Murder With Trimalchio

It was getting along towards nones when there came a knock at the door of Trimalchio’s domus. As his secretary, footman, and general assistant, it fell to me to answer it, especially as Trimalchio would be busy for a while yet. You could never tell who or what you would find when you opened the door, mainly because most people didn’t really know who or what Trimalchio is. Too many people had read what he called “that damned book”, and so didn’t really know about him at all. Maybe you read it, too. If so, you’re in for a surprise. But I’ll have more to say about that later.

I can take care of myself, so I didn’t have any qualms about opening the door wide to have a look at our visitor. It was a prosperous-looking citizen properly attired in a toga and with a questioning look on his face. I get that a lot, so I figured the best thing to do was to set his mind at rest, and let him know he was in the right place.

“Welcome to the House of Trimalchio,” I said, and could instantly see his puckered brow relax. “Do you have business with him?”

“I’m afraid that I did not arrange anything beforehand, but I would like to see him, if it’s not an imposition.”

“He’s delighted to have visitors,” I lied. He hated to have clients come in, but he regarded it as a regrettable necessity, especially when I reminded him of his balance at the argentaria taberna. “Come into the tablinum and you can tell me about your business.” I could see him hesitate on the steps. That would never do. “Please come in. I am Trimalchio’s assistant, and I can help you until he is available.”

“Will he be away long?” He was still not committed.

Trimalchio wasn’t away at all. He spent this portion of the morning in the peristylium with his collection of exotic plants, but I was not about to tell a potential client that.

“We’ll just have time to go over the basics of your situation before he arrives,” I replied.

He took the plunge and entered. I showed him in and shut out the street behind him. He stopped when he saw the tablinum, as most people did. The office was an extravagantly huge room separated from the rest of the house, with the large scrinium Trimalchio sat behind at one end, with his custom-made cathedra next to it. Along one wall was an enormous rack of scrolls and bound libelli, along with an oversized Map of the World based on that of Claudius Ptolemy. On the floor, in place of the usual tile, was a lush tapete Persae, into which the foot fell silently. I showed him to the red sella in the center and sat in my own modest one near my much smaller scrinium.

“Now,”  I said, “My name is Audax. I’m a freedman in this house, and you can be as open with me as with Trimalchio. May I ask your name?”

“I am Marcus of the Girolus. My household is not large, but my family is old, and of the equites, and I have served as Senator. I have tried to steer a careful course in these dangerous days, you understand, and until this day I thought I had been successful. But I fear that my life is being threatened, and I want to take precautions. My friend – I call him  brother although he is not my father’s child – Cassius Longinus spoke highly of your ….partner. He had untangled a very difficult situation for him. I have investigated him further, and everything I have heard informs me that he is a man of extraordinary ability, or else I would not be here. I rely upon your discretion.”

“They do not yet have a word to describe Trimalchio,” I agreed. “But we are not a bodyguard service. If you’ve ever seen Trimalchio you would appreciate that. He does all the brain work, and I carry out the physical errands. But we are not in the protection business. If it’s better physical protection you need, I can recommend some firms that are very reliable…”

“I’m sure that you can, but I have confidence in my own arrangements, as far as that goes. It’s the other part of the business that I want to discuss.”

At that point Trimalchio came in and made a liar of me for saying we would get through the preliminaries. He breezed easily in, as if he didn’t weigh three hundred and eighty librae, and took no notice of our visitor until he had seated himself in his cathedra with his latest flower arranged in a vase before him. He detested the custom of embracing visitors, and there were few people he would touch willingly. He introduced himself, then looked over at me and raised his brows a  tiny portion of an uncia. Taking this as an order to explain what I had already learned, I introduced Marcus Girolus and told him what we had this far discussed.

“I’m sure that my associate, Audax, has already informed you that we do not provide either Ward or Sentinel services. You could find reliable protection elsewhere. If you have taken the trouble to research my services, then you must have something more specific in mind. May I ask what it is?”

“Trimalchio, do I have your absolute discretion?”

“Certainly. There would be no point in your coming if you did not expect that.”

He hesitated only a moment before going on.

“I have received a summons to commit suicide.”

That was serious business. Our beloved Emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus — Our Little Nero — had already invited several of our leading citizens to do so, as had some of his predecessors in that office. The invitation left little room for alternatives.

“Indeed,” replied Trimalchio, unruffled. “If you have run afoul of the Golden House then I’m afraid I can’t help you. You have my sympathies.”

“It is not as serious as that. I’m convinced that this is not an Imperial Order. It lacks the proper form and seals. It is precisely the sort of thing that an amateur, unfamiliar with the Court and its ways, might come up with. I suspect that whoever sent it hoped that I would assume that it came by the Emperor’s order and that I would do away with myself without question.”

“If that is the case, then you can ignore it with impunity.”

“I may. But I remain under the threat of death from an unknown hand.”

“Surely you have not pursued a career in Imperial administration without making some enemies. Has your life not been threatened before?”

“No. No, it hasn’t. I have had a happy career, despite the passions and the inconsistencies of our Court. I regard this threat as a serious change in my life. This… forgery shows a lack of familiarity with proper forms, but it was carefully and expensively done. Someone with less commitment to the way officials work would probably assume that it was real, some new variation our artistic Emperor indulged in. I would like for you to discover who is responsible for this. I would like you to do his even if I am killed by some assassin, and to bring those responsible to justice. Will you do that?”

Trimalchio inhaled a modius of air and exhaled it slowly.

“Since you have looked into my affairs, you must know that I am forced to charge a heavy fee for my services. Are you prepared to pay?”

“Since the object of this is my life, or my honor and that of my family should I fall, I certainly am. I will pay you what my brother Longinus did as an initial fee.”

“Since we are – forgive me – considering what I would do in the event of your death, I would like to have a legal agreement made up in which your estate agrees to pay me the balance of my fee once I have disclosed the responsible parties, regardless of whether you are still alive or of who the malefactor may be. My fee would be 30 Aurei. Furthermore, I will not accept this assignation, or retain your initial payment until I have sent my associate to perform a preliminary investigation. Is that agreeable to you?”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

“In that case, we have many things to discuss. But it is my lunchtime, and I invite you to join us. I am having Patina Frasilis  — Vegetable and Brain pies, with Fungi Farneis on the side and Quinces Stewed in Honey for dessert. We have some fine Falernian wine. Audax will be drinking milk. I prefer cervisia.

Many years ago Trimalchio gave one of his symposiae for his group of gourmets, the Decem. Nero’s favorite, Titus Petronius, thought he was going to be invited, but Trimalchio is very particular about his guests, even those with Imperial pedigrees. Petronius was furious at not being invited, and let it be known far and wide.  When he heard about Petronius’ outrage, Trimalchio called him a “strutting popinjay” who thought he was “the arbiter of all the culture of Rome.”

Word of this got out, and soon others were calling him “The Arbiter”. I don’t think he liked it, or even understood it, but he retaliated by making Trimalchio a character in his book, the Satyricon, and even calling him by name.

Ordinarily Trimalchio wouldn’t care about popular literature, but this one was read all over Rome, and it spread an image of Trimalchio as sketched by his enemy. He is portrayed as an ignorant poser who doesn’t even know how ridiculous he looks. He’s a pompous vulgarian who serves showy dishes and has a harpy for a wife.

It affected the way a lot of people saw Trimalchio, but not the ones who counted – those who would hire him to solve their problems. I think that it affected Trimalchio himself, but he wouldn’t show it, unless it as by being even more irascible than usual.

I think that I’m in there, too, as the trumpeter who tells him how much longer he has to live. If so, Petronius had better hope I don’t end up alone with him in a dark alley. Of course, if the woman he calls Fortunata, the shrewish wife he gave Trimalchio , is really based on our associate Theodolinda, he’d better hope he doesn’t run into her first.

After Girolus left and we had retired to the tablinum for drinks, Trimalchio rapped out a series of instructions for me. He never went out on business himself, of course – that’s what I was for. When we need further help, he enlists some other legmen that we know, but for most purposes, I am his eyes and ears on the streets of Rome.

My first stop was the series of news banners in the Forum. It’s not that he expected me to find anything related to this situation there, but these banners are maintained and updated by the offices of the augurs, and we’re on very good terms with them. Especially Alanus, who seems to be indispensable to them, but who doesn’t have a proper title. We give them information for their stories and, in return, they let us know what they have heard, in particular, the secret histories that don’t make the banners.

It took me longer than usual to find Alanus, and then to convince him to tell me things. By his count, we were already in his debt. I had to promise him something from our own investigation, or something at least as good, before he’d even talk to me.

There was no word out on a suicide order for Marcus Girolus, although there were stories about others. As far as Girolus himself, he seems to have been as spotless as he presented himself. Alanus knew of no scandals associated with him and, as far as he knew, nobody wanted him out of the way.

This was good for Girolus, but bad for us, because it meant we’d have to dig deeper to find who wanted Girolus dead, and was willing to forge an Imperial document to do it. I asked Alanus about the others who were supposed to get suicide orders, and got a list of three names, but none of them certain.

I thanked Alanus for what he’d given us, which wasn’t much, and told him that we’d let him have any news, as soon as we had any he could use. He reminded me of the upcoming  alea game, and told me to bring plenty of sesterces. My reply was not for delicate ears. I went on to carry out the rest of Trimalchio’s orders.

At the house of  Marcus Girolus I discretely called and obtained the fatal order, which on my advice I disguised in a jar originally used for Indica spices. I got a tour of the house, which wasn’t much help, and there was no one there I might talk to, so that was a bust as well. I asked Girolus about the messenger who’d brought the tablet. He was just another anonymous messenger, as indistinguishable as any of them, dressed as a messenger is, and who left before Girolus had broken the seal. So the result of my visit, aside from getting the document, was exactly nothing.

On my way back I visited the marketplace, but the one I wanted to speak to wasn’t there. I left word that Audax had a potential job with one of the usual loungers, then returned to Trimalchio’s in time for cena. Trimalchio was having truffles, scraped and salted and skewered on a spit, then carefully roasted before being lightly cooked in a saucepan with oil, broth, reduced wine, and honey.

Since we never discussed business while reclining at table, the potted document and my report had to wait while Cinnamus served the truffles.  Trimalchio discoursed on the beasts of Ethiopia and how likely or unlikely the descriptions we’d heard were to be true.

I had had to learn about food from Trimalchio. The first time he invited me in to eat with him, I had immediately doused my food with pungent garum fish sauce, partly because I knew he had made much of his money from garum and partly because I really liked it, and put it on everything. Everyone I knew did that. So I was surprised when Trimalchio’s manner got as cold as the ices he served for desserts, and he asked me if it was his cook, Cinnamus, I hated, or only his cuisine. I didn’t know how to respond to that, but he sighed and said that it was typical that even people from the country, who were so blessed with the joys of good, plain food didn’t properly appreciate it. He said that he would try to teach me about food, and along the way he taught me table manners, and all kinds of things useful to the trade of finding things out, such as drilling me in remembering long conversations word for word. I thought at first that he was hoping to make me a professional witness at the courts, but he said no, if I was to be his eyes and ears when I went out on my errands I would be useless if I didn’t report back precisely what I’d heard.

So after we returned to the tablinum and could safely discuss business, I was able to tell Trimalchio precisely what Alanua has told me at the forum, and repeat my conversation with Girolus at his house. As usual, he sat comfortably back in his oversized cathedra and listened with his eyes closed and his hands intertwined on his central mound. To someone who didn’t know him, he would appear to be asleep, but I knew from past experience that he was listening carefully to every word. When I had finished, he immediately opened his eyes and asked to see the document.

It was contained inside a very well made wooden clasp-book, held closed by a tied ribbon that had once been sealed with wax. Before opening it, Trimalchio inspected the remains of the wax seal and remarked that it would have been too much to hope that Girolus would have preserved it instead of breaking it. He thought, as I did, that we could have learned something from the seal itself. Opening the plates revealed two neat sheets of vellum, affixed to either side and inscribed with the message. As I was looking at it upside-down, I couldn’t really read it.

The handwriting was very neat and precise, like carved lettering on a public building, rather than the chicken-scrawl I’ve seen shopkeepers and the military use. The ink was in multiple colors, with the top and bottom of the document bordered in purple. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. If I were ever going to send somebody a letter telling them to kill themselves, this was how I’d want to do it.

At the bottom was a circle of thick ceremonial red wax with an elaborate seal impressed on it. I suppose it was the Imperial seal, but I’ve never seen that one. Trimalchio, noticing the attention I paid it, passed the document to me and asked me what I thought.

“Well, it looks good, but I’ve never seen an Imperial suicide order before. For all I know, it’s really a pass to use the Imperial box at the Circus Maximus. The only question is – is it for real?”

“Our client says ‘No’, and he presumably knows how such a summons should appear, or at least thinks he does. To my eye the seal looks real. The writing has been done by a very capable scribe, and the coloring seems to be true Imperial Murex. Do we know any forgers?”

It takes a very unique type of individual to ask a question like that, or to answer it. Even before I met Trimalchio I had the acquaintance of some of the shadier members of society, and since I took up with him I have broadened my circle to include both members of the Watch and members of the Underworld, some of whom we delivered to the Watch. But forgers were outside my line. Most of the malefactors I knew were more direct. If they wanted something they were more likely to hit you over the head with their leather jack and take it than to go to all the trouble to writing up a document to trick you out of it. Besides, most of them couldn’t read, anyway.

“I don’t know of any, and we haven’t run across any in the cases I’ve helped you with. If you know of any on your own, you haven’t filled me in.”

“I have known some, but that was in the past and far from here. This would be easier if….but there’s no point in wishing for what we can’t have. Do you know if Saul and the others are available?”

“They don’t have anything going that I know of.”

“Get them here for tomorrow morning. I’ll need them all.”

That meant I had to go out into the night to visit their houses, but that’s what he pays me for. As I went out the door and Cinnamus locked up, I could see Trimalchio pull out some papyrus and begin writing something.

The three that Trimalchio referred to were three investigators that we call in when we need the extra help. They are Arrianus, who probably owned a speculum just so he could look at his own reflection, Paxrextor, who would love to get his hands on a speculum so he could give it to his wife, and Saul, who I have known to actually use a small speculum to shadow a suspect with letting him know he was being followed. They are three trustworthy agents who have been of service to us in the past, and are among the few Trimalchio will greet properly. All three were available, and we were gathered in the tablinum waiting when Trimalchio came in from the Peristylium where, as usual, he spent the morning working on his flowers with Theodorus. He greeted all the visitors and settled his bulk into the only cathedra that he really liked.

By his instructions, I had not told any of them about our job, so he briefed them on what he thought they needed to know. He began by asking them what they knew of forgery. It developed that Saul had some connections that might lead to forgers, and Arrianus thought he might. Trimalchio then explained that he was in possession of a document that he had reason to believe had been forged, and that it was important to locate the author of the document. He then produced sections of papyrus and gave one to each of the men. I looked over at them, and saw that these were carefully made copies of letters that had appeared on the tablet I’d seen last night.

“These letters were copied from the document. They are not complete words, as you can see. I did not abstract these examples because I do not trust you, but to concentrate your attention on the essential qualities of these particular letters.”

He leaned back and got comfortable, something he did when he intended to speak at length.

“When an expert hunter goes after his quarry, he uses his skills of observation and imagination, looking at the spoor to tell what sort of animal it is, but using the way those prints have been made and disturbed to infer the animal’s movements and state of mind. You will be the hunters in this case, and these letters are the spoor. The other letters that appear in the document are of the standard form that are written on banners and engraved on stone, but these letters differ in some characteristic way. In some cases the serifs are missing, or the upright portion is unusually elongated or shortened. In one case there is an extra stroke added as a flourish – it appears that way every time. Your goal is to use this spoor to find our forger. This document may be private, but the idiosyncratic use of these letter forms will have discoverable roots. Our forging scribe must have learned and practiced his letters somewhere. Limners of such artistry are comparatively rare. You are to go in search of similar examples. They may be on shop signs, or political banners, or even on graffiti. Do not be satisfied with a single example of a single letter. We are looking for cases where several of these features appear. I would suggest concentrating near the Forum Vinarium and the Forum Cuppedinis, but it may be that the examples we seek are anywhere in the city. Of course you will not be obvious or ostentatious in your search, and will ask no questions that reveal your purpose. You will keep these example sheets out of sight. Just be innocent readers of signs and letters. When you have found likely examples, come back and report, and we will devise an approach that will help us to find our scribe.”

He turned towards me.

“Will 40 denarii be sufficient, Audax?” I said that it was and got it from our strongbox to distribute to the troops. Trimalchio dismissed Arrianus and Paxrector to the streets, but asked Saul to stay.

“Saul, you will confer with them and guide them as needed. But there is something else I want you to do.” He then described the situation with Girolus, and said that he wanted him to make careful enquiries around his house to see if he could find any strife or enemies that would point us toward a suspect responsible for commissioning the forgery.

“Of course, I could send Audax,” he said, by way of mollifying me, “But Girolus has seen Audax, and that hinders his freedom of action. You have the ability to become innocuous and not be noticed. Report to Audax, as usual.”

“And what will I be doing, while they’re out earning their fees?” I asked Trimalchio, after Saul had gone. “I like to earn at least part of my keep.”

“You will be here, taking care of whatever comes,” he answered, casually.

“If I’m not active I’ll rust, like an unused set of gears.”

“You are not the best judge of your own use.”

“The closest one to me is me,” I replied.

“Audax, I have told you before that Proximus egomet mihi is an obnoxious vulgarism.”

“Sorry, magister, I forgot.” He hates when I call him that.

“You shouldn’t disparage your memory. You’ve spent too long cultivating it.” He looked at the sundial on the peristyle wall. “It’s time for lunch. Cheese basted in new wine and baked.” He got up and proceeded to the cenatio.

For someone who had no active role in th pursuit of a forger an potential murderer, I got a lot done that afternoon. I took out my oil and whetstone and sharpened my knives, in the now-unlikely event they would be called upon. I cleaned up the  tablinum  and refilled the water in his flower-vase. I wrote out his correspondence in proper calligraphic form, and I washed up. There were no callers, and no word was sent from the Three. When Trimalchio returned from his usual afternoon  session with Theodorus and the flowers I had nothing to report. After Trimalchio affixed his seal to the correspondence he immediately plunged into his latest book,  Ludus de morte Claudii. I’d tried reading some of it, but decided that political satire is not to my taste.

One of my many purposes in that house was to see to it that Trimalchio couldn’t keep dodging his work, so I pointed out that we were being paid a hefty sum for him to just sit around reading about our previous Leader, and that it might be nice if we gave our client’s problem some attention.

“Confundite”, he growled, “How can I work without data? We must wait for Saul, Paxrector, and Arrianus to report in. I can do nothing until I hear from them.”

I suggested that he might pursue some other line of inquiry, such as finding a likely forger by a more direct route. He asked if I knew of any, and I had to admit that I didn’t,  but I was willing to scout around for one.

He put down his scroll and looked at me.

“We must be discreet, above all,” he said. “Our current approach should get information without alerting anyone to our interest. I would rather you stayed here and waited for word, but if I insisted upon that, you would continue to badger me. Can you contrive an approach that will not call attention to yourself?”

I replied that I was not born yesterday, and would be as inconspicuous as possible. He took in a cophinus of air and let it out and told me to go. He reminded me that dinner was to be Sour Chicken roasted with pepper, parsley, and leeks. I told him I might not be back in time.

My first source of information is usually Alanus in the Forum, but since I had already asked him about Girolus and his problems, I couldn’t very well ask him about forgers. Alanus would simply add it up and simply ask me when he should post the news about Girolus.

I decided instead to go to the part of the Forum where the scribes set up their benches. What I wanted was to properly choose my approach. Most of the documents that people would be likely to want to have their own unofficial copies of were pretty plain and wouldn’t require the artistry and skill of the death warrant we saw. Army discharge papers and police warrants were not in that line. For that you needed something big. But, if I wanted to avoid unwanted attention, not too big. I decided that a deed to a property in town was what I wanted.

I found scribes who drew up legal documents and cautiously but confidently told them that I needed to replace the deed to a house that my brother-in-law had misplaced. It was all perfectly proper, I told them, but I wanted to avoid any trouble.

When you’ve talked to as many people as I have over the years, you aren’t always right about what’s in someone else’s head, but you do get a sense of who is larcenous and who isn’t.  The first three I talked to were mildly disapproving, and the fourth, I thought, was entertaining thoughts of turning me in. But the fifth was clearly interested. He didn’t create such documents, not himself, he said. But he might know someone who could. For a fee, he could introduce me.

I asked how much, and the price seemed about right for that type of shadiness. If I met him the next day, with the aurei, he could point someone out. I considered it, and decided he was not likely to be setting me up as an informer, and said I’d be back. With that out of he way, I returned home.

It was too late for dinner, of course, so I went to the culina and prepared Pultes Tractogalatae for myself, then went to my cubiculum and to bed.

The three Guttae did not arrive at the house until after Trimalchio’s usual morning session with the plants, so I didn’t get a chance to ask them about their results in advance of the briefing, but got it straight from them at the same time as Trimalchio.

It developed that there were quite a few signs and notices with some of he characteristics Trimalchio had copied, mostly near the forum vinarium. When they had tracked them back to the scribes responsible – when they could find them  –  they didn’t all go back to the same person.

“Of course, you’d expect that,” said Saul, reporting for the group. “You can’t stop people from copying something they see out on the street, especially if it’s got an artistic sweep to it, or people like it. But in that case it’s likely that the most visible case is probably the original. There’s a particularly prominent sign over Baracus the Wine Merchant’s on the main road that you can’t help noticing – all three of us saw it. I was able to find out who lettered that, because he signed it. Some of the other examples I found could be traced back to him too.

“His name is Marcus Lacertius. He doesn’t have a regular shop or stall, but there are people in the local market who can contact him for you.”

Paxrector and Arrianus affirmed this, saying that the signs or documents thy found were sometimes marked with “MAL” or “Lac—“. I wondered what the “A” was for.

But Saul was continuing. He had arranged with one of the shop stewards to see Lacertius, ostensibly to write out a letter to a relative because (Saul told them) he was illiterate. Lacertius listened, but turned him down, suggesting some other scribes he might get to do it for him.

“It’s not that he couldn’t use the money, judging from his clothes. I think he just thinks a letter to a country cousin is beneath him.”

“Describe him,” said Trimalchio.

“About Audax’ height, slim, slightly curled brown hair. Brown eyes. A ordinary white tunic, but stained and frayed. Not fat. He doesn’t like to look directly at you when he talks. But the most interesting things about him are his hands. I know that some scribes pride themselves on very clean hands, like those chimney sweepers who wear immaculate white tunics or even togas, so you know they won’t track soot around your house. But this one’s hands were covered with ink marks. And two of his fingers were stained purple.”

“Indeed?” said Trimalchio.

“Yes, indeed,” answered Saul. “It doesn’t prove anything, by itself, and I’m not claiming to know a lot about the world of documents, but until yesterday I never saw one with murex ink on it. I can’t believe there’s much call for it.”

“Very probably not. You never disappoint, Saul.”

He listened to the rest of the reports, but nothing as interesting turned up. Paxrector and Arrianus had confirmed Saul’s results. They had been chasing their own leads, however, and it amounted to a list of names that had appeared only once per document or sign.  They had not been able to find or interview any of the other scribes responsible. At length, he dismissed them, paying them for their time, but he asked Saul to stay.

Trimalchio said that what Saul had provided was most satisfactory, but did he make any inquiries about the Girolus household? Saul said that he had. After conferring early on with Paxrector and Arrianus, he had sent them out to look for the letters, and he had first gone to the Girolus neighborhood and asked innocently about the house. No one can ask innocently as well as Saul. He looks completely guileless and harmless and trustworthy, but he can glean information from what you say that you didn’t even realize was there. The neighbors, it turned out, couldn’t help bragging about their illustrious neighbor, and Saul was able to piece together a picture of the family.

There was Marcus Girolus, of course, apparently one with the gods, and having no faults. His wife, Claudia, was beautiful and graceful, but always trying to get invitations to functions and parties – a social climber. His son, Flavius, was in his late teens and looking to join the army as an officer. Marcus had a brother, Titus, who was about the same height. There were two brothers-in-law, whose names he had not found out. They were climbers like Claudia, as well, but apparently not as successful.  Regular visitors included a number of cousins and close friends. Saul rattled off what he had been able to find out.

As for scandal, Alanus had been right – there wasn’t any, at least close to Marcus Girolus. They were all ambitious and mostly in government service of some sort, but that was to be expected. The brothers-in-law had both wooed the same woman, some kin to our emperor, and there had been a fight about it, but nothing more. Flavius needed money to equip himself as an officer, and was having a hard time getting it from his father. Titus had been reprimanded for being too outspoken about his political views, and would have lost his job if Marcus hadn’t stepped in for him. But nobody was sleeping with anyone they shouldn’t, or helping themselves to government funds, or selling influence. At least as far as the neighbors knew.

Trimalchio said that was most satisfactory, which from him was high praise. I was glad that Paxrector and Arianus had left before my report, which was anemic by comparison. Saul listened to my account of looking for forgers with interest and appreciation, but when all was said and done, the only thing I had was an appointment that might not lead anywhere.

“It could be that the man you’re to meet is Lacertius,” he said, stating it not because it was obvious, but because it was the best possible outcome, and he wanted to make me feel better. “In that case, of course, you’ll want to glance at his tunic and hands. But what then?”

We discussed the possible approaches, but finally Trimalchio spoke up and said what he wanted me to do in that case. Of course, that settled the matter. We then discussed what we should do if it developed that the forger was not Lacertius. In that case, especially if he was one of the ones Saul has suspected, we would have to use a different approach, using him to get us to Lacertius.

Saul stayed for lunch, which was fish stewed in wine followed by fruit, during which, as usual, business was not discussed. Saul brought up the subject of animals that could kill with a glance, like the catoblepas and the basilisk, and said he didn’t think it was possible. This lead to a discussion of the gorgon turning things to stone, which seemed similar, and Trimalchio suggested that perhaps the story of the petrifying gorgon got started as a way that people used to explain all those stone formations that look like animals.

After lunch Saul went off to see what else he could learn about the Girolus household. Following Trimalchio’s instructions, I went in search of my forger. The steward was waiting for me, and lead me through what he probably thought was a winding and confusing path to the meeting place. It was actually not far from where we started, but I acted as if I was completely lost, and asked if he could get me back to the agora. He told me that the one I was meeting could direct me, and refused to take me the last steps until I paid him. I did so, and was guided into a well-lit but deserted alley. Well, deserted except for one.

I was sure it was him even before I saw his clothes or his hands. It was that off-to-one-side stare he had. But the tunic was all that Saul had promised, and so were the inky hands. I waited for him to speak, but evidently he was waiting, too.

“I hear you can provide documents,” I started.

“Sometimes,” he answered, cautiously. “What are you looking for?” He was still looking over my shoulder, which I found annoying.

“I misplaced the deed to my house, and I don’t want to go to all the trouble of dealing with the Hounds.” That was what not-quite-respectable people called the government officials. I wanted to see how he took it. “I don’t want someone grabbing it from me because I don’t have the right documents.”

“Yes, I know how they can be. It is your house, isn’t it?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t want to do anything improper.”

“No, of course you wouldn’t. This is just a convenience I would be providing for a law-abiding citizen. What is the address?”

I gave him Trimalchio’s address. And the district.

“Oh, yes. That’s a pricey one. How long have you owned the house?”

“About twenty years.”

“Ah, yes. That would be …..Yes, I think I know the form they used then. I would have to ask three aurei for that.”

“That’s quite a lot of money.”

“Certainly it is. But if you want to avoid inconvenience, surely it should be worth that much. Especially since I now know the address.”

“That’s not very friendly,” I replied, letting my face and manner go cold.

“I don’t want friends. This is just business. I can provide what you want, but that’s my price. Are we agreed?”

I took some time to think it over, for the sake of appearance.

“Agreed. Perhaps you can do another job for me, as well. I’d like to get a copy made of this.”

I had pulled out the forged imperial suicide letter. I was happy to show it to him, if only to get his eyes looking at something besides the air over my shoulder. The effect was very satisfying. He went pale and looked me in the eyes. I was smiling. He then turned to run, but I had been ready for that, and had him in a hard grip.

I never actually said that I was an official with the Watch, so I can’t be accused of impersonating an officer, but I can’t help what other people assume. Lacertius certainly thought he’d been pegged by the Law, and immediately began to protest that he was innocent, and they made him do it, and he’d give all the money back, and it wasn’t enough anyway.

That looked like a promising wedge, so I pressed him on it. Who had asked him to forge the document? He said he didn’t know his name. He described him, but it only riled my sense of frustration about non-detectives. When I describe a man, or Saul does, you get a mental picture of him, with as many details as possible. But most people are hopeless when you ask them to describe somebody. They can’t tell you their height, are useless at estimating weight, never remember the color of eyes, and even manage to get the hair color wrong. The man Lacertius described could have been any of the men in Girolus’ house, including Girolus himself.

One thing that did come through clearly was that Lacertius thought he had been stiffed. Nemo had only paid him a fraction of what the paper was worth, even if it had been legitimate. No wonder Lacertius was looking for a possible blackmail angle – he wanted to be sure he’d get his money this time. And now he was going to be arrested, and maybe thrown in jail. It just wasn’t fair.

I told him that we were after the guy who’d commissioned the forgery, and if he’d help us finger him we’d go easy on himself, Lacertius. It took me a few tries to make this clear to him – people who are in a frenzy aren’t good listeners – but he eventually got hold of the idea and agreed to accompany me to headquarters.

This made it easy to get him back to Trimalchio’s without having to manhandle him all the way there. That was good, because I didn’t want to have to explain to Inspector Circulatus of the Watch why I was forcing an unwilling man down the street. We’d had many run-ins before, and I didn’t need the extra trouble now. He’d have ground his teeth (He always looked as if he should be chewing on something, the way the rustics chewed on a stick) and growled about arresting me and prohibiting me from doing my job. But Lacertius was no trouble at all, sure that cooperating would minimize the trouble he was in. He even nodded to the officer of the Watch, who, knowing me, looked at me suspiciously. But there was nothing obviously wrong, so I just grinned at him to show that everything was all right.

By the time we got back, Trimalchio had finished his afternoon session with the plants, and Saul was back, as well, so Lacertius had an audience when I presented him. I’m sure he thought he was in a detective station, and we didn’t correct his impression. I reported on what had happened, and then Trimalchio started questioning him, aided by Saul. They weren’t able to get a better description of the man who’d asked for the forgery than I had, but Lacertius said that he would know the man if he saw him again. Trimalchio told him that his only chance of avoiding a terrible fate was to cooperate. Lacertius agreed immediately. Trimalchio told Saul to take him into the front cubiculum and to watch him, and he would send in Cinnamus to give him something to eat and drink. Trimalchio can’t stand the thought of someone under his roof going without food.

When they had gone, he turned to me and asked if I could get the Girolus clan there to his office that evening. I asked how many of them, and he replied that he wanted the immediate family, complete with in-laws. Friends and cousins would not be needed. I remarked that if he had narrowed it down to the immediate family, getting them in just so that Lacertius could identify the guilty party was a pretty unrefined and clumsy way to do it. If I don’t needle Trimalchio like that every now and then, he gets too inflated an opinion of himself. But he surprised me, as usual.

“Oh, I know who is responsible,” he said. “The problem is what to do with him. It’s not clear what crime he has committed, if any. Certainly he has forged a document, but an Imperial invitation to commit suicide is not really an official one, and I don’t think there is a statute against forging one. If it had worked the way he intended, there would now be a dead innocent, and our criminal must neither profit by that, nor go unpunished. But neither do I want to bring infamy upon the house of Girolus by making a noise about this. The thought of using that creature [he indicated Lacertius] to produce a suicide request that looks more convincing than this forgery has a certain symmetric appeal, but it is unlikely that our man would be fooled by a scheme so similar to his own. Moreover, I think it too harsh a punishment, despite his ill intentions. So I am going to do this.”

I asked him what this was, but he only raised the corner of his mouth a fraction of an uncia  –  for him  a broad grin  –  and said that I would see.

It took some doing – it took a lot of doing – to persuade Marcus Girolus to agree to bring his family to Trimalchio’s. He was, after all, a senator with a reputation, and he did not want anyone to learn about this affair, even those in his family, if he could help it. And why couldn’t Trimalchio come to his house. Wasn’t that in accordance with propriety?

Of course, I couldn’t insist that Trimalchio never left the house on business. Clients knew about that and saw it as an amusing idiosyncrasy, until it caused them actual inconvenience. But it wasn’t only Trimalchio’s pigheadedness in this case. The plan we had laid on required execution at Trimalchio’s house. In addition, Trimalchio didn’t trust security outside his own home, and he didn’t want word of this leaking out through the servants.

Normally, I had some sort of lever to force people to come to our office, but this was a tough one, and Trimalchio, to his credit, recognized that. He said to tell them that Cinnamus was preparing a feast for them. The reputation of Trimalchio’s chef was sufficient to overcome most reservations. Marcus Girolus agreed.

I learned that it is almost impossible to move an aristocratic family rapidly, even when they have the lure of a gourmet feast at a given hour dangling in front of them.  They moved more slowly than an army at maneuvers, but they eventually got there. Fortunately, Cinnamus and Trimalchio had factored their lethargy in, and the feast had not gone cold.

It was hard, fitting them all in, but we managed, bringing in extra chairs from elsewhere in the house. For hors d’oeuvres there were white and black olives, dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seeds, and small sausages. The main course was a pig, crowned with sausages, served with pudding and giblets, and with beetroot and wholemeal bread. For dessert there were pastry figures with apples and grapes. He must have been planning this for a while, and started Cinnamus on it early in the day, which impressed me.

Trimalchio insisted upon doing no business until the last of the plates was swept away, much to the annoyance of Girolus and some of his family. But I know you can’t rush Trimalchio. I’ve tried. When everything was gone he called for attention. He asked if anyone wanted anything to drink while he talked, and Cinnamus took orders, delivering them as Trimalchio continued.

“I have asked you here this evening partly to join me in this feast. We are only on this world for a short time, and we owe it to ourselves to enjoy what the gods have given us. A poorly prepared meal is an insult to them and to ourselves.” Some of them saw this as a sort of toast, and drank to it. He waited for them to quiet down before he went on.

“But there is another reason for this gathering, a darker and more serious one, and I want your attention and your discretion. What we discuss here must not leave this room.” You could hear a pin drop in the room after that. He had their full attention.

“Three days ago Marcus Girolus, the princeps of your family, received a startling document. It was, apparently, an imperial summons from our Emperor, instructing him to take his own life.”

There was a wild uproar at this, with Marcus himself the wildest. He protested loudly that he did not wish this to become known. It took a long time to subside. My own eyes had been on the assembled family, to see if anyone betrayed their guilt by their expression. One saving grace about most crimes is that they are committed by amateurs, and when something goes wrong they do not know how to control their actions or their expressions. But in this case they were all surprised and outraged by the news itself, so none of their reactions stood out as suspicious.

Trimalchio bellowed for silence, and he knows how to bellow. They quieted down.

“As I say, he received this document asking him to take his own life. I show it to you so you can see that it is an impressive piece of work that appears to be genuine and expensively made. It might have achieved its purpose, were it not that Marcus Girolus is an experienced politician and bureaucrat, familiar with the proper forms. He recognized it as a forgery, and so you have been spared his death by suicide.” I looked over the crowd again, but there were no crafty expressions or guilty stares. Everyone was still shocked.

“We were able to confirm Senator Girolus’ belief that this document is forged. We have located the forger, and he can testify to this, and to the identity of the one who commissioned this document. I mention this only to prove that we have corroboration of the identity of the sender.”

“Is this real?” asked Girolus. “Or is this some bluff to discover the criminal?”

“I do not bluff,” replied Trimalchio. “When a man undertakes to commit a crime of this sort, he does it on the assumption that the victim will act predictably. There would be no point in going to the expense and trouble of procuring a false document if he did not think that you would, in fact, kill yourself. You did not, which is a measure of your experience and sense of self-worth. But a man only has his own life experience to draw on, and what he sees in others, to go by in trying to predict how they will act. This one, then, thought that a severe act of censure – the most severe possible censure, originating from the leader of our Empire – would surely cause you such despair and hopelessness that you would have no other recourse. Most of the other members of your family know you better than this, I think. But one of them underwent such an experience himself, and it almost cost him his position. I suspect that it almost drove him to kill himself. You, Marcus Girolus, prevented that by interceding. That colored his thinking, and he thought that there would be no one to intercede for you. Which proves that he did not know you well enough.”

Marcus’ eyes went to his brother Titus through this speech. Titus’ face was giving nothing away as Marcus prepared to ask the question. He didn’t get a chance to ask it, however, because at that moment everyone’s attention was drawn to the hall.

On the wall behind Trimalchio is a painting of Trimalchio himself holding the staff of Mercury, being led into Rome by Minerva. In the background are other figures, including the Three Fates spinning their golden threads and Fortune with her flowing cornucopia.

It’s a trick picture. Hidden behind that flowing cornucopia is a peephole through which someone standing in the alcove behind can see into the room without being seen.  Saul had been back there with Lacertius, who had witnessed the entire performance, convinced he was in a sort of police court. Now Saul had brought Lacertius out into the hall to look into the faces of those present.

“That’s him!” he cried, pointing at Titus. “That’s the one who had it made, and didn’t pay me!”

If Titus had been made of sterner stuff, he might have bluffed it out. He could have accused us of hiring an actor to portray an informant. But, of course, he knew for a fact that this was the real forger, and ordinary shock and surprise wasn’t going to shield him any longer. He was exposed twice over, by those who knew exactly what he had done, and now it was up. Saul and I were prepared for just about anything he might do, from violence to running away, but all he did was break down and cry.

It was not an easy or a clean thing to break up the evening after that. Trimalchio explained to Marcus Girolus that simply telling him who the culprit was would not be an acceptable solution. There was a good chance that Girolus would not believe him, or would not do anything after being told, and Trimalchio did not want Marcus Girolus’ future blood on his hands. Now, Titus was clearly and unambiguously confessed in the sight of his family, all of whom knew his actions and would not trust him further. Yet no legal action had been taken, and nothing would harm the reputation of the house of Girolus.

Titus had evidently hoped to inherit upon Marcus’ death, but that was hopeless now. We later learned that Titus was hustled away to Gaul, far from the family, who promptly tried to forget about him. Lacertius was paid in full, ironically, by Marcus, so that, in effect, he paid for his own death warrant. Lacertius thus had no cause for complaint, and he was made to understand that if he told anyone about the evening’s proceedings he would find himself in jail in short order.

Marcus was relieved, but not happy or obviously grateful. He was dutiful, though, and paid his bill. But he would not talk to Trimalchio or to me any more, and I’m not sure I blame him.

After they had all gone, Trimalchio sat down with Saul and me, and we drank our own private toast, with Trimalchio drinking his favored cervisia, Saul drinking wine, and me with my usual milk. Saul praised Trimachio’s handling of the case, and told him that he was more deserving of the name Nero than the emperor was.

“Bah!” said Trimalchio. “After reading Ludus de morte Claudii I am discouraged by our recent emperors, and Claudius, for all his faults, was better than Nero. Far better to give the name of Caesar to a bull,”


Stephen R. Wilk is a Physicist and Engineer, whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Parabola, Weatherwise, Classical World, New Jersey History, and several scientific journals. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Tales of the Undead, Fiction Vortex, and elsewhere. He has published two non-fiction books through Oxford University Press, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon and How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap! Odd Excursions in Optics.

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