Apophenia – the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data
I’d always wanted to be a secret agent, and I drove my parents insane with my constant spy games–running around pretending to shoot people, hiding in bushes to peer at the neighbours, speaking in Morse code…oh, and that time aged thirteen when I was caught in Old Mrs. Bukowski’s bedroom with her knickers in my hand.
In my defence, she had a strange name, a wart on her chin, and on this particular summer’s afternoon she’d left her kitchen window wide open.
I was not, as I was unfairly accused of at the time, rifling through her underwear drawer for a cheap thrill–but was in fact looking for the evidence that would prove she was an enemy agent.
Fortunately, the officious police officer who caught me on the premises finally saw reason when my parents were able to explain the situation to him–although personally I wouldn’t have described my investigative work as “obsessive behaviour.”
In the end I was let off with a stern warning, and I never bothered our Polish neighbour again, but to this day part of me is still convinced that she wasn’t as innocent as she’d led everyone to believe.
Despite this setback, I stayed committed to the cause–joining the scouts to learn tracking, camping, woodcraft, and fishing, and choosing my school subjects on the basis of what would help me get into George Washington University.
I did a combined degree in computing and world affairs, certain that this would make me a prime candidate for selection by the Secret Service recruiters widely believed to be active on campus.
However, despite several years of hard study and casual hanging around on campus, I was never once approached by government representatives and asked to serve my country.
At the end of my final year, with a useless degree and with my dreams well and truly crushed, I attended the college’s career fair where I half-heartedly accepted a low-paying position in a small local company looking for “individuals with unique skill sets and a thirst for knowledge.”
On the face of it, Know-It-All.com was nothing more than another one of those companies providing a messaging question and answer service. For example, you’d text something like “Did Gandhi ever wear trousers?” and you’d get a reply saying, “Yes, Gandhi wore trousers on his visit to London in 1931 after considering the cool weather.” And you’d be charged $1.50 for the privilege.
However, once I’d started working there, I soon realised the whole thing was really an elaborate setup designed to train the brightest and the best to work for the Secret Service. True, this was not something that was ever actually admitted by the management or discussed by any of my fellow employees, but to me it was obvious.
The job was seemingly easy and unchallenging–pick up the next text message question from the email-like computer program on our PCs, use Google and Wikipedia to get the answer, type it into the computer, and click “Reply.” It was so simple a child could do it.
Roger Harris, my team leader, was an ex-Marine who everyone affectionately referred to as “The Colonel.” He kept telling us that the job was an education and we should be grateful about how much we were learning. During our brief coffee breaks, some of the others bad-mouthed him behind his back, bitching about the low wage we were earning.
But I knew he was letting himself get as close as he could to telling us the truth about what we were actually doing there. I’m not sure why no one could openly talk about it, but I went along with it like everyone else. It showed I could follow orders, even the unspoken ones.
The only time I almost blew it was at the end of my first week, when my mother asked what the job involved and I made the mistake of saying I wasn’t sure I could talk about it.
“Oh, you’re not still playing at being a secret agent are you?” she’d asked. And for a heart stopping moment I thought she knew the truth, before she burst out laughing and I realised I’d got away with it.
Six months later and our training was complete–though the official line was that the company was closing down and we were losing our jobs.
The Colonel was supportive during my farewell one-to-one. “Don’t worry, lad,” he told me, smiling, “I’m sure the right job will be heading your way sometime soon. My advice is to wait until that comes along, rather than just taking the first thing that appears. Be patient and bide your time. You know what I mean, eh?”
I knew exactly what he meant…
Playing the part of an unemployed layabout wasn’t easy. I didn’t bother applying for jobs, and I had barely enough money to survive on.
I had to budget for each and every cent I had. I rented a squalid bedsit in the run-down area of town, the only thing I could afford. It was cold and damp, with filthy threadbare carpets and old stained furniture.
I got my groceries from wherever I could get them cheapest. I bought clothes from charity shops, smoked rollups, and drank the cheapest liquor available.
I looked for all the world like a lazy bum, and I suppose that’s what I had become. I was playing the part perfectly. Only I, and my superiors, knew the truth. That I was deep undercover, waiting.
I spent the days honing my skills. Doing press-ups and jogging to keep myself fit. Following people as they went about their everyday business, unaware that they were being tracked. And practising the kung fu moves I’d learned from watching Bruce Lee movies.
I also kept an active eye on the neighbourhood around me–looking for any signs that my cover had been blown or that I was under surveillance from enemy agencies.
It was a difficult and lonely form of living with no friends or family, but I did as instructed and patiently waited for my first job.
When it finally came, it came in the form of an envelope pushed through my letterbox by persons unseen. The address on it was incorrect and when I picked it up off the doormat my initial thoughts were that someone had made an error–mistaking my address of 14 Hilton Street for the 14 Hilton Avenue written on the envelope. But then I wondered, could this be what I’d been waiting for all these months? And I opened the envelope with shaking hands.
I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but it certainly wasn’t a card with a cartoon rabbit on it, wishing me “Happy Birthday!” I frowned before realising that this was no doubt deliberate, in case it fell into the wrong hands. Very clever. It looked like a normal birthday card, even reading inside: Happy Birthday Andy! Love Karen x.
And this was when my training kicked in and I decoded the instructions from my superiors. There was nothing else written in the card or on the envelope, so the address itself had to be the real message. But what was it? Was that the target and, if so, what was I meant to do there? I knew further instructions must be coming.
A couple of nights later, I was woken by the sounds of someone breaking into my garage. By the time I’d thrown on some clothes and run outside, they’d already scarpered. Probably a good thing. With my training I might have killed them.
A few weeks earlier, an interfering old bloke from the Neighbourhood Watch had warned me that thieves were operating in our neighbourhood and, stepping into the garage, it looked like he’d been right. They had had a good root around because everything was strewn all over the place, though it didn’t look like anything was missing.
That was when I spotted the big can of gasoline. I’d never noticed it before. It might have always been there, hidden amongst the junk left by the previous tenants, but it looked brand new.
And that was when everything fell into place, and I knew what I was being asked to do.
A few days later, and the story on the local news made it sound like the tragic tale of a motiveless night-time arson attack on the home of an innocent family. To the general public, those killed in the raging inferno had been harmless–a school teacher, a housewife and mother, and a little girl who liked strawberry milkshakes. But my superiors had obviously known differently.
Me, I didn’t know who those people really were or what it was they had done. I just knew that I’d been given my orders, and I carried them out.
Rich Dodgin is an Edinburgh-based fiction writer and music journalist.
Lead image: “alphaville” (via Flickr user Emiliano Grusovin)