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D1 : Al Italia

butterflyItaly in August, where everyone but the members of our group was sweating in the Roman sun and the temperature was above eighty for most of the day; where a bloke who tried to pinch Iktar's bottom found 5,000 Volts, but at a low current, travelling across his pinching digits; where General Frosch issued us with briefcases full of euro notes instead of corporate credit cards; and where Tolshivar got his face slapped when he turned down a prostitute in a hotel lobby and she got 10,000 Volts and enough current to scorch her palm and make her hair stand on end.
   Frosch had set us up in a rather grand house in a street of very elegant buildings. Our holiday home had a bar, no library and TV programmes in Italian or American. We had no staff to avoid and we kept the place well locked up to discourage uninvited visitors. As at home, we beamed in and out and we never darkened the front door.
   Frosch had made a thorough reconnaissance and he had 'suspects' for all of us to shadow. Xanthe was included in the watching jobs but she soon found better things to do. In effect, she went on an 18th Century style Grand Tour. Our task, for the workers, was to find out which of five government officials was the one who was sneaking away for meetings with the rival alleged aliens.
   The jobs left us with abundant free time on our hands. The officials seemed to have plenty to do in their own or other people's offices and they attended strings of totally boring meetings for a non-Italian speaker. We became quite adept in the art of parking our official somewhere and nipping off for half an hour in search of something more entertaining.

butterflyIktar got lucky after three days of snooping and lurking. Her target was a rather tough-looking woman in her mid-thirties, who was high up in the Italian civil service and on her way further up. Iktar watched Giulia Amarni leave her office one lunchtime and join the mob on the streets.
   The woman seemed to be heading for a normal solitary meal at one of her usual lunching holes, a mid-price restaurant, but she went straight to the ladies' toilet, where she changed her dress, swapping office formal for something racier, and put a coppery wig over her jet black hair.
   The official left the restaurant via the kitchen, the back door and the service alley. A bloke on a scooter picked her up and drove her around for half an hour until he was satisfied that no one was following them. Then Signorina Amarni transferred to a car with dark tinted windows, which seemed designed to stop her looking out as much as stopping anyone looking in.
   The driver headed out of town. Half an hour later, in a sizeable neighbouring town, the official was moved to a small van, which headed into the hills. The van was delivering parcels. It delivered the official to a large house in its own grounds. The electrically operated front gate had a security post and the guards wandering around in the grounds, out of sight of the general public and nosy police officers, were carrying sub-machine guns.
   The government official, now wearing jeans and a light top and her own hair, and carrying a back-pack which was full of her previous disguises, scampered from the back of the van and into the shelter of the house. The front door was open for about four seconds. As the van was driving away, Iktar called Frosch on her mobile from behind a handy bush. Then she drifted inside the house to check out the lie of the land.
   Frosch arrived as the 'alien' was being prepared for another meeting with the government official. Apparently, the alien's minders were in the habit of keeping their visitor hanging around for a while to show her who was in charge.
   The 'alien' looked around forty, somewhat older than any of General Frosch's outfit, and he had a very un-Italian appearance. His face was pale, his hair was short and a very light ash-blond, and Frosch estimated his height at about six foot three and his build as 'nothing startling'. The man was neither skinny nor of body-builder bulk. His outfit was a sort of jumpsuit with a high collar, on which were alien badges of rank.
   There was a black box the size of a cigarette packet, with a keypad bearing alien symbols, attached to his belt on the right side, where it would be handy for him to tap the keys. He was wearing black boots and his trousers were tucked in to them to make him look a bit like a not very colourful member of the crew of Jim Kirk's Enterprise.
   Frosch did a little peering while the Italians tested their gadgets and learned that the 'alien' had a voice synthesizer built in to his jacket. The high collar kept miniature speakers just out of sight. The 'alien' also had a tiny radio receiver in his right ear so that his controllers could prompt him.
   Just before the meeting with the government official began, one of the handlers shook up a mixture of chemicals to produce a yellow-glowing brew, which he painted carefully on the eyelids and around the eyes of their 'alien', who was wearing yellow contact lenses, which glowed in bright light.
   During a subsequent post-mission briefing for the rest of us, Iktar told us that it was a pretty impressive performance on the make-up and technical fronts. The Italians had obviously viewed and learned from a copy of the video of Iktar in Goa'uld mode, which the North Road Mob had obtained by devious means.
   When the Italians were ready to proceed with their latest round of negotiations, Frosch asked Iktar to check up on who owned the house. She headed back to civilization leaving the General to study our rival. Frosch reported at the briefing session that the wily Italians had even constructed a special effects gadget in the corridor outside the meeting room. The device allowed them to create a high-quality beam-in and beam-out illusion which, in Frosch's opinion, would not have looked out of place in one of the TV magic extravaganzas filmed at Las Vegas.
   The Italian civil servant, in her casual outfit, was allowed to see the 'alien' appear out of nowhere in the corridor and they walked into the brightly lit meeting room together. The Italians had recreated a fair imitation of our own beam effect, with a rod of yellow light as the starting or finishing point. Frosch was rather superior about the quality of their transition from rod of light to full, solid form compared to ours, but it looked okay to me when I eventually saw it in action.
   Frosch was surprised to find that the discussions were held in English. He assumed that the Italian Government was being told that aliens were likely to consider English to be the major Earther language and that other languages were not worth learning. Signorina Amarni spoke fluent English with an Italian accent. The 'alien' sounded middle-American.
   The discussion itself turned out to be rather boring. This meeting was clearly a continuation of a previous one and Frosch soon lost interest. He had solved his problems over 'who' and 'where'. What he had to get on with at that point was deciding what to do about the rivals.
   News of a success cost us 20% of our team. Xanthe was 100% on holiday from that day on. Iktar told us that she had run into increasingly active obstruction during her mission to learn who owned the country house. She had run up against petty officials who spoke adequate English one minute and then knew only Italian the next. Left to her own devices, Iktar had learned only that the house was owned by a shell company. The ownership of the company remained veiled.

butterflyFrosch cleaved his Gordian Knot by picking a local journalist, Ernesto Fiore, and offering a trade of information. The man was in his early fifties and he had been around the block more than a few times. He knew a whole lot more than he could ever tell and he lived in hope of being able to get some of it into print over the obstruction of a timid editor and an even more timid publisher.
   Half a day later, we knew that the local equivalent of the Mafia was running the alien scam and Signor Fiore, the journalist, had a collection of individual portrait photographs of the gangsters and their 'alien', and Signora Amarni in her office wear, her transitional frock with the wig and her dressed-down, meeting-aliens outfit.
   Frosch knew that the story of the gangsters' operation was unlikely to see print in the newspapers right away. The bad guys had too much local influence. But they had no control over what people told one another in bars and cafés, or published on the Internet. The swindle would become common currency quite quickly. General Frosch wasn't the sort of person who settles for 'in time'.
   Back before the dawn of time, back in the Great War to end all wars, back in the autumn of 1915, a British lance-corporal had been killed on a raiding party sent behind the German lines on a night-time intelligence gathering mission. Getting on for a century later, Sokar Frosch of the Prime Order was all revved up to launch a daylight raid on a gangster boss's stronghold in full daylight.
   Of course, Frosch and the members of his present patrol had the obvious advantages of being able to sneak about unseen and of being invulnerable to the other side's weapons. There was a man at the front gate, who had a semi-automatic pistol and a pump-action shotgun; four men patrolling the grounds playing soldiers with their sub-machine guns while smoking their heads off; three staff in the house; the head gangster and his lieutenant and last, but certainly not least, the 'alien'.
   Frosch decided that we were going to set our phasers -- Iktar's modified version of the hralchiv weapon -- on 'stun' and beam in and out when we zapped the bad guys. His master plan was to neutralize the gangsters then expose the 'alien' and Signorina Amarni to the forces of journalism -- and ridicule if Amarni refused to co-operate.

butterflyWe had to wait out a weekend and a day before the next meeting between Signorina Amarni and the Italian 'alien'. At the start of a Tuesday afternoon, we had Signor Fiore and a photographer parked up the road from the gangsters' estate, awaiting a phone call, and we were poised to rain on the Italian gangsters' parade. General Frosch had performed the pre-mission recce personally and he had assigned targets to each of us.
   Tolshivar beamed in to the gatehouse and zapped the guard there. Then the four of us headed out into the grounds. Three of the guards there were sitting under trees and yakking into their mobile phones. The fourth was asleep on a shady bench. We zapped all of them in short order and left them unconscious and disarmed.
   Frosch and Tolshivar beamed in to the room where the gangster boss and his lieutenant were watching the latest meeting on CCTV. They were so intent on the monitors that they never saw what hit them, Tolshivar reported later. We left the staff alone as they were unarmed and harmless. After a final sweep of the house to make sure that we had full control, Frosch summoned the journalist.
   Signorina Amarni looked most indignant when Frosch strolled into the room with Signor Fiore, and the photographer started machine-gunning everyone with his camera. Indignation turned to outrage when Fiore told the government official about the voice synthesizer and wiped some of the glowing chemical off the fake alien's eyelid with a swab soaked in alcohol.
   Signorina Amarni looked like she had a monumental case of the hump by the time Fiore introduced her to the unconscious gangster and his lieutenant in the control room and gave her some highlights of the gangster's career. The lady's next stop was a private room containing a telephone.
   Half an hour later, the helicopters started to land. Signor Fiore and his photographer were long gone by then and we had locked the bad guys in a cellar room of their house. The staff were still at liberty but they were looking very nervous. Signorina Amarni was on her second cup of coffee and her third cigarette, and she had run up a considerable phone bill which she, typical political lackey, would not have to pay.
   She had found time to watch Iktar give a demonstration of the gangsters' beam-in and beam-out illusion and she was feeling a little foolish at being taken in so easily. But, as Iktar had remarked to me, fooling someone is easy when they're up for it.
   Just Frosch was left of our party when the Italian Special Forces arrived to isolate the house and its grounds. A guy in a black uniform and a black balaclava, Frosch told us later, aimed a sub-machine gun at the General while he asked Signorina Amarni if she was all right.
   At the debriefing, Frosch was rather apologetic about what happened next. He had been overcome by an impulse to be theatrical. Apparently, he waited until both Italians were looking directly at him, then he beamed out. He hung around, invisibly, for long enough to take note of bug-eyes and Italian expressions of incredulity, then he headed back to our base.
   And after that, we were all on holiday.

D2 : More of the Same

butterflyThe story in the newspapers on Wednesday morning was that gangsters with bogus alien technology on offer had tried to swindle the Italian government but they had been outwitted by a police undercover operation. There was no mention of real aliens in the accounts of the swindle and nothing about Frosch beaming out or the three others whom Signorina Amarni had seen with him. The whole thing had been 100% Italians on both sides -- good guys and bad guys. No stray Brits or aliens had been involved.
   Frosch seemed quite untroubled by our omission. He knew that the Italian Special Forces officer and Signorina Amarni had seen him leave their presence by beaming out -- and not by using trickery. The swindlers' guards, when interrogated, would report that they had been zapped by people who had beamed in right in front of them and then knocked them out, apparently without using weapons. Frosch had left behind evidence that the Italian alien was a fake but further evidence that the racket had been blown by people with technology which was currently available only to the writers of science fiction films.
    On Thursday morning, there was a lot of noise in the European Parliament when some malicious person revealed that a senior Eurocrat had been severely burned by a Mafia alien swindle and his officials had written off the lost EU-taxpayers' cash and covered the matter up -- but not well enough to prevent exposure.
   Back home, the British prime minister was wavering on the alien issue and being ridiculed for believing in aliens -- most hurtfully, by opponents in his own party. Yet, paradoxically, other governments were start to drop heavy hints that they might be in secret contact with representatives of an off-planet civilization.
   There was the global equivalent of the Cold War Space Race going on -- an Alien Race -- a race to be the first to make contact with visitors from elsewhere. But it was all very coy and off-the-record. It was a time when anyone expressing a belief in aliens was liable to be written off as crazy -- but no politician likes to be excluded from a good band wagon.

butterflyAbout a week after the Italian Job, Frosch found that he had to move again. On the evening of the last Wednesday in August, at a group meeting at the apartment shared by Iktar and myself, he told us that he had been receiving threatens from London-based representatives of the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Jakuza. Their message was simple: 'Do business with us or you'll not live to do business with anyone else'.
   "So what did you do about these threats?" Tolshivar asked. "Go round their office and spit in their eye? Proverbially if not literally?"
   "I did leave messages in their private offices telling them to think carefully before they act," Frosch said with a smile. "I'm now working on being less easy to find."
   "These gangsters, they're after our technology at a deep discount?" I asked.
   "Or free, if they can intimidate us enough," said Frosch.
   "Funny how gangsters want in on the ground floor while the politicians dither," said Xanthe.
   "Except, if it all goes horribly wrong," said Iktar, "the gangsters can get bones broken if people laugh at them. All the politicians can do is huff and puff."
   "Another thing I'm trying to do is get the strength of the opposition," Frosch continued. "Are they just pushing a few buttons to see what happens or are they going to be persistent? I need to know that."
   "Do they believe or are they just pushing a bit to see what happens?" said Iktar.
   "Right," said Frosch. "If the technology's real, they want it. If it's all a scam, like the Italian Job, then they want to take over the swindle."
   "Sounds reasonable. For gangsters," Tolshivar remarked.
   "So what I'd like," said Frosch, "is a bit of help with security for a few days."
   "One of us at your place when you're out, ready to zap any intruders?" said Iktar.
   Frosch nodded. "In one. Is anyone up for that?"
   "You'd better make sure your library's well stocked up," said Xanthe.
   "And the bar," said Tolshivar.

butterflyAs it happened, there were two of us on duty at Frosch's penthouse when the bad guys tried an arson attack, which could have taken out the entire building. The man himself was off looking at a penthouse in a newly fashionable area, which was probably going to become his next official base. Iktar had decided that the apartment-sitting would be less boring if she had company. As I had nothing better to do, I was elected.
   Frosch seemed to have about twice as many cable TV channels as we did, which seemed to be a result of greater imagination on his part than lack of opportunity on ours. Of course, most of them were showing repeats and pretty dreadful or worthy films. And a lot of them were sport or music channels, which Iktar refused to watch. But we were able to compromise with the good old Sci-Fi channel.
   In addition to cable TV, Frosch also had access to an impressive number of CCTV cameras around the building. Working out where the camera was aiming by decoding the numbers and letters in the corner of the picture was almost as much fun as watching proper TV. And if we put the security monitor next to one of Frosch's wide-screen TVs, we could do both at once.
   The security system included a facility for programming a sequence of views, which let a paranoid tenant watch out for people sneaking up on him. We were watching the end of a comical horror film on the Sci-Fi channel at the transition from Saturday to Sunday when Iktar spotted something happening on the security monitor. The only trouble was, the sequence of pictures had moved on by the time she found the right remote control. We decided to wait until that particular view came up again.
   "We did both see that, though?," Iktar remarked, trying to watch the horror film while giving some of her attention to the CCTV views.
   "It certainly looked like ninjas in that lift," I returned.
   "The thing that puzzles me is why," Iktar said through a frown. "I mean, if you go round dressed like that, isn't someone going to notice and phone the police? Expecially in a security-happy area like this."
   "Maybe they've killed everyone who's likely to see they by now," I suggested. "So they're not bothered any more."
   "Yeah, right!" laughed Iktar. "You've been watching too much rubbish on TV."
   "Look, there they are."
   Iktar was too late to stop a change of viewpoint but the next camera was in the lift which serviced the corridor shown by the previous camera. The black-clad, masked ninjas were somewhere at the back of the building and in a basement, and they were loading what looked like aluminium beer kegs into a service lift.
   "Fancy-dress party?" Iktar was suggesting as the picture jumped. Suddenly, the lift was empty. Iktar pressed a button on the remote control. The corridor was empty, too, even though we knew that it was full of ninjas. "Is this the old 'mount a photograph in front of the camera to make it look like no one's there' trick?" she remarked.
   "The only way to find that out is for someone to take a look," I said.
   "Your idea, you can go."
   I beamed out. The film's closing credits were rolling by the time I returned to Frosch's apartment.
   "You didn't miss anything," Iktar told me. "They just blew everything up in the end and all the monsters got killed. What's going on down there?"
   "I counted five of them plus another with a van," I told her. "The beer kegs are full and they're handling them very carefully. And they've got what look like electronic trigger devices at the bung hole."
   "So you reckon they're going to turn this place into a roof garden?"
   "I guess so, if the lift comes all the way up here. They've still got a keg to load. They were bringing it in from the van when I left."
   "I tried to ring Frosch but his mobile's switched off."
   "Looks like we're on our own. Reckon we can cope?"
   "What, there's only five of them?" Iktar said with a lazy grin. "No problem."
   "Don't forget the bloke in the van."
   Iktar switched Frosch's wide screen TV off. "Okay, we'll take him out last in case he's dangerous."
   The ninjas were positioning the last beer keg in the lift when we arrived. Two of them started the journey up. Iktar attended to them. I beamed in behind the ninjas in the corridor and started stunning them. They were still facing the lift when the first man collapsed. The last of them was actually shaping up to deliver a karate kick when I put him to sleep. The lift returned. Iktar told me to move one of the kegs to block the door and keep it open, then she beamed out, on her way to zap the driver of the van.
   Frosch got back to his soon to be abandoned home while the police were still wondering what to do about the kegs in the lift. By then, Iktar and I had stripped the gloves off the ninjas and their driver, who was wearing an ordinary white overall, and made sure that there were lots of fingerprints from all of them on the kegs.
   A bloke from the bomb squad was looking at the kegs nervously and telling the police officer in charge that he'd have to evacuate the entire building and the ones on either side of it before he dared to tackle the keg bombs.
   We let the police unmask the ninjas. They were all oriental types, and so was their driver. None of them had anything to say as the police photographed them and took their fingerprints prior to sending a bumper bundle to the Japanese embassy along with a request for help from the Japanese police.
   When we returned to Frosch's apartment, the area was packed with spectators, police officers and police vehicles. The fire brigade was represented and the news media were over-represented. Every jabroni in the country with a camera or a camcorder, it seemed, had turned up hoping to get a million-dollar shot of a tall apartment building being demolished by a massive terrorist explosion. As far as everyone not in the know was concerned, Irish terrorists had been foiled during an attempt to cause serious loss of life among London's wealthier citizens.
   We hung around watching for a while, then we began to feel tired. It had been a long day. Everyone went home and Frosch retired to his penthouse, figuring that he would be safe from gangsters if his building was empty and surrounded by about a million coppers -- and the bomb-disposal bloke wasn't feeling suicidal.

butterflyThe bomb plot received a lot of publicity, and no one apologized to the Irish when the villains were found to be a bunch of Japs. All that happened was that the news media started to crow about how the Metropolitan Police had rounded up a team of assassins with a past record of solid success. Brits one, Yellow Peril nil.
   By the middle of the next week, something else had come along to fill up the front pages -- a political scandal involving a member of the government who had been rehabilitated twice already and who had sinned yet again. Some commentators were saying that the prime minister was hoping for something to happen on the alien front to take some of the heat off him. He was in desperate need of good news but getting none.
   General Frosch had been active as far as plotting his revenge was concerned but idle as far as doing anything was concerned. He had drawn up a list of properties and expensive vehicles owned by London-based Yakuza and their helpers ahead of a campaign of serious demolition work. He was now letting a period of tension grow as he completed his move to another penthouse.
   Revenge was on the table, but not just yet.

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