Chameleon – Penny Montague

PennyMontague photos

Penny Montague writes fiction and poetry. She’s a Londoner who has just completed an MA in Literary Linguistics, during which she gatecrashed the Creative Writing classes and corralled her fellow students into creating an anthology. Her work has been published by Bunbury Magazine and Ink Pantry. She tweets at @pjmontague.

Who is your favorite female identifying written character and why?

I can’t give you an all-time favourite female character, as it changes for me all the time.

At this moment, I’m thinking of Kainene from Half of a Yellow Sun who was regarded as less attractive than her twin sister, but was so resilient and industrious, especially when the civil war began to affect her life and her community. Even though she wasn’t one of the viewpoint characters, I really felt a connection with her.

Another character would be Sookie Stackhouse from the The Southern Vampire Mysteries (depicted in the True Blood TV show). Although she is a mortal human surrounded by supernatural creatures she uses her cunning and wit to stay alive and to protect those that she loves. At the heart each of these novels is a mystery to be solved, which is the main draw beyond the vampire / werewolf / fae conflicts.

And finally, Dr Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist who helps the police to solve murder cases in the crime series by Nicci French. Klein is a bit of a maverick but has great insights which often has her police liaison guy scrambling to keep up with her.

Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll probably give you a few different characters.

What literary work by a female identifying writer had the most effect on you as a writer and/or person?

Another tough question!

Let’s say Bareback by Kit Whitfield. It was the first so-called genre novel that I remember that also asked questions of society. In this fictional universe, the majority of people are werewolves but the few people (the barebacks) that don’t turn furry under the full movie are tasked with policing the mayhem. It’s not just a werewolf story, it’s also a mystery and has a love story too. It proved to me that I can write in the genres that I enjoy (such as fantasy, crime and romance) but with the devices and scope that I admire in literary fiction. So I don’t have to choose just one genre or one way of writing.

Also anything by Valerie Martin, but especially her short story collection The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories. She writes so well about the creative temperament. I think my favourite story in this collection is the first one, ‘His Blue Period’, about a rivalry between two male painters. Our protagonist isn’t as successful as his brash rival, and is also in love with his girlfriend, which becomes a heartbreaking situation. I also adore her novel The Confessions of Edward Day, which is similarly about a rivalry (artistic and romantic) between two actors.

How did your work/works in Alyss come about?

I wrote ‘Predatory Thinking‘ for a creative writing assignment during my master’s degree, but the seed of the idea came from talking to another student in my class. She was originally from Nigeria but had spent several years in the USA and had a strong American accent. She mentioned that she often changed her accent depending on where she was living and joked that she would probably acquire an English accent over the year of her stay.

I started thinking in terms of her being like a chameleon who adapted to her surroundings and sparked the idea of this assassin who could transform at will.

I had feedback on the first draft from an experienced writer, who said that she loved it and encouraged me to make her ‘even more monstrous’. I was a little alarmed at first by that comment, as I felt that I shared some qualities with the protagonist, or rather that she was perhaps a more extreme version of myself. There are many ways to build a character, and I had used a lot of my own dark sense of humour in the creation of this character. I really enjoyed writing this story and letting the protagonist get down to business.

What has been your greatest writing life moment so far?

After I read out one of my poems at a reading group that I used to attend, a woman told me that it had made her want to cry as it had reminded her of her late mother. The poem was more of a reminiscence about old technology, so I was surprised that it had had that reaction, but I was so pleased that it connected with her emotionally.

What is your favorite piece by another writer from a previous issue and why?

As someone who is interested in linguistics and language in general, I was immediately drawn to ‘everytime i speak, my gums bleed‘ by Amber Atiya. The poem really evokes the unacknowledged violence of language and we can feel alienated by our own mother tongue(s). The use of English and other languages of colonialism as a lingua franca is leading to the death of languages spoken in some smaller communities; for this reason, I can see how some might describe English as a ‘pesticide’.  I think the poem also makes the point that verbal language is not the only form of communication that we have, and that the simpler modes in which animals communicate are much truer and more visceral than our words.

What are you currently working on?

I haven’t written much creative work since my MA, but I am hoping to send some more short stories and poetry into the world very soon. I am also planning to write a musical in the near future.

Who/what is your favorite Alice/Alyss?

It would have to be Alice Pieszecki from The L Word, the journalist who kept a chart of the liaisons between the women that she knew in LA. Although another character called Jenny was ostensibly the ‘writer’ in that community of women, Alice was endlessly curious and observant – qualities shared by many writers that I know.


Predatory Thinking

Trains are perfect vehicles for the act of murder, if you’ll excuse the pun. Agatha Christie knew that trick way back in the ‘30s, and it’s still true. They come and go, with people boarding and alighting at every stop. By the time the body is discovered, you can be on your way to the other side of the country. And especially on this island of the old Empire, people are so loathe to disturb a sleeper that they’ll leave them alone until the end of the line, and maybe not even then. Corpses ride around on the Tube for hours.

I remember a time, not too long ago, when I was sitting in a train carriage opposite a young white guy. He was only dressed in a thin yellow t-shirt and skinny stonewashed jeans despite the November chill, and looked around eighteen. His eyes were closed and his mouth ajar, but his chest did not rise or fall. Some people appear lifeless in slumber – I bet you’ve heard about people like that, or even sleep beside one of them every night, your fingers feeling for a pulse at four a.m. to make sure you’re not in bed with the wrong kind of stiff. Anyway, at Victoria everyone stood up to leave but yellow t-shirt didn’t wake. I tapped his ankle with the side of my shoe as I passed him on the way out, but he didn’t move. And he was still there when the train left on its reverse journey. So I just shrugged and carried on with my day. Not my handiwork, not my problem. That’s rule #1: don’t get involved.

My current target is Mr Henry Ragan. I know that he plans to catch the 19:00 from King’s Cross to Edinburgh for a midnight meeting with his mistress. He is scheduled to give the keynote speech at the ScotTech conference the next morning. My client doesn’t want Ragan to reach Edinburgh alive, so he won’t. After trailing him for a few days, I know his routine and its weak points. For example, he likes to run in Hyde Park at 5 a.m. every day except Sunday, when he has a lie-in before visiting his local Anglican to pray for his sins. It would have not been too difficult for a fellow runner, appearing to be in the grip of a painful cramp, to lure him into a fatal trap, but that was only a backup plan. I never can resist the opportunity for a train kill, the twisted exhibitionist in me loves the thought of ending a life in public, with dozens of potential witnesses just inches away.

Ragan’s a big deal in IT – some kind of search algorithm genius – but he’s not your stereotypical geek. He’s a stocky blond, like the current Bond, not bad-looking if you go for that type – I don’t. He has a strong right-hook from his weekly white-collar boxing matches, but I won’t give him the opportunity to use it.

I watch him as he waits for the platform announcement. His hair curls over the collar of his shirt like a boy on his first day at school. He turns his head as if he can feel my gaze on the back of his head. I look back down to my notebook, where I am still trying to finish a portrait in pencil from earlier this morning. The subject is the obese red-haired woman who sat opposite me as I drank my coffee. I retrace the fleshy folds under her chin but struggle to finish her face. I always find noses the hardest to draw.

Finally, the platform number is called and I follow him through the barriers. The train is a standard East Coast service, a yellow-faced snake of a train. Henry boards the third carriage, in the first class section. I approach him as he slides his trolley case into the luggage rack and feign a struggle with my own suitcase.

“Let me help you with that,” he says.

“That’s so kind of you,” I gush as he lifts the suitcase and places it beside his.

“It’s my great pleasure,” he says, “But what have you got in there, a dead body?”  He holds his back for a second as if injured, then moves his hands back to his hips. No, just a few bricks for a touch of realism.

“Do I look like a murderer to you?” I ask, while mirroring his hands-on-hips position. A handy short cut to establish rapport with the target. I giggle, pout, and then shake my glossy locks at him. Both his wife and mistress are slim, horsey brunettes, so I’ve mimicked that look.

“Perhaps you’re an international assassin, sent to kill 007,” he says in a Sean Connery accent. I chortle, still in character, and then squeeze past him to my seat. I feel his gaze on my bum as I walk away, but I don’t look back.


They call me the “Black Chameleon”, those who hire me or simply know of me. Though in reality, chameleons turn black when they’re enraged, stressed or dead, and I try to avoid each of those situations as much as I can.

My family emblem is a jewelled chameleon in a rainforest shade, tongue outstretched to catch her prey. I wear it on a pendant hanging from a leather chain around my neck. Chameleons are fascinating creatures, smart yet emotional. I often prefer their company to humans, who are often emotional but not so smart. My family has dozens of the lizards in our garden at home. Not as pets, but as welcome visitors. They often don’t like being handled, but it is enough to stay close and watch the creature watching me. Its colour changing as it stops fearing me.

To hire me you have to post a fake advert in the “Rush Hour Crush” column of the Metro newspaper. You know the kind of thing:

To the stunning blonde

reading Harry Potter at

Stockwell on the Northern

line, 8am on Wednesday.

You’ve already put a spell

on me.

Muggle in the Red Hoodie

Is it wrong to use this forum for murder? I think not, as the column itself is sleazy, just a public outpouring of belated lust. Most of those lonely hearts will be married folk, who only wish they could call on someone like me to fix their situation.

There are certain details that must be included in the advert to draw my notice. I could tell you more, but I’m not touting for new business here, and a girl must be careful. That’s rule #2, if you’re counting. I bet you won’t read the Metro in the same way again now, will you? But you won’t be able to figure out which ads are for me – my system is too good.

My clients are usually rival CEOs, greedy business partners and the occasional mafia upstart. Not the nicest of people, I admit, but the work pays well and I’m very good at it. You could even say that I’m uniquely qualified for this position, as you’ll discover later.

I perform my usual scan of my surroundings. Being more spacious than the standard carriages, first class makes my job easier. I find my seat quickly but pass it in order to take an inventory of the nearby seats. I check the seat reservation cards above each seat – a few are going all the way to Edinburgh, but several will alight at York, the train’s first stop, in just under two hours.  Plenty of time to complete the job and leave.  That’s my third rule: don’t dally once it’s done. It shouldn’t need to be said, but there is a part of me that wants to stay and witness the discovery of the body, hear the screams and inhale the panic of that moment. But then, there’s always a chance of being questioned by police, which is not worth the fun of sticking around. I can fool the average person, but police officers are trained to sense those who don’t belong, in spite of initial impressions.

By now you’re probably wondering about the train’s CCTV. Aren’t I worried about being caught on camera? No, because I use the same technique as a chameleon hiding from a snake in the red grass. The snake slithers past but doesn’t see its silent, still prey mere inches away amidst all the spears of red.

My seat is in a row of rear-facing singles beside the window, whilst Henry has booked a pair of seats on the other side of the carriage facing the opposite direction. He leaves his laptop case on the window seat and sits by the aisle. I return to my seat, take out a book and pretend not to see him, kicking off my heels and crossing my legs as he watches.

“Well, hello again,” he says. “It’s like fate herself is conspiring to put us together.” I nod, then open my book to the first page.

Predatory Thinking,” he reads out my book’s title. “Good choice, are you in advertising?”

“No, I’m starting up a search optimisation company, but there’s a lot of competition out there.”

“Naughty fate strikes again.” He laughs. “I’ve got some experience in that field. Join me and we could chat about your ideas.”

“Isn’t that seat reserved for someone?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

“Just for me. I always book two seats on the train so I don’t get disturbed.”

“`I see.”

“So, why don’t you come and sit with me?”

“Well,” I draw out the moment, slipping the tip of my tongue just past my lips. “I wouldn’t want to disturb you.”

“Angel, you’ve done that already. You might as well finish the job.” The train’s motion jolts us both as it speeds out of the station.


After giving some useful tips on my fictional start-up, Henry becomes predictably hands on. He’s keen to get me into the loos for a “private conversation”. It’s almost too easy.

“You really turn me on,” he whispers in my ear, his palm skimming the top of my thighs. I gently slide his hand back down to my knee.

“I can’t do this,” I say. “I have a boyfriend.”

“I have a wife,” he says. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them, or us.”

An elderly woman in the row behind us is tuned into our exchange, watching our reflection in the window. I decide to wait until she goes to the toilet and endure his company for a few moments longer. One body can be explained as natural causes, two bodies attract attention. That’s not an official rule, by the way, just a general principle. It doesn’t take long – thank heaven for the drinks trolley – before she rises from her seat and makes her way towards the vacant toilet. I watch her progress through the swaying carriage, the delicate balancing on arthritic knees and the strain of each step on her swollen ankles. I imagine myself making those movements.

A ticket inspector reaches the start of the carriage and begins to check tickets. His navy uniform hangs off his gaunt figure. He’s youngish, about twenty-five. Muddy-brown hair slips out from under his cap.

“What are you looking at, Angel?”

“Nothing really.” I turn back to Henry and smile. “The inspector’s coming, that’s all.”

The inspector reaches us within a couple of minutes. He studies our tickets more than our faces, and barely looks at Henry. I begin to relax, until I remember rule #4, which is also Murphy’s Law.

“Does this train go close to Gretna Green?” Henry asks the man, with a grin.

“Nowhere near, Sir,” he replies. “You’d have to get off at Newcastle then a couple more hours on one of the Northern trains.”

“That’s a shame,” says Henry. “I’ve just met this girl, but I think I’d like to run away with her, like in the olden days.” The inspector gives him a sideward glance.

“Plenty of chapels in Edinburgh, Sir.” He tips his hat to us and before moving away. Damn, now he’ll remember us. That Ragan was not alone before his death. I will have to change my appearance before I leave the train.

“Why did you do that, Henry?”

“How did you know my name was Henry?” he asks. “I told you I was Harry.”

“Oops.” I giggle. “But how could I not recognise Wired’s Man of the Year?”

“Damn that magazine.” He strokes my cheek. “I thought it would be more romantic to pretend.”

“But you didn’t stray far from your real self,” I say.

“I can’t act,” he says. “Never could. I’ve never wanted to be anyone else. The world is full of psychos, pretending to be what they’re not. It’s all bollocks.” Finally fed up of his company and mindful of the old lady’s imminent return, I decide to act.

“To new beginnings,” I raise my cup of orange juice and nod to his drink. We knock our cups together then pour them down our throats. I watch him swallow the poison before I jab my pencil end into the side of his neck to paralyse him temporarily. It would only take a moment. I feel him shudder against me. He tries to curl his fingers into a fist, to fight it and me, but the opponent within him has already begun its work. “Shh, it’s all going to be okay, Henry.” He tries to speak but only drools on my chest. I wipe his mouth. “Carol sends her love, by the way. Isn’t that nice of her?”

It doesn’t take long for his body to give in. My people have used the seeds of the Tangena tree for hundreds of years, for murder, suicide and executions. Accused criminals were tested through the Tangena trial by kings and queens, and their innocence or guilt decided by its outcome. Ragan is not the first person that I’ve found guilty through this method – my targets are always guilty of something. Although an ancient method, it’s a perfect murder weapon as the victim only appears to have suffered a massive heart attack and the poison is virtually undetectable after death.

I gently untangle him from my embrace and wrap his coat around him. His head droops a little. I text Carol on Henry’s iPhone. Our agreed signal is simply a phrase that his wife has wanted to hear him say for years, “Love you.”  Then I wipe my fingerprints away with my sleeve, stand up and walk away.

I pass the old lady on her way back to her seat. We avoid each other’s gaze. She would be getting off in York in a few minutes, so shouldn’t become too concerned about her sleeping neighbour and his missing companion. I pretend to turn left towards the toilet as the carriage door slides shut behind me. Then I collect my trolley from the rack and carry on through the train until I reach the final carriage.

I can barely fit the trolley into the tiny toilet. The train does a fast switch onto a new line and I put my hand out to avoid slamming my head into the hand dryer. I keep my hand there and look at myself in the mirror: the green eyes, slim nose, wide mouth, the low-cut top, skinny jeans and high-heeled feet. What now? Who now? My blood pulse starts to race, so I breathe deeply and concentrate. I scrape the pad of my index finger across the blade of my teeth, then swipe the fresh ichor on the chameleon pendant, staining its green surface a deep rust.

I always start at the top. The glossy mane and fringe shrink into short wiry curls. The dimples disappear and the chin rounds. The hairline retreats from the face, showing more of the forehead. Green irises turn brown, the new shade spreading outwards from the pupil. I recall a button nose from my sketchbook, reproduce it and the face is nearly complete. A scattering of wrinkles ages the face to the mid-sixties. At the same time, the body fills out and ages appropriately, the flat stomach rounding, the breasts drooping. I swap the clothes to a navy blue skirt suit and flat shoes. Then I adjust the colouring, darkening the skin to a deep mahogany in an instant. I contract the trolley case into its original doll-sized form and pop it back into my handbag, which I’ve also transformed to match my new mature persona. I admire this new form for a moment, and practice the old woman’s pained walk.  Then I say a quick prayer of thanks to the gods of change, before emerging from the toilet.

“Ticket, please,” says the inspector, standing outside. I almost strike him. He steps back and frowns as if he can sense the concealed threat from this harmless-looking woman. I hand him my stamped ticket. “I must have seen you before, sorry,” he says, smacking his temple lightly, before shuffling back into the carriage.

The loudspeaker erupts, with an ascending series of beeps. “The train is now approaching York,” says a cheerful female voice. “York will be our next station stop. Please ensure you have all your personal belongings if alighting at York. Thank you.”

The train slows to a halt at York. I leave the train and watch as the elderly woman meets a younger version of herself just beyond the ticket barriers. Then I follow the signs to the London-bound platform and buy a coffee at the platform café.

I look at the advert from this morning’s Metro again. A job in Brussels. While I wait for the next train back to King’s Cross, I book a seat on the next Eurostar. Any excuse to practice my French. That’s not a rule, but it should be.


Penny Montague