By Hong Wee
What? Did you think we secret agents got away with that? My friend, you have been misguided by the movies. Camouflage and normalcy are the protective armour of spies. I wear them like my own skin.
Of course, it was easier that I was not born a spy. I meant, there I was, a happily married man, waiting the birth of my third child - that was when I was recruited. Agent X (not his real name) approached me one afternoon at the office, quite out of the blue. I did not know how he got past security, but I was impressed by what he offered. You see, the pressure at work had been a little... well too hot, to say the least. Okay, okay, it was downright unbearable. I was going crazy, what with deadlines and sales targets and the boss yelling in a language I did not understand. I nearly folded, that is, until Agent X came to the rescue. He told me I had been selected to join Singapore’s elite ‘Independent Manoeuvre against Hostility’ (IMH) force – no, he could not tell me how because the selection process itself was secret – and that I would be doing this great service to the country. I would have to look for another job that made less demand on my time, so that I could carry out the necessary ‘manoeuvres against hostility’. Not that it hurt me one tiny bit to leave the madhouse. I offered to join IMH full time, yes, like James Bond, but he corrected me. A job was an essential cover.
So, that was that. I told my wife that I could not cope with the pressure, that the psychiatrist had recommended a change and surprisingly, she agreed. We had saved a bit and money was no problem at the moment. With her working as well, we could just about scrape through. Of course, I had not told her about the IMH. That was top secret. Anyway, she would not have understood.
So here I was, saviour of the society, in charge of the laundry at the hospital. The hospital was a good place for cover. You got easy access to the tools of the trade - chloroform, prosthetics, drugs, body bags. Yes, I could not think of a better place. At first, the training was focussed on learning how to be an orderly at the hospital. Made sense really. How could you fool another spy if you did not act your undercover job? But I was diligent, I worked hard at learning and soon progressed to real spy work. I wanted to be like X. He was damned good. I could tell he liked me because he paid me personal attention, visiting me ever so frequently. Yet no one ever noticed him!
Soon, he gave me my first assignment. A simple job: making a copy of one of the hospital patients’ personal data and leaving it in the dustbin outside. It was someone else’s job to collect and yet another’s to analyse it. Mine was to drop it there, simple, but essential. Of course, I did it well. No hiccups. I was so careful I even wore gloves while operating the photocopier. You never take chances in my profession. Never.
That was two years ago. Since then, I have taken a lot of assignments, met a lot of people and been through many compromising situations. I hated the waiting in between assignments. I also hated the periodic sessions back at HQ: I would be tied and put through mock interrogations. Of course I would never have said anything, not even if they put splinters under my nails. It was part of the training to strengthen our resolution (or so I was told), but I hated them nonetheless. My real reward came when I got assignments... ah, the adrenaline, the mind suddenly perking up, sinews bursting into action...
Like now. Agent X visited me two days ago. It was going to be special this time, he said. I was to spend the next ten days on a tail job. Follow a certain Ms Patricia Low and record her movements, including the people with whom she came into contact. If possible, I was to get close and record their conversation and, if exposed, well, they could always send another agent. But I know you won’t fail, X concluded. I smiled wryly. In this profession, you learnt not to trust anyone, least of all your superior.
Patricia Low, girlfriend of Dr Richard Lim (who incidentally, worked in the hospital), twenty-nine, pretty, short-haired and a complete airhead. She was an accounts manager in an advertising company, did not drive, lived with her parents. Occasionally she met up with friends over coffee or dinner. She always took the MRT home, alighting at Paya Lebar Station, a 5 minute walk to her flat. She occupied the bedroom that overlooked the canal. This woman loved to shop and, on the evidence of the past five days, loved nothing else. She had been to mall after mall after mall, walked into shop after shop after shop, talked to sales assistants, tried on anything that could be tried - shoes, clothes, necklaces, handbags, everything.
A crackbrain, if ever there was one. How could anyone visit so many shops? Then it suddenly hit me. The question should be – Why would anyone want to visit so many shops? Unless, of course, all but one were red herrings and the goods would be exchanged in… But which one? I referred to my notes. Ah ha! She had been to Making Scents three times in the last five days. Half an hour, 45 minutes, 40 minutes. Did not try on any scent. Spoke to manager at length. Did not buy anything.
Hmmm... why would anyone visit a scent shop thrice in five days and not buy anything? I began to be suspicious. Think, com’on, think! What should I do? Should I wait for X? No telling when he would call again. No, I would act this time. The advantage lies with he who takes the initiative.
Sure enough, Patricia visited the shop again the next day. She took out a neatly typed document from her bag, handed it over to the manager and they spent 35 minutes pouring over every page. Then she stood up, shook hands and left. I waited till she had rounded the corner, then walked purposefully into the shop. I wasted no time in engaging the manager. He must be made to talk.
“You are under investigation,” I opened. “That lady who was here just now, what did you talk about?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You know who I am talking about. Patricia Low. What is your business with her?”
“Whatever it is, it’s none of yours.”
“So, you want it the hard way, do you?” I know his type. Small fish with a large ego. The most difficult type. Would withhold the most trivial information because it was all the pathetic precious little that he knew. Thought of himself as the key to the whole deal, when in fact, he was just a poor ignorant abused puppet. This was not going to be easy.
“Sir, I do not know what you are talking about. If you are not here to buy anything, I am going to have to ask you to leave,” he said. “Or I’ll call security.”
Oh security. Like I am afraid of security. “Oh yeah, call security. I would like this matter clarified too. Go ahead, we’ll see you in jail for national conspiracy.”
That bastard. He really reached for the phone. Cool head man, cool head. Could I afford to blow my cover? I still have that job on Patricia. No, no, get out of here fast. I turned and walked briskly out of the shop. Right turn, down the escalator, through lunch time shoppers, behind the ATM. Coast clear. I walked towards the main exit in my fastest leisurely pace possible and had a foot out when I felt a pair of warm hands on either arms. “Excuse me sir, there has been a complaint against you. Will you come this way please,” the shopping security officers said.
“Okay,” I said. Secretly, I was glad to have the chance of clarifying the matter. Sure, I had blown my cover, but if I could recover the document and send it headquarters, it would all be worthwhile. X can send another tail. And it would put the cocky manager in his right place. I was glad.
I explained the situation to the 2 security officers, leaving out only the details of X and Patricia. Need to know basis only. I even showed them my special identification card. They looked at it, nodded at me knowingly and then at each other. “We will call your headquarters,” one said. “Meanwhile, you can come to our waiting room.”
But I had a job! I still had Patricia on my mind. Hang on... my cover would not be good anymore. Oh no! I’m losing it! I decided a short break might do me good. After all, I hadn’t slept for the past 5 days and was feeling a bit cranky. I was put in a small rest area and soon fell asleep.
Two guys from headquarters came to pick me up. I recognized the white uniforms and the shake that woke me from slumber. I was still drowsy when they escorted me through the back door onto the van, despite my half-hearted protests. I was really tired. “Guys, where are we going? I am on a job, tailing a subject. Com’on guys, let me go.”
“It’s alright, Sammy,” the burly one said. “We are going to take care of you for a while. You need another session.”
Oh no! Not another training session. I did not need that. I did not want to be thrown into the cell again, all alone, in a straitjacket. Be grilled pointlessly by men in white coats. No! No! No! Not that stupid building with the silliest signboard – IMH distorted as the Institute for Mental Health. I hate that place and I hate the sessions. I am a real spy!
And I still have a crook to catch and a society to protect!
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003