Euro court’s crazy Google gag is a ‘right to be rotten’, not a ‘charter to be forgotten’

BY the time you read this, it’ll be history. Or, as we were fond of saying in the good, old days of hot metal and cold print, today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish-and-chips’ wrapping.

Sardony aside, this piece is now on the internet, so in years to come perhaps some student wordsmith will read it and think, ‘Wow, that bloke could write’ or conversely, ‘What a load of b******t’.

In a free society, everyone has the privilege of a view, so those of us who live by the pen can also perish by it in the court of public opinion or, indeed, in a court of law if we cross the threshold of libel.

Which is why – whether you’re bewitched, bothered or bewildered by my utterings – you can be guaranteed that whatever I air here is based on unsullied truths, often treble checked for veracity, even if my conclusions don’t necessarily chime with yours.

As a adolescent newcomer to this surreal trade, one of the first tenets I learned was that laid down by The Guardian’s legendary editor, C.P. Scott, who, in 1921, wrote, ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred.’

So the gleaning of accurate info is vital to my cause, my job and my service to you, the reader.

Last week, however, the ground rules shifted dramatically and I can no longer vouch that what I state is the whole truth, but something short of it.

Because that august body, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), have slammed the door on my – and your – legitimate liberty to enquire.

GOOGLE GAGGED: The internet search engine must bow to EU citizens' demands to rewrite their histories

GOOGLE GAGGED: The internet search engine must now bow to EU citizens’ demands to block their historic embarrassments

They did so by ordering Google, the world’s most popular internet search engine and the planet’s most valuable brand, to bow to an individual’s demand to hide embarrassing details of their past online, even if such data remains elsewhere in cyberspace and others, beyond the remit of Europe, continue to access it.

In principal, it enshrines in law the Brussels doctrine of the ‘right to be forgotten’, which says people should not be victims of their historic mistakes or misdemeanours.

So, any citizen of the European Union will be able to require Google – and other search engines – to block any reference to their life they personally deem unpalatable…even if, in the ECJ’s own contradictory admission, it was ‘true, accurate and lawfully published’.

The bizarre ruling was handed down after 59-year-old Spaniard, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, complained that an auction notice in a Barcelona newspaper, regarding his home being repossessed to repay social security debts in 1998, still appeared in Google searches, thus infringing his privacy.

Senor Gonzalez said the matter had been ‘fully resolved for a number of years’. And the ECJ’s 13-strong panel of judges agreed that, under a 1995 EU data protection directive, his rights ‘override, as a general rule, the interest of internet users’.

The test case is relatively small beer – not worth even a can of San Miguel lager in the great scheme of things (except, of course, to Senor Gonzalez, whose action won him a tsunami of unwanted headlines that now litter the Web).

However, its ramifications are scary, not say a full frontal attack on liberty.

EU Commissioner, Viviane Reding, believes it’s ‘a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans’.

In contrast, Emma Carr, of Big Brother Watch, points out, ‘The principle that you have a right to be forgotten is a laudable one, but it was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history.’

Her fears are understandably echoed by Google, who report over a thousand people have already demanded links to unfavourable stories about them be blocked.

They include an unnamed British ex-MP, fuming that his expenses claims paint a less than glowing portrait of his integrity, a tax scammer, 20 convicted criminals – including a paedophile – plus a surgeon, whose handiwork received negative reviews from patients.

The US-based search engine now faces a logistical nightmare in how to deal with the predicted flood of demands and says it will need a multi-lingual ‘army of removal experts’ in each of the 28 EU member states.

Even that, though, may prove a mission impossible, because the idiot ECJ’s criteria of what is ‘no longer relevant’ to the public interest is hopelessly blurred, since it fails to define what is or isn’t ‘historic’.

Nonetheless, by its clunking fist, the court has granted itself editorial powers it has no right to wield, given the internet is a global resource and this ruling infringes the American constitution’s First Amendment, the freedom of expression.

And, to further complicate the farce, the ECJ decision doesn’t apply to Facebook comments or Twitter posts.

So, in essences, the learned jurists have not only made an ass of the law – and themselves – but cooked up a crooks’ charter, whereby every miscreant from the west of Ireland to the Black Sea is empowered to act as their own cyberspace censor.

Conmen, rogue traders and motley scumbags must think the verdict is better than a ‘get out of jail free’ card, because they can rewrite their histories with complete alacrity.

EURO INJUSTICE: The ECJ's internet ban ruling is glad tiding for those who want to hide the truth

EURO INJUSTICE: The ECJ’s internet ban ruling does liberty no favours – but favours the notion that censorship rules in the EU

Ditto the rich and famous, who want their private lives – however seedy and corrupt – out of the public eye. Some already do this by employing expensive PR firms to sanitise their Wikipedia references to appear like insipid autobiographies.

But anyone, other than the certifiably stupid, knows the internet is a mixed bag of knowledge and nonsense, parts of it vital to the passage of information, science and learning; other, darker zones inflammatory, distorted and gratuitously pornographic

However, attempts to police it in the heavy-handed way the ECJ have done are nothing short of Stalinesque – or Maoesque, in the case of China, where what Beijing users can browse is a fraction of that available to New Yorkers and, until last week, Europeans.

Meanwhile, by erring on the side of those who want their pasts hidden, the ECJ judges have added yet another layer of control and restraint to liberty that’s become synonymous with the increasingly autocratic European Union.

 

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Why I want a democratic Europe, minus the EU dictators and the Euro ‘gravy train’

THE other night I was asked to debate the pluses and minuses of Europe with former European Parliamentarian (MEP), Francisca Bennassar, in front of an audience of international expats here in Mallorca, members of an organisation called Europeos por Espana. Several people have contacted me since and asked for details of my speech – so here’s an abridged version (and apologies for its length)…

THE GREAT DEBATE: Yours truly discusses the EU with former Euro MEP, Francisca Bennassar

THE GREAT DEBATE: Yours truly discusses the EU with former Euro MEP, Francisca Bennassar – Photo: LAURA STADLER

CONTRARY to popular myth, I am not the UK Independence Party’s Man in Mallorca, a swivel-eyed loon or a Little Englander, whose attitude to Europe was probably best summed up by a famous headline in The Times, from the 1930s, that read: ‘Fog in Channel, Continent cut off.’

Indeed, I feel extremely fortunate to live in the sun-kissed Balearic Isles, so I’m not a turkey which votes for Christmas and I don’t want to see an end of the European dream.

And I can tell you: if Britain ever left the European Union, my wife and I would be devastated. Being declared persona non grata here and forced to return to Britain is a dark prospect with zero appeal, especially if – like us – you hail from Manchester.

Not that I’m not immensely proud of being British and my home city. Because, in spite of the EU’s attempts to homogenise us all into being Europeans, first and foremost, we are still entitled to take pride in our nationalities, cultures and history.

Still, in 1973, I was more than happy for my country to join what was then the European Economic Community, or the EEC in short, perhaps more affectionately known as the COMMON MARKET. And, two years later, I voted a resounding ‘Yes’ for continued membership in the only referendum Britain has held on being part of Europe.

This was not just because it would further irritate the French – General De Gaulle, you might remember, worked tirelessly to keep us Anglo-Saxons out of what he regarded as his club…a French invention, funded by Germany, as my German neighbours insist it still is.

No, this was because I strongly believed in the merits of neighbouring nations banding together to form a trading bloc, with free movement of GOODS, SERVICES, CAPITAL AND PEOPLE.

However, the cuddly, old Common Market – which appeared to be working very nicely, gracias – somehow sneakily grew into what we have now…the European Union.

In doing so, the original concept has morph into an UNDEMOCRATIC, BUREAUCRATIC, POWER-GRABBING BIG BROTHER – A LAME ATTEMPT AT THE SUPER-STATE SOME YEARN TO SEE, BUT ONE I SINCERELY HOPE NEVER HAPPENS, BECAUSE IT WOULD BE AN EVEN BIGGER DISASTER THAN WHAT WE HAVE NOW.

Condemned by its own arrogance, the EU is a smug gaggle of unelected appointees, unanswerable to its citizens, backed by a mollycoddled, egotistic bureaucracyalso unaccountable to the electorate – and 766 MEPs, who at least are voted in by us hoi poloi every five years, even if they apparently haven’t the power to pop a paper bag.

To me, this smacks too much of George Orwell’s nightmarish 1984, with totally centralised control bossed by an unchallengeable BIG BROTHER CABAL. Even words they use to sugar-coat policy sound like ‘News-speak’.

What’s more, it’s also a grasping, unapologetic GRAVY TRAIN, where money – that’s OUR cash – is no object when it comes to frittering it away on far too many worthless, needless so-called ‘initiatives’ and ‘projects’.

And, thanks to its arcane treaties, it meddles with and too often overrides the will and laws of sovereign nations– and their peoples – insisting on something called SUBSIDIARITY, which basically means: ‘Europe know best, so do as you’re damned well told’.

Naturally, as you can tell, I’m being hyper-diplomatic here in the interests of pan-European unity…and we haven’t even discussed that most shambolic symbol of EU financial alchemy, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ Euro.

So now you’re thinking this man is Nigel Farage in disguise after all and his weasel words of being pro-European are a sham.

I can assure you they aren’t. Because what I dearly want to see is a Europe that actually works for all the its peoples…one that’s transparently democratic from top to bottom, where APPOINTEE DICTATORS don’t rule the roost and faceless bureaucrats – or EUROPRATS, as many call them– are held accountable for their excesses, however bananas they are at times…and believe me bananas, as we’ll see, is a very apt description.

I don’t know who watched either or both of the two, televised debates between UKIP’s Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister and the country’s No.1 apologist for the EU.

But, apart from Farage winning both by a country mile – sorry, kilometre– what struck me most was how hostile the public have become to Establishment politicians of all stripes, because voters feel the likes of Clegg live in a political bubble utterly divorced from their reality.

NO TO THE EU: Nigel Farage's UKIP is a symptom of growing anti-European opinion

NO TO THE EU: Nigel Farage’s UKIP is a symptom of growing anti-European opinion

So UKIP is not the cause of this frustration, merely a glaring symptom of that disconnect…a disillusionment that’s echoing throughout Europe.

Just look at the gains Marine Le Pen’s National Front made in France’s recent mayoral elections and the manifest dangers other neo-fascist, headbangers – like Jobbick in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece – pose to democracy.

It heavily emphasises that a perilous rejection of mainstream politics is happening and politicians have only themselves to blame, thanks to their litany of broken promises, wishy-washy policies and the growth of a pasty political elite, few of whom have ever done proper jobs or got their hands dirty.

And it can’t be denied that one of the prime targets for this swelling tide of rage – a cri de Coeur you might say – is the clunking fist of the EU and its inability to deal with six years of crippling, financial crisis, except to pile on more misery and austerity.

It even had the effrontery to sack democratically-elected leaders in Greece and Italy and impose its own technocrats to take charge.

As an aside, look what happened in 2008 when the peoples of France, the Netherlands and Ireland voted ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty. The all-knowing, all-seeing EU simply said ‘Vote, vote and vote again – until you get the ‘Yes’ result we demand.’

So much for democracy – as we used to know it – in today’s Europe.

It’s no surprise, then, people want to wrest back control of their own countries not have more and more power hijacked by Brussels. Because if, as the records show, over 50% of laws originate from the EU, what’s the point in a state holding a general election?

But, briefly returning to the Farage-Clegg debates, the scariest words I heard came afterwards from the Lib-Dem leader. When asked how he saw Europe 10 years on and he glibly replied, ‘Much the same as it is now.’

‘****!’ (or words to that effect),’ I thought: ‘If this is as good as it gets, heaven help us all!’

Because even a purblind Europhile like Clegg must ask why, for instance, the EU needs TWO centres of government, Strasbourg as well as Brussels.

Not that he’ll admit, but the reason is the French demanded it.

So every so often the whole EU bandwagon – Commissioners, MEPs, Europrats, advisers, translators, lobbyists, hangers-on, plus assorted odds and sods – up sticks and buzz off 432 kilometres down the road to its other HQ, sets up camp there and gets to work.

No wonder the EU Commission budget for 2014 is mind-boggling €142.64-billion – and it’s only that low because Britain, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Finland, Austria and the Czech Republic balked at the Commissions’ demand for an inflation-exploding, near-7% rise, which was slashed down to below 3%…still at least a percentage point higher than inflation (or stagflation) afflicting most struggling member states.

Personally, I think it was a gross impertinence of the EU’s great and good to demand to let their belts out several notches just when nearly every citizen – especially in crisis-stricken Club Med states, like Spain – was dramatically tightening theirs.

You might be interested to know, by the way, that ever since 1994, when it first started producing annual reports into Europe’s finances, the EU’s own accountants, the Court of Auditors, has failed to sign off the Union’s accounts because of gross profligacy and widespread irregularities.

One audit found over €100-billion of spending was ‘affected by material error’– a polite term for fraud and mismanagement.

Indeed, so critically searing were the auditors, last year the Commissioners ordered them gagged, for fear of what else they might uncover.

But it’s not all just about money, even if an MEP sitting in the EU assembly costs £1.79 million a year (2012 figure) – three times what a British MP costs in Westminster – and the European Parliament’s 766 members cost us taxpayers a staggering £1.3 billion annually. And that doesn’t include pensions most folk could only dream of.

This takes me onto another point about duplication, because just like it has two HQs, the EU has TWO PRESIDENTS. Lucky us, I hear you say – even America’s only got one (and there’s even some doubt about him).

CHEERS TO EUROPE: No wonder Barrosa (left) and Van Rumpoy are smiling...they're in charge of Europe

CHEERS TO EUROPE: No wonder Barrosa (left) and Van Rumpoy are smiling…they’re in charge of Europe

First, there’s Herman Van Rumpoy, who as President of the European Council, is effectively Europe’s Prime Minister and, to be fair, has some experience in that role, since he was once Belgium’s premier.

Second, there’s Jose Manuel Barrosa, President of the Commission, the EU’s executive branch and Biggest of the Brethren.

As President, the former Prime Minister of Portugal doles out jobs to the 28 members of the Commission the EU’s cabinet, each being an appointee from their member state.

The President also determines EU policy, having the final say about all the laws, because the EU’s inner circle is the only body that can propose legislation. MEPs, as I said earlier, can’t pass or change whatever lands on them from above, but – rather like Britain’s House of Lords – can merely rubber-stamp it or ask the Commission for a review.

Now, you maybe be unfamiliar with Messrs. Barroso and Van Rumpoy – even if Farage once described him as ‘having the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk’ (and was fined €2,400 for the insult). But you might – just might – be aware of the UK’s grandee at the EU top table.

She is no less than the Gilbert & Sullivan-sounding High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – in other words Foreign Minister – and none other than Baroness Catherine Ashton of Upholland, near Wigan, which, I can tell you, is better known for its meat pies than its diplomats.

Vice-President of the Commission, too, no less, Cathy has never been voted into public office anywhere at any level, not even a parish council or a junior school PTA. In fact, all her jobs – from Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament administrator to Leader of the House of Lords – have been by appointment only.

What’s more, many member state foreign ministers believe the Baroness has been hit by a huge ego-rush and considerably overreaches her brief – and expertise – by insisting she speaks on the world stage for all 28 nations of the EU, something Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, describes as ‘competence creep’ (though maybe ‘incompetence creep’ is, perhaps, more accurate).

Hardly considered a colossus in diplomatic circles, Cathy apparently owe her status to the patronage of her great friend, Britain’s ex-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown…so perhaps enough said.

UPDATE – RE: THE BARONESS: The artless EU’s foreign policy chief is the only international diplomat to have welcomed the Palestinian Authority’s new unity deal with it arch enemies, the Islamic crazies of Hamas, who hijacked Gaza in a mini-civil with the PLO in 2007 and are designated a ‘terrorist’ entity by the EU.

The move also signals the final nail in the coffin for US Secretary of State, John Kerry’s bid to forge a two-state solution and end the Israel-Palestinian impasse.

‘Daft as a brush’ is an expression popular in Wigan. Perhaps someone should suggest she’s an apt recipient of that ‘accolade’ on her next visit to planet Earth.

EU’S LOONIER RULES

THE Union gets itself a bad name because not only is it constantly meddling in member states’ domestic affairs, but some of its rules and diktats are beyond absurd. Just for your edification and amusement, let’s look at a few…  

BANANAS! Because it is so curved, this banana was branded illegal by the EU

BANANAS! Because it is so curved, this banana was branded illegal by the EU

● Until 2008, when the daft law was repealed – pardon the pun – for 13 years the EU deemed this banana illegal…because it wasn’t straight enough. It cost growers millions and a similar law applied to bent cucumbers.

The only positive I can recall from this bananas idea was when I came home from work one night with one and my wife said to me, ‘Is that an EU banana in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?’

WATER WON'T WORK: According to the EU drinking water doesn't re-hydrate - so it can't be advertised as being able to do so

WATER WON’T WORK: According to the EU drinking water doesn’t re-hydrate – so it can’t be advertised as being able to do so

● You might know our bodies are composed of nearly 60% of water and we need it to survive – so no wonder marathon runners take on so much when plodding 26 miles. But, despite overwhelming medical evidence, in its addled arrogance, the EU ruled that drinking water DIDN’T STOP DEHYDRATION and manufacturers of bottles like this were stopped from claiming it did.

PRUNE POTTINESS: The EU says prunes aren't laxatives

PRUNE POTTINESS: The EU says prunes aren’t laxatives, so can’t be marketed as a means to make you go (you know where)

● These are, as you’ve guessed, prunes and, again, there’s overwhelming medical evidence they aid…well, you know what. But an EU diktat declared prunes were not laxatives, so they couldn’t be marketed as an aid that helps…well, you know what. That farcical pronouncement prompted one MEP to suggest a prune-eating contest to see what happened. Unsurprisingly, there were no takers.

CHOC CHUMPS: The EU banned Cadbury's chocolate - because they didn't consider it was 'chocky' enough

CHOC CHUMPS: The EU banned Cadbury’s chocolate – because they didn’t consider it was ‘chocky’ enough

● Most Brits will have been brought up on Cadbury’s chocolate, yet for 27 years is was effectively banned by the EU, because it contained up to 5% of vegetable fats and up to 20% of milk.

There was also considerable argy-bargy about British chocolate in general not being chocolate at all, since it didn’t contain at least 60% of cocoa bean, but cocoa butter instead.

And ditto a proposed ban on smoky-bacon flavoured crisps…because they didn’t contain smoky bacon. Of course not! The clue was in the word ‘flavoured’, silly.

Thank heavens Brussels didn’t get around to examining cheese & onion crisps, with no cheese or onion in them, or BBQ-flavoured nibbles that didn’t have a BBQ in the bag.

And, by the way – just in case the Europrats ever decide to look into it – I can I assure them there aren’t any monsters in Monster Munch.

However, one victory for EU ‘group think’ was to re-name carrots as fruit, not veg, because the Portuguese make jam out of them.

The point is not that these laws, pronouncements, diktats and directives are utter twaddle from the EU’s Ministry of Silly Talks, to misquote Monty Python.

It’s more about: what is an organisation like the EU doing wasting valuable time, money and resources by poking its nose into things that don’t concern it and are of absolutely no consequence to the betterment of Europe’s people.    

JUSTICE ON TRIAL: ECHR judges ride roughshod over the legal systems of EU member states

JUSTICE ON TRIAL: ECHR judges ride roughshod over the legal systems of EU member states

EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS  

LOOK, I don’t want to keep rattling on like a machine-gun with a tirade against the EU, though I could do at least until midnight.

I could cite the lunacy of the profligate Common Agricultural Policy, CAP – designed by the French for the French, which pays farmers obscene amounts of money to produce nothing and how CAP’s stupidity resulted in useless Wine Lakes and Butter Mountains.

I could ask why the EU needs 13,000 Europrats, who are paid salaries way above any civil service norm, along with generous pensions and perks that include EU-designated shops, where they can buy products tax-free.

I could also cite the EU’s at least 56 quangos and so many committees, even the Commissioners have lost count of them, which all require truly obscene amounts of funding.

But I won’t.

Last week I spent two days researching the EU and on Wikipedia its entry is so garbled with Euro-babble, it must have been written by a committee of the most nerdish Europrats Brussels could assemble.

What I did discover, though, were the three qualifying rules of entry to the Union as set out in simple, unambiguous language for once. So any nation seeking accession must agree to: be financially solvent (like Greece, for instance?), democratic and uphold the rule of law.

That’s seems more than reasonable, I hear you say.

Except it presupposes a nation’s justice system has enough checks and balances not to require further (shall we say) ‘refinement’ by more EU interference.

But, not only does the Union have its own judges in the Courts of Justice, it requires member states to kow-tow to the European Court of Human Rights, the too often ridiculous ECHR.

Technically the ECHR isn’t part of the EU. But it is, because EU rules demand that every member nation joins the Council of Europe, thus every member must automatically accept the European Charter of Human Rights, which means every member is answerable to the judicial quirks of the ECHR.

To be fair, this court was set up in the late 1950s with the best of intentions – as is the road to Hades.

So, more than half a century on, the fitness for purpose of the ECHR as a court of last resort is quite rightly being questioned, thanks to some of its – how can I explain them politely – more bonkers judgements.

Britain, whose judicial code dates back to the Magna Carta of 1215, is but one of many of the 47 nations answerable to the ECHR that raises extremely valid issues about the decisions handed down, often by judges who are junior legal academics with absolutely no courtroom experience anywhere.

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

Yet the Court remains free to ride roughshod over national judicial systems, as it’s done with the UK’s, blocking, for instance the legitimate deportation of hook-handed hate preacher, Abu Hamza, to face terrorism charges in the US and with the equally-odious Abu Qatada, wanted by Jordan on similarly offences.

And only the other day it agreed to process the appeals of two Real IRA scumbags, seeking to overturn a UK civil court verdict holding them responsible for the heinous, Omagh bombing in 1988, in which 29 people were murdered and 220 maimed.

Meanwhile, for years the ECHR has accused Britain of ‘human rights abuse’ by refusing criminals serving prison sentences the right to vote in elections. To me – and I’d hope to most sane folk – it doesn’t seem unreasonable that those convicted of crimes should not share the same privileges as law-abiding folk, including the right to vote.

So, like the Big Brother that’s the EU, the ECHR is in dire need of having some common-sense knocked into it.

CURSED CURRENCY: The 'one-size-fits-all' Euro doesn't allow weaker, Club Med states to devalue

CURSED CURRENCY: The ‘one-size-fits-all’ Euro doesn’t allow weaker, Club Med states to devalue

THE EURO

FINALLY, I can’t but help mention the Euro and say simply this: No currency union in history has ever worked long term – and there have been several…but, just like the Euro, they were wishful and egotistical political thinking winning over the realities of economic nous.

And this ‘one-size-fits-all’ pipedream had the makings of one of the most monumental currency blunders right from its introduction in 1999.

How many remember how, here in Spain, 166 pesetas were converted to one Euro – and a 150-peseta cup of coffee suddenly cost €1.50 (249 pesetas) or even €2 (332 pesetas) overnight? If that wasn’t a financial health warning for things to come, I don’t know what was.

A strong currency might meet the needs of manufacturing super-states, like Germany, relatively untouched by the financial tsunami of 2008 that hit the world. But the same doesn’t apply to the weaker, agriculture and tourism-dependent economies of southern Europe.

So, sadly, it’s no surprise to see the growing poverty, civil unrest, joblessness and despair. Just look at Spain, where kids, often highly educated, have to seek work overseas, because over half of under-25 – the cream of the nation’s future – can’t find employment at home.

And the tragedy is compounded by the abject lack of imagination of the European Central Bank, the ECB, which hasn’t a clue about how to combat the drift into stagflation.

The fact that Britain, Sweden and Denmark had the good sense to keep out of the Euro – and are now recovering fastest from the crisis – should be an object lesson in how vital it is for nations to keep control of their own currencies.   

So my plea is ‘Si, VIVA EUROPE’…but let’s have a helluva lot less of it!’

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.

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.’

‘Savile-gate’ bungling is yet another example of Auntie’s arrogance

Thanks to the ‘Savile-gate’ scandal, the BBC is on the rack as never before.

And it’s doubtful good, old Auntie – as Brits have affectionately dub the state-owned broadcaster for decades – will ever emerge the same, grand chatelaine of the nation’s image again, when probes into paedophilia, iffy editorial judgement calls and management bungling are over.

Even veteran World Affairs Editor John Simpson admits it is ‘the worst crisis’ to hit the Beeb in the 50 years he’s globe-trotted on its behalf.

That’s even a slight understatement, because the situation Auntie finds herself in – corsets tightening to near asphyxiation – gets acutely more critical by the day.

As the police lift layer after rancid layer off Savile’s reign as ‘probably the worst serial paedophile Britain has seen’ – to quote one senior detective – and question alleged aides (i.e. Gary Glitter) in his obsession with abusing vulnerable, under-age girls, other explosive revelations are primed to detonate.

BAD NEWS BEARER: Veteran World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, says it is the ‘worst crisis’ to hit the BBC

Plods working on Operation Yewtree, codename for the Savile inquiry, say they have up to 400 leads and believe ‘eight to ten BBC insiders’ are in the frame to be grilled. This, I understand, does not necessarily include a host of celebs, who owe their fame to Auntie’s largesse. So, be prepared for further shocks.

It all promises to be a real smack in the eye for the purblind apologists, who castigate the media for posing fair questions why the BBC didn’t investigate Savile (and allegations of a rampant sex-fest in Radio 1’s heyday of the 1970s and 80s) earlier, when the rumour mill was in full grind.

What went on, contend those defending the indefensible, were aberrations that should be put into the context of an era of unfettered debauchery and the BBC’s ethos should remain unchallenged, its output the envy of the world.

Though I agree with the general gist that the BBC is uniquely exceptional – certainly in terms of popular entertainment, the arts, culture, even soaps – perhaps it’s also uniquely haughty.

So to blame the Press as vengefully picking at Aunties bones is not a moral stance. It merely reflects a minority’s dread that any overdue swilling out of the Broadcasting House pigsty will see their right-on self-righteousness replaced by opinion-formers more accurately reflecting mainstream values.

And, hopefully, what will dawn is the realisation that an Orwellian regime far too big for its boots can no longer be trusted to regulate itself and sweep any self-inflicted scandals under its plush carpets.

At least one BBC heavyweight has emerged with credit. Sir Roger Jones, a former governor, heeded the rumours swirling round ‘creepy’ Savile a decade ago and banned the weirdo from appearing on Children In Need.

SAVILE SPOILER: In his BBC days, Sir Roger Jones banned the ‘creepy’ DJ from Children In Need 10 years ago

But who else in management took a principled stand in opening their ears and eyes to the potential dangers lurking within and was brave enough to be proactive? Or, as I’ve queried before, was Savile just too big, too powerful, too bankable an asset to upset?

Aside from the grotesque perv and the controversial axing of a Newsnight probe into him, recently there have been numerous instances of BBC brazen arrogance, like the fork-tongued half-truths about the millions in licence-fee payers moolah paid to top performers.

With a heel-turn worthy of Strictly Come Dancing, the issue was deviously defused. No names, no pack drills were released, just amounts, which amounted to zilch without the public knowing exactly who the humungous fees-earners were.

Then came the scandal of 148 presenters – countless familiar faces – worming their way through tax loopholes, by declaring themselves ‘companies’, thus escaping draconian PAYE, as paid by us plebs, despite the BBC being their main employer.

Ever amenable Auntie turned a blind eye to such ‘creative tax avoidance’ until HM Customs and Revenue threatened to intervene.

And whatever happened to the mysterious Balen Report of 2004, which examined charges of ‘anti-Israel bias’ in BBC coverage of the Middle East? Despite a Freedom of Information request, Michael Balen’s findings were – and still are – kept under padlock, Auntie having coughed up £350,000 to my learned friends to keep them secret.

In fact, all too often the old girl’s been caught with her knickers down, setting the agenda, rather than complying with the BBC’s Charter to report the world with ‘due accuracy and impartiality’.

Back in the 1990s, for instance, it barely hid its gusto for Britain joining the €uro. And last year, global-warming zealot, Lord Chris Patten – chairman of the BBC Trust, guardians of the corporation’s waning credibility – endorsed a controversial report calling for more bias on climate change, rather than less or even to striking a fair balance.

This, again, is symptomatic of an organisation the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne recently criticised as, ‘colonised and captured by a narrow, greedy, self-interested and self-perpetuating liberal elite, contemptuous of ordinary people and of ordinary morality.’

So the question is: Can the BBC still be trusted with the crown jewels of the nation’s integrity?

According to its own opinion poll last week, the answer is ‘No’.

And if the faceless power-brokers haunting Auntie’s crumbling Ivory Tower don’t get that message, they shouldn’t be there.

The rise and fall of Mallorca’s Madoff…‘Nice John’ Hirst – and how the £10M conman was finally nailed

DURING a lengthy trial at Bradford Crown Court, which ended yesterday, conman John Neil Hirst, aged 61, admitted his role in a Ponzi scheme, which saw British expats in Mallorca – many of them pensioners with limited saving – and investors in the UK duped out of an estimated £10-million.

His estranged wife, Linda, 62, was convicted on three charges of money laundering, involving sums totalling nearly £740,000. She was also found guilty of deception.

And Richard Pollett, a 70-year-old British accountant living in Mallorca, was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud.

The jury dismissed money laundering charges against Daniel Hirst, John Hirst’s 35-year-old solicitor son, and Zoe Waite, 37, Linda Hirst’s daughter.

Trial judge, Jonathan Durham Hall QC, will pass sentences on August 31.

However, at the request of several victims of the scam, I’ve been asked to narrate the story of my cameo role in helping to expose Hirst and spark off the long investigation that resulted in the greedy, fork-tongued hustler and his sidekicks being nailed.

Others – especially two redoubtable women victims – deserve full credit for their unwavering determination in ensuring the man nicknamed ‘Nice John’ faced justice.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the many years of living within a few kilometres of each other on Mallorca, John Hirst and I never met, but I knew him by reputation as an pushy social climber, weaving his web around the island’s British expatriate social circuit.

In fact, he joined almost every club that met for a jolly – from the exclusive Santa Ponsa Country Club, a prestigious local golf club to The 41 Club, English Speakers Residents Association and the Majorca Cricket Club.

Hirst was an impeccably-dressed charmer, glad-handing all within touching distance, oozing confidence and bonhomie, a stellar presence at any shindig, who’d assembled an impressive network of contacts, including Paul Abrey, the British Consul.

Meanwhile, the jovial Yorkshireman ensured the rumour mill buzzed with word that he possessed the Midas touch in transforming meagre saving into small fortunes through his Gilher investment fund.

He certainly lived up to every euro of a millionaire financier’s lifestyle…the lavish villa, a Mercedes for him, a chic convertible for wife Linda, exotic holidays, designer wardrobes and expensive bling, not forgetting the obligatory motor yacht.

A  real, Mallorcan success story, you’d think, for a man from Brighouse, West Yorkshire, who arrived on the island in 2003, apparently penniless – according to a source – and forced to eke out a living as a day labourer, commuting to jobs on a push-bike from a rented flat in Calvia Town.

CONMAN THEN: How Mallorcan victims will remember Hirst

However, this can be an Alice in Wonderland place, overflowing with Walter Mitty characters, who come here and invent new identities for themselves. Most are harmless fantasists, but some are trouble and, in those days, free-spending Hirst – nicknamed ‘Nice John’ by all who crossed his cheating path – had me wondering which of the two categories he fell into.

Then, at a birthday party in 2006, a chance conversation about Hirst with an acquaintance finally triggered my instincts that maybe lurking beneath the beaming, perma-tanned veneer lay a shameless crook.

The acquaintance, an expat of long standing, knew I was working on a story about a German conman, who was offering an eight percent return to investors, but had disappeared owing over two million euros.

‘Eight percent is peanuts,’ said my acquaintance and he told me he had his money with ‘a bloke who delivers 18 percent a year, even 20 if you let it roll over.’

Intrigued, I asked who was this financial wizard and the reply came, ‘John Hirst, though everyone calls him ‘Nice John’, because he’s the nicest guy you could ever meet.’

Frankly, I told the expat, the rewards sounded too incredible – banks were then only offering a few percent, even before the Eurozone crisis brought markets crashing.

Out of curiosity, the following day I put in a call to London, where my daughter is a divisional director of an international bank, and asked her whether it was possibly for a fund manager to guarantee 20 percent annual returns for clients.

Lauren simply said, ‘Never in your wildest dreams, Dad. Nobody can consistently deliver that. Think about it…if someone’s paying 20 percent a year, they have to be making up to 40 to cover their own profits, commissions and overheads. It’s pure fantasy.’

As an extra check, I contacted the Financial Securities Authority (FSA), the British government’s City regulator, to see if  John Hirst or his Gilher fund were listed. Both drew blanks. Nor were they on the rolls of the USA’s Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), which polices Wall Street.

CONMAN NOW: Fraudster Hirst en route to Bradford Crown Court – photo: Courtesy of Wakefield Express

As a reporter I’ve covered several cases of pyramid fraud – or Ponzi schemes, after the 1920s US con artist, Charles Ponzi – and, unerringly, they follow a similar pattern: glib deceptions, pandering to people’s weakness over money.

Invariably, they are run by a plausible operator you’d be proud to call your best buddy, who oozes wealth and, obligingly, is happy to share the secrets of his success.

He brags about his infallible system and the investor – ‘dupe’ or ‘mark’ in Ponzi parlance – is so intoxicated with the notion of making his cash go a country mile further than any legitimate financial institution, he quickly put his money where his mouth is, without even doing any basic due diligence checks with the FSA or SEC.

However, if any lingering doubts exist, they are allayed when the fraudster starts to deliver on his shallow promises. Each month an interest payment arrives and, to add legitimacy to the fraud, it’s followed by a statement, showing the investor’s capital intact and even growing.

It leaves the ‘mark’ believing the golden goose is no fairytale after all and is laying its eggs on his doorstep.

So happy is he, he can’t wait to share news of his good fortune with friends and family, and they, too, can’t wait to plough in their savings and reap a dividend beyond belief. Hence the ‘pyramid’ is being constructed

What they don’t realises is they are being repaid with a fraction of their own capital, while the bulk is being hived off by the scammer. And, as long as fresh cash feeds the bonfire of financial vanities, the ‘long con’ continues for years, as Bernie Madoff proved over three decades of suckering New York’s finest.

Inevitably, the day of reckoning arrives and the ‘sting’ is exposed.

In Hirst’s case, it was the looming, financial storm clouds. With fewer people to dupe, the cash pyramid was depleting fast and he was struggling to repay clients.

Realising the con had run its course, he decided to scarper before the law stepped in. And, naturally, he had a plausible excuse for doing so.

With wife Linda, Hirst decamped back to Britain around August, 2009, claiming he was seriously ill, yet assuring investors their money was safe and he’d return it once the so-called Gilher fund was liquidated.

It was a classic stunt. Hirst was using the sympathy vote to buy time, fend off creditors, and perhaps disperse whatever remained of his ill-gotten gains.

However, what clinched my ultimate suspicions were the conman’s final acts before vanishing from Mallorca.

He sold his Mercedes and Linda’s convertible at knock-down prices and disposed of his motor yacht. Plus, according to local sources, he’d had his Santa Ponsa home valued at €1.25 million, which – minus the €350,000 mortgage – would give him a generous profit when sold.

CONMAN’S DREAM HOME: Hirst’s €1.25M villa in Santa Ponsa – Photo copyright: Hugh Ash

The autumn sun rose late on Saturday, October 31, 2009, but by 10.00 a.m. its rays were dazzling in a blissfully cloudless sky that was the deep, iridescent blue unique to the Med at that time of year.

I’d been toiling hard, revising my first novel – The Mallorcan Assignment, a high-tension thriller about jihadi terrorists plotting a bombing outrage – which was due for publication the following spring, and the fortitude of my ever-patient wife, Barbara, was nearing its limits. So it was decided we’d picnic on the beach, relax and I’d turn my attentions to the mental aerobics of a cryptic crossword.

Then the phone rang. It was Barbara’s sister, Janet Corbin. A lady not prone to histrionics, she sounded upset and asked plaintively if she could she come and discuss an urgent problem.

Janet arrived, sat on the sofa and somehow remained rational enough to say, ‘I think I’ve been stupid and might have lost €200,000 in an investment fund.’

In her 60s, a divorcee and teacher, I knew it was a colossal sum for her to risk.

Clutched in her hand was a file of papers relating to a fund called Gilher Inc., managed by a John Hirst and based in the Seychelles, a location that filled me with little confidence and rekindled all my earlier suspicions about ‘Nice John’.

In his introductory letter Hirst claimed to have long experience in financial services, was semi-retired, but still played the markets with consistent success. Friends and family placed money with him and now he was prepared to put his expertise at the service of others.

The letter stated, ‘I trade movements on the Dow Jones Index, rather than buying individual shares, using technical analysis to give me a feel for which way the market is moving.

‘While the system is not an exact science it works sufficiently well to enable me to guarantee a 20% return per annum to clients. This is made up by 1.5% per month and a year-end bonus of 2% provided the original investment continues. The minimum investment is £10,000 or the €uro/US$ equivalent.’

Despite her outward calm, Janet’s stoicism was fading as I scanned the ‘simple contract’, as Hirst described it, before trousering her cash. The deal had been struck five months earlier, in June, but she’d received only two monthly ‘interest’ payments, totalling €6,000.

Like all Gilher investors I know of – including my 2006 birthday party acquaintance – Janet has received not a centimo since.

What my sister-in-law was able to provide, however, were the names of a clutch of other Hirst clients, some of whom had been introduced by Richard Pollett, a Santa Ponsa-based British accountant I’d played tennis with occasionally.

Meanwhile, I examined Hirst’s paperwork with mounting disbelief. A semi-literate 14-year-old could have written it better. There was no letter-heading, it was unprofessional and notably absent was any mention of company registration, dealer license, regulator or compliance with anti-money laundering regulations – all the requirements to trade in financial services.

What Janet said next, though, disturbed me even more. Teary-eyed, she noted chillingly, ‘I have to face up to the prospect of losing almost everything.’

Then she pleaded, ‘You’re an investigative journalist, Hugh, so find out if this scheme is legitimate. If it isn’t, then help me bring Hirst to justice.’

At noon that gloriously Saturday, I started work on a quest to discover where Janet’s money had gone, if Gilher was legal and where Hirst was. Little did I realise then that in the next month, working night and day, I’d make hundreds of phone calls – many to the Britain and America – and my email inbox would overflow with messages from anxious investors.

Within the next few days I’d interviewed at least a half-dozen of them, most delivered into Hirst’s grasping clutches by Pollett.

One, a Midlands businessman, had become so frustrated about not being able to access his money, he’d laid an official complaint – a denuncia – before a Palma court and vainly tried to get the Spanish National Police to investigate.

My trail then led to an investor who prefers to remain anonymous, but was also trying vainly to trace her nemesis in the UK.

Together we tracked a UK phone number for Linda Hirst, listed in her maiden name of Waite, to the Byfleet area of Surrey. Although her calls to it went unanswered, the location was to play a critical role in Hirst’s unmasking.

MIDDLEMAN: Accountant Richard Pollett, found guilty of conspiracy to defraud – Photo copyright: Hugh Ash

On November 5, she asked me to meet her and some fellow investors at a local cafe to give them an update on my research and suggest some options for them.

Before doing so I contacted Pollett and interviewed him in Santa Ponsa. He brought along a thick file – presumably details of clients he’d introduced to Hirst – and claimed his wife, Gill, was an investor, as was his daughter’s trust fund.

What I wanted to know was why a supposedly savvy financial advisor believed it possible for someone to deliver 20 percent dividends per annum, guaranteed.

‘You don’t know John,’ Pollett insisted. ‘And it’s possible.’

‘Well nobody’s done it yet, so I suppose he could be a first,’ I replied cynically.

Next I asked how much investors’ savings he’d channelled into Gilher. After a long moment, he admitted, ‘About ten to twelve million.’

I stifled a gasp, before suggesting, ‘Doesn’t it look dodgy to you, Richard?’

Pollett stared back blankly and didn’t answer.

At 4.00 p.m. I met the unnamed investor and her friends. Only there were about 40 of them, all wearing the same, strained, bewildered
expression

Several familiar faces were in the gathering and only then did it register how many gullible folk were victims of what was increasingly looking to me like an unscrupulous, hard-nosed swindle.

Breaking bad news is never easy. And, even though, at that time, there could have been a genuine explanation for the behaviour of the man all still referred to as ‘Nice John’, I was convinced they’d been duped, though I was reluctant to say as much.

So I eased the pain as gently as possible, saying that if Hirst had their money, he could come forward and repay it, but he needed to be flushed out through the oxygen of publicity.

Firstly, I suggested the investors denounce Hirst as a group directly to the Spanish police, not via a judge in Palma, who might take months to order a probe.

Secondly, I calculated a newspaper story of their plight, preferably in a UK national publication, would also pressure the authorities to act.

However, for the ensuing days I continued to interview other Gilher clients and all echoed a familiar theme: they’d been lulled by Hirst – some coerced by Pollett – into parting with sums ranging from a few thousand to €1.5million.

I then traced Billy Morris, the conman’s handyman, to El Toro, where the big, moustachioed northerner was happy to talk about his best friend and boss, ‘Nice John’.

‘Great bloke,’ Billy insisted, before telling me it was he who ferried the Hirsts’ personal possessions back to Britain, receiving telephone instructions where to deliver the goods after he arrived in Dover.

‘Where did John Hirst tell you to go?’ I asked.

Billy wasn’t sure, only that it was a self-storage repository, painted yellow and less than a two-hour’s drive away, where Hirst was waiting.

‘Does the name Byfleet sound familiar?’ I asked.

Billy pondered, then nodded.

‘Did you take any papers back,’ I queried next.

‘Yes, in a big box – I think it was marked ‘clients’,’ replied Billy, of whom there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing.

The conversation then turned to what services he performed for Hirst. He chauffeured him sometimes, he said, looked after odd jobs around the house and garden and, once a month, posted a batch of between 120 and 130 letters.

‘They were statement to clients,’ explained Billy. ‘About half went to people in Mallorca, the rest mainly to addresses in Britain.’

I immediately recognised the importance of the British connection, because it would become pivotal in bringing in the UK authorities.

Back at my office, I did a Google Earth search of Byfleet. On its fringes was a repository with space to rent: aptly it was called The Big Yellow Storage Unit.

MARRIED MAN: Divorcee Hirst and new wife, Linda, at their €200,000  wedding in Mallorca, where many of his ‘clients’ were guests

So, towards the end of a frenzied fortnight, having put together the jigsaw of Hirst’s great escape from Mallorca, there was enough murk surrounding him to justify a news story, detailing the investors alarm at his actions, and The Sunday Telegraph was keen to print it.

To flag it up in advance, I called Britain’s Serious Fraud Squad (SFO) and explained a Sunday newspaper was running a piece on John Hirst’s dubious Gilher fund and his disappearance back to Britain. Their reaction was instant and positive.

The SFO asked for every piece of information I had, including a CD of the Hirsts’ €200,000 wedding in 2006 at the opulent Maricel Hotel, where US President Bill Clinton once stayed. To add salt to their wounds, many of the investors were guests.

And, around mid-day on Friday, November 12, I received a call from an SFO contact, who said, ‘We’re at The Big Yellow Storage Unit in Byfleet and we’ve found a lot of interesting stuff.’

It needed no spelling out that this was the paper trail of investors’ cash and, for the first time, I felt certain the Hirst/Gilher case was being taken seriously, even though – as I’d warned the gathering of investors – it could take years to bring a case to court.

Two days later the story, headlined: ‘Majorca-based British financier probed by Serious Fraud Squad’ appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, revealing the fears of desperate investors.

I covered the Mallorca angle, while reporters in Britain discovered the fraudster had returned to his modest home at Warren Farm Home Park, Woking, before scurrying north to Yorkshire, where – according to his solicitor – he was receiving treatment for myeloid leukaemia.

A few days later, I read an anonymous message posted on Majorca Cricket Club’s website, inferring Hirst had once served a prison term for fraud, which I’d long suspected.

Tracking down the message-poster in England, I discovered it was a relative of Hirst, who claimed ‘Nice John’ even scammed a member of his own family.

More digging in the UK by reporters in Yorkshire revealed details of Hirst’s first fraud trial. So, the following Sunday a further story appeared in The Telegraph, headlined, ‘Majorca-based British financier investigated by SFO convicted of offence in 1990s.’

It reported Hirst served 30 months (of a two-and-a-half-year sentence) in 1992 for defrauding miners out £211,000, while working as a salesman for Allied Dunbar.

Eventually, Hirst was questioned by the SFO and, in April, 2011, charged with conspiracy to defraud and money laundering. Wife Linda, Hirst’s son Daniel, a Bradford lawyer, and Linda’s daughter, Zoe Waite, were later charged with various counts of money laundering.

After several months on remand in Palma Prison, Pollett was extradited from Mallorca and charged with conspiracy.

CHARITY MAN: Hirst with ex-Leeds United soccer star, Norman Hunter (left), at a charity, pro-am golf tournament in Mallorca

As I said in the premable, this has just been the story of my minor role in exposing John Hirst as the devious, wicked and thoroughly unscrupulous conman he is.

Others deserve acclaim in forcing the authorities in Britain and Spain into making sure Mallorca’s Madoff and his partners in crime were prosecuted and received the full force of the law.

And the true heroines in this are two relentless victims of the vicious scam: Janet Corbin and the lady who prefers to remain unnamed.

They drove the case forward, helped police gather evidence, chivvied reluctant witnesses into speaking up and went through nearly three years of hell to see Hirst tried before a British judge.

They paid for their efforts in terms of health – caused by physical and mental anguish – yet never relented in their quest.

The SFO says compensation proceedings are to follow and I dearly hope the £5-million still unaccounted for is identified.

Meanwhile, if it counts for anything, victims of John and Linda Hirst, along with Richard Pollett, have received justice, such as it is, and they owe Janet Corbin and my unnamed friend a huge debt.

Finally, this story is in memory of three Gilher investor, who tragically didn’t live to see their retribution – John Rule, Sue Schuber and Victor Hearmon.

© Hugh Ash 2012. Re-publication of this matter, in full or part, is strictly prohibited without prior permission of the writer