Chapter 4: How to be a Corporate Spy

Start-Up Beatdown

Chapter Four: How To Be A Corporate Spy


Like many pow­er­ful peo­ple with ques­tion­able moral com­pass­es, Sean Etin was a very para­noid man. Often, he spoke of crazy plots and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries against him, whose authen­tic­i­ty I can­not aver to. I heard every­thing from catch­ing a for­mer employ­ee wire­tap­ping his house, to a dar­ing act of cor­po­rate rob­bery, in which men in masks and busi­ness suits abscond­ed with box­es of impor­tant legal doc­u­ments. Of course, noth­ing so excit­ing hap­pened while I was there.

Nev­er­the­less, Sean Etin tried his best to guard against future acts of cor­po­rate ter­ror­ism. He had a sys­tems expert, an African from the Con­go (aka: Zaire) named Nab­ul­la, who was often in the office, work­ing on a secu­ri­ty sys­tem of tiny cam­eras, locat­ed all around the out­side of Mr. Etin’s house (and very pos­si­bly inside as well). Nab­ul­la was a good guy, and we would often talk pol­i­tics or about his home country.

Being the son of a diplo­mat makes you very impor­tant in Zaire,” he once told me. “My friend, who was the son of a very impor­tant diplo­mat went to the air­port with me, and demand­ed to be tak­en to some oth­er city. So, the air­port kicked every­one off a depart­ing flight and flew us there imme­di­ate­ly. We had a very nice time.”

He also once sug­gest­ed I vis­it Libya. “Peo­ple there treat you very kind­ly,” he said, not real­iz­ing I would prob­a­bly be killed the sec­ond some­one learned I was Amer­i­can. Or Jew­ish. Or (most like­ly) white.

Sean Etin also guard­ed against “revenge” plots from for­mer employ­ees (of which, I found out, there were many. In three years or so, they had about 100 employ­ees, with no more than about 20 work­ing at one time). Know­ing how he treats peo­ple, I could only say that any safe­guard was under­stand­able. When I was first hired, I was asked to bring in my high school year­book to prove I didn’t know three for­mer employ­ees that went to school there. “I had to fire them after I caught them snort­ing coke off the hoods of their car,” Mr. Etin told me. “Not that I nec­es­sar­i­ly have any­thing against drugs,” he added, in what I can only assume was an attempt to sound cool.

It’s more like­ly they were fired for drink­ing coke inside their cars,” one of my office-mates, Per­ry once joked, know­ing Mr. Etin’s propen­si­ty for (to put it kind­ly) bend­ing the truth to fit his pur­pose. Not under­stand­ing how my year­book could prove I knew these peo­ple (I didn’t), I nev­er­the­less agreed to have my pri­va­cy invad­ed, instead of doing the smart thing by just say­ing that I didn’t own one.

My year­book was prompt­ly lost in the man’s giant pigsty of a house. “It got lost in the black hole,” Mr. Etin told me, motion­ing at the assort­ed box­es of crap lit­tered around after I con­tin­ued to press him on it. “I’m sure it’ll come up sometime.”

This was in stark con­trast to when­ev­er he couldn’t find any­thing for him­self. “It’s GONE,” he would say loud­ly, and to no one in par­tic­u­lar, when­ev­er he couldn’t find what he was look­ing for imme­di­ate­ly. “Yet ANOTHER object of my per­son­al prop­er­ty SOMEHOW man­aged to walk out of my house.” He would then eye his employ­ees as if we were filthy pick­pock­ets from off the streets of Bangladesh. Of course, what­ev­er it was he was look­ing for would even­tu­al­ly be found, as would my year­book (months later).

The point, though, is that Sean Etin was para­noid, and no moment was more evi­dent of this fact than the time I was thought to be a cor­po­rate spy …


It began dur­ing lunch. Every­body in the com­pa­ny was out to lunch, except for me and Per­ry, as we had brought our own. Per­ry, along with the oth­er two mem­bers of the cre­ative staff, worked in a seclud­ed nook of a room at the end of the hall­way that I worked out of. They had the best spot in the house, as they were often spared from the over­all insan­i­ty of the office, and were, in fact, left alone some­times for days at a time (besides my com­ing in mul­ti­ple times a day to shoot the breeze with them). Often­times, I found them in there play­ing video games on their com­put­ers. Per­ry had recent­ly bro­ken his foot while sav­ing nin­jas from a burn­ing car, and couldn’t real­ly move around much. So, the two of us had our lunch in the back room, talk­ing about video games and bad­mouthing the com­pa­ny. We were alone for per­haps a half an hour, and noth­ing out of the ordi­nary occurred, except for the fact that the Etin’s Rot­tweil­er snuck into the ‘work side’ of the house for some des­per­ate­ly need­ed atten­tion and pet­ting. Seri­ous­ly, I’ve nev­er met a more needy crea­ture in my life (and, yes, I include myself in that statement).

The dog even­tu­al­ly left, as Flo and the rest of the employ­ees began trick­ling in from their lunch­es. The mut­ed echoes of a com­mo­tion came in through the walls, but at this point in our employ­ment, both Per­ry and I knew not to get involved in any­thing that didn’t direct­ly involve us in some way. As we were fin­ish­ing our lunch, Flo poked her head in the door. “Did either of you boys go into the Senior Staff area while we were gone?” she asked.

The Senior Staff area was the large room at the end of the hall­way where the ‘impor­tant’ peo­ple in the office worked (besides myself, the cre­ative team, and one oth­er per­son, this con­sist­ed of every­one else). I had been told at dif­fer­ent times that due to the sen­si­tive nature of the infor­ma­tion kept there, I should nev­er go in that room unless I had explic­it per­mis­sion, only to lat­er be scold­ed for my con­stant ask­ing to enter if I need­ed to speak to some­one or get some­thing. “Just come in!” they would tell me in exas­per­a­tion. It was my gen­er­al pol­i­cy to stay away from this room (and most of the peo­ple that worked there) if I could.

We had answered “no” to Flo’s ques­tion. “Did you see any­one go into the senior staff area?” We told her that we didn’t. “Did you see any­one or any­thing out of the ordi­nary while we were gone?” I told her about the dog.

There was a heavy silence in the air. Per­ry and I knew that in the nat­ur­al order of con­ver­sa­tion, one of us had to ask the ques­tion, but we dread­ed doing so, afraid of being sucked into what­ev­er insan­i­ty that was hap­pen­ing on the oth­er side of the wall. The need to ask this ques­tion hung in the air like a nox­ious, soupy fog, sti­fling me. It had to be asked, and final­ly, I did. “Why?”

Because some­one broke into Jim Heff’s com­put­er and pulled some infor­ma­tion. If you can think of any­thing to help us fig­ure this out, let me know.”

Jim Heff, SeaShel’s para­le­gal, was a port­ly fel­low and (I thought at the time) a nice enough guy. He was about my height, but out­weighed me by at least a hun­dred pounds, and his face was pig­gish, with watery eyes and an upturned nose. For some rea­son, Sean Etin came to call him ‘the Heff­ster’ and soon, every­one fol­lowed suit, even though we could tell he didn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly like it. Cru­el­ly, some of us referred to him as ‘the Hef­fer’ behind his back, or sim­ply as ‘pig­gy.’ I almost nev­er spoke to him beyond pleas­antries, main­ly in order to keep me away from what­ev­er lit­i­ga­tion news he might feel free to share. In the­o­ry, Mr. Heff was the busiest and most impor­tant employ­ee at SeaShel, as law­suits seemed to be the only thing they pro­duced, and the fact that it was his com­put­er that was ‘hacked’ into sent every­one there into a tizzy.

I myself was pret­ty excit­ed. This was cer­tain­ly the most inter­est­ing thing to hap­pen there since I joined. I was curi­ous to know what hap­pened and how it was done. Who could have snuck in, dur­ing the half hour in which there was the least amount of employ­ees on the premis­es, knew which com­put­er belonged to the para­le­gal, found what­ev­er infor­ma­tion he or she need­ed to get, escape, and do it all while Per­ry and I were there? I spent the rest of the day try­ing to fig­ure the mys­tery out in my head. It was like those mur­der mys­ter­ies I used to attempt to solve as a kid – “A man was found dead from a stab wound, but no weapons were found. Next to him is a pud­dle of water. Nobody entered his house and he could not have hid the weapon. Solve.” I thought about the com­put­er case, and quick­ly real­ized that I was the prime sus­pect. Per­ry, with his bro­ken leg, nev­er left the back room, and I told them so. In fact, the only time I had left the room was to go to the kitchen and microwave his food. Cer­tain­ly, with Per­ry inca­pac­i­tat­ed and no one else in the office, I could have eas­i­ly gone to Mr. Heff’s com­put­er and took what I need­ed. Fur­ther­more, I was rel­a­tive­ly new there and was, at least in their eyes, a rapist, among oth­er unsa­vory things. Last­ly, I went to the same high school as the three for­mer employ­ees who were alleged­ly fired for doing drugs. Sure­ly, I could have been a mole, implant­ed by them, wait­ing for the moment to strike …

Or, on the oth­er hand, maybe the dog did it …

I rev­eled in being their prime sus­pect. It made me feel cool, and it kind of made me wish I actu­al­ly were a cor­po­rate spy. I got a kick out of their pussy­foot­ing around their thoughts of my guilt. “Are you sure you don’t have any­thing to add that can help us fig­ure this out?” Their eyes implied oth­er ques­tions, such as “how could you be such a lit­tle shit?” and “why don’t you just con­fess already?”

And I didn’t care. Watch­ing them squirm and fol­low false leads was cathar­tic. The idea that some­one might have got­ten their hands on some­thing that could bring the com­pa­ny down was deli­cious. Plus, they might just fire me. This was the best day I had at SeaShel Productions …

This all changed with the thun­der­ous arrival of Sean Etin. He stam­ped­ed in at 5:00 – a full hour before he usu­al­ly stam­pedes in. “What’s this I hear about there being a cor­po­rate spy in my house? Flo, get every­one togeth­er. Now.”

We gath­ered in the Senior Staff area. Those employ­ees who had their desks in there sat. The rest of us (exclud­ing the hob­bled Per­ry) stood.

Okay,” Sean Etin said, “tell me EXACTLY what hap­pened here.”

So, Flo told the sto­ry. Sean Etin asked me the same ques­tions I heard all day, and eyed me sus­pi­cious­ly. Not get­ting the answers he want­ed, he moved on. “Do we know what they got? Do we know how they got it?”

The only way the data could have been pur­loined was, osten­si­bly, through an in-house man­ner,” Mar­cus, the company’s vice-pres­i­dent said in his need­less­ly ver­bose way.

The company’s IT guy agreed. “It had to be done in per­son, on the computer.”

Sean Etin faced Mr. Heff. “Did you change any­thing on your com­put­er since you got back, Heffster?”

I haven’t touched it since I got back from lunch,” he replied proud­ly, prob­a­bly not real­iz­ing that his state­ment also meant that he hasn’t done any work since then either.

We all took a look at his com­put­er, and I was imme­di­ate­ly crest­fall­en. Jim Heff’s com­put­er screen was total­ly blank, with no open pro­grams except for the search bar on the upper right side. In the search bar, Mr. Heff’s cell phone num­ber was typed in. What was once a cool mys­tery became incred­i­bly lame.

Why would any­body search for Mr. Heff’s phone num­ber?” I found myself ask­ing, which was strange since I no longer cared.

Who­ev­er it was may have thought it was the fastest way to search for impor­tant doc­u­ments or emails.” It sound­ed like they were try­ing to con­vince them­selves that this weak excuse for an expla­na­tion made sense, but quick­ly moved on to a dif­fer­ent sub­ject before any­one could think about it too hard.

Whomev­er hacked onto this com­put­er was no neo­phyte. Know­ing how to use this advanced search func­tion proves that we were infil­trat­ed by a professional.”

Of course we were,” Sean Etin spat. “<Com­pa­ny name delet­ed> knows that I’m the only per­son that can bring their evil com­pa­ny down. They know how close I am, and they’ll stop at noth­ing to stop me.”

It became obvi­ous to me then that I was not the only one who used this event as an escape from the drudgery/usual insan­i­ty of work. The mys­tery. The intrigue. The feel­ing of self-impor­tance. These things obfus­cat­ed any clear judg­ment. The idea that this was a prank, or a com­put­er glitch, or that Mr. Heff acci­den­tal­ly past­ed his num­ber on the search bar was as impos­si­ble to them as it was for me to get excit­ed about it any­more. Still, I tried. I don’t know if it was the dis­ap­point­ment of the sup­posed ‘mys­tery’ or if it was sim­ply one of those moments where I felt the need to make an ass out of myself. What­ev­er the rea­son, I inter­rupt­ed one of Mr. Etin’s spit­tle-flecked diatribes.

I have some­thing to announce,” I said, plac­ing my fists on my hips dra­mat­i­cal­ly. “I am the man you’re look­ing for. I am the cor­po­rate spy!”

Nobody expect­ed this devel­op­ment. Sean Etin’s eyes bugged out as if I had just blown up a bal­loon inside his head, and his fat­ty face turned an even deep­er shade of red. His nat­ur­al incli­na­tion, to snap my head off my neck, was tem­pered with shock.

I con­tin­ued, “Yes, I was hired by <Com­pa­ny name delet­ed> to infil­trate your orga­ni­za­tion after my three friends from school failed their mis­sion. It was a sim­ple mat­ter of arrang­ing to have Perry’s leg bro­ken and wait­ing for every­one to go to lunch to strike. I knew that all I need­ed was Mr. Heff’s cell phone num­ber to get every­thing I need­ed for me REAL employ­ees! Bwa ha ha ha!”

I looked around the room. Most every­one was rolling their eyes or shak­ing their heads at my lit­tle dis­play. Per­ry flashed me a look that said, “you are the stu­pid­est per­son I know.”

Sean Etin’s expres­sion did not change, how­ev­er, besides his face now being tinged with a shade of pur­ple. “You … you admit it?!?” he sputtered.

It took me a moment to soak the fact that he was still tak­ing me seri­ous­ly. “Sean, I was just kid­ding. I’m pret­ty sure real cor­po­rate spies don’t ‘bwa ha ha.”

His expres­sion changed from shock to anger. “Well,” he snapped, “if you didn’t do it, maybe you can help us fig­ure out who did. If this were a spy movie, how would you think this happened?”

Sean, I’ll be hon­est with you. If I saw this hap­pen in a spy movie, I would have walked out of the the­atre and ask for my mon­ey back.”

Well,” Mr. Etin blus­tered, “sure­ly SOMEONE has some­thing use­ful to say! We’re not going to leave here until we have this fig­ured out!”

Though he wasn’t exact­ly true to his word, he did still keep us there until 8:30, try­ing to fig­ure out in what way his ene­mies had got­ten to him with­out out­right accus­ing any of his employ­ees of betray­al. I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the meet­ing. I had thought about mak­ing the sug­ges­tion to check the secu­ri­ty cam­eras Nab­ul­la had set up, but I remem­bered some­thing from ear­li­er in the day. For the first and only time, my dad drove to where I worked in order to take my car for an oil change. It was right before lunch. I pic­tured the grainy, gray footage from the secu­ri­ty tape, show­ing me exchang­ing some­thing small (my car keys) with a strange man, and decid­ed to keep my mouth shut. By the end of the meet­ing, those of us who were stand­ing were sway­ing in place, try­ing not to fall over. Sean Etin announced that any­one who didn’t lock the door after them­selves would be fired on the spot. This meant, as the per­son clos­est to the door, I spent much of my remain­ing days there going up and down the thin, spi­ral stair­case, open­ing the door for who­ev­er need­ed to be let in.


Months and months lat­er, Per­ry called me to his com­put­er. He had me sit down at his desk. “Press ‘control/spacebar’,” he told me. I did. The search fea­ture came up. “Now press ‘control/V’.” I did and a set of num­bers appeared in the search bar. “Now, imag­ine hav­ing tiny, chub­by fin­gers that might actu­al­ly press the ‘V’ and the ‘space-bar’ at the same time.”

I gave a lit­tle smile. “Case closed.”



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