The minutes of the Lazarus Club

Prologue

The waterman whistled as he pulled on the oars, his small craft carrying him slowly but steadily downstream along Limehouse Reach. He’d set out from the mouth of the Limehouse Basin and was heading for Greenwich, across the river from the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. It was his pitch, and it took in almost three miles of river. There were other watermen and other pitches but this was his and over the years he had come to know every eddy, backwash and mudflat and had long regarded it as home.

Pausing for a moment, he tugged down the peak of his cap against a shower of rain which for a short while turned the brown surface of the water into a sheet of hammered copper. Around his feet were collected all manner of things: pieces of timber, lengths of rope, cork fenders, bottles, various sodden items of clothing and even a small chair. He didn’t care who they once belonged to; they were his now. He was employed by the bailiff to clear the river of obstacles to navigation but any stray object floating in the water within the bounds of his beat was legally his property once lifted aboard. All very official it was: you only needed to look at his smart blue uniform to see that.

He had been out since dawn and by now had covered well over half the beat – the ache in his arms and the twinge from his back told him that much. It had been an average day thus far but he was pleased with the chair: the wife could put it by the fire. The boat hugged the eastern side of the channel, where it was out of the way of the heavy traffic but also close to where most of the stuff drifting downstream would naturally be drawn by the current. At low tide much of the floating windfall would be left stranded on the flats, where it would fall prey to the gangs of mudlarks working both sides of the river. There was no such worry now, though, as the tide was at its fullest.

Moored boats were always a good place – sometimes three or four would be tied together, side by side. These tethered flotillas served as traps for anything coming into their path and so the waterman would paddle around them and snag whatever was bobbing against the hulls or caught in the ropes. It was to such a spot that he was pulling now, just on the edge of the shipyard where Brunel’s great ship was being built, side on to the river. The yard also yielded more than its share of treasures – planks of timber, paint pots and lengths of heavy rope. The boats, a skiff and a pair of barges, were moored just fifty yards or so downriver from the yard and so provided the perfect opportunity for a good haul.

Favouring one oar over the other, the waterman manœuvred the boat to the stern of the stationary vessels and with the long-poled boat hook in hand began to look for floating objects. Wedged between the barge in the middle and the skiff was a length of broken ladder, just long enough, he judged, to be of use again. After some difficulty in pulling it free he stowed it with the rest of the stuff.

It was then he heard the noise, a scuffing and scratching interspersed with the odd sharp croak. Using the hook against the stern of the middle vessel, he nudged the small boat a little closer into shore. That was when