Excerpt from Medicus by Ruth Downie, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel of the Roman Empire

by Ruth Downie

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 400 pages
    Mar 2008, 416 pages

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SOMEONE HAD WASHED the mud off the body, but as Gaius Petreius Ruso unwrapped the sheet, there was still a distinct smell of river water. The assistant wrinkled his nose as he approached with the record tablet and the measuring stick he had been sent to fetch.

“So,” said Ruso, flipping the tablet open. “What’s the usual procedure here for unidentified bodies?”

The man hesitated. “I don’t know, sir. The mortuary assistant’s on leave.”

“So who are you?”

“The assistant’s assistant, sir.” The man was staring at the corpse.

“But you have attended a postmortem before?”

Without taking his eyes off the body, the man shook his head. “Are they all like that, sir?”

Ruso, who had started work before it was light, stifled a yawn. “Not where I come from.”

The description should come first. Facts before speculation. Except that in this case much of the description was speculation as well.

Female, aged . . . He spent some time frowning over that one. Finally he settled on approximately 18—25 years. Average weight. Height . . . five feet one inch. At least that was fairly accurate. Hair: red, scant. That too, although it might not be very helpful if no one had ever seen her before without a wig. Clothing: none found. So no help there, then. Three teeth missing, but not in places that were obvious. Someone would need to know her very well indeed to give a positive identification from that.

Ruso glanced up. “Did you go over to HQ for me?”

“I told them we’d got a body and you’d send the details over later, sir.”

“Did you ask about missing persons?”

“Yes, sir. There aren’t any.”

“Hm.” This did not bode well. Ruso continued working his way down the body, making notes as he went. Moments later his search was rewarded. “Ah. Good!”


Ruso pointed to what he had found. “If somebody turns up looking for her in a month’s time,” he explained, “we’ll be able to tell them who we buried.” He recorded Strawberry birthmark approximately half an inch long on inside of upper right thigh, eight inches above the knee, and sketched the shape.

When he had completed the description, Ruso scratched one ear and gazed down at the pale figure laid out on the table. He was better acquainted than he wished to be with the dead, but this one was difficult.

The water had interfered with all the signals he had learned to look for. There was no settling of the blood to indicate the position in which the body had been left, presumably because it had rolled over on the current. The limbs were flexible, so that meant . . . what? Men who died in the stress of battle often froze and then relaxed again much faster than was normal. So if the woman had been frightened or struggling . . . On the other hand, how would the aftermath of death be affected by cold water? He scratched his ear again and yawned, trying to think what he could usefully write on the report that would not cause more distress and confusion to the relatives.

Finally he settled on Time of death: uncertain, estimated at least 2 days before discovery and gave his reasons.

He glanced up at the assistant’s assistant again. “Can you write legibly?”

“Yes, sir.”

He handed the tablet and stylus across the body.

“Place of death,” he dictated, then corrected himself. “No, put Location of body.”

The man laid the tablet on the end of the table, hunched over it, and repeated, “Location . . . of . . . body” as he scraped with awkward but determined obedience.

“Found five hundred paces downstream from the pier, in marshes on the north bank,” said Ruso,wishing he had carried on writing himself.

© Ruth Downie. Reporduced with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Group.

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