It was a quiet afternoon on the Via Flaminia. When a wisp of smoke wafted across from the river direction, sheered downwards and dematerialised against a pantile on the roof of the station house, nobody noticed. Rome, the Golden City, went about its business. The vigiles of the First Cohort continued their tasks.
The yard lay still; afternoons were dead time. The tribune was off at his own house. Nobody was doing much. The vigiles had been brought into existence to combat fires, but also covered local law and order. Most action occurred at night. Between lunchtime and dinner their duties were minimal, which was how the day shift liked it.
Titus, their new Emperor, was away in Campania. For the second time now, he was visiting the disaster area after Mount Vesuvius erupted the autumn before. Many people had feared the worst when Titus succeeded his father; despite his charm, Vespasian’s son was thought to be ruthless. Yet apparently he had overhauled his personality: renounced vice, promised to execute no more opponents, and even sent away his unpopular lover, Queen Berenice of Judaea, after she scampered to Rome hoping to become his empress. Now every time the wardrobe slaves dressed Titus in his sumptuous robes, he also stepped into a fetching reputation as a benign ruler. After the volcanic catastrophe, his people, desperate for reassurance, were forgiving. Titus encouraged them by spending his own money on relief efforts.
At forty, he should have a long reign ahead of him but Vesuvius would obviously be its major event—so unexpected, so destructive, so very close to Rome. Campania was taking up much of his time. Still, if anything of moment happened back in Rome, his brother Domitian could be roped in as a substitute.
That was unlikely. The Empire and the city rolled along in the safe hands of officials. Though Titus rarely showed open animosity, most people assumed that he intended to prevent Domitian exercising power.
* * *
A couple more threads of smoke drifted above the Field of Mars. Rome’s usual hot blue sky was permanently grey that year so these cirrus-light wisps were indistinguishable. Again, no one paid any attention.
The depressing skies had deposited a fine film of dirt over everything. Throughout the Mediterranean the temperature cooled, after Vesuvius flung up millions of tons of ash, its plume blocking out sunlight as far away as North Africa and Syria. In Italy itself, the sea—Mare Nostrum, our sea—had been sucked dry then flung back upon the coast. Fish died. Birds died. When spring came, the once-fertile Bay of Naples area lay many feet deep under lava, ash and solidified mud. Instead of three crops a year in Campania, there were no crops at all. Prices shot up. Areas which traditionally fed Rome lay half dead. There was starvation; the populace weakened; an epidemic set in. Thousands were sick and many would die.
So it was already a bad year. Promises of lavish festivities once Titus inaugurated his father’s huge new amphitheatre barely kept up the Romans’ spirits. Only very expensive public games, with long holidays to enjoy the grunts and gore, would relieve their gloom.
* * *
On the station house roof, a dim pigeon spread a wing, vainly hoping to bask in sunshine, while its brighter mate simply sat hunched in the post-Vesuvian murk.
Two levels below, one of the vigiles sniffed the air as if a warning had reached his subconscious, but he continued unconcernedly sharpening fire-axes. All the other smells of Rome competed for his notice, from raw fish and bloody meat to frying food, crushed garlic and herbs; foul stinks from tanneries; wood-burning furnaces; incense and perfumes; whole aromatic warehouses full of fine peppers and cinnamon; middens; drains; pine trees; vagrants, mule dung and dead dogs.
The station house contributed its own odours of scorched ropes and dank esparto-grass mats. On busts of Titus and the old Emperor Vespasian in the shrine at the end of the parade ground, dry wreaths carried potpourri scents of laurel and cypress. The station house was occupied at various times by a thousand men of lowly origin who engaged in hard physical work; they stank of smoke, sweat and feet, while most of them made powerful use of belches and farts too, using those in conversation like expressive parts of speech.
Few were talking now. Fire buckets were stacked around unfilled. The enormous gates stood all but closed, with only a crack left for access. Some men were catching a nap indoors, though a few lolled outside in the air. They looked up when one of their crime team returned. It was Scorpus, close-cropped and shrewd-eyed, limping since an old accident at a house fire, as so many of them did. He was trailing a young woman.
She must be bound for the investigation officer: Gaius Vinius Clodianus, son of an ex-cohort tribune who managed promotion to the Praetorian Guard; brother of two ex-soldiers; ex the Twentieth legion himself; twenty-three years old, five feet ten, a hundred and seventy pounds; generally competent, pretty well-liked. The men assumed he would hear the story, promise to look into it, deplore the cohort’s heavy workload, wink flirtatiously—then send the girl packing.
Sizing up the visitor, they reflected crudely on her youth, her figure and the fact that the lucky Vinius would interview her unchaperoned. She was decent-looking, though here being female was enough.
They all knew Vinius was married. Although he never discussed his private life, the marriage was rumoured to be in trouble (Vinius himself was ignoring their difficulties—which, for his wife, encapsulated the problem). His men assumed that he upheld cohort traditions by chasing other women, though not unmarried girls. They would lay bets on that, just as they were certain that Vinius would always choose the Chicken Frontinian off a menu board or that every time he was shaved he had his barber slap on a plain camomile wash. They served with him, so they knew him. Or so they believed.
* * *
As Flavia Lucilla entered, her heart sank. Several men whistled. To them it was appreciative; to her it felt aggressive. She was young enough to blush.
She had found herself in a large open space inside the two-storey official premises. Colonnades ran down each long side; another similar courtyard opened ahead, then a third. Just inside the mighty main gates, she had passed between two large water basins. Pieces of equipment were piled in the yards in a way that looked haphazard although perhaps it made items quick to collect in an emergency. It was all alien to her.
She scuttled after Scorpus into the enquiries office, half way down the left colonnade, in one of many small rooms that lay behind the pillars. As they entered, Scorpus pointed an index finger at her in silence, then moved that finger through forty-five degrees to indicate where she was to take a seat. The gesture was not particularly offensive. “Gaius Vinius will take your story.” The presumed Vinius barely glanced up.
Lucilla dropped onto the centre of a low wooden bench, otherwise unoccupied. She sat on her hands, arms straight and shoulders tight. Clearly, she was a nuisance and she had to wait. That suited her. By now, she wished she had not come.
The enquiry officer was not what she expected; for a start he was young, not some grizzled centurion. Seated at a rustic table placed crossways to the door, he had a good-looking profile and Lucilla felt he knew it. He was working on documents; other men would have had the cohort clerk do the writing, while they dictated. Waxed wooden tablets with a stylus lay in front of Vinius, but he was completing a formal list in ink on a scroll. She watched him sign it then replace the wet pen rather daintily in its inkwell; with this small fancy gesture he seemed to be half-mocking himself for enjoying such work. It suggested Vinius was eccentric; most investigators complained about time-consuming bureaucracy.
“Here, Scorpus. Three to kick upstairs.” His voice was lower and stronger than Lucilla expected. She guessed “kicking upstairs” was not a literal command but shorthand for despatching wrongdoers to the Vigiles Prefect. Routine crimes would be dealt with by a thrashing or a local fine. Recalcitrant offenders would be passed to the Prefect of the City, who could send them for a full trial.
Scorpus skimmed the short scroll and, as he went out with it, commented, “Morena won’t be happy!”
Vinius shrugged. Then he waited, idly flipping through the waxed tablets. Lucilla noticed his wedding ring. His hands were clean and neatly manicured. He was blessed with thick, dark hair which he had had extremely well cut, so the young girl was startled by the erotic attraction of expert layering into the nape of his strong male neck.
He continued to ignore her. Increasingly nervous, she tried not to attract his attention. She gazed around but apart from the table and bench there was nothing in the room except a large map on the wall. It showed the Seventh and Eighth Regions, which the First Cohort covered, a segment of the city which ran from the city boundary above the Pincian Hill, down past the Gardens of Sallust and the Quirinal, right into the Forum. It was where she had been brought up so she recognised the main features, even though the street names had faded badly. Occasional newer marks in different inks had been added, as if to pinpoint local incidents.
She should not have come. She should either have left it alone, or made her mother come with her. That had proved impossible; she should have accepted that her mother did not want the vigiles involved.
After various shouts and banging of doors outside, a man burst into the room, grumbling loudly. Some sort of prisoner-escort could be heard in the portico, while Scorpus reappeared and leaned on the doorframe, watching with a smirk.
“Morena!” Vinius greeted the new arrival calmly. The protester was scrawny and seedy-looking, with disastrous combed-over straggles of hair. Lucilla saw he was the kind of man who wasted all day at a street bar counter, making obscene jokes to offend passers-by. From the officer’s expression, Vinius would second her: and then he expects the waitress to fuck him for nothing. Perhaps adding, if he was particularly depressed, and the sad little cow probably does it …
“Is it about Isis Street again? You can’t do this to me!”
“No option,” Vinius disagreed. “Morena, I have warned you twice about keeping fire buckets. My duty is to check up on you like a bastard, then your duty is to carry out my orders. But you have persistently done nothing.”
“The tenants keep pinching the water for their balcony flowerpots!”
“Refill the cistern. Evict your tenants for breach of their lease—I presume even speculators like you give the poor sods a lease? We can’t do our job without water. Jupiter, man, one dropped lamp in your lousy building and you could burn the city down!”
“Give me another chance.”
“You said that the other times.”
“I just ordered the improvements—”
“My tribune wants arrests.”
In the doorway, Scorpus grinned. Vinius sighed stagily. “I hope you are not trying to bribe me, Morena?”
“Stuff you then, Vinius, you ugly two-faced skank!”
“Cut it.” Vinius rose to his feet. Ugly was no word for him, though Lucilla would never have admired him openly; he was too sure of himself already. He was tall and well-muscled, entirely self-composed. He barely raised his voice: “Morena, you are the landlord of a five-storey, ramshackle, multiple-occupancy dump in Isis Street which fails its fire inspection every time we visit. You are a whining, flea-bitten, fine-dodging, mortgage-shovelling, widow-cheating, orphan-starving, small-minded slave-shagger—is that right?”
Morena wilted. “Fair enough.”
“So bugger off to the Prefect and stop wasting my time.”
Morena was dragged out backwards, with harsh shouts from the vigiles. Gaius Vinius sank back to his seated position, barely winded. Still not turning his head, he looked sideways at Lucilla. “Right, young lady; what brings you to this fine haven of public order?”
* * *
Vinius had already assessed her unobtrusively. He was surprised she arrived alone; young girls usually tripped about in pairs. She would be safe, at least on his watch, but he suspected she had some mischievous purpose in coming. At the first sign of playing up or cheek, she was for it.
She was average height, skinny and flat-chested, though not badly nourished. She, or her parents, had grown up in a household where if they ate scraps the scraps were remains of good meals: leftovers from a well-to-do but wasteful family, typical of the slave-serviced classes. Vinius correctly classified her as a daughter of freed slaves.
Nobody’s little princess, she wore a narrow tunic in a cheap natural colour; she had grown out of the garment, so it showed her ankles. Nice ankles, but she wasn’t a child now and ought to keep them covered up. Her chestnut hair was twisted and speared with one long pin that surprisingly looked like ivory—a gift? If not a gift, probably filched from a much richer woman’s ornament box.
When Gaius Vinius interviewed the public he was businesslike, not one of those enquirers who would banter with women then botch their reports. However, had it been relevant, his assessment was that his visitor would be good-looking when she grew up. Which he prophesied would happen in about a month’s time.
He shuffled the wax tablets in front of him, selected one, and smoothed it over with the flat of his stylus. “Name?”
“Flavia Lucilla.” Her voice came out as a scared little squeak, causing Vinius to check the spelling. “Flavia” confirmed that her family had obtained citizenship under the current emperors, so in the last generation.
“Seventeen.” Take away two years, calculated Vinius.
“Father?” Lucilla stayed silent; Vinius moved on. Many people he interviewed had no idea who their fathers were. “Mother?”
“Flavia Lachne, imperial freedwoman.”
Vinius felt sceptical of “imperial.” There were plenty of ex-slaves from the palace, but after three years of dealing with the public he took nothing on trust; he suspected this was merely the child of a fishmonger’s filleter, enhancing her status. “And you live?”
“Opposite the Porticus Vipsania, by the conch fountain.” Vinius could not place it. He had tried to become familiar with all the narrow alleys of the Seventh Region since he was posted in, but he was still learning. The wall map was no help; you could pick out temples and theatres, but finding tenements where the poor lived had never been a vigiles priority. “An apartment on the fourth floor.” The middle classes lived at ground level; the destitute toiled up six flights of stairs; the fourth floor was close to poverty, yet not absolutely there.
“So what’s your problem, darling?”
Lucilla bridled. “Officer, I am not your darling!”
“You’ll never be anybody’s, with that temper.” Vinius saw the girl take a furious breath so, dropping his stylus onto the table, he made a swift appeasing gesture, open-palmed. Then he linked his hands behind his head and produced a rueful half smile. This generally had a good effect with women. Lucilla glared as if she had paid to see a celebrity gladiator but got stuck with a creaking understudy. “So, have you come to report a crime or to make a complaint?”
Sensibly, she stifled her indignation. “We have been burgled.”
“Me and my mother.”
“Any slaves?” The slaves would be his first suspects.
“Oh our extensive staff !” Lucilla snapped, firing up again. “A battalion of pastry cooks, three wardrobe women—and we just wouldn’t be anybody without an unpublished poet who works as our door-porter.”
Vinius looked sour, to stop himself smiling. “What size apartment?”
“Two rooms; we live in one and my mother works with her clients in the other.”
“A beautician.” Belatedly Lucilla realised how it sounded: as if Lachne was a prostitute.
Vinius wondered if the daughter was being trained in the same trade. He decided that would be a pity. Gods, he must be going soft.
“Mother is a hairdresser, for the Emperor’s family,” Lucilla protested.
Vinius did not believe that story. But if Lachne sold herself to men, she must be registered here; he could check the vigiles records, so there was no point in the girl lying. If the woman worked on her back and had not registered, it was foolish to attract his attention—which might explain why the girl was sent here by herself, with the mother keeping out of the way.
“Where is your mother now?”
“At home, hysterical.”
“So what happened?”
“Mother came home and found all her jewellery missing.”
“Any of it valuable?”
“All of it!” Lucilla saw the investigator’s suspicion.
“Sure it’s gone? Mama couldn’t have stuffed her beads behind a cushion and forgot?”
“We searched the whole apartment.” Lucilla had done that, and she had been methodical. She had her own doubts about her mother.
Vinius applied a friendly face. “I shall make a list eventually, so be thinking.” He noted that apart from her ivory hairpin, the waif-like Lucilla wore not so much as a pebble necklace. Nobody would place her as a child of a woman with possessions worth stealing. Jupiter, even among the homeless under the Tiber bridges, mothers usually decked daughters in a string of pebbles. His own toddler wore an amulet. “So, Mama comes home … Any signs of a break-in?”
“Damage to your door?”
“Would other people have known you would be out?” Lucilla shrugged, implying their movements were random. “You’re on the fourth floor—could anybody climb over from a neighbouring balcony?”
“No, we don’t have a balcony, and we keep the shutters closed.”
“So the only way in is through the door? You do lock it when you’re out?”
“Yes, we are not stupid!” Anxiously, the girl lashed out at him again, “You are not taking any notes!”
All Vinius had scratched on his tablet so far was her name. He never wasted effort. The chances of solving this burglary were slim. Rome was awash with housebreakers, bathhouse clothes’ pilferers, purse-thieves, rogues who pulled packages off the backs of moving carts, dishonest slaves, and walk-in chancers who strolled into houses to empty dining rooms of their silverware. He rarely caught any of them.
“What kind of lock?”
Under his prompting, Lucilla described the pointless inexpensive kind that bad landlords like Morena always installed; at least hers had a key, not merely a latch-lifter. Gaius Vinius, who believed crime prevention was his most useful work, recommended a barrel-lock, suggesting where the women could buy one from a reputable locksmith.
‘“Reputable’ means…?” asked Lucilla cynically.
Vinius had his human side; he was rather enjoying the conversation now. “The one I always recommend. Then at least I know where to head if someone who has followed my advice is subsequently burgled…” More serious, he asked the usual question: “Does anyone other than your mother or yourself have a key?” This was patronising. On the other hand, there was a good reason why the vigiles always asked it. Lucilla shook her head; victims always denied giving out duplicates. Vinius kept going: “I know it is very unpleasant to think you might have trusted the wrong person … Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No.” Lucilla looked embarrassed. He should have known from her absence of ornament; the first crook who came after this girlie would get her in return for a faux-gold snake bangle with glass eyes.
“What about your mother?” Lucilla’s silence told its own story. “I see. Does she have a crowd of followers, or just one at a time?”
“One at a time!”
“So what do you think of the fellows your mother entertains?”
“Not much.” Lucilla was finding the interview more difficult than she had expected. Vinius knew how to break down her defences. “The present one is a businessman. He doesn’t need to steal.”
“How well off?”
Vinius watched her thoughtfully. He allowed Lucilla time to work out why.
He could see he had upset the girl; he was sorry for that.
* * *
This was the first time in her relationship with her mother that Lucilla took any initiative. Lachne had seemed reluctant to involve the authorities, even though the contents of her jewel box, gifts from important women she had served and men she had attracted, were genuinely expensive. Indignant, and frightened that a thief had been inside their home, Lucilla had flounced off here to report the theft, leaving her mother slumped on a chair. Lachne often played the helpless woman; it had not seemed out of character.
In addressing this crisis, Lucilla had shown new independence. She was already beginning to feel doubts, when the officer’s lightly posed question made her see how her mother had duped her.
“One thing I always have to consider,” explained Vinius, “is whether a reported ‘burglary’ might be an inside job.”
He was right. Lucilla understood now. Lachne was preying on her latest man. Orgilius is such a sweetie; when he sees how unhappy I am, he is bound to replace things … Lachne did not need to report the theft, because it never happened. But she must have decided that letting her unwitting daughter run and appeal to the vigiles would make the story more credible.
Her mother had bamboozled her, lied to her, used her. Sitting there under the quizzing of Vinius, Lucilla realised she had been cruelly betrayed by the only person close to her.
Even Vinius, who had never met her before, recognised the hard look as Lucilla decided not to put up with it. She was only fifteen. She had few options. Nevertheless, she would break with her mother over this.
* * *
Outside in the yard, there were noises, which Vinius had noticed. His glance went to the door; he was listening, trying to evaluate the activity.
“I’ll send someone along. One of your neighbours may have noticed something…”
Flavia Lucilla recognised the brush-off. Vinius had not even written down where she lived. No one would be sent. It was a waste of time. Even if one of his troops did investigate, Lachne would simper and giggle, and finger the man’s muscles, and let herself be squeezed, until some half-baked understanding was reached, then Lachne and Lucilla would have to spend weeks letting the new hopeful down gently and stopping Orgilius running into him …
“So who do you think did your break-in?” Vinius asked: yet another question that the vigiles always put.
“How would we know? It’s your job to find out—that’s if you can be bothered, pretty boy!”
“Ah, sadly, sweetheart, my pretty days are over.” Vinius swung around in his seat to face Lucilla full on.
* * *
He did it on purpose, intending to shock.
While he was a soldier, he had been seriously wounded. He was smashed in the face by a rebellious tribesman’s spear and lost an eye. There was other damage, which an army surgeon who thought his patient was dying had sutured only crudely. The right side of his face, previously hidden as he sat sideways, was disfigured by terrible scars. Shaken up and sight-compromised, Vinius had been posted back to Rome and assigned to the vigiles; he was ugly enough for those tough ex-slaves to accept him.
Lucilla was horrified, but managed to conceal it. “That must spoil your love life. How did it happen?”
Vinius did not reply. He was on his feet and standing at the door, to see the action in the yard. In any case, he wanted to avoid thinking about his so-called love life.
Someone had already dragged open both main gates. Although the men appeared calm, Vinius sensed the prickle of excitement and apprehension that always accompanied fires. They were hauling a siphon engine from its indoor stall, which told him the alarm was serious.
He glanced up at the sky, which looked simply grey as usual this summer, but smoke in the air was now obvious. Investigators often joined the firemen at a blaze, to show solidarity or to check for arson. Vinius called out to ask Scorpus what was happening, at the same time pulling open a pouch on his belt and pushing in the tablet with the unwritten burglary report.
Lucilla jumped to her feet, scowling. Stalking out, she had to brush past Vinius in the doorway. He let her go, but she felt a light touch of his hand on her shoulder: reassurance and an apology.
It was a casual gesture, but would stay far too long in the memory of a lonely fifteen-year-old girl.
* * *
Scorpus lifted an eyebrow, watching Lucilla scurry away.
“A scam.” Vinius shrugged it off. “Mother fleecing her boyfriend. The girl can’t be in on the fiddle—a bit too naïve.” Who’s being naïve now?
“Oh, was she?”
They both grinned.
Then someone appeared in the gateway, calling: “From the Seventh—assistance sought. It’s a big one.”
So Gaius Vinius sent a runner to inform the cohort tribune, and the First rolled out to help with the next great disaster in the reign of the Emperor Titus. Soon they had no time to think about women, not even the women they were married to. For three days and nights without a break, they struggled to control a fire that tore out half the heart of monumental Rome, during which on many occasions they were also fighting for their lives.
Copyright © 2012 by Lindsey Davis