Where Seagulls Dare

Chapter Four: Scary Bikers

We managed to get away from Cannon Street before the police arrived which was probably just as well. I didn’t want to hang around having questions thrown at me, particularly as I didn’t have any answers to throw back. There was only one thing about the case I could say for sure. We should never have taken it on. We’d had two near-death experiences – three if you count Bath High Street – and I wasn’t going to hang around waiting for another. That’s the funny thing about near-death experiences. They remind you how fond you are of life.

“Let’s call Jane Nightingale,” I said when we got in. “I think it’s time we met up with her again.”

“You’re right there, kid.” Tim threw himself behind the desk, not noticing that he’d left his chair in front of it. He disappeared from sight. “We should definitely be talking to her about a pay rise,” he continued as he pulled himself back to his feet.

“How will money help us if we’re both dead?”

Tim thought about it. “It’ll pay for the funeral.”

“I don’t want a funeral, Tim. I like being alive. Even living with you!”

“What’s so wrong with living with me?”

“The whole flat is falling down. I don’t have a bed. There’s no food in the fridge. We’ve only got a black and white TV!”

“Yes. But it’s got four stations!”

“Two of them are in Albanian!”

“Well, it’s an Albanian TV.”

“Why do you always have to buy everything half price?”

“Because if I paid full price it would cost me twice as much!”

I was about to argue but what was the point? I didn’t want to upset Tim and I hadn’t forgotten that if it wasn’t for him I’d have nowhere to go. Apart from my brother, I had no living relatives in the UK. All four of my grandparents were in the same cemetery. In fact, to save money, they were all in the same grave. And it was too late to move in with my mum and dad. They were living in a small flat in Sydney with my baby sister and their new dog, Spotty. It wasn’t a Dalmatian, it was just very sick. My dad was running his own business and it was really going places…namely to the bankruptcy court. My mum had been forced to get a job as a waitress in a drive-through restaurant and she was finding it hard to lay the tables without getting run over. They’d both made it clear they had no time for me.

So if Tim threw me out now, who would have me? I’d probably end up in care. I’d be sent to an orphanage and all the other orphans would gang up on me because I actually had parents. I might be forced to join a gang of pickpockets like that kid I’d seen on Albanian TV: Olifer Tzviçt. No. I knew I had to stick around a little longer which is why the two of us had come to an understanding. I understood Tim was a complete idiot. And he understood that without me he would never solve a single case. Somehow we’d made it work.

Tim reached for the slip of paper that Jane Nightingale had given us and read out the number. I made the call. There was a series of clicks but that was just Tim biting his nails. Then we were connected.

“This is Jane Nightingale.” I recognized her voice…husky and warm like a Siberian dog in front of a fire. In a way I was surprised. I’d more or less decided that everything about her was fake. So why hadn’t she given us a fake number too? “Have you had any luck finding my father?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I said. And that was interesting. I hadn’t said a word and she didn’t have my telephone number. So how did she know who it was who was calling? “We need to talk,” I said.

“That’s usually the reason people call.”

“I don’t mean on the phone,” I said. I think we should meet.”

She didn’t hesitate. “All right. Do you know Grannies?”

I did. Grannies was a fast-food restaurant in Kensington, on the other side of London. It served hamburgers in granary buns but that wasn’t how it had got its name. All the staff were grandparents. In fact they only employed people over the age of eighty…the whole idea was to show that even if you were very old, you could still have a job and be part of society. I wasn’t so sure that the idea worked. A fast-food restaurant is fine…but not when it takes an hour and a half for your food to arrive. And the staff weren’t up to much. The chef didn’t like the heat so he stayed out of the kitchen. The head waitress, Maisie, had been named employee of the month and had actually died of excitement. The only real success was the eighty-seven year old cocktail mixer. His hands shook so much that he was actually brilliant at his job.

We agreed to meet there for an early lunch and Jane Nightingale was waiting for us when we arrived. This time she was dressed for business with a black suede jacket and a little white cap that slanted across her head as if it was about to slide onto her shoulder. She seemed pleased to see us as we sat next to her at the table. For a moment she rested a hand on Tim’s knee and I got a brief glance of another tattoo - it looked like a lightning strike - on her wrist. Tim didn’t notice anything. He was smiling so much he was showing all his teeth and several inches of gum.

“It’s nice to see you boys,” she said. “Lunch is on me.”

“Do you want me to get a cloth?” Tim asked.

She handed him the menu. “Choose what you want and I’ll pay.”

A waitress came to the table. She’d only come from the kitchen but she was exhausted by the time she arrived. I watched as she took out a notepad and turned up her hearing aid. “Yes?” she asked.

“How’s the spaghetti, Betty?” Tim asked.

She scowled at him. “My name’s Grace.”

“Then I’ll have the plaice.”

Jane ordered a salad and I went for a burger. The Grannyburger came with bacon, cheese and gherkin - the whole thing held together by two miniature knitting needles. The waitress hobbled off and the three of us were left alone.

“So how are you getting on?” Jane asked.

“Not too well,” I replied before Tim could speak. “And maybe you should level with us, Ms Nightingale – if that’s who you really are.”

“What makes you think I’m not?”

“Well, for a start, you don’t know how to spell your father’s name.”

“I was never good at spelling. Sometimes I even get my own name wrong. Jayne. I put an extra letter in it.”

“Y?” Tim asked.

“I just told you. Because I’m not very good at spelling.”

“Why don’t you tell us about Tommy and Troy?” I suggested.

“I can’t tell you anything about them. I’ve never met them. They’re complete strangers!”

“How do you know they’re complete strangers if you’ve never met them?” Tim demanded.

“They came to the house in Bath while we were there,” I explained. “They tried to kill us.”

“What did they look like?”

“Beards. Shaven heads. Turned up noses. And guns. Everything about them was nasty, especially the guns. They were in the house looking for a rubber duck.”

The description of the men had meant nothing to her but she sat up when she heard that. “A rubber duck? Is that what they said? Are you sure it wasn’t a rubber ducky?”

“What’s the difference?”

“A rubber ducky is a type of memory stick that you plug into a computer. It’s a very powerful device.”

“So how come I’ve never heard of it?” Tim asked.

“Have you heard of an Alfa Network Board, a Keylogger, a Proxmark 3?” Jane replied.

“What about them?” I said. She was wasting her time with Tim. He didn’t even know what to do with a memory stick. Or if he had known once, he’d forgotten.

“They’re all devices used by computer hackers,” Jane replied.

“Is that what Alistair Nightingale is? A computer hacker?” Thinking about the house, all the equipment we had seen, it made sense. “So what’s your relationship with him?” I went on.

“I told you. I’m his daughter.”

“I googled him and he doesn’t have a daughter.”

“I was adopted.”

“Maybe. But not by him. There wasn’t a single photo of you in the house. And there was something else that didn’t add up about that place.”

“Yes,” Tim said, rubbing his nose. ‘Why did the letterbox have such a strong spring?”

“How did he afford it? Bath is an expensive city. And you’d need a ton of money to live in a place like the Royal Crescent. But Alastair Nightingale isn’t exactly a successful author. The Computer Code only sold fifteen copies and The Art of the Algorithm didn’t even make double figures. He was the least successful author at Walker Books and that’s saying something. They only ever sent him on one author tour and that was just to get rid of him. They told him not to come back. His last book got a recommendation from J.K. Rowling. She recommended people not to buy it. So maybe you should tell us what’s really going on here. Who is Alastair Nightingale and why are you looking for him?”

There was a long silence. One of the waitresses went past in a wheelchair pushed by another waitress. Finally, Jane nodded. “All right,” she admitted. “I lied to you.”

“I don’t believe you!” Tim exclaimed.

“I’m not Alastair Nightingale’s daughter but I need to find him I think he’s in danger and I am too.”

“Why?”

“OK. I’ll explain…”

And I really think she might have but just then there was an ugly, throttling sound that came from outside. I looked through the window and saw two men in leather jackets, each on Harley Davidson motorbikes – thick rubber tyres and gleaming chrome with raised handlebars and Union Jack flags fluttering behind. Even before the men had taken off their helmets, I knew who they were. The letters WC on their jackets gave the game away.

“Tommy and Troy,” I whispered. Somehow they’d found us here. I watched them dismount from their bikes. They were in no hurry.

Jane had seen them too. Her eyes widened. “You brought them here!” she snapped.

“No!” Tim protested. “They came on their bikes.”

“They’ve followed you. We have to move…”

She was already getting up, edging out from behind the table. I went with her. There was only one door leading out of the restaurant and it would take us into the street – exactly where the two bikers were waiting. I noticed Tommy reach into his pocket and feel for something and somehow I knew he wasn’t about to check his phone for messages. Sure enough, the butt of a pistol appeared briefly in his hand. He was ready to shoot us down in broad daylight. I could already see it happening. A series of shots, the crowds scattering, the two men climbing back onto their bikes. They’d be on their way out of London long before the police arrived. And we’d be on the way to the morgue.

But Jane Nightingale wasn’t leading us to the front door. Instead, we were weaving through the tables, heading for the kitchen and a moment later we’d gone crashing through the swing doors into a world of white and silver, pots and pans hanging on hooks, bubbling sauces and sizzling meat. I could smell melting cheese and overcooked vegetables. The head chef was sitting in a corner, fanning himself and looking miserable.

“We’re looking for a back entrance,” Jane announced.

“There isn’t one,” the chef said. “People who eat here don’t usually come back.”

“OK. How about a back exit?”

He pointed. “There’s a fire door.”

We took it, slamming it open and exiting into a narrow alleyway that ran along the side of the restaurant. Suddenly we were the filling in a brick sandwich. There were walls on either side of us, looming up with no windows and just a few closed doors. We could turn left or we could turn right. It wasn’t a great choice.

Jane moved away from Tim. “I think we should split up,” she said.

“But we haven’t started a relationship!” Tim cried.

“We’re safer if we go separate ways. I’ll be in touch.”

She might have had a point. Maybe we’d be less of a target if we separated. Or maybe she’d just decided she had more chance without us. After all, it was Tim and me who were the ones they were after. Tommy and Troy must have followed us from Bath although I had no idea how they’d managed to track us down – not just to London but to a neighbourhood where we didn’t even live. Anyway, they were going to finish the job they’d started and this time they weren’t going to let a pussy cat get in the way. We were in serious trouble.

Jane had turned left and was already in the distance, disappearing from sight. We went the other way but even as we came out of the alleyway, I knew we’d made the wrong choice. We were back on the main road. Tommy and Troy’s motorbikes were parked in front of the restaurant. And so were Tommy and Troy. We hadn’t taken two steps before we’d been seen.

“There they are!” I heard Tommy call out.

“Are they there?” Troy wasn’t so sure.

“They are there!” Tommy pointed in our direction.

“Ah! They’re there!” Troy agreed.

The two men pulled their helmets back on and climbed onto their motorbikes. They weren’t going to run after us. Their legs were more suited to waddling. But they had motorbikes that could cover a hundred metres in five seconds flat. And it would only take them six seconds going uphill.

Worse still, they weren’t alone. We had already started running across the road when I heard the same throaty roar of more motorbikes arriving and sure enough two more bikers with dark glasses, sprouting beards and Union Jacks turned the corner and ploughed through the traffic, heading towards us. They clearly went to the same tailor as Tommy and Troy. They wore the same black leather jackets and dirty jeans and I could imagine the letters WC set out in studs on their backs, even though I couldn’t see them. Both of them had stomachs that bulged out almost to their knees. There’d be no point in them weighing themselves on a bathroom scale. They wouldn’t be able to see it.

Four motorbikes in the streets of Kensington. It was obvious that we had to get inside. Any building would be safe: a shop, an office, a department store. Perhaps somewhere with a basement where we could hide. Anywhere where four thugs on motorbikes couldn’t follow us.

“This way!” Tim shouted.

He had run into a multi-storey car park.

I had no choice. I couldn’t leave him on his own. Even though I knew I was signing my own death warrant, I followed him up a ramp and into the gloomy interior. There were hardly any cars in sight. You could probably spend a week in the Costa Brava for the same price as a couple of hours in a Kensington car park. Leave your car here and you’d have to sell it to pay the exit fee. As we ran up to the second floor and then the third, all I could see was a grey, concrete emptiness that stretched out in all directions with more ramps climbing up and down and solid pillars separating the different bays. For about half a second I wondered if Tommy and Troy hadn’t actually seen us go in. Then I heard the roar of engines behind us and knew that not only had they seen us but that they were gleefully following us and that we had nowhere to hide.

Could there be anything worse than being cornered by four crazy, armed bikers in multi-storey carpark? Yes. As we fled across the deserted third floor, I realized that there were now six of them. Two more had arrived, entering the car park from somewhere on the other side. The echo of their engines was all around us and I could smell the petrol fumes pushing out whatever fresh air had managed to linger inside the building. The bikers hadn’t found us yet. From the sound of them, they were buzzing around on the floor below us. But it was only a matter of time. Desperately, I looked for an exit staircase. Our only hope was to get back onto the street. The sides of the car park had narrow slits that allowed in a little daylight but looking out I saw that our situation was even worse than I’d though. There were yet more bikers outside, circling the building. Whichever way we went, we were trapped.

I saw a door marked EXIT. Was it referring to the car park or to my life? It didn’t matter. Coming in here had been a mistake and our only hope was to get back out again and take our chances amongst the traffic. Anyway, there was something undignified about being splattered across the third floor of a multi-storey car park, particularly since I didn’t even have a car. I preferred to die in the sunshine. But the door was a long way away. Did we have time to reach it?

We didn’t. Before I’d taken another step, one of the bikers appeared, cruising up the ramp and emerging like some black and silver monster rising from the grave. He had no face. Just a beard and dark glasses. He looked straight at me and smiled. I saw him mutter a few words and realized that he was wearing a throat mike. That was how he was keeping in touch with the others. He stayed where he was, waiting for them to join him. The door was in front of us.

“Move Tim!”

We began to run and I heard the motorbike revving up behind us. There was almost no hope. It was too far away. Maybe the biker would get a puncture. Maybe he’d slip on a puddle of oil and break his neck. Maybe a meteor from outer space would crash down and obliterate him. I guessed that all three of these possibilities were about as likely as each other but what was certain was that, without a miracle, he would cut us off in seconds. His friends were already on their way. I could hear them accelerating on the floor below. The whole car park seemed to be trembling. Tim definitely was. The door was still a long way away.

And then it happened. There was a screech of tyres, rubber burning on concrete, and a car came shooting out of nowhere; a silver BMW with tinted windows. It raced across the concrete floor heading for us so fast that I was sure it was going to run us over. But at the last moment it swerved round, smoke rising underneath it, and stopped. The back door flew open. “Get in!” a voice demanded.

It wasn’t Jane Nightingale. It was a young man with close-cropped hair, wearing a dark suit. I could see part of face reflected in the driver’s mirror. He had pale skin. He wasn’t smiling.

“Move it!” he rasped.

“Wait a minute,” Tim said. “We didn’t order an Uber…”

“Just do it, Tim!” I shouted.

The biker was hesitating, some distance away. But two more bikes had arrived behind him. It was Troy and Tommy. They had their guns out, balanced on their handle bars. The Union Jacks were rippling even though there was no breeze. I pushed Tim into the car and threw myself on top of him. The driver took off without bothering to close the door but somehow I managed to reach out and pull it shut. The car swerved round, heading towards the ramp but looking out of the front window I saw that the way was blocked. The bikers were moving towards us, one in front, two behind. I waited for the first guy to veer out of the way. He didn’t. Instead, there was a terrible crash of metal on metal as the BMW hammered into his Harley Davidson, sending him flying into the air. I twisted back to see him hit the concrete. Fortunately, he hadn’t been too badly hurt – but then Tommy and Troy ran him over. I didn’t see what happened next. We had already made it to the top of the ramp and were hurtling down, the tyres screaming as they gripped the corners. A fourth biker accelerated out of our way. By now he must have realized that our driver – whoever he was – didn’t intend to stop and ask for directions.

We continued down two more levels then burst out into the open. I saw more bikers in the road behind us but they were facing in the wrong direction and didn’t know what had happened. And then we were away, moving more slowly now, joining the traffic on the high street.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You can drop us off at the station,” Tim added.

“Shut up and stay still!” The driver pressed a button and I heard the doors lock automatically.

I settled back in the soft leather and decided to enjoy the view of Hyde Park as we drove past. All in all, there wasn’t much else I could do.