The fountain was not working. Nothing unusual in that. This was the Aventine.
It must have been off for some time. The water spout, a crudely molded cockleshell dangled by a naked but rather uninteresting nymph, was thick with dry pigeon guano. The bowl was cleaner. Two men sharing the bottom of an amphora of badly traveled Spanish wine could lean there without marking their tunics. When Petronius and I sloped back to the party at my apartment, there would be no clues to where we had been.
I had laid the amphora in the empty fountain bowl, point inwards, so we could tilt it on the edge when we wanted to refill the beakers we had sneaked out with us. We had been at it a while now. By the time we ambled home, we would have drunk too much to care what anybody said to us, unless the wigging was very succinctly phrased. As it might be, if Helena Justina had noticed that I had vanished and left her to cope on her own.
We were in Tailors' Lane. We had deliberately turned round the corner from Fountain Court where I lived, so that if any of my brothers-in-law looked down into the street they would not spot us and inflict themselves upon us. None of them had been invited today, but once they heard I was providing a party they had descended on the apartment like flies on fresh meat. Even Lollius the water boatman, who never turned up for anything, had shown his ugly face.
As well as being a discreet distance from home, the fountain in Tailors' Lane was a good place to lean for a heart-to-heart. Fountain Court did not possess its own water supply, any more than Tailors' Lane was home to any garment-sewers. Well, that's the Aventine.
One or two passersby, seeing us in the wrong street with our heads together, assumed we were conferring about work. They gave us looks that could have been reserved for a pair of squashed rats on the highroad. We were both well-known characters in the Thirteenth District. Few people approved of either of us. Sometimes we did work together, though the pact between the public and private sector was uneasy. I was an informer and imperial agent, just back from a trip to Baetican Spain for which I had been paid less than originally contracted, although I had made up the deficit with an artistic expenses claim. Petronius Longus lived on a strict salary. He was the enquiry chief of the local cohort of vigiles. Well, he was normally. He had just stunned me by revealing he had been suspended from his job.
Petronius took a hearty swig of wine, then balanced his beaker carefully on the head of the stone wench who was supposed to be delivering water to the neighborhood. Petro had long arms and she was a small nymph, as well as one with an empty cockleshell. Petro himself was a big, solid, normally calm and competent citizen. Now he stared down the alley with a glum frown.
I paused to slosh more liquor into my own cup. That gave me time to absorb his news while I decided how to react. In the end I said nothing. Exclaiming "Oh my goodness, old pal!" or "By Jupiter, my dear Lucius, I cannot believe I heard that correctly" was too much of a clich?. If he wanted to tell me the story he would. If not, he was my closest friend, so if he was playing at guarding his privacy I would appear to go along with it.
I could ask somebody else later. Whatever had happened, he couldn't keep it secret from me for long. Extracting the fine details of scandal was my livelihood.
Tailors' Lane was a typical Aventine scene. Faceless tenement blocks loomed above a filthy, one-cart lane that meandered up here from the Emporium down by the Tiber, trying to find the way to the Temple of Ceres, only to lose itself somewhere on the steep heights above the Probus Bridge. Little near-naked children crouched playing with stones beside a dubious puddle, catching whatever fever was rampant this summer. Somewhere overhead a voice droned endlessly, telling some dreary story to a silent listener who might be driven to run mad with a meat knife any minute now. We were in deep shade, though aware that wherever the sun could find access the August heat was shimmering. Even here our tunics stuck to our backs.
"Well, I got your letter at last." Petronius liked to approach a difficult subject by the winding, scenic route.
"The one telling me you were a father."
"Three months to find me—not bad."
When Helena and I and the new baby sailed back to Rome from Tarraconensis recently it only took eight days at sea and a couple more traveling gently from Ostia. "That's not possible."
"You addressed it to me at the station house," Petronius complained. "It was passed around the clerks for weeks, then when they decided to hand it over, naturally I wasn't there." He was laying it on with a mortar trowel—a certain sign of stress.
"I thought it would be safer sent to the vigiles. I didn't know you would have got yourself suspended," I reminded him. He was not in the mood for logic.
Nobody much was about. For most of the afternoon we had skulked here virtually in private. I was hoping that my sisters and their children, whom Helena and I had invited for lunch in order to introduce them all to our new daughter in one go, would go home. When Petro and I had sneaked out not one of the guests had been showing any sign of leaving. Helena had already looked tired. I should have stayed.
Her own family had had the tact not to come, but had invited us to dinner later in the week. One of her brothers, the one I could tolerate, had brought a message in which his noble parents politely declined our offer of sharing a cold collation with my swarming relatives in our tiny half-furnished apartment. Some of my lot had already tried to sell the illustrious Camilli dud works of art that they couldn't afford and didn't want. Most of my family were offensive and all of them lacked tact. You couldn't hope to find a bigger crowd of loud, self-opinionated, squabbling idiots anywhere. Thanks to my sisters all marrying down I stood no chance of impressing Helena's socially superior crew. In any case, the Camilli didn't want to be impressed.
"You could have written earlier," Petronius said morosely.
"Too busy. When I did write I'd just ridden eight hundred miles across Spain like a madman, only to be told that Helena was in desperate trouble with the birth. I thought I was going to lose her, and the baby too. The midwife had gone off halfway to Gaul, Helena was exhausted and the girls with us were terrified. I delivered that child myself—and I'll take a long time to get over it!"
Petronius shuddered. Though a devoted father of three himself, his nature was conservative and fastidious. When Arria Silvia was having their daughters she had sent him off somewhere until the screaming was all over. That was his idea of family life. I would receive no credit for my feat.
"So you named her Julia Junilla. After both grandmothers? Falco, you really know how to arrange free nursemaids."
"Julia Junilla Laeitana," I corrected him.
"You named your daughter after a wine?" At last some admiration crept into his tone.
"It's the district where she was born," I declared proudly.
"You sly bastard." Now he was envious. We both knew that Arria Silvia would never have let him get away with it.
"So where's Silvia?" I challenged.
Petronius took a long, slow breath and gazed upwards. While he was looking for swallows, I wondered whatever was wrong. The absence of his wife and children from our party was startling. Our families frequently dined together. We had even survived a joint holiday once, though that had been pushing it.
"Where's Silvia?" mused Petro, as if the question intrigued him too.
"This had better be good."
"Oh, it's hilarious."
"You do know where she is, then?"
"At home, I believe."
"She's gone off us?" That would be too much to hope for. Silvia had never liked me. She thought me a bad influence on Petronius. What libel. He had always been perfectly capable of getting into trouble by himself. Still, we all rubbed along, even though neither Helena nor I could stand too much of Silvia.
"She's gone off me," he explained.
A workman was approaching. Typical. He wore a one-sleeved tunic hitched over his belt and was carrying an old bucket. He was coming to clean the fountain, which looked a long job. Naturally he turned up at the end of the working day. He would leave the job unfinished and never come back.
"Lucius, my boy," I tackled Petro sternly, since we might soon have to abandon our roost if this fellow did persuade the fountain to fill up, "I can think of various reasons—most of them female—why Silvia would fall out with you. Who is it?"
I had been joking. Besides, I thought he had stopped flirting with Balbina Milvia months ago. If he had had any sense he would never have started—though when did that ever stop a man chasing a girl?
"Milvia's very bad news, Petro."
"So Silvia informs me."
Balbina Milvia was about twenty. She was astoundingly pretty, dainty as a rosebud with the dew in it, a dark, sweet little piece of trouble whom Petro and I had met in the course of our work. She had an innocence that was begging to be enlightened, and was married to a man who neglected her. She was also the daughter of a vicious gangster—a mobster whom Petronius had convicted and I had helped
finally to put away. Her husband Florius was now developing halfhearted plans to move in on the family rackets. Her mother Flaccida was scheming to beat him to the profits, a hard-faced bitch whose idea of a quiet hobby was arranging the deaths of men who crossed her. Sooner or later that was bound to include her son-in-law Florius.
In these circumstances Milvia could be seen as in need of consolation. As an officer of the vigiles Petronius Longus was taking a risk if he provided it. As the husband of Arria Silvia, a violent force to be reckoned with at any time, he was crazy. He should have left the delicious Milvia to struggle with life on her own.
Until today I had been pretending I knew nothing about it. He would never have listened to me anyway. He had never listened when we were in the army and his eye fell on lush Celtic beauties who had large, red-haired, bad-tempered British fathers, and he had never listened since we came home to Rome either.
"You're not in love with Milvia?"
He looked amazed at the question. I had known I was on safe ground suggesting that his fling might not be serious. What was serious to Petronius Longus was being the husband of a girl who had brought him a very handsome dowry (which he would have to repay if she divorced him) and being the father of Petronilla, Silvana, and Tadia, who adored him and whom he doted on. We all knew that, though convincing Silvia might be tricky if she had heard about sweet little Milvia. And Silvia had always known how to speak up for herself.
"So what's the situation?"
"Silvia threw me out."
"It was a good two months ago."
I whistled. "Where are you living, then?" Not with Milvia. Milvia was married to Florius. Florius was so weak even his womenfolk didn't bother to henpeck him, but he was clinging fast to Milvia because her dowry—created with the proceeds of organized crime—was enormous.
"I'm at the patrol house."
"Unless I'm drunker than I think, didn't this whole conversation begin with you being suspended from the vigiles?"
"That," Petro conceded, "does make it rather complicated when I want to crawl in for a few hours' kip."
"Martinus would have loved to take a stand on it." Martinus had been Petro's deputy. A stickler for the rules—especially when they helped him offend someone else. "He went on promotion to the Sixth, didn't he?"
Petro grinned a little. "I put him forward myself."
"Poor Sixth! So who moved up in the Fourth? Fusculus?"
"Fusculus is a gem."
"He ignores you curled up in a corner?"
"No. He orders me to leave. Fusculus thinks that taking over Martinus' job means he inherited the attitude as well."
"Jupiter! So you're stuck for a bed?"
"I wanted to lodge with your mother." Petronius and Ma had always got on well. They liked to conspire, criticizing me.
"Ma would take you in."
"I can't ask her. She's still putting up Anacrites."
"Don't mention that bastard!" My mother's lodger was anathema to me. "My old apartment's empty," I suggested.
"I was hoping you'd say that."
"It's yours. Provided," I put in slyly, "you explain to me how, if we're talking about a quarrel with your wife, you also end up being suspended by the Fourth. When did Rubella ever have a reason to accuse you of disloyalty?" Rubella was the tribune in charge of the Fourth Cohort, and Petro's immediate superior. He was a pain in the posterior, but otherwise fair.
"Silvia took it upon herself to inform Rubella that I was tangled up with a racketeer's relative."
Well, he had asked for it, but that was hard. Petronius Longus could not have picked a mistress who compromised him more thoroughly. Once Rubella knew of the affair, he would have had no choice about suspending Petro from duty. Petro would be lucky even to keep his job. Arria Silvia must have understood that. To risk their livelihood she must be very angry indeed. It sounded as if my old friend was losing his wife too.
We were too disheartened even to drink. The amphora was down to the grit in the point anyway. But we were not ready to return home in this glum mood. The water board employee had not actually asked us to move out of his way, so we stayed where we were while he leaned around us cleaning the cockleshell spout with a disgusting sponge on a stick. When the plunger failed to work he burrowed in his tool satchel for a piece of wire. He poked and scraped. The fountain made a rude noise. Some sludge plopped out. Slowly water began to trickle through, encouraged by more waggling of the wire.
Petronius and I straightened up reluctantly. In Rome the water pressure is low, but eventually the bowl would fill and then overflow, providing the neighborhood with not only its domestic supply but an endless trickle down the gutters to carry away muck from the streets. Tailors' Lane badly needed that but, drunk though we were, we
didn't want to end up sitting in it.
Petronius applauded the workman sardonically. "That all the problem was?"
"Seized up while it was off, Legate."
"Why was it off?"
"Empty delivery pipe. Blockage in the outlet at the castellum."
The man dug his fist into the bucket he had brought with him, like a fisherman pulling out a crab. He came up with a blackened object which he held up by its single clawlike appendage so we could briefly inspect it: something old, and hard to identify, yet disturbingly familiar. He tossed it back in the bucket where it splash-landed surprisingly heavily. We both nearly ignored it. We would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble. Then Petro looked at me askance.
"Wait a moment!" I exclaimed.
The workman tried to reassure us. "No panic, Legate. Happens all the time."
Petronius and I stepped closer and peered down into the filthy depths of the wooden pail. A nauseous smell rose to greet us. The cause of the blockage at the water tower now reposed in a bed of rubbish and mud.
Excerpted from Three Hands in the Fountain © Copyright 2012 by Lindsey Davis. Reprinted with permission by Mysterious Press. All rights reserved.
Three Hands in the Fountain
- hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Mysterious Press
- ISBN-10: 0892966912
- ISBN-13: 9780892966912