Authors: D. L. Johnstone
“Of course, Eminence
,” Capito said calmly.
“I’m sure the potential impact of the desecration on the temple’s daily revenue has nothing to do with his dismay,” Aculeo said as they watched the priests walk back to their private offices. The rainstorm began in earnest then, fat, warm drops splashing down around them through the open roof of the temple.
“If she’d been murdered in the street it would have caused little issue,” Capito said as he and Aculeo moved towards a sheltered part of the sanctuary. “But here in the Sarapeion … well it’s another matter altogether.”
“Very thoughtless of her,” Aculeo said.
Two temple priests approached Capito. “This is him,” the older priest said, pushing forward the other man. He looked barely out of his boyhood, his chin covered with a wispy beard. “The acolyte Leto. He was on duty here last night.”
The youth looked down at his feet, avoiding their gaze. “So? What happened here last night?” Capito asked.
“A supplicant came to the temple very late,” Leto said, biting his lower lip.
Not surprising, Aculeo thought. Worshippers came from around the world to the temple seeking healing for whatever it was that afflicted them – sleeping in the sanctuary overnight in order to receive instructive dreams from Sarapis, or even paying the priests to dream on their behalf.
“And?” Capito said impatiently.
“I accepted his votive offering, brought him some wine and a lamp and let him be.”
“You were supposed to stay with him,” the priest said angrily, striking the youth on the head.
“He asked to be left alone so that he might receive his vision,” the acolyte cried, wincing from the blow.
“So what did you do?” Aculeo asked.
“I … I fell asleep in one of the chapels,” Leto admitted.
“I awoke when I heard t
he supplicant cry for help.”
“Fool,” the priest growled, striking him again
“You know, it’s rather challenging for a man to talk when you keep hitting them on the head,” Capito said in annoyance. “Why did the supplicant cry for help?”
“He claimed he’d been attacked by a madman in the Sanctuary,” said the youth.
“There was a madman?” Aculeo asked.
“I never actually saw him, sir. I came as quickly as I could, but the madman must have already escaped. The supplicant was most upset. I tried to calm him down but he was inconsolable, claimed he’d been attacked by this man. Then … then I saw her,” the boy said, glancing towards the body. “I summoned the priests and told them what I’d found.”
“You neglected your sacred duties and the Sarapeion was desecrated!” the priest cried, striking him again. “When the High Priest learns of this …”
“Discipline him later, please, it’s quite distracting,” Capito said irritably. “What of the supplicant? Did he say anything about the murdered girl?”
“No Magistrate,” the boy said. “He left soon afterwards.”
“What was his name?”
“Cleon, sir. Cleon of Athens.”
“Any idea where we can find him?”
“No, I’m sorry,” Leto sniffled, wiping the tears from his eyes.
“If Cleon shows up again, send word to my offices,” Capito said. The youth gave a sullen nod.
A pair of temple slaves carried in basins of washing soda and horsehair brushes to scrub the blood off the stoa floor. Other slaves approached the dead woman and laid out a sheet of canvas on the floor, carefully lifting the body onto it before carrying it down the mosaic-tiled corridor towards the temple doors.
“I need to talk with the Public Order officers before I leave,” Capito said. “I trust next time we meet it’s under more pleasant circumstances, Aculeo.” With that, the Magistrate walked away.
Clotted clouds of pink-brown blood swirled in the rain puddles on the marble tiles as the temple slaves tried to erase any remnant of what had gone on here the prior night. Aculeo looked at the earring he’d found in the dead woman’s final grasp, with its perfect little golden grapes and finely carved jasper leaves. A pretty piece for a street porne to be carrying, he thought. The whole thing didn’t add up somehow. What did happen here last night?
Ah well, it really is none of my concern, and it brings me no closer to finding Iovinus. Every day that passes, the trail grows colder. The man’s like a ghost. Did I truly see him at the Hippodrome that morning? His head was throbbing again – he wondered if the priests kept any sacrificial wine about.
Aculeo made his way out of the temple and down the hundred steps. When he reached the bottom he noticed a small white shrine in the shadows, all but obscured behind a thick tangle of thorn bushes. The sculpture on the shrine was of three hideous old women with knotted hair, roaring mouths and bulging eyes. The Furies, the goddesses who sought vengeance for victims of murder. The deities stared back at him, their painted eyes unblinking. Something caught his eye in the shadows of the shrine, a stain of some sort, he thought. He crouched next to it, carefully pulling the branches of the bush aside to get a closer look. Not just a stain but a painted symbol – like a bodiless stick figure man with bent arms and splayed legs protruding from where its neck should have been.
He scraped at the mark with his fingernail, then rubbed the scrapings between fingertip and thumb – they softened into a chalky paste as they mixed with the oils on his skin. He smelled his fingertips – the distinctive, metallic tang of blood.
The villa was as it had been, all their fine furniture, beautiful artworks and splendid tapestries in their proper places once more. Aculeo walked down the dark marble hallway. It was odd – he could hear the sounds of people bustling about and talking to one another, but he couldn’t actually see anyone. In fact, every room he came to was empty yet still echoed with voices. Where is everyone?
When he reached the garden wall at the rear of the villa he stepped through the Himmatean marble archway. The air was warm and sweet, tinged with the spicy perfume of the hyacinths and mock orange trees that bordered the impluvium. There he saw Titiana standing next to the fountain. He ran forward to take her in his arms. She didn’t move. He pulled back slightly at the hardness of her cheek pressing against his, her lips cold and unyielding as he tried to kiss them.
He took her hands in his anyway, squeezed them tight. “I’ve missed you so much,” he said. “Did you just arrive?”
Titiana gave no response, though Aculeo sensed she did not want to be there at all. “Everything will be better now, on my oath. We’re together again. Where’s Atellus?”
Titiana remained silent and still as a statue, but she was clearly troubled. Something was amiss. Aculeo called for the boy. He could hear nothing but the breeze and birdsongs in the trees.
“You didn’t leave him back in Rome, did you?” But he knew even as he asked that wasn’t the answer. “Titiana, you’re worrying me. Where’s our son?”
Titiana’s unsettling gaze fixed upon a narrow path at the far end of the garden leading deep into the flowered shrubs. Aculeo released her hands and stepped onto the path. The path quickly narrowed with overgrown foliage. “Atellus?” he called. Still no answer. He pushed the branches aside, ignoring the thorns that pricked at his arms and legs, moving deeper and deeper into the untamed shrubbery until at last he reached the garden’s back wall.
There was no sign of the boy. The ground suddenly rolled and fell like a great wave beneath his feet. Aculeo clutched at the wall to catch himself and felt the bricks start to crumble and come apart beneath his fingers. He stepped back just as the wall gave way and watched the bricks and the pathway’s paving stones topple down a sheer cliff that led to the sea far below, where waves pounded and crashed against a wild shore.
And then he spotted a small figure tumbling down the cliff’s face as well, breaking into pieces as it tumbled to the sea …No!
“You’re not an easy man to find,” said a man’s voice.
Aculeo awoke with a start. Two figures stood in shadow at the foot of his bed. He blinked up at them, utterly disoriented.
and Bitucus, he realized.
They appeared almost amused.
“My friends can still find me easily enough,” he muttered.
is head was throbbing, still clouded with wine, his mouth dry as sand.
“I’m surprised you have any friends left,” Gellius said.
“I’ve all I need. Though I could use a new slave. The current one seems too willing to let any riffraff cross my doorstep.
“I tried to stop them, Master,” Xanthias said from the doorstep.
“Don’t go blaming the poor fellow,” Gellius chided. “We didn’t give him much choice.”
“Nice place,” Bitucus said, looking about the cramped, dingy little closet of a room.
“We could schedule a tour if you’d like,” Aculeo said. “It might occupy a full thirty seconds if we took the scenic route.”
“Waiting in the street,” Gellius said. “Any luck finding Iovinus?”
“Not really.” Aculeo told them of his disturbing encounter with Pesach at the fullery the prior day.
“It’s worse even than I could have imagined,” Gellius said, clearly upset. “To think that a former associate, a fellow Roman, could have fallen so desperately far. Poor, poor fellow.”
“He did tell me about a porne Iovinus used to patronize,” Aculeo said. “The trouble is no one’s seen her in days. We’ve reached a dead end I’m afraid.”
Perhaps not,” Bitucus said with a sly grin. “We know where Iovinus is.”
“Unlike you, we still have friends,” said Gellius. “We put the word out the other day. Most of them were all too willing to help us find that bastard. They didn’t seem too keen on you either, mind you. Anyway, someone spotted him at a tavern in Delta last night. Apparently he rents out a room there.”
The oppressive shroud of Aculeo’s dream immediately dissipated, the prospect of regaining his fortune so real he could almost taste it! “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”