The door slammed shut behind him and the solid sound of bolts shooting home followed, reinforcing the sense of finality. The room was a depressing dull grey from ceiling to floor. It was square with two beds, bunks, running the full length of one sidewall and essential facilities in the far corner. Zero privacy from either his cellmate or, through the door hatch, from the custodius. Above the door a vent the size of his fist was vibrating with an annoying humming-whine as it reluctantly circulated fresh air.
“Llewellyn? What did they drag you in here for? Sticking your nose too deep in someone else’s business?”
The voice was vaguely familiar, though Dai was slow to place it as the shaven head of the man sprawled on the lower bunk was not. His puzzlement must have shown because the man swung his legs over the side of the bunk and sat up.
“I don’t suppose you remember me. It was some months ago and I’m sure you’ve been a busy Submagistratus since then.”
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t…”
The other man laughed, which turned into a cough part way before he was able to speak again. “Gods! Politeness. Not heard a word of that since they locked me in here.” He pushed himself to his feet and straightened the green tunic, before offering a formal greeting. “Tertius Cloelius Rufus. It is an honour to share my captivity with you. A pleasure. You may recall we met in Viriconium before these unfortunate events.”
Dai found himself shaking the outheld hand as if they were at a social event or meeting, as his memory searched desperately for the name and face. When it came, he snatched his hand away and stepped back involuntarily.
“You were the cunnus of a medicus involved with a group holding vicious sex parties that led to the death of young streetgirls.”
“No need to use titles here,” the older man said brightly and then smiled at his own joke. “You can call me Rufus. It’ll make a change from seven-eight-one-one-two-six. It’s those little things you get to miss the most in this place. By the way, I hope you’re not hungry, you missed the evening meal. Nothing til tomorrow now.”
Dai felt a curl of cold revulsion in his guts.
“You disgust me.“
“Really?” Cloelius sounded unconcerned. “At least I’m not a traitor like you. That tends to evoke more outrage in our society at every level than any sexual adventures a man might embark on.”
“The difference is,” Dai snarled, unable to keep the contempt from his voice. “I am not guilty of the faked-up charges against me, but I know for a fact you are guilty as charged. I caught you red-handed, literally. And the blood of a good Vigiles was shed that night too.”
Cloelius sighed and sat back on his bunk. “Appearances can be very deceptive Llewellyn, and like it or not your guilt or innocence will be decided in a court of law not by whatever you might choose to say or believe.” He lay back as if reclining on a lectus. “You might discover that I am in fact the innocent one and you turn out to be guilty. Now that would be an interesting outcome, don’t you think?”
The chilling realisation that the corrupt medicus spoke the truth staggered Dai. The words leeched all strength from his muscles and he sank down to sit with his back against the cold grey wall.
“Why are you still here?” he demanded, when the moment of weakness had passed.
“What a strange question. It’s not as if I can just stroll along to the atrium or visit the baths, is it?”
Dai lifted a hand in protest. “You know what I mean. You must have been here for months. Yours was an open and shut case. I signed off all the evidence myself back in Martius. It only needed a hearing before an independent Magistratus to…”
“Sentence me to death?” Cloelius gave a rasping laugh. “You show yourself the true Briton, Llewellyn. There are people I’ve met who have been held here for the last ten years.”
Dia bridled at that.
“But it’s against the law. No Citizen can be deprived of his or her freedom. They are tried and if found guilty, sentenced either to death or whatever fine is due.”
“Ah, British logic,” Cloelius said, his tone shifting to that of a teacher explaining simple facts to a schoolboy. “Those I speak of are Citizens who stand accused of capital offenses and are awaiting their day in court. They all have powerful friends in Rome using every legal wrangle there is to keep them from coming to trial. Some of the crimes have to be prosecuted within a certain time limit, so if they can delay that day long enough they can walk free. Others are commuted by prolonged negotiation from death to a fine. Everyday is a barter day. But you worked here in Londinium as a Vigiles so you really should know that.”
It was true that he had heard the rumours so it was not really a surprise. But his day-to-day clientele at that time had been almost exclusively non-Citizen criminals.
“You have powerful friends?”
Cloelius hunched one shoulder in an exaggerated shrug. “Perhaps I do. Or powerful enough to keep me from trial so far. Don’t you? I am assuming you must do to have secured both Citizenship and a plum administrative appointment.” He leaned forward as if offering a confidence. “At the very least they might be able to have your Citizenship rescinded which would give you the chance of commuting your sentence to hard labour instead of the arena.”
That was something that had not occurred to Dai as a possibility before. It was true that committing any serious crime could lead to an application for the revocation of an awarded Citizenship – something given could be taken away. An option not open to those born with Citizenship status. But the kind of hard labour criminals were condemned to was brutalising.
“I don’t see that would be much better,” he said, hearing the bitterness in his own tone. “Just a slower way to die.”
“Perhaps. But at least, my British friend, you have options. Who knows? We may even grow old together in this cell.”
From Dying to be Innocent the 9th Dai and Julia Mystery by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook
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