They stared at me. They said they did not remember. They said it like men who would lie to me even if they did.
'What are you?' they asked me. Even prisoners of war are curious.
'An informer. I find things for people. Lost things-and lost truths. The mother of this soldier has asked me to tell her how he died.'
'Does she pay you for this?'
'Why do you do it?'
'He matters to me too.'
'I am her other son.'
It was as pleasing circuitous as a riddle. The slight shock drew a dry cackle of laughter from these demoralised men whose days were confined to digging foreign mud from a giant foreign hole.
A prisoner rose from his haunches. I never knew his name. 'I remember,' he said. Maybe he was lying. Maybe he just felt I had earned some sort of tale. 'Vespasian was placing garrisons in all the towns. He took Gophna and Acrabata. Bethel and Ephraim came next.'
'Were you at Bethel?' He swore that he was. Maybe he was lying now. There was no way I could really tell. 'Was it a stiff fight?'
'To us, yes-but probably, no.'
'Not much resistance?'
'Little. But we were going to fight,' he added. 'We gave up when we saw the fierceness of the Roman charge.'
Evidently he thought this was what I was wanting to hear. 'That's gracious of you,' I said politely. 'Did you see the centurion?'
'The officer. Mailed shirt, metal on his legs, fancy crest, vine stick-'
'The officer who led the charge?'
'He led it?'
'From the front!' smiled the prisoner, certain I would like that. Maybe he had been a soldier too.
'But he fell?'
'He was unlucky.'
'An arrow squeezed in somehow between his helmet and his head.'
I believed that. This man had seen our boy.
Helmet not strapped properly. Trust him. Always unlaced, unhooked, half-belted. He hated feeling trapped. Loved sauntering into battle with his chin-strap waving free, as if he had just paused to dint the enemy on his way to somewhere else. Jupiter knows how that man got promoted.
Well I knew how. He was bloody good. Our Festus, with even only half his mind on a problem, could outstrip most of the dull plodders he was up against. Festus was the charismatic kind who soars to the top on talent that is genuine, easy and abundant. He was made for the army; the army knew its man. Stupid enough to show he did have that talent. Placid enough not to offend the establishment. Bright enough, once he was in position, to hold his own against anyone.
Yet still dumb enough to leave his helmet loose.
'Is this satisfactory?'
It was what I had come to hear.
Before I left they gathered around me with more questions about my work. What did I do, and who did I act for? I repaid their description of Bethel with some tales of my own. They were starving for stories, and I had plenty. They were fascinated by the fact that anybody from the Emperor down could hire me and send me out into the world as an agent; they even wanted to take me on for a commission of their own. (They had no money, but we were on good terms by then and I had mentioned that half my 'respectable' clients forgot to pay.)
'So what's your quest?'
They began a long rambling saga involving a sacred item.
I had to break in. 'Look, if this involves the treasures that the conquering Titus lifted from your Temple at Jerusalem and dedicated on the Capitol, I'll stop you there! Robbing trophies from Rome's most sacred altar lies outside my sphere of activity.'
They exchanged furtive glances. I had stumbled on some much older mystery. Intrigued, I pressed for details. What they had lost was a large ship-like box of great antiquity, surmounted by two winged figures and supported on two carrying-poles. The Judaeans wanted to find it because it had magical properties which they believed would help them overthrow their enemies. Ignoring the fact that I didn't want my fellow Romans struck by lightning or smitten with fatal diseases (well not many of them), I was tempted. I love ridiculous stories. But explaining such a peculiar commission to Helena was more than I could face.
I grinned. 'Sounds as if you need a real daredevil for this job! I do divorces, which are hard enough, but I don't think I can undertake to find Lost Arks…'
I repaid their information about Festus with hard currency, and we parted friends.
As I picked my way from the bivouac, the unknown prisoner called out after me, 'He was heroic. His whole heart was in the matter. Let his mother be told, the man you seek-your brother-was a true warrior!'
I didn't believe a word of it. But I felt prepared to tell the lie.
I can't say I was feeling happy, but I did feel sufficiently improved to give myself a minor treat: I walked from the Forum up the Via Flaminia to the collectors' house. Then I joined the throng who were congregating in their gallery, viewing the Phidias.
Smart people were standing around with that air of constipated fright people have when gazing at great art without a proper catalogue. The women were wearing gold sandals that hurt their feet. The men were all wondering how soon they could politely leave. Silver salvers with very small pieces of almond cake were handed round to reward those who had come to do reverence. As usual on these occasions there had been wine earlier, but by the time I arrived the waiter with the tray had disappeared.
Poseidon looked good. Among the other marble gods, ours held his own. I felt a certain glow of pride. I felt even better when Carus wafted up, his mournful face almost happy for once, with Servia bundling along on his arm.
'Looks impressive.' I popped in an almond slice. 'What's the provenance?'
They dwelt lightly on the tale of the illustrious senator and his brother who imported from the East. I listened thoughtfully. 'A brother of Camillus? Not the one with the cloud attached to his name? I've heard a few shady stories about that one-wasn't he a merchant who handled dubious commodities, and died in mysterious circumstances?' I stared back at the statue. 'Well, I'm sure you know what you're doing!' I remarked. And then I left.
Behind me, I had left an insidious worm of distrust already gnawing morbidly.
The party at my mother's house which I had wanted to avoid was over. 'We heard about your disaster so I sent them home.' Ma sounded gruff.
'Geminus sent a message about what happened,' Helena explained in an undertone.
'Thank you, Papa!'
'Don't grouch. The message was mainly to warn us to look after you. When you didn't turn up we were worried sick. I've been looking for you everywhere-'
'That makes you sound like Marina drag-netting the bars for my brother.'
'The bars were where I looked,' she confirmed, smiling. She could see I was not drunk.
I sat down at Ma's kitchen table. My women surveyed me as if I were something they ought to catch in a beaker and put out on the back steps. 'I had a job to do, remember. A certain party commissioned me to investigate Didius Festus.'
'And what did you find out?' Mother demanded. 'Nothing good, I dare say!' She seemed to be her old self.
'Do you want to know?'
She thought about it. 'No,' she said. 'Let's leave it alone, shall we?'
I sighed gently. That was clients for you. They come pleading with you to save their skins, then when you've given up weeks of hard effort for some pitiful reward, you take them the answer and they stare at you as if you're mad to bother them with these puny facts. A case that was all in the family made things no better, though at least I knew the parties from the start, so I was prepared for it.