Meat Machines

Chapter 8

I've nearly got to the Green Dragon when I see a tall man in a black hooded jacket some distance in front of me. I can only see his back but I have a strong feeling it's Jonathan Forbes. So instead of going into the pub, I keep walking, taking care not to get too close. I get a good look at his face as he turns a corner and yes, it's definitely him. Just as I'm thinking I might text Vincent Penney he stops, and I freeze. A big, bulky man is walking towards him. He's wearing jeans and a padded jacket that makes him look even bigger. There's something familiar about this new guy; I'm sure I've seen him before but I can't think where. If I think I know him there's a good chance he might recognise me, so I duck into a shop doorway. The shop's closed but the entrance is tucked in deep between two big windows. It's the kind of shop that says it's antiques but really it's just junk. I don't think they can see me in here through all the junk that's piled up in the deep windows, but by peering through the gaps I can watch what they're doing. The big man gives Forbes a small envelope. Luckily there's not much traffic at this time and from here I can just hear what they're saying.

"There, I've got what you wanted. I told you I could do it. I hope you've got the money." That's the big man.

Forbes digs in his pocket. "Of course. Thanks. I might have more little jobs for you soon." He hands over a wad of notes and the big guy's fat fingers flick through them as he walks away.

Forbes continues in the direction he was going and I follow. Before long he turns into a gateway that leads to a big block of flats. He lets himself into the building with a key and goes in. Soon after I see a light come on in a window on the third floor. I take out my phone and press buttons.

"Vincent Penney."

"Hi, it's Nate Lively. I've seen that man again. I caught sight of him near the Green Dragon and I followed him. He didn't see me. He's just gone into a block of flats, Wellwood Mansions in Florence Road."

"That's Naismith's building!"

"Did Naismith live on the third floor? A light's just come on there."

"He's in Naismith's flat. Probably searching it, after he didn't find what he wanted at the lab. Nate, wait there. Don't let him see you. An armed response squad will be round there right away, but if he leaves before they get there, I want you to phone me and let me know which way he went. This might be our only chance to catch him. The last thing I want is for him to slip through the net."

"Ok, I'll wait."

He's hung up. I watch the third floor window, wondering how long it will take to search Naismith's flat. Of course he's probably had a look around on the night of the murder. He's just having a second look in case there's anywhere he might have missed. I've been waiting about five minutes when the light goes off. He'll be coming out and the cops aren't here yet.

Just then a man walks up to the front door of the flats and opens it. I run up to the door and just manage to grab it before it swings shut behind him. "Thanks, mate," I say, but he doesn't even glance at me. He must live on the ground floor, he ignores the lift and walks past the stairs and on down a corridor. I hit the button for the lift and hear its creaking descent. The lift door opens slowly. It's empty. I stand in the doorway, stopping the lift from closing. The doors keep trying to squash me but I push them away. He's probably up there pressing the button now, wondering why it's taking so long. With any luck, the cops will get here before he realises it's not coming. As the doors try to squash me for the tenth time I hear the sound I've been dreading, feet running down the stairs. I step out of the lift just as he jumps down the last few steps. We face each other.

"You," he sneers. "I should have known it. You've made a nuisance of yourself once too often."

His hand goes inside his jacket and comes out holding a gun.

Shattered glass smashes to the floor as the panes of the door are kicked in. A voice is heard shouting, "Put the gun down now and put your hands up! Put the gun down!"

And to my amazement, because I really thought that was the end for me, he drops the gun.

Half a dozen men in Kevlar jackets burst in. They surround him, handcuff him and drag him outside to where a black van with one barred window waits. Vincent Penney strolls in and picks up the gun. He drops it into a clear plastic bag.

"Take this to forensics," he says to a cop who's come in after him. He turns to me. "What did I tell you about keeping out of sight? You should have known he would have a gun! You're lucky to be alive!"

"Don't I know it," I agree, "I thought I was done for that time."

"Well, we've finally got him. This is one he can't get out of by calling on the Official Secrets Act. If the bullets match we've got him for Naismith and the girl as well."

Penney's so pleased with himself he's forgotten about being annoyed with me. Since he's in such a good mood, he probably won't bite my head off if I ask a question. "Why did he kill Louise? I mean, I suppose he killed Naismith because he wouldn't sell him the blueprint for the secret weapon or something like that, but I thought he and Louise were on the same side."

"So did Louise, I expect. Agents of SIS aren't usually easy to kill. She made the big mistake of trusting him. I think they broke into the Quiller Supplies building together, looking for Naismith's records. But we know they didn't find them, because he broke into the lab at the university. Perhaps Louise found out he was planning to sell them to the enemy, and that's why she had to die."

"What are you going to do if the bullets don't match?"

"It's the same type of gun; it's unlikely he had two, so I think they will match. But if not, we've got a witness who saw a man running out of Wellwood Mansions on the night Naismith was killed. It will be a big help if she can make a positive identification."

"The woman who couldn't identify me?"

"Now, Nate, I've already explained to you how that happened. With the information I had, I had no choice but to see if she would pick you."

Talking of the identity parade brings a memory to my mind. I would have recognised him at once if he'd been wearing uniform. "Remember when you interviewed me that day, there was a cop, a big guy, who stood in the doorway of your office? I saw him talking to Jonathan Forbes today, just before he went to Naismith's flat."

"That's not possible!" The familiar angry frown is back. "Not one of my men."

"He gave Forbes something small in an envelope, and Forbes gave him money. Quite a lot of money."

While we've been talking cops have been buzzing around, going in and out and up the stairs to Naismith's flat. Just then one of them comes down in the lift. Penney calls him over.

"Was Naismith's flat broken into?" he asks.

"No, it looked like a rushed search was made, but the door and the lock were undamaged. It was a secure lock that would have been almost impossible to pick. He must have got hold of a key somehow."

I think I know how, and so does Vincent Penney. "I can't believe it," he growls. "One of my men, damn it. One of my own men." He's looking right at me but he's not seeing me. I realise I've never before seen him looking really angry. However much money he made on the deal, I wouldn't want to be that cop.

Gun raised, Alan pushed through the door. Sitting there in armchairs were the professor, Harrison and Roxy. They looked up in alarm and Roxy gave a little frightened squeal. Harrison's hand went to his pocket.

"Don't even think about it, Harrison. Keep your hands where I can see them." Alan saw his sample tube with the nanogold label on the coffee table between them. It was obvious he had interrupted their negotiations. "I'll take that," he said, reaching for his sample. Though nothing like as unique as nanogold, the formula still had some value. But Roxy, who was the closest, was too quick for him. Her slim fingers darted out and picked up the tube.

"Alan, please! Don't shoot, or I'll smash the tube!"

There was an anxious gasp from Bergman. Harrison said, "Give it to me, Roxy!"

"It's mine, Roxy!" Alan held out his hand.

"Roxy, I'll double your money!" Bergman begged.

Roxy looked from one to the other, the glowing lamps reflected in her eyes. She looked at Harrison the longest, but in the end she handed the tube to Bergman.

"Well done, Roxy!" Alan declared. "You decided to do the right thing!"

Bergman laughed. "She decided to go for the money."

"You can talk!" Roxy glared at her employer. "You want the nanogold all to yourself. Alan, you're deluded if you think he means to use it to help the sick. The only one he's planning to help is himself!"

"Don't believe her, Alan! You know she's a liar."

"Roxy, you wrote that note, didn't you? Asking me to meet you at Waterloo station? What did Harrison pay you to lure me out of my lab?"

"Ken?" Roxy sniggered. "Alan, you are a fool. It was my boss who asked me to write that note, and since he pays my salary, I thought I'd better do as he said."

"That can't be true! Why would the professor want to trick me?"

Harrison answered. "He'd had enough of you, Columbus. You'd served your purpose. Once you'd come up with a workable formula, your usefulness to the old man was at an end. You're much too naïve and idealistic to take part in his schemes. I'm taking over from here on. Bergman and I will share the profits of the greatest discovery of the century!"

"Not any more! Professor, I'm taking back my sample. Come on, hand it over. I don't want to have to shoot you!"

"Give up, Columbus, I just heard a car pull up outside. That must be the men I called when I heard you break the window. If I was you, I'd put the gun down now." Harrison stretched his legs and grinned. "That stungun won't do you much good against biopellets."

There was a crash as the front door was kicked in. Heavy boots were heard tramping through the hall. In came six men with guns in their hands, wearing bullet-proof jackets. But as soon as he heard Harrison's words, Alan jumped over the coffee table and snatched his sample from Bergman's quivering fingers. He held up the tube between himself and the armed men.

"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" bleated Bergman. "You might hit the nanogold!"

As the men stood hesitating, Alan slid through the glass door and out into the night. As he ran across the lawn he heard Harrison shout, "After him!" He turned and let off several shots from the stungun, hoping to frighten off the pursuers. He heard a shrill whine as a biopellet whistled past his ear. He shot back at the dark shape of a man silhouetted against the lit window and saw him knocked backwards off his feet. A lucky shot had got him in the head. He heard running feet and a big man stepped out in front of him. Alan threw himself sideways as a stream of biopellets sped towards him. From the ground he aimed up at the man's head. One shot and the weapon fell from his enemy's hand as he passed out. Alan picked up the gun. He would keep the deadly biopellets as a last resort. Two more men came at him out of the darkness, weapons in their hands. But by now Alan was prepared for an attack. He raised his nanomesh shield just in time to deflect their bullets. Shooting stunbeam rays through the shield, he soon had the gangsters lying unconscious on the grass at his feet. A few more steps and he had reached the wall. He jumped, caught hold of the top and pulled himself up. For a second he lay flat on top of the high wall. Then he let his legs over on the other side and gently dropped down onto the pavement.

Before he could turn he felt the end of a gun against his ribs. "Now we've got you," said a voice. "Don't even think of trying to get away, Columbus. We can pump you full of biopellets before you've had time to blink." One of Harrison's men stood to each side of him. With practiced hands they patted him down and took both guns away from him. "Now get back into the house."

Alan walked through the smashed door, followed closely by the two gangsters. One of the men jabbed his gun into Alan's back to urge him on. They pushed him into the sitting room where the worried creases on Bergman's face gave way to a triumphant smile.

"Alan, my boy," he said, "just give me the sample and I'll ask Harrison to let you go. All I want is the nanogold. Hurting you was never part of my plan."

"I don't see why I shouldn't hurt him as much as I want, and take the nanogold as well!" Harrison retorted. "Look what he's done to my men."

"They're not dead," Alan protested. "I only used a stungun."

"He was holding a biopellet gun when we caught him, boss."

"Hold him," commanded Harrison. Alan felt strong hands grip his arms. As he struggled to get free, Harrison hit him on the mouth and he felt a tooth break. He spat blood onto Harrison's white shirt as the man's hands searched his pockets.

"Here it is!" Harrison cried in triumph, taking out the sample tube.

"That's not the nanogold. You took the wrong sample, you evil bastard." Blood trickled from the side of Alan's mouth as he mumbled the words.

Harrison laughed. "You can't make a fool of me that way, Columbus."

"Give it to me, Harrison. I swear, I'll give you everything I promised." Bergman looked at the sample with longing.

"As soon as you've signed the agreement, old man."

"Roxy, bring me the paper."

Roxy brought it to him and, taking a pen from his pocket, Bergman signed.

"This had better be what we agreed, Bergman." Harrison seized the paper and read it through. Then with a triumphant laugh he handed Bergman the sample tube.

"At last! The nanogold is mine! I have cheated death!" A tear rolled down Bergman's wrinkled face.

"Not if you cheat me, old man. There'll be no immortality for you if I don't get what's mine, I swear it. You know I'll kill you without a moment's hesitation."

"Ken!" That was Roxy. "Be quiet a moment. I think I can hear..."

"I hear it too. You're done for, Harrison." Alan pulled himself free from the loosening grip of his captors as the unmistakable wail of a police siren grew louder.

"Boss! Quick, let's get out of here!" One of the men shouted as he panicked and ran to the glass door.

"Not before I've stopped Columbus from telling tales." A biopellet gun was in Harrison's hand. He stood only a few feet away; he would not miss. But before he could pull the trigger, Alan acted. With lightening speed he threw the contents of the vial he had brought with him onto the steel barrel of the gun. The corrosive bacteria did their work and the gun melted into rust.

The siren stopped suddenly and there was a screech of brakes.

"Boss! We've got to go!"

In a moment Harrison and his men were gone from the room.

Alan ran to the study and looked out of the window. Two police cars had stopped just outside the house. Armed officers in bullet-proof jackets jumped out and Harrison and his two men were swiftly taken prisoner. He went back to the sitting room.

"They got him," he reported. "Harrison's been arrested. Now, professor, why don't you give me back that sample before the police come in here?"

"Never!" Bergman's face was wild with a strange mixture of triumph and despair. "Let them arrest me, if they must. Whatever happens, I will have eternal life!" Too quickly for Alan to stop him, he opened the tube and poured the contents into his mouth.

"No!" shouted Alan. "No, professor!" But it was too late.

"Professor Bergman!" Roxy gasped as the old man started to shake. "It's made him ill! Alan, shall I get a doctor?"

"Get an ambulance, Roxy! I hope there's something they can do." As Roxy went to the phone, Alan watched as Bergman fell to the floor, clutching his throat and stomach. The skin around his mouth was already turning black.

"The ambulance is on its way," Roxy announced. She looked down at Bergman's rapidly blackening body. She had worked with the professor long enough to learn something of the dangers of nanomachines. Stepping back from the corpse, she stifled a scream and ran out of the house. At once she was stopped by two policemen.

"Don't touch him!" Alan warned as an armed policeman came through the door. By the time the ambulance came, the nanomachines had transformed the old professor into a man-shaped assembly of carbon buckytubes.

For a while I think that's the end of it. Penney stops bugging me, now he's caught his man. I don't see Rose or any or the nanomachines people. For a few days, all that happens is that Rick and I get on with the game. I manage to work in Andy's carbon buckytubes towards the end. I'm happy with the way it's shaping up and so is Rick. We might have the next Call of Duty here.

Then one day the doorbell rings and it's Rose. Rick lets her in, then says he has to go out. He's promised to meet Jeanine when she finishes work, though this is the first I've heard of it. Usually he tells me about things like that so I can remind him when it's time to go. So Rick goes out and it's just me and Rose. For once I'm not sure what to say to her. So I make her a coffee and sit at my computer, scrolling through the screenshots.

"How's things at work?" I say after a short pause.

"Not too bad, except that Karl's leaving. He's been offered a research job in California, where the real money is. They're paying him nearly twice as much as Naismith was. He didn't ask me to go with him. And I wouldn't have gone if he did."

I stop scrolling and look at her. "Shame you didn't get the job and not him."

"Oh, I don't care about that. Somehow I don't see myself as that California babe, y'know?" The last few words come out in a west coast drawl, and she laughs. "The truth is, we haven't been getting on well for months. We're both too obsessed with work, and he wants someone who'll be obsessed with him. It's a relief to be free again. I suppose I should make the most of it. Go out more, get some new clothes, maybe get my hair done."

"I think you look great the way you are."

"Really?"

She looks at me with such surprise I'm inwardly cursing Karl. Didn't the fool ever tell her how lovely she is? Added to which, she's probably the most intelligent woman I've ever met. Wrong, the most intelligent person I've ever met. So clever it kind of scares me.

I turn back to the screen and my hand goes to the mouse. I start going through the screenshots again, but this time I'm not seeing them. Now I know what real fear is. I say it slowly. "Rose, do you want to go out for a drink tonight?"

I glance back for a look at her face and her smile is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

The End

Read Codename Chameleon