Where Seagulls Dare

Chapter Two: Rubber Duck

We took the train down to Bath that same day. If Alistair or Alastair Nightingale was in trouble, there was no point hanging around while the trail went cold. Not that there was much chance of that with the sun burning down, the tar on the road melting and the traffic as thick and as sticky as … well, jam.

On the subject of jam, we didn’t leave until we’d had breakfast at our local greasy spoon. The full English: eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, fried bread, beans, yoghurt and salted herring. To be honest, it had never been quite the same since they’d hired a Swedish chef but we were both full and English when we left so it must have worked.

We arrived at the station just in time to catch the 12.15 train. That wasn’t just the time it left. It could have been the year it was built. It was completely clapped out. The windows were dusty, the seats sagged and the entire carriage creaked and groaned like it didn’t really want to move. There was a buffet car but the sandwiches and snacks looked even sadder than the lady who was serving them. It didn’t matter. I was still full after breakfast so I sat back and looked at the scenery. It’s funny how cities always look the same when you’re on a train. Like they don’t care that you’re leaving them behind.

About half an hour later, a guard came down the corridor. “Tickets!” he called out.

“No, thanks,” Tim replied. “We’ve already got some. We bought them from my travel agents.”

“I need to punch them.”

“Why? What did they do to you?”

Ignoring this, I pulled out the tickets and handed them over to the guard and we spent the next hour in silence, heading west. I had a book given to me by my English teacher as part of my summer reading. It was War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. I’d once taken Tim to see the play and he’d left the theatre in tears … but only because they’d run out of chocolate ice cream in the interval. Meanwhile, Tim was reading a newspaper, occasionally frowning and shaking his head. I assumed that was when he got to the long words.

Finally, we arrived.

Have you ever been to Bath? It looks like the set of one of those period dramas you see on TV where everyone rides in horses and carriages, the women have fans and the men wear top hats and tails. Everything is posh. You can take tea in the Pump Rooms. You can visit the Roman baths. You can stroll round the Abbey. Or you can get on a train and go home again. There’s a river in the middle and you might want to throw yourself in when you find out about the house prices. You’ve got to be rich to live here but dying is free. About a million tourists visit every year and they all agree that there’s only one thing wrong with Bath. There are too many tourists.

And the first thing any of them do is to head for the Royal Crescent, one of the most famous addresses in the whole of the UK. Imagine a perfect crescent of four-storey Georgian houses. Better still, look them up on Google and save time. The houses are identical, made out of that honey-coloured Bath stone with pillars on each side of triple-height windows and chimneys straight out of Mary Poppins. They stand facing out onto a massive lawn that looks as if it’s been cut one blade at a time. The sun was shining when we arrived and it was hard to imagine it any other way. Being here was just like walking into an old painting … which is actually something Tim did once at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but that’s another story and one I’m still trying to forget.

Alistair Nightingale lived in the middle of the crescent, assuming he was still alive. There was a removal van parked outside the house next door but otherwise there was nobody else around. I couldn’t hear any sound coming from inside and there was no sign of any activity. I only realized now that we hadn’t been given a key to the house which was quite strange when you think about it. Surely she’d have expected us to take a look inside? Jane Nightingale had told us that the back window had been broken but as far as we could see there was no way round and all the front windows were barred. Suddenly it looked as if the whole journey down here was going to be a waste of time. How were we supposed to get in?

Tim had had the same thought. “We’re going to need a paperclip,” he said.

“Why?”

“I can pick the lock in the front door.”

That made me smile. Tim couldn’t have picked a quarrel let alone a lock. For his birthday once I’d taken him to one of those “Escape Rooms” and he’d still been there a week later. Trying to find his way in.

Even so, I reached out and tried the door just in case the cleaner or somebody had accidentally left it open. I was out of luck. The door was locked, a six-inch slab of English oak bolted into a solid brick frame. A paperclip wasn’t going to get us into the house. A stick of dynamite would be more likely to do the job.

“Let’s ring the doorbell,” I suggested.

“Are you crazy?” Tim stared at me. “Somebody might hear it!”

“That’s the whole idea, Tim. If someone’s inside, they might open the door and let us in.”

Tim knelt down. There was a metal flap on a spring over the letterbox. He pushed it up and looked through. “What can you see?” I asked.

“Nudding.”

“Is there anyone there?”

“I don’t dink so.”

“Tim … have you got your nose trapped in the letterbox?”

Tim let out a little sob so I leant over him, pushed the flap open again and released him. He stood up, rubbing his nose. “De house is ebty,” he said.

I was almost tempted to give up when the door of the house on the immediate right opened and two men came out, carrying an upright piano. Staggering under the weight, they headed for the removal van that I’d noticed parked outside. Maybe the owners were moving or maybe they were being burgled but suddenly I saw an opportunity. I grabbed hold of Tim. “Quickly!” I whispered.

Before he could argue, I had dragged him along the pavement and into the neighbouring house. The two removal men – or burglars – were bowed under the weight of the piano which they were lifting into their van and didn’t see us. We passed through the door and into the hall, our feet making no sound on about ten inches of luxury carpet. There was a flight of stairs ahead of us and I made for it without pausing, glimpsing expensive furniture, a chandelier and the sort of modern art that could be hung upside down without anyone noticing. Whoever lived here was rich. If their piano had just been stolen they probably wouldn’t even notice and when they did they’d just nip out and buy another one.

We made it to the first floor, along a corridor with silk wallpaper which I’d only have been able to afford if I had an extremely small wall. I glanced through an open door and saw a maid making a bed. Fortunately she had her back to us. I was looking for a second staircase and found it at the far end. It led me all the way up to the roof which was exactly what I wanted. We came to a door at the very top and burst out into the open air.

“What are we doing up here?” Tim panted. “You’ve got it all wrong, Nick. This isn’t where Wensleydale lives!”

“It’s Alistair Nightingale, Tim. And I know he lives next door. But maybe we can find a way in from up here.”

We were standing behind a stone balustrade – it was all that separated us from the ground … which was a long way below. I hoped Tim wouldn’t look down. Heights were just one of the things he was scared of – along with spiders, jellyfish, guns, flying, injections, his own shadow, dentists, the dark … and death. A grey-tiled roof slanted up behind and here’s the thing. Every house in Royal Crescent had its own roof but we could easily step from one to another; there was just a low barrier in between. I was hoping for a door like the one we had come through but I could already see that there wasn’t one. Nightingale’s roof looked in bad repair. Some of the tiles were missing. Someone had placed a sign in the middle. It read: DANGER.

“I don’t see any danger,” Tim said, taking a step towards it.

“Wait…!”I began.

I was too late. With a brief cry, Tim had disappeared.

The roof was worse than I’d thought. Dry rot or rising damp had weakened the structure and, unable to support Tim’s weight, a large section had collapsed under his feet. I hurried forward and looked through the hole he had just made. Tim was lying on his back in what looked like an attic room, surrounded by dust and debris and with an angry-looking pigeon watching him from the side. I wasn’t sure where it had come from but I hoped Tim hadn’t seen it. He was scared of pigeons too.

Tim stood up. “I found a way in!” he said.

“That’s brilliant, Tim!” I lowered myself down and joined him. “Anything broken?”

“Only the roof!”

“Yeah. Well, let’s get moving.”

The strange thing was that Alistair Nightingale’s home was the complete opposite of his neighbours’. It was dark and shabby with worn out carpets and furniture that could have come out of a skip and, if it was mine, I’d have put it right back in again. There was mess everywhere: old clothes in the bedrooms, damp towels and worn out toothbrushes in the bathroom, unwashed plates in the kitchen. The whole place smelled as if the owner had never gone out. There was a cat litter tray that needed emptying in a corridor but no sign of a cat. The same damp that had attacked the roof was coming through the walls.

The only modern touch I had noticed as we came down from the attic was a CCTV camera mounted in the ceiling, blinking as it watched us with its single, glass eye. In fact there were cameras throughout the house and that made me uneasy. Alistair Nightingale had obviously been worried about his security and it was always possible that someone could be watching us right now from a distant location. Maybe Nightingale himself was on the other side of a TV monitor. You know the nasty feeling you get when you think you’re being watched? It’s a whole lot nastier when you know it for a fact.

Even so, we searched the place from top to bottom – and that’s exactly what I mean. We started on the third floor which had three guest rooms: two of them without carpets, one of them completely empty, all of them without guests. Nightingale slept on the second floor. There were grey sheets on the bed and I had a feeling that they’d been white when he’d put them on. A soft toy poked out from under the pillows. There was a library opposite, full of books about computers and programming – some of them written by Nightingale himself. A picture of the Beatles, one of their record covers, hung on the wall which seemed out-of-keeping with the rest of the place but this was clearly where Nightingale worked. He had a desk piled high with print-outs that made no sense to me. Two ashtrays sat side by side, overflowing with about a hundred cigarette butts, and the foul smell of old tobacco wrapped its arms around us as we worked our way through the mess. Tim’s eyes were bulging and for a moment I thought he’d seen something shocking. Then I realized he was trying not to breathe.

The kitchen was another disaster area with one window boarded up, broken plates on the floor and a knife jutting out of the wall, just as Jane Nightingale had described. A door led into the largest room in the house and this seemed to be the place where her father spent most of his time. There was a long trestle table in the middle and it was jammed with electronic equipment which, like the CCTV cameras, looked brand new. I’d never seen so many computers – mainframes as well as laptops – screens and keyboards, wires, disk drives, webcams, joysticks and image scanners, all tangled together on the wooden surface. I don’t know how much this stuff must have cost but apart from an Amazon Echo connected to two speakers, all of it seemed pretty sophisticated … not the sort of stuff you’d find in PC World.

Half a dozen more ashtrays spilling out cigarette ends sat among all this and there were old clothes as well as cartons and boxes from fast food deliveries, many of them with food still inside. Nightingale liked pizza, curry and donuts. I wondered what he would look like if I ever got to meet him. I could imagine a fat, bearded, wheezing loner with bad teeth, bad skin, saggy T-shirts and lungs like ten-year-old prunes.

So how had he managed to have a daughter as attractive as Jane Nightingale?

There was one other thing that was weird about the house although it had taken me a while to notice. The floor of the computer room was made of plain wooden boards but there was a zebra skin rug in the middle and seeing it, I remembered the Beatles picture that had hung in the library. It had shown the Fab Four walking over Abbey Road. On a zebra crossing. And the stuffed animal in the bedroom had been a toy zebra.

So what was that all about?

Something else puzzled me. Jane Nightingale had said that there had been a struggle which is why she thought her father had been kidnapped. But the truth is you could have had a full-scale war in this house and it would have been hard to tell the difference. That knife in the wall, for example. Did it suggest a fight or had Nightingale just stuck it there because he couldn’t be bothered to put it back in the drawer?

One thing was certain. We weren’t going to find anything here. There might be a clue in the house. There might be a thousand of them. But how could we possibly find them in all this chaos?

Tim reached out for a piece of cloth that was resting on the arm of a sofa and blew his nose. “He’s not here,” he said. “There’s absolutely no sign of him.”

“Except for his underpants,” I agreed.

“Where are they?”

“You’ve just used them to blow your nose.”

Tim gagged and dropped them on the floor. “What are we going to do?” he asked.

“Well, I suppose we could ask the neighbours…”

That was as far as I got. We both heard it at the same time: a key turning in a lock. Somebody was opening the front door. Then there was a low murmuring as two men let themselves in. It was impossible to hear what they were saying but somehow I already knew they meant trouble. I’ve met a lot of crooks in my time and they all talk the same way, spitting out their words like bullets. Many of them can’t even say “Good morning. How are you?” without making it sound like a death threat.

These two sounded particularly unpleasant. And they were heading further into the house.

“OK.” Tim put his finger to his lips and hissed: “Whatever you do, Nick, don’t make a sound.”

“Right,” I said.

He took a step back, looking for somewhere to hide and, at that moment, his elbow knocked into an empty wine bottle, which tottered and fell towards the wooden floor. Tim screeched. He reached out with both hands to grab it, missed and, as the bottle shattered, his elbow caught the corner of the trestle table which immediately collapsed, crashing down in an explosion of grinding metal and shattering glass. Two of the computer screens had been smashed to pieces. The other computer, which was still plugged in, short-circuited and exploded. Somehow, the Alexa self-activated and the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth blasted out of the speakers before there was another shower of sparks and silence returned.

The two of us stood there, paralyzed.

“Do you think they heard us?” Tim whispered.

“Move!” We had nowhere to go. There was only one door leading back into the kitchen and if we went that way we’d definitely be seen. However, I’d noticed an archway covered by a curtain on one side of the room. I threw the curtain back to find an empty space behind it. I grabbed hold of Tim and threw him in. Then I followed, pulling the curtain back just as the two men came hurrying into the room.

I’d left a crack between the curtain and the wall which was just wide enough for me to look through and although they couldn’t see me, I had a clear view of the new arrivals. I felt my heart sink. They were bad news all right. It wasn’t the snub noses, the sunglasses, the shaven heads or the beards. It wasn’t the rippling muscles or the tattoos on their necks – one had a cobra, the other had gone for a charming dagger dripping blood. It wasn’t even the matching black leather biker jackets with the letters WC printed in silver studs. No. What I was staring at was the massive pistols they were both carrying as they looked around for somebody to shoot.

They certainly weren’t tourists. That much was clear.

“You hear that, Tommy?” one of them asked. He had a high-pitched voice that seemed to come out of his nose as if he had forgotten he actually had a mouth.

“I definitely heard something, Troy,” the other man replied. He spoke slowly as if he had to work out what word was coming next. “And I think it came from this room.”

“Someone’s hiding.”

“That’s what I thought. That’s my view entirely.”

“Well, since nobody came out, they must still be in here. I think we should find them and kill them.”

“Why don’t we kill them first and find them later?”

“No, Tommy. I think my way’s best.”

“All right, Troy. Whatever you say. But where are they hiding?”

The two men looked around them. One of them – Troy – was scratching his beard. But the other one – Tommy – had noticed the curtain. He was looking straight at me, even if he hadn’t seen me yet.

“There’s a curtain!” he exclaimed.

“That’s true,” Troy agreed.

“Maybe they’re hiding behind it!”

“Good work, Tommy. Let’s fire lots of bullets through the material and then we can have a look.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to suggest, Troy.”

“Right!”

They both lifted their guns and took aim. There was absolutely nothing we could do. It didn’t seem fair. We’d only been hired that morning and now we were about to be shot to pieces. We hadn’t even made it to teatime.

But then there was a loud miaow from the other side of the room and both killers twisted round as a fluffy ginger cat padded forward, making its way through the broken equipment. I’d noticed the cat litter upstairs. Now, finally, the cat had made an appearance.

Troy lowered his gun and laughed. “That’s what made all the noise!” he exclaimed. “It was the cat!”

Tommy was less cheerful. “Shall we kill it?” he asked.

“Why would we want to do that?” Troy asked.

“It might be a foreign cat. It might be Siamese or Burmese or something like that.”

“It looks like an ordinary English cat to me,” Troy said. “Let’s not waste any more time, Tommy. And also, bullets aren’t cheap. I say we find this rubber duck thing and get out of here.”

Rubber duck thing. What were they talking about?

“Where did he say it was?” Tommy asked.

“It fell out of his pocket. He thought it was over by the door.”

“Here it is!” Tommy leant down showing an enormous bottom; the sort of bottom that would have embarrassed a builder. When he straightened up, he was holding something in his hand but I couldn’t see what it was. “Mission accomplished!” he went on.

“Then let’s get out of here.”

“We said we’d let them know we’d found it.”

“You’re right, Tommy.” Troy reached into his back pocket. He was wearing horrible jeans. They were shapeless, colourless and filthy. They really suited him. He took out a mobile phone and glanced at it. “I haven’t got a signal,” he whined.

“All right. All right. Tommy took out his phone and tried to dial. He examined the screen. “My battery’s dead,” he complained.

“So what are we going to do now?”

Tommy looked around him. His eyes lit up. “There’s a landline!” he exclaimed. I hadn’t noticed it before but there was an ordinary telephone on a table by the door. Tommy snatched it and dialled. I watched carefully. Tim was leaning over my shoulder, doing the same.

It took about ten seconds. Then Tommy was connected.

“We found the rubber duck!” he exclaimed.

The voice at the other end spoke for a few seconds.

“All right! We’re on our way back to the island.”

He hung up and without saying another word, the two men walked out.

I waited until I heard the front door open and close, then Tim and I emerged from behind the curtain. “That was close!” I said.

“Yes,” Tim agreed. “They almost shot the cat!”

I ignored this. “What do you think that was all about?”

“They came to Bath for a rubber duck…”

“It had fallen out of his pocket. That’s what they said.”

“And they came all the way from Ireland!”

“No, Tim. They said they came from an island … but that could be anywhere.” I tried to collect my thoughts. “I wonder who they rang…”

“Maybe we can ring the operator.”

“Maybe we don’t need to.”

I snatched up the telephone. It felt odd to be holding an old-fashioned receiver in my hand but perhaps Alistair Nightingale thought a landline was safer. I’d remembered something. Quickly, I tapped through the menu, the telephone bleeping as I hit each button with my thumb. I found the command: REDIAL. I hit it.

The telephone automatically called the number but this time nobody answered. It went straight to voicemail. I listened for about half a minute. Then I hung up.

Tim was staring at me. “Who was it?” he demanded. “Who did they call?”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “They rang St Paul’s Cathedral in London.”

“Maybe it was a wrong number.”

“No.” I shook my head. “It was definitely the number they dialled.” I put the phone down. “They spoke to the archbishop.”