'Laecus?' Cato stood over the man, his nose wrinkling at the stench of wine and sweat. A cloak was bundled on to the bench beside Laecus and the gangmaster wore a sleeveless tunic of soft leather stained and worn through years of hard work down at the harbour. Laecus didn't stir, and Cato leaned forward and shook the man's shoulder; a mass of muscle and tattoos. 'Laecus…'
The gangmaster grumbled softly and his eyes flickered for a moment before his lips puffed out in a slow belch. Cato winced as the stale fumes of wine and garlic wafted up to him. 'Nice.'
He took a firm grip on the man's shoulder and shook him firmly. 'Laecus! Wake up, man!'
'Gerroff.' Laecus flapped a hand at Cato, waving him away. 'Leave me be, you bastard. Can' you see I'm fucken 'sleep?'
'No, you're not.' Cato shook him again, more forcefully.'I have to speak to you. Sit up!' He looked back towards the counter. 'A pitcher of water over here!'
While he waited for the barman to return, Cato let go of Laecus and the gangmaster slid back into his stupor, mumbling incoherently as the centurion wrinkled his nose. The barman emerged from the back room and crossed over to Cato with a pitcher and two cups. He set them down on the table beside Laecus.
'Shall I pour, sir?'
'Yes, all of it.'
The barman glanced at the cups and frowned.
'Not in the cups, you bloody fool! On him! Empty all of it on him.'
The barman slowly grinned. 'Oh! I get it.'
He gripped the jug carefully, took aim and upended it, releasing a torrent over the gangmaster's head. As soon as the pitcher was empty the barman backed away, hurrying out of range. Laecus jerked up, spluttering in confusion and anger.
'What the fuck…?' His eyes glanced round and fixed on Cato. 'Here! What are you-'
'Quiet!' Cato snapped. 'Just sit still and answer my questions.'
'Sit still?' He laughed. 'No. I'm going to take your head off, you little gobshite!'
Laecus lurched round, sweeping a huge arm across the top of the table and sending the cups flying across the room and to shatter against the wall. But before he could rise from the bench Cato had stepped back and, with a weary sigh of resignation, drew his sword again.
'Easy, there! Sit down.'
Laecus paused for a moment, eyes narrowing as he took in the sword and then the young man standing behind the blade. With the water dripping from the straggling locks plastered on to his scalp, Laecus swiftly sobered up enough to know he was at a disadvantage. He dropped back on to the bench and leaned away from Cato, resting his back against the cracked plaster on the wall.
'All right,' Cato nodded.'Now that I have your attention, I need to ask you some questions. Does the name Anobarbus mean anything to you?'
'Anobarbus?' The gangmaster raised a fist and rubbed his chin as he considered the question. 'Never heard of him.'
'Try harder,' Cato growled. 'An older bloke. Bit thin. Trades in art and sculpture.'
'I might know him,' Laecus said slowly. 'What's in it for me?'
'Not being held for questioning down at the navy base.' Cato gave him a thin smile. 'It'd be better for you to freely answer my questions here, rather than let my men knock the answers out of you. Now then, do you know of this man?'
'All right. Let me think… This Anobarbus, arrived in the port a few days back?'
'Sounds like the man I'm looking for. Done any work for him?'
'You know anyone who has?'
'Laecus, you're going to have to do better than this if you don't want a few painful hours alone with my men. Do I make myself clear?' Cato stared into his eyes, and the other man glanced down.
'Clear enough, sir. Yes, I know him. It's my business to know him and any other traders and merchants who pass through the port. Soon as I heard there was a new man in Ravenna I went to see him.'
A sudden thought struck Cato. When the merchant had entered the port he had been part of a military convoy and had not paid the toll, or had to register his name and business. 'How did you hear about him?'
'Easy enough. Anobarbus has been in and out of town on business a few times since he first arrived. I have a boy who waits by the town gate. He makes enquiries about any visitor who might be of interest to me. Usual details: name, trade and lodgings.'
'Anyway, Anobarbus seemed like a good prospect, so I went and visited the address my boy gave me for his lodgings.'
'What do you know of Anobarbus' business?'
Laecus shrugged and rubbed his bleary eyes. 'Not sure, exactly. He claims to deal in statues, urns, pots, furniture. Good-quality stuff. So he said.'
'You've seen any of this merchandise?'
'A few pieces. He rented space in my cousin's warehouse to store the stuff. Local purchases from local towns. Nothing spectacular, you understand.' Laecus flashed a grin. 'This is the arse-end of Italy. Too far away and too dull for the taste of your millionaires back in Rome. Antiques are different. Their agents have been out here for years scouring the place for old bits and bobs. They've pretty much cleared the area out and have moved on to Greece and Asia looking for stuff to ship back to their clients.'
Cato scratched his chin. 'So why's Anobarbus still here?'
Laecus looked at him in surprise. 'Same reason every other merchant is laid up in town. Them pirates. As it happens he's waiting for his ship to come in, loaded with statues from Greece.'
'This ship have a name?'
Laecus nodded. 'The Priapus. Tough old bird. Slow but sturdy.'
'You know her?'
'Yes. The captain's a cousin of mine. She was expected to return a month ago.'
'Think the pirates might have taken her?'
'Maybe. But Cassius is a safe enough pair of hands. If I know him, he's holed up in a port and drinking himself stupid while the weather improves and hoping that you lot get your arses together and sort them pirates out.'
Cato's expression stiffened at the jibe. Then he nodded at the empty wine jug on the far side of the table. 'I see. You and your family drink while my men die. That's how it is, eh?'
Laecus looked at him, warily noting the cold expression in Cato's eyes. 'No disrespect, sir, but that's what you get paid for.'
That was true enough, Cato reflected, and the man was within his rights to imply that the fleet was falling down on the job. He shrugged the thought aside and refocused. So Anobarbus had some proof that he was what he had claimed to be. Still, it might be a useful cover for a man who was in the area on another purpose. Cato looked up at the gangmaster.
'As far as you know, has Anobarbus visited Ravenna before?'
'Maybe.' Laecus ran a hand through his cropped hair. 'I wouldn't know. We get so many people passing through.'
'Do you know where he's staying?'
Laecus nodded. 'Nice digs, he's got himself. House guest of Rufius Pollo, one of the council members.'
'I know him,' Cato smiled thinly. 'We met earlier. Seems that our friend Anobarbus has some useful local connections. Where does this Rufius Pollo live?'
Laecus waved a hand vaguely.'Over by the pump house.'
'Right. You can take me there. Up you get.'
Laecus turned his eyes to Cato and shook his head. 'Not till I'm done with my drinking.'
Cato nodded at the empty wine jug. 'You've done with that, already. Come on. Up!'
Laecus didn't move. He stared back at Cato for a moment, then sniffed.'All right. What's it worth?'
'Another jug, and the satisfaction of knowing that you have provided loyal service to the Emperor,' Cato smiled, then jerked his thumb towards the door. 'Let's go.'
It was close to midnight when they reached the council leader's house. The town had quietened down and they had met only a handful of people hurrying through the dark maze of Ravenna's streets. By the time they reached the more affluent quarter centred on the pump house where the water pressure was high enough to run fountains, the narrow passages had opened out into wider thoroughfares. Almost at once the two men bumped into a patrol of the watch, but once Cato revealed his identity and rank, the watch let them pass and tramped on down the middle of the street, hobnails echoing off the high walls and giving ample warning to any criminals in their path to make a run for it.
The house of Rufius Pollo had the usual understated exterior of an affluent Roman townhouse. Blank plastered walls stretched out each side of a heavily studded wood door. The faint sound of voices drifted over the wall, and just audible between the muffled chatter and trills of laughter, the gentle notes of a flute.
'There you go.' Laecus muttered. 'Now let's have the money. Price of a jar of wine, you said.' He did a quick calculation, then doubled the result and held out a hand.'Six sestertians should do.'
Cato brushed the hand to one side.'Not until after we've finished our business.'
He strode up to the door and rapped the iron knocker twice. Almost at once the watchman's inspection slot rattled open and a pair of eyes scrutinised them from the interior.
'What's your business at this time of night?' Before Cato could respond the man glanced over their clothes and continued in the same breath. 'Better make yourselves scarce, before I call the watch down on you.'
'Better not,' Cato replied. 'You'd only embarrass your master. Tell Rufius Pollo that the acting commander of the naval base wants to see him.'
The doorkeeper cast his eyes over Cato once again, more searchingly this time.'Acting commander? Acting drummer boy, more like. Be off with you!'
Cato slammed his fist against the side of the inspection slot, making the doorkeeper jump. 'I am Centurion Gaius Licinius Cato, senior officer present at the fleet of Ravenna. I demand to see Rufius Pollo, in the name of the Emperor! Now!'
The doorkeeper stared back at him for a moment, before grumbling. 'Wait there.' He closed the inspection slot and left Cato and Laecus staring at the door. Cato felt embarrassed at the slight to his authority and at first he refused to turn and meet the gaze of the gangmaster, fearing that the man would not hide his amusement at Cato's display of hubris. Instead Cato turned away and looked up at the sky. Most of the clouds had cleared and the pitch-black depths of the heavens were scattered with the glitter of tiny stars.
'Should be good weather tomorrow,' Cato said casually. 'A calm day for the crossing.'
'Maybe.' Laecus spat into the gutter.'Maybe not. Weather changes at the drop of a hat in this season.'
'Really?' Cato glanced at his companion. 'That's a comforting thought the night before a voyage.'
The gangmaster started scratching his backside absentmindedly. 'Wouldn't go back to sea, even for good money. Well, maybe for really good money… The sea's a whimsy bastard.'
Cato raised his eyebrows. 'Colourful. I take it you once had something to do with the sea. Some trade? A sailor perhaps.'
'A sailor, all right.' Laecus stared up at the stars and shuddered.
'Why did you give it up?'
'Too fond of life. That is to say, too fond of drinking to give up life. The sea's no place for a man. It ain't natural. Leave it to the fish, and the demons that live under the surface.'
Cato stared at him, and saw a deep-rooted fear in the man's face for the first time that evening.
Laecus coughed to clear his throat and tried to sound calm. 'Demons, yes. And pirates. This lot have been the worst. Picking off ships, killing the crews, or taking them for slaves, and then vanishing. And every time the navy has tried to track them down they've failed. Like they knew when and where the fleet was going to appear. Must be some kind of magic involved.'
'Or just good intelligence,' Cato suggested.
With a sharp rattle of a drawn bolt the door was unlocked and swung silently inwards on well-oiled hinges. The entrance hall was dark, but bright lights burned at the end of a long, high-ceilinged corridor that opened out into a garden courtyard. The doorkeeper waved them inside and locked the door behind them.
'This way please, sir. The master will see you at his table.'
Cato paused. 'At his table? There's no need for that. He can be discreet if he wants. I don't mean to disturb his entertainment.'
'But you have already, sir.' The doorkeeper bowed his head. 'Now, if you please?'
'Very well. Laecus, you wait here. Doorkeeper!'
The doorkeeper turned round again, fighting to keep an irritated expression off his face. 'Yes, sir?' He responded testily.
'Bring this man a jug of wine.'
The doorkeeper's eyebrows rose in surprise at the temerity of such an order and then he smiled obsequiously. 'I'll see what refreshment can be arranged for your man, once I've taken care of you, sir.'
The doorkeeper turned away, paused an instant to glance back in case there was anything else, and then led Cato down the corridor. They strode past walls hung with rich tapestries that deadened the sounds of their footsteps. Neat busts of what Cato assumed were members of the family peered out from shallow niches at regular intervals.
They emerged from the corridor into a large peristyled garden, replete with statues and topiary, wavering slowly under the glow of hundreds of lamps hanging from the trellises that stretched across the garden. It was early spring and a large number of braziers glowed amongst the party-goers, adding their smoke to the thin greasy eddies rolling off the tiny flames of the lamps. A large dining room looked out over the garden and many more tables extended from the seating area. Richly dressed guests were draped over the benches. The meal was over and the last of the plates and serving dishes were being collected by household slaves who neither spoke nor dared to meet the eyes of the guests in their effort to remain invisible. Many of the guests had left their tables and wandered about the garden talking in the loud, thoughtless manner of those who had drunk too much and relaxed their guard without thinking. A small group of musicians stood to one side of the tables, and were setting down their instruments as Cato passed by.
He glanced around at the guests, looking for Anobarbus, but the merchant was nowhere in sight.
Cato looked towards the head of the table and saw Rufius Pollo rising up into a sitting position, arm raised to gain Cato's attention. 'Over here! Come and join me.'
Squeezing through a group of excited teenagers, Cato made his way towards the host of the party and nodded his greeting. Pollo patted the vacant seat to his left and beckoned to one of his slaves at the same time.
Cato sat down on the edge of the dining couch. 'Nice house you have here, Rufius Pollo.'
Pollo smiled modestly. 'Oh, I'm sure it's as nothing compared to the houses of Rome.'
'Nothing?' Cato shook his head.'It would compare most favourably, I assure you.'
'You're very kind,' Pollo replied civilly. 'I'm afraid you've missed the banquet, but I'll have my man see if there's anything left you can have.'
Cato waved a hand. 'Most kind. But no thank you. I've already eaten.'
'You're sure? Very well then.' Pollo clicked his fingers and thrust a long bony finger at the slave and waved him away. At once the slave dipped his head, backed away two steps and turned to scurry off.
'What's the big occasion?' Cato asked.
'Big occasion?' Pollo chuckled mirthlessly. 'Why, Centurion, in a way I suppose we're celebrating – if that could possibly be the word – your decision to leave us at the mercy of the pirates. One last feast to use up my best stores before my family and I leave Ravenna and head for the shelter of our estate inland. Far inland.'
'Don't you think that's a little alarmist?' Cato asked quietly.
'You think so?' Pollo laughed. 'Do you know how many such gatherings are taking place tonight? By this time tomorrow, I'd be surprised if more than a third of the households in this quarter of the port will still be here. Who can blame them? Not one marine will remain to stand between them and the pirates when they come.'
'If they come.'
'When they come,' Pollo repeated firmly. 'How could they resist?'
'And you won't be alone. I'm leaving a century of marines in the naval base.'
'To protect the base,' Pollo responded shrewdly. 'Not us. In fact, I imagine you're leaving them behind to protect the base from us…'
Cato ignored the jibe, and continued speaking calmly. 'None the less, they will remain and if we're lucky they might just fool Telemachus and his pirates into believing that Ravenna is adequately defended.'
'I doubt it'll take him long to see through that sham.'
'Really?' Cato watched Rufius Pollo closely.'What makes you think that? Why should Telemachus suspect?'
'Come now, Centurion. I'm old. I'm not a fool. Someone's been feeding information to the pirates about almost every move the fleet has made. That's no secret…' He looked down at the ground and shook his head, before glancing back at Cato with a forced smile. 'Anyway, I'm failing in my duty as a host. How may I help you?'
For a moment Cato stared back at Pollo, wondering how much the man really knew about the pirates' source of information. Pollo would hardly dare to drop open hints to a man with hundreds of marines at his command. Except Cato was alone and the marines might as well be in another province at that instant. He suddenly felt vulnerable, even here, amid scores of guests, and he looked round quickly and saw that a handful of Pollo's companions were watching them closely.
Pollo smiled at the centurion's discomfort. 'As I said, is there anything I can do for you, before you leave my house?'
'Who said I was leaving?'
'Trust me. You will be, very shortly.'
'All right. Tell me one thing. I'm looking for someone. A friend. I was told he was staying here, as your guest.'
'Well,' Rufius Pollo stretched out his arms, 'as you can see, I have more guests than you can wave a stick at, although some of these miscreants do actually have homes to go to. What is your friend's name?'
Pollo's eyes betrayed a flicker of surprise at the name, then he composed his features and tipped his head slightly to one side. He stared intently at the centurion for a moment and then lowered his voice as he leaned forward to speak to Cato. 'A friend, you say? If I was to ask you what the blind man seeks, what would you reply?'
Cato frowned. He hadn't the slightest idea about the merchant's family, and was surprised at the strangeness of the question. He shook his head.
'I've no idea. Blind man? What do you mean?'
'It's nothing.' Pollo's gaze flickered to one side, and he gestured towards the hall that led to the entrance.'Anobarbus was here. He left early in the evening. Long before you arrived.'
'Where did he go?'
'I don't know.'
'I see.' Cato paused before he continued.'Might I ask you to explain how he came to be a guest in your house?'
'Simple enough. We have friends in common back in Rome. They told him to look me up when he arrived in Ravenna.'
'Just friends.' Pollo smiled. 'Tell me, Centurion, do you suspect Anobarbus of some crime?'
'Did I say that?'
'No. But I find it strange that you are conducting enquiries at this time of night. Why do you want to find Anobarbus? Do you suspect him of some crime? Some treachery?'
Cato paused before replying. 'I only want to eliminate him from my list of suspects.'
Pollo flinched. 'You have a list?'
'I can't disclose official information.'
'I see…' Pollo leaned back, keeping his eyes fixed on Cato. He affected a yawn. 'Now, I'm afraid you really must go. You've quite exhausted my hospitality. My men will show you out.'
'No need.' Cato stood and backed off a few paces. 'I know the way. I bid you good night, Rufius Pollo. Until we meet again.'
'We won't.' Pollo shook his head, and waved towards a pair of burly-looking slaves lurking at the back of the dining room, and discreetly pointed at the centurion. Cato turned away and walked quickly towards the corridor. He glanced back and saw that the slaves were doing their best to keep up as they pushed through the guests crowding the dining room. As soon as he was clear of them Cato ran down the corridor, ignoring the surprised expressions of the guests who turned towards the sound of running feet on the tessellated floor.
'Laecus!' he called out. 'Get up! We're leaving.'
Ahead of him the vague mass of the gangmaster emerged from the shadows, a small jug of wine in one hand.
'What's up, sir?'
'Get the door open!'
Cato threw himself forward and by the time Laecus had caught the sense of urgency the centurion thudded into the door beside him, fingers groping for the thick iron bolt that secured it. Behind them sandled feet padded down the corridor. With a grating rasp they worked the bolt and heaved the door inwards.
'Come on!' Cato shouted, shoving Laecus into the street. 'Run!'
They scrambled down the steep steps on to the broad tufa stone paving and started back towards the heart of Ravenna. They were only a short distance down the street when Pollo's men burst out of the house, dagger blades glinting in the wan glow of the light from within.
One of them pointed. 'There!'
'What the hell's happening?' Laecus grunted as he ran beside Cato. The centurion said nothing but gritted his teeth and darted towards the opening of a narrow alley, quickly praying that it wouldn't turn out to be a dead end. The alley was as black as a Parthian's heart, and rubbish had been left in long neglected piles, threatening to trip them up as Cato and Laecus stumbled headlong, desperately trying to gain some ground on their pursuers. They took a turning to the right and ran on, then took another turn, to the left this time, into an even tighter alley that reeked of excrement and rotting vegetation. A short way down the alley Cato could just make out the opening to a small yard and pulled the gangmaster in with him, crouching down behind a small cart.
As they squatted down, lungs straining for breath and ears filled with the pounding of blood, Cato drew his sword and stared through the opening to the yard and into the blackness of the alley beyond. All was still and there was no sign of Pollo's men.
Laecus tugged Cato's tunic. 'Would you mind telling me what the fuck is going on here?'
'Wish I knew,' Cato whispered. 'Keep quiet!'
They waited, but the streets were silent. Once a voice called out, some distance off, and there came a muffled reply, then nothing. Cato waited until he had recovered his breath and his heart beat steadily once again. Even though his body was still, his mind raced as he struggled to deal with the evening's events. His earlier suspicions about Anobarbus seemed to have more weight to them now. But what was the merchant's relationship with Rufius Pollo? The latter clearly feared that Cato was on to him somehow, and wanted the centurion silenced. Were they both selling information to the pirates? Cato frowned. It didn't seem to make much sense. But if Pollo was not dealing with the pirates, and nor was his friend Anobarbus, then who were they working for?
06 The Eagles Prophecy