Three years ago I was looking at the local job classifieds online when one of the ads caught my eye, not because of what it said, but because it said so little. Best I remember, the ad just read “Job available. Good pay. No benefits. Discretion required.” It then listed an email address and that was all.
At the time I was managing a music store, but I had already started hearing rumors we would be shutting down within the next year and the likelihood of a transfer to another store was slim. I had been morosely looking at job listings for the last few days, but this was the first one that stood out, if only because I was bored and it was weird.
So I sent an email.
Half an hour later I had a response, telling me to go to a particular office building in an upscale part of the city at a precise time for my “screening”. I went, and after waiting for a few minutes in the lobby, I was taken into an office where I was given a series of forms and questionnaires to fill out. They collected them and told me they would be in touch.
I had almost forgotten about the whole thing until a month later I got a call saying I had moved on to the second stage of the hiring process. I was again given an address and time, and when I arrived (this time it was a different nice office park twenty miles away from the first one), I was met by a man who introduced himself as Mr. Solomon. He escorted me into a large room that contained a chair and a desk. On the desk were two large monitors, a keyboard and mouse, and a bolted down metal box with two oversized buttons on it: One red and one green.
He told me this room was a model for the place I would be working if I took the job. He described the job as follows.
I would be working seven shifts of six hours every week. My job would be simple. I would arrive at work ten minutes early and enter an outer area that was like a locker room. I would have my own personal locker. I would store all belongings in the locker and change into the provided work clothes. I was never, under any circumstances, to carry any item of my own into the surveillance room. I was never, under any circumstances, to take any item with me from the surveillance room.
As for what I was to do in the surveillance room, I was told that the monitor on the left would constantly show a live stream from a high-definition camera in a remote location. My job was simply to watch the camera. Once an hour I would get onto the computer attached to the right monitor and enter a brief log describing anything interesting that occurred in the last hour. I would have no pens or pencils or paper, and I should never try to take any kind of written notes about the work.
As for the red and green buttons, the red button was only to be used if there was an emergency. This meant something on the video or in my workspace that required outside help. The green button was to be hit if I saw something on the video feed that was particularly noteworthy. It would tell other people somewhere that, at least in my opinion, something interesting was going on. Solomon stressed that while I was given discretion on when to use this button, I should err on the side of only using it if and when something “of real significance” occurred.
He pointed out the camera on the ceiling of the room we were in. He said the real room would be the same. My work would be observed, and other people were watching the room on the video feed as well. He said I was only a redundancy in case other systems failed. He then smirked and asked if I knew what he meant by redundancy.
I nodded, trying not to show my irritation. I don’t talk that good to people, so sometimes they think I’m dumb. That’s okay. Let him think that if he paid me good enough.
The pay was very good. Thirty-five dollars an hour.
This worried me. I was already thinking this was some kind of psych experiment or secret government job, which I was okay with. But that kind of money to sit and watch a screen? My mom always told me that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, and this was seeming too good to be true.
I asked if I was going to be doing anything illegal. Solomon laughed and said no. I asked if anyone was going to get hurt. Again, he shook his head no. He said the reason they were paying so much was because they needed employees that were motivated to be professional and discrete. The work they were doing was important, and for various reasons it couldn’t be discussed. If I took the job, I would have to sign papers promising I would never discuss my work there or I could be sued or locked up. I’m only breaking that now because of everything that’s happened.
So I took the job, and because they wanted me to start right away, I had to quit the store with no notice. I felt bad about that, but I was excited about the new job too. It was a lot of money and seemed like easy enough work, if a bit boring. I was nervous that there was something more to it, but I told myself I would just have to see. No point in chickening out and wasting a good chance because I let my imagination go crazy. I was given the location of the job itself, and when I went there, I was amazed that it really was just like the model room I had been shown with only a few differences. There was a locker room you had to pass through to enter the surveillance room and there was a small bathroom attached to the real surveillance room also. The real room had a small water cooler in the corner, but because I wasn’t allowed to bring anything in with me, I had to eat before or after every shift. The biggest difference, of course, was that the monitors were turned on.
The right monitor was just a black and white terminal like you see in movies some times. I could type in my logs, but no internet to look at or anything like that. The left monitor…
It was video from a room. You would call it a bedroom I guess, because it had a bed in it, but it had lots of other stuff too. A T.V., a sofa and chairs, a couple of tables, and plenty of empty space in between. The camera must be high up in a corner, because I could see pretty much everything except for the far sides of furniture. At first though, I didn’t notice any of that stuff.
All I saw was her.
She looked to be a little older than me and was very pretty. When I first saw her, she was laying on her side on the sofa. That was the part of the room farthest from the camera, but the picture was very clear and I could tell that she was sleeping. I found myself leaning into the monitor more so I could see her better, and then I thought about what I was doing and felt embarrassed. It’s like I was spying on her. A Peeping Tom, my mom used to call it.
I didn’t want to be a Peeping Tom, but I didn’t want to be silly either. I needed to think about it slow.
It was a good job. And I wasn’t doing anything wrong, right? I wasn’t hurting anybody. The woman looked fine. And the room was nice. She probably agreed to be there and it’s all some experiment or something. I was just overreacting.
So I sat down in the chair and began my work.
It didn’t take long before I understood more. The woman, I took to calling her Rachel, wasn’t there of her free will. I never saw her hurt, but it was clear that she never left that room except to go into what I think is a bathroom area that my camera couldn’t see. Well, she never left the room on her own. Periodically, usually a couple of times a week during my shifts, men and women in strange-looking outfits would come in and take her from the room. Sometimes she would struggle, but usually she would just go along with her head hung low.
They would always bring her back, though the times when she wasn’t brought back during my shift were always the worst for me. I would worry about her until I got to work the next day and saw her in the room watching T.V. or painting. She never looked hurt or even that upset except for when they took her, and even when she fought, they were always gentle with her.
Still, I knew something was wrong. I considered quitting the job, or hitting the red button and getting someone to come so I could get some answers. Or calling the police and showing them what the camera was showing me.
Except I was scared. Scared of losing my job, and scared of what these people might do to me if I quit or told on them. Solomon had told me when I took the job that part of being discreet was not asking questions. I would never be asked to do more than I had already been told, but I could never tell anyone what I did or saw, and I could never ask questions about what I was doing or why.
So I made excuses. It was all an experiment. She was crazy or sick and they were trying to help her. She was doing a job just like I was. Or if she really was a prisoner somewhere, at least I was watching to make sure that she was okay. If they ever tried to hurt her, or I saw that she really didn’t want to be there for sure, I could get help then. In a way, I told myself, I was helping to protect her by watching.
I don’t expect you to think much of my excuses. I don’t think much of them myself, especially now. But in my defense, when things changed, I didn’t ignore it or try to explain it away. I knew something had to be done.
Rachel would usually paint for an hour or two every day, and it seemed to always be during my afternoon shifts. The room had no windows as far as I could tell, but I guess she either used a clock or her own body’s time to keep to a kind of schedule. I always liked to watch her paint—the thing she was painting was always facing the wrong way for me to see it, but I could see her face as she worked. She always looked peaceful and happy when she was painting, and seeing her that way, smiling serenely from time to time as she got something the way she wanted it, always made my day.
I first noticed something was wrong when she started painting more frequently a few weeks ago. Her expression was more focused and serious, and there was a tension to her movements that I wasn’t used to seeing. At first I thought she was just really trying to work hard on something, and I wanted to tell her not to worry. Every few weeks the others would come in and take the old paintings out anyway, bringing in a new stack of…I think the word is canvas.
But it was more than her being focused. Something was wrong. She didn’t look happy and she was going for hours at a time. In the span of three days, she had finished four paintings.
I had been growing more and more worried watching her work, and when she finished the fourth, I found myself telling her to just stop and rest awhile. I had grown accustomed to talking to the monitor, talking to her in my own way. But she didn’t stop. Instead she began moving the paintings. Arranging them on the back and seat of the long sofa at the far end of the room.
This was the first time I had gotten to see any of the paintings. Even when the others were taking them out, they always seemed to be turned away from the camera. I was still worried about her, but I was also happy to finally see something she had worked on. Happy and amazed.
They were beautiful. One was a beautiful green forest. Another was an old stone well. A third was a house sitting alone on a small island. The last was an old-fashioned looking movie theater. All of them looked like something out of a dream, with trailing lines of color mixing in the air around them like leaves caught in a wind. It was only when I looked close that I realized the lines of color weren’t random. They were words. Easy to miss if you weren’t looking close, and by themselves, they didn’t seem to mean much. Just the ghost of a word somewhere in each of the paintings, easy to lose in everything else that was being shown.
I leaned into the monitor and squinted, trying to read the words. Then my heart started thudding as I made them out. Blinking and rubbing my eyes, I looked again, reading them out loud in order—left to right, top pair then bottom.
I pushed back from the monitor, my hand over my mouth. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how any of this could be happening. It wasn’t just that she was asking for help, though that was a big part of it.
It was that my name is Thomas.
I thought about the camera above me and took my hand away from my face. I rolled back to the desk and sat there, trying to stop from shaking, trying to make myself take a breath. Think about it slow. The first thing was, should I hit a button?
The red button was for an emergency. If she was a prisoner or something, and she was trying to escape, they might think that was an emergency. But no one had been hurt that I knew of. And I think Mr. Solomon meant save that for something that was like a police or ambulance emergency, not something like this. But what about the green button?
This was definitely something “noteworthy”. Not only that she was asking for help, but that she was asking me for help.
I made myself stop for a moment. I couldn’t know for sure she was asking me. I had gone to school with several boys named Thomas. It was a common name. But the chances of her painting that name when I was working here? I didn’t want to be silly, but I wasn’t trying to be too…what’s that word. Mom used to say it when she read her angel books. Skeptics. I didn’t want to be a skeptic either. I had to believe it was probably meant for me. And that was something they would want to know.
But should I hit the green button? My hands were drifting toward the metal box on the desk, but I hesitated. I didn’t like breaking rules, and I was scared of what would happen if I broke these. If they really were holding her prisoner, then they were probably very bad people. But I didn’t know that. Maybe they were good and she was bad. But I just…
I looked back at the monitor for the first time since reading the words. Rachel was already moving the paintings back off the sofa, as though she knew the message had been received. A canvas in each hand, she glanced up at the camera as she moved across the room, and it felt like she was looking right at me. My chest tightened as my hands moved away from the buttons.
No. I didn’t think she was bad. I had watched her for years. I felt like I knew her, would know if she was bad. Strange as it seemed, in a way she was my friend. And I was going to try and help her.
I spent the rest of my shift trying to act normal and think of what to do. I knew whoever else was watching might have noticed the paintings or seen how I acted, but I couldn’t worry about that. I would try to play it cool and try to think about how I could help her.
The only people I had actually met connected to this job were a couple of people when I filled out the papers and then Mr. Solomon when he showed me the model room and told me the job. I had no way of contacting any of them except through the buttons. My checks were deposited electronically and I had never run into anyone else who worked at the surveillance room.
That thought made me stop a second. I had always thought it was weird that I never ran into someone when I was coming or going—the person I was taking over for or the person who was taking over for me. I had always figured there must be other people, other surveillance rooms even, and they just scheduled us so we didn’t run into each other. And I still thought there were others.
Part of why I thought that was because it seemed like I wasn’t the only person who used my surveillance room. The water cooler, the toilet paper, the soap, they all seemed go down faster than I think I was using it by myself. If that was true, maybe I could figure out who they were, and maybe they would be safer to talk to than whoever it was that I worked for.
I got off work at eight that night, and instead of grabbing some food and going home, I drove my car around the block and then parked down the street from the building where I worked. Nothing had changed while I drove around for a minute—no new cars had parked or anything—and if I was right, they didn’t send anyone to replace me until they were sure I was gone anyhow.
So I sat and waited.
I was tired and the street was pretty empty and boring, but I was too excited and scared to fall sleep. Every time a car passed or someone walked down the sidewalk, I tensed. I kept imagining a SUV or van pulling up behind me. Men getting out and pulling me from my car, taking me somewhere like where they had Rachel to kill or torture me. Half a dozen times I almost cranked up and drove away, but every time I would think of her alone in that room. She had no one but me to help her, and I had to try.
Two hours later, a fat balding man parked and started heading for the building. As soon as I saw he was able to unlock the door and enter, I opened my car door to go talk to him. Then I stopped. I needed to be smart. I didn’t know where they were, but I was sure there were hidden cameras in the locker room and outside the building. If I go running in there and confront that guy, they’ll know for sure that I’m up to something.
Sighing with frustration, I shut the door back and waited until his shift was over. I considered tailing him like in the movies, but I was scared I would just lose him or he would call someone for help. So I waited until he was walking back to his car after a six hour shift, hopefully far enough away that the cameras wouldn’t see. And then I met the man I came to know as Charles Jefferies.
“Hey…Hey, man, can I talk to you for a minute?” His back was to me and he just waved his hand absently without looking up.
“Sorry, I don’t have any money. Have a good…” He froze as he glanced back at me while talking. “Oh God. No. No. You need to get out of here, kid. We aren’t allowed to talk.” I could tell he was scared, but I couldn’t risk letting him go yet, not after all this. I stepped up and pushed the door back shut as he was trying to get into his car.
“So you know who I am?” I tried to not sound mean, but I could hear how mad I was in my voice.
He yanked at the door again, but I was still holding it, and I was stronger than he was. After a second, weaker tug, he turned around, his face strained and tired-looking. “Yeah, I know who you are. You work here just like me. And I’m telling you, we aren’t supposed to be talking. We aren’t supposed to meet, ever.”
I frowned. “Mr. Solomon never told me that. He never said it was one of the rules.”
The man shook his head. “Mr. Solomon. Yeah. Well there are plenty of rules they don’t tell you. I bet they didn’t tell you what you were going to be watching before you started, did they?” When I just lowered my eyes, he went on. “Yeah, me either. I’ve been at this job for ten years. I’ve seen other people come and go, usually because they broke one those rules they never mentioned. The only reason I’m still here is because I keep my head down and my mouth shut.” He wagged a finger at me. “You should do the same, if it’s not already too late.”
I felt my stomach curling into a cold knot. “Too late?”
The man rubbed his face. “Kid, do you think they don’t know we’re talking? Do you think anything happens that they don’t know about?” He looked back toward the building, a look of sadness and fear in his eyes. “Hell, for all I know, you’ve already killed us both.” Shaking his head, he pushed me back and started opening the door. “Either way, I’m done risking it. You need to stop asking questions and just do your job. It’s a lot healthier.”
With that, he got into his car and shut the door. I didn’t try to stop him this time. Even though I had already been worried about what he was telling me, hearing it confirmed was paralyzing. What exactly was my plan? He probably didn’t know any more than I did, and even if he did, what could I do with anything he told me?
I walked back to my car with a heavy heart. I was still afraid, but more than that, I was sad and ashamed. I wanted to help Rachel, but I wasn’t sure how. I wasn’t giving up, but as I drove back to my apartment, I couldn’t think of what I should do next. This wasn’t a movie. I wasn’t a hero. And the only ideas I had left were to either go to the police, who might be controlled by whoever I worked for, or try to get proof of her being held prisoner myself.
As I parked my car and walked into my apartment building, I made a decision. Unless I thought of something better overnight, I would do both ideas. Tomorrow I would break the rule about carrying anything in. I’d use my phone to record a video of the surveillance room, of Rachel and how she was trapped somewhere, and of me telling everything else I knew. And I would email it to every newspaper, website, and internet channel I could think of. I’d then go to the police and give them a copy too if I could make it that long without getting caught. Maybe if I did all that, even if they got me, someone would help Rachel.
I was filled with worry and dread at the idea of being hurt or killed. A part of me kept saying I should just do as I was told and hope that it all went away. But I couldn’t live with myself if I did that. Even if I messed up, I felt like I had to try. I was so preoccupied that I didn’t hear the person coming up behind me as I unlocked my apartment door.
I turned around and felt my legs weaken as I stumbled back against my door. I had to be dreaming or crazy. I grabbed the doorknob for support as I looked at the woman in front of me. It couldn’t be her, but somehow it was.
Stay connected for part 2