Where Seagulls Dare

Chapter Five: Old Friends

The silver BMW took us back across London. We were stuck in the back with the doors locked and to make things worse, the driver had produced a gun, slipping it into the glove compartment but only after making sure we’d seen it first. The message was clear. Try anything fancy and you’ll end up looking like a Swiss cheese…and by that I don’t mean small and smelly. As we joined the traffic on Oxford Street, I tried starting a conversation.

“Where are you taking us?” I asked.

“You’ll find out,” the man growled. He would have made a great ventriloquist. When he talked, his lips hardly moved.

Tim leaned forward. “And when will that be?” he demanded.

“When we get there.”

“Why not before?”

The driver snarled. “You keep asking questions, the only place you’ll be going is the cemetery.”

“Sure,” I muttered. “Drop us at Highgate cemetery and we can walk home.”

He wasn’t amused. In fact he nearly knocked over a cyclist as he swung round at a traffic light and headed towards Clerkenwell. As we continued along Holborn, leaving the busiest part of the city behind us, I suddenly got the feeling that I knew where we were going. There had been something familiar about the driver from the start. I’d never met him before but there was something about him that I’d recognized: the suit, the short hair and the expressionless face. Sure enough, he turned into a shabby-looking dead end behind the meat market and I saw a sign: Kelly Street. That was when I knew I was right.

“We’ve been here before,” I muttered to Tim.

Tim shook his head. “You’re wrong, kid,” he replied. “I’ve never been in this car in my life.”

“Not the car, Tim. The street! Don’t you remember?”

Tim gazed out of the window. “Was this where I got run over by the ice-cream van?”

“No. That was in Hampstead.” The car slowed down and stopped outside number seventeen. “Now do you remember?” I asked.

Tim stared. “Mr Crazily!”

“That’s right, Tim. Except his name was Waverly.”

Number Seventeen was exactly how I remembered it, which is to say that it was completely forgettable; a narrow, four-storey building with dusty windows and an ugly glass door. It looked empty. There was nobody going in or coming out and the hallway behind the door was strewn with litter. It was hard to believe that this was the headquarters of a major section of MI6 – in other words, the secret service – but that, of course, was the whole idea. It was a secret. It was meant to be somewhere you could walk past without a second glance. The last time we’d been brought here it had been in a taxi…though not the sort of taxi that actually took you where you wanted to go. Mr Waverly was the chief executive of MI6 and he had forced us to help him find an international assassin known as Charon. Inevitably, we were the ones who almost ended up getting killed.

We got out of the car and stood on the pavement in the warm, afternoon air. If I’d had the chance, I’d have run for it now but the driver was right behind us and he hadn’t left his gun in the car.

“Move it!” he said.

The front door opened electronically and he led us down a bare, concrete corridor to a blank wall with a fire extinguisher hanging in the middle. I knew what was going to come next. The fire extinguisher was fake. The driver turned a nozzle and the whole wall swung open to reveal modern offices full of computers with young, smartly dressed men and women making their way silently across thick-pile carpets. It was a neat trick although I still wondered what they’d do if there was a fire

We continued into an office where Mr Waverly was waiting for us. Not a lot had changed since the last time we were here. He was even wearing the same three-piece suit and the same old school tie – Eton or Harrow or wherever he’d done his GCSE’s in maths, French and espionage. He was about seventy years old, a very serious-looking black man with greying hair and greying eyes, sitting behind a desk with his fingers crossed like a professor…or a pianist.

He was not alone. A woman was perched on a chair to one side and even before Tim and I had entered the room I could see that she had taken a dislike to us - which was fast work. Normally people waited at least until Tim had said a few words. She had a strange, square face and colourless hair that had been cut using scissors and a ruler. She was wearing a tight-fitting jacket and skirt, thick stockings and black leather shoes that could have kicked a football the full length of the pitch. She didn’t smile as we were shown in. I got the feeling she didn’t know how to. She examined us with small, hostile eyes as if all her worst fears had just been realised. Her lips parted briefly and showed small, white teeth like a cannibal’s necklace.

“Please sit down,” Mr Waverly said. There were two seats in front of the desk. We took them. He glanced at the man who had brought us here. “You can leave us, Richard. Thank you.”

“Richard?” I watched as the driver left. “What happened to Ed, Ted and Red?” I asked.

Those had been the names of the agents who had brought us here last time.

“Ed and Ted have left,” Waverly explained.

“And Red?

“Red is dead.”

“That’s too bad,” I said. “Shame his name wasn’t Burt.”

“And why is that?”

“He might just have been hurt.”

The woman with the square face didn’t find that funny. “What are these two doing here?” she asked. She had a strong Scottish accent which somehow suited her. “They’re an obvious security risk.”

“They’ve helped us before,” Waverly said. “Mr Diamond here is a quite remarkable private detective.”

Remarkably bad? Remarkably stupid? He didn’t say.

“His brother is also a very bright boy.”

That was me.

The woman didn’t agree. “I hope you’re not suggesting that he can be of any use to us,” she continued. “The idea of a fourteen-year-old boy working for the secret service is the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Wait a minute,” I cut in. “Why don’t you explain what’s going on around here? Were you the ones who sent us those messages in the fortune cookies? And what was “Richard” doing in Kensington just now? It was quite a coincidence him turning up just like that.”

Waverly looked straight at me. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” he said.

Tim’s eyes brightened. “That’s a coincidence!” he exclaimed. “Neither do I!”

“I think you should get these two out of here,” the woman said. “We have work to do.”

“Allow me to introduce you,” Waverly said. “This is Fiona Duncan-Jones She is the new chief executive of MI6. Very soon this office will be hers. I’m very sorry to say that I’ve been asked to retire. I just have one last operation.”

“You’re not well?” Tim asked.

“I’m referring to the operation which you and your brother have managed to involve yourselves in: the kidnapping of Alistair Nightingale and the White Crusaders.”

White Crusaders. WC. I remembered the studs I had seen on the jackets of Tommy and Troy and at least one part of the jigsaw fell into place.

“Why don’t you tell us what’s going on, Mr Waverly?” I asked. “And this time, please don’t knock us out when you’ve finished with us.” That was what had happened the last time we were here. He’d given us a drink and we’d woken up back in Camden. “We can walk out on our own two feet.”

“Four feet,” Tim said. “We’ve got two each.”

“This is a waste of time!” Fiona growled.

“No, no. On the contrary. I think the Diamond brothers could be very helpful to us.” I could see Waverly making his calculations. He was the sort of man who knew exactly what he was going to say a week before he said it. “Everything I’m about to tell you is top secret,” he began.

“Then why are you telling us?” Tim said.

“Because you need to know. But you mustn’t tell anyone else.”

“Don’t worry, Mr Heavily. Your secrets are as safe with me as the pin code on my bank card.” He turned to Fiona. “It’s 2233, by the way.”

“All right. Let’s start at the beginning and that means the White Crusaders. They’re the gentlemen on the motorbikes who almost killed you in Bath and who followed you to Kensington. Not very pleasant people, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

“They were certainly no gentlemen, “ I said.

“The White Crusaders are an extremely nasty, right wing political organisation. You may have noticed the Union Jacks on their motorbikes. They want to make Britain great again – that’s their slogan – but they believe the best way to do that is to go fifty years into the past. They hate anything that isn’t British. One of them actually went into intensive care after he accidentally ate a croissant. They hate foreigners and they’d love to start another world war because they’re convinced we would win. Even if we lost, they’d be happy, as long as they could kill lots of foreigners. Basically, they’re what you’d call neo-Nazis. They’re completely mad but they’re well organised and they have a lot of money behind them – and that makes them unusually dangerous.

“Anyway, their great dream is to take over this country and lead us into war. The head of the White Crusaders is a man called Neville Fairfax. He’s actually the son of a baron. For the last five hundred years, his family have owned an island in the North Sea. Hare Island is about thirty miles east of Aberdeen and what you have to understand is that although it’s part of the UK, it’s actually self-governing. Fairfax is the Chief Minister and the island has its own laws and taxes. Six hundred people live there. All of this is very important to what I’m going to tell you.

“Fairfax would very much like to be the leader not just of a small island but the whole of the UK. We’ve been watching him for some time and we realised that he’d come up with a plan to achieve just that. What he and is people want to do is to break into the GCHQ computer system at Cheltenham and take it over. Can you imagine what the result of this would be?”

“No!” Tim said.

“He would be in complete control of the armed forces as well as the secret service, including MI5 and MI6. He would be able to operate our nuclear missiles. He would know everything about everyone in the country. If he could hack into the government computers he would find himself in control of the government – and, by extension, the entire country. With a flick of a switch he could shut down the NHS or close all the airports. He would have unlimited power.”

“But that’s impossible,” I said. I noticed Fiona Duncan-Jones giving me an ugly look but I went on anyway. “Nobody could break into the government’s computers. It would be impossible.”

“That’s what we thought,” Waverley agreed. “But we were wrong. There is just one man in the world, a super-hacker, a technical genius who has already broken into computer systems in the Kremlin, the Pentagon, the Special Weapons facility in North Korea – as well as Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. Of course, he didn’t use his own name. He was known only as zEbra. Small z, big E. He lived completely off the grid and there were many people who thought he didn’t even exist. But recently we managed to track him down…”

“Alistair Nightingale,” I said. I remembered the odd details I had seen in his house. The stuffed toy zebra in the bedroom. The zebra skin downstairs. The picture of a zebra crossing in the library. “So Alistair Nightingale is zEbra!” I said.

But even I spoke the words, I was certain something was wrong. Nightingale was an author, in his fifties. He lived in a nice house in Bath. I’d always thought that most computer hackers were teenagers, hiding in the basement of their parents’ home, eating fast food and never taking a shower. He didn’t fit the profile.

“That’s exactly right. Alistair Nightingale is zEbra,” Waverley insisted. “He’s written books on computers but that’s just a front for his real activities. We believe he has fifty million pounds tucked away in the bank – most of it in bitcoin.”

“What’s bitcoin?” Tim asked.

“It’s a cryptocurrency,” I said.

“Right. And what’s a cryptocurrency?”

“It’s like electronic money, Tim. You can use it without needing a bank.”

Fortunately, Tim knew what a bank was.

“The White Crusaders have kidnapped zEbra and he’s being held prisoner in a castle on Hare Island. We believe they’re going to force him to hack into the government computers. Perhaps they’re going to torture him.”

Well, they could have given him my maths homework for starters, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I asked: “If you know where he is, why don’t you go in and rescue him?”

“We’ll come to that in a moment,” Waverley replied. He turned to Tim. “The first thing we want to know is what were you and your little brother doing at the Royal Crescent?”

Tim leaned forward. “That’s our business,” he growled.

“If you don’t want to co-operate, we can lock you up downstairs until this operation is over,” Fiona Duncan-Smith said. “How do you fancy a month in solitary confinement?”

“It’ll be fine as long as we’re not alone,” Tim said.

I was liking her less and less and I hadn’t exactly taken to her in the first place. “All right,” I said. “We were looking for Alistair Nightingale. We were asked to find him by his daughter. She told us she was worried about him and she thought he might have been kidnapped.”

Waverley frowned. “Alistair Nightingale doesn’t have a daughter,” he muttered.

“We’d already worked that out for ourselves,” I said. “We knew she was a fake. That’s why we went to meet her at Grannies.”

The two spies exchanged a glance. “We have no record of any Jane Nightingale,” Waverley said. “Can you describe her?”

“She’s lovely!” Tim said,

“Blond hair, blue eyes, about twenty-five years old, slim,” I cut in. “We can’t tell you anything more. We’ve only met her twice. So why don’t you answer some of our questions, Mr Waverley? Did you send us the message with the fortune cookies.”

He nodded. “Yes. I was trying to warn you off.”

“And how did you know we’d be at Grannies?”

“We followed you there….luckily for you. If Richard hadn’t turned up when he did, you’d be finished.”

“We’re finished anyway,” I said. “This has got nothing to do with us. Jane Nightingale – or whoever she is – lied to us. You know where to find zEbra. We’re out of here!”

I got to my feet.

“Sit down!” Fiona snapped.

And snapped was exactly the right word. I’d met crocodiles who were more friendly than her.

“Let me explain to you our situation,” Waverley went on. He sounded completely reasonable. Like a vicar offering you a cup of tea. “We cannot storm into Hare Island and rescue zEbra. As I told you, it’s not exactly part of the UK. So right now we’re putting together a top secret mission. We’re planning to send in a small team of professionals to extract Nightingale. But even that won’t be easy. The castle where he is being held is called Seagull’s Rise. It’s at the top of a mountain and can only be reached by a cable car that climbs up and down from the main town. To make matters worse, everyone who lives on Hare Island believes in the White Crusaders. They’re all neo-Nazis. There’ll be armed guards everywhere. It’s not only legal to carry a gun, it’s compulsory. The children at the local school start every day with target practise. The bakery produces swastika-shaped donuts. Nobody is allowed to visit the island. The last group of tourists who went there for a holiday spent the entire two weeks in jail.

“Our team will have to go in by canoe from Aberdeen. They’ll row to the island and break into Seagull’s Rise. They’ll have to locate zEbra, get him out of the castle and somehow make it to the other side of the island without being killed. A helicopter will be standing by to pick them up. We don’t know how long zEbra will be able to hang out before he cracks and does exactly what Neville Fairfax wants him to – so we’ve got to move quickly.”

“What’s this got to do with us?” I asked.

“Right now, the two of you are a security risk. In fact, you became a security risk the moment you took the train to Bath.”

“I knew we should have gone by bus!” Tim sighed.

“Of course, we could hold you here until the operation is over, as Ms Duncan-Jones has suggested, but it seems to me more sensible to send you in with our team. You’ve met the woman who calls herself Jane Nightingale and you’ll recognize her if she turns up again. The two of you may actually be able to help us. After all, you were very successful dealing with Charon. Maybe it was our good luck that you’ve turned up a second time.”

“So what are you saying?” I shook my head in disbelief. “You really want us to volunteer for this crazy mission?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. ” Waverley smiled. “So what do you think?”