The door leading into the hotel is already open and I walk through it
into a low, wide lobby. Two South American teenagers are playing
Gameboys on a sofa near reception, kicking back in hundred-dollar
trainers while Daddy picks up the bill. The older of them swears
loudly in Spanish and then catches his brother square on the knot of
his shoulder with a dead arm that makes him wince in pain. A passing
waiter looks down, shrugs, and empties an ashtray at their table.
Theres a general atmosphere of listless indifference, of time passing
by to no end, the prerush lull of late afternoons.
"Buenas tardes, señor."
The receptionist is wide shouldered and artificially blond and I
play the part of a tourist, making no effort to speak to her in Spanish.
"Good afternoon. I have a reservation here today."
"The name, sir?"
She ducks down and taps something into a computer. Then theres
a smile, a little nod of recognition, and she writes down my details on
a small piece of card.
"The reservation was made over the Internet?"
"Could I see your passport please, sir?"
Five years ago, almost to the day, I spent my first night in Madrid
at this same hotel; a twenty-eight-year-old industrial spy on the run
from the UK with $189,000 lodged in five separate bank accounts,
using three passports and a forged British driving licence for ID. On
that occasion I handed a Lithuanian passport issued to me in Paris
in August 1997 to the clerk behind the desk. The hotel may have a
record of this on their system, so Im using it again.
"You are from Vilnius?" the receptionist asks.
"My grandfather was born there."
"Well, breakfast is between seven thirty and eleven oclock and you
have it included as part of your rate." It is as if she has no recollection
of having asked the question. "Is it just yourself staying with us?"
My luggage consists of a suitcase filled with old newspapers and a
leather briefcase containing some toiletries, a laptop computer, and
two of my three mobile phones. Were not planning to stay in the
room for more than a few hours. A porter is summoned from across
the lobby and he escorts me to the lifts at the back of the hotel. Hes
short and tanned and genial in the manner of low-salaried employees
badly in need of a tip. His English is rudimentary, and
its tempting to break into Spanish just to make the conversation
"This is being your first time in Madrid, yes?"
"Second, actually. I visited two years ago."
"For the bullfights?"
"You dont like the corrida?"
"Its not that. I just didnt have the time."
The room is situated halfway down a long, Barton Fink corridor
on the third floor. The porter uses a credit-card-sized pass key to open
the door and places my suitcase on the ground. The lights are operated
by inserting the key in a narrow horizontal slot outside the bathroom
door, although I know from experience that a credit card works
just as well; anything narrow enough to trigger the switch will do the
trick. The room is a reasonable size, perfect for our needs, but as soon
as I am inside I frown and make a show of looking disappointed and
the porter duly asks if everything is all right.
"Its just that I asked for a room with a view over the square. Could
you see at the desk if it would be possible to change?"
Back in 1998, as an overt target conscious of being watched by
both American and British intelligence, I ran basic countersurveillance
measures as soon as I arrived at the hotel, searching for microphones
and hidden cameras. Five years later, I am either wiser or
lazier; the simple last-minute switch of room negates any need to
sweep. The porter has no choice but to return to reception and
within ten minutes I have been assigned a new room on the fourth
floor with a clear view over Plaza de Santa Ana. After a quick shower
I put on a dressing gown, turn down the air-conditioning, and try to
make the room look less functional by folding up the bedspread,
placing it in a cupboard, and opening the net curtains so that the decent
February light can flood in. Its cold outside, but I stand briefly
on the balcony looking out over the square. A neat line of denuded
chestnut trees runs east toward the Teatro de España where a young
African man is selling counterfeit CDs from a white sheet spread out
on the pavement. In the distance I can see the edge of the Parque Retiro
and the roofs of the taller buildings on Calle de Alcalá. Its a
typical midwinter afternoon in Madrid: high blue skies, a brisk wind
whipping across the square, sunlight on my face. Turning back into
the room I pick up one of the mobiles and dial her number from
British Parliament asks Amazon to clarify why it pays $9 million in income tax on $23 billion of UK sales.(May 20 2013) Amazon will be called back to give further evidence to members of the British Parliament "to clarify how its activities in the U.K. justify its low corporate...