A large collection of artifacts is left to the Calleshire museum in the will of a local man once prominent in the British colonial service. But Inspector C. D. Sloan of the local police gets involved when the 3,000 year old mummy case is found to contain a body that's been dead less than a week, in Catherine Aird's Little Knell.
About the Author
Catherine Aird is the author of some eighteen crime novels, most of which feature Detective Chief Inspector C. D. Sloan. She holds an honorary M.A. from the University of Kent and was made an M.B.E. Her works include Stiff News and After Effects. She lives in Sturry, Kent, in England.
Catherine Aird is the author of twenty-odd crime novels and story collections, most of which feature Detective Chief Inspector C. D. Sloan. She holds an honorary M. A. from the University of Kent and was made an M.B.E. Her more recent works include Amendment of Life, Past Tense and Losing Ground. She lives in England.
Read an Excerpt
'Wake up there, boy, or you'll have us both over.' Sidney Wetherspoon grasped the lid of an ottoman as it suddenly canted over in the direction of his youthful assistant.
'Sorry,' said Wayne Goddard sullenly.
'Easy, now, round the corner,' exhorted Sid, who had begun to puff slightly. 'Take it gently on the bend.'
Wayne Goddard obediently changed his working pace from slow to dead slow.
'It wouldn't do for us to break anything. Not here.' The older man took advantage of the pause while he spoke. 'Even though, me, I'd ten times rather clear a house when someone's died than when they haven't.'
'I don't like being stood over neither.' The youth sniffed, responding to the thought rather than the statement. 'Can't stand it, myself. Gives me the willies.'
'It still wouldn't do for us to be breaking anything here.' Wetherspoon peered round the room. 'Not in Whimbrel House.'
'Too right it wouldn't.' Wayne Goddard yawned. He had been sent by the Job Centre on a month's trial to Wetherspoon and Wetherspoon, Furniture Removers Ltd. of Railway Street, Berebury, and deemed it prudent to be polite to his employers. To begin with, anyway.
'All this stuff here might look like a load of old rope to you, lad ...' said Sid Wetherspoon expansively, waving a horny hand round the spacious room which they were now clearing.
'Smells like it anyway,' muttered Goddard under his breath. 'Could do with a proper airing, if you ask me.'
'... but there's them, I can tell you, that think it's valuable enough.'
'You could have fooled me.' Goddard shrugged his shoulders, his expression managing to convey at one and the same time both total disinterest and considerable scepticism. He certainly wasn't going to admit that he was actually standing in the oddest room he had ever been in during his short life. It was full – completely full – of fusty trophies of travels to out-of-the way places, travels that had clearly taken place a long, long time ago.
'Very valuable,' insisted Sid, correctly reading the young man's mind. 'I'm telling you.'
'What, even that stuffed alligator?' Wayne raised an eyebrow. He had been practising raising one eyebrow as a gesture of disbelief ever since he had seen it done by the manager of the Job Centre who had been listening to Wayne's latest – and completely specious – tale of woe.
'Even that stuffed alligator.' Having now succeeded in getting his breath back, the older man bent forward and applied himself again to lifting the intricately carved sandalwood ottoman whose great weight had brought about his respiratory distress in the first place.
'Get away!' said Wayne.
'I dare say,' said Wetherspoon drily. 'Now, you just roll your sleeves up and take the other end of this here prize piece and go first and then pitch over there.'
Wayne Goddard applied himself to the sweet-smelling wooden chest but without enthusiasm – and without rolling up his sleeves either.
'Hey,' shouted Sid Wetherspoon, having successfully negotiated the ottoman round a suit of armour. 'Use both your hands and watch what you're doing with your end.'
'I am,' said Goddard untruthfully. Since he was the one of the pair walking backwards, he could perforce do no such thing as look where he was going. While once he wouldn't have hesitated to have said so – with various rich and quite unprintable embellishments – today he held his peace. There had been a glint in the eye under that raised eyebrow at the Job Centre which he hadn't liked. It had betokened a very real willingness to take matters further and cut off his benefits if Goddard, W. G., didn't hold this latest job down.
'I reckon,' said Wetherspoon, jerking his shoulder in the direction of a long woven silk rug elegantly stretched out against the further wall, 'that that's worth a pretty penny, too, to someone who really wants it.'
'You're joking.' Goddard shrugged.
'To say nothing of that stuffed object in the glass case in the corner,' carried on Sid. 'Whatever it might be when it's at home.'
'Looks like a dead duck to me,' opined Wayne, who had never seen a hoopoe – dead or alive – before.
'Else,' reasoned Sid Wetherspoon realistically, 'why do you think they've got their solicitor and their chief legatee over here while we do a simple removal job?'
'Search me,' said Wayne Goddard indifferently.
'I wouldn't put that past them either,' said Sid sardonically. 'Not this pair, anyway.'
'You mean Mr Puckle?' asked Wayne.
'How come you know Mr Puckle?' asked Sid curiously. He made a mental note to check on the lad's references when he got back to the office. They couldn't be doing with a maverick in the company.
'I've been around, haven't I?' uttered Wayne, a truculent look coming over his face.
'So it would seem,' said Sid, conducting a rapid reappraisal of the suitability of Wetherspoon and Wetherspoon's new recruit for a permanent position in the old firm.
'That one's called Simon,' Wayne informed him. 'He's from that lot with offices down by the bridge. You know, Puckle, Puckle and Nunnery.' He sniffed. 'Not that you'd know it from their brass plate. You can't read it any more. Worn out by polishing.'
'Old established.' Sid nodded. The firm of Wetherspoon and Wetherspoon had begun with a horse and cart in Sid's grandfather's day which made the removal men johnnys-come-lately in comparison with the law practice. 'Always been around here in Berebury, the Puckles.'
'And always making money out of other people's misfortunes,' added Wayne Goddard bitterly, wiping a watery eye.
'Well ...' Sid took the opportunity to lower the ottoman to the floor once more while he considered this.
Wayne wrinkled up his nose. 'That's all that solicitors do, isn't it? Prey on the unlucky.'
'They'll be making money all right here at Whimbrel House,' said Sid Wetherspoon, deciding not to enquire too closely into how Wayne Goddard had come to know so much about the members of the local legal profession at his tender age.
'I'll bet.' Goddard seconded this warmly.
'They do say,' went on Sid profoundly, 'that some rain falls in every life though I couldn't tell you about the misfortune bit, I'm sure.' He screwed up his face in an effort of recollection. 'I must say I've never heard of old Colonel Caversham having had more than his fair share of trouble in this world.'
'Lucky sod him, then,' said Goddard, making it quite clear that he thought he'd already had his own mede of difficulties.
'The only trouble the colonel had,' said Sid doggedly, 'was in dying. From all accounts he took his time about that.'
Goddard pointed across the room. 'Bet those two vultures over there didn't lose interest. Not nohow.'
'No,' agreed Sid fairly. 'They stuck around all right, and when the old boy did die at last they gave us all this work.'
'But,' admitted Goddard, who was not interested in anyone who was old let alone dead, still gazing across the big room, 'I don't know who the guy with Mr Puckle is. The geezer in the dark blue jacket and brown moccasins ...'
'That,' said Sid Wetherspoon impressively, 'is our Mr Marcus Fixby-Smith.'
'And who's he when he comes out from under all that hair?'
Wetherspoon looked across at the man with the middling flowing locks and then back at Wayne's skinhead haircut and decided he didn't greatly care for either style. 'Mr Fixby-Smith over there is the Curator of the Greatorex Museum in Granary Row.'
'Can't afford a good barber, I suppose.' Wayne's glance travelled appraisingly over the other man, taking in with a certain contempt the expensive grey woollen polo-neck jumper and well-cut blue denim jeans the curator was wearing.
'I expect he likes that floppy fringe,' said Sid slyly. 'Keeps his head warm.'
'He's out of touch, that's all,' said Wayne Goddard loftily. He himself was wearing a dark green Puffa jacket over a long-sleeved grubby white T-shirt.
'Is he now? Well, I never ...' Sid had already noticed that Wayne's T-shirt was sporting a motif which had struck him as vaguely obscene. It was accompanied by blue shell-suit trousers and a pair of old trainers which might once have been white. If so, it was a long time ago.
'Doesn't he know,' remarked Wayne largely, 'that all that gear is right out now?'
'Don't suppose so,' said his new employer equably.
'Museums aren't what you might call up to date.'
'Marked down everywhere, those clothes.'
Neither Sidney Wetherspoon nor Marcus Fixby-Smith would have ever credited the total retail price of Wayne's current outfit. The manager of the Job Centre, though, knew what it would have cost down to the last penny – in the unlikely event, that is, of its having been bought over the counter for real money.
'You don't say,' murmured Sid, who didn't ever buy new clothes until his wife made him.
'So what's that man doing here with Mr Puckle, then?' asked Wayne Goddard. He had cottoned on very quickly to the fact that his new employer preferred standing and talking to lifting heavy furniture.
So did Wayne.
'Making sure that he gets his pound of flesh from the colonel's leavings, I expect,' said Wetherspoon, 'seeing as how the museum's been left all the non-literary artefacts in the colonel's unsecured estate.'
'What's unsecured estate?' asked Wayne alertly.
'Not what you think, my boy,' retorted Sid. 'It means what the colonel could leave as he wanted to. Not tied up for his heirs and successors.'
'Who gets the rest then?'
'You may well ask,' said Sid enigmatically. 'The other thing that pair over there are doing,' he added without heat, 'is making quite sure that we don't get any of this unsecured stuff either.'
'Wouldn't have thought you'd have wanted any of it anyway,' said Wayne Goddard, unwittingly at one and the same time sealing his own long-term future in the removal trade and making more work for the manager of the Berebury Job Centre. 'Looks like a real load of old tat to me.'
'It's all souvenirs of primitive places,' said Sid, casting an appraising glance at the various spots on Wayne's anatomy where his skin had been pierced for the suspension of gold ornaments, 'where the natives stuck rings into their noses and ears. They didn't know any better, of course,' he added with a straight face. 'Not being civilized like us.'
The irony passed Goddard by. 'You'd never get anyone to buy any of this rubbish off you if you did half-inch it ...'
'I should imagine that Mr Fixby-Smith is here, like Mr Puckle, in his professional capacity,' said Sid, deciding against trying to explain to Wayne that it wasn't the custom of Wetherspoon and Wetherspoon to help themselves to the goods they were removing – good or bad.
'Big deal,' said Wayne Goddard laconically.
'In which capacity,' said Sid Wetherspoon, bending once more to the sandalwood ottoman, 'he has inherited this pretty little lot here. It's all going to the museum seeing as how it's of anthropological interest.'
'All of it?'
'So Mr Puckle says. And he should know because he's paying us. Puckle, Puckle and Nunnery are the colonel's executors.'
'Even that spear on the wall?'
'Assegai,' said the removal man knowledgeably. 'Used to see quite a lot of them about in the old days. Colonials coming home.'
'Offensive weapon within the meaning of the Act is what the magistrates would call that,' said Wayne Goddard, equably knowledgeable, but in a rather different field. 'A bladed instrument.'
'I don't care what they would call it,' said Wetherspoon flatly. 'If Puckle, Puckle and Nunnery are paying us to take it over to the museum, then that's where it goes – all of it. And nowhere else. Understood?'
'Including that rather valuable brass tray over there that has come to Calleshire from Birmingham by way of Benares.'
'But who gets the money?' persisted Wayne.
'That I don't rightly know.' Sid's lips came together in a tight clamp. 'That's family business. Now, get going or we'll never get shot of this job.'
'But, Sid ...'
'Mr Wetherspoon to you,' said Sid sternly. 'Unless, that is,' he added from long experience in the removals business, 'you were ever to drop anything on my foot and then you could call me whatever you like because you wouldn't be around long enough for me to hear you. Understood?'
'Yes, Si — Mr Wetherspoon.'
'And mind that Ali Baba vase as you go. We should have moved it out of the way before we started on this chest. They can come valuable, too.' He looked disparagingly down at the youth. 'I dare say you know all about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, don't you?'
Wayne Goddard grinned for the first time that day. 'Yes, Mr Wetherspoon.'
'I thought you might. Now, take your end gently round the doorway and then we'll have another rest. It's heavy enough.'
'Yes, Mr Wetherspoon.'
They were interrupted by a pleasant voice from the other end of the room. 'I say, Sid, can you spare a minute?'
'Coming, Mr Puckle.' Sid immediately lowered the ottoman again, this time answering to his Christian name without hesitation. Puckle, Puckle and Nunnery put a lot of good business in the way of Wetherspoon and Wetherspoon; far too much for Sid to be standing on ceremony with the solicitor.
'Mr Fixby-Smith here tells me that there's something at Whimbrel House that needs rather specialized lifting.' Simon Puckle was standing beside the museum curator. They were both staring down at something on the floor, and if the solicitor recognized Wayne Goddard, he gave no sign of it. 'It's just here.'
Sid dusted off his hands and walked over to the two men with a certain amount of curiosity. He'd seen nothing in his preliminary look round the house that had struck him as a particular problem. 'What's that, then? Something extra?'
'Rodoheptah,' said Marcus Fixby-Smith.
'Come again?' said Sid.
'This sarcophagus here,' explained the museum curator, indicating a long wooden oblong object at his feet.
'Ah, so that's what that is, is it?' said Sid easily. 'I hadn't reckoned on that being too difficult to lift myself. It doesn't look it.'
'Not difficult,' amplified Marcus Fixby-Smith. 'Important. Mr Howard Air – he's my committee chairman – is very pleased we've come into all this ...'
'Ah.' Sid let out a long breath. 'That explains it.' In their time Wetherspoon and Wetherspoon had effortlessly moved countless objects deemed by their owners to be important as well as difficult to lift. He regarded the painted wooden object with professional interest. The colours had faded to the palest of pinks and greys. 'Valuable, is it?'
'Very,' said Fixby-Smith shortly. 'To us, anyway. It's an Egyptian mummy and it should put the Greatorex Museum on the map at long last.'
'You mean,' said Wayne Goddard, finding something in his day's work of interest at long last, 'that there's a body in there?'
'Probably,' said the museum curator, quite unconcerned, 'but we won't be able to be absolutely sure the grave robbers haven't been into it first until it's been X-rayed and we've seen the bones.'
Simon Puckle said by way of explanation, 'Colonel Caversham brought it back from one of his first journeys of exploration in the Middle East ...'
'Exact provenance unknown, though,' put in Marcus Fixby-Smith, quoting from a long list in his hand.
'... where,' continued the solicitor, 'it was not unknown for English travellers to be sold empty sarcophagi.'
'I'll bet,' said Wayne Goddard in spite of himself.
Simon Puckle gave a deprecating cough. 'It must also be said that it was equally the case in those days that on occasion ...' He paused and amended this. '... quite often, returning English travellers chose to declare the sarcophagus they were shipping home to be – er – unoccupied to facilitate their getting it through customs.'
'Can't trust anyone, can you?' marvelled Wayne Goddard.
'I see on the executors' schedule here,' the museum curator waved his list in the air in the direction of Simon Puckle, 'that it has been described as "one sarcophagus, exact contents unknown".'
'Precisely,' responded the solicitor. 'We, although we are acting for the Colonel's estate, don't really know what's in there. That is, we are not in a position to say with any degree of certainty.'
'However,' announced Marcus Fixby-Smith firmly, 'for the purposes of removing this artefact from here to the Greatorex Museum I am deeming it to contain the remains of a human being rightly or wrongly given the name of Rodoheptah, since this is what the colonel called it.'
'Quite so,' murmured Simon Puckle.
'What does that mean exactly?' asked Sid, wiping his hands on his trousers, the better to take hold of the wooden case.
'That we carry it very carefully,' said Fixby-Smith. He was a man to whom the use of the Royal we came easily.
'Like we knew there was someone in there?' asked Wayne. He looked distinctly dubious.
'Just like that,' said Fixby-Smith. 'A someone moreover who might come to harm if he were tipped up.'
'Or even tilted,' growled Sid Wetherspoon, who had a good idea of what the firm's insurers would have to say about any claim arising for damages to the skeleton of a long-dead Egyptian.
'How do you know it's a he?' asked Wayne. He had already sensed that his employment with the removal firm wasn't going to last any longer than it had done with all the other jobs he had tried. 'Could have been a woman, couldn't it?'
'Not with that name ending,' replied Fixby-Smith absently.
Excerpted from "Little Knell"
Copyright © 2000 Catherine Aird.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Spine Broken,
Chapter Two: Bumped,
Chapter Three: Defective,
Chapter Four: Stained,
Chapter Five: Faded,
Chapter Six: Marked,
Chapter Seven: Frayed,
Chapter Eight: Scuffed,
Chapter Nine: Loose,
Chapter Ten: Creased,
Chapter Eleven: Torn,
Chapter Twelve: Worn,
Chapter Thirteen: Spotted,
Chapter Fourteen: Used,
Chapter Fifteen: Hinge Cracked,
Chapter Sixteen: Backstrip Missing,
Chapter Seventeen: Corners Blunted,
By the same author,