a complete stall. The stallholder’s thin cry was lost as bouncing flagons, ewers and urns sped at a denting pace down the Temple steps, followed by their despairing owner and numbers of righteous passers-by—all hoping to stroll home with a nice new fluted fruitbowl under one arm.
I grabbed the girl and hared up the Temple steps. Scarcely pausing to admire the dignified beauty of the Ionic portico, I pulled her through the six columns and into the inner sanctum. She squeaked; I kept going at speed. It was cool enough to make us shiver and dark enough to make me sweat. There was an old, old smell. Our footsteps rang fast and sharp on the ancient stone floor.
“Am I allowed in here?” she hissed.
“Look pious; we’re on our way.”
“But we can’t get out!”
If you know anything about temples you will realize they have a single imposing entrance at the front. If you know anything about priests, you will have noticed they usually have a discreet little door for themselves somewhere at the back. The priests of Saturn did not disappoint us.
I brought her out on the racecourse side, and set off south. The poor girl had wriggled out of the arena straight into a lion pit. I cantered her through dark alleys and pungent back doubles to home ground.
“Wherever are we?”
“Aventine Sector, Thirteenth District. South of the Circus Maximus, heading for the Ostia Road.” As reassuring as a shark’s grin to a flounder. She would have been warned about places like this. If her loving old nurses knew what they were doing, she had been warned about fellows like me.
I slowed down after we crossed the Aurelian Way, partly because I was on secure home ground, but also because the girl was ready to expire.
“Where are we going?”
She looked relieved. Not for long: my office was two rooms on the sixth floor of a dank tenement where only the dirt and dead bedbugs were cementing together the walls. Before any of my neighbours could price up her clothing I wheeled her off the mudtrack that passed for a highroad, and into Lenia’s distinctly low-class laundry.
Hearing the voice of Smaractus my landlord, we wheeled smartly back out.
Copyright © 1989 by Lindsey Davis. All rights reserved.