“Many have come, few have stayed” – a short story


It was true to say that very few people knew our department existed. In fact, I was not sure quite who it was I worked for, but when I’d been first tasked with the assignment, a transfer precipitated by a transgression that might have ended my career, I was certain I had been sent to purgatory.

At least, that’s what the sign on the door said.

The office, if it could be called that, was in the basement, around so many twists and turns in the passages that it was easy to believe you had entered another dimension. It wasn’t located in the building you walked through the front door of, but somewhere else nearby. Through the walls, you could hear the sounds of cars, but whether it was a nearby road above the ceiling, or they were parking, it was not easy to say.

On another side, the sounds of trains passing through tunnels were barely discernible, and sometimes only noticeable by a slight vibration of the coffee mug on the desktop, of which there were four, the maximum number of occupants in the small area, but I have never seen who two of the other four were.

Such was the nature of our job. We operated in secret, hidden from the world, and the others. I was never quite sure why.

The interview, when I thought was going to be fired, was given by an old man in a pinstripe suit, long past the age of retirement. In fact, had I not known better, I would have said he was dead, and all that was missing was the cobwebs. He had no sense of humor and got straight to the point.

“You are being transferred to PIB effective immediately.”

He didn’t say what PIB stood for, and the no-nonsense tone told me this was not the time to ask.

“Many have come, but few have stayed. It’s not a job to be taken lightly, and a word of advice, the work you are about to undertake is not to be discussed with anyone but the person you have been assigned to work with.”

He then handed me an envelope, sealed, and that was the end of the interview.

I did not get to speak a word. I had this speech memorized, ready to explain why I had failed so badly, and what I was prepared to do to make up for it, but I was not given the opportunity. Perhaps I should just be grateful I was given another chance.

I waited until I was out of the building, and a block away in a small cafe, and the cheerful waitress had brought my coffee and cake. It was, in a small way, a celebration I still had a job, working for the organization I had set my sights on way back when I was in school.

Making sure no one was sitting too close; I opened the envelope and took out the neatly folded sheet of paper.

It was blank.

Was this some sort of joke?

There was a loud noise outside in the street, a car backfiring, and it caused a few anxious moments, particularly for me in case it was trouble, but it wasn’t. When normality returned I went back to the sheet of paper, picking it up off the top of the coffee cup where it had fallen, and something caught my eye.

Writing. Specifically, numbers, but what I thought I’d seen had disappeared, or hadn’t been there at all.

A shake of the head, perplexed, to say the least, I took a sip of the coffee. As the cup passed under the sheet, a pattern was discernible, displaying then disappearing. Bringing the cup back under the sheet, numbers suddenly appeared. It was a telephone number. It was also very cloak and daggers.

Was it a test? Because at that moment when I saw the blank sheet of paper, the meaning was very clear. It was a puzzle, and if I didn’t work it out, then I didn’t get the job. I’d simply been told to turn up at an anonymous building to see a man whom I doubted would answer to the name I’d been given to ask for again after I left.

I entered the number then pressed ‘call’.

Seven rings before a woman’s voice answered, “Yes?”

No names, no identification.

“Mr McCall gave me an envelope with this number in it.”

“You worked it out?” She sounded surprised.

“By accident, yes.”

“Well, four out of five candidates don’t. Consider this to be your lucky morning, the day is not over yet. Where are you?”

I told her.

“Then you’re not far from Central Park. Go to the souvenir store and wait.”

“How will I know you?”

“You won’t, I’ll recognize you.”

Then the phone went dead, and I was left looking at it as if I had the ability to see, via the phone, who that person was. I shrugged. How many others had failed even the most basic test, to figure out what was on the sheet of paper, and, was it an indication of the work I would be doing?

I spent the better part of an hour watching the squirrels at play. They scuttled around on the ground chasing each other or their imaginary friends or leaping from branch to branch in the shrubs and trees. They didn’t seem to have a care in the world, and I wondered what that would be like.

Unfortunately, I had to pay the rent, bills, and eat, all of which required having a paying job. I had been looking at having to return home a dismal failure and fulfil the destiny my father had predicted for me.

“David Jackson, I presume?”

I looked sideways to see a woman about my own age, dressed so that she would look anonymous in a crowd. It was anyone’s guess how long she had been there, but that, I guess was the point. She had been observing me, and no doubt assessing my suitability.

Could I blend in? Perhaps not if I was that easily identifiable.

“I am.”

“What if anything has been explained to you about the job?”

“Nothing. I was asked to meet a nameless man in an anonymous office and was handed an envelope which led to my call to you.”

After I said it out loud it sounded crazy.

“If you don’t mind me asking but how did you work out how to read the letter?”

Moment of truth, was there a right or wrong answer? Most if not all the people who received it would not work it out.

“Quite by accident.”

She smiled. “The truth is a rare commodity in our business. But then, you’re one of a very select group of people who made it to this level.”

“Just out of curiosity, what happens to those who done work out how to read the number?”

“They don’t get to stand where you are. Welcome aboard.”

© Charles Heath 2021

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