Some weird objects are handed in at Bath Police Station.
WPC Enid Kelly, on desk duty this afternoon, sneaked a look at the Asian man who had brought in a pizza box. She was sure of one thing: it didn't contain a pizza. She just hoped it wasn't a snake. She had a dread of snakes.
"How can I help you, sir?"
The man had the black tie and white shirt of a security guard. He lifted the box up to the protective glass partition. No airholes. Officers on duty learn to watch out for any container with holes punched in the top. But there was a bulge. Something bulkier than a pizza had been stuffed inside. Bulkier than two pizzas. "This I am finding at Roman Baths."
"What is it?"
The man glanced at the other people in the waiting area as if they might not wish to hear. Leaning closer to the glass, he said, "Can I pass through?"
"Just a moment."
Enid Kelly turned for support to the sergeant filling in a form at the desk behind her. He came to the glass.
"What have you got here, sir?"
"Some person's hand, I am thinking."
"A hand I said."
"It was in this box?"
"No, no, no. My lunch was in box. Tomato and mushroom pizza. This was best thing I could find to carry hand in."
"Let's see." The sergeant unfastened the security panel and the box was passed through. It felt too heavy to be a hand. But how can you tellhow much a hand weighs on its own?
He opened one end. "It looks more like a chunk of concrete to me." He let it slide out onto the desk.
"Ugh!" said Enid Kelly, beside him.
"Get a grip."
The hand was skeletal, enclosed in a thin casing of concrete or cement that had partially collapsed. Some of the small bones had broken off and were lying loose. Shreds of what looked like dry skin tissue were attached. It could have passed for a damaged piece of sculpture.
"Where exactly did you find it, sir?"
"In vault. I am stepping on floor and my foot sinks through."
WPC Kelly winced again.
"Down in the Roman Baths, you said?"
"This was not exhibition area, sir. This was vault."
"So you said. What do you mean by vault? A cellar?"
"Cellarwhat is that? Excuse my poor English. I am doing security check this morning. My first week in job. I have strict orders from head man, Mr Peacock. 'You visit all parts of building. All parts. Go through entire building every day.'"
The sergeant picked up the thing and felt its weight again. "So is it Roman?"
"I can't tell you, sir."
The sergeant didn't commit himself either, except to suggest nobody else went down into the vault until the matter had been investigated.
* * *
The bony hand, resting on its pizza box, was deposited on Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond's desk.
"What's thisa finger buffet?"
"The thing is, sir, we don't know if it's a matter for us," the sergeant explained. "It was found at the Roman Baths."
"Give it to the museum."
"It wasn't in the Roman bit. This vault is part of a later building, as I understand it."
"Later than Roman," said Diamond in a tone suggesting he could have said more, but needed to press on. "Where exactly is the vault?"
"On the Abbey side, below street level."
"But what street?"
"Not a street, in point of fact," the sergeant said. "That square in front of the Abbey."
"The Abbey Churchyard?"
Diamond spread his hands as if no more needed to be said.
The sergeant frowned.
Plainly something did need to be said. "If you're looking for old bones, where do you go?"
The penny dropped. "Funny," said the sergeant. "Being paved over, I never think of it as a churchyard. You can use a word a thousand times and never give a thought to its meaning."
The wisdom of this failed to impress Peter Diamond. "Leave it with me. It'll come in useful as a paperweight." Seeing the shocked look this produced, he added, "And Sergeant ..."
"Giving me a hand."
The sergeant's attempt at a laugh was unconvincing.
Diamond leaned back in his chair. He was ready with a dozen more hand jokes. Twenty, no problem, he thought bleakly. Without a murder to occupy him, he could spend the rest of the afternoon playing word-games. Life at Manvers Street had become a doddle in recent weeks. His murder squad urgently needed some employment. A bony relic from the Roman Baths was unlikely to produce much of that. The most exciting event all summer had been a bomb scare in the Pump Room. An abandoned briefcase had been spotted there one Friday morning. The centre of Bath, the Abbey and the Roman Baths, was cordoned off, causing maximum disruption. The army bomb disposal squad was summoned from Salisbury. The experts decided on a controlled explosion. A robot trundled across to the suspect briefcase. The blast brought down part of a chandelier and showered the Pump Room with cut glass and fragments of Offenbach and Chopin. The briefcase had belonged to one of the Pump Room musicians.
When the desk sergeant had gone, Diamond took another look at the hand. If it was ancient, how had it come to be encased in concrete? Just to be sure, he arranged for the thing to be delivered to the pathologist at the Royal United who generally dealt with unidentified bodies.