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Monday, January 24, 2011

Duane's Cowboy Boots

Duane took a gulp from his paper cup.  It was coffee.  It was black coffee.  It was very good coffee.  “In a little while,” thought Duane “I will send out for a donut.  A krispy Kreme with pink icing and fudge chunks.  That will be good,” thought Duane.  He paused.  “But not yet.  I will not send out for a Krispy kreme donut yet as I must watch my waistline and I ate a donut only an hour ago.”  Duane liked to be precise in his thinking so he checked his large Breitling watch.  “Fifty five minutes ago, I mean.”  Duane corrected himself.
Duane looked back at his computer screen.  Odd words and phrases scrolled across it in an almost random way.  But there was a pattern there.  Duane knew there was a pattern there as he had been told there was.  All he had to do was to find it.  Duane liked his job.  It was very simple watching this screen and trying to see some sort of sense in it.  Duane was a CIA operative based in West Virginia USA.  He liked working for the CIA as all he had to do was to watch this screen and he could send out for coffee and donuts whenever he felt like it.   Sometimes he felt a little pang of loneliness as he saw no-one else all day long whilst he was at his post.  His orders for coffee and donuts were left on a little table outside his cubicle.  Sometimes, when he popped his head out to pick up the coffee and donuts he lingered briefly to see if he could spot anyone else in the corridor.  But he never had.  He knew there must be dozens of other operatives like him in their cubicles, staring at the same sort of screens.  Hundreds, thousands even in hundreds of other long corridors in this vast (he supposed it was vast) underground concrete complex of long echoing corridors lined with identical little cubicles. But he never saw another soul.  Not even the coffee and donut deliverers and, he supposed, there must be hundreds of them scurrying back and forth, this way and that delivering coffee and donuts to the thousands of identical cubicles in hundreds of echoing corridors throughout the concrete building.   And then when he thought some more about it, it probably wasn’t just black coffee, it was probably cappuchinos and macchiatos and double shot skinny lattes.  And maybe there was more than just donuts  out there.  Maybe there was cheesacake and apple strudel and so on.  Maybe some operatives even ordered tea and ate burgers.  It was possible.  No, it was likely.  Although he had never seen any evidence of it.

In the training for this job they had reminded him that although he was sat on his own at a computer screen all day long he was still a CIA operative, in fact he was in the front line of CIA operations as he was monitoring for possible untoward activity on the internet.  But whilst he was monitoring untoward activity he was still a CIA operative so he was expected to turn up for work properly presented in well-pressed gray suit, shiny black shoes, white shirt and a tie of a discreet colour.  He was not expected to wear rings or other jewellery.  Duane was not of a naturally rebellious nature and he knew that those of a naturally rebellious nature were the type of people who caused the untoward activity he was trying to spot.  But for all his natural conformity, after a few months of duty at his screen when he had not observed another living soul, he let his neatly coiffed hair down metaphorically and took to wearing his favourite cowboy boots under his neatly pressed gray suit.  The cowboy boots had intricate tooling all down the sides and Duane felt comfortable in them.  He had even decided on his line of defense if it came to it and he was questioned about the boots.  He would say that he was able to undertake his duty more efficiently wearing comfortable cowboy boots without all that distracting pinching emanating from the stiff, shiny black regulation shoes.  And so the months had passed and there had been no memo or directive about his cowboy boots so he sometimes even allowed them to loll next to the computer screen on the desk instead of keeping them hidden away in the dark recesses beneath it.
But for the cowboy boots Duane prided himself on being a model CIA operative. His training had been thorough and he was proud of the fact that Western Democracy was in his hands and no member of Al Quaida could possibly get the better of him.
Duane realised that he had been letting his mind wander instead of monitoring the internet for untoward activity.  How long?  He checked his chunky Breitling.  Three minutes.  He felt a sudden surge of panic.  How much traffic had passed in three minutes?  What if after his months of monitoring he had just let a direct terrorist threat pass by and somewhere a bomb was going off in a shopping mall and innocent lives were being lost.   It would be a disaster.  In the ensuing enquiry somebody would trace the lapse back to his computer and to him and he would be paraded before the rest of the operatives.  His cowboy boots would be pointed out and he would be deemed to be of a rebellious nature and entirely unsuited for this type of work.  He would be drummed out of the CIA and there might even be a bout of waterboarding (although he knew for a fact that the CIA did not indulge in that sort of practice) but, at least, he would wave goodbye to free coffee and donuts for ever.  Duane quickly scrolled back through the last three minutes of traffic and sped read until he was up to date.  There had been no untoward activity and the world and his cowboy boots and coffee and donuts were safe.
Duane noted that this had not been the first time his mind had wandered. He had caught himself wandering several times during the last week and each time he had vowed to give up the cowboy boots, go back to the regulation shiny black shoes and drink more black coffee to keep his brain sharp and active.  But then he had found at the end of the day that he had got though without there being a bomb going off in a shopping mall somewhere so he felt vindicated in sticking to his current dress code breach.
The trouble was that his work did give plenty of scope for wandering.  Duane’s job was to monitor all the facebook traffic in a place somewhere in the world called Bournemouth.  And the fact was that Bournemouth seemed to be an infinitely dull place with a lower than usual threat level and the very minimum of untoward activity.  “Bournemouth”  He tried saying the word out loud.  He said it in two distinct syllables “Bourne” and “Mouth”  It sounded as dull as the Facebook traffic seemed to be.   Like a mouthfull of sawdust. “Bourne, Mouth.  Bourne, Mouth.”  Duane couldn’t imagine where Bournemouth was or what it was like.  It could have been in the middle of the Gobi Desrt of the frozen Russian steppes.  Wherever it was, nothing ever happened there.  It was dull, dull, dull. So he took another gulp of good black coffee to wash the sawdust taste out of his mouth and settled back to monitoring for untoward activity.
The Facebook traffic that Duane had to monitor went something like this:  “Sun is shining. Where’s the factor 15? Lol.” “Great bargains in Primark. Lol”  “Another great night at the club.  Completely ratarsed. Where’s the paracetamol?  Rofl” Duane sometimes got glimpses of political unrest “The council have not emptied my dustbin again” “The council must do something about dog poo”  “When are they going to pull that eyesore down?”  These would not be followed by a Lol or a Rofl but by a group of symbols that were meant to denote a frowning face.  Duane was still puzzled why people Laughed out loud or even rolled around on the floor laughing at such inanities or got so upset about such trivialities.  In the end he realised that perhaps their lives were as dull as his without the compensation of the knowledge that they were protecting Western Democracy against an assymetric threat. 
Then, out of the blue, just as he had decided he would have another donut after all he spotted a message flash across the screen.  It said:  “Hi Duane.”  At first Duane did not register what it said.  It was such a little thing but after a split second he scrolled back to read the message again.  There it was: “Hi Duane.”  Duane studied it for a moment and then decided that there must be thousands of Duanes out there in facebook land and it was, after all, some sort of coincidence.    But a few minutes later came another one:  “What’s the weather like in West Virginia, Duane?”  Again, Duane calculated the probabilities.  Duane was a common enough name in West Virginia.  Why, he knew at least three himself. But when a third message came reading “Say Duane, what’s it like working for the CIA?”  Duane knew there was something untoward going on. He swung the cowboy boots smartly under the desk.   If he had to call a supervisor he wanted no complications.  The trouble was he didn’t really know what the procedure was in cases such as these. “Bomb in schoolyard timed to go off at midday. Lol” or “Crash jet into Bournemouth shopping mall.  Rofl” seemed fairly straightforward.  But nowhere in the training did it say anything about somebody actually contacting a CIA operative.  The next message read:  “Duane, how’s the coffee and donuts?” and Duane began to sweat.  He fervently wished he had chosen to wear the shiny blacks today.  And he fervently promised God that he would never wear his cowboy boots again if only this would go away.  But it did not go away.  It got worse:  “Are you wearing your nice shiny black shoes, Duane.”  His white shirt was wringing wet with perspiration. And before he could help himself he was sending a reply.  “Yes, of course I am.  What do you take me for a damn subversive?”.  All at once he was horrified by what he had done.  It was against all regulations.  He had admitted to someone out there  that the CIA was monitoring Facebook .  He had acted on impulse and his impulse had demonstrated his real nature.  He was as much a subversive as all those Bournemouth Al Quaida cells. He plunged his head into his hands.

With trembling fingers Duane closed the screen.  He had screwed up.  He had betrayed his colleagues, the CIA and, above all, he had betrayed himself.  No more could he draw the cloak of anonymity around himself.  He had proved himself to be unreliable, to be one of those of a rebellious nature. He might as well apply for a registration card for the Communist party.  He was finished.  The only untoward activity he had seen today was his and his alone.  Sighing, he stepped out of the cubicle.  And at once a wave of regret swept over him.  They had got the better of him – and he had never had the chance to try the apple strudel.

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