An extract from Dying for a Vacation one of the Dai and Julia Mysteries set in an alternative modern day world, where the Roman Empire still rules.
This was one of the two major auction houses in Viriconium that specialised in antiques. It was also the place that, according to his own records, Vibius did the most trade.They had swooped on the owner just as an afternoon auction had finished.
Justina Cynddylan was a harassed-looking woman in her fifties, wearing a fine quality stola and a silver ring of Citizenship. She didn’t seem even slightly intimidated by an unannounced visit from the Vigiles when Bryn produced his ID, and flapped a hand to the stairs at the rear of the auction room when asked if they could go somewhere a bit quieter to talk.
“I don’t have much space, we can use the small store upstairs if you like. But I have nothing to hide, so why not just ask me here?” Her gaze moved past the two for a moment and she raised her voice. “Not that one, Carwyn. The dominus said he was sending someone to collect it.” Then she looked back at Dai. “I am sorry, but I do have a business to run here, so can we make this – whatever it is – as quick as possible please?”
Dai tried his best boyish smile. “Of course, I quite understand. And that is why I suggest we go somewhere quieter so we don’t keep getting interruptions that will delay us all.”
She didn’t quite melt, but the look of tense disapproval softened very slightly.
“Very well.” She led them to the rear staircase and then turned to call across the room “Gawain? Three teas and a plate of those vanilla fingers we had earlier.” A young man, presumably Gawain, put down the box he was carrying and scuttled off through a side door.
The ‘small store’ was well named in Dai’s opinion. It was a room with a tiny window, half full of boxes of bric-a-brac. The other half was occupied by an elderly leather settee and a couple of hard backed, un-matching, very British dining chairs set either side of a small pedestal-leg table. Justina perched on one of the chairs and gestured imperiously that Dai and Bryn should appropriate the settee between them. Dai did so and regretted it in the same moment as the seat sagged away deeply beneath him. He just knew that if he tried to rise he would struggle to free himself. Bryn was clearly a wiser man as he declined the settee and instead used it to display the pictures of artefacts they had taken at random from the internet.
“Do you recognise any of these, domina?” he asked before sitting on the other hard chair.
The auction room owner peered a little myopically at the images, then picked one or two up to look closely at them.
“This is in the collection of Minoan artefacts presently on display in Londinium and this,” she waved another picture, “went missing from an exhibition in Latium four years ago. The rest I could have a stab at their provenance, but I have no idea where they are now.” She dropped the pictures back on the couch and looked at Bryn accusingly. “Why are you showing me these?”
Before he could answer there was a tap on the door and the youngster Dai had seen downstairs brought in a tray of spiced fruit teas and cakes and placed it on the table, then retreated quickly from the room.
“Help yourselves if you want.” Justina waved towards the tray then looked back at the images. “I don’t see what any of these have to do with me.”
“They are not really, domina. Just some items that have been stolen over the last few years.” As Bryn spoke he offered a tea to Dai, who shook his head having decided that trying to drink whilst being swallowed into the depths of the settee would be a recipe for disaster. “We just wondered if you might recognise any of them.”
Justina glared at Bryn as if he had just propositioned her for a night of wild orgies.
“I don’t allow any stolen goods in my auction room,” she said, icily. “Everything that passes through here is checked as having the correct licences.”
“Anyone can make a mistake,” Dai suggested and the woman snorted in disgust.
“Perhaps you Vigiles can make mistakes and think no more about it – those in positions of power often seem to feel that way about life. You just shovel your mistakes under the nearest carpet and carry on regardless, with no one daring to say otherwise. But I can’t afford to make that kind of mistake. This is my livelihood. Even if I avoided criminal charges for doing so, it would ruin my reputation as a dealer with integrity and that would destroy my business.”
Dai nodded sympathetically. “Yes. I can see that. So it must have been a bit difficult for you to find out that Josephus Vibius Anser, one of your best customers, was in fact up to his neck in the illicit art and antiquities trade?”
Her face darkened.
“You are not going to try and tie me in to that. Anything and everything that man bought from me had a full and legitimate licence attached. I can give you the entire list, with origins, previous owners, prices made at each sale, everything – solid as a blockchain.”
“Thank you,” Dai said, “that would be very useful so we can eliminate you from our enquiries completely. Perhaps you could email those to us before you go home today.”
He tried to get to his feet then but having his buttocks lower than his knees and the sagging cushion enveloping him it was a little undignified. In the end, he grabbed the edge of the settee with his hands and pulled himself up. Bryn was making little attempt to hide his grin behind a teacup, which he drained quickly when Dai caught his eye. Justina Cynddylan didn’t seem to notice. She was still frowning at them her thoughts apparently elsewhere.
“If you want my opinion,” she said as Dai finally gained his feet, “you would do better asking everybody’s friend, Tony Talog. If anyone is doing things the wrong way it’s him.”
Dai searched his memory and failed.
Bryn cleared his throat and picked up one of the cakes. “That’d be the man who runs ‘Rara et Vetera’ isn’t it? Your local competition, domina.”
“That – that creature is not any kind of competition for me,” she said firmly. “Half what he sells as pristine originals is heavy restoration. Some so heavy they are really reproductions. I have people attend some of his auctions and they tell me some horrific tales. But it is more than just that he sells bad antiques. One of his employees was close to quitting his place and joining me. The day she put in her notice someone kidnapped her dog and two days later the poor creature appeared on her doorstep stuffed by a taxidermist. She left Viriconium the next day, I believe, at least I have heard nothing more about her since.” She glared accusingly at Dai. “And your lot didn’t lift a finger, of course. I expect the Submagistratus is getting backhanders from Talog to turn a blind eye.”
“Not at all,” Dai assured her. “I am not in the corruption business, although I can’t speak for my predecessor.”
They left her with her mouth agape looking like a stunned sheep and walked quickly from the room, down the stairs and out onto the street.
“You think she is telling the truth?” Bryn asked later as he drove them home. They had spent a couple of hours going over the lists of items Justina Cynddylan had provided and comparing them against the information they had on the items recovered from Vibius.
“About her not selling dud or dodgy stuff? Well, all we looked at seemed genuine enough. Unless the items were being switched somewhere – and seeing as how we found most of them in Vibius’ house, that seems unlikely.”
“I was more asking about Talog,” Bryn said. “He’s not a name I’ve heard from any of the bad boys locally. I’d have thought if he had his snout in the trough they would have some use for him. Fencing stuff if nothing else.”
“I don’t know,” Dai admitted. “Vibius didn’t buy much from him. But then if he is the main way our syndicate is farming out artefacts here in Viriconium, he’d be above helping local petty pilferers, would keep his nose so clean it glowed in the dark and would likely be distanced from Vibius as well.”
“That don’t make a lot of sense, Bard. You make it sound like the less suspicious someone is the more likely they are to be the person we’re after. On that basis we should be suspecting the Magistratus as being the least likely of all.”
Dai mustered a wry grin. “If he was in the business of selling art and artefacts, he’d be right up there, believe you me.”
The Dai and Julia Mysteries are written by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook