Where Seagulls Dare

Chapter Three: Fortune Cookies

“Hello, you have reached St Paul’s Cathedral and the office of the Archbishop of London. Please leave a message after the chimes – or press the hashtag if you’ve taken a vow of silence and we’ll get back to you. Thank you.”

That was the message I’d heard when I’d made the call from Alistair Nightingale’s home. It was a man’s voice which clicked off at the end, followed by a short burst of church bells and, in the background, a gospel choir.

“It doesn’t make any sense.” I said.

Tim and I were back at the office. It was early evening and we’d ordered a takeaway from our local Chinese which had arrived complete with chopsticks and fortune cookies.

“I agree,” Tim muttered. Why can’t they use knives and forks like everyone else?”

“I’m talking about the case, Tim. There are things I don’t understand.”

“Like what?”

“Well, let’s start with the rubber duck.”

“No, thanks. I’ve already had some.”

“The rubber duck that Troy and Tommy picked up in the computer room. What was that all about? And why did they want to kill you?”

“Lots of people want to kill me.”

“Normally they wait until they get to know you. These guys were ready to shoot both of us down without even seeing our faces. And there was the cat…”

“No, Nick. The cat didn’t want to kill us.”

“If the cat had been Burmese or Siamese they’d have shot it. But because it was English, they left it alone. And finally, why did they telephone the archbishop of London?”

“Well, it was faster than writing him a letter…”

“Why contact him at all?”

We weren’t going to get anywhere talking about it so we finished the meal in silence. At the end, we cracked open the fortune cookies. You must know what I’m talking about: those little biscuits shaped like a crescent that are baked with a message inside. They’re usually vague but they make you smile.

Not these ones.

Mine said: “If you poke your nose in other people’s business, you will lose your nose.” And Tim’s was even worse. “Drop the case or you will be violently murdered.”

Tim stared at the strip of paper lying in his hand. “That’s not very nice,” he muttered.

For once I had to agree. If I hadn’t already eaten, it would have quite put me off my food. I went to bed about half an hour later but it was a long time before I got any sleep.

*

I was still thinking about the two messages the next morning when I rolled off my mattress and went to clean my teeth. Had they been sent to us deliberately or had the Chinese takeaway got a general policy of terrifying its customers? Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, I was tempted to give up on the case altogether. I was too young for all this. My friends were spending the summer holidays at the seaside, camping, at Disneyland and all the rest of it. Why should I be the one chasing around England, avoiding bearded maniacs with guns while trying to track down someone I’d never even met?

But I couldn’t leave Tim on his own. That was the truth of it. He might be ten years older than me but left to himself he’d have almost zero chance of making it to the end of the day. And I had to remember that he’d looked after me for the last couple of years, ever since our parents had emigrated to Australia without us. Well, that’s not quite true. I’d slipped off the plane at Heathrow and it tells you something about their parenting skills that they only noticed I was missing when they were passing over southern India. I later heard that the moment my dad had noticed the empty seat he’d called the cabin crew…to ask if he could have my lunch.

Tim had just set up as a private detective after being thrown out of the police force. I’m not sure why they’d recruited him in the first place. After all, there can’t have been many police cadets who’d left university with a degree in knitting. Quite honestly, there were bank robbers who were more help to the community than him. He’d managed to rent offices in Camden Town and he certainly wasn’t expecting me to turn up on his doorstep. He hadn’t even noticed he had a doorstep. I was thirteen years old at the time and according to the law, I needed a responsible adult to look after me. I was just lucky that the law had never met Tim. He was twenty-two which made him an adult but I’ve met more responsible people in a crèche.

There was another reason we couldn’t drop the case. Jane Nightingale had hired us to find her missing father and from what we had learned so far, it looked as if he might be in danger. And we needed the money. £350 sounds like a lot but we’d already spent a chunk of it on two meals and train tickets and Tim owed six weeks rent. I also needed a new school uniform. The one I was wearing belonged to a different school.

So after breakfast Tim went back on the phone and called the archbishop’s office again and this time he was lucky. A man answered. He had one of those posh, high-pitched voices that belong to someone who’s much cleverer than you and who wants you to know it.

“Hello?” he said. “Who is this speaking?”

“Well…you are!” Tim replied.

I groaned and snatched the phone. “Hi,” I said. “My name is Nick Diamond. Are you the Archbishop of London?”

“No, no. I’m Derek Winslow. I’m the archbishop’s Chief of Staff. How can I help you?”

This was tricky. If I told him everything that had happened in Bath, he might think I was crazy and ring off. So I explained that we were looking for a man called Alistair Nightingale who had disappeared and that we believed he was connected in some way to the archbishop’s office.

“I can’t say I know anyone called Alistair Nightingale,” Winslow replied. “May I ask how you got this number?”

“Two friends of his called you yesterday. Tommy and Troy. They seemed to think you might know where he was.”

“This is all very strange.” Winslow sounded flustered.

Tim had been listening to all this and before I could stop him, he snatched the phone away. “All right, Hounslow,” he said. He realized he was talking into the earpiece and turned the phone round. “All right, Hounslow,” he repeated. “If you can’t help us, maybe we should talk to someone who can. How about the archbishop?”

“You can’t meet the archbishop. He’s at a christening.”

“Doesn’t he have a name?”

“He’s doing the christening! I’m afraid he’s too busy to meet you.”

I grabbed the phone back. “We believe Mr Nightingale is in danger,” I said. “We really need to talk to you.”

There was a minute’s silence at the end of the line. I thought we’d been cut off but then Winslow spoke again. “Of course you can, although I don’t see how I can help you…”

He gave me an address and we set out at once, taking the tube down to St Paul’s station in central London. The archbishop’s office was set in an elegant, red brick building which called itself The Chapter House, on the other side of a wide square next to the cathedral itself. The door opened into a hallway with a nun sitting behind a reception desk. She was quite elderly, dressed in black with a white cowl and a cross around her neck. I could hear religious music playing quietly in the background.

“Good morning.” She greeted us with a smile.

“We have a meeting with Derek Winslow,” I explained.

The nun pointed. “He’s gone upstairs,” she said.

“You mean – he’s dead?” Tim asked.

“No. He’s in his office. On the third floor. He’s expecting you.”

Tim leaned forward and eyed her suspiciously. “How did he know we were coming?” he demanded.

The nun looked puzzled. “You asked for an appointment, my son! You rang him earlier this morning!”

“That’s right.” I grabbed hold of Tim. “Thank you.”

We walked over to the stairs. “You can’t get into a fight with a nun!” I whispered.

Tim frowned. “What makes you think she was a nun?”

We climbed up to a neat, square office with views of the cathedral. It was simply furnished with a desk, two chairs for visitors and a table with a lamp. The pictures on the walls showed scenes from the bible. The man behind the desk was small, bald and pink-cheeked with half-moon glasses hanging on a cord. I guessed he was about forty years old. He was dressed in a suit that didn’t look much younger.

He glanced at Tim. “Are you Nick Diamond?”

“No. I’m Tim Diamond.” Tim jerked a thumb in my direction. “That’s Nick!”

I took a seat. Tim sat down next to me.

“I’m afraid I can’t give you very much of my time,” Winslow began.

“We don’t need any of your time, Windsock. We just need answers,” Tim growled. “Did you get a phone call yesterday?”

“My name is Winslow.” The man’s cheeks had gone a little pinker. “And I received a great many phone calls yesterday. I look after the archbishop’s diary and I can assure you it’s a very busy one. People are asking for him all the time.”

“My brother’s a private detective,” I explained. “Yesterday we were in Bath and we were held up by two gangsters. We know that they rang this office.”

“That seems very unlikely,” Winslow replied. “We deal exclusively with the archbishop’s religious and business affairs…”

“Does he know any gangsters?”

“He knows many sinners but he would not speak to anyone who had broken the law. Are you sure you have the right number?”

I’d brought it with me, written down on a sheet of paper and I slid it onto the desk for him to see.

He sniffed. “Well, this is very strange,” he admitted. “I can’t deny that this my private number. But I can assure you, I didn’t take a call from…what did you say their names were?”

“Tommy and Troy,” I said.

Winslow shook his head. He had pale blue eyes that seemed to be hiding behind his glasses, as if they were afraid. “I don’t…” he began. Then something occurred to him. “Wait a minute…Tommy and Troy!”

“You know them?” I asked.

“No. But we had two builders here last week. They came in to fix the old boiler.”

“You mean…the lady downstairs?” Tim asked.

“No, Mr Diamond. The boiler for the central heating. Not of course that we need it in this weather but even so we have to have hot water and the boiler broke quite unexpectedly. They very kindly came in from the building site across the road.”

“Can you describe them?” I asked.

“I’m afraid I didn’t see them. One of the sisters let them in…”

“How many sisters do you have, Mr Windchime?”

“I’m talking about the nuns. They dealt with it. And now that I think about it, I believe their names were Tommy and Troy – or something like that.”

“Across the road…? I looked out of the window but all I could see was the cathedral.

“It’s just a few minutes from here. On Cannon Street.”

I didn’t get it. First of all, I’d mentioned the two names when I called Winslow just an hour ago and they hadn’t registered then. So what had happened now to make all the difference? And somehow it didn’t add up. If you needed to get someone in to fix a boiler, wouldn’t you just call a plumber? It seemed more than a bit strange to go knocking on the door of a local building site…even assuming, that is, that they’d got round to building the doors.

But right then, there was no other explanation. Derek Winslow looked completely harmless. And not just that – he was a senior official in the Church of England, sitting in a smart office next to one of the world’s most famous cathedrals. We had no choice but to believe him and anyway, how could it possibly hurt us to stroll down and check out the nearby building site?

We found the place easily enough. If you’ve ever been to London you’ll know that they’re putting up new office buildings every day. There are cranes on every street corner helping to build new corners on every street. The Shard, the Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie…you only have to blink and you’ll walk slap bang into a wall that wasn’t there the day before.

It took us less than five minutes, heading down towards to the Thames, before we came across the huge metal and concrete skeleton that was soon going to be “London’s most exciting new workspace”. At least, that’s what the sign said. About fifty men and women in yellow jackets and hard hats were swarming over the site. A huge crane was lifting a metal girder, inch by inch, into the sky. A cement lorry had been parked in the middle of the rubble and was spewing out grey sludge. There were safety officers, delivery drivers, security staff…all hard at work behind one of those rotating steel doors that would only open with an electronic pass card. Even if Tommy and Troy were somewhere here, it would be impossible to find them.

Tim had come to the same conclusion. “Hopeless!” he muttered.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” I said.

He shook his head. “There’s no way they’re going to let us in. Let’s go home, kid. We can…”

He never got to the end of the sentence.

It was the shadow that saved our lives. This was another bright, summer’s day and I’d been looking at the builders through a glare of sunlight. But suddenly I was aware of a guillotine blade of darkness cutting across my vision and I knew it could only mean one of two things. One: There had been an unexpected eclipse of the sun. Two: Something very large was hurtling down towards us at a fantastic speed. I decide on the second option.

I threw myself at Tim. We had been standing on the edge of the pavement, looking across the road, but now my shoulder crashed into his stomach and the two of us went sprawling. I think I heard him protest but I carried him with me, away from the road and into the side of the nearest building – which happened to be a supermarket. I looked up just in time to see the end of the world. And it was heading straight for me.

A moment later there was an explosion like nothing I’d ever experienced. It wasn’t just the noise, although that was deafening. The entire city and even the sky disappeared, blown away in a cloud of dust and debris. I felt about a thousand pieces of broken brick and glass showering down on me. All the air seemed to have been sucked into a black hole. There was no light any more. My lips were caked with white plaster and when I tried to breathe I tasted more plaster, a torrent of it rushing into my lungs. I was still holding onto Tim and I couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. For that matter, I wasn’t sure if I was breathing either. The supermarket’s alarm had gone off and there was a howling sound nearby, either a dog or another alarm. Cars were hooting. People were screaming. At some stage I must have closed my eyes. With difficulty, I opened them and saw the pavement. It was pressing itself against my cheek.

“Tim…? I whispered. It was impossible to shout with all the dust in my throat.

He coughed. “Don’t panic, Nick,” he gasped. “But I think something may have happened.”

I wiped a hand across my eyes, trying to clear my vision. I could feel tears trickling down my cheeks. Maybe it was relief. I looked up and saw a great slab of metal, an iron girder three meters long, just a few inches from my head. If I hadn’t moved quickly, I’d no longer have a head. I squeezed myself round it and somehow managed to get to my feet. As I stood up, it was like climbing out of a volcanic crater, back into the modern world.

Somehow, I worked out what had happened.

When we had first arrived, I had noticed a crane carrying a metal girder which must weighed at least a ton. For some reason, the crane operator had decided to drop it on top of us. Maybe he’d met Tim somewhere before. That was the shadow I’d seen. The girder had plunged down, still attached to the crane. It should have crushed us but there were two chains holding it and they must have got tangled and it had fallen at an angle. So although one end had smashed into the road, the other was slanting above us. By pulling us to the ground, I’d saved our lives.

It was a miracle that nobody else had been hurt. A parked car had been crushed, part of the pavement had shattered and it was going to be a while before anyone got a two for one special offer at the supermarket unless they were shopping for broken pieces of glass.

I saw workmen running towards us, weaving their way through the rest of the traffic which had come to a complete standstill. About half a dozen of them reached us at the same time and stood in a circle, staring as if they didn’t believe we were alive. I knew how they felt. I didn’t quite believe it myself.

One of them pushed his way through. He was the site foreman…at least, that’s what it said on his badge. “Are you all right?” he gurgled. He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead he turned to his crew. “What the hell happened?”

Suddenly everyone was shouting at each other, trying to pass on the blame. I could hear the wail of ambulances and police cars coming from the end of Cannon Street and wondered how long it would be before they could fight their way through the traffic. Time seemed to have collapsed in on itself. All I knew was that I was desperately thirsty and that I wanted to go home.

Then the crane operator arrived and instead of shouting at each other, the workmen all started shouting at him. He was a short, plump man and I could imagine him sitting all day in his little cabin, a hundred metres above the ground. He was wearing sunglasses but they were sitting crookedly on his nose. I almost felt sorry for him. He was close to tears.

“It wasn’t my fault!” he wailed. “It was the computer! It went crazy. I didn’t have any control. It was like the crane had a life of its own.”

I don’t remember very much more of what happened after that. Tim was standing beside me, chalk white, looking like the ghost he had almost become. I knew I probably looked the same. And just one thought was going through my mind. I was remembering the fortune cookies and the warning we’d been sent. Drop the case or you will be violently murdered. We hadn’t had to wait long. Somebody had just tried to kill us. There could be no doubt of it.

Well, one thing was certain. That was the last time I ordered Chinese food.