Hello! Welcome to CARPE DIEM, a new story being published in instalments and featuring Albanus from the MEDICUS series. The whole of Week 2 (to 3rd April) is below.
If you didn’t catch Week 1, it’s in an earlier blog post here. You can also find the instalments on Facebook. Better still, check out https://authorswithoutborders.org – you’ll find great stories from the other writers taking part in this challenge.
More next Monday!
“No he didn’t.” The round features of the prefect’s clerk creased into a frown as he looked up from slotting a writing-tablet into one of the polished filing boxes beside his desk. “Why would he send for you?”
“I don’t know, sir. I was told—”
“If the prefect had sent for you,” Eunus said, in the tone of a civilized man explaining table manners to a barbarian, “He would have done it through me. Aren’t you supposed to be teaching?”
“Sir, the young woman who works in the kitchen—”
“Who?” said Eunus, not making a very good job of pretending he had forgotten. “Oh, her. The dimwitted one. Came barging in here just now wanting to tell the prefect that you’re very good at murders.”
Albanus swallowed. “Oh dear.”
“I told her we don’t want any more murders, thank you.” Eunus could not resist a small smile at his own joke. “To which she replied, ‘I will fetch him for you.’ And then when I said ‘don’t bother’, she said, ‘It is no trouble. I will fetch him now’, and rushed off.”
“It’s very hard to say no to Virana,” said Albanus, not knowing how to defend her from the accusation of being dimwitted. “She’s very…” He paused, searching for a word. “Enthusiastic.”
“Anyway, the prefect hasn’t sent for you and neither have I. If the baker’s family want anyone to look into this murder business, it’s up them to put in a request.”
Albanus offered a “Sorry to have troubled you, sir,” and left, musing on both Eunus’s indifference to the murder and the injustice of having to call him “sir”. It was true that Eunus was clerk to an officer in charge of five hundred men, whereas even at the pinnacle of his military career, Albanus had only been clerk to one medic. But Albanus had seen how Eunus ran the prefect’s filing. He was not impressed. ‘All show and no substance,’ as he had once confided to Virana in a rash moment—and then wished he hadn’t, because there was no telling who she might repeat it to. Luckily it seemed Virana hadn’t deemed the state of Eunus’s filing system to be interesting enough to pass on. So Eunus remained oblivious to Albanus’s contempt for the flashy polished filing-boxes whose contents were in an order that apparently only Eunus could discern.
It was clear to Albanus that Eunus was playing a nice game of making himself indispensable by being the only man who could find anything, but nobody else seemed to have noticed. And if nobody here was interested in the question of who had stabbed Virana’s landlord, Albanus was not going to argue. To judge by the shrill sounds from the distant classroom, there was more immediate violence to be dealt with.
He flung open the door to find a cluster of boys around a squealing tangle on the floor that turned out to be Lucius sitting on top of Marcus. When they were all finally back in their seats and he had ascertained that nobody was injured, he tried Virana’s suggestion. “If you carry on like this,” he told them, “I shall have to tell your fathers.”
There was a brief silence in which he dared to hope that the boys were impressed. Then Lucius leaned back and folded his arms. “If you go to Pa,” he said, “I’ll have to tell him how you keep talking to that kitchen girl instead of looking after us.”
By the second day after the shipwreck a flurry of rumours had already spread, bred and died. Contrary to the assertions of the doom-mongers, the unit’s pay chest was not lying at the bottom of the sea. Nor had there been any wealthy passengers whose property—or indeed whose bejewelled persons—might wash up on the next tide.
The cargo, according to the survivors, had been mostly sacks of wheat. The guard over the beach was relaxed and a few locals turned up to squabble over salvaged firewood. Life, for most, seemed to have returned to normal.
The following evening Albanus set out on his daily after-dinner stroll around the perimeter track inside the little fort: a short and undemanding circuit beneath the ramparts that usually allowed him to settle his mind after the trials of the day. It was hard to believe that only three days ago this same walk had seen him buffeted by winds and rain, and shouted at by an officer who thrust a heavy coil of rope into his hands and ordered him to deliver it to the rescue team—“And run, man!” Tonight the sky was paling into a delicate pink sunset and the warble of a blackbird rang out in the still air. The steep grass slopes of the ramparts were spattered with April dandelions and pleasant smells of cooking wafted out of the barrack buildings. A couple of the soldiers who tramped past him even deigned to nod a greeting.
His thoughts on putting together a series of Handy Phrases in Greek were interrupted by the scurry of non-military footsteps.
“They said you were here!” Virana fell into step with him. “Have you heard about the fight?”
Still half-focused on Handy Phrases, Albanus had to stop himself mentally translating ‘What are you doing in the fort at this hour?’ into Greek.
“Everybody’s talking about it!” Virana continued. “I was there!”
He said, “Where?”
“At the funeral. Did you see them rush her into the infirmary on a stretcher?”
“I was probably teaching.”
“She’ll have a broken nose at the very least. And she was spitting teeth out.”
Not knowing where to start with this, Albanus kept walking.
“And the soldier is going to be in big trouble with his centurion.”
Albanus came to a halt. He raised both hands as if they might fend off the torrent of words. “Virana, would you mind very much starting again? I think I must have missed something. Whose funeral?”
When she said, “Simmias,” it was obvious. Earlier today he had seen what must have been the smoke from the murdered baker’s pyre forming a black smudge across the sky.
He was about to ask who had the broken nose, but to his alarm Virana suddenly bent over in front of him and was seized by a peculiar convulsive shaking of the head. He reached out an arm. “Are you all right?”
As suddenly as they had started, the convulsions stopped. She crouched down, lifting away the hair that had tumbled over her face. “I knew they were there somewhere!” she announced, triumphantly retrieving a couple of stray hairpins from the gravel. Upright once more, she twisted her wayward hair into a bun and rammed the pins back in. “I wanted to tell you all this earlier,” she said, “only I had the dinner to do. But anyway, you can see me whenever you want now, because I’m here.”
This was undoubtedly true. Hoping to catch at least one of the facts that were hopping around the conversation like fleas, he said, “Why are you here?”
“Rosula doesn’t want me living at at the bakery now Simmias is gone,” she said. “I mean, she never wanted me there when he was there either. That was one of the things they argued about. But he said I could stay so I did.”
“I see,” said Albanus.
“The prefect’s wife says I can sleep in the corner of the kitchen,” she said. “I just roll the blankets out when everyone’s gone and it’s lovely and warm. Anyway, don’t you want to know about the funeral?”
He said, “I’m surprised you were allowed to go.”
“They sent me out to buy eggs,” Virana explained. “Only the man who was selling them had gone to the funeral, so I had to go too. You wouldn’t believe how many people were there.”
“Really?” Albanus had not held a high opinion of the murdered baker. Not since Virana had confided that as soon as his wife Rosula and their children went out, the man neglected his work to chase her around the bakery. Albanus had felt it was his duty to confront him, but at the time Virana had been afraid of losing both job and home. Since he didn’t especially want a jobless, homeless Virana on his hands, and since the baker was twice his size, Albanus had not needed much persuading to hold his gallantry in check. Now he said, “I didn’t know Simmias was so popular.”
“It’s because of all these rumours about who murdered him,” she explained. “Everybody wanted to see if someone would confess.”
This seemed unlikely. “And did they?”
“No, but the butcher’s wife and that one who lives two doors down from her—you know, Simmias’s niece. She’s got a big fat baby with one of the soldiers.”
Albanus said, “Ah,” in a way that he hoped would forestall further description. Otherwise he feared a long digression to establish the identity of the soldier—or was it his woman?—with the ginger hair.
“I knew you’d know,” Virana continued. “So, the ginger one started shouting ‘Murderer!’ at Rosula, and the butcher’s wife—she’s Rosula’s cousin—told her to shut up and when she wouldn’t, she jumped on her and there was a big fight and the ginger one’s man got involved and now the butcher’s wife is in the infirmary and the soldier is in big trouble.”
Albanus was beginning to sense some shape to the story. “So there’s a quarrel between the family of Simmias and the family of his widow?”
“Oh, they never got along,” Virana assured him. “It’s probably worse because people are hungry now the bakery’s shut. Anyway, the prefect is furious and there’s a curfew outside and anyone caught discussing the murder is going to be arrested and that officer you lodge with—what’s his name?”
“Yes. He has been told to find out once and for all who really did murder Simmias.”
“Good.” Albanus knew nothing about keeping order in the civilian settlements that sprouted like fungi on the outside of every fort, but even he could see that this was what the prefect should have done in the first place.
“So if I find anything out, shall I tell you so you can tell him, or shall I go straight to him? It’ll be easy now I’m here all the time.”
Albanus weighed the options of being expected to convey Virana’s gossip to Curtius himself, or having Virana arriving at the centurion’s office announcing that Albanus had told her to come. “I’ll do it,” he said. “The centurion’s a very busy man.”
Virana lunged forward and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re very clever,” she told him. “I’m sure he’ll soon work it out if you help.” With that she was gone, turning the corner to head back to the prefect’s house.
He looked up to see a couple of soldiers strolling toward him. “Cheer up, mate,” observed one of them.
“Yeah,” put in his companion, grinning. “If you don’t want her, send her to us.”
On the way back to his cramped room in Curtius’s house it dawned on Albanus that for the first time in his life, he was wishing he was all alone in a room with a gaggle of small boys and a Greek lexicon.
The next morning Albanus found himself summoned to Centurion Curtius’s whitewashed office at an hour he had rarely seen since being invalided out of military service.
“Enquiries as to the identity of a murderer,” announced the centurion from beyond a desk that looked as if it was cowering in front of him. “I’m told you’ve offered to help because you’ve done this sort of thing before.”
Albanus’s body stood to attention on the bare floorboards while his mind ran in circles, searching in vain for a tactful way to explain that the volunteering had been entirely Virana’s idea. “I’ve assisted once or twice, sir,” he said. “Back when I was a clerk to Medicus Gaius Petreius Ruso with the Twentieth Legion.”
“Never heard of him. What’s the procedure?”
What WAS the procedure? Was there one? Albanus stared down at the inkstains on his own fingers and tried to think what the Medicus would have done. All that came to mind was the sensation of hurrying down blind alleys and blundering about in confusion until something became clear. Usually with no official support or interest whatsoever. “Examine the body, sir?”
“Yes, sir.” Then what? “Perhaps examine the scene, sir?”
“There’s nothing on the clifftop, and the tide’s washed away anything underneath. Next?”
“Er—talk to anyone who was there or who might have seen something? Ask around to see if the victim had any enemies?” Mercifully, although Albanus’s memory had gone blank, his mouth seemed to be carrying on offering this common-sense advice without it.
The centurion grunted. “Did you see that ship go down?”
“I did, sir.”
“And how many people would you say were there watching it?”
Albanus swallowed. “Perhaps two hundred, sir?”
“I don’t think having a chat to everyone is going to work here, do you?”
Curtius planted his hands on the desk and leaned forward so that his bald patch appeared behind the tuft of hair that concealed it from the front. “Here in the Third Tungrians,” he said, “we don’t have the luxury of lots of spare men.”
This was not the time to point out that not only was there no procedure, but that the Medicus could rarely call on anyone other than Albanus. Unless you counted his wife, which if you were wise, you wouldn’t.
“Most of my men,” the centurion continued, “are busy putting the roof on the new granary. Because right now, several thousand other men are marching north to start the new season’s build on the emperor’s wall, and every one of them is going to want feeding well before the harvest comes in.”
“So we’ll have to hope that the next grain ship doesn’t sink, because having that number of soldiers stealing food from the locals all along the border will make yesterday’s fight at the funeral look like lunch with your maiden aunt.”
“Yes, sir.” Albanus had the impression that the centurion was giving the speech he would dearly love to have given yesterday when the prefect had ordered him to take on the extra task of deciding who had murdered Simmias. Albanus was as sympathetic as it was possible to be at this hour of the morning. While every fort was alleged to hold twelve months’ worth of grain supplies, making sure the troops and the food were in the same place was a challenge that nobody cared about until things went wrong and everybody looked for someone to blame. A man the size of Curtius would make a fine target.
“If somebody saw who attacked the baker,” Curtius continued, “they should have mentioned it by now. But just in case, we’ll put up a reward for ‘information leading to a conviction’. That way we don’t have to pay out unless it actually goes somewhere.” The centurion’s “So, how’s that?” trailed the unspoken, ‘…for a much better idea than anything from your fancy legion?’
Albanus took a deep breath. “That would certainly bring people in, sir.”
“So what’s wrong with it?”
Had the tuft of hair shifted slightly forward as the centurion scowled, or had Albanus imagined it? “Sir, the Medicus tried that. I can’t remember it being a great success. It made a lot of work sifting through contradictory information, some of it mischievous and some from people who were really quite, ah—quite unconnected to the real world.”
The tuft of hair made a small, but perceptible, retreat. “Good point. Forget the reward. We’ll put out an announcement saying we want information straight away and anyone found to be withholding it will be flogged.”
“Then we’ll talk to the people who might actually know something, and bring in all the possible suspects.”
Albanus was very much hoping the “we” who would bring in the suspects referred to the Third Tungrians, and not to Centurion Curtius and himself.
“I don’t suppose your Medicus did that, did he?
“He wouldn’t have had the authority, sir.”
“No.” The centurion straightened up. “That’s the difference between my method and his. We’ll lock them all up separately and bring in the questioners with some equipment. Come back here when I’ve finished morning briefing and I’ll give you your orders.”
The scowl reappeared. “What?”
“People will say anything if they’re frightened, sir.”
“Even if it’s not true, sir. There’s often no quick way to get to the bottom of this sort of thing.”
“Certainly not your way,” Curtius agreed. “You sound like one of those Greek philosophers. Arguing both ends against the middle and ending up sitting in a cave all day doing nothing. That’s no good to me. The prefect wants the civilians calmed down and somebody arrested by tomorrow evening.”
Albanus suddenly saw a way to offer genuine help. “Perhaps it would help calm the civilians if they weren’t short of bread, sir. If arrangements could be made to re-open the bakery—”
“Surely there’s more than one bread supplier out there?”
“The other shops borrow the bakery’s ovens, sir.” Not for the first time, Albanus was struck by how little those in authority understood the lives of those who had to live under it.
“I’ll see to it, Curtius promised. “And let’s not waste time. While I’m briefing my men, you can go across and see if that injured woman is still in the infirmary. Find out what she has to say and report back to me.”
“Surely you haven’t got a lesson to take at this hour, have you?”
Albanus had to agree that no, he hadn’t. And having agreed this point, it was very hard to see how he could then refuse to obey the order that Centurion Curtius had no authority to give.
As he made his way back to his room Albanus found he was grappling with mixed feelings about Curtius. The man had now involved him in a plan to arrest somebody tomorrow for the crime of murdering Simmias the baker even if they couldn’t find the person who had committed it. On the other hand, there was something reassuring about the utter confidence of the centurion’s wrongness. Albanus hoped this wasn’t going to end as badly as he feared.
“The study of Greek,” Albanus announced, “is autotelic.” Seven blank faces met his gaze. “Can anyone tell me what ‘autotelic’ means? No? Well, see if you can work it out for next time. Good afternoon, boys!”
When they were gone he let out a long breath and sank back against the wall. He didn’t expect any of them to work out that “autotelic” meant “an end in itself.” Even though it was true, it wouldn’t impress eight- and nine-year olds any more than the other reasons he had given when Lucius had piped up, “Sir, what are we learning Greek FOR?”
Why, indeed, should boys of their age care that Greek was the language of poetry and ideas, or that it would enable them to serve anywhere in the Empire because half the Empire spoke it? They didn’t care that the emperor himself was very keen on it. They certainly wouldn’t be impressed by the notion that if you learned Greek, one day you too could teach it to others. The fathers of his pupils had mostly risen from humble provincial backgrounds where even a grasp of Latin was an achievement, and they had much higher ambitions for their sons. And that, in short, was why Lucius and his companions were learning Greek: Because Your Father Says So.
This was not so very different from what Albanus had been repeating to himself as he hurried across to the infirmary earlier this morning in search of the butcher’s wife who had been punched on the nose at the funeral by the soldier who was… he couldn’t remember. Nor could he quite recall why he was the one who had to visit her, but Centurion Curtius had told him to do it, and it would be very awkward if he didn’t.
He hadn’t been able to see the point of his visit once it was over, either. Except that he had saved Centurion Curtius from having to bother.
The woman was in one of the small side rooms usually reserved for the very sick. She was sitting upright in bed clutching a food bowl, and presenting an interesting study in black and white. Blankets: white. Skin: white. Nose: possibly black or blue, but hidden under white bandages. Bowl: black.. Hair: black. Eyes: peering out between swollen, greenish-black lids. The only bright colour was the pink tongue snaking out to lick the last of the contents of the bowl.
Albanus’s greeting was barely out of his mouth when the butcher’s wife looked up from the bowl and demanded—as far as he could work out—to know what was being done about That Man.
“I don’t know,” he confessed. “I’m not—”
“See?” She pointed to her face. “Nose! Eyes! It is a struggle to speak!”
For someone who was struggling to speak she was making a fair amount of sound, but Albanus had to concede that not all of it was comprehensible. Not only did she have a strong local accent and a blocked nose, but it seemed several teeth had gone and she had not had time to learn how to manage without them.
He said, “I’m terribly sorry—”
“You tell them!” she announced, clapping the bowl down on the shelf beside the bed, “You tell them, I do not leave here until I get…”
By the time Albanus worked out that the next word had been ‘justice’, she had moved on to something about “innocent woman” and “attacked by one of your men.”
“Oh dear?” she repeated. “Oh dear? What use is oh dear?”
Realising he was about to say, “Oh dear,” again, Albanus closed his mouth. It was indeed very unfair for any woman—innocent or not—to have been punched in the face by a military fist. He was appalled by the sight of her injuries and he hoped the owner of the fist would be severely punished. But since he was powerless to enact that punishment, all he could do was pay her the courtesy of listening to her woes. Which turned out to be many.
Aware of the noises of the hospital morning around them—shutters being opened, cheery greetings, the clatter of crockery—Albanus silently rehearsed tactful questions while he stood at the foot of the bed, murmured the occasional “Oh dear,” and “Mm,” and waited for her to finish what she had to say.
He began to wonder if that would happen before his pupils turned up for class. Then he began to wonder if it would happen before night fell.
Would it be disrespectful to bend down and scratch the itch under his left foot?
He began to wonder how he would explain any of this to Centurion Curtius.
Eventually he blurted out, “I’ve been asked to find out who murdered Simmias.” It was not at all the tactful approach that he had intended.
“Simmias, madam. Your cousin’s husband. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me—”
“Simmias? Pah!” The attempt to spit was not a pretty sight.
“Do you know if—”
“Him with his hands all over the place!” She raised her hands and wriggled her fingers as if she were fondling an invisible object. “Ugh! No wonder somebody killed him.”
Apparently—he was beginning to be able to decipher her speech now—the woman had warned her cousin Rosula long ago that Simmias would not make much of a husband. Even Rosula could see there would be trouble when he brought that tart into the house.
Albanus realised with a stab of pain that “that tart” was probably Virana. “So do you think it was your cousin who killed him?”
“My cousin?” The woman, unable to frown, raised both hands in a gesture of outrage. “Of course not my cousin! I am telling you what a good woman she is to put up with him. And now he has got himself murdered, and what will happen to her?”
Again Albanus was forced admit that he didn’t know. What he did know, though, was whatever a man’s failings as a husband, a wife was unlikely to wait until he was out in the open with two hundred witnesses to do something about them.
“So, ah—” He had forgotten to ask her name. It was too late now. “So. Who do you think killed him?”
“Me? You are the one who must find out, not me.”
Remembering his advice to Curtius, Albanus tried, “Did he have any enemies?”
She shrugged. “The people he does not pay his bills to?”
Simmias was even less likely to pay his bills now. Albanus briefly considered the possibility of some sort of protection racket gripping the streets of little wooden houses outside the fort, and dismissed it as very unlikely.
“Do you know who he owed money to?”
But when it came to the details, the woman could not name anyone beyond her own husband. The long litany of accusation that followed might have been a business dispute, but it might also have been a family squabble.
To Albanus’s relief a cheerful orderly arrived to collect the empty bowl. He used the interruption to thank her for her help, wish her a speedy recovery and escape. As he was leaving he heard the orderly ask, “And how are you this morning?”
“I was better till that man came!” was the reply. “So many questions. I am worn out with telling him everything. And all he says is Oh Dear!”