My brief but brilliant career as a corporate spy began with a telephone call. (This was in 2005, when people still used telephones to make telephone calls.)
Male, mid-thirties, Argentine.
“Do you remember me?”
“Not really, no.”
“Nacho the accountant.”
(Said as one would say “Lancelot the Brave” or “Peter the Great.”)
A neuron flared somewhere. I did remember Nacho the Accountant. Ripe lips, perma-tan, vestigial mullet… suit and tie Monday through Thursday, polo shirt Friday through Sunday. I had taught him English for a few months back in 2003. Put aside his narcissism, extreme right-wing politics and near pathological complacency, and he was quite a nice guy.
“Nacho! Of course, of course. What can I do for you?”
“How would you like to make 1,000 pesos for the easiest day’s work in history?”
“What’s the catch?”
He just ploughed on. “Are you free next Tuesday?”
“I could be.”
“Do you own any good clothes?”
“Do you know anything about industrial espionage?”
“I’ll send you a briefing email tomorrow.”
Nacho had hung up without saying goodbye, something I thought only happened in the movies.
This is the first time I’ve told this story to anyone but my wife, and she never listens to me anyway. When it was all over, I had asked Nacho whether I could write about my experience. It had, after all, been extremely fishy and psychedelic. On the Hunter S. Thompson scale of fishiness and psychedelia, no more than a seven, admittedly. But for a middle-of-the-road square like me, it was good material.
“Write about it?” said Nacho, with a little more derision than I was comfortable with. “Of course you can’t write about it. Not now, anyway. Give it — I don’t know — seven years?”
Then he gave me 1,000 pesos in cash, flagged down a cab in the most obnoxious way imaginable, and vanished from my life.
Seven years have passed. I don’t know why I kept my side of the bargain. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always wanted to write, “Seven years have passed.” Or perhaps it’s because good stories are like good wines: You can put them aside for a while; forget about them; allow them to age, develop and perhaps even improve; and then bring them out with a flourish to mark some special occasion.
Before I’m done writing this story, my tenth anniversary of arriving in Argentina will have come and gone. That’s special enough for me.
Pass the corkscrew.
Nacho’s “briefing e-mail” (He clearly had a crapload of jargon he’d picked up from badly translated airport thrillers to get off his chest.) arrived as promised. It began with an apology: he hadn’t meant to scare the horses with all that stuff about “industrial espionage.” As if he’d drag me into something like that! No, no, no, no.
The job he had in mind merely involved industrial counter-espionage.
Having reassured me that any activities I undertook on his behalf would be counter-shady rather than shady-shady, Nacho launched into the backstory.
He had a client who owned a machine-tools factory in the northern marches of Buenos Aires province. A very rich man, Nacho explained. Also very important. (As Dickens observes in Martin Chuzzlewit, no one gets rich in the Americas without also getting important.)
Overwhelmed by his own importance or simply wearying of the machine-tools business, the factory owner had decided to sell up. With Nacho’s assistance, a buyer was quickly found.
And almost as quickly lost.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae here, not least because I don’t understand it myself. But here’s the gist. The buyer, who was German, had suddenly been struck by the thought that he didn’t really need a machine-tools factory in the pampas after all. More precisely, he claimed to have unearthed certain discrepancies between some stuff the factory owner had said about the state of the plant and some other stuff the buyer had heard from some other source. (Like I said, let’s not get bogged down.)
There’s no better feeling for a language teacher than when a former student deploys some arcane idiom you taught them. So, I was happy when Nacho described the owner as having “gone batshit.” He then told me how Mr Important had subsequently “cooled out” – that one needed a bit of work – and channeled his energies into devising a strategy to rescue the deal. This plan, hammered out by the owner in cahoots with Nacho and the factory’s managing director, was insane for any number of reasons, but for two reasons in particular:
First, it was premised on the assumption that the German’s “other source” could only be a mole within the factory’s workforce.
Second, it involved me. Wait, let me rephrase that. Second, it had me at its heart.
I’m sure you must appreciate the severity of this situation, Nacho wrote. So here’s what we want you to do…
Have you ever found yourself cruising over the pampas in a four-seater twin-engined light aircraft without having a clear idea how you got there? I recommend it to you; it’s a revelation. Nothing you ever discovered about the pampas at ground level can prepare you for just how fucking boring it is from 4,000 feet up. At least down there you can comfort yourself with the illusion that there may be a knoll or even a hummock over the horizon — only a day’s drive away, after all. But, up here, the hummock fallacy evaporates like so much cirrus. So flat is the terrain beneath, it seems almost taut, like a vast green and beige drum-skin stretched across the earth.
“Are you listening, Matt?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Roberto. I was just enjoying the landscape.”
“Beautiful isn’t it. So… empty.”
(One of the first things I’d learned about Argentines was that you could call their president a goat, their currency Monopoly money and Borges a hack. But on no account could you dis their topography.)
“Oh yes… so empty… But sublimely so, wouldn’t you say?”
Roberto inclined his head, clearly impressed that I had grasped the Tao of the thing so quickly. I liked him. We had met two hours before, in the VIP waiting lounge at Buenos Aires city airport. Perhaps I’d warmed to him because, unlike Nacho, he had managed to conceal his distaste for the jacket, tie, and trousers combo I had cobbled together. So short were the trousers, and so revolting the tie, I could easily have passed for a delegate en route to an Angus Young convention.
Nacho had introduced us. “This is Roberto. He’s the managing director of the factory. Once we’re on the plane, he’ll give you an in-depth briefing.”
Roberto had a shiny head, a neat mustache and a pair of trousers that came all the way down to his ankles. He looked like Artie Bucco from The Sopranos. Five minutes after shaking my hand he was telling me that both he and the factory owner had great faith in my abilities, a sentiment I had not heard expressed by my wife in almost a decade of marriage.
“Great faith,” Roberto had repeated. “Now let’s have some coffee and some cigarettes and then board that plane and get in the air.” These tasks we accomplished, in the order specified.
Nacho hadn’t been joking about the in-depth briefing. Aside from the aforementioned , much of the two-hour flight was devoted to rehearsing and re-rehearsing the role they had created for me.
“So let’s recap,” Roberto said, five or six coffees into the journey. “We have at least one mole on our payroll who is feeding confidential information to the German buyer.”
“Yes. Or rather, probably.”
Nacho cut in. “Not probably. We know.”
“We know,” Roberto said. “We also know that the buyer is playing games with us. He thinks that we think that he knows something to our detriment. If we do nothing, he’s going to lie low for a couple of weeks and then come back with a reduced offer, which he believes we will be forced to accept.”
“That’s quite possible,” I said.
“It’s certain. But here’s where you come in. You are no longer Matt Chesterton, English teacher. You are David Ferry.” Roberto was very pleased with the pseudonym he had devised for me, a portmanteau of David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. “A representative of an important British company that is interested in buying our factory.”
“What’s the name of the company?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Could it be Lydon Strummer, Inc.?”
“It really doesn’t matter. Our only concern is that the mole becomes aware of your visit to the factory today, that he becomes alarmed by what that might imply, and that he conveys that alarm to the German…”
“… who will then think we have another buyer lined up,” Nacho said, taking over. “The German will panic and come crawling back to us by Monday morning at the latest.”
“Well, that’s the hope,” I said.
“Is all this legal?” I asked, pretending not to care much either way.
Roberto spread his hands and uttered the three magic words:
“This is Argentina.”
A man I was instructed not to address picked us up from the airfield in a vintage limo and drove us to the factory.
“Where’s the owner?” I asked.
“You won’t meet him yet,” Roberto said. “He’s probably holed up with the French chef going through the menu.”
“What French chef?”
Ignoring the question, Roberto waved me toward the factory entrance. By now I was feeling a little heavy in the bowels. I couldn’t decide which was more scary — the possibility that I might fail to pass myself off as a top-echelon executive, or the possibility that I might succeed.
(My other concern, that being dressed like a dick might torpedo my credibility, lasted as long as it took for us to don hard hats, protective coveralls and safety goggles. Now everyone looked like a dick.)
A good chunk of the workforce seemed to have been press-ganged into greeting me in the lobby, which was bare except for a couple of starving potted plants in opposing corners and a coffee machine parked in front of a laminated health and safety poster. I shook hands and brushed cheeks with typists, secretaries, foremen, union reps, cleaners and, for all I knew, industrial secret agents.
But no owner. Presumably he was still adjusting sauces with Alain Ducasse.
And then onto the factory floor we flowed, my entourage and I. Here we found ourselves among several dozen employees, most of whom were helping big machines make little machines.The cacophony was strangely soothing — it’s so much easier to be someone else when you’re wrapped in polypropylene and forced to yell just to make yourself heard.
Standing my ground at the head of the party I cast a slow and, I hoped, penetrating gaze around the facility. I did some nodding and quite a lot of lip pursing, in the manor of a minor royal who’s been trained to show interest in things that can be of no interest to him whatsoever.
“Very interesting!” I shouted. Nacho hollered a translation, and a general rhubarb ensued. Expressions of gratitude and humility, no doubt. It was moving, really, to see the joy surging in the eyes of these simple rural folk, their lives transformed for a day by a visit from me, great gringo representative of some great gringo concern.
I began to feel good.
Roberto had instructed me to spit out as many questions as possible — good questions, dumb questions, it didn’t really matter. They could be ungarbled in translation. I started quite tentatively. “What does this machine do?” I asked a man punching the buttons of what looked like a giant microwave oven. “That’s a good lever,” I told another, as he yanked on what was surely a standard-issue lever.
Then, warming to the task, I began to probe more deeply, lacing my inquiries with Socratic complexity. “What does this machine do that that one doesn’t?” for example. And: “What does that machine do that this one doesn’t?” And even: “What happens if you forget to turn it off at night?” I found myself rapping on side casings, like a shipwright testing a hull, and picking up tools and parts as if to appraise their heft.
There were missteps. Fascinated by a shiny, torpedo-shaped metallic object I’d picked up, I asked its owner to explain how he’d made it and what it did. “I didn’t make it,” the man was forced to confess. “It’s a thermos flask. I use it to keep water hot.”
Aside from that, I was to the manner born.
We wheeled around in this fashion for an hour or so. And then someone rapped on the back of my hard hat and said that it was time for lunch.
“We’ll take lunch in the boardroom,” Roberto said, waving me into a rectangular space that looked more like a retirement home for 1970s audiovisual equipment than a boardroom. Most of the clutter had been piled up in one corner to make room for a trestle table, on which sat a crap floral centerpiece and four sets of flatware. One side of the room was dominated by a large window which looked out onto the factory’s busy central corridor. Anyone walking past would be obliged to check out what we were up to.
My experience in industrial counter-espionage told me that this was no accident.
“Sit there, Matt,” Roberto said, confirming my suspicions by pointing at the place setting most clearly visible to passers by. “And look like you’re just about to buy a factory.”
I made my factory-buying face and we all sat down. Roberto flapped and folded his napkin rather impressively, I thought – really dominating the napkin – and I did my best to plagiarize his routine. Nacho passed round his Marlboro Lights. I kicked my shoes off. A mirthless ancient in dress shirt and dickie bow materialized from somewhere and began to pour wine.
The easiest day’s work in history.
Twirling a breadstick, Roberto said, “The owner will join us in a while. He rarely takes lunch.”
I said, “Is the chef really French?”
“Not by birth.”
And we left it at that.
Lunch was a love letter to saturated fats. There were eggs buried in cream. There was hake swimming in butter. Horribly, there were escalopes of veal submerged in a roux the color, and very nearly the consistency, of beige corduroy. No one touched the chafing dishes piled high with overcooked vegetables, but we drank the red wine, a potent gloop with some affinity to ketchup.
Our table talk never quite caught fire. Nacho had some good things to say about the Bush administration. Roberto still missed Clinton. I asked them what they thought about their own government. This triggered a round of animal noises from which I inferred: not much. Mostly we just drank and smoked and pretended to enjoy the food.
After about an hour of this I was plastered, and only the icy zephyrs from the air conditioning unit kept me from slithering unconscious beneath the table.
Did the owner arrive with the cheese trolley? Yes, I think he did. Might he have been pushing it? It seems plausible. How certain can I be that he wasn’t riding it and whooping like a gaucho on meth?
Not that certain.
I can picture him clearly, though — a sad-looking wisp of a man in his mid-fifties. Face with too many creases in it, linen suit with too few. Skinny but also sweaty, which hardly seemed fair. Quite shy too, for such an important man. He hovered in front of his place setting, barely acknowledged by his henchmen, whose mouths were stuffed with crackers.
Well I wasn’t having that. Inhibitions, good judgment and basic psycho-motor skills obliterated by Malbec, I bellowed out a greeting and began to surge in his general direction. I got pretty close to the target, too, but then my center of buoyancy fell below my center of gravity, causing me to heel to starboard. Even then I might have righted myself, had I not made the classic error of grabbing at a cheese trolley for support.
We lost some good cheeses that day.
But I got on my feet all right and was soon pumping the hand of the owner who introduced himself as… well of course I’ve forgotten his name, but let’s call him Donald. We chatted about this and that and various good people were forthcoming with damp napkins to help get the Reblochon off my trousers. Then a buzzer went off somewhere in the bowels of the factory, which was the cue for the entire workforce to begin streaming past the window and likewise for a glass of champagne to be thrust into my hand and for the owner to be proposing toasts and for me to be proposing counter-toasts and for everyone to have a good laugh when I lit the wrong end of a cigarette and — I think this is right — for me to chink glasses with Nacho while toasting Dick Cheney.
The last machinist homeward-plodded his weary way. And the party stopped. I don’t mean fizzled out. I mean just stopped. The curtain went down and the audience stretched, blinked and yawned.
Someone once said that it is better to be a drunk corporate scout from a major British company than it is to be a drunk TEFL teacher who needs to be returned to Buenos Aires in a light aircraft. Whoever it was, they called their shots correctly.
Donald shook my hand, thanked me crisply and left. Roberto slipped me a cigarette for the road, wished me luck, followed his boss.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” Nacho said. Or perhaps he said nothing and I just trailed after him as best I could. Yes, I think that’s more likely.
Believe nothing else about this story if you wish, but trust me when I say that the limo ride back to the airfield was a bit of blur.
Have you ever found yourself vomiting in the toilet of a four-seater twin-engined light aircraft without having a clear idea how you got there?
Two months or so after the completion of the mission (my life, my nomenclature), I e-mailed Nacho to ask how things had panned out. He didn’t reply. I waited a couple of weeks and then re-sent the email. Nada. A well-adjusted person might have found this treatment hurtful, but not I, greedy consumer of le Carré, Deighton and Greene. This only made it more real. Job done, I’d be sent out into the cold.
The life of a retired spy is not an easy one. Those of us accustomed to spinning baroque webs of deception and looking peril in the face without flinching find the life quotidian bland and deadening. It was tough for George Smiley, and it’s been tough for me too.
I blew half the cash Nacho gave me on a dark blue suit — one that actually fit me. Unused, it hangs in my wardrobe.
But, when the call comes, I’ll be ready.