‘Next time keep a civil tongue in your head.’ Cato smiled pleasantly as he gently prodded the warehouse guard under the chin with the tip of his sword.
The man looked confused, as well as scared. ‘Sorry, sir. I-I don’t understand.’
‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ Cato frowned, robbed of his brief moment of pleasure. There was nothing to be gained from taking a small revenge on a man who had completely forgotten his offence in the first place. ‘Never mind. Tell me, has anyone entered or left the warehouse since you have been on watch?’
The man glanced round at the group of big men who had stolen up on him in soft-soled boots while he dozed and then picked him up and pinned him to the wall of the warehouse of Gaius Frontinus. He swallowed nervously as his eyes turned back to Cato.
‘Best to be honest, if you want to live,’ Cato said softly, pricking the man’s skin slightly.
‘Just one m-man, sir.’
‘Reckon that’s Cestius,’ said Macro at Cato’s side. ‘What did he look like? Big bloke? Small?’
The watchman looked Cato up and down. ‘About your size, sir.’
‘Not Cestius then.’ Cato eased his sword off the man’s neck. ‘How long ago?’
‘No more than an hour, I’d say.’
‘And no one else?’
‘Yes, sir. I’m sure of it.’
‘Right, then you’re coming with us. Macro, open the gate.’
Macro nodded and stepped over to the heavy iron bolt and eased it free of the receiver as quietly as he could. Thanks to the curfew there was no one on the wharf but Cato was wary of alerting anyone inside the warehouse to their presence. Macro eased the gate open just wide enough to admit himself and the rest of the men in single file. Cato allowed Septimus, the centurion and five of his Germans to pass through before he nudged the watchman towards the gap.
‘Don’t make a noise or try to get away from me, understand?’
The man nodded vigorously and Cato steered him inside. The warehouse yard looked just as deserted as it had a few days earlier. A crescent moon provided some dim illumination and by its light the centurion and his men quickly searched each of the storerooms. They were as deserted as before. There was no sign of any life.
‘Look for a hatch or some kind of drain cover,’ Cato ordered. ‘It has to be here somewhere.’
The centurion and his men searched again before the officer reported back to Cato. ‘Nothing.’
‘Damn.’ Cato released his grip on the watchman. ‘Have one of your Germans keep an eye on him. He’s not to utter a sound. If he tries to raise the alarm, or makes a run for it, tell your man to cut his throat.’
The centurion nodded and called one of the bodyguards over to issue his orders in a mixture of broken Latin and their own harsh guttural tongue. Cato turned to Macro and Septimus.
‘There has to be some kind of access to the sewer system here. We have to look until we find it.’
‘Or we don’t,’ said Macro. ‘Or we run out of time. Face it, Cato, this is a long shot.’
‘No it isn’t,’ Cato replied determinedly. ‘It has to be here. Keep searching.’
He strode away from the others and began a circuit of the yard, examining the ground under the carts carefully. Septimus came up to him and spoke in a hushed tone. ‘What if there’s a false wall?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Supposing Cestius and his men knocked through a wall into a neighbouring warehouse, and then made up a false wall to disguise the gap?’
‘No, that wouldn’t work. If they did that they’d have had to have hired another warehouse and we’d know about it. Besides, that wouldn’t explain the stink of Cestius and his men.’
‘You’re assuming that it was to do with the sewer. There could be other explanations.’
Cato stopped to look at Narcissus’s agent. ‘Such as?’
Septimus tried to think for a moment and then shrugged.
Cato nodded. ‘Quite. Now, if you’ve finished, let’s continue the search.’
Septimus went off in the opposite direction and Cato continued to work his way round the yard. There was no sign of any disguised hole on the front wall and he was starting to edge his way along the inside wall when the pile of sacking in the far corner caught his eye. A faint ray of hope glimmered in Cato’s heart and he made his way over to it. He knelt down and began to pull the sacks aside. Macro joined him.
‘Just give me a hand.’
They worked methodically, clearing them away, and then, just before they reached the angle in the wall, Macro paused, looked down, and hurriedly pulled away several more sacks. ‘Over here. I’ve found it.’
Cato dropped the sack in his hand and went to crouch by his friend. There amid the cobbles at Macro’s feet was a small wooden handle. Macro tried to clear some more of the sacking away but it would not move. Grumbling, he grasped a loose corner and pulled hard. There was a tearing sound, a length of the coarse material ripped free and Macro stumbled back with a curse.
Cato knelt down for a closer look. ‘Clever. They’ve stuck the sacking down on to the hatch to help conceal it.’
He grasped the handle and gave it an experimental pull. The hatch was heavy and Cato applied his other hand. An area four feet square began to rise. Cato turned to Macro. ‘Help me.’
With Macro helping at the corner, they raised the hatch and eased it back against the rear wall of the courtyard. A wide ladder fixed to one side led down into pitch blackness. There was no sign of movement, but there was a faint sound of trickling water, and a waft of foul air.
Cato turned and called as loudly as he dared, ‘Septimus, over here. Plautus, bring your men.’
The others padded over and stood looking down at the opening. Cato gave the order for the torches to be lit. Plautus took out the tinder box from his side bag and began to strike sparks on to the thin sheets of charred linen. As soon as the first glimmer of a flame appeared he fed it with some dried moss until the flame was large enough to use. He gestured to one of the men carrying the bundled torches. ‘Let me have one.’
He carefully dipped the tallow-impregnated cloth on the end of the wooden shaft towards the flame and held it there until the torch produced bright yellow tongues of light. Plautus rose to his feet.
‘Let’s light the rest of them.’
One by one the torches flared into life and Cato took one. He ordered Plautus to leave the warehouse guard gagged and bound and then cautiously lowered himself on to the top rung of the ladder. He descended a few more rungs and by the light of the flame he could see that Cestius and his men had shored up the sides of the shaft with stout timbers. Ten feet down, the shaft opened up and Cato held the torch out to examine his surroundings. Old brickwork curved away on both sides and below there was a dull gleam of moving water. The ladder descended another six feet and then he reached the bottom. He was standing on a narrow paved walkway to one side of a small tunnel. It was just possible to stand erect under the curved ceiling. At his side a glistening flow headed steadily towards the Great Sewer. The air was thick with the stench of human waste and Cato wrinkled his nose in disgust.
‘What can you see?’ Macro called down.
‘There’s a tunnel. Leads towards the sewer in one direction. The other seems to head towards the Aventine district. Bring the rest of the men down. I think we’ve found what we’re looking for.’
As the other men descended the ladder, Cato made his way a short distance upstream, examining the walls and the walkway. Most of the brickwork was covered in a layer of slime, but there were extensive patches that had been scraped away, and the same was true of the walkway which looked as if it had been heavily used recently enough for the stone to be dry to the touch, with scant evidence of new growth. Behind him the sounds of the Germans muttering in disgusted tones filled the tunnel.
‘Nice spot you’ve discovered here,’ Macro grumbled as he and Septimus joined Cato. ‘Very fragrant.’
Cato ignored the comment and stared along the tunnel. There was no movement within the loom cast by his torch, aside from the flow of sewage and the scampering of a pair of rats as they scuttled away from the men who had invaded their realm. There was a splash and a scrabbling sound from the dark as they ran off.
‘Do you think any of them are still here?’ Septimus asked nervously as he stared into the gloom.
‘One at least.’ Cato stood up. He turned back to Centurion Plautus. ‘Tell your men that we go on from here in silence. Not a sound, understand?’
Cato could not help a slight smile at being addressed as a superior. Narcissus had told the centurion to obey him and Macro when he had briefly introduced the two Praetorians, dressed in plain white tunics and carrying no sign of their rank. Now it seemed that Plautus recognised and accepted Cato’s authority without having to be told anything of his real identity and rank. He glanced back and saw that all the men were ready to follow him. The flickering glow of the torches illuminated the damp walls of the tunnels and the flow of sewage gleamed as turds and rubbish drifted by. Cato held his torch forward at an angle and then gestured with his spare hand. ‘Let’s go,’ he called softly.
He crept forward, leaning over slightly as the roof of the tunnel became lower and the flame licked off the brickwork overhead. The sewer led straight for fifty paces before bending to the right. Cato calculated that they were nearly at the edge of the warehouse area and heading in the direction of the Aventine district, one of the poorest districts of the city. Another hundred paces on they came to a junction where a smaller tunnel, no more than four feet high, led off to the left. Cato raised his hand to halt the men behind him then examined the tunnel. There was no walkway and no sign of disturbance in the growths on either side of the tunnel. He waved the men forward again.
They passed more junctions but there was no sign that Cestius and his men had deviated from the walkway. After quarter of a mile of slow progress the sewer opened up into a chamber. Two large tunnels entered from each side, while directly opposite was a small cataract. Filthy foam bubbled across the surface of the chamber and the churned-up sewage made the stench more overpowering than ever. One of the Germans coughed violently and then bent over and threw up.
‘That’s going to help.’ Macro frowned. He looked round. ‘What now? Which way do we go? Left or right?’
Cato glanced from side to side for a moment before he consulted Septimus. ‘I reckon we must be close to the Aventine.’
The imperial agent thought for a moment and then nodded. ‘I think you’re right.’
‘In which case, the left tunnel would take us towards the Palatine, and the other one into the Aventine district. Where would Cestius be most likely to hide the grain?’
‘I doubt he would want to hide it near the palace. There are several secret tunnels beneath it, as you know. He wouldn’t want to risk running into any of those. The other tunnel is our best bet.’
‘I agree. Let’s have a look. Macro, you come too.’ Cato turned to the centurion. ‘Stay here while we scout ahead. I’ll send Septimus back for you if it looks like we’re on the right track.’
‘Yes, sir. But don’t be too long, eh?’ Plautus sniffed. ‘The air here is fucking horrible.’
Cato grinned and clapped the man on the shoulder before he entered the right tunnel, followed by Macro and Septimus. Thankfully there was another walkway on the side that saved them from having to wade upstream through the flow of sewage. Cato kept his torch up and paused every so often to examine the sides of the tunnel and the paving stones at their feet. They had gone no further than fifty feet when he stopped and turned round to face the others.
‘This isn’t the right way.’
‘How can you tell?’ asked Macro.
‘There’s no sign that anyone’s used this route for a while. Look at the walls. They’re untouched. Same with the walkway.’ He used the edge of his boot to scrape some of the grime from the stone beneath. ‘We’ve missed something. Come on, we have to go back.’
Back in the chamber Cato looked round again, then his gaze fixed on the cataract. He worked his way around the edge of the chamber to examine it more closely. The channel above the pool was perhaps six feet high, and dropped eight feet into the pool. Tendrils of some kind of growth hung down amid the flow cascading from above. Cato held his torch up to the steady torrent, grimacing as some of it splashed on to him. It was impossible to see through the flow. He bit his lip. There was only one way to find out for sure if his suspicion was correct.
Cato drew the torch back and held it low as he bent forward to shield it from above, flinching as he felt the heat of the flame. Then he sucked in a breath and edged forward along the narrow walkway leading under the cataract. At once his head and shoulders were pounded by water and lumps of solid matter. Then he was lost from the view of his comrades.
Macro’s mouth opened in alarm. ‘What the fuck is he doing?’
Septimus and the bodyguards stared towards the cataract in silence, waiting for a sign of Cato. For a while none of them moved, and the only noise was the crashing rush of fluid over the cataract, amplified by the brick walls of the chamber. Macro could not wait any longer to find out what had become of his friend and hurried round the edge of the chamber. He paused momentarily at the edge of the cataract but before he could steel himself to duck beneath the flow, something moved out from under the curtain of foul water and Cato, minus his torch, burst through spluttering, his eyes clenched shut. As soon as he was out of the flow he straightened up and opened his eyes with a grin.
Macro looked him over. ‘You look like … well, you know what you look like. So what’s there?’ He jerked his thumb at the cataract. ‘Besides the obvious.’
‘Best if you see for yourself.’ Cato leant past him and beckoned to Septimus and Plautus. ‘Bring ‘em over!’
‘See for myself?’ Macro shook his head. ‘You are joking.’
‘It’s nothing we haven’t been in before,’ Cato quipped. ‘At least it isn’t deep this time. Come on, follow me. Just be sure to keep your feet on the edge if you don’t want to slip and end up in the pool there. And shield your torch. The rest of you wait here for a moment.’
Cato led the way and with a reluctant sigh Macro followed him with gritted teeth. The sewage closed over his head briefly and then he was through and he found himself in a brick-lined tunnel stretching back behind the cataract. Cato bent down to retrieve the torch he had left on the ground. Macro mopped his brow and took a few paces further in and looked down the tunnel. The floor was paved and there was a channel in the middle, flanked by two stepped walkways, but the channel was dry.
‘What is this place?’ Macro wondered. ‘If Cestius and his lads put it together then they’re a damned sight better organised than I thought.’
‘I doubt they had anything to do with it,’ Cato responded. ‘I had a brief look further along. There’s a feed tunnel off to the right and a bit further on this comes to a dead end. My guess is this section of the sewer was abandoned. At least until Cestius and his gang started to use it.’
‘What makes you think they have?’
‘This.’ Cato held up his spare hand and opened it to reveal a few grains of wheat. ‘I found it just inside the tunnel leading off this one. They brought the grain this way sure enough.’
‘Then that’s a pity. It’s sure to have been spoiled by going under that river of shit back there.’
‘No. That’s not how they did it,’ Cato’s eyes gleamed. ‘Come and see.’
He led Macro back to the cataract and pointed up at the ceiling. For the first time, Macro noticed a wooden board secured to the brickwork by a bolt at each corner close to the cataract. The other end had a chain attached to a hook mounted in the ceiling. Cato handed his torch to Macro and lifted the chain off the hook and eased the board towards the cataract. As he did so, a long stout wooden shaft clattered to the floor, narrowly missing his boots.
‘Aha! I thought there would be something.’ Cato nodded. ‘Right then, the next part should make it all clear to you. Watch.’
Bracing his boots, Cato pushed the board out into the flow, straining as he pushed it out and up. The flow of the sewage was deflected away from the ledge and now the two of them could see the startled expressions of the other men. ‘Get that post!’ said Cato. ‘Wedge it up under the board. Quickly. I don’t know how long I can hold this up.’
Macro grabbed the post and stood beside Cato as he placed one end under the board and then scraped the other end into a small niche in the floor that seemed to have been cut into the stone deliberately. ‘There.’
They stood back and watched as the flow poured over the edge of the board, well clear of the ledge running under the cataract. Septimus appeared round the corner of the tunnel, then Plautus and the first of the Germans.
‘Can’t tell you how glad I am you came up with that.’ Septimus nodded at the board. ‘Otherwise …’ he gestured towards them with a grimace.
‘It wasn’t down to me,’ said Cato. ‘It’s something that Cestius and his friends came up with, so they could get the grain through without exposing it to the sewage. Simple, but very effective.’ He turned to Plautus. ‘I think we’re very close to them now. Have your men draw their swords. We’ll also put out some of the torches. Calidus, Septimus and I will feel our way ahead. You follow on, slowly. We can’t afford to give ourselves away until we know what lies ahead.’
Plautus nodded. ‘We’ll be ready to go in as soon as you give the word, sir.’
‘Good.’ Cato held his torch out into the flow to douse the flames and then handed it to one of the Germans before he turned towards the tunnel. He took a calming breath and the three of them set off, the padding of their soft-soled boots drowned out by the sound of the cataract until they had gone a good fifty feet further. The light from the torches faded behind them. Cato trailed his fingertips against the side of the tunnel until they came to an opening. He slowed down. ‘Here. To the right.’
‘Can’t see a bloody thing,’ Macro grumbled from the darkness. ‘Daft idea not to bring at least one of the torches.’
‘Too risky,’ Cato replied. ‘We’ve no idea what lies ahead. Best not to risk alerting Cestius.’
‘We’re sure to outnumber him. Those German lads might not be the sharpest arrows in the quiver but they’re tough. We’ve got nothing to fear from Cestius. Not unless he’s got a small army tucked away down here.’
‘He might have, for all we know. But I’m more worried about him getting away. I need to speak to him, if I can.’
‘Why?’ asked Septimus.
‘I need some answers,’ Cato replied bluntly. ‘We’re wasting time. Let’s move.’
They set off down the side tunnel, feeling their way in the darkness with one hand on the wall, while they probed ahead with the toes of their boots. The floor of the tunnel was dry and the only sounds were the occasional scrape of their footsteps, the sound of their breathing and the scuttling of rats. Twice Cato thought that he could hear something ahead of them but by the time he stopped and whispered for the others to be still the sound had gone. The pace was slow and Cato worried that the Germans might start to follow them in their eagerness to finish the job and get out of the tunnels back into the open air. He glanced back frequently and was gratified to see the faintest glimmer of a torch only once. Centurion Plautus clearly had his men in hand.
Which is more than Cato could say for his imagination. Every sound seemed grossly magnified so that he was torn between anxiety over the amount of noise he and the other two men were making and fear that the sounds were covering up any danger that may lurk ahead in the blackness.
‘I don’t like this,’ Septimus muttered. ‘What if there’s nothing here?’
‘Then there’s no grain to feed the mob. The mob gets angry and kills the Emperor and you and Narcissus are out of a job, sunshine,’ Macro replied in a low growl. ‘Bear that in mind, and keep your mouth closed, eh?’
Cato came to a halt. Macro brushed up against his back before he could stop and there was a final shuffle of Septimus’s boots before there was quiet. ‘Listen.’
At first Macro could not separate out any noise that might be of significance. Then there was the unmistakable sound of laughter from ahead, a brief snatch and then quiet again.
Cato turned in the direction of his companions, invisible in the pitch black of the tunnel. ‘Septimus, you stay here.’
‘What? Alone?’ The fear in his voice was clear. ‘Why?’
‘Calidus and I are going on ahead. When Plautus and his Germans catch up I don’t want them going any further unless I give the word. You tell him to stop and wait.’
There was a pause before Septimus’s voice quavered. ‘All right. But don’t be too long.’
Cato reached back and tugged Macro’s tunic and they edged forward even more slowly than they had advanced so far. A short distance further on they heard voices, more laughter and the shrill cry of a woman. Then there was the faintest hue of light ahead, revealing the dark outline of the tunnel as it turned to the left. The two men kept moving and soon they could see enough to light their way and no longer needed the reassurance of touching the wall. Cato lowered his hand to his sword handle and carefully drew the weapon. He heard a light dry rasp as Macro followed suit. Cato lowered himself into a crouch. His pulse quickened and his mouth felt dry. He slowed down and stopped as he came to the corner. The sound of voices, many of them, filled the tunnel now and Cato turned back and held up a hand to halt Macro who was just visible in the gloom. Then he edged a step forward and slowly looked round the corner.
The tunnel gave out on to what looked like a huge storeroom, illuminated by the flames of several braziers and torches guttering in brackets fixed to the walls. In front of the tunnel the ground was a jumble of rocks. At first Cato thought that the space must have been constructed, then he realised that it was a natural cave that had been enlarged by human hands. The walls seemed to have been cut from the rock in places to expand the size. Guttering torches in iron brackets provided enough illumination to make out the details. Great mounds of grain sacks had been piled at the far end and extended well over half the length of the cave, some hundred paces long by forty across. To one side a wide ladder climbed up to a ledge, beyond which there was a brick-lined passage that sloped upwards into the shadows.
At the near end of the cave were several tables and benches at which sat thirty or forty men. There were a handful of women too, in short tunics that reached just below their buttocks. Their faces were powdered white and dark kohl had been crudely applied around their eyes. To one side was a table longer than the rest. At its head sat Cestius, with a plump red-haired girl sitting on his lap, the fingers of one hand playing with his curls as he squeezed the breast that sagged loosely out of her tunic. The toughest-looking men of his gang sat close by, drinking and laughing with their leader.
Cato gestured to Macro to join him.
‘What do they think they’re celebrating?’ Macro whispered once he had taken in the scene.
‘What do you think? They’re sitting on top of a mountain of grain in a city on the verge of starvation. They’re going to make a killing. Or someone is, and they’ll take their cut.’
They continued to watch in silence for a moment before Macro spoke again. ‘I reckon we can take ‘em. Most of them are armed with daggers. There’s a few swords, clubs and axes about the place. They look tough enough, but they’ve had a skinful of wine and that’ll take the edge off their ability to fight.’
Cato scrutinised the men in the cave. He agreed with his friend’s assessment, but they would still be outnumbered by Cestius and his gang. It would be prudent to make sure that Narcissus knew about the grain and the cave, in case the fight went against them.
‘All right, we’ll do it. But we’ll send one of the men back to report to Narcissus. Just in case.’
Macro shrugged. ‘If you think it’s necessary. Thanks to those bastards I’ve had to spend the night wading through shit. I don’t feel like being very merciful.’
‘Nevertheless, we’ll send a man back.’
They eased their way back from the corner and Cato pointed back down the tunnel to where a slight glow indicated the position of Septimus and the German bodyguards. ‘Bring ‘em up, but make sure they do it nice and quiet, and put their torches out. We’re outnumbered and we’ll need the advantage of surprise.’
Macro nodded, then turned to make his way back down the tunnel. Cato watched him briefly and then returned to the corner. He stared at Cestius, determined to take the gang leader alive. That would not be easy, Cato reflected. Cestius was a powerfully built killer who was sure to fight to the death if he could. Even so, only Cestius could answer the question that had plagued Cato ever since they had clashed in the ambush at the Forum.
The approach of Macro and the rest of the men was heralded by the light scrape of footsteps and Cato turned just in time to see the last glow of orange from the tunnel flicker out as the final torch was extinguished. The men emerged from the darkness and Macro gestured to them to fan out on either side. The Germans crept silently by and eased themselves into places of concealment behind the rocks. As quietly as they could, they drew their swords and crouched, waiting for the order to attack. Cato drew back into the mouth of the tunnel and hurriedly outlined the report for Narcissus. The German assigned for the task nodded as Plautus translated, then handed the man his tinder box and one of the extinguished torches. The German turned to make his way back into the darkness. A moment later there was a faint flare as he struck sparks, then again, before a brief pause and then a steady glow swelled in the gloom. It quickly faded away as the man made his way off into the tunnel.
Cato crept forward to join Macro who was squatting behind a large rock in the middle of the line of Germans. Cato drew a deep breath to steady his nerves and then tightened his grip on the handle of his sword. ‘Ready?’
‘As I’ll ever be. Let’s have ‘em.’
Cato tensed his limbs, glanced left and right to see that the rest of the men were watching him intently. Then he snatched a breath and shouted, ‘Follow me!’