Domino Logic by Chris Green
‘I am not Dirk Vandenberg,’ I say. ‘No one called Dirk Vandenberg lives here. There has never been anyone going by that name on this number.’
This is the eighth or ninth phone call for Dirk Vandenberg I have had on the landline this week. At first, I put the calls down to someone accidentally having posted their number with a wrong digit. Perhaps an error on an ad they had placed, or something along those lines. None of the callers seemed to want to elaborate on why they were calling, which in itself might mean nothing. It was understandable. People are bound to be embarrassed when they dial a wrong number. If these calls hadn’t coincided with a white Ford Transit van with Dutch licence plates and blacked-out windows having been parked directly outside the house for the past week, and my having time on my hands as Susie was away, I might not have given it a second thought. It was annoying to get rogue calls, but no big deal.
But I can’t shake off the feeling that the phone calls and the presence of the van are connected. Vandenberg is a Dutch name and the van has an Amsterdam registration for a start. But none of the neighbours saw who it was that parked it and none of them has any idea who it might belong to. Not even Rosie Parker who keeps her beady eye on everything that goes on around here, has any information. ‘Perhaps it has something to do with those ruffians at number twenty-seven,’ she says. Everything that ever happens in the street is down to the ruffians at number twenty-seven, according to Rosie. A lot of the people in my street haven’t noticed the van. The postman suggests it was there some days when he does our street but not others. Strange how perceptions can be so different. Charlie Shirt thinks the van might be something to do with the filming for Aurora Zero, the thriller Netflix are making, but he has nothing to base this on. Eddie Ludd at the King Billy tells me I am overthinking it. What you have, Max, he says, is a parked van, and a couple of wrong numbers. Nothing more than that. He tells me I have this habit of trying to connect matters that are totally unrelated.
But something is not right. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but the van seems to be emitting a low-pitched hum and at night seems to give off a ghostly glow as if there is an internal light source. When Susie returns from her sabbatical, I mention it. She tells me I am being paranoid.
‘You haven’t been fretting about this all the time I’ve been away, have you, Max?’ she says. ‘There’s bound to be a reasonable explanation. There always is. Not everything is a conspiracy. You need to let it go.’
I judge that it is not a good time to tell her that someone has been logging on to my laptop overnight but deleting their search history so that I am not aware of it. She might get on her high horse and accuse me of using domino logic again.
‘You’re probably right,’ I say, instead. ‘The police seem to think there is nothing to worry about. When I reported the van’s presence, Sergeant Chancer just laughed at me and told me to get a life. You can’t stop people parking in the street, he said. Unless the vehicle has been reported stolen or is blocking an entrance, there’s apparently little they can do. Now, on your bike. We have work to do, catching criminals.’
‘Perhaps you have been missing me,’ Susie says. ‘Why don’t we go upstairs and I will see what I can do to distract you.’
The phone rings. I do not answer it. Susie does not answer it. The caller does not leave a message.
‘Take the phone off the hook,’ Susie says. ‘Then it’s problem solved.’
Later as we are getting into the Qashqai to go out for a Friday night curry at the Spice Shuttle in the arcade, I get a call for Dirk Vandenberg on my mobile. I tell the caller I am not Dirk Vandenberg, but when I ask who’s calling, he hangs up. I try ringing the number back, but no one picks up. When I try ringing later from the restaurant, the number has become unavailable.
‘They’re phoning him on my mobile, now,’ I say. ‘Even you have to admit that they couldn’t accidentally dial two separate numbers connected to me. The odds would be astronomical.’
‘What do these callers sound like?’ Susie says. ‘Any accents? Anything in common that might give a clue?’
‘They all seem to be male,’ I say. ‘No wait, there was one woman. But there’s nothing I can put my finger on that might connect them. That’s the thing, Susie. All the voices sound pretty ordinary. No accent. No emphasis. Except that the callers responded to my replies with apologies and the like, they might almost be computer-generated voices.’
‘Algorithms,’ Susie says. ‘It’s not that hard to program a bot to respond to conversation. AI is pretty sophisticated these days. Look at what Google and Alexa can do. They can respond to anything you might throw at them. Anyway, let’s not get carried away. I’m sure it’s nothing.’
When we get home, I log on to the laptop to check how Littleton got on against Chelsea in the cup. The fixture was postponed last weekend because of a bomb scare at the ground. Littleton didn’t do too well, I see. Eleven goals is a lot to concede, and it looks like Chelsea only saw fit to field a team of juniors and reserves. But they could have played a one-legged goalkeeper and still won. Littleton didn’t manage a single shot on goal. I suppose the Fourth Round of the FA Cup was always likely to be a step too far for a struggling small club in the lower tiers.
I check my search history again, and to my horror, I see that over the past three hours I’ve been logged in to dozens of sites I don’t recognise, some of them with addresses in Hanzi script. And I have downloaded terabytes of movies from Hong Kong. All the time that we’ve been out of the house. Someone clearly has the capability to be able to get in remotely. I have been hacked. Paranoia or not, it is difficult not to make a connection between this incursion, the mysterious Dirk Vandenberg and the humming white van parked outside. But why? Why did they use this particular i/p address for their nefarious ends? And how does this fit in with the van and the calls? How does this bizarre narrative hold together?
‘The van has gone, Max,’ Susie calls down the stairs.
I take a look out of the bay window. Sure enough, the humming white van is no longer parked outside. In that short space of time since we arrived home, it has disappeared.
‘I told you it was nothing to worry about,’ Susie says. ‘You shouldn’t be so quick to reach conclusions about things. People might start to think you are gullible.’
I tell Susie about the incriminating search history, but when I go back in to show her, it too has vanished. There is no record of anything since before we went to the Spice Shuttle. It’s difficult to keep up with what is going on around here.’
‘Technology has come a long way, hasn’t it?’ Susie says. ‘It’s amazing what they can do.’
‘I read they are trialling driverless cars on the motorways now,’ I say. ‘What next? Driverless trains? Pilotless planes?’
‘Look, Max!’ Susie says. ‘I wasn’t going to mention it yet, because I knew it would send you into mega conspiracy theory mode. But while I was away, I had my identity cloned. Now, I don’t mean they accessed my files on the computer and got into my bank account, bought a car and racked up a sizeable debt on Etsy. What I’m trying to say is they have actually duplicated me. That’s why I was gone so long. At first I did not know what it was that was happening. I mean, obviously being cloned was a new experience. But the long and the short of it is there are now two of me. Will you be able to tell the difference? That’s the question. The two of us look identical. Our voices sound the same. We will feel and smell and taste the same. Perhaps there’s a Susie that likes action movies while the other Susie prefers romcoms. Perhaps there’s a Susie that likes red wine and a Susie that prefers white wine. But other than that, can you ever be sure which one is which? There’s no good Susie or bad Susie. Or is there? Maybe this is something you will need to find out. For all you know, this might be the bad Susie, the Susie you don’t know, talking to you.’
‘Now you come to mention it, I thought something seemed different earlier,’ I say. ‘When you suggested that we go upstairs for instance. You don’t often do that. And you definitely seemed more lively when we got upstairs. And that thing in the shower afterwards. That was unexpected.’
‘There! Hook, line and sinker. See how suggestible you are. See how easy it is to reel you in.’
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