Authors: EJ McBride
He stared at Clara, allowing her unrestricted access to his current thought.
'Does that answer your question?'
Clara, unimpressed, sighed before turning and heading to her room.
Dinner was served promptly at 8pm, something Clara was informed would be standard throughout her stay. She'd arrived deliberately late in an effort to prove a point, and was thoroughly unimpressed when her act of teenage-like rebellion had gone unnoticed, a plate of cold food staring up at her from her place. She sat at a large dining table with the man who had brought her here in the first place, along with the other three agents who had escorted her in the car. There were a couple of faces she didn't recognise but she assumed from their dress sense and demeanour that they were also agents, and one guy she couldn't put her finger on. He was young, maybe mid twenties, dark hair and a chiselled, handsome face. From where he was sat opposite her she could see he was wearing a loose-fitting, casual shirt, making him instantly stand out from the stuffy clothing of the agents, but appeared apprehensive and cautious, occasionally glancing over in her direction, almost deliberately avoiding eye contact.
'It's pasta tonight', stated the agent who had brought her here. 'I hope that's alright with you?'
He looked at Clara who shrugged, uninterested.
'We've got two cooks here', he continued. 'This isn't exactly the Ritz, and we certainly don't do room service, but your meals will be covered, and if you ever want anything outside of meal times just go in the kitchen and ask nicely, they're generally pretty good about it.'
'I don't care about meal times', responded Clara. 'You said you'd tell me what this was all about.'
He paused as one of the cooks began bringing out plates of food and serving them up, before responding.
'What would you like to know?'
'Let's start with who you are.'
'My name is Joseph Boal', he replied. 'I work for a part of the Government that you really don't need to know about, other than the fact that we work with people like you. The men and women who work here are all paid to help keep you safe and to teach you what you need to know.'
'What exactly do I need to know?', Clara asked?
Boal, who had just taken a mouth full of his meal, stopped eating, placing his knife and fork down on his plate and wiping his mouth, clearly aware that the question wasn't going to wait until after dinner.
'We've been following you for a while now...'
'Following me?', Clara interrupted.
'Yes, following you. We operate a computer program, an algorithm that tracks various different official reporting mediums from all over the world, looking for patterns. We aggregate data from every source you could possibly imagine. School reports, medical reports, even social media. Your Police report was what gave you away. A con-artist with seemingly exceptional skills, rarely arrested but even when you were you were able to talk your way straight out of trouble. It was clear when we interrogated your file a bit further that you possessed an ability to influence people with almost impossible ease. That in itself is a skill we're interested in, but we knew there was more to you than that.'
Clara stared back at Joseph, transfixed on the conversation.
'None of which explains how you could be so sure about my abilities. How do you know I'm not just taking you all for a ride now?', she asked.
'We were always pretty certain, but I knew I needed to meet you. I knew from the second you realised that you couldn't read me. The look on your face back at the Police Station told me everything I needed to know. You don't work for an organisation like this, work with people like you, without learning how to close your mind off.'
Joseph calmly picked his fork back up and began to eat, glancing occasionally over at Clara who looked puzzled, the weight of the world on her shoulders as she struggled to take in everything she was being told.
'Why me?', she asked. 'Why not just throw me in jail?'
'The same reason why governments only throw the worst hackers in jail. The good ones, the really good ones, get given jobs, a chance to avoid a life of crime and turn things around.'
He paused for a moment, before once again putting down his knife and fork.
'Look, it's not like you have much in the way of options, but this is what we're offering you. You have a very specific skill-set that we can make use of. Interrogation has always been an imperfect way to get information out of people, and too often you're interrogating someone too late in the day anyway, unable to prevent a crime from taking place. Undercover operatives are great at extracting vital information but we never really know whether someone's being honest or whether they're setting us up. We employ the best people in the world when it comes to detecting lies, people who can read subtle body movements or the tiniest giveaway facial tick or speech slur. But we still can never know for certain what that person is thinking.'
Clara nodded, unimpressed, a dry smile suggesting that whilst she understood what Boal was feeding her, she wasn't about to eat it.
'Let me ask you something', she said. 'Why should I? I mean, putting myself in harms way. Risking my life. Why? What's in it for me? You gonna pay me millions?'
'You'll be paid the going rate for an undercover operative', replied Boal. 'Which is generous by the way, but certainly not millions. Consider it danger money.'
'So, you're not going to make me rich, but you expect me to give up my life for you people? Just like that?'
'Yes, basically', replied Boal. 'It's not like you had much going on for you beforehand.'
'Like you'd know what I had going on beforehand', snapped Clara.
Boal leant back in his chair, reaching behind him to a sideboard covered in files, taking one out and opening it up on the table. He gestured to the other people sat around the table, the agents and the guy she still hadn't met, who were eating their meals as if the conversation unfolding in front of them was the most normal thing in the world.
'You sure you want to discuss this in front of...?'
Boal paused, waiting for an objection from Clara, who held his gaze. He continued.
'You've no family. Or at least, no family that you still have a relationship with. Your brother, the only family member you ever considered yourself truly close to, passed away when you were young. You don't have a life on the streets, you have an existence on the streets. You scam anyone you think you can make a quick buck off, young or old, rich or poor but usually vulnerable. You run around with the one 'friend' you have, who by the way is currently a wanted fugitive, and you'd better hope the cops get to him before Lebedev does. You're not big time enough to make a decent living from all this, and it's not like you can just run around town like you own the place. We know you pay at least two of the local goons some protection money, which I'm guessing gets more expensive rather than less.'
Boal waited for a moment, as Clara continued to stare back, her expression now one of defiant acceptance.
'What we offer you is a chance to make something of yourself, a chance to do work that has purpose and meaning, to actually help people rather than rip them off. We'll pay you, we'll keep you safe, we can even put Mckenzie in Witness Protection.'
Boal leant forward, tussling the papers from his file together and putting them back on the sideboard from where he'd got them, before turning back to face her.
'I guess at this point Clara, if I'm honest, I'm looking for you to remind me why I should give you this fucking opportunity at all, and not just throw you to the dogs?'
Boal casually picked up his knife and fork and continued to eat, glancing up at Clara, who was trying her best to remain emotionless, staring down at the table in front of her. 'Why don't you take the night to think about the offer?', he asked.
Clara didn't sleep well at the best of times, but had struggled more than usual in her new and unfamiliar surroundings. She was awoken at 5.30am by a female agent who came into her room, pushing and prodding her until she finally gave in and got up. She hobbled into her en-suite shower, threw some clothes on and headed downstairs, met by Agent Boal, who was pouring himself a coffee in the kitchen.
'Good morning. Coffee?', he asked, gesturing toward her as though she wasn't sure what he was offering.
Clara winced, shaking her head at him. 'Too early'
'Maybe', responded Boal. 'But you're not going to get a chance to eat again until lunch. I'd suggest you line your stomach with something. There's fruit, cereal and bread, take what you want.'
Clara grudgingly picked up an empty cup and poured herself a coffee. She pulled out a stool from below the large breakfast bar and sat down, the flatscreen TV in the corner of the kitchen playing the morning news. The anniversary of the Helen Berghaus murder was the main talking point for the day, as various news anchors recounted the events of one year ago, the bungled robbery in a busy parking lot that had led to one of the city's most promising mayoral candidates losing her life. Clara watched for a moment, before turning her attention back to Boal.
'What are we doing today?', she asked.
'We, are doing nothing. You, are in training.'
Boal walked around from the large, modern kitchen units and pulled out a stool, black leather with a metal base, the kind you'd find in any trendy coffee shop or bar the world over. He took a seat at the breakfast bar.
'You have a skill set, but you don't know how to use it, despite what you might think. We can help you learn how to use your abilities properly.' He took another sip from his coffee. 'Plus you need to learn how to fire a gun.'
The next week or so was more or less the same routine. Clara would wake or be woken at about 5.30 each morning, instructed to get ready and breakfast before spending a day out with one or two agents as she was taught various different skills, both physical and psychological. Clara was being well treated; she received three meals a day, her surroundings were surprisingly plush, and she was even allowed access to the house's sprawling library of books and DVDs in the evening. She'd planned to read one of the handful of literary classics she'd spotted in amongst the bookshelves, but ended up falling asleep most nights watching Dirty Dancing or Notting Hill, a telling display of her softer side, had she allowed anyone to witness it. She didn't mind the agents; they were nice enough to her, weren't condescending in their training, and approached the whole thing with a '
just doing my job
' kind of attitude that Clara could actually get on board with. They were all empty books too. Clara had tried on countless occasions throughout the week to read them, at first deliberately catching people's eyes to see what she could see, each time seeing nothing, their minds blocked off, no trespassing allowed. What began as an enormous feeling of frustration to her gradually become a blessing; she was no longer worried about people having unspoken thoughts about her. For the first time in her life, she was ignorant to what those around her were thinking, and found the ignorance to be bliss. Each evening, as the desert sun set and the cooler nights drew in, the team would meet for dinner, and whilst Clara didn't feel the need to engage any of them in conversation, the frosty atmosphere of the first night's meal had at least subsided. Plus every evening, the same young guy, the one person she'd not been able to say two words to, or even make eye contact with, would sit on the opposite side of the table, too far away to spark up any kind of introductory smalltalk with. She never saw him during the day, and each evening after dinner he would finish before everyone else and disappear quietly to his room.
The training was tough. On one occasion she'd been driven out to a deserted shooting range, and spent a day being shown how to handle weapons, mainly small pistols and a couple of high calibre handguns. Boal had promised Clara that she wouldn't have to carry anything like this in the work that he was expecting her to do, but that he couldn't guarantee where she might get sent or who she might come up against, so skills at taking out a threat were vital. She was shown how to apply handcuffs and how to use pepper spray without getting a face-f of it herself. She was assigned a personal trainer, who had her eating healthy food and running every day, finding a level of fitness she never knew she possessed. She was taught some basic martial arts, jujitsu throws that she could keep up her sleeve, ready to use in a last-case scenario. Clara had never felt further away from her past life, but at the same time never closer to home.
However tough the physical training was, the psychological training was even tougher. About 9 or 10 days in, Boal had told Clara over a morning coffee that she wouldn't be leaving the house that day, but instead was to head downstairs and meet him in one of the meeting rooms. Clara had followed his instructions, choosing not to mention that she hadn't even realised there was a downstairs, and making her way into the enormous basement of the house. It was fully furnished, nothing like the basements she'd seen in houses growing up, and like the rest of the house was kitted out with functionality and luxury as the main design factors. She wondered down the main corridor, trying two locked doors before eventually spotting an open door, leading into a large room filled with tables and chairs, a projector and screen at the front. Boal was inside, perched against a desk at the front, scanning the screen of a tablet computer in his hand, the image being beamed onto the wall behind him via the projector. Sat in the front row, the only other person in the room, was the young guy from dinner, who glanced her way, double-taking when he realised it was Clara and not one of the agents, making eye contact for just the briefest of moments.