Miles Kington: Agents on the scent of a smouldering conspiracy

'My name is Z,' said the instructor. 'It is best not to use real names. We do not want our cover blown'
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The Independent Online

I saw an ad in the local paper the other day which said: "Fancy an exciting undercover adventure? We train you. We employ you. We pay well. £30m available..."

Well, you know freelance writers. Always short of the ready. I was on the phone like a shot, and signing up for the training course.

"My name is Z," said the instructor, when we were first assembled. "It is best not to use real names. We do not want our cover blown."

There were about a dozen of us. We were a fairly nondescript lot, but we all had one thing in common. We had no idea what the mission was going to be.

"Can you tell us what the mission is going to be?" called out a middle-aged lady. The rest of us looked appalled at such naivety, and awaited the answer eagerly.

Z looked at her.

"Smoking," he said. "Smoking in bars, pubs, restaurants and all workplaces. It's going to be illegal after July. But smokers are desperate people. They will want to go on. We have to stop them. But we need evidence. You are going to get that evidence. You are going undercover to get it."

"Is it going to be dangerous?" asked a young man.

"Could be," said Z. The young man looked pleased. The middle-aged lady didn't. "Imagine," continued Z, "that you are in the King's Arms. You notice a group of four people surreptitiously smoking at a table. They have taken all the precautions. They have brought their own ashtrays. They bend forward to cover the glow of their fags. They dissipate the smoke with a little fan they have placed on the table. But you, a trained operative, have spotted them. You edge forward with your mobile phone to take a picture of them. One of them spots your phone, and suddenly they are on to you like a pack of wolves..."

"Oops," said the middle-aged lady. "What will they do?"

"Tear you limb from limb," I said.

"Well, they might try to," said the young man with relish, "but as well-trained undercover agents we will be able to beat them up."

"No, no, no, no, no, no," said Z. "The last thing we want is for our lot to appear in court on assault charges. No, what we do is make them pay a £50 on-the-spot fine."

"But how do we make them pay?" said the lady. "Even if they recognise our authority, and even if they admit to it, and even if they are willing to cough up, which I severely doubt, how do they pay? Do we carry round chip'n'pin machines with us?"

"That's not my department," said Z. "That's Y's area. Y will tell you all about payment methods. And X will give you training in covert photo work. I am here just to train you in disguise and camouflage. Now, the important thing is not to draw attention to yourself. What would you say is the best way to avoid suspicion as an undercover anti-smoking enforcement officer?"

"That's easy," said a man in a tracksuit. "Light up a cigarette."

"Makes sense," said the young man. "They'll never expect the smoking police to be smoking."

"He's right," said the lady. "It's the ultimate disguise."

"Ah, but there's one major drawback to that idea," said Z. "What if you go in a pub and you light up a cigarette as a disguise? And there's somebody else on the premises who is also an anti-smoking scout? And they're smoking too, as a disguise? And you both try to slap fines on each other? We can't afford headlines like 'Undercover smoke police arrest each other...'"

His voice trailed away, as he suddenly realised that almost everyone in the room had got a packet of cigarettes out, and was lighting one.

"I was warned this might happen," said Z heavily. "You're all from Forest, aren't you? The smokers' lobby group? We've been infiltrated, haven't we?"

"Yeah," said the young man happily. "We're under-cover agents. Cuts both ways, you know."

They left the room, laughing and joking, leaving just me and a cloud of smoke behind. Z and I eyed each other.

"We'd better get to work," said Z grimly. "July is not so far away. And there aren't as many of us as I thought there'd be."

I'll let you know how I get on.

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