Burned

“The business dies without it,” declared Mr M with palpable anxiety.

“We know it arrives tonight, but we don’t know where.”

Nadia’s father and his associates were still desperately poring over a heavily coded message and a map when she snuck into his secret room. Suddenly, the door swung open. Nadia leapt for cover.

“What the hell Benny!” admonished Mr M, “knock 3, wait…knock 2, wait…How many times have I told you?”

“Sorry boss,” whimpered Benny, grasping for the pride he’d felt moments earlier after returning from the first meaningful task he’d been entrusted with; buying burner phones. He chose the ones with flame symbols on them, thinking that was why they were called burners.

Phones were hastily shoved into pockets and the men returned with increasing concern to the code and the map.

“Where is the drop site?!” Mr M demanded of his subordinates. Nadia felt her father’s anger and snuck out of the room. She didn’t know exactly how he paid her private school fees, but she had some idea what ‘hostile takeover’ meant in his line of business. She counted 10 seconds then burst back in with exaggerated clumsy innocence. An uncomfortable silence lingered.

“What about the Eels last night, eh” Mr M said eventually.

“Um…ah….yeah,” replied Stan.

“They’ll win the comp this year,” declared the boss calmly.

With doe eyes and rehearsed timidity, Nadia apologised profusely and asked for the day’s newspaper,

“…for the crossword.”

Her father thrust it at her and his boiling frustration swept her out the door.

Mr M didn’t understand his 13-year-old daughter’s obsession with cryptic crosswords, any more than he understood the code which hid the location of tonight’s shipment. When he emerged in a frantic search for whiskey, Nadia told him. He wasn’t convinced, so Nadia explained the hidden meaning behind each clue, and subsequently the precise location of the drop. Her father didn’t know whether to feel shocked, angry, usurped, proud, humiliated or impressed, so he succumbed to all of the above.

“You got lucky this time,” is all he could muster. Nadia smiled inwardly and returned to her cryptic as her father gathered his boys and rushed to the drop site.

“Move the second I call you on your burner,” added Mr M after he’d explained the meticulous plan to intercept Mr Smith’s shipment.

“Now spilt up!”

“How does the boss know so much about Mr Smith’s operations?” Benny asked Stan when they set off for their posts.

“They were partners until Smith crossed him, took every penny from their biggest haul years back.”

Truck after truck arrived.

The boss waited and breathed deeply. Revenge and riches were within arm’s reach. He was bursting with excitement and desperate to reveal himself to Mr Smith with the haul safely in his possession.

This is it. His trembling hands dialled the number and raised the phone to his ear.

‘Welcome to Flame mobile – your call has been placed in a queue and will be answered shortly…’

Can I Have Your SIM Card?

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My landlord asked me for my SIM card.

I was leaving Brunei and I knew I wasn’t coming back – so did my landlord. A few days before I left the country for good, the landlord messaged me and asked if he could have my SIM card.

Why did he want my SIM?

He didn’t say. But amid the mixed emotions of leaving a country I had lived and worked in for three years, my mind did begin to wander. The landlord clearly wanted access to a SIM that was not registered in his name.

Did he have a mistress?

Perhaps.

This is certainly common in Brunei, despite, or because of, the country being a strict Muslim nation under Sharia law. Many married men are known to have mistresses and many of the girls were apparently quite young. In fact, one of the girls I was teaching, who was 14 or 15, suddenly disappeared from my class and her name was removed from the class roll. I was informed, quietly, that she would not be returning for some time as she had been sent to an establishment for ‘re-education’ after being caught in a relationship with a married man. According to my source, the girl’s behaviour would be ‘corrected’, while the adult male in the relationship would not suffer the same consequences.

I was also informed that men would lure girls into relationships with nothing more than a SIM card or the promise to pay for their phone credit.

Was he a criminal?

I don’t know, but that was another obvious assumption. Maybe I’ve watched too many gritty crime dramas in which the criminals have endless access to burner phones and new SIM cards, but I couldn’t help assuming that he wanted a number that wouldn’t be traced back to him because he was involved in some shady business.

My suspicions grew because of what happened before I moved into his house. It was offered fully furnished, but when I moved in, there was no furniture in it. I was told that he could not arrange the furniture, despite having more than a month to do so, because he was still overseas on business.

“He can’t get a visa”

This is the reason I was given for his delay. He apparently hadn’t returned because he was waiting for the Bruneian government to grant him a visa, to return to Brunei.

My landlord was a middle-aged Malay, Muslim Bruneian citizen, born and bred in the country, yet he needed to apply for a visa to come back into his country. I had never heard of this before and I don’t know if any other country applies this condition to their own citizens.

I had been told, however, that the Bruneian government (the royal family) pays particularly close attention to any Bruneian citizen, or long-term resident, who accumulates a significant amount of income. I had also heard that the government will stop anyone from earning more than a certain amount of money because money equals power.

It was suggested to me that his business was quite successful, and his new-found wealth may have attracted the attention of government officials.

He’s not Chinese.

The threat of a wealthy citizenry prevents many Chinese Bruneians from earning full citizenship. Many Chinese Bruneians are technically stateless because, despite living in the country for many generations, they are never granted full citizenship. Chinese people, and those from the sub-continent, run the day to day economy of the country, and some are so successful that they accumulate considerable wealth.

However, their businesses are fully or partly owned by a Malay Bruneian, because the Chinese do not have full citizenship. The royal family knows that if Chinese Bruneians enjoyed the same rights as Malay Bruneians, their superior business acumen of the Chinese would erode the power of the government.

What was his business?

I don’t know. I never found out.

Why did your landlord have your number?

It’s a peculiarity in Brunei that real estate dealings for rental properties are normally conducted directly between the landlord and the tenant, even though the property is rented through an estate agent.

What do estate agents do?

Apart from listing rental properties and organising the initial meeting between the two parties, not much. If you’re looking for an easy, well-paying job, become a real estate agent in Brunei.

Did I give him the SIM card?

No, I needed it up until I checked in for my flight in order to hand over some items to a staff member from the company with which I had been working. I didn’t realise at the time of the request, but I also needed it after the flight home was cancelled and I was trapped in the country for one more night – and put up at a dodgy hotel not 200 metres from the house I had just vacated.

I could have stayed one more night in the house.

If only I’d given the landlord my SIM.

Image: Brett Jordan