Author’s note: This post is the third chapter of “Interrupted Podcast”, the fourth part of a series that began with the novelette, “Painful Realization“. Each chapter in this tale will be offered as a separate post. If you came directly here via a search, the story begins in Chapter 1.
(Part 4 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
Craig zoomed the chart to full screen, leaned back in his office chair, and glared at the results of his query. He’d been poking around in the conflict analytics data store on and off for weeks now, looking for something that could explain a gut feeling that was dogging him, and now, finally, the trace on this chart reflected it. His jagged course through the agency had brought him a modicum of satisfaction, having landed him the task of monitoring the dynamics of influencers and their followings to feed the projections used for planning future actions by the agency. He’d been feeling that something had been changing of late, and now he knew what it was. What he didn’t know was how or why it was happening.
“Confirmation,” he muttered to himself as he opened the document where he kept his notes, “finally.” He flicked the mouse wheel a few times to scroll to the bottom, but before he’d had the chance to update his observation log, the reflection in his monitor changed. Someone was standing behind him, blocking the entry to his cube. He closed his hands and rested loose fists aflank the keyboard.
“I hoped I wouldn’t have to do this, Craig.” The voice behind him was respectfully quiet. His manager had a reputation for understated authority. It was generally safer to have him yelling at you. At least then you knew he didn’t mean it.
Craig slowly swiveled his chair and looked up at Frank Devers. “Do what, sir?”
Devers turned and headed towards his office. Craig glanced nervously around his cube, then rose and followed. A hush and buzz swept the floor at the sight of the usually rebellious intelligence analyst following meekly as a beaten dog might shadow his master. After catching worried looks on a few people’s faces, he slowed to glance behind him. A security detail was heading towards his cube. He swallowed hard, and picked up the pace.
A woman wearing a badge coded for HR was standing beside the door when Devers opened it and ushered him in. She followed, closed it behind her, and took a vacant chair at the small conference table.
Craig looked at her for a few seconds, and then turned towards Devers, who laced his fingers before him on the table and gazed expectantly at him. The man’s tactic was familiar: let the accused hang himself. Craig had seen him do it often enough in staff meetings to not want to play that game, so he smiled and took a calming breath.
HR apparently didn’t have a copy of that rulebook, so she leaned forward and crossed her arms. “Did you call me up here to waste my time, Frank?”
“Mr. Park?” he said, turning towards Craig. “You heard her. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“I’ve told you before,” he said. “I was doing my job, scouring the data store for behavioral patterns. That includes records of events that do not meet the requirements for suspicious behavior.”
“Your job,” Devers said, stressing the latter word, “is to monitor the activities of those influencers in the list you were assigned. Not just anyone who you damn well please to monitor. You’ve been here long enough to know that we operate under certain strictures.”
“But sir,” he said, “I did find a pattern.”
“I don’t care if you found the Loch Ness Monster. If it was outside your assigned area, it doesn’t matter. You misused agency resources, and possibly exposed us to the kind of oversight that would prevent you from even going to the bathroom in private. What we do here is far too important to risk the entire operation on another one of your incessant wild goose chases. Now, you’ve been warned about this before.” He glanced at the woman from HR. “Twice. I don’t have any choice, here, Craig. According to the rules we all live by, I have to suspend you for a month, and you have to re-qualify before getting your access restored.”
The HR woman extended her hand, palm up. “Your badge, please?”
* * *
When a security contractor handed him a box with all of the personal items from his cube after he was escorted to the lobby, Craig wondered what the fine distinction was that separated suspension from whatever the current pleasantry for firing might be. It certainly wasn’t whether they subjected you to the veiled threats that masqueraded as an exit interview. After all, anyone who is granted a security clearance is endlessly reminded of the penalty for revealing classified information.
The whole experience had left him dazed. He’d only just managed to get the data analysis engine to spit out a solid correlation, and all he could take with him was what he remembered of the criteria he’d entered. Well, that, and the image of those ganged traces. They might as well have been carved into his mind. As he slid the box into the back seat of his hybrid, he wondered again what the pattern might mean, what could have caused it, and whether it was, intrinsically or on balance, a good thing or a bad thing.
His morning utterly ruined, Craig drove aimlessly around the D.C. metro area until he realized that it was now nearly noon, and he was getting hungry. When he glanced around to see where he’d ended up, he chuckled in recognition at the sight of an independent coffee shop. This was the place in Georgetown where he’d convinced Kelly, one of the other trainees at the time, to join him for an illicit undercover trip to investigate the woman responsible for a series of suspicious overseas phone calls. Amused at the reflection of the scene in ‘The Princess Bride” where a drunk and dejected Inigo Montoya had returned to where his own journey had begun, he parked and headed for the door.
He’d just collected his white chocolate mocha and turned to find a seat when his blonde quarry from that self-defined mission appeared in front of him.
“Ron?” she said uncertainly, using the pseudonym he’d taken on while infiltrating the activist group where he’d first encountered her. “You don’t look well. What happened?”
He took a slow breath. “Hi Melissa. I’m in enough trouble as it is. You can use my real name.”
“All you ever told us back then was your first name, Craig. You do have another one, don’t you?”
“Park,” he said. “Um, do you have time to chat? I kinda need to unload.”
She nodded. “Then you’re not okay. Sure. I’ve been having a mid-day funk for the past week or so. Find us a table. I’ll get something and join you in a few minutes.”
Feeling self-consciously an out-of-work spy, Craig got them a spot beside the window, and turned to watch the people outside while he stewed. He’d first met Melissa as a side-effect of an assignment he’d been given while a trainee at the agency. It was intended to be a practical introduction to investigative field work, and his target was Derek Boa, the founder of an odd group called Constitutional Evolution. After introducing himself as ‘Ron’, he cozied up to them so he could evaluate Boa’s abilities as a leader and report on the group’s activities. They used role-playing to assess proposed changes to the structures and processes of the federal government. Ms. Fox played a sort of dual role there, because she was both an artist and the daughter of a congressman. She’d blended the two in her freelance work, creating and selling pointedly political greeting cards. Those international conference calls were the result of an assignment that Boa had given her: define and demonstrate ‘peacefare’.
Seeing her reflection in the window, he turned back around as she placed a pastry in front of each of them, and then sat down with her latte. “Thanks,” he said, and took a bite.
She watched him curiously for a moment while sipping her drink, then lowered it and said, very quietly, “What do you need to talk about?”
“I saw something this morning.” Another bite. “A pattern in the data.” He suddenly stopped, frowned at the table briefly, and then peered at her with a pained look. “Tell me something. Do you believe in coincidence?”
She flashed a sly smile. “You do know that my father was a congressman, don’t you?”
“Well, from what he tells me, a lot of times, what looks like coincidence is just someone playing you. An awful lot of what passes for business as usual in government is carefully stage-managed. You, of all people, should know that, Craig. That is the business you’re in, after all, isn’t it? So, what happened? What was your ‘coincidence’?”
He took another sip of his mocha. “I was suspended this morning. Immediately after seeing that pattern. Before I had a chance to even write a note about it.”
“Like someone was watching you?”
He chuckled. “I work at an intelligence agency. What do you think? Of course someone was watching me. But my job there is to find patterns in the data.”
“Just not that pattern, huh?”
She slid her hand towards him a few inches. “Can you tell me about it? Without breaking all those rules you live under, I mean?”
He shrugged. “I don’t see why not. There’s nothing about any classified projects in there. All of the source data I used was from publicly available sources. It’s just that…”
“Well, if there’s some cause for the pattern, that might be classified, it might be the effects of some black ops project used against the American people. I have no way to know. The whole thing is giving me a headache.”
Melissa sat back in her chair and nibbled at the pastry. When his breathing slowed, and he unclenched his eyes, she spoke very gently. “A few years ago, you walked in off the street on one of our work sessions. We didn’t know you from Adam. You could have been a curiosity-seeker, a possible collaborator, or our worst nightmare. We’d had trouble with strangers before, so several of us glanced at Derek for some guidance. He didn’t seem concerned, so we just let it play out. And believe me, when you freaked out about my labeling the press in our mobile as the ‘C.C.C.P.’, I had some serious reservations. After you left, I asked him why he didn’t challenge you right off the bat.”
“What did he say?”
She smiled and glanced away momentarily. “He said you presented as far too earnest to be real, which probably meant you were really nervous about what you were doing. Anyone who really meant us harm would have had her mind in the game. So he thought that if there was no way to know, he’d go with whichever assumption gave us more to work with. That’s why he let you play whatever game you came to play.” She paused and took another sip of her latte. “You have pretty much the same problem. Which assumption would give us the most to work with, that you’ve run afoul of some even more insidious agency than the one you work for, or that your suspension is actually an opportunity?”
His dour mood disrupted, Craig took a deep breath and looked out the window. “Since you’ve put it that way, the thought of what I saw being the work of some black op is scarier than I want to think about, so let’s go with plan B. There’s a definite pattern in the data. Let’s see what we can figure out about it.”
“Good,” she said happily. “So what did you see?”
“A few things,” he said, and downed the last of his pastry. “And they all seem to have started at about the same time, several weeks ago.” He held up a hand and started ticking off the fingers. “One: politics is losing its grip on people. And I don’t just mean eyeballs. Not only have the political shows, podcasts, YouTube channels and so forth lost viewers, the masses seem to be losing interest in the political world as a whole. It just doesn’t interest them any more.”
Melissa shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe that’s a good thing.”
He lowered his hand a bit. “Really? If you’re still making political greeting cards, isn’t your livelihood dependent on people’s continued agitation over political issues? How have sales been lately? Could that funk you mentioned be related to a recent loss in interest by your followers?”
She opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again.
“Two:” he continued, ticking off the next finger, “the people who are still entrained by politics, the ones who go out to events, are increasingly the hardcore, the ones most likely to spark violence.”
“Like the weekend riot at the Canadian border crossing in Blaine?”
“Exactly. But not just there. And three: conflicts that don’t end in violence have been getting resolved more easily than they should. If the issue isn’t pointed enough to draw the hardcore, the people who do show up have been capitulating for little to no reason.” He lowered his hands. “It’s like the population’s been drugged or something.”
The way she said the word, Craig sensed there was some deeper thought on her mind. She had a faraway look in her eyes, so he sipped his mocha and waited for her to finish processing whatever had seized her imagination.
“Or maybe,” she said, snapping back to alertness, “the ‘drug’, or whatever that means, just wore off. You could look at it either way. People have gotten so involved in politics as entertainment, and maybe they’ve finally had enough of it. What’s actually normal here, being overengaged in politics or bored by it?”
He shrugged. “Either way, there’s been a change. To paraphrase Mr. Boa, the question just became, ‘which state gives us more to work with?’ Are we better off with or without both the risks and benefits of a hyper-politicized world?”
“Good question. Let’s find out what Derek thinks.” After motioning for Craig to take the seat beside her, she pulled out her phone, sent a brief text, and set the phone face-up on the table.
“Hi, Mel,” he said after she scooped up the phone and accepted the call. “It’s been a while. What’s up?”
“Derek, I just ran into an old friend. Say hello.” She angled the phone towards Craig.
“Ron? If you’re still at the same job, isn’t this a bit risky?”
Craig winced. “It’s okay. You can use my real name. I’ve been suspended.”
“Sus—? Are you in trouble? Is there anything I can do to help? Well, anything I can do remotely?” He flashed the camera at what was obviously a motel bed for a moment. “I’m kinda out of town right now.”
Melissa pointed the phone at herself again. “So where are you, and when will you be getting back?”
“The cheapest place I could find in Blaine. And to be honest, I don’t have a clue when I’ll be back. I’ve got a court date, and I can’t leave the area until they tell me I can.”
Craig crowded Melissa so they’d both be in view. “The border—? Please tell me you weren’t responsible for the incident last weekend?”
He bit his lip and grinned. “Kinda. Yeah. I made some suggestions to the protest organizers.”
Melissa closed her eyes and shook her head gravely. “What were you even doing out there? Washington State is a long way from D.C.”
“I was invited. Look, you both know how I nerd out over changes to the sociopolitical dynamic. Something’s been going on in the past few weeks. The public response to political news like the new Border Patrol rule change has been downright schizophrenic. People are either just tuning it out or getting way into people’s faces about it. There’s no middle ground. Anyway, with all the action at the southern border or at the new checkpoints around Indian land, it’s become impossible to get people at quiet crossings like at Blaine to even pay attention to what’s going on. So the organizers there asked for my help.”
“So inciting those drivers to pick fights with Border Patrol was your doing?”
Craig held up a hand. “We can talk about all that later, Derek. The reason I was suspended was that I pretty much saw the same pattern. Only there’s more to it than that. And I’m worried that it might be the result of some sophisticated psychological op, maybe by one of our own agencies, or maybe by some foreign player.”
(Continued in Chapter 4…)
Copyright 2019 by P. Orin Zack