The room was shadowy and cold. April evening sunlight was fading to scarlet as the balding man lit the candle and placed it on the dark mahogany dresser by the wall. The flickering flame illuminated a picture directly above it; a monk, tonsured and in a medieval habit. The candlelight also reflected off a cut-throat razor lying with its blade open, directly underneath the picture on the dresser top. He picked up the razor and laid the cold metal flat against the skin on the uppermost surface of his left arm.
“This is your day, William. It is only fitting that I make this dedication.” He pulled the razor across his arm, shaving away the hair in a crescent swathe. “When we shave away all superfluous explanations, what remains is the truth.” He tilted the back of the razor up, the sharp edge pressing an indentation into his skin, then pulled the blade slowly towards his body. “But sometimes the truth must hurt.”
Blood oozed out of the deep cut and trickled along his skin in a dark red rivulet, two small drops falling onto the parquet floor before he could staunch the flow with tissues. The monk in the picture looked on impassively as the man hurried from the room and climbed the stairs to the bathroom. There he took a pack of plasters out of a cabinet on the wall and peeled the backing strip away from a large one. Pulling the tissues off the cut he quickly applied the plaster, washed his hands and then dried them on the grimy towel hanging on the back of the bathroom door. He went back downstairs, pulled on his raincoat and returned to the candlelit room. He looked up at the picture with reverence. “I trust you will approve of my offering,” he whispered, picking up the blooded razor and pulling the hood of his coat up over his head. He blew out the candle and hurried out of the house.
The Salt Man
It was a hell of a big hole. Joseph looked down at the ladders that had been propped up against the battened sides of the excavation and weighed up whether he’d be able to get down them. And, more importantly, back up them again.
“Do you reckon you can make it down with your bad leg?” asked the young woman by his side.
“Oh I’m much improved, so I’m game to give it a go. Anyway, I’m not giving you the chance to gloat over your old uncle!”
Maive smiled fondly at him. “As if I would do such a thing. Let’s go then. Do you want to go first?”
“No, you go first and then you can break my fall.”
“Ha!” She stepped onto the top ladder and began the descent into the trench. Joseph followed her, relieved that climbing down didn’t seem to cause him any real pain.
The excavation for the new hotel foundations had been halted until the archaeology had been cleared. Dig anywhere in or near Bath and you’re very likely to hit some form of archaeology. This new hotel was on the site of an old one, but its foundations needed to go deeper and that meant uncovering new ground. Maive Connor was leading the investigation and as her favourite uncle and his wife were staying with her mum and dad for a few days, and her favourite uncle just happened to be a paleobiologist with an interest in the bottom of deep holes, she had offered to show him the bottom of this one.
When they reached the foot of the last ladder, Joseph looked back up. Yep, it is a hell of a big hole he thought.
Maive walked a few steps towards the centre of the excavation. “So, you can see that we’re down onto the natural here, but this dark stain …” she pointed to a dark brown, roughly circular mark about one metre in diameter, “… appeared just as we thought we had bottomed out. Looks like it might be a post-hole.”
Joseph bent down to take a closer look. “It has a strange consistency, doesn’t it?”
“Does it? I haven’t looked at it very closely yet.”
“Have you got a trowel handy?”
Maive smiled. “Always!” She unhooked the cloth roll from her belt and unwrapped it, then handed a trowel over to Joseph. He kneeled down and scraped carefully at the surface of the stain.
“It’s dark and soft, so it does look like it was organic.” He scraped a bit further. “Actually, it looks like straw.”
“Mm, I think so. It has rotted down quite a bit, but look. There do seem to be small pieces left.”
Maive kneeled down next to him as he continued to scrape a small depression in the stain. He suddenly hit something hard. “There’s something in here.”
She pulled another trowel out of her cloth roll and started scraping with him. As they gradually removed the surrounding material, the edge of a pot began to emerge. As more of it appeared Maive began to look more and more puzzled. “What on earth is one of these doing here?”