The next morning Albanus found himself summoned to Centurion Curtius’s whitewashed office at an hour he had rarely seen since being invalided out of military service.
“Enquiries as to the identity of a murderer,” announced the centurion from beyond a desk that looked as if it was cowering in front of him. “I’m told you’ve offered to help because you’ve done this sort of thing before.”
Albanus’s body stood to attention on the bare floorboards while his mind ran in circles, searching in vain for a tactful way to explain that the volunteering had been entirely Virana’s idea. “I’ve assisted once or twice, sir,” he said. “Back when I was a clerk to Medicus Gaius Petreius Ruso with the Twentieth Legion.”
“Never heard of him. What’s the procedure?”
What WAS the procedure? Was there one? Albanus stared down at the inkstains on his own fingers and tried to think what the Medicus would have done. All that came to mind was the sensation of hurrying down blind alleys and blundering about in confusion until something became clear. Usually with no official support or interest whatsoever. “Examine the body, sir?”
“Yes, sir.” Then what? “Perhaps examine the scene, sir?”
“There’s nothing on the clifftop, and the tide’s washed away anything underneath. Next?”
“Er—talk to anyone who was there or who might have seen something? Ask around to see if the victim had any enemies?” Mercifully, although Albanus’s memory had gone blank, his mouth seemed to be carrying on offering this common-sense advice without it.
The centurion grunted. “Did you see that ship go down?”
“I did, sir.”
“And how many people would you say were there watching it?”
Albanus swallowed. “Perhaps two hundred, sir?”
“I don’t think having a chat to everyone is going to work here, do you?”
Curtius planted his hands on the desk and leaned forward so that his bald patch appeared behind the tuft of hair that concealed it from the front. “Here in the Third Tungrians,” he said, “we don’t have the luxury of lots of spare men.”
This was not the time to point out that not only was there no procedure, but that the Medicus could rarely call on anyone other than Albanus. Unless you counted his wife, which if you were wise, you wouldn’t.
“Most of my men,” the centurion continued, “are busy putting the roof on the new granary. Because right now, several thousand other men are marching north to start the new season’s build on the emperor’s wall, and every one of them is going to want feeding well before the harvest comes in.”
“So we’ll have to hope that the next grain ship doesn’t sink, because having that number of soldiers stealing food from the locals all along the border will make yesterday’s fight at the funeral look like lunch with your maiden aunt.”
“Yes, sir.” Albanus had the impression that the centurion was giving the speech he would dearly love to have given yesterday when the prefect had ordered him to take on the extra task of deciding who had murdered Simmias. Albanus was as sympathetic as it was possible to be at this hour of the morning. While every fort was alleged to hold twelve months’ worth of grain supplies, making sure the troops and the food were in the same place was a challenge that nobody cared about until things went wrong and everybody looked for someone to blame. A man the size of Curtius would make a fine target.
“If somebody saw who attacked the baker,” Curtius continued, “they should have mentioned it by now. But just in case, we’ll put up a reward for ‘information leading to a conviction’. That way we don’t have to pay out unless it actually goes somewhere.” The centurion’s “So, how’s that?” trailed the unspoken, ‘…for a much better idea than anything from your fancy legion?’
Albanus took a deep breath. “That would certainly bring people in, sir.”
“So what’s wrong with it?”
Had the tuft of hair shifted slightly forward as the centurion scowled, or had Albanus imagined it? “Sir, the Medicus tried that. I can’t remember it being a great success. It made a lot of work sifting through contradictory information, some of it mischievous and some from people who were really quite, ah—quite unconnected to the real world.”
The tuft of hair made a small, but perceptible, retreat. “Good point. Forget the reward. We’ll put out an announcement saying we want information straight away and anyone found to be withholding it will be flogged.”
“Then we’ll talk to the people who might actually know something, and bring in all the possible suspects.”
Albanus was very much hoping the “we” who would bring in the suspects referred to the Third Tungrians, and not to Centurion Curtius and himself.
“I don’t suppose your Medicus did that, did he?
“He wouldn’t have had the authority, sir.”
“No.” The centurion straightened up. “That’s the difference between my method and his. We’ll lock them all up separately and bring in the questioners with some equipment. Come back here when I’ve finished morning briefing and I’ll give you your orders.”
The scowl reappeared. “What?”
“People will say anything if they’re frightened, sir.”
“Even if it’s not true, sir. There’s often no quick way to get to the bottom of this sort of thing.”
“Certainly not your way,” Curtius agreed. “You sound like one of those Greek philosophers. Arguing both ends against the middle and ending up sitting in a cave all day doing nothing. That’s no good to me. The prefect wants the civilians calmed down and somebody arrested by tomorrow evening.”
Albanus suddenly saw a way to offer genuine help. “Perhaps it would help calm the civilians if they weren’t short of bread, sir. If arrangements could be made to re-open the bakery—”
“Surely there’s more than one bread supplier out there?”
“The other shops borrow the bakery’s ovens, sir.” Not for the first time, Albanus was struck by how little those in authority understood the lives of those who had to live under it.
“I’ll see to it, Curtius promised. “And let’s not waste time. While I’m briefing my men, you can go across and see if that injured woman is still in the infirmary. Find out what she has to say and report back to me.”
“Surely you haven’t got a lesson to take at this hour, have you?”
Albanus had to agree that no, he hadn’t. And having agreed this point, it was very hard to see how he could then refuse to obey the order that Centurion Curtius had no authority to give.
As he made his way back to his room Albanus found he was grappling with mixed feelings about Curtius. The man had now involved him in a plan to arrest somebody tomorrow for the crime of murdering Simmias the baker even if they couldn’t find the person who had committed it. On the other hand, there was something reassuring about the utter confidence of the centurion’s wrongness. Albanus hoped this wasn’t going to end as badly as he feared.