Inspiration: With a few writer friends, we agreed to each write a story based on the following prompt:
“You get a phone call from a wrong number, but instead of it ending there, you two begin exchanging messages late at night while the rest of the world sleeps.”
This will be the subject of my next YouTube video, so stay tuned for it!
In case you’re curious, here are the links to my friends’ stories on the same prompt:
Isabelle Palerma’s story: “The Sound a Ghost Makes”
Dlvan Zirak‘s story: “The Mysterious Caller”
Meanwhile, enjoy my story!
I don’t know. I guess I just inspire trust. People just like talking to me, and I often find myself listening to personal stories I never asked to hear. Then I take a polite and genuine interest and start asking questions – always clarifying of course that I understand it’s personal and they have every right not to answer – just to keep the conversation going. Somehow they pretty much always answer anyway.
And it happens in lots of different contexts. Meeting by chance on a plane or a train, for example. Or just starting out exchanging comments on Facebook. Or even in person during events. I don’t know what it is about me that makes people trust me this much. But I pretty much always find it a fascinating experience.
For example, one such person whom I met semi-randomly on a Facebook group – and never in person – moved from the public Facebook comments feeds to private messages. This eventually turned into her telling me all her daughter’s woes in school, the irresponsible handling of the situation by school and judicial authorities, and how she herself ended up falsely accused of being an irresponsible mother. She even started openly talking to a still almost total stranger about her daughter’s attempt to take her own life.
With another one from Facebook we ended up discussing very intimate things. I’m no prude, so that was perfectly fine with me. It was just unexpected. And with this one we did establish a kind of intimacy far beyond any I’d ever expected to develop from such circumstances.
And in some cases (only when I’d also met them in person) it eventually graduated to romantic involvement. In French they say “une fille dans chaque port”. That translates to “a woman in each port of call” and refers to how sailors tended to have lots of short-lived affairs all over the place as they travelled. In my case it was more like I met them while traveling or through similar experiences, and then something started building up.
Anyway, after this massive digression, let’s get back on topic. I don’t know what about me makes people trust me this much. I don’t mind, it’s fascinating, but it makes me wonder how trusting they usually are, if I’m just yet another one and they’re naive or if they’re usually guarded but make an exception for me. After all, for all they know I still could be the world’s worst bastard with the worst possible intentions. And over the course of those conversations they open up about a lot of things, providing lots of information which – especially in written channels – I could save to use for nefarious purposes.
Let’s take the unfortunate mother as an example. Granted, I don’t have too much detail about the issues, but with just a little investigating on my side, starting with the information provided, I’m sure I could find the people involved and contribute to worsening the situation. Or I could embark on some kind of revenge mission against those who wronged her. Or I could manipulate her and her daughter, now knowing which buttons to push, to my own unscrupulous advantage. In the case of the others who confessed intimate things like histories of sex, abuse or similar, I could use this to out them, ridicule them, turn the situation on its head and foster blame and accusations, causing a level of psychological torture such that they never recover.
In those moments I realize how powerful a thing it is to be able to inspire this much trust. I become their confidant in no time flat, and they end up spilling everything out to me. Well, I’m sure it’s not everything, I’m sure they’re still rational enough to keep some things from me. But sometimes it really feels like everything. And all this information is stuff I have the potential to use in awful ways.
But I don’t. My grandfather had an uncanny ability to do the same thing, inspire trust and have people spill everything. But then he would use this to know which buttons to push, then take pleasure in doing exactly that. He’d find your weak spot, your insecurity, your bête noire, and poke and prod at it just to make you react. I remember when he did it to me, and I did NOT take it well. He managed to alienate a hell of a lot of people that way, including his own sons. That’s just despicable behavior. I don’t know if it was a deliberate, malicious thing on his part or just a kind of instinct. I don’t know if he ever felt remorse about it or not. And frankly I don’t much care. All I know is I swore never to do the same thing myself despite sharing this ability.
So I don’t do it. Or rather, I didn’t do it. The thing about me is that my job is… well, let’s just say this kind of information is exactly my currency. I deal in it and seek it out. And my ability to gain it, and often more even than expected or planned, is one of the reasons I was hired for this job.
Oh don’t get me wrong, I still don’t do it to friends or family. I do it to marks. Or rather, I obtain the information and pass it on to people who do it themselves in an assortment of different ways.
The funny part is, it was never my intention to join my country’s secret service. I was eking out a modest career as an actor, taking a huge interest in improvisation, and enjoying every second of it. My acting troupe was still small so it wasn’t paying much. On the flipside I flipped burgers to make ends meet.
And then it happened again. Again I made an unexpected friend in an unexpectedly quick way. And this new friend changed my life.
At first we were just at a bar, I forget if it was for a language exchange or a pub quiz or we just started chatting as complete strangers. All I know is that she and I hit it off within minutes, and ended up talking quite late into the night. After that, we swapped contact info and stayed in touch. We had lots to exchange about. I do remember wondering if she had some other intentions, of course, and though I as usual let her unpack lots of things, I myself only reciprocated as I felt was appropriate. This is how I usually handle these situations.
After a few months she made a confession of a very different sort: she said she worked for the secret service and thought I’d be a very interesting addition to the team. I immediately felt a bit defensive at that point, wondering if she’d tracked me down and manipulated me deliberately, but pretty soon I realized that it was indeed purely coincidental. She insisted with the utmost sincerity that when we’d met she’d been off duty and just wanted to meet people, and only later thought I might have a future with them. She also told me that she’d already done a bit of a background check on me, which also put me on my guard, but she showed me all the paperwork and it seemed to bear out her words.
Eventually after talking it out some more I believed her. And then I started asking questions myself, about the offer, the job, the risks, etc. I wasn’t sure I wanted to consider it yet. I asked her for some time to think it through, then a few weeks later answered in the positive. Yes, I would join the service in the suggested capacity.
What followed were months of intense training, during which I had to quit my fast food job and suspend my involvement with the troupe on the basis that I was moving to the capital city. This training contained some things I was Ok with, including more acting lessons, language lessons, psychology lessons and of course current events, and other things that made me a bit uneasy, such as martial arts, weapons and that in order to succeed I needed to learn to be ruthless and detached when the situation required it. Still, overall it was pretty fascinating.
After that they released me back into the wild with the occasional mission. I was to be a sleeper, activated once in a while to obtain information from such or such person and pass that information on. And I can’t deny it’s been a mind-blowing experience. Putting my talent for acting and improvisation to good use in better ways than just memorizing lines, and getting a handsome salary out of it, seemed like the perfect deal!
The way it worked was as follows: my handlers would send me the target’s file, complete with photos, details on their life and preferences and a briefing of what I had to try and obtain. The objective was never to get truly sensitive information because that would be too hard to wrangle. But I did have to gain their confidence to get lots of extra information on the side that would help my handlers advance with their investigations without raising suspicion.
And so I got into this job, integrating it into my social life for a few weeks at a time but still keeping it separate from the improv troupe I’ve since rejoined, lest difficult questions start appearing in time. This worked well for a couple of years, and is still working well nowadays. My bosses are very happy with my results, and keep sending me more profiles.
Only of course this experience also kind of primed me to look out for more than just innocent conversation. It’s also affecting how I handle my social life. Occupational hazard of being a secret agent, I guess.
On the whole it isn’t that much of a problem. For one thing, most people I deal with outside work don’t have anything to hide so that information isn’t particularly useful. For another, it is still interesting to add this dimension to those interactions, even though I know I have to keep it to myself. But it also means that sometimes I obtain, or inadvertently draw out, a lot more information than I expected. Thankfully it hasn’t caused any conflicts or misunderstandings yet.
Just a couple of weeks ago I met this girl, Fatima. She’s 28, Egyptian and married. She and I were on a train together and started talking about silly things at first, but pretty soon the whole rigmarole started up again, and she was opening up about her life in Egypt before she moved here, how she’d had to fight against antiquated rules and principles in her home country and ended up coming to study law in Spain because there are just no opportunities for women back home.
She told me how she had married this guy Ixaka, a Basque she met in the local university. She told me how this marriage caused a ton of strife in both families, as neither was OK with this union. She told me she thinks it’s ridiculous that conflicts can break out over such stupid stuff. She said it was really hard to face both her family and the in-laws, that rebel-minded Ixaka revelled in this provocation and kept encouraging her to challenge them.
But she also told me a few things that caught my newly retrained attention. Or rather, she didn’t tell me so much as she let them slip. The first time or two I only registered them in passing and put them down to simple coincidences. But after the third time I was intrigued.
Basically, reading between the lines of what she told me of her husband, I understood he generally kept pretty questionable company. Not only that, he and those friends were up to something secret that she didn’ t know about. She said her husband had gotten more secretive and defensive over the past weeks. She also described one of the guys, who turns out to be a skinhead from the neighborhood, well known by the authorities. Her husband kept her out of the meetings because he knew this one in particular might get racist and start treating her badly.
Ever since I started working with the secret service I’ve made it a point to keep my social and secret lives strictly separate, but this set off a number of alarm bells in my mind. After all, I’ve dealt with unmasking terror plots before, so by now I’m attuned to certain red flags. And almost everything about this guy looks shady. So for the first time since I started, I’m breaking my rule.
I’ve already sent information to my handlers to keep an eye on this Ixaka guy, even though I couldn’t provide them with any evidence more definite than “Red flags”. They replied by instructing me to keep working this angle and see if I can get any more specific information. I’m sorry, Fatima, I don’t want you to be in the middle of all this, but I don’t have a choice.
So I’ve been keeping up the conversation with her, texting late into the night sometimes too while Ixaka is out. At least that way there’s written proof. This plan does have a weakness, of course, for the same reason. If Ixaka finds out, he’s bound to get more than a little annoyed, and who knows what might happen then.
Anyway, that’s where I am now, in bed chatting with Fatima on WhatsApp. I have to go about it all extremely carefully, because I want to seem natural and sincere and respectful but I also want to get information that could then constitute evidence or at least probable cause. She told me he’s out late again. She said he received a large delivery today. She said that the moment she asked what it was he got angry and suspicious and told her to stay away from it, that he was ‘only keeping it for someone for a couple of days’, and that after that it would vanish in a puff of smoke.
This put my spidey sense on edge. I have to find out if that metaphor was intended literally or just meant that it would disappear in a single go. I need to know what further question to ask or comment to send that might get me closer to the truth.
And this is all complicated further by the fact that Fatima is fully infatuated with Ixaka anyway, whatever her doubts about him. If I even begin to imply that he’s doing something wrong and punishable, she’ll get defensive herself on his behalf. In her mind, this is all his friends’ fault, they’re just dragging him down the wrong path.
And this is where the whole manipulation part of this job comes in. I don’t manipulate people when I take confidences, I just remain my usual sincere, caring, open self. But in this case, though I met her through a very different channel, I realize I have a duty to manipulate her, something I always try to avoid. I need to get her talking, to get her to share just one conclusive element.
So to sum things up, that’s where I stand. I have to a) manipulate a friend to b) betray her beloved husband without thinking she is, in order to c) get information out of her to eventually bring him down and cause her suffering. The moral implications of this are heavy. If what we suspect is true, I’d be essentially ruining a genuine friendship that I very much enjoy in order to save lots of lives. If our suspicions are false, I’d still risk ruining that friendship, and all ultimately for nothing.
In both cases I’d likely cause her suffering: making her either doubt him forever or fight tooth and nail against the accusations. The revelation of the truth about me, the intense scrutiny and privacy violations of a full-blown police investigation, not to mention the zillion statements and the suspicion that she may herself be an accessory or accomplice. And of course ruining her trust in me and bringing home to her the realization of the sheer amount of information she’s shared with me without hesitation and what I’m in a position to do with it.
On the other hand, I could also potentially be saving hundreds, maybe thousands of lives if our suspicions are true and I act on this. Whether or not it’s my business to save them, I do feel like my conscience demands it. After all, I’m in the unique position of having access to the information and the means to prevent such an event.
But ultimately, what do I stand to gain from doing this? Merely feeling good at having “done the right thing” is kind of cheapened by the fact that nobody will ever know outside of a very restricted circle in the agency. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll know it and I’ll feel good about it, but the recognition is doomed to be limited. Is losing a friendship too high a price to pay for this? Or is it just the cost of doing business and saving lives?
I sigh and decide to do my moral duty. No, it’s my professional duty ever since I let my bosses know. I dwell for another instant on the thought of the victims, and make my decision. It’s not professional. It’s moral. I have to do it. And I will.
After another hour of conversation and wracking my brains for everything I know and how it all seems connected, I think I’ve found the way to get to her. I adopt my usual approach of asking questions “out of curiosity” and insisting that if they’re too personal it’s her right not to answer. The questions themselves aren’t directly on the topic and are interspersed with other irrelevant questions and times when I let her talk.
And at one point, just when she’s talking about a friend’s kids whom she really cares about, I detect the note of longing and motherly instinct and pounce with an off-hand comment about the victims of the latest terrorist attack, what their mothers must have lived through and whether it might have been preventable. It’s a fairly big gamble, considering it sounds like irrelevant, off-hand comments, but I have to take it.
And sure enough, it works. She starts answering generally about the case I mentioned, then after just a hint of hesitation during which I say nothing, starts telling me more of what she’s overheard and learned, stressing that I shouldn’t tell anyone. Bingo! I have my evidence, about a page of hastily scribbled notes’ worth.
After that she takes a bit of a frightened tone and repeats her request for me to keep it all to myself so as not to get him or her in trouble – note the fact that she puts ‘him’ ahead of ‘her’, as I guessed she would. I reply that I will, knowing that I can’t. I don’t like lying to anyone, least of all a friend, and I know the risk. But this is an objectively small one when compared with the benefits.
The conversation goes on, branching off into different topics while I write up my report of everything she mentioned, and after another hour she says she needs to go to bed. We bid each other good night and she signs off. I finish typing up my report and prepare to send it right away, then hesitate to click the Send button and instead let it sit there.
It’s not fair, I tell myself. It’s not fair to her. I made a promise. But then, would letting all this happen be fair to the victims, to the unknown number of people who will die or get injured? Could I really live with myself if I sacrificed all of them to keep up one friendship?
When the team at Bletchley Park finally decrypted the German Enigma code, they found themselves obliged to sacrifice some British convoys, some even containing friends or relatives of theirs, in order not to reveal to the Nazis right away that they’d done just that. They found themselves in the rare position of being able to essentially play God, to decide who lives and who dies.
I’m in that position myself, I now realize. Just like the trolley problem: I could stay on this track and sacrifice a single friendship, or I could switch tracks and sacrifice countless lives. What should I do?
For now I’ll just kick the can down the road a little way. After all, if my information is correct, the plan can’t proceed for another week at least. I’ll just sleep on it.
As I start preparing to go to bed I close the various windows and instead of just saving the draft of the email to my bosses, hit “send” out of muscle memory. Oops. Oh well, I guess my subconscious, or just my conscience, made my decision for me. Now I’ve saved those lives, I’ll just have to live with the consequences.