P R O L O G U E
31 October 2009
The coffin is definitely a health and safety hazard. It fills the entrance hall, impeding the view of the stuffed Auk, a map of King’s Lynn in the 1800s and a rather dirty oil painting of Lord Percival Smith, the founder of the museum. The coffin’s wooden sides are swollen and rotten and look likely to disgorge their contents in a singularly gruesome manner. Any visitors would find its presence unhelpful, not to say distressing. But today, as on most days, there are no visitors to the Smith Museum. The curator, Neil Topham, stands alone at the far end of the hall looking rather helplessly at the ominously shaped box on the floor. The two policemen who have carried it this far look disinclined to go further. They stand, sweating and mutinous in their protective clothing, under the dusty chandelier donated by Lady Caroline Smith (1884–1960).
‘You can’t leave it here,’ says Neil.
‘We were told “take it to the Smith museum,”’ says the younger of the two men, PC Roy ‘Rocky’ Taylor
‘But you can’t just leave it in the hall,’ protests Neil. ‘I want it in the Local History Room.’
‘Is that upstairs?’ asks the older man, Sergeant Tom Henty.
‘Good, because we don’t do upstairs. Our union won’t allow it.’
Neil doesn’t know if they are joking or not. Do policemen have unions? But he stands aside as the two men shoulder their burden again and carry it, watched by myriad glass eyes, through the Natural History Room and into a smaller room decorated with a mural of Norfolk Through The Ages. There is a trestle table waiting in the centre of the room and, on this, the policemen lower the coffin.
‘It’s all yours,’ says Taylor, breathing heavily.
‘But don’t open it, mind,’ warns Henty. ‘Not until the Big Guns get here.’
‘I won’t,’ says Neil, although he looks with fascination, almost hunger, at the box, whose cracked lid offers a coy glimpse of the horrors within.
‘Superintendent Whitcliffe’s on his way.’
‘Is the boss coming?’ asks Taylor. Whitcliffe may be the most senior policeman in Norfolk, but for Taylor and others like him the boss will always be Detective Inspector Harry Nelson.
‘Nah,’ says Henty. ‘Not his type of thing, is it? There’ll be journalists, the works. You know how the boss hates journos.’
‘Someone’s coming from the university,’ puts in Neil.
‘Doctor Ruth Galloway, head of Forensic Archaeology. She’s going to supervise the opening.’
‘I’ve met her,’ says Henty. ‘She knows her stuff.’
‘It’s very exciting,’ says Neil. Again he gives the coffin a furtive, almost greedy, look.
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ says Henty. ‘Come on, Rocky. Back to work. No peace for the wicked.’
Doctor Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, is not thinking about coffins or journalists or even about whether she will encounter DCI Harry Nelson at the Smith Museum. Instead, she is racing through the King’s Lynn branch of Somerfield wondering whether chocolate fingers count as bad mothering and how much wine four mothers and assorted partners can be expected to drink. Tomorrow is Ruth’s daughter’s first birthday and, much against Ruth’s better judgement, she has been persuaded to have a party for her. ‘But she won’t remember it,’ Ruth wailed to her best friend Shona, herself five months pregnant and glowing with impending maternity. ‘You will though,’ said Shona. ‘It’ll be a lovely occasion. Kate’s first birthday. Having a cake, opening her presents, playing with all her little friends.’
‘Kate doesn’t play with her friends,’ Ruth had protested. ‘She hits them over the head with stickle bricks mostly.’ But she had allowed herself to be convinced. And part of her does think that it will be a lovely occasion, a rare chance for her to sit back and watch Kate tearing off wrapping paper and shoving E-numbers in her mouth and think: I haven’t done such a bad job of being a mother, after all.
As Ruth races past the soft drinks aisle, she becomes aware for the first time that the supermarket has been taken over by the forces of darkness. Broomsticks and cauldrons jostle for shelf space with plastic pumpkins and glow-in-the-dark vampire fangs. Bats hang from the ceiling and, as Ruth rounds the last bend, she comes face to face with a life-size figure wearing a witch’s cloak and hat and a mask – based (rather convincingly, it must be said) on Munch’s The Scream. Ruth stifles her own scream. Of course, it’s Halloween. Kate only just escaped being born on 31 October, which, when combined with having a Pagan godfather, might have been one augury too far. Instead, her daughter was born on 1 November, All Saints’ Day according to a Catholic priest who, to Ruth’s surprise, is almost a friend. Ruth doesn’t believe in God or the Devil but, she reflects, as she piles her shopping onto the conveyor belt, it’s always useful to have a few saints on your side. Funny how the Day of the Dead is followed by the Day of the Saints. Or maybe not so funny. What are saints, after all, if not dead people? And Ruth knows to her cost that the path between saint and sinner is not always well defined.
She packs her shopping into her trusty, rusty car. Two o’clock. She has to be at the museum at three so there’s not enough time to go home first. She hopes the chocolate fingers won’t melt in the boot. Still, the day, though mild for October, is not exactly hot. Ruth is wearing black trousers and a black jacket. She winds a long green scarf round her neck and hopes for the best. She knows there’ll be photographers at the museum, but with any luck she can hide behind Superintendent Whitcliffe. She’d never normally get to go to an event like this. Her boss, Phil, adores the limelight so is always first in line for anything involving the press. Two years ago, when Time Team came to a nearby Roman dig, Phil muscled his way in front of the cameras while Ruth lurked in a trench. ‘It wasn’t fair,’ said Shona who, despite being in a relationship with Phil, knows his faults. ‘You were the expert, not him.’ But Ruth hadn’t minded. She hates being the centre of attention; she prefers the research, the backroom stuff, the careful sifting of evidence. Besides, the camera is meant to put ten pounds on you, which Ruth, at nearly thirteen stone, can well do without.
But Phil is away at a conference so it’s Ruth who is to be present at the grand opening of the coffin. It’s the sort of thing she would normally avoid like the plague. She dislikes appearing in public and she feels distinctly queasy about opening a coffin live on Prime Time TV (well, Look East anyhow). ‘Beware of disturbing the dead,’ that’s what Erik used to say. Erik Anderssen, Erik the Viking, Ruth’s tutor at university and for many years afterwards her mentor a...