Be afraid…be very afraid, because 2015 is the year of the cyber pirates

AS in New Years gone by, I’m full of good intent, with a stack of resolutions to change my errant ways and be a better, healthier – and, if at all possible – wealthier person.

In all likelihood, as in previous turns of the year, most will wither on the vine, a particularly apt expression in my case, since the vow to reduce plonk intake to a slurp or two only every other day is already a busted flush.

However, there is one resolution I’ve already started and am resolved to keep up for safety’s sake and my own peace of mind.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a chore, but one I strongly advise anyone with a computer, smart phone, iPad, Tablet or any gizmo linking them to the internet should adopt, too: change your passwords and PIN numbers every month or so with Jesuit-like zeal.

Because the ‘in’ crime of 2015 will be cyber-hacking. And it won’t just be the usual suspects – like Hollywood belle Jennifer Lawrence, Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, model Kate Upton or Olympic gymnast, McKayla Maroney, all of whom had raunchy, private photos snatched and given a public airing – who are in the hackers’ sights.

HACKERS' VICTIM: Saucy photos of Jennifer Lawrence were stolen by cyber pirates and given an online airing

HACKERS’ VICTIM: Saucy photos of Jennifer Lawrence were stolen by cyber pirates and given an online airing

Neither is it just governments, who get hit by tens of thousands of hack attacks a day, nor global corporations, like Sony, recently forced to pull their movie, The Interview, after the North Koreans took umbrage at it spoofing their Glorious Young Leader, Kim Jong-un.

Using the nom de cyber guerre, Guardians of Peace, their response was to filch 100 terabytes – 10 times the entire printed collection of the US Library of Congress – from Sony’s internet server and selectively release some of their haul.

The raid near-crippled the studio, drew accusations amounting to ‘cowardice’ from President Obama – a man who knows a thing or two about leading from the back – and left company execs writhing with embarrassment (especially the producer who emailed his opinion that Angelina Jolie was a ‘minimally talented spoiled brat’).

That Sony ‘reinstated’ the movie didn’t mitigate their shame, further compounded on Christmas Day when a bunch of cyber cowboys dubbing themselves the Lizard Squad blitzed the company’s PlayStation server – along with that of Microsoft’s Xbox – with so much junk they collapsed, denying millions of gamers the chance to play one another online.

However, there’s nothing vaguely sinister about the bunch who skulk behind the image of a monocle, top-hatted reptile to play havoc with other people’s fun.

Outed as unsophisticated, self-serving, publicity-grubbing kids, they’re sea scouts in the murky ocean of hacking piracy, but that’s what makes them especially dangerous.

WEB WRECKERS: Cyber cowboys hiding behind the odious reptile monker, Lizard Squad, ruined millions of gamers' Christmases

WEB WRECKERS: Cyber cowboys hiding behind the odious reptile monker, Lizard Squad, ruined millions of gamers’ Christmases

Because if little-league smart alecs like Lizard Squad can wreak such damage on mega- corporations, like Sony – thanks to the easy availability on online spyware – what chance does the average iPhone user or family with an internet modem stand?

The problem is most naïve Web users don’t realise how vulnerable they make themselves by posting seemingly innocent messages on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, which reveal an awful lot about them, their families and their lifestyles.

Cyber pirates adore these social network sites, because they can ID people from photos on home pages and, if a date of birth is posted, there’s more than an odds-on chance it will be the golden key to a password or PIN (personal identification number) and a veritable treasure trove of secrets.

So a word to the wise: if you’re thinking of taking a holiday which your online friends would love to know about, keep the info hush-hush until you return, because your friendly, neighbourhood housebreaker would also be delighted to learn when your home is unoccupied.

And who hasn’t slagged off their boss, spouse or partner in an email or accessed an X-rated site. It might be nobody’s business except your own, but if it’s tucked away safely on ‘the cloud’ – a mobile storage database that lets users access messages wherever they may roam – hackers with a passing interest in blackmail will be out to snaffle it.

And, if you don’t think they can, just ask Miss Lawrence or Miss Brown Findlay what they think about this amazing on-the-hoof ‘app’, because apparently that’s from whence their saucily compromising photos were purloined.

Another ‘app’ embarrassed that its info was leaked online is Snapchat – particularly popular with teens, who like to send nude selfies, which are automatically deleted after a few seconds.

That sounds devilishly clever and failsafe, but mystery surrounds how over 100,000 images from Snapchatters suddenly found their way into the public domain. Answers on a postcard please, not via email.

SURF SECURELY: There are steps to take in making sure your Web info is properly protected

SURF SECURELY: There are steps to take in making sure your Web info is properly protected

Meanwhile, on the subject of email – and at the risk of sounding nerdy – if you log on in a café using the establishment’s wi-fi, make sure its connection doesn’t start with ‘http’, but ‘https’, which is an encrypted and secure protocol.

So, I hear you ask, how can I combat the menace of cybercrime?

For a start you could carry out a basic ‘stocktake’ of your gizmos’ security, like refreshing you passwords and PINs.

This glaring oversight was exposed in the Fleet Street phone-hacking scandal of 2011, when police were gobsmacked at the ease unscrupulous journos accessed cellphone voice mail messages. All that was needed was the targets’ PINs and these transpired to be mostly untouched factory settings, like 0000 or 1111, and family birthdays.

Ditto with internet accounts, which tend to be alpha-numeric – i.e. a mix of letters and numbers – so that ABC123DEF became one of the most popular codes in everyday use.

What’s more, people will use the same one multiple times (go on, admit you do).

On a lighter note, the probability of most folk falling victim to cyber pirates is low, though it’s a growing menace in the near future.

So ask yourself: would I go to bed with the house key in my outside front-door lock?

Neither would I. And I’ll hold that thought, since it’ll prompt me into changing my passwords and PINs regularly throughout 2015.

If all do likewise we’ll have a happy, hacker-free New Year.

Silence isn’t so golden if we’re driven to keep our mouths shut out of fear

THE other day an email arrived in my inbox, accusing me of being a ‘neo-con’.

I’ve been called far worse and really didn’t take it as the insult intended, largely because the missive spewed such far-Left drivel, it might have been lifted from the Socialist Workers Party’s hymn sheet.

Just for the record, the sender ended by advising me to ‘keep your neo-con views to yourself.’

‘Nuff said. Except the post slated by whoever hides behind the nom de plume, DemoFan, was my call for Britain’s politicos to emphasise the positive side of immigration and stop playing the UK Independence Party at its favourite game.

By any measure my piece was ‘neo-lib’, perhaps a reprise from my days as a Gucci socialist (failed) and hardly ‘neo-con’, an Americanism that came to prominence as a barb aimed at President G. ‘Dubya’ Bush’s cronies.

But what got my goat was being told to shut up by someone, I guess, who’d take to the barricades at the drop of a Stop The War Coalition hint or an invite to a CND jamboree in Trafalgar Square, if, indeed, there are still enough members left in it to fill the fountain.

LET HIM SPOUT: So-called hate preachers, like Andjem Choudary,  should be given air time to condemn themselves from their own mouths

LET HIM SPOUT: So-called hate preachers, like Andjem Choudary, should be given air time to condemn themselves from their own mouths

Clearly, DemoFan’s versions of democracy’s saintliest virtue, the freedom of speech, is that it was okay to say what you liked, so long as its mantra echoed his. And any philosophy falling short of that is taboo, fascist or – as in my case – ‘neo-con’.

Yet, if I were to categorise myself it would be as a ‘free-thinker’, hidebound by politically correct rules imposed on Western society by the real fascists: a hardline, censorious liberal elite who have strangled public debate in ways more reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 vision of Big Brother’s Thought Police.

That notion occurred last week when I read a YouGov survey, which reported that 41% of Brits don’t feel free to air their opinions and that Britain, home to the Mother of Parliaments, has developed a ‘culture of silence’.

Of course, I realise that stat includes headbangers who believe Hitler should be beatified as St. Adolf, others on a day out from the funny farm and a few, token Flat Earthers. But it also encompasses many with mainstream opinions on techy topics, such as immigration, religion, ethics and their political preferences (admittedly, it takes some guts to fess up to voting Lib-Dem nowadays).

For the record, the poll also said 40% felt they could sound off at will and 17%, who reckon there’s too much freedom anyway.

Nonetheless, in a so-called free society, it’s worrisome that two out of five citizens keep their thoughts to themselves out of a dread they may hurt someone’s feelings, perhaps prompt a Twitterstorm and get their Facebook page trolled.

The largest proportion of the self-censored (38%) said they feared speaking up in case they uttered something illegal, while 28% stayed silent because they couldn’t stomach criticism. A further 10% thought airing their ideas might damage their careers prospects.

However, of all those polled, an overwhelming majority (77%) agreed on one point: too much protection is given by officialdom and the media to religious believers from ideas and arguments which might offend them.

In its summary of the survey, the New Culture Forum, which commissioned it, pointed a particularly scathing finger at universities, where it claimed free speech ‘is carefully monitored, not by the state or the campus administration, but by the students.’

It added, ‘Student unions now see the mental wellbeing of the student body as a reason to ban anything from a pop song to a reading group.’

ON THE LEASH: The report rapped students' unions for the control they exercise on campuses

FREEDOM TO SPEAK? The report rapped students’ unions for the ‘mind’ control they exercise on campuses

Since today’s generation of undergrads – many of whom love nothing better than a juicy demo and a chance to kick those fascist lackeys, the police – will deliver tomorrow’s leaders, I can only surmise more Big Brothers are rolling off the production line.

So, while we quite rightly have laws banning hate speech and incitement to racism, we’re in danger of stifling legitimate argument, not because it might cause actual bodily harm, but because someone, somewhere might be offended.

Britain once had a proud tradition of allowing people to speak their minds, often a shrewd ruse to suss out the real odium peddlers, who’d damn themselves from their own mouths.

But when the BBC announced that British National Party leader, Nick Griffin – a real, live neo-Nazi – was to appear on its flagship political forum, Question Time, a tidalwave of outrage nearly quashed the broadcast.

To their credit, the Beeb bravely stuck to its script, the BNP nasty duly appeared and got the pillorying his despicable views richly deserved.

That example is one of the exceptions rather than the rule, because invariably received wisdom is to gag debate, which is Home Secretary Theresa May’s policy, as she seeks to ban extremists from TV, like the so-called hate preacher Anjem Choudary.

I’d say: bring them on and let’s hear their obnoxious ravings, so we’re all aware of what degree of danger they pose.

The Establishment, though, doesn’t subscribe to the view people are capable of making up their own minds, so silence is foisted on them.

PUBLISHED & DAMNED: Instead of defending Salmon Rushdie from a death sentence fatwa, Britain's Establishment attacked the writer

PUBLISHED & DAMNED: Instead of defending Salmon Rushdie from a death sentence fatwa, Britain’s Establishment attacked the writer

Such was the case when Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses hit the bookshelves in 1988, provoking a fatwa death sentence from Iran’s then Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet, instead condemning a gross and medieval assault on a long-prized Western freedom, the great and good cravenly attacked Rushdie.

Nor did the fabled, fearless British Press cover itself in glory, when not a single Fleet Street newspaper dared reproduce the ‘Mohammed Cartoons’, after an obscure Danish daily sparked worldwide debate on whether founders of the great religions could be satirised.

Yet, when a ComRes poll early last year asked what freedom people prized most, freedom of speech topped the list by a country mile.

Clearly, the public subscribed to the notion, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ – a quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire and actually the words of his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall – and that is a plucky and noble sentiment.

More’s the pity, then, the Establishment is too cowardly to share it.

How others see us: we’re bad boozers, can’t eat – and Mr. Bean is one of the greatest Brits

FROM long experience I’ve developed a healthy scepticism about polls, surveys and, particularly, ‘vox pops’ – you know, those street-corner tests of public opinion the media loves to indulge in, where most answers are predictably politically correct.

Unless they are headbangers on day release from a nearby psychiatric facility or have an ardent view on the topic – anyone for fracking, capital punishment or FIFA? – people’s kneejerk reactions tend to parrot mainstream opinion, even if they’re lying through their pearly whites.

After all, who wants to be damned from their own mouths for being a racist, anti-environmentalist, male chauvinist pig…or, worse still, a UKIP supporter.

To continue the theme: how can we be certain eight out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas? None of mine did and nobody is told the total number of moggies ‘surveyed’ or what other brands were sampled.

And if Carlsberg claims to be ‘probably’ the best lager in the world, why doesn’t it refresh ‘the parts other beers cannot reach’, as Heineken supposedly does?

Yeah, yeah, I know these are just examples of admen’s creative thinking and aren’t taken any more seriously than those who believes Wonga is a not-for-profit organisation and bankers deserve even more humungous bonuses.

Nonetheless, such claims have an impact on our buying habits.

Similarly, if the ditty that wins the European Song Contest is so darned good, why doesn’t it become an instant, Top 20 hit? Or, maybe Molitva, sung in Serbo-Croat, or Sweden’s Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley soared up charts and I didn’t notice.

SIMPLY THE GREATEST: Wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, topped the 2012 BBC poll to find The Greatest Briton

SIMPLY THE GREATEST: Wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, topped the 2012 BBC poll to find The Greatest Briton

But you don’t need to consult Graham Norton or Terry Wogan for explanations why Eurovision is a stitch-up, with groups of mutually back-scratching nations taking it in turn to vote for each other. All know the PR payback in terms of national prestige is worth chicanery more redolent of elections for the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Back in 1999 – in a campaign orchestrated by the Press and the nation’s leading politicians – the Turks tried to ‘fix’ the vote for Time’s Person of the 20th Century by balloting in their millions in favour of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

While he might be lauded locally as the founder of modern, secular Turkey, Ataturk is hardly a household name in Llandudno. Yet, briefly at least, he led in every category the prestigious magazine listed…warrior, statesman, scientist, artist and entertainer, even if his stand-up didn’t feature overmuch at Istanbul’s Comedy Central.

It was only when Turkey’s long-time foes, Greece and Cyrprus, rumbled the fiendish plot – and voted in their droves to counter it – that Ataturk’s stock plunged, to be variously replaced by the Sir Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein, the eventual winner.

For the record, Ataturk made the Top 100, but so did mobster, Lucky Luciano, who, Time said, ‘modernized the Mafia, shaping it into a smoothly-run, national crime syndicate, focused on the bottom line.’

A survey less tainted by gerrymandering is the BBC’s 10-yearly quest to find The Greatest Briton.

The 2012 edition attracted 30,000 votes and Churchill, the nation’s indefatiguable wartime leader, came top, squeezing out engineering genius, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and – presumably based on enduring sentimentality – Princess Di into a highly creditable third.

A GREAT BRIT? Many foreigners see bumbling clown, Mr. Bean, as the epitome of Britishness

A GREAT BRIT? Many foreigners see bumbling clown, Mr. Bean, as the epitome of Britishness

However, the other day another poll lit up my eye: how we Brits are viewed by others. Or, to quote Robbie Burns’ Ode to a Louse – which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t yet been adopted by Scots Nats as a commentary on the English  – ‘to see ourselves as others see us’.

More than 5,000 people from the US, China, India, Brazil and Germany were asked to summarise their views of us and give an example of a person they most associate with British culture, without being offered a list of options.

On the whole Britons emerged with a decidedly contradictory reputation.

Those surveyed by IPSO-Mori, on behalf of the British Council, regarded us as ‘polite’, ‘friendly’ and ‘well-educated’, but also hard-drinking, xenophobic and afflicted with appalling eating habits (note: with all their slurping over bird’s nest soup, the Chinese are fine ones to talk).

When asked to list the best and worst characteristics, one way or another, British manners were by far the most common answer, cited by 46 per cent of those polled.

A quarter said the British sense of humour was a plus factor and as many as 37 per cent thought Britons to be ‘learned’.

But among less positive responses, 27 per cent said they thought the British ‘drink too much’, 23 per cent listed ‘bad eating habits’, just ahead of ignorance of other cultures and intolerance towards people from other countries.

The British Council’s John Worne said, ‘While there’s a lot to be proud of, some stereotypes still colour the way that we’re viewed overseas: boozy, bad eaters and ignorant of other cultures all figure in our worst characteristics.

‘At our best we are rated ‘polite’, ‘educated’ and ‘friendly’, and the English language, our cities, universities, arts and culture definitely make people want to visit, study and do business with us.’

So who did foreigners most associate with British culture? Literary giants, such as Chaucer, Milton or Burns?  Maybe national icons, like Churchill, The Beatles and Charlie Chaplin? Or great shapers of military history, as exemplified by Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and Lord Nelson?

Not a bit of it.

While, predictably, The Queen and Shakespeare commanded the premier positions, David Beckham came third, while Churchill and the titans of English prose were relegated to also-rans behind…Mr. Bean!

It seems Rowan Atkinson’s fictional clown – with his tweedy togs, emblematic Mini and ability to overcome idiocy – is the epitome of Britishness.

There’s no doubt Bean’s antics transcend all language barriers, since he says nothing that makes any sense.

Maybe that’s where the likes of Chaucer and Co. went wrong.

PS: I wonder what the world would make of the French?

Gary versus Ade…Auntie BBC against ITV – now that’s what I call a World Cup crunch match

SHE thought it was all over when England scuttled home, but tonight it really is and my long-suffering wife’s World Cup widowhood comes to an end.

Mrs A has borne the burden of the great soccer fest manfully – okay, womanfully – but it has only served to underpin her belief sport needs a radical makeover.

Her contention, you see, is footie would be all the better a spectacle if reduced to penalty shoot-outs, golf to putting competitions and tennis to tie-breaks, though she reluctantly admitted to being as transfixed as I was by the electrifying Jokovik-Federer Wimbledon men’s final last Sunday.

And cricket? Well, that should be banned by the International Criminal Court on the grounds that it abuses spectators’ human rights with rules beyond comprehension.

For the record, though, let me fast-back to a conversation of a couple of weeks ago, when my fair lady asked plaintively, ‘With England out, why are you still interested in the World Cup?’

‘Because I like to see how top class teams perform and England aren’t one of them,’ I replied. ‘Only a starry-eyed optimist believed Woy’s Wonders had the ghost of a chance of reaching round two, let alone the quarter finals.’

‘Then why do you keep saying the English Premier League is the world’s best?’

‘It is, but that’s because it’s crammed with talented foreigners.’

‘Why doesn’t someone ban them, then?’

‘It’s all about money – and European Union rules, which allow for the free movement of people, including footballers.’

‘Luis Suarez [now Barcelona-bound] isn’t European; he’s from Uruguay. So what’s he doing playing for Liverpool?’

SOCCER SMOOTHIE: Ex-England star Gary Lineker, skipper of the BBC's World Cup pundit panel

SOCCER SMOOTHIE: Ex-England star Gary Lineker, skipper of the BBC’s World Cup pundit panel

Good shot, even if Mrs. A hasn’t quite got a handle on why World Cup referees were toting cans of shaving foam, when some – like England’s Howard Webb – are as bald as cue ball.

‘Can we have this conversation another day,’ I pleaded, feeling a tad sick as Steve Gerrard’s parrot, after Chewey Luis showed him the exit door with a brace of super goals, before acquiring a taste for Italian beefcake. ‘Besides, there’s an interesting game going on off the pitch.’

‘What game?’

‘The one between the BBC and ITV over who’s providing the better coverage.’

‘You can’t be serious.’

‘And you can’t be John McEnroe.’

Ah, well, back to re-reruns of Downton Abbey and Homeland on the spare telly for one member of the household – clue: not yours truly.

So, returning to the theme of who won the punditry teams joust and who was their better skipper: boyish smoothie, Gary Lineker, who knows a thing or two about soccer, fronting the Beeb, or Adrian Chiles, who know a thing or three about imitating a plank, in ITV’s hot seat?

Now I realise that seems judgemental. But, since Chiles’ ‘transfer’ from hosting Auntie’s The One Show to ITV’s Daybreak and That Sunday Night Show, it’s not gone unnoticed commercial telly has pulled both progs, apparently leaving Ade a £1M a year worse off.

KNOBBLY KNEES COMP? Chiles (right) with bare-legged ITV analysts (l-to-r) Lee Dixon, Glenn Hoddle and Fabio Cannavaro

KNOBBLY KNEES COMP? Chiles (right) with bare-legged ITV analysts (l-to-r) Martin O’Neill, Glenn Hoddle and Fabio Cannavaro

However, good for him, I say, in hanging onto Channel 3’s soccer coverage, despite a dreary presention style – possibly a result of being a life-long West Brom fan – even if ITV’s World Cup didn’t exactly get off to a champagne start.

‘Welcome to Rio!’, Ade announced to viewers before the start of England’s pre-tournament warm-up game with Ecuador…the only flaw being the backdrop wasn’t Copacabana, but a strand of sand 4,000 miles north in Miami. But let’s pin that faux pas on jet lag.

Alas, similar leeway can’t be extended to pundit, Glenn Hoddle, in ITV’s pre-match pontification on Germany’s game ‘with Al Jezeera’.

You could practically see the ex-England manager’s tanned face blanch, as the producer was presumably shrieking into his earpiece, ‘It’s bloody Algeria – Al Jezeera’s an Arab TV news channel!’

Neither did ITV cover itself in glory by having Chiles and his World Cup brains trust sitting at a trestle table above a beach – this time it really was Rio – all clad in shorts, as if they were auditioning for a dads’ knobbly-knees contest at a Butlins’ holiday camp.

To add injury to insult, they then spent a small eternity discussing the pronounciation of Columbian striker, James Rodriguez’s name.

‘It’s Ya-mes,’said Chiles.

‘No it isn’t,’ insisted a bullish Ian Wright. ‘It’a Hah-mez.

The dispute was finally arbitrated by match commentator, Clyde Tyldesley, who resorted to the anglocised ‘James’, which reflected the player’s parents’ preference, since they’d named him after Ian Fleming’s 007.

HAND IT TO HANSEN: The veteran Beeb pundit is still the shining star of the sofa

HAND IT TO HANSEN: The veteran Beeb pundit is still the shining star of the sofa

Over at the BBC, where much emphasis was placed on sartorial elegance – loved Clarence Seedorf’s shirts, by the way – the game plan didn’t always follow Match of the Day’s seemless format, either.

A hiccup, before a ball was kicked, almost sidelined Robbie Savage, who turned up at Heathrow for the Brazil flight with his wife’s passport.

Then there was L-driver analyst, Phil Neville, droning monotonously like a superannuated country parson. Even by his own admission, he was an antidote to insomnia, which was about as funny as Phil got (suggestion to the former Man United and Everton star: Give Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast a go).

Meanwhile, quipster Mark Lawrenson went clearly OTT with a sexist remark that Swiss striker, Josip Drmic, ‘should have been wearing a skirt’ after a glaring miss against Argentina.

It produced 172 complaints and a yellow card from his Broadcasting House referees.

Further brickbats, too, were aimed at the Beeb for their employment of barely comprehensible, foreign soccer luminaries.

The taciturn Thierry Henry’s verdict on most games was measured on the Gallic Shrug Scale – the higher the shoulder blades, the worse it was – while Fabio Cannavaro was so linguistically challenged, all he could sprout sounded pure gobblygook.

This was understandable since the former Italian international only learned English two years ago…in Dubai. But you have to question who picked him to play for the BBC.

Inevitably, it fell to veteran Alan Hansen, marking his swansong from telly punditry, to act as bulwark of Auntie’s defence with tellingly concise, if the occasional tetchy observation that has been his trademark.

So which channel won the World Cup battle of the sofas? On cock-ups, I’d say it was a draw.

When evil men abuse their power, do we ignore the rumour mill at our peril?

IT was a huge PR coup in more ways than one. Roly-poly MP, Cyril Smith, was coming to my kids’ primary school speech day, to present prizes and glad-hand the award-winners.

Back in the naïve mid-1980s, the larger-than-life character, with a girth to match, was the Liberals’ darling – a bluff, northern charmer, deflecting the fall-out from the torrid, homosexual scandal that sank Jeremy Thorpe, the party’s former leader.

Yet, I wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of Big Cyril’s road show coming to school. And, couched in as much tact as I could muster, I said so to a teacher, who, quite reasonably asked what my reservations were.

As a newsman, I was privy to a rumour mill that marked the 30-stone politician as having ‘form’, not that I could divulge, in plain English, to the teacher that what I knew was incendiary: the recurrent buzz that Smith might not be an appropriate adult to have around kids.

PARLIAMENTARY PERV? The public needs to know the truth about roly-poly MP, Cyril Smith's alleged abuse of young boys

PARLIAMENTARY PERV? The public needs to know the truth about roly-poly MP, Sir Cyril Smith’s alleged abuse of young boys

The satirical mag, Private Eye, had alleged in 1979 the Liberal Chief Whip – once Labour mayor of Rochdale – had put youngsters at a boys’ home across his knee, pulled down their pants and spanked them.

Plus, I’d heard from reporters covering Smith’s local patch, political contacts, even coppers of my acquaintance, all of whom whispered the same mantra…investigations into Smith’s ‘extra-curricular activities’ were shelved because of ‘pressure from above.’

Proof and hearsay, however hot, aren’t the same. And, apart from the Eye’s snippet, no journo had dared make public further innuendos, because none fancied a second career as a mini-cab driver.

Besides, it’s not always wise to assume where there’s smoke, fire rages. The Sun made that monumental boob when it accused Liverpool fans of picking the pockets and urinating on the bodies of some of the 96 supporters who died in 1989 Hillsborough Tragedy – which is why, even today, Britain’s best-selling tabloid remains a pariah newspaper on Merseyside.

Smith, though, was far from stupid, as Simon Danczuk, author of the new book, ‘Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith’, claims.

‘Once you looked beyond the jolly clown…there was a sickening, dark heart,’ insists the writer. ‘This wasn’t just about abuse, it was about power – and a cover-up that reached from Rochdale all the way to the very top of the Establishment.’

Now Labour MP in Smith’s old seat, Danczuk alleges his predecessor – knighted for political services in 1988 – was part of a Westminster-based network of sex abusers, which Lib-Dems, police, even MI5, had been complicit in covering up for decades.

Danczuk says he has affidavits from eight boys abused by Smith at the Cambridge House hostel, in Rochdale, in the 1960s and they make for grim reading.

Smith, who had helped found the home, was seemingly given ‘free rein’ to administer punishments and is said to have taken pleasure in spanking boys ‘for their own good’, while conducting ‘medical examinations’ of the half-naked kids.

Up to a month ago 144 complaints had been lodged against Smith – a friend of serial sex-abuser, Jimmy Savile – some from victims then as young as eight.

And, incredibly, Lord David Steel, the former Liberal leader, admitted last week that when he’d quizzed Smith about the Eye’s report, the fat man agreed it was true.

So why didn’t Steel act?

LIB-DUMBS? Lord David Steel (left) and current leader, Nick Clegg, refuse to hold an enquiry into Smith

LIB-DUMBS? Lord David Steel (left) and current leader, Nick Clegg, refuse to hold an enquiry into Smith

‘These allegations were already very old,’ he insists. ‘They had been investigated by the police, as Private Eye stated, and no action had been taken. So there was nothing more I could do. He wasn’t an MP at the time of these allegations – he wasn’t even a member of my party.’

Meanwhile, while describing the charges against Smith as ‘repugnant’, current leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said that when all his MPs and peers were asked two years ago whether they’d heard of the abuse claims ‘no-one said they did.’

Given what I’d been told – three decades earlier – from a host of disparate sources, I find it inconceivable the entire parliamentary Lib-Dem mob hadn’t heard a murmur on their antenna, far more attuned to Westminster tittle-tattle than mine.

Political affiliations aside, Danczuk agrees with that assessment.

‘They are a party in denial,’ he asserts. ‘I find it incredible they are claiming that they didn’t hear the rumours about Smith.’

But, apart from what we northerners call ‘cloth-eared’ folly – for the benefit of ignorant southern folk, that’s a meld of selective deafness and a rebuttal of reality – among Smith’s old cronies, Clegg, Steel and Co. should know the law of unintended consequences takes no prisoners.

So, despite investigations being launched by Rochdale Council and Greater Manchester Police, the Lib-Dems’ refusal to hold their own probe into what’s inevitably being dubbed ‘Smithgate’ is a decision they might live to regret.

Child sex abuse – even the mere whiff of it – is no longer dismissed as a trifling deviation to be swept under the carpet, as it once was.

The Savile scandal and its devastating impact on the smug-as-a-mug BBC, again years after the culprit was dead, should concentrate Lib-Dem minds and demand a large dose of proactive humility, not a dead-bat, do-nothing defence.

THUMBS UP: But thumbs down from the jury who found showbiz power-broker Max Clifford guilty of sexually abusing young girls

THUMBS UP: But thumbs down from the jury, who found showbiz power-broker Max Clifford guilty of sexually abusing young girls

Similarly, in a week that’s seen showbiz power-broker, Max Clifford, stripped of his swagger and banged up for eight years for sex offences against young girls, it’s not unreasonable to ask who, in my own trade and close to him, knew what murky secrets lurked behind the slick façade of the man who made Fleet Street rumble.

Like Savile, Smith will never see the inside of a courtroom, but it’s likely his considerable political clout far extended anything the perv DJ or contemptuous Clifford could ever match.

And, though the fat man is – as yet – guilty of nothing more than being the posthumous subject of a swirling welter of allegations that he was a heartless, predatory paedophile, his activities deserve and demand thorough public scrutiny, especially by the Lib-Dems.

Perhaps, too, it’s time we all need a reminder of Edmund Burke’s sage quote: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’

 

 

‘Nightmare’ Nige’s UKIP mavericks could signal another mish-mash UK government

IF I were a betting man – and it’s odds-on I’m not – I’d wager that whatever constitutes the next United Kingdom government, post the General Election of May 7, 2015, it will be another hastily-cobbled coalition.

Labour may currently be a gnat’s nose ahead of the Conservatives, but they’re not dead certs to lead the field a year from now, especially after Finance Minister Osborne’s crafty budget unlocked pension funds and unashamedly played to Lamborghini-lusting wrinklies.

Meanwhile, showtime has kicked off with the warm-up acts slugging it out to determine which also-ran might be a junior partner, should the great British electorate again decide to inflict a plague on both houses of the major parties.

So, last Wednesday, Nick ‘Nicey’ Clegg, champion of the sagging Liberal Democrats, went head-to-head in a TV joust with the United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel ‘The Nightmare’ Farage for the second time in a week, keeping the chatterati so abuzz, a 1,000-volt charge could have been thrust up their bleached posteriors.

The BBC debate was fiercer, more cuttingly personal than the previous, LBC/Sky TV  clash, but each produced only one winner – and it wasn’t the crestfallen Deputy Prime Minister.

Many, yours truly included, wondered why a Coalition Goliath like Clegg had thrown down the gauntlet to Farage, a self-styled David and, proudly by his own account, a ‘non-professional’ politico.

So, if it was intended as an exercise in rubbing the underdog’s nose in the doo-doo, it backfired monumentally.

Because hubris did for Clegg as he totally misjudged Farage’s gift of the gab and in both debates the second most powerful man in Britain reeled under a welter of verbal blows, the most withering being the accusation of ‘wilfully lying to the British people.’

The debates’ outcome have further signalled a radical shift in the UK’s political sands.

Even the ‘hung’ parliament of 2010, which gave the Lib-Dems their first a whiff of influence in decades, could be eclipsed by the bonfire of political vanities that threatens.

The cardinal errors the big battalions – Labour as much as Conservative, let alone Clegg’s political harlots – made were a) Trivialising UKIP as swivel-eyed, Little Englander loons [true, some are]; and b) Utterly underestimating Farage’s connect with non-metropolitan have-nots.

NO CONTEST: Nick Clegg (right) and UKIP's Nigel Farage locked in verbal fisticuffs - with 'Nightmare' Nige winning both times

NO CONTEST: Nick Clegg (right) and UKIP’s Nigel Farage locked in verbal fisticuffs – with ‘Nightmare’ Nige winning both times

This emphasises how divorced from reality the elite truly are, with rare exception all too comfy in their Westminster bubble, inured from life in the Siberia of the provinces.

Interestingly, a similar arrogance afflicts the commentariat, as a horde of talking heads demonstrated, disparaging Farage as ‘looking sweaty’ and praising Clegg for appearing ‘ministerial’ in the first face-off.

The YouGuv poll of real people saw it differently: feisty Nige licked lacklustre Nick 57% to 36% first time out, then bested him 68% to 27% in the re-match.

No wonder that snotty scribbler, Yasmin Alibhia Brown, of the fast-fading Independent, demanded furiously the media should be ‘controlled’ in giving coverage to Farage.

If Ms YAB’s remark didn’t smack of neo-Lefty fascism and a curb on free speech more redolent of serfdom than democracy, I don’t know what does.

What her witless ravings echo is how much fear the smiley man with the pint has instilled in the smug mugs, who believe they reign over Britain and Europe by divine right.

As a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Farage is a first-hand witness to the impotence of colleagues and the power wielded by a faceless, ruthless Europratocracy.

He’s utterly dismissive, too, of the unelected cabal of non-entities that rule the European Union (EU) roost, reserving special scorn for Herman Van Rumpoy (anonymous President of the European Council), Manuel Barroso (ineffectual President of the European Commission) and Baroness Ashton (vacuous Foreign Minister), all of whom he dismisses as political pigmies on the world stage.

Irrespective of an artificial currency strangling the Club Med countries, Farage has exposed the EU faultlines and the dire need to restructure the project around its original, core principles of a free-trade Common Market.

BAN NIGE: That's the opinion of neo-Left scribbler and talking head, Yasmin Alabhai Brown

CONTROL FREAK: Neo-Lefty scribbler and talking head, Yasmin Alabhai Brown demands the media should stop publicising the UKIP leader

In Eurosceptic Britain, his damning verdict will undoubtedly translate into votes in next month’s EU polls and UKIP’s nine MEPs are tipped to see their number swell dramatically.

Not that all who’ll vote for the party buy into their message of cutting loose from Europe or to Farage lauding the tyrant Putin for defying the West over Ukraine.

But there’s no denying, after the economy, immigration – and loathed Brussels diktats on the issue – is the most festering sore in British electorate thinking. The reality, though, is the UK opened its door too wide too long ago and the floodtide of Rumanian and Bulgarian incomers Farage predicted hasn’t materialised.

Nevertheless – for now, at least – the country’s voters admire Nige’s chutzpah in putting the frighteners on the vested interests, whose paucity of ideas and personalities is woeful.

The EU polls, then, will be the first chance since 2010 for the people to bash the Westminster clique and they’re practically salivating to register their disgruntlement with the mish-mash Coalition government and Labour’s lamentable opposition

However, General Elections tend to concentrate voters’ minds, so it remains to be seen how much of an X Factor UKIP will pose in a year’s time.

My prediction is they’ll pick up a few House of Commons seats for the first time, come the big day, and those could buy them some say in who holds power.

A greater spectre than Farage’s mavericks, though, looms with September’s vote on Scotland’s independence. And, should Westminster’s worst fears come true, Labour will lose its 41 Scottish MPs, the Lib-Dems their 11, but the Tories only one.

Still, if I were the gambling man I’m not, I’d place a wee wager on the ‘No/Stay Together’ campaign shading it, despite Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, Alex Salmond’s brazen ballot-rigging that allows 16 year-olds to vote, yet bans ex-pat Caledonians south of the border from participating.

Assuming I’m right – that Britain remains a united kingdom and Nige nets a clutch of MPs, plus potential Tory defectors – a successive, ruling Coalition is certainly on the cards.

And I would bet on Squire Cameron and Red Ed Miliband sounding out the UKIP upstart over a pint of Tetley’s best British bitter to see which way his once swivel-eyed loons will jump.

Switched, bothered and bewildered, I don’t think my new bank likes me

DID you know you’re more likely to change spouses or partners than your bank – as Michael Caine might say, not a lot of people know that.

According to the UK Payments Council, the majority account-holders stay with their bank an average of 17 years in contrast to most marriages, which survive a paltry 11.5.

It’s not that Brits are so besotted with the treatment meted out by the institutions claiming to look after their money. Far from it, because complaints against banks soared 15 percent in the first half of last year alone to 370,000.

No, the prime reason for customer loyalty is fear…dread that switching to a rival will likely result in a calamitous hiatus, so direct debits or standing order pay-dates are missed, the electricity, gas or water will be cut off and the tallyman will repossess the family motor.

This same reluctance to change stalks most of the West, despite the array of incentives banks employ to lure each other’s clients, Consequently, while four in 10 of us regularly switch car or household insurer, only one in 20 has changed their bank in the last two years.

But what if a bank switches you, which is happening in my case?

It’s not that I’ve done anything to upset them. I keep a decent balance in my account, make few demands, never forget to say ’Have a nice day’ and am on first-name terms with the counter staff.

The pleasantries are always returned and, for the several years I’ve banked there – no names, no pack-drill, but it’s an international offshoot of a UK high street bank – I’ve been treated with cheery efficiency, sage advice and made to feel a valued customer.

IN THE MONEY? Who knows when banking parlance is so complicated

IN THE MONEY? Who knows when banking parlance is so complicated

Suddenly last summer, however, I received a letter from them, saying as of mid-March, 2014, I’d be a client of another bank, a Spanish one, whose name meant virtually nada to me.

In other words, having sold out to a competitor, I was part of the goods and chattels.

This was a fait accompli in the hatching; Hobson had more choice than me…it was either go with the flow or dive into the minefield of the great, financial unknown.

It isn’t that I’ve a problem with the theory of changing banks, despite my innate sense of loyalty/fear and belief in better the banking devil you know than parking my cash in another Satan’s den.

Nor am I particularly concerned about a bank’s country of origin, so long as it’s regulated to international standards and not run by some philanthropic Nigerian, offering me 1,000% interest if I park the odd twenty thou with him for a month.

Because – at least now – banks almost everywhere no longer act like robber barons in pin stripes. Mostly, they’ve mended their errant, grasping ways, stopped lending recklessly and quit foisting junk products, like payment protection insurance, on duped punters.

So, in the hope my familiar counter-staff mates would be part of the takeover, I went along with the assurances that this would simply be a name-change and the transition would tick with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Except it didn’t and isn’t.

At the turn of last year I received a leaflet from the future custodians of my moolah, explaining a few ‘modifications of the contractual conditions of certain bank services’.

Very thoughtfully, they’d written it in English, but – such was its arcane terminology – it might as well have been Swahili or Serbo-Croat.

Despite the vast cesspool of trivia drivel I accumulated over a lifetime, comprehension of banking parlance isn’t floating on its surface, like an unsinkable cowpat.

BANK ON IT: Most people get divorced before they change their bank

BANK ON IT: Most people get divorced before they change their bank

So the €35 ‘fee for dunning of debt positions’ fell on glazed eyes, as did the ‘formula used for calculating the settlement of credit and debit interest on sight accounts’.

Was my debt position being ‘dun’ over then?  And would I need an optical test to have a ‘sight account’?

Then, after receiving a new debit card, a further piece of plastic landed in my mailbox. Mysteriously titled ‘a new distance banking code card’, the accompanying letter exhorted me to ‘ACTIVATE NOW’ (their caps) by going on line.

Dutifully, I did – immediately. Except the website told me to try again in four days. So, I did. And the website said try again in a week. So I did and the website said phone a number somewhere. So I did.

‘We’re experiencing website integration issues’, explained a polite lady at the other end of the line. ‘Try again in four days’

‘But I’ve be trying for three weeks,’ said I, plaintively. ‘Besides, you’ve had since last August to sort this out and you’re a bank, for heaven’s sake, overflowing with IT geeks.’

‘You have until March 15 to do it, so there’s plenty of time,’ replied the call centre agent.

‘So why, in January, did you send out the urgent ACTIVE NOW message?’

‘Oh, that was just in case you forgot.’

‘This doesn’t exactly inspire new customer confidence, does it,’ I noted rhetorically.

‘Well, send in a complaint,’ she suggested. ‘Here, I’ll give you the email address of who to write to. They’ll reply within four days.’

So I did – on February 6. And I’m still awaiting the courtesy of a response. Maybe it’s a hiccup with email ‘integration’. Who knows in this era of supa-dupa hi-tech.

Meantime, my pals at my old bank – the one that’s going to be eviscerated next month – managed to sort out my ‘new distance banking’ glitch, which I discovered is a bunkum euphemism for something simply known as ‘online banking’.

Ah, well, I sighed. At least that’s done and dusted…except every time I go online to check my balance I still keep being exhorted to ACTIVE NOW the ‘new distance banking code’, which I do ad nauseum, since it’s the only way I can access my account.

Maybe the computer that keeps saying ‘No’ doesn’t like me. Maybe I’ll send it a bunch of flowers as a sop.

Or maybe I’ll break the habit of a lifetime and switch banks.

Stop bleating about being bugged – everyone’s playing the spy game

I SPY with my little eye somebody beginning with M. Or, more currently, it should be: I hear with my big ear someone called Merkel gabbling on her cellphone – quaintly known to Germans as a ‘handy’ – and have done for yonks.

Handy is an apt word if you’re an eavesdropper from the US National Security Agency, the NSA now unofficially renamed Nosy Snoopers on Anyone, as they cock a snook (or spook) at friend and foe alike, all treated without fear or favour.

In almost any other context such equanimity would be laudable. In this case it’s upset the balance of trust that existed between allies and prompted a storm of diplomatic outrage that shows no sign of abating.

It’s always been a given that all’s fair in spying and prying where enemies collide. Hence the lack of uproar when the Russians were said to have presented ‘Trojan Horse’ gifts of USB flash-drive pens and cellphone chargers to delegates at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg that relayed info back to the Kremlin.

But, scuppering your friends? How low can the spooks stoop, even if it’s only commercial, industrial and financial espionage? Answer: No-one’s off limits.

NOT SO HANDY: Angela Merkel is raging over the NSA's hacking of her cellphone, know in German as a 'handy'

HANDY HORROR: Angela Merkel is raging over reports that the NSA hacked her cellphone, know in German as a ‘handy’

Small wonder German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is incandescent with rage that the NSA nobbled her Nokia – she’s now swapped it for a more secure Blackberry Z10 – while thunderclaps of diplomatic indignation have been resounding across Europe.

Thanks to whistleblower and former CIA contractor, Ed Snowden, currently dossing down out of CIA clutches in Moscow, it appears the good ole boys at America’s ace electronic surveillance squad, in Fort Mead, Maryland, have been scanning heaven-knows-how-many telecons and emails across swathes of Western Europe and the Americas.

Francois Hollande, the French President, was incredulous when told the NSA secretly monitored 70 million calls, texts and emails made in France; Premier Mariano Rajoy was similarly gobsmacked to learn 60 million were trawled in Spain; and the Italians choked on their cannelloni at news of 46 million intercepts.

The leaders of Brazil and Mexico were also furious at reports they were victims.

In fact, the only national leader not to quibble his handpiece was hacked is Prime Minister David Cameron, presumably on the basis that Britain’s GCHQ has a mutual, back-scratching deal with the Americans.

Just for the record the mindboggling tallies I’ve listed cover only one month of NSA snooping…between December, 2012, and this January, although it was heartening to know the listeners had the good grace to take off December 30, New Year’s Day and January 2.

Using software appropriately branded ‘Boundless Informant’, the NSA apparently noted where calls were made, the series numbers of handsets, SIM card data and duration of calls.

It makes allegations against former Murdoch newspapers’luminaries, including ex-News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – on trial at the Old Bailey, in London, on charges variously related to hacking voice-mail messages and corruption – seem playground frolics by comparison.

Meanwhile, according to Glenn Greenwald – the Brazil-based US journalist, who has worked with Snowden to publish the spying revelations – though call content was not recorded, intercepts included intrusion in personal information through internet browsers, emails and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

CENTRE OF THE STORM: The NSA's headquarters, in Maryland, where the hacking was said to be authorised

CENTRE OF THE STORM: The NSA’s headquarters, in Maryland, where the hacking was said to be authorised

As the evidence stacks up, President Obama has been forced into humiliating apologies to his nominal pals, telling Merkel, ‘Your phone isn’t being tapped and will not be.’

In subtle contrast, he is said to have told Cameron, ‘Your phone has never been tapped, isn’t being tapped and will never be’, which clearly indicates America’s commander-in-chief knew his German counterpart had been a target, if no longer.

So, despite attempts to paint Obama as an ‘ignorant party’ to his eavesdroppers’ operations, he can’t wriggle off the hook and blame his predecessor, President G ‘Dubya’ Bush, for authorising the earwigging in the first place. Contrary to Hollywood myth, information gathering of this type – codenamed COMINT (communications intelligence) – at this level isn’t some ‘black op’ handled covertly by a rogue outfit working outside its remit.

Strangely, US spooks are unrepentant over this furore. Even more bizarrely, their cloak-and-laptop buddies across Europe don’t seem particularly fazed either, even if their political masters are in a blue funk, or feign as much.

Because, the simple truth is everyone’s at it, not just the usual suspects, principally China – which hacks into US and British IT systems countless times a day – and Russia’s FSB, which morphed from the KGB.

According to The Sunday Times, Bernard Squarcini, ex-head of French intelligence, admits, ‘All countries, even allies co-operating in the anti-terrorist struggle, are spying on each other.

‘The Americans spy on us in the commercial and industrial field and we spy on them, because it’s in the national interest to defend our companies. Everyone knows it.’

And Merkel’s a fine one to moan. The BND, Germany’s equivalent of MI5, fessed up to the Bild newspaper that it monitored phone calls, text message and emails in the USA, saying, ‘We take what we can get. If someone offers us information, for instance about the Americans, we will not throw it in the bin.’

Neither is Britain an innocent bystander. In fact, the UK is hugely respected as maestros of the spying game, numbering amongst its virtuoso performances bugging the Bundesbank, tapping the handpieces of UN Security Council members and – if ex-Labour minister Clare Short is to be believed – nobbling UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan’s cellphone in the prelude to the 1990 Gulf War.

Professor Anthony Glees, an expert in espionage, is pretty sangfroid in his assessment of the intelligence community, saying that despite co-operation between friendly nations, spying on one another was routine.

‘Any agency worth its salt would do it,’ he states blandly. ‘You’d want your money back if they didn’t.’

So the next time a world leader bleats about being bugged, I suggest they recall the biblical exhortation along the lines of, ‘Let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone.’

Playing politics with ‘The Street of Shame’ is no way to gag the UK Press

IN ten days’ time the Privy Council will ask – nay, require! – The Queen to sign a Royal Charter, which, depending on who you believe, will set out new ‘guidelines’ for Press regulation or put politicians in control of what British newspapers can print.

Sure, you can cavil that the above statement is the sort of typical, dramatic spin you’d expect from a journalist. But those are the cold facts and the harsh reality is 300 years of Press freedom is about to be tossed into the wastebin of history, like an empty fag packet.

For all their smooth talk about papers retaining their entitlement to print what they want, the politicos – and that includes most MPs, regardless of party affiliation – are still seething about being outed over their grubby, expenses rip-off by the Daily Telegraph’s revelations in 2009.

So, take it as read that one, highly contentious clause in the proposed changes isn’t there without devious reason…that Parliament can only interfere with the Press if it can muster a two-thirds majority in favour (note: this requirement could be changed by a simple majority of MPs).

My best guess is it will meddle, because it’s in the vested interests of the UK’s elected representatives’ to do so.

In fact, the siren has been sounded and the first boot went in last week when Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, dismissed the Press’s own recommendations to beef up self-regulation, stating they ‘did not comply with government policy.’

PRESS UNDER DURESS: New rules will leave the politicians with powers to curb newspapers

PRESS UNDER DURESS: New rules will leave the politicians with powers to curb newspapers

Government policy? What fork-tongued dross! Royal Charters are not laws, but rights or grants at the ‘gift’ or the monarch.

Besides, implementing recommendations suggested by Lord Justice Leveson in his report of last November was supposed to be consensual – i.e. that editors and politicians agreed on a formula to curb what some dubbed as ‘Press excess’ – but no such eventuality occurred.

What did happen, though, was a rump of MPs met in furtive conclave, junked the editors’ ideas and steamrollered through their original agenda.

No member of the Press was invited to present its case – just as no journalist was around when representatives of the three, main parties met in Ed Miliband’s office, over take-away pizzas, just post-Leveson, to hammer out terms of the newspapers’ surrender. Oddly, luvvies from the media witch-hunt brigade, Hacked Off, were given an ear (and, no doubt, a slice of Domino’s finest Mozzarella and mushroom).

Understandably, editors were a tad chagrined by this secretive stitch-up…‘Pizza’d off,’ you might say.

In a statement, they said, ‘This remains a charter written by politicians, imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians.

‘It is impossible to see how a regulator operating under rules imposed by politicians, and enforced by draconian and discriminatory provisions for damages and costs in civil cases, could be said to be either voluntary or independent.’

Leveson himself is more than irked by the shenanigans over the first part of his report – Part Two is due after the multiple police investigations are over and any ensuing criminal proceedings concluded – because what MPs are doing is exactly what he didn’t recommend.

The Law Lord recently insisted to the House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, ‘The concept of the Royal Charter was not mine. I did not think of it. What’s more, nobody suggested it.’

What he did recommend, however, was – as the editors said – ‘voluntary, independent, self-regulation’, perhaps with Ofcom, which regulates television, having its brief extended to act as an arbiter of last resort to cover newspapers.

Instead, Leveson’s Report was hijacked by a cartel of politicos and a circus of celebrity whingers, banging a morality drum, who, for convergent reasons, want British journalism’s self-styled Street of Shame leashed.

As I pointed out here last December, Prime Minister David Cameron made a monumental gaffe in appointing Leveson to look into the ‘culture and practices’ of the Press, following allegations (which they continue to be, until somebody is found guilty) of, principally, phone-hacking and bribing police.

Cameron was embarrassingly denuded, left with something other than his parliamentary order paper dangling in his hand, when his ex-spinmeister and former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, along with his country pursuits chum, Rebekah Brooks – then boss of Rupert Murdoch’s News International – were implicated in the scandal.

So, in a naïve, knee-jerk bid to distance himself from the brouhaha, the PM enlisted the judge, of whom I have no criticism, to perform an impossible task, which he did with praiseworthy objectivity.

Yet again, as I have previously noted, criminal law already proscribes tapping into the telecommunications of others, greasing the palms of pliant plods and invasions of privacy.

JUDGEMENT DISPUTE: Lord Justice Leveson says he never recommended a Royal Charter imposed on the Press

JUDGEMENT DISPUTE: Lord Justice Leveson says he never recommended a Royal Charter imposed on the Press

So what was Leveson for? And, what’s more, where will it lead, except – at this rate – to politicians wielding undue influence over the Press?

All but two national newspapers indicate their refusal to sign up to the Royal Charter, the dissenters being the hypocritical, holier-than-thou Guardian – which says it is mulling over the rebellion – and the nearly non-existent Independent.

As an aside, it’s a bit rich for The Guardian to even consider toeing the government line, just as it overflows with exposés about Secret Service surveillance operations, which MI5 head, Andrew Parker, lambasted as ‘putting Britain’s security at risk’.

One can only but wonder how long the hymn sheet of the hard Left glee club will be able to carry on leaking classified info under the proposed, new regime.

Certainly, though, the Royal Charter will douse the flame of investigative journalism, for which the British Press, warts and all, has a matchless reputation.

Yes, it’s often rumbustious, irreverent and occasionally foolhardy. And, yes, it should clean up its act, especially where media innocents – like the family of murdered schoolgirl, Millie Dowler – are concerned.

But UK newspapers are still the envy of the world, particularly in countries where Press freedom is a far-flung pipedream.

So, if anyone wants government-speak posing as journalism, can I suggest they subscribe to The Chinese People’s Daily or Pravda.

Read the first 5 chapters of my gripping, new thriller, The Mallorca Correspondent, FOR FREE!

BACK in 2011 I penned my first novel, The Mallorca Assignment, which, much to my delight, received a welter of critical acclaim – ‘Unputdownable!’, ‘A high-octane thriller’, ‘Gripping intrigue’, raved some of the reviewers.

It told how two warring detectives – haughty Inspector Mercedes Ibanez, chief of  Mallorca’s murder squad, and DCI Harry Hudson, a tetchy, veteran British cop – were thrust together into investigating three bizarre killings, unaware they held the key to a plot by international terrorists to launch a suicide-bombing ‘spectacular’.

In a spellbinding, fast-action scenario laced with devious, counter-espionage agents out to thwart the police with a devious agenda of their own, Ibanez and Hudson must put aside their mutual hostility to avert a potential apocalypse.

But will they – and can they win the race against time…?

You can find out by downloading an ebook – for a Kindle, iPad, Tablet, etc. – from Amazon sites worldwide and other online retailers (or hard copy from Blurb.com/Bookstore).

Simply put The Mallorca Assignment into their search engines and purchase it…you won’t be disappointed.

Because, not only it is a ripping yarn, as countless readers have told me, the novel offers a fascinating insight into the beauty, culture and rich tableaux of history that has helped shape Mallorca in the holiday paradise it is today.

 Likewise, my newly-published sequel – The Mallorca Correspondent – incorporates this island’s often turbulent past with a tension-packed, contemporary tale of intrigue, murder and mayhem.

It reprises the mercurial Ibanez – hiding the fragility brought on by personal grief behind a mask of haughtiness – and her bitter joust with maverick newsman, Nick Keller, who’ll go to any lengths to scoop a sensational story.

But, when the maverick reporter stumbles on the truth about the macabre slayings of two, high-class callgirls, he suddenly puts his life on his by-line.  

Because behind the killings lies a conspiracy by an Eastern European mafia to blackmail a senior British Cabinet minister into revealing the West’s cyber warfare secrets. 

As the mobs’ hitmen close in on Keller, only one person can help him escape their vengeance…the tantalising, but prickly Ibanez.  

The question is: will she stake her own life on saving the meddlesome newspaperman?

So, as has become custom and practice for many writers, I’m offering you a delicious taster – so read the opening five chapters below. 

I sincerely hope they’re enthralling enough to inspire you to download The Mallorca Correspondent as an ebook from Amazon.

(Warning: This book contains adult reading material)

 TMC- Front cover final artwork amended copy

CHAPTER ONE 

EVEN SUCH a grotesque death couldn’t steal away the girl’s beauty, Mercedes Ibanez decided, as she surveyed it a last, lingering time. The face – or what hadn’t been charred by the bonfire’s smouldering embers – was alabaster white and mercurially at peace.

From the moment, earlier that morning, when examining judge, Ignacio Frau, assigned her the case, Ibanez’s instincts shrieked out this investigation would be riddled with complexities. And, as always in such circumstances, it was her unwavering belief that every detective needed a special, personal motivation to pursue truth to its finality. For the deputy head of Mallorca’s National Police detective bureau, this girl’s face would be it; a point of reference indelibly seared into her memory.

Meanwhile, as always, Ibanez found it bizarre that, in common with so many corpses she’d witnessed on mortuary slabs, if their faces weren’t disfigured beyond recognition, their expressions rarely betrayed a clue to the level of the brutality they’d suffered. Maybe, she consoled herself, it was god’s grace – if there was, indeed, a super, omnipotent being – blessing the victim with a dignity in death even a vicious killer could not deny them.

Of course, the pathologist, Doctor Ramon-Alfonso Vidal, had a perfectly rational medical explanation, attributing what he lyrically termed as ‘the serenity of demise’ to a chemical reaction in the body, noting how the muscles became soft and flaccid before rigor mortis led to stiffening. However, Ibanez still refused to allow science to dim her cherished conviction that, somehow, the unquenchable healing power of the spirit could disguise the agony of a violent end.

So, despite this girl’s unimaginable torment, the policewoman concentrated hard on the hauntingly exquisite face and imprinted it on her subconscious, promising that this vision would remain her focus until the day she could deliver justice for this young woman and her loved ones, whoever and wherever they were.

Ibanez’s reflections were brusquely interrupted by the snap of Vidal tearing off his latex gloves to signal the end of the autopsy. He removed the medical face mask and, relieved, he took a deep breath of air unsullied by the gauze, drizzled with menthol to counter the noxious body odours percolating from inside the cadaver.

‘Javier, do a couple more photographs for the inspector, then tidy up our client and put her back in the cooler,’ he ordered his assistant

A meld of pity and simmering anger were etched into Ibanez’s eyes as she watched the mortuary assistant begin the task of gently cleansing the murdered girl’s desecrated corpse, a line of neat, criss-cross suturing down the middle of her torso, as if a zip fastener had been laced into it.

Meanwhile Sergeant Lucas Ripoll and Detective First Class, Kiko Seron, remained silent and respectful as the pathologist quietly concluded his formalities.

Vidal glanced at his watch – it was 12.55 – and he recorded the time on the autopsy notes attached to his clipboard. After nearly three hours of cutting, dissecting and probing her body parts and weighing the internal organs, he conclude the girl, whom he estimated to be in her early 20s, had been slain by a single, violent twist of the neck. It had dislocated the third from the fourth cervical vertebrae and severed the brain stem, rendering death instantaneous.

This was an unusual killing technique, skilfully executed, and one he’d rarely encountered. Unlike manual strangulation, whose telltale characteristic was usually a crushed hyoid bone at the front of the throat and could take concentrated effort to achieve, this was lethally swift and efficient.

It was similar to a chiropractor’s roll of the neck to realign the spinal column. This one, however, involved grasping the chin with one hand, fixing the other firmly round the top of the victim’s skull and jerking the head traumatically from side to side. He recalled seeing it only once before, which led to the killer being identified as Special Force deserter.

‘I need a cigarette,’ announced Vidal finally. ‘Let’s go outside and talk.’

IBANEZ grimaced. She detested all forms of tobacco and Ripoll knew it. However, in a rare act of unspoken insubordination, the sergeant seized the initiative and led the way out of the mortuary building at Palma’s Municipal Cemetery, while magically producing a crumpled packet of Fortuna Lites and his silver Zippo.

Against a backdrop of stacked, concrete sarcophaguses housing the remains of late residents of the city dating back more than 70 years, Vidal took the cigarette proffered by the detective and accepted the light. Leaning against a wall, shrouded from the baking early afternoon sun, he pulled on it long and hard, before exhaling a plume of blue-white smoke.

Running a hand through his ample swathe of greying hair, the pathologist said, ‘It’s not so much the way she was murdered that troubles me. At least that was mercifully quick. It was the torture she suffered beforehand. That was sadistic. Plain, gratuitous brutality. Whatever they’ve done, no-one deserves to suffer that, let alone a pretty, young girl, with a long life ahead of her.’

‘Do you know how long she was dead before she was thrown on the fire?’ Ibanez asked.

‘Difficult to tell with absolute certainty,’ the doctor replied. ‘Heat distorts the body temperature on which time of death can be estimated. But this young woman was certainly dead long before then. I’d say she was killed several hours earlier, judging by the level of rigor mortis creeping into the limbs.’

‘Did the other injuries contribute to her death?’

‘Not directly, but naturally I’ve noted the nature of them. Pre-mortem, she was systematically burnt with something like a hot poker or cigar stub and she’d been beaten with a heavy, blunt object; maybe a baseball bat or metal bar. Both kneecaps were shattered.’

Ibanez visibly recoiled at the macabre details being recited. She also detected similar looks of revulsion on the faces of Ripoll and Seron, both, like her, case-hardened homicide investigators not normally shocked by evidence of unfettered violence.

Quickly recovering her composure, the policewoman asked the tired pathologist, ‘Ramon, I need a favour: can you patch up her face so it’s a bit more presentable?’

‘Well, one side is about 30% charred,’ he estimated, knowing full well the reason for the request. ‘But we’ll do what we can. Luckily, Javier is a real genius with Photoshop, so you’ll have an image that’s not too scary to release to the media.’

Satisfied, Ibanez switched tack, asking, ‘Do you have any idea where she originated from?’

‘I’d say she certainly wasn’t local or from mainland Spain. The face, its high cheekbones and slightly almond-shaped, blue eyes, make her look Slavic and she was a genuine blonde. Plus, the cosmetic dental work is almost certainly Eastern European – good, but close up, not that fantastic.’

Estoy de acuerdo,’ nodded Ibanez. ‘I agree. We thought she was from Russia or somewhere like that when he first saw the body.’

‘And I don’t think she’s done much manual labour,’ ventured the pathologist.

Por que no? Why not?’ demanded the inspector, whose hypothesis that the girl might have had a job on the island – waitressing or bar work, perhaps – now needed revising.

‘Her hands aren’t rough,’ Vidal explained. ‘They’re very delicate and her fingernails are polished and manicured. I’d say there was finesse about her entire appearance; you know, well groomed. She pampered herself. Or someone with money paid for it.’

Ibanez paused briefly to digest the doctor’s verbal report so far. His considered, written version wouldn’t be on her desk before tomorrow evening and her superiors had left her in no doubt they wanted the investigation fast-tracked, muy rapido. Killings were bad news for Mallorca’s reputation as Europe’s premier holiday playground and if this girl was una extranjera – a foreigner – as all suspected, the international media would delight in resurrecting all the hackneyed clichés about ‘death in the sun’ and ‘murder island’.

Moreover, what had been scored into the victim’s body heightened the danger of sensationalised Press coverage if news of it ever leaked out.

‘Tell me what you make of what was carved on the girl’s back?’ Ibanez asked next.

‘The word ‘slut’ in large, capital letters – and in English,’ noted the perplexed Vidal, scratching his jowly neck. ‘Most strange…was the killer trying to make some kind of grisly statement or send a message? And if so, who to? Anyway, that’s your problem, not mine’

Muchas gracias – thanks a lot!’ replied Ibanez tartly, before asking, ‘So any idea what was used to do this hideous engraving?’

‘By their nature, the depth of the cut marks and the angle at the ends of the letters, I’d say a short, very sharp weapon, maybe a carpet cutter.’

‘What about any recent sexual activity?’

Si. There was evidence of bruising on the lips of the vagina and a small anal fissure to suggest sexual entry there, too. I also found an abnormally large amount of semen, so I’d conclude she’d had multiple intercourse, probably with more than one man.’

‘Have you taken fingerprints and swabs?’

‘Of course,’ replied Vidal, affronted anyone would imagine he’d overlook collecting such rudimentary forensic evidence. ‘We’ll get the sperm and the girl’s DNA analysed. People from certain countries have DNA patterns in common, so that might provide a clue to her origins. Obviously we’ll do the usual blood, toxicology and tissue tests.’

AS she fought to quell the nausea welling up in the pit of her stomach, Ibanez had heard enough. Murder in all its forms was a vile crime and she had dealt with many. However, this was singularly barbaric and the extents to which the killer went to punish, then disfigure the victim were confounding. What debased beast could do this thing, she asked herself as her mind raced with nagging questions. And what offence could this pretty young girl have committed to warrant such a fate? Finally, as Vidal intimated, could there really be some lunatic, subliminal message contained in what was scrawled on her back? A warning to others, perhaps?

Ibanez’s train of thought and the many suppositions testing her were broken when she heard Ripoll ask the pathologist, ‘Was there anything else you saw that might help?’

Si, there are a couple of other interesting details,’ said Vidal. ‘There was a needle puncture between the big and second toe on her left foot that looked recent. Of course, it’s not uncommon for drug users to inject there, where the marks can’t be easily seen, though I found no other evidence to suggest she was an addict. Anyway, we’ll have to see what the toxicology says about what drug was injected.’

‘And…?’ Ripoll pressed.

‘The tattoo,’ replied Vidal. ‘On the left cheek on her gluteus maximus.’

‘On her what?’ queried the bemused sergeant.

‘Her backside,’ explained the doctor, stifling the urge to grin. ‘It’s certainly an odd one. Maybe it’s the latest vogue in body art. Who knows? I’m too old to be aware of all these modish trends. But I’d say it’s meant to resemble a clothing label, like something you’d see stitched onto the back of a pair of jeans. It’s the wording inside that’s strange.’

‘Why?’ asked Ripoll. ‘What does it say?’

‘That’s the point. I haven’t a clue. It’s clearly not in Spanish or English, like the word cut into her back. I’d guess it’s Cyrillic, probably Russian. Jaime’s photographed it for you, but you’ll need an interpreter to sort out that mystery, not a pathologist.’

CHAPTER TWO

NICK KELLER had just turned forty-two, some days looked sixty and most mornings woke up feeling a hundred. He knew why, of course, and who was to blame: himself and the law of unintended consequences. Or, more precisely, the cardinal error of placing his faith in what he described as ‘a best pal who’s now trying to murder me.’

Gallows irony aside, each time the newsman thought the thought or spoke the words, he wrestled to shut his mind to the chillingly inevitable treachery that his ally was now his worst fiend – cynically ruthless, expensive and potentially lethal. It just wasn’t bloody fair, Keller would complain, because where else could he find so seductive a wellspring of liberating fun.

But, like stalks in a cornfield on a breezy afternoon, however much his mind swayed between reality and delusion, he couldn’t deny the mighty allure or the Jekyll and Hyde contradictions of the beast only the uninitiated referred to as cocaine.

After a decade-long camaraderie that had blossomed from sporadic, recreational use to one verging on grim necessity, Keller recognised with vivid clarity all the danger signs that the sum total of collateral damage he was inflicting on himself was leading to inevitable doom. And sooner rather than later, he guessed.

Once he Googled the cumulative side-effects of the delicious drug and found he matched nearly all the scary criteria to be labelled a fully-fledged, Charlie-chasing, coke-head. One by one Keller ticked them off: paranoia was occasional, but nevertheless deserved a tick; then there was creeping insomnia, heart palpitations and the odd, gushing nose-bleed. Tick, tick, tick. His thirst was often unquenchable, so highly tick-worthy. And don’t forget unattainable, sexual gratification, irrespective of the number of willing girls who fell for his velvety charms. That deserved a good ticking, though the irony was he could hump all night with an erection like a stallion and his party piece of sprinkling the stardust on his member never ceased to amuse whoever he could coax into providing a blow job. Lucky girl, unlucky me, Keller would note, wryly.

More urgently, the highs were lower and briefer, hence the incremental need to up the daily dosage and powder his nose more often.

However, somewhere in Keller’s subconscious, his anguish was eased by a clarion voice that echoed the mantra of commonsense. Coke wasn’t an addiction, it insisted; it was an indulgence, a needless prop he could discard any time he liked. And he would, he vowed. He’d do it tomorrow – manana, as his Spanish amigos said – but somehow tomorrow was late in coming. Still, the notion made Keller feel good, temporarily in control of his destiny.

Meanwhile, living in Mallorca was a mixed blessing, because the island was awash with Bolivian Marching Powder, Blow, Snow or whatever euphemism those reliant on cocaine’s lethally energising properties chose to call it. And, as the recession bit deep, there were fewer users with the wherewithal to afford to snort the nose candy, so prices were in freefall. The telling evidence was supported by the fact that whereas, a decade earlier, some 90% of local banknotes contained trace elements of coke, now only 60% did

The downside to market forces going south was that Keller had developed a 200 euro-a-week habit and much of his £200,000 kick-back from The Sunday Insider had already been vacuumed up his nostrils. In addition, his rich-bitch of a sister and her banker-wanker of a husband could no more to be relied on to top up his sybaritic lifestyle.

‘I’m doing it for your own good, Nicky,’ Megan would parrot. ‘You’re my only brother, but I have to be cruel to be kind to save you from yourself.’

What sanctimonious claptrap, Keller would mutter after clicking off his cellphone after yet another failed plea for a ‘consideration’, as he generally termed a hand-out. Still, he always sent Snotty and Dotty – or whatever his niece and nephew were called – a birthday card, with a 20-euro note enclosed, just on the off chance Miserly Meg felt a pang of conscience and stumped up a couple of thou in recognition of his avuncular interest in her overindulged brats.

MOST mornings Keller would kick-start his brain by snorting a line or two and, when he felt his mind bristling, he’d wash, shave, dress and meander out for breakfast.

Invariably, he’d head out of his penthouse apartment in the low-rise block off Portixol’s seafront to the Enco Cafe or Fibonacci Bakery, where the famed, Mallorcan speciality, an ensaimada – a spiral bun of fluffy, light pastry, sprinkled with icing sugar – accompanied by several, large, black cafe americanos fortified Keller sufficiently for him to leaf through the morning papers.

First the newsman would scan the English-language Daily Bulletin, then the two most popular Spanish tabloids, the Ultima Hora and Diario de Mallorca, more in hope than expectation they would include a snippet worthy of a follow-up for the British media.

The local Press weren’t Keller’s only sources of leads, though. He had invested time and money cultivating doormen at most of the top night spots, maitre’ds at swanky eateries and cleaners at fashionable marinas, where the ultra well-shod parked their nautical toys. He even tried to bribe a couple of well-connected policemen with crates of choice Rioja wines.

His efforts produced the occasional tip – a movie, TV, soccer or pop star stumbling out of a disco at the break of dawn, off their heads on a cocktail of narcotics; one of the island’s semi-resident celebs slapped with a hefty fine for ignoring building regulations on some derelict casa or finca they were reforming; or a teenage tourist, marinated by booze, who misjudged a leap between balconies on a skyscraper hotel and plunged to oblivion several floors below.

It was all grist to the freelance reporter’s mill, but hardly the killer story, the gripping exclusive or Page One splash Keller yearned for to reprise his glory days as Chief Special Correspondent for The Sunday Insider.

So, initially, the four-paragraph filler, buried at the foot of page three in that day’s Bulletin didn’t particularly inspire him. Headlined ‘MURDER PROBE AFTER BODY FOUND ON BEACH’, it read:-

Police have launched a homicide investigation, after the partially-burnt body of a young woman was discovered on the Platja de Palma beach, near Can Pastilla, yesterday.    

   The naked corpse was found by early-morning joggers, who noticed limbs protruding from the remains of a bonfire, thought to be left over from a late-night beach party.

   In a statement, Detective Inspector Mercedes Ibanez, of the National Police, said, ‘We believe the young woman was in her early 20s, blonde and of above average height. From what we can tell from her features, she was likely to have been of Eastern European origin.’

   An autopsy is being carried out to determine the cause of death and officers are making house-to-house enquiries in the area in an effort to identify the victim.

Mulling over the story – and spurred by a need for funds – Keller warmed to the notion of reprising it in his own inimitable style. It just needed a little, light poetic licence to jazz up the drama and, of course, he’d have to amend the girl’s supposed origin to ‘probably British’ if the tale was going to whet the appetite of the tabloids back home. Anyway, Keller figured, it was only the cops’ guesstimate she was Eastern European.

So he’d nip up the coast a couple of kilometres to Can Pastilla, knock off a few stills and some video footage of the crime scene, do a swift rewrite, then file it all to the London dailies before noon GMT. He knew editors appreciated early copy to fill their first, threadbare news schedule and, who knows, the story might even make a page lead.

The only drawback Keller foresaw was again incurring the wrath of his nemesis, Inspector Maria Mercedes Ana Ibanez, legendary dragon lady of the National Police and branded, without the slightest nuance of affection, La Condesa – The Countess – by her browbeaten colleagues, who cringed under the welter of intimidation she dealt out.

He’d provoked her wrath many times at Press conferences, by asking the kind of incisive, probing questions the deferential Spanish hacks wouldn’t dare utter. Unsurprisingly, Ibanez’s replies had been brusquely dismissive. And feedback of her opinions of him, gleaned via police contacts, were equally damning after she’d read Keller’s reports in the British papers and was appalled at how brazenly he’d hyped them up.

Yet, despite her hostility, Keller was tantalised by Ibanez’s provocative sexuality. The contours of her petite, shapely body were always crisply defined by elegant suits and every time he glanced at the elfin face, lit by lustrous, nut brown eyes, his juices stirred.

In his wild fantasies, the Englishman believed that trapped beneath this cold veneer was a fragile mystique. She was a conundrum, straightjacketed by rigid self-control that, for some untold reason, denied her entrancing beauty the freedom it craved to express itself. And, by his reckoning, if any man could liberate those inhibitions, it was him.

Rightly, Keller guessed the policewoman was in her mid-30s and single, facts confirmed by Ripoll, with whom he was on nodding terms. However, when the reporter tried to gain an insight into Ibanez’s psyche, the detective cut him short, saying, ‘Don’t ask. Her temper is hot, but her blood is as chilled as the agua con gas she always drinks – carbonated water with ice and lemon – and I’ve never known her guard to drop.’

‘Perhaps she a fan of the Scissor Sisters’ riding position?’ suggested Keller irreverently.

Que? What is this Sisters thing?’ demanded the sergeant.

‘They’re a very edgy and outrageous US pop band, which took its name from a love-making position much favoured by lesbians. Maybe your boss is a lipstick lesbo or AC/DC – you know, a gender bender?’

‘No!’ Ripoll rapped back, as if the insinuation was a test of personal loyalty to his jefa, the word for a female boss in Spanish. ‘I’ve heard there have been men in her life, but none stay long. It’s something to do with her family – she has a sick mother and her father is dead. Anyway, the job is La Inspectora’s life and she lives it 24 hours a day. She’s talented, totally committed and highly intelligent. That’s why she’s probably the best detective on the force.’

Keller recalled the brief conversation with the sergeant as he paid Fibonacci’s breakfast bill, foraged for his car keys and checked his 35mm Pentax before setting off for Can Pastilla.

‘Well, if I can’t screw the bitch in the sack, I’ll screw her in print,’ he promised himself.

CHAPTER THREE

PURSUED BY her retinue of aides and researchers, a chastened Francesca Lawler scurried from the House of Commons debating chamber, through the lobby and out to the waiting ministerial car.

After she swept passed them, dismissing overtures for an interview or sound-bite, the TV parliamentary correspondents, microphones poised and cameras primed to roll, swapped cynical grins at the Secretary for Advanced Technology’s discomfort. The rest of the pack of hacks from assorted daily papers and political weeklies merely groaned in exasperation.

Once she sank into the back seat of the Jaguar before it sped the short distance back to Whitehall, the seat of most of Britain’s governmental departments, Lawler turned angrily on her chief adviser, Suzy Morgan, demanding, ‘How the hell could you let me get ambushed like that? Why wasn’t I given advanced notice of the question, so I had a prepared response?  As soon as I saw that bastard Les Macaulay turn up, I knew he was up to mischief. We all know what a damned shit-stirrer he is. Didn’t someone get an inkling he was out to nail me?’

Morgan was silently battling to contain her own embarrassment, teeth clamped together sullenly, jawline set in defiance against her boss’s tirade, her ego bruised at her professional competence being called into question.

From long experience, though, she knew her minister was a riddle of contradictions.

Outwardly, Lawler appeared the ultimate voter magnate, the consummate performer on the great political stage. Her burnished image was rarely out of the glossy magazines or off television and she was never less than engaging, persuasive, quick-witted, steely yet coquettishly feminine. As the Prime Minister unfailingly put it, ‘Fran Lawler has more balls than any man in my Cabinet, though they act like bigger tits than she’s got.’ Joyously married to a successful entrepreneur and the doting mother of two perfect children, all with passing acquaintance of her agreed she was the exemplary career woman-cum-domestic goddess.

But Morgan and a smattering of the minister’s intimates knew the flip side of ‘Fab Fran’, as the tabloids dubbed her. To them, she was ‘Fractious Fran’, as cuddlesome as a snarling cougar, who loathed her philandering husband, privately acknowledged her kids were obnoxious and was driven by the notion of sky-high self-aggrandisement.

The only daughter of a divorced, vengeful schoolteacher mother, naked ambition had been drilled into Lawler from childhood as an escape route from the oblivion of a Home Counties new town pilloried for its abundance of roundabouts. She duly responded by topping every class she entered, before anointing her education with a double first in economics at Balliol. There, at Oxford, her china-blue eyes, trim figure, sweet face framed by a shock of bright titian hair, snared her student housemate, Piers Lawler, the scion of a wealthy engineering dynasty.

Marriage and disillusionment quickly followed. Her feckless husband soon reverted to type, his yen for booze and lap-dancers undimmed even by the arrival of a son and heir and, two years later, a daughter. Scarier still for Fran, unlike his father and grandfather, Piers proved a cub scout in the ruthless world of big business commandos and the family firm soon teetered on the verge of ruin.

Enter Fran. Tenacious, uncompromising, visionary, she hocked every asset the clan had, invested in cutting-edge technology and, within five years, Lawler Dynamics was sold off to a US consortium for a prince’s ransom. Feted as an iconic businesswoman, at 38 the girl from the backstreets of nowhere was talent-spotted by political scouts, parachuted into a safe constituency, and catapulted up the ladder of government.

Now, six years on, she headed a ministerial department, albeit one with minimal spending power, but high profile enough to keep the public eye transfixed on her.

AS they motored back to the office, Morgan gave herself up as the ritual sacrifice for Lawler’s spleen. It was incumbent for the nearest minion – herself, one of the junior ministerial lackeys, a Parliamentary Private Secretary, a cowering researcher, even the departmental tea lady – to suffer a character assassination before the minister’s temper had cooled and a measured assessment could be made.

The spat with Macaulay across the cockpit of the debating chamber had erupted in the wake of much-flagged announcement by Lawler of a consultative Green Paper, examining the feasibility of algae – the scum that infests seas and coats ponds, puddles and pavements – being turned into a bio-fuel alternative to conventional, high carbon power sources. The aim was to manufacture the slime on industrial scales in laboratory-refineries, with government backing to spark private finance initiatives. It would, claimed the boffins, slash reliance on dirty fossil fuels and diminish the power of OPEC, the petroleum cartel largely comprised of Middle Eastern tyrants and South American dictators, who used the oil weapon to blackmail the West whenever their bank accounts needed a cash transfusion.

Moreover, if algae heralded a new chapter in greener, cleaner, cheaper, renewable energy, it would return millions of hectares of farmland back to agricultural production from bio-fuels crops and halt the march of wind farms blighting the landscape.

When Morgan helped Lawler draft the announcement, they predicted a floodtide of positive coverage, since the enquiry fully maintained the PM’s election pledge of bringing the United Kingdom the double bonus of more affordable, environmentally-friendly energy plus cheaper food, the platinum keys to a golden future for the masses.

As one eminent scientist the minister freely quoted in her preamble to the House had said, ‘It’s a thousand times cheaper to produce oil this way than having algae sitting in the sun. Our algae cells are so fat they’re literally bursting with oil, which makes it easy to extract.’

Lawler was enthusiastically setting the tempo for a predicted gush of national euphoria when the irascible Macaulay rose to his feet, waved his order paper to draw The Speaker’s attention, and interrupted the minister’s statement. He had, he said, ‘a point of order’, which, under House of Commons etiquette, forced a speechmaker to give way and sit down.

‘Mr. Speaker,’ wheezed the wily, old back-bencher, a celebrated rabble-rouser against defence spending and representative of an industrial constituency in North West England. ‘Has my Right Honourable friend, whose Green Paper is of welcome interest, anything to say about the other matter reliable sources tell me is being considered by her department? I refer, of course, to Britain establishing an agency specifically tasked with exploiting the merits of cyber warfare. So can the minister confirm her forthcoming visit to Washington has any connection with this contentious subject?’

Lawler was back on her feet, bolt upright, trying to retain a mantle of dignity, but clearly rattled by the interruption and its implications.

‘That, Mr. Speaker, is a question, not a point of order,’ she insisted, citing the technicality. ‘The Honourable Member may indulge all he likes in the tittle-tattle of wild conspiracy theories, but this is not the time or place to do so.’

‘We all know this algae-oil confab is a smokescreen for something far more sinister, so come clean and tell us what you’re really going to discuss,’ retorted Macaulay to a rumble of muttered agreement from his colleagues on the opposition side of the House.

‘Order! Order!’ demanded The Speaker. ‘The Right Honourable Minister is absolutely right – that was not a point of order, but a question and I rule it inadmissible.’

However, Macaulay’s verbal grenade had detonated and Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Advanced Technology realised immediately only some instant, straight-batting denials would block a maelstrom of controversy. It had the power to force the Prime Minister himself into making a humiliating admission, which would send the thugs in Downing Street’s boiler room of policy-making into a frenzy.

Lawler was also well aware there was more than a kernel of truth in Macaulay’s disclosure. Joining spooks from GCHQ, the county’s secret, eavesdropping facility charged with garnering electronic intelligence, the minister would, indeed, be party to covert talks at The Pentagon to review the latest developments in the use of cyber warfare technology.

A small cabal of friendly nations – principally the Germans, Japanese, South Koreans and Israelis – already swapped data on what military planners believed was a vital, new armoury to obstruct rogue states’ nuclear ambitions and hamper jihadists in their quest to wreck the democracies. However, before the government could admit commitment to such weaponry, a Cabinet sub-committee had decided Lawler’s department was best placed at this early stage to conceal the national interest in it rather than the Defence Ministry, its obvious home.

‘How the blazes did that bastard Macaulay discover I was fronting an expedition to examine linking up with the Yanks on this cyber warfare project?’ the minister fumed.

‘Maybe it was just a shot in the dark on his part,’ suggested Morgan. ‘Everyone knows his far-Left, pro-Islamist sentiments, so he’s just pandering to the hotheads in his constituency as per usual. He’s probably read a smattering of what’s appeared in the Press about computer viruses and put two and two together. The trouble is, this time it adds up to four.’

‘Damage limitation,’ snapped Lawler. ‘Get the spinmeisters to put their thinking caps on. Tell them I want something out for all the six o’clock news slots on TV. Some anodyne denial to downplay it. But I’m not doing any live interviews or risking a grilling by those shits on the BBC or CNN. Heaven only knows what crap they’d hit me with.’

All in the ministerial limousine fell silent as the chauffeur negotiated his way through the traffic back to the Department of Advanced Technology, a drab stack of eyesore offices, in humble contrast to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s impressively Italianate facade nearby in King Charles Street.

‘Oh,’ recalled Morgan, almost apologetically. ‘Here’s your mobile phone back. There’s a text from Oliver in Mallorca asking you to ring him urgently.’

‘Jesus!’ exclaimed Lawler. ‘He’s probably trashed the villa with one of his mad parties or run out of money again. When will these kids learn to take some responsibility! Piers had the idea to bribe him by promising he could stay at the house with a few school friends to get him to concentrate on his exams. Text him back to say I’m too busy to listen to his nonsense and tell him to ring his father. Let Piers deal with him for a change – he’s his bloody son, too.’

CHAPTER FOUR

TWICE DAILY a troupe of Lookie-Lookie men lined up to receive their stock from Wilfrid Patrick, before piling into the fleet of mini-buses parked outside the Chinaman’s lock-up on the Son Castello Industrial Estate, Palma’s rambling warehouse city off the Via Cintura autopista that cuts through the hills at the back of Mallorca’s capital. Once loaded up, the Africans would be dumped at their designated beats and set to work.

Like him, Wilfrid’s gang were mainly young Nigerians, for whom Mallorca was the gateway to the Promised Land of Europe. After surviving poverty, inter-tribal and religious conflict in their sub-Saharan homeland, most had made the epic trek to liberty through dense bushland and searing desert. Invariably, it meant braving territory ruled by cutthroat bandits and Tuareg bounty-hunters, before reaching remote, North African ports and trusting their lives to ruthless people-smugglers. These heartless men would demand up to US$3,000 to ferry the exhausted freedom-seekers across the Mediterranean on rickety boats and think nothing of tossing their human cargoes overboard if a coast guard cutter hove into view.

However, those fortunate to make landfall were destined to be the nameless, paperless detritus of Europe, reduced to scratching a living as unlicensed hawkers. For nearly all, though, it was a small price to pay for the sanctuary of life in Mallorca.

Their distinctive sales cry of ‘Lookie, lookie’ gave them their name, as they pounded the island streets, pausing for swift, furtive detours through cafes and bars, arms heavy with tacky merchandise in the wild hope it would catch the eye of inquisitive turistas.

However, few would chance on the touchstone of providence and became as lucky a Lookie-Lookie man as Wilfrid Patrick.

In the three years since his arrival on the island, by cunning, hard graft, not to say the occasionally display of raw muscle, Wilfrid had risen to become a trusted boss of a prime patch of turf. It stretched from the Santa Catalina market district, where the kids with rich daddies packed the fashionable bars, via Gomila Park – Palma’s once glitzy clubland, now reduced to a squalid red light quarter – to the Porto Pi shopping mall, where throngs of holidaymakers mingled with locals.

AS gangmaster of his small army of illegals, each morning Wilfrid would dole out cheap, copycat Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, ersatz Louis Vuitton handbags, rip-off Cartier watches, pirated DVDs and kitschy toys. Then he’d issue his orders, which never varied.

‘Always be polite,’ he counselled. ‘Don’t push your wares too hard – it’ll get people’s back up and they’ll complain to the cafe owner or the police. So show the goods, smile a lot, act humbly and move on if they say ‘No’ or ignore you.’

Then, with conspiratorial tap on the side of his broad nose, he’d corral a few trusted ones together. They recognised Wilfrid’s message immediately and huddled round for him to issue each with a handful of mini pouches containing Moroccan hashish or ready-rolled joints.

Unfailingly, he would emphasise, ‘And don’t forget: if a customer wants something special, you call me straight away on your cellphone and I come on my scooter to deliver it.’

The boys would nod blankly. Long ago they’d grasped what Wilfrid meant by ‘special’. It was verbal shorthand for more exotic substances: Ecstasy tabs, maybe a spliff of high quality Acapulco Gold or a discreet sachet of cocaine, normally chopped with baby milk powder to bulk it out for safety and financial reasons.

This was Wilfrid’s private business, a niche he’d carved out in his own days as a street hawker, when he established a core of regular clients, who continued to rely on him to fulfil their whims for something more than an occasional block of hash resin or a marijuana spliff.

However, Wilfrid refused to peddle heroin or crack, because he knew the junkies who shot ‘H’ and smoked ‘rocks’ were unpredictable, drug-crazed lunatics, often armed with knives and desperate enough to use them. And he drew the line at supplying pure, uncut Snow. It was too dangerous an invitation to overdose. Besides, cutting the magical stardust with a benign additive eked out the original payload, maximising the number of hits he could retail. The more the hits, the more the profit for him, his wholesaler and the mysterious Senor Grande, the Mr. Big at the top of the supply chain.

Meanwhile Wilfrid never forgot the need for vigilance. Because on an island populated by generally xenophobic whites, where legions of foreign whites came to char-broil themselves in the sun, a naturally coal-black face was a rarity. In itself, this was the Lookie-Lookie men’s USP – their unique sales point – since it attracted curiosity, further embellished by their ready smiles and the carnival of gaudy nick-knacks they touted.

As a counter balance, experience had taught Wilfrid that sometimes the police, pressured by local shopkeepers, had to be seen cracking down on the illicit peddlers. So, several times each summer his teams would be swept up in dragnets and their counterfeit goods seized. However, the canny Nigerian could confidently predict the outcome. The morose Lookie-Lookies would be tossed into the cells overnight and freed the following morning. It wasn’t worth the time, cost and effort for the authorities to prosecute them. Few spoke Spanish, none had papers and European Human Rights legislation dictated illegals could only be deported back to their homelands if it could be proven where they came from. The Africans stubbornly refused to say a word, so wittingly they became ebony ghosts trapped in a legal limbo.

This nonsensical Catch 22 suited Wilfrid perfectly. Nonetheless, he took precautions and always ensured all but his special, trusted boys went on patrol clean. Every member of each shift was thoroughly frisked before going to work to ensure none concealed weapons or narcotics and dabbled in a little private enterprise of their own in competition to his. Any found breaching Wilfrid’s strict mantra were summarily dealt with. They’d be beaten senseless, dumped in a basura – one of the large, communal waste bins parked on almost every street corner in Mallorca – and consigned to a life of begging or petty crime.

Few but the foolhardy took the risk, because they could supplement their meagre earning with a few extra euros made from tip-offs to the army of pickpockets who also cruised the Palma streets and island resorts. The rogue Lookie-Lookie would identify a tourist wearing a genuine Rolex or brandishing a fat wallet, then call in the destination and description of the mark for the fingersmiths to swoop.

IT had started much the same as on any other summer’s day for Wilfrid. He woke at seven-thirty, knelt beside the sweat-stained mattress on the bed in his drab studio apartment, prayed to the blessed Saint Anthony not to let him slide into the hellfire of lost souls, drank a half-litre of goat’s milk, then performed his regular exercise routine. Fifty press-up, fifty squats and fifty pull-ups on a steel bar he’d wedge into the doorframe to tone up the muscles that rippled through his body like thick cords of plaited rope. Next, he’d wash off the glistening sweat with cold, soapy water and shave, before sitting down to a bowl of mealie-mealie porridge, sprinkled with honey that was washed down with another glass of the tangy milk.

Wilfrid then dressed in the Levi jeans he’d bought from a Salvation Army charity shop, now so threadbare they’d become fashionable, a sweat-stained Nigeria Super Eagles soccer shirt and his Converse All Star basketball boots, the canvas peeling off the rubber toecaps.

‘No sense wasting good money on new clothes,’ he’d remind himself. ‘I’ll need the cash to get out of here someday soon.’

Finally, Wilfrid would unplug his cellphone from the charger, switched it on and wait for the telltale bleeps that told him messages were waiting to be collected from his inbox. This morning there were five: the first was the latest offer from Vodafone, which he immediately erased, then three missed calls from customers – including the English reporter he knew only as Nick – itemising details of their requirements in codewords for various illicit substances. The last was from Ayanna and immediately it perturbed him. This was not the happy, chatty voice-mail message Wilfrid usually received from the willowy Somalian beauty. It hid grave undertones and was curt to the point of rudeness. Moreover, he detected fear in her words.

‘Wilfrid, phone me as soon as you receive this,’ it stated shrilly. ‘And don’t fuck about.’

He had met Ayanna a year earlier in an illicit drinking den frequented by Africans off Plaza Espana, near Palma’s train station. Like every other man in the shebeen, he was intoxicated by her bewitching symmetry, which fully reflected her tribal name: ‘Beautiful blossom’.

She was tall, slender and naturally elegant, with sharply-defined features, a nose demonstrably more angular than most Africans, adorned by a diamond stud in her left nostril. It suggested her bloodline contained Arab or even European ancestry, an inheritance from centuries of slave trading. She was also highly intelligent, with a waspish tongue and eyes betraying a glimmer of mischief that was so teasingly deliberate, it was designed to taunt the countless men who paid her court.

The stocky Nigerian was instantly smitten with the girl as much as she was awed by the fat roll of bank notes he made sure she noticed. It heralded a brief, passionate fling in. But, like the wisp she was, Ayanna vanished from his life as quickly as she had exploded into it.

Yet, to his surprise and delight, occasionally she kept in touch and they met for coffee in one of the bustling pavement cafes in the heart of Palma’s fashion quarter, where she’d arrive, toting shopping bags from the city’s exclusive stores – El Corte Ingles, Loewe, Corner and Tous – her long, frizzy tresses now straightened and voguishly cut, her make-up impeccable, her jewellery gaudier than ever.

Wilfrid never failed to be amused at the eye-goggling interest Ayanna inspired around the cafe as she sat, huddled over the table, recounting tales of the string of her latest admirers. Clearly, they were rich men, bastions of the island’s international business community and ready to pay handsomely for the privilege of Ayanna’s company, not least of all in their beds.

But one day, she’d vow, determination glinting in her eyes, she would escape Mallorca, its tight-knit, sordid social underworld, where exotic black girls were much-prized sexual assets and passed around like petit-fours on a cocktail party platter.

‘I am a bird of paradise in a gilded cage, who yearns to fly far away,’ Ayanna would sigh.

WILFRID replayed the message and, with mounting dismay, returned the call. Ayanna answered it instantly.

‘What’s wrong?’ he inquired. ‘What’s happened to you?’

There was a brief hush on the other end of the line and the Nigerian heard the girl draw in a deep breath and say earnestly, ‘Wilfrid, I must talk to you – urgently.’

‘Okay,’ he replied softly. ‘Tell me.’

‘No, we must meet. I can’t explain on the phone.’

‘Ayanna, are you in trouble?’

‘No – no, I mean yes…well I don’t know.’

Ayanna’s contradictions were making little sense. So he advised, ‘Look, chill out and we’ll meet up in the Bar Bosch, near C&A, as usual.’

‘No, not there!’ shot back Ayanna. ‘It’s too public. Make it somewhere quiet, where we won’t be noticed.’

‘Do you want to come here to the flat?’ he suggested, with more than just conversation in mind.

‘No,’ came an indignant response. ‘That could be dangerous for you.’

‘Dangerous for me?’ queried a bemused Wilfrid. ‘Why should it be dangerous for me?’

‘I can’t tell you now,’ whispered Ayanna. ‘You’ll understand when I explain, but they may be following me and I don’t want you getting hurt. I just need your help. I have to get off this damned island as quickly as I can.’

‘Then go the airport or the ferry terminal.’

‘I can’t do that – you know I have no papers. The police will just pick me up and throw me in jail.’

‘But none of us have. We’re all illegals here.’

‘Yes, but you can get papers for me. You have contacts.’

‘I can’t get any ID for myself, let alone you. You know how it works; if I or one of my boys gets a passport, they know we’ll run. That’s when it would get really hot.’

‘But I can pay – I have plenty of money,’ pleaded Ayanna, her fear audible.

Wilfrid paused for a long moment, as a cascade of ideas flooded through his head. Yes, he’d heard of shadowy people who could supply forged documents – all the official paperwork an individual needed to be legal in the European Union. But who they were and who to approach for an introduction into this murky underworld was risky. Like Ayanna, sometime soon he planned to ask around, but he would do nothing to arouse the suspicion of the pitiless men who protected the secrets of their callous trade by any means.

Wilfrid’s lengthy silence was almost deafening, so the frightened Somalian girl spoke once more, asking, ‘Do you read the papers or watch Spanish TV?’

‘Sometimes I read the Bulletin, if I see it in a cafe,’ replied the Nigerian, surprised at this change of topic.

‘Then did you see a story the other day about a girl’s naked body being found on a beach near Palma?’ enquired Ayanna.

‘No’ said Wilfrid, even more perplexed.

‘Well, her name was Katya and she from Belarus, wherever that is. She hadn’t been here long, but she was a good friend of mine and a beautiful girl.’

‘So?’

‘So, I know how she died.’

‘My god!’ gasped Wilfrid.

‘Now you understand why I have to get out of this terrible place.’

CHAPTER FIVE

IBANEZ WAS livid, her customary glacial expression replaced by a mask of florid red. A muted Ripoll and Seron sat opposite, in front of the desk in her small office in the detective bureau of the Edificio de Jefatura Superior de Policia de Baleares, the National Police’s drab headquarters, tucked away in an unobtrusive street off Palma’s fashionable Paseo de Mallorca boulevard.

The junior officers had watched, wordless and shocked, as Ibanez had slammed down the phone on an assistant to the city’s mayor, who’d had the temerity to draw her attention to a story that made shrieking headlines in many of that morning’s British papers.

It was the third call she’d fielded in quick succession on the same, infuriating topic. The previous two had come from Judge Frau, who oversaw all aspects of the investigation into the beach murder, and a worried director general of one of Mallorca’s tourist boards. Moreover, Ibanez’s own jefe, Commander of Detectives, Comisario Jose Luis Melendes, had called a meeting at noon, no doubt, Ripoll figured, not merely to discuss progress – or the lack of it – on the homicide case, but the foreign media’s sensationalised coverage of it.

‘That damned periodista Ingles, Keller – he’s responsible for this dangerous rubbish,’ seethed the inspector, brandishing one of the foreign tabloids on her desk at Ripoll and Seron. “Where the hell does this man get his information from?’

Me permite, por favour – may I see it, please,’ Ripoll requested politely.

Ibanez tossed the offending article at him and he was immediately horror-struck by the glaring, page-topping headline, ‘SEX FIEND SLAYS BRIT BEAUTY ON BEACH’. Below a four-column photograph of the cordoned-off crime scene, showing forensic examiners foraging through the burnt embers of the fire, was a long screed of newsprint, by-lined, ‘From Nick Keller in Mallorca’.

Ripoll, who spoke and read English passably, quickly grasped the nubs of the report, his eye drawn to its spicier revelations.

The story quoted an unnamed police source saying the girl was ‘probably a British holidaymaker’, that she had been raped and sadistically tortured. Visitors in resorts around Can Pastilla, Keller reported, were ‘holidaying in panic that a sex-crazed killer was on the loose’. The fear factor angle was amplified by quotes from several alarmed tourists and a final stack of tinder was added to the flames of anguish, with the last paragraph concluding, ‘The police have very few clues to work on, but are throwing all available manpower at tracking down the brutal murderer, before he strikes again.’

Normally, Ripoll knew what the foreign Press reported about crime in Mallorca was downplayed, even ignored. The powers that be were well acquainted with how the British and German dailies, like Bild, overhyped even minor incidents. In contrast, the local papers were more malleable and receptive to suggestions – some would say threats – that their access to channels of information would be blocked if coverage annoyed the police. Besides, Spanish journalists were too obsessed with probing the dubious financial wheeler-dealings of the island’s political elite, depending on which side of the party divide a newspaper chose to err on, Left, Right or nationalist.

Si, estoy acuerdo – yes, I agree,’ said the sergeant eventually. ‘It could be damaging, but some of Keller’s facts are correct, though I have no idea where he got them from. Certainly not from our Press office.’

Though still smarting, La Condesa’s temper was sufficiently spent for Ripoll to deduce she was now engaged in personal mental debate about how best to rein in the maverick British newsman and uncover his insider source.

‘We’ve publicised no details about the girl’s body, so how did Keller know she’d been raped?’ mused Ibanez, rhetorically. ‘I suppose that could have been an educated guess. He could have just put two and two together, based on the fact she was naked, and invented it. Except he was right; she had been sexually assaulted. But we never made it known she’d been tortured or was a Britanica. I said we thought she was from Eastern Europe.’

‘Until the autopsy report arrives we can’t be sure what she was,’ Ripoll ventured. ‘She just might be Ingles, though I doubt it. Besides, Keller knows that the British papers wouldn’t be interested in a story about a Slavic girl, so I assume he just bent the facts to suit his purposes.’

‘Facts don’t seem to be an issue with this damned periodista,’ remarked Seron. ‘Pity we can’t just lift him, then chuck him out of Spain, like in the days of General Franco.’

‘Nobody wants to return to the fascist era,’ Ibanez chastised her detective. ‘If we did, we’d be spending every minute persecuting political undesirables and ignoring real criminals.’

‘At least when El Caudillo was in charge, people had more respect for the police,’ countered Seron, at the risk of further stirring the notorious Ibanez temper.

It did, as she responded witheringly, ‘And this poor girl would have been quickly cremated, her ashes tossed in the sea and her murder file left to gather dust. You may have joined the police to protect a minority of grasping gangsters ruling our country, but I didn’t.’

It was a stinging rebuke and Seron immediately regretted being carried away by echoing beliefs inherited from his grandfather, now in his 90s but still an old Falangist sympathiser, who mourned the anniversary of Franco’s passing every November 20th. So he bit his tongue and, head downcast, disguised his humiliation by pretending to examine his scuffed trainers.

Ripoll finally interrupted the squabble, referring to his notebook and announcing, ‘One piece of good news is that we’ve been able to decipher the tattoo on the girl’s backside. Doctor Vidal was right. It’s meant to resemble a clothing label and the interpreter confirms it is Russian. She says it translates into ‘Property of the Vassily Trading Company’, though who the hell Vassily is and how this girl came to be his property is another mystery.’

Ibanez and Seron exchanged perplexed glances, as Ripoll continued reciting from his notes, ‘A couple of youngsters have come forward saying they lit the beach bonfire for a late-night fiesta, but they went home about two a.m. and left it smouldering. So the girl’s body must have been dumped there after that time.’

And he continued, ‘Our house-to-house enquires have produced nada – nothing – because everyone in the vicinity says they were asleep. There are plenty of footprints round the fire, but the sand is too soft to make any sense of them. And the witness statements from the joggers who found the girl tell us nothing we hadn’t worked out for ourselves.’

A silence descended on the room as each investigator retreated into their private worlds. Ibanez’s eye was fixed on the whiteboard attached to the office wall. Pinned to it were a series of photograph showing the dead girl’s face, the most abused parts of her torso and the bizarre tattoo. Several others were close-ups of the crime scene and all were surrounded by a scrawl of notes – the few positive facts, a hazy timeline of the murder, suppositions and ideas – penned by a black marker in the murder squad chief’s tidy handwriting.

Somewhere on this wall of disjointed graffiti was a connection between the small mound of evidence set before them. Where is it, Ibanez demanded of herself. What am I missing?

Eventually, she let out an exasperated gasp and concluded, ‘It’s no good. We haven’t enough to go on yet. We’ll get Vidal’s autopsy report later, but even without it, we know this girl was systematically tortured and murdered in a highly unusual way. From experience, I’d say it has the hallmark of a cold-blooded execution, so we can rule out a random murder.’

Si,’ agreed Ripoll. ‘That’s why we desperately need to identify her. I’ve sent her photo and fingerprints to the immigration boys and Interpol to see if they can find a computer match. If she was Slavic, her passport must have been scanned when she entered Spain or crossed an international border from Eastern Europe.’

Seron, now recovered from his earlier reprimand, noted, ‘I don’t fancy this Russian link. Their police aren’t exactly helpful. But, now we know what the tattoo says, I’ll check the tattoo parlours and Ruskies living on the island to see if we can come up with a Vassily.’

‘The problem is it’s common name in Russia,’ Ripoll observed.

‘Still there can’t be that many Vassilys living in Mallorca,’ insisted La Condesa. ‘And I know he won’t be easy to find, because most of the Russians here are super-rich, so-called businessmen, with houses registered in all sorts of off-shore companies. Many of them live under our radar, coming and going on their super-yachts and private jets whenever they like. Anyway, go out and ruffle as many Russian feathers as you like.’

Ripoll and Seron took this as a signal the meeting had ended. They knew Ibanez faced a tetchy confrontation with Melendes to explain what had appeared in the foreign papers and how it got there.

However, as they rose to leave, Ibanez called Ripoll back, ordering, ‘Wait a moment, Sergeant. I need to speak to you further, so close the door.’

SERON exited and Ripoll returned to the chair in front of her desk. It made a pleasant change from being exiled to the open window, where the stench of the tobacco he favoured didn’t offend her senses, as she always maintained it did.

Ripoll detected a devious expression coalescing on his boss’s face. Her slender hands were clasped in front of her chin, a mercurial smile creasing her lips. He felt uneasy, like a mouse being sized up by a cat.

For his part, this chameleon of a woman remained an enigma. Like Keller, he, too, often fantasized that her aloof disdain hid a deeply repressed sexuality that yearned to be liberated and a frisson of excitement always overwhelmed him when they were alone.

‘Sergeant,’ cooed Ibanez. ‘I need a personal favour from you.’

Ripoll’s ears pricked at the opportunity to ingratiate himself.

‘I’ve seen this English reporter, Keller, several times at Press briefings, but I think you know him better?’ she began in her coolly measured way.

Si, I have met up with him and occasionally he’s been helpful,’ admitted the detective. ‘He was the one who told me about a notorious British gangster who moved here. The British secret service had him under surveillance, but neglected to tell us. You may remember it caused something of a diplomatic problema when Keller’s story appeared. Then there was the tip-off about planning approval corruption at a local town hall a couple of years ago. It came from a British email address and I always suspected Keller wrote it.’

‘I remember,’ confirmed Ibanez pleasantly. ‘But you know him, no?’

‘Only a little,’ said Ripoll, defensively. ‘We have an occasional chat over a glass of vino, that’s all.’

With the likelihood of an internal enquiry looming into how secret details of the homicide investigation came to the foreign newsman’s attention, the sergeant’s face was beginning to  register indignation at any insinuation he may be the whistleblower

Ibanez detected Ripoll’s heckles rising, so she added, soothingly. ‘Lo siento. My apologies. I did not mean to infer you were his viejo amigo, an old friend who passed information to him. So far as I am concerned your loyalty and confidentiality are beyond reproach.’

‘Then why do you ask about my acquaintance with Nick Keller?’ he demanded, still irked by the grilling, however mildly it was being framed.

Ibanez conjured her most winsome smile and changed the thread of their conversation, asking, ‘What do we know about him and his life here?’

The detective shrugged and said, ‘Keller came here a couple of years ago and lives in a penthouse atico in Portixol, the old fishing port of Palma. He is a freelance, but he once worked for the British newspaper, The Sunday Insider, and told me he was muy importante.’

‘What else do you know about him?’

Nada mas. Nothing more; that’s about it, I’m afraid.’

Ibanez toyed with her Biro, flicking it abstractedly on the palm of her hand, then offered the observation, ‘Don’t you think it’s a little strange that un famoso periodista Ingles comes to Mallorca out of the blue to be a humble freelance reporter?’

Ripoll pondered for a moment, then admitted, ‘I never really thought about it. His reasons for being here never cropped up in our meetings.’

‘Then find out why for me,’ requested the inspector. ‘Dig around discreetly and see what you can turn up. I have a hunch there is a lot more to Senor Keller than we know. Certainly, it would be useful to have some ammunition to use, in case we have to twist his arm a little. And check all his phone records since the girl’s murder to see what calls he made and received. He must be getting inside information from someone and we need to plug the leak’

IN less than an hour Ripoll had established which network serviced Keller with a landline telephone-cum-broadband connection at his Portixol atico and that the newsman had a mobile phone contract with the same Spanish company.

An immediate court order from Judge Frau demanded the telecoms provider release details of all calls and text messages Keller had made and received in the last two weeks on both numbers. By mid-day Ripoll had the itemised lists of each.

Most of those prefixed 0044 were to London-based news organisations; the few, local 971 numbers were innocuous – a pizza delivery service, taxi firms, restaurants, even the National Police’s own Press office – and, similarly, a check of the cellphone numbers produced nothing incriminating.

So, if someone inside the law enforcement apparatus was leaking secrets to Keller it had to be via other means, the detective concluded.

Next, Ripoll commandeered a vacant interview room, switched on the illuminated ‘PrivadoNo Entrada’ sign outside, warning potential intruders to keep out, and plugged his laptop into the internet jack. As a prelude to what he predicted would be a lengthy session demanding his full concentration, Ripoll opened the window, lit an illicit Fortuna and sipped a coffee from a Styrofoam cup.

Once online, he switched languages from Spanish to English and entered the name ‘Nick Keller’ into the search engine. Within a blink, the number 5,450,000 appeared in the results window and Ripoll began the brain-numbing trawl through each website, an A4 pad braced for the copious notes he knew he was bound to make.

Of the first dozen hits, all related to a clutch of name-sharers on business networking sites, then a US Indie-pop musician, whose MySpace page boasted his admiration for Vampire Weekend and Samurai Luncheon, and a vague character from the Star Trek movies only the geekiest Trekkie would recognise.  Right names, wrong subject, Ripoll sighed to himself.

It was at the top of page two that Ripoll struck the rich vein of information gold he sought. A stream of sites referred to a Nick Keller, journalist, the most recent of which was a reprise of the beach murder story.

As Ripoll scrolled the ensuing pages, there were countless other stories attributed to Keller, some cross-referenced to celebrity names, eminent politicians and British royalty. Finally came the policeman’s eureka moment, when he unearthed a batch of sites dated four years early, all echoing the recurrent theme: ‘Top reporter jailed in phone-hacking scandal.’

Two hours, three coffees and half a pack of Fortunas later the detective shut down his laptop, satisfied he’d now raked up enough dirt on Keller for Ibanez to make life considerably less tolerable for the meddlesome British reporter.

 © Copyright – Hugh Ash, 2013

The Mallorca Assignment cover

 PS: If you enjoy The Mallorca Correspondent, don’t forget to try The Mallorca Assignment (first published 2011 and available from Amazon and other online book retailers worldwide), which, as one reviewer said, ‘It instantly grabbed my attention and kept me on tenterhooks right up to the end.’