‘That’s the place,’ Cato muttered as he gestured towards the warehouse. Macro and Septimus were on either side of him as they strolled along the wharf. The same guard who had brusquely rebuffed Cato a few days earlier was sitting on a stool beside the gate. He held a small loaf in one hand and a wizened end of cured sausage in the other and his jaw worked steadily as he stared absentmindedly at the barges moored along the quay opposite the line of warehouses. Despite the lack of grain there were still imports of olive oil, wine, fruit, as well as the usual flow of luxury foods for the richest tables in Rome. All of which fetched prices far beyond the reach of the teeming multitude of the capital’s poorest inhabitants.
A short distance along the wharf from the warehouse of Gaius Frontinus a small crowd of ragged people stood watching the unloading of a barge. Several jars of wine had already been landed and now a chain gang was unloading large baskets of dried dates. The gang master was accompanied by a handful of men armed with cudgels who formed a loose cordon around the goods on the wharf and warily kept an eye on the surrounding crowd.
‘Over there,’ Cato said softly. ‘We won’t stand out in the crowd.’
They made their way over to the fringe of the silent gathering of men and women, some with children, and edged round until they could see the warehouse gate and the guard sitting in front of it. A moment before, Cato had not considered what the man was doing, but now he saw it for what it was, a cold-hearted display of cruelty as he ate while others starved.
‘What are we going to do?’ asked Septimus. ‘We can’t just walk in.’
‘We could,’ Macro growled. ‘There’s three of us and one of him.’
Septimus shook his head. ‘If we force our way in, then word will get back to Cestius soon enough and the Liberators will know that we are on to them. We can’t afford to scare them into hiding. It’s just as important to smash the conspiracy as find the grain. Meanwhile we have to get in there and confirm that the grain is actually inside, and then get out without the alarm being raised.’
Cato scratched his cheek. ‘Won’t be easy. The warehouse is built round a courtyard. The wall facing the wharf is the lowest point. The rest of it is built up against the warehouses on either side and behind. There’s no other way in. We have to go in through the gate, or over the wall. If we try and scale that, we’re bound to be seen by the guard.’
Macro ran his eyes over the warehouse and nodded. ‘You’re right. So what do we do?’
Cato looked round the wharf for a moment before fixing his attention on the men unloading the barge, surrounded by the small crowd. ‘We need a diversion. That’s a job for you, Septimus. While Macro and I get inside the warehouse.’
He quickly explained his plan and then, while Septimus worked his way through the crowd towards the edge of the wharf, Cato and Macro moved off, back in the direction of the Boarium. They took care to keep close to the edge of the Tiber in order not to attract the guard’s attention. There was a small danger that he might remember Cato’s face, even though his coarse features and bovine expression hinted at a mind that was not readily accustomed to the retention of information. Once they had covered a safe distance they stopped and looked out across the moored barges to the leaden flow of the Tiber. Cato glanced towards the crowd and saw Septimus standing close to the gangway leading up from the barge. Cato discreetly raised a hand to give the signal.
Septimus edged forward and waited until one of the slaves carrying the baskets of dried fruit struggled up on to the wharf. Then he darted between two of the gang master’s men and thrust his arms out into the slave’s side. The latter tumbled over, his basket flying through the air until it hit the ground and dates exploded across the wharf. At once the waiting crowd surged forward and down, hands scrabbling to scoop up the dried fruit.
‘Get off! Get back, you bastards!’ the gang master bellowed in rage as he laid into them with his cudgel. He looked up at his men. ‘What are you lot waiting for? Get ‘em away from the goods!’
His men were startled into action and they began to lash out at those scrabbling around on the ground at their feet. In the struggle another basket was knocked over, spilling its contents. An excited cry went up as the starving mob closed in.
Cato glanced quickly over his shoulder and saw that the guard outside the warehouse gate had stopped chewing and stood up to get a better view of the action. His lips lifted into a slight smile of amusement, and then he took a few paces away from his station to watch the frenzied violence as the mob and the gang master’s men fought it out over the spilled barley.
‘Come on!’ Cato tugged Macro’s sleeve and they turned to pad across the wharf to the warehouse wall. The guard had his back to them. He tore off another chunk of bread and continued to eat while watching the spectacle. Beyond the struggle Cato glimpsed Septimus backing away now that he had played his part in the plan. They reached the wall and Macro turned and clasped his hands together and braced himself against the rough bricks. Cato placed his right boot in Macro’s hands and as his friend began to lift, Cato straightened his leg and reached up, fingers seeking purchase as he rose up the wall.
‘Get me higher.’
Macro grunted with effort as he lifted Cato up and then groaned as Cato stood on his shoulder.
‘I’m there,’ Cato called down softly and then gritted his teeth as he pulled himself on to the wall and swung one of his legs up. His heart was pounding with the effort and he glanced quickly at the guard and was relieved to see him still watching the chaos on the wharf. Cato dropped down behind the wall and hurriedly unravelled the length of rope tied about his middle and hidden by a fold in his tunic. He tossed one end back over the wall and then grasped the other tightly, leant back and braced one foot against the wall. An instant later he felt Macro’s weight drag at the rope. There was a scuffling sound and a muttered curse before Macro appeared on top of the wall. He hurriedly clambered over and dropped down inside the warehouse yard, dragging the rope over behind him.
For a moment both men stood breathing heavily, ears straining for any indication that they had been discovered. Cato looked round the interior of the warehouse yard. A paved area approximately a hundred feet by forty ran between the high walls of the massive building which enclosed the yard on three sides. Several doors faced the yard, all of them closed. There was no sign of life, and the yard felt oddly quiet after the din of the fight on the wharf. A handful of small handcarts stood against the wall. Cato took a deep breath and indicated the carts. ‘At least getting out is going to be easier than getting in.’
‘If you say so,’ Macro replied. ‘That depends on Septimus doing his job.’
‘He did well enough to get us in. We can count on him. Come on.’ Cato stepped towards the nearest door and saw that it was secured with a heavy iron bolt. A quick glance round the yard was enough to see that all the others were also bolted. Cato took up the lever and tested the bolt. With a lot of effort it began to move, giving a loud squeal as it did so. Cato stopped at once.
‘Easy there, lad,’ said Macro. ‘The noise outside will cover any that we make. And we can shift the bolts nice and slow.’
They took firm hold of the iron bolt and began to heave again. With a gentle rasp the bolt moved and a moment later slipped free of the receiving bracket. Fearing that the hinges might be as noisy as the door, Cato pulled it open carefully, just wide enough to admit himself and Macro. The light spilled across an empty stone floor and cast long shadows before the two men as they slowly entered, squinting into the shadows as their eyes adjusted to the gloom. It was a large space, eighty feet deep by half as much in width. Overhead the beams were high above the floor and a latticework of timbers supported a tiled roof. There were two narrow slits in the wall, high up, to provide light and ventilation, but not wide enough for even a child to squeeze through.
Cato bent down and scraped up some of the dust and grains from the floor. ‘Looks like there has been wheat here.’
Macro nodded as he glanced around. ‘If every chamber in this place is as big as this one, then there’d have been enough here to feed Rome for months. Let’s try the next one.’
They worked their way round the warehouse yard, but every chamber was empty like the first. The only contents were a few coils of rope, blocks and tackle for unloading heavy items from the beds of wagons and a pile of torn and grimy sacking in the corner of the yard. In every chamber there was the same evidence that wheat had been stored there, and from the condition of the grain scattered on the floor, recently at that. When they closed the last of the doors Cato stepped back into the middle of the yard and folded his arms, frowning.
‘Where has it gone?’
‘Cestius must have thought this place was not safe,’ Macro reflected. ‘He must have figured that Narcissus and his agents would eventually discover where the grain was stockpiled. It’s been moved on.’
‘Without anyone noticing? You don’t shift that much grain without drawing attention to it.’
‘Unless you did a small amount at a time. Not enough for people to take notice.’
Cato thought briefly. It did not seem possible for Cestius to relocate his entire stock in limited movements in the time available. Even then there was another question that would need answering. ‘Where would he put it all?’
‘Another warehouse, perhaps?’
‘Someone would have seen something.’
‘In barges then, taken downriver to Ostia and stored there as soon as they bought each grain consignment.’
‘It’s possible. But then why are there signs of grain in every one of the storage chambers? It looks to me like they had all of it here before they moved it on. So why did they do it …?’ Cato chewed his lip. ‘They must have been worried that it would be discovered. They’re playing safe. After all, we discovered the location readily enough. In any case, I’m certain that the grain is still here in Rome.’
‘Where then, smart-arse?’
‘That’s the question.’ Cato looked round at the silent walls of the warehouse. ‘It would have to be another place like this.’
‘Cato, there must be scores of warehouses along the wharf on this side of the river alone. Not to mention those on the other side of the Tiber, and the warehouses behind the Forum, and the other markets in the city. We can’t search them all.’
‘Not without alerting the other side,’ Cato conceded. ‘As soon as they got wind that we were on to them they’d have to make their move and put whatever they’re planning into effect.’
‘So what do we do?’
Cato sighed. ‘Tell Septimus to report back to Narcissus. What else? Now let’s get out of here.’
They returned to the wall where one of the handcarts had been left a short distance to one side of the gate. Macro climbed up on to it and again lifted Cato up on to the wall. He cautiously peered over the top to where the guard had returned to his stool to continue his meal. Beyond, the fight over the spilt fruit had ended. The gang master and his thugs had re-established their cordon and the unloading of the barge had resumed. Several bodies lay on the ground about them, most moving feebly and a few lying still. Those who had managed to gather some of the dates had already fled the scene while the rest continued to watch the unloading of the barge, hoping for another chance to snatch something to eat. Cato looked for, and then saw, Septimus. The imperial agent raised a hand in acknowledgement and then made his way along the wharf to the gate. He stopped a short distance from the guard.
‘Spare me some of that?’ Septimus pointed to the bread and sausage resting in the man’s lap.
‘Come on, friend. I’m hungry.’
‘That’s not my problem. And I’m not your friend, so like I said, fuck off.’
While Septimus took another step forward and asked again, more forcefully, Cato heaved himself up on to the wall and reached down to help Macro up. Then, making sure that the guard’s attention was fixed on Septimus, they lowered themselves down the other side of the wall, straining the muscles in their shoulders and arms, and let go. Their boots crunched audibly on the filth and rubbish that had gathered at the foot of the wall. The guard started and looked round quickly. His eyes widened and in an instant he snatched up his club and was on his feet, his meal tumbling to the ground in front of the stool.
‘I see! Thought you’d play a trick on me, eh? One comes from the front, while his pals take me from behind, eh?’
He lowered himself into a crouch, backed against the gate and swung his club to and fro. Cato could see that there were nails driven through the end of the club and could well imagine the damage those vicious points could do to a man’s flesh. He raised a hand.
‘Easy there. Our mistake. Come on, lads, this one’s too tough for us. Let’s be off.’
Septimus circled round the guard to join the others and then the three men backed away and turned to walk quickly along the wharf in the direction of the Boarium. The guard laughed nervously and blew a loud raspberry after them.
‘Yes, piss off then, you wankers! If I see your faces round here again then you’ll feel the kiss of my little Medusa here!’ He thrust the head of his club after them.
‘Bastard could do with a lesson in manners,’ Macro grumbled, slowing his pace until Cato grasped his shoulder and urged him on.
‘Not now. Let’s get out of here before he remembers me.’
Septimus turned to Cato. ‘Did you find anything?’
Cato briefly explained what they had seen and the imperial agent’s expression became anxious. ‘Damn. We need that grain.’
‘What about that convoy from Sicilia?’ asked Macro. ‘I thought that was going to save the situation for the Emperor.’
‘It will, when it arrives. But the extra grain would have been good insurance in case there was a delay in the arrival of the convoy. Now it all hinges on its arrival. Pray to the gods that it arrives safely. The spectacle that Claudius is putting on up at the Albine Lake will only divert the mob for a short time.’
They walked on in silence for a moment before Cato gave a dry chuckle.
Septimus looked at him sharply. ‘What?’
‘I was just thinking about all the threats that Rome has faced over the years, and now it seems that hunger will succeed where barbarians, slave armies, ambitious politicians and tyrants have failed. If there’s one great enemy of civilisation it is surely starvation. No empire, no matter how great, is ever more than a few meals away from collapse.’ He glanced round at the others. ‘Interesting, don’t you think?’
Septimus glared at Cato and then caught Macro’s eye. ‘Your friend is not very helpful at times. Tell me, does his mind often wander like this?’
Macro nodded wearily. ‘You can’t imagine. Does my head in.’
Cato could not help smiling apologetically. ‘Just an observation.’
‘Well, keep your eyes and mind on the job,’ Septimus chided. ‘The Liberators are planning to do something soon. We have to be on our guard and look to the safety of the Emperor and his family. The enemy might have another chance to do something two days from now.’
‘Why?’ asked Cato. ‘What’s up?’
‘The last section of the drain for the lake will be completed tomorrow. Claudius has decided to hold a celebratory feast for the engineers and a select audience before he gives the order for the sluices to open. It’s not a public event, so there won’t be too many people for your century to keep an eye on. But there’s always the chance of trouble as the imperial retinue makes its way out of Rome, or comes back the same way.’
‘We’ll keep a close watch on the old boy,’ said Macro. ‘After that business in the Forum you can count on it.’
‘I hope so,’ Septimus replied as they reached the entrance to the Boarium. ‘It’s clear enough why the Liberators want the grain. That’s the carrot they can offer to the mob once they’ve removed the Emperor. The question is, what are they going to use as the stick to beat Claudius? There’s not much time left before they make their move, and we’re still no wiser about their plan. You must concentrate on Sinius, find out who his contacts are. If we have the names of the ringleaders then we can strike first.’
‘We’ll do our best,’ Cato reassured him. ‘But Sinius isn’t giving anything away. He’s using us, but he’s not taking us into his confidence. If we discover anything, we’ll make sure we leave a note at the safe house at the first opportunity.’
‘Very well.’ Septimus bowed his head in farewell. ‘I’d better make my report to Narcissus. He’s not going to be happy.’
The three men parted and the imperial agent turned abruptly and strode off through the Boarium in the direction of the imperial palace complex that loomed over the city from the crest of the Palatine Hill. Macro and Cato stared after him for a moment before Macro muttered, ‘We’re losing this one, aren’t we?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘This fight … this job for Narcissus. We don’t know where the grain is. We don’t know what the enemy is planning. Shit, we don’t even know who the enemy is, besides Sinius and Tigellinus.’ Macro shook his head. ‘I don’t see any sign of a happy ending to this situation, Cato, my lad.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that we’re not making any progress,’ Cato replied determinedly. ‘We’ll get there. You’ll see.’
As they stepped into the section room they shared with Fuscius and Tigellinus, Cato caught the younger man admiring himself in a polished ornamental breastplate hanging with the rest of the kit from the pegs in the wall. There was a moment’s bemusement before Cato saw the long staff crowned with a brass knob in Fuscius’s left hand.
‘Better not let Tigellinus catch you with that.’
‘What?’ Fuscius reacted instinctively and glanced towards the door with a worried expression, before he caught himself and smiled. ‘It doesn’t bother me. Not now. Tigellinus has no need of this any longer.’ Fuscius held the staff up and looked at it proudly. ‘This is mine.’
Macro laughed and turned to Cato. ‘Sounds like the boy’s balls have dropped at last. Fancy that.’ He turned back to Fuscius. ‘Seriously, I’d put that away before someone sees you with it.’
Irritation and a spark of anger flitted across the young man’s face. Then Fuscius stood, stretched to his full height, and tilted his head back slightly as he addressed them.
‘You’ll have to stop speaking like that to me.’
‘Oh?’ The corner of Macro’s mouth lifted in amusement. ‘Why’s that?’
‘Because I am the new optio of the Sixth Century. The acting optio, anyway,’ Fuscius added.
‘You?’ Macro could not hide his surprise, and not a little disapproval, as he regarded the other man. ‘What about Tigellinus? What’s happened to him?’
‘Tigellinus?’ Fuscius smiled. ‘Until Centurion Lurco is found, Tigellinus has been promoted to acting centurion of the Sixth Century. Tribune Burrus made the decision. He said that he couldn’t afford to have one of his units lacking a commander during the current crisis, and there’d be hell to pay for any man going absent without permission. When Lurco surfaces he’s going to be broken to the ranks, and Tigellinus’s appointment will be made permanent. Just as mine will.’ Fuscius puffed out his chest. ‘I’m the right man for the job, just as Tigellinus said when he chose me.’ Fuscius’s smile faded and he stared hard at Cato and Macro. ‘That means that you two will call me optio from now on. Is that clear?’
‘You?’ Macro shook his head. ‘You’re the best man that Tigellinus could have picked? The most promising ranker in the century? I find that hard to believe.’
‘Believe it!’ Fuscius said fiercely. ‘And I’ll not warn you again, Guardsman Calidus. You will show me the respect due to my rank or I’ll have you on a charge.’
‘Yes, Optio.’ Macro contained his smile. ‘As you command.’
Fuscius strode up to him and glared at Macro for a moment, as if hoping to make the older man flinch. Macro met his gaze frankly and fearlessly, then with a brief snort of derision Fuscius strode out of the door, his staff of office clutched firmly in his hand.
Macro shook his head slowly. ‘There goes a boy who thinks he’s ready to take on a man’s job … Reminds me of you, actually. That day you joined the Second Legion thinking that you were just going to stroll right into an officer’s boots. You recall?’
Cato wasn’t listening, he was deep in thought. He stirred as he became aware of the questioning tone in Macro’s words.
‘Sorry, I missed that.’
‘Don’t worry. Not important. What’s on your mind?’
‘Tigellinus. Acting Centurion Tigellinus that’s what.’ Cato’s brow creased. ‘The Sixth Century is tasked with protecting the Emperor and his family and the Liberators now have their man within striking distance of the imperial family. They’ve finally managed to penetrate the screen of bodyguards that surrounds Claudius.’
Macro pursed his lips and winced. ‘You think Tigellinus will be the assassin?’
‘What else? Why else have Lurco removed? They wanted to place Tigellinus close to the Emperor. That has to be it. And when the time is right, and the opportunity is there, Tigellinus will strike.’
‘He won’t get away with it,’ said Macro. ‘He’ll be killed on the spot. Or taken and questioned.’
‘That won’t matter. With Claudius dead there will be chaos … confusion. That’s when the rest of the conspirators will make their move. They’ll use the Praetorian Guard to move into the city and take control, and then announce a new regime, headed by the leadership of the Liberators. I’d stake my life on it,’ Cato said grimly.