Weekend Wind Down – Spoiled for Choice

The Dai and Julia Mysteries by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook, a  whodunit series set in a modern day Britain where the Roman Empire still rules.

Early November MDCCLXXVII

The golden autumnal weather had given way to a chilly November. Dai Llewellyn sat at his desk by the broad window that looked out over the walled garden of his residence. He still struggled to think of it as ‘home’. Maybe it was the eagle over the door that sneered at him every time he crossed the threshold with its silent message that this was a villa designated sub aquila – Roman only. He wondered if he could arrange to get the facade remodelled on some excuse so above the name of the house, the poppies of its name were wreathed there instead.
He had been absently playing with the silver band around his index finger as he thought these near treasonous thoughts. Then he looked at the ring, it’s intricate blend of Celtic knots and Roman letters and symbols. It marked him out as a citizen – as Roman as his beloved wife Julia and without it she could not be his. She had given him this ring to remind him that their worlds were enriched by each other, not diminished.
Days like this he had to be reminded of that. Sighing, he tried to focus again on the information in front of him. A breakdown of the tenancy of a group of insulae on the rougher edge of Viriconium’s expanding commercial area. The buildings were owned by a Britannia wide property agency – Titus Holdings. They provided housing for over four hundred families – most were single-parent households or impoverished elderly folk who either had no family or whose sons and daughters lacked the space and resources to take them in. It was one of the poorest communities in the city and Dai knew that Titus Holdings did little for its tenants except ensure the structural integrity of the building was maintained. And that was only to avoid facing criminal charges if they should collapse.
He had not visited the estate himself since his return to Viriconium after almost a decade living in Londinium, but his Senior Investigator, Bryn Cartivel had done so and his account had been harrowing.
“I’m not saying I’ve not seen as bad – we both have. Think the dreg ends of the Caligula, but that was Londinium and most there were unregistered and criminals. These people are just desperately poor. Most do seasonal work in the farms around or go begging even. Half the kids look like they’ve not had a decent meal in their lives and most all the old folk are ill from the mould and damp. I was told there is a local joke that the estate has to restock each spring ‘cos so many don’t make it through the winter.” Bryn shook his head at the thought. “It’s grim, Bard.”
“Grim – but not illegal.” Dai had a bitter taste in his mouth as he spoke. “The law says no one forces those people to live there, they choose to do so. That means they choose to accept the conditions the owner offers. After all, if they don’t like it they can always leave.”
“I can see it now you put it that way. They are spoiled for choice with alternatives – sleep on the streets, or under a bridge by the river – or maybe in a nice comfy hedgerow.”
Dai sighed.
“Roman logic. People who can’t imagine what it is like to be so poor the very concept of ‘choice’ about anything in life is meaningless.”
“Not all Romans are rich – your Julia was born in a place not so very different, from what my Gwen tells me.”
“That’s true, but it’s the rich ones that make the laws.”

The reason Bryn had been visiting the Titus estate was the same reason Dai was pouring over complex legal documents relating to the ownership of it and looking at the list of tenants. Over the last month there had been a series of unexplained accidents – lifts failing, elderly people falling down a few steps and being injured but saying they felt as if they had been pushed, people reporting things being stolen whilst they were out but with no sign of a break in, a couple of small fires when people were out and reports of strange sounds coming from the walls. Not surprisingly, the local rumour mill had it that the blocks were cursed or haunted – or both.
Dai had ordered an investigation of the buildings from a structural viewpoint and he had read the surveyors report the previous day. It both utterly exonerated the owners for meeting the minimum legal requirements of upkeep, whilst completely damning them for taking no care or concern for the condition and welfare of their tenants. But that had been a careful subscript and had no legal significance at all. Which would have been the end of Dai’s ability to intervene had a fresh chance accident not occurred – only this one was fatal.
And it wasn’t an accident.
Gedder Blynae had been one of the better off residents of the estate and lived in Insula Cicero. He had returned home early from a family visit in Caesaromagus and found someone – or someones – in the process of emptying his home of its contents into an unmarked and unregistered van. Having served as an auxiliary in his youth, Gedder decided to tackle them himself. Being in the tail end of his seventies, his will was stronger that his way and he was found by his neighbours with severe injuries. Unfortunately for the thieves who killed him, he lived long enough to talk to the first of the vigiles on the scene. She was one of those who had transferred from Londinium with Dai and Bryn.
“He was in his right mind, dominus. Gripped my hand that tight I got bruises,” she had shown Dai and Bryn the imprint of Gedder’s fingers. “He said ‘You tell’em it was them bastards who did it – them was Titus boys. I pulled the mask off the one and he were the same as gets round when the rent is due’. Then he swore a lot and that was it.”
The word of a dead Briton spoken to a non-citizen vigiles against that of a citizen was never going to stand as anything more than inadmissible hearsay in a court presided over by Roman law. But for Dai, it was enough to set him pouring through the affairs of Titus holdings with a fine toothed comb. But so far it all came up squeaky clean legally. What he couldn’t figure was why Titus Holdings had decided to mount a campaign of terror against its own tenants when the profit being made from them was easily tripling any expenditure on the insulae.
So he did what he did whenever something was not working out in his own mind and went to find Julia.

From ‘Dying for a Home’ a short story in The First Dai and Julia Omnibus by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago.

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