Authors: Aaron Elkins
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Private Investigators, #Police Procedural, #Crime, #General
Anthropology professor Gideon Oliver would prefer to keep his mind on his beautiful new bride Julie during their English honeymoon, but one intrusive question won't stop nagging at him:
Who would want to steal a thirty-thousand-year-old parieto-occipital calvareal fragment?
Yet someone has lifted this chunk of prehistoric human skull from a musty museum in Dorchester. Then, thirty miles away, an archaeology student is murdered, increasing tensions and suspicion at a dig that had already seethed with suspicion, rivalry, and mistrust.
Could there be a connection between a hot bone and a cold-blooded murder?
Gideon is called on by the police to apply the unique skills for which the media have named him "the Skeleton Detective," and he reluctantly agrees. Before he's done, his sleuthing will lead him to another murder and will—in the most literal and terrifying manner imaginable—sic the dogs on him, putting Gideon himself, and Julie as well, in mortal danger..
EDWARD Hall-Waddington, O.B.E., M.A., Ph.D., F.S.A., ran his hand nervously over a pink and liver-spotted pate, absently brushing back a lock of hair that had been gone for almost forty years.
"Oh, dear," he said in tremulous distress. His white eyebrows knitted atop a beaky, jutting nose that was at odds with an otherwise frail and retiring face. "My word, Professor Oliver! Only an hour? But there’s so very much to see…" His words trailed sorrowfully off, and the hand moved from his brow to take up the burden of his message, gesturing vaguely at the dusty glass cases and musty corridors that lay beyond the door of his tiny, cluttered office.
"I wish I had time to see everything in the museum, sir," Gideon Oliver said courteously. He sat, more than a little cramped, in a small side chair at the elderly archaeologist’s desk, his shoulders too wide for the narrow space between desk and wall, his long legs twisted out of the way off to the side. "Actually, Dorchester wasn’t on our itinerary at all, but I couldn’t imagine being in England without paying my respects."
"To be sure, to be sure," Professor Hall-Waddington said, pink cheeks showing his pleasure. "And to Pummy as well, no doubt?" The eyebrows went up, and cheerful blue eyes twinkled out from under them.
"Pummy, too," Gideon said, smiling.
The prize possession of the Greater Dorchester Museum of History and Archaeology was a six-by-eight-inch piece of curving, darkened bone, most of the back of a thirty-thousand-year-old human skull that had been unearthed by a World War II bombing at nearby Poundbury and fortunately recognized for what it was by the amateur but competent Greater Dorchester Historical and Archaeological Society. Poundbury Man was of considerable anthropological significance because Britain, so rich in archaeological sites, was notably lacking in actual skeletal remnants of ancient man. From the first, the fragment had affectionately and quite naturally been dubbed "Pummy." (With typical English disdain for the middle parts of names, Poundbury is pronounced "Pum’ry.")
It was extraordinary to have such an object housed in a provincial museum run by an amateur antiquarian society, but Professor Hall-Waddington had lent his considerable weight to the society’s claims when the find had been made. In 1944 he had been one of England’s foremost archaeologists, a colleague of Grahame Clark, V. Gordon Childe, and Leonard Woolley, and Dorchester had gotten to keep its find. When the professor had retired from the British Museum more than thirty years later, after the death of his wife, the society had timidly invited him to become curator of the museum. He had accepted with gratitude, and the collection had become the love of his life.
"Well, let’s go and see him, shall we?" he said, rising with unexpected sprightliness. "We’ll follow the well-worn path to his case. Old fellow gets quite a lot of attention, you know. You’re the second American to pay him a visit this week, as a matter of fact."
"Oh? Another anthropologist? Someone I might know?"
"No, no, I doubt it. I didn’t get his name. Student, from the look of him. Spent most of the morning slouching about."
When they walked from the little office into the nearly deserted exhibit rooms, Gideon saw that the museum wasn’t dusty at all, and certainly not musty. It only looked as if it should be: a hodgepodge of waist-high glass cases with row upon dull-looking gray row of projectile points and stone flakes, each one painstakingly identified and cataloged on its own typewritten card. Improbable and seemingly inapposite objects stood in dark corners, leaned against the walls, and even lay unprotected on worn tables of dark wood. It was, Gideon admitted to himself, a look that he liked, for he was not a champion of the museum-asentertainment-center, with buttons to push, levers to pull, and slick, nonexplanatory placards. They taught little, and they attracted hordes of marginally interested kids who jumped from contrivance to contrivance, comprehending nothing worth knowing. No,
was the way a museum ought to look, as old-fashioned as it was. He even liked the smell: a chalky, flinty mixture of old, worked stone and floor polish.
Their progress toward the Poundbury exhibit was slow and halting. Professor Hall-Waddington paused at almost every object they passed to murmur a few words about it and, if it was not encased, to run a hand lovingly over it.
"Fragments of a bell mold. Cast in 1717. Don’t see many of these."
"Ah," said Gideon.
"Romano-British sarcophagus here. Found in 1925. Body’d been completely packed in chalk, except for the head. What do you make of that? Quite curious."
"Huh," Gideon said. "Interesting."
"And these are the old borough stocks. Used to stand against the side of the town hall. They’d put their feet in the holes, of course. Do you have any idea when that all began?"
"Uh, no, I’m afraid I don’t," Gideon said.
"Ha! Thought you wouldn’t. Have a guess."
teenth century!" cried Professor Hall-Waddington, delighted. "My word, no! It’s from Anglo-Saxon times. And in 1376, Parliament decreed every town had to have a set of them. Decree’s never been abolished, you know. This is ours."
"Is that so?" Gideon breathed politely, looking with secret longing toward the case in which he knew the famous skullcap lay.
The old man shuffled a few steps on, but stopped rather firmly ten feet short of the goal. "Now here," he said, placing his hand tenderly on a monstrous, grimy pair of bellows standing on end against the wall, as if some fifty-foot giant of a blacksmith had leaned it there for a few seconds while he had a sip from a bucket of water. "Now here are the actual bellows from the Downtown Forge."
"Mm," Gideon said. "Ah."
"Most bellows authorities claim these were manufactured in 1792, you know, but I hold firmly with 1796 or even later. What would you say, Professor?"
The fact that there was such a thing as a bellows authority came as news to Gideon. "Well," he said, "uh…I’d say 1796 or 1797."
"Ah, and quite right you’d be. Quite right. No question about it in my mind. I’d be curious about your own rationale, however." He turned his frank, clear, blue eyes expectantly on Gideon.
"Well," said Gideon. He coughed gently and looked surprised. "Is that the Poundbury skull over there?"
"What?" Professor Hall-Waddington looked over his shoulder at the case with the golden fragment of bone in it. "Why, yes, of course it is. I keep forgetting you’re a physical anthropologist and not another fuddy-duddy old antiquary like me." He chuckled pleasantly. "Here you are, come all this way to pay homage to old Pummy, and I’ve been prattling on about bellows."
"Not at all," Gideon said quickly. "It’s been fascinating."
"Kind of you to say so, but now let’s have a look at him, shall we?"
There was, however, one obstacle still to be negotiated— an exhibit consisting of what seemed to be two vicious-looking pitchforks chained together scissors-fashion, and Professor Hall-Waddington was unable to ignore it in passing.
"Know what this is?" At the absence of Gideon’s usual courteous murmur, he spoke a little louder. "It’s an old hay-devil. Used for bringing hay from wagon to rick, you see…"
Gideon hardly heard him. He was staring at the Poundbury skull fragment only a few feet away. Something was wrong with it, so wildly wrong that it had him momentarily doubting his senses. "Poundbury Man," he whispered, unaware that he was speaking aloud. "Isn’t it supposed to be an elderly man, long-headed…?"
"Supposed to be?" Professor Hall-Waddington echoed, bewildered. "Of course it is. Le Gros Clark himself aged it, and sexed it, and estimated the cranial index. Sir Arthur Keith verified it, and so did your own Hooton."
Gideon was well aware of all this. He had himself studied photographs and casts of Poundbury Man and had never doubted the original analysis. "Professor," he said, "would it be possible to take it from the case—to handle it?"
The curator used a key at his waist to unlock the small, ordinary padlock, and raised the glass lid of the case. He
turned aside four simple spring-clips that held down the black-velvet-covered block to which the time-stained bone was attached by two loops of wire. Looking oddly at Gideon, he stepped back and gestured politely at it. "Please," he said.
Gideon picked up the block and turned it so that he could look at the back of the fragment more closely. He needed only a second to confirm his impression.
"It isn’t Poundbury Man, sir."
"Not Poundbury Man?" The old archaeologist laughed tentatively. "Not Poundbury Man?"
"I’m afraid I don’t see how it can be." Poundbury Woman, maybe, or Poundbury Girl, but not Poundbury Man. There was no doubt in Gideon’s mind that what lay in his hand was the left rear half of a woman’s skull—not elderly at all, but in her twenties. And clearly broad-headed, not long-headed.
"Look at the nuchal crest," he said, "or rather, the absence of it—and the supra-auricular ridge. They’re not nearly pronounced enough to be male—"
"But Le Gros Clark himself stood right here, right where you are… Or was it in my office…?Yes, in my office—"
"And look, sir," Gideon persisted gently, "you can see for yourself that none of the sutures show even incipient closure, so she’s probably no more than twenty-four or twenty-five—"
"But of course it’s Poundbury Man. It
be Pound-bury Man. Why, what else would it be?" His thin, brown-flecked hand made an uncertain movement toward his lips.
"Hard to say," Gideon’s fingers brushed the fragment’s edges with seeming carelessness. "It’s old, all right. Not thirty thousand years, but a good two or three thousand anyway. On a guess I’d say she might be from one of the brachycephalic Beaker populations, one of the later groups, maybe 1400 or 1500 b.c."
"No, no." Professor Hall-Waddington shook his head querulously. "It’s quite impossible, I tell you. How could… how…?"
His voice sputtered to a stop as he took his first good look at the skull. "Why," he said, pointing an accusatory finger at it, "that’s
He snatched it from Gideon. "Do you know what this is? It’s from Sutton Bell—you know Sutton Bell? A later Beaker site near Avebury—1500 b.c. or thereabouts. Look here." He hunted briefly along the skull’s jagged perimeter and found some faded, tiny numbers written in pen: SB J6-2. "You see? But how very odd! How did it get into Pummy’s case? And where’s Pummy?"
"This fragment—is it from the museum’s collection?"
"Yes, of course, but it ought to be in storage in the basement." The tense skin around his eyes relaxed slightly. "Someone must have accidentally exchanged the two, don’t you think? Why, Pummy must be right downstairs in the basement."
The run to the basement was made with a speed and directness of which Gideon had thought Professor Hall-Waddington incapable. Once there, the doors of a metal storage cabinet were thrown ajar, the contents hastily rummaged through, and finally the lid of a dusty cardboard box labeled SB J6-2 was flung heedlessly across the room. Professor Hall-Waddington thrust his face into the box.
"Empty! Pummy…Pummy appears to have been…" He held the box in trembling hands and looked up at Gideon with wondering eyes. "But why would anyone steal a thirty-thousand-year-old parieto-occipital calvareal fragment?"
anyone steal a thirty-thousand-year-old whatzit?" Julie asked, her black eyes no less wondering.
"Beats the hell out of me," Gideon said.
She stopped walking and tilted her face upward. "Ooh, that smells wonderful. Whatever it is, let’s get some."
He agreed readily, delighted to see her healthy appetite returning. She had felt the lingering effects of jet lag through three wet and gloomy days in London, and their stay had left her a little dispirited, not a typical condition with her. He, too, had been depressed by the huge city— perceptibly grungier than the last time he’d seen it six years before—and was happy to get out of it.