The opening of Dying to be Roman the first of the Dai and Julia Mystery novellas by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook.
Anno Diocletiani MDCCLXXVII Maius
“Notebook entry. Confirm date, Post Ides, Maius. Time, third night watch, at eight twenty three, near enough and location Augusta Arena, Londinium, Britannia Maxima. Looks like the report of a murder was not wrong. He seems pretty deceased to me.”
Under the brilliant lights of the pitch, which turned night into day, the body would have looked gruesome anyway. It had no face. But laid out as it was on a white sheet, the injuries seemed to stand out more. There was no blood but…
Dai wished he had not put quite so much garum on the chips he had been eating less than an hour ago. Even after more than eight years in the job he still found he had little stomach for the messier end of it. At least the hands seemed to still be intact, which made part of the process a lot easier. He pressed the touchscreen of his identipad against one finger and then entered the other necessary details. DNA and fingerprint checks both came up. Which was unusual as most murder victims were unregistered on either database. But when he saw the image he knew why this one was different.
This had once been Treno Bellicus ‘Big Belly’: one of the leading lights of the Caledonian Game team here in Londinium for the Games. That had to be more than ironic.
Dai, like every schoolkid in Britannia, knew that an arena had stood here since before the Divine Diocletian had rebuilt the Empire under his heavy hand, spreading his brand of Romanisation as far as his arms would reach and at the same time snatching back the privilege of being a full citizen from all born outside Italia. Back then, the arena had staged the kind of barbaric and bloody spectacles ex-patriot Romans expected. And now? In all honesty, Dai could not say it was too much different. It might include a ball as a sop to those who wanted to call it sport, but the brutality remained the same. The Games in all their savagery. Those who couldn’t be there in person to taste the dust and smell the blood could freely watch the spectacle on the screens on every street corner and in every public building. Bread and Circuses.
The prize that lured the finest athletes of the provinces to risk life and limb was otherwise unattainable Roman citizenship, and this poor bastard had been a star player. A broad-featured face looked out of the screen on Dai’s wristphone, wearing a manufactured snarl. Behind him was a virtual backdrop with sports drink logos and other product placements. Well, those sponsors had just lost one of their money-spinning assets.
Reluctantly, he returned his attention to the body and bent over it to peer at the visible injuries as he made his initial informal observations. It was as much talking himself through coping with the gruesome scene as anything of real value.
“Victim ID DNA confirmed. Body is supine. Been dead the last four hours. He looks like he has been laid out all ready for anointing and Charon’s obol. But placed on a white cloth that I’m willing to bet half my next salary is going to be a bed sheet. Body was bled out, through the throat – ugly gash there – and cleaned up before being put here. The other half of my pay is going on the certainty there will be nothing on the body we can use to ID the killer. Other injuries I can see -”
One of the disadvantages of being a plainclothes investigator was it seemed to lead to less respect from civilians, especially from Roman civilians.
“Llewellyn?” the voice was coolly condescending.
Even though he had told his decanus to keep everyone away, Dai was grateful for the excuse to straighten up and stop looking at the corpse.
The woman who stood there was in her thirties, with classic Roman features; she wore her fashionably short stola over close-fitting leggings and boots. For someone who must have been dragged out of bed in the small hours, she looked very well turned out and made Dai wish he could cover the small stain on his tunic where he had dropped a chip when the call to attend this crime came through. Her name badge declared her to be ‘Annia Belonia Flavia’ and said she was Curatrix Prima. No doubt in charge of this arena. She was frowning at him and he realised he must be staring.
“That is indeed who I am, domina.”
Behind her back he could see Bryn, his decanus, looking guilty. So he should, but Dai had the feeling this woman was not the kind to be easily put off.
“Do you know how this happened?” she demanded, as if it was Dai’s fault the body had been left in the middle of her pitch.
“Investigations are already underway,” he told her smoothly. “We have identified the victim and my people are questioning everyone who might have seen anything here.”
He had tried to put himself between her and the body, but she sidestepped and looked. Her hands went up to her face and the skin behind them looked almost as pale as the corpse, leaching into a light hint of green. To her credit, she recovered without vomiting, but she stepped back and took a breath before restoring the gravitas expected of a Roman matron.
“Who is it?”
“Treno Bellicus. You may have heard -”
“Of course I have.” She cut across him rudely as if wanting to reassert herself after the moment of weakness he had witnessed. “He is one of the contestants. He was reported missing days ago but you useless vigiles have done nothing about it.”
Dai took a breath and met her accusing glare with his own brand of gravitas.
“Well, you can be certain we are giving the matter our full attention now,” he assured her.
She snorted and stalked off.
“It strikes me that after two thousand years of unbroken Roman rule and all the incredible technological advances that has brought to the world, they would have figured simple things like that,” Bryn said, watching her retreating figure.
Dai glanced at his decanus, saw his expression and decided to bite.
“Things like what?”
“How to run a decent criminal investigation service. I mean clearly these vigiles she speaks of are cack. That poor woman, having to deal with such incompetents. It must be very trying for her.”
“I’ve met a few who really are,” Dai agreed, grinning, “but Roman citizens just have to man up and make do with the inefficiencies and restrictions of Imperial rule out here in the provinces. She should just be glad we have the most essential basics like hovercarts and the internet.”
“Yeah. I don’t know how the poor dears manage here in this primitive and barbarous land, so far from Rome where everything is always perfect.”
“If I didn’t know you better I might think you were abandoning Stoicism to become a Cynic, Bryn.”
“What? You have met my wife? And my half-Roman mother. With those women folk I’m a Stoic, man, through and through. I have to be.”
Dai laughed and shook his head, then they both turned their attention back to the very unfunny reality of the corpse at their feet.
Keep reading this for free if you claim your free copy of Dying to be Roman between 14-16 March and read Dying to be Friends for free too. All the other novellas are available at half their usual price.