Carl said I was absolutely the right person for this job. I think he meant it. He didn’t actually say it was a job for a woman, but I could tell that’s what he thought. The target was probably male and probably young. It goes with the territory. So, send me.
I wanted to go. I leapt at the chance, in fact. Not just because it promised to put my career back on track after my transfer to London, but because it really was fascinating. Who was this guy? And yes, like Carl, I felt sure all along it was a guy. When I was shown what he could do, I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to understand. We could exploit his abilities to put Venstrom ahead of the competition. Of course. That was always the commercial calculation. But beyond that, how he did what he did was an irresistible and unfathomable mystery.
Carl didn’t know what he was getting us into, of course. He couldn’t. No one could. There’s nothing to warn you when you cross an invisible line. But the other side soon starts to feel different. And, in this case, not so very long after different . . . dangerous.
So, this is what happened beyond that line. This is what happened as it happened. This is how I got to where I am.
Monday October 7
I linger over breakfast. There’s no hurry. The hotel’s quiet, ticking over this early in the week, this late in the season. The weather’s mostly grey, but silvery light keeps piercing the clouds over the sea. There’s no wind. I gaze out through the high windows of the restaurant and see a couple of bulk carriers moving slowly out beyond St Anthony Head, heading to or from Falmouth. The view here in St Mawes is serene and beautiful, the sea tranquillizingly still. I catch myself thinking how nice it would be to be here on holiday and how much nicer again to be here on holiday with the right person.
I used to think I knew who the right person was. Now I haven’t a clue. And I’m not on holiday either. It’s just me here, with a job to do. I sip my coffee and check my phone.
No alert yet. He isn’t playing. But he will be. Soon.
All we know for certain about our mystery man is that the IP address of the computer he’s using leads to Conrad Vogler of Admiral’s Reach, Upper Castle Road, St Mawes, Cornwall. And all we know about Conrad Vogler is his directorship of a company called Conmari Ltd, nature of business unspecified, and his date of birth, July 2, 1970, which makes him too old to be an obvious candidate. The other director of Conmari Ltd is Marianne Vogler, presumably his wife. The company name seems to be a tacky pairing of Conrad and Marianne, which doesn’t make me warm to them. But a super-geek son of theirs could well be our guy. We’re betting on that.
The Voglers don’t have much of a presence in the virtual world, in fact none at all, which could make some people suspicious. Venstrom has grown as huge and successful as it has by offering people solutions to problems they didn’t know they had, by selling them goods and games and all the vital ingredients of the virtual lives we lead. So, to me and my colleagues, who don’t just like but need to know as much as we can about our customers, the disconnected are either dinosaurs or people with something to hide. And somehow the Voglers don’t come across as dinosaurs.
I took a look at Admiral’s Reach straight after I arrived yesterday evening. Modern, white-walled, slate-roofed, with plenty of glass and steel, all hard angles and blank surfaces, set in a big, gently sloping plot a little way up the hill from St Mawes Castle. Most of the windows were lit. There was a big four-wheel-drive pulled up in front of the garage. Someone was evidently at home.
I didn’t try my luck then. Our guy never plays at night. He’s a daytime only player. If I’m just going to show up at the Voglers’ door – and I can’t think of any other way to approach them – I want it to be while he’s online. It’ll be more difficult for them to deny it then. I’ll have something to show them.
I put my toe in the water with an email before leaving London, inviting Conmari Ltd to contact us for some free website design advice. No response. Which leaves nothing for it but the face-to-face approach. Carl didn’t give me any bright ideas about how to pitch it. I think I’m just going to have to charm my way in and see where we go from there.
I’m a bit nervous. And I’m very curious. I suppose, most of all, I’m excited. I’ve just no idea what I’m going to find. My phone beeps just after ten. He’s on. And so am I.
I don’t want to turn up so close to him starting to play that he’ll make a connection, so I leave the hotel and walk past the harbour, rehearsing a whole load of ways I can introduce the subject without alarming him. The ferry from Falmouth is docking. A few late holidaymakers are clambering off and climbing the steps to the quay. No one gives me a second glance. I’m wearing a navy blue trouser-suit and white blouse under my mac. I look like I mean business. I’ve applied a touch more make-up than usual. Nothing obvious, though. Just enough to make me difficult to turn away.
This isn’t necessarily my only chance. But it might be my best one. I plan to make the most of it.
I walk down the curving drive to the front door of the house. The 4WD’s gone and there’s a battered Fiat parked in its place. The grounds are terraced, falling away towards Lower Castle Road. I’m imagining a panoramic deck and big sea-facing windows on the next level down. There’s not much to see on this side of the house. I check my phone. He’s still on. His sessions generally last an hour or two. I ring the doorbell and wonder just what kind of reception I’m going to get.
Half a minute or so passes. The door opens. A woman in jeans and a T-shirt looks out at me. She’s too young to be Marianne Vogler. My money’s on her being the cleaner. When she speaks, it’s with a local accent. And I don’t have the Voglers down as local.
‘Hello,’ she says.
‘I’m looking for Mr or Mrs Vogler.’
‘Ah. Right.’ That isn’t necessarily bad news. ‘Is, er, any other member of the family at home?’
‘It’s just Mr and Mrs Vogler who live here.’ That isn’t quite an answer to my question, I notice. ‘You can leave a message if you want.’
‘Right. Thanks. My name’s Nevinson. Nicole Nevinson. Can you give Mr and Mrs Vogler my card?’ I hand one over. She glances down at it. ‘I contacted them recently about a business opportunity. And I happened to be in the area, so . . .’
She looks unimpressed. I can’t really blame her. ‘I’ll tell ’em you called.’ A tight smile. She starts to close the door.
‘Lovely house,’ I say brightly.
‘I bet the views from the front are amazing.’
She frowns. ‘They are.’ But it’s obvious there isn’t going to be an invitation to take a look. ‘I’ve got to get back to work.’
‘Of course. But . . .’
‘When do you think Mr and Mrs Vogler will be back?’
‘Dunno for sure. But Mrs Vogler will probably be here this
‘OK.’ I smile. ‘I’ll try then.’
The door closes. I walk slowly back up the drive, asking myself whether that was a total screw-up or just a minor setback. I can try again this afternoon. I’ll have to. I check my phone. He’s still on. And Kyra has texted me the GPS report. He’s in St Mawes. Most likely, I reckon, inside Admiral’s Reach. I glance back at the house from the road, then head off towards the castle.
I wander round the galleries and trinket shops. I drink another coffee. I have an early lunch and try to put my plans in order. There’s a lot riding on this. Though, since Venstrom’s resources are massive, I really should be able to make an offer that’s too good to refuse. The rest is just . . . presentation.
He stops playing while I’m having lunch, so I decide to go back to the house. Even though he’s no longer online, I have enough to go on. A few spits of rain are in the air as I walk along Lower Castle Road. There are houses and cottages to my left, facing the sea. To my right are high-hedged banks bordering the gardens of the big houses in Upper Castle Road, one of them Admiral’s Reach.
There are steps up to back gates concealed by undergrowth. I wonder which one might lead to Admiral’s Reach and whether it’s worth going up to take a look.
Suddenly a young man appears, jogging down the nearest flight of steps. He’s tall and slim, with a mop of dark hair and a pale, narrow face. He’s dressed in jeans, T-shirt and retro corduroy jacket and is carrying a bulging leather shoulder-bag. I notice how long his fingers are as he pushes one hand through his hair.
Is he my guy? I look at him as he turns and strides off in the direction I came from, back into town. I don’t have long to think about it. But he ticks all the boxes. Age, sex, appearance. The consensus, based on his online behaviour, has always been that he’d turn out to be someone like this. Yes. I follow, ten metres or so back. Carl’s last words to me as I left his office last Friday were, ‘Good luck.’ Well, I’ve just got lucky. This is my guy. I’m sure of it.
He walks fast, head nodding, maybe in time to music on his earphones. He looks relaxed and contented, in a world of his own. He’s certainly got no idea he’s being followed. I could overtake and try to engage him, but just for now, I’m going to play it cool. I’m going to see where he’s going.
The answer turns out to be the harbour. The Falmouth ferry’s in and he means to catch it. He already has a ticket. I have to spend a few minutes buying one at the booth on the quay while he goes down the steps and boards. But the ticket man tells me not to worry. ‘You’ve got plenty of time.’
He’s right. I may be in a hurry, but no one else is. The boat fills slowly, then we cast off. My guy sits in the cabin, near the stern. I sit opposite him. I try to look as if I’m gazing past him out to sea as we clear the quay. But actually I’m studying him intently.
Dreamy eyes, a high forehead and those long fingers I noticed up the road. Age? Early twenties, I’d guess, but there’s something about him that makes me feel he could be slightly older than he looks.
He’s obviously a regular on this trip. He gives the ferryman a card to swipe and they seem to recognize each other. As the boat noses out of the harbour, he opens his shoulder-bag and takes out a box of some kind. It’s quite small, hinged on one side. He opens it out on his knee. There’s a grid pattern on its face. I think I know what it is. A few seconds later I’m sure.
He takes a small draw-string bag out of his pocket and starts lifting out tiny counters, some black, some white, which he places alternately on the grid. It’s a pocket-sized Go board. The counters are magnetic Go stones. He’s playing Go with himself, laying the stones out on the intersections of the grid at lightning speed, his brow furrowed in concentration.
I knew nothing about Go before Carl called me in and told me about what our guy had been doing. I don’t know a whole lot now, except the few basic rules. The game’s about surrounding and controlling territory. Its apparent simplicity disguises a fearsome complexity, with the possible permutations of positions exceeding the total number of atoms in the visible universe – according to Wikipedia. It originated in China a few thousand years ago. It’s got that east Asian Zen feeling about it. It’s not really my kind of thing.
But that’s not the point. The point is that Venstrom’s online Go-playing program adjusts to the ability of each player, all the way up from beginner to expert, even though it can beat the very best with ease. Except this one player. Except this guy. Our programmers have upgraded the system just for him. Yet he still keeps up. He doesn’t always win. But he often does. And that’s enough for us. Because at the level we’ve taken him to he shouldn’t be able to. He really shouldn’t be able to.
How does he do it? That’s the question the whole tech world would want the answer to. If they knew about him. But so far only we know. He’s our secret. He’s our prize. If we can reel him in.
If I can reel him in.