‘ S o you didn’t tell her?’ asked Jenny, deftly picking up a prawn with her chopsticks and dipping it into a small dish of hot sauce. ‘You went all that way and you still didn’t tell her that Gosling sold her soul and yours? And that on her thirty-third birthday it’s so long and good night?’
Nightingale shrugged. He tried to pick up a piece of beef but the oyster sauce made it slippery and it fell onto the white paper tablecloth to add to the dozen or so food stains that proved testimony to his lack of chopstick skills. ‘You chose Chinese just because you know I can’t handle these things, didn’t you?’
They were eating in a restaurant close to Jenny’s mews house, one of her favourites. Nightingale had hit heavy traffic on the way back from Nottinghamshire and phoned her on his mobile to tell her that he’d be late and to arrange to see her for dinner.
‘I chose Chinese because I offered to buy you dinner and because I like Cantonese food,’ said Jenny. She smiled brightly. ‘I can get you a fork if you want.’
‘I’ll struggle on,’ said Nightingale.
‘Don’t think I didn’t notice that you changed the subject. Why didn’t you tell her that a devil was coming to claim her soul on her thirty-third birthday? That Gosling had traded her soul and that there’s nothing she can do about it?’
Nightingale sighed. ‘How could I tell her, Jenny? She looked at me like I was crazy when I told her that I was her half-brother. And even after I’d told her about the DNA evidence she was doubtful. If I’d told her that Gosling had sold her soul to a devil before she was born she’d have had me thrown out. Or committed. Can you imagine what the doctors would have done if they’d known? They’d have put me in a jacket with long sleeves before you could say “paranoid schizophrenic”.’
An elderly waitress dressed in black Chinese pyjamas brought a steel bowl of bok choi in garlic sauce over to the table. She spoke to Jenny in guttural Chinese and Jenny answered. The old woman cackled and walked away, as bow-legged as an elderly mariner.
‘You were talking about me, weren’t you?’ asked Nightingale, trying unsuccessfully to pick up another piece of beef.
‘She asked me if you were my new boyfriend and I said I’d rather crawl across broken glass than go on a date with you.’ She popped a piece of chicken into her mouth. ‘It sounds better in Cantonese.’
‘New boyfriend?’ said Nightingale. ‘What happened to the last one?’
Jenny jabbed her chopsticks at him. ‘My love life is a closed book to you, Jack Nightingale, and it’s going to stay that way. And you’ve changed the subject again.’
‘I thought the conversation had just progressed,’ said Nightingale. ‘Moved on.’
‘I know what progressed means,’ said Jenny.
‘I was using repetition for emphasis,’ said Nightingale.
‘No, you were using it to distract me,’ she laughed. ‘And it’s not working.’
Nightingale sipped his Tsingtao beer. ‘My sister’s in an insane asylum,’ he said. ‘They call it a secure mental facility but it’s an asylum. I’m not sure that telling her that her soul has been promised to a demon from Hell is actually going to help her.’
‘If it’s true, she has the right to know.’
Nightingale’s eyes narrowed. ‘If it’s true? What do you mean?’
‘Don’t get all defensive, Jack,’ she said.
‘No, I want to know what you mean.’
‘You do believe me, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Look at me, Jenny.’ He leaned towards her. ‘I’m serious, look at me. I’m having enough trouble convincing myself that this is actually happening. If you don’t believe me, then I might just have to accept that I’m going crazy.’
She looked into his eyes and smiled. ‘I believe you, Jack. Hand on heart, scout’s honour, cross my heart and hope to die, by all that’s holy, blah blah blah. I believe you.’
He smiled. ‘Thank you.’
‘It was a slip of the tongue. But it’s the fact that I do believe you that makes me so sure she has the right to know. If it was nonsense then it wouldn’t matter either way.’
‘Suppose I tell her and it pushes her over the edge?’ asked Nightingale.
‘She killed five kids,’ said Jenny. ‘That boat has pretty much sailed.’
‘Okay, but I tell her and then what? She’s locked up; there’s nothing she can do. She’s going to spend two years sitting in a cell knowing that she’s going to Hell.’ He sipped his beer again.
‘So she’s better off spending that time in ignorance?’
‘What can I do?’ He put down his chopsticks. ‘Look, I don’t want to tell her what the problem is until I can offer her a solution. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. And at the moment I don’t have anything approaching a solution.’
‘But you’ve got a plan, right? You’ve always got a plan.’
‘I’m going to talk to the detective who ran her case,’ said Nightingale. ‘I’ll take it from there. He’s already said he’ll see me tomorrow.’
‘That’s not much of a plan, is it?’
Nightingale shrugged. ‘Honey, right now it’s all I’ve got.’
When they’d finished, the elderly waitress brought over a white plate with two Chinese cookies and the bill. Jenny slid the bill out from under the cookies and pushed the plate towards Nightingale.
‘I’ll pass,’ he said.
‘Chicken,’ said Jenny, taking one of the cookies and crushing it with her fingers. She fished out a small slip of paper, read it, smiled, and held it out to him. ‘He who knows he has enough is rich.’
‘Bit sexist,’ said Nightingale. ‘There’s an even-money chance that a woman’s going to be reading it.’
‘You’re such a spoilsport.’ She held out the plate for him.
Nightingale shifted uncomfortably in his chair. ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea,’ he said. ‘Tempting fate.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve been getting enough shitty messages from beyond the grave recently. I can do without one in my fortune cookie.’ He nodded at the plate. ‘You open it for me. As part of your secretarial duties.’
‘I think it’s bad luck to open someone else’s fortune,’ she said.
‘Jenny, bad luck is the only sort of luck I’ve been having lately,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you opening my cookie is going to make it any worse.’
‘Suit yourself,’ she said. She cracked open the cookie and looked at the fortune inside. Her eyes widened and she sat back in her chair. ‘Oh my God,’ she gasped, putting a hand up to her mouth.
‘What?’ said Nightingale, leaning forward. ‘What does it say?’
‘It’s horrible,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘It’s so, so horrible…’
‘Jenny, show me,’ said Nightingale, holding out his hand.
Jenny’s face broke into a grin. ‘You’re so bloody gullible sometimes,’ she said, waving the fortune in his face. ‘You need to relax.’ She held it with both hands and read it to him. ‘Your life will be happy and peaceful.’ She laughed. ‘I think this one’s mine.’ She gave it to Nightingale and he shook his head as he read it.
‘I’d settle for happy and peaceful,’ he said. ‘Who writes these things?’
Jenny shrugged. ‘They’re supposed to make you feel good,’ she said. ‘If you feel good you’ll come back to the restaurant. Positive reinforcement.’ She put three twenty-pound notes onto the plate.
‘At least let’s split it,’ said Nightingale, reaching for his wallet.
‘I said I’d buy you dinner,’ said Jenny. The old waitress came over and Jenny told her that she should keep the change. As they headed for the door, a young Chinese man with gelled hair and a single diamond earring handed Jenny her coat and helped her on with it.
A small Chinese girl, who barely reached Nightingale’s shoulder, gave him his raincoat. He smiled at her but she stared stonily at him, her eyes as dark as polished coal. ‘Your sister is going to Hell, Jack Nightingale,’ she said, her voice flat and robotic.
‘What?’ said Nightingale. ‘What did you say?’
The girl’s face creased into a smile showing grey teeth and receding gums. ‘I say hope see you again,’ she said.
Jenny put a hand on his arm. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘Nothing,’ said Nightingale. ‘But I’m not hopeful about that happy and peaceful forecast.’