What was the saying about greatness? That it was thrust upon those who didn’t want it? Did anyone also say that sometimes, problems – big problems – were thrust upon people who didn’t want them? That was the case for Eric, as he shuffled down the corridor of his workplace, heading for the stairwell. He wasn’t about to trust the lifts, not now.
Dark blue carpet was thankfully muffling the sound of his footsteps, but he dared not breathe too much, in case, somehow, someone would hear him, find him, and…
You’re being paranoid. Or are you? You have reason to be after all…
Maybe no one would suspect a thing. There were thousands of employees working for One Touch Security, including hundreds in their London office. Would they know without any doubt that his computer was the one that had accessed the data now stored on the USB stick in his coat pocket? Even if they knew it was his computer, everyone knew old Eric was terrible for letting others use it…
No one was calling for him from the main office, and none of the bigwigs had stepped out of their private offices to call him in, so maybe he was safe. The only conversation he could hear from his colleages concerned football scores, who was secretly shagging who, and plans for Christmas. He reached the stairwell, pushed open the big heavy safety doors and started his descend down three flights to the ground floor. He’d have a short walk to Canary Wharf tube station, and from there, he could get himself well away from any possible harm.
Assuming there’s anything actually wrong, and you’re not being a stupid old man…
The young woman, Sally, Sarah? She was coming up the stairs and Eric had to try very hard not to appear worried as she smiled at him. He flashed a smile back and carried on walking, hoping it didn’t look like he was rushing. There didn’t appear to be another soul on the stairs, a small mercy.
Angelo was behind the security desk as Eric stepped out of the door. He looked up briefly in Eric’s direction and then turned his attention back to his monitors. Visitors and employees were always coming and going, so it probably wasn’t that unusual to see someone leaving the building. Trying to look cool calm and collected, Eric walked out onto Bank Street and into the crisp December air, over the zebra crossing, and toward the station.
There still appeared to be no sign of anyone coming after him, in any way shape or form. Still, Eric couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. Years of training and experience had taught him to trust his instincts and they were telling him to be careful now. Entering the station frontage, Eric already had his ticket in his hand, keen to save every possible second (besides, he hated people who faffed about at ticket gates), and became one with the swarm of Londoners and tourists traversing the Underground as he headed down the escalators and toward the platforms.
Every little look, every sideways glance in his direction make Eric tense. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, keeping him alert, and ready, if needed, for a fight. The carriage was growing hot, thanks to the throngs of people, and despite the winter chill outside, Eric was tempted to take off his coat, but decided against it, in case he somehow lost his evidence. Or in case someone stole it (which was possible in normal circumstances, let alone right now).
First things first. He couldn’t go home, not right away. The Jubilee Line would take him as far as Stratford, and from there, he could connect to the Central Line. He wasn’t at all sure if what he was planning was fair, but he couldn’t trust official channels, not yet.
The changeover to the Central Line went without incident, and from there Eric kept scanning the carriage for any faces that were familiar. No one leapt out at him, figuratively or otherwise, and after a couple of stops Eric allowed himself to relax, just a little. He also paused to think a little about what he’d seen, and the data that was now safely stored on the USB drive. Every so often his hand went into his pocket, feeling for the little plastic box, gripping it tightly, to assure himself it was still there.
“The next station is Gants Hill.” Came the voiceover. By now the carriage had started to thin out a little, and Eric stood to leave as the train pulled into the platform. Within a few minutes he was above ground again, both thankful to be out of the confines of the train, and concerned to be exposed.
It had been a few years, but Eric had a good memory. He took off on foot, down a specific road, looking for a specific house. There was every chance no one was home, but if Eric knew the man like he thought he did, he was prepared to take that chance. It came as no shock to him to see the little front garden was immaculate, with neat groups of Cowslip and Monkeyflower plants (waiting for the cold to end so they could bloom again) lining the bath up to the front porch. On the white door was a printed sign, warning cold callers to take a hike. Taking a deep breath, Eric knocked on the door.
There were sounds of movement from inside, and a shape appeared as the main door to the house opened. A moment later, and Eric was face to face with an old friend.
“Bloody hell, Corporal Cooper!” The wizened old man exclaimed as he opened the door. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
Eric smiled, despite the situation. “Captain Harper, good to see you sir.”
“It’s just Andrew now.” Replied Harper, offering a hand, which Eric took and shook. The old boy still had a strong grip. “Don’t just stand there in the cold man, come in, come in! Take off your shoes first though…”
Eric kicked off his shoes and also took off his coat at Andrew’s insistence, though he was careful to take the USB drive and slip it into his trouser pocket. He couldn’t help but notice only one pair of black shoes in the porch, and only a single, grey sheepskin coat.
Andrew caught Eric’s pause. “Caroline passed away a couple of years ago. Had a stroke in her sleep.”
“I’m so sorry.” Eric couldn’t think of anything more to add. He was never sure of what to say in such circumstances.
“She led a full life, despite being married to a grumpy git like me. Come on, I’ll get you a drink, what do you want, tea, or something stronger?” The voice was as gruff and commanding as Eric remembered, even when asking such a simple question. Eric followed him into the living room as he answered. “I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
“Whisky it is then. You didn’t drive here did you?” Eric shook his head. “Good. Not that I’d have given you a choice anyway.”
A chuckle escaped Eric’s lips. “I’m not surprised.”
“I keep my emergency heating…” Andrew knelt down and opened one of the doors on the lovely walnut-coloured cabinet, pulling out a decanter of amber liquid. “In here, in case you’re likely to drop by again and I’m out. Don’t drink it all.”
Eric laughed again. “I was never much of a drinker sir… I mean Andrew.”
The older man scooped two small glasses, placed them on coasters on the small glass table in front of the brown leather sofa, and sat down beside Eric, before pouring a generous sum of whisky into each glass. “No, you weren’t. I vividly remember that mission in… north Africa, you know, where we had to drag your unconscious arse out of that bar…”
“Funnily enough, I don’t remember that one at all.”
“Ha! I suppose you wouldn’t. To absent friends…” Andrew held his glass aloft, and Eric held his up as well. There was pain in Andrew’s eyes, and not only for Caroline. Eric knew he meant fallen comrades as well.
They both took a swig of the liquid, which always had a powerful kick as it went down. Silence briefly followed, before Andrew piped up.
“So you didn’t come here, out of the blue, just for a chat. What’s wrong?”
Eric opened his mouth to start speaking, then closed it again. Had he made the wise decision in coming here? Did the old man he had looked up have the contacts he needed? No sense in doubts now you’re here Eric.
“I… I found something at work. Some information, and it scares the hell out of me. I don’t know who I can give it to.”
Andrew leaned forward, perceptive blue eyes narrowing slightly as he studied Eric. The face was worn now, cragged, but the eyes reminded Eric that age had done nothing to dampen Andrew’s mind. “You want to know if I can get it to the right people.”
“Yes. Look, Andrew, I’m sor…”
“Shut it. You’re about to apologise for dragging me into some sort of shit. Don’t. I could do with an excuse to be awkward.”
“You never needed an excuse before.” Eric said, grinning.
“Yes well, marriage calmed me down. Most of the time anyway. Caroline would probably tell me to not be a fool. I’d usually listen, but this time… well, I suppose it depends on how juicy this is.”
Eric took another sip of his drink. There was no doubting Andrew’s taste in whisky, and Eric watched the stuff swirl around in the glass as he spoke. “It’s juicy alright. I work for a computer place, One Touch Security.”
“Never heard of ’em.” Remarked Andrew.
“Not surprised. They’re one of these ‘behind the scenes’ companies. They make a lot of stuff for mobile phones, smartphones actually, tablet PCs, laptops – wireless security stuff.”
Eric laughed. “Yeah, it can be. I took it on when I left the forces, to stay busy. Would have driven Mary mad otherwise. A lot of what I do is about checking and testing the anti-virus stuff. To do that, I have certain access rights to bits of the code, but the company doesn’t let everyone see all the code. That way no one can sell it off to a rival.”
“Sounds like strategic division of labour to me.” Replied Andrew. “Clever.”
“Their projects are worth billions. In fact, the company is about to be worth a load more money, because they’ve just got contracts for big public sector stuff. Water works, power grids, local councils, education and healthcare, things like that. That’s what I was working on…” Eric pulled the USB drive out of his pocket. “When I noticed something. I’m not sure how it ended up on my computer, but it was a line of ‘back door’ code.”
“Ah.” Andrew sat back. “Even I know what that means. A way into a system that shouldn’t be there.”
“Exactly. It’s everywhere, and when I checked, it turns out this code is in smartphones too. OTS sells their hardware and software to manufacturers of them all over the world. This code lets them into any device, any time, and I have no idea what it will let them do.”
“You could just go to the spooks you know.”
“I thought about it, but I don’t know how far this goes. To get this sort of free access, without anyone checking and finding it, to nearly every phone, tablet and PC in the country, and within government offices too… I didn’t want to risk it.”
Andrew’s eyes sparkled. “Ah, you think they have an inside man?”
“I… shit. That makes sense.” And it did. It had to. How else could they land so many lucrative deals with major institutions, all over the country?
“This is juicy. Alright, so I’m still welcome down at the barracks, and I bet you would be too. You drive here?”
“No, got the Tube.”
“Bugger.” Andrew stood up, stretching. “Not allowed to drive at my age. Fuckin’ stupid if you ask me. I’ll call a taxi…” Eric grinned to himself as Andrew picked up the old-fashioned green telephone, complete with rotary dial. Despite the twenty or so years of age difference, Eric had often seen Andrew as a kindred spirit, and his utter disdain of modern technology was but one way that was true.
After a few moments, the taxi was booked. Andrew sat back down and poured himself another whisky, insisting on refilling Eric’s glass too. “To adventure!” He boldly declared, before knocking back the glass in one gulp. Eric raised his glass and did likewise. Andrew wasn’t wrong about that.
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