'No. Greece.' That fitted too. There was a voracious appetite in Rome for Hellenic statuary.
'So what happened? And why are you only calling in your debt three years after his death?'
'There's been a damned war in the East, Falco-or hadn't you heard?'
'I heard,' I replied grimly, thinking of Festus.
Censorinus took more of a grip on himself. 'Your brother seemed to know what he was doing. We all put in with him to buy the stock. He promised us high percentages.'
'Then either the ship sank, in which case I feel sorry for both him and you but there's nothing I can do about it-or else you should have received your money long ago. Festus lived on the wild side, but I never saw him cheat.'
The soldier stared at the table. 'Festus said the ship did sink.'
'Hard luck. Then why in the name of the gods are you bothering me?'
He didn't believe it really had sunk; that was obvious. But he still had enough loyalty to Festus not to say so outright. 'Festus told us not to worry; he would see we didn't lose by it. He would get us the money back anyway.'
'That's impossible. If the load was lost-'
'It's what he said!'
'All right! Then he must have meant it. I'm not surprised that he was offering to make good; you were his mates. He wouldn't have let you down.'
'Better not!' Censorinus was incapable of keeping quiet, even when I sympathised.
'But whatever plan he had for recouping the loss must have involved further deals. I don't know about them, and I can't be responsible for arranging them at this stage. I'm surprised you're even trying it on.'
'He had a partner,' Censorinus grouched.
'It wasn't me.'
'Festus told you?'
'Your mother did.'
I knew about my brother's business connection. I didn't want anything to do with him, and more particularly neither did Ma. The partner was my father, who had abandoned his family years before. Festus had kept up with him, though Ma could hardly bring herself to mention his name. So why had she discussed him with Censorinus, a stranger? She must have been deeply concerned. That meant so was I.
'You've answered your own question, Censorinus. You need to negotiate with the partner. Have you seen him? What does he have to say for himself?'
'Not a lot!' That didn't surprise me. Pa had always been bad news.
'Well, that's it then. I can't improve on the story. Accept it. Festus is gone. His death's robbed us all of his joyful presence, and it's robbed you of your cash, I'm afraid.'
'That's no good, Falco!' Desperation had entered the soldier's voice. He leapt to his feet.
'We've got to have that money back!'
'I'm sorry, but that's fate. Even if Festus did produce a cargo to make a profit from, I'm his heir and I'd be the first in the queue-'
Censorinus grabbed my tunic to haul me from my seat. I had sensed trouble coming. I flung my bowl in his face, cracked his arm sideways, and broke free. As I sprang up I pushed the table back at him, clearing space to move. The waiter let out a bleat of protest; he was so surprised the elbow he was leaning on slipped and he lurched into a cauldron, armpit-deep in gravy. The cat fled, yowking.
Censorinus lashed out. I parried, more in annoyance than anything else since this all seemed so pointless. He went for me in earnest, so I fought back. Epimandos jumped up on the counter to avoid damage to his person; the other customers leaned in from the street, cheering raucously. We had a short, ungainly bout of fisticuffs. I won. I threw the soldier out into the lane; he picked himself up and slunk off muttering.
Peace resumed in the caupona. Epimandos was wiping his arm with his rag. 'What was that all about?'
'Jove only knows!' I flipped some coppers at him for the bill, then set off home.
As I left, Epimandos picked up the bread roll that Stringy had been licking earlier, and replaced it in the customers' bread basket.
The following morning, I started re-establishing my normal life in Rome.
I stayed in bed long enough to prove that I wasn't a client who needed to leap out and grovel for favours at some rich patron's house. Then I showed myself to the eager populace in the Forum, though most were looking the other way. I dodged my banker, a girl I preferred not to recognise, and several of my brothers-in-law. Then I sauntered into the men's baths at the back of the Temple of Castor for a complete physical overhaul. After a fierce exercise and massage session with Glaucus my trainer, who was in one of his sarcastic moods, I bathed, invested in a shave and haircut, told some jokes, heard some gossip, lost a denarius in a bet about how many flea-bites were on some stranger's leg, and generally began to feel like a civilised Roman again.
I had been away six months. Nothing had changed in politics or at the racing stables, but everything cost more than when I left. The only people who seemed to have missed me were the ones I owed money.
I borrowed a toga from Glaucus and made my way up to the Palatine for an audience with the Emperor. My report made an adequate impression on the old man, though I should have remembered to leave it until after dinner when his mood would be more generous. But my mission in Germany had gone well; Vespasian liked to quibble, yet he always acknowledged success. He was fair. He sanctioned my fee and expenses. There was, however, no attempt to offer me another job. That is the risk with freelancing: the constant threat of unemployment and bankruptcy, then just when you've trained yourself to enjoy lots of free time, they offer you some mission even Hercules would baulk at.
Even so, I picked up a satisfactory bag of silver at the Palace, returned to the Forum, greeted my banker with a happy smile and watched him open my rather small bank box. The coins made a sweet chink as they were stowed. There was still not enough there to force me to make tricky investment decisions, let alone the huge amount I would require if I ever decided to approach Helena Justina's senatorial father in the role of hopeful son-in-law. Luckily the noble Camillus was not expecting it to happen, so never bothered me with pressing questions about my plans.
After that, I diddled away the rest of the afternoon making excuses not to look for private clients.
I ought to have known that while I was out taking the air so aimlessly, the spinning Fates would be preparing to snag my thread.
That morning Helena had shouted in my dozing ear that she and my mother were going to my old apartment to begin clearing up. Eventually I strolled along there. Around Fountain Court the streets all smelt of drains, because in that sector of the city they were the drains. The inhabitants looked as drab and despondent as ever. This was the hole I had found for myself six years ago, when I came home from the army and felt that unlike my brother who still lived at home with a mother, I was too big a boy for that. Festus had said I was crazy-which made me all the more stubborn.
Another reason for leaving home had been to avoid pressure to go into the family business-either breaking my back market-gardening out on the Campania, or auctioneering, which would involve getting even more dirt on my hands. I can earth up a leek or tell lies about an antique lamp. But I had thought myself a sociable, easygoing character, so, naturally, the solitary, cynical life of an informer had seemed ideal. Now I was thirty, fending off family responsibilities on all sides, and stuck with my disastrous choice.
Before I went upstairs I paused to pay my respects to Lenia, the haggard virago who owned and ran the laundry that occupied the ground floor. Thunder was still growling about, so not much was going on because nothing they bothered to wash would ever dry. A very tall man draped in a rather short toga was standing in silence while his wife harangued Lenia about sending back wrong laundry. Lenia was getting the worst of some tense issue about a stain, so when I popped my head indoors she left them at once and came to be rude to me.