The Lure of the Crocodile
by Thomas K. Carpenter
Art by Kimberly Cho
The news of the murder had flown through the Rhakotis district like a swarm of locusts, leaving nothing but naked fear in its wake. Magistrate Ovid had been ensconced in his bath, laboriously drawn with the help of his only servant, when he heard about it. Though he’d been looking forward to relaxing in the warm water, he immediately climbed out, toweling off his considerable girth, and prepared for the journey to the western part of the city.
The Rhakotis district was unlike the other six districts of Alexandria. Besides being the largest, populated primarily with Egyptians that held neither wealth nor political power, it was only lightly controlled by the Roman Empire. Instead, the district ran on a system of favors and thuggery, headed by a man only known as Black Omari.
His name suggested many things, but it only meant one. The shadows of men were known as watchers from the god Osiris, the Egyptian god of death. Nothing that went on in the Rhakotis district was not unknown by Black Omari because his shadows were everywhere, which was all the more concerning because the victim in question was the crime lord’s favorite nephew—Teti of the Knife.
Magistrate Ovid found Black Omari on the banks of a wide canal that originated in Lake Mareotis and wound through the district on its way to the Mediterranean. The bronze-skinned Egyptian stood beneath a shade tree where a table had been set as if it were a cafe. He was surrounded by thick-necked thugs, while a crowd of women wailed over a body.
The location of the murder sank any of Ovid’s hopes that this would be a simple affair, as this was a favorite resting spot of Black Omari’s. He liked watching the children of the district playing in the cool canal waters, seeing himself as his benevolent protector from the conquering Romans.
As the sun blistered against Ovid’s flesh, turning beads of sweat into rivers on his back, he sensed events as a bowstring pulled taut, ready to lose a flaming arrow into a pitch-filled barrel. While deeply corrupt, Black Omari kept the district in relative calm. If this murder had anything to do with a rival faction, the Rhakotis might erupt in chaos, and the praetor—and eventually the governor—would land the blame squarely at Ovid’s feet. So he adjusted his robes, tugging on the purple sash that indicated his office, before approaching the knot of men.
Upon seeing him, Black Omari dismissed his men with a simple wave of the hand. The crime lord wore a mask of anger that smoothed away his wrinkles. He appeared as the jackal-faced god with cold, judging eyes.
“What good is Empire if cannot keep its people safe?” Omari asked mockingly, his voice cracking with grief, the only sign Ovid had ever seen of the man’s humanity.
“My condolences,” said Ovid, trying to keep his tone honorific yet not subservient. “I will use the Empire’s considerable resources in finding the murderer.”
A sneer formed on Black Omari’s lips, as his bloodshot eyes regarded Ovid with distaste.
“Fat man, you have no resources. No men. My district is like rotting corpse to Empire. Governor do not care. Go away. I will bring justice.”
Every bit of Black Omari’s countenance told Ovid that he was meant to leave, but he held his ground. The Rhakotis was his district, and though its people had no love for him, he could not turn away from his duty.
Black Omari rotated away from Ovid, so he cleared his throat and moved back in view. His stomach roiled like the wine-dark seas in a storm.
“You may not want the Empire’s help, but I must insist,” said Ovid.
The crime lord’s nostrils flared with anger. Ovid sensed that he had pushed things too far, when from behind him a woman’s voice broke the tension.
“Wekha Ramses!” she screamed then continued with a stream of Egyptian that Ovid had difficulty understanding. Black Omari responded with wild gestures and his own shouts. What transpired, Ovid followed only barely, was that the woman blamed Omari for her son’s death. Ovid also caught mentions of Sobek and Osiris, but the interplays between the gods of the Egyptians always confused him.
Ovid used the disagreement to step away, moving toward the body in hopes that he could examine it, but the women formed a tight knot around it, leaving him grasping the sash of his office.
One of Omari’s men approached. He had the look of a sailor and a scar across his jaw that looked like it’d come from flame.
“You are not wanted here,” said the man in respectable Latin, putting his hand on the hilt of his blade.
“I am the magistrate of the district,” said Ovid, all too aware that he was alone. He could have brought soldiers with him, but then no one would have spoken with him. “I must be allowed to do my duty.”
“I am Hori. I speak with his voice now,” he said, with a nod toward Black Omari with a touch of pride. “You should go.”
The sun burned against Ovid’s neck. A haze filled the sky from the nearby Lake Mareotis. The bath in his villa, now probably cooled, was inviting, should he give up his duty, but he knew his dereliction would only be made worse with time.
Magistrate Ovid took a step towards the body and Hori blocked him with his own, releasing the blade from its sheath.
“If you think killing me is an option, think about what the Empire will do to the district if I am found dead,” said Ovid, hoping the shaking of his voice wasn’t too evident.
“You dishonor the body with your presence,” hissed Hori.
“Then be my eyes and ears, tell me what happened, what I must know as a magistrate of the Roman Empire. If you refuse, then I will march over to that body and begin the examination myself,” said Ovid.
Hori stared back with wide eyes. They would kill Ovid if he did that, though it was unlikely that the praetor, his superior, would mourn his death, or seek justice. It was more likely they would mark it up as another one of his failures and sell his position to a wealthy Roman.
But Hori didn’t know this, so he gave a slow, tight-lipped nod before returning his knife to its home. Ovid wanted desperately to sigh with relief but feared showing even a drop of weakness.
The crime lord’s lieutenant glanced back toward the body. “Teti is Omari’s favorite nephew. He was guarding the waters from crocodiles that swim up from the Nile, so children can play without fear. Last week, we kill a big one. Everyone on edge watching, when we hear the call for warding. Another big crocodile comes floating up canal, like barge it is so big. Teti is standing in the water one moment, helping children out of canal, while we chase the crocodile. Then when we come back, we find him in the water facedown. Everyone says it is Sobek’s revenge.”
The circumstances of the death left Ovid cold, despite the heat, and not because a drowning was unfamiliar—sailors lost to storms washed into the Great Harbor every week—but the sudden manner of his death.
“He was alive? No one saw him die?” asked Ovid, as he glanced around at how many men and women were in the area. They’d been feasting on the canal’s edge. Discarded figs lay rotting in the sun, probably dropped when the body was spotted.
“He was strangled by the spirit of Sobek,” said Hori.
“Is that Omari’s sister?” asked Ovid, nodding toward the woman who was walking away from the crime lord with her face in her hands.
“Kasmut. His brother’s wife.”
“Where is his brother?”
Hori looked away. “He died in Memphis, many years ago.”
The tone of his voice suggested to Ovid that this was a source of considerable pain for the family and that he should inquire no further. Since it had nothing to do with the murder, he pivoted back to the nephew.
“Besides Sobek, who might have wanted to kill Teti?” asked Ovid.
Hori shook his head, spoke in a low voice before turning back to the men. “They put a spell on him, the priests of the crocodile god. It was revenge. They will pay.”
“As a servant of the Empire, I must forbid you from this path before I can find the truth of the murder,” said Ovid, hoping his tone did not set off the man.
Hori sneered. “Forbid. Ha. The Empire does not care about death of Egyptian. Governor Flaccus would cheer it. But if you think you can find truth, you have until tomorrow when our day of mourning is done.”
A chill passed through Ovid’s body as if he’d been dunked in cold waters. This was worse than he thought. An attack on a temple would bring complaints from the other temples. They expected Roman protection in return for their taxes, and this failure would reach the praetor’s ears. He had to stave this off before it got worse. . . .
Copyright © 2020. The Lure of the Crocodile by Thomas K. Carpenter