Sometimes in stories, when the hero is being trained for some great task or purpose, his teacher will set him a seemingly impossible test. Sometimes it’s a test of strength -- move a mountain, empty a lake with a spoon, lift a house with one hand. These are usually solved more with clever thinking than with straightforward effort.
Sometimes it’s a test of skill or intelligence -- untie an impossible knot, decipher a famous riddle, figure out which gatekeeper always lies and which always tells the truth. These are usually solved by not being clever.
Sometimes it’s a test of conscience -- kill the next person who passes a certain crossroads, steal a sacred relic, kidnap a teenage girl and deliver her to who knows what fate. These tests are usually solved when the hero-in-training refuses to complete the task as ordered, proving himself worthy of his high calling. He shows that he has learned to think for himself, and that he won’t fall prey to blind obedience and won’t be corrupted by ruthless devotion to his master or his cause.
Sometimes the desired result is exactly the opposite of that.
Sometimes you find out you’ve been working for the villains all along.
A scrub team was at our location within an hour. They went to work convincing the various first responders that they were needed elsewhere, or just plain weren’t needed at all. Parker arrived on-scene an hour after that. He never even got out of the back of his car, just watched and gave instructions through a crack in the tinted window. We were sequestered in the van like naughty children put in a time out, told to sit quietly and think about what we’d done. We mostly just stared off into space, or passed around a flask that Rosemarie kept in the pocket on the back of the front passenger seat. I didn’t recognize whatever it was she had in there, but it was good stuff. I spilled a little when it came around to me (shaky hands), and it stripped off my nail polish. I tried asking her what it was, but every time I started to speak Michael caught my eye and motioned for me to keep silent.
Parker kept us waiting for an hour while he did paperwork and made phone calls. Then (via messenger) he instructed Michael to join him. They were sequestered for five minutes, and then (via another messenger) the rest of us were instructed to go back to the head office. We were to travel in separate cars, provided by the company. Short of essential communication, we were not to speak to anyone under pain of termination. He said it was for security reasons. All of us knew that was bullshit. Only two of us knew why.
Back at the office, we spent the afternoon and evening given our accounts of the incident, including one-on-one interviews in a little room with a metal table and two chairs and a big shiny two-way mirror and two cameras in opposite corners at the top of the walls. After the first round of “and then what happened”, Parker conducted his own interviews in another, smaller room. It also had a metal table and two chairs and a big shiny mirror. It did not have cameras.
Parker was calm and quiet and worked his way to the center of the issue with the precise, delicate cuts of a neurosurgeon. He started with broad strokes that weren’t even technically questions -- “tell me what happened” -- and moved in slowly, returning to the outer rings every time I held something back. After a while, the phrases “What happened after that?” and “Why do you think that happened?” turned into meaningless sounds that triggered automatic responses, like that aural aptitude test where you raise your hand to show you heard a beep. He never interrupted me, and he never wrote anything down. Eventually I stopped making eye contact and started watching myself in the mirror. I desperately needed a shower -- my light brown hair looked shiny and black under the lights -- and I could have sworn the pupil in my left eye was larger than the right. Parker sat still, facing straight across the table. Even when I watched for it, I could never quite see when he blinked.
And even though he watched for it, he never quite got to the center of what I knew.
There was no clock in that little room, but I made a note of the time when I went in and when I left. I was in there longer than Colin and Ben combined -- although Ben’s interview was all of about fifteen minutes, so that didn’t really mean much. True to form, he was the first one in and the first one out -- he gave his statement, wrote up his version of events, had his little chat with Parker and left without saying a word to anyone. Colin was next, and after he walked out the door he fell off the face of the earth. (He returned twenty-seven days later with deep tan lines and a nasty set of spider bites up the back of his right arm. When I asked, he would only say he’d been “elsewhere”.)
Michael and Rosemarie had a closed-door meeting with their father that started at one in the afternoon and was still going when I crashed on the couch in the break room at two in the morning.
One month later we were reassigned, every one of us to a different section, only one of us actively in the field. Colin went to a substation run out of a post-war bungalow in Oregon, where he was put in charge of local client intake and screening. He wasn’t very good at it. Rosemarie stayed at the head office, dressed in a skirt and heels, so she could begin her transition from low-level grunt to upper management. I worked on the main floor, dispatching transport teams and making sure the right paperwork went to the right people. Only Michael insisted on going back on the road, making solo runs on low-security assignments and reporting back as little as humanly possible. I envied him. It’s easier to keep a secret from someone who’s six hundred miles away than it is from someone who’s just on the other side of an office door. At least that door was always closed.
I switched to a consulting position after seven weeks. I was sure Parker suspected I hadn’t been completely forthcoming. I couldn’t stand walking on eggshells all the time, waiting to be called into his office so he could confirm it. I was losing weight. I was losing sleep. So when the thought occurred to me that I could walk away, no questions asked -- this time I listened.