An extract from Dying on the Mosaics by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago The seventh Dai and Julia Mystery, set in a Britain where the Roman Empire never left...
The Dog and Onion, was situated at the heart of what counted for the bad side of town in Viriconium. Here small retailers selling dubious items were squashed between nightclubs, gambling rooms and scantily disguised brothels. Above, between and around these were some of the cheapest rooms and apartments to let in the city.
Like most of the business and homes on its street, the taberna was a narrow fronted building which went back a long way. The street itself was also narrow with barely room for two vehicles to pass. Alleyways and car park entrances cut between the buildings, under the tunnel of their first floor rooms.
Most of the buildings were old and ill-maintained. If it had been in Eboracum, Dai reflected, they would have called it something interesting and turned it into a tourist spot, refurbishing the buildings, replacing the sex shops with gift shops, the brothels with fashionable boutiques, and the nightclubs with eateries of various descriptions catering to broad tastes. If it had been in Londinium they would have gated the road at either end and thrown away the key. But here in Viriconium it provided habitation, employment, and what passed for entertainment, to the lowest strata of society. And any of the rest of society who liked to indulge themselves in such a way.
The last time Dai had been here it had been in broad daylight and then the area had looked grimy, run down and insalubrious. But night time was its element. There wasn’t enough street lighting to illuminate more than patches, but the various establishments made up for it with illuminated signs promising any variety of vice. There were shifting, multi-coloured lights emanating from the same open doors as the zing-tinkle of slot machines, and bursts of loud music as the bouncers opened and closed the doors to the nightclubs. The deep background thump-thump of loud bass beats, accompanied them, like an external heartbeat. The smell was a mix of overcooked streetfood, spilt alcohol, cheap perfume and fresh vomit.
Bryn seemed completely at home and even exchanged reserved nods with a couple of the local denizens. But that was to be expected. It was his job to know this place and fit in. For a moment, watching the older man stride confidently on, turning sideways to avoid a gaggle of half-drunk whores and their present companions, Dai felt a stab of envy. This had been him a year ago, prowling the streets of Londinium with the same superb assurance. But here in Viriconium his role was no longer that of street Vigiles and there were times he missed it badly.
Which was the real reason why, when Bryn suggested he come along, Dai hadn’t protested.
The taberna was busy, but not overwhelmingly so. The two of them managed to spot an empty table which they were heading towards when a large man wearing smartish tunic and trews and an ugly scowl intercepted them, grabbing Bryn by the arm.
“Not a good idea for you to be in here. We don’t cater for your kind.”
“My ‘kind’ being?” Bryn asked politely.
The large man nodded at Dai.
“Well, his kind to be precise. You would do better taking him along the road to the Aureum Pomum. They got things a bit more classy there. We don’t cater that way.”
Then Dai realised and felt an irrational sense of anger. Before he became a Citizen he was forever judged on his lack of status and now he was being judged on an excess of it. Bryn must have felt his mood shift because he smiled broadly at the large man blocking their way, then spoke in a pleasant and friendly tone.
“I suggest you let go of my arm and take your assumptions and stick them in your twll tin. Because you’ve read this so wrong it’s like you’ve mixed up the business news with the sports pages.”
The big man moved, but in the wrong way, and a moment later he was on the ground gasping with Bryn standing over him still wearing a friendly smile. Dai stepped forward and trapped his wrist with one foot, quite casually, as the downed man tried to reach for some weapon or other.
Around them people had pulled back chairs and stools, some edging away and some moving in. The atmosphere was as raw as blood on knife blade and Dai spared a moment to feel grateful they had a wall to their backs. Beneath his jacket he had a nerve whip, the non-lethal Citizen-only weapon, but he was reluctant to draw it here. Instead he shifted his stance to something more defensive.
Bryn was talking to the prone man.
“You must be new in here, fresh from the sticks?”
The man made a muffled grunt and tried to get up. Bryn might have been minded to allow him to, but before that could become clear, the gathering group around them parted and a woman who had to be in her late fifties or early sixties, with a plump figure and hard eyes, flanked by men with hard bodies and even harder eyes, kicked at the prone man quite viciously.
Any possible lingering idea that this was a sweet, rosy cheeked middle-aged landlady vanished as she opened her mouth and demolished the unfortunate on the floor with a tirade of vicious profanity. When she had finished he seemed to have withered to half his original size and he scurried off, doubled over, vanishing through a door marked for staff use only.
The woman looked around at the audience they had gathered and made a circling gesture with one finger. “Show’s over. You can all get back to your drinks.”
The clientele of the place dispersed to the tables and conversation picked up almost immediately, with only the odd glance cast in the direction of Dai and Bryn to indicate the topic might not yet have moved on.
“So why is it every time you come in here you make trouble SI Cartivel?” The hard tone had gone to be replaced by a warm, friendly one with a hint of flirtation. That last became more obvious as the woman shifted her gaze to take in Dai – slowly, from head to toe. She was so clearly mentally undressing him that for a moment he almost felt naked.
“I wasn’t the one making trouble, Aoife,” Bryn protested. We just came by for a drink and a chat and your man decided to put himself in my face.”
“You’ll be ruining my trade bringing a Citizen in here. But don’t I remember him? Good looking bachgen like that is hard to forget. Isn’t he one of your Vigiles?”
“Something like that,” Bryn agreed easily. “Now about that drink and that chat.”
Dying on the Mosaics is released on 30 November but is available for pre-order now.