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BNJXD10

Chapter 10 A Bugger’s Life 

My return from the road and the sun and the souks to the damp and the gloom of Dublin was met with a mixture of relief and indifference. No one seemed especially interested in my tales or adventures, or even my reasons, and it didn’t really surprise me because I could tell they were all still very angry. My father didn’t speak to me for years, and more years again before he even partly forgave me. And as years turned into decades, he never once asked me why.

None of my friends or co-conspirators seemed eager to see me either, and I was surprised at how much everyone had moved on in just six months. Even if everything was, as always, still just the same. Was the dare simply not good enough, not sufficiently daring? Had I come back too soon?

I did manage to keep a journal of the journey in the form of a collection of scribbled letters to myself, and they survived unopened for months until one day my mother found them on top of my wardrobe, cried as she read them, and then burned them.

It was decided that for a third and hopefully last time I would retake my leaving certificate and try for better grades and at least some chance at college or a job, some hope of redemption. It worked, though barely, but enough to secure me a place in a two-year marketing certificate course that I hoped would teach me how to breathe life back into the mortally but not fatally wounded Crock. Even if it no longer came with a Kingdom, it was still alive and a legend and something a course in marketing might help me reclaim and rebuild.

But just months into this new and dull adventure yet another road opened up, and one that might help me reclaim the Crock even faster. One of the first things I learned in my first season in college had more to do with spies and computers than fashion or brands. In yet another basement, this one home to the college’s tiny and cluttered computer room, a bare acquaintance excitedly demonstrated how he’d found a way to steal the password of a Professor’s computer by simply inserting a floppy disc laced with some computer code into the disc drive of the computer.

It took a while for the real significance of the breakin to sink in, other than that if I remained the intruder’s friend, there would be at least one set of exams I wouldn’t have to study for. But I wondered, if these computer things ever actually caught on and took off, there would be good money to be made protecting us all from people like my new friend. That was my very first introduction into a new world called computer security, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. But even more important, the first step towards my new life as a new and much different kind of monarch, the king of the buggers. A new road indeed, winding and treacherous and full of highwaymen, and little sun.

By the time I’d finished college two years later, little had changed, in Ireland or in me. I was still lost, bored, and increasingly rebellious and itchy-footed. I longed for the road again, the freedom, the excitement, the warmth, the friendships, the solitude. He travels fastest who travels alone, I would tell myself, because I’d read it somewhere and it sounded very smart. But two years of dreary college had done little to improve my chances or prospects because I knew my demons would never allow me to settle for a job and a workplace. Which was supposed to be the whole redemption plan in the first place.

I would have to work alone, as always, on my own and isolated from all those people I desperately needed to be around but just couldn’t bear to be. I would need to be an entrepreneur, I had decided, even if the conclusion really solved nothing. There would still be people to deal with. But I needed to tell everyone that I had some kind of plan.

That plan, like so many of my other signs, summoned me one day as I browsed bored in a newsagent on O’Connell Street and pointed me to something called Exchange and Mart.

E&M was a bulky tabloid-sized magazine in print for more than 100 years and consisting of just classified ads. Nothing more. No stories or features or commentary, no horoscopes or weather or politics or recipes or scandals or breaking news. Just ad after ad, page after page, dozens to a page, hundreds of pages, a bazaar of the bizarre where you could buy, sell and find almost anything, from stamps to servants. If it wasn’t in Exchange and Mart, then it was probably because it didn’t exist.

As I flicked through the sticky inky pages on the bus home, my eyes fell on a quarter page advertisement about halfway through that was looking for agents and resellers for the newest and most exciting breakthrough in home security ever. A burglar-alarm-in-a-box using a novel new technology called ultrasonic. It was cheap, housed in an attractive but fake polished walnut case, and simply plugged into a wall. Perfect in a city plagued by burglars and break-ins, and perfect for an entrepreneur who knew nothing about electricity.

Within a few months I was selling the walnut boxes to family, friends, neighbors and eventually small businesses and shops. The alarm was crude and unreliable but it was cheap and made a lot of noise when aroused. I wasn’t making much money but I was at least forcing myself to try, and even more important, forcing myself to engage with complete strangers. And practice my pretending, a skill that would prove vital as my kingdom of the buggers expanded its sphere of influence.

All roads lead to somewhere, another gem I’d learned from the road, even if the end was nowhere special, and the most exciting way to travel is sometimes to just take the road without knowing beforehand what lay at the end of it. Selling cheap ultrasonic burglar alarms led to selling cheap surveillance cameras, and that all led to a meeting with the manager of the Clarence Hotel on Wellington Quay, now owned by the band U2,  and an unusual request for some assistance on a very particular matter.

“I’m not looking for a real security camera,” said the manager, “Not the obvious kind.” He had a problem not with intruders but with insiders, he said, employees of the hotel spiriting away expensive cuts of meat and bottles of whisky and costing the hotel a large part of its meager margins.

He was convinced that the meat was being stolen from the kitchen and the whiskey from the basement, and most likely that both passed through the employee locker room on their way out of the building.

“This is where we’ll catch the feckers,” he said, standing in the locker room and staring at the ceiling “If we could only hide a camera in this room and catch them in the act?”

“I could imagine,” I said, not caring about the gross intrusion it might create and the war if it was ever discovered. We could hide it in that smoke detector, I joked, and maybe even add a microphone to hear them talking about it too. The manager’s eyes lit up “God if you could do that!”

It would be great, I thought, but I couldn’t, because it was a joke, but of course I didn’t say that. Instead, as would become my usual reply to every single unusual request “I’ll see what we have, and I’ll get back to you.” That conversation about stolen meat and whiskey at the Clarence Hotel started my search for that tiny camera that I didn’t know existed, and ended up at the train station in Dundalk where it was crystal clear that such a camera did indeed exist.

The tiny French camera with the curiosity for bombs was my first introduction into a dark and malevolent world, one that not only satisfied my curiosity and my need to make a living,  but also helped provide cover for my increasingly boisterous demons. And for the first time exposed a new craving, the need to be a man of importance, a man to be reckoned with, a knower of secrets. Something to scratch the itch until my coronation.

For any amateur spy who wanted to start building a reasonably professional collection  of tools and gadgets of the trade, there were really only two good places to start. The Sunday Times, and my new sidekick, minion and familiar, the Exchange And Mart. Each Sunday the back section of the Times hosted a page or more of small classified ads that usually included an ad or two offering  covert surveillance devices of questionable legality but cheap and discreet and delivered quickly.

Sometimes the ads from the more reputable vendors came with a warning that while it was illegal to use these bugs and wiretaps, it was perfectly legal to sell them, buy them, and possess them.

E&M didn’t just have an ad or two for bugs and wiretaps, but dozens and dozens, of all types and for all purposes and all very affordable. Affordable enough to experiment with. After more than a month of procrastinating, and not only over whether the bugs would be traced to my parents house and I’d be arrested for dealing with proscribed technologies, but also that it would all be junk anyway and an embarrassing waste of money, I dipped my lily-white toe into a new and seedy world of covert electronic surveillance. A dip I had no idea would ripple across the world.

There were bugs and microphones and wiretaps and transmitters for as little as four pounds, but hardly surprising my first purchase was a little extravagant. A crocodile-skin belt with a gold tone buckle that hid a tiny electret microphone. The cable from the microphone ran inside the stitching of the belt, around to the back where it reappeared and connected to a small, voice-operated tape recorder that could quietly record up to two hours of conversations.

The price was thirty pounds but I felt it was worth the risk because even if the microphone didn’t work, I would still own a possibly real crocodile belt with a genuinely gold tone buckle. Not to mention a tiny tape recorder too. So I plunged, mailed the postal order to a company called Glideglen in South London and in less than two weeks the bulging brown parcel arrived and as expected, I was now indeed the owner of a brown crocodile belt.

Much to the aggravation of my entire family, my fancy new belt worked perfectly, as I recorded multiple farts and replayed them in front of the fire and with perfect clarity. But even greater annoyance was to follow. When I realized that while my new source in London was genuine and reliable, one single recording crocodile belt would not be nearly enough to build a surveillance empire and a road that I was now clearly stumbling blindly down.

Within months my savings were drained as I added more than a dozen new tools, in spite of still not having a single customer or any plan to win one. I had a collection of transmitters – one disguised as a wall plug, one a calculator, another a ballpoint pen, as well as a growing collection of telephone tapping and surveillance devices that could broadcast phone conversations hundreds of yards away or record them as soon as a phone line was lifted and the electrical current changed.

And rounded out with an impressive collection of surveillance microphones. Like spike mics – long needles that could be drilled through walls and which I found out later were exactly the same ones used to end the Balcombe Street siege in London a decade earlier. Caught in an addictive frenzy, I added window contact mics that could capture the vibrations of conversations on glass and record them, and a parabolic mic that could capture conversations on a busy street from hundreds of feet away just by pointing the microphone at the crowd. In my parents house, for many months, no conversations could be considered private or safe.

My first customer was a dimly-lit but jovial provider of security guards who eventually offered me space in his office in exchange for free use of my growing toolkit. I wasn’t sure why he hadn’t figured out that he could have purchased the same devices in the same places for the same price as I did, and for about the same as a month’s rent, but I never asked.

My second client was a private investigator and after a few months of jobs and chats and charming, asked me if I would consider doing a sizable and risky favor. Not for him, he assured me, but for someone even more important. Other detectives, real detectives. The Murder Squad.

According to the investigator, the purveyor of security guards and my current landlord was being investigated by a police division formerly known as the Technical Bureau but for unknown reasons now preferred to be known as the Murder Squad, which seemed like a much better choice. They were looking into allegations that my landlord had been posing as another detective, the police kind, and even carrying a gun.

The favor, though, was preceded by a question – whether I had access after hours to the basement of the office building when the main phone junction for the entire building was located. I did, I said. The favor, he said, was that if I wouldn’t mind, the murder squad would like to tap my landlord’s phone line. But seeing as I had access, trust, and the necessary skills and equipment, if I wouldn’t mind saving them the warrant and the risk and doing the job myself. They couldn’t pay me, he said, but they’d owe me. And that might be worth so much more.

In return, he assured me, the murder squad would be more than happy to make a very forceful introduction to their colleagues in the Phoenix Park and the secretive home of all police covert surveillance in Ireland. I’d been trying for months to get a meeting with the technical squad and their offer was just too good to say no to. I rarely said no to anything anymore anyway, my impulses had generally lost any control, and besides, no one ever wants to make enemies with something that calls itself The Murder Squad.

After a late-night meeting in the backseat of a car with one of the squad, and a quick look at his credentials, I agreed to their request. A few nights later, close to midnight, I let myself into the building, fought my way across the piles of old furniture and dust-covered file boxes that filled the basement almost to the roof, where I found the telephone junction box for the entire building.

It wasn’t hard to identify the target phone line from all the rest, they were all numbered by office, and in a matter of minutes I installed a small black plastic wiretap, encased in melted resin, that would allow the murder squad to eavesrop on any phone calls and without any further intervention from me.

A week later, I was sitting amongst the gadgetry of the Technical Bureau and laying my wares out across the table in front of the spooks and as I’d learned from the souks. I was hoping that the Sergeant in charge wouldn’t ask me any detailed questions, or else he’d quickly realize that all I knew about the devices in front of him was what was printed in the installation instructions.

I had everything in my collection heavily marked up, by 500% in some cases, justified by the fact that as I became more picky I would travel in person to the manufacturers in south London to do my buying. Buying in person also meant there was no chance the merchandise would be intercepted in the mail. Or by my parents.

Still unable to fly because of the same excruciating ear pain I experienced on that first flight to Paris, each trip to London was a long and expensive day each way. It would start with a ride to the ferry port in Dun Laoghaire, a very bumpy ferry ride for hours across the Irish Sea from Dublin to Hollyhead in Wales, and a train all the way across Wales and England to Euston Station in London. A trip made all the worse if the Irish Sea was stormy. And it always was, and which usually meant I’d miss my London train and spend another half day waiting in an empty train station.

But not flying had its own advantages. It allowed me to avoid crowds, those people I feared so much, to keep my distance, not have to make conversation with strangers, avoid unnecessary eye contact or close proximity. And the trains and ferries always brought me back to the road and the sun even if they still raced through the damp and the gloom.

A 500% markup felt like a fair compensation for all the inconvenience of my undisclosed medical condition. The Sergeant at the Technical Bureau wasn’t sympathetic, sneered at everything I showed him, and politely declined to purchase anything. Nothing new here, he grumbled. Not very sophisticated either. The bugging briefcase you’re asking a grand for, he said, sure I could build it myself for a hundred quid. And a better briefcase too. It would be our first and last encounter but not our last dealing.

A couple of weeks later the private detective said he had a client in Cavan, about seventy miles north of Dublin, who had some delicate security matters I might be able to help him with.

The client was a successful young grain hauler who couldn’t understand why he was being constantly outbid on hauling contracts by a local rival, and suspected that the culprits might be on his own payroll, under his very roof, in the very next office.

Not sure which employee was the traitor or on which phone line the treachery was happening, we agreed that a few Sundays later when the business was closed, I would place a wiretap on all twelve phone lines coming into the business. I fished the wiring from all twelve lines through a hole at the back of the telephone junction box, into the boss’s office next door, and finally through the back of the bottom drawer of the steel filing cabinet where a bank of twelve, long-playing, dial-activated tape recorders just patiently sat and waited.

And so it grew, never big but just busy enough, as a growing number of telephone tapping and office bugging scandals sent business owners into a state of surveillance paranoia. It seemed like everyone was tapping everyone else’s phones. The police had only recently been caught illegally tapping the phones of prominent and well-liked journalists on the instructions of less well liked politicians. That resulted in a national scandal, the resignation of senior ministers and police chiefs, and the near toppling of the government.

On the upside, it had made the entire country curious about the intelligence gathering capabilities of these little gadgets, and I was happy to satisfy their curiosity. But only for a short while. The requests became more questionable, sinister, and risky. And while my conscience was happy with the idea that I was only tapping and bugging with the consent of the owners and for the purposes of rooting out blaggards and embezzlers, it was still a seedy business and not becoming of a king.

And there were other growing considerations. After the failed attempt by the IRA to assassinate  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Brighton Hotel in 1984, a young Irishman traveling by ferry and train across Britain to collect increasingly sophisticated and legally questionable surveillance equipment increased the possibility of an exclusion order that would prevent any travel to the United Kingdom and maybe beyond.

That was not a list I ever wanted to be on and I needed to find other ways to make a living. And then the Murder Squad paid their debt.

 

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