Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Perfect Crime

1: Nex-violent death, murder
“Laws are silent in times of war” Cicero

A quick, rapt, knock on the door - that was all it took for me to become embroiled in a crime like no other. Perfect, almost, in its attention to detail, its clues spanning decades, its conclusion leading me deep into the murky circumstances surrounding the end of the Roman republic. Julius Caesar is busy trying to find the conspirators, tearing his dictatorship apart from the inside, while Cicero bemoans the loss of his second wife and daughter - by the end of next year they will both be dead. It is the day before the Ides of March BC 44. This is the story of my life.

My name is Aulus Cornelius and on the day before the last flames of the dying republic flickered back into life again, I was sitting in my small, but pleasing garden, watching the light from the brazier quiver and then disappear. I felt my eyes begin to grow sleepy and then gradually close, the papers I had been reading earlier lying forgotten and forlorn on the dewy grass...

Clash! The fierce pounding at the door awoke me from a dream of chariots at the Circus Maximus exploding along the well-trodden, scorching sand... I splashed a little water onto my face to fully waken me from the dream, before, dressed only in my tunica belted at the waist, I hurried to the atrium to see who my nearly-blind door slave had let in this time. Praying that my wife had not been disturbed, I saw a man, lacking a toga (probably a slave), a grey band on his finger (confirmed slave), looking agitated and in a definite hurry.

Realising time was of the essence, I made a move to quickly change in to my toga, but the man waved his hand (mute), indicating this wasn’t important. With his other tired hand, he thrust a ragged piece of parchment in the vague direction of me, which I carefully unfurled. The message shocked me to my very core.

Stopping on the way only to grab a snack ladled with a generous helping of garum (fish sauce) and to utter a hurried prayer to Jupiter, we soon arrived at the house of Cicero. I took another quick look at the message, in disbelief - “Come quickly Aulus!” Scribbled at the side, almost illegible - a single word. NEX.

2: rhetor - orator, speechmaker
“All pain is either severe or slight, if slight, it is easily endured; if severe, it will without doubt be brief.” Cicero

The mute slave escorted me quickly through the handsome back-courtyard of the Cicero household, up a sharply curving staircase and through a wooden door, attended by a dim glow of light from a brazier (lit around 5 hours ago.) Cautiously, I rounded a corner, finding myself abandoned by my guide and stepped into the triclinium. Mosaics of cavorting fish and all manner of other sea-life glistened all over the floors, accompanied by a simple geometric pattern as a border. A single rose stood in one corner of the room, but, paying this no heed, I was transfixed by the two men in front of me. One sat in the corner (Name: Tiro, Cicero’s freedman), calmly ready to take notes on a wax tablet (Tironian Shorthand, a method formulated himself), while the other, a man known as the finest undisputed orator to cross the face of the world, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who, in a change to his usual manner, was frantically  pacing back and forth.

Cicero explained in detail the strange events plaguing his household over the past few days, which I will summarise for you here. On the Nones of March, his papers were scattered all over his house, like the shattered remnants of the Pompeian forces, dispersed after the Civil War. Only a few papers were too badly damaged to be repaired, those containing notes on Sextus Roscius (Cicero’s first major defence.) A few days later, a statue of the Goddess Minerva was stolen from his house; similar to how Verres (a successful prosecution for Cicero) had pilfered whatever he pleased from his unfortunate Sicilian people. Finally, and here being the crux of the matter, just this very day, a slave of Cicero’s was found dead, stabbed repeatedly in the sizable garden of the house (again representative of a case of Cicero’s, namely, this time Clodius killed on The Appian Way.) Someone was terrorising Cicero and they must have had help from the inside. I was on the case.

Lightning illuminated the inky black sky, enveloping the city of Rome, as I carefully reclined next to Cicero to quiz him on how he had let evil run amok in his very household.

“Why can I believe you?” I asked him, taking a sip from a glass of water, thankfully placed by my side.

“If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?” he replied, before reinforcing his respectability as an orator.

“Anyway, what reason would I have to lie?” He queried, “Did I ruin my (which he emphasised) own papers and kill a trusted slave of my household, just for the sheer fun of it?” he demanded

I left the question unanswered.

Next, I prompted him further, taking him back through the mists of time to the fateful incident a few hours ago. “When did you last speak to your slave?”

“It must have been a few hours ago... yes... yes... it was, around the third hour of the night (it being around the 5th hour now), while he was going around lighting the braziers. I had passed him on the stairs, paying him no attention...and the next thing I knew he was lying dead in the garden.”

“Can I see the body?”I asked.

“Of course, of course,” he answered (he seemed to be averting the topic), “But surely you need to talk to the witnesses first?”

“Ah, yes...the witnesses,” I said humouring him slightly (I’ve done this job for 20 years, as if, I’ve never come across a witness before) and let him usher me out of the room and down the corridor. As I walked, I pondered why Cicero, the great orator, he who had stood up to Sulla, he who had fought for the rights of the Sicilians, the last honest man in the republic, had lied to me.

3:  perfectus – perfect
“It is a true saying that “One falsehood leads easily to another” Cicero

I was sitting in a room I didn’t want to be in, sipping a cup of well-watered wine I didn’t want to drink, speaking to a man who very clearly did not want to speak. Marcus Tullius Cicero had led me across an inner courtyard, the sound of gravel cracking under my feet and into a room, which, at first sight, appeared to be a slave’s quarters.

I interviewed Tiro in this room, allowing the bad omens of things to come (the increasingly darkening sky) to not cloud my judgement. He couldn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already and I began to pine for the warm, heavenly covers of my bed with my wife beside me. Before another (so-called) witness of minimal importance could be forced upon me, I slammed the cup of wine heavily down onto the table (but spilling little) and demanded I see the body. Cicero received me with as much courtesy as he could muster, before leading me back down the same corridor and into a small recess. My disillusions with the case were beginning to fester - how many more lies would I have to stomach before the night was up?
Cicero drew back the sheet lying in the alcove and with a convincing gasp announced that the body was gone. I had had enough. “You blithering blockhead, “I ridiculed him, “Gods immortal, why didn’t you leave (I stressed this) someone guarding the body?”

Cicero tried to reply but I cut him off, with a swift cut of my hand through the air, “What’s more, you don’t seem to want this case to be solved at all! Surely you of all people would know that the killer could be at loose at this very moment, hidden within these very walls. Do you want me to solve the case or not?”

And suddenly, it all clicked into place.

4: Idus -The Ides
“The first duty of a man is the seeking after and the investigation of truth.” Cicero

The sun gradually pulled itself from the horizon, poking its tender head over the trees on the Field of Mars. “At first, I suspected Tiro,” I began, “After all, who knows you better than Tiro himself? But on reflection, it couldn’t have been Tiro; he would never have harmed your works no matter what.”

Watching the red and orange embers climb higher in to the sky, I continued, “The first thing that drew my suspicions was the red rose in the triclinium. It couldn’t have been placed there for me, as if I hadn’t found you, I would probably have met you in the tablinum. Thus I assumed it was put there before, but not too long, as if I remember, the petals hadn’t wilted yet, so maybe, a private discussion between you and your slaves.”

Cicero smiled, but faintly. “Another point of interest - the lighting of the braziers. You told me you last saw the dead slave two hours ago, lighting the braziers, but I clearly remarked to myself the flames were dim - thus lit around 5 hours ago.”

“Couldn’t he have lit some lamps first before becoming distracted?”

“He could have done,” I replied “but I found it unlikely. Why on earth would he light the braziers three hours after the setting of the sun?”

“Let us assume, therefore, you were having a secret meeting with your slaves (sub Rosa = secret) before I arrived and from then on proceeded to lie to me at various intervals. I wouldn’t call you a stupid man Marcus, so you must have been planning something and lying deliberately. You said to me, if I can’t trust you, who can I trust? The answer was no-one and the conclusion? A hoax.” I took a breather, exhausted.

Cicero, a morose twinkle in his eye replied, “The law courts are rendered useless because of Caesar. I abandoned my wife for some young, arrogant play-thing, who mocked the death of my only daughter. I am a bitter man Aulus. I’ve engaged you and I’ve entertained myself with this charade, why can’t you allow an old orator a bit of fun once in a while?”

“I could have had other cases, important cases going on,” I protested.

“In the middle of the night?” he queried.

“As a matter of fact,” I answered and it being the last thing I ever said to him, “I was meant to be assessing Caesar’s safety for tomorrow; today, now.”

“I’m sure it was of no importance,” he sighed, “Well, I really must grab some sleep now. I’ll see you for the senate meeting in a few hours, I trust?” He swept out of the room, the twinkle back in his eye.

And despite, all my workings, my deductions, my cleverness and my reasoning, I realised I had been played by Marcus Tullius Cicero after all.

This very clever and assured piece of writing (with a twist!) by Adam Cunnane from Cheadle Hulme School, Cheshire shows the young author's admiration of the orator Cicero and of Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series. Nothing wrong with that; it's how we all learn to write. It took third prize for the over 14s in the 2011 Golden Sponge-stick Competition. (It must have been hard to choose, Jerry!) Well done, Adam!

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