Authors: Stephen Leather
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Thriller
‘Everything’s fine, Mrs Chan.’
‘The neighbours said police take you away.’
‘It was a misunderstanding.’
‘You look terrible.’
‘Thank you for your honesty,’ he said, but Mrs Chan had no sense of humour and she nodded seriously.
‘You not shave. And you smell bad.’
‘I’ve just come home to shower,’ he said.
She waved at her restaurant. ‘Come in, sit down, I will make duck noodles for you.’ Nightingale hesitated but Mrs Chan grabbed him by the arm. She had a child’s hands but her grip was like a steel vice. ‘I make for you special, Mr Jack.’
Nightingale allowed himself to be led into the restaurant and over to a corner table. He actually didn’t need much persuading because Mrs Chan served the best duck noodles in London. There was a line of ten roast ducks hanging by their necks from a stainless-steel bar in the window. Mrs Chan selected one and then disappeared into the kitchen. A few seconds later he heard the dull thud of a cleaver chopping through meat.
One of Mrs Chan’s daughters came over wearing her usual bright red cheongsam. The bottle of Corona she was carrying on a tray was already opened, with a slice of lemon in the neck. ‘When are you going to start drinking Chinese beer, Jack?’ she said as she put down the bottle in front of him. ‘Tsingtao is better than Corona.’
‘I’m a creature of habit, Sue-lee,’ he said, pushing the lemon down into the bottle. ‘I’ve been drinking the same beer and smoking the same cigarettes for as long as I can remember.’ He raised the bottle in salute and then drank. Mrs Chan returned from the kitchen with a big bowl of flat white noodles in a broth that she made herself, with half a dozen thick slices of roast duck on top.
‘On the house, Mr Jack,’ she said.
‘You spoil me, Mrs Chan,’ said Nightingale, picking up a fork and a spoon. Despite being a big fan of Chinese food he’d never managed to master chopsticks.
‘When they tell me the police take you away this morning, I think I lose good customer,’ she said.
‘Like I said, it was just a misunderstanding.’
Mrs Chan reached over and grabbed his wrist, her nails biting into his flesh so hard that he winced. He tried to pull his hand away but her grip was unbreakable. She stared at him, her face a blank mask. ‘Please help me, Jack,’ she said, though her thin lips barely moved.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Please help me, Jack,’ she repeated, her voice robotic, her eyes staring through him.
‘Mrs Chan, what’s wrong?’ Her grip tightened and the nail of her index finger pierced his skin. Blood dribbled down his wrist.
Mrs Chan’s jaw was clamped shut and she was breathing through her nose so hard that her nostrils flared with each breath.
‘Mrs Chan, are you all right? You’re hurting me.’
‘Please help me, Jack.’ The hand tightened and now all the nails were deep in Nightingale’s flesh and a drop of blood plopped onto the table. Nightingale stood up and tried to twist out of her grasp. Mrs Chan held on and he dragged her across the table. Her left arm sent the bowl of noodles and his bottle of beer crashing to the floor.
Sue-lee came running and one of the cooks appeared at the kitchen door, a cleaver in his hand. He was wearing baggy grey shorts and a stained vest and he stared open-mouthed at Mrs Chan, who was sprawled across the table, still gripping Nightingale’s wrist.
‘Jack, what are you doing?’ shouted Sue-lee, grabbing her mother around the waist. Mrs Chan released her grip on Nightingale’s arm and staggered backwards. Her daughter held her and then Mrs Chan turned and sobbed into Sue-lee’s shoulder.
‘I didn’t do anything,’ said Nightingale. ‘Your mum grabbed me.’ He held up his hand and showed her the wounds on his wrist. ‘Look what she did.’
‘Just go,’ said Sue-lee, stroking her mother’s hair.
‘Sue-lee, I was just sitting here.’ The cook stepped towards Nightingale, the cleaver held high. Nightingale raised his hands and backed towards the door. There were only a few customers in the restaurant but they had all stopped eating and were watching Nightingale in horror. ‘Okay, I’m going,’ said Nightingale.
‘And don’t come back,’ said Sue-lee emphatically as her mother continued to sob.
She was wearing a white sweatshirt, a blue cotton skirt and silver trainers with blue stars on them. She was sitting on the wall of the balcony, her legs under the metal rail, her arms on top of it. Her name was Sophie Underwood, she was nine years old, and Jack Nightingale was the only person in the world who could stop her falling to her death.
He took his pack of Marlboro and lighter from his pocket. He was on the balcony of the adjoining flat and there was a gap of about six feet between the terrace where he was standing and the one where Sophie was sitting, whispering to her Barbie doll.
Nightingale lit a cigarette and inhaled as he tried to work out what he should say to the little girl. There had to be something, some combination of words said in the right way that would change her mind. He blew smoke and tried not to look at her. The words that would save her were just out of reach, at the edge of his consciousness. If he could just focus he’d come up with the right words and then everything would be okay.
He was alone on the balcony and he knew that was wrong. Negotiators always worked in threes. Always. So why was he alone? He couldn’t remember how he’d got onto the balcony or why he didn’t have any back-up, all he knew was that he needed to find the right words to say to stop Sophie Underwood from falling to her death. Nightingale was on the balcony which meant that he was the Primary. Number One. It was the Primary’s job to communicate with the subject. That was what Sophie was. The subject. The person in crisis. The little girl who was about to fall thirteen storeys to her death unless Nightingale came up with the words that would stop her. Nightingale looked over his shoulder at the room behind him. That was where the Number Two would be, if he had a Number Two. The Secondary. It was the Secondary’s job to monitor the situation, keep notes and offer advice. The Primary was often caught up in the moment and had to think on his feet but the Secondary was able to supply a dispassionate perspective. The third member of the team was the Intelligence Negotiator. Number Three. He would be down on the ground talking to anyone who knew the person in crisis, friends and relatives, anyone who might be able to provide information that could be useful for the Primary. That information would be relayed to the Number Two who would pass it on to the Number One. Except that there was no Number Two and no Number Three. There was just Nightingale and the nine-year-old girl who was sitting on the balcony swinging her legs and whispering to her doll and preparing to fall to her death.
Nightingale looked across at the balcony where the girl was. She was still whispering to her doll. She had long blonde hair that she’d tucked behind her ears and skin as white and smooth as porcelain. He could see dark patches under her eyes as if she had trouble sleeping. He took another long drag on his cigarette. He had to find some way of initiating a conversation because so long as she was talking she wasn’t falling. He couldn’t talk about her family because it was her father who was abusing her and her mother knew but wasn’t doing anything to stop him. School, maybe. Maybe she was happier at school so if they talked about that then she’d realise that there were people who loved her and wanted to protect her. He didn’t know if she had a pet. Pets were good because pets loved unconditionally. She lived in an apartment so that probably meant she didn’t have a dog but there could be a cat or a gerbil, something that depended on her. That was always a good way of reaching a person in crisis: appeal to their caring side, show that the world was a better place because they were in it. That’s why he needed a Number Two and Number Three because then he’d know for sure and he wouldn’t say anything that would provoke a negative response. All the responses had to be positive because she was sitting on the edge of a wall with nothing other than a rail between her and the ground thirteen storeys below. He looked over his shoulder again but there was no one there. No back-up. No support. Just Jack Nightingale and a nine-year-old girl. And for the life of him he had no idea what to say.
He took a quick look to his right. She had stopped whispering to the doll and was staring out over the Thames. Seagulls were gliding over the river, searching out the updrafts so that they didn’t have to flap their wings. Nightingale smiled. The birds. He could talk about the birds. All kids liked birds and she must have seen them every day from her apartment. Perfect. He took a final pull on his cigarette and flicked it away, watching it spin through the air, sparks scattering from the lit end as it fell. He flinched, realising that had been a mistake.
He turned to look at her, smiling to show that he was on her side, but just as he opened his mouth to speak she slid off the balcony, her eyes tightly closed, the doll clutched to her chest.
Nightingale screamed and that was when he woke up, bathed in sweat. His heart was pounding. He padded to the kitchen and took a bottle of Russian vodka from the icebox of his fridge, where it had been since the Christmas before last. He unscrewed the top and drank from the bottle. The warmth spread across his chest but it didn’t make him feel any better. He paced up and down as he drank, trying to blot out the image of Sophie falling to her death, her blonde hair whipping around in the wind, the doll in her arms. He shivered as he remembered the dull wet sound she’d made as she hit the ground. He took another drink and wiped his mouth with his arm, then went through to his sitting room and sat down on the sofa.
He looked at his watch. It was three o’clock. He knew that it wasn’t a good idea to be drinking vodka at that time of the morning but he didn’t care. He just wanted to stop thinking about Sophie and the way that she’d died. And the fact that he hadn’t stopped her. He lay back on the sofa and stared up at the ceiling. Tears welled in his eyes. ‘I’m so sorry, Sophie,’ he said. ‘I’m so, so, sorry.’
Nightingale woke up with a thumping headache and a bad taste in his mouth as if something had crawled in there and died. He turned on his side and squinted at the clock on the bedside table. It was just after nine thirty. Next to the clock was an empty bottle of vodka that he only half-remembered finishing. He rolled out of bed, staggered to the bathroom and drank from the cold tap. He walked unsteadily back to his bed, sat down and lit a cigarette, then lay back and blew smoke up at the ceiling.
He heard his mobile phone ringing in the sitting room. Nightingale groaned before pushing himself off the bed, stubbing out the remains of his cigarette in a glass ashtray and retrieving the phone from the pocket of his raincoat. It was Jenny.
‘Are you okay?’ she asked.
Nightingale sat down and ran his hand through his hair. His stomach lurched and he had to fight the urge to vomit.
‘Yeah, I’m okay. What’s up?’
‘I was just checking to see if you were going to be in the office this morning,’ said Jenny. ‘There’re papers here that need signing.’
‘Can’t you do it?’
‘Your accountant sent them. Inland Revenue. I’m not putting my signature on anything that could get me put behind bars.’
‘I’m up to date with my taxes.’
‘Not with VAT you’re not,’ said Jenny. ‘And I found these forms in your desk. You got them well before Christmas and your accountant called me to say he really needed them before the year end.’
‘You know the last few weeks have been crazy, kid.’
‘Yes, well, I don’t think that the Revenue accept that as a valid excuse.’
‘I’m on my way in,’ said Nightingale. His stomach lurched again and he lay back and concentrated on not throwing up.
‘Don’t forget you’ve got that surveillance thing at lunchtime,’ said Jenny.
Nightingale screwed up his face. He had forgotten. He tried to remember where he’d left his camera.
‘You’ve got your camera and stuff, haven’t you? Mr Stevens wants photographs.’
‘Yeah. Sure. Somewhere.’ He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
‘Are you sure you’re okay? You sound a bit strange.’
‘I’m not feeling so good,’ said Nightingale. ‘Tell you what, I’ll go straight to the surveillance job. I’ll do the forms this afternoon.’ He ended the call, took another deep breath to steady himself, then went through to the kitchen to switch on the kettle. He grinned as he saw his black holdall containing his camera equipment on the table by the fridge.
He shaved and showered then put on a suit that he’d just had back from the dry cleaners, selecting a blue tie with boomerangs on it that his aunt and uncle had given him for his birthday three years ago. They’d been on holiday in Australia and had obviously been browsing in the duty-free shop in Sydney Airport on their way back; the tie had still had the price sticker on it when they gave it to him. ‘Many happy returns,’ his aunt had said when he opened the package, and then his uncle repeated it, just in case he missed the boomerang reference. He stared at his reflection as he fastened the tie, remembering the last time he’d seen his aunt. She had been lying on the kitchen floor of her house in Altrincham, to the south of Manchester, her head smashed open, blood and brains congealing on the lino. He shuddered as he remembered walking up the stairs and finding his uncle hanging from the trapdoor that led to the attic. Murder-suicide, according to the Manchester Coroner, but Nightingale knew there was more to it than that. He stared at the tie, shuddered again and took it off. He tossed it in a drawer and put on a tie with alternating dark and pale blue stripes, then went back to the kitchen and made himself a cup of coffee. He didn’t feel like eating but figured that a bowl of porridge would settle his stomach, so he microwaved a bowl of instant Quaker Oats and ate it while he watched a bleached blonde on Sky News explain why house prices were going to drop by ten per cent over the next year, her report complete with computer graphics and interviews with householders facing bankruptcy because they were being forced to sell their homes for less than they’d paid for them.