After a few moments' further contemplation, Briz delegated Bram to travel to Cliviger Grange to interview Major Markham. Tom and Alistair looked at each other, then immediately volunteered to accompany him and Bram, after exchanging a meaningful glance with his father, accepted their offer.
"Be careful, son," Briz chided, as the three young men stood up to leave the room.
"Don't worry," Bram replied blithely, "I'm always careful."
Tom and Alistair grabbed their baggage, which they had dumped neatly close to the door they had entered earlier. Bram swept a long cloak from a peg nearby and swung it expertly over his shoulders, fastening the front with a large brooch and a near-instinctive gesture. He selected a long staff from a rack which appeared to contain an eclectic collection of walking sticks, canes and hiking poles, and then pulled a small bag onto his back.
He looked, as Tom remarked aloud, very much like a member of the Messengers.
Bram grinned broadly in response.
"It's a disguise," he said bluntly, "And, as it happens, I am actually an honorary member of the Messengers. Besides, it should discourage anyone from delaying us unnecessarily."
They set off through the front door into the blustery summer weather. The three of them walking as one once again was eerily familiar to Tom, as they had spent so much time in each other's company over the last few years. But they were not so carefree, he considered, and the party was rather less jolly than any of their previous trips together.
They returned to the causeway by the route Tom and Alistair had used earlier that day. It was necessary to wait for the correct portal connections for a short period, during which they sat in uncharacteristic silence, each of the young men seemingly sunk in their own thoughts.
Once their transfer was complete, they marched straight out of the portal building to the causeway entrance where, as usual, several members of the Lyndesfarne Guardian forces were carefully watching the passing travellers. Tom recognised a few of the faces, but he could not bring any names to mind.
Without hesitation, Bram strode over to the nearest Guardian, who was leaning on the stone wall in the studiously casual fashion encouraged by their training. Seeing Bram's staff of office, the Guardian stood up straight, clearly alarmed that he was being approached by one of the notoriously aloof Messengers.
Speaking in the Lyndesfarne language, Bram asked about current alerts and unexpected activities, with Tom and Alistair listening intently to the answers. After a few minutes, it became clear that there was really nothing unanticipated going on at the moment, and the Guardian looked even more confused after his light grilling by the three young men.
Bram turned to the other two.
"I think we should just press on," he said, "I don't want to advertise our presence unnecessarily."
Tom and Alistair nodded wordlessly, and they strode off along the causeway. The wind, which had been merely blustery inland, was much stronger here. A layer of grey cloud covered the straights and coastline as far as Tom could see, but mercifully there was no immediate sign of rain. The communications tower was all but invisible, its dull paintwork barely distinguishable against the skyline.
They walked on with their heads bent, the cries of the seagulls nearly drowned by the sound of the wind in their ears. They were all very glad to get to the relative shelter of the Guard building and the stunted trees that dotted the coastline. Tom spotted Ifor, who was on duty, and asked if there was anything unusual going on. Ifor nodded at Alistair, who he obviously recognised immediately. He then looked askance at Bram, who was standing quietly a little to one side, his face almost hidden under the hood of his cape.
Turning back to Tom, Ifor made it clear that there was no indication of anything amiss.
"All quiet, isn't it?" the Welshman said cheerfully.
Tom had gained a slight reputation as someone whose presence sometimes presaged some crisis. He supposed that this was not entirely surprising in the light of recent events, given his involvement in the motorcycle attack as well as the incident with the dragons.
Tom's old mentor Fred was also on duty and the older man came hurrying up as soon as he saw that Tom was asking questions.
"Something going on, lad?" he asked, looking Tom in the eye.
"Not really," Tom replied, "I'm just helping Bram with an investigation."
He nodded in the direction of the hooded figure. Fred turned just as Bram drew back his hood and said, "Hello, old friend."
"Bram, you rascal," the other man replied, "I didn't know you'd joined the Messengers."
"Well, you know I like to get around."
Fred joined in the laughter.
"So what's this investigation?" he asked.
"Well, you've heard about the disappearance of my uncle Hamet?"
Fred nodded. Both he and the other Guardians clustered around were listening intently.
"And have you heard about a member of the Board known as Tarm?" Bram continued.
"Yes, I do recall something from the daily briefings," Fred replied, "Didn't he disappear recently, too?"
"Correct. And we have reason to believe that these occurrences are connected. We've got to talk to Warden Markham as soon as possible," Bram said insistently, adding, "Is he here?"
"Not seen him," Fred said, suddenly looking seriously alarmed. He looked around at the cluster of Guardians, who were shaking their heads and muttering negative-sounding mumbles.
"Fine. On to the Grange, then," Bram said, pulling his hood back over his head, "Keep your eyes open, won't you?"
Tom suggested that they use Bram's Messenger privileges to commandeer transport. There was a staff car from the Reserve Defence Training Establishment parked up close to the causeway entrance, the young driver now leaning on the bonnet smoking and watching the excited group of Guardians with mild interest.
As Bram and his companions approached, he threw aside his fag and stood to attention.
"I'm sorry, but we need to take your car," Bram said gently.
The other man's eyes swivelled back and forth, belatedly recognising both Tom and Alistair as recent graduates from RDTE, but unsure of the reasons why they were accompanying a supposedly unapproachable Messenger.
Tom was on nodding terms with the driver, whose name, he recalled, was Oliver and who was one of the staff from the garages at the Grange. Tom held out his hand for the car keys.
"I'll drive," he said, holding out his hand.
Finally coming to a decision, Oliver dug into his pockets and handed over the key.
"Please look after the car," he begged, "Otherwise Edgar will have my guts for garters."
"Don't worry, I'll be careful," Tom replied.
Tom had used his acquaintance with Edgar the garage foreman to borrow a vehicle from time to time, to practice his driving skills. On the fist occasion, Edgar himself accompanied him, presumably to make sure that he did in fact know how to drive. Fortunately, Tom had had the basics of vehicle control instilled into him by his Uncle George, and Edgar was soon convinced that the young man was not likely to recklessly damage any of his precious trucks and cars.
Bram and Alistair clambered into the passenger seats while Tom slid behind the wheel and operated the electric starter. The car fired immediately, a testament to the careful maintenance lavished on the vehicle by Edgar and his crew. As they left, the Guardians on duty were noticeably more alert and tense, conversing tersely with each other as they moved purposefully around the area.
They drove past the tiny, not-quite-permanent fair that occupied a walled area close to the causeway, where Bram had exchanged money on their first visit. The market appeared nearly deserted, with tent-flaps closed against the wind. The shutters and doors of the brightly-painted caravans were bolted shut, with their tethered horses standing patiently nearby, sheltering as best they could under the trees.
The road took them past the fenced-off area used as a local support point for the Guardians manning the causeway and patrolling the coastline. Again, it seemed close to deserted, with just a lone sentry at the guard post. The wind was whipping at the trees and rattling the wire fencing.
"Looks like there's a storm coming," Alistair commented.
"Very probably," Tom agreed, "Let's get to the Grange as quickly as possible."
Tom knew several routes between the causeway and the Grange, having travelled all of them on numerous occasions. None of them seemed particularly quicker than any other. He understood from discussions overhead in the garages that the drivers each had favourite routes, and argued vociferously on the supposed merits of their preferred directions.
Tom piloted the car skilfully along his preferred route. They made good time along the narrow lanes, arriving after fifteen minutes or so at the wrought iron gates of RDTE. They were waved through by the sentry, tyres crunching on the gravel drive, and parked - or, thought Tom, more like abandoned - directly in front of the main entrance to the Grange.
The three men swiftly made their way up the worn stone steps to the entrance and through the imposing double doors. They marched along the broad corridors and up the sweeping stair case of the grand old house, with Bram's cape sweeping over the polished wooden floors, finally arriving at the Warden's office. They knocked on the door.
Bram pushed open the door. Duty Warden Arden was sitting at the desk, poring over some papers with a fountain pen in his hand and acting, as it seemed he often did, as adjutant to the Major.
"Ah," Bram stammered, momentarily taken aback at Arden's presence, "I was expected to find Warden Markham."
"The Major is not at Cliviger Grange," Arden replied primly, setting down his pen and shuffling the stack of paper in front of him.
"Do you know where he is?" Tom asked, adding, "It's really urgent, sir."
Arden looked coldly at the three young men, clearly irritated by their interruption to his vital administrative tasks.
"He's just set off to the crossing," he said eventually, "He received a phone call, perhaps ten minutes ago, saying that he was needed elsewhere."
"Did he say where?" Tom interjected.
"He did not," Arden replied, "He merely said that he could be away for a day or two, and that I should run things in his absence."
Tom and Alistair glanced at each other. Has Markham disappeared, too, Tom wondered, or was there some other reason for his sudden departure?
Bram drew himself up straight, holding onto his staff firmly. The movement seemed to draw Arden's attention to his Messenger appearance.
"I need you to get a telephone message to the crossing guard post immediately," Bram said, speaking with an astonishing authority that Tom and Alistair had never heard before, "Tell then to intercept Major Markham, and get them to inform him that I have an urgent message from Board Member Briz, one that I must deliver in person."
Arden must have recognised Bram for who he was just at that moment, as his whole attitude changed abruptly.
"Right away," he said ingratiatingly, reaching for the telephone.
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