Myself and Rose are before a terminal in the underground comms room of a deserted British High Commission. The other girls, Nicole and Lotus Flower, are escaping the tropical storm outside by maxing out Mr Lee’s access all areas card on a midnight snack in the canteen. Rose has just informed me that she is the VPN, having memorised the passwords and codes required to escape Singapore’s impressive firewall and allow me access to the, presently somewhat struggling, global IT system.
Cynicism oused from Rose’s lips, “I suppose you’ve given some thought to the notion that your own Government’s Operation Bonfire has chewed its way through the world’s data, causing chaos, and Mr Lee’s firewall is all that saves Singapore from a similar fate?”
“You don’t think this is a very good plan do you?” I replied, before taking a swig of cooler water from my plastic cup.
“So there is a plan?” She replied excitedly, mockingly, leaning towards me in fake enthusiasm.
“We have to find Mr Stein, the architect of this,” I explained. “So he can untangle it, and then be introduced to the North Korean Secret Service who’ve already advanced me a measure of diamonds with that in mind. And to resuscitate my own Operation Swaling, and its Dirty List, to re-establish control over some nefarious characters, who seem to be attaching unnecessary strings to the European Community / Singapore trade deal.”
“What else can you surmise, Mr Worth-Saying?”
“About you, Miss Rose?”, I pondered for a moment. “Presumably the original Rose the maid is shark food in chains at the bottom of the Straits, weighed down by a concrete block. Or at the very least, sent back to Vietnam, her permissions revoked as soon as Mr Stein showed up on the radar. What did he do? Plug in his laptop at Dumfries Street thinking nobody at Keychain Central would notice him working from home? Presumably, an employment agency put all the other applications in the bin and gave Mr Lee’s best agent a clean run to Mr Stein’s domestic’s room. He was on to you, by the way, started hiding things under the water tank. Meanwhile, after a changing of the guard, you felt obliged to spy on me.”
I paused, allowing her to return the compliment. She did so with relish. Previously it had been my policy to be nice to the staff. From then on, via a memo to myself, the advice upgraded to spoil the staff rotten, just in case. As if for confidence, Rose touched the East Rand gold and Kimberley diamond choker around her slender neck. It twinkled, part hidden by wisps of the raven hair which matched her perfect, deep brown eyes. The jewellery rightly belonged to Nicole. It was a family heirloom, from my side, Rose had liberated it from my office safe before rendezvousing with us that evening.
“All right, by the cut of your tropical warfare number twos and with an old school tie hidden in storage, you went to minor public school in the English provinces. My guess is you didn’t come from money which means that you were at that school by the grace of Great Britain plc, perhaps as an ex-pat businessman’s son? Or even through the colonial service? Hence the references, that a simple maid cannot help but overhear, to ‘coolies’, ‘natives’ and ‘Johnny foreigners.”
“And that makes perfect sense, since your queen’s various deniable arms-length consultancies look for maladjusted, lower middle-class sorts, who think there’s still an Empire and who give little thought to anything other than far fetched derring-do to protect Queen and country. You know, passed over by MI6 types with irritating mannerisms and fake watches.”
Mention of the timepiece set off my twitch. On formal occasions, wary of a knowledgeable crowd, I kept my watch well up the sleeve, hoping no one would notice.
“Soi Cowboy street stall?” Rose suggested with a sneer.
“Agdao public market.”
“Now,” she continued, “having got to know you over the last few months, I wouldn’t go as far as to call you a pathetic Water Mitty character who lives in his own fantasy world.”
“Of course not.”
“But as charming as you are Mr Worth-Saying, I will be keeping my focus on the Government of Singapore’s self-interest and away from your irresistible blue eyes.”
“What’s the login?”
“SKEWERED, upper case, one sympathises.”
She logged onto the system and clicked her way through menus and dropdowns until she’d opened a little black window which allowed for the entry of command-line instructions. She typed away, but from memory rather than understanding, making mistakes which I was able to prompt her to correct. Forward slashes should have been backslashes, a colon was missing. She miss-understood the sequence in which drives were lettered. My helpful interventions thawed the ice, a little. As she typed, she explained what she was doing. About half of this I already knew or had worked out for myself. The other half was a revelation.
Singapore had its very own secure keychain system, developed to protect the important financial services industry from hacking, fraud or any kind of outside interference or scrutiny. In doing so, the city-state became, according to Rose, the ideal place for,
“Rotters like Mr Stein, and stinkers like the British Government, to hide while developing ill-intentioned top-secret software, such as the data erasing Operation Bonfire.”
The Singaporean secret service, known as the Internal Security Department (or ISD), knew something was amiss as blips showed up in the system, not least regarding,
“Trading in securities, Mr Worth, perhaps from this very room? As speculation about the European Community / Singapore trade deal affected prices, there were some very strange, timely and profitable trades.”
It was her turn to bang her foot on the floor, as I had done when hinting at the presence of this very underground comms room. She stamped away, suggesting something important further beneath us. I pointed to another terminal, in the corner of the room.
“That one Rose, right above it. A wire as thick as your wrist runs straight into it. Nano-seconds count, apparently. Not that I would know about such things, but one or two chaps in the High Commission dabble on the stock market a bit. I’m told.”
“Indeed, nano-seconds count Mr Worth, and the British Empire’s undersea cable connecting London to Hong Kong via Singapore gives that advantage. Your comms room, accidentally built right on top of it. Do the People’s Republic of China or the Hong Kong Assembly know about this?” Rose asked rhetorically.
“I haven’t told them, doubt if Lotus Flower has.”
“Or the Americans or the Japanese?”
“A few little side bets on the stock market never did any harm, Rose. Want me to nod you a tip next time I hear something? They can go down as well as up, by the way.”
“Billions were moving about, Mr Worth. I suspect Old England was making more money by leaking inside trade deal information, and betting on the resulting movement of stocks, than they ever made from selling the cream teas or forcing children to work up the chimneys.”
“One does ones best to develop new products and new markets, Rose. We could always go back to doing it the old fashioned way. Close down all of the banks on Marina Bay and get you a job picking nutmeg on a plantation, for a dollar a day. Fancy it? And, if you think Mr Lee doesn’t do rather well out of all of this, then you’re a fool. Why do you think he’s a bit free and easy with his access all areas card?”
Having got that off our respective chests, and Rose having pressed the last few buttons, we found ourselves around the firewall and connected to the outside world.
We might want to start by using Bonfire to remove all of this unhelpful talk of Queen Victoria’s Sino-London Undersea Cable Company joining the Empire together, which anyone in Union Jack shorts had assumed the rest of the world had forgotten about (or never knew about in the first place). But, time was tight.
“Where do you want to go today?” echoed Rose, reading from Her Majesty’s Governments London Portal website splash page. Her fingers hovered above the keyboard in expectation.
“It awfully complicated,” I warned her. “There’s a library, a registry, a depository, a records office, a repository, an archive, and loads of index cards in the aforementioned pointing to piles of paperwork in people’s offices. Supposed to be anyway. And that’s just the places I’ve been told about and can still remember. There’s a mega social security computer too. Everybody with a National Insurance number has a personal intelligence file attached to it. Everything in this Gordian knot has a paper index, lost, destroyed by mice, eaten by moths, replaced by computer catalogues that don’t work any more. What we’re looking for could be anywhere from a plush office in Belgravia to the bottom of a salt mine in Cheshire. Added to which…,” I paused, feeling the curse of one of my bright ideas approaching. The Americans had an all-singing, all-dancing, 3D graphical user interface (with video and audio) in a navigable virtual world, made up of easy to find and understand files. Added to which, they tended to express these things as cartoons and smiley faces rather than endless prose written by Oxbridge classicists.
“Can you get social media on there, Rose? Find me a Tammy-May Trevelion. If there’s a few, she’ll be the one with family in Newark, New Jersey, pronounced ‘Joy-zee’.
To be continued…..
© Always Worth Saying 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file