Nobody knew if 'Flora' had ever existed. She could be missing or dead, but it wasn't a case I would volunteer to solve. Rumour reckoned she had been formidable; I thought she must be either a myth or a mouse. She had never put in an appearance. Maybe she knew what kind of vittles her lax caupona served. Maybe she knew how many customers wanted a word about diddled reckonings.
The waiter was called Epimandos. If he had ever met his employer he preferred not to mention it.
Epimandos was probably a runaway slave. If so he had hidden here, successfully evading pursuit, for years though he retained a permanently furtive look. Above a skinny body, his long face sunk slightly on the shoulders as if it were a theatrical mask. He was stronger than he looked, from heaving heavy pots about. He had stew stains down his tunic, and an indelible whiff of chopped garlic lurking under his fingernails.
The name of the cat who had ignored me was Stringy. Like the waiter, he was in fact quite sturdy, with a fat brindled tail and an unpleasant leer. Since he looked like an animal who expected friendly contact, I aimed a kick at him. Stringy dodged disdainfully; my foot made contact with Epimandos, who failed to utter a protest but asked, 'The usual?' He spoke as if I had only been away since Wednesday instead of so long I couldn't even remember what my usual used to be.
A bowl of vivid stew, and a very small wine jug, apparently. No wonder my brain had blotted it out.
'Good?' asked Epimandos. I knew he had a reputation for uselessness, though to me he had always seemed keen to please. Maybe Festus had something to do with it. He had made a habit of hanging around Flora's, and the waiter still remembered him with evident affection.
'Seems well up to standard!' I broke off a chunk of bread and plunged it into the bowl. A tide of froth menaced me. The meaty layer was much too brightly coloured; above it floated half a digit of transparent liquor, topped with sluggish blobs of oil where two shreds of onion and some tiny scraps of dark green foliage were wriggling like bugs in a water-butt. I took a bite, coating the roof of my mouth with grease. To cover the shock, I asked, 'Is there a military tyke called Censorinus lodging here since yesterday?' Epimandos gave me his normal vague stare. 'Tell him I'd like a word, would you?'
Epimandos ambled back to his pots, which he started poking with a bent ladle. The greyer potage glopped like a swamp that was about to swallow the waiter head first. An odour of overstrong crabmeat swam around the caupona. Epimandos gave no indication he intended to pass on my message, but I held back the urge to nag. Flora's was a dump that took its time. Its clients were in no hurry; a few had something they were supposed to do, but they were intending to avoid it. Most had nowhere to go and could barely remember why they had wandered in.
To disguise the flavour of the food I took a swig of wine. Whatever it tasted of wasn't wine. At least it gave me something different to think about.
For half an hour I sat pondering the brevity of life and the ghastliness of my drink. I never did see Epimandos make any effort to contact Censorinus, and he was soon busy with lunchtime customers who turned up to lean on the counters from the street. Then, when I was risking my second wine jug, the soldier abruptly appeared at my side. He must have come out from the back space where stairs ran up past the cooking bench to the tiny rooms that Flora's occasionally hired to people who didn't know anywhere more sensible to stay.
'So you're looking for trouble, are you?' he sneered nastily.
'Well, I'm looking for you,' I replied as best I could with my mouth full. The dainty I was toying with was too sinewy to be hurried; in fact I felt I might be chewing this gristle for the rest of my life. Eventually I reduced it to a lump of tasteless cartilage which I removed from my mouth with more relief than decorum, and placed on the rim of my bowl; it promptly fell in.
'Sit down, Censorinus. You're blocking the light.' The legionary was induced to plant himself on the edge of my table. I kept my tone fairly civilised. 'There's a nasty rumour flying about that you've been slandering my famous brother. Do you want to talk about your problem, or shall I just thump you in the teeth?'
'There's no problem,' he sneered. 'I've come to claim a debt. I'll get it too!'
'That sounds like a threat.' I abandoned the stew but carried on with my wine, not offering him any.
'The Fifteenth don't need to make threats,' he boasted.
'Not if their grudge is legal,' I agreed, applying an aggressive edge myself. 'Look, if something's bothering the legion, and if it involves my brother, I'm prepared to listen.'
'You'll have to do something about it!'
'So tell me straight out what's griping you-or else we'll both forget about it.'
Both Epimandos and Stringy were listening. The waiter was leaning on his pots and picking his nose while he stared at us quite openly, but the cat had enough delicacy to pretend to be licking a dropped bread roll under the table. Flora's was not a place to arrange your elopement with an heiress or buy a vial of poisonous green jollop to wipe out your business partner. This caupona had the nosiest staff in Rome.
'Some of us lads who knew Festus,' Censorinus informed me self-importantly, 'chipped in with him in a certain venture.'
I managed not to close my eyes and sigh; this sounded horribly familiar. 'Oh?'
'Well, what do you think? We want the profits-or we want our stakes back. Straight away!'
I ignored the heavy-handed bit. 'Well so far, I can't say I'm either interested or impressed. First, anybody who knew Festus will fully expect to hear that he didn't leave overflowing jars of coinage under every bed he slept in. If there was a pot there he pissed in it, that's all! I was his executor; he gave me a zero legacy. Second, even if this fabulous venture was legitimate, I would expect to see documentation for your debt. Festus was an airy beggar over most things, but I've got all his business chits, and they were immaculate.' At least, the set I found scratched on bone blocks at Mother's were. I was still waiting to discover other more dubious accounts hidden away somewhere.
Censorinus eyed me coldly. He seemed very tense. 'I don't like your tone, Falco!'
'And I don't like your attitude.'
'You'd better be prepared to pay.'
'Then you'd better explain.'
Something was not right. The soldier seemed strangely reluctant to come out with the facts-his only hope of persuading me to contribute. I could see his eyes dart, with more agitation than seemed called for.
'I mean it, Falco-we expect you to cough up!'
'Olympus!' I lost my temper. 'You haven't told me the date, the place, the scheme, the terms, the venture's outcome, or the amount! All I'm getting is bluster and blather.'
Epimandos came nearer, pretending to wipe down tables and flicking chewed olive stones about with the end of a mouldy rag.
'Get lost, garlic seed!' Censorinus shouted at him. He appeared to take note of the waiter for the first time, and Epimandos was overcome by one of his nervous fits. The waiter jumped back against a counter. Behind him other customers had started to peer in at us curiously.
Keeping an eye on Epimandos, Censorinus crouched nearer to me on a stool; he lowered his voice to a hoarse croak: 'Festus was running a ship.'
'Where from?' I tried not to sound alarmed. This was a new item in the canon of my brother's enterprises and I wanted to know all about it before any more debtors appeared.
'And he cut some of you in?'
'We were a syndicate.'
The big word impressed him more than me. 'Shipping what?'
'That fits.' Fine art was the family business on our father's side. 'Was the cargo from Judaea?'