Authors: EJ McBride
I finally get a chance to speak with her
', he thought, a thought which Clara picked up loud and clear. He hurriedly turned to look down at the desk he was sat at, his demeanour changing to embarrassed, his face becoming flushed. He picked a pen up and began playing with it, twirling it around his fingers as he plucked up the courage to speak.
'I know you saw what I was just thinking', he said.
'Yeah', replied Clara. 'It's ok, I'm glad I get a chance to speak with you too.'
Awkward silence, not exactly the response Clara had hoped for, but he didn't seem unimpressed at her honesty.
'Please don't be offended, but I don't want to look at you. I've never met anyone who can read me before, I'm used to being the one who can read', he said. 'I'm still trying to learn how to deal with it. Can we just talk, no eye contact?'
'Sure', replied Clara. The pair waited quietly while Boal, seemingly unaware that Clara had even entered the room, continued flicking through the pages of his tablet computer.
'I'm Clara Phelps'
'Nice to meet you Clara Phelps, I'm Robin Burr.'
Robin reached his right arm through his left and in front of Clara, who looked down, realised what he was doing and used her right arm to shake his hand, the pair both still avoiding eye contact. They chuckled, before going back to their original pose.
'How long have you been here?', asked Clara.
'I got here 2 days before you.'
'How'd they, ya know, persuade you to join?'
Robin shifted uncomfortably in his chair, toying with telling Clara the truth or making up a less shameful story.
'It's cool', interjected Clara. 'They caught me robbing a Russian gangster's daughter.'
'Holy shit, that's impressive!', laughed Robin, still holding his gaze away from Clara.
'They caught me running an insurance fraud', he eventually said. 'Nothing quite as glamorous. The money was good but it was gonna catch up with me eventually. Pretty much had me over a barrel, it was this or a super-max jail for the rest of my life when they worked out what I could do.'
'Yup, that's my experience, they like the ones with no alternatives'
Clara looked up at Boal to see whether her wise-ass comment had garnered a reaction, and in perfect timing he stopped what he was doing and looked at her.
'Well, nice to see you two getting on well', he said. 'And yes, to respond to your comment, the more hopeless and pathetic they are the better for us.'
Boal looked across at Clara, who flipped him the middle finger without even looking in his direction, before he continued.
'So, you guys have probably worked out by now that you're not as unique as you thought you were, certainly not in this place.'
Boal picked up a small USB presentation pointer, clicking a button as the lights in the room dimmed and the projector screen changed to an image of a black and white photo of someone in a chair, tied up and clearly distressed.
'It's about time you both learnt a little more about why you're here.'
He clicked the button again, and the projector moved on through the PowerPoint presentation. The subject matter was more of the same, various slides talking about interrogation techniques through the ages and why they were often not as reliable as intelligence agencies would like, the idea that the US government was investing heavily in underground methods of '
'. After a few minutes of introducing the subject to them, he sat down in one of the chairs, placing the presenter down on the table.
'You both have a very unique skill, but you both need to learn how to manage it effectively. I know for a fact you've both tried to read me while you've been here, you're probably both trying to read me now, and I don't need to be psychic to tell you that. I can also tell you that you only get to see what I allow you to see. I wasn't born with that skill, I learnt that. And you're both going to learn how to do it too.'
He stood up and walked to the back of the room, picking up a can of soda before walking back toward his seat.
'Clara, what am I thinking right now?', he asked. Clara looked into his eyes, then screwed her face up in disgust.
'Oh you're fucking disgusting', she fumed, 'how old are you?'
'Yeah, immature perhaps', he said, 'but it proves my point. You've not learnt how to deal with what you see quickly enough to manage your reaction. You think I'm an open book but you give away your thoughts and feelings on your face, and you think other people can't see them. It's one thing reading someone to see if they're an easy target, but what if you're talking to a murderer or a rapist? What if you're trying to read someone and you realise they're a paedophile?'
'How are you able to choose when we can and can't read you?', asked Robin.
'I can't, I can just make it incredibly difficult for you', he replied. 'You two are both used to reading people who don't realise they're being read. It's like stealing money from someone's wallet when they don't even realise the wallet is missing, there's no challenge. It's like hacking into an old person's computer who doesn't even know what a hacker is. The difference is that I know what you're trying to do, so I can prepare myself for it.'
'So what, you're gonna show us how to bluff? Easy!' said Clara with confidence. 'I mean, Robin's the only other guy in the world who can read right, and he's on my side'
Boal grinned and shook his head, slowly making his way to the door.
'The only other reader in the world?', he said. 'Jesus Clara, this training's going to take longer than I thought'
Clara woke earlier than usual, around 4am. The magnitude of her situation clearly catching up with her, her slumber was now being regularly interrupted with thoughts of what was coming next. Clara had been at the house for almost a month now, and the training had been intense every day. Weekends offered minor respite in the form of a slightly earlier finish on a Sunday, but this was more to allow the agents time to recuperate than it was to allow Clara or Robin time to gather their thoughts. Boal was a taskmaster, and whilst he wasn't hands-on in all of their training, he would often 'pop in' unannounced, rapidly assessing the training that was being delivered before almost always insisting that they weren't being pushed hard enough. Clara and Robin had both discussed Boal at length, trying to figure out who he was, what made him tick. Despite the cloak and dagger of their setup, most of the agents they spent time with were willing to open up at least a little bit. One was married with two young children and had taken the job because of the money, it was his way of fast-tracking a military career, creating a nest-egg then retiring young and living out the rest of his life in Florida. Another, their least favourite of all the instructors, would bore them rigid with his bigoted opinions and tales of how the country was going 'down the shitter', before admitting that he had been single for the past 6 years and didn't really have any friends. It wasn't much, but for a team of people who were professionally 'closed off', it was a rare glimpse at their human side.
Boal was better at hiding his human side than anyone else at the agency. Most of the instructors chose not to enter into conversation about him, never bringing his name up and steering conversation away from him when they needed to. Despite his relatively mediocre size and stature, he'd built up a reputation for being fierce with a fiery temper. He was ex-military back in the UK, Clara knew that much, but beyond that he was as much of a closed book as was possible in Clara's life, keeping his thoughts shielded almost effortlessly from her and Robin around the clock. There was no '
catching him off guard
'. His role in the agency wasn't clear, but then you don't exactly contact Human Resources for a copy of your job specification when you work for a highly secret government agency. From what they understood, he was the recruiter and '
' as he referred to it. He would get tips about people with certain skill sets and then put himself in a position where he could meet and test these people. He'd mentioned in a conversation over dinner one evening that more than 99% of the people he met and tested didn't have the skills that Clara and Robin had, or even close, and that despite the advantages of using computer algorithms to pull these people out of the woodwork, more often than not he wasted his time. This had made Clara even more dubious of his intentions, and she'd often ponder why a man with his level of intelligence and employability would devote his life to the pursuit of literally less than a handful of people, meeting potentially thousands of 'fakes' along the way. She figured that whatever she was going to be doing for him long-term, it was more than just the odd bit of interrogation, and found herself getting panicky and anxious when she considered what might happen if she ever decided she wanted to leave.
Sleepless nights were unfortunately compounded by this thought, in more ways than one. Not only could she not leave the agency, she couldn't physically leave the premises, and save for the odd trip to a makeshift shooting range or assault course somewhere out in the desert, she'd spent the last 4 weeks in the same house. The garden of the building was stunning, full of lush tropical plants, paths that would lead off through trees and around small water features; there was even a heated outdoor pool. But the entire place was sealed off with enormous walls, the kind you usually saw on the news belonging to drug lords, tanks and armoured personnel carriers smashing through the front door for the television cameras. Surveillance equipment tracked every square inch of the grounds, and the agents would take it in turns to man the exits. Clara knew that Boal had made it clear that if she ever wanted to leave, all she had to do was go, but she was pretty confident that wasn't the case at all. As she sat outside on this particular early morning, staring at the gate that lead out of the grounds, her mind racing back to the days she'd spent on the pier in Brighton Beach, she wondered if she should put her theory to the test. She missed the hustle and bustle of New York, and not knowing when she was going to get out, was starting to get antsy.
At about 5.40 Clara headed inside, glancing at her watch and realising that were it not for the surveillance cameras tracking her every movement, the fact that she wasn't in bed for her 5.30 wake up call might have ruffled a few feathers, or at the very least raised a few eyebrows. She was almost disappointed as she strolled nonchalantly into the kitchen to find everyone getting about their day as normal, not at all worried about her whereabouts. She walked over to the coffee machine, pulled out the carafe and poured herself a cup, before perching on a stool at the breakfast bar. Robin arrived a few moments later, just out of the shower, his eyes puffy and half-closed, his body still not used to the early morning starts.
'Good morning', she chirped, her uncharacteristically dapper outburst causing one of the agents in the room to glance at her, unconvinced.
'Sure', mumbled Robin, 'yeah, good morning'.
He poured himself a bowl of cereal and sat opposite Clara, his lack of eye contact for once due to his tiredness as opposed to his shyness, something that with Clara at least, was wearing off. The pair ate breakfast and as Robin began to feel more awake, they talked about the events of the last few days. They were desperate to talk about what their next piece of training was, but this was never announced until they were actually doing it. There was no itinerary to follow, no plan, or at least not one that they were privy to, and so conversation over breakfast would often start out well but ultimately fizzle out, just as it had this morning. The silence was broken by an agent walking into the room.
'Briefing room in 10 minutes, Boal wants to speak with you both.'
The pair glanced at each other; it wasn't unheard of for them to both be required for some form of training together, but a meeting with Boal, especially this early in the morning was rare. They finished their meal and headed downstairs.
The pair walked into the briefing room to find Boal in what Clara had referred to as his '
', which meant he was leaning against whatever piece of furniture he could find, his head facing down to his hand, totally engrossed in the Blackberry Smartphone he was holding. The thing was never away from his side, but Clara had spotted enough of it to see that this was more than the average government smartphone, security specced to the max. The thing required a pin each time Boal picked it up, but Clara was convinced that this was all for show. She could see from the various sensors, the way he looked at it and spoke to it that voice recognition, face recognition and fingerprint recognition were all in constant operation on the device, and the device would be as good as useless in the wrong hands. Whatever was on there was for his eyes only. Boal glanced up, clicked a button to switch off his smartphone screen and placed it by his side before addressing the pair.
'I'll keep this short and to the point', he said. 'You've both been here now for what, a month or so now. You've both made good progress but we still don't know if you've actually learnt anything.'
'Charming', sneered Clara under breath, rolling here eyes for added effect.
'I want to see how well you can both perform in the field. Now I want to stress that at no point will I be putting you in harms way throughout this exercise, but up until now you've only been practicing on people who already know your backstory and with no consequences. I want to see how you guys can handle a real life situation.'
He paused for a moment, as if waiting for some kind of acknowledgement or objection. Receiving none, he continued, picking up his phone and pushing a button, the plasma screen behind him suddenly showing a photograph of a casino.