November, AD40. When a wealthy consul’s wife asks Corvinus to investigate the death of her uncle, killed by a block of falling masonry at his estate on Vatican Hill, a sceptical Corvinus is inclined to agree with the general verdict of accidental death. But his investigations reveal clear evidence of foul play, as well as unearthing several skeletons among the closets of this well-to-do but highly dysfunctional family.
Who could have wanted Lucius Surdinus dead? His vengeful ex-wife? His ambitious mistress? His disillusioned elder, or his estranged younger, son? Or does the key to the mystery lie in the dead man’s political past?
But when Corvinus’s probing draws him to the attention of the emperor, a dangerously unpredictable Caligula, his prospects of surviving long enough to solve the mystery look slim to say the least.
Finished Business - Chapter 1
November in Rome sucks.
Oh, sure, the temperature’s still okay, and in any case me, I’d far rather have to put on an extra tunic than be broiled alive like happens in the summer months when all the Great and Good that can head for the Alban Hills or further afield. But November is wet, wet, wet, things can get pretty miserable after the fifth consecutive morning of trudging through the rain-soaked streets for your Market Square shave-and-gossip, and until you get to the end of the month the Winter Festival seems a lifetime away. So barring the days when the sun does consent to shine – and they can be glorious – I generally stick pretty close to home.
Which was what I was doing, with the usual half-jug to keep me company, when our major-domo Bathyllus buttled in to say I had a visitor.
‘The Lady Naevia Postuma, sir,’ he said. Smarmed. Yeah, well, I knew the reason for that as soon as he mentioned the name: Bathyllus is the snob’s snob, and it wasn’t often we got a visit from the wife of the senior serving consul. Particularly when she was a total stranger.
I sat up straight on the couch just as the lady herself sailed in. Sailed being the operative word, or maybe barged would be more apt. Something suitably nautical, anyway, not to say aggressive, because Naevia Postuma had a nose like a trireme’s beak and the armoured superstructure to match. Plus an overall weigh-in tonnage that would’ve been enough and to spare for two consuls’ wives. Luckily for him, our little bald-head had stepped aside pretty smartly to let her past, or he would’ve been scuttled.
‘Valerius Corvinus! It is so nice to meet you!’ She hove to and glanced behind her. Bathyllus quickly pulled up a chair and she docked, smoothing her voluminous but impeccable mantle around thighs thick as tree-trunks. ‘I was, though, also hoping to see your wife?’ There was the faintest tinge of a question at the end.
Mid-morning’s not exactly the time a visitor from the top social bracket expects to see the visitee sinking the booze. As surreptitiously as I could, I replaced the wine cup on the table beside me and tried to look as if I’d only been taking the occasional sip, possibly for medicinal reasons. Not that it worked, mind: the cup got a look that had ice forming on the inlay.
‘Ah…Perilla’s out, I’m afraid,’ I said.
‘So it would appear.’ The Look turned to me, just long enough to register but stay within the boundaries of politeness. ‘A pity, but no great matter. I did have my reasons, which I will come to in due course, but fortunately my principal business is with you.’
Fortunately. Yeah, right. Still, I was the host here, and the duties of a host are sacrosanct. ‘Could I offer you some refreshment, Naevia Postuma?’ I said.
‘Very kind.If your kitchen staff could provide a cup of warmed milk? With a spoonful of honey, and just a touch of nutmeg.’
‘Sure,’ I said. Warm milk? ‘No problem. Bathyllus, would you –?’
‘Buffalo’s, or goat’s at a pinch. Certainly not sheep’s, please, and warm cow’s milk is an abomination of nature.’ Well, I’d agree with her there. ‘I drink nothing else at this time of day, in this weather.’ The wine cup got another pointed glance. ‘Nor should you.’
‘Right.Right. Bathyllus, ah, see what you can do, pal, okay?’ Like find a passing goat to mug. Outside bet though that was, you saw even fewer buffaloes than goats on the Caelian, and I doubted if their milk featured to any great extent in our chef Meton’s store cupboard. ‘Now, Naevia Postuma.About this business of yours.’
She sniffed. ‘I would have thought that was obvious. If not its precise nature then at least in general terms.’
‘Certainly, with the exercise of some basic nouson your part.’ Ouch. ‘According to various friends of mine with whom I discussed the matter you have considerable past experience in handling, ah, problems of this sort, which although personally I find a little eccentric in someone of your social class is rather convenient, under the circumstances. It concerns a murder.’
‘Uh…is that so, now?’
‘Of my uncle, Naevius Surdinus. You knew him, of course.’
‘No, I can’t say that I did.’
She frowned. ‘That is extremely odd. He certainly knew you, or at least he knew your family. And he most definitely knew your wife, Rufia Perilla, that I’m positive of, for reasons which as I said I will come to.’ Then, when I still looked blank: ‘Lucius Naevius Surdinus? Suffect consul with Cassius Longinus ten years ago?’
‘I’m sorry. No bells. I can’t answer for Perilla, mind. She gets about socially more than I do.’
‘Well, again it’s no matter. Although it is strange.’
I prompted. ‘A murder, you said.’
‘Yes. On his estate in the Vatican district. His head was crushed by a lump of masonry.’
Delivered straight out and dead-pan, without a smidgeon of expression.
‘He was hit from behind?’
‘Oh, no.From above.A considerable way above. The block came from the top of a tower at the edge of the property, some distance from the villa itself. Uncle Lucius was having it renovated and he liked to see how the work was progressing.’
‘“Renovated”? Then it was in poor condition?’
‘Dreadful. Ruinous, in fact. It was centuries old, originally some sort of watch-tower, I think, and it had been abandoned for years. He’d taken a fancy to turn it into a philosopher’s sanctum. Philosophy was his hobby, you know, or rather more than a hobby, particularly astronomy and astrology. Also, he wanted somewhere quiet to take himself off to of an evening. Away from the villa itself.’
‘Oh? Why would he do that, especially?’
‘For the usual reason. Uncle Lucius was married, to Cornelia Sullana, and the marriage was not a particularly happy one. These things happen, of course, and when they do it’s good for both parties concerned to have some private space. Or don’t you agree?’
‘Yeah. Yeah, I suppose so.’
‘Mind you, I should say that when he died – that was three days ago, by the way – he and Sullana had been divorced for almost a month, so that aspect of things was academic.’
‘You, uh, know the reason? For the divorce, I mean?’
‘No. He gave none, to me or to anyone else, Sullana, presumably, excepted. And I didn’t ask, because it was no business of mine. Besides, as I said, he and Sullana had not been a couple, properly speaking, for many years. That might well be reason enough. Although –’ She stopped.
‘Nothing.Or nothing that I wish to expand on. As I say, it wasn’t my business.’
I shelved that for the time being. ‘Did they have any family?’
‘Two sons living. Lucius Junior, the elder, intends to run for praetor this coming year. The younger, Hellenus – Marcus, really, but he prefers the nickname, and the family indulge him – is, well, rather a disappointment.’
‘In what way?’
‘He’s an artist.’
I stared at her. ‘He is what?’
‘Yes, I know, Valerius Corvinus. Totally dreadful, and a serious embarrassment to his poor father, but there it is, what can you do? Young people today, I don’t know what the world is coming to. He absolutely refused to enter on a proper political career, I mean, refused point blank, if you can imagine that. He and his parents are estranged, and although Uncle Lucius never went as far as to disinherit him there’s been, to my knowledge, no contact with either his father or his mother for at least the past two years. He has, I understand’ – she sniffed – ‘a workshop or a studio or whatever you’d call it somewhere near the Circus, and there he stays.’
Yeah, well, not that I was going to let on to the lady but I could sympathise with that because I’d done more or less the same myself, barring the art bit. And knowing how my own father had reacted when I told him where he could put his plans for my future I could appreciate how Hellenus’s had felt. Not to mention the guy’s mother: anyone with the name Cornelia Sullana belonged to one of the top families in Rome, and those lads and lasses are sticklers for tradition. An artist as a descendant would have the old Dictator himself spinning in his urn.
‘Getting back to the business of the tower,’ I said. ‘You say it was in a very bad condition.’
‘Oh, yes. Completely ramshackle, particularly the upper storeys. The builders Uncle Lucius hired to do the renovations are charging him a fortune because they say they’re taking their lives in their hands working on it.’
‘Then your uncle’s death could’ve been an accident? I mean, the weather now being what it is if he’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time –’
‘It was quite definitely murder, Valerius Corvinus,’ she said firmly. ‘The family and everyone else will tell you differently, of course they will, but I know that for a fact. Alexander told me.’
‘The Alexander.’ Then, when I looked blank: ‘Oh, really, young man! Get a grip, please! King of Macedon?Philip’s son?’
I was boggling slightly.
‘Ah…right,’ I said. ‘Right.’
‘I presume you had some education.’
‘Yeah, well, it’s just that –’
…which, luckily, was when Bathyllus smarmed back in with one of our best silver cups balanced on its matching tray.
‘The chef apologises, madam.’ He set the tray on the table beside her. ‘We seem unaccountably to be out of buffalo milk, but he hopes goat’s will suffice.’
Uh-huh. I smothered a grin; knowing our Meton, whatever he’d said when Bathyllus had relayed the order it hadn’t been that. What’s more, I’d bet he’d qualified the nouns with a few choice adjectives and participles of his own, too.
‘I’m sure that will be perfectly adequate.’ She sipped, and I winced. ‘Yes, indeed. Delicious.’
Bathyllus bowed and buttled out.
‘Ah…you were talking about Alexander, Naevia Postuma,’ I said, and added carefully, just in case I’d got it wrong after all: ‘Alexander the Great, that would be, yes?’
That got me a look that should’ve curdled her milk. ‘Naturally it would,’ she said. ‘I must say, Valerius Corvinus, from what I’ve heard about you I’d’ve expected you to be much quicker on the uptake than that. Alexander is my control.’
‘In the spirit world. Regarding my uncle’s murder, he was quite definite. As he was, in fact, that I should follow my friends’ suggestion and consult you on the matter. I’ve never known him so insistent.’ She sipped again. ‘This really is quite delicious. Hymettus honey, I do believe, and from flowers grown on the southern slopes.’
‘Yeah.Yeah, very possibly. So, ah, let’s just be absolutely clear about this, shall we? You’re saying that your only reason for believing that your uncle was murdered is that Alexander the Great told you so, right?’
‘Indeed. But there is no only about it. Alexander is never wrong. Never. And he says that it is absolutely vital that you find the murderer.’
‘He vouchsafe why?’ Or best of all just give the stupid woman the name of the fucking perp straight out and save us all a lot of time and grief faffing around. But then for some arcane celestial reason that never happens with chatty spirits, does it?
‘I’m afraid not, no. Only that it was of the utmost importance.’
Well, bully for Alexander. This thing needed nipping in the bud before it went any further. ‘Now look, lady –’ I began, just as Perilla breezed in from her honey-wine-and-poetry klatsch.
‘Hello, Marcus,’ she said. ‘Bathyllus said you had a visitor. How lovely to see you again, Naevia Postuma. And how is your husband the consul?’
‘Gaius is very well, thank you, my dear. He would send you his regards.’
‘What a beautiful mantle. Is it new?’
‘Actually, yes, as it happens. From a little shop that’s just opened in the Saepta. Next to Argyrio’s. You know it?’
‘Fabatus’s? Oh, yes, although I haven’t been there yet myself. Calventia Quietina told me about that when I talked to her a few days ago. She said –’
Jupiter on wheels! ‘Ah…Perilla,’ I said. ‘Naevia Postuma here thinks her uncle has been murdered. She wants me to –’
‘I don’t think it,’ Postuma snapped, turning back to me. ‘I know. And I have explained why, fully and concisely.’
‘Because Alexander the Great told you so,’ I said neutrally, with one eye on Perilla. The lady had parked herself on her usual couch. She looked remarkably unfazed at the news, which I thought under the circumstances was pretty odd.
‘Quite.’ Postuma reached into the fold of her mantle and took out a small book-roll. ‘However, I’m glad you’re here in person, Rufia Perilla. It makes things much simpler. As I told your husband, my visit had two purposes. This is the second.’ She handed the roll to Perilla. ‘As you can see, there’s a letter attached.’
Perilla took the roll and read the tag.
‘Hipparchus’s commentary on the Phaenomena of Eudoxus,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand.’
Postuma sniffed. ‘To tell the truth, my dear, I haven’t the faintest idea of the whys and wherefores myself. My uncle left it to you in a codicil to his will which he added only a few days ago, and in this instance I am simply the messenger. Perhaps the letter will explain.’ She got to her feet. ‘Now. I’m afraid I have a very tiresome committee meeting to attend at Queen Juno’s temple this morning, and I must be running along.’ The mind boggled: Queen Juno’s temple was half way across town, on the Tiber side of the Aventine, and running was something the lady just wasn’t built for. ‘So nice to see you both. You will, of course, accept the commission, Valerius Corvinus. I will see to it personally that my uncle’s family give you every co-operation.’
And she was gone.