Honkers, a bit too close to the Chinese Communist Party, the Philippines not quite ripe enough (long story), Macao (see Hong Kong), Taiwan too controversial, Guam too far away, South Korea too American, North Korea not American enough, so Singapore it is. Cross out Kowloon and write Marina Bay on all of the business cards. While you’re at it, scribble ‘Consultancy’ over any reference to derring-do and the secret world.
There are one or two stragglers, Hong Kong Chinese with British passports who, wary of a stampede, only have restricted rights of residency elsewhere. These unfortunates include my Chinese cousin, Lotus. According to family legend, myself and Lotus Flower’s common ancestor was a khaki-clad cad during the opium wars. Cannon fodder for a subsequently merged to oblivion county town regiment, our ancestor convinced every pretty girl on every rock and islet between Shanghai and Hong Kong that he was a general, with prospects. If the world was a different shape and time ran backwards, one might suspect Genghis Khan of being born with 10% of his DNA.
* * *
Is it impolite to the neighbours to take supper in the front garden? Of course not. Lighting, speckled by orbiting moths and the occasional bat, is provided by the security lights and augmented by a yellow glow from the street lights which sit between the palm trees beside Dumfries Road.
Privacy comes via the low wall around our property and the high bars which it supports. For once our street gates are closed. A water feature is provided by a never-ending trickle from the faulty water tank overflow, which has now created its own microclimate. The drive has changed colour. The roof of our front canopy has weeds growing from it. Some of them are in flower. It is not unpleasant but something must be done about it, eventually.
We are being scrutinised by a luminous statue of the Virgin Mary sitting before a bush. She has been installed by Tai Tai, who broods of motherhood now that the weeks are counting down towards our return to England.
Light supper has been provided by Rose. I’m not sure what I’m eating. Almost certainly it is vegetarian. Some of the move exotic tastes of the public market are present along with, I suspect, some more mundane ones from our own flower beds. Rose has retreated to her bedroom to read her business books. As well as being our maid and an expert on edible flower gardening, she is a student.
Myself, Lotus and Tai Tai talk shop over the remains of a bottle of wine and three empty decorative china plates, albeit on a plastic table and three plastic chairs.
“You are joking,” I plead, “this is my last posting. I’m hardly ever in the office.”
“All the more reason,” Lotus responds. She does have a point. I’m the second most senior, most underworked and most off the radar, member of staff at the Singapore Consultancy in Marina Bay.
There is a security problem with the IT. Information is going missing. Not stolen, sold and disseminated (that would have been bad enough) but vanishing, blotted out, impossible to find anywhere. It wasn’t just affecting us.
“I‘ve heard that the Russian Embassy are using typewriters, ribbons and carbon paper,” said Lotus.
“What’s carbon paper?”, she went on to ask.
“It goes between two sheets of paper and puts an impression on the second as you type”, I explained. That’s how senior I am, i.e. old. Lotus still looked puzzled.
“The DL’s disappeared and they say you worked on it at the start of your service, Worth. The Ambassador’s going to ask you to re-compile what you can.”
I put on my very grumpy face.
“What’s a DL?” Tai Tai asked.
Lotus got there first, “The Defence List.”
“Dirty List,” I corrected her.
We would have carried on all night but Tai Tai interrupted.
“And what exactly is the dirty defence list?”
Myself and Lotus looked at each other and then at the floor and then at the stars.
It was Lotus’s turn. I’d been the last to speak when I’d said ‘Dirty List’.
I sucked air through my teeth. She took a deep breath and paused. This wasn’t good enough. I tapped my middle finger on the plastic table in admonishment. I was about to cough, but she’d taken the hint.
“It’s a body of knowledge”, she began, “regarding defence vulnerability, based upon indiscretions carried out by people being vetted.”
“Gentlemen’s indiscretions carried out by gentlemen in times of momentary weakness, generally. A friend tells me,” I augmented.
“Oh, people who’ve failed their vetting? That’s all there is to it.” Tai Tai concluded.
We rocked back and forwards on our seats. Lotus hummed a tune, I played one with my fingers on the plastic table. Anything to avoid eye contact with Tai Tai.
“Oh,” Tai Tai had a second stab at it, “they pass their vetting, despite being a security risk and then you have,” she paused, “a certain influence over them?”
“You could say that,” I concluded.
“National interest, defence of the realm,” Lotus reminded us.
“I suppose,” Tai Tai tilted her head to one side, towards the Virgin Mary, “this definition of vetting and defence could be rather broad.”
There was an awkward silence as if a firing squad had just realised that they’d been spotted shooting everybody in sight.
“As broad as an ocean, if it helps the realm,” I concluded aloud.
“The Consultancy makes some of its money from blackmail and there’s a big flap on because you’ve lost the dirt,” Tai Tai summarised.
“It’s not all we do”, I ventured, after which myself and Lotus upped our game.
I addressed the broader philosophy, “Some people are open to influence from foreign powers or commercial interests. Across a long period of time, the Consultancy and its predecessors have found out first, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, albeit at a deniable arm’s length, and ensured things are sorted out before a foreign power or commercial interested can take advantage. It’s for the good.”
Lotus explained the IT side of things, “Data’s been going missing, hence we’re back to paperwork and attaché cases. Not just from ourselves but from elsewhere. Not stolen or sold, it just disappears from our system. Not what we want. The IT experts are on the case, in the meantime we have to cobble together what’s gone. On behalf of Her Majesty, the Ambassador is going to ask Worth to work on parts of the Defence List that he compiled at the start of his career. Which is nice. Maybe even complete the circle with the end of his career? As a cover, we’re going to pretend that his last report was crap and he’s re-writing it.”
Tai Tai turned to me, “I thought you were a repressed, church-going prude because you were trying to be a good person? You just knew you’d get caught and end up on a list.”
“Caught by God, caught by the Devil, caught by HMG, does it make a difference?”
“And you’re not going to be as busy as you think,” Lotus reassured me, “There’s no need to search for that mysterious missing Mr Stein anymore. I’ve found him.”
She pushed her phone towards me, showing me an image.
“That’s your hall, I’ve just been standing in it.”
And there he was, our enigmatic landlord, Mr Stein. Ordinary looking, neither a pantomime villain nor a matinee idol. Via a social media site, he was photographed standing beside a vent next to the downstairs office door.
Tai Tai addressed her own phone to no avail.
“VPN,” Lotus explained, “we’re under a firewall in Hong Kong. I use VPN to get around it. You must be under a firewall here too.”
No, we weren’t. At least we weren’t supposed to be. I made a mental note to have a word with the IT bods at the Consultancy, fairly soon.
“Well,” Lotus asked, “what are you going to say to him? This Mr Stein.”
Without waiting for a reply, she typed away, “My cousin is really interested in you but too shy to message. Sounds about right?”
“It’s serious stuff Lotus, the North Koreans might be after him, let’s not be too hasty.”
She clicked the ‘send’ button, smiling.
* * *
Later, Lotus made an even bigger nuisance of herself. There was a tap, tap, tap on our bedroom screen. I pulled some shorts on, Tai Tia wrapped herself in a silk gown. We slid our bedroom door slightly open. Lotus was there in a T-shirt, holding a little house torch.
“I can’t sleep. That drip.”
If not now, then when? If not us, then who?
We rendezvoused, five minutes later under the attic hatch. I’d already decided what was wrong with the water tank, without even looking at it. Mr Stein, as might befit some kind of a nuclear scientist, had a well-stocked toolbox. We were armed with wrenches. Tai Tai had found some folding steps. I was the first up, pushing the hatch open with my head, pulling myself up into the loft and holding down an arm to pull each of the ladies up in turn.
We sat on our haunches. The loft was floored with unfolded Fortnum and Mason boxes. It was very cramped and very hot. There were a few pipes and wires about as well as Mr Steins dissembled Christmas tree and a wooden frame holding the water tank. There wasn’t room for anything else.
I explained the battle plan to the ladies. Tai Tai would hold the torch above the tank, so I could see. Myself and Lotus would work the wrenches.
“The water tank.”
“A wooden stool that the tank sits on.”
“No, that blue thing.”
“There isn’t a blue thing.”
Tai Tai touched it. There was a little blue wedge between the frame and the tank. The tank can’t have been a very good fit and had it had been wedged to stop it wobbling. Maybe a previous attempt to cure the drip?
But it wasn’t any old wedge, it was folded paper, blue airmail paper. I doubt it had been deliberately concealed there. It had just been to hand when needed. Under a different alignment of the planets, it might have been a bit of cardboard or a pencil, but it wasn’t, it was an airmail letter.
Lotus pulled it out and very carefully unfolded it.
To be continued ….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file