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They were having a fine day out on the hills. Felix had mastered the rudiments of riding quickly and today he was managing to control his stubborn little mount so well that Caudinus had abandoned the leading rein. Having eaten the lunch Cookie packed for them, Felix was running around playing at being a legionary soldier whilst his father and Dai shared a half-bottle of local wine and the ponies chomped contentedly at the grass nearby.
The land here was bleak but beautiful, with ridges of rock, mantled in greenery, jutting into the sky and limiting the horizon from roughly rolling hills. A brisk breeze ruffled hair, lifting the heat of an unclouded sun and somewhere above them a bird keened as it traced an invisible circle overhead. Scant sign of human habitation disturbed Dai’s view, aside from the odd isolated dwelling, little more than drystone shacks with crude slating culled from local stone where crofter families lived. Their sheep, made small by distance were puffs of grey, like dandelion seed heads, against the scrub. This was the hinterland of Britannia, never one of the richer or more developed provinces, at its most primal.
“I’m sorry to spoil the day.” Caudinus voice broke into Dai’s thoughts. “But this wasn’t only about taking Felix for a riding lesson.”
Dai was not too surprised. He had caught the note of significance in the older man’s voice when he had called yesterday suggesting he brought his family over to Villa Papaverus and that the three of them should go for a ride.
“So what’s up?”
Caudinus shifted his position on the rough wool blanket they had thrown over the grass and thistles.
“I’m not sure it is anything, but it might be and I didn’t want to worry Cariad or Julia so this seemed the best way we could talk without either of them realising we had been.”
“I can see that,” Dai agreed. The last thing he would want for Julia, so close to her due date now, was anything to worry about. “What’s the problem?”
“I have had a couple of anonymous threats delivered to my admin staff in the last few days. Unpleasant things – one found their cat mutilated and a message attached to it saying they should tell me to back the right people. Then night before last another was jumped by two masked men and told to tell me that I shouldn’t get in the way of progress.” He broke off. “I might even have some idea who might be involved. A man called Aled Blaenau. He came to see me at the end of last month on behalf of some clients of his, he said. He was hinting heavily that he would be willing to bribe me to nod through a substantial transaction on some potentially contaminated land for his backers. He never actually came out and said so, of course, or I’d have nailed him for it and he denied that was what he meant when I threw it back in his face. I sent him away in no doubt that his efforts were more likely to be counter-productive than anything. At the time I thought he was just a lobbyist who had been over enthusiastic, but now…”
“You didn’t report any of this to Bryn?”
Caudinus shook his head. “I wanted to bring it to you rather than do anything official. As I said, I don’t want our families to become alarmed.”
The sunny day seemed to grow darker and Dai felt a cloud pass over his soul.
“Alright I’ll get on it soon as I’m back in work tomorrow. Nothing official until we have something solid to go on.”
Caudinus nodded and got to his feet.
“Thank you, I appreciate that. But now we’d best get these ponies back home.”
A few minutes later they began heading back to the farm. Their easiest way led through a small wood of stunted oaks and ash trees and that was when it happened. Dai vaguely recalled something stinging his neck and as he lifted a hand to swat it away, the world had turned upside down and slid out of sight into a dark tunnel.
An extract from Dying to be Fathers a Dai and Julia Mystery by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook which is free to download today 11 December 2022.
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