Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Bump in the Road

Yes, this missive is a wee bit late, but bear with me.

I am now back in the Manor in Toronto, after putting my daughter Isolde back on the straight and narrow. Or so one hopes. I had stopped off in Ottawa briefly, to give the good Stephen Harper a pat on the back for not attending that insane human rights conference in Switzerland, led by those paragons of personal liberty, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia and a host of African countries where any notion of liberty was really licence -- in this case, licence to loot the country and give the proceeds to selected cronies and backers. I had a good word for Ignatieff as well, commending him for similar action. I think he used the phrase "an assemblage of clowns", although there really is nothing funny about the robbery, rape and murder sanctioned by these staunch defenders of human rights. It really is a fallen universe.

Now for something completely different. I had constructed a shooting range in the basement of the Manor, in order to keep my skill up to speed, given my occasional assignments where that skill is required.

An aside: Apparently word of this activity had somehow reached the Mayor, who was appalled, and he and select members of his Star Chamber began to proceed to enforce a gun ban. Now I hasten to mention that all my weapons are registered, and registered to a far greater authority than Canada's silly gun registry, aimed primarily at farmers and gun club members. The guns that should be banned, of course, are revolvers and assault rifles. These are the weapons of choice favoured by criminals, but amazingly these stalwarts do not exactly flock to the registration bureau. In any event, a colleague in CSIS, code name Barry, and last seen on a rooftop in Washington, had a word in the Mayor's tinted ear, and his desire to continue with the exercise came to a sudden and abrupt halt.

But back to the shooting range. I had aimed my Erma rifle at a target some distance away, the target being the profile of that illiterate leader of the Taliban, the awful Mullah Omar. (On some glorious day, In'shallah, I will have the bugger actually in my sights). I fired several times, then checked for accuracy. Uh oh. In each case my shot was a quarter inch from where it should have been, smack in Omar's forehead.

I rang for my ex-Mossad butler, Irving, and repeated the exercise, having with Irving carefully checked rifle bore, scope optics and calibration. Same result.

"Could be your eyes, Simone," said Irving.

"Nonsense. I can see you perfectly. And the target."

"Wouldn't hurt to check."

Now one of the perks of being in The Trade (God knows there are not many) is access to first rate health care. This is not done out of compassion or a keen sense of social obligation, but rather has to do with keeping your assets in fighting trim. So a medical appointment was made, and shortly after that, the results were in. Incipient cataracts.

Cataracts! Things that happen in your seventies, not your mid-forties. Still, could have been worse, and the road stretches a good distance yet, although the novelist Phillip Roth's words suddenly came to mind: "Old age isn't a battle, it's a massacre."

A day and an operation later both eyes were dealt with, and for the next little while, things were somewhat blurry. Hence is was simply not possible to write. Things are, however, back to normal now, and the bullets went exactly where I wanted them to. Now I must fly. The Compte de Rienville is in town, and coming for dinner. And it has been way, way too long since we -- well, never mind about that.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Isolde -- Part II

Having learned of Isolde's involvement in things that she shouldn't be involved in (why couldn't she just stick to the violin?) I decided to have it out with her. I had to cross the ocean anyway, to expand the Strunsky sugar beet enterprise. BP wanted to double the beet intake for its eco-fuel enterprise -- stimulus money from one G. Brown -- and this necessitated a trip to Lviv in Ukraine. There the proposal to expand was well received (Ukraine always has fiscal problems) and I was also happy to make a not insignificant contribution to that rather funky opera house located in Lviv's central square. One must always support the arts.

Then from there it was on to London, to solidify the sugar beet thingy. I had arranged for the wayward Isolde to meet me there as well. All this meant using the Strunsky Lear jet, and fortunately the pilot I use on such occasions, Hank Grimsby, was available. Hank was a former member of the US Air Force, and used to fly F 16's hither and yon in Iraq. At least he did until he realized he was in the wrong war, and when the time came to re-up, he didn't. After that, it was simply a matter of making him an offer he couldn't refuse. (Hank is not only a crack pilot, but has other qualities as well. But I digress.)

Irving accompanied me, since these trips are always a bit dicey -- those fatwas again -- but not being on an assignment, I wasn't expecting trouble. However, I was glad to reach my flat in Knightsbridge, where I got together with a serious martini. A shower, a good sleep, and I was ready the next morning to face Isolde.

We met at The Grill, Dorchester, where they do wonderful things to Cornish scallops. Then, both sated, certain cards were put on the table.

"Who approached you," I began, "with this courier thing?"

"That's classified," she said.

"Isolde, honey, my own classification level is that of the Home Secretary's. One phone call will reveal all, but I would rather hear it from you. And I'll make a wild guess. Smidge was involved."
Isolde was silent for a minute as she absorbed this, and then the story came out. "Smidge" was my nephew, Stephen, and was very much involved in The Trade. Lord Stunsky had recruited him early on, when his talent for foreign language mastery had emerged, along with a love of secrets and, more importantly, the ability to keep them. He was not, unfortunately, that effective at the sharp end of things (my particular forte) but it takes all kinds. Smidge had indeed approached Isolde, saying the courier thing just a "one-off", and would not recur again. The enterprise had gone so well that Isolde, all excited and agog, said she was willing to do it again, depending on her concert schedule. Smidge, perhaps fearing my wrath, (as well he might)said Isolde's little courier adventure was truly a one-off, and would not recur. Good for Smidge.

Isolde, however, had been bitten by something she saw as exotic and exciting, and at a reception for the orchestra in the Mozart Conzerthall had somehow overheard the information about the Stinger missiles -- she thought it was a planned attack of killer bees -- and passed the information on to Smidge. This, of course, had led me and colleagues to retrieve the missiles from Africa, as earlier described.

"Well, all this stops now," I firmly stated.

"But I helped," she said plaintively.

I took her hand. "Note, Isolde, you still have your fingers. You need them to play. Keep this activity up with Smidge and you will lose your fingers. and other parts of your body. Very painfully. You are not trained for this type of work. It's not your talent, and it will detract from the marvellous talent you do have. You see my point?"

She nodded glumly.

"Still got the Strad?" I enquired, wishing to change the subject.

"Under lock and key in the Staatoper," she replied. "Don't worry. It's safe."

"It better be," I replied. The obtaining of the Stradivarius had taken some ingenuity. An Italian businessman with whom I had done business had called me in a panic. Apparently his daughter, a fanatic birdwatcher, had wandered too close to the North Korean border and had been snatched. He wanted her back, and I obliged. This was not overly difficult. I knew that The Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, had a certain passion, and from an earlier foray into that benighted country had procured a videotape of that passion. It showed Kim happily playing with his Barbie dolls, When I mentioned to his handlers via a Chinese colleague that this would look great on the Internet, given Barbie's 50th anniversary, well, things moved rather quickly. The daughter was returned post haste, and her Italian father, in gratitude, parted with one of three Strads he had acquired.

Occasionally things work out rather well.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Isolde -- Part 1

Yes, a bit late with this missive, but I have been rather busy. It all started, as it usually does, with a phone call on my secure line. Only one word, "Ernestine". That was enough to get in touch with my employers, and to know that somewhere a wheel had come off. Turns out that fifty Stinger missiles had somehow fallen into the hands of the Lord's Resistance Army, based in one of Uganda, Sudan or the Democratic (Hah!) Republic of Congo. You never knew for certain -- national boundaries in that area leave a lot to be desired. The leader of this ghastly outfit was that paragon of Christian charity, Joseph Kony, he who delights in kidnapping young boys, arming them with AK 47's, and then telling them to kill their parents. (Don't even ask what happens to the young girls.)

I and colleagues had tangled with this outfit before, but this time was a bit different. Apparently, Kony was in the process of transporting the Stingers to Somalia, where they would be sold to the Islamic pirate enterprise they have going there. Isn't ecumenism wonderful! But the difference was the source of the intelligence.

My eldest daughter, Isolde.

This came as a total surprise. The last time I had talked to her, she was safely ensconced in a small pension in Vienna, along with her current girlfriend, an oboist named Magda something or other. Isolde, you see, is on the other side of the street (so to speak). No Tristan for her. She is also a first rate violinist, and had landed in the first violin section of the Vienna Philharmonic. She was excited about this, and was eager to inform me that Riccardo Muti had agreed to take both Isolde and Magda on as his pupils. "Just think, Mum," she blurted, "I'll be working under Muti!"

With Isolde and Muti, the "under" would be metaphorical rather than literal. Yet I was happy for her. She is in my opinion some distance from becoming a Perlman or a Bell or a Midori, but she is on her way. And now, my employers tell me, she is also in what I refer to as The Trade.

Isolde, you see, travels a lot, whether with the Philharmonic itself, or participating in concert performances, international competitions, or what have you. My employers (bastards) saw this as an opportunity, and I have since learned that she has become an expert in drop-offs, as well as becoming an ace courier. Who would question a striking blonde carting a (rather special) violin case, in company with a host of other musicians?

I didn't have time to raise the matter with her, given the exigency of the mission, but I certainly did when I arrived back. And yes, the Stingers were recovered, Kony's "army" was somewhat depleted, and we also managed to grab a cool $100,000 American in the process. My colleagues and I quickly decided to make a donation to Medicins Sans Frontieres, who were working in the area. The harassed young doctor was grateful, and the money would be used for a greater purpose than anything dreamed up by government.

As for my conversation with my daughter, that will have to wait for next time. Right now a rather tricky debriefing is scheduled. I love Isolde dearly, but occasionally I am grateful that there is an ocean between us. As Quentin Crisp once put it:"The continued propinquity of another human being cramps the style after a time unless that person is someone you think you love. Then the burden becomes intolerable at once."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bonus Bashing

Before she flew off to London for the G20 bun fest, Michelle Obama, recently added to my secure cell phone, gave me a call. Michelle was worried about the anger surfacing in America about the number of obscene bonuses being paid to all those who had got their enterprises into trouble in the first place. Most worrisome of all was the fact that some of this anger was being directed towards her husband.

"Of course," I replied.

"Of course?" she yelped. "But he had nothing to do with it!"

"Well, he was in the Senate, and could have urged greater oversight, but that's neither here nor there. The whole thing is Oedipal, you see."

"No, I don't see."

"Well, think of Sophocles Oedipus Rex. The King, Oedipus, is doing what?"

Now Michelle, unlike several million of her countrymen, has had an education, and she began to parse it out. She recalled the plague hammering Oedipus' city of Thebes, Oedipus' frantic attempts to find the cause, and then coming to the realization that he himself was the cause. (Inadvertently married his mother, you see, but that's an issue for another day). The point that she grasped was the assumption of responsibility for actions taken, something only a person who is all grown up can do. For non-grown ups, all thought becomes focussed on who to blame. Hence the howls of outrage directed at bankers, financiers and insurance company executives, (who admittedly are greedy bastards) but not at themselves (for letting the lure of a sub-prime mortgage or a totally unrealistic return on a dubious investment outweigh good sense. Step forward Bernie Madoff).

"But, Simone, what can Barack do, then?"

"In the short term, wait it out. In the long term, the answer lies in education, and I think he realizes that."

"Lord, it isn't easy, is it?" and I caught a quaver in her voice.

"No it isn't. But as Piet Hein put it in a well-thought out Grook, 'Problems worthy of attack / Prove their worth by hitting back.' Now enough of this. Your wardrobe all ready?"

There followed a longish discussion on pencil skirts, colours (yellow and green suit her) and proper behaviour when meeting The Queen. I also advised her to stay away from the Dolce and Gabbana, Dior, Givenchy and the like when trooping around Strasbourg with the love of Sarkozy's life, Carla Bruni. "After all, Michelle, the woman is a professional clothes horse -- sometimes the best way to win the game is not to play at all. But stay away from pant suits; don't want to be mistaken for Hillary."

"In other words, Simone, 'Be humble, Uriah, and you'll get on.'"

"Right. And have a Dickens of a time."