A light breeze runs through the long grass at the top of the hill. Close up, the land looks ordinary, just heather and coarse pasture with the occasional white stone standing out like a signpost. But if you were to fly up above these unremarkable hills you would be able to see circular raised banks and darker rectangles amongst the greens and browns – sure signs that this land has been occupied many, many times before.
Ruth Galloway, walking rather slowly up the hill, does not need the eagle’s eye view to know that this is an archaeological site of some importance. Colleagues from the university have been digging on this hill for days and they have uncovered not only evidence of a Roman villa but also of earlier Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements.
Ruth had planned to visit the site earlier but she has been busy marking papers and preparing for the end of term. It is May and the air is sweet, full of pollen and the scent of rain. She stops, getting her breath back and enjoying the feeling of being outdoors on a spring afternoon. The year has been dark so far, though not without unexpected bonuses, and she relishes the chance just to stand still, letting the sun beat down on her face.
‘Ruth!’ She turns and sees a man walking towards her. He is wearing jeans and a work-stained shirt and he treats the hill with disdain, hardly altering his long stride. He is tall and slim with curly dark hair greying at the temples. Ruth recognises him, as he obviously does her, from a talk he gave at her university several months ago. Dr Max Grey, from the University of Sussex, an archaeologist and an expert on Roman Britain.
‘I’m glad you could come,’ he says and he actually does look glad. A change from most archaeologists, who resent another expert on their patch. And Ruth is an acknowledged expert – on bones, decomposition and death. She is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. ‘Are you down to the foundations?’ asks Ruth, following Max to the summit of the hill. It is colder here and, somewhere high above, a skylark sings.
‘Yes, I think so,’ says Max, pointing to a neat trench in front of them. Halfway down, a line of grey stone can be seen. ‘I think we may have found something that will interest you, actually.’
Ruth knows without being told.
‘Bones,’ she says.
Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson is shouting. Despite a notoriously short fuse at work (at home with his wife and daughters he is a pussy cat) he is not normally a shouter. Brusque commands are more his line, usually delivered on the run whilst moving on to the next job. He is a man of quick decisions and limited patience. He likes doing things: catching criminals, interrogating suspects, driving too fast and eating too much. He does not like meetings, pointless discussions or listening to advice. Above all, he does not like sitting in his office on a fine spring day trying to persuade his new computer to communicate with him. Hence the shouting.
‘Leah!’ he bellows.
Leah, Nelson’s admin assistant (or secretary, as he likes to call her), edges cautiously into the room. She is a delicate, dark girl of twenty-five, much admired by the younger officers. Nelson, though, sees her mainly as a source of coffee and an interpreter of new technology, which seems to get newer and more temperamental every day. ‘Leah,’ he complains, ‘the screen’s gone blank again.’
‘Did you switch it off?’ asks Leah. Nelson has been known to pull out plugs in moments of frustration, once fusing all the lights on the second floor.
‘No. Well, once or twice.’
Leah dives beneath the desk to check the connections. ‘Seems OK,’ she says. ‘Press a key.’
Nelson thumps the space bar and the computer miraculously comes to life, saying smugly, ‘Good afternoon, DCI Nelson.’
‘Fuck off,’ responds Nelson, reaching for the mouse.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Leah’s eyebrows rise.
‘Not you,’ says Nelson, ‘This thing. When I want small talk, I’ll ask for it.’