The little house was still and quiet apart from the little office where the three men sat, and even there it was relatively quiet – Graptus and Cleon talked in low voices as they explained their problem to Philemon, automatically moderating their voices to match his. For all that he was old and frail Philemon was clearly not at all deaf, and picked up their every word – occasionally chipping in with a quick question. As these were usually asking for more detail when Graptus had tried to gloss over some aspect of Felix’s disappearance it was apparent that his wits were as sharp as his hearing. Eventually though the tale, or as much as the two friends were prepared to reveal, was told and the conversation became more general, with Graptus asking Philemon about the progress of his great project which was still spread out on the desk to one side of them. Velox started to get restless, clearly deciding that sitting on his master’s feet was all well and good for a while, but now he was bored and wanted to move on.
Graptus realised that now was an ideal time to ask if Cleon could take Velox out to the garden and find him some water to drink – to give him a chance to ask Philemon about what was bothering him, and why he didn’t want to talk about the new strong box. He had his mouth open and was just starting to speak when Philemon held up his hand, asking for silence, and froze as if listening for some small noise. After a few seconds Graptus heard it too, there was a rattling as if someone was trying to open the front door from the outside. He had turned his head slightly to listen better, and as he turned back to look at his old client it struck him that the man looked really frightened. He thought back to their arrival, remembering that Philemon had locked and bolted the door after they had entered, taking the huge iron key with him into the office. At the time Graptus had put it down to Philemon being cautious, as an old man on his own, but now he was wondering if there had been a specific threat that Philemon was worried about. This was confirmed when Philemon’s look of fear turned to panic and distress – the old man pointed towards the kitchen quarters, which were along the side wall towards the rear of the house,
‘The other door! I don’t know if Heuretus locked the door when he went out to the market!’
Cleon was already half way across the room, Velox running circles around him wondering what all the sudden fuss was about, making his way through the rear of the office and to the side door that lead on to the little alleyway which ran along the side wall of the house from the street at the front. Graptus made to go after Cleon, but Philemon grabbed at his robe and stopped him.
‘Paradotus is up to something and I don’t like it! He says he’s bringing some very important people for dinner and I have to keep out of the way because they don’t want to be bothered by an old man, but I think they’re planning something! That strong box isn’t his, he says, he says he’s looking after it for someone – but who keeps their money in someone else’s house? He thinks I don’t notice, but there are often visitors late at night, after I have gone to bed. I don’t like it Graptus, I don’t like it at all, but what can I do? If I say I want to go out and visit you he insists in coming with me. He says it’s to make sure I get to your house safely, but I think he doesn’t want me talking to anyone. What if he’s up to something really wicked, Graptus? What should I do? You know how things are at the moment – I don’t want to be sentenced for conspiracy!’
Graptus could hear Cleon and Velox walking back to the office, and from their unhurried footsteps it seemed that all was well and the side door had been found secure, with no intruders to worry about.
‘Why on earth didn’t you speak up sooner, old friend, instead of letting us worry you about Felix as well? You know you can trust Cleon, and tell him what you have told me, don’t you? He’s one of my oldest friends and would never betray us!’
‘Are you sure, Graptus? Really sure? My life could depend on it, such as there is left of it. You always spoke of the Emperor as a good man, but things have changed! All those senators who have been arrested and condemned to death – the Emperor doesn’t seem to be in his right mind any more -and they say that he has ways of knowing everything that is said in Rome, that his spies are everywhere. What if Paradotus and his mysterious new friends really are plotting something? What if we’re all about to be arrested! Oh, Graptus – what should I do? What can I do?’
‘Try and keep calm, old friend. Yes, I am sure that we can trust Cleon – he may have been an appalling cook and a grumpy nuisance when we were in Britain, but he’s loyal and knows how to be discreet and keep his friends safe.’
Velox nudged the door open and Cleon followed him into the room. Philemon was reluctant at first, but after peering at his face so closely that Cleon started to fidget and wonder if there was some embarrassing piece of breakfast stuck in his beard, he nodded and seemed satisfied. It didn’t take long to bring Cleon up to date, and as soon as he understood what the situation was he asked if Paradotus had the key to the second strong box, or whether this was kept by the mysterious owner.
‘So far as I know Paradotus has no access to the contents – I never see him go near it during the day and he keeps all his money in ours over there. The men who come and go in the middle of the night, I think one of them may have the key. Sometimes I hear sounds as if coins are being carried to or from the office, but they never stay for long.’
Cleon got back up again and walked over to each of the strong boxes in turn. Velox followed him and gave each of them a quick sniff, and then went and lay back down by the chair. Graptus wasn’t sure, but it looked like Cleon was watching the dog rather than at the strong boxes themselves, and seemed relieved when Velox showed no great interest in either of them.
Time was getting on and Graptus was anxious to get on with the search for Felix. He had been sitting, forehead creased with concentration while Philemon and Cleon had been discussing the mysterious night time visitors.
‘Philemon, if you are expecting a guest for dinner this evening then Heuretus will be busy – how are you going to manage to help us search for Felix?’
Philemon smiled, as if Graptus had asked a particularly foolish question, and replied, ‘The gang of street urchins you befriended when you lived here are still coming to the house! Different children, of course, as they grow up and move on and are replaced by younger children in turn. Heuretus is under orders to give them as many leftovers and scraps from the side door as he can, and they have taken to keeping an eye on my rascally nephew for me. Everyone is so used to seeing them running around the streets that no-one ever gives them a second glance, least of all Paradotus, and if he looks like he’s getting into worse trouble than usual then they let me know and I send Heuretus out to carry him home. It would be easy enough to get them to look out for your friend Felix – I was just going to tell them that he’s a friend of a friend who has had an argument with his wife and been kicked out of his house – they’d know where to look, I’m sure.’
Cleon and Graptus looked at Philemon in astonishment – who could have expected that this unassuming old man had access to his own spy network, or that Graptus’s long-ago generosity would have such unexpected consequences?
Cleon looked thoughtful.
‘Why not use your ragtag army to find out who these new friends of your nephew are? Would they have seen them approaching Paradotus when he was out drinking? Maybe they could tell you what they look like, when and how they first met? Have you asked them?’
‘I hadn’t thought of that. They’ve not come to tell me of Paradotus needing to be rescued from a drinking den in quite a while – not since just before the strong box arrived and the night visits started in fact. It’s one of the things that has worried me most – nothing anyone else has ever said or done before has made him be sensible, but these new ‘friends’ of his have done it and it seems to be because he is scared of them. He’s as jumpy as a cat if I start asking questions and he clearly doesn’t want to tell me anything. I’m surprised he’s invited anyone to the house to eat, they’ll be seen coming and going.’
‘Exactly, they will – and if everyone knows that Heuretus feeds the urchins from the street door it won’t seem odd if they are hanging around when you are having a dinner party. Then they could follow these dinner guests home, and find out where they live and who they are. What do you think, Graptus? Would it work?’
‘I don’t see why not – how many of them are there now, Philemon? Are you expecting them to turn up this evening, do they know that Paradotus has a dinner planned?’
‘Oh, the number that turns up varies, anything up to a dozen though. I don’t know when Heuretus last saw them all, they don’t always turn up, but in any case I expect they will have spotted him at the market buying extra food. They know they’re always welcome here and won’t want to pass up on the chance of a feast!’
Graptus gave a little nostalgic sigh, and wondered what had happened to the original children he had fed all those years ago, but shook himself back into the present. It was all very well thinking about better times when he lived here with Arethusa, but they had a friend to find and a new mystery to solve.
‘In that case, Philemon, I shall leave that part of the business in your capable hands. They can keep a look out for Felix and see if they can track down these new…associates…of your nephews. We really ought to be going, we still have a lot of ground to cover ourselves and my legs aren’t what they used to be, so we’ll take our leave and thank you for your help.’
They walked back to the front of the house, and stood as Philemon fumbled to fit the large iron key back into the lock. Velox seemed especially impatient to get going, and Graptus suddenly felt guilty that they had been so long talking, and then they were back out onto the street in the stifling Roman heat. He turned to say a final goodbye to Philemon, but Velox put his front paws up on the outside of the door and sniffed, then dropped back down again and circled the ground in front of the house, nose down and tail up. He snorted and sneezed a couple of times and then set off down the street in the direction of the Pons Sublicius, with Cleon and Graptus in pursuit.
Patrick Spencer sat in front of the computer that he had been allocated and stared at the screen in amazement. CCTV footage had been coming in throughout the day in dribs and drabs, but there wasn’t much to be seen in most of it. All that had changed in a flash, and he wondered what on earth he was going to do with the information in front of him. He quickly copied the video clip to a separate file and uploaded it to his personal dropbox account. It was definitely a move that could get him into a lot of trouble if discovered, but he didn’t want this particular piece of evidence to mysteriously disappear.
He moved the footage on to a section showing nothing but the empty countryside opposite the camera before he even dared to look around the room to see if anyone was watching him, wanting no questions about what he had just seen. He wasn’t entirely sure, but was there a flash of movement as he turned his head – had someone just ducked back behind the monitor of their own computer? He had identified where the movement had come from but couldn’t remember who was sitting at that terminal. He weighed up the pros and cons of making some excuse to walk around the room to have a better look, and decided against it. Whoever it was couldn’t leave their position without him seeing them, so it could wait. All that they could have seen from there was the expression on his face as he absorbed just what it was that he was seeing, and no –one else seemed to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. Which left the question of what, exactly, he was going to tell the rest of the team about what he had found, and when? It was going to look suspicious if anyone found out that he hadn’t passed on the information straight away, but this sort of stuff was career-changing, and not just for him. He needed more time to think, so he decided he had at least a few minutes’ grace. It would, after all, be perfectly reasonable to want to look at the footage either side to see if there was anything else highly significant before alerting anyone.
As an arse-covering exercise he fired off a quick email to Watkins, asking to see him. Nothing to say why, which might lead to the man beetling around immediately, but enough so that if challenged he had something to demonstrate that he had taken action ‘in a timely fashion’. A quick scroll back to the footage before showed nothing untoward. Nothing at all, in fact. The road had been very quiet at that point, which made Patrick double check the time stamp. It was mid-afternoon – the lunchtime rush of traffic had long gone but it was about school run time. This puzzled Patrick until he recalled that some of the local schools had finished for the term and were on their Christmas holidays – he remembered DI Bacon complaining that there were so many Christmas plays and services to get ready for and attend between her two school age children that she was thinking that eating and sleeping were going to have to be optional for a while. He’d let it wash over him at the time, as not being very important, but if all the schools were closed for Christmas that would explain why the road was quiet at that time of day.
He skipped forward to the place he’d paused the recording before checking the room, and went forward from there. The road was still relatively quiet, but traffic started to build up as shops and offices shut and people headed home. Nothing of significance then, not for now, He’d have to go through the rest anyway, of course, but there was nothing so far that would justify delaying the report he knew he had to make, as awkward as it was going to be. He reached for his phone and was about to dial when there was a quiet clearing of a throat behind him. Patrick nearly jumped out of his skin with surprise and was half-way through protesting at being crept up on and startled when he finished turning around and saw that it was DS Watkins standing there. He stopped talking as soon as he could get his mouth to respond to the urgent signals sent from his brain to shut up right now and awkwardly shot to his feet.
Watkins merely smiled at him, in a way that Patrick thought made him look rather smug at the effect he had had. After a further second or so of extreme awkwardness Patrick found his voice again and said that he had been about to call because he had something he thought Watkins ought to see. There was another longer than necessary pause, and the ghost of a triumphant smile, before Watkins responded with,
‘Yes, I saw. Your email arrived just as I finished briefing the Chief Constable, and as you are the only person, so far, to ask to see me I thought I’d better come straight away to see what was of such earth-shattering significance that someone requested my presence.’
Patrick wondered, briefly, just what the DS was claiming to have seen, but remembered that he hadn’t sent the email until after sending the file to himself, so came to the conclusion that Watkins must have been referring to him reaching for the telephone. He thanked all the saints that his grandmother had taught him to pray to, and a few more that she hadn’t, that the DS couldn’t possibly have seen anything other than completely innocent behaviour from him. He still didn’t like the DS’s tone very much, but as a lowly PC, and one whose skin colour was still very much the minority in the police force despite Michael Fuller’s stint as Chief Constable, he was used to having to deal with such things, and people trying to make him feel in the wrong. He mentally filed the behaviour away under ‘Dickhead’ and left trying to decide whether it was ‘racist dickhead’ or just ordinary ‘jumped up snotty-nosed superior officer dickhead’ for later.
Dickheads he could deal with, however – so he relaxed, smiled, and started telling the DS just what it was that he had seen on the CCTV footage. He was very respectful and professional, very careful to make it clear that what he had seen wasn’t indicative of anything criminal by itself and could have a perfectly reasonable explanation, and just generally hedged his statement around with so many caveats that it would have been unreasonable to accuse him of being keen to accuse anyone of anything. He drew up another chair for the DS and they both sat down so that Patrick could play the footage, pausing, rewinding, and skipping forwards as he spoke to illustrate what he was saying. He had left the identity of the person he had seen left hanging, just referring to them as ‘he’ or ‘the man’. Patrick had deliberately delayed getting to the critical part of the video, talking round it to distract Watkins and give as little away as possible, and when the image came up he was looking as closely at the DS’s face as he dared – if he hadn’t been genuinely surprised then Patrick was losing his touch at reading expressions, and he really didn’t think that was the case. He’d been on the look-out for any sign that might show a guilty conscience or prior knowledge of what he was about to see, but there had been none.
Patrick had carried on talking the entire time, not letting his voice show that he was concentrating on the DS rather than what he was showing him, and after he’d paused the footage for the final time he continued,
‘Obviously there are still a lot of video files to go through, Sir, and there’s quite a bit left to go through on this one too. We’re making notes of any car registration plates that can be read as we go, so vehicles can be traced as necessary…’
‘Yes, I’m sure there is quite a lot to go through.’ Watkins reached forward and, before Patrick could protest had taken the USB stick that contained the CCTV footage. ‘I shall take charge of this, it’s quite a can of worms that you’ve found there, no, I think it really is better if I keep this with me. We don’t want it getting to the wrong person, do we? And I think you’d better not talk about what you’ve seen to anyone else, do you understand me PC Spencer?’
Patrick nodded. Short of wrestling the USB off a superior officer there didn’t seem to be much he could do. He looked at the retreating back of Watkins thoughtfully and wondered just how much the man really knew about computers, as he didn’t seem to have noticed that the file Patrick had been playing was on the computer’s hard drive, and the USB stick was only still in the port because he hadn’t bothered removing it after downloading the file. As things were he was glad he’d got his own copy, because he wasn’t entirely sure what game Watkins was playing and whether the file on the computer would remain there if the DS realised it was there.