“You. You can pass.”
Kelsey just managed to resist the urge to look behind her; she knew there was nobody there. Her boss’s boss was looking directly at her, and there was no escape.
“Sir?” she asked, her voice coming out in a squeak. She’d worked at the bank for six months, but she’d never met the man who now seemed to be focused entirely on her. She was just a teller, while he was…well, the truth was that she didn’t even know exactly what his position was. He was powerful and important and had never spoken to her before. She hadn’t expected that would ever change.
“You’re young,” he said. “You look innocent. You’re dressed too well, of course, but we can fix that.”
Kelsey glanced around at the other tellers and personal bankers who worked the front lobby, trying to determine what was different about her clothing and why being “dressed too well” might be a problem in the bank.
“Ellen,” he said tersely to his own secretary, “get her sizes. Go out and pick something up for her. I don’t want her to be seen outside until she’s changed.”
“We need a crappy camera,” he continued, looking around the room. “Anybody got one here? We can’t use our regular equipment for this.”
When no one responded, he looked back at Ellen and said, “Pick up a camera, too. Some kind of little digital that will take decent pictures but doesn’t look expensive. Maybe go for one of those stupid colors like lime green or purple. Pick up a couple of extra memory cards, too.”
He turned back toward Kelsey. “Young lady,” he demanded, “do you understand what we need you to do?”
The truth was, she had no idea what he wanted her to do. Though the entire bank staff had been called in to this meeting, thus far it had been largely a strategy session regarding the Occupy Chicago protesters whose numbers were growing outside the bank, deterring customers from entering and making some of the employees increasingly nervous. That kind of decision took place far above Kelsey’s position, and she’d tuned out, never expecting one of the bank’s key executives to single her out. For a moment she was frozen, unsure whether to admit that she hadn’t been paying attention. She’d be taking a risk, but flying blind on something like this would be even riskier. She had no idea what the camera was for, or why this executive’s secretary was apparently going to be buying clothes for her.
Just as she was about to cop to her wandering mind, inspiration struck. “Why don’t you just lay it out briefly, sir, so that I can be absolutely sure that we’re on the same page.”
To her relief, he actually looked pleased. The plan he laid out, though, certainly didn’t match any plans she might have had. Apparently, she shouldn’t have zoned out quite so soon. She listened in dismay, trying to hide her reaction, as Mr. Watson recapped: the protesters outside were becoming increasingly problematic; it was time that the bank stepped up to protect itself, and that meant aggressive action. The first step toward that aggressive action would be for Kelsey, undercover as a sympathetic college student or low-wage worker or whatever she thought she could sell, to photograph as many of the protesters as possible. Once they had clear photos of the ringleaders, they’d pass them to the bank’s security officers to begin investigations.
He didn’t say what he hoped the investigations might uncover, or even what sort of investigations they might be. He didn’t say anything at all about what the bank might do with the information gathered or how it might help with the situation that was unfolding outside their doors.
“We have to protect ourselves,” was what he did say, and a handful of employees around the room murmured agreement or nodded their heads. Kelsey knew that some of them were frightened, leaving the bank in the evening and having to pass by the hoards of protesters. There hadn’t been any violence that she was aware of, but looking out into a sea of people who were protesting your very existence, the work you did every day, the entire system in which you had chosen to build your career was disconcerting.
She really didn’t know a lot about the protesters’ issues or whether their complaints were valid. She wasn’t political herself. She was, like most people she knew, just trying to do her job and live her life. She worked to collect a paycheck so she could afford a nice place to live and enjoy her weekends and evenings without a thought toward her job. She didn’t hate and fear the protesters like the bank executives did and some of her colleagues seemed to. She wasn’t especially interested in helping take them down—or whatever Mr. Watson had in mind—either. She just didn’t have any thoughts about them at all. It seemed, though, that she’d unwittingly committed. And, as some of those signs outside the bank pointed out, jobs were few and far between at the moment.
While she waited for Ellen to come back with a change of clothes and her new crappy camera in a stupid color, she walked to the window and looked down on the courtyard below. The protesters had been easy to ignore from up here, but the idea of walking into their midst was more than a little disconcerting. Chances were good that they wouldn’t associate her with the bank. That was apparently the whole point of choosing someone young and relatively new and then changing her out of her work clothes to send her out into the crowd. But even assuming no confrontations, the landscape looked a bit dangerous from up here. People milled in all directions, shouted, chanted and waved signs. She had visions of being crushed or trampled before she even pulled out her camera. And what if taking photographs aroused suspicion? What if she were trapped alone in that roiling mass of people and someone did decide to question her?
Kelsey felt a little sick to her stomach and her heart was racing. A part of her wished she could just slip out the door before Ellen returned and never look back. This wasn’t what she’d signed on for, for sure. She wasn’t even sure whether it was legal for the bank to make her do this: it certainly wasn’t in her job description.
But the job had a lot going for it when they weren’t sending her out into a war zone: good hours, medical insurance and a decent pay rate. She might not pay much attention to politics, but she knew this wasn’t a good time to be unemployed, and that made it a worse time to walk out on a good job with no notice or to put herself at risk of being fired. She wondered briefly whether she could work up the courage to decline this assignment, and what kind of fallout she could expect if she did. Maybe they’d just choose someone else and she could go back to cashing paychecks and selling money orders and ignoring the world outside her window. She’d nearly worked up the nerve to make that suggestion when Ellen came bustling back through the door carrying the familiar plastic bags of a national discount store.
Before Kelsey had a chance to say a word, the older woman hustled over to her and started pulling things out of her bags, talking all the while.
“Mr. Watson is so happy that you’re willing to do this,” she began, seemingly truly unaware that no one had actually asked Kelsey whether or not she was willing.
“You don’t know how those people worry him. They’re keeping him up at night. Do you know that last week they named him in a mock awards ceremony, saying that he’d personally played a role in creating the economic problems some people are facing today?”
Ellen clearly considered the idea outrageous, but it was the first Kelsey had heard of it and the older woman’s words had the opposite of their intended effect. For the first time, Kelsey wondered just what the bank and its leadership had done to inspire the outrage in the streets. Had Mr. Watson and his colleagues, in fact, had a personal hand in the troubles apparently facing the country? Was she somehow contributing to that with this subterfuge?
Ellen shook her head in disgust and almost seemed to respond to Kelsey’s thoughts. “As if anyone were responsible except those greedy speculators who thought they could flip houses to make a quick fortune. Well, and people buying beyond their means—everyone seems to have to have the best these days, whether they can afford it or not. If people made bad decisions, it’s not Mr. Watson’s fault, or any other banker’s. They shouldn’t have bought what they couldn’t pay for.”
For the first time she seemed to notice that Kelsey had been silent since she’d entered the room.
“Don’t you agree?” she asked in a tone that made it clear that she assumed that all sane and sentient beings would agree with her entirely.
“I don’t know,” Kelsey said honestly. Her voice came out small and uncertain. It wasn’t that she disagreed with Ellen’s analysis, exactly. She just didn’t know much about it. She knew that people disagreed vehemently about who was to blame and what should be done, but she really hadn’t been paying attention. She didn’t own a house, and thus far her job had seemed safe. In this moment, it didn’t feel quite as safe as she’d believed it to be that morning, but she still had no idea whether it was really nearly impossible to find work, or whether those who said the unemployed were lazy or too picky had a valid point. She didn’t much want to start thinking about it now, so she was grateful when Ellen shifted gears and started talking to her about the clothing in the bags.
“I bought you a few outfits, since this will probably take more than one day. If it goes on longer than that, you can repeat; half those people out there claim to be unemployed and broke, so they shouldn’t expect you to have an elaborate wardrobe. It would be better if it didn’t all look new, but what can we do? At least it looks cheap.
“I got you a pair of gym shoes, too. You don’t know how long you’ll be on your feet, and you want to be able to move quickly if you have to.” At the last comment, the alarm Kelsey had been fighting rose back to the surface. As Ellen began swiftly removing tags from the new clothing, she asked, “Ellen…what am I doing, exactly?”
The older woman looked at her in surprise. “Taking pictures,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. And it was, given that Mr. Watson had explained that part clearly and had called for a camera. But Kelsey’s question was more complicated.
“I mean, why? How does photographing the protesters protect us?”
This time, Ellen looked at her sharply. She appeared to consider her response carefully, then said lightly, “Haven’t you ever heard ‘know your enemy’?”
Before Kelsey could ask any further questions, she pressed a set of clothes into her hands and said, “Go change. I’ll get the camera set up.”