I’ve raved in the past about Ruth Downie’s excellent Medicus series. I’ve interviewed her protagonist Ruso, and at the end of the month we’ll be publishing a highly-entertaining interview with his wife Tilla on The Protagonist Speaks (I suggest you subscribe to that blog so you don’t miss it – the interview is delicious!).
It gives me great pleasure to be a part of the launch of Memento Mori, the eighth Medicus Mystery. Ms Downie’s words will no doubt do a better job than mine in hooking you on this great series, so without further ado here is the first chapter out of the latest mystery.
Sept 123 AD
It was barely light when the man leaned his elbows on the stone window ledge, stared out at the steam drifting above Sulis Minerva’s miraculous hot waters, and wondered how best to frame last night’s disaster.
The roar and the heat of the blaze had been frightening. Worse were the screams that still echoed in his memory, cutting across the frantic shouts of the rescuers who were slapping at the flames with useless beaters, and flinging buckets of water that had no effect at all.
The fire had been terrible, but that was not the reason Latinus was here to consult the goddess in the chill before the sun awoke. The problem was that two of the three people who had perished in it were visitors.
Of course the deaths were nothing to do with his baths. Nor with the sacred spring in front of him, nor the temple beyond it. But as the news spread, no-one would remember the hundred paces that separated the smoking ruins of the lodging-house from his own safe and comfortable bathing establishment. No-one would care that the visitors who had died, soldiers on leave, had been carousing all evening and were said to be so drunk that even if they had heard the shouts of warning, they would not have understood them. No: the only word that would get around was that Aquae Sulis, the greatest healing shrine in Britannia, was a dangerous place. The gods were angry. The sick—who tended to be nervous types anyway—would think twice about coming here. They would take their ailments and their devotion and their money to other shrines: sacred places where the water might be drearily cold but at least the guests weren’t burned in their beds.
“What should I do, holy mistress?” he asked the steam, very quietly, because the sound of a stifled cough out in the temple courtyard told him Catus hadn’t been able to sleep either.
The goddess did not reply.
Raising his voice, Latinus called out “Hello?” It was something he had taken to doing ever since he had so startled one of Sulis Minerva’s priests that the man tripped on his robe, stumbled over the railings and nearly baptized himself in her waters.
The tall figure of the chief engineer strode into view.
Catus grunted, which was only to be expected from a man with no manners. Still, having started a conversation, Latinus felt he was owed a reply. “Did you find your niece?”
Since Catus’s niece was currently having a fling with a man who wasn’t her husband, it was unlikely she had wanted to be found, especially by her male relatives. Still, they had persisted in searching for her last night long after the fire was under control.
Having expressed his polite and insincere concern, Latinus moved onto the subject any normal person would be eager to discuss. “Terrible business last night.”
But all he got was, “Uh.” And then, “If you see the lad, tell him I’ve started the rounds.”
“I will.” Although since the lad was the one who had likely spent the night cavorting with Catus’s niece in some secret love-nest, the chances of him turning up at this hour were slim.
Latinus heard the jingle of keys and then the service door slammed: Catus presumably heading into the bath suite to check the furnace, and then around to admire the smooth flow of the eternal spring waters as they ran into the Great Bath, around the system and then out and away down the drains. With luck, he would be long gone by the time the visitors flocked in to bathe. The last thing anyone needed today was to be greeted by a bad-tempered water engineer.
Latinus gazed into the gently rising steam. Behind him he could hear the sound of scrubbing and the scrape of cold ash being raked out of the furnace, and Catus’s voice issuing orders to the slaves. As if Catus owned the place. As if any of this would last for long without the visitors. And as if the visitors would be here without Latinus, the manager who made his living—and that of most other people around here—by bringing them in, keeping them happy and keeping them spending. Latinus had once tried to point this out, but the chief engineer had tartly reminded him that without someone to control the waters, the place would still be a weed-infested bog with a few hairy natives peering at each other through the mist.
Today, though, it would fall upon Latinus to protect Sulis Minerva—and coincidentally, his own business—from the fears that would send her worshippers elsewhere. No doubt the council of magistrates, the priests and all the various Associations would meet and argue over how to mitigate the damage. Meanwhile, Latinus had to get on with it.
He would have to call his staff together before opening time. He would tell them—as if they might not know already—about the terrible events of last night, and warn them that the visitors might be a little nervous today, and in need of gentle handling. If asked about the fire, the staff were to stress the number of lives saved. The alertness of the terrier that had sounded the alarm. The demolition of the workshop next door to the stricken inn: a bold act that had created a firebreak. The quick thinking and bravery of the local residents, especially the Veterans’ Association who had been meeting nearby, and had been determined to protect the town’s honoured guests at all costs. Perhaps—
He frowned, distracted by something on the surface of the water. The bubbling of the spring made many strange patterns, but he had never seen one like that. He leaned farther out into the poor light, craning his neck and trying to squint through the shifting vapour. Possibly some prankster with no respect had thrown something unsuitable into the pool. He would have to tell the priests. The temple slaves would fetch the net and fish it out.
For a moment he thought it might be a sudden rush of the black sand that the goddess sometimes sent up from the depths with her sacred water, but it was more tangible than that. Something was drifting about in there. It was as if the figure of the goddess herself were rising up from the depths! It was…
The steam shifted sideways, moved by an unseen current of air.
“Oh holy Minerva!” he whispered. And, before he could stop himself, “This is a disaster!”
Catus must have finished with the furnace and was passing through the hall on his way to inspect the main bath.
Slowly, Latinus extended one finger towards the gently bubbling surface of the pool. He was aware of Catus clambering up beside him, leaning out to get a better look. The engineer gave a stifled cry and drew back from the window. Latinus heard the door crash against the wall and Catus reappeared outside. For a moment the engineer bent across the railings, staring into the pool. Then he stepped over the barrier and sat at the water’s edge. Finally, ignoring the dangers, he took a deep breath, slid in and began to swim.
Latinus made no effort to help, or to interfere. He was transfixed by the sight of the dead woman floating face-down in the steaming water.
Catus had found his niece.
With an opening like that, how can you not be curious to find out what happened next? Go get your copy of Memento Mori, which is available worldwide from today! You can guess what I’ll be reading next.