Meat Machines

Chapter 1

The cop stops the car in front of a concrete office building. I look at the boarded-up windows, the washed-out pink of the "To Let" sign. Faded letters above the door say "Quiller Supplies." There's a chain across this door, but the cop has a key to the padlock. He takes me in and we walk down a dimly lit corridor.

"In there." A man of few words.

It's so dark in the room I can't see a thing. My fingers find the light switch. I walk into an empty office. I sense movement behind me and turn round. There's a man standing in the doorway, skin washed grey by the ivory light of a fluorescent tube. I've been half expecting it but it's still a shock to see Vincent Penney. We haven't met in years; I can't imagine what he wants. From the look on his face I know in advance he's not going to believe a word I say. About anything.

"Well, Nate Lively, we meet again," he says. "Sorry to have brought you here like this." He doesn't say this as if he means it.

"That's ok," I say, though of course it isn't. I've got a hundred other things I would rather be doing this morning. "What did you want to see me about?"

"Sit down," he says, pointing to a chair. I brush a decade of dust from the seat with my hand. He perches on the desk, which looks like it might collapse under his weight.

"What is this place, anyway?" I ask as I park myself on the rickety chair and stretch my legs out in front of me. "What's wrong with your usual office?" I glance round the gloomy room. Decrepit office furniture, a threadbare carpet, an old grey filing cabinet in one corner. Only one thing looks new; an A4 size white envelope, right in the middle of the desk. There isn't a trace of dust on it. It's whiter than Vincent Penney's shirt.

"I'm asking the questions, and I want straight answers. You're not leaving this room until you've told me everything you know about Gilbert Naismith."

"Who? Never heard of him."

His fist clenches and I tense myself for the tirade I'm sure is coming. But the furious red of his face fades to a frown of frustration. "Then answer this one. What do you know about nanomachines?"

"Not a lot. I've got a vague idea what they are, that's all."

The snarl is back. "Now I know you're lying, Lively. There's a reference on your website, to both nanomachines and nanogold."

"Oh, right. Doesn't mean I'm an expert on the things. They're part of the plot of a game I'm making. It's an action adventure with a science fiction thriller story, set in an alternate future. Kind of a steampunk feel to it, if you know what that means."

Penney looks at me as if I'm talking Greek. "You're making a game about nanomachines? Tiny, top secret things that can be used as weapons? And nanogold? I was told only about twenty people in the world know about nanogold."

"Right. I don't think it's such a big secret, though. I heard about it from a man I met in a pub."

"Which pub would that be?" He gets out his notebook.

"The Green Dragon. He was an old bloke with a beard. I've seen him in there a few times, but I've only really talked to him once."

"His name?"

"He didn't tell me, and I didn't really care. He'd had a few drinks and wanted to talk to someone. Just lonely, I suppose. He told me about these nanomachines. I think it was his job to make them. I thought it would be cool to put them in a game. Did you really need to get me down here for this? I could have told you on the phone."

Penney reaches for the white envelope and takes out a sheet of paper. He passes it to me. There's a photo printed on it; a group of people raising champagne glasses. Four men and a woman, all with big smiles. The one in the middle is the old bloke from the pub.

"See anyone you recognise?"

"That's him, the one with the beard. I don't know any of the others. Wait a minute. One of the guys looks familiar; the one without glasses. I can't think where I've seen him before."

"He wasn't in the pub that night?"

"I don't think so. It was pretty busy. If he was there, I didn't talk to him."

I look at the photo again. It's really bugging me that I can't think who the guy is, the one who seems familiar. He's the kind of guy you wouldn't really notice if he walked past you in the street or sat next to you on the tube. Tall, thin, about thirty. Ordinary face, ordinary clothes. The only thing that makes him stand out is that all the other men in the picture are wearing glasses. There's also a very pretty girl in the picture. Out of curiosity I reach for the white envelope, but Penney grabs it away.

"The rest of what's in here is classified," he says. "So it's only in connection with this game you're making that you mention nanomachines on your website?"

"That's right. I didn't know it was supposed to be a big secret. Though if this bloke keeps telling strangers he meets in the pub all about it, it's not going to stay that way for long."

There's a long moment of silence while Penney gives me a questioning look. Then he says, as if making an announcement, "Your man with a beard, the one you picked from the photo, that was Professor Gilbert Naismith."

"Great! Now if I see him again I'll know his name."

"What's the matter with you? Don't you even read the papers? Professor Naismith won't be having any more indiscreet chats with strangers. He was found dead in his flat two days ago, shot through the head."

For a moment I don't say anything. I feel sorry for Naismith, he wasn't too bad for an old guy, but more than anything I'm thinking I really, really don't want to get involved with this. "I didn't know," I say after a pause.

Penney seems to be reading my mind. "Well, now you do know, I hope you'll keep clear of my investigation. Don't think you can interfere the way you did last time. Now I've got to be somewhere else and I'm taking the car. Hope you don't mind walking back. You know the way out."

I'm halfway to the front door before he yells, "Where do you think you're going? Give me back that photo!" and I realise I've still got it in my hand.

Outside the building I stop for a moment to breathe dust-free air and take in the green marker graffiti that decorate the lowest of the window boards. If I had a marker I'd write something rude about Vincent Penney. With my luck, one of the cops would come out and catch me in the act. Here comes Penney now, talking to another cop. "Keep on with the search," he says before he gets into the car and drives off, siren and flashing light switching on as he turns the corner into the high street. I'm about to follow on foot and get the tube to work when a girl walks up and stops right in front of the ugly building I've just come out of. Long dark brown hair, red jacket, short skirt and boots. I would guess she's about twenty-five. She stands there looking up at the windows, frowning a little and clutching her bag with both hands. She's a very pretty girl, I notice. I've seen her face before, just moments ago. She's the lone woman in that photo.

She notices me, sees I'm looking at her and gives me a warm smile. "I got your message."

"What message?"

She laughs. "Good to meet you. I'm Louise Davis."

"I'm Nate Lively."

"I don't think I'm going to get in there today." She points her chin at the concrete building. "Looks like the cops have taken over."

"I know, I've just been in there."

"Did the cops find anything?"

"Probably not. They're still searching the place."

"I'd like to get in and search the place myself, but I suppose there's no chance of that now."

"They'll have to go home some time."

"You mean we could come back at night?"

"We? You want me to search this place?"

"Could you? Please? I'd be afraid on my own in the dark, alone in that big empty place, but it wouldn't scare you, would it?"

I hesitate for a second. I don't want her to think I'm scared, but breaking into buildings is illegal. And Penney's already told me not to get involved in his investigation. And a guy who's left a perfectly good job to become a self-employed game developer doesn't need more risk in his life. But it's not every day that a lovely woman comes up to me in the street and pleads for my help. So I say, "Sure. Why not? Shall I see you back here at midnight? I don't think there's much chance of getting in through the front door, but there might be an easier way round the back."

"Great! See you later, Nate."

She strolls off without another glance in my direction. I get my phone and take a photo of the nearest window board. There's a string of letters that make no sense at all scrawled on it in green marker. I'm in no hurry, now, to get to work. I'll walk; it will give me time to think.

I climb the steps to the second floor flat where Rick's been living for the past six months. He's finally moved in with the girl he's been seeing ever since I've known him. Jeanine's probably left for work by now, but I expect Rick's still in bed, years of unemployment having led to bad habits. Hey, I'd still be in bed if I didn't have a cool job being a game developer. His idea is that we work at his place because there's more space. My feeling is, if he had to come to my place, I'd be waiting all day for him to get out of bed.

I have a key so I let myself in. "Rick!" I yell, "Time to get started." In answer there's a muffled snort from the bedroom. I'm about an hour later than usual but who cares; the best thing about being self-employed is there's no boss to tell you off when you're late. We work in the biggest room in the flat which I suppose is meant to be a sitting room or dining room. There's a little kitchen area in one corner. Most of the rest of the space is taken up by two big desks, a computer on each, and two swivel chairs. On the floor, pushed up against a wall, is Rick's amazing collection of old computer parts. Over this a large pinboard is fixed to the wall. Jeanine bought this and put it up; it's supposed to be a "mood board" where we put up whatever words or pictures have inspired our latest project. There's never been anything pinned to it except a calendar. I did write something on the calendar about three months ago. A meeting with a game publisher; not that I was going to forget about it. But you never know with Rick.

I sync my phone with my computer and print out the photo of the green graffiti. I tack it up on the pinboard. When we first started our games business and I was researching different kinds of puzzle games, I came across a code breaking game, and the coded messages looked something like this. Though it's probably just nonsense. I mean, why would anyone write a coded message in big graffiti letters, right up there where anyone could see it? You'd only need to code something if it was a secret.

I hear the sound of the toilet flushing and Rick drags himself into the room, doing up his flies.

"Hey, Nate," he says. "You're late, man. It's eleven. What took so long?"

This is great from a guy who's just got out of bed. "Don't start, Rats," I say. Rats is short for Ratstar, his online gaming name. "While you've been having a lie-in, I've been helping the police with their inquiries."

"Yeah, in your dreams, maybe."

"No, seriously. Just as I was leaving my place, a cop car kerb crawls me. The cop tells me to get in. I ask what's going on, he gets angry and tells me to get in the car or he'll have to arrest me. He takes me to an abandoned office block, used to be the Quiller Supplies building, and guess who's there? Remember when that Dark Ghost thing was going on, I told you about that cop, Vincent Penny? It's him, and he wants to question me about nanomachines."

"You're joking!"

"He saw the Nanogold page on our site. Remember I told you about the old guy in the pub? I found out his name. Professor Gilbert Naismith."

"You don't mean the one who's been murdered?"

"That's him." No wonder Penney thought I was ignorant; even Rick knows about it. He must have been looking at the online news.

"Nate, did you just say something about Quiller Supplies? It was on the news yesterday. Naismith was a director of Quiller Supplies. He lost a hell of a lot of money when it went out of business."

"What was Quiller Supplies? Did it say on the news?"

"They used to make all this new biotech stuff. Probably nanomachines and that sort of thing."

We work till about eight, then Rick has to go and meet Jeanine in a bar. Only four hours to kill before it's time to meet Louise. I chuck out the remains of the microwaved pizza and spend a few minutes staring at the photo I pinned to the board earlier. The string of capital letters from the window board still doesn't make any sense. The longer I look at it the less it means.

It's still only quarter to twelve when I get to the Quiller Supplies building. Not even a cat moves in this street. Absolute blackness stretches between the pale pools under each street lamp.

"You're early, Nate Lively."

A voice out of the shadows. A figure steps into the light. It's Louise, dressed all in black. She's changed out of the skirt she was wearing this morning and now wears trousers and a padded jacket. She's swapped the boots for black trainers. She's even wearing black gloves. Probably reads too much crime fiction. Maybe I should have changed too? Too late; my usual jeans will have to do. At least I've got my gloves in my pocket.

"So are you," I say. "Hi, Louise. I see you've come prepared for a break-in."

She nods. "I've even brought a torch." She takes it out of her shoulder bag. It's got a large lamp and a metallic case and must be quite a weight. "Shall we try round the back?"

"Why not?" I start to walk towards the driveway that runs down the side of the building. Every so often I glance up at the windows. There are no chinks of light showing at the edges of the window boards. One good thing about those boards: if I can't see the cops, they can't see me. Though I'm hoping they're long gone. I mean, even Vincent Penney must have a home.

At the back there's a ramp going down to a large door like a garage door at basement level. I'm sure this is going to be locked and anyway it probably makes no end of a racket. Not far from it is a small window that looks like a better bet. It's probably there to let a few dusty beams of daylight into a bathroom or walk-in cupboard. I put on my gloves and test the frame with a push. To my surprise, it swings open. This is going to be easier than I thought.

"Let's have that torch," I say to Louise. Through the window is a small room, completely empty except for racked shelving all round the walls. When the building was in use it must have been a storeroom. "After you, Louise. Do you want me to hold your bag?"

"I can manage," she says, swinging herself in through the narrow gap, feet first. I follow, the aluminium frame grazing my shoulders. Louise tries the door as I look round the room at the empty shelves. Looks like there used to be a shelf across the little window; there's a bracket to support it. Yes, there's a spare shelf on the floor.

"We're in luck. The door's not locked," she whispers. "Naismith's office is the most likely place. Let's try there first."

The door leads into a corridor which runs to right and left. "Which way?" I ask, keeping my voice low.

She turns to me and I can see the surprise on her face by the light of the torch. "I thought you would know."

"Search me. I told you, I've never been here before this morning."

"You can drop that now. I know who you are, and you know who I am. You told me in that message you spoke to Naismith."

"What message? I only met him once and that was in a pub."

"In a pub? Then you're not — never mind, we'll just have to find it. Nate, why don't we split up, then we only have to search half the building each. Just pick up anything you find written by Naismith, or anything about nanotechnology. We'll meet back here in an hour. I'll go this way."

She turns to the left, taking the torch with her. How am I supposed to search the place in utter darkness? I don't dare put a light on, in case it shows from outside. That will be a sure way to bring the cops in after us. In the end I use the light from my phone to see where I'm going, hoping the battery will last. I go right along the corridor, trying the doors I pass, finding half a dozen empty rooms with linoleum floors. Then I find a room with something in it. At first it's just a large square shadow but when I get closer I can see it's a desk. I search through the drawers and find nothing except a folded piece of paper in the bottom one. It's too dark to read it, so I put it in my jacket pocket before resuming the search. I get to the end of the corridor and there's a double door with glass panes and a code lock. Bringing my face and my phone close to the glass, I can just make out long lab benches with white tops. I try pressing random buttons on the lock but I know there's not much chance of success. I can go no farther. I might as well give up and go back and find Louise.

By the time I get back to the door of the storeroom where we came in, my phone's showing just one battery bar. I switch it off to save the battery and see a faint light coming from where the corridor makes a right angled turn. Louise must be there, just round the corner. As I take a step towards her, the meaning of that shelf, fallen to the storeroom floor, hits me. It's all I can do not to run, and I'm not at all sure which direction I should run in.

I creep towards the corner, phone off, trainers silent on the smooth floor. I hear a faint rustling of papers. I put my head round the corner and jerk back, heart racing. The light's coming from an open door, just round the bend in the corridor. There's a silhouette framed in the doorway, back towards me, head nearly touching the frame. Not Louise; it's a man.

The man's voice breaks the silence as he steps into the room. "I should have known you'd be here, trying to get ahead of me. Give me the papers, Louise. You know I won't hesitate to use this."

"What are you doing? I thought we were on the same side!"

"Not any more. Come on, just give me those papers."

"I haven't got them. I haven't found them yet. Listen, you don't have to do this. Whatever they're paying you, we'll double it."

"Don't make me laugh. We all know Her Majesty's Government can't come up with the cash to even meet its own agent's payroll. What did I hear last week about redundancies?"

"They'll pay for Naismith's notes, I guarantee it!"

"Well, my dear, they won't need to make you redundant if you refuse to hand over what you've found. No, don't reach for your bag."

"Naismith's papers are in there!"

"Then slide it over to me, slowly. Ah, as I thought. One gun: no research notes. I'm sorry, Louise. It was nice knowing you."

The sound is so loud my ears ring. As the echoes die away I hear the rustling of papers again. I start to edge back to the storeroom. Running my gloved hand along the wall, I find the storeroom door in the darkness. It opens with a faint creak. The paper rustling stops. I hear footsteps start down the corridor and speed becomes more important than silence. In less than a second I'm out through the window and running for my life up the driveway. As I reach the street I hear the sound of sirens, still some way off. Someone from the block of flats next door must have heard the shot and phoned it in. Thank God for insomniacs.

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