The traffic was light as Marie walked down Aldany Road. Her new shoes were chafing her feet a little, which she was ignoring as best she could, but she couldn’t stop thinking about how much they’d cost her. The shop assistant who’d helped her try them on had been persuasive, but he hadn’t really needed to be. Marie had been watching the shoes ever since they came in to the shop, saving money and going without little things. Now she couldn’t stop worrying that she’d made a mistake.
Her turning came up and she navigated the puddle on the corner, wondering how much wear there could be on the shoes if she was going to take them back. Then she paused and looked at the puddle more carefully. There was a thin layer of ice, transparent everywhere except at the edges, covering the puddle. Curious, she tapped it lightly with the toe of her shoe and watched it crack apart and sink. It was almost May, surely it was too late in the year now for the nights to be cold enough for ice?
The museum was at the end of this road, which was actually a cul-de-sac. The road widened a little into a turning circle, but there were, as always, three parked cars there which made the whole task far harder for lost motorists. The front door of the museum was behind them, and she edged through the narrow gap between two of them rather than walk round.
The museum door was locked with three locks, at the top, middle and bottom. She had to stretch to reach the top lock, and crouch to reach the bottom, but she’d not been able to persuade her boss, the museum’s owner, that it was overkill for a small museum In an equally small town. The locks turned smoothly and she opened the door, closing it and locking it – on the middle lock only – behind her.
The museum’s front desk was a room about the size of a family living room with a table and chair for the receptionist to sit at. A laminated A4 page laid on the desk listed the ticket prices, and a poster on the wall showed the layout of the museum. Two of the doors led around the museum, one to the Northern Hemisphere wing, and the other to the Southern Hemisphere wing. A third door went to the toilets, and the fourth door, the one that Marie was going through, gave on to the staff room.
The staff room was small; there were coat-hooks on the wall behind the door and an electric kettle plugged into a socket near the floor. Two large cardboard boxes took up much of the space, both labelled Fragile in large black stencilled letters. Marie ignored them; they’d been there for a couple of weeks now, and until her boss, Jimmy diGrice, decided that they were ready to be opened she was leaving them be. She took her coat off and hung it up, and then checked the kettle. It was empty, as she’d expected – Jimmy never refilled it, and often came in and worked late -- so she took it into the toilets to refill it at the sink there.
When she came back Jimmy had appeared and was setting another box down on top of one of the cardboard ones. He turned as Marie came in and beamed a smile at her.
“Morning, sweetheart,” he said. She noticed that he appeared tanned, but the tan seemed an odd shade, more grey than brown. She managed a faint smile back; she hated the pet names he insisted on using. “Making coffee?”
“Tea,” she said, knowing that Jimmy disliked it. He faked a shudder, and then smiled again.
“You can make me a coffee though can’t you? For little old me?”
“Sure, boss,” she said.
“Great, that’s great. Then when you’re done with that I’ve got some little trinkets that need cataloguing and a place finding for them. They’re in the box.”
“Where else would they be?” She tempered her acerbity with a smile, and checked the mugs for the drinks. They were dirty, as she’d expected they’d be. “I’ll have to go wash these, boss. Give me a minute.”
When she came back he was looking around the room.
“What happened to the prybar?” he asked. She put the cups down next to the kettle and started measuring out the coffee.
“It’s out the front,” she said. “Probably underneath the reception desk. Janet was worrying about people coming in and trying to steal the take.”
“Did anyone try?” He looked startled.
“No, but she’d been watching Crimewatch I think. She wanted one of the cutlasses from the Pirate Kings exhibits, but I told her that they were too valuable to risk getting blood on.”
“Good call, girl. I think they’re only about fifty years old though, so it’s no biggie if they did get a bit bloodied. Might make them a bit more interesting, if you think about it.”
“I don’t want to explain that to the police though, boss.”
“Yeah, I get it. Is that coffee done yet?”
The kettle obligingly clicked off, the water boiling briefly and Marie picked it up to pour it into the cups. She added a teabag to her cup, and handed the black coffee to Jimmy. He sipped it, grimaced, and put it down on top of his new box.
“Tastes like crap,” he said. “But all instant does, doesn’t it?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but disappeared out to the reception, and Marie could hear him banging around, presumably looking for the prybar. She stirred her cup thoughtfully with a spoon that probably clean enough and wondered what was in the new box.
Jimmy diGrice was, as far as she could tell, some kind of dilettante. He seemed to float around the place, doing a deal here and a deal there, picking up money for services rendered or possibly not, and every now and then he took himself off on a little expedition. She hadn’t got any details from him about any of them, but he always seemed to come back with what he called little trinkets that he’d have her unpack, catalogue, and then add to the museum exhibits. The most he’d ever tell her about them, at least at the time, was which room they belonged in. She’d tried pointing out that having little cards around the exhibits that told people what they were looking at would improve business but Jimmy didn’t seem interested.
He reappeared with the prybar and moved his coffee cup down to the floor by his feet; technically out of the way but still an accident waiting to happen in Marie’s eyes. Then he set about the box with enthusiasm.
The box was about three feet long and a foot wide, maybe two feet deep and seemed to be made of a light-coloured wood. She suspected pine, but there was an odd smell starting to make itself noticed, and she thought that it was either the box or something in the box. Jimmy levered the lid off with a couple of grunts, and then started pulling handfuls of wood shavings out. He deposited them carelessly on the floor, while Marie silently cursed him, knowing that she would be left with the task of cleaning up after him.
“I think you’ll like this,” he said, slipping both hands into the box now and letting the prybar clatter to the floor as well. He shifted his grip a couple of times and then seemed to get a confident hold on whatever was in the box. He pulled it out in a shower of sawdust, and triumphantly presented it to her. She took it, wondering how to describe it.
It was cold, startlingly so, as if the box had been kept in cold storage overnight. It was a carving of some kind, made from some stone by the feel of it. It was green, marbled through with white and yellow streaks, and appeared to be a spindly man. The body was disproportionately long compared with the legs and arms, and the neck was far too long as well. The head seemed to bobble around at the end of it. When she looked back at the arms and legs she saw that the fingers and legs had been carved out as well, as were just as hideously long as the neck.
“It’s horrible,” she said, trying to hand it back.
“I know,” said Jimmy with a gloating smile. “I saw it and I knew I had to have it. It’s ghastly, and people will love it for that reason alone!”
“Where did you get it from?” Marie wasn’t really expecting an answer, and Jimmy didn’t disappoint her this time either. He grinned and tapped a finger against his nose, and went looking for his coffee on the floor. When he stood up again and sipped the now-cool drink he looked at it again and said, “Northern hemisphere for that little chap. Far north, if we’ve got anything else from there.”
“Sure,” said Marie, looking for somewhere to put it down. There was nowhere in the staff room that looked safe, so she took it outside and put it on the reception desk until she had time to find a proper home for it. “Got a name for it?” she asked when she came back in. Jimmy put his empty cup down next to the kettle and shrugged.
“Didn’t catch one,” he said. “I’ll let you know if anything comes up though.”
“Thanks,” said Marie. She sipped her tea, which was unpleasantly tannic now, and realised that she’d forgotten to take the teabag out. She sighed, and went out to pour it away. When she returned, Jimmy had disappeared again.