At low tide the Thames stunk like a public toilet in the swelter of an August heatwave.
Nicola muttered this fact to herself every time she donned her Wellies and ventured down the slick concrete steps to the river’s muddy slopes, an amateur archaeologist seeking ancient relics or, more accurately, a privateer digging buried treasure.
What kind of treasure you might ask her.
On a good day she’d be inclined to answer, “Items of every facet of English life old and new. Hat pins, buckles, shiny pound coins, worn-bare King Georges, corroded .308 shells from the war, toy tin soldiers, buttons, bottles, locks, keys, and pipes, loads and loads of clay pipes from as far back as the 1600’s.”
If you found her on a bad day her answer would be gruff and defensive, “None o’ your damned business, is it?” She’d grab her bucket and trowel and stomp off, her boots sucking at the grey ooze the came and went with the tide and the storms.
Today is a bad day.
Not because she’s had bad luck, far from it actually. Not because the weather is inclement or the tour boats are sloshing wave after wave up to confound her excavations. No, today Rickards is out on the same bank as she and Rickards is a bastard, an eagle-eyed, money-hungry prick of the lowest order.
In a word ‘competition’.
“Nicola, it’s a pleasure to see your face this morning. Sun not too strong for you? Had any luck? You know, I’ve picked this area rather thoroughly. But, you never know what’s been buried for centuries, anxious to be found, yearning for a final chance to bathe in the light one more time, eh?”
“Prett, get stuffed.” Nicola forearmed a loose strand of silver-blonde hair from her face. “Pickin’s are slim indeed. So, why don’t you pack it up for the day, eh? Head on back to the pub you crawled out of.”
Prett Rickards’ smile stretched cheshire-cat-wide. “That would be an enticing alternative, but only if you’d join me.”
“As it is, I’ve brought my granddaughter with me. Terresa dear, come meet a dear friend. One who loves the mud nearly as much as your ol’ Popa.”
Nicola stopped her mechanical scanning of the gravel and looked up to find a girl of about eight, her hands covered in grey slime, holding a broken clay pipe of a common variety. “Early nineteen hundreds, I’d figure,” Nicola said.
“Really? Two hundred years old?”
Nicola squinted in the bright sunshine, the glint off the river doubling the glare. The girl seemed thoroughly nonplussed by the filth covering her fingers. Nicola’s hand rose quickly to ward off Terresa’s attempt to scratch an itch. “Oh, don’t touch your face, luv. The mud don’t come off without a good washing.”
“But I’ve got an itch.”
Nicola grimaced but allowed the girl to approach and brush her nose against Nicola’s cotton blouse.
Rickards looked up from his phone. “Look at you two, already fast friends.” He spoke a few more words, tapped the device and pocketed it. “Say, Nicola, I’ve got to run a quick errand. Terresa’s dad asked me to pickup a few cans of smoked eel and there’s a shoppe a few miles… What do you say? Mind looking after Terresa for a pip or two?”
“Oh, I heard ya. You don’t know a bloody thing about me, do you?”
“I know you could use another set of sharp eyes…”
Terresa pressed it home. “Popa says your the best mudlark in London. I could help you if you like. I can crawl around the rocks and…”
“He said that, did he?”
“All the time.”
“Hmm, Prett. One condition. What she finds belongs to me, aye?”
Rickard pursed his lips. “I’d say that’s between you and Terresa. But, thanks. I’ll just be a short spin o’ the clock.”