The events in this story take place about three years before those of Murder In Absentia.
Felix is hired to deal with some strange sanitation issues.
I pushed the burnt body with the toe of my boot. The charred remains shifted, slid, turned over. The face was still barely recognisable, as the burns were from the legs up. Or whatever that remained of the legs, that is, the charred femurs were sticking out of the stumps of black flesh that used to be a person.
“We are certainly on the right track, then,” I said to Milon. I didn’t know who the dead man was prior to his agonising demise, but from what remained of his tunic and the dagger lying next to him I guessed he had the honour of being my predecessor in this task. We continued down the sewer tunnel, walking amidst the human effluence and decaying organic matter floating lazily in the dark waters.
I had a guess at what we were tracking down, and had made my best efforts to prepare for it. Or second best efforts. If I was right, the best course of action would have been to drop a note with the vigiles on my rapid way out of town. But that would mean not getting paid, and not getting paid meant not eating, and worse – not drinking.
So here I was. Up to my ankles in foul smelling sewage, accompanied by a large ex-gladiator who obviously suffered too many blows to the head, armed with my dagger and leading a recalcitrant goat.
I should have gotten a sheep.
It started a few weeks ago, in the Subvales. Being the Subvales – the slums and stews of Egretia, with its large tenements housing the poor and the foreign – nobody cared.
A child gone missing. A slave found dead, bitten by animals. A drunkard mumbling about monsters in the public latrines.
Until one time, when it hit people who matter. When rival gangs clashed… let me back up for a minute. You’re not from here, right? I better explain a few things. Our people are superstitious, you see. We attribute our success to the gods, and in particular to Fortuna who has always graced our fair city. But it’s not just the big gods, the numina, oh no. There are gods everywhere. Every house and every family have their lares and di penates; every place and aspect of life is controlled by the shapeless, faceless divinities whose presence is felt but not seen. The word itself – numen – means a nod of the head, as if the gods are making their presence known by nodding at you.
But I digress. These gods, like I said, are everywhere. Crossroads, for example. And in honour of the crossroad lares, we have crossroad colleges who are supposed to take care of the local god. But in places like the Subvales, these are often no more than drinking dens for local gangs that run protection rackets and other, less savoury, operations. Or perhaps because these intersections are less than salubrious, then their gods are so too and the colleges for them just reflect that.
Anyroad, when brutes from one crossroad college invade the territory of another college, violence ensues. And one day when a tough from the college at the intersection of the Clivus Condivi and the Clivus Calathus wandered down the street a bit too far and went into a public latrine next to the college at the intersection with the Clivus Sandaliarius, the members of the rival college decided to teach him a lesson.
A gang of them quickly left their establishment in various stages of inebriation, and walked in to the latrine after the rival member. Normal citizens disappeared like piss in a public bath. The gang cornered the sitting man, pinned him down. They decided to have some fun with him by way of teaching him a lesson, and managed to turn him over and push his head into the latrine seat hole.
And proceeded to gang rape him. The man was screaming, of course. Insults and threats at first, and then just incoherently in pain. But when the third assailant was busy with his rear end, the man suddenly let out a horrid scream, which ended abruptly.
The gang paused. Drew back from the suddenly limp man, who remained on his knees with his head still stuck down the latrine. One of them kicked him, and the body rolled to the floor of the latrine. It was headless – a charred and mangled stump where its neck ended.
And so came my commission. None of the members of the college wanted to go down to the sewers to find out what was hiding in there. It was not in their nature to appeal to the vigiles, even if the vigiles would have listened to them. So they found someone desperate enough for cash, and paid him to resolve the problem.
The goat was getting antsy. It refused to move, and considering she was the bait I found it improper that she should walk behind me.
“Let’s swap,” I told Milon. “I’ll hold the torch, and you carry the stupid thing. When I give the command you throw it. Understood?”
He blinked twice before nodding. Obviously Crassitius thought this whole thing was suicide, and didn’t risk any of his better possessions on this case.
We continued down the sewer line. On this side of the Meridionali the lines were running down and to the east, to empty later near the mouth of the river Fulvius. Because of the construction and the lay of the land, there were many bends and nooks in the tunnels, as well as connections coming from smaller lines coming down the hill. We proceeded with caution, not wishing to be surprised and become prey ourselves.
At last I started to smell an acrid smell above the stench of the place, and felt the tell-tale tingling on my skin that is always in the presence of magia. The nests of mythological creatures tend to absorb some of the inherent magia that animates them, which in turn can be felt later by those sensitive to it.
By the light from my torch I saw a dark opening, which I judged to be a niche in the tunnel. I touched Milon’s arm, and whispered to him to put the goat down. I took out an iron hook peg, wedged it in between the rough blocks of stone in the wall, and then tied the goat’s rope to it.
I looked around and spotted a discard left shoe. I picked it up, we retreated a few steps, and I threw the shoe into the niche ahead. I was lucky – or unlucky – as shoe made more than just a noise. It also hit something inside there.
We heard a hit, a snort, a scuffling sound, and out slithered a huge lizard. It had a black body striped with yellow, a stubby wedge-shaped head on a short neck, and clawed feet on short, stout legs. We could see wisps of fire licking out of the salamander’s mouth. It was about the size of a large mastiff.
We retreated even further from its angry hissing, as the goat was bleating madly and trying to run away. It then managed to tear itself off the makeshift peg, and the salamander wasted no time in giving chase. Unfortunately the idiot goat was running towards us, and we had no wish to be part of the salamander’s dinner.
We bolted and ran away, until behind us we heard a loud ‘baaa’ cut short with a crunch. We slowed down, and listened to the sound of the monster chomping down on its dinner. We didn’t hang around though, in case it was still peckish when it finished.
I was sitting at The Pickled Eel with my friend Crassitius, the owner of Milon, and the man who paid my fees, Gnaeus Egnatius.
“But how can we be sure that this is the end of it?” asked Egnatius.
“Simple,” I said and put a few scales on the table. “Just take this to a reputable merchant, and he’ll verify that they came off a salamander. If you think the thing was still alive when I took it off it, you clearly have never seen one.”
“Well, no, I haven’t,” said Egnatius. “And I still don’t understand how you knew what to do.”
I took a sip of mulsum and explained again. “Your men found that headless corpse, remember? It was obvious that a monster was responsible, and not many are known that breathe fire. It didn’t take me long to discover that your rivals have somehow managed to get their grubby hands on a salamander egg. They planned to hide it in your college and hoped that when it hatched it will cause havoc. It worked, too – except that the slave you keep to clean the place is rather dim-witted. She found the egg and put it in the kitchen, where your cook found it and thought it has gone off. So he chucked it in the gutters with the trash, where it rolled off to the sewers. All this I learnt by asking the right questions together with the right bribes.”
I sipped my mulsum and continued. “There it hatched and made a home for itself. At first it was feeding on rats, but salamanders grow extremely fast. It soon learnt to hunt down small children and drunks. The vigiles wouldn’t listen to the poor that live here, and neither did you when those who pay you for protection complained. So it grew.”
“But how did you kill it then?” asked Crassitius.
“Well, once I was certain I was dealing with a salamander, it was obvious that hunting it down like some hero from the Hellican legends would have me end up like said heroes – long dead. Hence the goat. I bought some nasty poisons – hemlock, nightshade, bitter almonds – and brewed a nasty concoction. I couldn’t just feed it to the goat, as I doubted the salamander would go for dead meat. So I washed the goat – not a fun thing, let me tell you – and rubbed the mixture into its pelt, together with some aromatic herbs to mask the smell of the poisons. Once we found the lair of the beast, we let it eat the goat. Your man Milon should attest to that,” I nodded at Crassitius.
“Indeed. He’s slow, but he described the thing and what you did down there,” said Crassitius.
“Good. Once the monster ate the poor creature, all we had to do was wait and hope a little. The poisons act fast, even on a beast that size. We returned later, and found it dead. That’s when I got the scales off it.”
I drained my wine and picked up the heavy purse of coins from the table. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to donate some of these fees to Cloacina for letting me escape alive, and get myself treated to a good long soak at the baths.”
If you enjoyed this Felix short mystery, why not give Murder In Absentia a chance? For the price of a coffee, you’ll get many hours of enjoyment!