Laura was not the only one waiting.
Mrs Patterson had heard her go out the night before, and knew full well that she hadn’t come back. She didn’t like to pry too much into her tenant’s comings and goings, but the unease she’d felt after the visit from Elizabeth had only worsened once she realised Laura hadn’t come home. She decided to pick up the phone.
It didn’t take Joseph long to get there, the phone call took him by surprise and he left straight away. Mrs Patterson took him into her sitting room and they sat together, the doors into the garden open and the scent of summer filling the air.
“It’s been a long time since you were here Joseph.”
“Your mother used to sit in that chair and you would play in the garden. I still had Treacle then of course, such a lovely dog.”
Joseph didn’t know what else to say. Mrs Patterson was right, it was a long time since he had visited, and perhaps he should have been better at keeping her informed. But now she had asked for him directly, and so here he was.
“I know that you and Laura have been spending some time together.”
He opened his mouth to defend himself, then decided not to bother – he couldn’t hide anything under her keen gaze. He stayed silent and she continued.
“I haven’t said anything to her, or even told her that you and I know each other for that matter – I thought I would wait and see if she came to me. However it seems she has started doing some research, looking into rather sensitive areas, and it has not gone unnoticed.”
“That may have been my fault. I asked her for help.”
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, the fact remains she has caused a bit of a stir in certain circles.”
“Do you mean Elizabeth Chapman by any chance?”
“Yes, she approached me about it only yesterday. I was planning to talk to Laura this morning, but she went out late last night and it seems she didn’t come home. I’d hoped she might be with you.”
“She didn’t come home?” he repeated, instantly on edge.
“No, that’s why I telephoned you.”
Joseph tried to think clearly, to ignore the growing feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. Mrs Patterson seemed quite worried but surely there was some logical explanation. He took his phone out of his pocket and looked at it pointlessly. He wasn’t even sure that Laura had a mobile, he’d certainly never seen it and that would be just the sort of contrary peculiarity that he’d come to expect from her.
“She doesn’t really use her phone much Joseph.”
At least she had one. “Maybe we could try her at work?” he suggested.
Mrs Patterson nodded so he found his previous call and redialled, remembering that it had taken several attempts to reach her the last time as he didn’t even know her surname.
“Er hello, may I speak to Laura -” he hesitated, but Mrs Patterson scribbled quickly on a scrap of paper, “Laura Poole please.”
There was a click and another few rings before a bright voice answered.
“Laura’s phone, Rani speaking.”
Joseph asked if Laura was there but she hadn’t been seen all morning. Rani was extremely interested in this male voice asking after her friend and instantly pressed him for his name.
“It’s just a friend,” Joseph stalled.
“Oh really?” At the other end of the line Rani’s eyebrows shot up and she smiled to herself. Could this be the mystery man? Was he the real reason Laura had shot off so suddenly last night.
“May I take a message?” But whoever he was he’d already hung up.
So Laura hadn’t simply stayed out at a friend’s place and then gone straight into work. In fact, Rani was the only friend either he or Mrs Patterson had ever heard her mention, and this behaviour seemed so out of character that they decided to go up to her flat. It took Mrs P a while to climb the stairs, but she was not going to let Joseph in there alone – it wouldn’t be fair to Laura, she was such a private person.
The first thing Joseph noticed inside the flat was the overhead light left on, and he had a cursory glance at all the scattered papers and books before spotting the laptop, plugged in and fully charged. Laura had left it logged on, and the things she’d been looking at were all still there on screen. She clearly hadn’t meant to stay out all night, so where on earth had she gone?
A very dated mobile phone lay on the table, but turned off or out of battery it wasn’t telling them anything. There was a landline though, and the answerphone was blinking. Joseph glanced at Mrs Patterson who nodded and he pressed the button. There were two messages, one from a very far away and slightly confused sounding woman talking about some festival in the desert and the latest from Rani, wanting to know where Laura was so that she could interrogate her about the man she had just been speaking to.
“Could she have gone to this desert festival?” Joseph asked, not really believing it even as he spoke.
“I don’t think so. That was her mother, she’s in America.”
“Of course, she told me about their trip.”
Joseph looked around the room again. He felt like an intruder, but there was also a growing realisation that something had happened to Laura, and it was probably his fault. He should never have got her involved and now she was researching his problems on the internet then disappearing into thin air. This was exactly why they were not supposed to talk to outsiders.
Mrs Patterson had sat down and she too seemed lost in her own thoughts. Then she looked up at him.
“Find her Joseph, please.”
“Yes,” he said, and walked straight out of the flat, leaving the old lady sitting at the table surrounded by Laura’s books and papers and wishing she’d spoken up sooner.