The High Commissioner’s Private Office. Upstairs. The British High Commissioner’s Residence. Eden Hall. Nassim Road. Singapore.
I have let myself into the High Commissioner’s office and sat myself in the naughty corner. There are footsteps along the corridor. The High Commissioner enters the room and notes an open wall safe, before sitting behind his giant desk. He is in the gloom before slatted windows which keep out the hubbub of the late evening reception taking place on the lawns.
“You can still break into an office and open a safe with a pair of cufflinks, Worth, congratulations. Fake Hungarian Business School tradecraft 101, if I remember rightly.”
I had placed a small packet on his desk.
“Her Majesty doesn’t really mind you earning a little money on the side, Worth,” His Excellency began while tapping the packet. “She’d just prefer if it wasn’t by taking diamonds from the North Korean Secret Service.”
“If the theatrics are supposed to scare me,” I replied calmly. “You have the wrong man, Your Excellency. If Her Majesty was so sure I was bent she wouldn’t have …..”
The HC was distracting me by tapping those diamonds. His other hand was below the desk as if opening a draw where he might keep his gun. I had my own hands innocently upon my lap, right above left. I was in my tropical warfare number two suit which consisted of an airy pair of strides and a very pleasant light jacket. All topped off with the wrong old school tie.
The suit was highest quality Saville Row, bespoke no less, made in four hours by a chap known as Kowloon Ken who operated from a tiny room on the 15th floor of a Hong Kong condominium. My eighth cousin, Lotus Blossom, had recommended him. A pouch was stitched into the inside lefthand side of the jacket, just below the heart. Ken always felt that his occasional gweilo customer should be allowed a bit of a fighting chance against the Snakeheads and the Triads. It held my gun. I was sure I could beat the High Commissioner to the draw. One simple movement into my jacket with the right hand, out again, straight arm, locked-elbow, left palm below the handle. An unorthodox hold but it was how I had been taught. It was difficult to unlearn and thus far it had kept me alive. Bang, bang, at least one shot straight between the eyes. Knock him and his chair over and splay him against those windows.
Did I say my gun? It had been liberated from a one-eyed Filipino gangster in a Cebu City mahjong den’s salon privé. It would take a bit of explaining but was preferable to being dead. Or rather I couldn’t. In Mr Lee’s crime-free utopia there was no need for a personal weapon. Mine was in a box, in a container somewhere, in storage somewhere, next to my real old school tie. The High Commissioner’s however, via a diplomatic bag, might well be at his trigger finger right now.
The HC completed my sentence for me,
“… wouldn’t have seconded you to the Singapore Consultancy. Or would she? Benefits of being Section Chief, as well as High Commissioner, your file lands on my desk, albeit with difficulty.”
With no further pretence, he opened the drawer, withdrew my personal file and dropped it dramatically between us with a thud. It looked rather a strange colour, bleached. The big red diagonal line across it, deeming it top secret, had faded almost to light grey. He threw it open saying, “Look at me, I’m important,” in a mocking voice. As ever, one’s opponents are on the other team, one’s enemies on one’s own.
“Your file shows one serious disciplinary offence. To be dismissed from the service requires?”
“Two,” I answered, coldly.
“The communal shower in a YMCA, Worth. Good God, it makes one proud to be British.”
“An innocent misunderstanding, sir. I was hard done by. It shouldn’t have been added to my record.”
“And accepting a bag of diamonds from the North Korean Secret Service makes it two. Thrown out in disgrace just before you retired, and you’ll lose your pension.”
He closed the file again.
“Shame,” he whispered. “And we’d barely got to know each other.”
He reached for his desk phone and dialled the first two numbers of the Singapore Police emergency number.
“I know all about operation Bonfire, I suppose that’s something,” I interrupted, bluffing slightly, hoping to stall him.
It worked. He stopped dialling, even putting down the receiver. “How did you find out?” He asked.
“Not well,” I replied. “In Mr Stein’s attic, pressed against a sweating water tank, on top of the Fortnum and Mason boxes, in the dark and the dirt. There was an airmail letter hidden under the water tank, making it drip.”
“Made you feel it did he?”
“Just the cold and the wet and the dust.”
“We all know about Bonfire, Worth, bits of it, every time we try to switch the computer on,” he confided with a sigh. “Our very own data destruction algorithm. Aimed, amongst other things, at disrupting the North Korean nuclear weapons effort but hacked and churning its way through the world’s data in an apparently haphazard manner.”
“But by who?” He continued rhetorically. “And why?’
He stopped for a moment, took some deep breaths and opened another draw. He was the one who’d been bluffing and I’d fallen for it. He threw another file between us, shiny new.
“The thing is, Worth, when we print your service record out from the hacked IT,” he tapped the new folder, “It’s a bit different from the original. The one retrieved from the archive just before the computer index went pop.” He tapped the bleached one.
I pictured a Queen’s Messenger in business class, Heathrow to Changi, document sized kevlar wallet chained to his wrist containing my old PF. Retrieved from a salt mine in Cheshire, as a favour to the HC from an old contact he probably went to school with. The old fox must have smelt a rat the moment I stepped foot in Singapore. Just in the nick of time, the lucky bugger. Just as the Bonfire algorithm altered the computer files and blanked the computer indexes that led to the archived hard copies.
“Ashley dePfeffel Worth-Saying. I hope you gave your parents hell for that.”
There were two things missing from my Bonfire amended printed out PF. Firstly, suspicious to my adversary, my so-called disciplinary offence. Secondly, a single operations sheet, containing no details of the said operation, only a name, “Swaling”.
“What was operation Swaling, Worth? And why are we not allowed to know that it even existed?”
“I haven’t quite worked it all out,” I replied quite frankly. “Might be something to do with the Defence List.”
“Tell me everything you know,” he replied, “I might be able to fill some gaps.”
“You’re not vetted for Swaling, Your Excellency, even as Head of Station. It went straight to the top. Apart from myself, I can only think of one other person in Singapore who might be authorised.”
At that point, there was a tap, tap, tap, on the door. It was a very junior member of Chancery, a ‘snotty’.
“Mr Lee is expected in five minutes sir, and the presentation to begin in fifteen and a half.”
The HC stood and put the diamonds in the safe, theatrically twirling its dial after gently closing its door.
“Come to me with a solution to this mess tomorrow morning, Worth. You have access to the whole Diplomatic Community tonight, use it wisely or my next call will be to the Singapore graft squad. The second call, to your friends at the North Korean Mission, who might want to rearrange your life expectancy never mind your retirement plans.”
Walking down the stairs, back to the reception, myself and His Excellency clicked back into ‘be nice to everybody mode’ with big smiles and lots of eye contact. The applause that greeted us was undeserved. It was for Mr Lee and his entourage who were arriving through the main door. Knowing my place, I stood to one side. The greetings were effuse, enthusiastic even. I wasn’t quite the pariah I had been at the top of the stairs. An open palm gestured me to the group photograph. Mr Fitzgerald and his photographer had appeared as if from nowhere, as had Nicole and the HC’s wife. Mr Lee stood in the middle. Cameras flashed, the moment was immortalised.
As can be surmised, Her Majesty’s representative in Singapore had a number of names; High Commissioner, His Excellency, HC. To those in the know, Head of Station. Only one person was allowed to call him ‘Andy’ and that was Mr Lee. On the other hand, Mr Lee was always ‘Mr Lee’. He had been Christened Mr Lee. His mother called him Mr Lee, but now this minute an exception proved the rule. Andy called him ‘Harry’ while placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Harry, our Mr Worth needs a word,” the hand on my shoulder guided me towards Mr Lee. “Apparently my vetting isn’t good enough for him.”
Over a handshake, Mr Lee looked at me knowingly.
“Oh, Mr Worth, I have heard so much about you.”
“Only half of it is true, Mr Lee. And I promised Her Majesty I wouldn’t tell you which half,” I joshed.
Mr Lee laughed, the secret signal that we should be left alone in a crowded room. Mr Fitzgerald and his photographer disappeared as quickly as they‘d appeared. Nicole was led to one side by the High Commissioner’s wife. The High Commissioner himself caught the eye of an important Indonesian. Mr Lee’s bodyguards took a step backwards. Clearing my throat, I became the loneliest man in the world.
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file