‘MOSAIC’ – the cover, by Clive Ashman (C)

Clive Ashman’s first novel ‘MOSAIC‘ may be fiction but it’s based on astonishing facts. Appropriately subtitled ‘The Pavement That Walked‘, he imagines explanations for how a large, tiled floor from a lost Roman villa – only discovered in an East Yorkshire quarry in 1941 during the Luftwaffe‘s blitz on Kingston-upon-Hull – was mysteriously stolen seven years later in 1948, on the very eve of its rescue.

Bizarre background circumstances to an overnight theft of this large piece of art, a crime which disappeared as completely from the public record as the pavement itself did from Brantingham quarry. A post-war crime left unsolved to this day, still stoking local tensions.

Where others fear to tread, Clive Ashman fills the cracks in little known fact with his fictionalised account. As the redundant combat-flyer turned police-detective, Michael Tryton, tramps the blitzed streets of 1940s Hull in pursuit of the thieves of this pavement. Unconsciously retracing the footsteps of another discharged soldier; Flavius Candidus, who lands in late Roman Brough-on-Humber (‘Petuaria‘) on the hunt for civic corruption & worse.

Convincingly told through a colourful cast of characters which include real life personalities once party to this forgotten local scandal now relived on the page.

Detail from the cover design for “MOSAIC – The Pavement That Walked” (c) Clive Ashman

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ISBN 978-0-9556398-0-7: Paperback/softback – 420 pages, with 1 map, 2 line-drawings, and 2 photographs. (NEW)

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Candidus handed the roster-sheet back: “Well, I can see things have not changed that much over here, I feel almost as glad as I’m sorry to say….. you’re not up to strength, are you, Claudius?”

   Bassus frowned: “No, but when were we ever? What with the marsh fever; all the agues, desertions, leave and abstractions; plus the odd casualty, I fear we never will be. The arrival of a new recruit these days is as rare as a pay chest…. but my men are still sending two separate patrols out every day. We’ve a long and difficult coastline of moorland and headlands to cover from here, as well as the flat lands that lie between… but still do our share. This is what we do, Candidus. We kill Saxons”

   He paused, then realised he’d been talking too much of matters operational to a visitor no longer of the military. “Is this what you’ve come here about? As announced to me, an official of the Vicarius? Maybe I should be wary of what I tell you, now you’ve gone over to the enemy. Is that why you’re here?” 

    He laughed when he saw Candidus’ pained look at this. “No, I jest, friend! You would not, I know it. By Mithras, it is good to see you, friend, and looking so well too! I remember when we first found you laid in the filthy straw of that hospital bed at Vercovicium fort. None of your comrades expected you to pull through, glad as we were when you did.”

    “No, Claudius, but everyone asks me that! They would not send a man like me to check on a man like you. My mission is concerned with others – with those who might betray the state, not its most courageous and dutiful servants, people like yourself. Even if the commander files his duty sheets in the name of the Christus, but makes his most solemn oaths under Mithras…..”

   “You know the score, Candidus! We do as we’re told. We talk the talk and walk the walk… but our thoughts are still our own, for the moment at least. So, if not me, then who are you hunting? “

   “It’s rather the other way around. At the moment, I am the hunted. When I was told who was commander to the garrison, I knew at once I’d be able to rely on your protection.”

   “In Mithras’ name I’d swear it! You’ll come to no harm in Derventio, not while I hold this commission. Who are your enemies?”

    “One is the foremost citizen of Petuaria. A patron; a census officer; the Curator of Roads; the Priest for Life; an Aedile and the tribal chief to all these lands, perhaps even to some of your own troopers.”

    Bassus raised his head and looked directly at his visitor with a stern and certain gaze: “You mean Marcus Ulpius Januarius, don’t you?”

    “The very man.”

    Bassus whistled slowly through clenched teeth: “Flavius, you mad old rough-rider! You always were the one. Hot for action. Gallant and brave. Straight in, feet­-first, sword-point leading. It’s exactly why you nearly died that fine day in the territory of the Votadini. It’s also why a coward like me has been spared, thus far and the Fates Willing. But this time I think you’ve excelled yourself. Do you know the scale of what you’ve taken on?”

   “Thank you friend but I’ve no illusions. I know exactly who and what I’m dealing with. Unfortunately, I’ve got no choice in the matter. It’s what I’ve been sent here to do. It’s my job.”

   “Then you must be careful. Extremely careful indeed, not put a foot wrong! Make no mistake about it, Candidus. His power is considerable: Financial, with all the influence that comes from wealth. Political, in the cultivation and patronage of contacts and clients, some of them in the military. Tribal, too, in that allegiance which all the Parisi still bear him yet, in ancient fashion. And don’t forget the judicial, invested with the full authority of a magistrate as he is.”

   “Oh, yes, I know all about that. I have sat in his court.”

   “Then you will know what they call him, hereabouts: ‘The Chain’. They say there is no-one like him in all Britannia for adorning free-born men with manacles.”

    “Will you still help me?”

    “Of course I will. So long as you understand the risks. Besides, there is something else that I should tell you, to make us equal partners in jeopardy.”

    “What is it?”

   “You are a man. Were once a soldier, know the solitary aloofness of their commanders. Though it was never borne by you nor by any of us, when we were rollicking juniors together, you’ll still remember that mix of fear, respect and pity we had for the ‘Old Man’. So it has become for me, up here in the Commander’s House, now that it’s my turn to become what we ourselves had called the ‘Old Man’. I should not complain, I know – I am proud of what I’ve achieved. The height of my ambition. And after all, in a hard world, there’s still comfort to be had for the commander in his Praetorium. Save only one – the company of a wife. Unfortunately, I do not seem to have found one yet. Oh, yes, I know! I can be a difficult man to get on with sometimes, stinking of horses and oft-times riding back of a night with Saxon blood up my arms..” he sighed, before continuing: 

   “Problem is, even if Derventio is not the isolated spot some people might think, its expectations of polite society too often limit my company to those gentry believing themselves of suitable ‘quality’, fit to meet the Prafectus. And what a bunch of middle-aged snobs and wind-bags they are…!”

   “It goes with the job. The private obligations of public office….” 

   “Yes, it’s all right for a fellow like you, someone who can still wander into any old wine-shop or oyster-bar whenever he fancies….”

   “Give over, you’re not missing that much, there. So what’s the real problem?”

   “Flavius, you should know the wife of this Januarius you seek is lodged in this very town. At the house of his widowed sister, right outside the gates of my fort. A fine lady whose triclinium is the most-prized invitation for any socially-ambitious diner, in what passes for society hereabouts.”

   “I see…”

    “Not yet, you don’t. But meet the widowed sister and you surely will – I know you, Flavius Candidus! A looker in her own right, but play your dice well and she will present you to even better. To her sister-­in-law, the wife of your enemy – the grieving widow’s brother. Now let me warn you sternly about that one, for fear you ever meet…..”

   “Warn me?”

   “About the wife, I mean. May the Gods be witness – an exceptional beauty by any standards.  And I for one have been lonely here. Phew, you should see her, Flavius – auburn hair, the face of a goddess, body of a nymph…..”

   “And the danger….?” Candidus, fearing the worst, could not face his friend.

   “You will understand me, I know. Seeming to remember you as a bit of a lad yourself in your time. And afraid I’ve made rather a fool of myself over the wife of Januarius. Not that we’ve been indiscreet, you understand. Oh, no, far from it. Each with our reputations to maintain. Mine, the dignity of command and hers, her various roles; not just a wife and consort, but also as emblem to the tribe. And either way – whatever she really is – me too much in love with the lady, not knowing where it’ll end…”

   Candidus was aghast and struggled for platitudes. “I understand. Of course I understand! But this unwanted information could place me in a difficult position. You know who this lady’s father is – my master, the Vicarius of Britain! The Army may not take its orders from him, but it must at least acknowledge his supreme civil authority under the law….” Candidus’s voice trailing off.

   “Yes, thanks a lot, I don’t need you to remind me. But I swore on Mithras and the Bull that you could rely on my protection, Flavius Candidus, and I meant it. Despite my confession, I trust you to seal my oath to you with an equal promise from yourself, to safeguard me from denunciation to those instructing you. Better you should know from the outset than find out later. I would not have this gossip travel down the Great North Road to Londinium and the ears of her father, Longinus. You and I, we are both of us blood-brothers: sworn veterans of Cohors I Equitata, and faithful servants of Mithras, after all!”

   Candidus had known it. The warning omens were right. He should never have come to this place. The farmer’s wife and the man on his ladder were both right. Dead right.

   What was she? A witch, a native sorceress, to take such a hold over him so quickly? It should be no surprise to discover he was hardly her first – Bassus had clearly fallen heavily, before his friend ever took a turn. Whatever she was, what had been his immediate intuition in the presence of the Tyche was already fulfilling itself – even if his obligations to M. Claudius Bassus under the Mithraic Code were fast become just as binding. Why there was only one promise he could make: “Of course we are. On the same altar I swear it. But there is one more favour you can grant me, the one which brought me to your door…”

   “Which is….?”

   “The release of a prisoner, detained last night by the south gate.”

   “The Smith. What has he got to do with you?”

   “He innocently gave me transport on the road from Petuaria. Out of simple kindness, offered me the canvas shelter of his wagon overnight. But two hired-killers sent after me by Januarius came upon me in the dark.  They would have succeeded too and cut me into slices, if not prevented by an intervention from the smith’s tethered bear. It disembowelled the first and sent the second away with his life-blood pouring out from him, as he ran. But Taranis is innocent. He has no part in my quarrel with Januarius and slept through most of the action. What’s more, he holds the bronze certificate of honourable discharge – with wounds – from our own army.”

   “I see – well that explains last night’s carry-­on, at least. Consider your friend released immediately. As for the victim, I’ll send what’s left of his servant straight back to Januarius, housed in a pot. And if my men can find the second, we’ll deliver him to Petuaria too, similarly-wrapped. In the meantime, I will hope for your valued company, my honoured guest in the praetorium.”

   For the second time on his journey of enquiry, Candidus was fortunate to find luxurious quarters placed at his disposal. Despite the complexities of the situation, unable to turn down such a courteous invitation and nor could he risk leaving town. Whilst as it turned out, friend Bassus had very few spare moments left him from the preoccupations of duty. Over the next few days meaning Candidus felt happier at being left to his own devices. Apart from mealtimes in the mess, their only shared activities now were a spot of stag-hunting, or else attending with Bassus and a reducing cadre of soldiers to worship at their local shrine to Mithras in a cave hidden beside the river, one quarter-mile upstream. 

   And as for his dilemma over the woman, these weekly devotions to the God of Ages offered Candidus no clearer insight. Only left him the more alone, to work things out for himself.