The Operators

Barry Heard


Chapter 1

After signing him in at the hotel reception, the senior staff member named Diyab escorted Wally Flannagan into a very cheap, very small room. Diyab grunted as he heaved Wally’s luggage onto the bed. There was no suitcase stand, no wardrobe, no bench. The room, smelling of sweat, cigarettes, and suspicious fumes, rarely housed white Australian tourists. The occasional backpacker, yes. However, this ‘one-and-a-half star’ room suited Wally — the small room, that is; not the smell. He wanted anonymity, and this hotel, located down a narrow road and not on the wide, busy main street, offered such safe obscurity.

Through another door was a tiny room with no carpet. There was a bucket, and an old newspaper folded beside it. The air in the room was humid, without a fan or cooler to freshen it. There was no toilet, no shower, yet in one corner sat an unusual fixture: a tiled slab on which was mounted a large wooden vessel or barrel, a small towel hanging on the side. Was this the bathroom? Correct — in this hotel, that was how one washed or cleaned up, explained the smiling Diyab. ‘Fill the tub with water from the tap and bucket, sorry about the soap. Then the bucket can be your toilet.’

Exhausted and stressed from an hour-long scooter ride, Wally needed a rest. At the beginning of the trip, there had been three on the scooter: Diyab, driving; Wally, sitting behind Diyab; and Diyab’s sister, standing on rear foot pegs. Wally had shut his eyes and clung on for dear life. It had been a daring trip for Wally, but, even so, he was so grateful. Where would he be without Diyab?

Satisfied Wally was settled, Diyab returned to reception.

Alone, Wally desperately wanted a full body wash. Slowly, he turned on the nearby tap and filled the small bucket. Next, he poured the water into the wooden tub. Many a bucketful later, he was ready. He checked the window was locked and closed the blind. After removing his damp, smelly clothes, he stood in the tub and ladled warm water over himself with a large wooden scoop — the ‘shower’. There were no hair-care products or other necessities in his hotel room, apart from the smallest, thinnest towel he’d ever seen. Fortunately, his toilet bag held some shaving soap — better than nothing. For all its crudity, the washing arrangement was pure bliss.

Within minutes of drying himself, he was wet once more, with sweat. He took a warm swig from the plastic water bottle he carried, and tried to concentrate. Suffering worse than humidity, he was swamped with the problems overriding his life. Somehow, he had to get help from home, both medical and …

His family and mates were thousands of kilometres away, but he had a mobile phone and access to the computer in the lobby. Money wasn’t a problem — just a mystery. Somehow, he had a fortune in his man bag. He could buy three new BMWs with some leftover change.

Decision time. His mobile was flat, needing at least an hour to charge. The computer, then.

Cleaned up and dressed back into his stinking clothes, with the man bag hanging over his belly, Wally locked the door to his room and headed for the hotel lobby, where he paid for thirty minutes’ use of the internet. He logged in to Facebook and went to locate his page when suddenly — he sat motionless, staring at the keyboard. Some intuition locked his hands and fingers, stopping him from tapping the keys. He lowered his head in thought, but nothing became clear or apparent. After some time, slowly, he flexed his fingers and opened his Facebook profile page, then his special ‘mates page’, Wally’s Bucket. There were two posts: one, a simple question; the other, a curious comment that initially appeared trivial. Both messages from mates in Australia.

The first:

All OK mate?

The second:

Going to my grandson’s christening, have to dust-off the suit jacket.

That last message from his mate Basil, Basil Hester. It rang a bell. He stared, frowning, then lifted his hands away from the keyboard for some reason. What the … ? This computer alarmed him. Inside his brain, away in a background of distant memories, he detected a warning signal — but what? Leaning back, he rubbed his nose, scratched his head, and tried to think. It felt like he was in a time warp, thrown back to an era when a message like that indicated trouble. At this moment, somehow, Wally was acting on instincts gained decades earlier. The memories were powerful, garrisoned in a dark part of his soul or spirit that he avoided if possible. Those days of mud and noise and hand signals and deep concentration and tension. Precise messages and clear responses. Daily life had been exactly that, a period of day-to-day existence amid appalling scenes and mayhem … He stood up, turned away from the desk, and coughed.

Basil knows? That’s impossible, who would have contacted him? Maybe those lowlife thieving bastards? Could be those criminals know quite a bit about me, my mates, and how to contact them? Wait a minute. My passport, travel arrangements. Somehow, they obtained all these particulars. How?

He made the connection, like a flashing blue light; or worse, thumbs down. He froze. Listen, look …

He muttered to himself, ‘If I continue to use my details on any computer, perhaps they will find me, yes, here in this bloody hotel. Those slimy creeps have got it all worked out. Or am I going mad — paranoid? But Basil would never use that word, unless … ?’

Wally’s knowledge of computer hacking was very limited. His oldest son, John, was an expert, but should he contact him? He checked the clock on the screen; he needed to calculate the time in Victoria, Australia. Home was about four hours ahead of Cimahi, the city in Indonesia where Wally now stood. That made it afternoon in Melbourne.

He turned off the computer and returned to his room. He needed to think, decide carefully his next move.

Forty-five minutes later, he headed back to reception and approached a staff member about hiring a phone. Within minutes, he had a borrowed mobile phone in his hands. He passed over ten dollars, promising more to come.

International dialling codes aside, the number he rang was one he knew by heart. Tom Grinter, a truck driver — his regular fuel-delivery man. He lived near Warragul, a large country town about an hour from Melbourne.

Tom answered the phone. Wally frowned as he heard the humming of a large engine and a voice sounding like it was in a long tunnel. Then he recalled, Of course, Tom’s on the road.

‘Can you talk, Tom? It’s Wally Flannagan.’

‘Sure, mate. This is a surprise, you’re on a holiday or something? You okay for diesel, I was at your joint only four weeks ago, remember?’

Wally faltered for a moment.

‘Not diesel, Tom. Sorry, mate, I’ve lost Basil Hester’s number, phone’s nearly flat, and I need someone to contact him. Knew you’d be on the road or yakking to someone. Can’t contact Meredith, would you mind, just a short message to Basil, okay?’

Tom agreed, and Wally relayed the message: ‘Cut the holiday short, home soon, leave me a message on Facebook about that christening. Not too much, Tom?’

The truck driver laughed, repeated the message, then said, ‘Sure, no problem, mate. He’ll have it by 5.30 p.m. I thought those bloody days were over — you know, that christening stuff. I’ll ring Basil at my next stop, Thorpdale, need to get his number.’

No more chatter. Both hung up.

Wally breathed a sigh of relief — problem solved. Yes, he knew he could rely on Tom; Basil would get the message. Tom had known them both for decades, topping up their farm diesel storage tanks every three or four months. More importantly — those people Wally suspected of doing the scanning or bugging, they wouldn’t have Tom Grinter in their sights, and the information Basil was about to receive would seem to be of no consequence to them.

Wally returned the phone to the smiling staff member, who received a tip of twenty dollars, American, for handing over his own phone.


Tom linked the large hose to the top of the tank on the stand, turned on the pump, then took out his phone and found Basil Hester’s number.

Basil answered.

Tom began, ‘Just spoke to Wally Flannagan, mate. Cut his holiday short, coming home, wants you to send him the date of the christening on your Facebook thing or doover, you know what I mean.’

Tom ended up staring at his phone, believing it had gone dead. The screen indicated Basil was still connected …

Finally, Basil spoke. ‘Thanks, Tom. That’s it?’

‘Sure, mate.’ Tom pushed the end button, frowned, and wondered what was going on.


Sometime later, Wally returned to the hotel computer. He logged in to Facebook, then navigated to Wally’s Bucket. Sure enough, there was a message from Basil.

OAT’S lOVER had a big win at the trots, and you guessed it, Hutchy picked it — that’s right, He won a fortune, $18,514 — THE bastard only put on $175 The lucky prick! My ugly four-legged freak called ‘The Pinto’ it fell and cost me a fortune. Should have picked OAT’S LOVER

Wally stared at the screen. The time warp again. Were he and Basil speaking the same language?

He printed off the message and returned to his room. Next, he found some blank paper, laid it out, and picked up a pencil. He would read this message very slowly, very carefully, hoping to decrypt and decode the true meaning — now that’s a perplexing and confusing statement, as neither Wally nor Basil was ever in ASIO, the CIA, Her Majesty’s Secret Service, KAOS, or CONTROL. Yet they had just communicated in a way that none of those organisations would have been capable of deciphering. A rare geek? Hmm … maybe a week.

Most people who read such a message would smile and believe Wally’s mate was having fun. No, the opposite. To explain Basil’s message to Wally will take many chapters.

The Operators Barry Heard