Framed By The Frogs

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Just what the Hell is an Ex Parte Head? - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


'Yes, Opium, that's what's landed me here' I mused as the Clerk of the Court barked 'All stand' and we did.

His Honour, Judge Richard Seymour QC, strode out from the ante-room and into the Courtroom, then along to the large, solitary, black chair positioned at the middle of the Bench.

Pulling back the chair, His Lordship stepped in front, then bowed, and we all bowed back.

Now, by 'Opium' I don't mean the distilled poppy juice version destined for punctured heroin addicts with Bloodhound eyes and snotty sleeves. No. Indeed not.

'In the matter of Renault UK Limited versus FleetPro Technical Services Limited Ex Parte Head' continued the Clerk, all in one breath.

'Just what the Hell is an Ex Parte Head?' I wondered.

Then the realisation came. 'That's me' which answered my own question, which in itself seemed pointless. But then that wasn't the only thing that seemed pointless about the proceedings now taking place.

His Lordship sat down and we all followed suit. Except, that is, for Mr Andrew Bruce of Serle Court Chambers, a Deputy District Court Judge and barrister for Renault.

Now barrister Andrew Bruce is a kind of legal 'hired gun', bought by Renault to run me out of town, probably by way of the bankruptcy court if he struck it lucky.

And so Andrew Bruce shuffled the papers on the lectern in front of him. 'Your Lordship' he began, introducing himself, Renault and its claim, finally referring to 'the Defendants'.

I'm not sure why he said 'Defendants', plural, as Mr Bruce knows there's really only one defendant Renault wants - it isn't really interested in my business (my co-defendant in this Trial). Renault just wants me.

But Andrew Bruce has ignored my thoughtful distinction and continued with his introduction to the Judge.

'Yes, definitely Opium' I continued, though only to myself. And even though I'm not referring to the mind-bending narcotic, the Opium I'm thinking of probably has just as many addicts.

These addicts, though, are after a different kind of Opium.

In fact, 'O.P.M.', or rather, Other People's Money.

'It's the fault of evolution' I added to my list of pointless answers. You see, I've come across far too many people in whom the evolutionary process has clearly lost its way.

How so?

Well, in some folk a few genetic links have somehow splintered off from the spiralling helix of DNA that defines us as 'Homo Sapiens'.

And unfortunately the missing bits have been the ones responsible for morals and scruples.

As a result, these shameless DNA retarded mutants have no moral compass guiding them whatsoever. They make their way in the world by taking advantage of frailty in others. Their minds function more on a reptile level than the rest of us.

Think of it like a reverse engineering of evolution. Sure, their form is human, but their brain is reptilian, still in the swamp from which we emerged however many hundreds of millions of years ago.

As a result, 'right' and 'wrong' don't form a part of their reptilian thinking processes, just 'success' or 'failure' in whatever scheme they are currently using to get them access to O.P.M.

Most folk are lucky and don't ever come into contact with this kind of O.P.M. addict (or, indeed, any of the other kind either). But despite this, every day brings news of a scam where a hustler has trousered the cash of some of the more trusting members of society.

It seems that Andrew Bruce is still addressing His Lordship, so whilst he does that I will carry on answering the unasked question about why I'm sitting in Courtroom 66 of the Royal Courts of Justice, and, quite frankly, looking rather sheepish.

Mind you, I don't suppose I have a right to look anything other than sheepish, given that I'm being sued for one million pounds by Renault, the multi-billion pound global corporation that I am alleged to have double-crossed.

'One million pounds.'

I said the number to myself in the hope that it would stop my mind from wandering and help me focus again on what Andrew Bruce was saying about me, because what he's saying isn't very flattering, though I don't suppose his brief from Renault included 'Flatter Your Opponent'.

And that is exactly what I am, barrister Andrew Bruce's opponent. Here in the High Court, defending myself in the strangest fit-up imaginable.

Anyway, my amateur psychology experiment hasn't worked, and instead my mind has gone straight back to O.P.M.

You see, spotting O.P.M. addicts isn't always easy. They're not usually as obvious as a scam e-mail offering Viagra from a Vietnamese pharmacy, or a square-cuffed card sharp on the train home from a day at the races. No, indeed not.

In fact, sometimes even trained investigators like me get taken in by O.P.M. addicts.

There you are; I said it. Even an expert like me can be taken in.

Even after nearly ten years poking my nose into other people's business on behalf of Her Majesty, and then just as long again working in the motor industry, a place where caution is not just one of the few non-expletive words in the dictionary; it's a fundamental part of the survival code.

So, as Andrew Bruce continues, perhaps I should explain a little more about how I ended up here in Court 66 though, believe me, this is going to take some explaining.

And not just to you.

Because, although he's listening to barrister Andrew Bruce, the Judge is looking at me right now. And His Lordship is probably wondering if I'm an O.P.M. addict. Which may not be entirely good news for my future prospects.

Anyway, as I was saying, career wise I had nearly ten years of sticking my beak in where people really didn't want it. Namely, their bank accounts.

But after almost a decade of terrorising the nation's taxpayers, I decided that it was time for me to move on. Or rather, move over.
You see, I switched from being a gamekeeper to being a poacher, so to speak, applying my knowledge and energy to minimising the tax burden of the growing band of City Fat Cats, or 'Captains of Industry' as they preferred to be called.

I arrived in 'The City' in the mid-1980s, just before 'Big Bang', the monumental de-regulation of financial trading that spawned London's era of red braces, Porsches and champagne bars.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - ... in London you are never more than ten feet away from a rat ....
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It truly was the dawn of 'The Bonus' in London's Golden Mile. A time when, if money couldn't buy it then, whatever it was, it just wasn't worth having.

Now throughout the Eighties, as far as The City was concerned the only way was up. Only it actually wasn't, and by the early Nineties the economic bubble was fit to burst.  So it did.

I've heard it said that in London you are never more than ten feet away from a rat and, regrettably, during my time in The City I had brushed up against a fair few of them. Sleek and polished they were, but rats nonetheless.

As a result, after six years in the sweatbox, I found myself staring into the abyss of unemployment.  Unfortunately I had rubbed up the wrong way the fur of some of the Sleek Rats I worked for.

Consequently my departure was fast but even then I considered myself to be one of the lucky ones.

Some of my contemporaries were far less fortunate, forced to do both their own jobs and those of the departed as well.

Despite this, in time many of them were still fired, usually for the flimsiest of excuses in order to minimise the severance cheque, the 'downsizing load' as they called it (in fact, as even I had called it when I was advising clients on how to fire people). What goes around, comes around, I guess.

But, as I said, I was one of the lucky ones and I managed to pick myself up quite quickly from the pile of City discards that formed unceremoniously on London's pavements in 1991.

And so, fast forward now through ten years of grafting from Monday morning to Sunday evening until I was fortunate enough to have a successful business of my own providing software to the motor industry.

My labours hadn't gone unrewarded. There was a smart house in tree-lined London suburbia, foreign holidays and a couple of nice cars on the driveway. In fact, all the outward signposts of success were there. So far, so good.

But then, through a sub-contractor I used to do marketing work (I'll call him 'Brutus' to spare his blushes), I was introduced to a man from Austria.

'Dopplegänger' will be his name here. Don't worry if you're not familiar with the meanings behind the names I've chosen, all will become clear soon enough.

Now along with his girlfriend, Dopplegänger had built up a substantial business importing posh cars into the UK from Austria, selling them for far less than the normal UK price due to quirks in currency exchange rates and crazy pan-European pricing strategies from the car makers.

More recently the boy-girl relationship had gone retrograde and, by the time I met them, 'Brünhilde', as I shall call her, was just Dopplegänger's business partner.

Fast forward through a few months of negotiations and Dopplegänger and I have agreed to throw in our lots together and create a joint venture, exploiting his expertise with buying cars and mine in writing the web sites from which to sell them.

Brutus and Brünhilde would join us in the company to look after marketing and administration and we each invested a chunk of money (I'll call the new business 'SteerFast') and we started to lay our Yellow Brick Road to fame and fortune.

But after nearly a year of effort (not to mention a lot of money) had gone into developing the new business, fame and fortune had shown no inclination to arrive on our doorstep in the desired quantities.

In fact, it was quite the opposite.

SteerFast's bank account had developed a bad case of financial diarrhoea, this despite us having acquired some quite prestigious corporate clients, which gave us access to huge discounts on new cars from certain manufacturers keen to sell cars in bulk to our customers.

Now why car manufacturers were giving us huge discounts would take an entire book to explain properly, but here's the abridged version.

On the one hand, individual customers who walk into a showroom get small discounts on cars because they are expensive to collar into a sale. They want seductive advertising, gin palace showrooms, attentive salesmen, lengthy test drives and all the rest.

On the other hand though, big corporate fleet buyers get huge discounts on new cars because they don't need as much individual courting as retail customers.

With the stroke of a pen, corporate customers fill the car makers' order books and save them from having to chase down lots of those pesky retail customers one by one.

Because of this, if you operate a big corporate fleet, either directly for your own company cars, or as a leasing or daily rental company, you have access to new cars at prices that retail customers can only dream of.

And that means temptation.

Temptation for you to sell on to retail customers the cars that are supplied to you through your highly discounted corporate account, keeping just a little bit of the discount back for yourself, to cover the 'overheads', so to speak.

Arguably perhaps it's a kind of perverse Robin Hood style act of charity, stealing from the rich car makers and giving to their much less well off customers, but still making a little on the side.

And yes reader, you're probably already ahead of me now on what was happening at SteerFast, so I'd better catch up with you, because, despite having acquired some corporate clients with very generous car discounts, back at SteerFast the numbers didn't add up.

We had a state-of-the-art call centre and an enviable client list. The telephones and fax machines were positively buzzing.

Yet hardly any of this business activity was generating money in SteerFast's bank account, let alone mine. It was just creating costs.

But because SteerFast was set up as a sideline for me, I didn't have a lot of spare time to dig into what was going on.

Except for one thing.

Because, when I set up the computers for this new business venture, I built in a little extra technology.
I knew that I wouldn't be around the business much, maybe 2-3 days per week, and much of that would be spent visiting clients.

So to give me a little more confidence about what Dopplegänger was doing with the wedge of my money he was spending, I had a CCTV and recording system installed in the office.

The excuse to my business partners for this technology was that we handled the credit card details of the customers of some very high profile clients. It meant that we needed 24/7 surveillance of the offices.

So I had the CCTV cameras placed in the ceiling in little black bubbles with the lenses focused on the reception area, the call centre and the IT centre, which just happened to be right next to the glass-walled Boardroom and which therefore also fell into the line of vision for the camera. Conveniently.

The security cameras watched everyone entering and leaving the office, the staff at work and especially anyone using the Boardroom.

And what's more, with the miracle of the Internet, I could sit in my study at home, log-in to the company IT system and watch live transmission of the goings on at 'Mission Control', as I nick-named it.

The cameras became my eyes on the office. Day and night. Eyes that never closed and never, ever, slept.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .... this computer stood, lights blinking on the front panel like the 'Enterprise' bridge from 'Star Trek'....
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If I was out for the day, I could come home, go to my study, log-in, rewind the system, press fast-forward and watch the whole day's activities in a few moments in superfast BennyHillVision. Which I did. Regularly.

I watched who was first in and who was last out, and in between who came and went.

And at first it was all pretty routine. Staff going about their usual business, answering phones, writing letters, drinking tea. Humdrum stuff.

Then, after a few months, strangers started appearing on my computer screen. People I didn't know arrived and left, and in between they met with Dopplegänger in the Boardroom. Or they sat in reception until they were escorted out again by Brünhilde, having gone nowhere in between times.

Which seemed odd, to say the least.

What was odder still was that none of these people ever signed the office visitors' book. It was as if they weren't meant to have ever been there.

And that wasn't all.

I had set up the office telephone system so that it too was computer controlled.

Outwardly it was so that I could log-in from home and fix any problems with the phone lines.

But the technology also meant was that I could listen to any telephone conversation at the office, live or recorded, without the parties knowing (though I would hasten to add that my eavesdropping was perfectly legitimate, with all the requisite warnings given to callers in the 'Welcome' messages played whenever anyone phoned the office).

Strangely though, all of the phone calls that I listened to related to deals I knew about with customers and suppliers I knew of.

So whatever was happening at Mission Control had to be organised by mobile phone instead. Perhaps deliberately so, in order to avoid the call recording system. Hmmm.

But I still had one more trick up my sleeve.

You see, because I originally formed the limited company that we used as the basis for SteerFast, I had also registered the Internet domain name for the business as well.

This meant that I owned the rights for e-mail traffic using SteerFast's e-mail addresses. And that meant all Dopplegänger's e-mails had to come through an e-mail server that I controlled.

In the corner of my study sat a monster of a box, hosting my web sites, data backups, incoming faxes and even playing my music CDs whilst I worked (in those dark days before Apple iPods brightened our musical worlds).

Now I'm not one of those people who name their cars. My dog only has a name because she came from the rescue home with one free-of-charge (the name that is, not the dog). My children only have one forename each, no middle name.

But this computer stood a squat 3 feet high, lights blinking on the front panel like the 'Enterprise' bridge from 'Star Trek' and, in true Frankenstein tradition, I had assembled it myself (though from mail order parts rather than from grave-robbing).

Following upgrade after upgrade over 5 years or more, it was cabled up inside and out like an explosion in a telephone exchange.

When it was fired up for the very first time I swear the birds fell silent in the trees outside my study window.

Each time it was rebooted the study lights would dim and the motor in the kitchen refrigerator stopped.

As a precaution I would telephone the Intensive Care Unit at our local hospital to warn them, just in case the patients' respirators packed up when I flipped the 'On' switch.

OK, OK, maybe I made up that last one.

But this computing Leviathan had a mind of its own. Or rather two, to be more precise, because (perhaps somewhat mistakenly) I had given my creation two brains instead of one.

The squat blinking box in the corner housed two enormous air-cooled micro-processors the size of house bricks.

In fact there was nothing 'micro' about them. And while one of them did my bidding, I'm sure that the other one spent it's time thinking up ways to confound me.

It mangled the words I typed, randomly popped up strange screen messages and invoked activities that I certainly hadn't asked for as its twin brains struggled for supremacy over its computing schizophrenia, a kind of electronic multiple personality disorder.

So, despite my normal aversion to humanising inanimate objects, I named this processing behemoth 'Big Bertha', and 24/7 Big Bertha sat there in my study, blinking and humming and draining the National Grid.

And carrying Dopplegänger's e-mail traffic to and from Mission Control. Which meant that I could examine Dopplegänger's e-mails any time I wanted to.

So that's what I did.

And when I read what was in those e-mails, well, that's when the DNA retarded reptile in me rose out of the swamp again.
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