Joseph begins to search…
Joseph went directly to the Riverways and sought out the Margrave. He was in one of the storerooms, inspecting the latest haul of scavenged treasures but his worries weighed heavily and he was struggling to summon up much enthusiasm. He was relieved to see Joseph and took the opportunity to leave the hubbub behind. As they walked to his chamber he listened closely but couldn’t offer any help; he hadn’t seen Laura since the Gathering. Joseph didn’t tell him that she was missing, hinting instead that they’d had an argument rather than worry him further, but the Margrave was distracted, more concerned about what had passed with the Sea Mer. They had apparently left with nothing resolved, and all the Elders were anxious about what would happen next.
Jorn was waiting outside the Margrave’s chamber and followed them inside.
“Have you some news for me Jorn?” the Margrave asked.
“No. They went without saying anything more.”
“And no one saw them go?”
“Edgar says he did. But he also says he saw them take a skiff, which seems unlikely. They didn’t stop talking about how they still use the old ways.”
“The old ways?” Joseph wasn’t sure what Jorn meant.
“They swim,” Jorn snapped, “which means they didn’t need a little boat to get home.”
“So all we can do for now is wait,” said the Margrave, and he sat down at his polished wooden desk and picked up a book.
“Wait until they come back and catch us unawares again? If we’d acted sooner we could have been the ones taking the lead” It was all Jorn could do not to stamp his foot in frustration. “Am I the only one who is taking this seriously? Trouble is coming and yet you leave us defenceless.”
When the Margrave did not react Jorn could stand it no longer. “I cannot just sit here and do nothing,” he said furiously, and turning on his heels he stormed out, glaring at Joseph as he left.
“He is very angry, aren’t you worried that now he might stir up trouble?”
The Margrave tried to smile but his face betrayed his tiredness and his eyes were heavy. “Jorn just needed to let off steam. I know he is growing impatient with life here, and he believes things must change, but we have to be patient and wait for the right time. Deep down he understands that.”
Joseph wished he shared the Margrave’s faith in Jorn’s good nature. He had never seen much evidence of it himself.
“Quarrels happen Joseph, try not to let it trouble you too much – I’m sure Laura will forgive whatever it is you’ve done. Would you like to stay and talk?”
Joseph wished he could take the time to sit down, sensing that the old leader would appreciate some company, but his mind was on what Edgar said he’d seen. If the Sea Mer didn’t need a boat themselves, what did they want it for? Perhaps for someone who couldn’t swim.
“No, I must find Edgar and then…” he hesitated, “and then I have to go. Sorry.”
He hurried back down the corridor to the storerooms to see if Edgar was still there. He found him standing in the middle of one of them, along with Twiggy and what looked like some new additions to his collection. Cara was there too, with a rather forlorn expression on her face.
“Hi Joseph,” she said, and then pointed at Edgar. “Look at him, mooning over those stupid wooden ladies. He always goes scavenging out that way now trying to add to his harem.”
“No I don’t,” retorted Edgar indignantly, “I just happened to be in the area and there she was.” He was trying to get a very battered mannequin with no arms to stand upright. “Do you know this one’s name Joseph?”
“How about Venus?”
“Really? How do you know?”
“It was just a guess. Anyway, I’m not here to talk about your ladyfriends, I want to know what you saw when you watched the visitors leave.”
“I didn’t watch them exactly.”
“You told me you followed them all the way outside,” interrupted Cara.
“Okay maybe I did watch them a bit. But they were odd weren’t they?”
Joseph said nothing so Edgar continued. “They all flounced out of the Gathering in such a huff I wondered what the matter was, and I did follow them all the way downhill. They must have come in that way from the Thames I think. Anyway, they stood in a huddle at the gateway for ages, then one of them went out into the water, well under the water in fact, and disappeared. I wish we could swim like that.”
“We used to be able to, in the old days,” Cara said, “Arne told us when he did that history talk, remember?”
“Then what happened?” Joseph prompted.
“I hung around for a bit, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying so I was just about to give up when that one who’d swum off came back, and he was pulling a little boat. He tied it up near the gateway and then they all split up.”
“What do you mean, split up?”
“Well two of them sat down by the boat, three of four went up the steps from the riverbank to the street and the rest of them disappeared off into the water.”
That was all Edgar had seen, and when he’d gone back the next day for another look, the skiff was gone.
Joseph had heard enough, he was now certain that something bad had happened to Laura, and the Sea Mer and their little boat were involved. He thanked Edgar and Cara and left them to bicker over the mannequins – Cara was jealous but Edgar couldn’t see it.
Retrieving his van from where he’d left it in a nearby street, Joseph drove towards the Thames, and then east, beyond the gleaming luxury office and apartment blocks to an area where bits of the old riverside still survived alongside the new. He pulled up outside one of the many building sites and beeped his horn, smiling at the traffic warden who was lurking nearby. A security guard clad head to toe in hi-vis yellow stomped over to the fence and peered out. His face brightened when he saw Joseph and he swung open the gate.
“Can I leave the van here for a bit Eric?”
“Of course you can Mr Singer. When do we get your boys down here again then?”
It helped to be in a trade that meant he was known all over the city.
“Not for a couple of months I think, not until they start on the restoration of the main tower.”
The guard nodded, and pointed Joseph to a relatively flat corner where he could park out of the way of the heavy machinery.
It didn’t take Joseph long to find his way down to the embankment, and he began to walk downstream, looking for the man who watched over this part of the river. He found him beneath the wooden overhang of an old dockers’ pub, on a strip of dirt and shingle exposed by the low tide. He was sitting on a plastic garden chair, propped up against the weed covered pillar that supported the saloon above. His face was barely visible under the brim of a black felt trilby and apart from the yellow nicotine stains on some of his fingers, his hands were grey with ancient dirt. He grunted when Joseph squatted down beside him but didn’t take his eyes from the water.
“Hello Nelson.” Joseph didn’t know if this was his real name, but he’d known the old man as Nelson since he was a boy. “Seen much today?”
“What about yesterday?”
“Bit. What you after?”
“A small boat, maybe a rowing boat, or a coracle, not the usual. Going down river, one or two people in it, possibly a woman. It could have been going quite fast, faster than you’d expect.”
“I saw it.”
“It was late, ’bout midnight I reckon. A skiff with two, maybe three in it. Thought it was tourists, it was a nice night. But it was going pretty quick, and smooth.”
“Did it come back?”
Joseph thought for a minute. It had to be them, but where had they gone?
“Nelson I really need to find that boat. Can you take me out?”
A flicker of a smile played across the old man’s wizened features. He hadn’t seen any action for months.
“Later. Come tonight when the water’s high, I’ll be upstairs.”
So Joseph picked his way back across the mud and shingle and up the slippery stone steps to the street. There was nothing he could do now until the tide turned so he collected his van and went to find something to eat.