“Point of order,” I called optimistically while raising my hand.
“Mr Worth,” snapped Jeremy Tan, “you can’t have a point of order in an auction.”
“We’re not in an auction,” I pointed out, “nobody’s made a bid yet and we don’t know what we’re bidding for.”
I did have a case.
We were gathered around a Kranji table in the underground gaming room of the Lucky Saddle Craft Company, Geylang Road. In the darkness, our faces were illuminated by a video playing from a laptop computer placed on the baize.
The interested parties, an eclectic circle of Singaporean upper-middle to highish high society surrounded the device having completed a buy-in round. Mr Tan sat before a pile of diamonds, cash, US Treasury bonds and a priceless one-off newspaper that had announced the details of the assassination of President Kennedy four days before it had happened. Was he salivating? Was there a drip running down his chin?
He allowed my point of order and took the pause in the proceedings as an opportunity to start filling his pockets with booty.
“There’s your introduction,” I exclaimed while pointing at North Korean secret service assassin, the scarlet-red evening dress clad Miss Kim Jo Long.
“Hardly,” she replied in her St Hilda’s College Oxford (Oriental Studies, starred First) English accent.
“You wanted to see a certain missing and mysterious boffin, Mr Stein, late of this parish. There he is. You can see him on the screen.”
Tan had paused the clip. Mr Stein gawped at us like a startled savant. His mouth drooped as though he was about to speak. One eye was open and one closed as if part way through a blink.
I recognised Stein because my cousin Lotus, with her HM Government Hong Kong Consulate mobile phone had been able to get through Mr Lee’s impenetrable electronic social media chewing firewall. The same Harry Lee who wanted nothing of the world and all its wickedness outside of this own personal squashed diamond-shaped fiefdom at the southern tip of the Malay peninsular.
“I need more than a look on a screen Mr Worth, an introduction, not a peep. You still owe me the diamonds upon pain of death.”
“Nonsense Miss Kim, you’re about to see and hear Mr Stein, and I insist Mr Tan does not continue until Miss Jo Long has assured me of my safety.”
“I’ll think about it,” was the best assurance I could extract from her.
Mr Tan expressed his position from the chair, “Oh be quiet about those diamonds the two of you. You’re like a pair of children.”
Not too dismayed, I fiddled with an item concealed in my pocket. Rose our maid had pressed it into my palm as I’d been dragged away to the gaming room earlier in the morning. It was a computer memory stick. I think I knew what was on it and I was confident, if Miss Kim were to become a little bit too incalcitrant, it might save my life.
Tan pressed the play button and Mr Stein began.
Previously, via social media, I’d seen Stein pictured standing in the hallway of the house myself and my wife, Nicole, rented from him in Singapore’s upmarket townhouse subdivision of Kovan. He’d been photographed next to the vile green wallpaper near his collection of watercolours of atom bomb test sites. These hung above a Turkish carpet with a secret code carefully stitched into it. The decyphering of which had drawn us to the gaming room for this reveal.
He’d struck me as being diminutive and drawn.
Now he appeared much more animated. There was colour in his cheeks. He stood before a background of tropical palm trees and a beach. A deep blue sea rippled below the fronds, above them an endless blue sky filled the firmament. As he began to speak, he sounded in high spirits, perhaps too ebullient, near de-mob happy.
Dressed in a garish Hawaiian style floral shirt, far too young for him, he sipped a pastel-coloured cocktail topped in slices of tropical fruit.
The first part of his address was a dull monologue, difficult for us ordinary mortals to follow. It was bad news for Mr Tan whose salivating ceased to the extent his lips began to crack.
The auctioneer followed Stein’s instructions. He had no choice. Using his cell phone he transferred funds from his own bank account to Mr Stein’s in lieu of the cash, bonds, newspaper and diamonds recently stuffed into his pockets. After which a code would arrive on his cell phone allowing for the playing of another clip.
As things stood, far from being on a handsome commission, Tan was on nothing.
Slimy Sir Julian Minsk of the European Community commiserated in a loud stage whisper,
“Chin up, Tan old chap, presumably you get a cut of the winning bid when one of us buys whatever it is that’s up for grabs in this ‘Auction of the Millennium’.”
Was there a hint of mockery in his tone?
Unconsoled, Jeremy stared at the baize, a tear in the corner of each eye. His phone pinged, the code had arrived. He typed it into the laptop and off we set again.
This time, Stein was sitting in a luxurious chair behind a desk and beneath a fan in what one might assume to be his study.
Mrs Clogg leant into my shoulder and whispered a confidence to me, “Judging by the flora and fauna visible through the slatted window above his left shoulder, I would say that’s the Turks and Caicos Islands.”
“My thoughts exactly Mrs Clogg. Up the hill and behind the Anglican church judging by the angle of the shadows cast on the bookcase and bearing in mind the time on the silver carriage clock next to the photograph of the Queen.”
“Of course,” she agreed.
Stein cleared his throat and began to speak. Now beyond the point at which he’d been paid, he dumbed down his address to the level of us bidders.
“As you know by now, a giant algorithm, code-named Bonfire, is chewing its way through the worlds IT systems, selectively removing information. This is the latest part of a 1980s operation called Swaling. A thinning out of anything contradictory to a protocol set up by Mrs Thatcher to save Britain and make the world a better place.”
“If there is a Miss Natasha or a Mr Worth in the room, they will know all about using Swaling to defend her Majesties realm from bolshy unions, Irish nationalists, layabouts and Scousers. But times change. More recently a loony protocol of lefty progressive claptrap was adopted which re-ordered Swaling and Bonfire to European Community and American Liberalism levels of nonsense.”
A white cat jumped onto Stein’s knee. He began to stroke it.
“Political correctness gone mad. All amplified by the ubiquity of the internet. Originally meant as a force for the improvement of humankind, the internet has filled with filth for pornography obsessives.”
Sir Julian blushed.
“And nonsense fed by self-important Walter Mitty fantasists.”
A shiver ran down my spine.
“It worships global corporate business.”
Mrs Clogg of the Explorer Bank, who’d been flirting with me outrageously, became cold. She shuffled her chair away from me as if ashamed.
“It is full of fake news.”
The Strait Star’s Mr Fitzgerald tapped his nose.
“And identity fraud combined with a complete lack of respect for privacy.”
If anything, Mrs Wong of the Wong Address Company’s expression became more inscrutable.
“Not to mention hypocritical elitist left-wing politics based on a phoney promise of equality.”
Miss Jo Long shrugged. Her pearl necklace trembled across her modest bosom while her hammer and sickle diamond earrings danced beneath her perfectly formed lobes.
“And the most bizarre and outrageous of sexual fetishes.”
We had to pause the video. Mr Tan was feeling unwell and asked for a glass of water.
Mr Hong Gildong, Miss Jo Long’s bodyguard, obliged and noticeably patted Mr Tan knowingly on the shoulder while doing so.
“Well, I’ve had enough,” continued Mr Stein. “You can all sod off. But someone has to take over from me. I have to pass the baton on. I will live a life of luxury on the buy-in money while the winner of the auction takes responsibility for the Swaling and Bonfire algorithms. These control what data is allowed to cross the global communications system. I’ve turned it into an app with sliders and buttons. It’s a doddle to use.”
“En réalité, what you are bidding for in the Auction of the Millennium, ladies and gentlemen, is complete, total and unhindered control of the internet.”
“However, put your ill-gotten pennies away. You are not bidding with money. Oh no, I want something far more important than that.”
To be continued ….
© Always Worth Saying 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file