Sunday, 3 February 2019

Piepsie MacFutret's circus act

Piepsie MacFutret's circus act


Scene 1


Piepsie MacFutret was a curious girl. I don't mean she was strange. I mean she was inquisitive. In fact, she was particularly prying. In the town where she lived, she was notably nosy.

If you were to encounter her in the supermarket checkout queue, where you'd no means of escape other than to desert your shopping on the conveyor belt, she'd discover your entire life's history before you knew where you were.

Not that she'd be insistently interrogative. No. Her approach was more subtle than that. She'd wheedle your best kept secrets out of you with no more than a toss of her blonde locks and a raised eyebrow.

Perhaps that had something to do with her inclination to be a secret agent. She didn't want to be a spy. She didn't want to become an asset. She wanted to be an agent on active duty. That was the vocation she envisaged for herself. That was to be her calling.

Piepsie MacFutret saw herself as the heir of Polish countess Krystyna Skarbek. She was ever on the lookout for an opportunity to emulate the exploits of her Polish heroine. And so it was that one day in Salisbury as she was minding everyone else's business, she overheard two Russians talking. У тебя есть флакон духов, мой друг? was what she heard.

Like all good secret agents, Piepsie MacFutret was fluent in Russian. Also, in keeping with her calling, she was ever on the alert for the odd, the unusual and the incongruous. As she'd just been to Boots the Chemist to buy some scent for her grandmother, it won't surprise you to learn that both her ears pricked up; one at the familiar sound of Russian voices, and one at the mention of a perfume bottle.

Bending down to tie her shoelace (as per Manual for Agents; ch. 3 – How to be inconspicuous; pg. 153 – tactic #4; pub. J. Bond, London, 1955), Piepsie MacFutret pinned back her ears and discretely observed the two Russians.

Both were fairly nondescript, dressed for the inclement weather, except for city shoes. They'd have been better off with footwear appropriate to the pavement slush. Indeed, the initial snatches of conversation that Piepsie MacFutret overheard were on that very topic. There was no further mention of perfume. One mentioned the Cathedral. Unsurprisingly enough for a visitor to Salisbury. One made reference to a call girl and a sex act. That caused Piepsie MacFutret to blush bright pink. Nevertheless, with a silent nod to Mata Hari, she continued her eavesdropping.

These guys seem suspiciously shady, she mused to herself, I must find out what they're doing in Salisbury. Undeterred, and fortified by a drink she'd indulged in at the Mill pub, she approached the two men.

“Excuse me,” she interrupted, “pardon me for interrupting, but I thought I heard you mention the Cathedral. Are you looking to be awed by the beauty and scale of our Cathedral interior?”

“Что за хрень!” responded the darker-haired Russian, before recovering his equilibrium and responding in English.

Piepsie MacFutret was a trifle disappointed at that. She'd thought her Russian accent pretty good. As she was making a mental note to address that shortcoming, the Russian's response continued.

“...been to your Cathedral of 750 years. Yesterday, isn't it, Aleksandr?”

Aleksandr nodded. The quiet one, thought Piepsie MacFutret, I'll struggle to get much out of him. However, the loud one, responding to Piepsie MacFutret's perfected penetrating persuasiveness and raised eyebrow (well, it used to work for Roger Moore), began to talk and explain his intentions in detail, in the manner of all fictional villains.

“Today, we're looking for a place to hide this perfume,” he volunteered, brandishing a still packaged bottle he'd taken out of a red carrier bag. “Have you any idea where Maltings place be?” he questioned. “By way, my name Ruslan, and here Alexsandr. How you do, Miss..?”

Ignoring the impulse to respond with Bond, Jane Bond, Piepsie MacFutret inquired instead with a further raised and questioning eyebrow. Unsurprisingly, more information was forthcoming.

“We're on weekend break paid for by man with military bearing. He arranged Visas. Fast-tracked. Said all we have to do is hide bottle he gives. Said for April Fool's Day. Said play joke on friend Sergei. Said not open or we don't return St. Petersburg without pay penalty.”

“Were those your only instructions?” asked Piepsie MacFutret, neglecting the eyebrow.

“Officer-type said make sure we get on CCTV cameras and leave perfume in waste bin in Maltings,” answered Ruslan.

“But we not find it,” rejoined the hitherto unspoken Aleksandr.

“That's right,” confirmed the Russian, Ruslan. “Map not faithful.”

“Let me see your map,” demanded Piepsie MacFutret.

Ruslan handed over a creased and roughly folded sheet of A4, which proved to be the bearer of a hand-drawn map. Seemingly, the artist was conceited, because his initials – PM – had been scribbled in the bottom right-hand corner. Piepsie MacFutret didn't fail to notice that. Nor did she fail to notice the initials too were hers.

Curiously, the map appeared to have been drawn upside down, but with the street names the right way up. No wonder the Russians were confused, she figured. They didn't look over intelligent in any case, in her view. She was good at instant assessments of character. And no, she wasn't particularly prejudiced against Russians. In any event, it was clear to Piepsie MacFutret that the two Russians were on a hiding to nothing in relation to their mysterious undertaking.

Piepsie MacFutret pocketed the map. Neither Ruslan nor Aleksandr appeared to notice her sleight of hand. These guys do seem to be a bit dim, she concluded. I'm more interested in PM, was the thought that followed. Curiosity aroused, Piepsie MacFutret nevertheless controlled her agitation (but not her eyebrow) and tempted poor Ruslan to tell her more.

“Where did you meet the man who gave you the map, Ruslan?”

“In a hotel in East London. In Bow Road,” responded the Russian.

“It's called the City something,” offered Aleksandr.

“Look, sorry, it's time for we leave. We got train to London. We going back to the Russia today,” ejaculated Ruslan as if he felt they'd already said too much. “Perhaps you hide perfume in Maltings? Easy for you,” he took time to propose, before a pathetic, “Please!”

Piepsie MacFutret took the proffered perfume. She had already formulated a plan. So much for the Nina Ricci Premier Jour she'd bought for her grandmother. She'd gained a 50cc bottle of Chanel No. 5, for free. She waved a thankful Adieu to the two Russian patsies. They walked off in the direction of the railway station. Piepsie MacFutret walked off in the direction of the Maltings shopping centre. She carried with her the two packages of perfume.

As she strolled off, she mulled over the coincidence of the Chanel fragrance having been compounded by a Russian, albeit with a French Connection. She chuckled to herself as she slipped the Nina Ricci into the Russian's carrier bag and put the Chanel in her handbag. Laughing out loud, she chucked the bag into a refuse bin next to a bench. It's been both a profitable and an interesting day, she concluded. So far.

Scene 2


Piepsie MacFutret was intrigued and determined to find out more about the mystery of the strange and curious case of the Russian visitors. She felt she had two clues to work on for a start. Those were the initials – PM – and the name Sergei. There was certainly a connection between the two, as the Russians had indicated, more or less, that they were at least acquainted if not necessarily bosom buddies. Was Sergei a Russian? Most probably, proposed Piepsie MacFutret. Let's begin with that, she agreed.

At home, armed with her own personal computer, and employing extreme digital forensic skills learned on a half-day seminar run by Bellingcat, Piepsie MacFutret set to work. First, she carefully typed the name – Sergei – one letter at a time, on the computer's keyboard, just like that nice Mr Higgins has suggested. Imagine her surprise when seconds later, she had discovered almost everything there was to know about Sergei, who was indeed Russian, but had become an MI6 asset.

Sergei had been a naughty boy. He'd been discovered traitorously selling information to the west.  Thereafter, he'd been arrested, tried and jailed, eventually released, and subsequently swapped in an exchange involving a red-headed Russian spy who wouldn't have been out of place in a Bond movie. Thankfully for Sergei, the Russians had long since stopped sending undesirables to resorts like Kolyma in Siberia. They'd gotten a bad press for that, thanks to Solzhenitsyn and other novelists.

So Sergei Scruples had come to live in Salisbury. What a man for a neighbour, thought Piepsie MacFutret.

To prove that this was her man, Piepsie MacFutret searched online for images of Sergei Scruples. Almost immediately, she found three images of a Sergei Scruples. She found a mugshot taken when the double agent named Scruples was swapped. She found a Russian passport photograph for a Sergei Viktorovich Scruples, and a photograph used by a Sergei Scruples when applying for a new driving licence, in the mid-1980s, in Ozyorsk. Using open source facial recognition software, she did an image comparison and discovered that, with a greater than 85% degree of certainty, the three images were the same Sergei Viktorovich Scruples she was seeking to identify.

To be convinced, she took the earliest photograph; the one from the driving licence, and again using open source software, she aged the photograph by 20 years. Sure enough, she got a high-probability match with the one from the time of the Illegals Program spy swap. It was Sergei Scruples all right.

Having been staring at images of Sergei during the evening, Piepsie MacFutret came to the realisation that she'd seen him somewhere before. Quite recently in fact, she was convinced. Irritated at her temporary loss of total recall, she got herself some more Kenco (product placement). She then asked herself where it was that she'd seen Sergei Scruples.

Piepsie MacFutret was never perplexed for long. The answer came in the flash of a smartphone camera. She had her own photograph of Sergei. Captured involuntarily, Sergei Scruples appeared on the periphery of a photograph of Piepsie MacFutret's grandmother. The photograph was taken in Zizzis Restaurant. Only last Sunday, she realised. Sergei was there at the table in front of the large wall mirror. And he wasn't alone.

There was a man in the photograph alongside Sergei. However, only his left side; arm, shoulder, torso and leg, were visible on the edge of the image. Digital forensics isn't going to help sort that conundrum, decided Piepsie MacFutret. But a visit to Zizzis on the morrow, a Sunday, might mean they'd both be there again, and if so... Well, who knows what Piepsie MacFutret might find out as she continued her inquisitive quest.

Scene 3


Piepsie MacFutret arrived at Zizzis Restaurant at noon on the Sunday and settled in for a wait. Long or short, she didn't know, but she was prepared. She had with her a good book and, more to the point, an appetite.

On her third cafe latte, after a pasta garnished with chicken and embellished with a Pinot Grigio, her patience was rewarded. Sergei and a female companion entered the restaurant just before 2 p.m., and took a table in front of the mirror. Piepsie MacFutret gave them a wee while to settle in and order. After they'd been served their drinks, Piepsie MacFutret determined to act. Thinking along the lines of nothing ventured, nothing gained, she approached Sergei's table.

“Excuse me,” interrupted Piepsie MacFutret, “I couldn't help overhearing you speaking in Russian. I don't get much opportunity to practice your language in Salisbury. Do you mind if we have a short conversation? I know that's an almighty cheek on my part, but I won't take up much of your time. It would be great to practice a little Russian.”

“No, not at all. Please join us. It's delightful to find yet another Russian speaker in Salisbury,” responded Sergei. “May I introduce my daughter, Yulia.”

The two girls exchanged how d'you dos. Piepsie MacFutret sat down alongside Sergei's daughter and introduced herself to the familial pair.

“You're somewhat of a minor celebrity, Mr. Scruples,” prompted Piepsie MacFutret, “Not that you have any. How do you find our much vaunted Salisbury cathedral compared to that overdecorated and draughty barn in Prague?”

Sergei laughed at the provocation, but chose to ignore it, “Yes, I was awed by the beauty and scale of the Cathedral interior,” he responded.

Piepsie MacFutret wanted to say talk like John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda talked to Jamie Lee Curtis, but said instead, “Tell me all your secrets.”

Sergei began to talk at length. The magic eyebrow had done its trick again.

“I'm quite settled here in Salisbury, you know, Miss MacFutret,” Sergei began.

“Call me Piepsie, please,” interjected Piepsie MacFutret.

“Piepsie then, Miss... Piepsie-Please,” laughed Sergei in good humour. “I still do a bit of consultancy, if I can put it like that, for MI6. That gets me the odd trip abroad now and again. And Paco pops round for a chat on a regular basis.”

“Paco?” queried Piepsie MacFutret's eyebrow.

“Paco Müller, my old handler from when I turned,” responded Sergei, adding, “We like to have a vodka or three and talk about the old times.”

“Don't you feel intimidated or under threat from your former masters?” interrogated Piespie MacFutret, with an ingratiating smile and that raised eyebrow, unfailingly noting Paco's initials and mentally linking them with those on the map.

“Oh no, not at all. Russia is very good to me, considering my past. They let my daughter freely come and go to visit me here, and my family, my poor old mother, they're all left in peace back home in Ozyorsk. As a matter of fact, I'm in constant touch with the GU. But don't tell Paco, eh.” Sergei winked conspiratorially and went on, “We had a right good laugh at all that crap I fed him to keep that Steele chappie happy.”

“Does the mention of Chanel perfume mean anything to you Mr. Scruples?” ventured Piepsie MacFutret.

“Perfume!” exclaimed Sergei, “Ha, ha! That's a good question. Here's a secret I shouldn't tell you, but, well, that eyebrow... I've had to agree to a scam set up by MI6 to discredit Russia. No choice! It's due to happen after Yulia goes back. We're going to fake an attempt on my life and blame it on the GU. The basic story line is that a perfume bottle will be used to spray me with some nasty stuff, but it won't be fatal. Hopefully! MI6 has already set up a couple of Russian patsies to take the rap for the perfume. And some tame journalists are already primed to big up the story of incompetent GU hitmen. Bellingcat will also get involved from what I understand, to help frame the two Russians.”

“Wow! That's a distinctly deceitful disinformation scam to put into action,” exclaimed Piepsie MacFutret, “are our secret services that immoral?” she added incredulously.

“You had better believe it!” responded Sergei, before reacting astonished at something, or so it appeared, that he'd seen over Piepsie MacFutret's shoulder.

“You'd better leave us now Miss MacFutret,” announced Sergei in a tone that brooked no argument.

Piepsie withdrew to her own table without that argument, knowing full well she'd be able to observe what happened in the restaurant. What happened in the restaurant was that a man approached Sergei, nodded familiarly to Sergei's daughter, and said something to her father. Piepsie MacFutret's directional hearing prowess was excellent, but she wasn't able to determine what was said, but by the look on Sergei's face, she understood that what had been imparted wasn't exactly good news.

Sergei's mood changed and over the next half an hour or so, he made a complete exhibition of himself, to the extent of being rude to the staff and complaining loudly about the time needed to bring his meal. All that to the apparent embarrassment of his daughter, Yulia. Piepsie MacFutret left them in peace, if such as Sergei's noticeable agitation could be so called, to their meal, which they ate in a hurry. During that period, Piepsie MacFutret made sure she settled her bill, so that she could leave immediately the Scruples did, if she felt it necessary.

The Scruples left Zizzis just before 3 p.m. On his way past Piepsie MacFutret's table, Sergei looked over towards her and made a slicing motion across his throat with the edge of his hand. He then made a forward spiralling motion with the hand, as if to suggest speeding up. Or bringing something forward, thought Piepsie MacFutret. The staged attempt on his life, no doubt, she realised.

Scene 4


Piepsie MacFutret felt it necessary to follow the Scruples. She kept her distance, expertly tailing them all the way via Market Walk to the Mill pub in the Maltings. She followed them inside. At the bar, Sergei ordered two glasses of wine and presently, went to the toilet. On his return to the bar, Sergei, to Piepsie MacFutret's eyes, appeared to be a little unsteady on his feet. She thought, he's surely not drunk, not after what little he's drank. Maybe he carries a hip flask of vodka, she mused. While Piepsie MacFutret was chuckling at that thought, Sergei and Yulia promptly left the pub, without finishing their drinks.

Piepsie MacFutret again dashed out after the pair and observed them make their way to a park bench, on which they sat. It was a pleasant place to pause for a rest, overlooking the river Avon. Looking at her watch, she logged the fact that it was a twenty to four in the afternoon, give or take a minute.

Hanging back to remain unobserved, Piepsie MacFutret surveyed the surroundings. Nothing untoward caught her attention on a first pass sweep through the area around the Scruples. Sweeping her gaze left to right and left again, quartering the foreground, her attention was suddenly caught by what looked for all the world like a man wearing a black mask. The mask was big enough to cover his nose and mouth. He's acting rather suspiciously, thought Piepsie MacFutret, and he's made a proper effort to remain incognito, she added as a note to her mental event recorder. She also noted that he was carrying a red bag.

Scene 5


Piepsie MacFutret struggled awake. Her last conscious cognitive cerebration reeled like a fairground roller coaster through her head; black mask; red bag; ex-red; Sergei Scruples... The process receded into her subconscious as she concentrated on becoming fully awake.

Finally awake and fully cognisant, she found herself in a sparsely furnished, windowless room. It was painted in the palest green colour she recognised as regulation eau de Nil. Sitting upright on a hard-backed chair, she became aware of the man sat opposite her. He was smiling at her. It wasn't a particularly friendly smile, but a smile nevertheless. OK, Smiley, she thought calmly, what have you got to say for yourself.

When the smiling man saw that he had her full attention, he greeted her in an amused and friendly voice, “Welcome to Vauxhall Cross, Miss MacFutret. Or should I say, welcome to The Circus.”

The end