Pandora’s Boy: New Excerpt
Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis is the sixth book in the Flavia Albia historical mystery series, where a suspicious death and subsequent murder send Flavia down a twisted path to expose corruption and betrayal.
First century Rome is not the quiet, orderly city that it pretends to be and in this environment, a very clever private informer can thrive. Flavia Albia, daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, is a chip off the old block. She’s taken over his father’s old profession, and, like him, she occasionally lets her love of a good puzzle get in the way of her common sense. Such is the case when one such puzzle is brought to her by the very hostile ex-wife of Albia’s new husband.
It seems that over on the Quirinal Hill, a naive young girl, one Clodia Volumnia, has died, and there’s a suggestion that she was poisoned by a love potion. The local witch, Pandora, would have been the one to supply such a potion. Looking into the matter, Albia soon learns that Pandora carries on a trade in herbal beauty products while keeping hidden her much more dangerous connections.
Albia soon discovers the young girl was a handful and her so-called friends were not as friendly as they should have been. The supposedly sweet air of the Quirinal hides the smells of loose morality, casual betrayal, and even gangland conflict. When a friend of her own is murdered, things become serious and Albia is determined to expose as much of this local sickness as she can―beginning with the truth about the death of little Clodia.
ROME: THE QUIRINAL HILL,
October AD 89
When my husband’s ex-wife came offering me work, I knew she was up to something. She had left him alone for ten years after she divorced him, but as soon as he started falling for me, back she came like a stubborn smell. He always made out she had been justified in leaving him, but that was horse dung. His break from her was a stroke of luck.
I knew he felt guilty that he had not invited Laia to our wedding. I did not. Today I would have pretended not to be at home, but he chose to let her in. Tiberius could be so fair-minded that if I had had an iron skillet to hand I would have brained him. Fortunately for him I don’t often cook and the housekeeper we had on trial had left us, so nobody was wielding pans in our house. Instead I supplied bread and cheese for most meals, which is why cheeses and loaves exist in my opinion.
Given time, I would find new staff. Then I could concentrate on our start-up family business and on my own career. Unfortunately, my work had given my predecessor her excuse to visit us. I was an informer, conducting investigations for private clients. The lofty ex was not hiring me herself, just trying to manipulate me; what she wanted would be with somebody else, and a mismatch as I saw it.
I offered no refreshments to Laia Gratiana; I would sooner give her warts. Impervious, she sat in our reception room looking well-dressed and smug, while Tiberius Manlius politely agreed that the story his old wife related seemed intriguing. It sounded dud to me. She was a rich, snooty blonde, and I loathed her. She and I would never form a good working relationship; I could not imagine getting along any better with her friends.
“Could be interesting, Albia,” ventured Tiberius, though he was on dangerous ground.
“Could be ghastly.” I like to be frank.
He grinned. I might have softened up, but he had included Laia in the grin.
Normally I welcomed his advice. He gave his opinion in the stern way you would expect from a magistrate, then left me to make up my own mind. Had we been on our own, we would have wrangled over me spurning Laia’s commission, but in front of her we would look harmonious.
“There should be a good fee.” Tiberius, a true plebeian and now in charge of a building firm, was used to rapid costings when sizing up jobs.
I admit we were short of funds, yet however “intriguing” Laia’s case might appear, I would not work for her. I would not give her the satisfaction. Even so, I understood why Tiberius felt curious. If anyone else had brought me this puzzle I would have jumped at it.
A young girl had been found dead in bed. Her father believed she had been poisoned by a love-potion. Her mother denied it, claiming their daughter died of a broken heart because the cruel papa had rejected the young man she wanted. A doctor declined to comment on either possible cause. That’s doctors. They see death every day and always seem surprised it has happened.
Things then grew nasty. The opposing grandmothers came to blows in the atrium. When a slave tried to separate the two of them, his arm was broken. Now the mother-in-law was being sued by her son-in-law for damaging his slave, a dispute aggravated by suggestions that she had helped in acquiring the supposed love-potion. That carried a whiff of witchcraft. People were saying it was in the public interest to uncover any use of magic, a subject that always caused intense excitement in Rome. The mother-in-law was banned from the house, and took the girl’s mother with her. Nobody was sure whether this was an official divorce, but the father called it enticement and blustered that he did not have to return the dowry. That made the mother even more angry than when he had blamed her for their child’s death.
The agitated father called in the vigiles; these neighborhood deadbeats maintained they saw no evidence of foul play. They ignored the witchcraft idea. Too much paperwork. Perhaps in reality the burly law-and-order lads were scared of witches.
Papa raised his complaint to a higher level, summoning the Urban Cohorts. Nobody else would do any such thing, but that was the sort of family he headed up: fearlessly involving as many officials as possible. Never known to be diligent, the Urbans sent a runner who sniffed around then disappeared, despite the warring grannies; he ignored their catfight even though it could have been defined as a civil riot, something the Urban Cohorts were specifically set up to suppress, normally with horrible violence.
Next, the idiot householder went even further: he petitioned the Praetorian Guards. Luckily, they declined to attend. Most were tied up with the Emperor on maneuvers in Pannonia, while any of the commissariat left behind in Rome were going crazy as they arranged a Triumph for when our glorious ruler returned.
If the father was as daft as he sounded, he would now appeal to the Emperor. Involving Domitian could be a death sentence for everyone. Perhaps you start to see why I was opposed to being drawn in.
“Why, anyway, was a love-potion suspected?” Tiberius asked Laia Gratiana. “Did the lad the girl fancied not wish to be lusted after?”
“Well that’s what your clever little wife has to find out!” retorted Laia, sounding petulant as she worked through his syntax. Clearly, she had never thought to ask the question. I saw exactly what he meant. Why had the girlie herself swallowed a potion, if she knew what she wanted but her boyfriend was the one shying away? She ought to have sent the vial to him instead. Men will drink anything; just say it will make them virile. They will deny they need it, then take a crafty swig when you are not looking.
“My clever wife will have to decide whether she wants the case. Incidentally, you shouldn’t call Flavia Albia ‘little’ if you intend to keep your teeth.”
Thanks, loyal husband. Tiberius and I had been married a month, despite the gods having struck him down on our wedding day with a bolt of lightning.
I am not joking. Laia must really be kicking herself that she was not at our wedding. Its thrills had even been reported in the Daily Gazette. We know how to throw a party.
“Well, of course she must take the case,” purred Laia, ignoring his comment about keeping her teeth. To me, that demonstrated why they had not survived as man and wife. I, on the other hand, tipped a finger at him, to let him know I had noticed. The bad boy smiled again, though this time just for me. His ex carried on, all unawares: “This is the kind of conundrum that darling Flavia adores.”
I was not Laia Gratiana’s darling, she had no idea what kind of work I liked, nor even what I really did—and no one calls me Flavia. That compliment to the Emperor was dumped on me as part of a tricky citizenship claim. It obtained me a grubby diploma that said I had Roman birth, but it put me on a par with Imperial freedwomen and ambitious foreigners. Even my diploma was stamped by the governor of a very obscure province. All my relatives tease me over this.
Laia Gratiana’s true opinion of my skills was low, but I saw what her game was. The events under discussion happened in the Quirinal district. She wanted me to leave home and exhaust myself with somebody else’s domestic dispute on the far side of Rome. Her motive was transparent. If she couldn’t have Tiberius, I should not have him either. Laia Gratiana never saw me as a rival; she just wanted to be spiteful against him.
“No, thanks.” I kept it professional. “A dead fifteen-year-old is always sad to hear about—so much lost potential, it’s very unfortunate—but family tragedies can turn too ugly. It’s not worth the fee. That’s assuming they ever pay up—though you’d be surprised how fast feuding couples resolve their differences and unite when faced with an invoice for time-charges and expenses.”
“Try asking for payment in advance,” advised Laia, at her most patronizing.
“Standard practice.” I was terse.
“Well, I’m sure you can’t afford to turn away business.” Laia, who only condescended to spend her own energy in community good works, made out that no respectable woman would ever involve herself in something people paid for. Since informers are tracked by the vigiles in the same way as actors and prostitutes, she had a point. I might agree my trade was disreputable. Nevertheless, I said I had cases backed up, so on this occasion Laia would have to tell her smart friends on the Quirinal that I was unavailable.
People did not often say no to Laia. I really enjoyed doing so.
While she recovered, I added that I had a sickly husband who needed me; I was devoting myself to my role as a magistrate’s wife, looking after him. I relished that too, because when Laia had him he was too young to be an aedile, so she never possessed the social cachet that I had. With this dig, I left the room as if I had dinner napkins to count. Laia was only here today because of her old connection with Tiberius. He could get rid of her.
* * *
He must have persuaded her to go. I hid myself in a store cupboard to avoid even having to say goodbye. When I came out, she was nowhere to be seen. Neither was he.
Annoying to the last, Laia had left a note-tablet plonked on a side table that gave the address of the family whose daughter had died. I could tell she had written it herself: the lettering was so neat I wanted to spill fish pickle over it, then give it to the dog to chew, if we’d had one.
Laia had raised her thinly pruned eyebrows in amazement at my rejection. She had a knack of making me feel crude. The fact that she must have brought this tablet with her, regardless of whether or not I was willing to accept the commission, made me rave even more. She had added unnecessary details (“smart house by the fountain, it has a red door”) as if she thought I was incapable of finding places for myself, even though I spent my working life doing that, often with meager directions. Her letters were slightly too large, her lines too straight. Her whole attitude was unbearable.
What bloody fountain, anyway?
I wished we did own a dog, one that would have run over to Laia and peed on her dress hem.
I could not find my husband.
Of course, this predicament is not new to wives. Men are good at sliding off, even if they have simply become absorbed in writing a complaint about street noise and forgot to tell you they went out for ink; however, since the incident with the lightning bolt, I had to take special care of mine. Being watched over so anxiously made him rebellious, although the pain he continued to suffer made him tetchy in any case. I was now used to flare-ups. In my opinion, I was handling it all commendably.
We had been plunged into crisis without warning. It could have been a difficult way to start a marriage, yet it had some uses. Tiberius and I could not flap around like lovebirds, getting to know each other. We had to deal with this together, and deal with it now. After my near loss of him at the wedding, I became jumpy myself unless I checked up on him frequently. At one point, I was afraid I had married a permanent invalid, though now we knew the situation was not that bad. But pain or confusion would come upon him randomly; he needed reassurance; he tended to stay at home. If ever he went to the baths with Dromo, his body slave, he rushed back to the house very quickly; when he went out anywhere else, he took me. For him to disappear without explanation was alarming.
“Where is your master?” I demanded. Dromo was a vague youth who imagined himself constantly hard done by. That was ridiculous. Tiberius had always indulged him; at the moment, I was going along with it, even though the lad irritated the hell out of me.
Dromo shrank away. Usually he felt confident Tiberius would provide protection if I chose to yell or hit him, neither of which I had ever done or even seriously threatened. “He went out, I think. Well, he never told me. I’m just his slave, why would he bother to tell me anything or take me with him?”
“Don’t be daft. The whole point of having you is so you can follow him about as a bodyguard, or run errands and carry messages. He takes you out and then he fills you up with pastries, like the kind master he is. I am worried about him, Dromo, and so should you be. Help me find him.”
Since I was an informer, I followed procedure. When there is a missing person, you start in their room. Sometimes that is all you need to do, because the child or spouse who ran away has left a message bemoaning how awfully they have been treated; the ones who want to be fetched back—or the ones who don’t, but who are really stupid—mention where they are going. You find them. You claim your fee. The client maintains they could have come upon this note for themselves, therefore they won’t pay you. All normal. I hate those jobs.
Tiberius had not left us a message. I searched our bedroom thoroughly. The slave watched in silence.
The tunic Tiberius had worn earlier was now lying on the bed. He was an aedile, a senior magistrate, so I checked his formal outfit with the purple stripes, but it remained in a chest, neatly folded. Official duties were the only reason Tiberius might go out in the middle of the day, because the builders who worked for him took their orders in the morning or when they came back to the yard at dusk. Their current commission was a routine workshop renovation; Tiberius left it to his foreman, not bothering to supervise.
“He hasn’t gone to the aediles’ office, so what is he dressed for? Either he is wandering around in the buff, or he changed into something. Dromo, in order to make inquiries, I need to know.”
“I have to describe him to people who may have seen him. I want you to work out which tunic is missing.”
“I don’t know,” complained the lackluster slave, sounding miserable. Looking after his master’s clothes was supposed to be one of his tasks, but who would know it? “Any of his stuff could be at the laundry.” I pointed out that it would be Dromo’s job to bundle up items for washing, so he ought to remember what had been sent last time. Caught out, Dromo grumpily stuck his head in the open clothes-chest, then came back up muttering, “He’s in that old brown thing.”
So it seemed that Tiberius was working, because the brown tunic was a disguise he adopted when he went out incognito. As a magistrate, he had his own quaint way of spotting wrongdoers; when I first met him, he was patrolling the streets, looking like a layabout you wouldn’t stand too close to, while pulling in people who blocked pavements, sold fake goods from stalls or owned dangerous wild animals.
I felt glad he was taking an interest again. Then I found the wedding ring.
Even Dromo showed an ominous sense of occasion. “Shit on a stick! He told me he was never going to take that off.”
Then in another trinket dish I found my husband’s signet ring as well.
I sat down on the bed, trying not to be upset. Married less than ten weeks and my husband had left me? That would take some explaining to our friends and relatives. None of them would be surprised; they viewed me as an eccentric who would soon drive him away. But I was very surprised indeed.
“Don’t cry!” Dromo was now terrified. “If you’re going to cry, I’m off.”
“You’re a typical boy then!” I wiped my eyes. “I am not crying. Tiberius Manlius will come back soon.”
“Where’s he gone?”
“How should I know? He’s grown up. He doesn’t have to take a pedagogue to carry his school homework—oh, stop looking like a wide-eyed owl, Dromo. I mean, he can go where he likes.”
“Has he gone to get drunk in a bar?”
“He hates Laia Gratiana.”
“Well, I doubt it, even for her; solitary drinking is not your master’s style…”
Or was I wrong? If being visited by his ex-wife had upset him enough, he might want to recover on his own … Was this her fault? If Laia Gratiana had said or done something to aggravate his anxiety, I would make her suffer.
I quizzed Dromo about how long she had stayed. Not long. At the same time as the slave saw me hide in the cupboard, his master had yelled for him. Dromo responded only reluctantly; he, too, disliked Laia. (He had some good points.) But he confirmed that he had been instructed to see her out. Tiberius neither showed her to the door politely himself, nor kissed her cheek in farewell. All the burden of being courteous fell on Dromo.
“I had to take her into the street to her chair. She ought to have given me a copper for being helpful—but she didn’t!”
“Were you helpful?”
“No, I was grumpy.”
I nearly gave him a copper for that.
“Did he say anything else to her?”
“He just snarled, ‘You’ve told us the situation; we shall have to think about it.’ Then she tossed her head and walked off ahead of me.”
It was unclear to me whether Dromo had lived with them while they were a married couple years ago; if so, he would have been a child at the time. Rather, I had the impression Tiberius had acquired Dromo as a little soul to fetch and carry, after Laia kicked Tiberius out. When he went to live at his uncle’s house, any slaves they owned together probably stayed with her; she exacted a vicious divorce settlement.
At least if there had been no further conversation today, I need not visit Laia to ask what she had said to make Tiberius vanish.
I would not have to own up that I did not know where he was.
* * *
When he failed to come home that night, I really panicked.
Next day, I hurried out to search his haunts. It was so early, Rome seemed like a badly bruised peach, promising much but too brown to tolerate. Sordid relics of last night’s adventures littered every street. There was sick in the fountains and worse in the gutters.
Stepping on bits of torn garland and circling round the occasional comatose fun-seeker, I busily visited the aediles’ office, his uncle’s house, shops and stalls he liked, the barber he patronized, a warehouse he owned and was trying to hire out … Nobody had seen him. I went down to the Marble Embankment, where my family lived; they all said the right comforting things—then I spotted them exchanging worried signals behind my back.
My last hope was Glaucus’ gym. This place in the Vicus Tuscus in the Forum was where my father went to exercise if he was facing any crisis; I had persuaded Tiberius to attend for remedial massages. Young Glaucus, the first proprietor’s son, now ran it. He was a retired athlete of some distinction. Taking a keen interest in my husband’s accident, he had researched the physical and mental effects of surviving a lightning strike. He found out more about it than even some doctors we consulted.
I found him leaning on a lad he was training to wrestle. The pupil looked desperate; Glaucus, who had maintained his superb physique, was hardly trying.
When I said what had happened, his face fell. “This is a nightmare, Glaucus. You look green—what’s that for?”
I had known him for years. He had probably forgotten, but he once proposed to me. No, that’s wrong; poor old Glaucus, who was extremely serious, had probably not forgotten at all, but as I grew up and became famously high-handed, he had been worrying ever since that I might change my mind and decide to accept him …
Looking anxious, Glaucus told me he had found several anecdotes about lightning survivors who abruptly left home. Even they seemed puzzled as to why. They might be found, perhaps a long time afterward and many miles away, living a new life with a different identity.
“If their relatives ever track them down, Albia, it seems they can be persuaded to come back. They do come home quite willingly.”
“Well, that’s good news—but I have to find him first! When they disappear, is there any logic in where they go to?”
“No, it seems to be pure chance.”
I walked slowly home. Up in our bedroom, I put my husband’s wedding ring, and his signet ring with its fish-tailed horse design, on a piece of cord, which I hung round my neck under my clothes. I was beginning to accept it might be a long time before the rings went back on his fingers.
I sat on the bed, thinking about the irony that I could be hired to find missing people yet had no idea where to start looking for my own.
Copyright © 2018 Lindsey Davis.