The next week went by faster than expected. Everyone concentrated on work in order to think as little as possible about what had happened - and also because they had no other choice if they wanted to survive in Rome. As predicted, the Trajan Baths were abandoned and the two brothers concentrated entirely on the main practice. I also had more to do than ever before. Thalis took over many of Alexios’ tasks. This meant that some of the things that Thalis had taken care of before now fell to me. Among other things, this concerned the purchase of consumables.
Moreover, Thalis had persuaded me to make house calls. Alone. No, my original position of not being a doctor was still standing. It was only supposed to be checkups.
"Go there, say hello, ask how they are, and report back to me," Thalis had summarized it. "Very simple!"
I had replied that if something was wrong, the person concerned would come forward of his or her own accord, or send someone. However, Gregory and Thalis convinced me that this was what wealthy customers expected – and rewarded.
So my investigation into Alexios’ death progressed rather slowly. Yesterday, however, I had extended my daily walk to the market a little, to pay Minna's husband a visit. Or at least I tried to. The apartment was empty and a sign "for rent" was attached to the door. The neighbors unanimously stated that Minna’s husband had left Rome only two days after her death. He was a legionary and his unit was sent to the northern part of the empire. Since the murder took place a few days later, I trashed this scenario for the time being. Motive present, but no opportunity.
I decided to take a completely different approach. First, tosolve Pericles’ death. If there was a connection between the two tragedies, I would uncover it. If not, at least the process of elimination would bring me closer to the real motive for the murder.
In the case of Pericles I had two concrete starting points for further investigations. Dear Helena and the secret lover Iulia. I should in fact have been on my way to the market by now. Though instead of turning left at the front door after leaving the practice, I had taken the stairs to the top on the right.
I found Helena in the kitchen. She was sitting there knitting a piece of clothing. Maybe a glove, or a cap - my experience in this field was more than scanty. Even my grandmother had never knitted. What a pity.
Helena looked up in surprise when I entered the kitchen. "Phillip, what can I do for you?"
She let the knitting dropand wrinkled her forehead. "I hope it's not bad news?" she continued.
"No no, nothing like that," I reassured her. "Still, there is something we need to talk about."
"Of course, Phillip, what is it?Perhaps not here in the kitchen."
She took me by the arm and pulled me cluelessly into the dining room. I didn't think she knew what I wanted to talk to her about and I myself was no longer so sure it was a good idea. At the time when I learned aboutPericles’ affair the brothers made a conscious decision not to confront Helena. Alexios, in particular, did not think much of it. This time I had not told Thalis and Gregory about my plan. I thought it was better that way. Should something go wrong, I could take the blame upon myself.
Helena sat down on one of the couches and gestured for me to sit down as well. So I did. She looked at me expectantly. I cleared my throat and gathered my courage. It seemed best to go directly in medias res - to get straight to the point.
"Helena, it's about Pericles. You know he had an affair before he died?"
She looked at me blankly for a moment. Only the corners of her eyes twitched slightly. Then she frowned. Her voice sounded angry when she began to speak.
"What the hell! Why are you talking about my late husband like that?"
Despite my limited knowledge of human nature, I tried to interpret her reaction the best I could. There was astonishment, even annoyance - but no surprise.
I answered as calmly as possible. "It's very simple, Helena. I'm trying to figure out exactly what happened. Two deaths have already afflicted you and your loved ones." My voice became more dramatic. "What if there's a connection? What if this is not the end?" Calmer again I continued. "That story about Pericles stumbling on the balcony while visiting a patient, we both don't believe it, do we?"
As I spoke, I bent over, looking Helena straight in the eye. She returned my gaze. How long we stared at each other I couldn't really say. After a while though, she broke eye contact. Her gaze moved towards the window. Her face relaxed a little, too.
After another moment of silence, she began to speak. "I'm not naive, Phillip. Of course I don't believe that story." She looked at me again, continuing in a resigned voice. "But what was I supposed to do? Stick my nose everywhere and ask questions? A sure way to upset people you shouldn't upset?"
"What kind of people do you mean? Do you suspect someone?"
She shook her head. "I haven't got the faintest idea. But to answer your original question, yes, my husband's affairs have not escaped my notice. Even though he probably thought I had no idea."
So it was true. Iulia had been Pericles' secret lover. Wait a second though – Helena spoke of affairs in the plural. Had good Pericles had several irons in the fire? I asked her.
"Yes, this Iulia was the last, but certainly not the first," she explained to me. "And whether she was the only one in her time, or had to share this dubious honor with other rivals... well, I didn't keep a record."
The scenario went through my mind again in which Helena caught them in flagrante and Pericles stumbled over the railing while fleeing.
"Did you ever confront him?" I asked.
A cynical laugh left her lips before she continued. "What for? I didn't want a divorce. Where would I have gone after that? Besides... what Pericles took the liberty of doing, I took the liberty of doing myself.“
She uttered the last sentence with a subtle smile. In my mind, I rolled my eyes. So Helena had her own affair, in retaliation so-to-speak? If I had been able to go back to the future, I could have written a screenplay for a telenovela.
Helena breathed out audibly and stood up. "Now you know what I know. Do what you like with it, but be careful. Whoever's behind my husband's death better not find out that someone's snooping around. If you're willing to commit one murder, you won't be afraid to commit another."
After proclaiming this great wisdom, she went back into the kitchen. I stayed behind on the couch reflecting on our conversation. Was I smarter than before? Well, the suspicions about the affair were confirmed. In fact, it turned out that there were several affairs. Maybe even simultaneously.
Did this get me anywhere though? There was no hint for a connection between the two deaths. No new motives or perpetrators had emerged either. What was Helena's role in all of this? It sounded like she wasresigned to the fact her husband had been unfaithful. I'm sure she was one of the people losing the most through his deathsoI didn't believe she was directly involved. Although I didn’t know for certain.
Did it really make sense to investigate further? I thought it would have been easier to get to the bottom of this. I ran my hands over my face. No, giving up now was out of the question! There was nothing left but to try and collect more pieces of the puzzle. I had one lead left. Iulia.
The Trajan Markets were bustling as always when I arrived. Besides the Trajan Baths and the Trajan Forum, they were another of the buildings constructed under the emperor of the same name, a good fifty years ago. The Trajan markets could best be compared to a modern shopping center. Though instead of a few big stores there were a lot of small shops.
The imposing multi-story complex formed a semicircle that was open to the street. The forecourt was lined with marble and decorated with columns. There were numerous market stalls and booths that mainly sold food from the farmers of the region who brought their products to the citizens here.
In the building itself, wine, spices, and oil were traded among other things. The latter was also on my shopping list. However, before I went on my errands, I would take a little detour. I passed the Trajan markets, turning right behind them into a small alley. After only a few steps I found the entrance I was looking for. The sign showed that it was the Rattling Coin Hotel. The not very original name was probably chosen due to the proximity to the markets. Pericles’ last mistress was supposed to work here,if one could believe the statement of her former neighbor.
The term 'hotel' had to be interpreted carefully. ‘Flophouse’ might have been a better choice. In general, staying in hotels was more a choice of working people like sailors, muleteers and migrant workers. The more affluent classes stayed with relatives and friends whenever possible.
I stepped towards the front door. Graffiti on the door frame caught my eye: "The wine here tastes like horse piss!" I wasn't sure which was more worrying, that the landlord had not yet taken the trouble to remove the writing, or that the writer apparently knew what horse piss tasted like.
I took one more deep breath before I opened the door, stepping into a long guest room that covered most of the ground floor. A good dozen tables stood in the semi-darkness of the room, the only light coming from a few windows facing the street. It took my eyes a moment before they got used to it.
Only two tables had anyone sitting at them. Not surprisingly, given it was early afternoon. In the middle of the room, adjoining the back wall, was the counter. It was occupied by a stocky boredlooking man who barely looked up when I entered the room. Perhaps a waiter, or the innkeeper himself.
There was no trace of Iulia, not that I knew how she looked. It was, therefore, necessary to inquire. I went to the counter to address the man behind it. He still wouldn't look at me. If it was really the innkeeper he must not have been very enterprising. Which, in turn, would fit with the graffiti that had not been removed. Though maybe he just didn't care because the customers came anyway – or even worse, the customers didn't care.
"Excuse me, I'd like to speak to Iulia. I understand she works here as a waitress.“
The man slowly raised his head looking me over with reddened eyes. He did not seem to have had much sleep, perhaps a consequence of his profession in the hotel business. His head dropped again, only to rise again immediately, as if he was about to fall asleep. It was only a moment later that I realized it was a nod.
"Four!" the man squawked.
I looked at him uncomprehendingly. What did that mean? She's not coming until 4 pm? No, he couldn't mean that. There was no accurate measure of time due to the lack of clocks. The man looked at me with a blank expression. I tried again.
"It's important that I talk to her. Do you know where I can find her?"
My less talkative counterpart grunted. "I'm not interested. It's still four aces."
Four aces. Ah, I should have guessed. So the information had a price. Aces were a smaller unit of denari. One denarius was equal to sixteen aces. I reached into my sack and took out the required coins. The man grabbed them. With practiced fingers he let them slide into his cash box.
"Veneria! A Customer!" he yelled into a room behind him.
Shortly afterward, a young woman stepped out of the back room. I examined her as she came towards me. She had shoulderlength brunette hair tied in a braid. A smile played around the corners of her mouth. It appeared to be fake, considering the dark rings under her eyes, which revealed the true picture.
Was that Iulia? The man - whomI now assumed was indeed the proprietor - had called her by another name. Either way, if this Veneria did not take me further in my search for Iulia, I would demand my four aces back.
"Come," she said, taking me by the arm. She pulled me towards the stairs which led to the upper floor. I followed willingly. There was no need for the whole room down here to listen in on what we had to talk about.
The young woman led me into a small, dreary room. No doubt it was one of the guest rooms. Despite a size of perhaps twelve square meters, three beds were set up in the room. When the woman closed the door behind us, I addressed her.
"Listen, um... Veneria. I'm hoping you can help me. I'm looking for...”
She interrupted me in the middle of my sentence by putting her index finger on my mouth.
"I know what you're looking for," she whispered, "and you found me!"
My mouth opened in amazement. So she was Iulia! But how did she know I was looking for her? The whole thing was very strange – and in retrospect clearly a case of 'not seeing the wood for the trees'. For shortly afterward the solution of the riddle was revealed to me – when the supposed Iulia let her breasts pop out of the corset, clasping my unsuspecting genitals with a firm hand.
My mouth opened even wider. Being an idiot Ihad bought a prostitute with my four aces, not information. Meanwhile, she dragged my shocked body onto one of the beds.
"You must be a shy one," she giggled.
Faster than I could think, her hand had already found its way into my pants. It was high time to act! With a little more force than necessary, I pushed the lady away. She bounced against the wall where the bed stood.
"Ow! You brute!"
"Sorry," I started, "but this whole thing is a misunderstanding. I don't want to sleep with you! I'm just looking for a young woman named Iulia."
She looked at me for a moment, stunned. "How do you know that name? What do you want from her?" she gushed.
As I listened I realized she did know Iulia! Now all I had to do was persuade her to give me some more information. For a moment I toyed with the idea of telling the truth or taking up the story about the inheritance again. Considering the milieu Iulia had apparently fallen into, the latter seemed more motivating to me.
"I really need to talk to her. It’s about the Pericles’ estate. He left her a large sum of money."
Her eyes widened. "He did that!? So he really loved me!"
Aha - Veneria and Iulia were one and the same person! At that moment an idea occurred to me – quite a brilliant one, if I say so myself.
"There is only one problem," I began. "The family won't give you the money because they're convinced you had something to do with his death."
She backed up a little. "Me? No! I didn't have anything to do with it!"
I nodded reassuringly. "Of course not, but you were there - you know what really happened. All you have to do is tell me and I'll sort it out."
Actually, it was a little mean to trick the poor thing like that, wasn't it? Well, come on... it's a murder investigation for Christ’s sake!
However, Instead of gushing out the truth, Iulia moved back even further. "No," she shook her head violently, "I can't. I'd rather be a poor whore than a dead rich one."
She got up and made preparations to leave the room. Her breasts were still hanging out of her corset.
I held her by the arm. "Wait! You can trust me. I'll protect you."
She shook her head. "No, you can't protect me, whoever you are. He would kill me." Her voice sounded frightened. "They are too powerful!" she hissed.
She broke free and escaped through the door.
I stayed in the room for a while.
'They are too powerful' - that sounded like a conspiracy of illuminative proportions.
It was already a little later in the afternoon when I finally finished with the errands I had been asked to do. As I arrived back at the practice I almost collided with a patient who had stepped out from the front door. In the hallway, two more people were sitting on the narrow bench that served as a waiting area. I hardly noticed them, as my thoughts were still on my meeting with Iulia.
"There you are!" Thalis greeted me when I entered the practice. There was a mixture of anger and relief in his voice. "I was beginning to worry! You don't usually take this long at the market."
I put the supplies down and mumbled something about "a lot of traffic" and "a big rush" to justify my late arrival. Thalis didn't look very convinced, but he didn’t inquire further.
"Where's Gregory?" I asked, to change the subject quickly. He wasn't in the practice.
"Making house calls. The ones you were supposed to be doing.“
Shit. I knew I had forgotten something. "Sorry, Thalis. I'll leave right away if you want."
He beckoned me over. "No, Phillip, just..." Thalis pulled me towards him. His mouth found mine and he gave me an intense kiss.
"I'm glad you're back," he said, stroking my cheek with his hand.
I nodded and smiled at him calmly. He then proceeded to put an arm around me and began to pull me onto the table. I pushed him away, however.
"What is this, Thalis? I'm not going to enjoy myself in here with you while two more patients wait outside!"
He made an indefinable noise and let go of me. I looked at him, but he averted his gaze. We stood there in silence for a while. Then he went outside to fetch the next patient.
I was left with mixed feelings. Thalis leaned heavily on me at an emotional level, especially now after Alexios’ death. I could understand that... but where would it lead?
It was a few days later when I took the stairs to the third floor to pay the merchant Frugi a visit. Not much had happened since. The daily rut took up most of my time with errands, house calls, and assisting in the practice.
I used the time when I lay in bed at night to sort my thoughts. Iulia's reaction went through my mind again and again. It was clear that she had been an eyewitness to the horrible incident. Her words were therefore to be interpreted with caution. It was also likely that the murderer had urged her very strongly to keep quiet, or to tell the story about the accident.
Nevertheless, there was something enlightening in her words 'they are too powerful'. There didn't have to be a conspiracy behind it. Though it meant that the murderer had not acted alone and perhaps he had not acted from his own motives either, but on order.
Unfortunately, these findings neither made things easier nor did they bring me much closer to the truth. There was still no evidence that the murders of Pericles and Alexios were connected.Besides, it would have been a lie claiming that Iulia's words had not intimidated me at least a little. I therefore often asked myself whether it still made sense to continue investigating. On the other hand, I had the feeling that it would be cowardly and just as dangerous not to get to the bottom of it.In the end I had made a decision. I would put the case of Pericles aside and in the case of Alexios I would follow the one remaining lead I had. If nothing significant came up, I would drop the investigation for good.
I knocked on the door of the merchant whose advice I wanted to get. Frugi opened shortly afterwards, greeting me in his jovial manner.
"Ah, Phillip, do come in! A colleague of my profession - even if he's off duty like you - is always welcome."
With these inviting words, I entered his apartment. As with our apartment below, one entered directly into the living and dining room. However, the furniture was more opulent up here. Two large tapestries decorated the room. One represented Greek, the other one Arabic motives. The usual couches were grouped around an elegant wooden table. On it, instead of a simple oil lamp, there was an elaborate piece made of silver. You could see that the merchant used these rooms for business and wanted to present well.
Frugi was the epitome of hospitality, quite contrary to his name. Before I knew it, I already had a glass of wine in one hand and a small bite to eat in the other. He would certainly have been able to sell a raincoat to a desert dweller, or a vacuum cleaner.
I was not in the mood for small talk though. I had a specific question for the merchant. So I came straight to the point.
"Thank you Frugi, for your readiness to help. When Alexios... passed away, you told us to come to you if we needed anything. In fact, there is something I could use your advice on."
Frugi nodded attentively and gestured for me to take a seat.
"Please, Phillip. I'll help in any way I can."
I took a linen cloth out of my pocket, unrolling the object contained in it. I laid it on the table. It was the dagger with which Alexios had been murdered.
Frugi sucked in the air through his teeth. "Is this... what I think it is?"
I nodded. "Yes, this is the dagger that was thrust into Alexios' heart. My question is, can you tell me anything useful about it?"
Frugi stared at the weapon for a while. Then he looked at me, his forehead furrowed.
"Phillip, I don't know... are you sure you want to go down this path? Research of this sort often leads to more misfortunes."
I resisted his gaze. "I have followed this path for some time, Frugi. Unfortunately, so far with only moderate success. So if there's anything you can do to help me, I'd be very grateful."
The merchant sighed and took up the dagger carefully. He looked at it from all sides.
"Handcrafted in an exemplary manner," he commented. "The design corresponds to the latest fashion. It's not more than a year old."
I pointed out the engraving. "Do you know what this number means?"
Frugi got up and went over to the window. He held the dagger against the light to be able to read the engraving better.
"M I I," he said. "Well, Phillip, that's not a number. It's the initials of the armorer who made the dagger."
My heart was beating faster. "Do you know who that is?" I breathed.
"Marcus Iulius Iustus. He has his shop not far from the Colosseum on Via Spirenca. I've done business with him from time to time. He's an agreeable man."
Finally, a viable lead!
I quickly took the dagger back. "Thank you, Frugi. That helps me a lot!"
I was already turning to leave when the merchant held me back once more. "Please Phillip, be careful," he warned me forcefully. "Only the well-to-do can afford such a dagger and these people tend to have little scruples.”