Codename Chameleon

Chapter 5

A night out in Soho

On Friday I'm waiting for six o'clock closing time even more impatiently than usual. The boss seems to sense this and gives me all the tedious jobs so the afternoon seems to drag on and on. Ratstar must be feeling the same, he sends me a text about five saying "r we still on 4 tonite", I can't answer right away but as soon as Boss is back in his office I text back with "u bet". Between quarter to six and six I look at my watch maybe ten times. Even Mike notices and asks if I've got a hot date. I wish. No I don't, I can't think of anything I'd rather do tonight than check out the Red Lantern Jazz Bar.

Anyway at last it's six o'clock and I'm free. I'm meeting Ratstar in the Green Dragon but before I go there I stop at the newsagents on the corner. I look up the Soho page in an A to Z and find the road where the bar is. I don't want Ratstar to think I don't know my way around London. It's in Chinatown in a little road off Wardour Street, that shouldn't be too hard to find. I buy a pack of cigarettes to stop the newsagent giving me his usual line, "This is a shop not a library". Then I head off to the pub and when I get there I find Ratstar's late. Normally this would not bother me, I'd just chill and have a pool game, but today I'm kind of nervous, I don't want anything to happen that could stop us going to Soho. I'm even getting impatient watching two guys have a pool game, they're taking forever to pot the black, playing it safe, each guy trying to put it where the other guy can't have an easy shot. Finally one of them pots it and it's my turn to play the winner. I'm still kind of anxious about where Ratstar's got to so I miss a couple of shots and the other guy gets ahead, so I have to start to really concentrate. If he was a better player he could have won by now. I get back to the table and start potting balls and just as I get down to the black Ratstar walks in. So that's cool and I can focus on the game and finish off by potting the black in style. Ratstar doesn't even comment on the shot. He walks off to the bar and comes back with two pints so it looks like we're not leaving anytime soon.

It turns out he's been using the time to google Dark Ghost and the Red Lantern Jazz Bar. The Red Lantern turns out to be one of a chain of bars with a colour theme, names like the Pink Paradise or the Yellow Submarine. Dark Ghost was not so easy to track down online.

"When I googled Dark Ghost, I got a lot of nonsense about ghost stories and horror films. Nothing about the real Dark Ghost, the hacker. The stupid thing is, I know it's there! I've seen loads of stuff on various security websites, you know, warning about viruses and hackers and scaring you into buying their firewall. Do you know what this means? They've hacked into Google!"

Now this is scary. Hacking into Google is never going to be easy. On a scale of one to ten I'd say it would be nine, with ten being military sites. It makes me realise exactly what we're up against. Just me and Ratstar against someone that can hack into Google? I wouldn't know where to start, though maybe Ratstar would. The only thing I'm that good at is playing pool and computer games. "Do you still want to do this?" I ask him and when he doesn't reply at once, I decide that whatever he says I'm going to keep on. It's become something I need to do. It's going to be so much harder to do without him.

"Yes," he says at last, "I want to go on. I have to. I need to find out. " So then I know he feels the same as me, that if we don't go to the Red Lantern Jazz Bar tonight, we won't be able to stop thinking about what might have happened and how we missed our chance to trace the notorious hacker Dark Ghost.

It's too early to go there yet, so we stay in the pub for a bit and have another pint. I win a few more pool games. Ratstar's stopped complaining when I beat him, he's been saying it's just luck, but now he's finally got it that I'm the better player. Then we walk down to the tube station, stopping at a take away place for some slices of pizza. Now the decision has been made and we are definitely on the way, I'm quite calm and so is Ratstar as if this is just another night out at a bar. We get to the tube and push through the usual crowd round the entrance who want to scrounge a cigarette, beg for cash, sell you drugs or re-use your travelcard. When we get to the platform a train is there and we just manage to jump through the doors before they close. We're on our way to Soho.

We get off at Oxford Street and walk to Chinatown. This is a place with a different vibe. It's mostly Chinese restaurants and food stores plus of course a few bars. The Red Lantern is in a road that's hardly wide enough for a car and is only there to act as a short cut between two other roads. If I hadn't looked at a map I would have walked right past and not seen it. Right on the edge of Chinatown where it brushes up against grey office buildings there is a door, painted black, and painted on the door is a red Chinese lantern. Copper dragons, slowly turning green, stand one on each side of the door. Each lifts a scaly forelimb to hold up a sign, "Welcome to the Red Lantern Jazz Bar." The dragons are not the only guardians of this doorway. A huge man stands in front, his bulk nearly as wide as the door. We watch a couple get out of a taxi and go in, showing the doorman some kind of pass or ticket. As he opens the door for them I hear music but see only a glimpse of a dark interior.

The doorman's noticed us now and he says "You looking for the Red Lantern?" It must be obvious we are, I mean, there's nothing else down here that anyone would want at this time of night.

"How much is it to get in?" Ratstar asks.

"Only a fiver. Three quid if you're a member. There's a good singer tonight, she's only just started her set, you don't want to miss it."

So we go in through the door between the two copper dragons and we pay five pounds each to a Chinese man who tries to sell us membership, but I say we want to see what it's like first. There's a list of what bands are on each night, tonight it's a singer called Isabel King. I wonder if she looks like the girl in the red dress on the poster. Not long to find out, all we have to do is walk through another door decorated with a painted red lantern and we're through to the main room of the club. I hear the singer before I see her, she has an incredible voice, deep for a woman, and every word sounds clear and sweet. I'm heading for the bar when I notice Ratstar is transfixed, staring up at the stage, he's not even thought about getting a drink. So I follow his eyes.

And I see her, Isabel King, as tall as I am, very thin, straight black hair falling to her waist and a red dress. She's Chinese or maybe half Chinese, nothing like the girl in the poster. Her dress looks kind of Chinese style, long with a high neck and no sleeves. She's singing some old song about stars and moonlight. There's a band, saxophone, drums, keyboard, but nobody's looking at them. She makes every other woman I've seen look less than beautiful. I think Ratstar's in love.

I go to the bar and get us both a drink and when I get back he's still standing in exactly the same place, still gazing at the stage where Isabel King is whispering into the mic some lyric about how much she needs her man. When she gets to the chorus the sax kicks in and she sings out loud, and I get Ratstar over to a table and make him sit down and put a drink in front of him. I know he's totally forgotten what we're here for.

Ratstar drinks his pint in automatic mode, his mind on Isabel King. He can't stop talking about her, how beautiful she is, her amazing voice, her presence on the stage. He doesn't even look round the club at the other women there. When she finishes a song he claps for longer than anyone else. He finally finishes his drink and I have to remind him that it's his round. He's actually not thinking about drinking which is a first, at least for as long as I've known him. He gets up and goes to the bar but he keeps turning round to look at the stage, so everyone's jumping in ahead of him and getting served first.

I'm starting to think I'd better get the drinks myself if I want to have another one sometime tonight, when the song ends and Isabel King says, "Thank you, I'll be back with more songs for you after a short break." She gets down from the stage and I think that's good, now Ratstar can concentrate on getting the drinks. Then I see she's walking over to the bar, and Ratstar sees her too. Now he's got a reason for speed he wastes no time and when she reaches the bar he's giving his order to the barman. He turns to her and says something, I'm guessing he's asking her if she'd like a drink. He gets her a drink and stays there at the bar talking to her, not caring that I'm sitting here with an empty glass. So I get up and walk over to where they are standing at the bar. If we lose our table it's too bad.

I've got to think of a tactful way to remind him what we're actually here for. I can't be too direct with Isabel listening, I don't want her telling everybody that comes into the bar that we're looking for someone called Dark Ghost. The only chance we've got of finding him is if he doesn't know anyone's looking. So when I get there I just join in the general chat, hoping that at the end of her break Ratstar and I can get down to business. She's very friendly and charming but I'm not sure if she actually likes Ratstar at all and I think she's a little amused by his attempts to impress her. She must meet so many guys working here, I'll be surprised if she doesn't already have a boyfriend, not that this would stop Ratstar anyway. I remember the party he took me to and I hope nothing like that's going to happen tonight. Not a good idea to get in trouble with the staff here, our search may bring us here again.

I've been looking round all the tables to see if I spot anyone who fits in with my idea of Dark Ghost, but it's not going to be so easy. I'm sure if he was here he couldn't pick me out as the Commander General of Sea Serpent Station. I'm assuming he's young because he's a gamer and that narrows it down. There's four guys maybe a little older than me together at a table, they look like they're here for the drink more than for the music. One of these guys is going up to the bar every few minutes and going back to the table with a tray of drinks. There's two young guys standing near us at the bar but I can hear them talking and they're Australian. Of course there's no reason Dark Ghost couldn't be Australian but it's more likely these are just two guys on holiday. There's one guy at a table on his own who would be my best guess, I can hardly see what he looks like because he's over in a dark corner of the room, but I can see he keeps looking over at us every so often. I shouldn't think it's me or Ratstar he's interested in.

Then it's time for Isabel to get back on stage and at last I've got Ratstar to myself. I remind him why we are here. He agrees with me that the guy on his own is the most likely to be the one we're looking for. Then he gets excited.

"You see that case he's got under his chair? I bet that's a laptop! It looks just like a laptop case. Who except a hacker would bring a laptop to a bar?"

I'm not convinced, I mean, the guy could have come here straight from work. But having a laptop does make it more likely that I'm right. As if he's trying to convince us he gets out the laptop and starts using it and this gets Ratstar even more excited. "Do you think this is a hotspot?" He takes out his palmtop and presses a few keys. "Definitely a hotspot! Look, I'm online. I can see why this is a hacker's hangout. It's an open node!" For the moment he's forgotten Isabel, his attention is totally on what he's doing with the Palmtop. "Hey, if he was closer and we could see what he was doing, we'd know!"

"If one of us went round behind him, like he was going to the men's, you could get a good look at his screen and he wouldn't suspect anything." I point out the sign behind him, Toilets and an arrow.

"I'll go!" says Ratstar and he's off. It makes sense for him to go, he knows more than I do about hacking. He's not too subtle about taking a look as he walks past, but the guy's back is turned to him and if anyone else notices they probably just think he's nosy. A minute later he walks back and gets another look at the screen. It's lucky it's him doing this as just then a man walks in and goes straight to this guy's table and as he pulls out a chair he's looking straight at Ratstar. If it was me walking past at that moment he'd be sure to recognise me because it's Curtis Winter. Ratstar wants to tell me what he's seen but I cut in and tell him why I have to go. Whatever happens I don't want Winter to see me. I want very much to find Dark Ghost but there's no way I want him to know where to find me. Winter's telling Laptop Guy some long story so this is a good time to leave, before he decides he wants a drink.

As soon as we're out of there Ratstar starts to tell me what he saw on the guy's laptop screen. It means nothing to me but Ratstar's pretty sure he's a hacker. We have a name for him, Ratstar heard Curtis Winter call him Luke. I know Winter's mixed up with some seriously unpleasant people. For the first time I feel we might be better off if we abandon the search.

Having just seen Curtis Winter I'm not too surprised to see another familiar face. Standing in a dark doorway from where she can watch the entrance to the club, wrapped in a dark coat with a hood hiding her blonde hair, she looks down as I pass as if she doesn't want to be recognised. So I pretend I haven't seen her and we walk past without stopping or saying a word.

I'm working in the shop the next day and finding it harder than usual to keep an eye on the customers, as I'm supposed to because Boss has a theory that more shoplifters come in on Saturdays. I keep thinking about last night, Curtis Winter walking into the bar like that, looking like he'd been there before and knew his way around. The question that keeps coming into my head is, if the Red Lantern is somehow connected with Dark Ghost, and Curtis Winter drinks in the Red Lantern, then is there a connection between Dark Ghost and Curtis Winter? This is an unpleasant thought as I don't want Winter or the people he works with to know any more about me than they do already. Of course if Dark Ghost is the man I spotted last night with the laptop, he knows Winter and he's seen me. He noticed us when we were talking to Isabel King. So in a way I hope I'm wrong and Dark Ghost is someone else.

A girl comes into the shop and asks me to recommend a game she can give as a present to her brother, so I sell her a copy of Fools Rush In And Explode. She's cute and I watch her going out of the door where she nearly bumps into Vincent Penny on his way in. This is not a surprise as I know Anne will have told him where I was last night. He looks well pissed off with me and though he speaks quietly, his words are angry.

"I knew I should have taken you down to the station for questioning! You're going to tell me right now exactly what you know about Curtis Winter, and I mean everything. I need to know what happened at the Red Lantern last night. Why the hell did you meet Winter there after I warned you against him? You'd better decide quickly whose side you're on, and if you have any sense it will be the side of the Law."

"I can tell you what I saw," I say to him, "but first you have to believe I didn't go there intending to meet Curtis Winter."

"Yes, I suppose you went up to Soho to hear some Jazz!" It's obvious he doesn't believe me. He probably won't believe the truth when he hears it but I'm going to tell him anyway. If Curtis Winter finds out I know more than I need to about his business, I'm going to need protection and Penny's the man who can provide it. He might even be able to confirm the identity of Dark Ghost.

"Soon after all that business with Winter and the CDROM, my computer at home was infected with a virus. It came in through a Trojan Horse, and I think it came from something or someone called Dark Ghost." I can see from his face that the name of Dark Ghost is unpleasantly familiar. I start to think he might even believe me. "The virus altered a game I've got called Fools Rush In And Explode. It's the one on the CD that.."

"Yes, I know!" he interrupts. "Terrorists attacking the Millennium Dome and the Houses of Parliament. Gave Special Branch a scare, before they confirmed it really was a game."

"Anyway, there's an option you can play where you blow up Tokyo and my friend was playing that option. His game was attacked by the same virus and Tokyo was altered so that every ad you saw was for the Red Lantern Jazz Bar. Then we saw a real ad for the Red Lantern at that building site down by the railway bridge. So we thought we'd go there for a drink and see if we could find Dark Ghost and get him to take the virus off our games."

Vincent Penny is shaking his head. "Dark Ghost won't be so easy to find. I knew he was mixed up in this somehow. But I wouldn't go looking if I was you, he could be even more dangerous than Winter. You really want to keep out of the way of people like that. I'd like to have an expert take a look at your computer, and your friend's as well, sometimes these hackers have a kind of signature. I have to admit you've helped us already, now we've got a definite link between Dark Ghost and the Red Lantern. Did you tell Winter what you were doing there?"

"Why can't you believe I don't know him? I didn't even let him see me! The minute he came in I walked out, luckily he was talking to someone and didn't see me. A guy with a laptop, about thirty, black hair, a moustache, in fact I was looking at this guy before Winter came in, he was my favourite to be Dark Ghost. That's why I saw Winter before he saw me."

Penny makes a note on his PDA. "A laptop, you say? It's possible. But I think Dark Ghost may turn out to be more than one person. Come down to the station after work and we'll do an artist's impression. I'll probably have thought of a few more questions for you by then. While I'm here, I need something for my nephew's birthday, do you think he'd like a computer game?" So I sell another copy of Fools Rush In And Explode.

After Penny leaves, the shop fills up with the usual Saturday crowd come to browse the racks of games and CDs. A few of them even buy something. Later when we are winding down to closing time and the crowds have gone, Ratstar walks in. He wants to go to the Red Lantern again. I don't know why he wants me to go with him when it's obvious he's only going there to meet Isabel King.

"No! I really don't need to run into that guy Curtis Winter again, and you don't even know if Isabel's singing tonight. There's different bands on different nights, better to check first." So we google the Red Lantern and after a look at the site of a bar of the same name in China, we find what we want, a program for the club in Soho which tells us that Isabel will be singing there on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. So Ratstar's going to have to wait till tomorrow.

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