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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Davis Lindsey
 

«Time to Depart», Lindsey Davis

I

'I still can't believe I've put the bastard away for good!' Petronius muttered.

'He's not on the boat yet,' Fusculus corrected him. Clearly the Watch's optimist.

There were five us waiting on a quayside. Mid-October. An hour before dawn. A wakening breeze chilled our tense faces as we huddled in cloaks. The day was making itself ready for action somewhere on the other side of Italy, but here in Portus, Rome's new harbour, it was still fully dark. We could see the huge beacon on the lighthouse flaunting itself, with glimpses of tiny figures tending the fire; pale sheets of flame sometimes lit the statue of Neptune presiding over the entrance. The sea god's illuminated torso stood out strangely in our surroundings. Only the scents of old, hardened rope and rotting fish scales told us we were standing on the grand harbour bowl.

We were five honest, respectable citizens who had been waiting all night for a sixth. He had never been honest, though like most criminals he had no difficulty passing himself off as respectable. Roman society had always been readily bamboozled by brazen acts. But now, thanks to Petronius Longus, the man and his crimes had been publicly exposed.

We had been waiting too long. Although nobody said it, we were starting to dread that the big rissole would not show.

The lowlife was called Balbinus.

I had been hearing his name as long as I could remember. It had certainly been notorious when Petronius and I had come home from the army six years before. At that time my old tentmate Petro, being a dutiful type who fancied a good salary, had put himself forward as a public officer; I set up in business alone. He was chasing cabbage thieves through the markets while I was picking through clerks' divorces and tracing stolen art. On the face of it we lived in different worlds, yet we stumbled across the same tragedies and heard the same worrying stories on the streets.

Balbinus was renowned throughout our district as one of the dirtiest underworld organisers ever to gild imperial Rome. The area he terrorised included brothels, wharfside warehouses, the back-doubles on the Aventine slopes, the dark colonnades around the Circus Maximus. He ran jostlers and confidence tricksters; prostitutes and cutpurses; cat burglars and marauding gangs of street beggars with fake blind eyes who could soon spot trouble coming. He kept a couple of safe houses for receiving, set up under the cover of straight businesses. Petronius reckoned that the flow of stolen goods into these dens of illicit commerce rivalled the international trade at the Emporium.

Petro had been trying to nail Balbinus for years. Now, somehow, he had managed to set up a capital charge – and go on to secure a conviction despite all Balbinus' efforts to escape using democratic channels (intimidation and bribes). I had yet to hear the full details. Barely back in Rome from what I liked to describe as a confidential diplomatic mission, I had been roped in tonight as a dependable extra and friend.

'He's not going to come now,' I suggested easily, since I knew how stubborn Petro was.

'I'll not risk losing him.'

'Right.'

'Don't niggle me, Falco.'

'You're so conscientious you're tying youtself up in knots. Listen to someone rational: he'll either have left Rome last evening, in which case we would have seen him by now, or he went to bed first. If that's it, he won't arrive for another hour or two. When's the ship due to leave?'

'The minute he gets here, if I have any control over it.'

'With the light,' clarified Fusculus in a quiet tone. I guessed my point about our quarry's arrival had already been made to Petro by his men. Since they knew him too, their reaction to my attempt was restrained. They were hoping he would either listen to a pal, or at least give them some entertainment by losing his temper and thumping me.

'I need a drink,' I commented.

'Stuff you, Falco. Don't try that one.' It was too dark to see his face. All the same, I chuckled; he was weakening.

The trick was not to make an issue of it. I said nothing, and about five minutes afterwards Petronius Longus burst out with an obscenity that I hadn't heard uttered in a public place since we left Britain. Then he growled that he was cold and past caring – and was off to the nearest wine bar for a beaker to console himself.

Nobody chortled. By then we were too relieved that he had given way to gloat over our victory, just as Petro had known we would be. He had a nice sense of timing. Martinus growled, 'Better take the bloody barnacle. It'll be his last chance for a long time.'

So we bawled out to Linus to stop pretending he was a sailor and to come off the ship and have a drink with us.

II

The atmosphere was thick with lamp smoke; hard to see why, as there was a mean supply of lamps. Something crunched under my boot – either an old oyster shell, or part of a whore's broken necklace. There seemed to be a lot of debris on the floor. Probably best not to investigate.

No one else was in the dump. No customers, anyway. A couple of grimy lasses roused themselves slightly when we tramped inside, but they soon got the message and slumped back into sleep. They looked too exhausted even to be curious. That didn't mean they wouldn't be listening in, but we were not intending any loud indiscretions. There was too much at stake.


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