Water Water – episode forty eight

[start at episode one]

Together

She had enjoyed the luxury of the hot bath at first, laying back and breathing the perfumed air. She’d found some shampoo and washed the salt and grime from her tangle of hair, but then she’d caught sight of her reflection in the mirror and even though it was foggy from the steam she could see the black marks that started on her shoulders. She tried to rub and then scratch at the ink with her hands but she made no impression and in any case she couldn’t reach most of it. She grew more and more frustrated, and then angry, and finally she picked up the bottle of bath oil and flung it across the room with a cry, following it shortly afterwards with the shampoo.

It was at that moment that Joseph burst in, thinking she was being attacked. Instead, he saw her sitting in the bath with her back to him, knees pulled up to her chest.

“I can’t get it off, I can’t reach,” she wailed and finally gave in to tears.

Joseph stood rooted to the spot. He hadn’t meant to intrude on her like that but he’d heard the crash and acted on instinct. He saw the raw red skin on her shoulder where she must have been scratching at the black ink, and he told himself that although she was in the bath, he couldn’t actually see anything: the water was deep and bubbly and she was facing away from him. He took a deep breath.

“Let me,” he said.

Laura sniffed, then nodded, then lay her head on her knees, her arms wrapped around her legs, only her back exposed. Joseph took the smallest towel from the pile that sat on the shelf and knelt beside the bath. He dipped the end of the towel into the water and began to wash her.

The ink had left a strong stain on her skin, but gradually it started to fade under his careful touch. Gently he rubbed her back with the cloth, working in sections, until he had done all he could. The message was still visible, but very faint, and it would soon disappear completely.  He took up water in the towel and then squeezed it out to rinse her skin. He watched the droplets run down her spine and then did it again, and again, and he knew he was no longer washing her. She gave a shudder which broke the spell and he stood up abruptly.

“Get out now, or you’ll get cold,” he said, and reaching back to the shelf again he took down a large white bath sheet.

Still facing away from him Laura slowly stood up and stepped out of the bath. Joseph wrapped the towel around her and she swayed unsteadily. So this is what weak at the knees feels like she thought vaguely as she leaned back against him. Her heart was thumping as he gently eased her long hair out from where it was caught in the towel.

With his hand in her hair, Joseph felt like he was having an out of body experience as he lowered his head to her bare shoulder where he could see the pulse beating under her skin.  He breathed in deeply against her neck as he told himself it was just for a minute, that he would let her go any second. But then, before he could break away, she turned around in his arms.

As she turned to him Laura could hardly breathe, it had never felt like this with the map guy. And then she lifted her head and they were kissing at last.

Joseph ignored the voice of reason in his head, telling him not to be so reckless. He picked her up in his arms and in a few strides he was out of the bathroom and beside the bed, and then they were on the bed, still locked in an urgent embrace.

His hands and mouth burned across her skin and Laura wanted it, wanted more.

Soon Joseph was fighting for control, and when finally he touched her, and she pressed herself against him with a soft cry, he knew he was losing the fight. He forced himself to pull away.

Laura’s eyes flew open. The towel was on the floor, along with Joseph’s shirt, and her hands appeared to be fumbling with buttons of his jeans. She snatched them away and blushed, suddenly shy, as he propped himself up on one elbow and looked at her.  Then he said her name, his voice hoarse with strain.

“Laura.”

She looked up at him and steadily met his unwavering gaze.

“If you want me to stop, you need to say now.”

In reply Laura said nothing. She brushed her fingers across his mouth and pulled him back to her. And he didn’t stop, and he didn’t stop, and they didn’t stop.

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Water Water – episode forty seven

[start at episode one]

Mike comes up trumps

Laura closed her eyes again as they drove across town, trying to push the images from her mind. She kept reminding herself of the Margrave’s wise words: something bad happened but it’s over, it’s not happening any more. Everything would be fine now.

Eventually the van stopped and Joseph turned off the engine. She opened her eyes and gave a start, shrinking back into her seat – peering in through the windscreen was a middle aged skinhead with a tattoo on his neck.

“It’s alright,” Joseph said quickly, “that’s Mike, he’s a friend of mine. He’s helping.”

He leaned across her and opened the passenger door. The window was still broken.

“Hi Mike, I wasn’t sure you’d be here yet. Where shall I go?”

Mike nodded at Joseph and glanced over again at Laura before replying, she looked like she’d seen a ghost.

“This is a fancy development you know, none of your rubbish. There’s an underground car park, or the bare bones of one at least. Drive down that slope over there and you’ll be out of sight.  Col’s waiting, he’ll put you in the lift – doors don’t shut properly but the mechanism’s working okay.”

Colin met them in the basement, pointed out where to park and then guided them across the uneven ground to the lift. Laura stepped in first and leaned against the back wall without saying a word.

“Harry’s upstairs cleaning,” Colin said as the lift groaned into life with a lurch.

“Cleaning?”

“Yeah. The boss told him to give the place a once over. There was dustsheets on the beds and that, but it was a bit grubby all the same.”

“Thanks.” Joseph didn’t know what else to say. He could just imagine Mike running an enormous finger across a dirty table top and handing out the Marigolds.

Harry was waiting for the lift when it arrived on the tenth floor, holding a bucket and cloth and looking slightly sheepish.

“All sorted Mr Singer,” he said, “you’ve got hot water and light in there now.”

“Thanks Harry.”

“Do you want me here on the landing or downstairs?”

“There’s only the one lift plus those stairs at the end of the hall isn’t there?”

“Yes, this is the only way up that got finished.”

“Well downstairs at the bottom will be fine then.”

“Righto,” and Harry took his bucket into the lift.

Joseph led Laura into the show flat. Mike had come up trumps: not only would she be safe up here she would be reasonably comfortable too. The place was fully furnished, if in a rather gaudy Eurotrash style designed to appeal to those who had millions to spend on a pied-a-terre. The dressing of the flat for prospective purchasers had extended as far as linen on the beds and soft towels in the marble bathroom, and now it was all spick and span thanks to Harry’s valiant efforts.

Laura kicked off her sandals. They looked small and shabby on the expanse of bright cream carpet. She stood still in the middle of the floor and spoke at last.

“Did I hear him say hot water?”

“Yes.”

Joseph opened a couple of doors. The first one led into the kitchen, but then he found the master bedroom and off that a luxurious bathroom complete with bottles of expensive looking potions. He fiddled with the unnecessarily complicated taps, opened one of the bottles and soon hot, bubbly water was filling the bath. Then he backed out of the room awkwardly, saying “there you are.”

Laura paused in the doorway, “I don’t think I said thank you.”

“What for?”

“For coming. For finding me.”

Joseph shrugged, what could he say? He changed the subject.

“I’ll see what there is in the kitchen,” he said, and left her to it.

There was plenty of shiny equipment in the equally shiny kitchen, a fancy coffee maker, a built in ice machine, but no sign of a kettle. Copper pans hung from a rack though, so at least he’d be able to make her a cup of tea on the hob, if he’d only thought to bring any teabags, milk or anything useful at all that is. He was just wondering whether he could ask Colin or Harry to fetch some when he heard a crash, then a muffled shout and another crash.

It was Laura.

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Water Water – episode forty six

[start at episode one]

A place to hide

Joseph had left the Margrave and found the nearest exit, now he was up at ground level making some calls. It was Cosmo he’d first thought of, but once he’d stopped swearing at Joseph for waking him, he told him that his girlfriend was away and he had two cousins staying over. He offered an airbed on the floor, but though three young guys would offer protection of sorts Joseph turned him down.

He needed somewhere safe, for an as yet unknown length of time and with no questions asked.   He was walking down the street, so as not to draw attention to the entrance, when he found his way blocked by a huge eight wheeled crane reversing across the road. Liebherr 1070, he noted idly as he watched a couple of security guards guide the monster machine into a yard, and then he had a brainwave about who else he could ask. Quickly he dialled the number.

“Mike? It’s Joseph Singer”

“Hello mate, how are you? Long time no see. You’re catching worms this morning.”

“I know it’s early. Listen Mike, I need your help.”

“Don’t tell me, more parking favours?”

“What?”

“I hear from Eric and Gus that you’ve been cadging a bit of free parking the last few days.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Don’t be silly, what are friends for? I hope she was worth it.”

“Who?”

“Don’t play the innocent with me Joe, I know you better than that. Gus told me you had a pretty girl with you, and Eric said you were a man on a mission.”

“Ah.”

Nothing got past Mike, he wasn’t the head of one of the biggest security firms in the trade for nothing.

“Come on Joe, time is money, you know how it is,” Mike chuckled down the phone.

Joseph got straight to the point.

“The thing is Mike, she was worth it – is worth it – and she’s in trouble.”

“No problem,” he wasn’t laughing now because Joseph sounded deadly serious, “what do you need?”

“I need somewhere to take her, I don’t know how long for. Somewhere safe, where she’ll be comfortable.”

“I’m on it. Anything else?”

“High up maybe, and not near the river.”

“I’ll call you back,” and the phone went dead.

If there was one person who could help it was Mike Lunn. Five foot seven, shaven headed and virtually square, his meathead looks belied a kind heart and a quick mind. He and Joseph had set up their respective companies around the same time all those years ago, Joseph straight from college and Mike deciding to go straight. Their paths had started to cross, big construction projects tended to need security and scaffolding pretty much simultaneously, and they had become unlikely but firm friends. Each knew the other to be 100% honest and reliable, and that trust had bred a fierce loyalty in Mike which Joseph was counting on now.

Five minutes of pacing later and the phone vibrated. Joseph didn’t give it chance to ring.

“It’s sorted.”

“What have you got?”

“You need to give me till about four o’clock this afternoon, but I’ve got you a flat, a show flat in fact. Remember that block those Uzbek brothers were putting up in Bayswater – ten floors, twenty flats, all going to be four million plus?”

“Yes I remember, they ran out of money and then one of them ended up in the canal with a concrete necklace.”

“That’s it. Well the block’s still there, half finished, but with a fully furnished show flat on the top floor. No one goes there, ownership is all locked up in some mammoth court case and we’re on security detail.”

“Is it okay?”

“All good. I was just checking to see if there was power and stuff, I only have two guys on there and I haven’t been down in weeks. They said there’s electric and water, and amazingly the lift works too. I’ll take them off and put Col and Harry on – you know both of them, been with me since the beginning.”

Joseph breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you so much, I owe you one.”

Mike just laughed, and told Joseph where and when to meet him.

It was after six by this time and the streets were starting to get busier. He had to be discreet as he slipped back into the Riverways and returned to the Margrave. The old man looked troubled, he had been going over in his mind what Joseph had told him. The Sea Mer’s message may have said one lunar cycle but he was concerned that things had already started. If the water was changing as Nelson had sensed, then maybe they didn’t have that long.

Laura still slept, and as she couldn’t go to the flat until four o’clock, they let her go on sleeping. Joseph sat dozing fitfully in a chair and the Margrave read quietly. He had met with his council of Elders but other than getting the full translation from Arne, which confirmed that any changes already being seen in the waters were not a coincidence, they had not made any progress. They would meet again the next morning, after each had had time to think further.

Finally, Laura woke. She sat up gingerly, still wrapped in the warm blanket, and looked around. She  remembered where she was, but exactly how she’d got there remained a blur. Joseph was leaning back against the wall with his eyes shut but the Margrave saw her and smiled.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Better.” She coughed and he handed her a cup of water which she drained.

“Hungry,” it was after two and she hadn’t eaten for more than a day, “starving in fact. I should go home.”

“You can’t.” It was Joseph, eyes open and face etched with concern.

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m fine now. Message delivered so I want to go home.”

“I’m sorry,” said the Margrave, “but Joseph is right, you cannot go home. You are in danger and we cannot let them take you again.”

“So do I have to stay down here then? What about work? And my landlady will be wondering where I am.”

“You cannot stay here either. Joseph has found somewhere safe for you to go.”

“Where?”

“He doesn’t know,” Joseph interrupted, “the fewer people that do the better. And forget about work.”

Laura didn’t have the strength to argue, but she was almost faint with hunger and asked if they could at least go and get something to eat first. Joseph looked at his watch, not sure that they could spare the time. Laura was going to try and stand up when she realised that under the blanket she was wearing only the remains of her torn shirt.

“I can’t go anywhere like this,” she pointed out.

Five minutes later Edgar and Cara appeared carrying a bundle of clothing, from which Laura was able to pick out a couple of garments that she thought she could bear to put on. She decided not to think about where they had come from, and was thankful that her jeans and sandals, though filthy, were still in one piece.

Once she felt decent in the better of the tops Laura stood up, or rather tried to – she immediately felt dizzy and sat down again with a bump.

“I really need to eat something,” she pleaded, “otherwise I’ll pass out completely.”

“Alright,” Joseph conceded, “let’s go and we’ll get something on the way.”

He had already been outside once to bring the van closer, to a nearby but rarely used entrance, one he hoped the Sea Mer would not be watching. He helped Laura through the tunnels and outside, and even after just that short walk she virtually collapsed into the passenger seat. He switched on the engine and put the van into gear, but they didn’t move. Laura could see his hands gripping the steering wheel, so tightly that his knuckles were white. He was steeling himself to speak, and finally, staring straight ahead rather than look at her, he asked the question that was eating away at him,

“Did they hurt you?”

Laura knew at once what he meant. Her clothes had been torn and she’d given no details of what had actually happened out there. She answered truthfully.

“No.”

Joseph lessened his grip on the wheel and exhaled in relief before pulling out into the traffic. He drove to Bill and Jeannie’s cafe, now shut for the afternoon, and parking in an empty space opposite he ran across the road and rang the bell. After a couple of minutes a bleary eyed Jeannie came to the door. She was about to remind Joseph in no uncertain terms that she got up at four-thirty and he’d interrupted her siesta when she saw the look on his face. Laura, watching from the car, saw her briefly touch his cheek with her hand before she said something and opened the café door wide.

Jeannie leaned against the counter and took in the scene before her: this exhausted woman in dirty jeans and an old man’s sweater, eating the meal she’d hastily thrown together as Joseph watched over her. She caught his eye and he came and stood beside her, while Bill took up his customary position in the doorway, never quite out of his kitchen, but close enough to see and be seen.

“So this is her?”

Joseph nodded, his eyes not leaving Laura for a second. Jeannie shook her head and put her hand on his shoulder. She had a bad feeling, something had happened and he was clearly in deep, too deep.

“Be careful.”

Joseph reached up and took Jeannie’s hand in his, he was about to say something when Laura stopped eating and put down her cutlery with a clatter.

“Thank you very much,” she said without looking up. “Should we leave now?”

“Yes,” replied Joseph, dropping Jeannie’s hand to look at his watch. “Let’s go.”

He opened the door and then they were gone, leaving just the jangling door chimes and an empty plate behind them.

“Well,” said Jeannie, and as she knew he would Bill stepped up behind her and wrapped his arms around his wife. She leaned into him thankfully.

“Jealous?” he teased.

“Not in a million years. Something’s going on there, and I don’t like it, I don’t like it at all.”

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Water Water – episode forty five

[start at episode one]

The message

There was stunned silence for a few seconds, then the Elders started whispering to each other and peering at the strange symbols and lines that were etched in black on Laura’s pale skin.

“What have they done to her?” Joseph instinctively reached out but the Margrave gently held him back.

“Don’t be afraid, we know what this is, and one or two of us have even seen it, but not for many years.”

“But what is it?”

“It is an old way of communication, for taking messages long distances under water, and that is the ancient way of writing. I only remember a little, but Arne will be able to read it.”

Arne was already standing the closest to Laura, pointing at the writing and talking to the others in a low voice. Joseph thought he looked excited by what he saw, and this infuriated him.

“Is she hurt? It looks so black, is it burnt on?”

“No, no,” the Margrave reassured him, “it is made from squid ink. It will fade, eventually.” He followed Joseph’s gaze and saw the anger in his eyes.

“I’m sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, they are interested to see something they know only from our history come to life.”

Arne turned to the Margrave, grim-faced, any trace of excitement gone.

“I have read it.”

“Go on.”

“It is from the ones at sea who came to ask for our help. It is written in the old language, and in short it says they will be here when the moon is full, and the waters will rise.”

The Elders all began talking at once and pressed closer to Laura, leaning across the desk and jostling each other to get a clearer view. Joseph could see her shivering, her head bowed, and he could stand it no longer.

“Enough!” he shouted. “She has done enough.”

“Yes,” the Margrave agreed, and he picked up a heavy glass paperweight and banged it on his desk.

Those who had not already reacted to Joseph’s outburst, did so then. They tore themselves away from staring at Laura and turned to the Margrave, who suggested that a meeting be held in one hour’s time to discuss the message and its meaning. The Elders quickly left the chamber, starting to talk animatedly amongst themselves as soon as they were outside the door.

Laura was struggling with her torn shirt and wordlessly Joseph picked up his jacket and handed it to her. She wrapped it around herself before turning to them, her face ashen.

“They made the sea rough,” she said.

“A storm?” Joseph looked at the Margrave, “surely they can’t do that?”

“What happened Laura,” the Margrave asked her, “can you tell us?”

“It was under the fort, the waves were breaking against the legs. It was swirling around, one of them did it, he went down the ladder.”

Joseph and the Margrave exchanged worried glances.

“Was it just under the fort, or all across the sea? Was there a storm?”

“No. The stars were still out. It was just below.” Laura closed her eyes, she looked ready to drop.

“I’m so tired,” she said.

The Margrave went straight to her, “Oh my dear, I’m so sorry this happened to you, but it’s over now.”

He helped her across the room to the old sofa and she collapsed onto it, her eyes closing before she could even lie down. He covered her with the soft blankets she remembered from the last time she’d been in this room, and she fell at once into an exhausted sleep.

Joseph sat opposite her, clenching and unclenching his fists as he watched her, trying to process what had just passed. What the hell were they going to do now?

He looked back across the room and saw sitting at the desk, just for a moment before he collected himself, not a king but a frightened old man. As soon as his eyes met Joseph’s however, the Margrave straightened his shoulders and became a leader again. It was Joseph who spoke first.

“Can they really control the seas like that?”

“It is not unheard of to have such a skill, but I have never seen it used. I think it would be very limited – that is why the message talks of using the full moon and the tides.”

Joseph shook his head, this was almost too much to take in. He turned his attention to the one thing he could do something about.

 “What about Laura. She can’t stay here.”

“No, I agree. We have too much to decide on, too much to do, she is too much of a risk.”

“I was thinking of the risk to her.”

“Of course you were, but I must put my people first. We have never faced a situation as grave as this before. Maybe Jorn is right, maybe it is time for a rising.”

“You can’t really think that?”

“At the moment Joseph, I don’t know what to think. I will meet with the Council of Elders later and get from Arne the full meaning of the message, and then we need time to think it over. But I agree that Laura is in danger so in the meantime she must be moved. There is a chance they will come for her again if they think we are not acting swiftly enough, or to their liking.”

They continued to talk quietly as Laura slept on. Joseph recounted how he had found her, what Nelson had seen, and how he now realised the Sea Mer must have been watching them both when they were outside the Riverways.

“She can’t go home,” Joseph concluded, “they must have tracked her there. The same goes for my place, they will have been watching me too.”

Then he stood up suddenly, looking at his watch. It was five thirty a.m.

“I’ve thought of someone who might be able to help. Let me go and give him a ring. Can you stay with her? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

The Margrave nodded, and for the next half an hour he watched over Laura, trying to absorb some of the calmness of her sleep for himself as he thought about the crisis he was facing. He had to save his people, but at what cost? They had survived for so long against all the odds, but was the price now too high?

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Water Water – episode forty four

[start at episode one]

Found.

Now it was evening he could park on the street without risk of being clamped or towed and didn’t need to bother any of his security guard contacts at the building sites. He found Nelson just where he’d said he’d be, upstairs in the pub, propping up the bar. It was one of those old school working men’s pubs that you didn’t see much anymore – no food, definitely no cocktails or fancy wines, and as usual no women in the place at all. He touched the old man on the shoulder and without turning round Nelson immediately drained his glass and nodded at the barman. They left without anyone saying a word.

“Not much for conversation in there are they Nelson?” Joseph said as they scrambled down the steps.

“Nope,” he replied, “that’s good.”

The tide was in and a small fibreglass boat with an outboard motor was tied up at the little jetty alongside the embankment. They climbed on board, cast off, and once Nelson had given several hard tugs on the cord the motor spluttered into life. Joseph coiled the rope neatly in the bottom of the boat as they eased out into the current.

“Where to?” Nelson asked, one gnarled hand resting gently on the tiller.

“Downstream, in the same direction you saw the boat go last night. I must find it and it could be a long night, are you sure that’s alright?”

“Of course.”

Nelson was a man of few words, but he was glad to be out on the river he knew so well actually doing something, rather than just staring into his pint glass. He would carry Joseph wherever he needed to be, for as long as it took. He didn’t know why they were looking for the little boat, and he wouldn’t ask, not his business. It was only his business to watch, and to help on a night like this.

They were soon through the Thames Barrier and beyond, out to where industry still stood beside the water, beyond the limit of the fancy flats for City workers. Nelson crisscrossed the channel as Joseph scanned the water ahead, but then he cut the engine and stopped.

“Something’s not right,” he muttered, sniffing the air. He peered over the side of the boat and plunged his hand into the blackness of the river. When he pulled it out again it was full of weed. He examined the slimy mess closely, rubbing it between his fingers and holding it up against his face to smell before throwing it back overboard. “Salt,” was all he said before restarting the engine.

On they went until, at last, in the dull orange reflection on the water from the lights of a supply ship tied up at a nearby wharf Joseph saw something. It was the skiff, seeming at first sight to be drifting in the middle of the river, and yet not really drifting as it was holding a steady position in the water. He pointed it out to Nelson and they steered a course towards it.

As soon as they drew near, the little wooden craft started to spin gently and began moving away from them, carried by the current, as if it had been set free from some invisible mooring. They soon caught up with it though, and Joseph threw their painter across and hauled the skiff in. Lying in the bottom, curled up in a foetal position with her head covered by a dark hood, lay Laura.

While Nelson held the two boats steady Joseph scrambled across. He pulled off the hood and Laura opened her eyes briefly and then closed them again.

“You came,” she murmured, “they said you would.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No, just woozy,” she was struggling to get the words out, “it was the flowers, made me sleepy…”

“You’re safe now. I’m just going to lift you across and then we’ll get you back.”

All Nelson had to cushion Laura with was an old tarpaulin, but she was still so drowsy that Joseph just laid her straight on top of it and she didn’t stir. The front of her shirt was torn and she was clutching it around herself, not loosening her grip on it even in her half-conscious state. Nelson tied the skiff to the stern of his own boat and they were soon making their way back up river towards the city.

After about half an hour Laura started to rouse. Joseph was desperate to know what had happened but he had wanted to let her rest. Now he helped her to sit up and spoke gently.

“Who was it?”

“The visitors, from the Gathering, the ones from the sea.”

“I thought so. What did they want?”

He knew about their plotting, but he didn’t understand why they’d taken Laura, or why they’d let her go again.

She opened her eyes fully now, and gave a shiver as if to shake herself back to life. When she spoke she sounded clearer and more alert.

“They gave me a message.”

“What is it?”

“I have to show you all – you, the Margrave and the Elders, altogether.”

She sat up a little straighter, lifted her chin a little, and but even in the dark Joseph could see she was blinking back tears.

“Please, we need to go now,” she said.

“Alright.”

Joseph turned to the old man who sat silently by the engine, hand still on the tiller.

“Nelson, can you take us right in to the Bow Backs channel please?”

Nelson nodded and Laura whispered, almost to herself, “They said you’d take it seriously now.”

The first fingers of dawn were creeping across the sky by the time they stepped onto a shingle beach revealed by the tide that was ebbing once again. Nelson pushed his boat back into the current, wading beside it and asked to be remembered to the Margrave as he clambered aboard and chugged away.

Joseph had given Laura his jacket and she wrapped it around herself and stood looking blankly down at the ground in front of her.

“I don’t know the way,” she said simply.

“Follow me.”

Joseph led her across the shingle, following a stream that flowed out from an opening in the stone wall of the quay. It was only fully visible at low tide, and even now they would be knee deep in water, but it was the closest entrance he could think of. He turned around before he entered the tunnel and she was standing right there, but she didn’t look at him. He felt sick to the stomach at the thought of what she might have been through, and he was furious with himself for not finding her sooner.

As they made their way through the tunnels deep into the Riverways Joseph had to stop more than once to get his bearings, it was a while since he’d been this way. Each time Laura stopped behind him, not saying a word, just waiting to start walking again. Finally they reached the centre, and it was Edgar who spotted them first, calling out as he hurried towards them.

“Hi Joseph, hi Laura, come and see…” he tailed off when he got nearer and saw Laura close up.

“Go and find your father, tell him we must see him straight away,” Joseph said to him, “we’ll be right behind you.”

Edgar ran on ahead and by the time they reached the Margrave’s chamber he was waiting for them, a curious Edgar still loitering in the doorway. Laura spoke for the first time since they’d entered the Riverways.

“I have a message that I must show to you and the Elders together,” she said to the Margrave without looking at him. Then she sat down heavily on one of the wooden chairs in front of the desk as if her legs wouldn’t hold her any longer.

Joseph frowned, wondering why she was using the word ‘show.’ He’d noticed it when she first told him about the message and it had sounded strange then. The Margave sent Edgar to fetch the others, and soon his chamber was crowded as they all gathered round.

The Margrave spoke kindly, “Tell us now my dear, what is the message?”

Laura stood up, leaning on the desk for support, eyes cast down. She swallowed nervously and Joseph could see her hands were shaking as she shrugged her shoulders out of his jacket and let it fall to the floor.

“I can’t tell you the message, I don’t know what it is,” her voice cracked. “I have to show you.”

She glanced at Joseph, as if for reassurance, and turned around to face the wall, standing with her back to them all. Then, hesitantly, she took off her torn shirt, pulled her tangled ponytail aside and there it was, written all over the skin of her back.

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Water Water – episode forty three

[start at episode one]

A day passes…

Laura had tried to force herself to eat something during the long day, but she’d had no appetite, especially not for sliced white bread and dry cereal. Now it was night again and she was hungry as well as cold, but most of all she was afraid.

She was trying to be rational about her situation, trying to tell herself that whatever they wanted her for, it was not to kill her or they would have surely done so already. She forced down a few handfuls of cereal and took a sip of water, carefully rationing it. It must have been 24 hours now since they took her, and who knew how long she would be kept out here.

It seemed to have become much quieter once darkness fell. Seagulls no longer wheeled overhead with their shrill cries, and the only thing Laura could hear was the water, still gentle against the legs of the fort. She hugged her knees to her chest and wondered idly who or what had last been wrapped in the blanket. Best not to go there, she thought as she fingered the rough material. Though her eyes were getting heavy she was fought against sleep, wanting to stay on her guard, but the rhythms of the sea and the darkness enveloped her and she lay down, unable to fight any longer.

“Wake up. It’s time.”

“Time for what?”

She had slept in the end, for how long she had no idea, and now her captors were back. One of them had replaced the lamp and he fiddled with it until it began to cast its blue glow into the darkness. She got up stiffly and stood with her arms folded, determined to not show any weakness. There were four of them, three just looked at her and one spoke. It was Leon, the one who always spoke for them, their leader she supposed.

“As we expected he is already looking for you.”

Laura gave no outward sign but inside her stomach churned in a muddle of relief and apprehension. Joseph was coming, but did this mean they were going to move her somewhere else, somewhere worse?

Leon continued, “We will let him find you, but you must take a back this message from us. This time he will listen, they all will.”

At least they were letting her go, but at what price?

“So you want me to tell them what you showed me, is that the message?”

“No. It is more than that. This is our chance to rise out of the shadows.”

Laura gave a snort of derision, “And while you rise London drowns. So what if you can stir up the sea a bit – that hardly makes you Godzilla. They will never agree, and I will not take your stupid message.”

She glared at him defiantly, but out of the corner of her eye she spotted the other three moving towards her.

“I won’t take it.” Her voice was quieter now.

“It will be written.”

“Then I will throw it away,” she whispered as she tried to back away.

They were closer now, surrounding her, touching her, and the smell was of violets.

“It will be written.”

Later Leon spoke again.

“Take her to the river’s mouth, the man will find her soon enough.”

And Joseph did find her, drifting alone in the skiff.

He’d had plenty of time before the tide turned to drive back home and check his answerphone for messages, but then he remembered she didn’t even know his number and felt like a useless fool. He needed to eat something if he was going to spend the night out searching with Nelson, and so for the first time in months he ventured into the fish and chip shop below his flat.

The woman behind the counter had heard him pacing back and forth above her head and put two and two together.

“Are you the bloke from upstairs?” she asked as she wrapped his fish in paper. Joseph nodded, took the hot package from her and turned to leave.

“Some girl was here looking for you.”

That stopped him in his tracks and he span round, staring at the woman.

“Small thing,” she went on, “lots of hair.”

“When?”

“Last night, not long before we closed so must have been about nine-ish.”

“What did she say?”

“She wanted to know if you were in. I said we never knew there was anyone in the flat. Not there much are you?”

“No. Did you see where she went?”

“Sorry,” she shook her head, “she bought some chips and I think she might have ate ‘em at the bus stop. I was busy.” She felt quite sorry for him, they must have had a tiff.

“Thanks.”

Joseph took his food back up to the flat and forced himself to eat it, sitting at the table and waiting for the time to pass. He kept checking his watch until at last he grabbed his jacket, it would be cool out on the water.

Water Water – episode forty two

[start at episode one]

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?”

“Not much.”

“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.”

“Go on.”

“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?”

“Nope.”

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.