One Virgin Too Many
M. Didius Falco – the man they love to blame
Helena Justina – a girl with a secret: hoping for a better bathroom
Julia Junilla – a dear little treasure
Nux – a dog, not quite so dear
The Sacred Geese of Juno and the Augurs' Sacred Chickens – protected species
Ma – a down-to-earth commentator
Pa (Geminus) – up to no good as usual
Maia Favonia – Falco's sister; inconveniently widowed
Cloelia (Maia's daughter) – hoping to become a Virgin
Marius (Maia's son) – wanting to stay on at school (a miracle)
Uncle Fabius (the dopey one) – a chicken-fancier, safely in the country
Petronius Longus – Falco's first partner; the one who pulled out
Rubella – awkward tribune of the Fouth Cohort of vigiles
Vespasian – Emperor of Rome; as high as you can get
Titus Caesar – a Romantic Prince
Berenice – a Queen of Hearts
Rutilius Gallicus – poet and ex-consul, on the up (getting Falco down)
Anacrites – Falco's second partner; the one who was pushed
Laelius Numentinus – an eminent chief priest (a wicked old basket)
Laelius Scaurus – a priest by rights (inactive)
Caecilia Paeta – a devoted mother (giving up her little darling)
Gaia Laelia – the next Vestal; a willing sacrifice?
Statilia Laelia – a devoted auntie (nothing wrong with that)
Ariminius Modullus – a devoted husband (wanting a divorce, of course)
Terentia Paulla – a married Virgin; another widow (convenient?)
Meldina – a beautiful part of the scenery (dangerous)
Athene – a reluctant nursemaid (safe with children?)
Ventidius Silanus – an Arval Brother, too dead to contribute
The Master of the Arval Brethren – a gourmet, too devious to comment
D. Camillus Verus – Helena's father; trying to do his best
Julia Justa – her mother; fearing the worst
A. Camillus Aelianus – a temporary scene-of-crime expert
Q. Camillus Justinus – Falco's new partner (permanently off the scene)
The camillus (no relation) – an Arval acolyte; a spotty youth
Constantia – a Virgin; a thriller
Gloccus and Cotta – contractors of distinction (absolutely terrible)
27 May-7 June, A.D. 74
I had just come home after telling my favorite sister that her husband had been eaten by a lion. I was in no mood for greeting a new client.
Some informers might welcome any chance to flourish their schedule of charges. I wanted silence, darkness, oblivion. Not much hope, since we were on the Aventine Hill, in the noisiest hour of a warm May evening, with all Rome opening up for commerce and connivance. Well, if I couldn't expect peace, at least I deserved a drink. But the child was waiting for me outside my apartment halfway down Fountain Court, and as soon as I spotted her on the balcony I guessed that refreshments would have to wait.
My girlfriend, Helena, was always suspicious of anything too pretty that arrived in a very short tunic. Had she made the would-be customer wait outside? Or had the smart little girl taken one look at our apartment and refused to venture indoors? She was probably linked to the luxurious carrying chair with a Medusa boss on its smoothly painted half door that was parked below the balcony. Our meager home might strike her as highly undesirable. I hated it myself.
On what passed for a portico, she had found herself the stool that I used for watching the world go by. As I came up the worn steps from the alley, my first acquaintance was with a pair of petite, well-manicured white feet in gold-strapped sandals, kicking disconsolately against the balcony rail. With the thought of Maia's four children, frightened and tearful, still burning my memory, that was all the acquaintance I wanted. I had too many problems of my own.
Even so, I noticed that the little person on my stool had qualities I would once have welcomed in a client. She was female. She looked attractive, confident, clean, and well dressed. She appeared to be good for a fat fee too. A profusion of bangles was clamped on her plump arms. Green glass beads with glinting spacers tangled in the four-color braid on the neck of her finely woven tunic. Adept boudoir maids must have helped to arrange the circle of dark curls around her face and to position the gold net that pegged them in place. If she was showing a lot of leg below the tunic, that was because it was such a short tunic. She handled her smooth emerald stole with unflustered ease when it slid off her shoulders. She looked as if she assumed she could handle me as easily.
There was one problem. My ideal client, assuming Helena Justina permitted me to assist such a person nowadays, would be a pert widow aged somewhere between seventeen and twenty. I placed this little gem in a far less dangerous bracket. She was only five or six.
I leaned on the balcony newel post, a rotting timber the landlord should have replaced years ago. When I spoke my voice sounded weary even to me. "Hello, princess. Can't you find the door porter to let you in?" She stared at me scornfully, aware that grimy plebeian apartments did not possess slaves to welcome visitors. "When your family tutor starts to teach you about rhetoric, you will discover that that was a feeble attempt at irony. Can I help you?"
"I was told an informer lives here." Her accent said she was upper class. I had worked that out. I tried not to let it prejudice me. Well, not too much. "If you are Falco, I want to consult you." It came out clear and surprisingly assured. Chin up and self-confident, the prospective client had the bright address of a star trapeze artiste. She knew what she wanted and expected to be listened to.
"Sorry, I am not available for hire." Still upset by my visit to Maia, I took a sterner line than I should have done.
The client tried to win me over. She hung her head and looked down at her toes pathetically. She was accustomed to wheedling sweetmeats out of somebody. Big brown eyes begged for favors, confident of receiving what she asked. I simply gave her the hard stare of a man who had returned from imparting tragic news to people who then decided to blame him for the tragedy.
Helena appeared. She cast a frowning gaze over the cutesy wearing the bangles, then she smiled ruefully at me from behind the slatted half door that Petronius and I had built to stop my one-year-old daughter crawling outside. Julia, my athletic heir, was now pressing her face through the slats at knee level, desperate to know what was going on even if it left her with grazed cheeks, a squashed mouth, and a distorted nose. She greeted me with a wordless gurgle. Nux, my dog, leaped over the half door, showing Julia how to escape. The client was knocked from her stool by the crazy bundle of rank fur, and she shrank back while Nux performed her routine exuberant dance to celebrate my homecoming and the chance that she might now be fed.
"This is Gaia Laelia." Helena gestured to the would-be client, like a seedy conjurer producing from a tarnished casket a rabbit who was known to kick. I could not quite tell whether the disapproval in her tone related to me or to the child. "She has some troubles regarding her family."
I burst into bitter laughter. "Then don't look to me for comfort! I have those troubles myself. Listen, Gaia, my family view me as a murderer, a wastrel, and a general all-around unreliable bastard-added to which, when I can get into my apartment I have to bathe the baby, cook the dinner, and catch two baby birds who keep crapping everywhere, running under people's feet and pecking the dog."
On cue, a tiny bright yellow fledgling with webbed feet ran out through the gaps in the half door. I managed to field it, wondering where the other was, then I grabbed Nux by her collar before she could lunge at it, and pushed her down the steps; she scrabbled against the backs of my legs, hoping to eat the birdie.