Monday, June 9, 2008

An Unscheduled Visit to Athens

A comment thread at Bernita's inspired me to this digression, and what is the use of a blog if you can't have digressions like this. Correct or probable use of historical names here is not guaranteed; I just reached into a grab bag or made names up, though Pericles is intended as the famous politician. Our protagonist is Philonikos the Sophist. We join in medias res, as they say in old style lit crit, since I haven't written a beginning.

As said in Bernita's comment thread, I also have to come up with a plot, since mystery readers sort of expect one.

Death is an Oligarchy

Pericles got right to the point. "Laomedes, the son of Aphon, was killed last night."

"Bad news for people who hire out flute girls," I said. Bad news for Spartan sympathizers, too, but Pericles didn't need me to tell him that. Probably not about the flute girls, either. "What happened, and who by? Or is that what needs finding out?"

He shook his head. "We have him, young man named Thrasymachos, apparently Laomedes' ephebe. They got in a heated argument at a dinner party, and the lad pulled a knife. The Scythians brought him in without difficulty."

Not a very complicated case. "Whose modest little house was the party at?"

Pericles studied the light dancing in his cup. "Kritias'. Assume the regular guest list and you won't go very wrong. Everyone there was an eyewitness, unless they had sneaked off to a storeroom, or the women's side."

The women's side where I grew up was the curtain my mother and sisters got dressed behind. "Why this sudden interest in the tangled love lives of the Ares Hill set?" I asked him. "You didn't send across town for me because some rich guy got his boyfriend upset."

"That's what I'd like you to look into," he said. Pericles is Ares Hill himself, with ancestors who fought at Troy. Mine did too, but stayed sensibly back out of trouble. "I'm not advancing a public prosecution," he said. "Laomedes' family will press charges, a jury will convict the boy in their sleep, and he'll drink his hemlock. The law of the Athenian people says case closed."

I thought about it for a moment. "You want me to help the kid talk his way out of it?" A bloody knife and matching dead body convince most jurors. Extenuating circumstances, including outright acquittal, are whatever sob story makes Athenians weep their way to dropping a white stone in the verdict box.

"I want you to keep the weather hot around Kritias' house," he said, "even after the sea breeze kicks in. I asked you here as a citizen, Philonikos, not in my official capacity as a general. You've spoken up once or twice in the Assembly, not as a great admirer of the Spartans."

"It depends," I told him. "I'm a great admirer of Spartan women." The town is a dump, the men only good at lining up behind spears, and much too good at that. Still the most beautiful city in the world. I shrugged. "Their women aren't the ones poking spears in other peoples' business."

"You have excellent taste and judgment, Philonikos. That is why I pay your excessive rates."

My rates till the next Olympic Games would pay a months' rent on Pericles' house, and wouldn't get me an afternoon with Aspasia. "So," I said, "you want me to pull on threads and see if something unravels, right?"

Pericles nodded. "More or less, yes."

"My rates just went up. If I'm going to circulate on Ares Hill, I'll need one of those pretty gold grasshopper pins, or at least a clean bedsheet to pin it on. The doormen won't let me in wearing this one." I'd need a new mouth, too, because the one I've got says things they don't like on Ares Hill.

"Philonikos, you show up at plenty of parties whether anyone invited you or not, and whenever I've seen you you were dressed. If they won't let you in, slide in behind that girlfriend of yours. Your regular rate, not an obol more."

I had tried. "So that's it? Find out how the Spartans are mixed up with lovers' quarrels on Ares Hill. I'm on it." I finished off my cup and fishcake, and left. No sign of Aspasia anywhere.


It was close to midday, and no one was in the streets. Athenians, except me, are smarter than that. All I had got for my morning's effort was my standard rate, four drachmas a day – payable, apparently, till everyone finally grabs spears all over Hellas. Then Pericles will fire me and spend the money on a trireme.

I kept to the shady side, such as it was, and made my way to that girlfriend of mine's house. Her doorman let me in and announced me. Kalliphryni's lovely voice floated from behind a screen. "Go away, Niko."

"Your enthusiasm overwhelms me."

"Do you know what time of day it is? It's too hot for enthusiasm. If you need to hide from someone, burrow back into the laundry. I'm not letting you under my bed."

It was too hot to be clever. "I need to talk to you, Kalli. Did you know Laomedes, Aphon's son?"

Silence for a moment. "Did?" asked the voice behind the screen. More silence, this time ominous. "I see," she said. "Some rich asshole is dead, and instead of resting up to be divinely beautiful tonight, I'm supposed to tell you everyone who wanted him that way."

"What use is your divine beauty tonight?" I asked her. Tonight was reserved for one of her rich official boyfriends. Kalliphryni lacks moral fiber. Her tragic flaw is fine linen dresses, with tasteful gold pins to hold them in place. She also likes food and a roof.

"You should appreciate just knowing that divine beauty exists," she said. She reached for a tragic dress on a hook, revealing the head and shoulder of a mere demigoddess. "What use was Laomedes any night? I have no idea who killed him, or why I should care."

"Oh, we know who did it," I said. "His ephebe."

"Then the motive won't be complicated," said Kalli. "He done him wrong, or the other way around. You're getting paid for that? If I hadn't been born a girl, I could be a sophist too."

"You were born a barbarian, unable to speak. I haven't heard that stop you." The gods wasted a lot of either brains or beauty on Kalliphryni. She comes from some place off west beyond Greater Hellas, and strictly speaking she is a barbarian. Her native language sounds more like bum-bum-bum than bar-bar-bar, except that from her lips it sounds more like Sappho.

She stepped out, still adjusting a dress pin. Her dress was strong on air and water, hardly any earth; add your own fire. She looked great through it. "Laomedes, son of Aphon," she said. "He goes to – went to – all the best parties, and held tacky but very expensive ones himself. Had hands all over any woman in sight, including me till I kneed him where it hurts."

"Good," I told her. Women where Kalli comes from do things like that. Just because they're barbarians doen't make them stupid.

She poured cups, handed me one, melted onto the far end of the couch. "So he was all over some poor girl," she said, "and the boyfriend got jealous. At a party, right? Patricians are the same everywhere, except back home, only girls like me get mixed up with nasty boys."

"Because your men are all blockhead farmers," I told her. "You say it yourself all the time. Even if you have a barbarian word for oligarchs." It is the only repeatable word she has taught me. "What else should I know about the late lamented Laomedes?" I asked her.

"No one will be lamenting him very much," she said. "Only the mourners, and his brother won't hire many. I take it back, lots of people will lament. Brother Ari is the sensible one in that family. He doesn't do the party circuit. Ari's thing is racehorses, and naturally real estate. So a lovely golden spring has gone dry, never to flow again."

Kalli may hail from northwest of nowhere, but her real, barbarian name, Cornelia, means 'My family used to have Zeus over for dinner.' Barbarian women can be rich – sail to Phoenicia and see – but who ever knew they could be upper class? "Racehorses?" I asked. "The kind with four legs or two?"

Kalli looked at me over her winecup. "The gentlemen are the racehorses," she said. "We only go along for the ride. Ari likes to do the riding, on real horses." She sat partway up. "There's your clever Athenian motive. The horse dealers got Adonis drunk on jealousy, so Ari would inherit and they'd move more bloodstock."

"Adonis?" I asked. Kalliphryni doesn't make jokes about gods.

She got her special Kalli look. "Philonikos the Sophist, smartest guy in Athens, at least the smartest with reasonable rates, finally asks me about the murderer." She sat right up. "Of course Thrasymachos is Adonis. I thought everyone knew that. For a sophisticated Athenian, Niko, you need to get out more."

"I can hardly afford not affording you," I told her. "Adonis is way out of my budget, and I sure won't get him on my looks." Kalli is not really my girlfriend, needless to say. Every basket in the Liars' Market finds its natural price, and Kalliphryni's is not payable in cash, only gifts. My smart mouth earns me an off hour now and then. "Tell me about him."

"Thrasymachos is the gods' special gift to women," she said, "also men. Donkeys, you'll have to ask them." Kalli sat facing her bedroom. "I know girls who would drink his hemlock for him. I'll hand them the cup, but promise I'll save some for him, too."

She finished off her own cup and refilled us both. Her stuff tastes much better than hemlock. "He wants to be king of Athens," she said. "So far he's the king prick." She laughed, cut it off. "He sort of likes me, calls me his little barbarian oligarch. Hemlock? He'd be crushed if he knew, but if it were up to me you'd execute him the way we do it at home."

Thrasymachos might like Kalliphryni, but she really, truly did not like him. I must have raised my eyebrow enough to notice, because she nodded. "He calls me a lady, but he treats ladies like shit, too. I could tell you the details, but they're merely unpleasant, not dramatic."

"Then tell me about his politics," I said. That was why Pericles hired me. "You must have talked politics with him." Thrasymachos might be a jerk, but he was a sharp kid who paid plenty attention. Little barbarian oligarch? Most guys are not politically conscious around Kalli.

"Maybe we just talked family," she said. "Women only have political opinions in comedies, remember?"

"Shut up. We don't let women in the Assembly because it would never adjourn, just argue until everyone starved to death. What's it to you anyway? You're a foreigner." I held up my cup like a toast, and finished it off. "Of course you talked family. I suppose you at least liked his politics, since you're both Ares Hill. Oligarchs everywhere flock to the same branch."

Kalli mixed and poured us both another cup. "Someday I'll have to learn the Greek word for aristocrat," she said, "and teach it to you. No, I don't like his politics."

"He sides up with the democracy? An Ares Hill beautiful boy? That's unusual." Not half as unusual as a barbarian girl with political opinions. Even reactionary ones.

"Democracy? Gods, no," she said. "That's your bad idea, not his. Like I said, he wants to be king. Not the guy they tag here to lead sacrifices each year. A real king type king." She shrugged, then struck her Athena pose. "So especially if he killed someone, nail him up there."

Kalli has an issue with kings. When her grandpa was a boy, she says, the old hometown gave theirs the boot. Perhaps that makes them honorary Hellenes.

She got up. "Niko, it is way too hot to talk politics, or even think about Adonis. I'm going back to bed. Settle anywhere you wish, so long as you're out of here by sunset." She put down her cup and flicked off her dress pins. The dress clung like a desperate sailor for a moment, then slipped under the waves and drowned. She headed back behind her screen.

Kalli had said to settle down anywhere, so I followed. The most beautiful city in the world is not Sparta. It is a western town called Roma, where all three of her sisters still live, along with a bunch of her cousins.