MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Everyone knew a dead barmaid was buried in the courtyard.
The Garden of the Hesperides was a large but otherwise typical eating house on a busy street corner, with two marble counters, five pot-holes for containers of food, three shelves of cracked beakers, an unreadable price list on a flaking wall and a faded picture of nude women. The daub seemed to have been painted by a shy artist who had never seen anyone naked. In a nervous line of three, his nudes huddled beneath gnarled boughs from which dangled dingy fruit. Hercules set about his scrumping task, watched by a bored snake instead of by Ladon, who ought to be a fearsome, hundred-headed, never-sleeping dragon. A snake was easier to draw, no doubt. The legendary Golden Apples were so pockmarked I personally would not have sent Hercules to climb the tree for them. Hard to tell with all the dirt whether it was just poor art or the paint was now peeling off the wall.
No doubt when the bar was open for business it had waiters who were very slow to serve anyone and pretty girls who did all the work. A room upstairs was used for assignations; you could bring your own or hire the staff.
Its landlord, a famous local character—that horrible type—was believed to have murdered the missing woman years before, then hidden her body in the courtyard, where customers could sit outside under a pergola. Regulars referred to the tragedy matter-of-factly, only adding lurid details when they wanted to get into conversation with newcomers who might buy them drinks. Anybody sensible thought it was a myth—yet it was odd how the myth did specify that the barmaid’s name was Rufia.
* * *
About six months before I first went to this bar, the old landlord died. The new one decided to make improvements. He had been waiting for years for his predecessor to pass on, so he was full of ideas. Most were terrible. Instead, a firm of renovation contractors convinced him he needed to pretty up the courtyard; his bar was, after all, named for the most famous garden in the world. What he should do, they assured him earnestly, was to improve the dank, uninviting area by creating a delightful water feature that would tempt drinkers to linger. They said it could easily be done. If he really wanted to be authentic he could plant an apple tree …
He fell for it. People do.
They promised to give him a good price for a timely job. In the way of their trade, that meant they would overcharge, delay forever and mess up the works until, after weeks of not being open to customers, the despairing owner would be left with a leaking canal in a garden that now had no room for tables. The tree, if one was ever supplied, would die the first summer.
All normal so far.
Not long after the old landlord had his last drink on earth, the owner of the building company died too. I am a private informer and she had been a client of mine. About five months later, the man I had just set up house with decided that at close to forty years of age it was time he found his first job. Perhaps he feared that keeping me in Lucanian sausage might not come cheap. He may even have noticed that I, who did have work as an informer, was just as wary of him possibly sponging off me. Whichever it was, since he knew my ex-client’s heir, he bought her empty house, together with her decrepit builders’ yard and failing construction firm. It appeared to be a mad idea, though in fact he had his reasons because he was that kind of man. Also, as my family pointed out, if he took up with me, he must be brave.
When Manlius Faustus first acquired the business, he found the Hesperides job still on the books. At that point, it was the only order his workforce had. They would toddle along to the bar every couple of weeks with a handcart of inferior materials, stay for half a day, then disappear again. The client was disgusted, as people who try to renovate property so often are. He had not realized the company had almost been wound up due to a death and the heir was a cheesemaker who took no interest in it; he was extremely lucky my loved one was the new proprietor. Faustus may never have held a job before, but he was currently a magistrate. He could organize. For starters, he let the workmen know they were about to be supervised, by him in person.
Faustus then walked down to see the bar owner, who was amazed to be visited by a quiet man in a clean tunic who handed him revised drawings, plus up-to-date costings and a new timetable. What’s more, completion was to be the end of August, which was this month.
He may have been less thrilled to receive an invoice for work done so far. I had helped work that out; it was not perfect, because nobody had been keeping records. But it showed how things would be from now on. The barkeeper agreed he had been warned. He wouldn’t argue over payment. He just wanted to be able to reopen and sell drinks.
Faustus was proving himself. Privately, I was reassured too. I would never knowingly have lived with a sponger—but it’s an easy mistake. I had had several clients who needed me to extricate them from layabouts’ clutches. Layabouts can make themselves look attractive and they know how to cling.
But as I had hoped, my new man was applying himself. A month after we started living together, Faustus was extremely busy. As a magistrate, a plebeian aedile, he worked hard; that would continue until his year in office ended in December. He distinguished himself, turning up at the aediles’ building by the Temple of Ceres almost every day. It was unheard of. When I first met him he was having a fine time adopting scruffy disguises and going out onto the streets to catch wrongdoers in person. At the moment he was also preparing for the Roman Games, a great festival in September that the aediles organized. Patrolling markets, baths, bars and brothels himself might be optional (they had a permanent staff to do this) but running the Games was not.
Faustus had also chosen to renovate the house that came with his building firm, where we intended to live. So he had three jobs. Some days I hardly saw him.
We were in love. I wanted to see him all the time. So, one particular morning when he was over at the Garden of the Hesperides, I packed up a little basket of dainties and took him lunch. Yes, he was working at a bar, but it was closed due to the works. Besides, I had convinced myself that only I could make my man a proper picnic, assembled the way he liked it; Faustus went along with that, all soft eyes and tender murmurs. We had not been together long. We would settle down. Probably by next week we’d be ignoring each other.
While the drooling still occurred, however, he and I were sitting side by side at one of the bar tables, with hard-boiled eggs and olives set out on a napkin. In between drinking from the same beaker, I was wiping olive oil off his firm chin and he was accepting my solicitousness. He liked it. He didn’t care who knew that, even if his workmen snorted.
We were devoting almost all our attention to each other, yet we were observant people. We both did work that relied on sharp eyes. It was stupid of two builders to hope they could sidle out of the courtyard without us noticing that among the dug-up rubble they were carrying away in a basket slung on a pole, interesting items stuck out. They had found some bones.
Copyright © 2016 by Lindsey Davis