A keeper? Yes
If you’re a private detective (newly rich because it turns out you’re also a natural born tax auditor), what do you do when a poor little rich girl, about six years old, turns up – escorted by some of the family slaves – to announce that one of her relatives wants to kill her?
If you’re Marcus Didius Falco, and you already have enough problems making sure your own nieces – whose father, your no-good brother-in-law Famia, was recently and shamefully executed by a lion – are being taken care of, you just might pat her on the head and send her home. And then worry about it for days afterwards.
Not that little Gaia Laelia is Falco’s only worry. There’s his brother-in-law, Aelianus the twit, who has decided to become respectable by joining the priesthood of the Arval Brethren – and promptly stumbles over a body. Except when Aelianus takes Falco to investigate, there’s no body anywhere to be found. On the other hand, there seems to be an awful lot of blood-soaked grass…
And then there are the geese. Now that Falco has money, Emperor Vespasian has finally promoted him to the equestrian class, and given him an official job: Procurator of the Poultry, responsible for the sacred geese and the augurs’ chickens. There are probably more embarrassing responsibilities for a Roman citizen to be saddled with – but not many, and none noisier.
But what about Gaia? Could she really be in danger? Falco’s eight-year-old niece Cloelia has met her; they’re both among the candidates to be chosen as the newest Vestal Virgin. And Cloelia seems to think there was something wrong about Gaia’s family. It’s almost impossible to investigate, though. Gaia’s grandfather is the retired Flamen Dialis, former high priest of Jupiter, who doesn’t quite seem to realize that he’s retired; he expects total deference from everyone.
And getting back to Aelianus, it’s pretty hard to investigate a missing corpse, but Falco manages to dig up evidence that there really was a murder. More than a murder: it almost sounds as if a woman invaded the grounds of the Arval Brethren and killed the victim as if he was a bull intended for sacrifice. And, oh yes: Gaia seems to be missing.
Falco being Falco, he eventually proves that there’s one killer at fault in all the strangeness. He even locates little Gaia, still alive. Of course, Falco being Falco, his heroic rescue leaves him head down in the depths of a well with his tunic over his face, clutching the terrified child while being hauled up bare-bottomed to the snickers of his best friends…