A Viking’s Shadow

by

H L Marsay

The shadows of the past are never far away…

Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow is doing his best to ignore the madness of York’s annual Viking Festival when duty calls. The body of a wealthy businessman, who was playing the role of the Viking king, is found slain by his own ancient sword. The murder scene looks staged, but before Shadow can compile a list of people to question a second body is found. Shadow doesn’t have to look far for suspects—the victims were by no means model citizens.

John Shadow is a man of contradictions. A solitary figure, who shuns company, but is a keen observer of all he meets. A lover of good food, but whose fridge is almost always empty. He prefers to work alone but is ably assisted by the eager Sergeant Jimmy Chang. Together, the two men navigate a web of corruption and family drama to solve the murders before the killer can strike again.

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Across 10 (6 letters)

This Norseman may be the Romans’ number six monarch

In York, it was six o’clock on a Friday evening in late September. The sun was already beginning to set, and a cool wind was blowing through the city. Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow cursed under his breath as he edged slowly along Parliament Street. He was pressed up against a metal barricade put in place to hold back the crowds. To his right visitors and locals alike pushed forward. To his left marched the Great Heathen Army. They were shouting and cheering loudly as they held axes and burning torches aloft.

A six-foot-tall Viking strode by with a long, red, plaited beard, flowing green cloak and brandishing a gleaming broadsword. His impressively convincing appearance was spoilt only by the mobile phone tucked neatly into his woven leather belt. Shadow always noticed these small details about people, even if he did endeavour to avoid their company.

York held its annual Viking Festival every year in September, to coincide with the ancient Heathen feast of Haustblot. The idea was to celebrate the city’s Norse heritage. After all, it was the Vikings who called the city Jorvik, that eventually became the modern-day name of York.

Usually Shadow avoided the city centre like the plague when the festival was on; somehow this year it had slipped his mind. From the moment he’d stepped out of the station, he’d been caught up in the crowds. Now he was trapped. A middle-aged man of average height with slightly greying dark hair, in a suit and wax jacket, his unremarkable appearance now made him stand out. His every step was blocked by either camera-toting tourists in fake beards and plaits or excitable small children with wooden swords and horned helmets.

Shadow’s empty stomach grumbled in complaint. At this rate, he would never make it to Francesco’s. He adored Italian food and each night ate in one of the city’s many excellent restaurants. It should only have been a five-minute walk over to La Scuola Femminile on Petergate, but tonight it was going him to take much longer.

Finally, the Norse warriors and their followers spilled out into St Sampson’s Square. Shadow strained his neck. He thought he could see a path through. However, just as he was about to make his escape, he found his way blocked by a familiar red-haired figure holding a Dictaphone.

“Have you got a quote for the Herald readers regarding this year’s festival, Chief Inspector?” asked Kevin MacNab, a journalist from the city’s local paper and one of Shadow’s least favourite people.

“Not one you could print,” growled Shadow in response as he pushed his way past.

Making a swift escape was going to be harder than he’d hoped. The whole of St Sampson’s Square had been turned into a Viking village with tents dedicated to various aspects of the life of the average Norseman. There was a weaving demonstration in one and a blacksmith was forging a sword in another. In the next tent Shadow found Edward Bennington, one of the city’s leading experts on Vikings. Edward owned a bookshop on Fossgate. This evening he was retelling the history of King Ragnar and his warring sons to an enraptured audience.

“The vengeful Anglo-Saxons threw brave King Ragnar into a pit of snakes to kill him; and his sons – Ivar, Ubba and Sigurd – swore vengeance…”

Edward’s voice was thin and reedy, but Shadow had to admire the effort he had put into his costume, complete with an eye patch and a raven perched on his shoulder. In the audience, Shadow spotted his colleague Sergeant George Hedley. His little grandson was sitting on his lap and looked completely enthralled. George caught his eye and Shadow raised his hand in silent greeting.

As Shadow continued, he passed a lady with long grey hair selling sourdough bread that smelt tantalisingly good. Martin Plunkett, a local solicitor, was wearing a fake beard and seemed to be having a disagreement with the tall Viking warrior who was manning the beer tent. Shadow shook his head. It was clear the whole city had gone totally Viking mad. He took a few more steps before he felt a tap on his shoulder and heard a cheerful voice in his ear.

“I didn’t think this was your sort of thing, Chief!”

Shadow turned and scowled at the grinning face of Sergeant Jimmy Chang, his deputy.

“Where have you been all day?” he asked impatiently.

“I’ve been really busy investigating the protection racket, Chief.”

Recently, there had been a spate of smashed shop windows and Jimmy was convinced there was more to it than mere coincidence. Shadow groaned loudly.

“I’ve told you before this is North Yorkshire, not Naples! We don’t have protection rackets.”

“But, Chief,” protested Jimmy, “ten businesses with broken windows in less than a month! There’s something dodgy going on.”

“There will be a simple explanation. It’ll be down to drunk students, out of control after a night in the pub, or an attempted burglary by an inept thief.”

“There’s never any witnesses or video surveillance footage. Nothing is ever stolen and it’s small independent businesses, like kebab shops or off-licences that are always targeted.” Jimmy was determined not to be put off, but Shadow shook his head, not convinced.

“Exactly! Just the sort of places where a few young lads might end up after a heavy night drinking.”

“Well, the one last night was different. It was the toy shop on Lord Mayor’s Walk and this time something was taken.”

“Really? What?” Shadow asked in surprise.

Jimmy looked down and shuffled his feet before he reluctantly replied. “It was a blue fluffy rabbit.”

Shadow barked out a laugh. “Oh well, that’s it then,” he scoffed. “The mafia have definitely infiltrated York. It may be over twenty-five years since I worked for the Met and had to deal with organised crime, but I distinctly remember the sole motivation of hardened gangsters was the acquisition of soft toys.”

Before they could argue any further, the detectives were interrupted by two drinking horns being thrust between them. The bearer was Sophie Newton, one of the pathologists they worked with.

“Evening, gentlemen! Here, have this. I thought it might cheer you both up. Neither of you look like you’re exactly channelling the spirit of the Vikings!”

Sophie, on the other hand, had clearly fully embraced the festivities. She was wearing her hair in long blonde plaits beneath what seemed to be the obligatory horned helmet.

Both policemen thanked her, and Shadow took a large, grateful swig, but instead of the hoped-for drink of refreshing beer, his mouth was filled with an unfamiliar sweet, spicy liquid. He grimaced as he swallowed it down.

“Crikey, Sophie! What is it?” he asked, trying hard not to cough.

“Mead,” explained Sophie, “fermented honey with cinnamon. It’s what the Vikings used to drink and is made to a traditional recipe, apparently. They called it, ‘The Drink of the Gods,’ and it’s meant to turn anyone who partook into a poet or a scholar. Don’t you like it, Chief?”

“It must be an acquired taste.” Shadow frowned as he sniffed the drink suspiciously. “Or maybe that’s why the Vikings invaded England in the first place. They were simply looking for a decent drink.” Then realising he sounded ungrateful: “Sorry, Sophie, it was a nice thought.”

“No problem.” Sophie shrugged. She didn’t look offended. He reasoned she was probably used to his occasional tendency to sound grumpy by now.

“I think it’s all right,” said Jimmy as he took another swig. “Cheers, Sophie. The plaits suit you, by the way.”

“Thanks, Jimmy!” She beamed.

“But you do know the real Vikings didn’t actually have horns on their helmets,” added Shadow.

Sophie rolled her eyes at Jimmy before turning back to Shadow. “Don’t you start, Chief! Mr Bennington has already given me a ten-minute lecture on the subject. He’s quite the expert! Anyway, shouldn’t you be at Catania’s or Little Sicily or somewhere?”

Shadow’s routine of eating at various Italian restaurants on different nights of the week was also well known to those he worked with.

“Yes, I should,” he complained, indignantly. “I was planning on going to Francesco’s place, but all the streets have been blocked off to create this chaos!”

The three of them continued slowly around the Viking village, passing tents selling leather belts and carved wooden trinkets. They came to a halt in front of a tent where a pretty, blonde young woman in a rather low-cut tunic was offering to tell your fortune using ancient Viking rune stones.

“All right, sweetheart, do you want to cast the runes and see what the gods have in store for you, darling?” she asked, leaning forward and giving Jimmy a flirtatious smile. Her strong cockney accent among all the northern voices made her stand out even more than her revealing dress.

With his usual good-natured grin, Jimmy agreed and handed over his money. He shook the small leather pouch she handed him and then emptied the smooth square stones, with their carved symbols, out on to the table. The young woman made a big show of waving her hands around and studying the runes. Shadow suspected that, like all fortune tellers, she was better at reading people than the runes.

“The stones say you are ambitious, and you have a bright future,” she announced. “There has been both happiness and sadness in your past. I see a mysterious blonde woman in the stones and conflict with a dark-haired man. Beware of the letter E. Oh, and you’ll have very good luck in love. I’m not surprised – a handsome lad like you,” she finished with a wink.

Jimmy blushed slightly as he thanked her.

“Who knew lipstick was so readily available back then,” murmured Sophie quietly into her horn of mead, only loud enough for Shadow to hear.

“What about you, sweetheart? Do you want to know what the gods have in store for you?”

The fortune teller had now turned her attention to Shadow.

“Thank you, but no.” He smiled politely. He had no interest in what the future might hold unless it was to show him a quick route through this crowd.

Suddenly, the mass of Vikings began to cheer loudly. Everyone turned to look as a large man of about fifty years old, with long dark hair, streaked with grey, strode on to the platform. He placed his hands on his hips and the breeze caught his red velvet cloak, so it flowed out behind him. It was an impressive sight. The rune girl gave an excited squeal and blew him a kiss. Shadow thought he looked vaguely familiar. In a deep booming voice, the man on the platform addressed the gathered army.

“I, King Ragnar, welcome you all to our great city of Jorvik.” He paused while the cheers died down. “My Viking friends, together we shall celebrate our noble heritage, honour our mighty ancestors, and feast like the gods. I therefore declare this year’s Festival of the Vikings officially open!” He dramatically drew his gleaming sword and jumped down from the platform. The Great Heathen Army gave another deafening roar and banged their swords against their shields as they started to march after their leader. Shadow watched as King Ragnar exchanged a passionate kiss with the rune girl and pressed a small parcel into her hand, before leading his troops on.

“Where are they all off to now?” he asked, hoping it was away from Petergate, so he might finally be able to make it to his table at Francesco’s.

“King Ragnar’s leading his troops back to the Viking encampment,” explained Sophie.

“Which is where?”

“St George’s Field car park.”

“Well, they’re lucky we’ve had such a dry start to September, otherwise it would be flooded. It often is this time of year. It doesn’t seem like the most sensible location to choose.”

“I suppose they needed to be close to the river for the longboat race. It’s been advertised as one of the highlights of the festival. Twelve traditional Viking longboats to race by torchlight from Skeldergate Bridge to Millennium Bridge and back.”

“For crying out loud!” Shadow exclaimed.

He pressed his horn of mead back into Sophie’s hand and hurriedly began to push his way through the crowd.

“Was it something I said?” Sophie called out after him.

Shadow didn’t bother to reply, but he could hear Jimmy simply say, “Florence.”

End of Excerpt