Codename Chameleon

Chapter 2

The Sign of the Green Dragon

I haven't seen the man in the leather jacket again, or the one who came in to buy the CD, so I guess I'm through with the whole business. I'm careful never to speak of it to anyone. Stepping out into the back alley no longer holds the excitement of entering a danger zone, a passage to an unknown world where men play with guns and bombs for real. Now it's just a place to smoke a cigarette. I had a good weekend spending the money, mostly on beer. I shocked a mate by paying him back the twenty I owed him.

It's lucky I've got a good memory for faces. I'm in the Green Dragon, a pub where I go to play pool, I need a drink after a busy day at the shop. Boss was in an evil mood today and taking it out on us minions. Anyway I'm having a beer watching some guys play pool and I notice this man who came in right after me. I keep looking at him and I'm sure I've seen him before somewhere. I think maybe he is a customer at the shop but that doesn't seem quite right. Then it's my turn to play pool so I stop thinking about it. The other guy gives me two shots, big mistake, and I get on to the black. Then this deja vu guy comes up and puts a coin on the table and suddenly I know who he is. He was standing right outside the shop, face pressed up against the window, watching everything that was going on, when I fucked up the CD handover. This is kind of embarrassing. In spite of the distraction I pot the black with an ace shot. It's his game next so I've got to play him. He takes his time putting the coin in, racking up, choosing his cue. Don't bother mate, there's only one cue in this pub which is straight and has a halfway decent tip and I'm holding it in my hand. We toss for break and I call heads and lose.

I'm just starting to relax thinking he doesn't know who I am and this is some kind of weird coincidence when he starts talking. By this time the other guys who were hanging out by the pool table have gone and the music's too loud for anyone to overhear.

"You work at that record shop down the high street, don't you, what's it called, Fast Track?"

He's faking this, no one ever forgets that stupid name.

"How long have you known Curtis Winter?"

"I don't know any Curtis Winter." This is true.

"I think you do. You've been seen with him, talking with him in the alley behind your shop."

Oh. Right, him. "I didn't know his name, I've only seen him a couple of times."

"That's what I hoped you were going to say, he's not someone you want to get to know too well. Not that you'll have a chance now, he's going to be in prison for a while."

Then at last I get it. "You're a cop? Hey, believe me, I didn't know he was up to any thing illegal! I thought he just wanted my help with some kind of practical joke."

He sighs. "That's just like Curtis, pick some kid that doesn't have any idea... if you see him, or anyone connected with this business, and they ask you to do anything, anything at all, just let me know, will you? If I'm not at this number, leave a message. Name names, places, everything. Give us as much info as you can. And be careful, don't let them know you're in touch with us, these are not people to mess about with. That's why we're not having this little chat down at the station." The pool game has been on hold for a while but now, as if reminded that someone might be watching, he takes a clumsy shot which misses the pocket by inches. "What we will do for you in return is try to get you out of any trouble you may be in with these people."

I pick up the business card that he's put down next to the chalk. "Sounds like a good deal to me," I say, leaning over the table, "if I see this Curtis, or the other guy, I'll be in touch. But I don't think it's likely to happen, I mean I don't think I really impressed them with that CD swap thing. " I pot four balls and the black and head to the bar for another beer.

When I get back he's gone. There's no coins on the table so I sit down with my beer and take a look at his card. It's got a logo on it for a company called Brightways Information Systems and his name, Vincent B. Penny. One London number and one mobile, and an email, vipenny@brightways.co.uk. This is tricky. Is he really a cop or some kind of private detective? Is this even his real name? Has he given me a fake card in case the bad guys search me? If so, is this to protect me or to protect himself? Let's face it, if he's not really a cop there's no way he's going to be able to look out for me, whatever I do to help him. But probably it's not going to happen, I could just throw this card away and it wouldn't make a difference. If Dodgy Guy, Curtis Winter, is inside for a while I think I'm safe. The other guy only saw me for a minute, he doesn't know my name, I mean, I can't remember what the checkout guy looked like from last time I went in a shop. There's no way he's coming after me. But I don't throw the card away.

Days go past and nothing is new except that I'm joined in the alley by another smoker, a girl from one of the offices. She's a secretary type who wears skirt suits. She says she's the only person in her office building who smokes. It's kind of a nuisance because she wants to talk all the time and she keeps asking questions. I think she can see into the alley out of a window because she quite often comes out for a cigarette right after I do. Her name is Anne.

What happens next happens so slowly, so gradually that I'm not really sure it's happening at all. As I'm walking around, going home from work, going to the pub, whatever, I keep getting the feeling I'm being followed. There's no reason for this, it's not like I actually see anyone, it's just a feeling. Sometimes I turn around and there's never anybody there. I get into the habit, as I walk down the street, of looking over my shoulder, glancing into shop windows, looking into the mirrors of parked cars as I pass them, watching the shadows as I walk under a street light. The shadows, the reflections, they never show me anything I didn't expect to see.

Outwardly of course I am my usual chilled self and I'm careful not to give people a hint that all this weird stuff has been happening to me. There's no way my friends would believe I'm being followed, they'd just think I was crazy, paranoid, on drugs, whatever. I'm not too sure they wouldn't be right, I mean, I know I don't do that kind of drugs anyway, but the rest of it could be true. It could be that I'm just overreacting to having a cop follow me into a pub once and now I'm seeing them everywhere. Except I'm not seeing them, it's just this creepy feeling.

I live in a big old house which is split up into bedsits and rented to students and people like me who don't need a lot of space and don't want to pay much rent. It's cheap because the building is falling apart, every so often the landlord sends builders round to fix the roof or something, and of course he picks cowboys so in a few months the work needs to be done again. I don't know when I might come home to find scaffolding outside my window. It's kind of like having a living space on a building site. After some tenants got their stereo and stuff ripped off by one set of builders the landlord put new locks, good ones, on all the doors and all the windows have bolts. I don't have much that's worth stealing except my computer which is an old one I got second hand and put in a few upgrades myself. One of the other tenants was telling me about some insurance deal you can get if your stuff gets ripped off but I don't see spending money on something that's maybe not going to happen ever.

I use my computer mostly for games, it's just about fast enough to play games on the Internet. There are loads of gaming sites and gamer's chat rooms on the net as well. Because I'm on the net a lot I download any free security software I can get and I'm careful to update the virus definitions, so far I've been lucky and not had any viruses. Not even Chromeworm or Flamethrower which caused problems for so many people. One evening I'm hanging out at home and I'm on the net, checking out a friend's website for a band he plays drums with, the Toxic Bachelors. It's a killer site, great 3D animation, there's a video of the band playing a track from their new CD, their jeans and Tshirts change to red robes and their heads become the heads of birds, hawks and eagles. I'm about to disconnect when a bubble flashes up saying something like "Remote Computer attempting interface." There's an OK button to click but before I can do anything the bubble vanishes and is replaced by a new bubble with a skull and crossbones in black and the words "Dark Ghost" in a weird looking Goth style font. I hit disconnect right away but there's a delay of about ten seconds and I'm swearing at the PC as the skull and crossbones grows larger, taking over the screen. Someone is hacking into my computer! Finally it disconnects and the skull and crossbones vanishes. I'm left looking at my desktop which right now is a picture of Westminster bridge collapsing I got from Fools Rush In And Explode. I search through everything I've got on the PC for "Dark Ghost" but the search comes up with nothing. Must be I got away before it could download completely, that was lucky.

I find the latest new firewall on the internet and download it, I'm not going to let that happen to me again. Its called Lasermesh Dustfilter, supposed to let in absolutely nothing you don't want, should keep out those Dark Ghosts. Why would anyone want to hack into my computer anyway? Just because they can, just to show off? No need to take it personally. But I find I can't help being kind of on edge when I'm online as if I might be hacked any minute. So now I'm doubly paranoid, on the net and out in the street.

On the way home from work one day as I'm walking through the shops, I look sideways at the flat glass of a shop front. The shop is closed and it's dark inside. Reflected in the glass I see the blurred image of two men, both wearing jeans and grey jackets, as they hastily turn away. I walk on until I get to the camera shop, the window is lit up and I stop as if I want to look at the cameras on display. Out of the corner of my eye I can see the two men stop. One looks at his watch, the other looks around as if searching for an address. After a moment I continue on my way and I can feel without turning round that they continue to follow me. The back of my neck feels exposed to the eyes of predators. My hair stands up away from my skin. I sense that they are getting closer, it is hard not to turn round, not to run. I come to where I usually take a short cut down an alley between two shops, leading to a road which runs past the back of all the shops. At this time it will be empty. This has never bothered me before. When I get to the entrance to this alley, the gap between the two shops, I hesitate. I turn round. The men are very close. One grabs my arm and tries to push me into the alley, but I don't give him time to get a good hold. I break away from him and avoid the grasping hands of the other as I run as fast as I can down the alley and out at the other end. I race across the road as a car hoots angrily and run into the welcoming doorway of the Green Dragon. They can't attack me in a pub, someone will call the police.

The barman gives me an odd look as I gasp out my order for a beer. I'm not used to running but at least I'm younger and fitter than them. As I sit down with my beer I remember this is the pub where I met that cop Vincent Penny. I've still got his card somewhere, I think it may be in one of the pockets of this jacket. I look through all the pockets and of course it's in the last one I look in. The door opens and I quickly put the card back in my pocket again as two men walk in. Grey jackets, jeans. Too late.

They go to the bar and get themselves drinks. I think of running out but in the end I decide it's probably safer to stay in the pub. They come over to my table and sit down. There's only one other chair so one of them has to pull a chair over from the next table. The pub, as usual at this time, is almost empty.

"No need to run away from us!" the one who grabbed my arm says, as if he is an old friend and I've just done something to hurt his feelings.

"We're not going to hurt you," the other man joins in, "we only want to get back what Curtis gave you."

Not again. More trouble about the dodgy CD.

"Are you friends of Curtis?" I ask. Really I don't care but I need time to think. I'd be surprised if he's actually got any friends.

They look at each other for a long moment. "Oh yes," the second man says, "we've known Curtis for a very long time."

"I don't know him so well," I reply, "and I gave it back to him a few days later. Maybe a week later."

"Now why should we believe that, when he never passed it on as he was contracted to do?" It's the first man again, arm-grabber.

"Right after I gave it to him he was caught by two men with guns. Big men, wearing suits. I think they took it from him." I say this slowly, hoping it's the clever thing to say and will with any luck get their attention away from me.

They look at each other again, and after a while the second man nods. They stand up. Arm-grabber can't resist getting in the last word. "You better not be lying to us, boy, because believe me, we will find out. And when we find out we will be back. You won't find it so easy to get away from us a second time." They walk out leaving me with my beer which I've hardly touched. I've never needed a beer so much.

I finish the beer and get another. I text Vincent Penny and tell him what just happened. He doesn't text back. Great, I think, a lot of use in a crisis. I could have been murdered. But now it's all over I feel elated as if I've got away with something. Without help, I escaped from two criminals. I feel even better when Anne walks in, sees me and comes over to my table. I get her a drink, she's drinking Coke because she's driving. We have a couple of games of pool and a few more drinks. When the pub closes she gives me a lift home.

A few days later I'm in the record shop again, it's kind of a slow day, there's not a lot to do, there's a few customers browsing but they don't seem to need any help. One of Mike's DJ friends has come in and they're using the PC to look at rare record sites so I can't even play a game. So I'm sitting at the till with nothing to do, staring out at the street through the shop front window, when I see someone I know walk past. It's Vincent Penny. He walks straight past without looking my way and goes into the office building next door, the one where Anne works.

I'm so bored I take a cigarette break. If any customers decide they actually want to buy anything, Mike can do it. I'm standing outside in the alley, looking up at the fire escape that zigzags down the back wall of Anne's building. She works on the second floor and this is the way she usually comes down to the alley when she wants a cigarette. I'm hoping she does come out though it's not her usual time. I haven't seen so much of her in the last few days, not since we met in the pub. I wonder if she drinks there a lot, I haven't seen her there before. Maybe next time I see her I'll ask her if she wants to go for a drink after work.

Suddenly the door at the top of the fire escape bursts open, hitting the railing with a bang. A man in a dark suit and white shirt, his tie pulled to one side, runs out and starts running down the fire escape two steps at a time. He is followed by Vincent Penny and then, slowed down by her secretary's shoes, by Anne. The man has nearly reached the ground when Anne sees me and shouts, "Stop him!" I stand blocking the bottom of the fire escape, no way can he get past me. He tries to jump over the railings but Penny catches up with him and grabs his arm. I then hear him go through the whole arrest thing that I'm sure you know from cop shows, reading him his rights and all that. He puts handcuffs on him. Anne smiles at me and says, "Thanks for stopping him. He was too quick for me and Vince."

Penny laughs. "Well, we got him at last! Looks like you've blown your cover, Anne, not that it matters now. I think you've just about done all you can with this office work. Let me introduce you to WPC Anne Thornton who's been doing a little undercover work for me."

So Anne is a cop. And I really thought she liked me.

Now Read Chapter 3!