And to solve the crime, Nico must uncover a secret that could not only destroy Athens, but will force him to choose between love, ambition, and his own life.
The case takes Nico, in the company of a beautiful slave girl, to the land of Ionia within the Persian Empire. The Persians will execute him on the spot if they think he's a spy. Beyond that, there are only a few minor problems: He's being chased by brigands who are only waiting for the right price before they kill him; somehow he has to placate his girlfriend, who is very angry about that slave girl; he must meet Themistocles, the military genius who saved Greece during the Persian Wars, and then defected to the hated enemy.
Athens, 460 B.C. Life's tough for Nicolaos, the only investigating agent in ancient Athens. His girlfriend's left him and his boss wants to fire him. But when an Athenian official is murdered, the brilliant statesman Pericles has no choice but to put Nico on the job.
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Gary Corby lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. He blogs at A Dead Man Fell from the Sky, on all things ancient, Athenian, and mysterious.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Evil deeds do not prosper;
the slow man catches up with the swift.
I ran my finger along one foot of the corpse, then the other, making the body swing with a lazy, uncaring rhythm. I stared at his feet, my nose so close I went cross-eyed
as the toes swung my way.
“He was like this when you found him?” I asked.
“I touched nothing,” Pericles said, “except to confirm Thorion was dead.”
“Are there any sons?” I asked.
“One, of twenty-four years. He’s at the family estate, according to the head slave.”
Thorion had died hard. He hung from a rope tied to a crossbeam in the low ceiling. A stool lay toppled below. The fall was nowhere near enough to snap his neck; instead he’d strangled. He must have changed his mind after the air was cut off, because there were deep red scratch marks in his throat where he’d tried and failed to relieve the pressure. Yet his arms were long enough to have reached the beam to pull himself up and call for help. Why hadn’t he?
There was no answer to my question, except the high-pitched wails and long, low moans that had assaulted my ears ever since I arrived. They came from the women’s quarters across the inner courtyard. The wife and girl-children had begun screaming
the moment they’d learned their husband and father was dead. They would screech, tear their clothes, and pull their shorn hair every waking moment until he was cremated. The caterwauling meant that by now the whole street knew Thorion was dead.
I stepped across to the narrow window facing onto the street. A small group stood below; citizens, and their slaves holding torches, the black smoke floating up to me with the distinctive bittersweet aroma of burning rag soaked in olive oil. The crowd would have entered the house by now but for the two city guards who stood at the door. The moment they were allowed, these neighbors would cut down Thorion and carry him to the courtyard, laying him out with his feet pointing toward the door to prevent the dead man’s psyche from straying. Then the women would come downstairs to wash the body and dress it for eternity, with no more than three changes of clothes, as
the law demands. They would place an obol in his mouth, the coin as payment for the ferryman of the dead, Charon, to carry Thorion across the Acheron, the river of woe.
The pressure would be building on the guards to let through the crowd and allow the rituals to begin. I might have only moments left to learn what I could.
“Did you know him?”
“No, not really.” Pericles handed me a torn scrap of parchment.
“This is the message which brought me.”
THORION SAYS THIS TO PERICLES. I HAVE BETRAYED MY OFFICE AND MY CITY. NEWS OF A THREAT TO ATHENS. COME AT ONCE.
“It’s not the sort of message anyone could ignore,” Pericles said. “The head slave led me up here to Thorion’s private office,
where we found him dead. Is it reasonable for a man who intends suicide to summon someone he barely knows, purely to make him discover the body?”
“It might be if the man summoned is you.” Pericles at the young age of thirty-three
was recently elevated to leadership of the new democracy. Though he held no official position, already men came to him, to seek his approval before any important decision was made. I knew Pericles fairly well, might even claim to be a minor confidant, which was no easy position. The last time Pericles and I had been together in the presence
of death, it had very nearly resulted in my own execution.
“The slave boy who carried the message says Thorion had a scroll with handles carved as lion heads open before him. Thorion appeared upset, shocked even. It seems obvious whatever this news is, it’s written in the scroll, but there’s no such scroll
here. I’ve looked. How could it have disappeared? Something is wrong.”
“You’re correct, something is indeed wrong. His feet are dry.” I pointed at the dry floor beneath the corpse. “Where’s the urine? Everyone knows a dying man releases whatever he holds.”
Pericles shrugged. “Not everyone does; not if they relieved
themselves shortly before they died.”
I lifted the hem of Thorion’s chiton, which fell all the way to his ankles. I kept lifting until I found what I sought, at thigh level. I took a big sniff.
“He let go all right. It’s on his thighs, but it didn’t run down his leg.”
Pericles stepped forward for a closer look, careful not to touch the body. He grunted. “You’re right.” He cast about the room, and so did I. Ceramics and pots and amphorae and jars stood on every possible surface, on benches and tables and even on the floor, giving the room more the look of a small warehouse than a man’s private office. They must all have been imported; none had the look of the famous Athenian red figure pottery. Many appeared delicate and had small bases, yet not a single one was out of place or knocked over.
“Whatever happened, there wasn’t a fight.”
I lifted each pot and shook to see if the missing scroll had been dropped inside. Only one amphora rattled, and it proved to hold three old coins, not even Athenian.
I got down on all fours and crawled about, paying particular attention to the areas where a man might ordinarily stand or sit. Pericles watched from the entrance as I nosed about like a hunting dog searching for scent.
“Here, under the desk. The floor is damp, the smell is obvious.”
“Let me see.” Pericles, not one to fret about form when an important matter was at stake, shoved me aside and checked beneath the desk for himself. He surfaced to say, “It seems you are correct. Thorion died at his desk.”
“And likely was murdered to prevent him passing on this intelligence. How could a comfortable citizen in the middle of Athens come to learn of a threat to the city?”
Pericles said, “Do you know what a proxenos is?”
“A citizen who acts for another city.”
“A citizen who represents the interests of another city in its dealings with Athens. Thorion is . . . was . . . the proxenos for Ephesus.”
Ephesus is a major city, across the sea on the east coast of the Aegean. The Ephesians speak Greek—they’re as Hellene as we
Athenians—but their city lies just within the Persian Empire.
“You think the summons had something to do with Ephesus.”
“Don’t you? Every proxenos receives regular news from his client city.”
I nodded. “If your theory is good, then Thorion received letters today.”
Pericles summoned the head slave of the household.
The man was thin, balding, and middle-aged. He shook with dread as his dead master hung before his eyes, and the most powerful man in Athens stared at him grim-faced.
At twenty-one I was unimportant, and certainly less threatening to a slave, so I said, “Did your master receive any letters or packages today?”
The slave turned to me and said, “Oh, yes sir. The regular
courier from Ephesus arrived at dusk, straight from the boat.
He still smelled of the sea.”
“You’ve seen this man before?”
“The same man always brings the mailbag, sir.”
I glanced at Pericles. He glanced at me. This was progress.
“Was that when you last saw your master alive?”
“No sir, he was alive when I announced the second courier.”
“The second courier?”
“The first left, taking the mailbag with him back to Ephesus. The master stayed in his office. I was summoned again later to bring a boy, and the master gave him a note for Pericles.”
“Then a second courier walked in as the boy went out the door, I hadn’t even time to shut it. The second courier said he had an urgent message, sir, from Ephesus.”
“What did Thorion say to that?”
“It’s never happened before, sir. The master was startled when I told him.”
“This second man must have given a name.”
“Araxes, sir. He said his name was Araxes.”
“Did he too smell of the sea?”
The slave thought for a moment. “Yes sir, now that you mention it, he did. He stayed longer than the first—I suppose he had more to say—and when he walked down the stairs he told me the master didn’t wish to be disturbed until supper. I opened the door for him and he left.”
“You didn’t think to speak to your master after that, to
check with him?”
“No sir, I always obey orders.”
“Describe the second courier,” I ordered.
“He had white hair,” the slave said without hesitation.
“You mean he was old?” Pericles asked.
“No sir, I’d guess his age to be thirty, maybe thirty-five.
The hair wasn’t gray, it was white.”
“Was he Hellene?” I asked.
“He spoke like us.”
“What did he wear?”
“A chitoniskos. ’Twasn’t worn either. It looked new.”
The chitoniskos is cut short at the shoulders and thighs for easy movement. I wore one myself. Since the material is never cut to fit the body, there are always extra folds of material in which you could hide anything, such as a scroll for example.
“So the murderer tricked his way into Thorion’s office. He slipped a loop around Thorion’s neck, strangled him, and strung him up to make it look like suicide. Then he tucked the missing scroll inside his clothing and walked out.”
“Oh, sir!” said the slave. “Did you say murderer? You’re not suggesting the courier had something to do with the master’s death are you? No, it’s impossible.”
His tone intrigued me. “What makes you so sure?”
“Because he spoke so nicely. I’ve never known a man who minded his pleases and thank-yous so well.”
“You liked him?”
“Yes sir, who wouldn’t?”
Pericles said, “Nicolaos, the murder of Thorion is important, but not as important as recovering the contents of the scroll. The safety of Athens depends upon it.”
I nodded and rubbed my hands. “Any chance of sending a slave to Piraeus for a jar of seawater?” I had touched a dead man, and so would be considered ritually unclean and not permitted to eat until I’d washed my hands in seawater. The call from Pericles had made me miss dinner, and I was hungry.
Pericles shook his head. “The city gates closed long ago.”
Why couldn’t Thorion have died at a more convenient time? That was the way my luck went these days. But—“Say that again?”
Pericles wrinkled his brow. “What? The city gates closed long ago? It’s true. So?”
“So Thorion was killed at night, after the city gates closed.
The murderer is trapped inside Athens.”
There was silence while Pericles absorbed that.
“The gates open at dawn,” he said, his manner snappier than before, his back straighter. He glanced out the window into the dark night. “Can we catch him before then?”
“In a city as large as Athens? Not a hope in Hades, unless the murderer makes a mistake, and this man’s no idiot.”
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