An ancient freeman sleuth helps his patron catch a cold-blooded kidnapper.
Roman Britain, a.d. 188. Libertus, pavement-maker and narrator, wakes in a sickbed with vague memories of violent dreams and a long illness. Before he can get his bearings, his patron Marcus Aurelius Septimus, a tribune, bursts anxiously into his room, asking for help. Septimus’ wife Julia and toddler Marcellinus are missing, and there’s an ominous ransom note. It demands not money, but the return of an unknown individual named Lallius Tiberius, presumably from jail. Though she’s not mentioned in the note, wet nurse Myrna is also nowhere to be found. To speed Libertus’ recovery, Septimus has brought esteemed physician Philades, but he and Libertus almost immediately begin ruffling each other’s feathers. Wracking his brain, Philades remembers a Lallius Tiberius who was the son of a wealthy military officer and recommends that Septimus storm his residence. Instead, Septimus conquers his misgivings and accedes to the kidnappers’ demand. Shortly thereafter, a basket is delivered to Libertus’ doorstep. Inside is Marcellinus, dirty but otherwise no worse for wear. A note accompanying the basket asks this time for a considerable sum. The plot thickens further when Myrna is found murdered, Libertus’ wife Gwellia turns up missing and Philades angrily accuses Libertus of being behind the plot.
Libertus’ eighth case (The Chariots of Calyx, 2005, etc.) nicely balances historical authenticity and a solid whodunit.