I was nervous. Okay…yes, obviously. Obviously I was nervous. This one, I really, really wanted. Based on the description. Field investigation and research. Constant travel, mostly domestic, but some international travel might be required. Opportunities to advance, to earn further education, to earn money. But best of all, I would not be able to talk about the details of my work—with rare exception—with anyone outside of the organization. No details meant no criticism from my…beloved family. But you can’t always be sure from just a description. I tried not to get too excited.
And I tried to keep in front of my mind some advice that someone told me.
Remember, you’re interviewing them too.
I’m interviewing them, I told myself. I’m interviewing them, too.
And the man in the dark suit, who sat across from me in the conference room lit with friendly sunlight streaming through large windows, had told me I’d get a chance to ask my own questions once the interview was over.
When his phone rang the first time, he was still on his preamble about what my duties would be, and how there were some details he was not at liberty to share with candidates, and so on.
He pulled out his phone, to silence it I thought. But then he peered at the screen, crinkled his brow, and answered with an “excuse me” to me.
Part of me was relieved. I got to have a little break. I could feel heat rising up from my neck. I had to make sure it didn’t rise above my turtleneck and reach my face. I had to make sure he didn’t see. He glanced down, and I took the opportunity to wipe the moisture from my brow. My hand shifted the sweep of hair that was lacquered in place with more product than I’ve ever used in my lifetime. I had to make sure it didn’t shift while I talked and moved my head. I gently arranged the hair back in place, and checked to make sure it was covering what it was supposed to cover. I took a deep breath.
Deep breath. Sure, deep breath. When are your powers of calm going to kick in?
My interviewer was speaking quietly enough so that I only caught a few words. And I was trying not to eavesdrop on what seemed like a personal call. He was asking the person on the other end if they had checked the medicine cabinet.
Another part of me wondered what personal emergency would compel anyone to interrupt an interview. It must have been important. I hoped the person on the other end was okay. I wondered if I should express that after my interviewer hung up. Then he hung up.
I shifted my shoulders slightly. The strap over my right shoulder was too tight. It was digging in. It was itchy. And now my nose was itchy. I wiggled my nose.
My interviewer peered at me and apologized for the interruption.
I nodded and then let it go.
The first half of my interview was fairly standard. The man who had introduced himself to me as M.G. asked me to elaborate on my experience and my education.
But with almost every other question, his phone would ring. He never did put it on silent. He kept answering it.
“Is everything okay?” I finally said. “If you need to handle an emergency, I’m happy to re—“
He held up his hand. “No, no. Let’s continue. You said you have some experience looking after children?” He flipped to the end of my resume. “When you were studying abroad?”
Heat began to creep forward from the edge of my face, and with it would come the color, and he would see. He would know.
I hadn’t lied…exactly. Certainly not about studying abroad. And not about helping to look after someone’s offspring. But if he was looking for a specific skill set…
“It was a while ago,” I said. “Is that relevant to what I would be doing for this position?” Despite the steady increase in my heartbeat that no amount of deep breaths seemed to be calming, I felt proud of myself for that redirect.
Yeah, I wondered. What does that have to do with this job?
“Well, this position requires a great deal of adaptability,” M.G. said, “and skills that there is no way to predict that you would ever need. So we like talking to people who have a wide range of experiences.”
And then his phone rang.
This was maybe the fourth time. I was started to get irritated. But I was glad I was starting to get irritated. It made me less nervous. About the interview. And it made me less impressed by my interviewer. I liked him immediately when we first met. Of course I noticed that he was handsome and had a smooth pleasant voice. But the real reason I liked him was that he seemed to have a sincere enthusiasm for his job. And it came through in little ways that maybe he wasn’t aware of, like when his eyes got a bit dreamy with pride as he described closing his first investigation at the end of his training.
This time it seemed as if he were talking to a different person. I heard a different tone over the line. A deeper tone. Calmer and slower. This definitely didn’t sound like an emergency.
But M.G. took the call, and now I started timing them. This was time being taken out of my interview after all. I expected the interview to be an hour long. But I had nowhere else to be after this. My plan had been to go and treat myself to a cookies-and-cream milkshake. So I would make sure that I got my full time.
I wondered if this was part of the interview. Maybe it was a psychological test of my patience. Or maybe it was testing my level of assertiveness or acceptance in the face of rudeness. Or in the face of authority figures. An interviewer was definitely an authority over the potential fate of an interviewee.
I had already offered to reschedule, and M.G. had refused. So now I had to figure out when I should speak up for myself. And how. Should I ask that we all put any communication device in a box and set it aside until the interview was over? Should I let M.G. know that if he was taking non-emergency calls that he was being rude and disrespectful of my time? Should I not bother if this was a clue about how the organization was run?
I don’t have enough information yet, I decided. Maybe I could gather more information when I was given a chance to ask questions.
M.G. shifted gears and asked me what I liked to do for fun. I told him all the things I do that I thought would sound normal. He had no reaction to my admitting that I loved to read, have dinner with friends, and go to the movies. I shifted my right shoulder. I took a deep breath.
“And I like to fly,” I said. My heart skipped a beat. How was I supposed to know where the line was between being interesting and being odd?
M.G. offered a polite smile. “Any particular place you like to fly too?”
I could have said “home,” but that wasn’t true.
I expected him to say what people had said to me before, that he’d heard of those who hated flying, and those who tolerated it, but never those who loved it.
“What’s the highest up you’ve been?” he asked.
And his phone began to ring.
He didn’t answer this time. He acted as if it weren’t there. He leaned forward.
But this time, I wanted him to answer. I wanted him to be distracted. Because the more I said, the more he would know that I wasn’t talking about what he thought I was talking about.
The phone rang and rang. But he didn’t answer.
“Above the clouds,” I said.
His smile grew beyond the width of politeness, and his eyes joined that smile. “Would you ever want to go higher?”
I creased my brow. His question was general, but there seemed some specific motive behind his asking it.
“Is there a case that I might be assigned to where that would be possible?” I asked, hoping to impress him with my astuteness.
He leaned back, still smiling. He blinked and suddenly seemed to notice that his phone was crying out for his attention like a wailing child. It had stopped ringing, and then started up again.
He picked it up and answered, and as before, he looked down. Now I was the one whose existence he wasn’t acknowledging.
I couldn’t believe it, but M.G. started listing off what seemed like baking ingredients to the high-pitched voice on the other end. Eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa powder. But then he listed ingredients to some kind of potion or health drink maybe. Witch hazel, spearmint leaves, the zest of a grapefruit.
And that was when I decided.
Did I want the job? That I still hadn’t decided.
What I had decided was that I would tell the truth.
M.G. hung up the phone and set it down. With no apology or any other acknowledgement of the interruption, he folded his hands before himself on the table and asked his next question.
“Have you ever been involved in any criminal activity?”
I frowned. “Are you allowed to ask me that?”
“What are you salary expectations? And please provide an actual number.”
Of course I’d been ready to give the old “I expect to receive a salary commensurate with the work I’ll be doing and the experience I bring to the table” answer.
But you’re going to tell the truth, remember? I thought.
As requested, I provided a number, a big number, maybe too big.
I waited for him to flinch, or to balk, raise a brow, anything.
But good ole M.G. was a cool customer. He just nodded.
And then his phone rang.
I drew in a breath, but it was not a calming breath this time. This time, I wanted M.G. to see that intake of breath and that release of breath.
Breathe in irritation. Breathe out disapproval.
This time, I let the heat and the accompanying color climb up my neck and creep over my face. Let M.G. see. Let him see the truth.
I wasn’t nervous anymore. The color in my face signified a different emotion.
This time, M.G. seemed to be appeasing someone who was upset or angry on the other end of the line. He spoke gently and kept using reassuring expressions like “of course” and “I will.” I didn’t hear the voice on the other end. I just heard tones and vibrations.
My ears flicked. And those tones and vibrations became a droning voice, a voice that sounded like three voices with slightly different pitches, all speaking in unison. It sounded familiar. I was reminded of an unpleasant family member, and I frowned.
M.G. hung up.
He looked up at me. I expected his eyes to widen in shock. I expected him to grab that phone and start making some calls.
His eyes did widen. But so did his mouth, in a grin.
“That’s it for me,” he said. “Do you have any questions?”
Boy, do I.
“I have a lot of questions, Agent M.G. And I think we have the time to get them answered.”
M.G. said nothing. I wanted to ask all my questions at once. But if I did that, he could easily skip the answers to some. I had to force myself to be calm and ask them one at a time. I had to be confident that I would remember. I would remember the important ones.
“Who are all those people you’ve been talking to on the phone?”
M.G. swallowed, took in a breath, and opened his mouth.
And his phone began to ring.
I glanced down at it.
I glanced up at him.
“Agent,” I said, “it’s been rude of you to keep answering your phone throughout my interview. I ask that you turn it off so we can finish.”
M.G. straightened in his chair. “I know,” he said. “And I am sorry.”
Then he answered the phone.
Should I walk out the door? I wondered. But I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I was curious. What would happen now?
M.G. said nothing. He just listened. His squared shoulders seem to relax. “Of course,” he said at last. Then he pulled the phone away from his ear and extended it toward me.
“It’s for you,” he said, with no further comment and no clue in their expression.
Well, why not? I thought.
I answered the phone with a firm and—I hoped—measured “hello.”
The voice on the other end gave greetings and made introductions with another mysterious set of initials. They thanked me for my patience. The voice sounded hollow and rusty, mechanical.
I crinkled my brow, straining to listen. I glanced up at M.G. who put a hand to his throat.
“He’s speaking through a device,” M.G. said.
Then the voice on the phone congratulated me on a successful interview and told me that the job was mine if I wanted it.
I heard him say the words, make the offer. But I was distracted by everything that had come before.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I can only reveal that if you accept the position,” said the voice, “along with the answers to all of the questions that you have not yet had a chance to ask. But we understand if you need a few days, perhaps to speak with your family or consider any additional follow-up questions you may have.”
I said nothing for a moment. I let myself think. The person on the phone had congratulated me on a successful interview. So he was listening. And he had called M.G. to let me know that the position was mine. And if he had called M.G. and he was part of the interview…
“There’s been a panel,” I said, “this whole time.” I peered at M.G. “It hasn’t been just you.”
I wondered if that was ethical.
“So, you’re protecting your identities. That’s why they’re not here in person,” I reasoned out loud. “But why not just do a conference call? And if your voice is filtered through a device, why can’t everyone’s voice be filtered?”
“It’s not just a matter of disguising our faces and our voices,” the voice said. “Some of us speak different languages. The man before you happens to understand all of those languages, not just grammatically but…culturally as well.”
I remembered the gentle, almost intimate, way that M.G. had spoken to one of the many people who had called him. And all the weird personal details, I wondered if that some kind of coded speak.
I frowned. “Okay, but even so, why not just tell me that?”
When I got home, I would look up if it was ethical for them to conceal the presence of an interview panel.
“That is a question that we can answer if you accept the position,” the voice said. “But one that I’m afraid will remain a mystery to you if you don’t.”
Strangely, I was beginning to calm. And the heat and the color were receding from my face.
“I hope you’ll join us,” M.G. said.
I held the phone to my ear and I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Sure,” I said. “I accept the offer.”
And at last, M.G.’s eyes widened in surprise.
He pulled a folder out from a thin drawer under the table. He opened it, and inside was a single page, the offer letter. It looked like a form letter. I read the letter. It offered me the job. Somehow my name and the salary I’d requested were written on it, along with a paragraph that indicated the minimum benefits I would receive, which I could negotiate up, but could not be negotiated down.
Yikes, I thought. What’s the catch?
I guessed I would soon find out. I accepted the pen that M.G. produced from his breast pocket, and leaned over to sign the letter.
The first thing I learned was M.G.’s full name, which he told me with a bow. He told me that I would have my choice of a few different divisions once I was through with my training, but he hoped that I would choose his division. He would be keeping in touch.
“And now,” he said, “If you still want the answer to your question, you can follow me. But I have to warn you, it might be a shock for you to see what you’re about to see.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Or it might not. Just to be sure, brace yourself.”
We exited the interview room and walked down the hall. After all that, I thought I’d be led through doors secured with thumbprint identification, or at least a keypad requiring a passcode, or even a keycard, and guarded by silent-and-stoic armed guards.
But we just opened an unlocked door and walked into another conference room.
I let out the breath I’d been unconsciously holding.
Some of them were seated around the conference table. One was reclined on the floor. A few were hovering in the air. And one peered at me from behind the glass of a giant water tank.
I glanced from one to the other.
A werewolf languishing on a lounge chair, and wearing a full suit. The hazy yellow-green glow of what could only be three sprites floating in the air. A tall, maroon-robed, figure with a bulbous head and bulging black eyes and an open mouth shaped like a lemon. A woman with fine silvery scales for skin, who inclined her head to me as our gazes met. A large scorpion-like being perched in the far corner of the ceiling, whose compound eyes twinkled many times from the reflection of the fluorescent tube lights overhead. The cephalopod of unknown size whose eye—and only one eye—I glimpsed in the water tank at the far wall.
Okay, I thought. Okay.
“I still have questions,” I said.
“As we expected you would,” a familiar voice said. The figure with the lemon-shaped mouth. There was a small device at this throat. His voice was coming from that device.
“But first, I must disclose something to you,” I said. “I’m not sure if it will affect your decision.”
“We are certain of our decision,” the figure with the lemon-shaped mouth said. “And we can proceed with introductions. But if you insist.” He flourished a long-fingered hand toward me.
I reached up to my hair first, the hair that was lacquered in place. I crunched through the hair product, and shifted my locks behind my ears. I let my ears flick forward, to their natural position. As I removed my blazer, I felt the heat and color of embarrassment creeping upward past the borders of my turtleneck. This time I did not try to stop it. I let the flush of leaf green color replace the usual sandalwood tan of my skin.
I yanked up the straps on both shoulders and heard snaps as the harness clasps gave way. My back still felt sore, but immediately relieved. I let the harness fall away, and slowly, carefully unfurled my membranous wings, letting them stretch back to their natural size and position. I felt my posture straighten, not having to carry the weight of the compacted wings on my back.
The figure with the lemon-shaped mouth, whose name I would momentarily come to know, inclined his head to me.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel