N1 : The Law In Action
The prospect of helping to liberate about 170 stolen works of art sent Iktar on a culture kick. We studied the collections of photographs of Mr. Harthorn's collection then we travelled the art galleries of the world, looking at other paintings by the same artists.
After the first couple of days, we were agreed that the Texan either had somewhat Catholic tastes in art or he was influenced more by price tag than content. Most of the paintings in the Harthorn Collection were worth having but it also included some vastly overblown religious works, which Iktar and I both found a waste of paint, and some uninspiring 'modern' pictures, which we agreed were a total waste of time.
When the inner core of General Frosch's private army assembled in Austin, Texas, on the day before the recovery operation, Iktar and I were in a thoroughly clued-up condition, artwise. Tolshivar seemed content not to be an art expert and nobody could tell how much, or how little, Frosch really knew about the subject.
We had been expecting to be housed in some vast company hospitality apartment in the business district of Austin. Instead, we found ourselves tucked away discreetly in a modest but surprisingly comfortable motel on the outskirts of the city. As our needs are pretty non-existent, there was no sense of roughing it, just mild curiosity at how people live if they are off the company hospitality bandwagon.
Iktar was very interested in the famous bug, which Frosch had planted on one of the stolen paintings at the beginning of the week to trigger the whole business. Frosch enjoyed irritating her by being mysterious and promising that all would be revealed at the proper time. Eventually, when Iktar threatened to sabotage the operation unless she received a full briefing, Frosch relented.
"The thing about stolen art is there's a trend to divide it into E's and M's these days," Frosch said as he flicked though a set of postcard-size prints of photographs of the Harthorn Collection. "Entires, which are complete canvases on their original stretcher, or a replacement, and Mutilated, which have been cut out of a frame and then stuck on another canvas so they can be put on another stretcher and displayed."
"The E's being more valuable than the M's?" said Iktar.
"Like the difference between mounted mint and unmounted mint stamps?" said Tolshivar.
"Pretty much," said Frosch. "There's more work involved in stealing and moving an unmutilated painting, hence the premium. So anyway, what I've done is replace one of the wedges in the stretcher of an E. The new one looks just like the old one but it's got the bug in it."
"That makes better sense than trying to drill a hole in a frame," said Iktar.
"That's what the insurance company thought," said Frosch. "And they liked it better than the label idea."
"This is one that disappeared in Berlin in 1945," Iktar said as she studied a photograph of a two foot by one foot portrait of a woman in a posh frock. "One the Russians looted and then claimed was destroyed in the bombing."
"That should start an ownership battle," Tolshivar remarked. "The Germans wanting it back. Someone else claiming they looted it and also wanting it back. And probably the heirs of some Russian general saying it really belongs to them."
"Or the Russian state wanting it as war reparations," I added.
"The lawyers are going to be rubbing their hands when the FBI bust Mr. Harthorn," Frosch agreed. "So anyway, the FBI have got about a hundred people spread about the area, all ready to crash in on Harthorn at six tomorrow morning. Our part of it is to go in at ten tonight to do another check on the alarm systems. Make sure they're unchanged and we can zap them to order. And then we have to be there when the bust goes down to make sure that nothing happens to the pictures."
"Does that include using our hralsahr weapon to stun anyone who looks like he's about to press the destruct button?" said Iktar.
"Preferably, from behind so he doesn't see you," said Frosch. "Non-lethal force preferred. Any questions?"
Nobody had any serious questions but that didn't stop us putting the General in his place with frivolous ones. When the time came, we checked, double checked then triple checked the alarm systems on Mr. Harthorn's ranch. Nothing had changed and he seemed to be relying on a lack of suspicion as his first line of protection.
The operation went off pretty much as planned -- except that the start time was brought forward to 5 a.m., about an hour before dawn. There was a lot less drama than I had expected. There were no armoured vehicles crashing through fences and doors, no blokes in flak jackets and backward baseball caps yelling, 'Armed police!' or the FBI's equivalent. Tolshivar, who was on watch outside the art gallery -- invisibly, at ground level -- reported later that there was just a tide of armed men in dark clothing swamping the buildings and doing everything purposefully and very quietly.
The ranch had two night security men. We knocked them out while both of them were lurking in the CCTV control room, having a coffee break, and we made a point of keeping out of sight when the FBI agents took the place over. The main vault door on the art collection was a formidable obstacle, and it had a time lock, but we had found an alternative way in via the air-conditioning system. The FBI agents had to remove a few fans and crawl through fairly large ducting but they were able to reach the gallery without trouble.
We watched Gram Harthorn being driven away in handcuffs, under arrest and mad as hell. And then we headed back to the motel to watch everything on TV and wait for Ms Gashe to turn up with the insurance company's thanks and a big cheque, or its electronic equivalent.
By the time we got back to the motel, the media were in a feeding frenzy around the ranch. Gram Harthorn's lawyer was keeping the TV trucks off his client's property, which left them stuck about a mile and a half from the action at the closest point, but TV helicopters were another matter. Unfortunately, there was very little of interest for them to see.
Frosch told us that there would be no furniture vans arriving to remove the stolen paintings. The FBI had decided to keep everything in the gallery, where the conditions for preserving old paintings were excellent, until the ownership issues had been sorted out. All the TV helicopters could show was vehicles parked around the ranch buildings and people moving about in FBI hats and flak jackets.
Ms Gashe arrived at the motel at around lunchtime to find us watching a film about an alien invasion of Planet Earth rather than the relentless TV coverage of the non-event at the Harthorn ranch. Lucinda Gashe was looking both excited and a little cheesed off. One of the company's higher-ranked executives had taken over from her once the operation had been completed successfully. He was liaising with the FBI, not her.
Frosch was still himself but the rest of us had remodelled ourselves to match characters in the film just in case Ms Gashe knew what the Hadukar and the other London-based 'aliens' looked like. She inspected us with great interest, unaware that any data which she gathered about Frosch's associates had a very limited sell-by date. She accepted a large gin and tonic from Frosch and helped herself to a generous slice of Hawaiian pizza from the food on offer. Like the rest of us, she tackled it on a proper plate with a knife and fork.
Iktar led the questioning about the unseen parts of the operation. The search warrant, for instance, had been signed by a judge who was officially on holiday. He had signed the warrant at his hotel last night -- and then he and his wife had been confined to the room with an FBI guard as a security precaution. The judge had been a bit sniffy about the guard but he had accepted the brief inconvenience as the price of a free holiday. Details of where the signals from Frosch's bug had been found had been sufficient to justify a search warrant against one of the wealthier residents of the local area.
Ms Gashe's company was to get special treatment over stolen paintings which they had insured as a quid pro quo for supplying the information on which the FBI triumph was based. She was expecting a promotion and a big bonus. We were getting a pile of cash and no publicity. Only Mr. Harthorn was on the losing side, but that was his own fault for being a criminal.
Refreshed by her drink, two slices of pizza, some ice cream and black coffee, and having satisfied our curiosity to the best of her ability, Ms Gashe fired up her computer and contacted her bosses in the UK via the Internet. They seemed quite happy about paying us without delay. I suspected that this was partly because they were getting an excellent deal and partly to ensure that Frosch and his allies didn't spirit the paintings away and hold them to a larger ransom.
Ms Gashe left to enjoy the rest of her brief working holiday in the United States. The rest of us headed for home, leaving Frosch to tidy up a few remaining threads locally.
The next time we saw Frosch -- a couple of days later, on Bill Shakespeare's birthday -- he had news on another matter. The CIA, it seemed, had tipped off the Russians about the Asian warlord who had bought one of their battlefield nukes. The Russians had been very quick to launch a covert operation against his mountain headquarters.
Using the methods which British commandos had used with great success in Afghanistan, they had gone in hard and fast to recover the nuke without publicity and to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that it had got out of their control in the first place. But that wasn't General Frosch's main news.
CIA had just received a report back from a Polish agent, he told us. The Russians had examined the recovered nuke and they had been amazed to find that it was full of defective components -- to the extent that it would never have worked. The generals of the modern Russian army were assuming that it was a typical screw-up from the old Soviet era, when producing goods in large numbers had been what mattered, not whether or not they worked.
"So they're now busy checking all the missiles and stuff they haven't got round to decommissioning to find out if any of it works," Frosch finished.
"Should keep them busy," remarked Tolshivar.
"And on the plus side," Frosch added, "they can score some points internationally for pretending they've deactivated the nuclear shell they got back from the warlord and taken it off their inventory, thus making the world a nominally safer place."
"Brilliant," said Iktar. "How's our friend Harthorn getting on?"
"They set his bail at thirty-two million dollars." Frosch put on a mocking smile. "He was out of gaol before Ms Gashe turned up for her free lunch on Sunday."
"So he's skipped the country by now?" I said.
"No, they froze all his assets," laughed Frosch. "So all he's got is what's in his secret bank accounts. And the last I heard, his lawyer reckons he's bound to get off on some sort of technicality."
"They'll be giving him the paintings back next," scoffed Iktar.
"Don't laugh," said Frosch, "his lawyer's going to demand that for anything they can't prove is stolen. Although, I gather the FBI is going to hold out for confiscating the entire collection and his ranch. And some of the museums and other places the stuff was stolen from are going to sue him for compensation. For depriving them of access to their property."
"Usual story," said Iktar. "The lawyers get rich and he'll get off with a slap on the wrist."
A week or so later, Frosch called at our apartment with more surprising news for us. He arrived at lunchtime as we were watching the news. The newsreader was trying to hide his disappointment after the reporter covering the May Day demonstrations in the posh bits of central London had admitted having no violence to report.
Frosch's news was that Gram Harthorn's version of 'Portrait of a Young Mother' by Antonio de Vicanza had been examined by experts from the museum in Ghent and shown to be yet another contemporary copy. It was still a valuable painting in its own right but it wasn't the one which the museum's directors had hoped to recover.
"The Belgian police have reopened their investigation of the theft," Frosch added, "and everyone's asking who's got the real painting."
"My bet is the Belgian thieves sold it to someone else," said Iktar. "And someone with a copy took the chance to swindle Harthorn."
"So it's something to go on Ms Gashe's next list," I said. "The Vicanza?"
"Looks like it," said Frosch. "Over in the States, Harthorn's been trying to get his alibis in place for the last few days. A whole bunch of them."
"Like what?" Iktar invited.
"That he had no idea the paintings were genuine and he thought they were all copies. Or, aliens told him that they'd bought them secretly in deals which museums couldn't admit and he's just a custodian for the artworks, ..."
"Like it," laughed Iktar.
"Or all the original paintings came from deals struck by the appropriate governments for a share of alien technology. Further, he didn't think it would be safe to say no to the aliens when they asked him to look after them."
"Is it a plea of insanity he's working towards?" I asked.
"Or he was threatened by the aliens," Frosch continued. "Or he was threatened by someone who said he was working for the aliens ..."
"So where's all this going?" I asked.
"You're right," said Frosch, "I think the guy's trying to convince a jury that he's a harmless nut case or he's a victim of ruthless people. Or even that he thought he was working for US government agents who were making a deal for alien technology for the good of the American people."
"And we're supposed to believe the US government couldn't stash them in a secure area? Or somewhere that doesn't exist, like Area 51?" said Iktar.
"He reckons they picked him as a custodian of the paintings because no one would ever think they'd use him," said Frosch.
"Devous!" I said with a laugh.
"And the aliens reckoned his bunker would be more secure and leak-proof than an official government or military installation."
"Well, I suppose stranger things happen at sea," I said. "So anyway, how's your pal Ms Gashe? Feeling on top of the world now she's been proved right? Even though she got shunted aside somewhat?"
"I should think her company's feeling pretty chuffed. They reckon wherever they've paid out on an insurance claim, they've effectively bought the picture and it's theirs. And some of the stuff has gone up in value considerably since the settlement. So they stand to make a tidy profit out of the whole deal."
"Maybe we should suggest they pay us a bonus based on this added profit as a goodwill gesture," said Iktar.
"Already done," Frosch told her. "I think they've got more jobs coming up and they want to keep us sweet."
"What, more vast lists of suspects to check out?" I asked.
"More they have usual suspects and they want to monitor them periodically to see what they're up to. Especially after something good goes missing."
"And we're still Earthers with technology, not aliens?"
"Aliens have got a bit of a bad name at the moment. Too many imposters flying around."
"Iktar was telling me all the UFO magazines were going out of business last year because no one was reporting UFO sightings any more. But all that's changed since we came along."
"A bunch of rum buggers, these Earthers," laughed Frosch. "Going back to the aliens, as a sort of fall-back position, I'm prepared to admit we have access to some alien technology. We rent it from aliens looking for spending money. But I'm hoping we won't have to go there."
"Keep the cover story as simple as possible, to quote Iktar," I said. "Okay, I'm sure that will work for the rest of us."
N2 : Hideouts & Stakeouts
Iktar had been keeping an eye on what people were saying about the aliens on the Internet. Her particular favourite, after The Black Flag anarchist website, was called L.R.A.A. -- the London Review of Alien Affairs. The website had a curiously formal style which made it look like a stuffy, official publication. Once you started reading the material, however, the chaotic nature of the content became apparent.
The Big News of the Day on L.R.A.A. was that someone had identified a number of addresses in London as places where the aliens hung out. They were all apartments in posh buildings in posh or semi-posh areas. One of the addresses looked familiar and Iktar rang Frosh to ask him if he'd seen the so-called information.
General Frosch was amused to find that six of the eight apartments were nothing at all to do with his companies. The remaining two were his -- they were company hospitality apartments similar to the others on the list. Neither of Frosch's apartments was currently occupied by genuine 'aliens', but Tolshivar had lived at the apartment whose address had registered on Iktar's memory.
The next day, Frosch called round at our apartment, catching me just arriving after a trip to a bookshop and Iktar on her way out on some mysterious mission which she didn't feel like discussing with her co-tenant.
"What's she up to?" Frosch remarked to me as he checked through the titles of the brand new, unopened, unread hardbacks, looking for interesting ones.
"The only way to find out would be to follow her," I replied. "If you dare."
"I don't think I need any medals for bravery," laughed Frosch. "Did you know the meeja are busy checking out the addresses on that website?"
"I thought August was the silly season, not May?"
"Not any more when there's more space than there is news to fill it. Yes, the newshounds have found that three of the flats are unoccupied at the moment, including our two. They got the bum's rush at the others."
"Isn't that a violation of the freedom of the press?"
"Not when it violates the freedom of the individual. They had reporters staking out entrances and car parks at the other buildings. Until the police started arresting them on suspicion of being muggers pretending to be reporters."
"That was a good idea," I said with a laugh.
"Oh, it gets better," said Frosch. "When they'd proved who they are, the reporters, the police warned them the charge will be behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace if they get people worried about muggers hanging around, even if they are reporters."
"So the newshounds' next big idea was to set up observations posts with a view of the apartments themselves, which are all on upper floors or penthouses."
"More violation of the freedom of the individual."
"They seem to have three basic strategies for that. They try to borrow an apartment as a favour from someone, they buy access from an existing tenant or they approach the landlord or a letting agency to get hold of an empty flat."
"I hope they're being charged an appropriately extortionate fee."
"No worries about that," laughed Frosch. "Their only problem is they're trying to spy on apartment blocks where very rich people live. So they're have trouble buying themselves in."
"And I'm working to make it better," said Frosch. "The strategy is to let anyone who lets them in as a favour to spy on a neighbouring tall building know that they could be sued for breaking the 'unreasonable conduct' clause of their lease. And any landlords who are tempted to give the press houseroom will be threatened with sanctions and a boycott and loss of income."
"Sounds like you're taking this quite personally, Frosch."
"If they get away with spying on someone else, it could be us next. It's called getting your retaliation in first, Preth. So what I want you do to this evening is help me do some lurking round the places the press are using so that we can expose what they're doing to the full glare of publicity."
"Sounds like this is going to cause a lot of trouble," I decided. "We'd better see if Iktar wants to get involved."
Iktar and I were totally unprepared for what followed. We did our spot of lurking and Frosch took shots of watchers with telephoto lenses using his own telephoto lens. And then everything went quiet for about a week. The companies concerned moved everyone out of the hospitality apartments named on the Internet and put them somewhere with equal status. The reporters spent a lot of time hanging doing nothing about on expenses. Then the trouble started.
Frosch had recruited a small army of private investigators to follow the newshounds when they were off-duty. Worse, he had done the same to their editors. The Big News of the Day on L.R.A.A. suddenly became an exposé of the secret lives of the news gatherers. The eventual outcome, by Iktar's count, was a couple of divorces, a lot of less formal relationships going up in smoke, a couple of sackings and one actual prosecution for abuse of expenses. Plus a whole lot of embarrassment for the people who normally embarrass others.
Worse for the newshounds, they had as little control over what was being said and written about them as the people who suffer exposure in the print media and on TV.
While a lively debate was going on about freedom versus intrusion, the story took another twist. A gang of bogus asylum seekers invaded one of the empty apartments and claimed political asylum -- not from the British government but from the aliens!
The unfortunate owners of the property (it wasn't one of ours) rushed to the courts to have the invaders thrown out. Unfortunately, a trio of publicity seeking civil liberties lawyers took up the case of 'five victims of society' on a pro bono basis and the squatters stayed put.
The owners of the property railed about the inadequacies of the law but they received a marked lack of sympathy from the news media, who became welcome guests at the squat. One of the tenants on the same floor had been persuaded to invite the newshounds in to the building as her guest. And once they were past the front-door security, there was nothing to stop the reporters from visiting another apartment.
A week of court battles went by. And then a posse of uniformed police officers and a detective inspector arrived at the building armed with arrest warrants. The security man on the door let them in and stood out of the way. The squatters opened the door for the copper in plain clothes, thinking that he was another of their benefactors. They were out of the building and being driven away in a police van before the first lawyer and her train of newshounds arrived.
Frosch was looking indecently pleased with himself when he dropped in on Iktar and me, knowing that we would be watching the Saturday lunchtime TV news. By then, we knew that the squatters had been arrested for causing criminal damage to the apartment on the basis of video evidence of them doing it! Frosch had set up a system of mini-cameras in the eight rooms of the apartment while the squatters had been sleeping off a night's boozing. The owners of the building had then edited together a highlights tape showing the squatters abusing their property.
Of course, the civil liberties lawyers had the 'Asylum Five' out on bail by the middle of the afternoon. Frosch, Iktar and I were there, invisibly, when they arrived back at the apartment block, where they were refused entry. Eight security guards were on duty to keep them out. The lawyers try to argue that their clients had been arrested unlawful and they should be allowed to resume their squat. They got no change out of the security guards and they had to retired, defeated, with cameras rolling or flashing away.
Naturally, the matter went back to court on Monday morning but the judge refused to make an order restoring the status quo ante. Worse, the Home Secretary had received a shower of hostile emails over the weekend and he was making noises about deporting the migrants if they were convicted of a criminal offence. The newspapers and the TV news services were giving the 'Asylum Five' less sympathetic treatment now in response to a wave of public outrage. Their accountants were worrying about rumours of boycotts and a loss of advertising revenue.
Frosch's revenge on the lawyers came a couple of days later. It began with a mass invasion of their offices by a small army of trouble-makers. Frosch had paid £200 apiece to around one hundred skinheads and similar characters, and told them to make nuisances of themselves. His army occupied the premises of each of the lawyers. A group of about thirty evicted the occupants and barricaded themselves inside each office suite, having taken the precaution of bringing along plenty to eat, drink and smoke. Frosch had offered them £100 apiece for each additional day of occupation and he was expecting each siege to last three or four days.
Frosch had also handed out phone cards and lists of numbers to about fifty more trouble-makers. Their orders were to make nuisance calls from phone boxes until the cards ran out. And as a final touch, the lawyers all suffered serious car trouble. In each case, they found that the metal blocks of the vehicle's engine had been shattered and the doors wouldn't open because their frames had been battered hard enough to knock then out of shape and lock the doors in a closed position.
Frosch called it a demonstration of people power at first. And when Iktar started arguing with him over whether the post-dead are still people, he changed it to alien power. I had a feeling that the intended message -- economic migrants shouldn't invade apartments belonging to aliens and then claim political asylum -- had got lost somewhere along the line. But a lot of the trouble had landed on people who had deserved it, and that was all that seemed to matter to Frosch and Iktar in their mood of self-righteousness.