Last night I woke with the smell of smoke in my nostrils. It wasn’t that acrid smell of wood burning, or the fatal fumes of a house fire. It was cigarette smoke of an unusual kind.
Straining to listen for an intruder, while trying to breathe normally and lie still, I pretended to be asleep, just in case he was still there. The house creaked and contracted, the usual noises of an elderly dwelling coping with a change of temperature, but no footsteps, no door opening, nothing unusual. I suppose I was relieved.
I remembered the first time I met him. I walked into the sitting room and he was stretched out full length on the sofa, he was long, highly-polished black brogues, grey flannel trousers, and a dark beige mac.
“I’m sorry, but exactly who are you? And why are you smoking in my house?”
He rose to his feet, his mac undone like some caped crusader, stubbed out the cigarette and handed me the lid of a favourite Wedgewood blue jasperware trinket dish.
“No ash trays. Sorry.” He looked genuinely apologetic. It wasn’t valuable, but I had a sentimental attachment to the piece, and it was priceless. There were four butts in the lid, and the latest edition emitted a thin spiralling plume of smoke. They were unusual cigarettes, un-tipped, and might have been self-rolled, there was an underlying smell of herbs, well cannabis to be precise, and burnt garlic, a strong brand maybe Gitanes or Camel.
“The door was open, I wanted to talk to you, so I came in and sat down to wait.”
We both knew this was a lie. I am meticulous about locking the door, and even if I hadn’t locked it, it was the sort of door that locked itself when you shut it.
“So what do you want?” It was strange, I should have felt fear, instead, I was annoyed. This man looked professional, he was clean, tidy, and I guessed his job was stressful, or he wouldn’t have been smoking, it was so unfashionable most had given it up.
“There’s a security issue with your computer, I hope you don’t mind, but while I was waiting, and to save time, I’ve fixed it.”
“What was the problem?” We both stood, I didn’t want him to stay, and he was polite enough not to sit without an invitation, at least in my presence.
“Your computer had been taken over and was part of a network of computers being used to hack into the Pentagon.”
“But you’re not American?”
“No, I’m British intelligence.”
“Intelligence?” My wry grin did nothing to help the situation, I hadn’t directly accused him of lying again, but my expression said everything and he smiled. He had a great smile; it started with his mouth and spread up his face lighting up his grey-green eyes. He was about forty-years old, and had probably gone to a public school, followed by a military career and now intelligence. His hair was pepper and salt, more salt at the temples than pepper. It had body and bounce, and looked tousled, like a seven year old having just got out of bed, it was charming. He was charming, or maybe I was charmed by him, maybe that was his skill.
He didn’t produce any identity and I wasn’t sure, if he had, what a genuine identity card looked like. “I’ve prepared a list of internet sites you should avoid visiting.” I looked down the list, and there was an American site I had visited several times, it was a good source of reference to all the conspiracy theories about the death of President Kennedy.
I nodded, and stood aside, indicating he could leave. I followed him to the front door, let him out and deadlocked the door behind him, although I now knew that it was about as secure as a garden gate.
He came again, several times, but I never saw him. I don’t think he ever smoked in the house again, but like the irremovable stains of the four cigarettes on the porous Wedgewood, the effects of smoke on his clothes lingered on, and could only be removed with an air freshening spray.
After his third visit I set up a motion activated camera, it sent instant video clips to the clouds. I never quite understood the concept of clouds; it was probably a server in France or Belgium. The activity and clips were sent to my phone, so I knew when he had been and what he had done. I called a computer engineer to remove an additional widget from the motherboard of the computer. Well actually, I poured a cup of coffee into the computer and had the engineer replace the motherboard. It saved a lot of explanations, but cost a ridiculous amount of money.
I had decided that enough was enough and was planning how to put an end to this invasion of my privacy. I wonder now that I had been so accepting of his explanations at the time. Why had he stayed in my house to see me? Did discussing the problem give an implied consent to what had followed?
There was a debate taking place in the press about how innocent individuals were never caught up in these operations, and if you weren’t doing anything wrong you had nothing to fear. I was living proof that was untrue. I wasn’t a terrorist, had no links with terrorists, or sympathy with terrorists. I decided to use the latest clip of my tall intruder, coming through the front door with a clear picture of his face. The newspaper reporter arrived with a computer specialist and I told them my situation. The computer guy found another piece of kit had been added to my computer, and the Wi-Fi hub was also compromised. They didn’t seem surprised; it seemed like a routine finding. However, when I should them my video clip they were excited, this was the first evidence they had acquired.
“He said he was British intelligence.”
“Well, we’ll soon find out when we publish.” He consulted his watch. “I think we should probably send the file from the van, I wouldn’t want the information being diverted.”
They left and I waited to see what would happen next. There was no response to the piece, and the journalist said it didn’t matter, it was dripping water on a stone, one day the stone would break. I wasn’t sure I wanted the intelligence service broken, but I did feel a measure of control was needed.
Two months went by without a visit and then I found out why. There was an obituary in the Times, my commander had been killed in Gibraltar on active service a week after the newspaper piece. I recognised him instantly, even though the picture was several years old. Did they all sit for these obit. photographs, a slightly sideways pose, in their best uniform, looking composed. It was macabre. They never smiled. He was in MI5 and highly respected.
I felt guilty, had publishing his face put his life at risk? I didn’t understand what he was doing in my house, and why anything needed to be added to the computer, couldn’t they have just hacked in and placed some virus, or software on the machine? I would never have known then, and perhaps it would have been better had he not introduced himself. Why had he wanted to meet me? Was it an assessment? In a perverse way I missed my mysterious visitor, I stopped setting up the computer camera, and went back to my ordinary life, copy writing for work, and exploring conspiracies for fun. Like a good detective novel, with enough pieces of the jigsaw, I liked the puzzle solving.
I went back to the American internet site he warned me not to go to, and just in case my computer had been taken over, I would turn off the internet when the computer was not in use.
I thought that was the end of the matter. But last night he came into my bedroom and watched me sleeping.
I wanted to know was he alive? Or was it his ghost?