We’re in the underground gaming room of the Lucky Saddle Craft Company, sat around the Kranji table.
We being the unlikely finalists of an unlikely competition, raised from Singapore’s high and not so high society, who were able to work out the code left for them on my missing landlord Mr Stein’s Turkish rug.
Lured to this place, we have bought into an auction under the auspices of the city state’s star, if camp and creepy, auctioneer Mr Jeremy Tan.
A laptop video clip tells us we’re about to take part in the opportunity of the millennium with the victor gaining control of the internet. However, in his final sentence, from what appears to be his retreat in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a cynical and wizened Mr Stein, holder of the algorithms which decide such things, informs us the bidding isn’t to be with money but with something more important. At that point, the screen went blank and Mr Tan announced,
“Madame and Messieurs, we have now been assembled for one hour. It is time for a short break. We will resume in fifteen minutes.”
Mr Hong Gildong, Miss Kim Jo Long’s bodyguard, raised the house lights. Mrs Wong of the Wong address company put her hand into the box Stein had deposited at the Wong Address Forwarding Company and produced some refreshments – ten cartons of Kiora Orange drinks with straws.
“The Americans and Mr Lee haven’t turned up, leaving some to spare,” she announced.
We circulated over our Kioras like busy bees in a hive trying to work out which direction might lead to success.
“What do you think Stein means? Something more valuable than money?” I said.
“Nothing is more valuable than money, Mr Worth,” Mrs Clogg of the Explorer Bank was at my shoulder, “by definition money is the measure of value. It’s how we define the worth of things.”
“Hmmm,” I mused.
“The nature and structure of the organisation is what counts,” muttered European Community bureaucrat, the slimy libertine Sir Julian Minsk. “That’s what’s most important. This Stein must be wanting someone else to take over the internet’s bureaucracy. Set up more committees and subcommittees to administer the World Wide Web. Hierarchy, spans of control, rule by office, promotion by nepotism, I mean merit. I’ll tell you what Worth,” he pulled me away from Mrs Clogg, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, non-job with a giant pension in Strasbourg’s legendary Department of Departmental Issues steering committee in it for you. Remember a chap called Kinnock?”
A bell rang but not a loud one.
“If this is GB politics I’ve been away for a while, Sir Julian, serving HMG in the Far East, Hongkers, Maynila, Bangkok, that kind of thing. Last I was told, an ex-Shanghai bean counter from Standard Chartered, Mayor-Ball, had a rather wobbly hand on the Number Ten tiller.”
“No, no, Kinnock’s an old warlord from the other dynasty, socialist. Multi-millionaire with a load of houses, that type of Socialist. One of us,” he touched his European Community number sevens evening dress black tie.
“I could get you on the same committee he’s on, two along from his wife, three up from his son and one down from his daughter-in-law. Room for you, Worth, you know what to do.”
He squeezed my arm.
“Kids?” He asked.
“One on the way.”
“You could send them to the same public school as Kinnock’s grandchildren. He’ll put a word in for you. No need to take up the place, trouser the fees on expenses. See how it works? Job for life administering the administration of the internet on behalf of other administrators. That’s what Stein’s looking for. It’s a shoo-in. You want to be on the winning team, don’t you Worth? Let me do all the bidding. Mum’s the word.”
Sir Julian tapped his nose.
I excused myself to claim a second Kiora, brandished with a flourish by Mrs Belinda Wong. A touchy-feely widower, she insisted on giving me a hug, which she held for too long, while whispering.
“I’m terribly sorry Mrs Wong, I can’t hear.”
She held me closer while indiscreetly cupping her hands around my ear.
“Be careful what you say, Mr Worth, Mr Tan is making notes.”
She used our clinch to turn me around and, as explained, Mr Tan, over his Kiora, was all ears and eyes observing the assembled and writing in pencil on a pre-prepared flow chart.
“I think the bidding might already have begun, Mrs Wong, ”
“Indeed it might have, Mr Worth. If you’ll excuse me, I shall mention hard work and enterprise and keen prices in a loud voice. It will impress.”
Drawing on my straw I found myself next to Mr Fitzgerald of the Straits Star.
“Paddy, our other neighbours, Dr and Mrs Bakshi have a combined IQ of over 300 and if you include the Bakshi girls, makes it nearer 800. They were in and out of our townhouse often enough, I wonder why they never twigged about the carpet code?”
A knowing expression spread across his face like a peat bog mist gathering on a February morning in his native Galway.
“Oh, they didn’t want to. Such an opportunity is a poisoned chalice,” I realised aloud.
I recalled Rose our maid was one of Mr Lee’s top agents. And my wife Nicole, also known as Tai Tai, Singaporelish for a lady who shops, is a lot quicker on the uptake than me.
While I had his ear, I confided in Fitzgerald, “I have a horrible feeling, my wife and the maid are aware of what’s going on and, while acting the innocent, have dumped it all on me.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” He answered knowingly. “Men and their wives and their maids.”
He assured me we weren’t supposed to be enjoying ourselves. Controlling the internet was going to be a hell of a job. Finding information and moving about the world was a calling, a vocation. I observed his creased features, whiskey stained teeth and gnarled typewriter tortured ink-stained fingers.
“Even a curse. This is not about bytes and kilobytes but what the masses will and won’t understand. Get it wrong and….” His voice trailed away to nothing in anticipation of hate, trolling, war, armageddon.
I met the eye of Miss Kim Jo Long and was about to engage with her, no doubt to be informed the internet should be controlled by herself on behalf of the aforementioned masses while the masses themselves stayed poor and she became richer, when Mr Tan called us to order.
“We will resume with the second part of this morning’s event, Mesdames et Messieurs. Enjoy the game.”
We took our seats. Mr Hong Gildong dimmed the house lights and the laptop set off again casting a silver luminescence from the next video clip.
A bronzed Mr Stein was walking along a deserted beach holding a stick microphone, Alan Whicker style.
“As you can see,” he began, “our environment makes us, from the four hundred different types of finches that evolved in the Galapagos Islands to the street fighter hewn in the man-made urban jungle.”
“Wooden huts full of valves and rotating discs made the computer. Sleek high rises of glass and steel wrote the code. But what of the future? Where does the internet belong? Yes, in every home and workplace, no matter how modest or grand. But what of he or she who controls it? ”
“Your task, bidders, is to find the perfect place from which the future internet will emerge well-formed. You only have a few hours. It will have to be in Singapore. There is plenty of variety. I already know where that place is, where the future internet must have its source. The auctioneer will rendezvous with the winning bidder there and present the prize – the keys to the internet.”
“You think you are making a free choice? A rational judgment? You are not. Your environment, your God, nature, the things around you and your experiences are moulding your actions in a process beyond the ability of gold or money.”
“I know exactly what the future internet needs and I know exactly where the right person to control it will go.”
“If such person does not exist. If your auctioneer stands alone at sunset,” he held up his cell phone and showed his mega algorithm protocol app, “I turn all these dials to zero and the internet dies.”
After finishing his monologue, he took a deep breath to release a demonic gambling den foundation rattling laugh but before he could, the clip faded to nothing and was replaced by a screen of static.
“Mrs Wong?” asked Jeremy Tan.
She addressed the box Stein had deposited at the Wong Address Company and from it handed a sealed envelope to Mr Tan. The auctioneer opened it, unfolded the lavender notepaper it contained and gasped. He folded it in two and placed it in his dinner jacket pocket.
“I will see one of you at the appointed place at sunset or the internet dies. I must leave now. Mr Hong Gildong? Please wait for two hours before allowing our bidders to leave the Salon Prive. Thank you.”
Myself and Mrs Clogg stood beside her Lexus on Geylang Road. The storm had passed. Shopkeepers tidied its resultant debris from their frontages with the efficiency the Chinese have for taking minutes rather than days to restore order. There was traffic and sunshine, buying and selling. Judging by appearances, the previous night’s tempestuous events may never have happened. The equatorial sun was at its highest. By the time it was over the yardarm, the internet might be minutes from death.
“We must go to Marina Bay,” Mrs Clogg said. “I will take you there. Afterwards, you are on your own. It is survival of the fittest. You must decide for yourself which bank is the best place for this future internet and how to monetise it to your maximum benefit.”
I wasn’t so sure. After the necessary politenesses, I made an excuse and set off in a different direction, on foot alone.
To be continued ….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file