23. Martha finds herself the centre of attention

Graptus and Cleon walked down the Esquiline Hill, through the forum complex at the base of the Palatine Hill, crossed the Pons Aemilius and walked along the Via Aurelia a short way, before turning off to the left and winding their way through the streets to Graptus’s old house. There wasn’t much conversation between them – they were too busy scanning the crowds for a glimpse of Felix as they walked. They’d taken a slight detour and gone into the entrance of the public baths, built by Emperor Titus at the base of the Esquiline Hill, to ask the doorkeeper there if Felix had used the baths, but Publipor hadn’t seen him since he left Rome. It had been a bit of a long shot, as the tone of Felix’s letter had suggested he would keep away from anyone he knew – he’d hinted that he didn’t want his actions to place anyone else under the merest hint of suspicion – and as Felix had worked on the restoration of the bath complex for a while it would be out of character for him to go there. As they left and headed back onto the streets Cleon turned to his friend, but before he could say anything Graptus pre-empted his question.
‘Yes, I did make sure I asked them all to check the bathhouses. If Felix is staying in one of those flea-pits that pass for lodgings in some parts of the city then he is going to want a decent bath, or he isn’t the man we know – remember how he was so desperate to bathe he tried to persuade us to build a bath complex in the forest for our headquarters?’ Cleon nodded, his face looking like it couldn’t decide between laughing at the memory of Felix’s grand designs, or misery at the reason for their current task. Both men looked as though they would have stood there for a while, lost in their memories and thinking of their missing friend, but Velox started to bark – impatient at their lack of progress and urging them on. He had been given a sniff of Felix’s tunic as they started off and had settled into his normal pattern of walking a few paces ahead of them as they navigated the streets to their destination. Though ‘walking’ was a poor description for what Velox was actually doing – he would run ahead a few yards, nose down, weaving from side to side and investigating any particularly interesting smells. He would stop and look back from time to time, to make sure that he hadn’t outdistanced the two men, and he would wait at junctions until Cleon indicated which way to go. Graptus had been a little worried that he would get confused and run off after they left the relative quiet of the Esquiline Hill, but the dog seemed to know just how far away he was from Cleon at all times, and made sure that he stayed close to his master.
Eventually the crowds thinned out a little as they reached the smaller, more residential, streets where Graptus had made his first home with his wife Arethusa, and then the door of the old house was in front of them. Graptus sighed, and knocked. He had loved his little house, and had been looking forward to living in it when he got back from Britain, but when the time had come for him to move back it wasn’t the same. His beloved Arethusa wasn’t there to share it with him, and it seemed like a completely different place without her. In his absence the roses had been allowed to grow into each other and he was half-heartedly sorting out the tangled mess when the Emperor had given him enough land to build a much more luxurious house on the other side of the city. As he was also staying away from Rome for long periods while working on the Villa Adriana it seemed easier to throw himself into building a new home on the Esquiline Hill, start a new rose garden from scratch, and rent out his old house. It had worked – to a certain extent – and he was content in his new house, but he still felt a wrench whenever he had to return to the home he had shared with Arethusa so very briefly.
They waited, and waited, and were on the verge of knocking again when the door opened as narrowly as necessary for someone to peep out, and the wrinkled face of an old man poked out warily. Graptus, as short as he was, had to look down into the face of Philemon; the man was so bent over with age. Philemon smiled when he saw who it was, but the pleasure was mixed with concern too.
‘Come in, come in – come in and sit down’
‘What are you about opening your own door, Philemon – are you alone in the house, where is Paradotus, where is Heuretus – where is everyone?’
‘Oh, Paradotus is out and about – you know how it is when you’re young – why would my nephew want to stay and talk to an old man? As for Heuretus, he’s out running errands I expect. Paradotus said something last night about inviting a guest for dinner so I suppose he’s sent Heuretus out to the market.

The younger men followed patiently behind Philemon as he shuffled his way slowly around the pool in the middle of the atrium and through the door in the back wall to where his own office was. Not being a man of business or a patron of clients it was more of a comfortable place for Philemon to sit during the day when the weather was too cold to be in the garden, and to entertain the occasional guest. The room still contained a desk and chair, and a cabinet which Graptus remembered containing the household accounts and such writing equipment as Philemon needed. The household’s meagre amount of cash and valuables were kept in a small strong-box to one side of the cabinet. Philemon had been a scribe, and he still took on work from time to time, such commissions as he was able to find without being able to move far from his house. Graptus recommended him to other clients as much as he was able, but most of them had their own scribes so were not in need of anyone else.
When he had no work or company he was used to whiling away his time writing down everything he could remember. On previous visits to the house Graptus had joked that the works of Tacitus were all very well for knowing about Emperors and Senators, but that no-one would remember anything about the slaves and ordinary citizens without whom the grand plans and schemes of the powerful would not have been possible unless Philemon, or someone like him, wrote anything down. Neither of them expected Philemon’s memoirs to be of any interest outside their circle of friends, but it was something to keep the old man occupied when he had nothing else to do. As they walked into the room Graptus could see that Philemon had his project spread out all over the desk – there were tiny scraps of paper, the offcuts from official documents perhaps, absolutely covered in Philemon’s neat writing. These notes, the events and people that were captured on paper as soon as Philemon remembered them, were being woven together into the great work. It was part memoir, part history, as Philemon was also recording things that he had been told – the accounts of things that happened in other places and at other times that Philemon had come across during his long life.

Cleon was already helping Philemon into his chair so Graptus turned around to look for two more seats. As he did so he noticed a new piece of furniture in the room. It was huge and dominated the wall backing onto the atrium. This was a very grand strong box indeed, highly decorated with carvings of deer and wild boar being hunted by Diana and her followers. Graptus gaped a bit at seeing something so unexpected in the house of his client, but gave a mental shrug and moved the chairs over to the other side of the room so they could sit without the desk between them. He was just putting the strong box out of his mind and preparing to ask for Philemon’s help to look for Felix when he noticed the expression on the old man’s face. It was very anxious – fearful even – but also pleading. Philemon was alternately gazing intently at Graptus’s face and glancing towards the new strong box. The old man is searching, he thought, searching for clues as to what I’m going to do or say next – and definitely looking like he hopes I’ll say nothing. At least for now.

Graptus thought for a second, puzzled as to why Philemon should be so worried, but then smiled reassuringly. It can wait until later, he thought. Maybe I’ll send Cleon out to find some water for Velox and some wine for us and then I can ask about what’s bothering the old man so much. By then Philemon was well settled in his chair – Cleon in his too, Velox sitting on his feet – and Cleon was starting to look irritated that Graptus was still standing around staring at the old man when they had important things to get on with. So Graptus sat and started telling the story of their quest, and explaining what they hoped Philemon’s household could do to help.

***************************************************************************

Martha lay back against the pillows and realised that she was feeling woozy and much more comfortable than she had expected. She’d sent Arthur home about an hour ago, reminding him that he needed to go and look after his motley collection of rescue dogs even if he didn’t want to go home and feed himself. He’d gone, reluctantly, and now she was alone. She tried to think back over the day and work out what had happened and when because she was having considerable difficulty in believing that it was still Thursday – the same day as she’d set out to see Stu and his family to ask about the map on the wall. Thinking in straight lines was proving more difficult than usual, and Martha missed having the usual resources of an investigation around to help organise her thoughts. In addition to that her surroundings weren’t exactly conducive to concentration, even if she hadn’t been dosed up on the strongest drugs known to mankind – or so it felt. The nurses were constantly moving around the ward, checking this patient’s blood pressure or seeing why the machine another one was hooked up to had started beeping. On top of all that the lights seemed to be unnaturally bright – they had to be, she supposed, so that the medical staff could see what they were doing, but even so she felt that she needed to close her eyes, just for a second, to protect them from the glare. Just a few seconds more, she thought, and with that she drifted off to sleep.

The next morning arrived before even Martha was ready for it. She’d always been an early riser but she felt that 4am was just a little bit too early, even for her. When she was able to open her eyes and look around it turned out that she’d been disturbed by one of the other patients in the ward. The woman was moaning in her sleep and seemed to be dreaming that she was being attacked by some unknown person – or was it a monster – Martha wasn’t sure from the half-formed words that she could hear from across the ward? She marvelled that no-one else was disturbed by it, but when she looked again pretty much everyone else was awake after all – they were just not sitting bolt upright staring around the ward. Martha realised that this sort of thing must be a regular occurrence and that everyone else had, long ago, decided that the best course of action was to try and ignore the noise and go back to sleep if possible. She lay back down and tried to relax, but found that her brain had kicked into overdrive and was churning over the events of the past few days yet again and realised that she was missing the ability to write things down as she remembered them. She would have to ask Arthur to bring her in a notebook and some pens, she decided, or she was going to drive herself mad by going over the same things again and again.

It seemed that she must have dozed off after that, as the next thing she remembered was being woken up to have her own blood pressure and temperature taken. She tried to ask the nurse when she would be up and about again but, although cheerful and positive, Brigyte was firm in not giving any definite timescales and would only say that Martha seemed to be ‘doing well’ and that the surgeon would be around to see her later that morning. She also mentioned that a physiotherapist would be around to assess her before too long. Brigyte grinned at that in a way that made Martha suspect that there would be some tortuous exercises involved somewhere along the way. Martha wanted to chat and find out more, but Brigyte had already moved away to the next patient on her list, who happened to be the nightmare-plagued woman of the night before. Half of her head and face was covered with a massive bandage, the other half was so swollen and covered with bruising that it made Martha remember Stu’s face and wonder what had happened. Before she had time to think too much about it Arthur walked in and handed her a bag with some things from home, which put a big grin on her face.

The grin broadened when Martha realised that Arthur had brought her such essentials as a book to read, an old mobile phone that had been hanging about in a drawer, and a notebook and pens – but no clean clothes, no toiletries or toothbrush, and no phone charger. Slightly exasperated, and wondering whether her kid brother still had the sense he was born with, she used one of the pages from the notebook to make a list of essentials, together with instructions on where to find them all. He balked a bit at the thought of having to go looking through his big sister’s underwear drawer but Martha calmly pointed out that it wasn’t much different to him taking his turn doing the laundry and that he’d just have to get on with it. After he’d left again Martha had a look at the phone, and then realised that it was utterly useless without a SIM card anyway. Throwing that back into the bag she got the book out and wondered if her brother had gone totally bonkers this time. She had been hoping for an easy read to while away her time in hospital – something to take her mind off the pain that was starting to throb again in her leg now that the painkillers were wearing off. What she had instead was an old copy of a history book that Arthur had bought when the library was selling off old stock. She was sure it was all very interesting, but ‘Roman Ways in the Weald’ wasn’t quite what she had in mind. She idly flicked through the pages and looked at the maps and diagrams without being able to make much sense of them – her head was still whirling from yesterday – and decided that the best (if not the only) thing she could do was to use the notebook to try and make sense of things.

She picked it up and started to make notes, dividing the book up into several sections – one for the disappearance of the Smiths, one for the burglary at Stu’s house, one for the clues that Stu had sent Japp, and so on. She flicked back and forth through the pages adding things as they occurred to her, and then decided that what she really needed was one of those huge boards they had at the police station so she could map out everything she knew so far to see where the gaps were. Oh well, she thought, it’s not like I’m going to be able to do much investigating for the time being.

Another nurse came walking over wheeling a trolley with a portable payphone on it. Martha looked, up a little surprised as she hadn’t asked to make a phone call, but Tomasz was chatting away and explaining that someone ‘very famous’ had called the ward asking to speak to Martha as he wheeled the phone up to the bed and bent down to plug the cord into the nearest socket. He was just getting to the bit where all the nurses had decided that Martha must be very important to get such an urgent phone call the day after surgery, and Martha was feeling very curious to know what this could all be about, when he picked up the handset, pushed a code into the keypad of the phone, listened to check that all was connected and handed it to Martha with the words,
‘Inspector Japp for you!’

Martha laughed, thanked him, and took the phone.
‘Yes? Japp? Just what have you been telling the Ward staff?’
‘Nothing, honestly! I just said that it was critical I speak to you as soon as possible and that the information was too sensitive to be left as a message.’
‘Oh. And is it?’
‘Well, it is, as it happens. DI Bacon has concerns that our investigation is being sabotaged. We don’t know by whom, but it could be someone within this police station. We also think it highly likely that the investigation will be taken out of our hands. Explosions are a whole different ball game and there’s going to be far too much at stake for them to leave things in the hands of a small team like ours.’
Martha was shocked at the thought of outright sabotage, but hadn’t had a chance to say anything as Japp was carrying straight on.
‘Look, I may not have a lot of time – we’re forming a sort of team within a team. There’s Bacon, Nickerson, McKeown, Spencer and myself, and we’re going to need a way to keep in touch and have everyone updated without it being too obvious what’s going on, so we discussed it and wondered if you would be an information hub for us? It would be totally understandable that we all want to visit you from time to time, and if we could leave new information with you, you could pass it around the group without us all having to meet up constantly, which might arouse suspicion. But only if you’re up to it, mind – the last thing we want is to be in trouble with Arthur for delaying your recovery. The man has chainsaws, for goodness sake!’
Martha had been thinking rapidly as Japp spoke, and had already made up her mind by the time he finished speaking. She knew he was joking about Arthur and the chainsaws, but realised he was serious about not wanting to ask too much of her.
‘It’s fine, I’ll do it! I’ve already started making notes because I was trying to sort out what had happened in my head, and I have little else to do apart from physiotherapy and wait for the doctor to give me the all clear to go home – only this morning I was wishing for one of your massive boards so I could map it all out!’
‘That’s not a bad idea – I’ll see if we can arrange one for when you get discharged. We’ll have to be careful while you’re still in hospital though – who knows who could be wandering about and see something we’d rather they didn’t – can you keep your notes hidden?’
‘Oh yes – this notebook is small enough to go in my overnight bag. Besides, I’ll tell everyone who asks that I’m studying local history – Arthur brought me a book that will help the cover story.’
‘Thanks, Martha – that’s great news – I think I can hear people coming, so I’ll catch up with you later. I need to tell the others that you’ve agreed you’ll be charting all our progress!

Japp hung up and Martha put the receiver back on the trolley beside her. Well, she thought, I’m clearly not going to be left out of things after all. She smiled, and that smile broadened when she realised that this meant all her friends from the station were going to visit her regularly – even Japp.

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About kentishlol

Wife, mother of three, dog owner, and rank amateur at everything. You don't really want to know that I bake, knit, garden, make marmalade and sloe gin, do you? Thought not.
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2 Responses to 23. Martha finds herself the centre of attention

  1. betunada says:

    what i need is what you wrote in this chapter: ” one of those huge boards they had at the police station so (s)he could map out everything (s)he knew so far to see where the gaps were.”
    but i know you’re seeing far down the road …

    Liked by 1 person

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