“Whose side are you on?” I snarled to Lotus Flower in a private message.
“Mine,” she replied promptly. “You retire in disgrace in a few weeks, I have to think about the rest of my career“, she reminded me with a flourish.
While doing so, she began a fight with her keyboard and mouse as, from the loudspeakers, came the unmistakable noise of an outsized half lizard half Ted Heath creature smashing its way out of its upright formaldehyde coffin and lurching towards myself and Lotus’s onscreen avatars.
In real life, we were safe in the underground comms room of the British High Commission in Singapore (albeit having snook in for a bit of below the radar research) but the avatars were in a secret sanctum Norman dungeon inside the 3D graphical world of EYE, an intelligence retrieval system.
Lotus pressed buttons and swiped her mouse about, desperately trying to do something, anything, as the man-lizard tried to bite her avatar’s head off. The two other avatars, Nicole’s and Rose’s, were safely on the other side of the ‘Keep Out’ signs, in the barrack blocks graphics surrounding the parade ground, researching important people and places, none of which they could find. I switched my own monitor off in disgust, leaving my avatar to its fate while I looked at my own reflection on a blank screen.
“This is ridiculous, I can’t be bothered with this nonsense,” I observed. “Silly Graphical User Interface designer types in the IT department with time on their hands. Why can’t they grow up?”
It was pet topic of mine, “They should put them out in the field, on operations, like us. A few ambassador’s receptions and cultural evenings would toughen them up and stop this kind of adolescent nonsense. I had to sit through a Chinese opera once, played on tin pans and catgut. Deputy Head of Chancery’s mother was visiting and I had the least credible excuse. When I was buying the programme I was still a boy, by the middle of act fifteen I was a man.”
From Lotus’s monitor, there was a horrible crunching sound, not dissimilar to the percussion section in that Chinese opera. Her avatar had been bitten in two. Despite this, she held her cell-phone in the air in triumph. “Done it!” She exclaimed, “I’ve downloaded the Dirty List.” A dangerous call, given the viruses that were affecting the British Sector of EYE.
“Poor avatars,” observed Nicole. “They’ve been Swaled, or is it Bonfired?” She sounded pleased with herself and puzzled at the same time. As for me, drawing the obvious conclusion from our thus far fruitless search, I’d definitely been Bonfired.
“All my sources have disappeared from the system. Tammy, Emile, Mr Kenneth, even Madame Baba of a certain Tangiers establishment.”
“Hostel,” I corrected myself immediately, if not convincingly, sputtering, “Which is Moroccan for a three-star hotel.”
“At least I’ve saved the Dirty List you’ll be pleased to hear, cousin,” repeated Lotus triumphantly, still holding her cell-phone in the air.
In the background, the infants in the IT department were having their final laugh as ‘Game Over’ appeared on Lotus’s screen and her monitor switched itself off. The ladies had had quite a bit of fun my expense, having found me on the Defence/Dirty List, marked down as a security risk. At least it wasn’t on the front page of the newspapers, a fact that made me obliged to explain.
“Oldest trick in the book. Half-truths carefully spun in order to, if ever I were to rock the boat, accuse me of what I accuse them of. Kept in reserve. Proof of which is that you found out in a secret dungeon, beneath a Norman keep, in a top-secret archive, not on the front page of the Straights Star or the London Rags.”
The girls nodded in agreement, I was on a roll.
“As for the communal shower in the YMCA,” I continued, hoping to press my advantage.
“We’re sick of hearing about it,” interrupted Nicole to my relief, before adding, “I’ve found Mr Stein’s personal file.”
The rest of us fell silent.
“It’s been Bonfired. There’s no contact details, just a list of operations, ironically including Bonfire. And Red Noise?”
“Captured Soviet ekrano planes used to resupply our secret bases in Antarctica,” I explained, forgetting for a moment that our maid, Rose, was not only present but one of Mr Lee’s best agents.
Take off weight, landing weight, fuel weight, cargo weight, weight distribution (stowage), air pressure, wind direction, wind speed, humidity, thrust, lift, pitch, roll, air temperature, sea temperature, ice temperature (and thickness), all while doing three hundred miles an hour, five-foot above a twelve-foot swell, nine thousand miles from home. All to save money. It had been very, very complicated. No wonder they’d needed a nuclear physicist like Mr Stein. Even more difficult had been deciding which of the impeccable enemies, the warring factions, should have their badge on the tail. The Navy or the RAF?
“I couldn’t possibly comment, I’ve already said far too much in front of the domestic. Promise you won’t tell Mr Lee about the ekrano fights, Rose?”
“Lighthouse”, began Rose, “was the confidential British mission to upgrade your secret global communications cable.”
“Found out about that did you?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
Rose pointed to the corner of the comms room, beneath which the recently upgraded beyond-lightening-fast Sino-London Cable Company’s Empire connecting cable was buried.
“It was a bit obvious,” she continued. “A crew of guffawing, gin-soaked Dartmouth College types in a rusty sixty-year-old whaling factory ship, taking a very funny route from the Southern Atlantic to a shipbreaking beach in Bangladesh. Mr Lee found it quite amusing.”
“The back end of a South Georgia factory ship can take a dead whale or a cable enhancing submersible,” I explained. “As long as the Americans never twig, you and Mr Lee might as well be on the needs to know list.”
Nicole read out another of Mr Stein’s operations, “Cartridge?”
“Nasty business,” Lotus informed us. “The Crown Prince still takes all of his meals through a straw. And that Lagonda turned out to be the only one ever built.”
“All in the interests of peace and prosperity,” I reminded the ladies, in case a morale-sapping cynicism threatened to descend upon them. Lotus drew an obvious conclusion, “Leaving all his ops on the record? Mr Stein must be fishing for an MBE. Anything else?”
Nicole flicked though some blank pages before announcing, “Swaling.”
“Strange,” I replied. “I thought he was trying to wreck Swaling with Bonfire. Can’t say I remember him from back in the day. Must have belonged to the dark side. Silly clot.”
Which gave me a thought.
“Grapple. Look for Grapple.”
Nicole replied that there was no sign of anything called ‘Grapple’ in Mr Stein’s PF. Therefore it must be mega top-secret and how did I know about it? I replied that I knew from general knowledge. It was no big secret. There’d been plenty of publicity at the time, in the 1950s. Johnny Brit builds a hydrogen bomb a decade before the Chinese and only eighteen months after the Soviets, despite no help from the Americans, who, for some reason, were starting to distrust us and assume we kept things from them. There’d been Movietone newsreels, articles in the papers, the works. As for Grapple’s significance to ourselves, the bomb tests were in the Pacific. Men and materials, delivered via Singapore.
“And Mr Stein was definitely in among it. His amateur watercolours of the test sites are hanging in the house we rent from him. That’s what got us into in all of this nonsense in the first place.”
I instructed Nicole to send her avatar to the Operations archive, in Blenheim barracks, next to Battishill.
“Find the Grapple file and download it. There might be a clue in there that helps to locate Stein.”
Simultaneously, another little idea was boiling away in the back of my head. But while giving Nicole her instructions, I’d mistakenly taken my eye off Rose. Her avatar had already wandered over to Blenheim.
“I’ve found the files for Swaling,” she declared out of the blue. “Both of them.”
Lotus corrected her, there couldn’t be two. “An operation consists of position, purpose, propose, plan, prepare, perform. All in one file, with a single point of maximum concentrated effort. The alternative is drift and chaos.”
“No, there’s definitely two,” Rose countered.
Lotus was quick off the mark, “Worth, you’re quiet. You’re not surprised? Swaling was your op? Lost boys, VIPs, bit of blackmail?”
I said nothing.
Rose continued, “One of the files has been Bonfired, inside it’s just blank.”
I put on my grumpy face. Months of work, years of implementation, one of the best things I’d ever done, blanked. She told me what I had already worked out.
“It has Ashley dePfeffel Worth-Saying on the spine,” she said, sounding genuinely disappointed for me. “And the other one is..”
I broke my silence, “There was a difference of opinion. Don’t let it bother you. Rose, put the files back.”
Instead, Rose flicked through the second, which appeared to be complete and intact.
“If anyone needs to know, it’s by a Natasha Williams.”
In my moment of disappointed hesitation, Lotus Flower was able to take control.
“Nicole, be a darling, jump back to the Personal Files and look for this Natasha Williams’s PF.”
Nicole was now an expert at EYE, it only took seconds.
“Found it,” Nicole said, but in an instant added, “there’s something very strange about it.”
The four of us looked at the screen. Apart from myself, Lotus was the only one who understood. Touchingly, she leant towards me and laid a hand on my shoulder. In a concerned whisper, she asked, “Worth? You weren’t fond of this Williams were you?”
To be continued….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file