Dying to be Roman by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook is a whodunit set in a modern day Britain where the Roman Empire still rules. If you missed previous episodes you can start reading from the beginning. You can listen to this on YouTube.
They were greeted by a whey-faced curator who seemed to be expecting them.
“That was fast, but I’m glad you are here so quickly – I’ve tried to stop anyone going near the area, of course, but I didn’t want to start a panic by letting people know what had happened.”
Dai opened his mouth but Julia beat him too it.
“Of course. I understand. Perhaps you could take us to see. No need to cause any alarm.”
The curator led the way and Dai shot Julia a puzzled look. She shook her head and winked then took a few quick paces so she was walking beside the curator.
“What can you tell me?”
“Well, the under-keeper found him, said the lions have been very unsettled recently and he had been trying to see what the problem was.”
“The under-keeper was trying to see what the problem was?”
“No. The head keeper. Drust. Ninian Drust. He was a marvel with the lions, he knew them all from cubs. It is terrible, terrible.”
“Terrible,” Julia agreed. “So what happened?”
“He must have been checking the enclosure, looking for anything that might have been upsetting the lions. Would have to have been early morning, before opening. The under-keeper found him when he came on duty just after lunch. Well, found what was left of him.”
They had reached the lions’ enclosure and the curator was wringing his hands over and over.
“Terrible. It’s just terrible.”
Dai caught the slight nod Julia gave him and left her saying soothing words to the curator and hopefully getting more details of events from him. Dai went into the keeper’s room and the stench of exposed entrails hit him full in the face. The keeper’s face was still strangely preserved, eyes wide with a last image of horror, and jaw locked into a teeth-exposing grimace of agony. Most of the damage was to his torso and limbs, the trailing remains of his guts hung down from the table and his body looked oddly deflated with the internal organs and soft flesh mostly gone.
It was obvious he had been attacked and killed by the lions he had loved. Didn’t need a detective to tell that. Dai was anything but a superstitious man and right that moment he was not going to buy into this being any kind of coincidence. His test kit was about as basic as it came but the blood sample told him one important thing: there had been high concentrations of alcohol in Ninian Drust’s bloodstream when he died.
One of the advantages of having a Roman investigator with him was that Dai needed only to ask for his requests to be fulfilled. Instead of being told nothing was going to happen unless and until he provided officially confirmed documentation, a single glimpse of Julia’s ID and the curator was almost offering to shoot the lions himself. The praetorian marksmen who undertook the task after being equipped with appropriated tranquilliser weaponry, were probably more efficient.
The subsequent search of the large enclosure seemed fruitless at first and Dai was on the point of admitting his idea might have been wrong and that Drust had in fact just been drinking and wandered into the lions’ enclosure after all, when he saw it. He had seen it when he first walked into the enclosure, they all had. You couldn’t miss it, but no one had really seen it.
“Hiding in plain sight,” he told Julia, pointing to the decorative carousel-shaped centrepiece in the middle of the enclosure. It’s top, a strange confection of oriental shapes, would just be visible to visitors to the menagerie from the edge of the enclosure. The only people who would ever know it was there would be the lion-keepers themselves – and someone who had access to the complete plans for the entire Augusta Arena complex, of course. It looked for all the world, close to, like some intricate cage-effect sculpture, set around a large rough-hewn rock.
The bars were not even locked and lifted easily when Dai applied his strength to do so. So easily that it was clear they were well maintained despite the appearance of age. Even Julia could have opened them without too much trouble.
“The under-keeper told me that Drust was convinced something was going on with the lions at night,” she told him as the bars slid up, revealing a steep tunnel dropping away into darkness. “Apparently, they would come in the morning sometimes to find the lions all lethargic and grumpy. But the beasts passed every health check he ran them through. It had become a bit of an obsession for the man,; he had put in more security surveillance around the perimeter, but that had shown him nothing. So, according to the under-keeper, he had been camping out in the menagerie for the last two nights, determined to see what was happening.”
Part X will be here next Sunday. If you can’t wait to find what happens next you can snag the full novella here.