With a sigh, superintendent-detective Marcus Sulcus returned to his desk. He and his colleague Gaius Bulbus, had been charged with investigating a worrying disappearance of a couple of farmers, husband and wife, aged in their late forties. The disappearance had been reported five weeks ago, by a worried sister of the female victim.
There were three options. First, the couple had simply gone, taking away their money, to live on elsewhere. Actually, one did not ‘vanish’ for long, Roman administration was capable enough of tracking down someone’s whereabouts, even in Germania, Hibernia, or elsewhere abroad. Moreover, they apparently had no sound reason to do so. Hence, this option, that they were alive and free, had become less and less plausible with time. The second option had been an abduction. That kind of shit happened in their community, mostly to settle financial or honour conflicts.
One problem was their community. Maurandiacum was located in the High Plains, one of these rural areas, where urban civilization never had set foot. A sprawl of small villages, hamlets and farmsteads, since centuries populated mainly by adherents of the Resourcers cult.
‘Resourcers’ was the name of a branch of the Serapis cult that had emerged some 450 years ago in the empire. The name derived from their doctrine, claiming to return to the true ‘sources’ of the religion, stating that Serapis would one day send His Son as a messiah, and those who would not follow that messiah and would not renounce to their sins, and not adopt the humble, god fearing life, would be punished for eternity.
Serapis would bless and choose the humble people, and call them to Him. Hard work, praying and renouncing to material and other temptations, that’s what mattered in a real humble life. The message of the Resourcers, which also rejected Mars and Vesta as deities, and only veneered Serapis, successfully appealed to the impoverished masses. Riots and rebellions broke out throughout the entire empire.
The Resourcers claimed to return to the ancient principles of religion, based on an event that, according to some obscure accounts, had occurred some 1500 years earlier, in Judea, during the reign of Tiberius. A messiah, had been sent by Serapis, to redeem mankind from its sins. That god-messiah had been crucified, both as a punishment, and, by the harshness of the punishment, as a sign of salvation of all mankind that would believe in Him. The imperial establishment had since long abandoned that idea, as it would be unacceptable and incomprehensive that a messiah, either a god or not, would have died this terrible and humiliating death – a form of execution which was still in vigor. And since a son of Serapis would have the same god-status as Serapis, such a fate was completely incompatible with the official image of a supreme, all mighty being. Adhering to that belief of the crucified redeemer was heresy, blasphemy, and also treason to the emperor.
Anyway, the Resourcer’s beliefs gave a spiritual fuel to the social disgruntle against the corrupt imperial and religious institutions, and the wealthy oligarchs that supported them. Impoverished masses, exploited by the oligarchs and repressed by empire and official religion, stood up. The sometimes massive uprises soon turned into violence against the imperial institutions. For a few months, it appeared that the empire would fall apart in secessionist provinces, but the emperor kept the support of the legions. Once they had restored discipline and purged the ranks from Resourcers, the rebellion was crushed with extreme violence.
For the first time in more than thousand years, the Roman Empire saw an old phenomenon return : mass crucifixions in the circus and along the main roads, living torches, people thrown for the lions and other cruelties. All inflicted to Resourcers who had rebelled, or just had refused to forsake their beliefs.
Although the rebellious movement was crushed, the Resourcer’s movement itself was never completely eradicated. After 150 years of conflict, a compromise of live and let live settled, between the imperial order, the traditional Jupiter/Serapis-Vesta-Mars cult (the so-called orthodox ones), and the Resourcers. The compromise ‘tolerated’ the Resourcer’s cult, but put restrictions on them. They were not allowed to reside in Italy, and in fact, they were banished to the more remote ‘Atlantic’ provinces, like Mauretania, Lusitania, Gaul and Brittania. They also had restrictions in civil rights. They had no full citizenship, unless they publically would renounce to their religion.
Among the Resourcer’s communities who had survived, rose a spirit of self-reliance. Determined to survive in Roman society, they developed a working ethos, in order to sustain economically their own communities. Their communities often retired to some remote parts of the provinces, and although they did not isolate themselves completely, and traded with the rest of the economy, the persecutions of the 16th century had still left their mark, by a deep distrust towards outsiders, and towards the empire’s institutions.
One of such regions was the High Plains, a rural area south of Castrilocum, where every farm was a castle, family honour was high at the stakes, everybody minded his own business, and settled his own business, and did so preferably without involving the imperial authorities. So, Sulcus and Bulbus, while investigating the mystery of the disappearance at Maurandiacum, could hardly count on cooperation from the locals. Such things as abducting someone, to settle a bill, happened from time to time in that community. Sometimes, the victims showed up again and took on their life as if nothing had happened (despite maltreatment, rape, humiliation, they sometimes had been subjected to by their abductors). Sometimes, they would never return and vanished without a trace.
So, the third option, the detectives had to consider, was murder. Usually, these villagers settled bills by murdering in the open, as a warning to the community : ‘this happens when you mess with me!’ (although no witness would make a statement to the police). However, the victims did not seem to have a feud, of the kind that might explain abduction (although it still could not be ruled out, considering the code of silence ruling the High Plains). Since also a considerable sum of money seemed to have disappeared from the farm, the crime of robbery with murder, after which the bodies would have been hidden, seemed an obvious trail to investigate too. The High Plains folks were deeply religious, but that did not exclude their characters of being closed, vicious, cunning and violent. They were said even not to be averse of stealing from their neighbours if those did not belong to the same family clan, although such incidents were not reported to lead to deadly violence, mostly.
So far, Sulcus and Bulbus had two suspects : the daughter and son in law of the vanished couple. They had reported the disappearance from the farm of an amount of money too. It was this openness (particularly about the money), that had drawn the suspicion on them. Very unusual for the traditional code of silence of the High Plains community.
From the local constabulary in the High Plains, Sulcus and Bulbus had learned that the young couple lived in conflict with the parents. The son in law was a farmhand, practically without a penny, not the party, her parents had wished for their daughter. They had wanted an alliance with another farmer’s family as a son in law. The now twenty year old young couple had however married, about eighteen months ago, without parental consent. But they lived on the same farm, and according to the constabulary, the young man was a hard worker, and so was his wife, who helped on the farm, both on the courtyard and the field, and in the farm’s administration. Nevertheless, the constabulary had heard mentions of firing up brawls between the elder and the younger couple.
There had been rumours – only rumours – that, during the brawls, the parents would have threatened to disinherit the young couple. As the situation was, the daughter would inherited the farm and the land, on the death of the parents. So they had a motive or the crime : averting to lose everything.
Interrogated, the young couple soon started to give conflicting statements about the last whereabouts of the vanished couple, and about their own’s. On the day, the vanishing had been reported, the daughter had been to Castrilocum, but she had also mentioned other places. The son in law had stated he had been working on the field, yet no witness could confirm that. He and his wife had stated that they had initially not been worried about the absence of his parents in law : that happened more. But according to the detectives, there were gaps and questions they could not explain.
The suspects claimed, these gaps simply arose from bad memory, since the day of the disappearance had simply been one of routine work, similar to most other working days. But Sulcus and Bulbus were investigating the trail, that they could have murdered the parents, hidden the bodies, and that the question of the ‘stolen’ money was a decoy, to cover up a murder as a robbery by a third party. To their defence, the young coupled argued that they had not realized immediately that the parents had actually vanished – like the son in law said, they were often away, for business – so they had lost record of their own whereabouts, and they simply could not remember any detail of it.
“So, Mister Bulbus!”, Sulcus said, “Hands on! We have exactly…” (he looked on his watch) “…forty-eight hours minus forty-five minutes, to come up with something!”
“But how!? Interrogate the suspects again!? Will that bring up something new!? We have analyzed the transcripts of their interrogations to the last interpunction…?”
“I shall start with the last developments, Mister Bulbus!”
“Last developments!? Which last developments, Mister Sulcus? There aren’t any!?”
“This press article is the last development, Mister Bulbus!” Sulcus said, waving with the newspaper he had taken with him when he had left Octavianus’ office.
(to be continued)