Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fixing a problem

So . . . how to fix a problem?  The Decimus Julius Virilis novel (As the Emperor Slept) apparently has a problem.  Or problems.  It starts too slow.  And, apparently, the 'motivation' for Decimus to investigate a serious of vicious political-tainted homicides, is questionable.

So how do you fix a set of problems like this without going through a massive rewrite?  You keep everything intact and just add a 'starter button' at the beginning.  One that's guaranteed to grab the reader's attention and get the ball rolling.

(By the way, dig the rough draft for the book covers?  Back cover, spine, and front cover--just the rough drafts, mind you.  But still . . . )

So I thought I'd share a few of the opening pages in an effort to see what you think of the 'starter' idea.  Whatta think?

            The crowd was in a festive mood.  Today's races in the Hippodrome held the promise of being quite exciting.  Phillipus The Greek, the number one driver of the Reds, would be racing against his fellow countryman, Titus Magnus, the Green's best driver, in the fourth race of the day.  It promised to be a hard fought battle.  Neither Phillipus nor Titus could tolerate the other.  Both had promised bloody mayhem if one saw the other ever again in a race they participated in.
            The crowd, sensing the action soon to come, milled about in front of the gigantic stone structure of the racing track waiting to get in while food vendors, dozens of them, barked their wares as they wove in out of the growing entanglement of humanity.  The aromas of a dozen different meats and even more delicious looking pastries wafted through the clear Roman air seductively.  Wine vendors especially were doing a brisk business selling their watered down blends today.  But the crowd seemed docile enough.  Perhaps it had something to do with a large contingent of purple clad soldiers of the Praetorian Guards moving quietly through the crowd in groups of two, eyeing the crowd and looking formidable in the process.
            Apparently the rumor was true.  Caesar was coming to observe the races from his color canopied box.  It was said the old man had a passion for the sport.  Whenever he graced his presence at such a sporting event the presence of his newly created Praetorian Guards were obvious and intentional.  As the old saying went, Better to nip trouble in the bud than to quell a full fledged riot.
            Caesar was a master at finding trouble and nipping it in the bud long before it became a problem for him.
            Standing to one side of the main mass of crowd were three men quietly eating some Germanic delicacy of sour kraut and pork.  It smelled awful.  But the way the three were intent on consuming every possible morsel of it belied its pungent odor. 
            Two of the men were dressed in the plain, functional clothes of a Roman freeman.  Hard looking men.  Tanned and weather beaten.  Reminding onlookers of dried strips of leather that had, over the years, endured much and survived all.  The third stood between the two dressed in an off white toga which had a fine purple hem, distinct but subdued, prominently displayed in the cloth.  A patrician.  A Roman nobleman.  An older man with a high sloping forehead, a receding hairline, and dark, piercing brown eyes.
            A soldier.  Unquestionably.  And a veteran.
            He had the commanding presence of a Roman officer.  It was obvious.  Especially for a Roman.  Almost every male milling about in the crowd had, at one time or the other, served his time as a legionnaire.  The Dalmatian revolts of 8 A.D. were not that long ago. Prior to that was the revolt in the forest of Germany to quell.  And before that . . . not that long ago . . . were the wars fought against fellow Romans.  The long wars Caesar fought to subdue the radical Marcus Antonius and his fabled mistress, Cleopatra.
            Yes, this middle aged patrician was a Roman officer.  One who saw action and knew hardships.  One who knew how to command men and expect to be obeyed.  Dressed in civilian clothes he was now.  But that meant little.  For this kind of man, a soldier was a soldier.  There was no other way of life.
            "You are sure we are being followed, Gnaeus?"
            The patrician's voice was soft but filled with a resonating quality of quiet authority and confidence.  Soothing to one's ear for now.  But promising a harsh reality if aroused to anger.
            The smaller of the three man nodded gently, a hand coming up to form a gesture or two toward the patrician in the process.  Both patrician and the other freeman watched the little man's hand and nodded as if they knew exactly what the man was silently saying to them.
            "I did not see him.  Describe him quickly."
            More hand gestures.
            A small man.  My size.  With curly blond hair and a dirty face. He was dressed like a Greek peasant.  He kept moving through the crowd some distance from us.  First he would be in front of us.  And then to our rear.  But always close enough to observe us, tribune.  I last saw him standing to our left. Over by the fountain.
            "Humph," grunted the taller of the two freeman.  A dark complexion figure from the deserts of perhaps Libya or Morocco. "Your old friend,  Menelaus, coming back to haunt us again, tribune?"
            The patrician's dark eyes looked into the face of his second companion for a moment or two thoughtfully before, finally, shaking his head.
            "Menelaus is an old, old man by now.  Too old and too sick to have any desire to seek revenge.  Besides, there are no better spies and assassins than a Greek.  Anyone could have hired this creature to keep us in view.  Until we have more information it is useless for us to conjecture over."
            The small man's hands flew into action again.
            Our orders, tribune.  Do we capture this man alive?  Or do we quietly dispatch him to his just rewards?
            The patrician smiled.  A wicked, sinfully cruel smile of a man who knew how to hunt.  And hunt not just any query.  But hunt the ultimate prey.
            "We spread out.  Each of us will stay within sight of the other.  One of you will sit in the stands above me.  The other to one side.  If this Greek spy is seen, rub your nose with the index finger of your right hand as a sign.  If he has accomplices in the crowd working with him, the signal will be the index finger of your left hand. We will encircle him and try to catch him. If he sees us and flees, perhaps we can follow him and see where he leads us."
            Both freeman nodded.  And disappeared into the growing crowd as if they had been nothing more than smoke from a burning vizier blowing away in the wind.  The tribune's smile widened minutely on his thin lips. It was like old times.  Working the streets again in a foreign city playing the spy. A spy hunting a spy.  It was an exciting game.  A deadly game.  One that he so much enjoyed and sorely missed.
            The crowd began moving.  Above, high on the walls of the stadium, trumpeters were telling the crowd the races were soon to begin.  Making his presence conspicuous, nevertheless his eyes roamed the crowd casually yet alertly.  He wanted visual contact with this talented blond haired spy.  But as he and the crowd filed into the Hippodrome he saw no one that fit Gnaeus' description.  He was not surprised.  If this man was as good as Gnaeus suggested he doubted he would get much, if any, of a glimpse.  Yet he remained vigilant.  There was a question which yet remained to be answered.  Was this spy here to just keep watch on him?  Or was he here to assassinate him?
            An assassination attempt made sense.  He had enemies.  Many enemies.  One did not serve in the legions as long as he had in various roles and not make enemies.  Especially if one considered the many special 'detached duties' assignments he had been given over the years.  Spying on allies as well as enemies were some of the special assignments.  Others were more deadly.  Far more deadly.  And secretive.  Not the kind one bragged about in the open.  Not if one wanted to live quietly in retirement in Rome for their remaining years unmolested.
            But if the Greek was spying, keeping tabs on his whereabouts, then a whole new set of questions came to mind.  Who?  Why?  Why take the trouble to spy on an old soldier who had recently retired from the army and was, for all practical purpose, unemployed and uninvolved.  He led a quiet life.  He rarely accepted invitations to social gatherings.   He kept himself out of sight and out of mind from those in Rome who still wielded power.  With the reputation he had it was better for him to remain sight unseen for as long as possible.
            But if Gnaeus was right, and he was seldom wrong in these matters, someone had taken interest in him.  That did not bode well for his long term safety or quality of life while here in the city.  It would be best to find out whom, and for what reason, this new found interest had been generated over him.
            He appeared to be interested in the races.  The first two races pitted some of the up and coming chariot drives of each of the six more renown racing associations in four and six chariot sprints.  Teams draped in the colors of their various racing teams paraded around the long, narrow track below before each race, giving time for the crowds to place bets their bets.  He made it a show of betting on the Reds in every race.  Each time he laid a wager he would stand up from his seat and lay the wager.  Each time he stood his eyes played across the crowd around him.
            Twice he thought he saw just the suggestion of blond hair in the crowd.  Never a face. Just the movement of a body and blond hair submerging deep into the standing crowd and disappearing from view.  A casual glance toward Gnaeus found his old companion in the wars eyeing the crowd but seeing nothing.  On one wager he stood up and turned to face the crowd behind him.  Three rows up sitting in the crowd directly behind him was the long, darkly tanned face of Hakim, his other companion.  He too made no gesture indicating anything amiss had been observed.
            Below in the dirt young drivers were driving their chariots recklessly in an effort to make a reputation.  As would be expected thunderous crashes and splintering wood came all too often.  With each mishap the crowd would leap to their feet and roar in delight.  When they did he felt more than saw bodies moving through the crowd.  Bodies inching closer and closer to him in a patient stalking of predator toward prey.  When the attack came, not unsurprisingly, it came from a totally unexpected direction.
            There was, below, the resounding collision of three teams of horses and chariots crashing into each other.  Horses screamed in terror.  Splinters and chunks of various chariots flew in the air.  Bodies of drivers, thrown from their chariots, hurled through the air before tumbling across the stadium's thick sand.  The crowd went wild.   Everyone came to their feet.  For several long seconds the crowd roared and cheered and booed all at the same time.  And then, to his right, quite unexpectedly, a fight broke out between partisan groups sitting too close together for comfort.  Four burly looking men dressed in the colors of the Greens began pushing around five men dressed in blue.  Fists began flying.  The fight pulled in additional participants.  Pandemonium broke out in the stands.
            The crowd was packed in tight in the seats around him.  As he watched the fight to his right grow in intensity, followed by loud cheers and jeers from those surrounding the spectacle near him, behind him he felt bodies moving suddenly to one side in an unnatural fashion.  Someone was pushing through the crowd behind him.  Half turning, he caught the glimpse of blond hair directly behind.  More importantly he glimpsed the long narrow iron blade of a dagger held low and partially covered by a cheap tunic appear beside the assassin's waist.  It flashed forward with astonishing speed straight for his lower back.  A deep wound to his liver would be fatal.  He had to move!
            He used his right arm and swept around him in a swift, hard move.  His forearm caught the assassin's knife hand at the wrist and knocked the deadly blade to one side.  Rotating around his left hand came up and reached for the assassin's shoulder while his right arm moved, allowing him to grip the man's right forearm firmly with an iron grip.  But the assassin was good.  He twisted his shoulder away from the tribune's attempt to grab it and used a foot to kick hard at the tribune's right leg.  The assassin's foot caught the tribune just above his right knee with a powerful blow.
            The pain was excruciating.  His hand fell away from the assassin's knife hand.  He staggered backward and bumped into someone directly behind him.  Angrily the man yelled out something unintelligible and shoved the tribune off him.  The violent push helped the tribune to regain his footing.  But all for naught.  The assassin was gone.  Like the ghost he was he had slipped somehow deep into the sea of faces and disappeared altogether.
            When the brawl in the stands was finally subdued after a squad of Praetorian Guards descended onto the menagerie of fisticuffs with bludgeons and iron bars the crowd quickly settled back into their seats.  But the tribune, his right leg throbbing in pain, slowly withdrew from his seat.  As he ascending the steps to the cause walk he was joined by Gnaeus and Hakim.  Neither had seen a thing.  To their dismay they had not even seen the attack on the tribune.
            The long walk back to the tribune's small house was a trek of pain filled with grim silence.


No comments:

Post a Comment