Big Night Out
by Michael E. Lloyd
part 1 of 2
N.G.’s real name bore no relation to the initials he used. It was known to only a handful of living souls, and most certainly to none of the many government ministers he had protected in his long career.
Each new minister insisted on being told what it was, of course, immediately upon taking up office. The private staffs of that department would, as usual, truthfully swear total ignorance. So it was always necessary, at their first private meeting, for N.G. to sigh deeply and personally remind the latest appointee, in short order, that it was he who controlled the country’s Intelligence Services. That he had been doing so long before that minister’s sudden rise to glory, and would be doing so long after his or her inevitable fall, and was not going to allow a mere politician’s claimed “need-to-know” to prejudice the security of the entire nation.
So for all official purposes (he would then conclude, closing the subject once and for all), he was simply N.G. And he would take any other name he chose for particular, less public situations.
This masterly opening gambit had never failed. It had brought each minister easily into his immaculate closed loop; ever more easily, in recent years, with the war-temperature rising steadily again.
And for months now he had been assiduous in supplying, through the mouthpieces of his own grey chiefs, immediate news and evidence of dastardly sleeper-guerrilla plots reportedly being uncovered and thwarted almost daily; plots apparently designed to attack the country’s cities and large towns with increasingly severe consequences. This expertly-managed portrayal of his Service’s continuing, near-perfect success rate in deep and secret intelligence stood unchallengeable by a nervous and grateful populace, politicians included. The Defender of Liberty was steadily mutating, within the most heavily carpeted corridors of air-conditioned power, into a revered demigod ...
* * *
For the small number of people who were even permitted to know of his existence, N.G.’s early years were shrouded in clichéd mystery.
One popular account painted him as an heroic and repeatedly successful jungle soldier-spy, from his late teens to his mid-twenties.
Another claimed, still more romantically, that he had in fact been captured during an early mission of rashly planned cross-border insurgency, suffering grave and continuous torture for over five years; but that he had nonetheless then contrived a stupendous escape plan, freeing and leading home a dozen other comrades and destroying the prison camp headquarters for good measure.
A third and simpler myth suggested he had been smuggled across the eastern mountains, to be sold here as an orphaned war baby; had been raised by patriotic but compassionate foster parents; and was now gratefully repaying them and his adopted homeland with a lifetime of dedicated public service.
The man himself revelled in such an entertainingly engineered range of personal histories.
Only slightly better understood was his subsequent rapid rise to an apparently unassailable position of power in the Intelligence Service. But quite how he had achieved this, long decades before, would never be revealed. Those who had appointed him, and enabled his later takeover, were long gone from their posts. Most were now conveniently dead, or out to pasture far away, and all had been committed absolutely to the secrecy and discretion which now drove the self-perpetuating machine that was his own little state within a state.
* * *
N.G. turned into the narrow, anonymous entrance gap, leaving the breezy early morning sunshine behind him. As he waited at the foot of the down ramp for the thick steel door to rise, his car radio repeated the morning’s two main national headlines, one of which he had himself released to the media less than an hour before. An off-target mortar attack, on a distribution complex fifteen miles outside the capital, had happily struck only an outlying warehouse, with just forty casualties reported; but much more significant, a further major enemy plot had been disrupted overnight (by his own agents), with several suspects arrested and already under interrogation.
He parked and locked his car, walked in dingy underground light over to a grubby unmarked door, entered his exclusive access codes, and penetrated the system of lifts and corridors that would conduct him to the first of his weekly individual briefing sessions with the country’s most senior ministers.
The undocumented meeting would be held (as would all the others on today’s schedule) in a very special room, fitted out by N.G.’s own resident engineers. It was totally soundproofed, devoid of all recording devices, and impenetrable by any signalling waves. And what appeared at first sight to be a single picture window, affording a fine elevated view of the central and western aspects of the capital, was of necessity a large display screen presenting a very high-quality, controllable, live video feed from an ultra-securely-cabled camera embedded in the wall immediately behind it. N.G. did not enjoy being in the dark.
This meeting room was routinely examined by his engineers twice daily for any chinks in its bi-directional armour, and was always re-checked immediately before any scheduled usage. And from the start of every session, N.G. himself would be discreetly conducting, with his own sophisticated pocket scanner, a continuous test for any personal recording equipment which might accidentally have found its way into the room along with his host or hostess.
There was one such special room in each of the major ministries’ HQ buildings.
* * *
‘Well, N.G., I’ve read your draft documents on staff ID badge changes, and I’m satisfied with them exactly as they are. No need for further debate. And I’ve nothing new to discuss this week, and a lot to get done before lunch. So, unless you’ve anything pressing, we shan’t need all the time we’ve set aside today ...’
‘Ah, Minister, there is one rather special new item which I should like to raise.’
‘As you wish, old chap. Let’s press on, then ...’
‘Minister, the homeland security situation is suddenly taking a dramatic turn for the worse. The very great control which we have managed to exert over the past few years appears now to be seriously under threat ...’
‘I’m not used to hearing such disturbing reports from you, N.G. But I trust you’ll soon resolve this with your usual speed and diligence.’
‘Minister, please allow me to continue. We are in new territory here ...
‘We have recently identified, with some certainty, the presence of a heavily concealed and very high-quality enemy cell. Even our most deeply embedded agents are gaining only weak insights into its present location and its intended target. But we have established that it appears to be planning a serious attack — a dirty bomb of some sort — and probably within the coming days.
‘The weapon is most likely to be gas-based. We believe the enemy has sufficient material for this, in storage here ...’
‘What! You’ve never told me that before!’
‘Minister, patterns are hard to detect in the early stages of any situation. And one sometimes needs to give a thief sufficient rope. Please bear with me ...
‘Some years ago, a small quantity of highly toxic material was seized at one of the border crossings. We dealt with the offenders summarily, and made certain the enemy learned the full details of their fate; but we chose to withhold the information at home, because it would have simply generated panic, and delivered no benefit to any of us ...’
‘N.G., I really must protest ...’
‘Minister, you must hear me out! Some time later, intelligence reports indicated that a consignment of a different type of material had successfully made its way into the country, via a small fishing port, and had gone into storage in one of our large towns. It is possible that other shipments, of various flavours, subsequently followed it.
‘Last month, another significant and well concealed package was discovered in a small camper van — this time by pure chance, as customs officials were conducting a regular search for normal contraband. My own agents were luckily nearby, and were able to prevent any hint of the discovery leaking out to the driver.
‘But a rapid decision now had to be made, before his suspicions were aroused. I was informed at once, of course, and I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the deep plot that had been concealed from us for so long.
‘The driver received a humble apology for the rather long delay, which was blamed on staff shortages in conducting a random drugs test on his cartons of cheap cigarettes, and was waved on his way, with a expert surveillance team now on his tail.’
‘So you allowed yet more dangerous materials into the country?’
‘It was the correct decision, Minister. You will come to recognise this ...’
* * *
The early promise of a sunny day had evaporated. Dark cumulus clouds were rolling in rapidly from the west, the light was visibly fading, and a gusting tropical wind was now assailing the dignity of the national flags that proudly adorned every street and building of the capital.
N.G. sighed quietly to himself. It would be getting humid outside. He really didn’t like stormy weather.
He checked his watch, satisfied himself that he was still running to schedule, and pressed on with part two of the day’s big mission.
* * *
‘... so, in summary, Minister, because and only because of the decision to allow the delivery driver to proceed, we are now alert to the strong likelihood that this attack will be unleashed very soon. Probably here in the capital itself; quite possibly on the central government complex.
‘However, much though it frustrates us, it may not be possible for the Service to penetrate the deep cell fully and quickly enough to prevent this happening.
‘If we are successful in that dangerous endeavour, then of course we shall all rejoice ... but I fear this would still not represent the end of the threat.
‘If we are not successful, and the bomb strikes — and this might happen at any time, perhaps even within the next five minutes — well, none of us will have a further chance to manage the situation.
‘But if — and it is a big “if”, Minister — if our heroic, deep-seated agents are able to discover at least the planned timing of the attack, and can manage to communicate it to us (and typically this would be no earlier than the evening before), then we shall have a short-lived opportunity to act.’
‘I have refrained from any interruption,’ the Minister said very quietly and calmly, ‘because, as you are well aware, I hold you and your Service in the highest regard. But you must appreciate that I hear your news with immense concern.’
‘Minister, it is because of your own personal integrity and utter dedication that I am revealing this information to you today ...’
* * *
Suddenly, a small fire engine, all lights blazing, dominating the scene and halting the traffic all around. Then a police car, and another, and a third. Now two ambulances, and a small convoy of old army trucks. Then more fire engines, bigger ones ... and a stream of ambulances following them. All heading north.
And now the billowing smoke, clearly visible, rising well ahead of them ...
N.G. waited patiently, watching with his usual professional detachment. Then, when the long moment had passed, he shifted smoothly from neutral into second gear, and proceeded with the day’s work.
* * *
‘ ... and now, Minister, I must be ruthlessly frank with you.
‘As we have already seen today — twice in the space of just a few hours — the enemy is getting ever bolder and more successful in its incursions.’
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd