'I'm not sure.' Ma looked confused. I wasn't fooled. My mother's grip on facts was as strong as an octopus entwining its future dinner. She undoubtedly knew what Festus stood accused of; she preferred me to find out the details for myself. That meant the story would make me angry. Ma wanted to be somewhere else when I blew up.
We had been talking with lowered voices, but my agitation must have made me tense; Helena stirred and woke, instantly alert. 'Marcus, what's wrong?'
I squirmed stiffly. 'Just family troubles. Don't worry; go back to sleep.' Immediately she forced herself awake.
'The soldier?' Helena correctly deduced. 'I was surprised you sent him packing like that. Was he a confidence trickster?'
I said nothing. I liked to keep my brother's indiscretions to myself. But Ma, who had been so wary of telling me the tale, was prepared to confide in Helena. 'The soldier is genuine enough. We are in some trouble with the army. I let him lodge here because at first he seemed to be just somebody my elder son had known in Syria, but once he got his boots under the table he began to pester me.'
'What about, Junilla Tacita?' Helena queried indignantly, sitting up. She often addressed my mother in this formal way. Oddly, it marked a greater intimacy between them than Mother had ever allowed my previous female friends, most of whom had had no acquaintance with polite speech.
'There is supposed to be a money problem with something poor Festus was involved in,' my mother told Helena. 'Marcus is going to look into it for us.'
I choked. 'I don't remember saying I'd do that.'
'No. Of course you're bound to be busy.' My mother changed tack adroitly. 'Will you have a lot of work waiting?'
I was not expecting an eager stream of clients. After six months away I would have lost any initiative. People always want to rush ahead with their foolish manoeuvres; my competitors would have grabbed all the commissions for commercial surveillance, gathering court evidence and finding grounds for divorces. Clients have no concept of waiting patiently if the best operative happens to be busy in Europe for an indefinite period. How could I avoid it if the Emperor up on the Palatine expected his affairs to take priority? 'I doubt if I'll be stretched,' I admitted, since my womenfolk were likely to overrule me if I tried to fudge the issue.
'Of course you won't,' cried Helena. My heart sank. Helena had no idea she was taking the cart into a cul-de-sac. She had never known Festus; she could not possibly imagine how his schemes had so often ended.
'Who else is there to help us?' urged Ma. 'Oh Marcus, I did think you would have an interest in clearing your own poor brother's name…'
Just as I had known it would, the mission that I refused to accept transformed itself into a mission I could not refuse.
I must have muttered some grudging noise that sounded like assent. Next thing, Ma was declaring that she would not expect me to give my precious time for nothing, while Helena was mouthing at me that in no circumstances could I send my own mother a daily expenses sheet. I felt like a new length of cloth receiving a fuller's battering.
Being paid was not my worry. But I knew this was a case I could not win.
'All right!' I growled. 'If you ask me, the departed lodger was just playing on a slight acquaintance in order to clinch a free billet. Suggesting foul play was just a subtle lever, Ma.' My mother was not a person who gave in to leverage. I yawned, pointedly. 'Look, I'm not going to waste a lot of effort on something that happened so many years ago anyway, but if it will make you both happy, I'll have a word with Censorinus in the morning. ' I knew where to find him; I had told him that Flora's, the local caupona, sometimes hired out rooms. He would not have travelled much further on a night like this.
My mother stroked my hair, while Helena smiled. None of their shameless attentions improved my pessimistic mood. I knew before I started that Festus, who had got me into trouble all my life, had now forced me to commit myself to the worst yet.
'Ma, I have to ask you a question-' Her face did not alter, though she must have seen what was coming. 'Do you think Festus did whatever his cronies are asserting?'
'How can you ask me that?' she exclaimed in great affront. With any other witness, in any other enquiry, that would have convinced me the woman was pretending to be offended because she was covering up for her son.
'That's all right then,' I responded loyally.
My brother Festus could walk into any tavern in any province of the Empire, and some wart in a spotty tunic would rise from a bench with open arms to greet him as an old and honoured friend. Don't ask me how he did it. It was a trick I could have used myself, but you need talent to exude such warmth. The fact that Festus still owed the wart a hundred in local currency from their last acquaintance would not diminish the welcome. What's more, if our lad then progressed into the back room where the cheap whores were entertaining, equally delighted shrieks would arise as girls who should have known better all rushed up adoringly.
When I walked into Flora's, where I had been drinking on a weekly basis for nearly ten years, not even the cat noticed.
Flora's Caupona made the average seedy snack shop look chic and hygienic. It squatted on the corner where a dingy lane down from the Aventine met a dirty track up from the wharves. It had the usual arrangement, with two counters set at right angles for people in the two streets to lean on reflectively while they waited to be poisoned. The counters were made from a rough patchwork of white and grey stone that a man might mistake for marble if his mind was on the elections and he was virtually blind. Each counter had three circular holes to take cauldrons of food.
At Flora's most of the holes were left empty, out of respect for public health perhaps. What the full cauldrons held was even more disgusting than the usual brown sludge with funny specks in it that's ladled out to passers-by from rotten street food shops. Flora's cold potages were off-puttingly lukewarm, and their hot meats were dangerously cool. Word had it a fisherman once died at the counter after eating a portion of slushy peas; my brother maintained that to avoid a long legal dispute with his heirs, the man was hastily processed and served up as spicy halibut balls. Festus had always known such stories. Given the state of the kitchen behind the caupona, that one could be true.
The counters enclosed a cramped square space where really hardened regulars could sit down and have their ears knocked by the waiter's elbow as he went about his work. There were two sagging tables; one had benches, the other a set of folding campstools. Outside, blocking the street, lolled half a barrel; a feeble beggar permanently sat on it. He was there even today, with the remnants of the storm still producing showers. No one ever gave him alms because the waiter lifted anything he received.
I walked past the beggar, avoiding eye contact. Something about him had always looked vaguely familiar, and whatever it was always made me feel depressed. Perhaps I knew that one wrong move professionally could have me ending up sharing his barrel stump.
Indoors, I took a stool, bracing myself as it wobbled disastrously. Service would be slow. I shook today's rain out of my hair and looked around the familiar scene: the rack of amphorae, misty with spiders' webs; the shelf of brown beakers and flagons; a surprisingly attractive Greek-looking container with an octopus decoration; and the wine catalogue painted on the wall-pointlessly, because despite the impressive price list that claimed to be offering all styles of drink from house wines to Falernian, Flora's invariably served one dubious vintage whose ingredients were not more than second cousins to grapes.