Albanus must have drifted off to sleep, because when someone banged on the door and shouted, “Are you all right in there?” it took him a moment to work out where he was. Sorry!” he called. “I was asleep.” He rolled out of bed, stumbled across the room and was alarmed to find that he was trapped. “Something’s wrong with my door!”
“I’ll try,” suggested the man on the other side. “Stand back.” The door trembled and the latch jiggled about, but to no avail.
“Wait!” called Albanus. “I think I can do it from—ah!” He leapt back as the door burst open.
“Centurion wants to see you,” announced his visitor. “And you want to get that latch looked at.”
“I will,” Albanus promised, closing the door and bending to retrieve the mangled remains of the wooden pen that he himself—as he now remembered— had shoved into the latch so that he wouldn’t be disturbed. Still, at least the headache had cleared. And now he recalled that he had something potentially interesting to tell Centurion Curtius about the murder enquiry.
The centurion, however, had an announcement of his own. “This murder,” he said, settling back into an alarmingly flimsy chair and leaning back with his hands behind his head. “No need to go around questioning half the neighbourhood. I’ve found out who did it. That’s the value of selecting your targets, see?”
Albanus blinked. “Sir?”
“I should have guessed,” the man continued. “It’s always the women who cause the trouble.”
“It was a woman, sir?”
“Or a man acting on her behalf.”
It was not clear whether Curtius was being cryptic because the murderer’s identity was a secret, or because he was enjoying gloating. Either way, Albanus was not going to indulge him. “So was it the wife, sir?”
“The wife?” The tuft of hair on top of the centurion’s forehead shifted forward with the scowl. “No. She was at home all night with a six-year old and a baby with a cough. Besides, now he’s dead she’s lost her means of support. People are shouting at her in the street demanding bread. This morning I had a couple of my men help her clear her things out and take her back to her own people. It’s not her.”
In the pause that followed Albanus wondered briefly if the mother-of-six might be involved, then thought of the battered butcher’s wife and the one with the ginger hair who had allegedly started the fight at the funeral. None seemed an especially likely candidate.
“You won’t guess,” the centurion told him as if he had been listening to Albanus’s thoughts. “I’ve uncovered someone new. Former member of staff with a grudge.”
“A woman, sir?” Had Virana mentioned a woman with a grudge? He couldn’t remember.
“Turned out to be a bit loose with her favours. Tried to get her claws into the husband. When they got rid of her she told everyone Simmias had groped her.”
Albanus swallowed. Curtius’s chief suspect wasn’t someone Virana might have mentioned. It was Virana herself. “But if she’d already left, sir, why would she bother to—”
“She had a grudge against the wife, see? You’d be amazed what goes through these women’s heads. ‘If I can’t have him, nor can you.’ That sort of thing. You can’t reason with them.” Curtius lowered his hands and leaned forward. “Turns out she’d lost the job, but she was still living there on the night of the murder.”
“She can’t have been that bad, sir, or they’d have thrown her out completely.”
“They wanted to. But the wife was too soft-hearted. The girl gave her some sob story about having no family around here and nowhere to go.”
“Sir, I’m really not sure—”
“Anyway—and this is the interesting bit—the wife heard a man in the girl’s room on the night of the murder.”
Albanus gulped. How could he have been fool enough to think they hadn’t been heard? The sounds of mother and baby coughing in the room downstairs had been clear enough.
“When the wife got up next morning her husband hadn’t come home and both the man and the girl were gone. See? Under the cover of all that confusion at the shipwreck, the girl got the man to murder the baker for her, and then they both went back to his house to rub the wife’s nose in it.”
“Ah! You know the name?”
“Virana works in the prefect’s kitchen, sir, she—”
“Not now she doesn’t. So far she’s refused to name the man. But she’ll think differently when the questioner gets here tomorrow. Then we’ll—”
“No, sir!” Albanus’s shout was so loud that for a moment the centurion stared at him in astonishment. Albanus himself could barely believe what he had just done. He heard footsteps in the corridor and guessed men were poised outside for a summons to come and take him away.
“Sir,” Albanus repeated at a more acceptable volume. “Virana is not the person we’re looking for. Please may I speak? There are some things I need to tell you.”