See that man by the bookstall? No, don’t turn round. Check out at the reflection in my sunglasses. See him? Tall, balding, slight stoop, wearing a brown cord jacket?
Cultural attaché. Name of Boris Michelob. Former KGB. Nasty piece of work. Favourite toy is the garrotte, keeps it coiled inside his watch. Funny, that, it’s a trick they learned from a Bond movie. Life imitating art, eh? Some art. Some life.
Keep an eye on him, he’s up to something. Clear enough reflection for you? Damn clever glasses, these. The opposition can’t see where I’m looking, plus trainees can get a good look without giving the game away. Look just like the real thing, don’t they. See, it even has the Foster Grant logo on the arm. Nice touch, that. Amazing what the boys in tech can come up with.
He’s browsing the travel guide section. Checking out an Icelandic phrase book. So what does that tell us? Well, he’s not going to Iceland, that’s for sure. Trying to throw us off the scent, you see. He can’t be sure he’s being watched, but then he can’t be sure he isn’t. Standard tradecraft. Whatever it looks like they’re doing, that’s something you can reasonably assume they aren’t doing.
So he could be up to one of several things. He could be using a standard book drop, slipping a note between a predetermined pair of pages. Once he leaves there’ll be a short interval before his handler comes to check. They always choose a book it’s unlikely anyone else will pick up, hence the Icelandic. There aren’t any flights to Iceland from this airport until Friday. How do I know? It’s my job to know things. Forewarned, forearmed, you know the drill. It may be a cliché, but that’s for a good reason. A good agent will always be one step ahead. First rule of fieldcraft.
Or the drop could already have happened, and he’s collecting. We can’t tell, we weren’t in position early enough. No, don’t blame yourself, you got here as soon as you could. Luckily I’ve been bedded in since 0600 so we can be pretty damn sure no one has picked up that book today.
There again, it could be prep for a phrase book code. You don’t know that one? Armitage must be slipping, time was he’d have drilled all new recruits in basic tradecraft before they’re allowed out in the field. Budget cuts, I suppose. That’s what happens when the bean counters take over the asylum. You try to explain that a couple of grand saved puts agents’ at risk, but all they see is the spreadsheet.
So this is how it works. He’s already picked up the book title, and a couple of numbers. Could have been scribbled on a discarded fag packet, innocuous enough. First number takes him to the page, second tells him the number of the phrase on that page. That phrase, and the two that follow, are used to establish identity.
That’s the beauty of using phrase books. The phrases are thematic, so there’s a reasonable chance they’re going to be linked. Someone might come up to him and say, I don’t know, something like ‘Do you know the way to the car rental office?’ To which he might reply, ‘You can choose a two door or a four door model.’ To which the other agent would say, ‘I want to rent a car for a week.’
The phrases don’t quite follow each other, you see? So the chances of them coming up in conversation are zero. But they sound convincing enough that anyone walking past wouldn’t overhear anything suspicious. And if they’re really good at the game, they’ll do all the phrases in Icelandic.
Very well schooled, these so-called cultural attachés. They drill them hard. Here, watch this.
Oi! Boris! Vladimir wants you back in Moscow pronto!
See? Not a flicker. That’s training for you. Very hard not to turn around when your own name is mentioned, but he didn’t give himself away. They spend a week on that alone, I’m told. People shout out their names while they’re eating, when they’re on training exercises, even when they’re relaxing over a vodka in the mess. First one to react does a stint in the salt mines. Tough, sure, but it weeds out the stragglers.
Hang on, this could be his contact now. Woman in the pink crop top, wheeling a pushchair with a sleeping baby in it? Great disguise, that, no one would ever suspect. Not a real baby, of course. Latex skin over a fibreglass structure, animatronic chest makes it look like it’s breathing. Can’t use a real baby, it might start bawling at any moment, draw attention to itself. Last thing you want is some do-gooding mum offering it a lollipop, trying to make conversation.
Watch her now, she’s approaching the bookstall… slowly… slowly… he hasn’t glanced at her, that’s good, shows he knows his stuff. Last thing you want to do is react. Almost there…
No, she’s walked straight past. Must have figured they were being watched. Always better to abort rather than risk discovery. First rule of fieldcraft. They’ll probably try to rendezvous later, they’ll have a prearranged spot just for this kind of eventuality.
Trouble is, there’s now two of them, makes it harder for me to keep up surveillance. Tell you what – we shouldn’t really do this, seeing as it’s your first field mission, but sometimes you have to be resourceful – I’ll keep an eye on friend Boris, you tail the female mark and ping me if she tries to contact anyone else. Oh, really? They’ve called your flight? Well, yes, I quite understand. Nice talking to you. Yes, of course, off you go, mustn’t miss it. 12 minute walk to your gate from here. How do I know? It’s my job to know. Preparation is everything. A good agent always learns the lie of the land.
First rule of fieldcraft.