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Common (A Falco Story)


groundcontrol

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Hello :) After a busy couple months of travel and family and other things, I have finally checked back into the Forum. I've come with another story, because I'm a terrible person and have immense trouble sticking with ideas :nosad: Someday, someday, I'll finish my other ongoing original story, but not today. I do feel very bad about this, but my inspirations jump around, and who am I not to follow? I wish they would stay put but oh well... 

On to this story. There is a series of books by Lindsey Davis about a Roman private informer (practically investigator/detective) named Marcus Didius Falco. This story is about him, too :) There is also a BBC radio drama based on a few of the books, though I haven't seen that. The first book, The Silver Pigs, is very, very good, and among its many other virtues includes a sneezing-while-hiding scene. Yes, Falco is hiding in a pepper warehouse ;)

I'm no scholar of Ancient Rome (especially the names, ye gods!), but here goes! Since I like to jump from project to project, I intend to make each section capable of standing alone, though hopefully there will be a nice plot. 

-----


    It was late April, perhaps the most beautiful time of year in Rome, and I had a tragedy on my hands. The oleander bushes and poplar trees were in bloom in the nicer parts of the city, and this natural beauty could have very well distracted me from the unsavory nature of my own Aventine Hill and even from the writhing mass of bodies at the Forum.


    What the pleasant weather could not distract me from, however, was the full blown head cold I was coming down with. It had begun with a prickly throat and a headache weighing upon me the previous evening. When I had awoken this morning, considerably later than usual (even I had my standards), I found that neither of these unfortunate companions had left me and had instead invited a third: a blocked nose. So I did what any other man of such limited pride would do; I dragged myself down to the Forum to do my self-pitying there.


A Gaulish man with a monkey on a leash made from rope walked straight into me, and I stepped on his toes. I weighed my options. Either I could go sniffing (or sniffling, in my current condition) around for a case, and be miserable while working it or I could lounge around caseless and moneyless while I recovered and be miserable for a long time afterward. In no time I had opted for the former; a beating from Smaractus’ gladiators for not paying rent would likely do me more damage than my infirmity. Though at the rate I was disintegrating, I was not so sure.


I did my best to hold my breath as I passed a market stand that sold cheaply pressed flowers, but the damn squash brain in front of me held me up. I took a deep breath in--a huge mistake--and “Hehh-ishh!” From the tingle in my nose, I could tell, the first of many.


    Because my general laziness in preparing food actually had an excuse for once, I decided to chance my mama for a spot of pity and a bit of a cake before I sought out Petro for a case. Upon later reflection, I realized I should’ve taken this thought as the first sign of my fever. My mama could pity every man my age in Rome ten times over before she even considered me.


When I came into her kitchen, as usual there was a whole round of fresh new faces eating bread and olives as well sitting beside the children I was actually related to. Mama turned around for exactly five seconds.


“You’ve been drinking too much.”


“Actually, Mama, I haven’t had a sip since--since… Ah’TSCHOO! AH’tchmpf!” I sniffled and brought a quick knuckle to my nose. “Since last week, probably.”


She made no further comment, so I endeavored to do it for her. “Making cinnamon cakes?” What little I could still smell made me salivate like a puppy.


I took another sniff too deeply. “Heh’ESSHH! Hi’ISHH!” I wrenched my body away from my mother and her cooking, covering my face with a loose hand.


“What are you doing, sneezing all over my kitchen?”


“I'm sick, mama.”


“Ha! That's what you get for living in that grungy apartment. One day you'll probably catch the plague.”


Glad to know I had my mother’s sympathy. When he was alive, my brother Festus could have come home with a hangnail, and my mama would have hung up her apron at the sight of it. 


My sister, Victorina, emerged with a young child asleep in her arms. Naturally, that didn't bother her in the slightest as she shouted her greetings to me. 


“Marcus!” The child didn't flutter an eyelash. “What brings you round? Staying for dinner?”


I cleared my throats with a wince. “No, just stopping by before I pick up a case.”


“Have you been eating enough Falco? You look a bit peaky. I know how the sun gets to you when you haven't eaten. Remember the puppet show outside the bakery--”


“Yes, yes,” I snapped, not requiring a visit back to all of my childhood shortcomings. “I'm fine. Just a bit of a cold.”


Victorina cooed pityingly, then took to jabbering on about her husband. She'd barely paused to take a breath, when I noticed the first of the cinnamon cakes rolling out of the oven. I bid a quick farewell and snatched a cake before bolting to the door. My mama screamed obscenities after me, but I knew she was not too upset because she didn’t send a child army out to stop me. For that I was grateful as I sunk my teeth into the warm pastry. 


I went through the crowded streets of Aventine Hill, jostling with carts and market stands and pedestrians alike. However, I was scarcely coming up on the six story apartment building I called home when someone shouted at me from a back alley. 


“Where are you hurrying off to, Falco?” 


Smaractus’ gladiators, greased and dirty, straight from the gym. With the ounce of brainpower the two shared between themselves, they managed to focus on me and sneer. Muscles twitched beneath their grimy clothing, eager for something to kick. Shame that something was going to be me. 


“Gentlemen, please,” I said, holding up my hands in surrender as I racked my brain for what I had done wrong this time. I even paid most of my rent last month, a marked improvement. I coughed into my shoulder. “Surely we can discuss whatever this is later.”


Not surprisingly, the gladiators couldn't understand such a sophisticated suggestion, and I soon found myself laying on my side with the imprints of boots burning in my ribs. I struggled to sit up, then leaned against the alley wall. 


Heh’TSCHOO!” My head was suddenly fogged, and it was all I could do just to stand. “Ahh’kshh’uh!” I wiped my nose with my handkerchief and stumbled slightly to the side as I walked. Every little symptom I had had earlier sprang upon me now with beating fists. 


“Falco!” Lenia, my laundress and landlady called out to me as I approached, waddling with a basket of linens in her solid arms. She toed her bleach bucket, filled with the urine of a host of tenants. “Feeling generous?”


“Not today, Lenia,” I mumbled, sliding past her and coughing softly into my fist. I paused in the doorway, beneath the fluttering cover of clothes on a line. “Hihh’hey’ISHH!” 

I lived on the six floor of the apartment building, and the stairs, daunting to a man in pristine health and who was not just kicked brutally in the ribs, left me jelly-legged and with sandpaper in my throat when I finally reached my little place. Idly I remembered my hunger, and my overflowing bin of trash called for me to tidy up, but nothing was more appealing to me in the present moment than my humble bed. I collapsed upon it, taking great pains to swallow. 


One good thing about living in the clouds was that the vivacity of Rome settled to an ambient background noise. Yelling and laughter faded to whispers, thundering wagon wheels to a mumble. Because of this, I was able to, in late afternoon, bury my heavy head in a pillow and nod off. I never thought I'd speak praises of the mangy place, but there I am. 
*******
I was roused from a dreamless sleep by a knocking on my door. Coughing slightly so as not to aggravate my rib, I called out hoarsely. “Open.”


In stepped Petronius Longinus, a member of the city watch and a friend of yours truly. Vaguely, I recalled wanting to go and ask him about a job earlier. I shivered; I had a fever. 


“Falco?” he called from my kitchen. 


“Make yourself a--Ah’HESSH’oo! Hah’issh’aahh!” I sneezed openly and sniffled wetly, idling wondering what I had done with my handkerchief. “A drink. I'll be there--Hah’ESSH! Ugh… Soon.”


Petro popped his large face into my room, and his eyes grew wide. “Mars Ultor, what's happened to you?”


“What?” I said thickly, flopping my arms open across the bed. “Never seen the mighty man struck down by a common ailment?”


“Where’s Helena Justina?” I heard a pop, then Petro coughing wickedly from the kitchen. 


“I see you've found the Etruscan.” I called the wine so because it tasted as though it had been raided from one of the ancient tombs. “And she's gone a few days, visiting some cousin’s husband’s brother's dog’s something-or-other in the north of Italy.”


Petro came into my bedroom, holding a goblet of wine in each hand. Zeus, I hope I had cleaned those at some point. He held one out to me. 


“Still the Etruscan?” I asked, he nodded.


“After the initial shock, it’s got a nice sharpness to it.”


I shook my head, massaging my sore throat. “Spare me.”


Petro shrugged and began alternating sips from both cups. I closed my eyes and rubbed my aching head. 


“Tell me. When you came in, there wasn't a little girl anywhere, was there?”


Petro cocked his eyebrow at me. “No.”


“Good. Just making sure Marcia wasn't hanging around here without my…” A tickle was brewing. “Without my--my knowing! Ah’TSCH!” My last word ended on a squeak as I tried to finish my sentence before my spasm. I twisted to the side so as not to sneeze directly at Petro, who had taken a seat on the edge of my bed. My bruised ribs burned in protest, and, inadvertently, I held my side and gave a small cry. 


“What is it?” Petro asked. 


“I had a run-in with Smaractus’ jellyfish,” I said, clasping a hand to my swollen neck and wishing it didn't hurt so much to simply talk. The next words came out more pitifully than I intended. “My rent isn't even overdue yet. I paid most of it last month.”


“Is the skin broken?”


Since I honestly wasn't sure, I peeled back my toga to inspect. A maroon bruise had enveloped about half of my left-side ribcage. “Doesn't look like it. Heh’TCH! Oh…” Without a shred of dignity to spare, I wiped my streaming nose with the back of my wrist. “You don’t happen to see a ha--hihh--handkerchief, do you? Ah’KISSHH!” That one scraped against my throat, launching me into a fit of coughs painful in more ways than one. 


Petro unearthed one, and I made use of it gratefully. Having been in the army together for five years in Britannia, we'd seen each other in all manner of unsavory states. Still, that was a little while ago, and now I was less embarrassed as frustrated at my own body’s pathetic mess. I had had more than my fair share of damage inflicted upon me by a zealous outside party (my current bruise an uncomfortable reminder), but it had been years since I had felt so awful because of my own body’s insubordination. 


“You know, Falco,” Petro began, an uncharacteristic softness in his voice. That, combined with his sitting on the edge of my bed made it seem as though I were dying, which I didn't appreciate. 


“Since when did you become a nursemaid?”


He bristled slightly, and I felt proud I could still have that effect on him. “What I was going to say is that I came here with a case for you.”


“Why else would someone climb all six flights at this hour in the morning?”


“Falco, it’s nearly noontime.”


I blinked. He continued. 


“There is a case, but are you sure you shouldn't rest a few days before you set off to work?” His eyes softened. “You've been through alot in the past year.”


Indeed I had, from meeting Sosia to losing her, to Britain silver mines, to “marriage”, my year had been quite… eventful, to say the least. The prospect of bedrest tempted me, at least until this feeling of lead had left my bones, but then I remembered my bruised ribs. 


I sniffed thickly. “If I don't work, I don't have money, and if I don't have money, I end up unconscious in a laundry basket. It's the law of life. My life, at least.”


Petro looked skeptical, but gave me a rundown of the case anyway. “Gaius Justus, the senator, has a dog who's been poisoned.”


I laughed, but Petro forged on. 


“He found a female servant dead the same way just yesterday. And last night at dinner, a bird pecked his grapes and keeled over on the spot.”


I exhaled lowly. “That's what we know?”


“One of his daughters is a Vestal Virgin.”


I nodded, the cogwheels in my mind awakening in the fog. This case was nothing to sneeze at, but on account of my present condition, that is precisely what I did. 

 

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