Interview over, Julia felt the need of a fortifying drink. Being unfamiliar with the city, she let Dai lead the way towards the taberna where his team awaited him. Julia followed, carefully not speaking to allow this proud and prickly man time to absorb what the Tribune had to say.
They were walking along a little-used alleyway between two warehouses when they were attacked. A dozen or so burly toughs surrounded them, coming from both ends of the alley simultaneously. Julia touched the emergency alert tab she wore on her wristphone before putting her fingers in her mouth and whistling shrilly.
“I’d be surprised,” she remarked, noticing Dai touching his own wrist device, “if Edbert is actually out of earshot, even if I did dismiss him, but in the meantime.…”
She positioned herself so that she was behind Dai, facing the opposite way. Knowing him to be weaponless she pulled the nerve whip from the back of her belt and pressed it into his right hand. He grunted as his foot took the first thug between his meaty thighs. The man went down whimpering. Secure in the knowledge that Dai had her back, Julia turned her attention to her end of the alley. A huge tattooed figure was running towards her yelling obscenities, and with his hands clawed. She unholstered her personal weapon and shot him through the thigh. He fell to the floor, and she shot a second man as he vaulted his groaning colleague. While the other four were thinking about their options Edbert and the hounds arrived in the company of two angry Praetorians. Satisfied the threat from her end of the alley had been dealt with, Julia turned her attention to Dai’s side. She was pleased, if unsurprised, to find he had managed to incapacitate four of his assailants. Two were running away. Julia shot both in the legs.
“Sorry if that offends, Dai…”
“It doesn’t. I’m a great believer in making examples.” He looked at the nerve whip in his hand. “And this is impressive; we Vigiles don’t get issued them. Or any personal weapons.” Julia looked at his face, expecting to see bitterness and condemnation. To her surprise, he just favoured her with a lopsided smile, and said: “Not your fault. And you did share.”
Came a small commotion at the entrance to the alleyway and a group of Vigiles sauntered in, looking smug.
“What’s afoot here?” the biggest one demanded in haughty tones.
Dai handed Julia her nerve whip.
“Excuse me, domina,” he said, his tone scrupulously polite. “I have merda to shovel.”
He strode over to the group of Vigiles and without any warning ploughed a big fist into the belly of the leader. As the man folded, retching and coughing, Dai turned a furious face to the other five.
“Since when,” he demanded savagely, “did the Vigiles of this city take money to turn a blind eye when law-abiding members of the populace are attacked?”
“And since when did ‘the populace’ think they can get away with attacking servants of Rome?” the biggest of the Vigiles blustered taking a threatening step towards Dai.
Unfortunately for him, the tall Celt was not in a good mood and the man took a well-aimed boot to his solar plexus that had him rolling on the filthy cobbles alongside his confederate.
“Anybody else?” Dai’s voice was dangerously quiet. For an instant nobody moved, then there came a high-pitched whistle from the street. Dai whistled back. His men came thundering in, screaming to a halt as they took in the scene. Bryn was the first to find his tongue.
“What happened, Bard? Scorpius’ thumbs started twitching so we come looking for you. Then your panic alarm sounded…”
“Somebody thought it would be fun to ambush me and the Inquisitor.”
“Inquisitor?” a voice from the back of the group sounded truly confused. Dai gave what Julia was coming to see as his characteristic grin.
“Bryn has had the pleasure already, but the rest of you, allow me to introduce Inquisitor Domina Julia Lucia Maxilla. And before you lot make your minds up there are a couple of things you should know. First, she swears worse than any of you. Second, she loaned me her nerve whip until the cavalry turned up. Plus. See them dogs and the big guy with the muscles. They belong to her. So drop the hostile and take these gentlemen to the Praetorian Barracks where they can be asked some pertinent questions.”
“What, Vigiles and all?”
“Oh yes. I very much want to know who paid them to turn a blind eye. Oh, and Bryn, you lot are moving in with the Praetorians until further notice. All leave is cancelled and you had better call your spouses or the local lupanar and tell them you are not coming home for a few days.”
The middle-aged Vigiles looked at his superior officer with wise eyes.
“That dangerous, is it?”
“Could be. So if anybody wants out I’ll sign you off, on sick-leave.”
Nobody did, and Dai’s men hustled their prisoners into a hovercart and made for the barracks with one Praetorian along to vouch for them.
“I don’t want that drink now.” Even to her own ears, Julia’s voice was as cold as an Appennine snowstorm. “Instead, I’d like a word with the curator of the Augusta Arena. I want to know who paid him to look the other way.”
“Not him, her, one Annia Belonia Flavia.”
Their one remaining Praetorian spat on the ground, and Julia lifted a questioning eyebrow.
“Futatrix,” the man grunted. “One of the lady Lydia’s patrician friends. Too good to talk to the likes of the Tribune.”
“Let’s go ruin her day then, shall we?”
“What a perfectly splendid notion.”