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Authors: David Wishart

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Finished Business

BOOK: Finished Business
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Table of Contents

Previous Titles by David Wishart
The Marcus Corvinus series

















available from Severn House

David Wishart

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly

This first world edition published 2014

in Great Britain and the USA by

Crème de la Crime, an imprint of


19 Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM2 5DA.

Trade paperback edition first published in Great Britain and the USA 2015 by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD.

eBook edition first published in 2014 by Severn House Digital

an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © 2014 by David Wishart.

The right of David Wishart to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Wishart, David, 1952- author.

Finished business.

1. Corvinus, Marcus (Fictitious character)–Fiction.

2. Murder–Investigation–Fiction. 3. Rome–History–

Empire, 30 B.C.-476 A.D.–Fiction. 4. Detective and

mystery stories.

I. Title


ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-063-8 (cased)

ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-547-3 (trade paper)

ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-575-8 (ePub)

Except where actual historical events and characters are beingdescribed for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by

Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Falkirk,

Stirlingshire, Scotland

To the grandchildren: Jade, Joshua, Matthew and Leo


The names of historical characters are given in upper case. Only those who appear, or are referred to, in more than one part of the text are included.

Corvinus’s household

Bathyllus: the major-domo

Meton: the chef

Perilla, Rufia: Corvinus’s wife

Imperials, senators, civil servants and the military

ASIATICUS, D Valerius: Gaius’s former brother-in-law; a wealthy senatorial recluse

BASSUS, T Herennius: a junior finance officer (quaestor), friend of Sextus Papinius

CAESONIA: Gaius’s wife

CALLISTUS, Julius: Gaius’s freedman-secretary, de facto head of the imperial fiscal department

CAPITO, C Herennius: Bassus’s father, an imperial fiscal officer (procurator)

CERIALIS, Anicius: a backbench senator

CLAUDIUS, Tiberius: Gaius’s uncle

CLEMENS, M Arrecinus: co-commander of the Praetorian Guard

GAIUS CAESAR: the emperor (Caligula)

GRAECINUS, Julius: senator and philosopher, currently a city judge (praetor)

LONGINUS, Cassius: Surdinus’s erstwhile colleague in the consulship. Currently governor of Asia, but recalled to Rome by Gaius

MESSALINA, Valeria: Claudius’s wife

PAPINIUS, Sextus: a tribune (officer) in the Praetorian Guard

PAPINIUS, Lucius: his brother; also a Praetorian tribune

Surdinus, L Naevius: the victim

Surdinus, L Naevius Junior: his elder son

VINICIANUS, L Annius: a respected and influential senator, friend of Gaius, and Marcus Vinicius’s nephew

VINICIUS, Marcus: a literary friend of Perilla’s, married to Gaius’s sister Livilla


Cilix: a garden slave on Surdinus’s estate

Crispus, Caelius: Corvinus’s acquaintance in the foreign judges’ office; an expert in scandal

Felix, Julius: Gaius’s freedman-spymaster

Gallio, Naevius: Surdinus’s bailiff

Hellenus (Marcus Naevius Surdinus): Surdinus’s estranged younger son

Leonidas: Surdinus’s estate manager

Otillius, Titus: Tarquitia’s husband

Postuma, Naevia: Surdinus’s niece

Secundus, C Vibullius: Corvinus’s friend in army admin

SOSIBIUS, Valerius: a freedman

Sullana, Cornelia: Surdinus’s ex-wife

Tarquitia: Surdinus’s mistress

Trupho: a heavy


ovember in Rome sucks.

Oh, sure, the temperature’s still OK, and in any case, me, I’d far rather have to put on an extra tunic than be broiled alive as happens in the summer months, when most of the Great and Good head for the Alban Hills or further afield. But November is wet, wet, wet; things can get pretty miserable after the fifth consecutive morning of trudging through the rain-soaked streets for your Market Square shave-and-gossip, and until you get to the end of the month, the Winter Festival seems a lifetime away. So, barring the days when the sun does consent to shine – and they can be glorious – I generally stick pretty close to home.

Which was what I was doing, with the usual half-jug to keep me company, when our major-domo, Bathyllus, buttled in to say I had a visitor.

‘The Lady Naevia Postuma, sir,’ he said. Smarmed. Yeah, well, I knew the reason for that as soon as he mentioned the name: Bathyllus is the snob’s snob, and it wasn’t often we got a visit from the wife of the senior serving consul. Particularly when she was a total stranger.

I sat up straight on the couch just as the lady herself sailed in.
being the operative word, or maybe
would be more apt. Something suitably nautical, anyway, not to say aggressive, because Naevia Postuma had a nose like a trireme’s beak and the armoured superstructure to match. Plus an overall weigh-in tonnage that would’ve been enough and to spare for two consuls’ wives. Luckily for him, our little bald-head had stepped aside pretty smartly to let her past, or he would’ve been scuttled.

‘Valerius Corvinus! It is
nice to meet you!’ She hove to and glanced behind her. Bathyllus quickly pulled up a chair and she docked, smoothing her voluminous but impeccable mantle around thighs as thick as tree trunks. ‘I was, though, also hoping to see your wife?’ There was the faintest tinge of a question at the end.

Mid-morning’s not exactly the time a visitor from the top social bracket expects to see the visitee sinking the booze. As surreptitiously as I could, I replaced the wine cup on the table beside me and tried to look as if I’d only been taking the occasional sip, possibly for medicinal reasons. Not that it worked, mind: the cup got a look that had ice forming on the inlay.

‘Ah … Perilla’s out, I’m afraid,’ I said.

‘So it would appear.’ The Look turned to me, just long enough to register but stay within the boundaries of politeness. ‘A pity, but no great matter. I did have my reasons, which I will come to in due course, but fortunately my principal business is with you.’

. Yeah, right. Still, I was the host here, and the duties of a host are sacrosanct. ‘Could I offer you some refreshment, Naevia Postuma?’ I said.

‘Very kind. If your kitchen staff could provide a cup of warmed milk? With a spoonful of honey, and just a touch of nutmeg.’

‘Sure,’ I said. Warm
? ‘No problem. Bathyllus, would you—?’

‘Buffalo’s, or goat’s at a pinch. Certainly not sheep’s, please, and warm cow’s milk is an abomination of nature.’ Well, I’d agree with her there. ‘I drink nothing else at this time of day, in this weather.’ The wine cup got another pointed glance. ‘Nor should you.’

‘Right. Right. Bathyllus, ah, see what you can do, pal, OK?’ Like find a passing goat to mug. Outside bet though that was, you saw even fewer buffaloes than goats on the Caelian, and I doubted if their milk featured to any great extent in our chef Meton’s store cupboard. ‘Now, Naevia Postuma. About this business of yours …’

She sniffed. ‘I would have thought that was obvious. If not its precise nature, then at least in general terms.’


‘Certainly, with the exercise of some basic nous
on your part.’ Ouch. ‘According to various friends of mine with whom I discussed the matter, you have considerable past experience in handling, ah, problems of this sort – which, although personally I find a little eccentric in someone of your social class, is rather convenient, under the circumstances. It concerns a murder.’

‘Uh … is that so, now?’

‘Of my uncle, Naevius Surdinus. You knew him, of course.’

‘No, I can’t say that I did.’

She frowned. ‘That is extremely odd. He certainly knew you, or at least he knew your family. And he most definitely knew your wife, Rufia Perilla, of that I’m positive, for reasons which, as I said, I will come to.’ Then, when I still looked blank: ‘Lucius Naevius Surdinus? Suffect consul with Cassius Longinus ten years ago?’

‘I’m sorry. No bells. I can’t answer for Perilla, mind. She gets about socially more than I do.’

‘Well, again it’s no matter. Although it is strange.’

I prompted, ‘A murder, you said.’

‘Yes. At his estate on Vatican Hill. His head was crushed by a lump of masonry.’

Delivered straight out and deadpan, without a smidgeon of expression.

‘He was hit from behind?’

‘Oh, no. From above. A considerable way above. The block came from the top of a tower at the edge of the property, some distance from the villa itself. Uncle Lucius was having it renovated and he liked to see how the work was progressing.’

‘Renovated? Then it was in poor condition?’

‘Dreadful. Ruinous, in fact. It was centuries old, originally some sort of watchtower, I think, and it had been abandoned for years. He’d taken a fancy to turn it into a philosopher’s sanctum. Philosophy was his hobby, you know, or rather more than a hobby, particularly astronomy and astrology. Also, he wanted somewhere quiet to take himself off to on an evening. Away from the villa itself.’

‘Oh? Why would he do that, especially?’

‘For the usual reason. Uncle Lucius was married, to Cornelia Sullana, and the marriage was not a particularly happy one. These things happen, of course, and when they do it’s good for both parties concerned to have some private space. Or don’t you agree?’

‘Yeah. Yeah, I suppose so.’

‘Mind you, I should say that when he died – that was three days ago, by the way – he and Sullana had been divorced for almost a month, so that aspect of things was academic.’

‘You, uh, know the reason? For the divorce, I mean?’

‘No. He gave none, neither to me nor to anyone else – Sullana, presumably, excepted. And I didn’t ask, because it was no business of mine. Besides, as I said, he and Sullana had not been a couple, properly speaking, for many years. That might well be reason enough. Although …’ She stopped.


‘Nothing. Or nothing that I wish to expand on. As I say, it wasn’t my business.’

I shelved that for the time being. ‘Did they have any family?’

‘Two sons, both living. Lucius Junior, the elder, intends to run for praetor this coming year. The younger, Hellenus – Marcus, really, but he prefers the nickname, and the family indulge him – is, well, rather a disappointment.’

‘In what way?’

‘He’s an artist.’

I stared at her. ‘He is

‘Yes, I
, Valerius Corvinus. Totally dreadful, and a serious embarrassment to his poor father, but there it is, what can you do? Young people today, I don’t know what the world is coming to. He absolutely
to enter on a proper political career – I mean, refused point blank, if you can imagine that. He and his parents are estranged, and although Uncle Lucius never went as far as to disinherit him, there’s been, to my knowledge, no contact with either his father or his mother for at least the past two years. He has, I understand’ – she sniffed – ‘a workshop or a studio or whatever you’d call it somewhere near the Circus, and there he stays.’

Yeah, well, not that I was going to let on to the lady, but I could sympathize with that because I’d done more or less the same myself, barring the art bit. And knowing how my own father had reacted when I told him where he could put his plans for my future, I could appreciate how Hellenus’s had felt. Not to mention the guy’s mother: anyone with the name Cornelia Sullana belonged to one of the top families in Rome, and those lads and lasses are sticklers for tradition. An artist as a descendant would have the old dictator himself spinning in his urn.

‘Getting back to the business of the tower,’ I said. ‘You say it was in a very bad condition.’

‘Oh, yes. Completely ramshackle, particularly the upper storeys. The builders Uncle Lucius hired to do the renovations are charging him a fortune because they say they’re taking their lives in their hands working on it.’

‘Then your uncle’s death could’ve been an accident? I mean, the weather now being what it is, if he’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time—’

‘It was quite definitely murder, Valerius Corvinus,’ she said firmly. ‘The family and everyone else will tell you differently, of course they will, but I know that for a fact. Alexander told me.’

‘Who’s Alexander?’

Alexander.’ Then, when I looked blank, ‘Oh, really, young man! Get a grip, please! King of Macedon? Philip’s son?’

I was boggling slightly.

‘Ah … right,’ I said. ‘Right.’

‘I presume you had

‘Yeah, well, it’s just that—’

Which, luckily, was when Bathyllus smarmed back in with one of our best silver cups balanced on its matching tray.

‘The chef apologizes, madam.’ He set the tray on the table beside her. ‘We seem unaccountably to be out of buffalo milk, but he hopes goat’s will suffice.’

Uh-huh. I smothered a grin. Knowing our Meton, whatever he’d said when Bathyllus had relayed the order, it hadn’t been that. What’s more, I’d bet he’d qualified the nouns with a few choice adjectives and participles of his own, too.

‘I’m sure that will be perfectly adequate.’ She sipped, and I winced. ‘Yes, indeed. Delicious.’

Bathyllus bowed and buttled out.

‘Ah … you were talking about Alexander, Naevia Postuma,’ I said, and added carefully, just in case I’d got it wrong after all, ‘Alexander the Great, that would be, yes?’

That got me a look that should’ve curdled her milk. ‘Naturally it would,’ she said. ‘I must say, Valerius Corvinus, from what I’ve heard about you, I’d’ve expected you to be much quicker on the uptake than that. Alexander is my control.’


‘In the spirit world. Regarding my uncle’s murder, he was quite definite. As he was, in fact, that I should follow my friends’ suggestion and consult you on the matter. I’ve never known him so insistent.’ She sipped again. ‘This really is quite delicious. Hymettus honey, I do believe, and from flowers grown on the southern slopes.’

‘Yeah. Yeah, very possibly. So, ah, let’s just be absolutely clear about this, shall we? You’re saying that your only reason for believing that your uncle was murdered is that Alexander the Great told you so, right?’

‘Indeed. But there is no
about it. Alexander is never wrong. Never. And he says that it is absolutely vital that you find the murderer.’

‘He vouchsafe why?’ Or best of all, just give the stupid woman the name of the fucking perp straight out and save us all a lot of time and grief faffing around. But then for some arcane celestial reason, that never happens with chatty spirits, does it?

‘I’m afraid not, no. Only that it was of the utmost importance.’

Well, bully for Alexander. This thing needed nipping in the bud before it went any further. ‘Now look, lady …’ I began, just as Perilla breezed in from her honey, wine and poetry klatsch.

‘Hello, Marcus,’ she said. ‘Bathyllus said you had a visitor. How lovely to see you again, Naevia Postuma. And how is your husband, the consul?’

‘Gaius is very well, thank you, my dear. He would send you his regards.’

‘What a beautiful mantle. Is it new?’

‘Actually, yes, as it happens. From a little shop that’s just opened in the Saepta. Next to Argyrio’s. You know it?’

‘Fabatus’s? Oh, yes, although I haven’t been there yet myself. Calventia Quietina told me about that when I talked to her a few days ago. She said—’

Jupiter on wheels! ‘Ah … Perilla,’ I said. ‘Naevia Postuma here thinks her uncle has been murdered. She wants me to—’

‘I don’t
it,’ Postuma snapped, turning back to me. ‘I
. And I have explained why, fully and concisely.’

‘Because Alexander the Great told you so,’ I said neutrally, with one eye on Perilla. The lady had parked herself on her usual couch. She looked remarkably unfazed at the news, which I thought under the circumstances was pretty odd.

‘Quite.’ Postuma reached into the fold of her mantle and took out a small book-roll. ‘However, I’m glad you’re here in person, Rufia Perilla. It makes things
simpler. As I told your husband, my visit had two purposes. This is the second.’ She handed the roll to Perilla. ‘As you can see, there’s a letter attached.’

Perilla took the roll and read the tag.

‘Hipparchus’s commentary on the
of Eudoxus,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand.’

Postuma sniffed. ‘To tell the truth, my dear, I haven’t the faintest idea of the whys and wherefores myself. My uncle left it to you in a codicil to his will which he added only a few days ago, and in this instance I am simply the messenger. Perhaps the letter will explain.’ She got to her feet. ‘Now, I’m afraid I have a very tiresome committee meeting to attend at Queen Juno’s temple this morning, and I must be running along.’ The mind boggled: Queen Juno’s temple was halfway across town, on the Tiber side of the Aventine, and
was something the lady just wasn’t built for. ‘
nice to see you both. You will, of course, accept the commission, Valerius Corvinus. I will see to it personally that my uncle’s family give you every cooperation.’

And she was gone.

BOOK: Finished Business
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