As first dates go, it was certainly up there in the top 10 of most original. I can honestly say I’d never been taken out to do recon on a target before.
Dave (not his real name. Obviously. He was kind of a spy, after all) had asked me out for a drink on a Thursday night. “There’s just something I have to do,” he said, apologetically. “I have to go and check out this guy’s house that I have to watch tomorrow. It won’t take too long. Do you want to come with me?”
Go on a stakeout with a private-eye-slash-spy-slash-surveillance professional who was out to catch the bad guys? Certainly beats making awkward small talk over an overly acidic white wine and a shared packet of peanuts. He didn’t have to ask me twice.
We met in a pub and downed a half pint (in spy movies they always seem to knock back shots of whisky to steel their nerves for the task ahead but – ack! – I can’t stand the stuff, so half a Becks would have to do). Dave’s target, he explained, frequently breaking eye contact with me to search around the room (no doubt identifying suitable exits, in case he needs to make a swift spy-like exit, I thought), was a bloke who had put in a claim for insurance for a back injury whom the insurers doubted was actually ill and was going to the gym most days. They wanted to picture him in the act of lifting some heavy-duty weights. So no tracking down a Russian sleeper or former despot hiding out in a Middle England town. Still, the chap was, nonetheless, a bona fide baddy. And we were going to catch him. I was thrilled.
A proportion of The Surveillance Group’s work comes from this insurance-related jobs, or things like ‘sting’ operations in conjunction with Trading Standards, that lead to counterfeiting scams being smashed. It has ex police and special forces staff on its books. The group, said CEO Timothy Young in a press release on its website, does not and has never engaged in any activities of the nature of bugging central American embassies.
Dave and I certainly didn’t plant any bugging devices on our date. This was old-fashioned recon, pure and simple.
The ‘target’, as Dave called him, lived on a quiet, winding street, the kind of place where neighbours twitch their net curtains on a frequent basis. What was worse, Dave said, was that there was nowhere to park his car (a silver estate, with blacked-out rear windows so he could hide in the back, out of sight of passers-by or those aforementioned nosy neighbours who might wonder why a bloke has been sitting in the driver’s seat of a car parked in their street for 10 hours straight) unobtrusively.
The deal, he explained, was that he’d get to the man’s street at about 6am and wait, hidden in the back of the car, until the 'mark' emerged to go to catch his bus to the gym. There was a narrow lane cutting through a churchyard and down the back of a school that was the most direct route to the bus stop.
“I’ll have to ditch the car,” Dave said, as we walked past the target’s house for the third time. I felt nervous that people would see us and think that we were staking the house out to rob it, call the police and we would be the ones ending up behind bars. Thankfully, we headed off down the path through the churchyard. He was tall and handsome, was Dave, and quite distinctive-looking. How does he avoid detection when he’s following someone on foot, I asked.
“I carry a bag with me with three changes of tops and hats. One good outfit is a high-vis vest, shorts and boots. Then I look like a construction worker. I followed one bloke into a pub once, dressed like that, and I was having a pint and keeping an eye on him and he asked me if I wanted to play a game of pool with him. So I did – and videoed him the whole time.”
What happened if someone realised they were being followed, I wanted to know.
“Well, usually we work in teams of two, so we can switch, but I have to do it on my own, so the chances of being caught out are higher.” I reminded myself that these were hardly Bond-villain master criminals; they were unlikely to capture Dave, tie him spread-eagled to a chair and point a laser beam at his crotch in revenge for his uncovering their evil plots. They just lose out on a few thousand pounds of insurance pay-outs.
“So how are you going to follow this bloke tomorrow, do you reckon, now that we’ve done our recce of his car and house?” I asked.
Dave looked around him, checking over both shoulders before answering. “Well, I don’t think I can follow him down this path – it’d be too obvious, so I’ll have to risk losing sight of him and drive round to the bus stop in the car and follow the bus into town. He’s due to change buses there to get out to the gym so I’ll have to lose him again while I ditch the car and then get on the bus with him. I’ve got this camera that looks like a phone so I can film him while pretending that I’m ringing someone.”
“And when you get to the gym? Won’t it look a bit fishy, following him in and hanging around in your high-vis vest?”
“I’ve already thought of that. I’m going to ask to fill in a new member’s form – that way I can have my camera on the desk while I’m filling it in.”
As we could do no more to spy on the mark tonight without raising suspicion, we headed to another pub, where I was bursting with questions. Dave explained that sometimes a suspicious neighbour would call the police when they noticed an unfamiliar parked car. A uniformed officer would knock on the window but was usually fine with it once Dave explained what he was doing. And, he said, it was procedure to ring the local force in advance of a stake-out, anyway, and inform them out of courtesy what was going on.
“But what if you need to pee?” I asked. “I mean, if you’re in the car on your own for hours on end and you can’t leave because you don’t know if the mark is going to come out of his front door the second you dash off to a loo.” Dave raised his eyebrows slyly as he took a mouthful of beer and waggled the empty bottle to make his point.
“Oh,” I said. “Probably means men make better surveillance operatives than women.”
I heard later that week that the mission had been successful. Dave’s plan had worked to a T and he’d managed to film the mark in the gym, doing things no man with a strained back should be able to do. It was a good ending for Dave and an even better result for the insurance company. But was it a good ending for me, romantically-speaking?
Let’s just say I can’t go into details – or I’d have to shoot you – but, although I really enjoyed my really unusual date going on recon, he certainly didn’t turn out to be the spy who loved me.