Back inside the fort and mercifully no longer on horseback, Albanus managed to sprint past the prefect’s house without being seen by anyone who might ask why he wasn’t in there teaching. He passed the building site, where Curtius was standing beside a pile of timber with a couple of his men. Finally reaching the old granary, he ran up the wooden ramp onto the loading platform that had waited in vain for the delivery of wheat from the sunken ship.
The double doors were open, exposing the rows of wooden bays inside. A grey-haired soldier in a work tunic was perched on one of the partitions. Beneath him a small brown and white terrier was tottering on its hind legs, straining to reach whatever was in his outstretched hand.
The man glanced across as Albanus entered. He tossed the scrap in the air and the dog leapt and snapped it up. Then he swung down from the partition and strolled towards the entrance. “Have you got your chit?”
“I don’t want grain, sir. I’m working for Centurion Curtius.”
“And the centurion wants?”
“Some advice,” Albanus explained. “Urgently. He’s investigating the murder of the baker Simmias.”
“Good,” the man observed. “I hope they crucify the bugger who did it. I can’t go out for a quiet drink without people pestering me about bread. Anybody’d think we’d got a magical flour mine in here. You tell them nothing goes out without authority, and they look at you as if you’ve just insulted their mother.”
“They opened the bakery this morning,” Albanus told him. “One loaf per family.”
“What I’m trying to understand,” said Albanus, “Is why the baker would have run out of grain so early in the season. It’s months till harvest. Is there a shortage?”
The man leaned against the nearest wooden upright and folded his arms. “He ran out because we haven’t sent him any. And at a guess, he didn’t like the prices anywhere else.”
Albanus blinked. “We—this granary supplied a commercial baker?” There was something distasteful about the notion of demanding grain from the local farmers as taxes and then passing it back to a man who used it to run a business.
“He paid for it,” The man clearly sensed his unease. “Nothing went out without the prefect’s say-so. Like I said. No chit, no grain.”
“But we stopped the supply?”
“We can’t spare it.” The man nodded towards the rows of wooden grain bins extending away into the gloom. “There’s a lot of empty space down there. Ready for what was on the ship that went down.”
Albanus frowned. “I though every base was supposed to hold twelve months’ supply for all the men in the unit?”
The man grunted. “Sounds easy, don’t it?”
Albanus regretted his tone. “Sorry. I don’t mean to suggest you’re doing anything wrong.”
“The harvest’s different every year. And then they move the men around. And then there’s damp, and insects, and—” The man turned away suddenly and called, “—rats!”
The dog came racing out from behind a partition, kicking up a cloud of dust. “Good boy.” His master tossed something into the air and the dog leapt up again and caught it. “Not so many rats lately…” The man bent down to fuss the dog. “Thanks to Mino here.”
Albanus said, “It’s more complicated than I realised.”
“Things often are.”
“Who handles the payment for the grain?”
The man shrugged. “Not me, mate. I’ve got more than enough to do.”
Albanus had yet to see any evidence for this claim, but perhaps April was the slack season in the granary business. “So,” he said, “How did it work? Simmias would arrive with an authorisation slip of some sort…”
The man reached behind the door and produced a handful of thin wooden slips with spidery writing on them in black ink. “We get sent one of these.”
“You keep them?” Albanus asked, suddenly hopeful.
“Not for the sales.”
His hopes sank again.
“They get taken away. It’s something to do with collecting the money.” The man stopped. “What’s this got to do with murdering the baker?”
“I don’t know,” Albanus confessed. “But I need to find out. Very quickly.”