‘I guess this is it,’ announced Roger as he applied the handbrake of his BMW X5 M. We had followed his satnav’s instructions as it steered us through the maze of mock-Georgian townhouses that crowd the Isle of Dogs. Shelley Court, the block we were parking outside, stood out only insofar as its architect had obviously taken his cocaine habit to excess. Neo-classical pillars and wrought-iron balconies on a pseudo-Georgian building aside, the only remarkable thing about the place was its location. I had been expecting something in a run-down area, whereas this was bang in the middle of the “executive, residential developments” that line the waterfront in Docklands. It looked drab under the low, grey cloud that had descended on East London.
My attempts to elicit more information regarding my mysterious, not to say expensive, benefactor did not get me very far as we wove our way across South London. This was not down to reticence on Roger’s part; unless he was lying, he simply did not seem to know very much.
He had been introduced to a man calling himself Parsons by a fellow solicitor he played golf with. Over a pint in the club house the conversation had turned, or been steered around to, identity theft. When Roger had acknowledged that a few clients had consulted him about it, Parsons had indicated that it was a field he worked in and suggested a meeting. They had swapped business cards and a couple of days later, his curiosity piqued and sniffing a possible business opportunity, Roger had called K & L Securities Ltd.
He had been collected after work by a young man in a newish Ford Mondeo who had driven him to a non-descript red-brick house in the dreary hinterland of Heathrow, somewhere around Feltham. Inside, the place was full of people sitting at work stations working on laptops. It all looked very temporary – there were no potted plants and notice-boards and a couple of rooms did not even have carpets. It was as if they were squatting there. As if to support this notion, in the few times Roger had subsequently employed their services he told me he had never gone to the same place twice.
He had re-met Parsons there, who turned out to be a permanent fixture in this shifting landscape; he explained that he was Roger’s contact and that Roger should inform him immediately if he was approached by anyone else regarding their mutual activities. Parsons had explained that K& L Securities Ltd was a private company with Government “affiliations”. Their main concern was industrial espionage, but they had also found themselves drawn into identity protection because chief executives and their minions were obvious targets for blackmail.
When Roger asked quite what K & L Securities Ltd could do for his clients, Parsons explained that there were two basic types of industrial blackmailer: the criminal gangs who were simply interested in extorting cash from companies and government organisations or their employees, and espionage agencies who were interested in economic disruption, “peace to war ratios” and the like. It got complicated because this was a market place and information was the commodity for sale. The gangs did not give a shit who they sold their goods to and they had a choice. They could go to the expense, trouble, and indeed risk involved in approaching and putting the screws on the victim directly, or they could simply sell the information they held on him or her to an interested third party such as a government agency; it depended principally on who the victim was.
If it was the latter, there was a generally understood price-scale in place depending on the potential value of the victim. It was much lower than the sort of return a successful blackmail operation might produce, but what if the victim stood his ground or committed suicide? It made better business sense to take the money and find the next potential victim. There was an unwritten “Thief’s Agreement” that a gang would not attempt to use the material again once they had been paid for it. The business was too cosy and lucrative for anyone to break this.
In short, K & L Securities Ltd devoted a proportion of their energies to bidding against electronic blackmail gangs, often in competition with representatives from non-British, and even British, espionage agencies. When Roger enquired as to what happened if a rival agency outbid them, Mr Parsons smiled politely and ignored the question. When Roger asked at a later meeting why he never went to the same address twice, Parsons simply shrugged and replied: ‘Unfortunately we have enemies in our business.’
That was it. All Roger was able to add was that the five grand was non-negotiable and non-returnable. If they drew a blank, it was the price you paid for knowing you were not being blackmailed by the Triads or their ilk. If they had to bid for your info, the cost of that process went on top. This was what was really troubling me. The whole arrangement sounded like a money pit and, worse still, it ran directly contrary to my habitual need for control. To crown it all, it was happening at a moment when the certainties in my life seemed to be slipping out of my grasp.
‘How do you know this isn’t a complete set-up? How do you know these Triads even exist?’
‘Well, everyone’s heard of the Triads...’
‘Yes, but how do you know they are engaged in this electronic blackmail?’
‘Well, we’re going to Parsons, not the other way round, and we wouldn’t be going to him if you hadn’t, well... you know. Besides I can’t imagine that there are enough cases of this nature alone to sustain the operation I’ve seen; not at five grand a pop. There’s too much infrastructure involved for a simple con and besides they have sorted other clients out for me’
‘And how much do you stand to make out of it?’ I demanded, still determined to prove that I was in some way being wronged. Roger glanced sideways at me.
‘Calm down Tony. You’re sounding paranoid. Let’s just see what the man says okay? Just so you know, I get paid ten percent of his fee...’
‘That’s five hundred quid!’
Roger shrugged: ‘That’s what it says on the cheque sent to my office after each referral. I don’t ask for it. Besides it’s a forty mile round trip from my office to the Isle of Dogs and back. Have you seen the price of petrol these days?’
There was the faintest glimmer of a smile on his lips.
‘Alright, point taken: I’m just feeling a little stressed right now.’
‘Sure it’s hardly surprising, but why now in particular if you don’t mind my asking? It’s not exactly the first time Liz’s caught you with your pants down...’
‘I dunno. It’s just that she’s not reacting like she normally does – I would have expected an explosion by now and this business with this bloody woman claiming she’s pregnant; it’s not like my previous moments of weakness.’
Roger paused to concentrate on the Elephant and Castle roundabout then resumed:
‘I don’t want to add to your woes, but has it crossed your mind that Liz has decided to do something about it this time?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well the kids are grown up and you mentioned to me a couple of months ago that she’s got a new job. What if she’s decided to move on?’
‘Why on Earth would she do that?’
‘What if she’s got a new man?’
‘What the fuck are you talking about? She would never do that?’
‘Why not? You haven’t exactly set a good example on the fidelity front. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose these days. My in-tray is full of divorce files based on infidelity claims like this.’
‘Are you touting for business?’
‘Don’t be so soft. I’m just pointing out that people’s feelings change. You may have provided for Liz’s material needs, but you’ve always trampled over her emotional needs. Perhaps this latest business is a bridge too far – “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” and all that.’
‘Oh come off it! What bloke doesn’t play away once in a while? We aren’t designed for nest building and babies...’
‘I don’t, Tony,’ Roger retorted quietly. ‘I’ve never been unfaithful to Simon so don’t be too quick to tar everyone with your brush.’
The rebuke was delivered with the calm neutrality of a true solicitor, but it was there nevertheless. I shut up. I also felt the nudge of a memory from our distant past. It was Roger who had been going out with Liz before I came along and he decided to come to terms with his own sexuality.
Not long after that we pulled into Shelley Court.
Roger said something into the intercom and the door buzzed. We walked into a reception area where we were met by a young man in jeans and a white t-shirt. He escorted us into a lift offering nothing beyond a nod and a “Hi” for a greeting. We ascended to the second, and therefore top floor which opened directly into an open-plan floor space packed with the sort of work-stations you might find in a clearance sale; the money had clearly been spent on the shiny new laptops that sat on top of them.
The slightly worn carpet was domestic, the sort of reasonably durable and neutral-coloured type you might have in your lounge. Through the open doors running off this main room I could see different carpets in each room, delineating the former bedrooms. A glimpse of a tiled floor suggested a kitchen or a bathroom. The walls were painted “White with a Hint of Something” and ghostly off-white patches were etched on them where shelves and pictures had been removed by the departing occupants.
The departing occupants had also taken their light shades with them and bare, low-energy bulbs seemed to add to the late afternoon gloom primarily alleviated by the glare from the monitors. Give or take the location, the set-up was pretty much as Roger had described the Feltham accommodation; a thrown-together office in a vacant domestic property. Who needs filing cabinets when you’ve got a hard disc?
Our untalkative escort led us through the packed work-stations to the only closed door in evidence. He knocked and opened the door without waiting for a reply. He gestured us in with a jerk of his head and pulled the door closed behind us as he departed.
This room was rather more unsettling. It had obviously been a boy’s bedroom right down to the Thomas the Tank Engine wall paper. Other than that it contained a solitary workstation, chair and laptop in one corner and a Habitat-style, beige sofa along the opposite wall, which had presumably been left by, or bought from, the previous residents. Perhaps the departure of the previous young occupant had coincided with a loss of interest in every boy’s favourite tank engine because the room was lit by a Thomas bedside lamp on the floor in the absence of a bulb in the ceiling socket.
Mr Parsons seemed to materialise out of the gloom cast by the poor lighting and the dull day outside the small bedroom window. I wondered if this was all a bit of theatre to impress me with the “differentness” of the world occupied by the espionage fraternity. If so the impression was distinctly under-whelming and not improved upon by the man himself. He looked like an Oxford don who had been put in an Armani suit in order to look like an executive. The suit did not fit him, not because it was the wrong size, but because he was the wrong shape. He looked deformed in it. His glasses would have been stylish if they had not been hung on a cord around his neck. His receding hair was just a bit too long to qualify as an “executive” style. If this man was “M”, the Bond movie genre had gone distinctly down-market. I was also beginning to wonder what I was doing in a spy movie at all.
Before I could begin to follow this line of enquiry, Roger stepped in with the introductions. Handshakes over, Parsons gestured for us to sit on the sofa but I declined. I do not like being talked down to, literally or figuratively, at the best of times, and right then I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable in this bizarre environment. “Mr Parsons” opened the conversation.
‘Good afternoon Mr Stamford,’ he began, scrubbing the sides of what little hair he had left with his fingertips, then flattening it back down equally vigorously, ‘and thank you for making the time to visit us this afternoon.’ I had been planning a chilly aloofness, but there was a nervous courtesy about him which would have made it rude not to have accepted it, ‘I believe I am addressing a “Mister” not a “Doctor” owing to your particular specialism within the medical profession?’
‘Yes, er, indeed, that is correct.’ I thawed a little. I had not particularly expected a layman to recognise this distinction, and we surgeons are always rather pleased to have our study and hard work acknowledged.
“And I expect you’re wondering quite why people in our line of business are interested in the difficulty you currently appear to be encountering.’
‘Well, it had crossed my mind. I mean it all seems a bit O.T.T. to be frank.’ I gestured vaguely around the room to indicate what I meant by “it”. The Thomas the Tank Engine lampshade did not really convey my point, but Mr Parsons clearly understood what I was driving at.’
‘Indeed, I can see how it would appear that way to you and, if we could be sure that you were the victim of nothing more than a blackmailing prostitute, even one backed by a criminal gang, we would probably have left you to sort out the problem yourself. It would not be any of our business if you suffered any monetary loss as a result of their demands and there are law enforcement agencies such as the police who you could turn to if you wished to stand your ground against financial blackmail. Unfortunately, there is a very real danger that, given your profession, your, er, shall we say “transgression” – he gestured the inverted commas with his fingers –may attract parties interested in industrial blackmail.’
Perhaps it was his vaguely pedantic, lecturing manner, perhaps it was the underlying suggestion that I was out of my depth, but, as much to my own surprise as anyone else’s, I let rip:
‘Industrial blackmail, what are you talking about? I’m a fucking surgeon for crying out loud! What’s that got to do with “industrial blackmail”?’ I snarled, copying his inverted commas gesture back at him. ‘Why should I believe any of this bullshit?’ I added for good measure. Suddenly I was on the offensive. I was not going to be dragged into what I suspected would turn into a money pit without a fight. Parsons took a pace back as if I had threatened to punch him, but when he resumed his tone was commanding and the boffin’s demeanour had vanished.
‘Mr Stamford, I would thank you to refrain from swearing and suggest you adopt a more civil tone or I will terminate this meeting forthwith and have you removed from the building! I am here to help you with a potentially very harmful problem, not tolerate uncalled-for rudeness.’
‘And I’m not here to listen to your bullshit!’ I countered, in the grip of an irrational rage determined to vent itself on whatever stood in the way. ‘What the fuck has industrial blackmail got to do with me?’
‘For crying out loud Anthony,’ interrupted Roger, flushed with embarrassment, ‘will you get a grip on yourself? There’s no call for this!’
The interruption made me pause; in fact, it stopped me in my tracks. What was I doing standing there, puce with rage and fists clenched? This man had done nothing to me except to offer to help me out of a difficulty of my own making. Where was cool, easy-going Mr Tony Stamford, the surgeon with the bedside manner that got women into bed? With a real effort I got a grip on myself.
‘Alright! Go on then, I’m listening.’
He looked at me as if to check, and then opted to continue.
‘You seem to be unclear as to how a man in your profession could be of interest to someone engaged in industrial espionage?’
I shrugged. ‘We are not stupid in the medical profession, you know. We are aware of the need for patient confidentiality and so on...’
‘I’m sure you are, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about things like how many new hospitals are scheduled to be built over the next five years, and why, and with what money. Imagine that I am a foreign spy. If I find out that a lot of money is being ploughed into hospitals by a Labour government, am I to deduce that less will be spent on defence? Even if the papers discover that such an option is on the table, how will they report it given their own political persuasions? If I wait and see, the hospitals will be built and money will be pouring back into defence again before my masters have had time to take advantage of this apparent weakness. For this information to be of any value, it has to be fresh and reliable. To ensure this I need to be checking and back-checking with my existing sources and developing new ones. My man in the MoD might be complaining about budget cuts while my contact at Costain is showing me drawings for a hospital building contract and you are reporting that several of your colleagues are off attending job interviews. I can feed all these “strands” (another inverted commas gesture) into my computer and out of it, with a bit of luck, a picture will emerge. You do understand I am speaking hypothetically? In reality things are rather more complicated.’
I nodded in reply to his questioning pause.
‘So you can see now, perhaps, just from this simplistic example, how someone in your position could be drawn into providing snippets of apparently harmless information which could be used to form a significant overall picture.’
‘I hardly think a bit of extracurricular nookie in this day and age is a basis for blackmail.’
Roger chose this moment to throw in some professional expertise of his own.
‘You would be surprised, Tony. Infidelity is still the second most popular reason given for divorce. It has only recently been superseded by “falling out of love”, and that has only taken precedence because it is cheaper to argue.’
I ignored Roger’s uncalled for contribution and looked to Parsons for a response. It was not what I wanted to hear either.
‘I’m afraid Roger is right. Sexual impropriety is still a major weapon in the blackmailer’s arsenal. The individual may not be concerned about his reputation, but, in this day-and-age, his employer might be, given that the press are reduced to little else but scandal-mongering now television and the internet have superseded their function as purveyors of news. Of course, the electronic blackmailer is simply selling the possibility of a weakness. Now you have responded to the email, you have as good as admitted to the liaison and it is up to the new purchaser of that information to exploit it as he or she wishes. Furthermore, the second approach will be far more subtle than the initial approach the gangs use. Once the new purchasers have done a search on the victim and built up a profile, if they think he or she is worth cultivating, they will look at ways to establish a contact and build up trust. Every spy master dreams of entrapping a long-term, deep-cover agent, so he or she will take whatever time is needed to establish a relationship.’
‘So how do I know what to look for? How do I spot this “spy master”?’ I employed the inverted commas gesture with a distinct note of sarcasm to convey my continued scepticism. ‘I am surrounded by people everyday who are trying to befriend me and influence me for any number of reasons; most of them harmless or even well-intentioned.’
Parsons chose to ignore my tone and continued his lecture:
‘That is what you are paying us to do on your behalf. All you can do is keep a weather eye open for people you don’t know trying to become familiar. It’s not easy; a good entrapment can be very hard to spot. The first few times the new recruit passes information he will probably not even know he is spying. Then, the fact that he is can be used against him to keep him in place. Unless he is incredibly stupid, at some point the penny drops, but by then he is compromised. He is faced with the choice of coming clean or continuing to work for his handler with whom he has developed a relationship of trust, even friendship or love. If he stays in place, he then becomes ever more effective as he learns to notice and seek out information that he would previously have ignored.’
‘And you think I could be a target for this sort of thing?’
‘I don’t know, but we can do a detailed background on this Katya woman. We can then let it be known in the right places that we are an undisclosed agency in the market for a gull - that is a potentially blackmailable target - in the British medical profession. It is not a procedure that carries guarantees, but we pride ourselves on a pretty good success rate. I assume Mr Carraway has acquainted you with our fees?’
‘And would you like us to proceed?’
I stood there for a moment, numb with the implications of what I had heard. Sure, I knew that, if nothing more, this Katya bitch was a gold-digger and had to be dealt with, but as far as Liz was concerned the damage had been done. The fling was out in the open and she would no more fall for the paternity suit than I had. It was no great secret amongst my colleagues, and therefore employers, that I had an eye for a bit of skirt or, more importantly, what went under it, so nothing had happened to tarnish my image there. I had taken that sort of flack often enough before and, to be honest, rather enjoyed the unspoken admiration, not to say sex, that came with a Casanova reputation. True, there was something in what Roger said about this being the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as my marriage was concerned, but that was nothing to do with Parsons. What I really did not like, and what it came down to, was this glimpse of the dirty, dangerous world beyond the orderly, sanitised hospital environment I lived my sheltered life in. I really did not like it at all, even without being certain that I had fully grasped all its implications. In a feeble attempt to appear still in control of the situation I threw back a final question.
‘Okay, assuming I take this identity theft business seriously and pay five grand for the investigation and, as a result, you are able to pitch in to get rid of the blackmailers, how much is it going to cost to buy my identity back?’
Parsons thought for a moment before replying.
‘It is an auction and, as with any auction, that depends on how many people are bidding and how determined they are to succeed. That said, they are buying something of unproven worth which will require considerable further investment. We rarely see an identity go for more than a hundred thousand and, for an identity with your status we would not expect the bidding to go above thirty.’
In other words: how long is a piece of string? Still I had to know. I did not have a clue about how to deal with industrial blackmailers or whatever these fucking people called themselves; I just wanted rid of them. I was out of my depth and I hated it. How could a simple shag on the other side of the world come to this? I did not have the experience to quantify the seriousness or even the real nature of the threat, but I had seen and heard enough to believe it could be real. Sick with the unaccustomed taste of defeat, I nodded my consent and left Roger to handle the money.