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When my husband’s ex-wife came offering me work, I knew she was up to something. She had left him alone for ten years after she divorced him, but as soon as he started falling for me, back she came like a stubborn smell. He always made out she had been justified in leaving him, but that was horse dung. His break from her was a stroke of luck.
I knew he felt guilty that he had not invited Laia to our wedding. I did not. Today I would have pretended not to be at home, but he chose to let her in. Tiberius could be so fair-minded that if I had had an iron skillet to hand I would have brained him. Fortunately for him I don’t often cook and the housekeeper we had on trial had left us, so nobody was wielding pans in our house. Instead I supplied bread and cheese for most meals, which is why cheeses and loaves exist in my opinion.
Given time, I would find new staff. Then I could concentrate on our start-up family business and on my own career. Unfortunately, my work had given my predecessor her excuse to visit us. I was an informer, conducting investigations for private clients. The lofty ex was not hiring me herself, just trying to manipulate me; what she wanted would be with somebody else, and a mismatch as I saw it.
I offered no refreshments to Laia Gratiana; I would sooner give her warts. Impervious, she sat in our reception room looking well-dressed and smug, while Tiberius Manlius politely agreed that the story his old wife related seemed intriguing. It sounded dud to me. She was a rich, snooty blonde, and I loathed her. She and I would never form a good working relationship; I could not imagine getting along any better with her friends.
“Could be interesting, Albia,” ventured Tiberius, though he was on dangerous ground.
“Could be ghastly.” I like to be frank.
He grinned. I might have softened up, but he had included Laia in the grin.
Normally I welcomed his advice. He gave his opinion in the stern way you would expect from a magistrate, then left me to make up my own mind. Had we been on our own, we would have wrangled over me spurning Laia’s commission, but in front of her we would look harmonious.
“There should be a good fee.” Tiberius, a true plebeian and now in charge of a building firm, was used to rapid costings when sizing up jobs.
I admit we were short of funds, yet however “intriguing” Laia’s case might appear, I would not work for her. I would not give her the satisfaction. Even so, I understood why Tiberius felt curious. If anyone else had brought me this puzzle I would have jumped at it.
A young girl had been found dead in bed. Her father believed she had been poisoned by a love-potion. Her mother denied it, claiming their daughter died of a broken heart because the cruel papa had rejected the young man she wanted. A doctor declined to comment on either possible cause. That’s doctors. They see death every day and always seem surprised it has happened.
Things then grew nasty. The opposing grandmothers came to blows in the atrium. When a slave tried to separate the two of them, his arm was broken. Now the mother-in-law was being sued by her son-in-law for damaging his slave, a dispute aggravated by suggestions that she had helped in acquiring the supposed love-potion. That carried a whiff of witchcraft. People were saying it was in the public interest to uncover any use of magic, a subject that always caused intense excitement in Rome. The mother-in-law was banned from the house, and took the girl’s mother with her. Nobody was sure whether this was an official divorce, but the father called it enticement and blustered that he did not have to return the dowry. That made the mother even more angry than when he had blamed her for their child’s death.
The agitated father called in the vigiles; these neighborhood deadbeats maintained they saw no evidence of foul play. They ignored the witchcraft idea. Too much paperwork. Perhaps in reality the burly law-and-order lads were scared of witches.
Papa raised his complaint to a higher level, summoning the Urban Cohorts. Nobody else would do any such thing, but that was the sort of family he headed up: fearlessly involving as many officials as possible. Never known to be diligent, the Urbans sent a runner who sniffed around then disappeared, despite the warring grannies; he ignored their catfight even though it could have been defined as a civil riot, something the Urban Cohorts were specifically set up to suppress, normally with horrible violence.
Next, the idiot householder went even further: he petitioned the Praetorian Guards. Luckily, they declined to attend. Most were tied up with the Emperor on maneuvers in Pannonia, while any of the commissariat left behind in Rome were going crazy as they arranged a Triumph for when our glorious ruler returned.
If the father was as daft as he sounded, he would now appeal to the Emperor. Involving Domitian could be a death sentence for everyone. Perhaps you start to see why I was opposed to being drawn in.
“Why, anyway, was a love-potion suspected?” Tiberius asked Laia Gratiana. “Did the lad the girl fancied not wish to be lusted after?”
“Well that’s what your clever little wife has to find out!” retorted Laia, sounding petulant as she worked through his syntax. Clearly, she had never thought to ask the question. I saw exactly what he meant. Why had the girlie herself swallowed a potion, if she knew what she wanted but her boyfriend was the one shying away? She ought to have sent the vial to him instead. Men will drink anything; just say it will make them virile. They will deny they need it, then take a crafty swig when you are not looking.
“My clever wife will have to decide whether she wants the case. Incidentally, you shouldn’t call Flavia Albia ‘little’ if you intend to keep your teeth.”
Thanks, loyal husband. Tiberius and I had been married a month, despite the gods having struck him down on our wedding day with a bolt of lightning.
I am not joking. Laia must really be kicking herself that she was not at our wedding. Its thrills had even been reported in the Daily Gazette. We know how to throw a party.
“Well, of course she must take the case,” purred Laia, ignoring his comment about keeping her teeth. To me, that demonstrated why they had not survived as man and wife. I, on the other hand, tipped a finger at him, to let him know I had noticed. The bad boy smiled again, though this time just for me. His ex carried on, all unawares: “This is the kind of conundrum that darling Flavia adores.”
I was not Laia Gratiana’s darling, she had no idea what kind of work I liked, nor even what I really did—and no one calls me Flavia. That compliment to the Emperor was dumped on me as part of a tricky citizenship claim. It obtained me a grubby diploma that said I had Roman birth, but it put me on a par with Imperial freedwomen and ambitious foreigners. Even my diploma was stamped by the governor of a very obscure province. All my relatives tease me over this.
Laia Gratiana’s true opinion of my skills was low, but I saw what her game was. The events under discussion happened in the Quirinal district. She wanted me to leave home and exhaust myself with somebody else’s domestic dispute on the far side of Rome. Her motive was transparent. If she couldn’t have Tiberius, I should not have him either. Laia Gratiana never saw me as a rival; she just wanted to be spiteful against him.
“No, thanks.” I kept it professional. “A dead fifteen-year-old is always sad to hear about—so much lost potential, it’s very unfortunate—but family tragedies can turn too ugly. It’s not worth the fee. That’s assuming they ever pay up—though you’d be surprised how fast feuding couples resolve their differences and unite when faced with an invoice for time-charges and expenses.”
“Try asking for payment in advance,” advised Laia, at her most patronizing.
“Standard practice.” I was terse.
“Well, I’m sure you can’t afford to turn away business.” Laia, who only condescended to spend her own energy in community good works, made out that no respectable woman would ever involve herself in something people paid for. Since informers are tracked by the vigiles in the same way as actors and prostitutes, she had a point. I might agree my trade was disreputable. Nevertheless, I said I had cases backed up, so on this occasion Laia would have to tell her smart friends on the Quirinal that I was unavailable.
People did not often say no to Laia. I really enjoyed doing so.
While she recovered, I added that I had a sickly husband who needed me; I was devoting myself to my role as a magistrate’s wife, looking after him. I relished that too, because when Laia had him he was too young to be an aedile, so she never possessed the social cachet that I had. With this dig, I left the room as if I had dinner napkins to count. Laia was only here today because of her old connection with Tiberius. He could get rid of her.
* * *
He must have persuaded her to go. I hid myself in a store cupboard to avoid even having to say goodbye. When I came out, she was nowhere to be seen. Neither was he.
Annoying to the last, Laia had left a note-tablet plonked on a side table that gave the address of the family whose daughter had died. I could tell she had written it herself: the lettering was so neat I wanted to spill fish pickle over it, then give it to the dog to chew, if we’d had one.
Laia had raised her thinly pruned eyebrows in amazement at my rejection. She had a knack of making me feel crude. The fact that she must have brought this tablet with her, regardless of whether or not I was willing to accept the commission, made me rave even more. She had added unnecessary details (“smart house by the fountain, it has a red door”) as if she thought I was incapable of finding places for myself, even though I spent my working life doing that, often with meager directions. Her letters were slightly too large, her lines too straight. Her whole attitude was unbearable.
What bloody fountain, anyway?
I wished we did own a dog, one that would have run over to Laia and peed on her dress hem.
Copyright © 2018 by Lindsey Davis