Thursday, January 10, 2013

Back to Rome and Decimus Virilis

Back to the writing an ancient Roman facsimile of a Sherlock Holmes.

We've talked about this before.  How do you create a character who is not Sherlock Holmes but compels you to think of Holmes while you're deep in the pages of the book?

You see the problem.

Mimic Holmes too much and you have, frankly, just written another Sherlock Holmes novel but set in a historical context.  Not mimicking a few of Holmes' intellectually quirks and you've just created a whole new character.  So what is the fine balance between too much and not enough?

I've created a Roman by the name of Decimus Virilis.  Decimus 'The Lucky.'  Lucky is what Virilis means,  among other interpretations.  Ex-soldier.  Retired as the third-ranking officer in a Roman legion (the highest rank a professional Roman legionnaire could acquire);  not so distant cousin to Caesar Augustus (time frame for the novel is set around 10 C.E.).  Very efficient.  Very astute.  Has a knack at deducing analytically problems.  Much like our beloved Holmes.

As Holmes implied, "Most people see . . . but few people use their eyes and senses to observe." Decimus Virilis is the observant type.  To the max.

The problem I'm having with Decimus is that I cannot etch his personality into a three-dimensional form just yet.  I meander from making the guy dark and mysterious to someone elderly and quite willing to reveal his methods on investigating a crime scene to anyone who might show some interest in him.  As an associate of mine who is closely involved in this project pointed out to me, after reading what I have so far,  "I can't tell if this guy is creepy or is just a nice old ex-retired soldier." 

Ah!  Epiphany!

In one sentence from a distant observer my problem fully revealed! 

Screw Sherlock Holmes.

Write about Decimus Virilis.  Don't constantly stand him up against Holmes and compare what Holmes would do in a situation versus what Decimus might do.  The novel (and possibly series?) is not about Sherlock Holmes.  It is about Decimus Virilis.  It's about the history of Rome.  It's political intrigues.  It's conquests.  It's mysteries.  It's about a man, wrapped in hard won, and sometimes brutally acquired, experience and using that experience to observe those around him.

Problem solved, Pueblo! 

Maybe now the writing will come a little easier.  With that in mind I thought I might share Chapter Two with you.  If you go back in the archives here in the blog you can find Chapter One.  Remember now, this is just the rough draft I'm sharing.  Yes, Yakima;  you will find a few boo boos in spelling and grammar.  That'll be cleaned up at a later date.   So, take the time to read it and maybe spend a few seconds more and give me your thoughts. 

Always interested in hearing your thoughts. 



            To his right the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea in a blue haze that drifted off into the horizon.  Sails, white and wine red, from several large cargo ships heading for the port of Ostia behind him dotted the blueness like jewels set in a blue velvet frame.  Sea gulls circled and wove through the partially cloudy skies above them.  The sloping countryside sliding down to the see was a lush verdant green.  To him it looked like the vast gardens of a royal estate as he rode down the rough trail toward their destination.

The sun was out and deliciously warm.  The panoramic view of the countryside around him pleasing to the eye.  The waters of the Tyrrhenian setting in its haze a splash of color on a beautiful canvas.

            One would think, if one only trusted his eyes and nothing more, the world was beautiful and peace and tranquility was the order of the day.  But he knew better.  Life was an illusion.  Beauty only a mask to hide the darkness and pain from our eyes.

            Reining in the powerful mare he was riding he turned and looked at the small entourage behind him.  Gnaeus, looked decidedly ill at ease sitting on a horse, dressed in the garb of a Roman legionnaire.  With the plain conical helm of a legionnaire partially hiding the thick mass of pepper and salt colored hair, the simple off white linen undergarment underneath the typical lamellar armor of a Roman cavalryman, the old infantryman that had been Gnaeus scowled at Decimus but said nothing.

            Smiling he turned his head and looked at the two other men who drew their mounts beside Gnaeus.  One was a thin framed with the hooked nose of a scowling hawk.  Like Gnaeus, he too was dressed in the typical armor and uniform of a cavalryman.  And like his servant, a man whom Decimus had known for years in the army.  A specialist in his own right.  A man who knew how to find things.  Any thing.  Find it and retrieve it without making any raucous noise about it.   Some said Rufus was a thief.  A pick pocket. A purse snatcher.  He knew Rufus for what he truly was.  A man with a very special talent any commander of a legion would need sooner or later.

            Or a man now in his newly appointed position.

            The third cavalryman was very much different.  He was a tall man with thick arms and powerful thighs.  Yet he rode his horse with the ease of someone who had lived all his life around horses.  He was dark complexion with jet black eyes and a small mouth.  There seemed to be an aloofness . . . a sense of otherness . . . that separated him from the others.  Indeed he was this stranger.  He was not Roman born.  He was a foreigner.  A tribesman from the deserts of Morocco.  Yet he too, like the others, a man whom he had known and trusted for years.

            "Hassid.  That way," he said lifting an arm and pointing toward the south.  "Check the surrounding countryside for any tracks.  Make a full circle around the crime scene.  You will find us there when you return."

            The black eyed hunter from the desert nodded silently and urged his horse on.  He moved out rapidly and soon disappeared into a copse of trees hugging a small hill.  Decimus, waiting until the rider was well out of sight, grunted and turned his horse toward the southwest and heeled its flanks.

            With the two riding abreast and slightly behind him the newest tribune of Rome's newest force, the Cohortes Urbanae, they topped a small grassy knoll and began descending rapidly down upon the odd scene below.

            After the civil wars, after Octavius' arch rival, Mark Anthony, had been dispatched to Hades, Octavius returned to begin rebuilding both the city of Rome and the empire.  In Rome, after decades of neglect and civil strife, he found a city dominated by powerful underworld gangs. Gangs, many times, bought and paid for by powerful patrician families of Rome.  To fight the tenacious tentacles of organized crime he created two organizations and gave them the specific tasks of bringing crime under control and providing some measure of safety for all the citizens of the city.  One was the old Vigiles Urbani.  The other was the Cohortes Urbanae.

            The vigiles were the firefighters and beat cops of the city.  The city-watch.  A carry over idea, greatly expanded, from the numerous privately funded fire brigades and neighborhood watches that littered the city during Julius Caesar's time.  The Imperator collected the various units into one unit, assembled them along the lines of a Roman legion, and established taxes to pay for them.  Most of the men were ex-slaves commanded by Roman citizens--usually retired officers from the army.  They worked during the night looking for fires and chasing down common hoodlums.  But they were effective if not, occasionally, a bit brutal.

            The Urban Cohorts acted more like the homicide division of a city's police force.  They investigated violent crime, organized crime, political shenanigans. They too were organized along the lines of a Roman legion.  But unlike the vigiles using ex-slaves as their manpower, only Roman citizens could join the cohorts.  Better paid and equipped compared to their vigiles cousins the Urban Cohorts could, if the need arouse, actually be pulled from the city's street and used in military operations.

            The Imperator commissioned Decimus with the rank of tribune in the Urban Cohorts.  A tribune minus the normal eight hundred or so men most tribunes in the army, or the vigiles, or the urbanae,  would command.  His orders, straight from the quill of Octavius himself, decreed he was on detached service answerable only to the Imperator. 

            His assignment was simple.  Find, and bring to justice, those whom the Imperator thought were of a particular dangerous threat to the newly acquired peace of the empire.

            Like this case.

            Reining up suddenly in front of a group of men, a mixed bag of vigiles and urban cohort soldiers standing around the destruction of what once had been a large wagon, he nodded to the centurion in charge and then slipped from his horse, throwing back the edge of his short scarlet and purple trimmed short riding cloak in the process.

            "Hail, tribune!" the young officer said, snapping to attention and saluting.

            "At ease, son.  And be so kind to inform me of this situation."

            In the thick grass were several large dark stains where people had died violent deaths.  The bodies were gone but the visual evidence was ample to the trained eyed to conclude no one had survived the attack.  A quick sweep of the ground suggested to Decimus at least four people were dead.  The litter of several wooden trunks smashed to piece with their contents strewn all over the side, even the ripped out bottoms of the wagons themselves mixed in with the other flotsam, indicated someone must have been in search of something important.

            "Night before last the servant of a merchant in Ostia brought word there had been a series of murders . . . a massacre as they described it . . . just outside the port.  I sent two men out on horses to ascertain the truth.  As you can see the information was correct."

            He saw Rufus nod his head toward his master and drift off toward the sea to begin his assigned task. Gnaeus, scowling as always, silently moved away in a different direction and began looking at the signs left behind in the dirt and grass.  Decimus nodded, turned, and strode to one particularly large dark stain in the grass and knelt down.  The young centurion behind him followed respectfully yet watched the two servants of the tribune curiously.

            "The bodies?"

            "In Ostia, sir.  In the morgue of the vigiles' barracks.

            "Any survivors?"  he asked as he used an index finger and traced the outline of a particularly large partial print of distinctive shoe sole in the dust of the narrow trail beside the grass.

            "None that we know of.  When I arrived I found four bodies.  Two men of rank it would seem and two servants.  And, of course, the scene which greets you now."

            "Identification of any of the men?"

            "None.  No signet rings.  No personnel scrolls.  Nothing of monetary value left behind."

            "Are you sure, centurion, of the veracity of your men?  Are you sure no one in your command decided to claim a small prize of his own?  Say the first two men who came out and discovered this scene?"

            He stood up and turned to face the younger man.  A hot flash of anger swept across the centurion's face but quickly subsided.  The officer was of a famous plebian family.  A very famous, and rich, family.  Rarely had anyone doubted his veracity.

            But standing before was a tribune with a high sloping forehead, with a thin swipe of grayish/blond hair covering the upper regions of his cranium, the deep, experienced wrinkled face of a man who had seen much in life; the confident, almost arrogant, gate of a soldier.  And there was the way the tribune gripped his ivory tipped baton, the symbol of rank for any high ranking Roman officer, which cautioned him.  Not just an ordinary soldier.  But someone who was used to command.

            A man not to be trifled with.

            Frowning, he turned and barked loudly two names.

            From the huddled group vigiles two men stepped forward and came to attention. in front of the centurion.  Decimus, eyeing the two freedmen, slapped hands behind his back, stepped up very close to the men and began inspecting them closely as circled them.  Glancing down into the dust of the wagon ruts he selected noticed the prints of their sandals they had just imprinted into the dirt.

            "You," he said, using the long wooden baton of authority he gripped in one hand and slapped the man forcefully on the man's biceps. "Your name!"

            "Gallus, sir!"

            "You and this man beside you discovered the bodies last night when you road out from Ostia?"

            "Yes sir!"

            Decimus nodded, hands gripping the baton behind his back, head down and staring at the ground thoughtfully as he walked slowly around the two men and stopped directly in front of the man who called himself Gallus.

            "Centurion, what is the punishment for a vigilii who is convicted of thievery?"

            The rough looking plank of an ex-slave visibly paled.  As did the man standing beside him.  Decimus eyed the man but returned his attention back to the one standing in front of him.

            "Ten lashes with the whip, sir.  And garnishment of one month's of wages.  Of course, if the theft is large enough, perhaps he might become a contestant at the next set of gladiatorial games."

            Beside the white faced Gallus the vigiles at attention groaned softly and his knees almost buckled.  The centurion, angry, exploded in rage.
            "By the gods, Gallus!  You filthy liar!  I'll personally peel the flesh off your back with a cat'o nine tails if you don't confess to your crimes now!  Do you understand me!"

            "Sir!  I . . . we . . . it was just a little thing!  Nothing expensive . . . really!"

            Decimus turned his head and watched the forever scowling Gnaeus trotting up toward him carrying something white and thin between the forefinger and thumb of his right hand.  He nodded and smiled grimly as he recognized it immediately.  Extending a hand, palm up, toward his servant the bushy haired.  But his unwavering light blue eyes were riveted onto the face of the man calling himself Gallus.

            Gnaeus delicately deposited a severed finger onto the open palm of his master's hand.

            "Let me tell me paint you a picture of what happened last night, my good man.  Interrupt me whenever I stray from the truth."

            The young centurion strode up to stand by balding yet dominating force of Decimus Virilis and turned crimson faced in rage when his eyes fell upon the severed ring finger.  Slapping the small baton all centurions gripped angrily against the side of his bare leg he turned and gave his man a dark, murderous look.

            Decimus, snarling back a dangerous smirk, zeroed his eyes on the man in front of him and continued talking.

            "You and your companion arrived last night just as it began to lightly rain.  You found this site as it appears today.  You found four dead bodies, clothes and furniture scattered all over the field, two small wagons completely dismantled and strewn about.  There was no gold.  No jewelry.  Nothing.  Except for one small item . . . "

            Lifting the severed finger in his palm he delicately put it directly under the ex-slaves flaring nostrils and continued.

            "You found a rather large fat man with a small signet ring on a finger.  A ring which would not come off because the man's fingers were swollen.  No no . . . don't deny it was a signet ring.  In fact I suspect it was a signet key ring.  A key that was supposed to open a small jewelry box or some other small wooden chest.  See the circular discoloration on the flesh?  Yes?  Clear evidence the man wore a ring.  Now look closely at the finger.  It is a man's middle finger.  The finger a man of some importance would decorate with a signet key ring.  So tell me, Gallus.  Did you find the wooden box the ring you removed from the dead hand of Spurius Latinius last night?"

            "I . . . uh . . . we found what . . . what was left of the box, tribune."

            "We . . . !" exploded the man standing beside him, wheeling around and stepping away from his comrade.  "I told you not to cut off that finger!  It was a trifling ring! It wasn't worth a penny!"


            The centurion, baton in hand, backhanded the man across the face viciously.  The man staggered to one side, holding his face with one hand, but came back to full attention.  Glaring at the man for one second the young officer thought about clubbing the man again but contained his anger and turned to face the tribune.

            "My sincerest, most humble, apologies sir.  I assure you when these two return to their barracks they will be severely dealt with!"

            Decimus shook his head negatively and placed a hand on the officer's arm.

            "Severity will quill no evils, centurion.  Discipline them you must.  Preferably in front of their comrades for all to take note of what will happen to those who cannot restrain themselves from petty theft.  But measure the punishment to the quality of the crime.  Otherwise you will generate more animosity than compliance among your men."

            Turning back to the ex-slave the balding, darkly tanned tribune lifted a hand up and told the man to give him the ring.  The man fumbled the ring out of a small leather pouch and dropped it into Decimus' hand.

            "Sir, if I may ask a question?"

            Decimus smiled, turning from the two ex-slaves and motioned them to leave at the same time.

            "You're wondering how I knew so quickly this nasty little deed had taken place last night.  Yes?"

            "Sir!" the centurion nodded, surprised, and wondering if the older officer could read his mind. "I mean . . . how?"

            Decimus half turned toward the young officer and smiled fatherly as he lifted a finger up and motioned him to follow his actions.  Kneeling in front of the stain on the grass beside the dust of the wagon trail he waited for the centurion to kneel beside him and then he pointed toward a set of tracks in the dust.

            "There are two different set of prints in the dust.  Here and here," he said pointing to one and then the other.  "Look closely.  The vigilies and the urban cohorts issue to their men the exact types of sandals as the army does for their men. They have a distinctive pattern on the soles of the leather.  Notice one set is that of someone wearing such footwear and the other isn't?"

            Once pointed out it was obvious for anyone to see plainly written in the soil.  With the addition of the military soled sandal extruding from underneath it mud.  As if Gallus had knelt in the rain to do his dastardly deed.

            "Precisely," Decimus nodded, smiling with quiet pleasure at seeing the younger officer see the evidence without the need to point it out to him. "A slight rain producing just enough mud to generate such a track.  But not so the other.  Meaning?"

            "The murderer must have committed his dead prior to the rain last night.  The rain began just a little after midnight.  So . . . that means the massacre mush have taken place sometime before!"

            "Very good," the older man said, coming to his feet and smiling. "Remember this small lesson, young man.  Every living creature uses their gift of sight to see world around us.  Our eyes gives us this wondrous sense of vision.  We see . . . but very few of us observe.  For an officer such as yourself the difference between seeing and observing could be all the difference in the world in keeping you and your men alive."

            "But . . . but how did you know in the beginning the dead man would have a signet key ring?  And this blood stain?  How did you know this was the precise stain to look at and not the other three?"

            Decimus laughed casually and glanced at Gnaeus who had come up to stand beside him.  The scowl on servant's face softened a bit but did not go away as he eyed the young centurion.

            "As to the knowledge of the key ring I confess I came owning such knowledge already.  I've been asked to look into this case and to bring it to a swift conclusion.  I was informed the patrician involved was carrying a small black wooden box engraved in ivory with a set of papers in it that were important.  Important to several groups of people.  That box and those papers my task is to find and obtain as well as to bring to justice those who killed Spurius Lavinius and his men.

            As to knowing to look at this stain and not the others?  I confess. I guessed!  Observation of men and their position in power over the years have led me to believe a man of Spurius' position would place him in the lead wagon.  He would be the first to step down form the wagon if confronted by ruffians.  I knew the man from the past, centurion.  I knew how arrogant and supremely confident he was toward those he considered his inferiors.  I'm sure Spurius thought he could bluster his way through this confrontation and continue on with his journey.  Unfortunately he sorely misread the situation and paid for it dearly."

            "Spurius Livinus?" the young centurion repeated, frowning and looking confused.  "I don't recall hearing this name before.  Who was he?"

            "An old, old, old villain my boy.  Very old . . . and very dangerous,"  Decimus answered softly. "But now we have a new plague upon us."

            "Someone perhaps even older and far more dangerous has struck and lifted from the victim's cold hands the box and its mysterious contents.  Someone far more dangerous I would think," the centurion answered quietly.

            Decimus Virlis glanced at the young centurion and frowned.  

            Indeed so, my boy.  Indeed so.


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