In the shadow world of intelligence agencies it is inattention to detail, above almost everything else, that can mislead an investigation or get you caught. Consequences being as extreme as they are to those of us who operate in that world, you learn very quickly to pay attention to everything all the time. Especially the things you carry with you. It is more than a small wonder that I have managed to keep this little black book with me for so long and build it into so many of my cover identities. If this book doesn't resonate as deeply with you as it has with me, I ask only that you leave it out somewhere where another may find it. Whoever you are reading this now, I hope that you will consider carefully what I am about to tell you; every word of it is true. Coming from a man of many faces, that means a good deal more than you may realize.
It was at a train station in Germany a few years back that I found it sitting on a platform bench. In the rush and noise of the commuters no one seemed to notice but I remember it grabbed my attention almost immediately and I picked it up as I boarded the train. Once I opened it, being the curious person I am, my mind was flooded with so many questions and such a desire to know exactly what this book was, that it became my personal side project to figure it out. In the end it would mean a year of work and more than a few favors to understand exactly what it was.
Finding who had owned the book was the single hardest thing about the project and also the key to it. In any investigation you want to find the thing that holds all the other pieces together, the commonality. With every degree of separation between the acting force and those acted upon the difficulty increases and here was the genius of the leger’s writer. I ran all 100 names through my agency’s database but I couldn't find any connection. They were spread out all over the US from every class and background imaginable. I initially thought it was an accounting record of some loan shark but if so, he was the most well traveled one that I had ever run into. The other thing was that most of the amounts were too small. People who go to these sharks generally need more than a grand or two and the combinations of amount and distance just didn't add up.
But money always leaves a trail and the more there is, the harder it is to hide. I started looking deeper into those first five names. Not do they have the largest amounts but those few words below them “and so it continues” suggest they were the ones who gave the inspiration to continue this whole operation. From the first read through I had been far more dismissive of that sentence than I should have been, even though it is only one of two in the whole book.
I went a little deeper with these first five, getting one of our geeks to run algorithms combing through their internet history to find a connection between them but got the same results as the surface level dives. Nothing. It drove me nuts and I could not figure out what details eluded me. Now I’m no James Bond and there are quite a few people among my colleagues who are a damn sight better than I am at putting pieces together. But even with so little information, I knew I had enough to get further along than I was. Because this had been a personal project second to my regular work I had been conducting the investigation remotely. However it was quickly becoming clear to me that if I wanted to find the answers I was looking for, I would need to get closer.
Initially I had tried to trace how the money had got into the accounts but I ran straight into a brick wall because it was all cash deposits and no transfers. Unless the serial numbers had been flagged there was no trail to follow. So I took some time off between assignments, climbed down from the data cloud, and started tracking at ground level.
I had read somewhere that taxes were basically you guessing at how much you owe the government, who knows exactly what you owe but won't tell you, and if you get it wrong you go to jail. Naturally, when someone shows up at your door saying they are from the IRS and that they have a few questions for you, people get nervous and that doesn’t help them lie very well. So, having established that there were no tax experts among the five, I played auditor. With a print out of their latest bank statements laid out on the table in front of them each quickly told me everything I wanted to know. One of them was anxious I could have sworn he would stroke out on me. It was the same story for all five. A knock on the door in the middle of the night and a paper bag left on the porch containing the exact amount of funds needed to cover some crisis they were facing. No note, no explanation, no new stranger in their lives with probing questions.
After each of my little chats I checked for security cameras in a two block radius from the interviewees house hoping to find one that could give me some useful information. At the last house and at the edge of those two blocks, I found one. It was on a store pointed down the street but in a game where every lead counts, I knew I had to check it out.I ditched the IRS persona and for a hit and run story. To cover the time gap, I explained that only recently had one of my neighbors remembered the description of a car leaving the area. Telling stories is the one case where you can get away with not much in the way of details but you have to connect with the person you are talking to and sell it to them emotionally. Once you do it a few times it's not that hard and within a few minutes I was scrolling through security camera footage in the office to find the date and time of that fifth drop. Only one car came down the street in that time frame and as it passed under a light I got the tag. I turned the excitement on my face all the way up, jumped out of the chair and turned to the store manager who stood a few feet behind me. As I did my hand “accidentally” knocked over a cup of water onto the security computer. Panicked the manager rushed in to assess the damage. In that split second of his distraction I was out the door and all the evidence of me and what I was looking for left in a shorting out mess.
His name was Alec Ringwald, he was a psychologist and by all accounts a good one. He was also dead though I suppose I somehow expected that. You dont just lose a book like this one. Still something wasn’t adding up. None of the people on the list had any connection with him. They weren't patients or friends and once again I hit a wall. Suddenly it came to me. I called the geeks back, changed the parameters on the algorithm and had them run it again. Every name had a match. It wasn't his patients he was helping, it was their friends. Think about it, everyone knows who they tell their own troubles to, but not who their friends tell their own problems to. Issues other people are having leake out in therapy sessions but no one would expect the therapist to actually do something about it. Also, because a shrik’s patients never meet, they wouldn't be able to share with each other the commonality that all of their friends had been in some jam or another when money had suddenly shown up in the exact amount that they needed.
How he knew the sum they needed I’ll never know, I guess some secrets really do stay buried. But, there was one more question that bothered me, what had started this little crusade and who suddenly has extra money lying around to give away? So I left the ground, ascending back into the cloud of data and to Mr Ringwald’s bank records. As a side note, your online banking is not nearly as safe as you would imagine, I didn't even need the nerds to help me pull this stuff up. I was looking in his accounts up to a year before the first gift was made and found a deposit for $20,000. The exact total of the amounts given to the first five names. A few more hours of poking around and a favor from a friend at the real IRS revealed that the money had come from an uncle of his who Alec had always looked up to and who was by all recollections, one of the most kindhearted men that ever lived. It seems to me what started with five names and turned into 100 was Alec’s way of honoring his uncle’s memory, trying to live up to it as best he could.
But there is one more thing that stood out to me, one that paints a clearer picture of Alec, the reason I kept this book for so long and the only other sentence in it. “It only matters what you do, not the way they look at you”. To Alec it was more important that he did what he knew was right than that everyone knew he did. It is the soul of the deed, the true essence of it without fanfare that he sought out in his own life. He understood that the core of living life well is the peace of the soul that comes when we do what we know we ought to and let go of the anxiety built up in our minds over the outcome and the fears we have of others' reaction to us. That when we find that stillness within we unconsciously show others that the way is possible and they are not far from it.
So now I leave this little book where I found it, on a train station bench in Germany. I must move into the shadows once again, this time I don’t think I will return. Another name quietly forgotten in the secrets of nations. My story, written in a few empty pages of this book, is my little mark on the world, to say that I was here and these are the things that touched me. Over the last few years I have tried to follow the example of this man and in the doing of quiet good, have found some healing to the many wounds this life has left me with. By stitching back together our own souls we have a more full cup from which to give to others and as we give to them, we give to ourselves also and bring the world that much closer together.
As I step into the darkness I hope you will take this book and with its examples step more fully into the light.