The first rule of diplomacy is to be nice to everybody all of the time, especially at Singapore’s social event of the season, the British High Commissioner’s annual bash. Even when cornered by North Korea’s Kim Jo Long and her bodyguard and especially when a mutual friend is involved. In this case, the acquaintance is missing nuclear scientist, Mr Stein, whose house myself and my wife rent and the contents of which, the aforementioned bodyguard previously took an unnatural interest in.
I cut to the chase.
“I know your game Miss Kim Lo Jong, nothing could lead me to tell you the whereabouts of Mr Stein, even if I knew.”
“Not so fast, Mr Worth, a modest sum perhaps, as part of the Great Game, a harmless pursuit at our level. Purely for an introduction, or even just for information pertaining to his whereabouts.”
She bared her teeth, two were of gold, one decorated with a diamond, all boarded by thin blood-red lips, softened to an almost seductive smile.
“No amount of money could lead me to betray England and these good people here, by destabilising the region. I shan’t be helping your father and his cronies in North Korea to develop an atom bomb.”
“Oh, Mr Worth,” she replied. “You underestimate us. Who said anything about help with an atom bomb? It is perfected. We have no need for your help on that account.”
“As things stand, Miss Kim, up to this very day I understand every nuclear weapons test in North Korea has been a failure.”
“Not failures, Mr Worth, and not weapons. The explosions, carefully calibrated, use heat and pressure to make,” she returned her seductive smile to a threatening grimace, showing her gem-encrusted teeth.
“Precious stones to pay for the program,” I concluded aloud.
She laughed, her bodyguard joined in. She reached into her pocket and, as if to emphasise the point, brought out a little plastic bag full of diamonds. The bodyguard, who we were in the habit of calling Mr Hong Gildong, winced, lost his laughter and began to look around the room warily.
She held the diamonds in front of my face. “Perhaps a share for you and Mrs Worth? They do say diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
A smattering of applause rang around the room. Not for the North Korean secret service’s attempt at bribery but because the High Commissioner and his wife had appeared.
“No, Mr Worth,” Miss Kim leant towards me and whispered. “We have all the information we need, of nuclear weapons and many other topics, thanks to our strategic friends in the international community. Secret allies with whom we share everything.”
I thought immediately of Miss Noor of the Pakistan High Commission, whose mention of the operations ‘Bonfire’ and ‘Swaling’ had jolted me only moments earlier.
“Pakistan,” I said aloud. “Not so secret.”
“Ah,” replied Miss Kim. “You are not so naive, shall we trade?”
She held the diamonds before my nose. Then dropped her hand to her side.
If this wasn’t about the nuclear weapons programme, then what was about? Although I would never betray England or do anything that would destabilise the geo-military politics of the region, I might be tempted to lead someone along in order to find something out, especially if it involved a bag of diamonds.
I reached to her hand and squeezed it. She pressed the diamonds into my palm. We turned to face the wall, the International diplomatic call sign (as per a chap choosing to face the hull in a submarine) for ‘Do not disturb’.
Fishing for intelligence, I ventured, “If this isn’t to do with nuclear weapons, why the interest in Mr Stein?”
Mr Hong Gildong made a grunting noise and then, as soon as he had finished, made it again. On the third attempt, I realised he was trying to say something. It definitely was an attempt at a word and it began with an ‘M’. It was difficult for the North Korean muscle, bereft of Miss Kim’s Swiss finishing school education, to pronounce it. After his fourth attempt, I put him out of his misery by guessing at ‘mathematician’. At which point he smiled and nodded vigorously.
“Mathematician,” I repeated in realisation. Mr Stein was a mathematician, not a nuclear scientist.
“As a younger man, he worked on the algorithmic side of things, Mr Worth, calculating yields, exposure, blasts. As an older man he worked on Bonfire, which appears to be another giant algorithm, currently chewing its way through the world’s IT data. We don’t want a computer virus to murder our nuclear ambitions,” Miss Kim confided to me.
“Mt Stein was a contractor for your very own Singapore Consultancy. Because of the nature of computer virus he worked alone, at home, arms-length from the Consultancy. The home gifted to you. He dissapeared, you arrived. Very suspicious.”
“How do you know all of this?” I asked, puzzled.
“Or spies are everywhere, you call them ‘defectors’, as if anyone would want to leave the worker’s paradise of the Democratic Republic.”
In agreement, Mr Hong Gildong shook his head and looked glum.
“The so-called defectors are sent abroad to further our interest. Not uncommon. Is your High Commissioner a defector? Did Captain Nelson….”
“Admiral”, I corrected her.
“… defect to Trafalgar? Or Cec-il Rhodes to Cec-ilesia?Mr Sir Stamford Raffles to this place? No. They were sent abroad by King and Queen to further your national self-interest.”
Mr Hong Gildong spoke, coaxing me to trade, “Mr Worth?”
“There’s an operation Bonfire,” I replied. “I found a letter under Mr Stein’s water tank when I was trying to cure a drip. It told of a bonfire, of dates and explosions and calls to the fire brigade. I took it literally, as though it referred to the nuclear side of things, perhaps some kind of a test, but it must have been meant euphemistically for the IT virus.”
“Not a great deal of information from you Mr Worth, the value of diamonds must have dropped. You must do better.”
I confided to her of who else I suspected knew of Bonfire. The Dutch and Spanish via Mr Nicholaas Clogg and his wife, Dora. And Pakistan, via Miss Noor. Perhaps the Singaporeans as we seemed to be behind a firewall these days, which had hampered my internet and social media searches for Mr Stein.
Hong Gildong clicked his knuckles. He was built like an ox. He fiddled with his fake Rolex, twisting the case until a serrated edge appeared around it. He gave the strap a tug, it expanded to become a sharpened chain. There are two types of criminals, those with diplomatic immunity and those without. Gildong being the latter, he had nothing to lose in a flurry of blood and metal, I might lose my life.
“Some more, Mr Worth,” ordered Miss Kim.
“That’s all I know,” I answered, fairly truthfully.
“In which case, I suggest you work the room very successfully, Mr Worth, if you know what is good for you. We will rendezvous later.”
Gildong cracked his knuckles again while rearranged his wrist-borne weapon back into a watch. With that, the three of us were ambushed, in the nicest possible way, as the High Commissioner and his wife arrived in our little corner.
She, with a nod of the head and a movement of the forearm, distracted Miss Kim and her bodyguard to a conversation about the weather. He, with a clap of the hands, the upper body relaxed and the legs slightly spread, separated me away from the others by mentioning the cricket. After the briefest of exchanges, the topic changed to, “What on earth are you doing taking little packets from the North Koran secret service? And in the middle of a crowded room. Not those dreadful fake diamonds boiled up in pressure cooker in a cave next to half-cocked bomb is it? They’re like the sweepings up from a jeweller’s floor. Is it really worth it?”
“I took them on behalf of Her Majesty,” I told him. “I might be able to prize some important intelligence from the North Koreans but I’m short of anything to trade. Can you tell me anything about an operation Bonfire?”
He clapped his hands again, this time to bid me farewell, “My office, ten minutes, pretext, those diamonds to the safe.”
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file