In Good Company: Chapter 2: The Fine Country
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 8 June 2007, 2:29 am
April 10th, 2048, 8:40 AM (local time)
David Taylor had never before made it to Singapore in his wide travels, though he was glad to have finally come. Glad, at least, to be away from Bangkok.
The city, known commonly and somewhat ironically as the Fine Country, was smaller than the Thai capital but denser and cleaner. The heat was perhaps even more intense here, but gone was the lingering cloud of putrid air that made one conscious of every breath.
He was surprised at the quality of his quarters. The Company had provided for him a luxurious hotel room on the southern coast of the island, a vast improvement from his previous residence: a shared apartment in a Bangkok tenement. The room was well appointed and commodious, consisting of a pleasant common area, brightened by spotless floor-to-ceiling windows; a marble clad bathroom with every imaginable toiletry; and a bedroom sporting an impressive balcony.
It was on the balcony he presently stood, enjoying the view from a great height. He leaned on the railing before him, feeling the warm air wash over his face—a warmth he could enjoy. Ahead was the ruffled blue expanse of the Singapore Strait, sparkling with dazzling intensity in the morning's light. The Strait was replete with traffic, an interminable line of container ships entering and leaving port; billions of dollars of goods and materials floating quietly before his eyes. Dark lines etched faintly on the horizon marked outlying islands of Indonesia, many miles distant. The day was exceptionally clear.
A small turn of his head to the left brought the heart of Singapore's lucrative economy into sight: the tangled maze of skyscrapers that composed the Downtown Core. Though much of the coast had been made into a wall of steel and concrete, the downtown area rivaled Midtown New York in vertical pre-eminence. With its vast reserves, varied interests, and close Western ties, Singapore had barely felt the effects of the Depression and was now hard at work profiting from it.
He turned from the view to sit upon the edge of his bed. Though it was not his habit to question good fortune, he was nonetheless perplexed as to why he had been sent to this place. He had no sooner been informed of the transfer by his station chief than he was leaving Bangkok on an Agency plane. It had been a rushed and unpleasant journey without much time for sleep, and his tired body was beginning to feel the effects of the impromptu flight. That it had something to do with the operation in Thailand he had no doubt, though he could only guess at specifics.
Slowly he lifted himself from the bed and shuffled into the bathroom. The radio was still on from his shower sometime before, tuned to a local broadcast of the BBC. A panel was discussing the civil war in Pakistan and whether or not the West should get involved. That would only inflame the situation, one man commented. Doesn't anybody remember Iraq? another asked more passionately. Are we to sit back and watch Communism consume the whole world? a woman countered fiercely. It was a fine bout of platitudes.
He splashed some cool water on his face to reinvigorate himself. When he turned off the water, he realized his phone was ringing. He returned quickly into the bedroom.
Taylor picked up his phone from atop his suitcase. "Yes?"
"How does Singapore find you, Agent?" It was Dowell.
"Somewhat confused, Director."
"You're little friend in Thailand proved to be quite valuable," she said with some measure of mirth. "Her intel on the money transfer turned out to be legitimate. Christ knows what good it will do, but we need a lead—badly."
"The money came here?" he asked.
"It was sent through here, anyway. NSA was able to isolate the transfer of some eight billion dollars from Lang Son Utilities to United Overseas Bank in Singapore three weeks ago."
"Well, that explains the why."
"You're wondering why we sent you."
"You requested a change of station, I believe."
"So this is just Agency benevolence, is it?" he asked caustically.
She laughed. "Well, Taylor, you're already appraised of the situation, and we want to keep this op in the smallest circle possible. Apparently you're adequately knowledgeable in several East Asian languages and have spent time in Thailand and Korea. You seemed appropriate."
"You're making me blush, Director."
"Good to hear."
"So how am I to proceed?"
"The money was sent in US currency, which means it is likely destined for somewhere outside the region," she explained. "United Overseas Bank is an information security fortress; NSA can't even begin to penetrate it. We need to find out where that money went, but the trail dead-ends in Singapore."
"You need a physical presence inside the bank."
"Right. Fortunately, we've had a man inside UOB for some time now."
"What do you need me for, then?" he asked.
"He's a local asset."
"I see." Assets recruited from the indigenous populace were not trusted with sensitive information. MSS had shown a remarkable talent for identifying and turning the Agency's contacts.
"All the equipment you'll need has been provided for you in your field kit. You'll have to gain access the bank's mainframe and download the information on your PDA."
"And this contact will get me to where I need to go."
"Well, let's hope. He has your number and will set up a meet sometime today. You'll know him as Mr. Kim."
"Good luck, Agent," she said in parting.
"And to you, Director."
April 10th, 2048, 12:20 PM (local time)
Taylor was surprised by how green Singapore was. Even in the Downtown Core, through which he now walked, featured strips of grass and immaculately tended gardens running parallel to the broad Raffles thoroughfare. Tropical plants and marble fountains adorned the Italian-style piazzas of many of the offices, set amidst colorful stones depicting Oriental patterns. It was an exotic mixture of Mediterranean and Asian styles that complimented the crisp cleanliness of the streets.
The fastidiousness of the city bordered on the obscene. Present on nearly every corner were two gaudily uniformed police officers, scanning the crowd with admirable vigilance. Beneath every parking sign was a stern warning of a substantial fine for littering. Public maintenance crews were visible everywhere, tending to gardens and sweeping the curb for leaves and other detritus that washed down with the frequent rain in Singapore. The overall effect was pleasant to the senses, but it had more the atmosphere of a Capitalist theme park than a real city.
He entered a prominent hotel and headed towards the restaurant at the rear of the lobby, not slowing to admire his opulent surroundings. A pretty young hostess stopped him at the entrance. "Table for one, sir?" she asked.
"I'm meeting someone. He's already here," he added quickly.
"Go ahead," she said as another group came up behind him.
The restaurant was high class, all dark wood and dark stone. The lighting was low, casting shadows across golden statues and dramatic tapestries. An army of waiters fluttered back and forth, incommensurate to the handful of customers who dined in such a subdued manner Taylor thought he had entered a place of worship.
He emerged through a pair of open French doors onto a sprawling wooden deck. It extended well out into the placid Singapore River, providing a lovely backdrop for a great deal more people than were eating within. Spotless white tablecloths fluttered gently in the warm breeze, though silverware enshrouded in elegantly folded napkins kept everything in place.
Taylor focused on a man dining alone near the back and began to approach him. The man noticed him before he had reached him. "Ah, glad to see you found me," he said with a smile.
"You must be Mr. Kim," Taylor said, extending his hand.
Kim took it. "Which would make you Mr. Butler."
He sat down opposite his contact. "I guess so."
Taylor studied the man he was to put a great deal of faith in. Kim was short and looked like he had once been solidly built, though the nature of his work had shifted his girth to his gut and beneath his chin. He had thinning hair and face that looked given to laughter. Before him was a plate of what looked like an assortment of meats with noodles and rice.
"Would you like something?" Kim asked.
"They have Western food here, if that's what you prefer."
"I'm fine, really." He glanced at his watch.
Kim noticed and waved his chopsticks dismissively. "We have some time to kill, my friend. The IT guys leave for lunch at one for about an hour. Besides, I don't often get out for my noon break," he added, happily engulfing a mouthful of food.
"I see." A waiter came over to fill Taylor's glass with ice water, which he hastily took. He waved off a proffered menu.
"So you're coming to us from outside, I understand," he ventured. He was quick to placate Taylor's glare. "Don't worry, your superior told me a little about you. I simply wondered if this was your first visit to Singapore."
"You came at a fortunate time, Mr. Butler. It's been raining all week, just cleared up yesterday. The fog lends the city its own kind of beauty, but it really ought to be seen in the sun. It truly is a fine country."
"It's very agreeable."
Kim did not seem to be discouraged by his curtness. "It wasn't always quite like this. It's actually changed a lot in just the past decade I've been here. All those sweepers and whatnot you see about—the government's been hiring them by the thousands these last few years. They're hesitant about accepting immigrants, but they're eager to employ. The city's been awash in cash since the Depression."
"That seems contrary to their nature."
"I'll share with you the worst kept secret in Singapore: the Depression is the best thing that ever happened to this little country. Organized crime has exploded in Southeast Asia—cartels, syndicates, old mafias, new mafias—and all of them put their money in here. There are more banks per square inch here than anywhere in the world, and they're all full of blood money. Discretion is Singapore's number one export."
"One wonders if that sort of thing will come to your shores."
"We have almost as many cops as we do bankers here. We have the highest per capita execution rate in the world. No, we leave our corruption to our elected officials, so long as it makes us rich."
Taylor chuckled despite himself. "That's quite an outlook."
Kim seemed gratified to have coaxed some mirth from his sullen companion. "I'm not ashamed to have it. I do quite well for myself here." He leaned in closer, as if he were about to share a great personal truth. "I'm from Korea. I studied at Cambridge, mastered in finance at Harvard. When I got back to Seoul and the Depression hit, I was working as a fucking bus driver." He shook his head emphatically. "I worked too hard to just accept that."
"I wouldn't think of judging you."
"A man in your line of work rarely does."
Taylor narrowed his eyes. "I don't take your meaning."
"It's not just criminals who bring their money here. Your little tiff with the Chinese generates plenty of its own revenue. Real wars are bankrolled by the bigger fish, and it's all above board. Wars like yours are quiet and in the shadows, easier to profit from."
"You deal with MSS?"
"There's no better way to finance clandestine operations abroad than through Singapore. Let me tell you something." Kim dropped his chopsticks and gestured around at the skyscrapers that enveloped them. "All this shit, it's as much for show as for practicality. Did you know the government subsidizes any new building over two hundred and fifty meters, and that companies who occupy such buildings are eligible for special tax incentives? Why? Because you people love it."
A waiter collected Kim's empty plate and asked him if he would care for some dessert. He looked tempted, but glancing at his watch he opted for the bill instead. Turing back to Taylor, he asked, "What was I saying?"
"You were talking about how wide-eyed I was over tall buildings," he reminded him.
Kim raised his hands in remembrance. "That's right. The skyscrapers, the neurotic sanitation, it's all just ostentatious adornment, and the West eats it up. Something about us is romantic to you people, a brazen little free market economy in the middle of a giant snake pit. It's a David and Goliath, Athens and Persia type of appeal, I think. We're on CNN more than Thailand is, for God's sake—at least they're genuine in their pro-American slant, if less efficacious. We simply cater to Western sensibilities while whoring ourselves to the PRC. Prevents those bastards up north from quietly annexing us like they did the rest of Southeast Asia."
"You're a cynical son of a bitch, Kim."
He shrugged and smiled. "I try." He slipped on a pair of glasses to read the newly arrived check, continuing to chat as he did so. "It's all bullshit anyway, of course. China's probably more capitalist than you people are. They espouse socialism like the Marxists of old, and all the third world communists support them as their champion, not seeming to mind that they have a greater disparity in wealth than the Great Satan. The Chinese probably forced this Asian Depression to cultivate communist sympathy in the region."
"You really believe that?" Taylor asked. It was a common speculation.
"They certainly had the power to at least encourage it. By the end of the thirties the Party was in control of almost all the markets in Southeast Asia. It's possible they could have intentionally crashed them. That's a hard thing to prove nowadays, but it is clear that the Chinese were quick to fund their neighbors' insurgencies. Now it's spreading like wildfire." He laughed. "You have your work cut out for you, my friend."
The check paid, Taylor stood up. "Shall we leave?"
Kim seemed disappointed by his promptness, but slowly rose to meet him. "Let's go."
Taylor had met many men like Kim, an ilk characterized by a garrulous manner and an absolute faith in every of the numerous words that passed their lips. Neither succinctness nor apathy provided relief for the besieged; whether this was due to narcissism or genuine ignorance, Taylor could never tell. The effect, however, was the same regardless, and it was not a trait desirable in an asset in whom discretion was required.
"Why do collaborate with the Agency?" he couldn't resist asking as they left the restaurant. "What's in it for you?"
"Besides a desire to make the world a better place?"
He ignored the facetious remark. "What do they pay you?"
"A pittance compared to my salary at the bank," he replied with an air of condescension. "I'd refuse it but for fear of insulting your employers. No, money isn't my motivation, but the connections I enjoy. We can't walk the sharp edge of the knife here forever without eventually falling off. Did you know that over two thirds of Singapore's water supply is piped in from Malaysia? Beijing makes one phone call and we're on our knees in a day. The time will come when it all goes to shit, and when it does I want to be on the first helicopter out of here."
"Or MSS will discover your activities," Taylor pointed out.
Kim waved his hand and scowled. "I'm not worried. I cover my tracks well."
Given his easy candor, Taylor was not so sure.
On their walk to the United Overseas Bank, Kim began to talk of more trivial matters, including his personal life, to which Taylor offered few and short answers. He was grateful for the change, able now to concentrate on the task ahead rather than his companion's frivolous prattling. If all went according to plan, the transfer of data would be quick and relatively easy, though the margin for error was appreciably large. Thus far, Kim had done little to inspire any great confidence in him.
When they reached UOB Plaza, Kim abruptly shifted focus to the matter at hand. "Here's how this will work," he said, his tone becoming serious. "The Agency told me you need to get something off our mainframe. They refuse to tell me what, only that I'm to get you there. Now, my colleagues are under the impression that I was meeting a client for lunch, which they will assume you to be. I'll take you on a tour of the building, which is not uncommon—especially with our American clients. However, I have no reason to take you to the mainframe, and it's strictly off limits to non-employees. The door is locked by a keypad; security is notified whenever it is accessed. With maintenance off duty, the room should be empty. I can't guarantee you more than a minute or two before we can expect company."
"I'll be quick," he promised. "What will happen when they discover us in the processing room?"
"I'm well established at UOB, one of their better rainmakers. Hopefully I've built up enough credit that an incident like this will be excused." He stopped for a moment and turned Taylor towards him. "I'm taking quite a risk here. I'd take it as a kindness if you'd put in a good word to your employers."
Taylor smiled. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves."
UOB Plaza consisted of a pair of looming towers, though they entered the taller of the two. The lobby was a predictable affair, a sterile expanse of green marble and oak desks, behind which sat an endless array of receptionists. More significant was the veritable legion of armed security guards and purposely visible security cameras. Taylor wouldn't be surprised if they were both summarily arrested upon their discovery in the processing room.
Kim approached a small, elderly man, looking quite absurd behind a massive, semi-circular desk. He immediately began to engage the man in Mandarin. Taylor's grasp of the language was imperfect and the two men spoke quickly and casually, though he gathered that Kim identified him as a potential client and was requesting a pass. Taylor was beckoned forward to sign in, the old man eyeing him warily as he did so. He said something to Kim he did not understand, but the reply was perfectly clear:
"You know Americans these days." The answer seemed to satisfy the man.
They proceeded into an elevator beyond the desk, the doors closing with a thud behind them. Kim at last deemed the time right to fall silent, though as the lift slowed he said shortly, "Now's the time to pray."
"I don't pray," he returned.
They entered a long, wide corridor lined with glass-walled offices and lit with an abundance of natural light. Further along the walls became conspicuously solid, transparent sliding doors replaced with thick wooden ones. Kim stopped at one and, looking hastily in both directions, entered in the code on a keypad.
With a hiss the door opened and the two slipped in, closing it swiftly behind them. Kim led the way to a small console set amidst hulking processors running the height of the room. He quickly typed in the password to access the records and stepped away. Taylor set immediately to work, linking the console to his PDA.
"Stay by the door and don't move," he ordered Kim irritably when he remained by his side.
"Clock's ticking," Kim reminded him, slow to move away.
When his trying companion had shuffled out of sight, he began to search through the financial records. Billions of dollars moved through the bank each day in the form of thousands of transactions; just the day's records so far stretched on interminably. He narrowed the search to the day of the transfer from Lang Son Utilities. He looked at his watch—over a minute had passed since his entry. He prepared to copy the entire day's log. Time had run too short to find the specific entry, though he hoped there was enough left to download all the data.
The transfer was fast, but the seconds continued to tick inexorably by. The duration of their excursion soon passed the two minute mark, but only half the data had been copied. Kim began to get agitated.
"Time's up, Agent," he said.
"Hold on." Sixty percent.
"Now," he urged.
Taylor pulled it at eighty-five percent and shoved the PDA in his pocket. When he rejoined Kim near the entrance, the door swung open and two guards stepped in, both double taking upon seeing them. Kim at once greeted them genially, bewildering them with a rapid flood of Mandarin. One of the guards, the older of the two, tried to brush past this spate of cordiality, gesturing to Taylor and telling him that he would have to report the infraction. Kim laughed at this, placing his hand on the man's broad shoulders and leading both of them gently from the room. He plunged into a lengthy explanation, employing his verbose manner to great effect. The exasperated guard finally held up a hand, saying simply that he would expect a favor for his circumspection. Kim said he would be only too happy to oblige.
"Now, Mr. Butler," he said, returning to Taylor and to English. "Please, let's retire to my office."
They proceeded to Kim's plush office about two dozen floors down. He immediately shut the door upon entering, retrieved a bottle of scotch from his desk, and poured himself a drink.
"It is quite a feeling, isn't it?" he asked with a nervous laugh, downing a shot of the amber liquid.
"It never goes away," Taylor acknowledged, refusing a glass of his own.
Kim dropped pretense and took a swig straight from the bottle. "One could get addicted to it. A hell of a way to make a living, yours is." He took a seat at his desk and invited Taylor to do the same. "To make your presence seem legitimate, you'll have to stay here a while."
Taylor frowned, but conceded and sat in the thick leather sofa set against the wall. "I confess I didn't understand much of what you said up there. What did you tell him?"
Kim offered him a devious smile, the alcohol restoring some of his confidence. "I said you worked for IBM and were curious about our setup here."
"Very nice, Mr. Kim," he exclaimed with an appreciative laugh.
Taylor scanned the data he had collected from the mainframe as Kim embarked on another rambling monologue. He felt sure the record for the transaction he was looking for was contained in the eighty-five percent of the log he was able to procure, though his heart raced faster every moment he did not see it. When at last he discovered the target of his efforts, a feeling of absolute relief flooded warmly over him. He felt the tightness ease in his chest and limbs, thankful that the luck endowed to him in his work was not of the kind he was otherwise accustomed to.
His companion, meanwhile, was becoming less coherent and more bombastic with each further indulgence. He spoke wistfully of his days in America and how he dearly wished to return, but that the money in Singapore disagreed with his desire. Eventually he confessed his lifelong fascination with the world of espionage and the gratification he felt when he was recruited by the Agency.
"I always thought I'd be the consummate spy," he said. "Really, it's a lot like banking, and I'm a damn good banker."
Taylor stood up, judging the time adequate for pretence. "Well, I'd better be off," he interrupted. He offered his hand to Kim, who shook it limply. "I'll sing your praises to the director."
"Oh, yes," he said, seeming nonplussed. "Thank you. Good working with you."
He left the office, returning to the lobby in the elevator with two women who conversed softly in a language he didn't recognize. He was grateful to emerge into the warm afternoon air, having felt trapped in the building for a far longer time than he had actually been in. On the street outside an irate man was being handed a ticket by a stalwart officer, who wordlessly pointed to the "no littering" sign above his head. A piece of trash blew serenely along the curb but was quickly recovered by a patrolling sweeper.
Taylor would be sorry to leave the Fine Country.