A Roman Shadow


H L Marsay

There’s no such thing as a coincidence in York…

As Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year approach, the ancient city of York is busier than ever and so is Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow. First he has the theft of valuable Roman artifacts from a museum, then a Chinese tourist is reported missing. During his investigations, he encounters jewellers, chocolatiers, museum curators and Roman soldiers—all pieces to a puzzle he must solve. After discovering a series of coincidences, he begins to suspect there may be a link between the two cases.

John Shadow is a man of contradictions. A solitary figure who notices the smallest details about other people, but endeavours to avoid their company. A lover of good food, but whose fridge is almost always empty. Although he would prefer to work alone, he is ably assisted by his eager partner Sergeant Jimmy Chang.

Shadow suspects he knows who the culprit is, but he needs proof. And then there’s the headache of trying to dodge attending an important party, even as the normally easygoing Jimmy behaves out of character…

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Down 7.

Will Mum use this building to inspire and educate? (6 letters)

Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow placed his knife and fork together and pushed the now empty plate to one side as he swallowed down the last mouthful of bacon. His full English breakfast in Bettys had been as delicious as always. He was sitting at his usual corner table from where he could quietly observe his fellow customers. The famous tearooms were particularly busy this morning. There was an influx of Chinese visitors to the city, all here to celebrate the beginning of their New Year. He watched as they used their phones to take photos of each other and the Bettys waitresses in their traditional black and white uniforms, who patiently paused to pose with their guests.

A hint of a smile flickered across Shadow’s face. He was quite content to observe other people and how they interacted, just as long as nobody tried to interact with him.

As the staff hurried back and forth, Shadow realised he hadn’t seen Julie, his regular waitress, for almost two weeks. Was she ill? Maybe she’d changed shifts. If she had any sense, she would be on holiday abroad enjoying some winter sun and escaping the cold and damp of York in February. As he mused to himself, it didn’t cross his mind to ask any of Julie’s colleagues where she was.

However, he did notice the single red roses discreetly placed in vases on each table. A warning that Valentine’s Day was imminent. He sighed and made a mental note to avoid the Italian restaurants he frequented most evenings on that particular date. It was over twenty-five years since he’d celebrated Valentine’s and now the thought of being surrounded by adoring couples staring into each other’s eyes filled him with dread.

A quick glance at his watch told him he had ten minutes to complete the Yorkshire Post crossword before he was due at the Eboracum Museum. The previous evening, as he was about to leave his office, he had received a phone call from the director of the museum asking him to visit at his earliest convenience. The gentleman wouldn’t explain why over the telephone, but he had sounded quite agitated.

A little over ten minutes later and with six down still eluding him, Shadow reluctantly folded his copy of the Yorkshire Post and tucked it into the deep pocket of his old wax jacket. He stepped outside into the bitterly cold February air. On the other side of St Helen’s Square, his sergeant, Jimmy Chang, was already waiting for him outside the police station. As usual he was dressed in jeans, trainers and a black leather jacket, but today he also had a long black and red scarf wound around his neck. His young colleague was not a fan of cold weather.

“Good morning, Sergeant. I wasn’t expecting you to be this eager to pay a visit to the museum,” said Shadow as the two detectives fell into step together.

“Morning, Chief. Actually, on our way over there I wanted to ask if I could pick your brains about something?”

“No,” replied Shadow instinctively, “not if it’s about a Valentine’s present for Sophie. I’ve only just recovered from the whole Christmas debacle.”

Jimmy’s girlfriend was Dr Sophie Newton, one of the pathologists they worked with. Since the start of their relationship, Shadow had found himself the unwilling sounding board for every romantic gesture or purchase Jimmy was considering. When Jimmy had heard about the old tradition of giving gifts for the twelve days after Christmas that inspired the carol of the same name, he had very nearly driven his boss insane with his constant chatter as he tried to find a dozen appropriate presents.

“No, it’s nothing like that,” replied Jimmy, “although I have been giving it a lot of thought. I spent ages browsing around the shops at the weekend. I’m definitely going to get some of those handmade liqueur chocolates she likes from that place on Swinegate, but then I wanted to give her something to celebrate Chinese New Year too, you know with them falling on the same weekend.”

Shadow groaned loudly.

“It’s okay though, like I said I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I’ve almost made a decision.”

“Then I’m thrilled for both of us.”

“But that’s not what I wanted to ask you about. You see Sophie’s brothers have asked me to play in a charity rugby match they’re organising.”

“Say no!” advised Shadow immediately. He gave a slight shudder. Rugby had been compulsory at his boarding school. Five years of being crushed in scrums and tackled to the cold, wet, muddy ground by an opposition player, who always seemed to weigh over sixteen stone, had put him off the game for life.

“I can’t do that, Chief; they already think I’m a bit weird because I don’t drink bitter or watch football.”

“I’m telling you now, you’ll regret it.” He looked his sergeant’s long lanky frame up and down. “In fact I’ll be amazed if you don’t end up in traction.”

“Sophie’s brothers are both big rugby fans and I really want to try to bond with them.”

Shadow had briefly met Sophie’s parents and two younger brothers over Christmas when Rose, Jimmy’s mother, had hosted a special dinner for them all. Shadow had ducked out of the dinner but had stopped by for a drink. Henry and James were both strapping young men from the north-east with Sophie’s easy-going nature and fondness for a pint or three. He now recalled one had a broken nose and the other cauliflower ears.

“Didn’t you play rugby at school?” he asked. Jimmy shook his head.

“No, only football, and to be honest I was more into athletics. I don’t even know how many players are on a team.”

“It depends—is it rugby union or league?”

“I don’t know. What’s the difference?”

“Thirteen players for league and fifteen for union,” explained Shadow as Jimmy quickly started to make notes. Shadow sighed. “Look, tell them you’ll play on the wing and if anyone throws you the ball, catch it and run like hell.”

They paused for a moment and waited for the traffic lights on the corner of St Leonard’s Place to change before they crossed the road.

“What does Sophie make of all this?” Shadow asked. Jimmy’s girlfriend tended to be the more pragmatic one of the couple. He couldn’t think she would approve of the idea that her boyfriend was likely to be flattened by a seventeen-stone hooker.

“Oh, I haven’t really spoken to her about it. She’s really busy with work. Donaldson’s disappeared to his place in the Algarve for a month, so she’s got her hands full,” Jimmy replied, referring to the other obnoxious and far less helpful pathologist they worked with.

“That’s just our luck!” Shadow tutted. “Donaldson’s away and we can’t take advantage of it because we don’t have a murder to investigate.”

Fortunately for Shadow they arrived at the museum before Jimmy could ask him for any more rugby-related tips. The Eboracum Museum was an elegant white building with an imposing portico and columns at the entrance. It stood on Exhibition Square, opposite the York Theatre Royal, next to the York Art Gallery and the rear elevation overlooked the Museum Gardens. The Victorians had built it to house the collection of Roman artefacts they started unearthing as York’s rapid expansion in the 1800s led to more and more building work. Eboracum was the name the Romans gave to York when it was one of the most northerly cities in their empire. A fort was built where the Minster now stood to support the soldiers who were on their way to defend the border against the marauding tribes of Scots. A settlement soon sprang up around the garrison and became the basis of the city that stood there today.

The museum didn’t open until ten o’clock, but Tim Dunnington, the museum director, was waiting to greet them at the door. He was a man of about fifty, medium height and slightly overweight. His dark hair was swept back and greying slightly at the temples. With his sombre, dark, three-piece suit he wore a tie that was both loud in its colour and abstract design.

“Ah there you are, Shadow, good of you to come. You too, Sergeant.” He checked outside as he ushered them through the door. “Excellent, no flashing lights or sirens either. Let’s try and keep everything on the QT shall we, chaps? Hush, hush and all that.”

“What exactly is the problem?” enquired Shadow as the museum’s door shut behind him with a loud thud. Dunnington reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t recall who.

“Follow me to my office and I’ll give you a sitrep,” replied the director, who was already striding away. The two detectives followed Dunnington, through the museum. Their footsteps echoed around the empty atrium, as they walked briskly across the marble floor past tall columns and glass display cases holding carefully lit artefacts.

Mr Dunnington’s office was at the end of a long corridor lined with mannequins dressed as different types of Roman gladiators. He opened the door and Shadow and Jimmy followed him inside. It was a large room painted white with a high ceiling and long windows overlooking Museum Gardens. Prints of the Colosseum and the Forum lined the wall. In front of the pale wood desk were several modern metal and light wood chairs. Two of these chairs were already occupied.

Shadow recognised Dr Stather immediately. He was the head archaeologist at York’s Historic Foundation. The previous year he had briefly been one of the suspects in a murder investigation. Shadow had found him to be arrogant, pompous and a terrible liar. The two men nodded silently at each other in recognition. Sitting on the chair next to Stather was a lady dressed in a tweed skirt and jacket. Her grey hair was worn in a long plait down her back and she was sobbing quietly into a large white handkerchief.

Tim Dunnington invited the two detectives to sit down as he took his own seat behind the desk. Shadow noted that neither Dunnington nor Stather were making any attempt to comfort the crying woman. The museum director cleared his throat and folded his hands firmly in front of him before speaking.

“Chief Inspector Shadow, Sergeant Chang, may I introduce Dr Richard Stather who sits with me on the museum’s board of trustees and Dr Dorothy Shepherd. Dorothy is the curator here. For heaven’s sake, pull yourself together Dorothy,” he snapped.

“Dr Stather and I have already met,” replied Shadow. Tim Dunnington looked a little surprised, but Shadow didn’t elaborate as Stather shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Shadow held out his hand to the lady who was trying her best to stop sobbing. “I’m pleased to meet you, Dr Shepherd.”

The lady gave him a weak smile and a very damp handshake accompanied by several loud sniffs as she tried to stifle her tears. Dunnington cleared his throat again.

“Chief Inspector, I’ll get straight to the point. The reason I asked you to come here is because several of the museum’s artefacts have been stolen.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Mr Dunnington. When did the theft occur?” asked Shadow as Jimmy switched on his electronic notebook, his finger poised ready to take down the relevant information. Tim Dunnington sighed and shot Dr Shepherd a furious look.

“That’s just it, Chief Inspector, we don’t know when or exactly what was taken. We are still carrying out our own investigations.”

Shadow and Jimmy exchanged a puzzled glance.

“I don’t quite follow,” said the chief inspector.

“Allow me to give you a quick recap,” replied Dunnington, settling back in his own large leather chair. “A couple of weeks ago, I was approached by the director of a museum in Colchester asking if we would loan him some pieces for an exhibition he was organising, focusing on Roman coins. I consulted Dr Stather and the other board members and we were all in agreement that we should accept this request.”

Dr Stather nodded his head vigorously to confirm what the director was saying as Dunnington carried on.

“The exhibition was to begin in Colchester then travel around the country, stopping at other towns and cities founded by the Romans. York obviously, St Albans, Winchester and Chester, before completing the tour of duty at the British Museum.”

“Sorry,” interrupted Jimmy, “was that Winchester and Chester?”

Dr Shepherd, who was sitting next to him leaned over to look at his screen.

“Yes, Sergeant, that’s right—both cities. Anywhere that ends in chester or caster or indeed cester was named by the Romans,” she explained in a clear but slightly trembling voice.

“Thank you, Dorothy,” snapped Dunnington again glaring at the curator. Dr Shepherd dropped her head and began twisting the handkerchief around her fingers. “As I was saying, the tour was planned; the pieces from our collection that were to be included were discussed and agreed upon. Representatives from Colchester Museum arrived two days ago and assessed the chosen artefacts for the purpose of their insurance.” The director paused and glared even more fiercely at Dr Shepherd. “It was then that they informed us our pieces were not genuine but extremely good fakes. It was incredibly embarrassing not only for myself, you understand, but the whole museum. It has raised a great many questions about how the collection has been managed.”

“Absolutely. Quite shocking,” murmured Dr Stather in agreement. Shadow glanced between the two men. He might not yet understand all the details of this crime, but he understood Stather and Dunnington’s response to it. They wanted to ensure Dr Shepherd took the blame whether she was responsible or not. If they couldn’t prove she was guilty they wanted to show she was incompetent. From telling her to pull herself together to calling her by her first name even though she deserved the same title as Stather, they were undermining her. The two men were ganging up on Dr Shepherd and Shadow didn’t like it. He turned his attention to the curator.

“Dr Shepherd, please could you tell me where the pieces in question came from? Were they bought at an auction or acquired from another collection?”

Dr Shepherd sat up straight in her chair and took a deep breath as she composed herself.

“No, Chief Inspector. All the pieces were discovered here in York. I unearthed several of them myself. You may remember almost two years ago there was an excavation close to The Mount. A contractor at one of the hotels was digging to make a swimming pool and inadvertently stumbled across the remains of a Roman nobleman’s villa.”

Shadow nodded. He certainly remembered the traffic chaos that was caused when one of the city’s main roads was being dug up for several weeks. Dr Shepherd continued to explain.

“It turned out to be quite an important find. Not only did we discover one of the best-preserved mosaics in England, but some extremely rare coins and exquisite pieces of jewellery. Dr Stather and I both agreed it was one of the most exciting digs we had been lucky enough to work on.”

Shadow turned to the archaeologist with an enquiring look and Stather’s face reddened as he gave a curt nod. The chief inspector noted that Stather had yet to speak to him directly.

“So are you saying the genuine pieces you discovered have been replaced with replicas?”

“What other explanation is there, Chief Inspector?” interrupted Dunnington impatiently.

“And you have no idea when this exchange took place?”

“The insurance company sends a chap to assess and evaluate our collection every year. The last inspection was nine months ago. He didn’t find anything untoward, so we can only assume it occurred after his visit.”

“Have there been any break-ins or attempted burglars, anything suspicious during the last year?”

“No nothing at all. We have a state-of-the-art security system. It’s absolutely tip-top and regularly maintained. I can assure you everything is quite in order.”

Shadow nodded although he privately thought it was quite clear everything was not in order if part of the museum’s collection had been replaced with replicas without anyone noticing. He stood up awkwardly, relieved to leave the modern metal-framed chair behind. It was every bit as uncomfortable as it looked.

“Perhaps Dr Shepherd would be good enough to show us the pieces in question and we can begin to make some enquiries,” he said. The curator stood up and Dunnington bristled slightly.

“I must ask you to be as discreet as possible, Chief Inspector. If this were to become public knowledge the reputation of our museum will be ruined.”

“We’ll do everything we can, Mr Dunnington,” Shadow replied as he nodded to both Dunnington and Stather.

The two detectives followed Dr Shepherd out of the director’s office and back down the corridor past the gladiator mannequins. Jimmy gestured towards them as they passed.

“These are great, Dr Shepherd,” he said.

“Yes, we find they are very popular with visiting school children, Sergeant,” she replied, pausing briefly. “I like to tell them how the retiarius, the one with the net and trident, would fight against the secutor, the chap standing next to him with the large shield and dagger. They love to hear all the gory details.”

“Were there gladiators around in Roman York, Dr Shepherd?” asked Jimmy.

“Oh yes we believe so,” replied the doctor with a small smile. “A settlement the size of Eboracum was sure to have had gladiatorial games to entertain the residents and the soldiers who were garrisoned here. Unfortunately we haven’t yet found the site of the amphitheatre, but as ever I live in hope.”

Shadow thought how much more relaxed Dr Shepherd seemed since leaving her two colleagues behind. They were now back to the main atrium. A cleaner and two of the museum guides were preparing for opening time. Dr Shepherd greeted them each politely by name as she led Shadow and Jimmy up the wide, elegant stone staircase.

“How many people work here at the museum, Dr Shepherd?” asked Shadow, who was trying to discreetly locate an indigestion tablet in his coat pocket. He was concerned the growing noise of his grumbling stomach would soon be loud enough to echo around the place.

“Eighteen in total, but most are volunteers and almost all are only part-time, Chief Inspector. We are a small but happy bunch,” she said brightly, then her face fell. “At least we usually are.”

“Would I be able to have a list of everyone’s name and how long they have been working here?”

“Of course. I’m sure Stephanie will be able to provide you with one—she’s Mr Dunnington’s secretary.”

At the top of the stairs, three corridors led off in different directions. The one leading to the left had large gold letters above that read ‘The Dunnington Wing’.

“I see the museum’s director has a wing named after him,” remarked Jimmy.

“Not the current Mr Dunnington, Sergeant, but his great-great-grandfather. Nathanial Dunnington was one of the founders of the museum. It was when they were excavating the land to build the railway station that the first Roman treasures were discovered. Fortunately, a few forward-thinking local businessmen had them preserved and raised enough funds to build this marvellous place. I am afraid we aren’t heading down there though. I’m taking you to what I call the working corridor.”

She turned and led them past a door marked ‘Staff Room’ and then paused outside one with a sign that read ‘Director’s Secretary’. She knocked and waited briefly before opening the door and poking her head inside.

“Oh dear, she must have popped out,” she said closing the door once more. Next to the secretary’s office was the storeroom. Dr Shepherd unlocked the door and led them inside.

“Is this room always locked?” asked Shadow.

“Yes, Chief Inspector, and only I and Mr Dunnington have a key,” replied the curator.

The three of them stepped inside the storeroom. There was a large window overlooking Museum Gardens, a dark wood rectangular table in the middle of the room and the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with neatly labelled drawers. One of these drawers had a red x taped on it, as if it was somehow contaminated. Dr Shepherd pulled it open with a small sigh.

“These are the pieces that the Colchester team found to be fakes,” she said carefully lifting the drawer out and placing it on the table. The drawer was divided into compartments. Shadow and Jimmy peered inside. Each compartment contained a gold coin with the head of what Shadow assumed was a Roman emperor. Some showed a wolf and two children. Shadow quickly calculated there were twenty coins. There was also one compartment containing a large gold ring set with a red stone.

“Is it okay if I take pictures of them, Dr Shepherd?” asked Jimmy pulling his mobile phone out of his pocket.

“Certainly, Sergeant; allow me to assist you,” replied Dr Shepherd, who promptly retrieved a pair of white gloves from another drawer, slipped them on and held up each piece for Jimmy to photograph. “This coin shows the image of Constantine the Great and dates from around 327 AD. The next is a copy of a gold Solidus of Honorius and shows the last Roman emperor of Britain. He was famous of course for writing the Rescript of Honorius, basically asking the Britons to fend for themselves.”

While they were busy, Shadow stepped over to the window and peered out. There was a good view of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and the rest of Museum Gardens. Beneath the window and running the full width of the building was a long narrow ledge no more than eight inches wide. Many buildings in the area of a similar age had them. Estate agents optimistically described them as balconies, but they were really only wide enough to hold a plant pot. Down below on the ground were metal chairs and tables stacked in neat piles. Shadow assumed in good weather it was the outdoor seating area of the museum café. There was a lock on the window and an electric cable running into the woodwork, presumably for an alarm. It looked a little old-fashioned but didn’t appear to have been damaged.

“Some of these are really pretty,” he heard Jimmy saying to Dr Shepherd. “I like the one with the wolf and the babies.”

“Ah yes the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus: the symbol of Rome.”

“And this ring is nice too.”

“We believe it belonged to the wife of the nobleman whose villa we excavated. Oh, if only you could have seen the originals, Sergeant Chang. Do you know much about antiquities or jewellery?” Dr Shepherd asked politely.

“Not really,” replied Jimmy. “I’m just looking for inspiration for a present for my girlfriend. You know with Valentine’s Day coming up.”

Reflected in the glass of the window Shadow could see Dr Shepherd smiling indulgently at Jimmy. He rolled his eyes and tutted quietly to himself. Trust Jimmy to veer away from the investigation less than half an hour after it had begun.

“What a lovely idea! And how apt—after all St Valentine was said to be a Christian priest in Roman times,” commented Dr Shepherd.

“Really?” asked Jimmy. Having worked with his sergeant for over a year now, Shadow was no longer surprised at his shaky grasp of history.

“Oh yes in the third century I believe. It’s said he conducted some of the earliest Christian marriage ceremonies. Quite a dangerous occupation in those days, Sergeant.”

Shadow turned away from the window. He’d heard enough. As interesting and well informed as Dr Shepherd might be, learning about St Valentine was not going to help them find the missing coins.

“Were the genuine coins always stored in here, Dr Shepherd?” he asked as Jimmy photographed the last piece.

“No, Chief Inspector. We have more artefacts than we have room to exhibit, so every couple of months we rotate them. That way our regular visitors have something new to look at.”

“I see. Does that mean the theft could have taken place from either up here or from one of the public areas?”

“Yes, that’s also why we can’t tell you when the theft occurred. Although I decide which pieces are to be rotated, it is often one of the assistants who actually handles the pieces during the changeover and places them in the display cabinets while I supervise. It is quite possible they didn’t notice there had been a switch. At first glance, these are very good copies and of course nobody had any reason to think they weren’t the real thing. Perhaps if I had done it myself, well I like to think I would have noticed.” Her voice trailed away and she paused for a second before giving her head a small shake. “Everything currently on display is genuine, but some of the other pieces here in storage—” she gestured to the drawers around her “—still need to be checked. Mr Dunnington has put Dr Stather in charge of that process.”

Shadow could hear the hurt in her voice. It was obvious she was upset not to have been trusted to carry out the task.

“One last question: is it only yourself and Mr Dunnington who have keys to the exhibition cases downstairs too?”

“Yes, just the two of us,” confirmed Dr Shepherd.

End of Excerpt

A Roman Shadow is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-956387-11-7

February 3, 2022

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