Besides, the CCD man had been asking about the lord chancellor’s companion, and his interest had been in the matter of whether the priory had ever looked after an infant; and Malcolm thought that the care of infants was probably not the sort of thing the CCD usually bothered with. Acorns containing secret messages, perhaps, but they hadn’t mentioned anything like that. It was all very puzzling.
In the hope of seeing someone else either leaving or collecting a message from the oak tree, Malcolm went there several times over the next few days, covering up his interest in that little stretch of the canal by watching the great crested grebes. The other thing he did was to hang about in the chandlery. It was a good place to watch the piazza; people were always going back and forth or stopping to drink coffee in the café opposite. They sold all kinds of boat-related stuff in the chandlery, including red paint, of which he bought a small tin and a fine brush to go with it. The woman behind the counter soon realized that his interest didn’t stop at red paint.
“What else you looking for, Malcolm?” she said. Her name was Mrs. Carpenter, and she’d known him ever since he was allowed to go out in the canoe on his own.
“Some cotton cord,” he said.
“I showed you what we’ve got yesterday.”
“Yes, but maybe there’s another reel somewhere…”
“I don’t understand what’s wrong with the one I showed you.”
“It’s too thin. I want to make a lanyard, and it’s got to be a bit heavier than that.”
“You could always double it. Use two strands instead of one.”
“Oh, yeah. I suppose I could.”
“How much d’you want, then?”
“About four fathoms.”
“Doubled, or single?”
“Well, eight fathoms. That should be enough if I double it.”
“I should think it would be,” she said, and measured the cord and cut it.
It was a good thing Malcolm had plenty of money in his tin walrus. Once he’d got the cord stowed away tidily in a big paper bag, he peered out the window, looking left and right, as he’d been doing for the previous quarter of an hour.
“Don’t mind me asking,” said Mrs. Carpenter, and her drake dæmon murmured in agreement, “but what are you looking for? You been staring out there for ever such a long time. You meeting someone? They not turned up?”
“No! No. Actually…” If he couldn’t trust Mrs. Carpenter, he thought, he couldn’t trust anyone. “Actually, I’m looking for someone. A man in a gray coat and hat. I saw him the other day and he dropped something and we found it, and I want to give it back to him, but I haven’t seen him since.”
“That’s all you can tell me about him? A gray coat and hat? How old was he?”
“I didn’t see him clearly. I suppose he was about the same age as my dad. He was kind of thin.”
“Where did he drop this thing you’ve got? Along the canal?”
“Yes. Under a tree back down the towpath…It’s not important.”
“It’s not this chap, is it?”
Mrs. Carpenter brought the latest Oxford Times out from under the counter and folded it back to an inside page before holding it out for Malcolm to see.
“Yes, I think that’s him….What’s happened? What’s…He’s been drowned?”
“They found him in the canal. Looked as if he’d just slipped in, apparently. You know how rainy it’s been, and they don’t look after the towpath as they ought to—he’s not the first to lose his footing and fall in. Whatever he lost, it’s too late to give it back now.”
Malcolm was reading the story with wide eyes, gulping the words down. The man’s name was Robert Luckhurst, and he’d been a scholar of Magdalen College, an historian. He was unmarried, and was survived by his widowed mother and a brother. There would be an inquest in due course, but there were no signs that his death was anything other than an accident.
“What was it he dropped?” said Mrs. Carpenter.
“Just a little ornament kind of thing,” said Malcolm in a steady voice, though his heart was thumping. “He was throwing it up and catching it as he went along, and then he dropped it. He looked for it a bit, and then it started raining and he left.”
“What were you doing?”
“I was watching the great crested grebes. I don’t suppose he saw me. But when he left, I went to see if I could find it and I did, so I’ve been looking for him ever since to give it back. But I can’t now.”
“What day was it you saw him?”
“I think…” Malcolm had to think quite hard. He looked at the paper again to see if it said when the man’s body had been discovered. The Oxford Times was a weekly, so it could have been any day in the past five or six. With a jolt, he realized that Luckhurst’s body had been found the day after he had seen him being arrested by the CCD men.
They couldn’t have killed him, could they?
“No, it was a few days before this,” he lied with great assurance. “I don’t suppose it was connected at all. There’s lots of people who walk along the towpath. He might have done it every day, like for exercise. He wasn’t very bothered about losing it, because he left as soon as it started raining.”
“Oh, well,” said Mrs. Carpenter. “Poor man. Perhaps they’ll take a bit more care of the towpath now it’s too late.”
A customer came in, and Mrs. Carpenter turned to deal with him. Malcolm wished he hadn’t told her about the man and the thing he’d dropped; if he’d had his wits about him, he could have pretended that he’d been looking for a friend. But then she’d never have told him about the story in the paper. This was all very difficult.
“Bye, Mrs. Carpenter,” he said as he left, and she waved vaguely as she listened to the other customer.
“I wish we could ask her not to say anything,” Malcolm said as they turned the canoe round.
“Then she’d think it was even more worth noticing, and remember it specially,” said Asta. “That was a good lie you told.”
“I didn’t know I could do that. Best to do it as little as possible.”
“And remember exactly what we’ve said each time.”
“It’s raining again….”
He paddled steadily up the canal, with Asta perching close to his ear so they could whisper together.
“Did they kill him?” she said.
“Unless he killed himself…”
“It might have been an accident.”
“It’s not likely, though. Not after the way they got hold of him.”
“And what they did to Mr. Boatwright…They’d do anything. Torture, anything, I bet.”
“So what could the message mean?”
They came back to that again and again. Malcolm had copied it so that he didn’t have to keep unfolding the paper in the acorn, but even writing the words out himself didn’t help make much sense of them. Someone was asking someone else to ask a question, and it was about measuring something, but more than that was hard to work out. And then there was the word Dust, with a capital D, as if it wasn’t ordinary dust but something special.
“D’you think if we went to Magdalen College and asked the other scholars…”
“Asked them what?”
“Well, sort of detective questions. Work out what he did—”
“He was a historian. That’s what it said.”
“An historian. We could work out what else he did. What friends he had. Maybe talk to his students, or some of them, if we could find them. Whether he came back to college that evening after we saw them grab hold of him, or whether that was the last anyone saw of him. That sort of thing.”
“They wouldn’t tell us even if they knew. We don’t look like detectives. We look like a schoolkid. And then there’s the danger.”
“Of course. If they hear we’ve been asking about him, wouldn’t they get suspicious? Then they’d come and search the Trout and find the acorn, and then we’d be in real trouble.”
“Some of the students who come in the Trout wear college scarves. If we knew what the Magdalen one was like…”
“That’s a good idea! Then if we ask anything, it could seem like just being nosy. Or gossip.”
It was raining even harder now, and Malcolm found it difficult to see ahead. Asta became an owl and perched on the prow, her feathers shedding the water in a way she’d discovered when she was trying to become an animal that didn’t yet exist. The best she could do so far was to take one animal and add an aspect of another, so now she was an owl with duck’s feathers; but she only did it when no one but Malcolm was looking. Guided by her big eyes, he paddled as fast as he could, stopping to bail out the canoe when the rain had filled it to his ankles. When they got home, he was soaked, but all she had to do was shake herself and she was dry again.