Londinium, Britannia in August AD 75. Falco reflects on his role in the greater scheme of things:
Hilaris was the important one here. He was the procurator of finance in Britain. To put it in perspective, I was a procurator myself but my role—which involved theoretical oversight of the Sacred Geese of Juno—was one of a hundred thousand meaningless honours handed out by the Emperor when he owed someone a favour and was too mean to pay in cash. Vespasian reckoned my services had cost enough, so he settled up remaining debts with a joke. That was me: Marcus Didius Falco, The Imperial Clown.
Well, perhaps this Imperial Clown is the best clown for the job at hand; for when Falco arrives in Londinium, things go awry. Bodies appear, threat comes when none is expected, and as usual, Falco presence begins to expose pre-existing weakness and deceit.
Petro turns out to be engaged in a clandestine activity, seeking nefarious criminals who have fled Rome for Londinium, ripe for protection rackets and general thuggery and heavy leaning on existing territory. There being no Imperial Fort in Londinium, the crims seem to have got their way with some of the centuries in order to effect certain lapses of discipline, “little accidents” or unfortunate escape of prisoners, shall we say. Some of the centurions are on another payroll as well, it would seem.
Now then, Verovolcus, the former right-hand man of King Togidubnus of Noviomagus, is found drowned in a wine barrel now doing duty as a well lining. Falco must investigate, as he was responsible for the resolution of issues around Verovolcus in Noviomagus; banishment to Gaul for a period of five years. What was Verovolcus doing in London, and why was he dead?
To answer to that question, we must meet the official torturer, Amicus, a butcher by trade. Amicus is torturer for Sextus Julius Frontinus, Governor of the Britannia Province. Use of torture was not unknown in Roman times, and it has been alleged that the Chief Spy Anacrites used it often, in cohort with the Praetorian Guard in Rome. Londininum was a fledgling capital and Britannia was about to undergo massive reorganisation under the sure hand of Frontinus during his term as Governor. With no fort, no legion and no vigiles to investigate and conduct enquiries, perhaps the Governor and his staff of the time had little option but to resort to such strategies.
Falco and his wife Helena investigate Londinium and discover extortion rackets terrorising the town when a fire breaks out at a bakery. The fire sparks memories of the sacking of the city fifteen years ago by the Iceni, which Londinium is just beginning to recover from. The Roman general Gaius Suetonius Paulinus had decided to sacrifice Londinium to preserve Roman control of the province as a whole, and after the sack, the city was quickly rebuilt as a planned Roman town.
Britannia was not without its problems for the legions. There had been the Boudicean Revolt, and the disgrace of the II Augusta, of which both Falco and Petro had been members. The Legio Principa was cause of that disgrace, and had been disposed of privately by the assembled centuries. Leadership in Britannia had been difficult, and the Army had run the province by ‘committee’ for some time, clandestine until “discovered”.
While Falco may be Paterfamilias, Helena Justina decides to take in a street urchin, one Albia, to give her a home and a life. Albia feigns an inability to talk, which leads Falco to Petro’s stakeout and (painfully) to an old lover from his past, one Chloris. Albia is returned to the nest with the other children, and Falco, struck dumb by the enraged Helena Justina, watches as Petro’s love life is sorted once and for all.
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Roman House, Londinium …