Codename Chameleon

Chapter 6

Shoot first, talk later

I've had a busy day and I need a drink. I know Ratstar's going to be in the Green Dragon so as soon as I finish work I go straight there. The last thing I need is to see Vincent Penny sitting at the bar with a pint. I say Hi when I'm getting a beer but after that I ignore him and go over to where Ratstar's playing pool. It's Saturday night and I just want to forget about cops, Dark Ghost and Curtis Winter and get drunk. I hope Ratstar knows about a party somewhere.

Finally it gets to be my turn on the pool table and I make sure I get the one pub cue that works. I even find a chalk and as I'm chalking my cue I look up and see Anne walk into the pub. She goes to join Penny at the bar and he gets her a drink. I start the game but every so often I look over to see if she's looking at me. Penny must have told her I'm here. Or maybe I'm being paranoid and it was just a convenient pub for them to meet for a drink.

In the end with all this going on I'm not concentrating and I lose my pool game. I've had enough of this place anyway, too many cops. Anne hasn't given any sign that she even knows I'm here. So when Ratstar goes to the Men's I quickly drink up my drink and slide off just in time to catch him as he comes out. We're in a narrow corridor that goes past the toilets to a door which is a way out from the pub into a side street. It's hardly ever used and I only know about it because of a guy I played for money who didn't want to pay up; I found out later how he disappeared. I never did get my twenty quid off him. So we vanish before the cops even know we're gone which is how I want it. By now I'm so paranoid I even look back to check we're not being followed. Ratstar of course complains I've made him leave half his drink, I know this is a lie and he's nearly finished it but to get him away from there fast I promise to buy him another one in the Jug and Bottle.

Ratstar's girl Jeanine is working there tonight and when she sees him she takes a break to talk to us and have a cigarette. It's still early so its not too busy and we get a table in a corner, away from the windows so the cops can't see us if they go past. Ratstar does a lot of stuff like saying how good she looks and he likes what she's wearing and lighting her cigarette but as soon as she's back behind the bar he starts talking about Isabel King. He's trying to talk me into going with him to the Red Lantern Jazz Bar tomorrow night but there's no way I'm going to risk running into Curtis Winter again, if I knew he hung out there I would never have gone there in the first place. Ratstar's talking as if it's about a chance to find Dark Ghost but I don't think it's about that any more, for him. I think he's becoming obsessed with Isabel King.

So Sunday night I don't go to the Red Lantern, I don't go to the pub to play pool, I chill at home alone with my PC. Had enough beer for the weekend at the party last night, some friend of a friend of Jeanine's took us along, good thing I don't work Sundays. I'm looking at gaming stuff on the net and I see this great idea for a martial arts game, with a mat and a cam so you can see yourself on the screen doing all these cool martial arts moves. I've got to get this, it's the next best thing to being an action movie star. Then I get a text from Ratstar. He's on his way to the Red Lantern and this is one more try to get me to meet him there. I text back saying no, we already talked about this. I log on to Warzone Space Station and soon I'm in the middle of an exciting battle and I forget all about him. I'm being attacked by a madman with a tachyon cannon when my phone beeps again with another text but I don't bother to look at it, Ratstar can wait. By the time I've finally smashed up his tachyon cannon and reduced his station to a smoking scrapheap I've had enough of the game for the moment so I log out and check my phone. Yes, the text is from Ratstar and when I read it I'm wishing I'd checked earlier. It says in typical Ratstar acronymic text style, "come rljb asap big clue dg", and as I read it I get this rush of adrenaline that carries me out of the door and on to the tube before I've had time to think. If there's a real chance of finding Dark Ghost I know I want to be there, I'll even risk Curtis Winter. If Ratstar's lying to me just to get me there I'll kill him.

But when I get to Soho and get past the big guy on the door and check out the dudes leaning against the long bar counter, not one of them is Ratstar. He's not one of the lone guys sitting at a little table, gazing at the empty stage over a row of empty pint glasses. A scan of the rest of the tables doesn't turn him up among the groups of loud-talking office-type wine drinkers or the tourist families with their shopping bags of souvenirs. I get a drink and find a little table for myself. I keep glancing at the door at least once a minute, I can't believe Ratstar would text me to come here and then just leave. Only good thing is, no sign of Curtis Winter.

The guys in the band get up on the stage and go straight into their first number before most people have really noticed they're there. Not like your usual rock bands that waste too much time on sound checks and Hello Londons. Then Isabel King steps into the spotlight looking glamourous and elegant in a dark blue trouser suit. It's as if she's appeared out of nowhere. Suddenly the whole place is silent except for the sound of the band and that incredible voice. But I'm thinking something is wrong. I know Ratstar would want to see her whatever is happening with Dark Ghost, there's no way he would want to miss hearing her sing.

They finish the first song and as everybody claps Ratstar pulls up a chair to my little table. "Hey, you made it! Good to see you, I've got some stuff to tell you. How long has she been on?"

"Just started. You haven't missed much. So what's been going on?" But before he can tell me Isabel starts singing again and it's one of those things she does that starts off quiet and slow so Ratstar just refuses to talk. He sits there sipping his pint and staring at the stage, not caring that I've come here specially to find out what's going on, if anything. I try to control my impatience and get into the music. After a while the band start something with a lot of percussion and no vocal so Isabel King has got nothing to do except bash a tambourine and I can get Ratstar to talk to me.

"See I was in here early before they started the first set and the guy with the laptop was here. So I went over and I said, that's a cool laptop and he said, yeah it's the Multiverse Q60 so we got talking hardware for a bit. And then we were talking about hacking and he asks me if I've done any. I told him about some things I've done, maybe stretching it a little, and I ask him what he's done. And then he tells me he's just finished a big hacking job and he asks me if I've heard of Dark Ghost! He's been working with Dark Ghost, he says, on this last job, but he can't tell me any more, it's like spy stuff or something. His name's Luke, he's a cool guy and knows a lot of useful stuff, and he's got contacts.

Then the band started and we didn't talk for a bit. They stopped for a break and he went for a pee so I sent you a text. Then when he came back he said he had to go and meet someone, and if I wanted a hacking job I could come along. So we went to a cafe where he had arranged to meet this guy, it's just round the corner from here. But the guy never turned up. He phoned to say someone was following him and it wasn't safe for them to meet until he was sure he'd lost her. So it's going to be tomorrow, and he's going to phone me if the guy agrees to meet me. I might even make some serious money and I get a chance to meet Dark Ghost!"

"This person following him, he said it was a woman?"

"Yes, a lady cop, he said. She's been following him for a while, he thinks."

I remember the last time we were here and I saw Anne, wrapped up in her coat, waiting outside the club when we left.

"Did he say the guy's name?"

"No, of course not, but when they were talking on the phone he called him Curtis."

Thought so. I get out my phone and text Anne, lucky I saved her number last time she sent me a text. Curtis knows ur following trying 2 lose u. I think I better tell Ratstar what's going on. So when the band's finished I get us another beer and try to talk him out of going ahead with this meeting.

"This guy Curtis, you don't want to have anything to do with him, he's a terrorist! He's just got out of prison, the police are keeping an eye on him all the time. You really don't want to get involved with these people."

But I should have known, Ratstar's stupid enough to think terrorists are so cool. And he wants to know how I know what I know about Curtis Winter. So I tell him the whole story about the CD and Anne and the two guys in the pub.

"Why didn't you tell me any of this stuff before?"

"I didn't know Dark Ghost had anything to do with this CD business! I thought I was out from all that terrorist stuff. Remember, all I knew about Dark Ghost was he'd put that Trojan horse on my PC."

"You're not helping to catch these terrorists? You want me to believe the only reason you've got to look for Dark Ghost is to get rid of a computer virus?"

"Isn't that enough? What's your good reason?"

"Same. And I thought it would be fun to try. Even if we don't get to meet Dark Ghost."

"Yeah, well, that's what I thought. But if we have to deal with all this terrorist stuff then I'm not sure I want to go on with it. Last time we were here was bad enough, it was just luck that Curtis Winter didn't see me. And now you tell me Dark Ghost is working with the terrorists, it's all getting too risky."

"Come on , we can't stop now! We're getting close, I don't want to give up. You know this guy Curtis and he knows Dark Ghost, you helped him with this CD thing, now he can help you, right? Ok you messed up but nothing happened to you, you didn't get beaten up, he even paid you. As long as he doesn't connect you to Anne and that cop Penny!"

They're closing the bar and we get up to leave. As we head for the exit I get a text from Anne saying, thanks. I wish I'd stayed and talked to her last night in the pub. Maybe she would have told me more about these terrorists, maybe more than Penny wants me to know. She seemed to like me when we used to meet to have a smoke. I remember how cool it was hanging out behind the shop, before I knew she was a cop. I wish we could do that again.

On the way out we see Isabel King. She's talking to the big guy who's usually on the door. I can't hear what they're saying but it looks to me like they're having an argument. I bet Isabel wins. As we come up they stop talking, I guess they don't want us to hear what they're saying. I can tell Ratstar would like to stop and talk to her but even he can see it's not the time. So we walk past them and out into the cold Soho street. We walk around for a while, just walking, not saying much. There's something special about London at night. No other city has this particular vibe, this excitement, the feeling that anything could happen. The centre of London is filled, all night long, with people, some Londoners, some visitors, who are there simply to have a good time. I remember the London in my game with its empty streets and abandoned cars, the deserted office buildings made of crumbling concrete and splintered glass. By the time Ratstar says he's had enough of walking and we head for the tube, I've made a decision which I know is based on feeling more than sense.

I do want to find Dark Ghost. I really want to get that virus off my PC so I can go back to playing Fools Rush In. I don't want to have to hide from Curtis Winter for the rest of my life. And there is a part of me that doesn't want to go back to the same old life I had before, the shop, the pub and nothing else, no risk, no danger, no Red Lantern Jazz Bar, no Anne.

I don't have to wait long to see Anne again, she turns up when I'm walking home after work on Monday. She's sitting in a car parked by the pavement as if she's been waiting for me. She opens the door and I get in and we sit there for a while, talking.

"Thanks for the text," she says." I let Curtis Winter think he'd lost me but I managed to hand him over to a colleague. He's not my problem any more. So are you going to tell me how you knew he'd spotted me?"

So I have to tell her the whole story about Ratstar, the Red Lantern Jazz Bar, Isabel King and the man with the moustache who we thought was Dark Ghost. I expect she's heard some of it before from Vincent Penny. She wants to meet Ratstar and ask him some questions so I call his mobile. He's having a drink in the Jug and Bottle so that's where we go. It's next to the Safeway which has a car park so Anne leaves the car there.

As we walk across the car park to the side door of the Jug I'm thinking I should maybe have told Ratstar I was bringing Anne. But if I had told him and he didn't feel like answering questions, he wouldn't still be here. It would be just like him to leave his beer and run out, rather than have to talk to a cop. Of course Anne is not your typical cop, I like talking to her, she's cool. Would I have liked her if I'd known she was a cop when I first met her? I'm not sure.

When we get inside I see Ratstar up at the bar and Jeanine's just opening a bottle. I don't see him paying. At least I don't have to get him one. I ask for drinks for myself and Anne, she's driving so she has a coke.

" Hey, Nate, where have you been hiding this gorgeous chick?" Ratstar asks me, turning on the cheeky grin which he thinks makes him look cute. In your dreams, Ratstar, he won't be so keen when I tell him she's Anne the cop. Jeanine of course gives Anne an evil look, I watch her to see she doesn't spit in the coke.

"This is my friend Anne," I say, watching his face. "She used to work in the office building next to my shop, that's how we met. Remember I told you about her last night?"

"Oh, right. That Anne. Good to meet you, Anne." Ratstar's starting to look very worried, I suppose at the thought of drinking with a cop. Jeanine's brightened up now she thinks Anne is my girlfriend.

"Can we sit down ?" asks Anne. She wants to get on with questioning Ratstar out of hearing of Jeanine and the other half dozen punters standing at the bar.

"Yeah," says Ratstar, "Nate, there's something I need to tell you." We sit down at a table away from the bar and he continues, "That guy with the laptop, Luke, called me right after you did, he's arranged a meeting for me with someone who he says can give me a job, doing some hacking for him. Then he said, sounds like you're in a pub now and I told him where I was and he says, right, that will do for the meeting. So he's coming here with this guy any time now! Problem is, he might be with that guy you don't want to meet."

"He means Curtis Winter?" Anne asks. "I don't want him to see me and specially not with you. I don't want to put you guys in any more danger than you're in already."

"Maybe we should all just leave before they get here," I say.

"No, Nate and I will go, you stay. They're expecting to see you and the last thing we want is to make them suspicious. But don't commit yourself to doing any work for them. Then later I'll want descriptions from you and any information you can find out about Dark Ghost and anyone else involved with this. And if you can get a hint of what exactly they're trying to do and when, that would help."

"So I'm kind of an undercover agent?" Ratstar's all excited about this and I suppose I am as well. I mean, I've helped, that makes me an undercover agent too.

So we leave the Jug, Anne going first because I take a few extra seconds to drink up what's left of my beer. When I get to the side door that leads out to the car park she's already nearly up to the car. She's talking on her mobile, probably calling for back up, more undercover cops to keep an eye on Ratstar's meeting. Then a guy gets out of a big black car and first I see he's looking at her, then I see who it is. I freeze right where I am in the doorway. Curtis Winter's already here. His back is turned towards me as his eyes follow Anne as she walks between the parked cars. There's someone else waiting in the black car, a big guy in a dark coat, I can't see him clearly from here. Anne turns round, I guess to see why I'm not with her. She sees me in the doorway and she sees Winter. She says something into her phone that I can't hear. That's when Curtis Winter takes out his gun.

The bullet slams into someone's car as Anne dives down between two parked cars. Winter's in the car and driving away before he's even closed the door. It's so sudden I can't move for a moment, I'm just standing there, and then as the black car speeds out to the street I'm running to where Anne is lying on the ground. I have a really bad moment when I see she's just lying there not moving, but as soon as she sees me she starts trying to get up. I put my arms round her and help her up, and she leans against her car, holding on to me.

"Did he hit you? Where are you hurt?"

"I'll be all right, he's a useless shot. I might have a bruise, that's all. I was lucky. You know, I've never been shot at before."

"Do you need to go to a hospital?"

"No, but we'd better get out of here, in case they decide to come back and finish me off."

"I'll drive if you like," I say, thinking she still feels a bit shaky. She gives me the car keys. When we get in the car she sits back and closes her eyes, I guess she's trying to calm herself down. I don't know where she wants to go so I drive down the roads I know and we end up parking right outside my flat.

"This is where I live," I say and then I remember the night she gave me a lift home.

"Yes, I know," and then she asks me, "Do you think you could make me a cup of tea?"

So we go up to my flat which is really more like a bedsit. I wish it wasn't so small, it's just one room with a sofa that converts to a bed. There's a table and a couple of chairs and some shelves. In one corner there's a cooker and a fridge and a sink. Everything looks really old and scratched and faded, it's stuff most people would chuck out. The landlord probably found most of it in a skip. There's a bathroom on the landing that I have to share with some student guys. They never clean anything. The only reason I live here is it's close to work and I can afford the rent.

Half the table is covered by my old desktop PC and printer and the other half is buried under heaps of CDs, games, old issues of Gamezone and other stuff that should be on the shelves but never seems to stay there. Both the chairs have got clothes chucked on them that I've taken off and just put anywhere. I quickly clear the chairs so Anne's got somewhere to sit down. I've left the sofa bed in bed mode so I shove the clothes underneath to get them out of the way. If I'd known Anne was coming I'd at least have made the bed. I'd like to pretend the place only looks like this because I got up late this morning and left for work in a hurry but the truth is, it's always like this and I don't even notice it any more.

I put the kettle on and make Anne a cup of tea. Lucky I've got some teabags, I've even got a bit of milk left. I wish I had some beers in the fridge. I know tea is supposed to be good after a shock but I expect beer's even better. Anne doesn't seem to want her tea, she's just sitting there holding the cup and looking at me. Maybe it's too hot. I clear a space on the table so she can put the cup down.

She carefully places her cup of hot tea in the space I've made by moving a pile of CDs. Then she stands up and puts her arms round me. She kisses me, first on the cheek and then on the mouth. I can feel she's not sure what I'm going to do, if I'm going to want her, and that's kind of exciting. So I kiss back and put my arms round her. I pull her close to me and squeeze her but she pulls away.

"Sorry, that's where I'm hurt," she says. She takes off her jacket and pulls her sweater off over her head. Underneath she's wearing a dark grey sleeveless top in some kind of thick synthetic fabric. "Not very sexy, is it? But worth having. It could have saved my life if Winter was a better shot. It's a Kevlar vest." There's a large bruise on her upper arm. She undoes the fastening of the bulletproof vest and takes it off. Her skin is so pale and delicate, she's wearing a pale pink lace bra. "This is where it hurts, here, my shoulder." I don't know if I should touch her or not. The last thing I want to do is to hurt her.

"I'll be careful," I say, "Anne, I won't hurt you." We get undressed and get onto the bed and I am very slow and gentle, taking care not to hurt her, right up to the end when I forget. But it's all right, she looks so happy, she's lying on my bed smiling a little secret smile, her eyes half closed, I think I've made her feel better. She tells me she's on the pill so that's all right.

Much later, when Anne has gone, I realise I've totally forgotten Ratstar who's probably still in the Jug and Bottle. I expect by now he'll have guessed the meeting's off. I'll catch up with him tomorrow and find out what happened.

Now Read Chapter 7