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    DavidJ
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Replay - The Roman Fatality - 7. Chapter 7

It was a holiday with nothing to celebrate. Gregory, Thalis, Helena, and I were lying at the dinner table in the apartment. There was breakfast waiting to be eaten. Nobody had any appetite though. Frugi had just left the apartment again. He had come down, visibly upset, to assure the brothers of his sympathy and all the support they would need.

Gregory's face was petrified, in a grimace of pain. Thalis had shed many tears and buried his face in his hands. I too was quite shaken by what I had experienced. Of course, I was not nearly as close to Alex as his brothers. Though I was very sorry that they had to deal with such a horrendous stroke of fate, especially after things were starting to look good. Besides, I still blamed myself. Again and again I went through the events in my head. I could have saved him if I hadn't drunk so much wine and reacted faster, couldn't I?

The big questions, which were written all over everyone's face, nobody dared to speak out yet. How would the practice continue? Would they be able to pay the rent on their own?

In those minutes a decision grew in me. Alexio's killer had to be found and brought to justice and it was up to me to find him!

Unfortunately, in ancient Rome there was no public prosecutor's office or police force that could set up a special commission to investigate a murder in detail. Although there was a court system, this required the plaintiff to name the accused and that was not possible until the murderer was known. So who was going to find him but me? Gregory and Thalis had to take care of the practice now more than ever. Besides, thanks to the TTEK I might have had one or two investigative advantages and last but not least, I wanted to prevent them from putting themselves in unnecessary danger.

My eyes wandered to Helena. She looked out of the window. I wondered what she thought. Did she know more than the others? Was there any connection between her husband's death and Alex's murder?

My mind was working clear and unclouded again. I had to find the meaning behind the events. So, where to start?

Of course with inspecting the crime scene! I jumped up and left the room. The others hardly noticed.

Arriving downstairs, I took a short breath before entering the practice, arming myself against the sight I would encounter. Nevertheless, I felt sick when I saw the dead Greek lying on the floor. An unpleasant, indefinable smell was in the air.

I bit my lip and tried to swallow the nausea. Entering the room, I took a big step over the pool of blood where I had slipped the first time. It had spread a little further. The body was still in its original location. However, they had already sent for the undertaker, who would surely arrive soon.

The first question to answer was why Alex was down here at all when the break-in happened. He had said that he was going back to the office… but why was he still here so late?

"Elisa, give me the timeline from when I arrived back home last night until the break-in."

"The timeline, in modern time units, is as follows. Your arrival was at 7:42 p.m. Then party till 12:48 a.m., with Alexios leaving at 10:16 p.m. You fell asleep at 12:52 a.m and the break-in took place at 3:10 a.m.“

I paused. "Why are you labeling last night’s dinner as a ‘party’?"

"You participated in a social gathering last night, consuming food and various alcoholic beverages. This is more concisely defined as a party.“

Normally, something like this would amuse me. However, I didn't feel in that mood now.

Considering the timeline, Alexios had been down here for almost five hours, from leaving the 'party' until the break-in. What had he done during that time? I took in the state of the room. At first glance, there was nothing out of the ordinary. All cupboards and drawers were closed. The work surfaces were clean. So he had not prepared any medicine.

My gaze stopped at the desk. There were several patient files on it. I used to put them away every time the office closed. Though yesterday I had been to the baths. The files were sorted into two stacks. Five on the left side and three on the right side of the table. In the middle between the two stacks was an open file. Apart from that, the inkwell in which the nib was stuck and an empty oil lamp were standing on the table. The chair, which normally stood behind the desk, lay tipped over on the floor.

All this evidence easily combined into one picture. Alex had come down here to work on these patient files. Perhaps to catch up on notes he didn't have time to take in the rush of the day. The open inkwell and the two stacks indicated that he had not finished his work. However, it would hardly have taken him five hours for a handful of files. So probably tiredness had gotter the better of him and he fell asleep at his desk. Finally, the position of the chair could mean that Alex had knocked it over when he got up, startled by the burglar.

I tried to figure what happened next. Alex lay a few steps away from the desk, closer to the door than to the desk. That means he was walking towards the burglar when he entered. But why? Did he want to confront him? Chase him away? Or did he not suspect anything bad and maybe even thought someone had come for a medical emergency?

Eventually, the burglar must have pulled out his dagger and stabbed Alexios in the chest before he left in haste. I knelt down next to the body. The unpleasant smell became more intense and I started to breathe through my mouth. In addition to the fatal injury to the chest, I recognized a cut on the right arm. So Alex had fought back when the unknown man attacked him with the dagger. Of course not very successful, since he hadn’t had a weapon at his disposal.

I took a closer look at the dagger that was still stuck in the dead man's torso. The blade, as you would expect, was made of metal, the handle was wood. The transition between the materials was neatly finished and as far as I could tell it was of good craftsmanship. Apart from that, I didn’t notice anything special on the handle. I couldn't take a closer look at the blade though, not while it was still in Alexios chest. I held my head away to the side to take another deep breath. Then I stretched out my hand, ready to pull out the dagger.

Though at the last moment I paused - what about fingerprints?

"Elisa, can you lift the fingerprints off the dagger's handle?"

"The TTEK is not a forensics laboratory, Dr. Marten. However, it should be possible to reconstruct the prints from the sensor data. Slowly move the right bracelet half an inch over the surface of the object."

Crime lab or not, it worked. I found myself smiling, but the hint of a smile was immediately replaced by an uneasy feeling of guilt. Scary - in some perverse way, I was enjoying this investigative shit. I shook my head, reminding myself of the presence of a dead person in the room. It could hardly be more serious!

I stretched out my right arm and did as Elisa requested. I repeated the procedure for each side of the handle. I waited a few seconds, but nothing happened. Well, asking why it takes so long won't make it go any faster. Elisa would contact me when she was done with the calculations.

In the meantime, I proceeded to actually pull out the dagger, producing a disgusting sound. Even then there wasn’t much to see of the blade, because it was completely covered with blood.

I fought off the nausea that was building up again and stood up, heading to the worktable where the oils, tinctures, and other medicines were prepared. As usual, there was a bowl of water standing there. I dunked the dagger into it, washing off the blood.

Now I could get a better look at the blade. It also looked to be of good quality, but had no special features. I turned the dagger on its axis, when I suddenly noticed a bump on the side facing me. I looked closer.

It was an engraving. There were three letters: M I I

That was a Roman numeral! In our decimal system, it was the number 1002. What was it supposed to represent though? It couldn't be a year, we were only in the year 954 according to the Roman calendar. Perhaps it was some kind of serial number, indicating that it was the one thousand and second dagger of this type? I couldn't think of how that information would help me, though. There was no indication of the weapons’s manufacturer.

Elisa finally got in touch. "Fingerprints from at least two different hands were registered. Among them a left hand and a right hand. I have the prints stored for future reference.”

Two hands? I locked my right hand around the handle. It encompassed it completely. So it wasn’t possible to leave prints on the handle with both hands at the same time. Either the killer had held the dagger with both hands alternately, or the prints came from more than one person. In the latter case the most obvious person was of course Alexios. That should be easy to find out.

I went back over to the dead man. His hands were half closed. So I couldn't scan them. I sighed and bit my lips, trying to overcome my inhibition to open the dead man’s hands. A shiver ran down my back as I touched the cold and already somewhat stiff fingers. When it was done, I slowly ran my right arm over the fingertips.

"Compare the stored prints with these fingers, Elisa.“

This time it did not take quite as long until I received an answer.

"I detect a partial match. The fingers match the stored fingerprints of a right hand."

I see. So did Alexios clasp the dagger when it was already in his chest? Perhaps. I re-enacted the scene. I held the dagger in front of me and grasped it with my right hand, with the blade pointing towards my chest. Quite logically, in this position my thumb pointed in the direction of the pommel. If I held the dagger the other way round, the way the attacker had to hold it, my thumb pointed in the direction of the blade.

I asked Elisa for the orientation of the prints found on the dagger. Without hesitation she confirmed that the right hand was directed to the pommel and the left hand to the tip. So Alexios had indeed clasped the dagger with his right hand after the attacker had thrust it into his chest. However, this revelation didn't really help to advance the investigation.

Perhaps the more interesting conclusion was that his killer must have been left-handed. Because the other print could only have come from him. And it was a left-hand print. Or was he wearing gloves? I tried to remember the brief encounter in the hallway. No, I couldn't possibly say. I hadn’t been able to make out more than a dark silhouette in the moonlight.

Nevertheless, I came to the conclusion that he had probably not been wearing gloves. First, he didn't have to worry about fingerprints in this millennium. Second, gloves would have been a hindrance to him picking the lock. So the killer was left-handed. Unfortunately, I was afraid that didn't narrow down the list of suspects enough.

Speaking of suspects. Who were the suspects? What was the motive? Before I could think about that, there was a knock on the door of the practice.

"This is the undertaker."

I quickly hid the dagger in the lowest drawer of the herb cupboard before opening the door. As much as I had complained about the profession of the ancient doctor and especially the surgeon – undertaker was worse.

---

It was shortly before sunset when the small procession crossed the city wall. Alexios was laid out, carried by the two remaining brothers. Thalis, who was walking ahead, looked at the ground in front of him. Gregory followed in silence. A handful of people walked to the left and right of the stretcher. Helena, Frugi, and a few other friends of the family I didn’t know. We left the hustle and bustle of the main road behind us and after a few minutes we reached the grave where Pericles was buried. Right next to it, Alex would find his last resting place.

The undertaker and his assistant had already started to dig the grave. When they were finished, the sun finally disappeared behind the horizon. I trembled a little, unclear whether it was due to the occasion or the drop in temperature.

Everyone gathered around the corpse and Thalis, now the elder, gave a short oration. He mentioned their childhood, their good and bad experiences in their homeland, the hopes they had with the move to Rome. He emphasized what a big part Alexios had played in their success. That it was him who gave them the courage to take the risk of a new beginning. That he, the big brother, had often been like a father to them.

Strangely enough, Thalis' speech filled me not only with sadness but also with admiration. Although he seemed the most affected by the loss of all of them, he found such clear and concise words. I wondered if I would be able to do the same if there was a bereavement in my own family? Perhaps they had already declared me dead at home and there had been a funeral service for me? I shook off the thought and concentrated on the ceremony.

Thalis now approached the corpse. He gave his brother a kiss and put something in his mouth.

"A coin, as ferry money for the river of death. It’s a Greek tradition," Frugi whispered in my ear, rightly assuming that I didn’t know.

The body was then lowered into the excavated grave. In the light of a few oil lamps the shovelling began. I took a few steps away from the group. I sucked in deeply the cool night air which sharpened my thoughts. I went back over what I had found out about the murder so far.

While the concrete course of the crime was quite clear, the suspects still had to be narrowed down. The first step in that process could be the motive.

What would be the most obvoius? A robbery, of course. The killer wanted to break into the practice to steal something. I went through the inventory in my mind. Sure, some of the ointments, oils, and even ingredients were quite valuable. However, I hardly believed that a common thief would be interested in them.

The income of the practice in the form of hard coins would be more of a potential target. Here too the thief would have left empty-handed. The brothers collected their earnings in a small chest, which they always took with them in the evening. On the other hand – how would a thief know that? From his point of view there was at least a chance for some loot.

I thought about who could be a suspect in this scenario. Unfortunately, it came down to just about every crook in town who could read the doctor's sign on the door.

However, perhaps it wasn't a robbery after all. So what were the reasons for it not being a robbery? Thinking about it, I spontaneously remembered the dagger that had served as the murder weapon. It was of good quality and probably beyond what a simple man could afford.

I shook my head. That train of thought made no sense. If it was a thief, the dagger might as easily have been the booty from a previous robbery.

What else didn't fit? Well, of course, there was the fact that nothing was actually stolen. Which was not saying much though, since the perpetrator was interrupted by Alex's presence.

I remembered how I had stormed into the room at night. A short shiver ran down my spine. Only the moonlight had illuminated the scene. So the oil lamp had already gone out at the time of the murder. Which in turn meant that a potential thief from the outside could not have seen that there was someone in the office. So the encounter would have surprised the intruder at least as much as the sleeping doctor.

Then why the murder in the first place? Why didn't the thief turn on his heels when he realized his mistake? Maybe to leave no witness? Maybe out of panic?

I sighed. There were too many open questions to which I neither knew the answer nor how to find out. So I tried a different approach.

Assuming it wasn't a robbery, what else could it have been? The only alternative I could think of was that it was a targeted assassination. Either on Alexios in particular, or the three brothers in general. In that case, how did the killer know that someone would be in the office that night? Of course, you would have seen the light of the oil lamp through the window until it went out.

I took a look back at the grave site, which was also illuminated by these small oil lamps. I had seen these lamps before and knew that they lasted about three hours before you had to fill up oil. So let's assume that Alexios had filled up the lamp at the beginning of his late session. It would then have gone out two hours before the burglary.

So had the killer waited this long in the vicinity? It didn't make sense to me. If he wanted to be sure he'd find the victim, he would have entered while the lamp was on.

Or did he want to surprise his victim in his sleep? That didn't make sense either. First, the intruder hadn't been particularly quiet. Second, how could he have known that Alexios had fallen asleep at his desk instead of putting out the lamp and going upstairs?

I sighed again. This scenario didn’t really bring me any closer to revealing the truth. Especially since the question of the motive for a targeted assassination was completely open. A dissatisfied patient? A disgruntled competitor? Maybe a connection to Pericles’ death?

I ran my hands over my face. No, it wouldn't be so easy. I flinched when someone put a hand on my shoulder from behind. It was Thalis.

"Are you coming, Phillip? We're going back to the apartment."

His voice sounded faint and broken. The composure he had previously shown in his speech had disappeared. I nodded, following him back onto the road. He walked beside me and hooked his arm under mine.

"Phillip, we... I need your support now more than ever. You'll help us, won't you?"

I looked at him. He couldn't resist my gaze and looked down at the street. I wasn't sure what he meant exactly. Support in the practice? Or more on a personal, emotional level? Maybe both.

Well, sure, I would support him and Gregory in any way I could.

---

It was already after ten o'clock in the evening when the small funeral party disbanded and we returned to the apartment. While the others climbed the stairs, exhausted, I stayed behind downstairs. Certainly, nobody had yet restored order in the practice. Indeed, everything was still as I had left it in the late afternoon when the undertaker had come. Especially the pool of blood now well dried yet none the less smelly.

I shrugged my shoulders and brought myself to reach for rags and a bucket. Someone had to do it. A quarter of an hour later, the room was put back in order. So tomorrow a new day could begin and the practice could be open again, as if nothing had happened - at least that's how it would appear to an outsider. Though the initiated knew that it would not be like the day before. I paused for a moment. Yes, I suppose they'd have to give up the practice at the baths.

My gaze fell on the desk where files were still lying in the two stacks Alexios had worked on before his death. I stepped closer to put them back into the cupboard. I took a look at the file in the middle and opened it. It was the file of a certain Tullius Varus. After perusing the notes, I noticed it was the older man who had his leg amputated. A shiver ran down my spine as the memory of the procedure came to me. Fortunately for the patient, the wound seemed to have healed well.

I looked through the other files, but only recognized one patient. Clodia, the rich lady, who had reported another little affliction and was given an expensive tincture. I looked over to the cupboard in which all other files were sorted. If the killer was a patient or a relative then perhaps there was a clue there. I sighed, as I had all too often that day. All right, I had to go through all the files.

A few hours later, it had to be well after midnight, I pushed the last file back into the cupboard. I had tried to find patients whose treatment had been particularly unsuccessful or tragic. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, this had hardly been the case. There was only one file that stood out. A young woman named Minna who had been treated for a stomach problem. She died a few days later. Alexio's note made it clear that he didn't see any connection, but her husband did.

It wasn't much. Perhaps a lead worth pursuing, though. I let my head sink to the table, exhausted - but soon after I was startled when Elisa's voice resounded in my ear.

"Dr. Marten. I would like to warn you not to fall asleep after looking through files at a desk, after midnight and in the light of an oil lamp that will soon go out – a sequence of events that ended with the death of the last person at that desk.”

Well, I wasn't superstitious, but the thought couldn’t be entirely dismissed. So I put out the oil lamp and went upstairs.

Copyright © 2020 DavidJ; All Rights Reserved.

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A real mystery here. We have some prospects but no serious leads. Is Clodia or her entourage involved? Something tells me you didn't introduce her character just to be a laughing stock.

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