When the ex-praetor husband of a friend of Claudius’s mother-in-law is found murdered on his estate near Carthage the emperor sends Corvinus out; only to discover, when he arrives, that none of the dead man’s family seem to care swhether he solves the crime or not
Going Back - Chapter 1
It’s not often that you get an invitation to dinner at the palace; me, I’d only ever had the one, and the result had been a tad too memorable for comfort. That, of course, had been when Gaius had had the top job, and although on the whole I’d got on pretty well with our ex-lord and master there’s no denying that the bastard was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and that he deserved everything he got. Claudius was a different kettle of fish altogether; at least you could be certain that when you turned up in your glad-rags with your party slippers under your arm he wouldn’t be got up like a brothel tart or Jupiter God Almighty complete with gold-wire beard and matching toy thunderbolt; our Gaius had had style, sure, no argument, but you can take that sort of thing too far. With Claudius, the worst you could expect was a lecture on Etruscan marriage customs and a detailed explanation of why the alphabet could really, really do with a few extra letters. Bad enough in its own way, admitted, but nothing compared with what I’d had to put up with over the years at dinners with my mother and stepfather. Besides, palace invites being what they are the chances of us being within even shouting range of the top table were well inside of the flying pigs category.
So anyway there we were, Perilla and me, dolled up to the nines and being ushered into one of the smaller dining rooms by an impeccably-dressed flunkey. Which was the first big surprise of the evening. These affairs are usually choreographed to a nicety, and the preliminary stage involves being shown into a reception room to fraternise with your few dozen or so fellow-guests, get as much wine down you as you can for the purpose of anaesthesia, and check the seating plan to see who you’ll be stuck with – and who’ll be stuck with you – for the next two or three hours…
Only this time it wasn’t like that at all. Forget the ‘few dozen’; we didn’t even make up the obligatory quorum of nine. There were just us two and the lad himself plus his wife Valeria Messalina, who was lying next to him and grinning at me like the cat that got the tame sparrow.
Bugger. I stopped.
‘Ah, C-Corvinus, you’ve arrived!’ Claudius beamed at me. ‘And Perilla, my dear! Don’t stand on ceremony, please! Come in, lie down, make yourself at home.’ He turned to the hovering major-domo. ‘Trupho, a cup of wine for Valerius Corvinus. Juice for you, Perilla? It’s pomegranate, Messalina’s favourite, but we can change that if you like.’
‘Pomegranate is fine, Caesar.’ Perilla smiled at him and stretched out on the couch next to me. ‘How are you?’
‘Fair to middling. Busy as always, you know how it is. No time for writing, I’m afraid.’ He held out his own cup for a refill. ‘I’m delighted you could come, and Messalina has really been looking forward to it. Haven’t you, love?’
That got me the cat’s grin again. A shiver went down my spine.
‘Oh, yes,’ she said. ‘Corvinus and I are old friends. Aren’t we, Marcus?’
Not exactly how I would’ve put it, but she knew that damn well already. Still, the niceties had to be observed.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I took the cup that the slave handed me and sipped. Imperial Caecuban, no less. At least the evening would have some high spots. ‘Yeah, we are.’
‘You look surprised, my dear fellow.’ Claudius took a hefty swallow from his refilled cup: from the looks of him, I’d reckon he was at least half a jug ahead of the game already, but then our latest emperor always had been the drinker’s drinker. ‘Don’t be. I t-told you the last time we met that I’d have the two of you round for dinner en famille when you got back from Gaul; I’m just sorry it’s t-taken so long. And Messalina insisted that we make it a surprise. Didn’t you, darling?’ He kissed her unresponsive cheek. ‘The little schemer.’ Well, where that bitch was concerned I couldn’t quarrel with the nomenclature. Although I wouldn’t’ve added the ‘little’, myself. ‘Mind you, I’m afraid I have to confess that I do have an ulterior motive.’
Hell’s teeth. This didn’t sound good; not good at all.
‘And what would that be, sir?’ I said cautiously.
‘Oh, tush, tush! Don’t be so formal. There are just the f-four of us here. “Caesar” will be quite sufficient. And there’s no hurry, the thing can wait its turn. We’ll discuss it over the dessert.’ He turned back to the major-domo. ‘Tell the chef we’re ready to eat now, will you? There’s a good lad.’
Uh-huh; me, given the track record of our relationship up to now, I could make a fairly good guess as to what the ‘thing’ involved, at least in general terms. All the same, you didn’t twist the arm of the most powerful man in the world west of the Parthian border. I just hoped that this time round whatever he had in mind would involve somewhere closer to home than bloody Transalpine Gaul.
However, we’d just have to possess ourselves with patience, and keep our fingers crossed.
He did us proud as far as the meal was concerned, at any rate. Oh, sure, having Meton for our chef makes us pretty choosy eaters, but the standard of the dinner would’ve drawn a grunt of approval from even that surly, egotistical bugger, and that doesn’t happen all that often. The wine was top notch as well, naturally: imperial Caecuban is the best of the best, there was plenty on offer, and if I was going to be stuck with doing another little investigative favour for the bastard then I didn’t feel too guilty about making a sizeable hole in his current stock. Which I duly did. By the time the table was cleared and re-laid with the fruit and nuts, plus a good dozen more recherché dessert items, I was well on the way to being pleasantly stewed.
‘Now, Corvinus.’ Claudius reached over for a stuffed date. ‘This little private favour I wanted to ask of you. Ever hear of a chap by the name of Decimus Cestius?’
Here it came. I braced myself. ‘He’s been murdered, right?’ I said. ‘Or at least died in suspicious circumstances.’
Claudius blinked. ‘Yes, as a matter of fact he has,’ he said. ‘How on earth did you know that?’
‘An educated guess, Caesar.’ Oh, bugger. Bugger, bugger, bugger! Still, I couldn’t say it came as much of a surprise. I caught a faint snigger from Messalina. ‘So who was he?’
‘One of the city judges fifteen or so years back, in my Uncle Tiberius’s time.’ A praetor, eh? Not quite the top of the political tree, then: his next step would’ve been the consulship, and if he hadn’t made it that far, or at least bagged a suffect consulship, in the last fifteen years then he must’ve been pretty much a political lightweight. Odd.
‘He was a personal friend of yours?’ I said.
‘No, I can’t say I ever met the man. But then fifteen years ago I wasn’t much involved with politics myself.’
True; until his sudden elevation after Gaius got his in the underpass Claudius had been pretty much kept under wraps by the imperial family. Still, it made his interest in the guy’s death that much the odder.
‘Then I don’t see why–’
‘His wife is a close friend of my mother-in-law’s. She happened to mention it in her last letter, and Lepida asked me as a favour if I could look into things.’ Beside him Messalina shifted irritably and he turned to her. ‘Yes, dear, I know that for some reason the two of you don’t get on so well these days, but your mother is family after all. She has the right to ask, and I have a duty to do what I can for her.’
Uh-huh. ‘Don’t get on’ was putting it mildly; the two ladies hated each other’s guts. Oh, sure, the reason was more or less an open secret, known to everyone but Claudius, but I wasn’t going to take the top off of that particular can of worms, no way. Or even allude to it. Besides, it was none of my business.
‘Also, Cestius’s elder son is recently betrothed to one of Vettius Rufus’s girls. You know Rufus, Corvinus? The consular?’
‘No, I don’t suppose you would, come to think of it. It doesn’t matter. But Rufus will want the business investigated too, and he’s quite a f-force in the senate.’ He smiled. ‘Politics again, I’m afraid. Still, that’s the job I’m in nowadays.’
‘So when did this happen? The murder, I mean.’
‘About a month ago.’
‘About that, yes.’ He cleared his throat. ‘So Lepida tells me, at any rate.’
I was beginning to get a nasty feeling about this. ‘Uh…and this happened in Rome, did it? Or at least close by?’
‘Not exactly.’ He cleared his throat again. ‘My dear fellow, your wine cup’s empty.’ He signalled to the major-domo. ‘Trupho? More wine for Valerius Corvinus, please.’
‘No, that’s okay, I’m fine for the present.’ I held my hand over the cup, and Trupho backed off. Oh, shit, here we went again! The nasty feeling was there in spades. ‘You care to tell me where, then?’
‘Cestius decided to retire there. Directly after his praetorship. I’m afraid he and my uncle – or at least my uncle’s representative in Rome at the time – didn’t see eye to eye about things.’ Well, fair enough; that’d been Aelius Sejanus, of course. We hadn’t been exactly bosom buddies ourselves, Sejanus and me, so I sympathised: Rome fifteen years before hadn’t been a very healthy place for senators. ‘Then, naturally, there was my predecessor with all his little idiosyncrasies, and–’ he shrugged. ‘Well, Cestius hasn’t been back since.’
Gods almighty! ‘You want me to go to Carthage?’ I remembered myself and who I was talking to just in time. ‘Uh…that is–’
‘If it isn’t too much t-trouble, yes. As my personal representative, of course, as you were on the last occasion. An imperial procurator.’ He held out his hand. Trupho took a folded document from his belt and gave it to him. ‘Fully accredited. I’ve, ah, taken the liberty of preparing your authorisation in advance.’
He passed it over.
So. That was that, then, all done and dusted. Hell’s teeth. I didn’t even dare look at Perilla. Mind you, she’d seen the whole thing for herself so she couldn’t blame me for getting involved this time around.
‘It’s an interesting place, or so I’m told at least.’ Claudius lifted his own cup for the refill; now the terrible truth was out, he was obviously beginning to relax. Well, at least he’d had the decency to feel embarrassed; emperor or not, Claudius was a decent old stick at base. ‘Not that there’s anything left of the original city, of course – Scipio Aemilianus made damn sure of that – but it’s made great strides since the Divine Augustus’s day, and it’s quite prosperous. You’ll like it.’
‘I’m sure I will, Caesar,’ I said, through only slightly-gritted teeth. I’d have to, wouldn’t I, because it seemed that I didn’t have much fucking choice in the matter.
‘Excellent. Good egg. That’s the spirit.’ He turned to Perilla, ‘You’ll want to tag along as well, my dear, like last time, yes? At least, I assumed you would. Unless you have other plans, of course.’
‘No, Caesar, no other plans.’ She smiled and helped herself to one of the cinnamon and honey pastries. ‘Actually, I’d love to go.’
I breathed again. Yeah, well, she sounded sincere, at least, which was a good sign. You never knew with that lady, particularly where shoving your nose into inconvenient murders was concerned. Perilla could get quite intense on that score.
‘Jolly good, that’s settled, then. Don’t worry, I’ll make all the arrangements, let the governor know you’re coming and all that. Galba will see you’re properly taken care of when you get there, I’m sure.’
Oh, shit. ‘Uh…Galba?’ I said. ‘Sulpicius Galba?’
‘That’s the man. You know him?’
‘We’ve met, yes. Quite a while ago, now.’ Eleven years, to be exact. Galba had been consul when one of the Vestals had been found dead at his house the morning after the rites of the Good Goddess and the chief Vestal had given me the job of finding out why. To say we hadn’t exactly hit it off was putting it mildly.
I doubted if he would’ve forgotten me, either. Bugger.
‘Marvellous. You’ll have a lot of catching up to do, then. Meanwhile, I’m afraid as far as poor Cestius’s death goes I’ve told you all I know myself, but if you talk to Lepida I’m sure she’ll be able to fill in a bit more of the background. Now’ – he smiled – ‘you’ll be glad to know that that’s the business part of the evening concluded, and I must say I’m considerably relieved to get it over with. Between ourselves, my dear fellow, Domitia Lepida is not someone I’d care to disappoint. I’ll be glad to get the bloody woman off my back.’
Yeah, right. Mind you, I’d’ve been happier if the selfish bastard had managed it without involving me. But then that’s imperials for you. We were just lucky that this time around we had one in charge that could feel a smidgeon of guilt in the process.