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.

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.’

 

 

Paradise lost: How your friendly, neighbourhood conman is out to fleece you

KEEP this just between us, but it seems I’m about to inherit a shedload of dosh.

That’s why I’m racking my brains whether to plump for the Bentley Continental or the Aston Martin Vantage (it’ll probably be the Bentley, because the boot space can handle the small Himalaya of Louis Vuitton luggage my missus is ordering).

Anyway, as I said, it’s hush-hush, because I’m planning to surprise the kids with a postcard from Barbados, saying, ‘We’re in the money – glad you’re not here!’

Apparently, according to some firm of dogged heir hunters in Nigeria, a long deceased relative I never knew I had has left a fortune from mining diamonds and it’s never been claimed.

As luck would have it, they’ve managed to trace me via the internet. Now all I need do is send them my banking details and – hey presto! – I’ll be in the Forbes Magazine Rich List.

Funnily enough, as I mentioned two weeks ago, I recently received an email from another Nigerian, a kindly financier who promised that if I invested twenty thou with him he’d multiply it a hundredfold within a month.

You’ve got to hand it to these African whiz-kids. When it comes to cash, they really know what they’re doing.

That’s because they’re major players in the league of international conmen; all rapacious scamsters, hard-nosed hustlers, grifters or rip-off merchants by any other, scummy name.

And they’re all around, like a nasty rash – ‘phishing’ on online and phone for your bank security codes or in your face, posing as ‘financial gurus’ with get-rich-quick schemes guaranteed to deliver the golden goose…except its golden eggs fly from your pocket straight into their feathered nests, usually offshore.

Last week, the culmination of a two-year, joint operation between British and Spanish anti-fraud squads saw 110 suspects arrested in London, Manchester, Barcelona, Madrid, Marbella, Serbia and Florida when an alleged £15M (€18M) ‘boiler-room’ scam was busted.

BOILER-ROOM BUST: British and Spanish police swoop on alleged fraudsters in a £15M share-selling scam

BOILER-ROOM BUST: British and Spanish police swoop on alleged fraudsters in a £15M share-selling scam

It’s said to have tricked at least 850 Brits living in Spain and the UK into buying non-existent or, at best, worthless shares.

The fraudsters are reported to have spent the takings on £multi-million mansions in the sun, fast cars, drugs and prostitutes.

There’s nothing new about money-sucking lice preying on the financially naïve and, in the case of ‘boiler-room’ cons, the prime targets are innocent pensioners, some with just meagre savings.

The term ‘boiler-room’, incidentally, refers to the high-pressure techniques employed by sales ’advisers’ and the fact they often operate from small, cramped offices – maybe even a flat in a block of innocuous apartments – which draw little attention from neighbours.

Lists of potential investors can be bought from bent stockbrokers or data-capture firms which peddle personal information.

The scammers then contact the investor (a.k.a. the ‘mark’) offering tempting returns and they pester until the target’s resistance is so utterly exhausted, they cough up their bank or credit card details.

Sometimes the hustlers even pay out a small ‘dividend’ as bait for the ‘mark’ to part with more cash and often they do.

BROKEN MAN: Hirst, the fallen conman, going to court before his nine-year sentence - Photo: Huddersfield Examiner

BROKEN MAN: Hirst, the fallen conman, going to court to hear his nine-year sentence – Photo: Huddersfield Examiner

That’s a classic, Ponzi-scheme ploy, like the one crafted by conman, John Hirst, who hoovered an estimated £10M (€12M) from gullible clients here in Mallorca and the UK into his Seychelles-based Gilher ‘fund’ until 2009, when I helped unmask the callous fraud in stories for the Sunday Telegraph.

Part of the coverage revealed the Yorkshireman – dubbed the ‘Bernie Madoff of Mallorca’, after his multi-millionaire lifestyle was laid bare – had served a prison sentence in the 1990s for rooking miners out of their redundancy pay.

The reports triggered an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office and, in 2012, Hirst pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud and money laundering at Bradford Crown Court and was sentenced to nine years imprisonment.

His accomplice, corrupt accountant Richard Pollett, was jailed for six-and-a-half years after being found guilty to defraud, while Hirst’s spendthrift wife, Linda Waite, was banged up for 30 months for money laundering and deception.

SMILING SCAMSTERS: Richard Pollett (left) with John Hirst in the good times, when their con was scooping millions

SMILING SCAMSTERS: Richard Pollett (left) with John Hirst in the good times, when their con was scooping millions

If it’s any consolation to Gilher victims – many of whom were introduced to the scam by friends who’d already fallen into Hirst’s
sugared trap – there’s a possibility they may see some of their money again, if only a fraction of their original ‘investment’.

At confiscation hearings brought under Britain’s Proceeds of Crime Act, Waite was ordered to repay £785,000 (€942,000) and Pollett approximately £90,000 (€108,000) and a hearing regarding Hirst is due later this month.

Of course, scams can happen anywhere, any time, and many victims are left so financially and emotionally shattered their lives are ruined.

However, sun-blessed climes like Mallorca and the Spanish costas, populated by legions of expats with nest-eggs and pensions – albeit modest ones in many cases – are a conman’s paradise.

Intoxicated by their blissful environment and the easy lilt of Mediterranean life, the unwary can easily be wooed into believing investment fairytales, offering ludicrously high returns, in Hirst’s case up to 20% per annum.

Neither is it just the commercially unsavvy who get hoodwinked.

From his unpretentious offices in downtown Palma, Mallorca’s charming capital, Scottish hustler Michael Brown rooked £36M (€43.2M) out of high net-worth individuals – including former Manchester United chairman, Martin Edwards – generously donating £2.4M of it to the UK’s Liberal Democrat party.

Like Hirst, plus a host of others who have spread their wicked web across the Balearic Islands, Brown was a consummate actor;  a highly plausible Mr. Nice Guy, ostensibly blessed with the Midas touch.

In truth, they’re an evil blight on this sublime, pine-clad archipelago.

But, because it’s a Cloud Cuckoo Land, Walter Mitty types abound here, claiming to be whoever they fancy – including nobs and nobility. And most are harmless fantasists, desperately seeking celebrity, even if it belongs to someone else.

One who strode the fine line between dreamer and hustler was George Scott, a Hemingwayesque figure, who claimed to own two boutique hostelries in Mallorca – the once-voguish Scotts Townhouse in Binisalem, the other an aparthotel mountain retreat, Scotts of Galilea.

In 2006, the flamboyant ex-wrestler and shameless self-publicist invented a stunt to cash in on the 10 studios in his hillside hideaway by raffling them off on the internet.

Charging GB£100, €150 or the equivalent in US$ for a ticket, Old George told me he needed to sell 33,000 to pay off his creditors and leave himself with a comfy retirement cushion. However, years on he’d fallen at least 20,000 short of his optimistic goal, so nixed the idea, batting away entrants demanding legitimate refunds.

He’d also promised to hold regular draws for the properties, which – in my humble opinion – he’d grossly overvalued at between €250,000 and €500,000 – but only one ever took place and that was only after considerable pressure from angry, frustrated ticket-holders.

In any event, it ended in tragi-farce for the British couple who ‘won’ their holiday dream home in the sun, because they were denied their prize…’for complicated legal reasons I’m sorting out,’ insisted the silver-tongued charmer at the time, but who somehow never manage to unravel the complexities.

HARMLESS OR HUSTLER? George Scott, the man behind the failed 'holiday-home internet raffle' - Picture: Mike Gunnill

HARMLESS OR HUSTLER? George Scott, the man behind the failed ‘holiday-home internet raffle’ – Picture: Mike Gunnill

For all his bluster about possessing financial acumen, if Old George was to be believed, his mistake was to become intoxicated with the bigger picture, losing sight of the devil in the detail; so the whole shebang became stuck in a morass of red tape.

Among oversights he admitted, not only had he neglected to obtain planning permission to carve up the Galilea hotel into individual parcels – each one requiring an escritura property deed – he failed to obtain a local licence for the raffle, though he insisted he had US, Spanish and UK permits.

Talking to Old George was akin to nailing jelly to a wall, but he was canny at attracting ‘investors/bond holders’ to his businesses, many later claiming they were fobbed off with collateral worth peanuts compared to what they were promised.

However, as I reported here in his obituary (‘Did Old George take the secret of the holiday homes missing millions to his grave?’ – 15 March, 2013), fate fatally intervened and the colourful, if flighty, entrepreneur shrugged off this mortal coil, avoiding a litany of legal actions and leaving the whereabouts of an estimated €1.3M shrouded in mystery.

Was Old George a hustler or just an egotist with an outlandish delusion that hadn’t a chance in Hades of coming true? Since he was never tried in a criminal court we’ll never know, though – wittingly or otherwise – he did a good many decent folk a deal of financial harm.

The really treacherous deceivers, however, are those who let it be known they have a knack for serious financial alchemy and – for a time – they actually deliver on their hollow promises.

Only when their Ponzi bubble inevitably pops or their ‘investment’ wheeze flops does the ‘mark’ realise they’ve been had by a ruthless shark.

It’s then – and only then –  victims wonder why they didn’t do due diligence checks on whoever claimed to make them richer than Croesus…like asking, ‘Who’s the official regulator of this scheme?’ and checking out the answer online.

The best advice is even simpler: if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Black gold, Texas Tea…the curious curse of striking it rich with oil

SWATHED in the smoke of burning barricades and swirls of tear-gas, the streets are awash with blood, as angry demonstrators clash with baton-wielding riot police, licenced to fire live rounds into the baying hordes.

In retaliation, protestors resort to farming Molotov cocktails and smashing up pavements to build arsenals of missiles to hurl at the brutal security forces, under orders from a detested, crisis-stricken government to quash the rebellion at all costs.

Up to last weekend at least six people were reported dead and hundreds injured, as unrest snowballed from the capital to provincial cities, where tens of thousands more joined the insurgency.

Meanwhile, from his jail cell, the opposition leader implores the protestors, ‘Don’t give up – I won’t’.

As much as this scenario sounds familiar, let me tell you I’m not describing Ukraine, but a land far away, yet nonetheless riven by violent political, economic and class tensions.

This is Venezuela, the latest state to be consumed by people-power fury and – like previous examples of where outraged citizens have taken to the streets to defy despots – in peril of descending into ‘a spiral of death and destruction’, to quote one of its cabinet’s own ministers.

However, unlike Ukraine, Egypt or Syria, in terms of vast, natural resources, Venezuela is one of the richest nations on the planet, sitting on top of the world’s largest reservoir of oil.

The contradiction, though, is food shortages are chronic, inflation hovers at an unbelievable 60 percent, unemployment is at astronomic levels, corruption endemic and, according to the UN, the country has the world’s fifth highest murder rate.

Commentators attribute this wretched fiasco to Venezuela’s 15-year dalliance with red-raw socialism, first imposed by the late president, Hugo Chavez, who died a year ago, aged 58, and was replaced by his weakling underling, Nicolás Maduro.

PAYING HOMAGE: Venezuela's Maduro unveils a giant portrait of his predecessor, firebrand president Hugo Chavez

PAYING HOMAGE: Venezuela’s Maduro unveils a giant portrait of his predecessor, firebrand president Hugo Chavez

In contrast to the firebrand Chavez, who established a rabid, anti-US alliance with communist Cuba’s Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, and South America’s other, far-Left regimes – Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua – the new boss is a pale, ineffectual shadow.

True, Maduro won a hotly-disputed presidential election last April, but only by the narrowest margins and against a backdrop of claims his United Social Party resorted to its usual ploy of bribing the underclass with government cash.

The former bus driver, though, has not forgotten some lessons from his late, unlamented predecessor, including crushing media freedom – he recently expelled CNN – and using the security forces as personal enforcers.

His problems, however, stem from the country’s greatest gift: oil. Because, like many nations similarly blessed, Venezuela is a virtual one-product economy, relying on its vast coffers of petro dollars to import almost everything else.

Nor are profits spent wisely at home. Hugely impractical social programmes invented by Chavez no longer resonate with the frustrated poor. Unable to buy the daily basics, they, too, have enlisted at the barricades.

This, though, isn’t about a nation in critical melt-down; no, it concerns the mixed blessing of those countries whose most tradable asset is the black gold lying beneath their parched earth, sand or sea beds.

Of the dozen members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), barely one can be described as a functioning democracy. Indeed, most are repressive autocracies, using their stupendous wealth to suppress civil rights, finance international terrorism or prop up other repugnant regimes (i.e. Iran backing Syria’s butcher, Basher Al-Assad).

Outputting over 33,000,000 barrels of oil a day, for the record they are: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of course, not forgetting Venezuela.

Add Vladimir Putin’s ultra-nationalist Russia to this unholy mix and it’s not difficult to deduce that control of the world’s most vital commodity lies in the grasp of some of the most detestable fists.

OILING THE WHEELS: A refinery employee rides to work at a Middle East oilfield

OILING THE WHEELS: A refinery employee bicycles to work at a Middle East oilfield

Unsurprisingly, then, the ‘oil weapon’ – even the mere threat of it – has been used to hold the industrialised West over the proverbial barrel for nearly half a century.

So, ignoring the negatives of this fossil fuel being an environmental blight – a debate for another day – there is a shrieking need to find a cheaper, synthetic replacement to power our factories, homes and cars purely on economic grounds.

As yet, there is no total answer. Hence, various Western nations dicker with a potpourri of solutions, by various, greener means of energy manufacture…from wind farms, to seawater wave power, to vegetable crops, to kinetics and hydrogen, to solar panelling, to – would you believe it – donkeys tethered to a dynamo wheel.

In lieu of the ultimate alternative to Texas Tea, America’s interim brainwave is fracking, which, in tandem with its homeland output, has taken the USA to the point of petroleum independence, if not beyond.

Elsewhere, the idea of drilling into the bedrock, then injecting it with high-pressure water to coax out oil molecules, is meeting with resistance, notably in the UK.

Nuclear generation meets with similar hostility: Germany, for instance, is shunning the whole idea for fear of a repeat of a Fukushima-style disaster, though it’s a mainstream source in France, which even exports nuclear-produced energy to the UK.

In summary then, in a world where a robot vehicle can be propelled to Venus, people can be linked by voice and video to others thousands of miles apart and innumerable killer ills are now curable, scientists haven’t yet invented a safer, all-embracing, affordable alternative to a dirty, dark, viscous fluid that’s a hangover from the industrial revolution.

And it’s darkly ironic that the nations blessed by a lucky toss of the geological dice should be the worst possible custodians of the substance that makes the world’s wheels turn.

Oil, though, isn’t a finite resource – even for Venezuela.

The multi-national petroleum corporations know time is running out; so do the tin-pot monarchs (no prizes for guessing who), pseudo-democratic tyrants (Venezuela’s Maduro) and religious fanatics (Iran and Iraq)

So, if ever there was a moment for science to solve the planet’s most pressing dilemma –discovering a viable, economical, non-fossil substitute for oil – it’s NOW!

Meddling Euro judges should stop making an ass out of the law

IN all probability you’ve never heard of Iulia Motoc, Ganna Yudkivska, Ineta Ziemele or Päivi Hirvelä, though you might guess they’re targets for top soccer clubs during this January’s transfer window – except all are female.

I could add a further 43 names and you’d be none the wiser. Nor would it help if I said Iulia is Rumanian, Ganna hails from Ukraine, Ineta is a Latvian and Päivi’s a Finn.

‘So what’, you might say dismissively. ‘They’re nothing to do with me.’

But how wrong you’d be. Because they have much to do with you – and the 733 million others populating our continent – in everything from how you work, who you rub shoulders with, what you buy, even to what opinions you choose to air in public.

In fact, in some respects, they are higher and mightier than all the prime ministers, presidents and parliaments in Europe put together.

What’s more, they’re answerable to no-one, because they are judges at the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), ostensibly the arbiter of last resort for disgruntled citizens to bring their governments to heel.

However, just as the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so, is the ECHR. And it threatens to become such a judicial blight on almost every nation falling within it remit – which means most of us – serious concerns are being voiced as to whether it’s become too big for its boots.

Historically, the ECHR was the lovechild of the Council of Europe, formed in 1950 with the laudable intention of never again tolerating a regime as homicidally racist and wantonly thuggish as the Nazis.

Three years later the European Convention of Human Rights was drafted and in 1959 the Court constituted, with signatory states, including Britain, appointing judges, who – way back then – were mainly there for the kudos.

Each member nation still retained its own laws and the ECHR was chiefly hailed as an triumph of emerging, pan-European political goodwill rather than an instrument of judicial meddling.

CAUGHT OUT: The European Court of Human Rights comes under fire for some of its 'judicial frolics'

CAUGHT OUT: The European Court of Human Rights comes under fire for some of its ‘judicial frolics’

Until, that is, in their addled wisdom, Brussels Europrats decided that applicants to the EU – which operates the extraneous European Court of Justice – had to join the Council of Europe, thereby kow-towing to the primacy of the ECHR.

In theory the motives to protect and enhance human rights are noble, especially in regard to former Soviet bloc satellites; in practice, however, it has led to some gross violations of individual national rights.

Deep misgivings have also emerged about some appointees to the Strasbourg bench being novices and/or harbouring personal, prejudiced social and political agendas.

As an ECHR official privately admitted, ‘Around half the judges had no judicial experience before going to the Court, which means it’s no surprise they go off on judicial frolics of their own.’

So it matters little that countries – like Britain – with long, democratic histories, have evolved legal systems far superior to the upstart Europeans, whose often quirky rulings can beggar belief.

Probably nothing better illustrated Strasbourg’s ability to make an ass of itself when it rode, roughshod, over UK justice in the cases of hook-handed hate preacher Abu Hamza – who used the ECHR for years to block attempts to deport him to face terrorism charges in the USA – and the equally abhorrent Abu Qatada, wanted in Jordan.

The Euro judges also have other, festering bees in their non-existent wigs, firstly accusing Britain of ‘human rights abuse’ by denying criminals the vote while they’re in jail.

In a sane world it’s not unreasonable that convicts forfeit privileges enjoyed by law-abiders. And their incarceration certainly shouldn’t extend to the liberty of scratching an X on a ballot paper any more than good behaviour should earn them a week’s knees-up in Magaluf.

This time, however, Strasbourg’s arrogant twaddle is meeting with fierce hostility, not just from UK politicians, but the country’s judiciary.

Former Lord Chief Justice Judge recently stated his learned opinion that no judges should have the power of the ECHR and the Court wasn‘t ‘entitled to tell every country in Europe how to organise itself’.

DEPORATION DODGER: For years hate preacher, Abu Hamza, used the ECHR to avoid terror charges in America

DEPORATION DODGER: For years hate preacher, Abu Hamza, used the ECHR to avoid terror charges in America

While applauding the Human Rights Convention – largely written, as he pointed out, ‘by British lawyers for a war-torn, concentration-camp filled continent’ – the former law lord seriously questioned how Euro judges interpret it.

‘I think it [the Human Rights Act], means you take account of, have regard to [European rulings], but it does not mean we are bound by the decisions. My very strong belief is that this issue needs to be resolved by Parliament,’ he told Radio 4’s Today programme.

The second collision between Britain and the ECHR regards current English law that allows judges to impose ‘whole life’ tariffs, effectively sentencing a criminal to die in jail.

Strasbourg’s opinion is such sentences are a breach of the Human Rights Convention, because there was no possibility of a ‘right to review’.

That ruling therefore means at least one serial killer has avoided a whole-life sentence and opens the door for others to follow, completely ignoring the human rights of victims and their families.

Meanwhile, 61 years is a long enough stretch for any convention to exist unchanged, especially since it authors couldn’t foresee challenges ahead, like the threat posed by international terrorism.

Left unchecked, then, the Euro judges are free to impose their alien legal system on EU states and humiliate national governments, whose laws may be far more in lockstep with modern-day justice.

But, because the ECHR is the Council of Europe’s legal battering-ram, any member country found in contempt of its ‘judicial frolics’ could find itself an EU outcast.

As ECHR President, Dean Spielmann, warned, ‘I can hardly see how a member of the European Union could possibly withdraw from the Council of Europe. From a political perspective it might be very difficult to stay in the European Union.’

Of course, it would be simpler for the UK government to cave in and give serving cons the vote.

But, somehow, the notion of the likes of Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and Gunner Lee Rigby’s killers enjoying the freedom to cast a ballot doesn’t sit easily with most Brits, a view backed by Prime Minister, David Cameron, who said the prospect made him ‘physically sick.’

So, maybe, it’s time to put the ECHR in its own dock – and judge whether its absurdities are bringing the law into disrepute.

Because, on the evidence so far, it is certainly guilty of putting the civil liberties of a few ahead of the human rights of the many.

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.’

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.’