The morning was wearing on and Cleon was beginning to get impatient. He knew they needed help to search the rest of the city – they’d drawn a blank when they’d taken Velox out the evening before – but he was still itching to get back out and search for himself. He’d been slightly taken aback at the number of clients lined up on the stone pavement outside Graptus’s house in the morning, and was torn between being glad that there would be plenty of extra eyes looking out for Felix and dismayed at the amount of time it was going to take Graptus to deal with them all. He had spent the first part of the morning pacing around the small pool in the atrium, before Graptus had come out of his office and begged him to go and take his frustration outside, because he wasn’t speeding the process up with the amount of distraction he was causing. Cleon had taken Velox into the garden, via the kitchens, and had spent the rest of the morning walking between the beds of roses and feeding Velox the rest of the prawn rissoles as rewards for learning new tricks. After a while he’d managed to get Velox to sit and wait while he walked away a short distance, lift his paw in greeting when Cleon said ‘salve’, and roll over. It was all going very well for a while, until Velox decided that enough was enough – he refused to perform any more tricks and sat and stared at Cleon until he caved in and gave him the rest of the pieces one after the other.
‘You’ll make yourself sick, you silly mutt!’ Cleon said, but if Velox heard he showed no signs of caring and just sniffed at Cleon’s hands to make sure that none had been forgotten.
Meanwhile in his office Graptus was seeing client after client, hearing their complaints, doing the best he could he could to find employment for some, lending money, even promising to help arrange an advantageous marriage for the eldest daughter of one. There had been no time to make multiple copies of Felix’s description, but then many of the clients were unable to read anyway, so Graptus had had to get each of his clients to memorise the description, as well as their portion of the places Graptus thought were the most likely lodging houses Felix would use. So far so good – none of them had questioned why it was so important to find Felix; perhaps because they swallowed the story of Graptus’s friend being confused and suffering memory loss, perhaps because they couldn’t imagine a client of the Emperor himself being up to no good, or maybe it was just because they trusted Graptus and saw him as a harmless old man. Whatever the reason, Graptus was grateful that he’d not had to endure an endless stream of suspicious looks and questions about the business, as it was taking long enough as it was.
Eventually, though, the line had shortened to nothing and the last client left. Graptus looked exhausted when he came to find Cleon in the garden, which made Cleon feel guilty for being so impatient with his old friend earlier. The serving boy came out with dishes filled with olives, figs, nuts, a bowl of wine and some emmer bread to dip into it, and a jug filled with more wine, mixed with water for, drinking. Graptus looked questioningly and was about to ask where the rest of the prawn rissoles had gone when the lad glanced at Cleon before explaining that there were no prawn rissoles left, as they had mysteriously disappeared. Cleon looked very sheepish suddenly, and, looking at Velox, Graptus thought that the dog looked even more guilty than his master, as if he knew what was being talked about and knew that he was under suspicion. Graptus laughed, told them not to worry – rissoles were better freshly cooked anyway – and waved the boy away.
Neither man wanted to linger over the meal so it wasn’t long before they were off into the city to look for Felix further afield. The Emperor had given Graptus a piece of land on the Esquiline Hill on his return from Britain, and Graptus had built himself a comfortable home with a much bigger garden than the small house he’d bought when he was first freed. He hadn’t sold his old house though, choosing instead to lend or rent it out, as the situation needed. Currently it was occupied by one of Graptus’s clients, who hadn’t been waiting outside that morning. The little house was in the Transtiberim district, across the Tiber from the Aventine Hill, so Graptus would use the excuse of being in the neighbourhood to drop in and ask if anything were amiss. All being well old Philemon would have simply decided it was too nice a day to be traipsing across the city to see Graptus – he wasn’t a client who usually got into too many disputes with other people, being an easy-going sort. Graptus knew that Philemon himself was far too frail to be out searching himself, but had hoped that he would send out his young nephew who lived with him – although, thinking about it, he had no great hopes of the nephew getting further than the nearest tavern and spending the rest of the day there. All in all it was probably just as well that Chrestus also lived in the area, and that they planned on visiting him next.
Graptus’s old apprentice lived just a few streets away from Philemon: Felix had followed Cleon to Britain and set up his own household there, whereas Chrestus had preferred life in the Imperial Capital and the warmth of Italy – like master, like apprentice, it seemed. Chrestus had set up his household just a few streets away, so checking with Chrestus to see if he had any news of his old fellow apprentice seemed like a good start. If he had no news of Felix then Cleon had high hopes that Chrestus could help them out by searching the Transtiberim area, leaving the Aventine Hill and the riverside wharves to them. As the two men set off, with Velox scampering around their feet, they planned how they would cover their search area if they found no news of Felix with Chrestus. The city of Rome was famed for its seven hills, but it was rapidly outgrowing these and the old Servian defensive walls, and currently held over a million people. The Esquiline Hill had been scoured the previous evening with Velox, Graptus and Cleon would search the Aventine after visiting Chrestus, and the remaining five – plus the valleys between – would be covered by Graptus’s clients and their households. Graptus was sending up silent prayers to Felicitas, goddess of success, that they would be able to call on Chrestus’s help so they wouldn’t have to search the Transtiberim as well, as he wasn’t sure his feet were up it.
Sergeant Nickerson was wishing, yet again, that she was the one driving the squad car that was lurching from house to house around the perimeter of the forest. Quite why she had been given the task of ‘navigating’ when she was perfectly capable of finding all the houses without a map and just simply driving there was a question that only her team leader, and the current driver of the car, could answer. She wasn’t clear why she hadn’t been sent with the team that was returning to the village of Rolvenden Layne, either – it would have made sense for her to be there as they re-interviewed the villagers in the light of recent discoveries. As it happened she was reluctant to ask him either of those things for a few reasons; one being that she wasn’t in the mood for the bad atmosphere that would result if she dared broach the subject, another being that she really, really, didn’t think it would be either desirable or safe to risk distracting him from the task of negotiating the potholes and tree branches protruding into their lane. They had had several near misses already when he spotted obstacles as they were virtually on top of them, and swerved to avoid, to the consternation of on-coming traffic and Sgt Nickerson alike. Sarah bit her tongue – because her jaw bounced open and shut again as they hit a pothole – and tried to breathe deeply. The other reason she didn’t want to talk any more than necessary was that she was starting to feel more than a little queasy, and was trying to avoid the need to ask D/Sgt. Peter Stephens to pull over so she could be sick – clamping her jaw tightly shut was about the only thing between that and keeping her dignity.
They started at the main entrance on the south eastern side and worked their way round counter-clockwise – another pair of police officers was working their way clockwise, both pairs to finish at the point where the black van had hit Tom Atkinson’s tractor on the North side. Many of the houses had been unoccupied at that time of day so they had moved on, making a note to return. As Nickerson and Stephens worked their way up the road on the eastern side the houses had been small at first; a row of terraced houses that looked like old alms houses, then a cluster of converted barns and oast houses with the odd new-build in between. There was one large and rather grand old farmhouse, and they had been hopeful that there may be some CCTV footage from security cameras, but it was fronted by such a high, thick, hedge that it was unlikely that there would be anything useful – although the owner had offered to put the last 48 hours’ worth on a memory stick anyway. The houses thinned out after that, until they reached the hospital complex at East End. At least here they were promised security footage from various different angles along quite a stretch of road, as it ran between the car parks and the main hospital building – if the van had come along here they ought to be able to get a good look at it on the footage, which might give them more information than the mostly head-on footage from Tom Atkinson’s dashcam.
After that there was a bit of an argument – about which route to take around to the north of the forest. Stephens was all for taking the first left after the hospital, down the single-track Mockbeggar Lane, but Sarah pointed out that if they went straight on, along the bigger road, they were more likely to get security footage from the timber yard near the crossroads. As they had no idea whether the van had come from the same direction it had left in, it would be useful to cover all the options – besides, it was always possible to circle around and cover both roads any way. Stephens had agreed, a little to her surprise, and they had ended up getting another memory stick of security camera footage from the yard supervisor. They turned right out of the yard and travelled just a few metres before turning right, off the road again, just short of the crossroads – where Sarah gave profound thanks that they could park in the old pub car park and walk across to the house on the opposite corner. Stephens had looked very disappointed when he learnt that the Castleton’s Oak was no longer a public house – it was nearing lunchtime and Sarah got the distinct impression that he would have liked a liquid lunch. She sighed – in some ways it would have suited her too, she could have insisted on taking over the driving. The old pub building turned out to not have any security cameras, it having become a private house before such technology was commonplace. In common with just about everyone else they had interviewed that morning the owners hadn’t noticed anything unusual either: it was the same story every time, there were so many vans and other vehicles speeding along that one more didn’t make an impression. Unless it hit something like Farmer Atkinson’s tractor, of course.
The road between Tenterden and Cranbrook ran straight through the junction from right to left as they approached the crossroads from the gate into the yard of the old pub. The road they had come along, from Benenden, ended in white lines as it met the through road – as did the road from Biddenden opposite. As they walked across the junction to the house on the opposite corner Stephens caught sight of the old pub sign that was still hanging over a flight of steps, up to a door accessed from the through road. It was old and slightly scruffy, but clearly showed a picture of a white-haired old man, dressed all in black, sitting on what was obviously a coffin. Sarah pulled Stephens inside the massive cast iron bollards on the corner, then dragged him down the Biddenden road a little way, so they were well clear of the junction. Just in time, apparently, as there was suddenly a steady stream of traffic approaching the junction from all directions.
‘We don’t want to be standing there.’
‘I know it’s a bit busy, but I can still hear you talk if we stand in front of the cottage – what’s with the sombre pub sign – I’ve never seen one like it.’
‘It’s not the noise, it’s the danger. You see those bollards? Did you see the many different changes of brickwork on the front wall behind them? That house front has been rebuilt I don’t know how many times – until the bollards were installed. Even now the bollards get taken out occasionally.’
She nodded, grimly, as Stephens gulped at the realisation he would have happily stood in the middle of the junction, or at least just inside the bollards, if she hadn’t dragged him away – having completely underestimated the danger of what seemed like a quiet and unassuming rural junction. She carried on.
‘You won’t see another pub sign like that, it’s one of a kind. The story goes that old man Castleton knew he was getting on in years and expected to die soon, so when a big old oak tree on his land blew down in a storm he had his coffin made out of some of the timber, so he would be ready. The joke being that he lived on for years and years – I forget how many, but maybe ten, maybe twenty. So anyway, that’s the pub sign – old man Castleton sitting on his coffin, waiting to die. Shall we go and see if there’s anyone at home in the cottage?’
She felt a little cruel, relating the story quite so cheerfully, knowing that Stephens was feeling a bit spooked after his near miss with the traffic, but she decided that he deserved some payback for the way he had been driving earlier. Besides, she was still hoping to persuade him to let her drive for the rest of the day. It wasn’t to be, however, and before much longer Sarah Nickerson was cheerfully wishing she had let Stephens stand where he liked to take his chances at the crossroads. The rest of the afternoon was looking like a complete waste of time, in fact, as house after house was found either empty of daytime occupants or set back so far from the road that they couldn’t possibly have seen or heard anything. In the end they reached their stopping point, turned around, and went back again; revisiting some of the houses that had been empty earlier, picking up CCTV footage here and there – but mostly not. Sarah was ticking off houses on her list gradually, and it was getting to the point where she was hoping no one else would be in as she couldn’t face being offered any more tea. House to house enquiries was a notorious slog of a job, but she couldn’t help thinking that today had been harder work, and with less to show for it, than usual – although there was still the chance that some of the CCTV footage would show something useful. On a whim she decided to direct Stephens to one of the forest entrances used by dog walkers and horse riders. It wasn’t near any house that they needed to visit, but she really needed to stretch her legs and walk more than the few steps between car door and house door that they had been doing most of the day. He looked slightly mutinous but agreed, reluctantly, that they ought to have at least a short break, having not stopped at all since they started.
It had a wide entrance which meant cars could turn around easily, then a stony roadway running back into the forest, which was wide enough to accommodate a line of parked cars up one side and still allow access to a locked metal gate. Horse riders with the appropriate licence had keys which allowed them to come through the gate to where there was a larger open area to one side with enough room for several horse boxes. There weren’t any there today, but Sarah was used to seeing the odd one or two when she had come on her days off to walk her dog. That’s a point, she thought, I wonder if anyone has contacted the Forestry Commission to get a list of key holders? All the vehicular access points had the same gates, apart from the one leading from the main car park which had been used by Japp and the fire service on the morning of the explosion, and they would have noticed a van driving up behind them and then driving away again at speed, surely? So, if the van had been driven into the forest, whoever it was would have needed a key. As she walked up to the gate she noticed that it was hanging at a strange angle, and as she got closer still realised that it wasn’t shut properly and the padlock that should have been securing it was dangling by what was left of the hasp. Oh bollocks, she thought, as she called over to Stephens to call for Forensics on the car radio, there goes my walk.