Murder in the Forum
upon the upturned feet. The acrobat, still on his hands, danced over to the high table and, bending his elbows and knees, effectively presented the bowl to Felix to select from.
    Felix was visibly enraptured. His swarthy face was flushed, his breathing fast, his tongue flicking out to lick his fleshy lips. He stood up, leaned forward and selected a nut, and slipped it into his mouth. He moved to take another, but the acrobat sinuously twisted his body and moved the bowl out of reach. There was a roar of approval.
    Felix, flattered but sensing that he was being mocked, pushed aside the table and lunged after him, snatching a handful of nuts and holding them triumphantly. There were more cheers, and then the acrobat straightened his limbs and danced provocatively away, to tumultuous applause. In the centre of the room he flicked the bowl upwards with his feet, twisted himself upright and caught the bowl again, all in one fluid movement. The audience went wild with frenzy.
    The acrobat turned back, to bow towards the top table . . . and stopped. Something was happening to Felix. He appeared to be choking. He was leaning on the end of the dining couch clutching his throat, coughing, gasping, spluttering, his face scarlet and his eyes bulging. Presumably he had swallowed one of the nuts. With all eyes on the performance no one had noticed his predicament.
    Even now there was a moment of horrified inaction, and then, suddenly, everything was happening at once. Egobarbus, or whoever he was, strode over and began to thump Felix helpfully on the back. Slaves rushed forward with goblets of water and wine, someone else tried to force a piece of dry bread into his mouth. Even old Gaius reached into the recesses of his toga and offered a phial of a dubious-looking substance which he insisted was a specific against all ills, and had once saved his best bitch in similar circumstances. Only Marcus did not move. He stayed, reclining where he was, watching with a kind of horrified fascination while all around him surged forward with a dozen suggested remedies.
    Felix, waving his hands helplessly, at first attempted to fight them off, but he was still spluttering and coughing and in the end, eyes streaming, he submitted to their attentions.
    In vain. A crisis seemed to grip him. Gagging, gurgling, he clawed at the air a moment and then, with a terrible gasping groan, he pitched head forward onto the table, scattering everything to the floor. Meat, wine, water, dates and fragments of shattered bowls and pitchers joined the gnawed bones and debris already littering the tiles.
    There was a terrified pause and then a dozen slaves rushed forward to lift the inert body to the dining couch. Someone suggested fetching their private physician, or the military doctor from the barracks. But we hardly needed the doctor to tell us what everyone in the room was aware of.
    Perennis Felix was dead.

Chapter Six
    Everyone reacted in different ways, as people do in a crisis.
    Serving slaves froze where they stood, waiting for instructions. Guests withdrew into corners and whispered, or jostled forward to stare. No one doubted what had happened. The memory of that herald’s shattered body in the forum was uppermost in everybody’s mind and on everyone’s lips. The souls of the unburied dead are notoriously vindictive.
    Of course, that did not make this event seem any the less disturbing. Rather more so, if anything. The idea of an unseen vengeful spirit in our midst was decidedly discomfiting.
    Some men, particularly those with little influence but a lively instinct for safety, attempted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and possible reprisals – human or supernatural – by loudly offering to go for help and dashing to the door. I might have attempted an exit myself, but I knew that it was hopeless. I had come with Marcus and there was no possible chance of pretending that I had been somewhere else all evening, and bribing a dozen

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