The stairwell was dark, and all he could focus on was his heavy breathing. His heart raced faster than it had ever gone in his entire life, something he knew with certainty due to the heart rate monitoring watch he’d bought on a whim. He desperately tried to calm down, but how could he? He was about to die.
Up until one hour ago, he lived in a world where each day seemed to only get better than the last. He was 30 years old, had a wife who adored him, two children who were just old enough to be sweet and happy (but not quite old enough to cause heavy parental strife), and he had his job. His career was everything – so many years spent training with the older masters of the art, and so few precious months of being on his own. But he was doing well, building a name for himself in the industry, and until 1 hour prior, life was perfect.
“Yea, we’ll meet on that Thursday”, he told her with a smile. She looked across his desk and returned the gesture of friendship. She had just agreed to become his biggest client, and given his reputation as the rising star, she was not in the least bit worried. She got up to leave, they shook hands, and she walked out. He walked around the desk and closed the door to his office. It was as he was drinking his soda he noticed the book.
It was a smallish, leather bound collection of less than 50 pages. It seemed, at a glance, like a small notebook, until one noticed the true age of it. The tattered pages revealed brown, oxidized ink. Elaborate penmanship, and a language he hadn’t seen before. It had, evidently, slipped from her bag as she rose up from the chair. He thought to call her immediately back to retrieve it, but with the meeting only a few days away, he turned his attention to other matters, she would get it back soon, and he could just pretend he hadn’t noticed it until later in the day.
A half hour passed uneventfully, until he heard the voices. The tinny sound of a familiar language, his own, echoed from where the book lie not more than 20 feet away. He walked over toward it, and discovered, to his surprise, a small speaker grill on the inside back cover of the book. It appeared to be something straight out of a spy shop, and the voices on the other end were hard to make out. He stood by the book for a moment, and contemplated his options. Listen to the voices now, or go back to work and leave them in peace.
30 minutes later, as he stood in that stairwell, he would wonder how he could have made the wrong choice in that moment. He had always followed his conscience in life, never done anything ‘bad’, ‘evil’ or even ‘disreputable’. He had earned all that he had, and over the last 30 minutes, he had destroyed all of that through nothing but simple listening.
The voices spoke of a plan, one sinister enough that he could scarcely believe his ears. She had returned through his office door at just the moment to see him lift the book up to his ear. She reached into her pocket and took out her phone, pressing a button on the side. Within moments he could see them approaching the front door, two floors below. She tried to stop him, but he ran, and hid.
And now he was losing it all. They would find him soon, it was only a matter of time in a building that size. There were no exits, no doors out, no windows safe to jump from, no magic helicopter on the roof that would take him away. This was reality, this was the way it would all turn out for him. 30 years. A family. Friends. A Future. All gone in a heart beat.
They found him 2 days later, the cause of death was easy to determine. Despite his young age, his heart had spiraled out of control. The woman and her associates were at his funeral, they paid their respects, and they left with not a single one speaking to the widow or children. It was unfortunate that he passed only part of the test. Everybody listens, but only a few are found to be trustworthy. It was a pity – his act of flight proved that he could make the quick decisions. If only his heart were in it, he would be starting his first assignment next week. It would have meant a comfortable life for him, his family, and even friends if he so chose – no sane person could ever refuse the offer they could have made. In the end he could have saved thousands, if he had only saved himself from what he had heard.