The Slant

The Slant

A Short Story by Joel Mendez

2035, Training Site, Poughkeepsie, New York

Caleb told himself deception was never about lying. The truth lived in the deception. It was instilled in his intelligence training as a young officer.

“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant…”

The room was silent as the officers looked at each other. Caleb knew where the instructor was going with this point.

“Tell the truth, but tell is slant…Bonus question for no points, who said this?”

Silence remained with students looking at each other confused, except for Caleb. The instructor stared at Caleb, approaching him as the officers moved their gaze to Caleb with relief.

“Emily Dickinson,” Caleb said sheepishly.

“Congratulations, Mr. Batista, no points but you have the distinguished honor of being taught well since Old America poets are not taught anymore in our very union. I commend you.” Caleb’s mother impressed on Caleb in his formative years the writings of Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman. Caleb never thought his knowledge of ancient poetry would be useful as a pupil in espionage training.

“Deception. It’s just a tool.” The instructor continued, “It’s just a tool, ladies and gentlemen.” He was tall and slender with sleek black hair, fine nose and an elegant square jaw which brought face wisdom and seriousness that commanded the attention of the room of the twenty future intelligence officers. Today, Lucian Baal wore the same bright white shirt from when he first met Caleb at his father’s funeral while continuing to flash the same smile without showing his teeth. At the time Caleb didn’t realize he was being recruited.

Lucian made his way to the middle of the room raising his arms high, “success in circuit lies, too bright for our infirm delight, The truth’s superb surprise.” He lowered his arms as he finished another prose. “Emily Dickenson’s words live in our work.”

“It’s about presenting the truth to your target. It’s never the complete truth, but a compartmentalized truth that gives your target enough information to trust you and for them to do their job.”

Lucian continued, occasionally glancing at Caleb, “Omission is as close as you get to a lie. Leave out details that the target doesn’t need to know, or you will have them asking too many questions. At worst, it could lead the target to ask the wrong questions. This is a delicate tactic in our business.”

Lucian paused in his speech, as the young recruits, including Caleb, stopped taking notes and looked up at him in awe. He continued, “The key to mastering the tradecraft is the wisdom of understanding when to present a certain fact or information to your target.”

Lucian had not only recruited Caleb but mentored him. Caleb was by far his favorite pupil. Lucian could see the similar instincts in Caleb which had made himself a legend at the National American Intelligence Agency, the NAIA. Lucian was one of the founding members of the organization in response to the DC attacks and then the global wars afterward. More importantly for Caleb, Lucian shed light on the great work Caleb’s father had done in the shadows to build the organization. Lucian provided a connection to his father that not even his beloved mother could. It was a life in the shadows, lived in secrets, where lies served a greater purpose. For the first time since his mother’s death, Caleb was connected to his father through a mission for the Union.

Lucian looked past his students as he began to philosophize, “intelligence is not without calculations, especially in the age of analytics and technology as the foundation for how the world runs.”

Lucian continued, pulling a cigarette from his shirt pocket and placing it gently in his mouth, holding his students captive to his words. He held on to a vice that had disappeared in the advanced world. “But in a world of greedy men, understanding the human element is the key to differentiate between facts presented, the truth, the actual truth, omissions, and lies. This is the ancient secret no algorithm can perform.”

Caleb had known this ancient secret but had never seen it as deception until his spy training. It was displayed as a part-time card player while he was at graduate school. After his mother’s death, Caleb refused money from his father. He was on scholarship and worked part-time at the school library, but it was at the Tuesday night card games, in the seedier card houses in Philly, where he earned the money to pay for his living expenses.

Caleb didn’t grow up playing cards and was introduced to the game by Ralph, his college roommate at Penn. This was back when universities were not owned by corporations, wealthy private citizens, or strongly-backed special interest groups. Ralph concentrated on creating computerized shortcuts to win at the tables, while Caleb sharpened his game at weekly games around the city. As Lucian spoke, Caleb remembered the conversation he and Ralph had on calculating against men with algorithms versus their psychology.

“Caleb, the key is memorization of the algorithms, but it can’t look like you are counting cards,” Ralph said with a serious tone as he continued to write code on his computer while Caleb looked over his shoulder.

Caleb picked up the deck of cards next to Ralph. They were barely touched, with a fresh box smell, as he started to shuffle the cards. “How are you going to do this without looking like you’re counting cards?”

“The algorithms also have the perfect hands to fold,” Ralph said confidently as he continued to type on his laptop without looking at Caleb.

“So, you’re going to lose a little bit and do it well.”

“Yes. The key is to be able to understand the cards at all times. The great balance is winning enough hands.”

“Ralph, you’re making this too complicated. The key is to understand the men at the table at all times.”

Ralph stopped typing and took a gulp of a large plastic cup of a light green soda. “Numbers don’t lie. The cards don’t change, Caleb.”

Caleb sighed as he cut the cards shuffling the cards between his middle finger and thumb, “Oh Ralph, true, the cards don’t change but the men do – hand to hand, game to game and table to table. And they can change the meaning in the cards on the table.”

“The algorithms are made to beat the house and never rely on luck,” Ralph stuck to his philosophy as he continued to type away.

“These algorithms only account for the cards on the table, not who is holding them.”

“What?” Ralph turned away from his computer giving Caleb his full attention.

“Ralph, I think your calculations are short on the human psyche.”

Ralph was trying to use analytical data science to get an advantage at the tables. He spent hours setting up projections on website forums and learning new strategies. Like Ralph, his strategy was robotic and lacked a fundamental principle in a game where the most unpredictable variable is the man holding the cards, not the cards held by the man.

“Ralph, that is a lot of math for a game of men with egos and a stiff drink next to them.”

“You think?”

“Yeah…Poker is about three things – what other players assume you are holding, the actual cards you are holding, and most importantly the behavior of the other players around the table.”

Caleb went over to his closet pulling out poker chips, then walked over to Ralph and closed his laptop, pulling up a chair and shuffled the deck of cards again. “Let’s start with a simple hand…”

Like Ralph, who couldn’t comprehend the impact of men’s emotions ruining projected algorithms, men bet high when the odds are against them or were too fearful to take advantage of great odds in their favor. Men generally were unpredictable when left to just randomness or even an algorithm. Ralph would be a man of numbers. Just numbers with no context. Caleb was a natural card player. What he learned at the card tables were life lessons Penn couldn’t teach. What he didn’t realize then was these skills would help mold him for his future calling.

But that was a long time ago. His card playing was to get him through school. Now he was being asked to help secure the Union’s security and peace.

“Remember, the lies you tell are for our Union’s strength and keep your target alive,” Lucian said with his hands high as he was evangelizing his pupils in the art of deception.

Caleb knew deception is always about control and is never as sinister as one might perceive. This is always a sticky subject for the moralist. He believed there were two types of men in the underworld of espionage, those who deceive and those who are deceived. He was one on the right side of using deception for the sake of peace. It was the dirty secretive work sandwiched between good and just diplomacy and national security. This is why he was drawn to his work and believed it was noble, even if it was without much public merit.

He knew the risk of having deception, as part of the primary tools of your job, spilling over to your personal life. It is why many of Caleb’s colleagues either didn’t get married, got divorced multiple times, or married intelligence officers.

Caleb was never one to be alone, and it had never appealed to him to have work romances. Although the female officers were quite beautiful and immensely smart, they employed tradecraft in their relationships far too naturally for his taste. Caleb only found one work couple romance that made it work – Alex and Mary Bannon. Alex met Mary while posted on his first tour. They are the unicorn of Intelligence romances. Caleb met Alex as they started together at the intelligence academy and remained close since, even when Alex started moving to the top of the bureaucratic rung in the organization while Caleb was stuck in mid-management.

Caleb married an outsider. He met Miriam prior to joining the NAIA. Miriam taught ballet in New York City. Although she was charmed by the exotic career Caleb had chosen, she was careful not to make them the 7 out 10. This is the ratio of marriages that get divorced in this line of work. In bed, Caleb and Miriam held each other and Caleb would whisper the name of an operation or crypt of an agent, that made no sense to her but just made her laugh.

It was his way of letting her in. She made up cryptic names and created their backstory, which had nothing to do with covert ops. Caleb could hear the words of Lucian pontificate as he daydreamed of Miriam’s eccentric stories.

“Wait…wait..,” Miriam squealed as Caleb tickled her, moving her naked body on top of him.

“Ok. Tell me Miri.”

“SCALEPANTS,” Caleb said.

“SCALEPANTS,” Miriam repeated with a grin. “Ok…He is a man of deep mystery.”

“Is he?” Caleb said with laughter.

“Of course, he is a man that has government secrets.”

“Yeah…,” as Caleb tickled Miriam.

“But this is the best part…,” Miriam paused for dramatic effect. “All the government secrets are hidden in the fabric of his pants.”

“Truly fascinating,” Caleb said.

“And you have never met him.”

Caleb was intrigued, “How do I get these important government secrets, Miri?”

“Oh, dear Caleb,” she reached down to pull herself close. She then turned her head and playfully looked both ways to watch if anyone was looking. She whispered seductively, “You get to a laundromat and collect the dry cleaning of his pants.”

Caleb started to laugh. He tickled his wife as she dropped next to him on the bed trying to control her laughter. Finally catching his breath, he said to her, “You should write a science fiction spy story.”

“Oh, Caleb I have you for all my stories. I have already lived as a struggling artist.”

They continued laughing and kissing and then made love again. Years later, Caleb stopped whispering cryptic names in her ear. The work slowly consumed Caleb and then there was the Cuba op. Miriam’s stories ended and so did laughing with her in bed.

“Sir,” Caleb raised his hand sheepishly to ask Lucian a question. Lucian paused and nodded his head for him to proceed.

Caleb raised his hand. Lucian turned to Caleb and nodded slightly. “How do you keep the deception from…”, Caleb tried to find the words.

“From…becoming used in your personal life?” The students looked at each other. It was a question they were afraid to ask.

“A practical intelligence question. Well…I have never been married, but I am sure the heart of the question is, how do you turn off the lies in your relationships?”

“Remember you are playing a role. Just like deception is a tool. Our work with our targets is just a role. A very important role.” Lucian reached in his pocket for a lighter and lit his cigarette which he had never done in the classroom. Caleb’s cohorts looked at Caleb. He saw Alex’s face of disapproval in this line of questioning.

“Deception is going to spill a bit into your relationships, especially the more intimate the relationship. It needs to be. It needs to happen if you are going to be a great intelligence officer. Deception is best mastered with the ones closest.”

Lucian took a drag of his cigarette and looked at Caleb, “We are always robbing from our two identities. It’s up to you to figure out how far you are willing to go.”

Caleb thought of Emily Dickenson  poem’s last stanza,

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind

Caleb, a man of espionage, and the Caleb Miriam knew, were now one. Two identities continued to steal from each other. The great deceiver had started to deceive himself.

Joel Mendez, is a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. State Department.
A world traveler who has lived in Europe, South America, Afghanistan,
and currently in Southeast Asia. He is currently working on his novel in the Sci-Fi genre.