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Authors: David Wishart

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Illegally Dead

BOOK: Illegally Dead
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Illegally Dead

David Wishart

First published as a US Kindle edition 2015

Copyright © David Wishart 2008

www.david-wishart.co.uk

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form, or by any means electronic, mechanical or photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

Dramatis Personae

(Only the names of characters who appear more than once are given)

Corvinus’s family and household

Alexis: the gardener

Bathyllus: the major-domo

Lysias: the coachman

Marcia: Perilla’s courtesy aunt

Marilla, Valeria: Corvinus and Perilla’s adopted daughter

Meton: the chef

Perilla, Rufia: Corvinus’s wife

The animals mentioned are: Corydon, a donkey; Dassa, a sheep; and Placida, a dog

Other characters

Acceius, Quintus: Hostilius’s lawyer partner

‘Bucca’ (Gaius Maecilius): ‘Lucky’ Maecilius’s younger son

Castor: Veturina’s brother

Clarus: Marilla’s boyfriend; Hyperion’s son

Cosmus: a slave-boy belonging to Hostilius

Faenia: Fimus’s wife

‘Fimus’ (Marcus Maecilius): ‘Lucky’ Maecilius’s younger son

Fuscus: Acceius and Hostilius’s clerk

Gabba: a bar-fly

Habra: a Bovillan woman

Hostilius, Lucius: the dead man; a Castrimoenian lawyer

Hyperion, Publius Cornelius: the local doctor

Libanius, Quintus: head of the Castrimoenian senate

Novius, Publius: a lawyer in Bovillae

Paulina: Hostilius’s ward

Pontius: owner of the wineshop in Castrimoenium

Renia: a Castrimoenian housewife

Scopas: Hostilius’s major-domo

Seia Lucinda: Acceius’s wife

Senecio: Habra’s brother (her other brother was Lupus)

Tascia: Acceius’s first wife

Tuscius, Marcus: a Bovillan slave dealer

Veturina: Hostilius’s wife

Veturinus: Veturina’s father; owner of a wineshop in Bovillae

1

Valeria Marilla gives greetings to her adoptive parents Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus and Rufia Perilla.

Hi, how are you? Thanks for the books you sent, especially (Clarus says to be sure to tell you) the replacement for his father’s Rhizotomica that Corydon ate.  Everything here is much as usual. Aunt Marcia has had a bit of trouble with her knee again  but she says the liniment Clarus brought round is working really well; also Laertes’s piles are improving, although I’m not supposed to mention them. Dassa caught another cold at the end of last month (!), but Clarus and I have been feeding her hot grain mash and giving her regular chest rubs and an evening cup of mulled Caecuban so barring the usual croaking and sneezing she’s not too bad. Placida’s settling down nicely after that unfortunate business with Cloelia Secunda and the topiary hedge, although you’ve still got to watch her with next door’s mastiff and both households now keep a bucket of water handy for what Aunt Marcia calls their Mutual Bouts of Unacceptable Behaviour. Clarus is still working on her flatulence problem (Placida’s, not Aunt Marcia’s) since the charcoal pills I mentioned in my last letter don’t seem to be having the effect he hoped for, quite the reverse - Clarus says this is a pharmaceutical anomaly, but there you are. On the positive side, now we’ve fenced off the pig run the rolling problem seems to be under control. More or less.

Oh, and by the way, please could you come down here as soon as possible? Clarus thinks there’s been a murder.

2

So there we were, in Castrimoenium, three days later, in the atrium of Aunt Marcia’s villa: me, Perilla, Marcia, Marilla, young Clarus and Clarus’s father Hyperion, the local doctor and pharmacist.

I don’t go much for doctors, myself, especially at the dinner table where after the third top-up they tend to lie glowering at you over their lettuce and making snide remarks about an imbalance of humours, but Hyperion’s okay. For a start his full name’s Publius Cornelius Hyperion, and despite the Greek bit on the end he’s as Roman as they come, or Latin, anyway: the family’ve been settled this side of the Adriatic for over two centuries, since his  great-whatever-grampa was handed the citizenship by a grateful senate for curing General Scipio of a nasty boil on the bum just in time to let him fight Zama in comfort, thus giving us Carthage and a large slice of Africa. Or at least that’s what their family tradition says. Which meant a refreshing absence of facial hair and a ditto presence of good Italian common sense.

I could take young Clarus as well, which was lucky because over the two years that I’d known him he and Marilla had become a permanent item: a quiet-spoken, serious kid streets away from the fluff-brained lads-about-town we got in Rome. Good looking, too. Certainly Marilla thought so, from the way she couldn’t take her eyes off him, and the attraction was obviously mutual.

‘Right.’ I held up my winecup for the hovering Bathyllus to refill; as usually happened when we came to visit, Marcia had sent her own ancient piles-afflicted major-domo Laertes to stay with her freedwoman in Baiae for the duration. ‘So tell me about this murder, then.’

‘Possible murder.’ That was Aunt Marcia, from her usual stool - stool, mark you, not chair: no decadent back rest for Perilla’s Aunt Marcia - beside the portrait bust of her late husband Fabius Maximus. The old girl might’ve been in her eighties, but mentally she was needle-sharp, and where accuracy was concerned she didn’t take prisoners. ‘Please bear the distinction carefully in mind, because Hyperion has no actual proof of foul play. Do you, Hyperion?’

‘No. None at all.’ Hyperion shifted his lanky six-foot body on the guest-couch he shared with Clarus. ‘The man was a patient of mine by the name of Lucius Hostilius.’

‘Senior partner in a local law firm.’ Marcia again. ‘The local law firm, in fact.’

‘So how did he die?’ I said.

‘He was poisoned,’ Hyperion said. ‘At least, I think he was.’

I leaned back against the overstuffed cushions and tried to keep my expression neutral. Bugger! Well, that explained the guy’s reluctance to make the accusation formal and why he’d got Clarus and Marilla to fetch me from Rome, anyway. If you were a dead man’s doctor then bringing up the question of poison was juggling with razors. Where poisoning were concerned, doctors were the first suspects in line.

‘Not exactly poisoned, Dad,’ Clarus said.

Hyperion grunted. ‘Quite right. I’m sorry, Corvinus, I stand corrected. No, there was no actual poison involved, not as as such. But I’m very much afraid that I supplied the means of death myself.’

Oh, hell; this did not sound good, not good at all. To break the eye contact, I lifted my winecup and took a slow sip. It was Marcia’s best Caecuban, or what Dassa the oenophilic sheep had left us of it anyway.

‘Perhaps, Hyperion,’ Perilla said carefully, ‘you’d better explain things from the beginning.’

‘Yes. Yes, of course.’ Hyperion touched his own cup on the table beside him but took his hand away without lifting it. The guy was clearly worried as hell, and in his position I didn’t blame him. ‘Well, then. I was treating Hostilius for chest pains and palpitations, and had been for several months. The medicine was in a bottle near his bed, a ten day supply which I’d renewed only two days before. Five days ago - late morning, to be exact - one of his slaves knocked me up to say that his master had suffered a fit and would I come at once. By the time I arrived it was too late and the man was already dead.’

‘You’re sure the death wasn’t natural?’ Perilla said.

‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘No, I’m not sure, not at all. That’s just the problem. When I began treating Hostilius my initial prognosis was that although the condition was fatal in itself with appropriate medication and strict attention to diet he might live for another two or three years, perhaps even twice that. However’ - he paused - ‘the signs showed that he had died from a seizure typical of the final stages of the disease, so that prognosis could have been wrong. Could well have been wrong, because the gods know we’re not infallible.’

‘But?’ I said.

‘Oh, yes. Certainly there is a but. After I’d inspected the body I checked the medicine bottle. It was almost full, as it should have been, but the medicine was a clear liquid. When I tasted it it was water.’

Uh-huh. ‘And if Hostilius had drunk the original contents - all of them - the effect would’ve duplicated the seizure?’

‘Yes. More or less exactly.’

‘So you think someone gave him the full dose and refilled the bottle?’

‘Yes. At least, that’s what I’m afraid of.’

‘Would that have been possible?’ Perilla said. ‘Practically speaking, I mean?’

‘Oh, yes. Hostilius took the medicine in spiced honey wine, so what taste it had was masked almost completely. He wouldn’t have noticed all that much difference from the usual, especially if he gulped it down, which he normally did. The effects wouldn’t be immediate, either.’

‘But you didn’t tell anyone about the bottle at the time?’ I said.

‘No, Corvinus, I did not. And I won’t.’

‘If Dad reports it,’ Clarus put in, ‘all the slaves’ll be tortured for their evidence, maybe even killed if the torture leads nowhere. That’s the law.’

Shit. Yeah, right, that is the good old Roman law, at least technically, and I’d done Hyperion an injustice because the guy wasn’t worried on his own account at all. Where the master of the house dies under suspicious circumstances his slaves are automatically assumed to be hiding crucial information about the death; information that, to be deemed valid, has to be extracted under torture. And if that doesn’t produce results then as presumed accessories before, during and after the fact the whole household - men, women and children - are liable to execution. On principle, and to make sure that any other slave thinking of murdering his master or covering up for a pal who does gets the point. Roman law doesn’t play games with slaves gone to the bad; it can’t afford to.

‘How many?’ I said.

‘Twenty-one,’ Hyperion said. ‘And I couldn’t even be sure I was right.’

Marilla, perched on a stool of her own next to Clarus, hadn’t spoken, but her fingers touched his arm.

‘The medicine’d been switched, so ipso facto it had to be murder,’ I said. ‘You can’t get past that.’

Hyperion looked even more unhappy than ever. ‘Oh, but I can,’ he said. ‘Too easily, I’m afraid. You know slaves, Marcus. If they don’t always act as we would in their place that doesn’t mean they’re stupid, only that their priorities - and their fears - are different from ours. The bottle was on the table in open view, and it had a loose-fitting glass stopper. Let’s say one of them knocked it over accidentally while he was cleaning.  It’s quite within the bounds of possibility that to cover the accident up and save himself a beating he would replace the contents with water. In which case, of course, Hostilius wouldn’t have drunk any of the medicine at all.’

‘Yet he died. You said yourself -’

‘I said that I wasn’t infallible; that my initial prognosis could have been wrong, and that the perceived symptoms, both as they were described to me and as they showed themselves after death, point neither one way nor the other. Also, if the liquid in the bottle was only water then Hostilius could have missed two of his doses, which in his condition would be crucial. I repeat - and I must stress this - I’ve no incontrovertible proof of deliberate murder. Only the suspicion of it.’

‘But -’

‘Corvinus.’ He leaned forwards and put his hands palm down on the table. ‘Listen, please. I’m afraid there are no buts, not in this regard. If you’re ready, for your part, to wager twenty-one innocent lives that the facts show otherwise, then I am not. And I’d think the less of you for it.’

‘He’s right, dear,’ Perilla murmured. Marilla nodded, a brief, sharp bob of the chin.

True. I wouldn’t think much of myself over a bet like that, either. I sighed. ‘Okay, pal,’ I said. ‘Assuming the thing was deliberate, let’s see where we are and what we’ve got. You say the medicine bottle was on a table in Hostilius’s bedroom. So in theory, given the proper opportunity anyone in the house could’ve had access to it, right? Slave or family?’

‘Yes.’

‘Fine. We’ll come back to the who in a moment. Hostilius took the medicine in wine. When?’

‘In the morning, before breakfast. At least, those were my directions. Whether he followed them, as a general rule or on that occasion, I don’t know.’

‘Did he dose himself? Or was the dose mixed in front of him? Or was it left ready-mixed in the cup?’

‘Again, I don’t know, you’d have to ask Scopas. All I know is that the cup and stoppered wine flagon were sitting together on the tray with the medicine bottle.’

‘Scopas?’

‘His major-domo.’

Bugger; and if Scopas had been the one responsible? ‘Fine. So let’s shelve the how for later consideration and think about the who. Forget the slaves, what about the family? Was he married?’

There was a slight but noticeable pause. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Marcia’s chin lift and Clarus and Marilla exchange a brief glance.

Uh-oh.

‘Yes,’ Hyperion said. ‘His wife’s name is Veturina.’

‘Hyperion,’ I said wearily. ‘If you don’t tell me I can’t help. Separate bedrooms, was it, or something worse?’

This time the pause was longer before Hyperion said carefully: ‘The first. But I don’t think you should –’

‘It isn’t quite as simple as what you’re thinking, Marcus,’ Marcia cut in. ‘Or what I assume you’re thinking. Oh, I know nothing of Hostilius’s private life - I scarcely knew the man personally - but I do know that there was a...difficulty about him. He was a very difficult person, and not only where his wife was concerned.’

‘You mean he didn’t get on with people?’ I said.

‘I’m afraid there was more to it than that,’ Hyperion said. ‘The problem was clinical, it first showed itself some eighteen months ago, and it was becoming progressively worse. Hostilius would suddenly take it into his head that people were cheating him, or injuring him in some way and then make accusations which were completely unfounded and made no logical sense.’ He must’ve seen the look on my face because he held up a hand. ‘Corvinus, I am not stupid, and I do understand the implications there if we’re considering murder. Nevertheless, I’m speaking not only as the man’s doctor over the course of many years but as a lifetime resident of Castrimoenium. We’re a small community, and we may have secrets but - small communities being what they are - they don’t stay secrets for long. In Veturina’s case, the accusations were predictable, in the clinical sense: that she was stealing his money and that she was having affairs behind his back. He made them to me himself, sometimes in her presence; he made them to everyone. Believe me, both are nonsense.’

I glanced at Marcia. Like I say, Marcia is no one’s fool, and if she wasn’t a lifetime resident herself she’d spent more time up here in the Alban hills than most of them had clocked up.

‘Hyperion is right,’ she said. ‘Again I don’t know Veturina sufficiently well personally to give an absolute opinion, but I know nothing whatsoever against her. Quite the reverse. Despite the differences in their respective backgrounds by all accounts she’s been a loyal, honest and devoted wife, latterly under extremely trying circumstances.’

‘The differences in their backgrounds?’ I said.

‘Her father kept - still keeps, I understand - a wineshop in Bovillae. She and Hostilius had been married for over thirty years.’

‘Children?’

‘Two, but they died in infancy. They have - well, I suppose you’d call her a stepdaughter, although there was never a formal adoption. The orphaned child of Hostilius’s cousin. She’d be about Marilla’s age now, or slightly younger.’ Marcia must’ve noticed my expression, because her lips tightened. ‘Marcus, listen to me. I do realise that when a husband is poisoned the wife is an obvious suspect, and I don’t wish to seem dogmatic or seek to prejudice you in any way. But I do think that if you jumped to that conclusion without careful thought you would be making a very silly mistake.’

Yeah, well, maybe; certainly I took the point. All the same, despite Marcia’s five-star encomium and Hyperion’s caveats if we were talking murder here then we’d be fools not to consider this Veturina, especially given the ostensible family circumstances. And some people are good at keeping secrets. Still, that was for the future. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘we’ve got a wife and a stepdaughter. Anyone else in the house? Family, I mean?’

‘Just one,’ Hyperion said. ‘Veturina’s brother Castor. Hostilius took him on a few years ago as the law firm’s jack-of-all-trades.’

‘Her brother? He doesn’t have a place of his own?’

‘No. He isn’t married, and the house is one of the biggest in town. When Castor moved from Bovillae Hostilius gave him the use of the east wing.’

BOOK: Illegally Dead
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